parenting

School is almost done

The last weeks of school feel like limbo. My kids are so ready to be done. I’m ready for them to be done. All that remains is a few final tests at the high school. Three more days. Technically there are some days of school next week, but we’ve already been told that attendance will not be taken on those days. In fact classes aren’t really held. Students just carry their yearbooks and leave campus at their leisure. Oh, and for the seniors there are graduation related events. My kids already know they aren’t going to bother with next week. Which means, three days.

At this point we know which classes are going to be failed. All the scrambling to rescue grades is completed. They’re either rescued or not. We’ll be doing some classes over the summer, making up credit for the failed classes. I’ll also be stepping back and trying to shift. When I weigh my kids school experiences these past few years, the parts that I can see are heavily weighted toward stress and depression. They simply don’t have the positive peer interactions, friendships, or activities that would provide a counter balance and make the stress worthwhile. This must change. My kids need to know how to live balanced lives. They need to have activities that take them out of the house.

If we want our lives to be different, be have to be willing to change. Sometimes that means changing things we don’t want to let go of. This summer (between all the business tasks, shipping, and conventions) I’ll be stepping back and getting a bigger picture so my kids and I can make decisions about what needs to change. Because I’m tired of ending the school year feeling beaten and exhausted.

Small Triumphs and Sadnesses Swirled Together

Our shirt Kickstarter closed yesterday. It did better than I’d expected, which helps plug a financial gap between the last book release and the next one. The vast majority of the money will go straight into printing shirts and shipping them. However the sliver that is left will pay our bills for a month or two, so that’s significant.

My 20yo has settled into his school and last night he figured out how to order pizza using his own money and have it delivered to him. It seems like a small thing, but it is hugely empowering to him to have an income and to be able to summon food that he likes instead of being at the complete whim of the cafeteria.

I spent a few minutes talking to one of my nephews who is the same age as my 15yo and who will be attending the same high school next year. My nephew energetically described his class schedule for next year, which he picked so he could be with his friends. It is full of honors classes, AP classes, and probable after school activities. Planning my son’s schedule was all about managing stresses and trying to tune things so he could function without being overwhelmed. The contrast was stark and I’ve cried a bit about the life limitations my son has to deal with.

My 17yo is far more stable than she was last year at this time, but there have still been absences for mental health days. I looked at her grades and realized that the absences have spawned missed assignments and tests. There are a couple of grades to rescue, and the thought makes me tired. We are always rescuing grades either for this kid or for the 15yo. It makes me weary.

Weather has warmed up and we’re starting to have spring flowers. I love spring flowers, they make me happy.

On Monday I had an enormous and multi-faceted To Do list. I plowed through almost everything on it. Yesterday was less effective, but already this morning I’ve gone through several tasks. The difference is in part because I’ve semi-abandoned the task app on my phone because it simply wasn’t helping me organize and plan in ways that work for my brain. I’ve reverted to hand-written task lists in my notebook. Amazing how much productivity goes up when I stop trying to use a broken tool.

Last night Howard and I had a deadline readjustment conversation. As self employed people we are somewhat in charge of setting our own deadlines. There is always the external deadline of “let’s not run out of money” but meeting that requirement can be done in numerous different ways. Sometimes we make a plan, but then need to shift the plan based on progress and realistic assessments of work yet to be done. The next two Schlock books will now be released after GenCon instead of before. Also Howard loosened his own deadline for wrapping up the current Schlock book because he realized that he needs to give the story the space it needs instead of trying to finish it on a specific (and unnecessary) schedule. The result of this conversation is shifting some priorities on the task list, also feeling less stress in the immediate future.

I’ve been making small adjustments in my days in keeping with my January resolution to build a life that is less driven by anxiety. If I want my life to be different, then my days need to be different. So I’ve been including more reading, more handicrafts, more shared experiences like games or movies on our big screen, less Netflix on a small screen with ear buds. I do better some days than others, but small changes make a significant course correction over time.

And now it is time to get to work doing all the things.

Describing Anxiety

I struggle with how to describe my children’s mental issues to the professionals (teachers, doctors, therapists) who are supposed to help them. Saying “anxiety disorder” is easy, and for some professionals it is sufficient. They instantly understand the adaptations my son needs in order to function in their space. In fact, I’ve had some teachers who adapt so automatically that I don’t even have to have the anxiety conversation at all, they automatically create an environment where my son feels safe and can function. But if the words “anxiety disorder” don’t instantly garner comprehension, I’m left trying to describe how this nebulous thing impacts every minute of my son’s life. Sometimes I’m required to demonstrate the level of disorder, how far outside the norm my son is, and why “all teens have some anxiety” doesn’t cover my son’s experiences. I hate having to prove disorder because it forces me to confront the extent of the impact anxiety has on my son’s life. It rips away the illusion of normality. It requires me to re-process my guilt and insecurity about how I handle his anxiety. It makes me grieve again.

I am fortunate in that this son is my youngest. Most of the professionals I’m dealing with have already worked with me for one of my other children. These professionals have developed a level of trust in me, my competence, my assessment of what is needed. I don’t get nearly the push back that I used to get when making requests. However this has also created some disadvantage for my son that I’m now trying to rectify. I already knew about so many resources that I picked whichever was most convenient. His diagnosis was done at a university clinic. His medicine is managed by a primary care doctor. His therapy was done at a different university clinic. His schooling is partially done at home with heavy involvement from me. The diagnostic picture is scattered and, as we face high school next fall, it needs to be consolidated. He needs a psychiatrist who will use professional expertise to look at the whole picture and help us see what we need to do to help this young person navigate his way into adulthood.

So I called the psychiatrist who helped me with two other children. And I was halted by the gatekeepers at the front desk. “We’ve had such an influx of people who should really be seen by their General Practitioner, so now we require a referral from a GP first before we’ll make an appointment.” Sometimes I can talk my way past this sort of barrier when I’m certain it shouldn’t apply to me. Not this time. The receptionist was “happy to pass a message to the doctor (my ally) to see if he’s willing to waive the requirement.” Which leaves me making an appointment with the GP and hoping that the psychiatrist’s knowledge of me will cause him to knock the gates open from the inside.

And it leaves me worried that perhaps they’re right, perhaps I’m blowing this anxiety thing out of proportion, perhaps he behaves as he does because I enable it rather than getting strict to force him to overcome it. Then I remember his reaction to small life events like having a book confiscated in class or having an unexpected assignment, and I am reminded that it is not normal to react to such incidents by curling into a crying, shaking ball of stress.

My son and I have worked hard to untangle these behaviors. He’s gotten so much better at cooperating with me to analyze why his reactions happen. We hope that is a step toward making it not happen. Because when he can’t make himself face an assignment, when facing the assignment begins to trigger panic, he withdraws and begins reading in class, which looks like laziness or lack of engagement. Him reading in class creates challenges for teachers when they have to tell other kids to pay attention. And the work piles up because his brain represses it out of existence. I function as an outside check/enforcer to require him to face what made him anxious. But it can take us multiple days to dig down and figure out what is blocking him from doing an assignment. (Things that block an assignment: if it has creative writing in it, if it requires synthesis from reading instead of regurgitation, if it requires a group to complete, if it requires presentation in front of others, if it requires drawing rather than copying a diagram, if he is upset or anxious because of some other event, if he doesn’t feel well, if he is upset from forcing himself to confront a block on an assignment. Basically 3/4 of all assignments have some sort of block in them.) Given time to walk away from an assignment and come back to it, he can almost always overcome the block and do the work, but it means that assignments pile up. And I know some of the teachers get frustrated/baffled about why he won’t do them. (If he can do it after school today, why couldn’t he just do it in class yesterday?) Then we reach the last week of the term (this week) when he has to plow through work or he will fail classes. The pressure of the deadline helps him break through blocks. It also raises his ambient stress level so that any disruption to the “get the work done” plan results in full blown panic.

Which is why this week is the week I remembered that it is really time for a single professional to re-examine the entire diagnostic picture. And I make phone calls. Because I can’t run interference for him forever. And he while he could possibly build an adult life with no writing, drawing, or group work, he can’t build an adult life with no stress or unexpected events.

I don’t have answers. I wish I did. This kid of mine is so courageous every single day, in ways that look (from the outside) like he is being obstinant, disrespectful, or not trying. I know some of the people in his life get to glimpse the courage and humor inside him. Most just get to see the top of his head because he’s reading, not meeting their eyes, and not speaking. Today I go to our GP and have a conversation which will likely be short and end in a referral, but there is always the chance that a longer explanation and justification might be required to convince the GP that what I think is needed is actually needed. I have to remind myself that these outside checks are good, that having someone outside with a different perspective can be valuable. That’s why we go to professionals in the first place. But I hope that the conversation will be short, and that I won’t spend the next few days spinning in self doubt over how I’m trying to help my son.

Sometimes There Comes a Day…

Sometimes there comes a day when your kids who have been depressed, aren’t anymore. The new meds are working, they’ve learned cognitive skills, things are just better. Then one kid plunks herself down and chatters to you about her life for two hours, some of which covers events in elementary school. Which leads you to look up favorite teachers to see if they’re still at the school. And they are. So the next day you grab the younger brother, who also had these teachers, and you drive over to the school for a visit. It turns out that you arrived early and the kids aren’t out yet, but the teacher you visit first just happens to have an empty classroom because her current crop of fifth graders are all in the computer lab. She’s always busy, but this day she has an hour to smile as she watches your kids talk and reminisce.

Then, when you seek out the other teacher, she almost cries because she’d been thinking about your kids only a few days before. She’d been wondering about them and and planning to write you a letter to ask about them, but then you walked into the office. And there they are: standing tall (in one case, 1.5 feet taller than when last seen) with bright faces, and cheerful chatter about their lives and their plans for the future. And when the kids go run off to see the playground, you get to stand with these two teachers who cried with you over your kids when they were struggling hard, and you cry a little bit again, but this time it is happy. Because here you are on the far side of a hard dark place, which lasted much longer than anyone wanted, but which also laid all sorts of necessary groundwork for the growing that is happening now.

Sometimes you get to have that day. And it is a beautiful one.

Launching

My son didn’t want the suitcase I put out for him. I thought it would be convenient, put out a suitcase and just drop in things as we found what needed to go to his dorm room. He had different ideas, and he didn’t want that ratty old suitcase. It will go to the dump. And I need to back off. He sorted his bedroom things when I wasn’t looking, putting away his treasures into the new under-bed storage bin that we purchased. I’d pictured going through them together, me helping him figure out what to keep and what to let go. But this is better. He is owning his life in a way that matters. He’s leaving two shelves of things in the closet. He’s also leaving things in the dresser. For both locations I have instructions to leave them alone. And I will. He may discover he wants some of them later. Or maybe he won’t. I left things with my parents when I went off to school. So did his older sister.

He did let me fish out half a dozen pairs of worn out or discarded shoes from the back of his closet. He took a picture before I put them into a box to be donated/discarded. I stood there, box in hand and watched him for a moment. The weight of leaving his old life behind rounded his shoulders a bit. I could see it in his face as well, but for once I did not dig or try to get him to tell me about it. His internal world needs to stop being my job. It is me he needs to get away from, because the patterns of childhood are too strong for both of us. I’ve spent so long being his helper, translator, guide that I don’t know how to stop. And he can’t become the adult he needs to be unless I stop. Which is why he needs to move out.

I’ve sent a child off to school before, you’d think the practice would make this easier. I should know how to step off the stage of my child’s life and lurk in the wings. I don’t get to be a player any more, except for emergency need. Why didn’t I recognize that this was the transition ahead of us? Surely I should have recognized the push-pull of the past few weeks and been less thrown by it. Now I suspect that each launching will be its own kind of difficult. Each child struggling and growing in their own way, and me thrown off balance in unique ways for each one. This shouldn’t surprise me since they’ve been different from each other since day one. We’re right on the brink, ready to launch, only two more days at home, then we drop him off.

Checking for Breathing

I used to check on my babies when they were sleeping, when things had been quiet for a while, before I could sleep. I would step quietly up to the crib and stand there until I could see the rise and fall of their breathing. Sometimes I would reach out and touch, just to be sure. Carefully, of course, because I didn’t want to wake the baby and trigger another round of tending-to-infant-needs. Their sleep was a blessed respite for me, but I still had to check and make sure they were okay.

That impulse has never fully left. I still listen for the sounds of my children. A part of my brain tracks their locations and their safety. Occasionally, I still peek in on them when they are sleeping. Partly I’m checking to make sure the sixteen year old isn’t pulling another all-night you-tube fest on a school night. No lights from screens are in her room, so I step in and let my eyes adjust to the dark until I see her breathe. She is safe. All is well.

Happiness is simple for an infant. If a parent can accomplish breathing and not-crying then what is left is interest and joy. The older the children get, the more complex their internal worlds become. And the less I am able to make sure they’re okay. Checking on the kids requires talking and listening. I have to listen to what they say and infer what they don’t say. Sometimes I know that they are hurting and often there is nothing I can do to heal it. Sometimes what I have to do is not interfere because making them safe prevents them from learning or growing. But it means that there are days I stand outside a teenager’s closed door and wish I could “check for breathing” in a way that quickly ascertains the total well being of the person who shut me out.

On the Stairs

It was six pm and I was standing on the stairs watching my daughter on the floor of the landing while she had a panic attack. Life was too much. She could never do it all. She was failing at everything.

Every time I’m faced with one of these meltdowns, whether it be a panic attack, depressive episode, or OCD freak out, I have to choose. Do I use this moment as a learning opportunity, carefully nudging the person in front of me toward realizations? Most of the time I can so clearly see the choices they made that directly contributed to the meltdown. However, mentioning those choices often leads to lecture mode and the person shutting me out. Do I recognize the actual suffering in front of me and sit down with them in sympathy? This is more comfortable to me than confrontation, and thus I risk setting a pattern of meltdown and rescue. Except we all need rescue sometimes. Do I ignore both the sympathy and education paths to focus on management skills where they learn to set emotion aside and get stuff done anyway? Sometimes a little coaxing gets them moving, and motion makes things better. Other times, my push makes the meltdown worse, harder to pull out of. No choice is obviously right or wrong. The road is never clear.

Mostly as I stood there, leaning on the wall, I thought about how tired I was. How I’d spent several hours of afternoon helping another kid with his home school, and forcing us both to confront the fact that he is, once again, failing some of his in-school classes. That made me tired, discouraged. Because I’d thought things were going well. I’d thought he was stepping up and handling things. But he wasn’t. And we had to negotiate a carrot-and-stick agreement which hopefully will provide him with the necessary motivation to actually do the work and turn it in. I have an ongoing part in the motivational plan, a reoccurring task set, and I have to be willing to actually apply the agreed upon consequences. Even if the result is an unpleasant experience for everyone.

I also thought about how the other son has been in the depths of depression for days, completely unwilling to talk to me about it. He doesn’t want my answers. He rejects my experiences of depression and the tool set that I offer for dealing with it. He is absolutely sure that my answers won’t work for him. It is the same impasse we’ve had to varying degrees for several years now. A change is coming with the new year. It’ll be a big shift. It might finally offer him a way forward. It might be his path to a brighter and happier life. Or it might make everything much harder and darker. We have a long stretch of weeks before I can find out how the change goes. And that makes me tired too. Waiting is exhausting. Particularly when I have to watch him being miserable while I wait.

This all presses on me as I look at my daughter on the floor. The largest thought in my brain is that I really don’t want to help manage yet another emotional tangle. I was weary. In that moment, and many moments like it, I was irritated to have to deal with the excess of emotion. It was late in the day, I wanted to be unwinding and relaxing, not trading work effort for parenting effort. And I felt bad for these selfish thoughts and emotions. Maybe the right answer would have been for me to walk away. To let her figure it out for herself. I considered doing it, but I have to be completely convinced that leaving the person alone is the right course, and even then I’ll spend the time in a state of anxiety, actively preventing myself from going to them and trying to make it better. Walking away is as exhausting as staying.

So I stayed near and made exploratory statements down each possible path to see which one got a positive response. The solution turned out to be a blend: covering her with a weighted blanket and leaving her alone while I sorted a few jumbles of things in her room. Then she centered herself enough to request a reprieve from some home school assignments, which I granted. We made a plan for her to get math help the next day, and she pulled out her psychology homework. She ended up showering and heading to bed rather than completing the work, but she’ll likely be able to do it tomorrow without difficulty. We hope.

After all is sorted and calmed, I sit by myself with my computer. This wasn’t actually all that difficult a day. Not compared to days from the last several years. The ongoing struggles are real, but all of the kids are far better able to articulate what is going on inside their heads. They’re able to discuss problems and solutions with me in ways that they could not before. They’re able to listen when I explain why a situation is frustrating to me, instead of the faintest hint of my frustration turning them into curled up balls of stress panic. I can clearly see how much better off we all are than we were.
I’ll take that.
Tomorrow.
When I’ve had some time to rest.

Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

I’ve seen this article being linked from social media: Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation? I have an immediate negative reaction to the title, because I think it is a harsh judgement to call an entire generation “destroyed” when the oldest of them is a mere 22 years old. We should probably allow them to exit adolescence and become in charge of their lives before we can make sweeping judgements.

Fortunately the content of the article is far more in depth and less inclined to make sweeping judgements. It has data as well as anecdotes and is cautious about drawing conclusions based on that data. However one point it does make very clear: teens who are on their screens more are less happy and teens who are on their screens less are happier. This fact automatically puts me on the defensive because my kids are on their screens a lot and the implication is that if I would just limit their screen time we would have less trouble with mental health issues. (My brain therefore comes to the “obvious” conclusion that it is All My Fault because I was not a good enough parent.)

However, one thing that the article fails to acknowledge is that correlation is not causation. Are the teens less happy because they’re on their screens more or are they on their screens more because they were already less happy and screens are a safe retreat? I don’t think there is a clear causation either way because it depends on the teen and it depends on the day. I know that when my teens emerge from depression they automatically reduce their screen time without any intervention from me. So I’ve come to rely on screen time as an indicator. It is a piece of the puzzle as we’re trying to help everyone find a balanced life that is basically happy.

I talk to my teens about all of this as we’re discussing how to improve their lives. We also discuss Point of Diminishing Returns. Because I believe that short exposures to social media add to my life and make it happier, however prolonged exposure ends with me having wasted time and probably lowered my mood. The goal of these discussions is to teach them how to self regulate. I’ve never found much success with imposing limits on screen time. I fail at it because I can’t stay consistent. I’ve done much better when I focus my energy on luring them out into non-screen activities, reminding them of the things they enjoy doing when screens are not available.

Ultimately the generation defined in the article is going to find its own way forward. They will be different from their Gen X parents, just as the Gen X generation was different from their Boomer parents. Right now they struggle less with addictions and teen pregnancy, but more from mental health issues. All life choices are trade offs and it is up to individuals to find their own balance in life.

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.

Seeing Growth

It is Sunday morning and my house is quiet. This is because when I went to bed last night, at midnight, all four of my children were sitting together in front of the TV, talking and laughing uproarously. They were watching a replay of sorts that is built into the new Zelda game (Breath of the Wild), however the game wasn’t the point. They were happy to be together, to make each other laugh, and to have a shared experience. They were so happy that I kind of wanted to stay and just listen, but it was a sibling thing and mom being in the room changed the shape of it. So I listened from upstairs where I couldn’t hear the specific words, just the bursts of laughing.

I have to pause and acknowledge this moment. We have reached a space where I can leave my children to take care of themselves and their siblings without worrying someone will have a massive meltdown. I don’t fear that the issues of one will ignite the issues of another into a big emotional fight. They are all relaxed and happy after this summer where school backed off and they all spent time working together. Then they spent time with just siblings in the house, learning how to take responsibility for themselves and the house. At this moment there are no open wounds either emotionally or physically. Nothing hurts, not even the scars.

In two weeks time school will begin and bring with it a flood of responsibilities and stresses. That flood may knock us off balance, some of my kids may go back to fighting to keep their heads above water, but I don’t think they’ll struggle as much as they did last year and the year before (and the year before that, and the year before that. It’s been four years now with them all struggling.) We are all measurably better than we were last year. We’re stronger, we have more tools to build rafts so we don’t have to swim all the time. For the first time in years I look forward to the beginning of school with interest instead of fear. Because, for the first time in a long time, I believe that they have strength in themselves to handle whatever comes without breaking.

This is a better place. I need to pause and note it before things get hard again.