"It's not fair."
These words have become fairly commonplace in my home lately. Sometimes the words frustrate me. Sometimes the words anger me. Sometimes the words resonate quite deeply with me. Mostly though, the words break my heart, leave me feeling helpless and call every aspect of my parenting skills into question.
Here's the thing. I am the oldest of two children. My husband is the oldest of four children. We are your stereotypical older children. We are reliable and conscientious perfectionists who don't like surprises. We have a strong need for approval from others, especially individuals in charge. It's not surprising to us that our oldest son freaks out when he scores less than a 100% on a math test or shares that one of his biggest fears is being sent to the principal's office. He is following in our footsteps and proving that birth order stereotypes are alive and well in my house!
But while our similarities as first-born children allow my husband and I to often completely understand the view point of our oldest child, on the flip side it means that we often do not understand our youngest child and sometimes have no idea how to parent him. We have no idea what it's like to be the youngest. We are blindly trying to navigate the maze of parenting a youngest child without any road map, without any experience at being the youngest. There are countless moments each week where we feel like terrible parents, worried that we are completely ruining our youngest.
When I look at my youngest child, I feel a deep sense of pride. He is charming, creative and has a skilled way of getting what he wants and needs. He has so many traits that I envy. Yet, I also often feel a deep pang of guilt when I look at him. This little guy spent a large chunk of his life being carted around to all of his older brother's activities - baseball games, basketball games, football games, play dates, birthday parties, etc. Many of our closest family friends come from friendships that were forged at those very same events and activities - meaning that my oldest child always has plenty of kids to play with when all the families get together. But, my youngest is often the baby - the annoying younger brother who isn't quite fast enough, strong enough, skilled enough to keep up all the way. So, while he has become quite adept at entertaining himself, he often feels like he is on the fringe and doesn't quite fit in.
"It's not fair!" he whines when his brother gets to go on sleepovers, or makes an all-star team or plays more games each week in sports, or gets a new cell phone. At only 7 years old, my youngest child can't handle the abstract task of comparing himself to the 7 year old version of his older brother. When I tried to suggest this tactic recently my younger son said "But, mom!! I didn't know him then! I don't remember him when he was 7. It's not fair!"
You know what, when he's says "It's not fair," he is usually 100% correct. It's not fair. Life isn't fair. I hope that I am able to provide both of my children with the skills they need to navigate an unfair world as adults. But, in the meantime, how can I honor his feelings and help him to be more than just the younger brother? How can I prevent the dimming of his bright dimply smile and the decreased frequency of his wise-cracking jokes?
I started this blog article about a month ago but then walked away from it before it was finished. I was frustrated and lost. So, I did what I always do when I feel frustrated and lost. I read a lot of articles, discussed with friends and mulled everything over in my brain. (I also over indulged in Starbucks dark chocolate covered almonds.) With the old Sesame Street song "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other" playing in my head, I came to realize that I need to stop trying to fit my youngest child into the same mold that the rest of us in the family fit in so comfortably. Rather than trying to change him to be more like us, I needed to embrace his uniqueness: fully, honestly and wholeheartedly accentuate and accept what makes him so distinctly him.
Over the past few weeks we have been trying to mindfully focus on his need for individualized attention. His bedtime, after school and morning routines are all now slightly different than his older brother's. We try to give him the ability to make more decisions on his own and even though this often means he goes to school in a completely mismatched outfit, it makes him feel like he has a voice. Moreover, it makes him feel like his voice is valued. We have even let him test out riding in the backseat without a booster seat, even if it is two weeks too early. We've created special time just for him at night where my husband reads the Harry Potter series to him and only him. We've also tried to focus more on HIS friendships and helping him to foster those connections.
I think it's working.
Most nights in the past week he has gone to bed cheerful, smiling and thanking us for being "awesome parents." His dimply smile has become far more commonplace in our house, edging out the cries of "It's not fair." We feel like we have our baby back. So, I'll take it as a small victory. For now. However, if you find me eating dark chocolate covered almonds while hunched over my laptop in a corner of a Starbucks near you, you'll know that I am probably in the midst of my next parenting crisis.
Football has been on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps it's because I just binge-watched Last Chance U. Or, perhaps it's because I am currently working my way through Friday Night Tykes. Maybe it's because my family spends most of our afternoons on the football field. It could be because my husband has now become a head coach for the youngest youth football team in our town. It could even be because I have joined my first Fantasy Football league (and I'm winning!). Whatever the reason, Kenny Chesney's "Boys of Fall" is the soundtrack to my life these days.
When I was in high school, sitting in the football stadium stands playing "Carry On My Wayward Son" on my trombone with the rest of the high school marching band (I was SUPER cool), I remember thinking that football was violent and never ever pictured myself being a football parent. In fact, when my oldest son was 6 years old and started asking about playing football, my initial and frequent response was "absolutely not!!" I recall thinking that it was too rough, too unnecessary and far too much of a commitment from me and for him. I was a solid "no."
But, he was determined to play and one year later, after I had done lots of research and talked to some of the local youth football coaches, I decided to let him try it. After all, in that year since I had said no to football, I had witnessed some pretty serious injuries in his little league baseball division. I convinced myself that on some level football might be safer since my child would be fully padded and always in a helmet with a face shield. Plus, I am also firmly against children specializing in just one sport at this young age and much of the research backs my stance.
I sat, in horror, through those first few weeks of football practice as children ran laps and worked out, sometimes until they puked because they had eaten too close to practice, often through tears and while coaches yelled at them. "What the hell did I sign my son up for?"
My son asked me if he could quit football after just two weeks. While a big part of me wanted to take his little hand and march him back to my car, leaving his stinky football equipment on the field, a voice inside me told me that I couldn't let him quit. He needed to stick it out and see what a game was like before he walked away. I didn't want him to have any regrets and I was convinced that he would be completely done with football after one game. So, he continued on and was one of the children selected to dress (but probably not play) for the first varsity game - a home game.
That first game day was almost magical. The sun was bright and hot, a perfect New England September day. The music pumped throughout the stadium and my son got to hear his name announced over the loud speaker at his high school's football stadium as he ran through streamers held by cheerleaders. Although I cannot recall for sure, I am fairly certain that I cried. After all, I cry a lot - especially when I am proud of my children. I was proud of him and his teammates. They had made a commitment to each other and to themselves. Even though he didn't play much that game, he was hooked and he never ever asked to quit football again.
That season, our family's inaugural football season, was perfect. My son, my quiet, insecure and timid son was changing before my eyes. He was becoming more confident, more assertive and more hopeful. I suddenly understood what sculptors like Michelangelo must have felt as they began to see their works of art being carved from blocks of marble. My son was being chiseled into an amazing version of himself, a version I had always known was inside and I had football to thank for the transformation.
Our second season of football was a bit different and after two games my son cried again - not because he didn't like the game but because he felt "invisible" "not good enough." We talked about it as a family and he decided that the best thing to do would be to talk to the coach and find out how he could get better, how he could get more playing time. I watched him have that brief but terrifying conversation and I teared up again (see? I cry. A lot). I knew many adults, including myself, who were too afraid to approach an authority figure and ask for such feedback. But, he did it and things began to change. He ended the season a starting varsity player and truly became him that season. I saw football's lasting impact on his school work, his friendships and in his other sports.
So, when our youngest son became old enough to sign up for football, I didn't hesitate. He knew what he was signing up for - he had just watched his brother play two full seasons. Of course, the transition into the practices and conditioning was difficult for him but he never asked to quit. Just three plays into his very first football game, he scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak play. I suspect that moment will be one of the moments that sticks in the photo album of his childhood in his mind - one of those moments he'll tell his own children about someday. He beamed coming off the field and couldn't wait to talk to his big brother about it. It should come as no surprise that I cried then too :)
But, in the back of my mind, I hear a voice of doubt. "What if they get hurt?" "What about a concussion?" "Is it too much for them at such a young age?" Then I watch shows like Last Chance U and Friday Night Tykes and have moments of disgust as I watch those coaches swearing at and belittling other football players. Is this what my children have to look forward to? Each season I watch as new children join our football teams and I see the same sheer panic overcome their parents' faces as their child takes their first tackle or stays on the ground longer than the other children and they feel the "Oh my God! He's hurt?!" feeling that sends a parent's heart into the pit of your stomach.
If I'm being honest, I have that same level of panic every time I watch my boys ride off on their bikes or walk along a busy street or rough house on a playground or do almost any of the crazy things boys their age do. I have that same fear when I drop them off at school and have to push back the worry that something bad could happen there too. I feel the same dread when we are in a large public gathering. What if??
But, then I arrive at game day and Kenny's words ring in my head and I remember that I cannot let fear dictate or direct my life. When people ask me "Why football?" my reply is always the same. I cannot wrap my children in a bubble (even though I really wish Amazon Prime would sell one). My children love the game of football. They love creating these memories with their friends. They beam with pride when their lap pace increases, they score a touchdown, have a great block on the line or make a key tackle. Football has helped my children gain confidence and identify their limits in ways other sports have not. It has helped them build character and forge lifelong friendships. It has created change in them that could not have been done with just my parenting alone. It unifies my family in the fall and allows us a shared experience. More importantly though, football is just one piece of our life. In addition to being football players, my boys are baseball players, musicians, basketball players, compassionate friends, academically bright, insightful, creative, funny and great with animals.
At this point in my children's lives, the positive benefits of youth football outweigh the risk of negatives. They even outweigh the nasty, smelly football pads that stink up my car after practices and games. And no matter what time of year it is or how far my boys go with football, on some level they will always be Boys of Fall and I will always be a Mom of Fall.
I have a challenge for you.
Quickly list the last 10 mistakes you made. Did you forget a meeting? Leave an important document at home? Swap your children's lunches, homework folders or school supplies? Say something hurtful? Eat something you shouldn't have? Texted at a red light? Participated in road rage? Parented in a way that you didn't like?
Now, quickly list your 10 biggest flaws. Are you too heavy? Too selfish? Too materialistic? Not forgiving enough? Too judgemental? Too unhealthy? Too lazy? Too tired? Not organized enough? Too forgetful?
If you are anything like me, listing your mistakes and flaws is pretty easy. They probably are part of the negative self talk narrative that kicks around inside your brain pretty regularly. They are the thoughts that creep into your head at night when the house is finally quiet and you relive the moments from the day, super critical of all the things that you did wrong.
Now, list the last 10 great things you did. Then, list your 10 greatest attributes.
Were these second lists harder for you? I know they are for me. Not only does it take me longer to find the positives about myself and my actions, it also makes me feel uncomfortable to share them.
A few months ago, while scrolling through my social media feed I came across a clip of Kristen Bell talking about how she balances motherhood and working. In essence, she said that she tries her best and doesn't beat herself up when she isn't perfect. Even though I closed the clip and continued on to read about the best brownie recipes, looked at the best slow cooker meals and caught up on my friends' social media lives, Kristen Bell's voice stayed there in my brain. (Honestly, ever since Frozen, when has her voice or the voice of Idina Menzel not been in any parent's brain?). Don't beat yourself up. I guess on some level I kept telling poor Kristen Bell to shut up. Let me beat myself up, Kristen Bell. I need to be better, do better. I can't mess up. I need to be perfect.
However, today I was struck by how profoundly ironic my life can be at times. Just before seeing my first psychotherapy patient for the day, I realized that I had completely forgotten about an important professional meeting. It was a meeting that I had sought out and scheduled myself; a meeting very crucial to some of my own professional goals. I scheduled the meeting, confirmed the meeting and plopped it into my color-coded electronic calendar. I had already selected my outfit for the day, prepped my materials and put together some speaking points. But, somehow, between the hustle and bustle of back to school for my children (you know, things like school supply shopping, emergency contact form completion, book fair order forms, field trip permission forms, classroom volunteer background check forms and helping the children and our family get used to new routines and new personalities), football practices, football games (our family participated in 5 football games in just 24 hours last weekend), an out of state business trip, multiple family birthday parties, preparing a 40 page manuscript on anticipatory grief and working, I somehow thought the meeting was on Friday, not Wednesday. And so, I never showed up to this very important meeting.
Shame. Guilt. Embarrassment. Anger. I felt all of these emotions at once as soon as I realized my mistake. Then came the barrage of negative thoughts about myself. But, like any good professional, I buttoned up my feelings, put them in a nice little box and went on with my sessions (of course, after reaching out to the other meeting attendees, apologizing and rescheduling). Like I always do, I approached my patients from a strengths-based perspective, helping then to identify and re-frame their own instances of negative self talk, saying things like, "Did you hear that? Did you hear what you just said about yourself?" or "Tell me about a time when you successfully handled a similar issue."
Later on, while working on some paperwork, the irony hit me. I spend so much time all week encouraging people to be like Kristen Bell - do your best and don't beat yourself up. Yet, I spend even more time each week beating myself up for not being perfect.
I need to Let It Go.
I need to stop beating myself up. I need to stop trying to be a perfect version of myself. I need to stop the negative self talk loop that often plays in my brain.
I need to listen to Kristen Bell!
But, I suspect that I am not alone. When I look at the other women in my life; stay at home mothers and mothers who work out of the home; single mothers and married mothers; first time mothers and mothers with multiple children; young mothers and less young (but not old) mothers, I see many of us in the same plight. We strive for perfection, get caught up in comparing ourselves to others, set completely unrealistic expectations for ourselves and then when we are anything less than perfect, we beat ourselves up - relentlessly.
We need to let all of that go. It's going to be difficult but here is what I suggest we do as we move forward:
Chances are your To-Do list is a mile long and you've over-extended, over-promised and over-committed yourself. Practice saying No. Someone once told me that "no" is a complete sentence. It is perfectly fine to sometimes say No. That's it. Explanations, excuses, alternatives are not always necessary. Stop trying to please everyone.
Set Realistic Goals
Re-evaluate your goals. What is a more realistic version of your goal? Set yourself up for success. Rather than setting a goal to clean out every closet in your house this weekend, would it be ok to set a goal to clean out only one? Would the world really implode?
Identify the Good
Practice identifying the things you do that are good; the ways in which you are already enough. Stop giving so much power to the negative stuff. If you need to stand in front of your mirror and tell yourself that you are enough, do it. If you need to write lists of your positive qualities, do it. If you need to write yourself love notes in dry erase markers on your mirrors, do it. Why not? You probably are perfectly fine doing just the opposite and reminding yourself of all you do wrong.
Take Care of You
Figure out what refuels you and schedule some time to do it. Maybe it's a walk in the park. Maybe it's lunch with a friend. Maybe it's sitting at home alone and choosing to leave the laundry for a bit while you drink a cup of tea and read a book. Do it, and don't allow guilt to enter your brain.
Help Each Other
Part of my self-loathing this morning involved texting my husband and a few friends to let them know how terrible I am. One dear friend reminded me that I am human. She's right. No one is perfect. All of us are human and all of us have flaws. It's ok. I need to stop trying to be perfect and we need to remind the women around us that it's ok for them to not be perfect either.
For the next few weeks, I'm going to take Kristen Bell's advice and try to not beat myself up so much. Wouldn't it be great to let go of at least some of the insane pressure we put on ourselves as mothers? What if, for the first time in forever, we focused on our own strengths and not our own flaws?
I have always been an animal person. If I am being honest, I am just a few pets away from being the stereotypical crazy cat lady of the neighborhood. In fact, there is a high likelihood that the 90 year old version of myself will live in a house with at least a dozen stray cats and five rescue dogs. Animals find me everywhere (ok, maybe I find them). During my high school years, I somehow adopted more than one neighborhood feral cat. I once left a beach party in the Dominican Republic to hang out with the local beach dog. A feral kitten climbed into the wheel well of my tire 8 years ago and she still lives with us. I went to the pet store for cat food one day and witnessed a pair of juvenile cats get separated as one was purchased; so, I adopted the other one. I now have three dogs - all rescues and all a bit quirky.
Why do I have so many pets? It's simple, really. They bring me and my family lots of joy. They teach us invaluable life lessons; things like love, patience, responsibility and care giving. But, they also teach us about something else - grief and loss.
When our senior dog, Sandy, made it clear to us that her time was coming to an end, we had a long conversation with our two boys, ages 5 and 8 at the time. The plan was that our veterinarian would come to our house and euthanize Sandy in front of the fireplace, her favorite spot. We asked our boys if they wanted to be there and arranged for child care in case they didn't. Surprisingly, they both wanted to stay and be a part of it; and so they were. After spending the afternoon loving Sandy, giving her all her favorite things and carrying her to her favorite places in our home, the four of us sat on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace, in a circle around Sandy while the vet and his vet tech helped us to say goodbye. She died in our arms and it was the most beautiful, amazing and heart breaking thing we have ever experienced as a family. Saying goodbye to Sandy after 12 years was nearly impossible; but watching our children say goodbye to a pet they had known their whole lives crushed us.
Death is death. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. For many people, losing a pet is exactly the same as losing a human and for children, the loss of a pet is often their first experience with death. It was for my boys. It was their first family member to die and I so badly wanted to shield them from the grief but I knew that I just couldn't. Death is as much a part of life as birth and one of my jobs as a parent is to help my children understand and process all the things that surround death. Having worked in the bereavement field for many years and having experienced pet loss twice as a parent, once as a sudden loss and once as a planned loss, I have developed some important insights into how best to handle pet loss with children.
1. Remember that every child is unique.
A family friend recently lost their dog and I asked my two children for some advice for their friends. One child said "Talk about him. A lot. It helped me to remember stories and look at pictures." The other said, "Think about happy things - vacations, movies, stuff like that. Don't think about the dog. I didn't like when I thought about her." Their approaches could not be more different and both approaches are ok. Remember that no two children are the same. Siblings will likely grieve very differently. It is normal. How one child handled one pet loss may be different than how they handle another pet loss later in life. Remember that there is no cookie-cutter approach to handling loss with children. Let their individuality guide you and resist the urge to compare.
2. Be honest
If you know a pet's health is failing, be honest with your children. Children are smarter than we often give them credit for and they probably have already noticed the same signs you are noticing as your pet's health fails. There is a tendency, especially with smaller pets like fish, birds and hamsters, to lie to children and quietly replace the dead pet with a new pet. I always advise against taking this approach. For starters, your children will, at some point, find out that you lied to them, and while we lie about things like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause, lying about death is a different type of lie and can cause confusion in children later in life. Death and grief are painful but your children will encounter them in their lives. Help them face death, grief and loss head on. Look at it as an opportunity for growth rather than an impossible challenge.
3. Invite them to be part of the process
If euthanasia is being considered, let children know, in developmentally appropriate terms, what is happening in the pet's body and what the plans are for saying goodbye. Let your children know they can ask you and the vet questions (check with your vet ahead of time). Invite them to be part of the process and explain what their involvement could look like. Let them know they can back out of the process at any time and have an escape plan ready for them. While having them be part of the process may be scary for us as parents, it can actually provide children with the concrete information they need to more effectively handle the loss. It also sends them a message that they are important and their input is valued.
4. Have grief books available for them.
There are countless books available for children of all developmental stages about pet loss. Purchase books, borrow some from a friend or take home a few from your local library. Leave the books in a designated spot in your home and let your children know you are always available to read the books with them or they can take one and read it on their own. This approach gives children control and power but also sends the message that you are there to support them. Take some time to read the books first to make sure they will be appropriate for your children. A list of books can be found here.
5. Don't be quick to put everything away
We had to put Sandy's dog bed away immediately. It was too painful for all of us to look at. But, we kept her collar out. In fact, it's still out. Her ashes and collar sit on our mantle, a reminder that she was real, our love for her was big and that she was an important part of our family. We found a way to keep memories of her around without breaking our heart into a million pieces. It might be helpful for your children to leave at least a few things out to remind them of your pet. Talk with your children and get their input.
6. Consider some sort of memorial service
This tip may sound a bit hokey and cheesy. This service is not for your pet, but for your children. Formal services help us to acknowledge and share our grief. Children often need this time to openly and formally express and share their own grief and also observe the grief of others. Children can draw pictures, write out cards, put together a memory board or picture book and say a few words. Invite them to participate but let them know it is not necessary. Let them sort of drive the bus. One child may want to participate while another may not want to be involved. Both approaches are acceptable.
7. Have some quiet family time
There is a tendency to distract and keep everyone busy following a pet loss. While this is a good approach to a point, it may send the message that grieving about your pet is not normal and not allowed. It might send the message that grieving is abnormal and shameful. Some quiet time as a family should be scheduled to allow for some natural grief reactions to occur - things like movies at home, board games, quiet time for reading, etc may be quite healing for everyone. Sometimes, especially when we have active children, our lives move 100 miles an hour and time for things like grieving just slips away. Create some space and time for your children to feel and express their emotions. Bedtime also seems to be a good time for families to share some quiet moments together.
8. Remember that "mad" and "sad" do not equal "bad"
Anger and sadness are two of the most common emotions felt by children following a loss. For many children, these feelings are complex, confusing and overwhelming. As children are concrete thinkers and death is such an abstract concept, expressing their feelings with words can often be a challenge. Thus, it is common for some children to express their grief through actions and sometimes these actions can be labeled as "bad" behaviors. You may see increased acting out behaviors like siblings fighting and bickering more, teasing, negative attitudes and grumpiness. You may also see regressive behaviors such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, asking for help with things like tying shoes - things they were able to do for themselves previously. These reactions are often normal and are temporary. As children have opportunities to express and process their feelings, their behaviors will often return to normal.
9. Communicate with other adults
Depending on your child's age, they may have other important adults in their lives. Send a quick email to those important people (i.e. their teachers and their coaches) to let them know that your child just experienced a pet loss - not as an excuse for behaviors but as a heads up for the child seeming off and also as an extra set of eyes. Let your children know that you are doing so. When Sandy died, my boys were in 2nd grade and preschool. Both boys' teachers were great and pulled the boys aside privately to express their condolences and gave them an opportunity to talk about it with classmates. One did. The other didn't. The younger one did draw about it later on - sometimes during school, sometimes at home. The teacher appreciated knowing about the loss as it helped guide her discussions with him about his drawings and writings.
10. Be real
The trickiest part of all of this is that you, as a parent, are also grieving. Contrary to what many people think, it's ok to let your children see you cry. You do not need to "be strong." Rather, be real and let go of some of the pressure you put on yourself. When Sandy's remains were ready to be picked up, we were not prepared for how intense our emotional reactions would be. When we got everything home and took the urn out of the bag, I broke. Sobbed. Then, we all did. You know what? We were ok. We supported each other and my children were not scarred by seeing me cry. Rather, they had the opportunity to see me safely express my raw feelings and saw me put myself back together. Give your children a good model for grief.
For most people, many of the suggestions provided feel strange and uncomfortable. I get it. It is quite likely that my suggestions are completely opposite of what your gut may be telling you to do. So many of us have been conditioned to not openly grieve, to not talk about our feelings. Think about how we, as a society, view death and grief. We avoid them, at all costs. We provide 3 days off for bereavement and then send the message to those that have lost someone that they should hurry up and move on, get over it, find closure. I firmly believe these messages are wrong.
There is no such thing as closure. We never heal after a loss. There is still a hole in our heart and sometimes something triggers us, sending us right back into the dark depths of grief. That is normal grief. As parents, we can choose to send our children a different message about grief than the message that many of us were given. We can teach them that feeling pain and grief after a loss is normal, acceptable and healthy. We can provide opportunities for our children to express their feelings and can reassure them that grief, although at times messy, uncomfortable and frightening, is normal.
CLICK HERE to listen to The Changing Perspectives Podcast Episode; Dealing with Pet Loss.
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
The Pet Loss Support Page
It's that time of year again! The sun is setting a little earlier each day and the night air is beginning to cool. Sleeping with the windows open is becoming much more pleasant. Television series are returning to our screens. Football teams are gearing up for the season. Pumpkin flavored beer, muffins and coffee are returning to menus and shelves. But, perhaps most importantly (or at least tied with the pumpkin flavored things and football), schools are back in session. During this time of year, parents everywhere are exchanging looks equal parts relieved and overwhelmed.
Last week my family and I dashed to the bus stop, the very last ones in the neighborhood to arrive to the corner for the first day of school. Despite laying out outfits the night before, having all required paperwork signed and packed neatly in backpacks, lunches prepped, schedules reviewed and everything in order, the last 15 minutes before we left for the bus stop turned into a panicked frenzy, the likes of which are often captured in sitcoms. Tied shoes suddenly became untied. Water bottles began leaking. Dogs refused to come inside. Keys were nowhere to be found. It was chaos and madness. We rushed out of our house, 5 minutes late, quickly snapped our obligatory first day of school photos in front of our house and then headed down the street in two cars so that my husband and I could scurry to work as soon as the bus left. I'm fairly certain a cartoon-like cloud of dust surrounded us as the four of us pretty much fell out of the car and crossed the street to the bus stop, me with my lint brush in tow as I had, of course, forgotten, about the dog hair all over my black pants. In case there was any doubt, our family is a disaster in the morning and the first day of school was no exception.
As the neighborhood kids lined up for the annual bus stop photo, I was slapped in the face by reality. My oldest was THE oldest at the bus stop. He wasn't just the oldest by age or grade, he towered above the other kids and looked completely out of place. He looked like he already belonged in middle school and was lined up at the wrong bus stop. It was in that moment, as I looked around, that I realized my neighborhood bus stop has become a microcosm of childhood. It is as if every single phase of childhood is now reflected in our bus stop. Factoring in siblings, our bus stop ranges from newborn to toddler to preschooler to kindergarten and then all the way through 5th grade. It's like looking at my family's life in slow motion.
There is the newborn baby who everyone hovers over and asks the same questions about; the toddler playing in dirt and eager to dart into the traffic; the preschooler with a million questions and comments about the world; the pre-kindergartner who desperately wants to be getting on that bus this year; the kindergartner dressed in his very best khaki shorts and polo shirt who is about to the ride the "big bus" for the very first time; the first grader who feels so much more confident this year than last year and can't believe they cried their first day a year ago; the second grader who boards the bus with secure confidence - they've got this; the third grader who is now just about half way through their elementary school experience and is feeling great; the fourth grader who gets to sit near the back of the bus and now begs to wear Under Armour shirts and basketball shorts on the first day of school; and the fifth grader who is beginning to feel out of place and ready to move on. They are all there - every single stage of childhood.
But, the bus stop isn't just a snapshot of each stage of childhood, it's also a cross section of parenthood. There is the single parent managing it all on their own; the work from home parent who can only be away from her computer for so long before her boss gets mad; the parents who work opposing schedules and are handing off child care responsibilities in the morning; the stay at home parents who are somewhat grateful for one less child to entertain that day and the new-to-the-neighborhood parents who don't know anyone. They are all there too!
If I were to hit "pause" in that moment, I could see myself, my husband and our children reflected in almost every family and every child. We've been there. We remember the sleepless nights, the non-stop chasing of the toddlers, the expert way a 3 year old can make their body go limp when a parent tries to pick them up, the blood curdling screams that a 4 year old can make during a tantrum, the nervous fear of a shy 5 year old getting on the bus for the first time, the battles over independence that happen when children begin choosing their own outfits for school. We've lived those moments. Looking back on each of those stages, I remember feeling as though those moments, those really hard moments, lasted forever. They dragged by slowly. Yet, standing at that bus stop last week, I remembered that someone recently told me "the days go by so slowly but the years go by too fast." Yes! In each of those challenging moments, the moments where our inner dialogue sounded something like "I suck at this" or "I'm the worst parent" or "I can't do this anymore" or "What am I doing wrong?" time felt like it was moving too slowly. Yet, there I stood, with my 5th and 2nd graders, thinking that all of those years had flown by too fast. Where did the time go?
As I drove to work just a few minutes later, I reflected on our morning - from the chaos of getting out of the house to the few minutes at the bus stop with everyone else. Perhaps on some level my family wasn't ready to officially say goodbye to what had been one of our best summers. Perhaps we were nervous about what this school year would bring. Perhaps I wasn't the only one who had come to realize that this morning would be our last "first day" all together at a bus stop. Next year my oldest will be off to middle school and my boys won't ride the bus together again until my oldest's final year of high school - 7 years from now.
Maybe we were trying to force time to slow down a little bit. Maybe we all were feeling a bit like the years are moving by too fast.
In just a few days fall sports officially kick off, homework assignments will start to be sent home in my children's folders, my teaching semester begins, and the leaves will prepare to change from green to the colors of fall. In the blink of an eye, winter will be upon us and 2016 will soon be behind us. Before we know it, we'll all be standing back at the very same bus stop, this time on the last day of school and, once again, it will sink in that the years are moving too fast.
While I haven't figured out how to make time slow down or how to really live in the moment, I know I need to try to focus more on the here and now. I need to appreciate the small stuff. I want to find a way to enjoy the chaos of our morning routine and pause for just a beat each day before my kids transition into their school day to be thankful for these moments. Even when the moments are crazy, test every ounce of my patience and make me feel unhinged, they are still my moments and these crazy moments that fill so many of our days as parents will soon be gone. One morning we will wake up and no longer need to go to that bus stop at the corner. One day, sooner than we think, the bus stop will no longer be our bus stop.
"Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life." - Omar Khayyam
Like many other parents, I read all the baby books, bought all the baby products and prepared as best I could for parenthood before my oldest child was born almost 11 years ago. As we struggled through sleepless nights, terrible 2's and horrible 3's, I looked forward to that sweet spot; the place where childhood would become easier for the entire family. I can't completely say where it happened, when it happened or how it happened. But, it happened. Parenting became comfortable and even when things were not easy, they were at least familiar.
Recently, though, things began changing. Clouds started to fill my usually bright skies. Then came the rain. At first, it started with big fat single raindrops that would be scattered throughout my days and weeks; just a few little drops of rain, here and there. The rain drops were so few and far between that I could almost completely ignore them. Then came the occasional rain storms; brief but harder to ignore. Finally, the full-on hurricane rolled ashore. Clearly I had missed out on the warnings. I realized quickly that I probably should have planned more, prepared more or at least looked into umbrella options. But, it's here now and I can't ignore it anymore.
My baby is growing up and things don't look that familiar anymore.
I watched my baby at bat a few weeks ago. The lights were bright and the crowd was cheering as he stepped up to the plate, the lead-off batter for his team in the bottom of the sixth inning in a semi-finals game. As he tapped his bat around home plate in his ritual motion, I realized that this would likely be the last time I would see the 10 year old version of him at bat. Gone was my shy 5 year old who would stand at the plate, too terrified to swing. Totally unprepared for such emotion, I quickly fought back the tears and swallowed away the lump that had formed in my throat. A few days later, we met some families at a local water park and my visions of us exploring the park together as a family were quickly dashed. He was delighted to spend the day with his friends, only joining us, his family, when we forced him to eat, hydrate and sunblock. Gone was the timid child who needed to hold my hand and needed reassurance about ride safety. And then, just a few days ago, I watched him take the football field with his new team, a team that only last year had seemed to be filled with almost-teenagers; kids so much bigger than him. Gone is his need for me to be present at each and every single practice. Gone is the little boy who feared making a tackle. Let's not forget the ever increasing worries about things like boyfriends/girlfriends in his peer group, social media accounts to learn about and monitor and constant requests for a cell phone. The hurricane has arrived and it is time to figure out how to survive it.
After reflecting on my feelings over the past few weeks, I have come to realize that although the initial emotions hit me like a hurricane for which I did not prepare, I'm learning to see this point in time as something far different than a storm. Rather, most days it feels like we are standing on a very long bridge. On one side of the bridge is his childhood - filled with transformers, his raspy baby voice, his baby blankie, him needing to hold my hand and his belief that Disney characters are real. On the other side of the bridge is his adolescence and all the things that will come along with it; things that I can't even fully comprehend yet.
Some days we are closer to the childhood side of the bridge, especially at night when he asks me to tuck him in, talk about our day and whisper some good things to look forward to the next day. On those days, I can barely see the other side of the bridge. All I see is the child version of him: sweet, innocent, small, safe. Other days, though, we are closer to the adolescent side of the bridge and the childhood side of the bridge is completely out of my line of sight. On those days, I see a young man when I look at him and I can envision the possibilities for his future: high school sports, driving, college prep.
No one ever told me about this bridge. At least, I don't think I remember hearing about it in all my pre-parenting preparation. This place, this bridge, is completely foreign to me. Some parts of the bridge are beautiful and well-crafted with great big reinforced railings. Those parts feel safe and sort of exciting and I want to linger there a bit longer, soaking in the final pieces of his childhood. Other parts of the bridge, however, are worn-down and if you aren't careful, you can fall off the edge. Those are the parts that scare me and keep me awake some nights; the parts that have me asking other parents for their advice. What will happen once we get to the other side? What will life be like then? What will our relationship with each other be like then?
This is usually the part of my blog where I offer up some tips, advice from researchers or insights of my own. If you've read this far hoping to find some, I have to apologize. I've got none to offer today. I have never been on this bridge before and clearly didn't prepare for it. All I can do is name where we are because I know some of you are on similar bridges. It's scary, exciting, terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. Completely bittersweet. While most times I want to take him firmly by the hand, turn around and head back to the childhood side of the bridge, the side I know really well, I also find myself sometimes looking with anticipation toward the adolescent side of the bridge.Maybe it's not so bad?
While I do not know the best way to spend my time on the bridge, I do know that I want to try to learn as many lessons as I can from this bridge. I want to find a balance between giving my baby his independence and holding onto our precious family time. I want to continue to let him hold onto little pieces of his childhood, like that baby blankie that he still keeps on his bed, while providing him space to make his own mistakes and figure out who he will be. I'm sure I will tumble off the bridge at one point or another but I think I can climb back on and keep moving forward.
So, for now, I am going to enjoy our time on the bridge; our time between childhood and adolescence. And maybe, just maybe, we will see that this is another sweet spot in our family's journey.
Recently a friend from high school invited me out and I found myself having to decline: "It's July. I'm pretty much at the baseball field all month."
If you had told the high school version of me that this would be my life in 2016, I would have laughed at you. (Let's be real, the 2012 version of me would have laughed at you too.) But, it is my life and the baseball field is where I spend most of my free time during July. It's also where I spent a lot of my time during March, April, May and June. That is, of course, except when I was at the flag football fields. Once August rolls around, my new hang out becomes the football field until November. During the winter months, it all slows down and our schedule is free. Just kidding. It's basketball season.
Many parents of school age children can probably relate to my schedule. When my boys were younger I looked ahead to these years with dread and felt sorry for the parents who seemed to spend all their free time watching their children play sports. I'd drive by the football field and think, "Those poor parents!" I was wrong. I feel lucky, blessed and deeply appreciative to be able to spend so much time on the sidelines watching my babies grow and develop into young men; young men with goals, drive, confidence and true, lasting friendships.
My boys get a lot out of their busy sports schedules but so do I. Being a sports mom continues to teach me new lessons every day, many of which are applicable to all other aspects of life: things like learning how and when to bite my tongue (because no one wants to get ejected from their child's game by an ump), how to pack a bag that is prepared for anything, how to clean grass stains from white baseball pants, how to deodorize football pads and how to cram an insane amount of sports equipment and coolers into a tiny Toyota Prius. You know what else I get? A Mom Squad.
Some of you may think that a Mom Squad is a group of 40-something moms driving around town in mini-vans looking for children to scold. While this isn't something I would put past my Mom Squad, it's not an accurate description. A Mom Squad is the group of moms (and Dads too!) that sit at your child's games day after day, night after night, weekend after weekend. You can find them in their fold up chairs along the ball field, beside their child's dugout, under portable pop-up tents and seated on back-protecting fold up cushion seats on the basketball court bleachers. They almost always have large tote bags with them; filled with everything from snacks to extra cups (not the kind you drink out of - the other kind) to medicine to ice packs to cooling towels to extra clothes to a bowl that was left at the last team get-together. They can coordinate a team meal in a matter of minutes and can re-hydrate and cool off 12 children like a team of professionals.
Clearly the Mom Squad comes in handy, right? Isn't that cute? Yes. It really is. But, a Mom Squad is so much more than handy and cute, my various Mom Squads over the past few years have taught me some pretty invaluable life lessons. Before I get to the list, let me first acknowledge the rampant sexism and gender bias contained within this post. I mean no offense by any of it and am deeply grateful to the sideline Dads and the sports moms who know far more than I do about the world of sports. Onto the list:
1. THE VALUE OF SUPPORT
Moms in the Mom Squad don't cheer only for their child. They cheer for everyone's child - even children on the opposing team. They know what to say to encourage my child behind the plate, in the field, on the mound, on the line of scrimmage and at the foul line. They know when he is down and needs support. They know when he needs to hear silence. They get him. They are my surrogates when I am not at games, texting me scores and play updates and providing color detail like "he's smiling soo big after that hit!" Their support is not just for my son but for my entire family and I had no idea how important it would be to have such support in my family's life.
2. THERE IS CRYING IN BASEBALL (and football and basketball...)
Despite what Tom Hanks may say, there IS crying in baseball. Sometimes there is lots of crying - both from the kids and the parents. The Mom Squad is there to hand out tissues, give hugs, provide words of encouragement and, if needed, whisk you away behind a car so you can cry without your child seeing it.
3. LAUGHTER MAKES IT BETTER
Let's face it, some of these games can be long. Sometimes there are double-headers. Sometimes we travel long distances. Sometimes our boys get very very smelly. Sometimes our team just can't catch a break and we have a win-less season. The Mom Squad can find a way to laugh together and make everything a little easier.
4. SOMETIMES SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Sometimes we just don't feel like crying, laughing or talking. Sometimes we just want to show up at the game in our ugly sweats, hair in a messy bun and not talk to anyone. You know what? It's ok. The Mom Squad is there to give you space without judgement or pressure. They get it. They've been there.
5. BEST PLACES FOR POST-GAME DINNERS
If you want to know the restaurant with the cheapest kid's meal options, shortest wait times or most flexible check-splitting policies, ask your nearest Mom Squad. They know it all!
6. HOW TO GIVE SOME KICK ASS CHEERS
A few years ago the only way I knew how to cheer from the sidelines was to meekly clap and yell "Yay!" and "Go!" Now I've got a whole slew of cheers and phrases to yell. I also know how and when to institute things like the wave and changing seats to help our boys rally. I've also learned when NOT to yell (maybe I learned that from the coaches...).
7. THE RULES OF SPORTS
The Mom Squad is where you can go to ask the ever important sideline questions like "What's that mean?" "Why is he out?" "Why is the game over?" Together you try to crack the signals from the coaches and learn the signs from the umps and refs. Watching each other learn a rule or sports concept that is new to us is exciting! You know what's even more exciting? Figuring out the score without a score board and being correct!
8. THE BEAUTY OF TOURNAMENT VACATIONS
Summer baseball means weekends of baseball tournaments. Mom Squads know how to find and suggest destination tournaments which will require a weekend away with other baseball families. The coaches LOVE it! (<---insert sarcasm there)
9. FAMILY ISN'T ALWAYS BLOOD
So many of the women I have met at the ball field have become my family. My sisters. Aunts to my children. Their children have become brothers and sisters to my children. They are the people that we invite to our house even when our house is a messy disaster. They are the people that we let see the real us. They are our family.
10. HOW TO EMBRACE THE NOW
Someone recently told me that children are gifts that we can only keep for 18 years and after 9 years, we are halfway through our time with them. She was right. Childhood is short. So so short. Someday my sons will beg me to avoid their practices, not sit so close to their game and not cheer so loudly for him. So, for now, me and the rest of the Mom Squads out there will continue to spend our free time watching our babies grow into young men before our eyes. All of the rest of the stuff can wait. We are going to embrace the now.
The day before my second son was born I sat in my hospital room, a place I had called home for nearly a week due to strict bed rest orders, and cried because I knew what it meant to have to share my child with the world. Tomorrow he would no longer be just mine. I would no longer be the only one who could feel him move and squirm and kick. I would no longer be the only one who knew him, really knew him. He would be part of the world and the world was a scary place. I desperately wanted to keep him in a bubble, shelter him, shield him from the bad stuff. I hadn't had these same feelings with my first child but by the time my second delivery was upon me, I got it, I understood the scary stuff and I was not ready for another child to be exposed to all of it.
Fast forward almost 8 years and I find myself craving a bubble for both of my children more than ever. These days it seems like I am having a conversation with them about some devastating event at least weekly - terrorist attacks, racism, police shootings, riots, war - heavy stuff. Catchy hashtags fill our social media accounts, news alerts chime on our phones, we turn to live Reddit feeds for up to date information as the bad stuff unfolds and parents all over the world are having to say, once again, to their children: "There's something we need to talk about." Today's children have to practice what to do in an active shooter situation in their school, review safety plans with parents should something happen while in public and process truly frightening information.
Lately it all feels overwhelming. Hopeless. Terrifying. At times it is too much for adults to handle and to process. For those of us as parents, it's even more daunting because we have to find a way to paint a picture of hope for our children in the midst of so much hopelessness. We have to educate and protect our children but also smile and put on a happy face. We have to be their sunshine when finding the sunshine sometimes seems impossible. But how? I certainly do not have the answer. There is no magic elixir or magic wand. No secret rule book. I struggle on a daily basis to instill hope in my children and often when I lay my head on my own pillow, I second guess most of what I did that day. In those moments, I find myself reviewing a few key strategies that just might help us raise our children with hope; even when things feel hopeless.
1. Be Honest
As with most things, children know more than we think they do and they crave honest information. As much as I want to shelter my children from hearing about the bad things that happen, now that they are in school and in sports, this is simply not a reliable option. They can potentially overhear information from an adult or directly from another child in a number of locations. When parents make the decision to provide their children with honest information, there is better control over what and how specific information is shared with their children.
2. Watch What You Say
On the flip side, be mindful about what you say around children, not just around your own children, but when you are out in public. You don't want to be that person who exposes another child to information their parents had not yet shared.
3. Consider Development
Children's emotional and cognitive capacities develop significantly throughout their childhood. Before sharing details with them, take their developmental stage into consideration. A 12 year old will want and need more specific and detailed information than a 7 year old may need. Avoid going into too much detail or overwhelming them with details. Let them guide you on how much information they need.
4. Be a Role Model
Let's face it, children learn a lot from watching their parents: the good, the bad and the ugly. Show your children that feelings like sadness are normal. If you are moved to tears, go ahead and cry. If you are angry, name it. Be sure to not only show your child that it is normal to feel emotions but also demonstrate acceptable ways for them to express those emotions. Avoid holding it all in and expressing it only when the children are not around. Let them in on the realness of feelings. You will be providing them a solid model for how to handle and manage life's biggest challenges to come.
5. Reassure. Reassure. Reassure.
Children need to feel safe and the adults in their lives are the ones who are tasked with that monumental responsibility. I am not advocating for you to tell your children that nothing bad will happen to them or near them ever as that would be a lie. You cannot predict the future. You can, however, point out that good stuff happens far more often than the bad stuff. Remind children of all the people and systems in place to keep them safe. Reassure them that you would never knowingly put them in a dangerous situations. Highlight safety measures that are in place in they express fear over attending a certain event. Repeat as many times as necessary. When you think you've said it all enough, say it one more time.
6. Limit Media
Television news, social media accounts and newspapers now provide non-stop, around the clock coverage of every horrific event imaginable. Pictures, video, audio clips; it's all out there and it can quickly become too much for children. Be mindful of what children may be exposed to and consider whether it is necessary. I recall hearing accounts from 9/11 that many children interpreted the frequent replay of the plane hitting the tower as multiple planes hitting multiple buildings day after day. Even if you think your children aren't watching the news with you or don't see the headlines on the newspaper, think about what they may overhear from the next room or what they may see when the newspaper is left casually on a kitchen table.
7. Create an Open Dialogue
Children need time to process things. It is not unusual for children to need days or even weeks to develop questions or be able to express their thoughts on difficult topics. Send your child the message that you can always find time to talk with them. Many parents have success by carving out time each night around bedtime for an opportunity for children to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings and ask questions. Some parents schedule weekly one-on-one parent/child dates at a coffee shop or fast food restaurant to connect. These conversations tend to be better received when they focus on one child at a time, rather than as a family dialogue with multiple children of various developmental stages.
8. Point Out the Positive.
Despite what we see on a daily basis, there are lots and lots of great things that happen locally, nationally and internationally. Seek out the good stuff and share it often with your children. Local newspapers can often be a more positive source of news, particularly for children. Highlighting the positives can also go a long way to helping children feel safe. No amount of the good stuff is too much!
9. Highlight Ways to Help
The feelings of powerlessness and helplessness often come hand in hand with feelings of hopelessness. One way to combat powerlessness and helplessness is to do something. Research local, national and international charities and causes you believe in. Get your children involved. Be creative. Help your child to feel like one person, one family can make a positive difference in the world. See what your children come up with - they may surprise you!
10. Monitor behavioral changes
Keep a watchful eye on your child's behavior. Changes in sleeping and eating patterns may indicate that your child is having a hard time processing some events. Changes such as suddenly wetting the bed again or asking to sleep in your bed could be a normal response to stressful information. Be careful not to shame your child about changes like these. Rather, give them some time, continue to provide reassurance and keep a watchful eye. If you are concerned, reach out for support. Your child's school, their pediatrician and local child therapists are all great resources.
What are some other approaches and strategies that have helped you parent with hope today?
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!