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Friday, April 13, 2018

confessions of a gen Z parent

Most parenting articles are a vehicle for dispensing advice, disseminating information or providing encouragement and support.

This post is none of those. It's more along the vein of weary surrender.

Anyone with a set of ears or eyes knows the legends, notorious and frightening, of raising teenagers. I can't count the number of times someone said to us, while embroiled in a medal-worthy tantrum with our preschooler, "You just wait until the teen years."

It's kind of like when a woman, her belly curved with baby, an announcement of her imminent initiation to the ranks of parenthood, has to endure well-intentioned yet careless parents warn of the treacherous journey ahead, stealing joy and expectancy with one swift cut: "You just wait. Your life will never be yours again."

I can say many things about being the mother of a teenager. The tales are true, the struggle is real and daily, the job itself often unfair and cruel. It's brutal to watch your child's adoration of you turn to rejection, embarrassment, scorn, and fury. It's painful to live with someone dislikes you roughly 50% of the time.

Confession #1: I tend to be a micromanager, a Type A person with significant  marginal control issues. I don't love this about myself. I've worked to channel these liabilities into strengths (I know how to get shit done) and, even more beneficially, have learned the delicate and rewarding art of letting go.

Letting go means keeping my mouth shut when my teenager waits for the bus in a t-shirt on a 28 degree morning. It means not pushing when she won't share her speech with us, the one that was selected to advance to the next round in a school competition, depriving us of celebrating her accomplishment. Letting go means allowing my 10-year-old buy whatever she wants with her money even if it's crappy plastic junk that will end up in the trash when I find it in a dusty corner two months from now. It means standing by, baffled but silent, as she shaves an eraser into tiny bits and collect them in a Ziploc bag because its a quirky project she's doing with a friend and it makes her happy.

These are the easy ones.

Then there are the other ones. The situations that lurk in dark corners, striking at will and ruining otherwise good moments, the ones that bait a momma bear's instinct to protect! to set a limit! to intervene! while every step you make in that direction breeds argument, discontent and defiance between you and your child.

These are the tightropes of parenting a teen, where choosing left or right - intervene or let go- might be the wrong answer.  Either way you still plummet to the ground.

Big ticket items: poor diet choices that have significant ramifications on health and mood; teeth brushing, the absence of which means large dental bills;  a disrespectful attitude, including eye rolling, sighing, back-talk and excessive grumpiness; money- how much do I give you and how much do you earn? And this list can be added to infinitely- grades, jobs, dating, friends, lying, drinking, sex, etc.

Then, the granddaddy of them all: the phone.

Confession #2: I hate the phone. I hate being the phone police, managing screen time, data consumption, app usage, safety, potential bullying, privacy, text messages and Internet searches.

It's really messing with my attempts to let go.

I hold the burden of regulating phone usage heavy in my heart every day, knowing too much isn't good for a child, especially one with a mood disorder. I'm terrified that the phone is often more captivating than real life, devastated that screen time is more appealing than climbing a tree or a mountain and panicked that my teen's developing brain is being wired to need steady, rapid-fire digital input. I anguish over what social media is teaching her about her body, her life, herself.

I want to cry every time I say, "Hey look!" and point to something we're passing in the car-  a tawny doe in a frost-covered field, someone in a Statue of Liberty costume on the corner near the mall, a flock of geese flying in a perfect V against a tangerine sky - only to have my daughter barely glance up and offer me a feeble "ugh huh" before her head is pointed down once again, magnetically pulled to the force field of Instagram and Snap Chat.

And don't even get me started on the postural ramifications "text neck" has on the growing musculoskeletal system.

I remember, two years ago, saying to my daughter, "I know you're growing up and technology is part of our world, but I refuse to lose you to a phone."

This was before I understood the tsunami of social influence the phone, and the world that exists on it, would present to us.  Technology- the acquisition and consumption of it- is a social animal, heavily driven by peer groups and corporate influence.  It's a story as old as time, a quintessential hallmark of adolescence - "But all my friends are doing it!" -  accompanied by the upstream swim parents must navigate in the murky waters of limit setting and balancing kids budding independence with the need to keep them safe.

I've considered that perhaps the phone is just the vehicle of independence of this generation and that the more I focus on it, the more strife, rebellion and distance I'm creating.

But what if the opposite is true? What if, in letting go, I'm inadvertently making choices for my child and her brain that are irreversible, irrevocable and detrimental. Perhaps this is no time to let my guard down, to surrender. Especially now when the stakes seem to be at an all time high and getting higher with each passing year.

It's the tightrope, a fall on either side. The mental gymnastics themselves are enough to make you give up.

Confession #3: It is a crushing responsibility to choose for another human being when each move, to act or to not act, will impact her future.

I hear the recycled parenting advice on a loop: you're meant to be a parent, not a friend. You're the boss and you make the rules. I hear the incessant feedback of the generation above mine, well-meaning folks keen on pointing out what parents of today already know, already fear. That phones are ruining society and crippling kids socially, how screen time diminishes the development of emotional intelligence and creativity, how it's linked to depression and obesity and the how the instant gratification and intense neural stimulation impacts brain development and learning performance.

None of this provides comfort day to day. None of this helps the battle or the war. Because, for most parents, every step you take between your teen and her phone makes you the instant enemy. Because we live in a time when there is an actual term for people who have fear and anxiety about being separated from their phone. It's nomophobia, or "NO MObile PHOne phoBIA".  Because we live in a time when another word, far more alarming, circles like a vulture: addiction.

(Maybe you're the parent of a teen and not having this experience. If so, can I come hang out at your house for a while? I promise to leave my phone at home.)

Can you see the conundrum? I'm working to allow my daughter to be who she is, express herself, make her own choices and find her own way, understanding her life is her own and not mine.  So I let go of my end of the rope (yes, with hands bloodied and bruised from rope burn), give up the fight, stop micromanaging, surrender the power struggle. I slip my finger out of my end of the Chinese finger trap, hoping ease on my end will discharge the battle.

But if I do too much of that, she will never get off the flipping phone.

How do you give up micromanaging when micromanagement is required?  Do I let her swipe her finger endlessly down her phone during breakfast or do I put my foot down? Do I mandate a break from screens when it makes her even less willing to participate in family life? Do I intervene when she sits with friends, side by side, not speaking, their heads in each of their phones?

The old adage "pick your battles" comes to mind often. It's great advice, though this parent could use some guidance in battle selection.

A couple of years ago when my girls were much younger I was hanging out with a friend who had  children the same age as mine as well as a teenage daughter. In a passing exchange between the mother and daughter, I watched the daughter speak to her mother in a tone so full of disdain and rudeness, I hurt for her and the betrayal she must have felt to have the child she had sacrificed everything for treat her that way. Even more confusing was the mother's reaction to it, something between defeat and acceptance.

I vowed to myself that I would never let my children speak to me that way.

Fast forward and here I am, standing on the slippery slope, picking my battles.  Which do I let slide and which require consequences and withholding of privileges? Does the annoyed response when I ask an interested question about her sport get ignored? What about the sharp temper, lite like a fuse, when I say it's time to put the devices up? How about the exasperated, borderline contemptuous, response to a mistake I've made or a wish I cannot or will not fulfill.

Let it go, I tell myself. Don't focus on it. And my personal favorite: it's not worth it. But then, in one blinding instant, when too many days have stacked into weeks and then months, I realized my child was talking to me in the way I vowed I would never allow.

I'm not just on a slippery slope. I'm on a landslide.

I told someone I respect, "I'm done with the struggle, tired of being the scapegoat. I'm letting go. She has to figure this out for herself." To which my kind, knowledgeable friend (the parent of adult children) said, "You can't. You're her mom."

And so we have standing limits in place: the phone is surrendered nightly at 8pm (and every minute past is docked from morning usage), she pays for the phone and the monthly service fee, chores are required and when a device break is mandated (especially during the less structured weekend time) all items are relinquished to the parents to prevent the inevitable sneaking that occurs. I try, as much as humanly possible, to execute these with as little emotion and apology as possible. 

I didn't fully understand that at some point my responsibilities as a parent would make me the target of  my child's anger, confusion, insecurity, stubbornness and wrath. I didn't know that, no matter which way I went, I would feel like I was losing. I didn't realize how abruptly the tide would change from loving child to surly teen (practically overnight) and how much I would miss my daughter. I didn't ever mean to be, don't want to be, the roadblock, the obstacle, the enemy.

I take great comfort in the big picture and, as much as possible, use my gut and my heart to guide my decisions. And I try to remember that part of why I miss my daughter is because it's her job to pull away from me; it was long ago written in the stars.

Confession #4: Natural though it is, the messy separation of parent and child will break your heart a thousand times.

There's a place I find every now and then, a soft place I can land where I trust that everything will be okay and we will all survive with our love and our bonds intact. When I'm there, I have regard and compassion for the turbulence inside my child, the enormity of the job of growing up, the need for separation and the conflicting need for connection. I don't take things personally and can approach even the heated moments with a deep breath and a sense of humor. I can remember that we are on the same team even if one of the team members despises the captain.

I can remember that I'm doing the job I came here to do. And so is she.

If only I had directions, a map and the GPS coordinates to this place. I suppose I could ask my daughter. She could probably locate it online for me inside 60 seconds.

"For I see now that what I have done, and not done, with regard to you, bears all the hallmarks of the failings of age. Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young."
                                                              - Dumbledore, Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix







Thursday, November 30, 2017

This is what it's like.

Power has two faces. It is a seductress, a weapon, a fraudulent righteousness. It is also a tool, a gift, an engine that drives change.

If the news headlines of this fall have a common thread it is this: there is an alarming power imbalance between men and women in this country.

In September, I had the rare luxury of a day to myself.  With my trusty, four-legged companion by my side, I drove the three hours to Western Maine to hike the second tallest peak in Maine, Old Speck Mountain. Old Speck is part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and it had been years, and two babies, since I'd hiked it. I have a hearty reverence for the AT and, given the choice, I will always hike its rugged path over another, hoping to channel the grit and mettle of those bad-ass thru hikers.


So with a Ziploc of gorp for me and one full of treats for Piper, we hit the trail.

It was everything I wanted it to be: thick vibrant moss carpeting gnarled roots, ancient trees boasting their fall splendor, dappled sunlight, a mountain stream and 3.8 miles of grueling assent.


I never feel alone in the woods. Nor do I feel scared. Rather, I feel at home, grounded and whole, complete in an unparalleled way.



Near the summit, I come across a twenty-something guy sitting on a rock, panting and depleted, his damp hair and shirt proof of a recent mountain battle. I say hello, something I am genetically programmed to do, and comment on the intense humidity. He tells me he just climbed the backside of the mountain, considered one of the most difficult miles of the entire AT, a feat to add to the couple thousand miles he had already journeyed from North Carolina.

He is a thru hiker, a mere couple hundred miles from the northern terminus of the AT on Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park.


I congratulate him, offer him some of my extra food and water. His pack is small, not much bigger than mine. He is eating the last of his food, he says, and needs to resupply in town but has enough to get him there.





Piper and I go on our way, hanging out at the summit for a bit before beginning our descent. About twenty minutes in, I see the hiker behind me.

We get talking. I have a million questions about hiking the AT and he seems happy for some company. We chat and hike companionably for a while, maybe forty minutes. He is friendly and forthright, telling me about his girlfriend, the job he left for the hike, his family, his plans when he finishes.

Piper, a fantastic judge of character, is warm and wagging with him so all seems well.

He slows his pace and soon falls behind.  Then my brain starts in: what if he isn't really a thru hiker? His pack seemed awfully small. What if he is a serial killer or rapist? He seems friendly and honest but isn't that a hallmark trait of a sociopath? What if he has come out in the woods today looking for a trusting female to prey upon?

I pick up my pace, my runaway fears propelling me faster down the mountain. I want to put distance between us. I un-Velcro the Mace from my pack and slip it in my pocket for easier access.

I hear the snap of twigs behind me, footfalls on the crunchy leaves. He has caught up to me.

My heart quickens and I consider the likelihood of Piper, a lab who is certain every person she meets is her new best friend, coming to my defense if I were threatened. Maybe she isn't such a great judge of character but a blind love-machine.


I don't want to be thinking about this in my sacred place, the woods. I resent it.

I weigh my options: fall back and let him get ahead, pick up my pace in hopes that my legs are fresher and he won't keep up. I have no cell signal, not that it would do any good to call anyone.

So I do the only thing that makes sense: I keep on guard and maintain our friendly chatter. I leave room for the possibility that he is a genuinely nice guy without losing the sight of the fact that he might not be.

It's a long way down. He tells me about his impending engagement, about wanting kids someday. At my prompting, he explains his small pack, his ultra-light approach to backpacking, the contents and specific weight of each item in his pack.

Seems believable. Or a well-rehearsed lie.

We come upon another hiker, resting on a rock. They clearly know each other, calling each other by their trail names. This seems like a good sign, I tell myself. Unless this is his partner in crime and I am now in double danger.

I tell him about my kids, about my wife, in part because that is how you maintain friendly conversation. And because that's what you're supposed to do in a hostage situation to humanize the targets.

He tells me a typical AT story, about a woman in some southern state who gave him a ride into town, offered her yard for camping, a hot meal and a shower. I want to believe it's true, more proof of the goodness of people, but doubt tells me he might be testing me, baiting me. Will I be as generous as she was?

Here's the kicker: I am that generous. Everything in me screams to extend assistance to someone in need, especially someone on an epic journey,

Finally, the earth beneath my feet flattens;  we are near the trailhead. He is telling me about his dynamic grandmother who started a school for underprivileged kids, a woman so beloved by him, he cared for her as she died.  Heartwarming... or total bullshit.

I know he needs to get into town and it isn't within walking distance. He needs a ride. I dread the moment when he asks, when I have to decide if he has proven himself worthy of my trust.

I think about my girls. Where do my obligations lie: to my children who need their mother to return safely or to a man I don't know and whose intentions I have spent the past three hours trying to divine?

He thanks me for the company, pets Piper and heads toward the road.

I hurry to my car, rush to lock the doors. As I change into dry clothes my conscience bullies me, smacks me around. Be bigger than fear, it says. Don't let the state of the world alter who you are and what you give.

Maybe if he is still waiting for a ride when I leave, I will give him one. I slide the Mace under my thigh where I can easily grab it and start my car.

Then another voice, more reasonable but more pleading: Your kids need you to come home. You don't owe him anything. You owe them everything. 

I edge out of the lot. I look up and down the road, awash with relief. I don't have to turn my back on someone in need. He is gone.

As I drive away, Piper already asleep in the back, it hits me: he didn't ask me for a ride. He knew that would put me in an uncomfortable position.  He is a good guy after all.

Or he is a serial killer and I wasn't a suitable target.

I am shaken the entire ride home.


And here is the point of my story: this is what it is like to be a woman in the world.

We have courageous women speaking up, telling the ugly truth about the sexual misconduct of powerful men in some of the most influential workplaces in America. They are doing so at enormous personal and professional risk to themselves, not for attention or vengeance, but because silence is no longer an option.

(I acknowledge that, unfortunately, there may be unfounded accusations, or outright lies, which destroy and maim the lives of the accused. But that does not change the arresting power imbalance between men and women in our society.)

If you don't get it, if you think these accusations are overblown or that women are exaggerating when they speak of fear - for their jobs, for their safety, for their lives- I ask: have you ever had your heart hammer in your chest when you walk alone to your car after dark? Do you hold your car key between your middle and index finger, protruding out just enough to strike as a weapon if needed? Do your ideas get dismissed based on your gender?  Do you ever question if your clothing choices might make you unsafe? Do you wonder, in the middle of an martial arts-inspired exercise class if those kicks and punches would ever work if you needed to defend yourself for real?

For every woman daring to tell the truth about violation there are thousands who remain silent. For every act of abuse, every trespass, there is a permanent shift in the heart, body and psyche of the victim. It might only happen once, but it will reverberate forever.

I'm the mother of a thirteen-year-old. I talk to her often about her body, about her voice, about her choice. I tell her that she does not owe anyone her body, not ever. I tell her how to stand up, how to stop someone with strong words, how to run if necessary. I tell her about peer pressure and people bartering unwanted touch for the coveted commodity of adolescence: approval.

I wonder, do parents have this same conversation with their sons?

Of course not. That is not the world we live in.

But our boys need guidance too. I hope parents will help their sons understand the power bestowed on them simply because they were born male, how to use that privilege to stand up for the disempowered and disenfranchised, to never take what is not freely given, to be responsible for their desire and that no really does mean no.

In the past year, the dark underbelly of our nation has been unearthed, the poisonous soil tilled and roiled to the surface. Hatred, contempt and the ruthless wielding of power over women and a multitude of minorities has been exposed; it no longer lurks in the shadows in disguise, but stands ugly and tragic in the light of day. The only way I have found peace is to hope that we, as a nation, will hemorrhage this heinous malignancy like blood from a wound, ridding ourselves of a dangerous infection.

Our voices, our truths- both mens and women's, because this system harms both sides- are the medicine needed to heal us.

The other remedy is what we teach the children of today, how we shape the adults of tomorrow.

My ten-year-old is on a competitive basketball team this year. She's small and mighty and there is little, including her parents, that can impede her tenacious spirit. Her favorite parts of basketball are stealing the ball, sweaty armpits and winning.


Her coaches, two men, hold these players in such high regard as girls and as athletes, spurring them  to be fierce, unrelenting and aggressive. All determination is rewarded, even if it needs cultivation, and power and moxie are the backbone of their team. I sit on the sidelines, unable to stop grinning as these girls are given license to dominate.

I'm all in favor of strong women teaching impressionable girls, providing a living, breathing role model of female skill and strength. But, given the depth of this disparity in power between genders, I also love to see men bolstering these qualities in young girls. It's a strong message, an essential bridge over the chasm, allowing us all to cross over.

I want to hug all the good men I know. I want to high-five the legions of brave, formidable, magnificent women I know. I don't want to feel afraid because I'm a woman.  I don't want my girls to grow up feeling that men matter more than them. I want to raise courageous, spunky daughters empowered by their gender, not limited by it. I want boys to grow into solid men who support and respect their female equals.

Hats off to those men that get it. I adore and applaud you. Kudos to all those working to understand. The first step is to listen to other people's experiences, rather them discounting them simply because they differ from our own. It is far too easy to think our view of the world is the true one.

I will continue to seek solace in the woods and to live with an open heart. It is who I am. I will remember to account for my safety but I refuse to give in to fear. And when my girls tell me they wish to go off on some adventure, I will trust that the risk of going is less than the risk of living small and afraid. I will send them off with a kiss, slip some Mace in their pocket, activate the tracking app on their phone and continue to envision a world that has space for all of us.

Power has two faces. Time to ask ourselves which one we are wearing.




Thursday, September 7, 2017

summer, last call


We had a pretty spectacular end to summer. As it wrapped up, and we followed our well-grooved path, I realized how many traditions we have incorporated into the rhythm of transitioning from the end of summer to the start of school.

(Here comes a trip down memory lane.)

First up, drop uncomfortable amounts of money on school shopping. Assist one child who wears only athletic pants, t-shirts and hoodies and is done within an hour and then drag her around like a punishment with her fashionista sister who has grown so much in the past six months that she needs new EVERYTHING. Go to every single store in a 20-mile radius over two days, cursing the parents whose kids are satisfied with online shopping, and entertain ideas of awards they should give out to parents who survive the ordeal and the cocktail parties thrown in their favor.

There are no photos. No one (me) has the time or energy or humor for photos.

Next stop, the Folk Festival.

Folk Festival 2014


The music was so good, Maya and Sandi broke out in spontaneous dance.




Ella (and I) waited through a full musical set for her annual henna tattoo.



 



Family favorite: popcorn as big as Maya.

2017

Giant popcorn sleeve 2014

   
Folk Festival 2012




Somewhat accidentally, it has become a tradition for us to spend one of the very last days of summer at Branch Lake with some or all of the Smiths, jumping off big rocks into crystal clear water. And every year the kids perform some sort of version of Happy Birthday for me (they started it years ago and now I insist on it).

This is the grand finale, reminiscent of Charlie's Angels.
































2016


Then before you know it, you are packing lunches and your 7th grader is setting an alarm to get up a solid 4 hours earlier than she has most of the summer so she can straighten her hair and your 4th grader is trying to decide if the Nike Pros she has lived in all summer violate the dress code (they do).

It was fun to take our first day of school pictures on our front porch!




2016



Every year I get a picture of the girls together. This year Maya's hair looked like a flock of birds has roosted for the night and had yet to be evicted with a brush. She looked at me like no way are you taking my picture.

But being a mom, by definition means you have moves. Some call them manipulations. I prefer the term motivation. "Well, you girls could at least give each other a hug before Ella leaves..." And boom: there's my photo.
































First day of school 2013

First day of school 2014
2015


Piper was all like, "WAIT. What?"


2016

We moved into the house two days after school got out and spent a whirlwind couple of weeks unpacking, mounting, installing and establishing residency at our local Home Depot and Lowe's.  Then Sandi went back to work, summer hit like a bomb and everything got tabled.

I spent the first days with the kids in school trying to catch up our lives, a typical early September activity: tame the umpteen piles of laundry, unpack from two weeks at camp, return unanswered phone calls, go through an irresponsible amount of unattended to mail, organize the fall schedule and get back to a normal work routine writing and massaging. 

But more than anything, I relished the time to bond with my house. To organize and figure out systems for how we function in the space, to purchase the things we still needed and to reclaim the spaces that had been taken over with boxes and unpacked things. To be alone in the empty quiet of the beautiful space, productive and accomplished, once again.

And then it's time for vibrancy and volume to fill the house once again. Piper has a new found love for the hissing air-break of the school bus. The kids take the bus both ways to school this year! I love that yellow rectangle.





First day of school afternoon ice cream party. Another tradition. This is what it looked like last year:



And this year.







Labor Day, the true last call it seems, brought the girls and I back to the beach with my family (Sandi typically works Labor Day). While September will have some warm, even hot, days, there won't be too many more that will drive kids into the freezing Atlantic.


First the kids decided they needed to construct a raft on which to send Maya across the narrow inlet to the other shore. I let them work on it for a while before I informed them that she would not be riding on such a vessel.



When they realized that no amount of begging would allow them to send Maya out to sea, they begged to strip down and swim (neither mother brought swim suits since it wasn't supposed to be over 70 degrees). We granted them this request and they used their "raft" (known in some circles as a log) and motored across.









This is what happens when your almost 13 yo steals your phone.



My sister, my mom and I
Two years ago my mom and her grandkids:
2015


And this year, the four grandkids blue one grand-dog who sat so eagerly for this photo.


Add caption

Happy autumn everyone! It's time for warm blankets at field hockey games, a fire in the fireplace, fleece, soups and chilly mornings.

 And here's a wish for presence...because life is going way too fast.


Folk Festival 2012

2014


Today. xoxoxo
 
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