A little over one year ago I wrote about The Bridge between childhood and adolescence. Back then, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that bridge, longingly looking back towards the childhood side yet hopeful as I moved apprehensively towards the adolescence side.
Well, it appears my bridge was an express bridge.
Here I am; on the other side.
You know what's here? Cell phones, mustaches, adam's apples, deep booming voices, attitudes, challenges to limits, and boys who suddenly stand at eye level to me.
You know what else is here?
Meaningful conversations, random tight hugs, trust, and young men who are mostly kind and learn from their mistakes. Surprisingly, it's sort of nice over here; albeit a bit smelly and messy. On this side of the bridge, I am the parent of a young man, not a young boy, and I get to start taking a step back to let him take some risks on his own.
One of the first big events on this side of the bridge happened today: the first day of middle school. Or, as my son's new principal told the parents last week, Day 1 of the 540 school days of his middle school career.
In some areas of our life, 540 seems like a lot.
But, when we are talking about time in middle school, 540 days is nothing. It's half the length of time he spent from Kindergarten through 5th grade (1080 school days for math dorks like myself). That period of time went by in the blink of an eye. Surely these next 540 days are going to fly by even quicker!
So, how do we, as new middle school parents, survive these next 540 days?
Well, I know how I spent the days leading up to Day 1 - letting the middle school version of me find her way to the surface. I color coded binders, folders and schedules, circled rooms on maps, plotted out the best way to organize his backpack, role played some scenarios, and had a nightmare that I was him and I couldn't find my math class on Day 1. I just wanted his middle school experience to not be awful like my own.
But, then I stopped myself. (Because, seriously, a nightmare??)
Adolescence is messy and painful. It's supposed to be awkward. It's supposed to be emotional. It's supposed to be challenging. Some days are supposed to feel awful. And, aren't middle school and adolescence synonymous?
Like most challenging, uncomfortable and unpleasant things in life, when we look back on them later, we can see the good they brought to our lives. They are the catalytic events and change agents that shape our lives. Although I would never want to relive my own 540 days, I do see how they helped to shape me into who I am today. I see how some of the people I still care deeply for today are friends I made during those 540 days. I can see that in those 540 days were where many of my interests were born. My 540 days were certainly not filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies, but maybe I should be thankful that they weren't.
As my middle schooler hugged me goodbye today, I tried to tell the middle school version of myself to settle down. I know many of his 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments. I know there will be lots of times where he feels just as I did during my 540 days. His 540 days will not be filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies.
So, how am I going to navigate my own 540 day journey as a parent? I am going to realize that in many ways the parental journey of 540 days mirrors the student's journey. These 540 days will be challenging for me as a parent. If adolescence is awkward and painful, so to is parenting an adolescent. For parents, many of our 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments too.
It has been suggested that the most influential people in a teen's life are not his teachers, coaches, parents or professional athletes. It turns out that for many teens, their peers are the most influential presence. Middle schoolers need each other. I suspect that this holds true for middle school parents as well. Parents need other parents.
My plan for surviving the next 540 school days is simple: lean on my peers, be kind when mistakes are made, learn lessons where they can be learned and remember that this time is going to fly by. While I am not in any rush, I look forward to seeing who we all are on Day 540.
Only 539 more days to go...
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Imagine you wake up one morning to an incessant knocking on your front door. You peel yourself out of bed in a groggy stupor, wondering what kind of surprise awaits you on the other side of the door. As you pull open the door, your heart sinks.
There on the doorstep stands your old friend, Mr. Depression. He came without warning. No letter. No phonecall. No email. Not a single little heads up. Even though you are very familiar with Mr. Depression and knew that he could be deciding to visit you again at any moment, you weren't expecting him. Not today. Not now. Yet, here he is, standing on your doorstep with his suitcase in his hand.
In an instant, everything changes.
Mr. Depression breezes by you and barges into your house, bringing with him a dark, heavy cloud that he places directly above your head. That old familiar feeling of self-loathing, hopelessness and dread starts to fill your mind. A heaviness grows in the pit of your stomach while a tightness creeps across your chest. That negative soundtrack in your mind kicks in and you can feel yourself sinking into a dark area.
In a panic, you start to ramble off a few questions for Mr. Depression:
Mr. Depression stays silent and simply stares back at you. He knows that you already know the answers to your questions. As you reflect back on the weeks leading up to this unexpected visit, you might be able to identify some triggers or warning signs; some clues that Mr. Depression was on his way for a visit. Maybe you were overworked. Maybe there was some additional financial stress in your life. Maybe there were some relationship conflicts. Maybe the weather was lousy. Maybe your nutrition and exercise patterns were off. Or, maybe there were no signs.
Sometimes the reasons for Mr. Depression's visits are rooted in our childhood experiences or are the result of trauma. Sometimes Mr. Depression visits us because of life adjustments and losses. Sometimes Mr. Depression is an old family acquaintance who has been passed from generation to generation. Sometimes Mr. Depression shows up for no reason at all. Yet, there he is, in your life. In your house.
Regardless of his origins, Mr. Depression has visited you many times before today. Sometimes he stays for just a day or so but sometimes his stays can be lengthier. When he arrives, he never tells you how long he is going to stick around. Mr. Depression is a terrible houseguest. He is demanding, consuming and completely attached to your hip. He follows you around everywhere you go: to work, places with your children, out with your friends, to the grocery store, in the car. Everywhere. He saps your energy and leaves you feeling completely empty. The longer he is here, the more effort it takes for you to do previously simple tasks like answering texts, getting out of bed, exercising, eating, even brushing your teeth or putting on a bra. Mr. Depression makes everything significantly more challenging and the whole time he is here, he is whispering awful things into your ear - he thinks you are a terrible person; he thinks you are ugly; he thinks you are a bad parent and an awful friend; he thinks you are a failure. The longer he sticks around, the more you start to believe his words.
Often when Mr. Depression comes to visit, you try your best to keep his visit a secret. You don't want your friends to know about your new house guest. Afterall, they might think you are crazy. They might think you are just looking for attention. They might not understand why you can't just grab Mr. Depression's suitcase, toss it out into your front yard and give Mr. Depression a good shove out the front door. They might ask why you can't simply choose to have a visit from Mr. Happy or Mr. Grateful instead. And while you know that your friends will mean well, their questions and advice will probably only tighten Mr. Depression's grip on your life right now.
So, you settle in and try to do the things that have made Mr. Depression leave in the past. Perhaps you adjust some medications, take some trips back to psychotherapy, focus on increasing your coping strategies, increase your self-care efforts and lean on people who are supportive and won't judge you. Over time, like always, Mr. Depression eventually starts to loosen his grip on your life. He stops following you everywhere and eventually one morning you wake up and find that he has left your house in the middle of the night. Of course, he always leaves things behind; little reminders that he was there and that he could be back at any moment.
But what is this visit from Mr. Depression like for the people on the outside, the people unaware of his arrival? For them, they often witness significant changes in their friend; perhaps overnight or perhaps gradually. Their once cheerful, outgoing friend now appears grumpy, irritable and sometimes non-responsive. Texts and phone calls to the friend go unanswered. They begin declining or canceling plans to get together. On the rare occasion that they do engage in social activities, they are a bit of a drag as they talk badly about themselves and focus on the negative. Even their physical appearance seems different. Their social media account activity changes. Friends might think they are being iced out of relationships, that their friend has suddenly become bitchy and uninterested or that it takes too much energy to be around their friend now. All of this means that by the time Mr. Depression finally leaves, he may have already caused some significant damage to relationships.
So, how can we minimize that chances of Mr. Depression destroying our relationships? One good start is to be honest.
For those of you dealing with the unexpected visits from Mr. Depression, consider being honest with those people closest to you. They will notice the changes in you anyways- help them to see what is at the root of these changes. Educate them about your experiences with depression and teach them about what you need in terms of support. If you are struggling with depression and would like additional support, please review The Depression Toolkit.
For friends of someone who might be struggling, be supportive and resist the urge to pass judgement. Remember that the vast majority of individuals would much rather Mr. Depression not be a part of our lives. It's not a choice they make for attention or sympathy or medication prescriptions; It's just part of them. Holding space and providing support for someone with depression can be emotionally exhausting so remember to take care of yourself during those times as well. For additional resources for family and friends, please visit the University of Michigan Depression Center.
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How did we get here?
Weren't we just filling out beginning of the school year forms, buying and labeling folders and school supplies, picking out first day of school outfits and gleefully sending our kids off to a new school year?
Now here we are, thickly in the midst of end of the school year activities. Concerts. Plays. Performances. Field Days. Graduations. Field Trips. Summer camp registrations.
This year is different, though. This year is my oldest baby's last year of elementary school. As this school year comes to an end, this chapter in his life is closing.
I thought the only way I would make it to this point would be by someone dragging me unwillingly as I clung desperately to the thought of my baby staying in elementary school. Just 9 months ago I watched him get on the bus for his first day of 5th grade and I couldn't believe middle school was coming. This point in time seemed so far away then. It was completely on the other side of The Bridge. But now, when I send him off to school each day, I think "He's totally outgrown elementary school." He's ready. His friends are ready. I'm ready.
Or so I thought,
Last week he took the stage in his final elementary school talent show in a group number with over 40 of his 5th grade classmates. When at the end of the performance, the students grouped themselves together so that their shirts spelled out "THESE WERE THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES." I let out an audible gasp and then cried for the first time about him leaving elementary school.
It hit me in that moment - not only were these the best years of his life (so far), they also have been the most influential. It was there, in classrooms, recess playgrounds, cafeterias and hallways that he learned how to build solid friendships, how to be himself, how to learn, how to play, how to manage independence, how to ask for help and how to give help. It was here that he transitioned from a short, squishy, shy, self-conscious 6 year old to the tall, athletic, outgoing and confident 11 year old he is today.
As I tried to see through my tear-filled eyes, I looked around the stage at our 5th graders and then at some of my fellow 5th grade parents. From here on out, we start letting them go a bit more and trusting that the foundation they built during their elementary school years is strong enough for them...for us.
Recently my Timehop showed me a picture of my current 5th grader as a 5 year old, preparing to transition into kindergarten. We were at a "Touch a Truck" event and he had excitedly climbed onto a big yellow school bus with me. There on my Timehop was a photo of me and my baby, peering out the school bus window, both of us filled with excitement about the years to come in elementary school. If I could go back in time and interview that version of us, I don't think either of us really had any idea what the elementary school years would bring us - moments of pure joy, fear, laughter, sadness, new friendships born, old friendship broken and mended and immense amounts of growth.
These years of elementary school weren't always easy.
But, you know what?
They truly have been the best years of our lives.
There are times in everyone's lives when the bad stuff hits.
Sometimes the bad stuff hits all at once. Sometimes the bad stuff hits gradually over time. Sometimes the hits are so bad that you don't feel like getting out of bed, leaving your house or answering your phone. Sometimes the bad stuff makes you turn inward. Sometimes it makes you implode on yourself. Sometimes it makes you explode on others. No matter how you react to the bad stuff, one thing is shared - the bad stuff exists for all of us at some point in our lives.
As I have been reflecting on our shared experiences with the bad stuff lately, I have been considering them within the context of this time of year. All around us, school years are coming to an end. Young adults everywhere are marking the end of their college and high school experiences in commencement and graduation exercises and even little children are participating in preschool graduation ceremonies. This is a time of reflection and goal setting.
With all of this around me, I can't help but think back 20 years ago to my own high school graduation. While I cannot recall the specifics of my commencement speech, I do recall the quote I referenced throughout the speech. As the class Valedictorian, I wanted to inspire my class to action and success. The tenets of the quote I referenced have been kicking around in the back of my head recently, begging to be let out. So, I am sharing the quote again; this time not to inspire people to individual greatness or to action but to normalize our shared experience of the bad stuff in life:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
For the 17 year old version of me, this quote was all about being your best, striving for greatness and setting up the best future possible for yourself, knowing that it would take fight, courage and, sometimes, even failure. But, today I look at this quote in a much different way. To me, it is a quote filled with questions:
- Are you stumbling these days?
- Are you reflecting on how you could have done things better?
- Is someone else pointing out your shortcomings?
- Are you failing?
- Are you finding yourself totally spent but spent for a worthy cause?
- Are you tired of the fight?
At some point in our lives, we all can answer at least one of these questions with a resounding "YES!"
For me, as I look at this quote all these years later, I see that it truly doesn't really matter whether you succeed or fail. What matters is that you are out there - you are in the arena. You are trying. You are doing. You are living. And, until we know failure, loss and sacrifice, we cannot truly appreciate the sweetness of success and all the beauty life has to offer us.
So, to the person in the arena, with the face marred by "dust and sweat and blood", look around. If you take a moment to pause your battle and take stock of where you are right now, you will see that you are not alone. There are lots of us in the same arena and while we all are fighting versions of our own battles, our own bad stuff, some of us are here to help fight each other's battles as well. This arena can be a scary, dangerous place but it isn't a vast empty space.
The arena isn't a space in which we all fight our own battles; instead, the arena is a place where we can gain strength from each other and from knowing that we are not alone. Reach out to those around you in your arena right now and let them help you fight your battles and your bad stuff. The real living in life, after all, takes place in that space between failure and success. It takes place in the arena.
About Changing perspectives...
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!