Family

No Longer the Conductor

On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram I see pictures and posts from my friends who are parents of young children. They are all scrambling to adapt their families to life in various states of quarantine. I see the photos of crafts and outings. I read about frustration and being overwhelmed. Occasionally I have words of support to offer. I have to admit that along with the sympathy I feel, one of the emotions in my head as I read these posts is jealousy. These families are struggling to contain young ones who want to be busting out into the world. They are building new structures and patterns. In my family the strictures of quarantine are requiring everyone to sit in old, depressive patterns that we were trying to escape from. Last night my 19yo had a bit of a cry saying “It is silly. I’m at home all the time anyway, this shouldn’t feel any different.” But it does, because there is a world of difference between choosing to stay home because of depression and being required to stay home because of mandate. Yes we were already sitting in a pit with depression, but now pandemic has slapped a lid on top of the pit trapping them in the hole with the depression. All of our solutions were aimed at getting them out of the pit, now we have to learn how to conquer mental health while being cooped up with it.

When my kids were younger, this quarantine would have been exactly the sort of challenge that excites me and spurs my creativity. I would have been researching optimal schedules, planning crafts, feeling overwhelmed, feeling guilty for letting them watch too many movies, making them help clean the house. I would have lamented difficulties and found moments of joy. All of which is exactly what I see in my friend’s posts. Through all of that, I would have given myself a structure because “the kids need it.” I tried to do some of that last week. I declared that each day would have a Mom Project in the middle of it. It would be the fixed point in all of our days that would give us structure. They could then plan their other things around it. Day one my attempts caused a meltdown, which wasn’t surprising since any expectation often leads to meltdown around here. The following days went better, but by day four I had a conversation with my 17yo where it became clear that my young adults neither wanted nor needed the structure of a daily Mom Project. I was the one who desperately needed some control lever on our new life patterns. As soon as I realized the Mom Projects were more for me than for the kids, they stopped happening.

I am no longer the creator of my family culture, not in the ways that I used to be. We all create it for each other. We used to be a musical ensemble with me as the conductor. Now we’re a quintet that really needs me to step off to podium and pick up an instrument instead of pretending to be in charge. I miss being the conductor. It was my role for so long and was a comfortable space for me. I got to choose and manage and plan. My current job is much harder. I have far less illusion of control. I care deeply about the happiness of my children and their futures, but I have to step back and let them make choices. Sometimes I can see where the choices they are making don’t lead them in the direction they say they want to go. Then I have to decide whether to allow them to experience natural consequences or whether to place myself as an obstacle trying to redirect their course.

We were just finding a balance for my 17yo attending school, going to therapy, and managing household chores. Then pandemic, and suddenly teachers are emailing me and expecting me to step back into a schoolwork supervisory role that I had carefully and deliberately stepped out of. Every time they email it pokes me right in the hurting guilty place where I’m not at all certain I’m making the best choices for my child, who is almost not a child anymore, and who definitely would like me to back off. Wanting Mom to back off is an important and age appropriate stage of emotional development. He is claiming his own identity and becoming responsible for his own life. It is difficult to try to honor his need for me to back off while being barraged with emails asking me to step in. So strange to have to withstand the barrage and hold space to allow my son to choose to fail so that he can (hopefully, eventually) learn from that failure in ways that motivate him to build a future he wants.

So among the other griefs that pandemic has dished out to me, I’m also managing the ongoing grief of figuring out parenting. I need to acknowledge this. Then I need to spend some time in the rest of today consciously noticing the gifts that being trapped in quarantine is giving my family, and the things I love about my kids being young adults and not small anymore. There are joys here and I need to focus on them.

Changing the Parenting Framework

My youngest child turns 17 this week. I only have one more year of legal responsibility over a human I helped make. Three of my children are legal adults and until a month ago when the oldest got married, they were all living in my house and financially dependent on me. I’ve spent a significant amount of anxious time wondering whether their continuing dependence is just the natural result of their neuroatypicalities creating a non-standard timeline for development, or if I failed at parenting in some fundamental way. This set of thoughts was churned up once again by reading an article about lawn mower parenting and recognizing myself in it.

I want to pause right here and state that I know beating myself up over past decisions is neither emotionally healthy nor useful. Looking back, I honestly made the best decisions I could based on the knowledge I had at the time and the resources/energy that were available to me. Especially considering that I had four kids who fell outside the norm in ways that even school personnel (who are highly attuned to helicopter and lawnmower parenting) recognized as needing extra attention. This post isn’t about regret over failure. It is me analyzing the ways that my anxiety played into my parenting. It is me being fascinated by how parental faults can have a cascade effect on children lasting for years into adulthood. Put more succinctly: we all screw up our children in one way or another because we’re human. Part of the work of young adulthood is learning to form an identity separate from the framework our parents made and, in stepping out of that framework, to grow in the directions that the framework previously prevented. I want to see clearly how the structures I built both enabled and inhibited growth because many of those structures now need to be dismantled for my children to step free into independent adulthood.

A couple of weeks ago I had a confrontation with my 17yo. Confrontation does not quite feel the right word, because it was more a venting of pent up emotions rather than an argument. We were all upset, but no one was angry. In the after discussions, it became clear to me that I have some habits to change. I have to stop protecting him from my emotions, putting how I feel on hold because there is a crisis to manage. He is old enough to know I must be feeling something, and absent emotional information from me, his anxiety fills in disappointment and anger. I also have to stop speaking for him, labeling his emotions, and positing reasons for why his anxiety is acting the way that it is. We’ve reached the point where me explaining his reactions is far less useful than him struggling with his reactions and figuring them out for himself. All of these behaviors from me were healthily adaptive for the challenges we faced when this kid was younger and less self-aware. Now they are scaffolding that needs to be removed so he can develop strength to stand on his own.

Several times in the past few weeks I’ve run across a quote that feels very pertinent:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou

I love the self forgiveness that is inherent in this quote. None of us are perfect. Even at this moment when I’m consciously trying to adapt my parenting to the new set of needs, I’m probably causing some new problem which I’ll be able to see clearly in the future. That’s okay. Once I see clearly, I can do better. For now, I’ll do the best I can.

Day Before the Wedding

“Do you need any help?” They all ask, eager to be of assistance.
I answer them honestly “No.”
The wedding is tomorrow, and I feel some anxiety about how all the events will unfold, but it is the normal amount of anxiety that I feel before any social event. I have no feeling of doom. As long as the ceremony takes place, then all the rest can turn into a rolling disaster and I would just roll with it. And laugh. I’ve had a lot of practice laughing at unexpected disasters in the past eight months.

I don’t have a long list of last minute things for friends and relations to help with. That is by design. Months ago I decided to pay professionals to take care of the major pieces of the celebration specifically so I would not have to scramble and do things myself. My major task for today is to spend the day quietly. Me and mine need to introvert today because tomorrow will be full of social.

I don’t know if the lack of last-minute tasks is the result of my decades-long experience with event planning. After running a Gen Con booth and booths at Comic Cons, hiring some vendors to help me throw a party is pretty simple. It could also be the result of ditching some of the usual traditions. We’re skipping rehearsal dinners, speeches, bridesmaids/groomsmen matching attire, requiring anyone to wear a specific color, flowers, and probably a half dozen other things that are traditional. Instead we’re telling people to wear what makes them happy, making sure the music is friendly to sound sensitive people, using a side room for a board game/ puzzle area, providing food, and telling everyone that they’re allowed to opt in or out of any portion of the celebration that they want. My house is full of neuroatypicality, so the celebration is designed to be as flexible as possible for individuals. I think it is going to be a fun celebration.

The other question people ask me is how I’m feeling. There is this set of emotions that people expect a mother of a daughter getting married to have. Maybe I will have them, but my emotions tend to be out of sync with events. I either feel things far in advance or the emotions show up later. I felt a lot of things about my daughter and her wedding in early December. Right now I feel calm and happy, because she is happy. I can see the ways that her new life suits her well and I can finally trust that anxiety won’t make her Nope out of the whole thing. As for how I’ll feel tomorrow, I’ve no idea. Odds are good that I won’t know how I felt until I have time to sit down and sort afterward.

For now, I’ve got a few items of clothing to steam iron then we’re good to go.

Wedding Shopping

On Saturday I accompanied my daughter and her fiance as they went shopping for a wedding dress. From the moment we walked in we felt the weight of expectation. We were greeted at the door and assigned an appointment with a stylist who could be with us in just a few minutes. The store was full of women prepared to pamper and flatter because surely every woman wants to feel like a princess when buying a wedding dress. We were surrounded with racks of sparkling, flowing white. And somehow they all had a sameness to them which seemed completely unappealing. After a few minutes we were convinced that we weren’t going to find anything and we were making contingency plans involving going to a vintage clothing store, ordering off the internet, or perhaps even sewing.

Then the stylist showed up and listened to my daughter’s concerns. To the fact that she didn’t want anything sparkly or scratchy. She knew that having dress that rustled as she moved would grate on her nerves. She needed something that she could wear comfortably for hours at a time while having to mix and mingle with crowds of well wishers. A dress that was lovely, but designed for wearing not for flashy display. The stylist listened and helped her pick three dresses to try on. We were then led to an area with dozens of mirrors, dressing rooms on a raised platform, and a ring of chairs surrounding it. It was an area designed to put the bride on display. Fortunately we’d walked in during a quiet time, so we didn’t have to deal with other brides and their entourages. It was just us and a stylist asking “So does this dress make you feel like a bride?” while my daughter stared at her in disbelief and said “I have no idea what that feels like.”

Several other stylists stopped by since they didn’t have clients at the moment. They all kept asking “do you think this is The Dress?” and you could hear the capital letters on The Dress. As if we were on a quest to find the one true dress. Which seems like a lot of emotional weight to put on some clothing. We even spotted a sign which was obviously designed for women to hold up while taking Instagram photos.

And yet despite all the interest and expectation, the stylist was very good at her job. Once she realized that my daughter was more interested in a dress she could wear while running from a zombie apocalypse should there happen to be one mid-wedding than a dress which made her feel like a princess, the stylist changed which questions she was asking. (The moment of complete bafflement on the stylists faces as we were making running-from-zombie-apocalypse jokes was sort of priceless.) We were fortunate and surprised when the second dress turned out to fit all my daughter’s needs while simultaneously being lovely. The last act of the stylist was to have my daughter ring a bell to indicate that she’d found The Dress. I think the tradition is to ring the bell loudly so that everyone in the store could cheer. Fortunately the store was pretty much empty and the bell can be rung quietly too.

We were handed off to a seamstress to talk about alterations, she was much more practically focused and she was also geeky enough to laugh at zombie apocalypse jokes. My daughter has another fitting in three weeks and we’ll pick up the completed dress a comfortable month before the wedding day. So we have another task complete and we can move on to the next one.

A Day of Many Things

I have notes for a blog post on parenting depression with a focus on teenage and newly adult depressed people. Meant to write it up today, instead my dishwasher flooded through the floor into the basement. This required every towel in the house and six buckets to contain the water. Now I have dehumidifiers and fans running in two rooms. Again.

On the up side, we had four functioning adults in the house to rapid manage the flood. Even though my daughter’s fiance was actually supposed to be convalescing on the couch with a head cold. We made him lay back down as soon as the crisis was over.

Also my parents were in town for a visit and we ended up having lunch in my house (instead of meeting at a restaurant) while I talked with the plumber whose error caused the flood (and who will pay for the damage to be repaired) and also the disaster recovery company guy who brought me the fans and will do the repairs. Visiting was squeezed in around signing of contracts and contingency planning. Fortunately my parents already planned to stay at a different house because not only do I not have guest space, I have one of my kids who will have to sleep on the couch for the next five days.

Also I fielded phone calls from my kid who is considering moving back home and shifting his trajectory for the next six months. He needed help possibly applying for a new job and considering his options. My plan had been to invite him to stay home over the weekend and do a test run of living at home, only now his bed has buckets on it catching dripping water. So if he wants to come home, he’ll join his brother in sleeping on a couch.

Also I took my one of my college freshman to find out how to do a medical withdrawal from courses because they haven’t been able to make themselves go to class for about three weeks now. Depression, anxiety, and OCD can be serious hurdles for getting to class. Grades are no longer salvageable and it is time for us to regroup and figure out what comes next. (The answer is likely: take a gap year while they get a handle on self care and basic adulting.)

Tomorrow I have to get up, put on professional clothes and spend the day at a conference giving a presentation. Fortunately it is a presentation I’ve given many times before, so I can use my existing notes.

So that is how I spent my Mental Health Awareness day.

On Breakfast Outings, Pokemon, and Writing

The morning began with a quest. I’d only been up for a few minutes when Howard wandered into the room and said “you want to go get crepes for breakfast?” The crepe place is down in the Riverwoods shopping area, which is full of Pokestops and Pokemon Gyms. This fact is relevant since our entire family has taken up Pokemon Go in the past month. So we gathered everyone who felt like questing and off we went.

The weather was lovely, the food was good, and most of the stores didn’t open for another hour or two. We wandered along the paths collecting Pokemon and spinning stops. Almost everything about Pokemon Go is designed to get people to leave their houses and walk to different locations. It has certainly worked that way for our family. We now have people randomly deciding to go for short walks, even though we’re walking the same paths over and over, it feels new because we never know what surprises the game will throw our way. Going outside to stare at our phones and play a game is healthier for us than staying at home to sit in a chair and play a game.

I posted the above picture on twitter, and multiple people commented on the snow-capped mountain in the corner of the frame. It is so easy for me to forget that not everyone has vertical landscape looming over them at all times. I so often fail to notice how beautiful Utah is. I need to pause and admire the mountains more.

On the return home, I still had almost a full day ahead of me. For once, the most pressing deadline was on a writing task. I have a short story due at the end of the month and it isn’t fully drafted yet. I’d so enjoyed being outdoors in the pleasant weather, that I decided to sit on my back porch in my red bistro chairs to find the right words to tell the story I had outlined. Milo saw me outside and was so forlorn that I put on his harness and brought him outside with me.

Writing is a strange process. After forming a scene in my head and then writing sentences to convey that scene, I hit a point where I don’t know what sentence comes next. That’s when I pause and open up twitter or do a quick stretch. I have to pull my brain away from the task at hand so that I can circle back around to it with renewed vigor. It is rather like getting a muscle cramp in my hand and taking a moment to shake it out and stretch.

During one of my twitter breaks, I had a series of thoughts about writing, happiness, and goals:

A thing I’m trying to make a habit: instead of focusing on the thing I want and can’t reach yet, focus on the thing I get to do today which may eventually help me to that goal.

My writing career may never make significant money nor have much audience, even though I’d like it to have both. But neither of those goals will ever happen unless I put in the work.

And doing the work is much easier when I learn to love the work for itself rather than treating it like a chore to get me someplace else.

Today I get to sit on my porch with green things all around (and a cat) while I write a short story. That is a beautiful thing to get to do, even if the story never sells and is never read.

I wish I could always cultivate that mindset instead of getting tangled up in grief and worry. Of course the realities of money and bills mean that many days I have to set aside my personal writing in order to do the tasks which actually earn money. Some day those two things may come into more alignment, which would be nice, but I’m also aware that it would change my relationship to the words and the process of making them. Having a dream job often means turning something you enjoy into work, and it isn’t always the best way to balance life. But all of that is in the future. For today I sneak time to do writing which I love and which pays for nothing. And I try to pause and recognize when I get to have a beautiful day full of breakfast quests, pokemon, and writing. No matter what comes next, it can’t take away that lovely day I had.

Thing After Thing

Life has been busy and I haven’t had a lot of time free for thinking. I’ve been spending time assisting one of my kids through college orientation and registration along with the cloud of related adulting tasks. Another child acquired a boyfriend, which is a first for any of my kids and so it has sparked a lot of conversations while we all adjust. (We all like the boyfriend, so that is good.) A third child made a course shift in his life plan for the future (equivalent to changing majors), a good one, but needed help processing the decision. The fourth kid once again needs help rescuing classes from failure, and larger help figuring out why he shuts down so completely that he ends up not doing simple tasks that would keep him on track. I acquired a writing support group that looks like it will be amazing for me, but it means new friendships to build foundations for, and that takes thought. Also, because of the new group, I’ve been diving back into work on my middle grade novel, which takes lots of brain time. Several friends had need of support, so I put time and emotion into that. And I was knocked flat by flu for several days.

The vast majority of Things Going On have been good things, but it has me falling behind on business tasks and blogging. Here are the things I haven’t blogged yet, but mean to:

Our bus day. During spring break I declared a Bus Day. I’ve got a kid who intends to live at home while attending college, but doesn’t have a driver’s license. They need a way to transport themselves to school. So we did a family outing where the whole point was to ride the public transit system. I picked a destination in the next town over. (The Good Move Cafe in downtown Provo, which was a delight.) Then we walked ourselves to the nearest bus stop and rode until we got there. It was a fun adventure during which we all learned that local public transit is safe, clean, and more convenient than we expected. We’ll likely have multiple more bus riding adventures to acclimate college-bound kid to the whole system long before the first day of classes in August. This is how we break down the barriers into tiny little steps so that anxiety doesn’t make college crash and burn.

Long Slow Remodel weeks 5 and 6. The cupboards are on the wall. They have been for nearly two weeks now. We love them. There are still finishing touches to put up, but the remodel is beginning to shift into it’s next phase. I want to write it all up with pictures.

Between me and focused blogging are:
a dentist appointment to get some teeth filled, one of which has developed a sharp pain at food temperature differentials.
The very last bit of shipping for the Kickstarter on Schlock Books 14 & 15. Thirty-six packages and it is done.
A day trip (using public transit) up to Salt Lake City for FanX. I’m on one panel Friday afternoon and I’m taking college-bound kid with me for public transit experience and for cosplay squee.
Relatives in town and staying at my house for a family event.
Attending the family event.
A pile of smaller To Do items, appointments to keep, appointments to make, etc.

Once again, the list is full of good things. Life is mostly good. The harder bits seem spaced further apart and don’t seem to sink quite as deep as they used to.

And now that I’ve written all of that down, perhaps I’ve emptied my brain enough that I can go back to sleep. Being awake thinking about all the things is not my favorite activity for 2:30 am.

About the Missing Nicknames

The question was posted in a comment: “I’ve just noticed that you’ve stopped using the children’s code names (Patch, Gleek, Link, Kiki). Deliberate decision as no longer appropriate, or just a change in writing style?”

I posted a short answer in response, but decided that a longer answer was merited.

As my kids have entered their teen and adult years, their stories have started being more their own and less mine to tell. Details that are merely entertaining when told about young children become betrayals of trust when told about a teenager. My teens tell me things that they don’t share with the world at large. They depend on me to hold these things in confidence, and I try to. This means that sometimes I begin to write a blog post and part way through I hit a point where I wonder if the story is fully mine to share, if it will do damage to the person in my house who is searching for identity and direction. The well being of my children comes before the telling of the story. Always.

But this is a hard thing because, while the stories belong to the children, there are portions of them that are uniquely mine. I would like to delve into my thoughts about dealing with some of the challenges my kids have presented me. Yet if I try to tell my portion without their portion the story becomes so vague that it looses value and coherence. All of this has been happening for years now, and before I was consciously aware of it, I stopped using the nicknames as much. Not naming the person added a layer of anonymity which allowed me to tell some stories which I couldn’t otherwise tell. Other stories sit untold because they can’t be anonymized.

Once I became consciously aware of the shift, I decided it was a good thing. My children live in a world full of social media. Having their mother’s stories about them easily searchable by a single term (their nickname) seems not-so-wise during the potentially perilous waters of high school.

And then there is the fact that the nicknames fit the children they were, but aren’t good matches for the teens and adults that they’ve become. Three out of four have chosen their own online handles that bear very little resemblance to the nicknames I bestowed when they were 8, 6, 3, & 1.

Some of the stories that I hold in confidence, I will be able to tell late once the kids have grown far enough past a particular challenge that the telling of it isn’t threatening or embarrassing anymore. I’ve taken notes. There are dozens of partially written blog posts that I may get to finish one day. I would like to. I would like to tell the stories so that some other person who struggles with these things will at least know that they are not alone. I would like to tell them because writing these things as a story helps me define them and comprehend what happened.

Until the day when I can tell more of the stories, I have to muddle through and find ways to write that explore my thoughts and don’t betray confidences.

Thinking on Cultural Traditions

I was perusing Facebook when I saw a photo set from a friend talking about building their Sukkah. Not being Jewish, I went down something of a research hole learning about Sukkah and Sukkot. I’ve only been connected on Facebook with this friend for a year, but it has been lovely to catch glimpses of her family’s religious observances and cultural traditions. In this case I flipped through the pictures of them building with their two young children and I thought about how the building of the Sukkah, and religious observances in general, create a shared familial experience. It requires taking time out from regular life and doing something inconvenient. I could see that they had made this a fun family tradition, using the inconvenience as a shared bonding experience.

Once I emerged from reading and looking at pictures, I started to mentally bemoan the fact that I don’t have any religious traditions like that one. Mine is a very practical religion with a very short history in comparison to most religions. It hasn’t accumulated much in the way of religion-specific holidays. Then I had to stop and laugh at myself because I just had General Conference weekend, which is when Mormons spend an entire weekend listening to 10 hours of religious talks. It is absolutely a cultural tradition and my family arranges our entire weekend around it. We gather together and have a shared cultural/religious experience. Even my son who doesn’t come to church with us and who tuned out most of the talks, still participated in the food and togetherness aspects of the weekend.

Once I started to think about it, I realized that I’m surrounded by cultural traditions, but I’m so embedded in them that I don’t even notice them any more. I have no idea which parts of my life would seem fascinating or extraordinary to someone from a different cultural tradition. So that is another gift of glimpsing my friend’s traditions, it helps me gain a better view of my own.

When Religion isn’t Shared

It is Sunday afternoon and in just over an hour five members of my family of six will be departing for church. The sixth stays home because he’s not sure he believes in God and he no longer wants to be at church. It took courage for him to state his lack of belief to his religious parents. It took much out of his parents to accept his statements and to allow him to stay home. I still have unprocessed emotions about this, some personal, some religious, some parental. I still have hours when my mind runs loose on all the ways I could have taught better, been better, chosen differently. The voices of self doubt tell me that his choices are my fault. Except, my religion teaches the importance of free agency. We all get to choose. Even my son. Even if he chooses to walk away from something that I hold dear.

This leaves me with a set of choices. I have to decide whether to make church attendance a battle ground. I have to decide whether my desire to have him at church supersedes his desire to not be there. I know there is a theory of belief which says I should make him come because if he comes the spirit has a chance to speak to him. I also know that an angry and resentful mind is not fertile ground for belief to sprout. Instead we have chosen to respect the choice that he has made about church attendance because belief can’t actually be forced. Outward compliance matters less than the inward experience of connection with (or disconnection from) God.

I’m now faced with the challenge of building family culture and connection that is not centered in a shared religion. It is possible that my son will find his way to belief. It is also possible that he won’t. Either way I want to have an ongoing relationship with him. I want him to be a connected part of our family. Connection is fostered by common values and interests. We still have many of those. It just requires us to stop assuming common ground based on a set of religious teachings and start having important conversations to find where it actually exists. Which, truth be told, is probably something we should be doing even if we all went to church together. It isn’t just my son I’m trying to discuss belief with. I’m talking with Howard, my other children, myself, God.

The discussions are ongoing and evolving. My son is in the middle of being a teenager and thus doing a lot of work to discover who he is, who he wants to be, and what he believes. I’m also doing a lot of work to build structures to help him face his choices instead of fleeing from them and to help him learn that sometimes the only way to get anywhere worth being is to do all the hard work. Naturally I hope that some of the hard work he will do will lead him to know God and get his own answers. But that is between him and God. Fortunately one of the things that God has been telling me lately is that He loves my son as much as I do and that I need to give them space to work things out. So I will. Even though it is hard.