parenting

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.

Changing the Words

“I need to point out a language change I’d like you to make.” he said.
I was sitting across from my son’s new therapist. I’d spent the past forty minutes describing my son’s challenges and our current status.
“When you talk about your son’s schooling, you keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ I want you to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ instead. Put the responsibility for his schooling onto him instead of both of you.”

The moment the therapist said it, I could see how such a small-seeming language shift could matter. Every time I said “we need to get that essay done.” I was shouldering part of the burden of the essay, and it is really easy for kids to just let mom carry things for them. They’ve been doing it since they were small for everything from coats, to toys, to expenses.

Since that appointment, I’ve been working to make the shift, and the effort has shown me how often I included myself into my kids’ struggles instead of letting my them own those struggles. I think I began it because I didn’t want them to feel alone against hard things. I also wanted to frame the struggle as “us against the mental health issues” instead of mom vs kid. It is also probable that I was including myself in an un-self-aware attempt to have more control over the situation. I feel pretty sheepish about that last bit, because I’ve been saying for years that I needed my kids to have some life-solutions that didn’t involve me, while I was simultaneously auto-including myself into their every struggle.

I’m only a few weeks into making this language shift and it is still hard because habit is strong. Yet I’m already feeling the differences in how I think about my kids and their challenges. I’m realizing that every time I help my fledgling adults, what I’m actually doing is slowing down their learning process by absorbing some of the blow of natural consequences. Usually I’m helping to appease my own anxiety, so that the terrible stories of possible outcomes don’t come to pass, or so that I don’t have to watch them struggle. It is hard to be able to help and to let someone else struggle anyway. Yet that is exactly what my kids need me to do for their long term good. Helping makes today better, but it prevents the development of resilience that will let them survive their futures.

There is a part of my mind that wants to dwell on the What Ifs around this language shift. What if I’d learned this five years ago? Was I wrong to do so much helping when they were struggling so hard? Can I do it now only because we’re far enough removed from suicide risk? Did my use of inclusive language in their early teens literally save their lives, or is it the reason we’re here with adults who can’t fly on their own yet? I can’t answer any of those questions and dwelling on them doesn’t really help anyone. We are where we are, and the best way forward is to accept where we are and focus on moving forward from here.

And for right now, moving forward requires me to learn how to change the words I use on a daily basis.

Choices and Helping

A while back I listed some blog posts I wanted to write, including one about what I was learning helping neuro-atypical adults adapt to college. At the time I had two college freshman. Within a couple of weeks I’ll have zero. Both of my young adults have decided that the best decision for right now is to step back from college and take care of other things first. The thing I’m working to learn is that the more I help, the more their life learning slows down. I have to let them do the hard bits by themselves so they can discover how strong they are. So I don’t think writing up that list about helping is useful to anyone really. I’m actually feeling pretty good about their choices. I can see they’re choosing right for them for right now. I get to focus on my choices and the places where I need to be stretching, trying, and failing.

Blooming

My garden of spring bulbs is exceptionally beautiful this year.

I keep wandering outside to just walk along the bed and admire them. The thing is, I haven’t planted any bulbs for years. Common gardening practice is to plant bulbs in the fall, tear them out in the spring, plant annuals for the summer, then tear them out in the fall to plant bulbs for next spring. The reasoning behind this is that tulip bulbs don’t thrive year to year. If you leave them in the ground you get a giant tulip the first year, a smaller one the following year, and by the third year you may not get a tulip at all, just leaves.

Yet here in my garden, my tulips are multiplying. In this spot I planted three bulbs several years ago.

The truth is, I don’t have the patience to rip everything out twice per year. I need my plants to thrive with only sporadic attention from me. I also know that I’m far more likely to give that attention in the spring when I’m craving flowers and green things after the winter, rather than in fall when I’ve spent all summer feeling guilty about the gardening I meant to do, but didn’t. So in the spring, I buy granulated bulb food. I scatter it across the garden beds when the bulbs first begin coming up, which encourages them to grow large. Then I scatter it again as the blooms are fading so that the bulbs have extra nutrition as they’re stocking away energy for the next year. The only other thing I do with regularity is make sure the bulbs get water in the spring even before the sprinkler system is turned on.

I’ve been following this process for about three years now, and all my spring bulbs are thriving. But it took a while for that to happen. This is the thing about bulbs, you hide them in the ground months before you see anything that looks like growth. Then they bloom and are gone. But if I feed them, they hide away for an entire year to re-emerge again.

This spring my children are also blooming. It has been a long series of seasons full of dormancy, hiding, and darkness. Yet this year, all of the quiet tending and feeding has given them the resources they need to roll out green leaves and even a few tentative blooms. I know that the future may hold more struggles, but the growth they are doing now gives them strength to grow even more.

To be a gardener is to feed, weed, and tend with no guarantee that the plant will thrive. I can work to create optimal conditions for my plants, but it is their own internal process that drive the growth. Parenting teens and young adults is much the same. I’ve done a lot of throwing nutrients around and then waiting. Waiting can be hard and discouraging, but in spring I am reminded that many things grow again after looking dead for a season or two.

Of Nails and Helping

There is a video called It’s Not About the Nail where a man and a woman are having a conversation. She is struggling with some things, he thinks he can solve them by removing a nail, she get’s mad at him for trying to “fix it.” That is a very rough summary and you should really just click the link and watch the video. It is only a minute and a half long and the rest of this post will make more sense if you’ve seen the video.

The thing is, I’ve been on both sides of that conversation. I’ve been the one with a problem who really wants to be heard and sympathized with. Once I have that sympathy, I’m able to step back and decide to pull my own nail. However, until I decide to pull the nail, I resent people suggesting I should. The woman is not being ridiculous or strange. She honestly needs to be heard and understood. That need is every bit as real as the nail.

This week I spent a lot of time on the man’s side of the conversation. It is a very frustrating position to be in, to watch a loved one overlook or dismiss simple solutions which could make their life measurably better, while building a host of coping strategies around keeping the nail in place. So I’m waiting and making sympathetic noises and making sure that my loved one has the tools so that once they decide to pull the nail it can be done quickly. Also, having nail-pulling tools laying around helps plant the seed that maybe the nail is a problem that can be solved.

My heart is tired from this week. And I’m having to remind myself that after a period of calm growth, it makes sense to have some struggle. This week’s struggle doesn’t negate the growth and possibly helps lay groundwork for new growth.

Tiny Launches

At times I have lamented missed milestones that I see my kids peers hit when my kids didn’t. It is hard not to feel the difference at those moments, particularly when social media gives me photographs. I remind myself that comparison is the thief of joy and work to find my own joy. I also must pause to recognize and rejoice in smaller milestones, often so small they aren’t really recognizable as such. Like this morning when my three living-at-home kids were all up for breakfast then they all traipsed out the front door laughing and chattering so my oldest could drop the other two at high school and head for a cafe to work.

My house is empty of children because they’ve all launched into their days happily. My house is almost never empty of children, not since they started melting down six years ago. I’ve always had one or another here at the house, sometimes content, often depressed or suffering. It hurt my heart to see them making themselves small and hiding in my safe place because they were scared or wounded. But today they went out the door happily.

They’ll return home in only a few hours, but the tiny launches and small flights are practice for much larger launches to come. I have to catch and remember these tiny milestones because between now and the larger launches will be more hiding days, more moments when I struggle to not compare. So today I catch a mental image of them going out the door chattering. Today they are happy and that is enough.

Signs of Spring


Despite being the shortest month, this February has felt long. Most years I have blooming crocus by this time. Instead we’ve had an extended run of cold days with small amounts of snow. I’m not complaining, other areas of my state have had lots of snow instead of small amounts. Yet as I look at the calendar and think “It’s still mid-February?” I have to focus on the signs that spring will come. It is already beginning to sprout from among the dried out detritus of last Fall. I just need to be patient and allow things to grow at their own pace. Which is also good self development and parenting advice that I’m consciously taking to heart today.

Unexpected Pain in Parenting

He stood tall and straight when he said it, eyes clear and meeting mine. So different from the past five years or more of hunched shoulders, eyes averted, mumbled words. I’ve been waiting so long to see him take control of his life, step out and take flight. So why did it feel like a stabbing wound when he told me that my house wasn’t home for him anymore, that our family fit uncomfortably, chafing when he spent too long with us. He needed to step out, build his own space, make his own family.

This has always been the endgame of parenting. I knew even when they were babes in arms that someday they would step away from the family I created and create a new one of their own. Children are supposed to want to do things differently than their parents did.
And yet. It is a rejection. I spent two decades building a house and a family. I put myself into it body and soul. I sacrificed so much for it. And one by one my children will tell me that they don’t want it anymore.

He was not mean when he said these things to me. He was trying to be the opposite. He chose his words carefully. It was a conversation about him and his bright plans for the future, a future he can finally see and that he wants to reach for. He was choosing to share this piece of his mind and heart with me. He didn’t have to. He could have just stepped out and away. But he wanted me to know that he loves his family, he always will. He wanted me to know that stepping away was about grabbing his own life. He wanted me to be a part of this shift in his focus. I am invited to participate in this transition, but only as an observer.

So strange to be crying with grief over exactly the thing that I spent months and years crying over because it wasn’t happening.

I finally understand the urge to corner young parents and tell them to enjoy their children while they’re young. But there isn’t any point in pressing this thought on unsuspecting parents who would likely only be frustrated that I don’t understand why they aren’t savoring the particular moment they are in. The hard truth is that even if you savor every moment of your child’s growing up years, you still end up grieving at some point, even if nothing goes wrong. The person a child is at 10 is different then who they were at 3. I watched every bit of the transition, but sometimes there comes a day when I suddenly realize that the three-year-old is gone and I miss that little person, even if they are sitting right next to me transformed into an older person. Sad if they’re failing to launch. Sad when they do launch. And feeling a bit ridiculous for falling into this cliche.

I did my best not to cry in front of my son. I had to go home and unpack why I was crying since it was not a simple case of hurt feelings. He hadn’t said or done anything wrong, the opposite in fact. Yet it caused me grief, which is mine to manage without imposing it on him or making him feel like he should choose differently. He needs room to fly without me in the way.

Hopes for a Good School Year as Expressed in School Supplies

We’ve had three days of school so far and three afternoon shopping trips. The first one doesn’t quite count as a “trip” because it was opening the box of a new school bag ordered off of the internet. My son carefully moved his pencils and folders from the ratty old bag that served him through three years of junior high. The new bag is a leather messenger bag, spacious and grown-up. Perhaps being able to see and quickly grab things will improve his ability to organize his work and plan his days. It has to be better than shoving things into and out of the string bag that was mandated by the (odd) rules of the junior high.

Day two came with a batch of fury for my daughter. She’d asked a school admin for an accommodation and been refused. I came to the school and asked then she got it. It was frustrating for both of us. Probably for the admin as well, because we’re requesting a non-standard usage of a class. But the fury wound down and then my daughter needed to go shopping for supplies for a particular class that she has already fallen in love with. The teacher was inspiring, and gave her a binder with pre-labeled dividers. A binder seems like such a small thing, but by giving the kids a tangible gift on the first day, this teacher has engaged them. For once I have hope that my kid will have a transformative experience in a class at school. I would love that. I would love to see her expanding, admiring adults outside her home, stretching to impress them, and growing.

The third day required socks. It was the need for a sketch book that sent us to the store, but it was socks that stole the show. Tossing the all of the old, welcoming the shiny and new. This school year is a chance for both of my children to re-define themselves. They can dress different. Be different. And wear socks with pumpkins on them because Halloween isn’t all that far away.

We’re poised at the beginning, hoping that this year will be the one where they fly under their own power and rescue themselves from their inevitable crashes only to take off and fly again.