Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I Have Multiples

It was right before yoga class. I was waiting for the instructor and small talking. I had casually asked someone how things were going when the answer came right back at me, Chaos. Total chaos. You know what it is like to have multiples…”

Call it an Ebola-state-of-mind, but I heard multiples like it was some disease, taking over my life. As I moved on with my day I couldnt shut off my racing thoughts. You see the symptoms are obvious and the virus is rampant in our household. Having made the choice to have four kids, its become clear Alpha and I parent in a way that nobody, especially those with singles, understands.  Of course, others with the same disease might recognize some warning signs

YOU OUTSOUCE: Club sports are hard. As matter of fact, they are down right impossible for multiples. Tournaments, every weekend, all over the state are fun on occasion. The kids get to cram into a double queen hotel room. One ultimately sleeps on a chair, another on the floor. We suffer in the sun, and the relentlessness of the sport together, as a family. Call it quality time. But recently, we had an epiphany – it was time to outsource. When a family with one child offered to take Olivia to water polo tournaments I told them they could adopt her on weekends. “Call her Scarlett even,” I advised them, so appreciative that the travel torture might actually end. “Im not attached to the name Olivia.”

THERE ARE NO SPECIAL MOMENTS: “Do the kids need some one-on-one, you know, special time together?” a parent asked me the other night when she didnt want her child to crash a play date. Here is the thing. There is no special time. Never has been, never will be. Once you get past that, the pressure is off. You cant create the perfect environment for children of multiples. They have to claw, yell, and fight to get anything done for them. Ultimately, they make the right decision. Best to do things for themselves.

THE OLDEST IS STUNTED: Yes, he was forced to go to bed at 7pm until the end of 6th grade. Rarely is he out past dark as his siblings are complete lock-ins. While his friends start to navigate the world, he is now our official babysitter so we can go out. He may never be out at 10:00pm until college.

THE YOUNGEST KNOWS TOO MUCH: My favorite song on the planet is Eminems Headlights. (There is a nice message about moms in it.) After parenting for 12 years, I am beyond tired of listening to age appropriate songs in the car. So when the cussing and swearing starts to fly I tell Charlie to self regulate and cover his ears. And I wonder why no first time parent in kindergarten is asking for a play date at our house or letting Charlie come to theirs.

THURSDAY FOLDERS AND HOMEWORK SUCK: I try. I really do. To stay on top of school news, check homework before Friday and read to them every night. But multiples kills you in those areas.  The perfect storm hits right before parent teacher conferences, the homework is monsooning on us. As Im working with Teddy on his essay, Charlie is tugging on my arm, desperate to know which color he needs to use to fill in a triangle. Olivia is twirling in the living area wearing a dress she is designing for the talent show (talent show, was that in the Thursday folder?).  Lastly, Jackson is shouting from his room I have to sign a form right away. Uncle.

When I decided how many kids I wanted none of the above were even considerations.  It never dawned on me that my future held the logistical impossibility of having four kids in club sports or five hours a night of homework. (I certainly never contemplated the fact that close proximity in their ages would result in three kids in college at the same time.)

Multiples was not supposed to be a disease.

In my naïve moments of family planning, I really had only one thought - my Thanksgiving table. I wanted to look around the room and have it full, not empty.  A brood. Loud and noisy. And most importantly, happy. I do get that for 24 hours. On Turkey Day. That feeling that I got exactly what I wanted.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Perfect Path is Not So Perfect

“I have something to tell you and youre not going to like it,” Alpha started in.   I hate it when our conversations start off that way.  "Just spit it out," I told him.

“OK, but before I tell you,” he continued, “I just want you to keep in mind, that in the 7th grade I was lighting fires in the woods behind my house with Mike Hipp.”

Im in the car, waiting for my oldest to come out of junior high. The other kids are tucked in the back, doing homework. Im feeling increasingly irritated about where the conversation is headed.

“The assistant principal just called. Jackson was in his office because he had burned a kid with a pistachio shell. Kids were heating up the nuts under their shoes at recess. They determined that it was not bullying. It was not malicious but he had to be called in because the kid went to the nurse to get a band aid.  It's just part of the new rules.”


Junior High. We had been warned about it. The big step. Kids are a little too mature. Major attitude. A parent who'd already been down this road warned me the junior high years were by far the worst.  So, having braced myself for all of it, the first month turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise. Jax went into an enormous school ensconced in a great group of friends, surrounded by 100 other students from his elementary class, plus numerous sports acquaintances. He came home euphoric over the freedom -- walking in the hallways unsupervised, switching classes every period.

It was all proceeding so smoothly.

Hanging up the phone with Alpha, I watched him approach the car. His body slumped, his face crestfallen. All the tween ‘tude was gone. As he slid into the car, it was clear he was devastated. My oldest, the rule followerer. The kid, literal to his core, who worked really well inside the box, was completely out of sorts.

He was in trouble for the first time in his life.  Looking at him, it killed me.  I'd never seen him so down on himself.  I had to stop myself from hugging him.

On the way home, I glared and yelled a little for show. “What were you thinking? I didnt raise a son to end up in the principals office,” came out a couple of times.  His head hung lower with each barrage.  The other kids, aghast, listened intently as their older brother repeated over and over how stupid he was.

But inside, I was replaying my conversation that I just had with Alpha. At his age, I was lighting fires in the woods. We have marveled that our kids do follow the rules as much as they do. They dont light fires, they rarely talk back; they produce for us on demand. It makes us proud for sure. But that rebellious spirit that Alpha has described about himself led him to be an entrepreneur. Made him brave enough to take on incredible risk. To move his family to Santa Barbara; choose a path that was not the norm for a kid growing up in Westchester County, New York.

Do we want kids to be compliant, produce perfect grades, never test their boundaries or look for chances to stretch, even break, the rules? Excel in all they decide to do but never experience failure? It truly sounds intoxicating, doesn’t it? But the reality is its not preparing them for life. For real success.

If I intuitively know that, where is there room to waffle? In school? Where the stakes are so high one misstep could jeopardize a college ticket. (On a side note, when I was growing up it never occurred to me to think about college in 7th grade. I get to hear about it all the time in carpool.)  On the sports field? Where club sports are demanding more out of our kids than ever before. One false move and they can land on the B team.

Who cares? You could ask. And that is where the answer lies. I care. Probably too much. Because when I see my kids excelling, in a way, it is a measure of my own success. All the effort Apha and I have put into them. They are living results of all our hard work. But, as I write this column, seeing it in print, my own kidspath is so clearly not about me. It is about them. They have to develop their own expectations for themselves. Not mine. Not Alpha's. In a more holistic way.

Once home, I stormed into my room with Jackson in tow leaving the rest of the tribe huddled in the kitchen wondering what punishment was about to befall their brother. I slammed the door for effect and listened to him apologize. And then I told him point blank. “Jackson, part of being in 7th grade means you're going to do stupid things,” I told him. “How are you going to learn if you do everything right?”

Stupid is just starting, I told him. Even more stupid was going to a party in high school, drinking, then getting into a car and driving friends home. Maybe you get home okay. Or maybe you get in an accident and no one survives. “How are you going to learn that if you dont make enough wrong decisions to learn the right ones?”

As he left the room, I could tell that was not the conversation he was expecting. But we are now in junior high. Where there is a lot more gray than black and white. And he may do things that surprise me. But, in turn, I will parent him in a way that may surprise both of us. Because, at the end of the day, we are all just trying to figure it out.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Driving Me Crazy

Like on most afternoon days, there I was, driving one of my kids to another sports event. In this case, it was Tuesday, which makes it Olivias swim conditioning. Lost in my own thoughts of driving despair, I was not really listening to her chat away.

Then her chatter penetrates my brain fog and I hear her big plan.

“If I work really, really hard, and dedicate myself,” she was saying in her most earnest voice, “I think Im going to be able to play water polo at Stanford.”

Struggling in the midst of my own dark, bleak moment, I have to confess my thoughts are not necessarily constructive.

We are all going a little nuts at this point
“Olivia,” I imagine saying to her in a matter-of-fact way, “Why bother to have hopes and dreams as lofty as that? Because the reality is, you are going to get married, have kids and then spend your entire time transporting them from point A to point B.  This will happen on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. So you see, you dont really need a college degree, sweetheart. What you need to do is book yourself into a driving school and save yourself some major college tuition debt. Believe me I speak from experience because that is all I do in spite of my education, rocking career and lucid mind. I drive. And unlike Uber, I dont even get paid for it.”

Forcing a smile, I looked at my petite 6th grader (another reason she might not be able to play for Stanford), not having the heart to even go there. “Thats nice honey,I tell her, nodding and grinning like I have just downed Prozac with a side of vodka.

“Mom, why are you acting so weird?” she asked.  She's an observant kid.

Damned if you do. Damned if you dont. That is how I sum up my current parenting moment. In fact, it is starting to become my mantra. Four kids home all summer and I am damned. Wishing that school starts is a dont: thats when the schedule kicks in and the driving commences.

“So Mara, what do you do?”  a new colleague asked me a few days ago.

“Well, from 3-7 pm I drive,” I reply, “everyday.”

“Thats funny,” she said.

“Actually, not really.”

Of course, when discussing the sched, Alpha was solution oriented. “Sign them all up for the same sport, make it easy on yourself,” he suggested. Wow, that sure sounds like a good concept. Over $1,000 of registration fees later, I discover that not one child has a practice that overlaps at the same pool with another. In fact, I will be bold and declare that someone sat in a room and decided how best to screw with families that have multiple children.  And it seriously worked.  I'm certain it is a maniacal, single, childless person who thought this would be a great joke to play.  

“I got the mornings,” Alpha assured me (because, going from his name, you can imagine he cant get the afternoon – too busy hunting for meat to feed the family).

Day one, 5:45am swim conditioning out at Dos Pueblos. Home phone rings. “Jeeze, I completely forgot I had a call scheduled at 7:30,” Alpha reports, five minutes into his first driving commitment. “But don’t worry, dont worry, I got this covered. Just called half the office to see who can pick up Jackson.”

Fast-forward one week.  Now I am doing the 7:15am pick up, with all the kids in the car sleepy and cranky (Alpha is on a business trip), I cant help but gently explode. The driving is driving me mad. I'm about to go off the road.

“Those driverless Google cars will really come in handy,” Olivia commented, her voice full of optimism and hope for the future. “They cant really innovate those things fast enough, huh mom?”

I look over and all I can do is bleakly nod.  We can all have dreams.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Summer's Last Gasp

“Maha, I will take him down on the trail,” he said with a thick French accent. Just smiling enough for me to see the missing teeth, “you must go Maha, this is something you only do once in your life. Leave him, I will take him.”

I looked past Vincent, our guide, just in time to see Olivia repel off a rope straight down into the 100-foot waterfall. The roar of the rapids was almost deafening. If I closed my eyes, I almost couldn’t hear the cries of Achilles, hanging onto my leg.

We were well into our morning canyoning, deep in the depths of the French Alps. Vincent wasn’t just any guide we had hired -- he was Alpha’s best friend. When I had met my husband 16 years ago, he was living in Argentiere, a tiny town nestled in towering peaks, climbing mountains with Vincent for almost a year.

Pre-marriage Alpha brought me to Argentiere. To test my character, look for my weaknesses and find my strengths. Unbeknownst to me, over a long dinner Vincent quietly accessed my physique, taking note of my self-confidence. And then it was decided: A very aggressive week of peaks to climb before we headed back home to New York.

“Maha,” he always would remind me after, “Do you remember climbing Tacul, you crying the entire way up because you were so scared to come down?” His laugh was big and jolly, as he smoothed his crazy hair down. Tacul was a peak just behind Mount Blanc, the very mountain that claimed six lives while we were on vacation last week. Lean the wrong way on Tacul and there would have been a major problem. Crying felt like the obvious solution.

Besides his love of teasing, there was also a quiet acknowledgement when he brought up Tacul-- we had climbed together and shared something that few have ever done. Those days in the mountains were moments that would sustain me over the years to come. You see raising a large family had slowed our life way down. It was a victory to get to the mailbox in those early days. I’d often think about that week with Vincent and imagine myself squeezing the very most of life. We would send our Christmas cards to Argentiere, care of Vincent Ravenal, in hopes that he wouldn’t forget that we would come back when we could.

This summer, the kids were ready. Jackson our oldest, was capable of tackling some of the Alps bigger peaks. Olivia was strong and fit and Teddy was good enough. It was our last, Charlie, aka my Achilles, that was a problem. There is no place for a five year old in the mountains. But the nature of a big family is to push the lingering weak link forward so the others could go forward as well. I was impatient at first. Wanting to go on aggressive hikes and climbs. We tapered our expectations and managed to hike for hours everyday. When Achilles got tired, Alpha and I shared carrying him. He was keeping up, in his own way.

On our last day, Vincent took us canyoning – where you can explore hidden gorges, rappel, jump and slide down waterfalls. The kids had heard much about Alpha’s friend over the years and were out of their minds that he would guide them on an adventure. Achilles had been okay to deal with the frigid water even though his wetsuit was hanging off of him. As we held onto rock cliffs, clipped onto a line, Achilles held his arms out to Vincent ready and willing to trust him across. It was the next step, a 10-foot jump into a deep pool below a waterfall that put the kid over the edge. It was time to throw in the towel, question the plan, call it what it was: he was five for god sake.

I’ll stop too, I told myself. I had some fun jumping into the pools, sliding on the falls. Parenting is about compromise. For the last 12 years, I have tapered my expectations. I had learned to hang back.

“Maha, I have him,” Vincent told me as he grabbed Achilles by the harness, “it is your time, go!” Before I could think twice, I jumped -- rappelling, deep into the waterfall, the cold water shocking my skin on the back of the neck. Waking me up. As I dangled, lingering 25 feet in the air, I couldn’t help but think that once again, Vincent was giving me a gift. I shouted out with joy and slowly lowered myself into the waterfall before I let it wash me into the pool. Just a moment, that reminded me push forward, choose living, even with

Their Own Path

About two years ago, Alpha went to see an African Shaman on the mesa. As they discussed all aspects of life, my husband confessed that he worried about traveling too much. “I am afraid, that my absence will impact my kids, particularly as they get older,” he said.

The Shaman listened to him carefully and offered advice that has  remained with Alpha (and me) since. “They are on their own path,” he told him. “You have to recognize that your journey is not theirs and vice versa. You cant carry them, they have to travel their path on their own.”

From my experience as a parent, sometimes those words are very obvious and clear and other times I am surprised and shocked when they ring true. For example, when you drop your child off on their first day of school, and leave them to figure it all out, it is a defining moment, one easy to recognize: they have their own life and need to navigate it alone sometimes.

But other times, its far less black and white. Teddy, my third, has always been fearful. Ever since he was a baby. Alpha and I, as parents, thought it was our duty to force a breakthrough: jumping off the Goleta Pier for Junior Guards last summer, for instance, felt like the perfect opportunity. To our dismay, Teddy cried at the railing, clutching the post. Never taking that leap. Never trusting in himself.

We taught him breathing exercises; we yelled at him to calm down, we lectured him in attempt to flip a switch in his mind – one where hed realize how his fears were already limiting him.  All to no avail. 

And now , in evidence that Teddy has his own journey, he did something recently that dumbfounded Alpha and I. We were up North hiking our favorite trail to a lake with a legendary rope swing. This one is not for the faint of heart. The long rope hangs from a pine that is perfectly tilted towards the water. It also happens to sit on a steep hill which means  the thrill seeker  soars a solid twenty feet before having to let go and fall into the water. For years, Teddy has watched his older siblings go. Always leaving the lake deflated, even defeated -- as he never had the courage to have a go.

On this year's hike up, there was no discussion about the swing or the drop to the water.. We only told the new uncle-in-law that he was in for a real treat. We made it to our destination and all trooped up  to the pine. Teddy, first in line, grabbed the rope, leaned back for momentum and pushed off before we could catch our breath. And there he flew, straight up into the blue blue sky before he splashed into the water.

In all my many moments in parenting I was most humbled when he soared. Because, no matter how hard I had tried, I couldnt get him there. Now, he'd done it - on his own, unsolicited. It really hit me: Regardless of what we wish for them, regardless of what we want for them, our kids will make their own way, in their own time. When he emerged from the water with a huge grin, he wasnt looking to us for our approval. He didnt need the applause. Because it was his journey.

Since then, the fear switch has gone off. He swam around the Goleta Pier without a kickboard the other day -- it was so un-Teddy. He even said it was the most fun he has had a guards.

I recognize in myself the need to fix, change and solve. In that moment, watching Teddy splash into the lake, I had to acknowledge my own short-sightedness with that definition of parenting. I am not saying we have no role when raising our kids; we just have a lesser role than we give ourselves credit for. 

All those times Alpha and I pushed Teddy down a path he didnt want to navigate seem a bit comical. He showed us in one swoop, that ultimately he will forge forward. We just need to get out of the way.