The Gifts We’re Given

IMG_2965In an admirable display of self-restraint, my daughter and I managed to make it two hours into our road trip before opening the giant bag of gummy bears.

It had been a good drive, so far. She left the radio tuned to the Prom Channel, featuring party hits and slow songs from the 80’s and 90’s (XM channel 4, check it out). She endured my stories. At least I think she did, but maybe since my eyes were on the road I just couldn’t see hers rolling.

The songs provided good fodder for conversation. We agreed that my essay for English class declaring “Every Breath You Take” as the best love song ever written was perhaps a bit misguided. I took great pleasure in blowing her mind when I revealed the doofus named Marky Mark rapping awkwardly about good vibrations was none other than mildly cool (but “super old”) actor Mark Wahlberg.

The air was thick with nostalgia as I listened to songs from high school, thinking about how many years have passed in such a short amount of time. Thankfully, the steady stream of candy handed to me by my co-pilot helped blunt the wave of melancholy.

Just as I was about to pop the millionth gummy bear into my mouth, I noticed that it was two-toned.

“Did you just bite two gummy bears in half and reattach them?” I asked my daughter.

She laughed.

“No, I tore them apart and then pushed them together. Ew, did you think you were eating a gummy bear that had been in my mouth? So gross.”

“Oh honey, you wouldn’t believe the things I used to let you feed me.”

I attempted to describe what it’s like to have a cherubic 9-month-old try to feed you a drool-saturated Cheerio from the tray of her high chair. The only thing you can do is smile, open your mouth and say, “mmmmmm, THANK YOU.”

“Why would you ever eat that?”

I explained that I was trying to teach her how to share and be kind, so when she attempted to feed me a Drool-io, I knew it was her way of showing love. It was the best gift she could offer me at the time.

Images of gifts from years past started to flash through my mind like an old slide show. I saw chubby, dimpled hands outstretched with a fistful of just-picked flowers, or more likely, weeds. Strings of beads with MOM in block letters. Handmade cards with scribbled drawings and phonetic spelling. Rocks that were almost heart-shaped if I squinted hard enough. Bird feathers of suspect origin.

Time and again, I accepted with wonder and gratitude whatever small gestures of love were offered to me. Not surprisingly, I’m still doing it fifteen years later, since teenagers have remarkably subtle ways of showing they care.

These days I relish a text with a heart emoji the same way I enthusiastically accepted a soggy Cheerio all those years ago. And since bear hugs are now in short supply, I quietly cheer when an arm gets casually draped over my shoulders for a few brief seconds.

My daughter used to tell me I’m as beautiful as a princess, but now compliments are doled out in the form of her declaring, “If you loaned me that sweater, I’d wear it.” My son no longer asks for a bedtime story, but when he nonchalantly announces he’s going to sleep and could talk for a bit if I wanted to, I race up the stairs and then casually walk into his room like it’s no big deal, all the while knowing that it is definitely a big deal.

It seems the rules of parenting don’t change as the kids get older: pay attention; stay open; be grateful. Just like when they were babies in high chairs, my teens are figuring out how to express affection. The love is still there, it just looks a little different these days.

Happy Mother’s Day, may your weekend be filled with love, in all its forms.

The Universe is Not Subtle

Image-1I realize there are times the universe needs to teach me a lesson, but is it too much to ask that my knock upside the head come from a flyswatter instead of a sledgehammer?

It all started about five years ago when a pair of doves built a nest on a brick ledge by our garage door. The female bird settled into the nest and sat patiently as we marveled at her steely determination to stay put, even as the noisy garage door creaked up and down all day long.

After a few weeks, we noticed two tiny fluffy heads peeking out over the edge of the nest. “The babies are here,” we shouted like a new father to a hospital waiting room. We obsessively watched the two baby birds grow, eventually getting too big for the nest and flying away.

Lucky for us, Mother Nature’s show wasn’t finished and we still had a front row seat for the encore. The mama bird returned to hatch and raise two more pairs of babies that summer. We excitedly pointed out the nest to anyone within shouting distance, even the hyper-efficient UPS guy paused for a moment to take in the scene.

Once the weather started to cool, the third set of babies flew away and the nest sat vacant as the pace of our family life sped up with the return to school, a full schedule of fall sports, the holidays and finally a brand new year.

Just as the kids were getting antsy with spring fever, we were surprised to discover that the bird had returned to spend another summer hatching eggs, feeding her babies and teaching them to fly. At first, we were amazed, but eventually, the sight of a bustling bird’s nest became commonplace.

The third spring, we greeted the mama bird’s return with nothing more than a, “Hey, she’s back.” When friends pulled into our driveway and noticed the birds, our response was a nonchalant, “Oh yeah, they come every year.”

I should have known better than to take for granted the little bits of magic in my life.

It’s as if the shrug of my shoulders set off a chain reaction to teach me a lesson. Something went wrong with the birds. It could have been a neighborhood cat or an errant football, but one day, they were gone.

For a while, I held out hope that the bird would return to try again or that maybe a new bird would take over the nest, but it’s been a few years and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a do-over. Apparently, this is the lesson I needed to learn, delivered with a much too on-the-nose metaphor: an empty nest.

By the time kids are teenagers, we’ve been around them so much that the magic of family life can feel commonplace. I take for granted the snippets of conversation I overhear while driving carpools. I’m used to having all four of us at the dinner table. I assume my calendar – with every weekend earmarked for a basketball or volleyball tournament — will never change.

But soon a driver’s license will replace the carpools and a dorm room will replace the childhood bedroom. Eventually, my weekends will be wide open and sports-free.

Family life changes, often too quickly, especially if I don’t pause to appreciate it. And just in case I forget, I now have literally an empty nest sitting at the front of my house to remind me day after day to always marvel at the magic.

Crude Mugs and Filth Chicken

Experts say the key to successful parenting is consistency.  And while I’m good about early-ish bedtimes and stubbornly insist on family dinners, I am horrible about consistently enforcing household chores.

I don’t have unrealistic expectations for my kids. The general rule is not to leave an area worse than you found it. This simply means clearing plates, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, and rinsing the gross toothpaste spit down the sink.

Sadly, even this level of maintenance proves challenging for my teenagers. But since I don’t want every interaction I have with them to be a nagging direct order (clean your room, rinse the dishes) I tend to ignore the mess, hoping that as it accumulates, the kids will finally snap into action.

Admittedly, this is a horrible idea. I will never win a game of filth chicken with teenagers since they can tolerate a mind-boggling amount of mess. I always blink first, usually after a paper pile sinkhole eats someone’s homework or a missing shoe causes someone to be late to class.

“It’s impossible to think in this mess,” I mutter to absolutely no one and then sheepishly make a bed, pick a wet towel up off the floor and wrangle musky-smelling clothes back into the hamper using only two fingers.

My inconsistent approach to mess management was making me crazy and my kids entitled, but I think I may have stumbled upon a solution.

Last week, I received a text from my son asking if a new friend could come over after school. I said yes and then peeked into his room just to make sure a family of raccoons hadn’t taken residence in the jumble of sweaty clothes piled in the corner. Ok fine, I also made his bed.

The room was in decent shape by the time my son got home from school. He introduced me to his friend and then the boys headed upstairs to his room. It was only a few minutes before I hear this: “Uh, mom? Were you in my room? You accidentally left your mug in here.”

This wouldn’t have been a big deal except this is the mug:

IMG_2942

I don’t know how to explain the mug’s existence other than to say it was from my brother and sister-in-law, masters of the bizarre gift. I believe my birthday package that year contained the mug, a box of Lee Press-On toenails since I had just lost the nail on my big toe (a tragic story for another time), and a custom-made baseball cap that said “car dancing is my thing.” Every year, the random gifts from those two magically soften the sting of aging.

But this was a lot to explain to my mortified son and his red-faced new friend who, tragically, was probably wondering if I had left the mug behind in a mad rush to the bathroom.

I mumbled something about a crazy younger brother and gag gifts, took the mug from my son, looked at him and said, “I won’t go in your room and accidentally leave stuff behind if you keep it clean.”

He nodded solemnly, we had a deal. Buoyed by this new development, I immediately started making a mental list of things I could leave behind in my daughter’s room. One kid down, one to go.

 

Shrug

I make a lot of mistakes during the course of a day. I don’t know why this particular gaffe sent me over the edge.

I placed an online order to refill my contact lenses. The company asked me to upload a picture of my optometrist’s prescription so they could process my order faster. Sounded simple enough. I found my prescription (no small feat, I must admit) took a picture, and sent it off.

I then received an exceedingly polite notification that I had sent my doctor’s note for glasses, not contacts.

Duh.

In a world chockfull of epic fails, this really wasn’t that big of a mistake. But something about the gentle tone of the email coupled with the fact that I made the error while attempting to use technology made me feel like a befuddled geezer. I was gutted.

I’m feeling old and a step behind. It sucks.

I find it depressing that I occasionally need multiple attempts to align my car into a perfectly ample parking space. It’s concerning that instead of trying to read anything on my phone, I wait until I’m home in front of a proper 16-inch screen that supports a giant font. And I’m still not over the fact that I didn’t recognize any of the songs played at a wedding I recently attended until the DJ decided to ‘throw it way back’ and spin Rump Shaker.

Instead of chalking up the contacts conundrum to a benign mistake made while rushing along to the next task, I let it morph into a crushing example of my quickly approaching senility. I muttered something suitably old timey, like “dagnabbit,” and then sent the right prescription to customer service with this note:

Whoops, that was embarrassing! Here’s the correct prescription.

I then proceeded to dwell on my impending elderlyness, researching things I might enjoy in the very near future: custom BINGO markers, coupons for Werther’s Original Hard Candies, prune recipes. An electronic ding alerting me to a new email pulled me out of my tailspin:

Thanks for sending us your prescription. NO need to be embarrassed, it happens way more often than not! Everything looks great!

Of course it was a common mistake. Of course it happens to customers of all ages. Of course I was overreacting. It just took a cheerful customer service rep to pull me back to reality.

I’m hard on myself. The people I care about are hard on themselves. We might show it in different ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that underneath the surface most of us are cringing, hand-wringing and feeling less than adequate. (Right? RIGHT? Please tell me I’m not the only one)

I was surprised how a simple, breezy response to my mistake could make me feel so much better. I decided to try and offer the people in my life this same grace by reacting with a vibe of “oh well” instead of  “WTF. We’re doomed.”

This attitude is especially difficult to conjure up when dealing with independence-seeking teenagers as their mistakes are myriad and the consequences weighty. There’s a big difference between a two-year-old wanting to put shoes on all by herself and a 15 ½ -year-old wanting to get behind the wheel of the family car.

Although I can’t go through life in a constant state of   ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  I can pick my battles. And every once in a while I can offer a shrug instead of a wince, cutting loved ones some slack, my ancient self included.

A box filled with contact lenses arrived a few days later, offering improved vision as well as a new way of looking at things.

Magic

FullSizeRenderI turn the volume up as soon as I hear the opening riff. I match Robert Smith word for word while driving my daughter to volleyball practice:

Show me show me show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream, she said
The one that makes me laugh, she said
And threw her arms around my neck

Show me how you do it
And I promise you, I promise that
I’ll run away with you
I’ll run away with you

Wistful, I sigh. Unimpressed, she groans.

“What a stupid song about magic tricks,” she says.

“What? No, it’s a love song. The trick isn’t literally a trick, it’s a kiss or maybe just that butterflies-in-your stomach feeling when you like someone.”

“Nope. It’s about a magic trick. Thanks for the ride. See ya.”

The car door closes with a solid thunk and she runs to the gym, leaving me with memories from long ago and the accompanying soundtrack.

I can hear Belinda Carlisle belting Mad About You as I fall hard for a cute boy in junior high. Unfortunately, I hear Whitesnake questioning Is This Love during my first kiss. (Don’t judge. MTV was on in the background)

I remember panicking as I realize I’m in over my head at my first concert: Oingo Boingo. Sporting a seafoam green turtleneck, a short black skirt and tragically, black and white polka dot suspenders, I spend the bulk of the show worrying about the possibility of getting high from secondhand smoke. Nancy Reagan’s admonition to just say no reached at least one kid in the late eighties.

Fortunately, by the time Depeche Mode’s Violator tour came to town a few years later, my friends and I were seasoned concert veterans, a tight group of high school seniors naïve enough to believe the lyrics as we sang along:

All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms

 At prom, we busted a move to, well, Bust a Move and then later slow danced to Wicked Game. We rebuffed boys who thought whispering the lyrics to More Than Words would be their ticket to getting lucky. And finally, we said goodbye to high school with a rapid-fire sing along in the car to It’s the End of the World as We Know It while driving to graduation.

It’s all there, the entire beautiful, gawky experience of growing up, woven between lyrics and melodies of songs that I will never forget.

And yet my own kid thinks Just Like Heaven is about a magic trick.

Jolted out of my reverie as I pull into the garage, I don’t bother getting out of the car before turning to Google. I read segments of an interview with Robert Smith while still sitting behind the wheel.

The song is about hyperventilating – kissing and fainting to the floor.

Exactly. Feeling relief that love is not dead, I keep reading.

The opening line of the song (show me show me show me how you do that trick) refers to his childhood memories of mastering magic tricks.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

So… I guess we’re both right?

I was fourteen when Just Like Heaven came out, the same age my daughter is now. I suppose there’s a chance that when I first heard the song I, too, thought it was about pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Maybe songs aren’t infused with meaning until we’ve lived with them for a while and they become tangled with memories. The time, place and people around us become as integral to our experience as the tune itself.

Feeling melancholy, I make a Spotify playlist featuring almost four hours of music from back in the day. It’s a nice distraction while attending to the mundane tasks of adult life – cooking, cleaning, errands – but it isn’t necessarily a place I want to linger. Nostalgia has a way of obscuring our view when given enough psychic real estate.

I will, however, revisit songs from high school when I need to muster empathy for my teenage daughter. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to navigate intense joy, heartache and camaraderie all in a single morning, usually while sporting a chin zit. I think listening to The Smiths might make it easier for me to relate.

And while I can’t expect my daughter to like my favorite songs from twenty-five years ago, I can enjoy watching her cue up songs for her own playlist. I just hope the mix contains something similar to Just Like Heaven, paying tribute to both the love and, yes, magic that is part of being a teenager.

Feeling like a moody teenager? I’ve got a playlist for you:

An Open Letter To My Recent Dance Partners

Dear 7th grade boys who had to dance with me at cotillion last week,

I had no idea that, for the first time in cotillion history, there would be a shortage of girls at the dance.

I tried valiantly to spare you the trauma of dancing with me, cheerfully recruiting other chaperones to be stand ins for the absent 13-year-old girls. But then the lady with the microphone declared an “all hands on deck” dancing emergency. I had no choice but to obey — she scared me.

I know the other moms were wearing dresses and heels, but since I thought I’d be sitting behind the registration table all night, I went with sensible shoes, black pants and a jacket. If you were into fashion, you might have recognized that it was a seriously kickass Rag and Bone jacket that I scored at the Nordstrom anniversary sale, but I’m sure you just felt like you were box stepping with Hillary Clinton. Sorry about that.

I’m also sorry for the sweaty palms (mine) and the stepped on toes (yours). I never took cotillion in middle school and I’ve had the same dance partner for 24 years. Plus, he’s a lot taller than you are.

I also want to take this opportunity to ask one kid in particular to forgive me for shouting, “nailed it!” and offering a high five after we successfully navigated a tricky move. I thought it would be funny and break the tension. Your bright red face let me know I misjudged the moment.

Despite the weirdness, all of you were good-natured and so darn cute. I’ve never seen a more earnest one-two-cha-cha-cha in my life.

You survived. And not only did you survive, I hope you learned something from our missteps: everyone is still carrying around a small part of their 13-year-old selves with them, no matter their age.

During your teenage years, you begin to realize that your parents don’t know everything. I’d like to add to that idea. Your parents also probably still have an insecurity or two as well as a desire to feel accepted and liked, just like when they were in 7th grade.

These feelings are universal. Adults might be better at hiding them behind the emotional armor that builds up after many years, but our soft middles are still there, both literally and metaphorically.

I’m not trying to bum you out. A lot of it gets easier as you get older. Eventually you find a tribe of friends who love you for exactly who you are. There’s less posturing, more acceptance. You find your rhythm and begin to lead confidently.

The journey, however, is a long one. You’ll inevitably face embarrassing moments but you’ll survive, and maybe even laugh about them someday. Just remember to go easy on yourself and everyone else you meet along the way, because we’re all doing this awkward waltz together.

Thanks for the dance,
~Mrs D

The C Word

Like most people, I appreciate a good four-letter word. I try to use a modicum of discernment around my kids, but let’s just say my language has helped them build a robust word bank to tap into for just about any situation. For the most part, their language didn’t faze me – until the day my daughter used the C word.

Let me back up. She dropped her phone. Cracked the screen. It wasn’t a surprise. In fact, I was astonished the phone remained intact as long as it did.

“Oops, that was the third time today I dropped my phone.”

See what I mean?

She refused to use a drop-proof case. She scoffed at the suggestion of applying an extra layer of protective glass. She didn’t carry a purse, yet the phone traveled wherever she went, often barely tucked into the back pocket of her jeans or precariously perched in the palm of her hand.

She’s at the age where I can’t micro-manage anymore. I’ve attempted to raise kids with minds of their own, encouraging them to be leaders instead of followers, assuming that those kids grow up to be interesting self-actualized adults. The caveat is that kids with minds of their own are not always the easiest to parent.

So she didn’t listen to my suggestions and she broke her phone. Just like I said she would. This is why I am grateful for what the parenting literature calls “natural consequences.”

When I saw the cracked phone, it took every ounce of self-restraint I had not to skip around the house singing, “Neener neener neener I told you so. Now it’s your problem, sucker. Listen to your old mom next time. I’m not as dumb as I look.”

Instead, we talked about those pesky natural consequences. Well, I talked. She mostly rolled her eyes. I explained that I would drive her to the store but she was going to be the one to chat with the sales clerk and gather the information necessary to figure out the most cost effective way to fix her phone.

Then she dropped the C word:

“So I just go in there and be cute?”

WHAT? CUTE?

No! You go in there and be CONFIDENT. You go in there and be COMPETENT. You ask intelligent questions and make an informed decision. CUTE? Where did that come from? Who is this kid?

Well, she’s a 13 year-old girl. And she’s discovering the power of pretty.

It’s a fine line, especially at this age when self-confidence swells and shrinks faster than Taylor Swift’s list of frenemies. I want my daughter to recognize and appreciate her beauty while at the same time understand the difference between recognizing it and relying on it. While the former might bolster confidence, the latter is simply a crutch – an unstable one at best.

So what’s an overthinking mother to do? Acknowledge what’s in front of her – an undeniable cuteness – while coaxing out the more lasting qualities that will serve her daughter long after the cuteness shtick gets old. I gave it my best shot.

To her credit, after I stopped lecturing, my daughter walked into the store, used her big kid voice and got the information she needed — no hair twirling, uptalking or giggling necessary. She eventually paid half the insurance deductible with money she earned over the summer and got a replacement phone.

These days, her new phone is carefully ensconced in a sensible drop-proof case instead of a super cute pink plastic one. Substance over style. A choice I hope she makes again and again.