Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Challenges of Yes

Can I open an Instagram account?
Can I hang out with friends on State Street?
A bunch of kids are going to the beach, can I go?
Will there be girls?

And so goes middle school. Every day, he asks questions, seeks permission, pushes me to let him do things. Every day, I push back. Everything out of my mouth is no. Im constantly in the defensive position and it wears thin, on all of us.

"Mom, why won't you let me do anything? Why do you say no all the time?" My seventh grader challenged me a couple months back. And that was when it hit me: Im uncomfortable with everything that is happening when it comes to him.

"Jeez Mom, I am not a bad kid. I never get in trouble," he told me.

“This is not about you, this is about me,” I explained to him one night. It was an epiphany. “It is really hard for me to let you grow up.”

Ive thought back a lot on those conversations. You see, I finally said yes. Jackson left for Cambodia with his grandmother to do Operation Smile (a non-profit that funds doctors to fix cleft palettes).  That was two weeks ago and, as I write this, he is due to walk through the front door in a couple of hours. This kind of experience was something my mom has always wanted to do with her grandchildren. And when she brought it up to me, I immediately jumped on it.  A loud YES.

But the day they left, I sat on his perfectly made bed and cried.

Yes is not an easy word.

From the moment he left, I wondered and worried about him. Was it too soon for such a big trip? Would he be able to handle such an emotional experience? Was he too young, too immature? That was when I started to get the emails. The first from my mom:

To see these babies come in with holes for their entire mouth and see the surgeon start to go to work and work and work sometimes for several hours and suddenly there would be a stitch and then a mouth!! Nose!! A normal face begins to emerge —it was like magic and every time standing on my feet for several hours that stitch would fall into place and I would cry. The first surgery for Jackson was a shock in that he had to stand very still— it is very emotional to see these grossly deformed babies. He got calmer and one surgery that he was able to watch longer was a man under a local who had a fatty tumor in his back---was fascinating to watch.”

It was fascinating to read. I was starting to see my own child in a new light. Did I ever think he could stand on his feet for hours, no fidgeting, watching a surgery? Or the other experiences like touring S-21 Tuoi Sleng Prison where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured hundreds of thousands of Cambodians? My mom was seeing (and treating) him as a young man; something that I have fought ever since he entered middle school.

That was when I got his email.

“Hey mom it's me, Cambodia has been a blast, I'm having so much fun. I miss you guys so much and I'm really excited to show you pictures and tell you about all the amazing things we have done.”

He sounded so good. So grown up. And then, another update: They took a boat ride from Phnom Penh up the river to Siem Reap. It was supposed to take six hours and it took ten. In stifling heat. With one dim sum to savor. Such is travel. Unpredictable. Hard.

To counter the experience, my mom wrote, Jackson had left for the day on a dirt bike expedition with a guide. Alone. For a moment, my mind screamed no. My god, at 13, hes in Cambodia all by himself for the day?  Then there the irony of the whole thing crashed on me. I dont even let him hang out at Paseo Nuevo.

Waiting for him to come bursting through the door, I know something may need to give.

My son, whether I let him or not, is growing up. And it is going to be okay. It is time to say yes. And watch him embrace adventure, learn the merits of patience and flexibility, and experience his life with out me.

And such is the bittersweet life of a parent. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Stepping into Someone Else’s Shoes

“You matter,” I told her across the table. She locked eyes with me. Like she always had. You see, I met her in kindergarten. She grabbed my hand, her eyes searching for mine. Once she caught my gaze, I was bewitched. “I’m Ashley,” she had said to me way back then. And I loved her. Right then and there.

I have watched her grow over the last seven years from a tiny little girl to a beautiful pre-teen. Getting a view of the world through the life of a low income Latina. As my daughter Olivia started to advance in accelerated classes in third grade, Ashley, smart as a whip, was placed behind. The disadvantage of an ESL kid clearly at play. Yet, every week she navigated the bus system with her mom and brother to the Kumon center. Quietly protesting. Working.

“You are going to go to that middle school and many of the white kids are in the advanced classes and most of the Latino kids are not,” I told her. “And you know what you are going to do?”

“What?” she asked, eyes bulging.

“You are going to say, ‘Screw You.’ You are going to succeed in spite of it all,” I told her, “because you can.”

“This is so helpful Mara,” she said taking a bite of her chocolate tart. Her eyes sparkling as bright as those days in kindergarten. And there we sat, in our bubble of connection, hope.

I can’t say I would have even been aware of Ashley and what it takes to advance out of poverty if it wasn’t for my mom. For the last 25 years Linda Mornell has placed low-income high school kids all over the country in summer programs. Interrupting negative patterns, instilling confidence, and ultimately teaching them to reach their potential.

Her new book about her experience with adolescents and building Summer Search, Forever Changed, is full of stories of kids like Ashley. Each one, prevailing in their own way, pulling themselves out of the deep hole that they were born into with the help of mentorship, serious introspection and a lot of character altering life experiences.

Changing their course ultimately changed my mom’s as well.  And mine to a much smaller degree. I saw Ashley. That is the bonus. Of looking outside your own world and seeing anothers. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

With confidence, I explained to Ashley, the circumstances would flip if she can manage to stay above water. Ignore the forces against her, work hard and embrace the possibility. All those coveting spots in college will be looking for her, not Olivia. Finally, a first generation Latina whose mom cleans houses and whose dad works in landscaping has the advantage.

And over dessert we plotted. In six more years her time will come.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I Swear We Are Normal

“So there he was dropping the F bomb at a party,” my friend was telling me, over a cup of coffee, about her son, my sons best friend. “We gave him a choice:  Tabasco or soap. He chose Tabasco.”

I looked at her and nodded in approval. I was the supportive parent/friend as she was putting it out there. Clearly she had reached her limit, and it was time to lay down the law. Music to my ears, of course. Im all for extreme punishment. Alpha and I are old school: we spank our kids when the circumstances warrant it.  It's always a challenge matching the punishment to the crime and I'm certain the kids would argue we've erred on the side of being too severe.

But there is a particular rub with the whole swearing thing. “I thought it was something you would do,” she smiled at me, “You inspire me Mara, really.”

That is when my eyes started to shift. It was hard to look  her in the eyes. I took a gulp of my coffee hoping that the conversation would change. Because the swearing in my house has hit all-time highs. And whats even worse? Its with my full support; in fact, I'm the ring leader.

It all started in Schatzle class. We had killed ourselves, burned our buns, sprinted around the block, done an insane number of sit-ups and lunged until there was no way to lunge another lunge. Beet red in the face and tired as hell Jenny put that microphone on and started to lecture us about positivity.

Wake up in the morning, she advised us, jump out of bed and start your day right. So as we closed class we did a few inhales and exhales and I thought we were bringing it into prayer position for a Namaste when she shouted out, “FUCK IT ALL, I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY.

That night, over dinner, it came up. Schatzle, positivity and well, FUCK IT ALL I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY.  The kids jaws dropped to the floor as they listened to the story. Laughter ensued and all of us jumped from the table a little lighter.

“Guys, I have an idea…”I started in at clean up. “Why dont we try that every morning and see if it works?”

“You mean using that word?” my kindergartener asked me. “The one that we are not supposed to use?”

“Yes, the F word. Use it every morning when you jump out of bed and tell me if it makes you feel better,” I said, throwing all caution to the wind.

The next morning, Alpha and I were fast asleep when we heard the rallying cry ring across the house. “FUCK IT ALL I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!” Alpha, who had missed the dinner session sat bolt upright in bed. “Did you hear that?” he asked me.

I started to giggle as we heard it repeated from each child. And then the laughter. That was last week. Now it has become the new morning ritual at the Peters house.

Over pancakes just this morning, a tired Olivia walked into the kitchen and quietly sat down at the table. “fuckitallIamgoingtohaveagreatday,” she mumbled in an unenergetic whisper.

“Where is the Tabasco sauce?” I asked Alpha. “Someone just used the F word in this house.” She quickly snapped her head up from her plate, shocked. She looked at my insistent face, and it registered quickly. Shouting at the top of her lungs, “FUCKITALLIAMGOINGTOHAVEAGREATDAY!” she burst into a huge smile.

“Thats better Liv,” I told her. “Dont get me wrong here, you are lucky and privileged to be able to use the F word every morning. Treat it with respect.”

I couldnt help but catch Alphas eye. The eyebrows were raised. Indeed, we are in unchartered waters. But one thing I know for sure. If we are going to do something, we do it well.

“We have to set some standards in the house,” I simply stated, flipping the pancakes.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Setting the Table

If you are a helicopter parent, you already know this. Statistics prove that sitting down and eating with your kids at dinner ensures they will be successful and smart people. Hands down. They learn manners, the ability to speak and communicate and it fosters a strong relationship with parents.

I cant tell you how many New Years have come and gone with my annual resolution to have family dinners, EVERY night, home made, nutritious and peaceful. But it wouldnt take long before I would flame out (my record is around a week). Charlie's early years were the worst.  He would huck food from the high chair and the other three  would rapidly lose interest  after two bites at which point theyd start doing laps around the table. Alpha and I would sit in front of our food shouting to each other about our day trying to hear above the din.

It was torture, far more effective than anything the CIA comes up with. I willingly went against the stats, fed them early and put them to bed many times before Alpha even got home. (7pm was really my limit.) And although I felt a tinge of guilt when my husband and I sat down for a civilized meal that we werent producing the communicative, successful kids I should, I got over it pretty quickly.

Like most things in parenting, it's a slow evolution that you dont notice until you hit a serious milestone step that grabs your attention. It was New Year's Eve, around 7pm. Teddy had taken pride in setting the table. Liv had poured the drinks and we were eating Alpha's specially made chicken fajitas. Talking about our New Year's Resolutions.

Liv kicked it off with something thoughtful. I want to get 1% better at water polo every time I practice, she said. Alpha and I caught each others eyes, both surprised. That would be one of our resolutions. Olivia went on to tell us about an inspirational woman who spoke to her 6th grade class. She opted to play mens baseball and had to push herself to get 1% better each time she played so she could successfully compete with the boys. Olivia, always offering gems to the family, set a remarkable tone for the table.

Charlie, the food hucker, went next. I want to get better at skiing, he offered up. Now Charlie had just torn up the slopes at Mammoth Mountain. Leaving his two older siblings in the dust. How about bike riding? I challenged him. That could use some work. (Three days prior, our fourth child (age five) had dragged his bike out of the shed, pumped the tires and nagged Alpha to no end to teach him to ride it without training wheels. When he couldnt get his Dads attention, Jackson took him out and taught him the basic concept.) Oh yes! I will be an amazing bike rider this year! he smiled at us.

Jackson announced he wanted to lose weight which made the whole table crack up. I laughed the hardest because this kid has really arrived to the adult world. The fact that he even knows most people resolve to go to the gym more on New Year's is a wild thing for me to comprehend. Once he had everyones attention, he raised his skinny arms and said something about lacrosse (its always lacrosse) and his training. But I couldnt help staring at my oldest, at the other end of the table, growing up.

Teddy was last. No matter how much we told him we wanted something serious, he laughed and giggled and couldnt figure out one thing to talk about. We spoon fed him answers about his writing, math even the piano. Ultimately, because he couldnt take the exercise seriously he was assigned KP duty and required to clear the table and wash all the dishes.

And it was there, on the coach, that I realized how amazing 2014 really was. The dinner ritual of setting the table, having a conversation and cleaning up after was not such a lost cause in the Peters house any more. The New Year's conversation was a long one -- we even had lingered well after the food was cold. There were no laps around the table. It was all so good.

A few minutes later, Teddy, poking his head from the galley, asked me, Mom, you didnt give us your resolution. What is yours?

Teddy, dont you know? I dont do resolutions because you never keep them! I told him. He looked at me in surprise, burst out laughing and went back to washing dishes.

Sometimes you just have to resolve to let things happen on their own time.