A Birthday Gift for Mom

  I have been privy to many mommy conversations over the past 9 years.  You see, I’m a mom, and moms try (most of the time) to keep their complaints among their own kind.  One thing I have carried from these many discussions is that moms need birthdays (or any days, really).  

  Becoming a mother has many side effects; once women cross that threshold, they become, seemingly instantaneously, responsible for the weight of the world.  Moms build an immediate executive ability to feed a baby, change laundry, track appointments, organize meals, and schedule all social events.  My own mom was so good at this, it seemed to me as a child that it must not take any work or planning, really.  When my small neighborhood was kicked off the bus for doing the Wave, my mom crammed us in the station wagon and drove us to school.  She delivered us to soccer on Saturday mornings and Sunday School the next day, giving up any hope of a weekend sleep-in.  On top of that, she didn’t even have a technological device to fill the hours and hours of waiting she endured at medical offices, sporting events, and boring school responsibilities.  That poor woman!  In return, once a year, if she was lucky, we produced some sort of birthday cake and a handpicked gift to celebrate her.  

   Moms become innately responsible in other places too.  It is usually a mother who is sure to send thank-you notes to teachers, coaches, bosses, and co-workers.  Frequently, mothers make food for funerals, births, and potlucks.  Moms remember the boss’s birthday and order a cake or plan flowers when the secretary’s father dies.  Moms leave the house with a badge that says, “Hey, I keep multiple people alive.  You can trust me to help in any situation.”  And because of this, we become used to meeting the many expectations that the badge suggests.  

  Every once in a while, moms need to put down the weight of responsibility they once took on.  A birthday seems a fitting day to do so.  If you have a mother, this would be a good day to plan dinner (even if it is just grilled cheese), get a card (or scrawl something nice on a piece of scrap paper), and let mom pick the show and watch it in peace.  Before I was a mom, I wanted to celebrate my birthday the entire month of October.  It was selfish, really, a grab for attention and validation.  Now, I tend to be so busy with conferences, doctor appointments, meetings, and “holding down the fort” that I can get all the way to the day before my birthday without giving it much of a thought.  I used to daydream about extravagant gifts, and Nick used to be quick to oblige.  Now, I scour for deals on “luxury” items like a good-quality curling iron or a new piece of bakeware, hoping to send Nick a discount code that will save enough money to buy a much-needed toddler snowsuit.  My priorities have shifted, and honestly, I really don’t mind.  Being a mom has changed so many parts of who I am, and mostly for the better.  But on this one day, and maybe Mother’s Day too, or the occasional random Saturday, I am elated if someone I love and care for takes a moment to care for me.  A night of not worrying about preparing dinner in between kids’ activities, or Nick doing the bedtime hostage negotiation with Anika, or simply having some recognition that I work hard and do (for the most part) a good job, is really the only gift I need.

 Remember this on your own mother’s next birthday:  She probably sacrifibirthdayced much more
than she ever let on.  She likely cried in secret as much as she smiled in public.  She definitely loved with a fierceness that took all of her strength some days.  And undoubtedly, the best gift for her would be to know that she is known, and loved, for all that we forget to say all year long.

Living with, and loving, your seniors

My day begins with 17 seniors, continues with 23 more, and ends with another 20. I am immersed in college apps and senioritis. Last week my ducklings followed me obediently to the library where we filled out FAFSA forms and applications. Some had to call home for Social Security numbers, others had already visited 8 college campuses.  I loved every minute. The best part of teaching seniors is watching them transform from children to adults. It is exciting, terrifying, and I am just along for the ride.  I can shout directions when they miss a turn, but I don’t have the wheel.

Spending hours a day with seniors has given me many things: a crass sense of humor, a vast knowledge of pop culture, a healthy dose of patience, and a heart for the futures of a yearly band of almost-adults. But I have also learned three things I feel I should share:

Share your beginnings   If you have kids of any age, you know that frequently they have unrealistic expectations. How many kids ask year after year for a pony for Christmas, even though they live on a postage stamp city lot?  Yup, unrealistic. Seniors frequently say they want to be a musician and have a summer home on Lake Michigan….ummm, 90 percent of the time those are mutually exclusive.  I have to say that I, as a parent, am sometimes guilty of breeding these unrealistic expectations, and you likely are too.  If you have worked hard over the years and are now enjoying some of the fruits of your labors- nice cars, a large house, exciting vacations- your children are seeing those fruits, but they may have missed the labor part.  Nick and I bought the ugliest house in a decent neighborhood in a good city when we first were married.  We dubbed it the “poop smudge on the corner” for its hideous brown paint job.  Over ten years (10!)  we lovingly remodeled it.  All our kids were born there,but they won’t likely remember it at its worst.  Now we live in a much nicer house.  Our kids, like my teenage students, are likely to believe that they will graduate college and buy a nice, big house, because that is what they are used to.  But that is not likely, or even necessary.  Nick and I have very happy memories of our poorest times together.  I don’t want my kids to miss that, so I’m going to talk about it.  Students should know that even the humblest of beginnings is a step toward success, AND that it takes hard work, time, and sacrifice to reach those dreams of expensive vacations or material wealth.

Dream with them   Being realistic about expectations does not have to be separate from dreaming big.  I love to read a story by Kristi Yamaguchi to my kids called, “Dream Big, Pig”.  It is silly, but that little pink pig experiences her dreams by working hard and trying different things.  I want my kids to be dreamers.  I want them to hope for the unlikely and root for the underdog.  I hope my kids see me pursuing dreams of mine and are encouraged to do the same.  I feel the same about my seniors.  They have some awesome dreams.  And sometimes, I have been fortunate enough to see their dreams become reality.  I have students living across America working in film, marketing, and music industries that probably felt like unlikely prospects when they were sitting in a little classroom in little old Plainwell, Michigan.  As parents, we have a dual role of teaching reality and fostering dreams.  The reality is the boring part of parenting, like teaching chores, but the dreaming, that is the fun part!  Ask your kids what interests them. Travel with them.  Watch inspirational movies.  Be part of the cultivation of their dreams, even when they are almost adults and seem too cool to talk about them.

Let them fail (safely)   It is all the rage today to talk about helicopter parenting and its many pitfalls. And I can tell you from my many days with seniors, their biggest hurdle to success is that they don’t know how to fail.  I teach the A kids mostly.  You know, the ones who only know that one letter in the alphabet.  If they earn a C, they are crying, asking for extra credit, pointing fingers.  But if there is one piece of advice I would pass on to them, it is to fail NOW.  I sailed through high school, then spent an entire fall semester at college crying over my open chemistry book.  I didn’t know how to ask for help, I didn’t have well-developed study skills to fall back on, and I was miserable.  I almost lost a $4,000 academic scholarship over it.  I wish I would have had that experience in high school.  The money wasn’t on the line then, and I think my high school teachers would have been much more amenable to help me than my college chemistry professor.  If you are going to help your children dream big, be prepared to watch them fall.  And after they do, feel free to kiss their boo-boo, pat them on the back, and get them back on the bike, so to speak.  But don’t follow them around with a safety net and a box of band-aids.  I guarantee you, they will find you when they need you, and when they don’t have you right there, they will learn what other resources to fall back on.  

While I love my job with seniors, I do not look forward with anticipation to raising them in my own home.  These almost-adults are a landmine of emotions, ideas, and needs.  But, if we stick with them through this last phase, they will go out and change the world we live in.

Waiting for Tragedy

Be with me in this moment: It is a dark 1 am. My baby is in a 3 hour stretch of sleep. My school day begins in only a few hours. My husband is either working or drinking, and I am guessing it is the latter. And I am praying. But it is not the prayer you are thinking. I am praying for tragedy. A traffic stop would be preferred, but a fender bender would work too.  An arrest seems likely, and necessary. You see, I am desperate, and I know from the movies that tragedy usually leads to redemption. And I am hoping for redemption, so I am waiting for tragedy.

 Yesterday I sat in an auditorium packed with 800 high schoolers watching underage drinkers and pill-traders be sentenced by a judge. Following that was a video with graphic images from underage drinking accidents and ending with a father-narrated slideshow of a smiling 18-year-old killed in one night of an overdose….his first time using drugs.  The tears welled up, and I was not certain what was spurring them most, my motherly sadness or my fear for these 800 kids surrounding me. Because everyone in the sentencing and the videos has one thing in common: they waited for tragedy to change.  

  And these invincible kids of mine are walking out into a parking lot to load into cars and head off to God-knows-where to do God-knows-what. Most of them won’t think to change any behaviors until tragedy demands it….if tragedy is kind enough to offer survival as an option.  But life isn’t a movie, and redemption need not be glamorous. We should not wait for a brutal wake up call if we can hear the whisper or feel the tug to change.

  My midnight couch tragedy vigils are over. Nick found redemption in a whisper, not in a scream. But there may be more of those moments, waiting up for my someday teenagers, praying for choices and circumstances. For now, these school teens feel like my own, and I so badly want to say this: if you are headed to that party and you feel a warning nudge you, turn around. If you pick up that pill for the first, or hundredth time, and you know you are wearing your safety net thin, flush it. If you don’t trust that driver, walk back to the house. Do not wait for the millions of tragedies that could be hiding behind the next bottle, blade, or beer can.

    Now I realize that I was wrong, too.  My nights of praying for tragedy, believing fully that would fix his problem and my pain, were not the answer. I was wrong to reach for extremity when everyday could suffice.  Choosing to do the right things, or stop doing the wrong ones, should not depend on a period, but on a comma. Don’t hope for a tragic end to stop your sentence of poor choices. Rather, consider them a conjunction joining the before of pain and defeat with the after of healing and hope.  I can tell you from beyond the comma, the phrase in which you struggled feels small in comparison with all the words God adds to the sentence for you.storm2