Nobody Panic

I was a great parent before I had kids.

Who knew my firstborn was going to practice base jumping from our rooftop into our pool on a bike when he was ten?

Why would he eat a live grasshopper at 14 “just because”?

I didn’t know he was going to get older and try out ear expanders or self-tattoo or hitchhike to Oregon for a summer.

I just didn’t see it coming.

With the smallest peek under the stunts we knew about, there were a multitude of others we wished we didn’t know about, but in hindsight, explained a lot.

There was nothing in my Mommy Tool Kit for it, and putting the Foot down and throwing the Rule Book around and chasing him with a straight jacket was futile.

When your child is young, you have no way of knowing whether his latest stunt is a trend or a one-off. Is it something you can discipline out of him or has it been hard-wired into his brain at birth and you need to step back and watch it unfold? When do you push? When do you accept?

And where?

And why?

There was a period of about five years when I went into deep mourning over my beautiful, healthy, gifted, intelligent and talented children.

Go figure.

It had finally occurred to me that no matter what I did, they were going to be exactly who they were born to be. That the genetic and atomic lot had been cast at conception.

And that just because I did “X” and “Y” did not guarantee me a “Z”.

Principles and proverbs are not promises.

I suppose parents who have a diabetic or downs syndrome child go through this period early on. There’s a moment when it dawns on you that things are definitely not going to be what you were expecting.

And all of my kicking and screaming and denial and praying isn’t going to change it.

Thinking it was temporary is what delayed my acceptance of what is permanent, and made the pain in my heart worse than it needed to be.

I was not mourning my kids after all. I was mourning my own inadequacy.

I got one thing right: having five kids forced me to surrender words like “perfect” and “under control” and “of course I know what I’m doing”.

But it wasn’t pretty.

I could never mourn aloud, knowing that the blessings my children held far outweighed the additional things I wanted for them.

There’s no support group for “coming to your senses”.

How selfish of me, to wish my own concept of who he should be onto a person who already was.

Saying good-bye to the child I was expecting and greeting the child I have with open arms has been a long journey for me, and I’m very aware of how crazy that sounds.

He, on the other hand, has always known himself. When he wanders away from his family into a crowd, his terrified parents call him “lost”, but he himself never feels lost.

He feels okay, exactly where he is.

He is not shy, he’s thoughtful. She is not particular, she is discerning. He is not rebellious, he is trying to understand a world gone mad.

They are all deliberately going about this business of living, and teaching me to reframe my views of all of it.

I think that, if any of this perception is true, the only things actually left to me as a mother are the passing on of my concepts of knowledge and wisdom, to do with as they see fit, and as much overwhelming and, yes, frequently volcanic, love as I can aim at another human being without exploding with the volume of it.

My children know me.

I hope that as they know me better over the years, they will also accept and forgive my own “me”-ness, knowing I would never deliberately cause them pain, either, as I go about the very blundery business of living.

 

A Christmas Miracle

Having a BFF with a good memory is both blessing and curse.

You never know what people remember about you, especially if you don’t remember it yourself.

We were sitting among girlfriends over wine one evening, and she said, “Remember the time we took our boys to the Wild Animal Park?”

“Pick any year out of the last twelve…help me out here. No.”

She proceeded to tell, with gusto, a story that was not remotely flattering.

I couldn’t kick her shin under the table, so I did the next best thing: feign indifference.

It seems we had our small tykes out for a morning adventure, and she overheard a chat I had with my youngest just before we entered the gates. He had some spending money in his fist and was hopping up and down in delight at his prospects.

I stooped down and gave him some good advice: “Kid, you have some money that is very special to you. It’s important. You want to put it somewhere safe, so you don’t lose it. It’s easy to lose money when you’re busy having fun.”

I suggested some options: “If you want to, I can hold it for you in my purse. I will keep it safe for you and when you are ready to use it, I can give it to you. You can put it in your pocket, but it might fall out. If you hold it in your hand, you might want your hand for other things.”

He chose to keep it close, in his pocket.

“That’s fine,” I said, “but if you lose it, it’s lost. I won’t replace it.”

And off we went into the wilds of Africa.

“Of course he lost it,” says my BFF, sipping her chardonnay, “and here’s this poor heartbroken little boy and she wouldn’t just give him another dollar. I couldn’t believe it!”

This, people, is why I was never in the running for Mom of the Year.

It’s also why certain girlfriends aren’t going into the running for BFF of the Year.

Ahem.

Actually, I wonder if it helped her be a little stronger with her own firm parenting.

If it didn’t, and you all need more (sigh), here you go:

Money management doesn’t come easy to everyone, anymore than time management or sock drawer organization.

But they are skills our kids should grasp, preferably before the big bad world gets ahold of them.

My daughter is working and going to college and dating and basically living a busy, industrious life from a room that looks like a train wreck, but I digress.

She has a paycheck that covers both her simple needs and her silly ones, and I’m happy to support her finishing what she started, before moving out into the big bad world.

She is going to graduate debt-free which is so huge, she may have no idea until years later, just how huge that is.

Words like ‘priorities’ and ‘budget’ and ‘savings account’ get floated around fairly regularly.

I offer to tell her (and any kid who will listen, aka nobody) stories of back when I was her age, how I had no problem eating beans from a can if it meant I could make rent that month.

All the kids who aren’t listening just roll their eyes.

Fine.

But there was a wee mix-up at the bank last week in which the sudden collision of college tuition, Christmas shopping, and paycheck timing went into a tailspin, and college came skidding into home plate, leaving Christmas in the dust.

Oops.

I heard my girlfriend’s voice in my head, “And here’s this poor heartbroken little girl and she wouldn’t just give her another dollar! I couldn’t believe it!”

I heard my daughter’s voice in my head, in my texts, through my door, “I just can’t believe it!”

“I can’t buy presents for my friends!” she cried.

“Tell them the truth. I’m sure they have tight budgets, too. Make a new tradition that doesn’t involve gifts.”

“But I love them!”

“Love comes in many languages. Maybe you could write poems for them. Maybe you could bake cookies. Maybe you could clean your disaster of a room and recycle treasures to give away.”

Maybe I could just move to Siberia where all the cold-hearted mothers are sent.

And take some wine with me.

“Mom!” she explained, “just because the Grinch is your role model doesn’t mean the rest of us hate love and joy and puppies and orphans! I have a heart!”

Her look contained pity and horror.

“And re-gifting is just wrong. People want pretty little shiny new things. It’s Christmas!”

“Kid, haven’t you heard of saving the planet? Recycling is cool. Re-purposing is all the Pinterest rage. When you have things lying around ignored, give them to someone who will appreciate it. It’s the young 20-something female consumer like you who should be telling the big fat American marketers that shiny new things are overrated.”

My pouting collegiate huffed from the room, “Oh brother, I can’t wait to see what we get for Christmas this year….”

Three days later, the miracle occurred.

She gave up being rescued from her own hand-crafted fiasco and took the first step.

She started cleaning her room.

And literally found buried treasure.

Who knew there was that much pocket change in the world, scattered thoughtlessly in drifts of laundry and in the bowels of dust buffaloes under furniture?

She’s getting socks for Christmas.

Used ones.

Best Birth Control Ever

There once were elective classes offered in school called Home Ec.

I learned a little sewing, some typing (my favorite of course), possibly some actual economics (which I’m sure I slept through) and to finish off the semester, we had to “care” for a raw chicken egg for a week. We had to make little carriers for our egg, choose the sex and name for it, keep it with us at all times or pay for a “babysitter”.

The lesson was that looking after a “thing/helpless person” isn’t as simple as you think.

If your egg dropped, your grade dropped.

Obviously, this project led to great lengthy daydreams about what we were each going to do “some day” with our “real” family.

Once we found a spouse, of course.

Not so my children’s generation.

My daughter came home from school one day with a baby.

This was a “real” baby. Life sized, complete with diapers, bottles, carrier, stroller and clothes.

“Baby Daddy” sold separately.

“Real Baby” had to be cared for around the clock for a week.

“Real Baby” was cute.

“Real Baby” was a hit.

“Real Baby” was a computer.

Each of the “Real Babies” had a program that changed for every student. Much like a…real baby…you never knew what you were bringing home until it was too late.

My daughter’s child was adorable for exactly two hours.

Then all hell broke loose.

If you did not immediately cuddle the baby when it cried, the computer internally noted it. If you did not change the diaper when the poop alarm went off, it was recorded. If you could not get the baby to stop crying in a set amount of time, well, you’re grade and future as a human being was in jeopardy.

It occurred to my daughter that she wasn’t getting very much homework done. She had to bring Real Baby to the dinner table, which wasn’t comfortable, and trying to get Real Baby to go to sleep was simply not happening.

She came to me in tears around midnight, two hours after she would have loved to be asleep.

“Mom, make it stop!” she pleaded, pacing with the Real Baby in circles.

“Honey,” I said, “I don’t think I’m supposed to help you. Just do what you can.”

An hour later, she cracked.

She tossed Real Baby onto the couch and put her fingers in her ears.

“Lock it in the trunk! It’s broken! I can’t listen to that one more minute! I don’t care if I flunk the whole class!”

“Sorry kid,” I answered, “I don’t speak Demon Baby.”

Off she stormed.

Real Baby wailed from the cushions. I thought about the car trunk.

“Hmm. Now why are these feelings familiar?” I pondered.

The Real Life answer, of course, is to just lift my shirt and put a cork in it.

But that wasn’t going to happen.

Just then, her sister walked in. She picked up Real Baby and gave it a rock or two.

Real Baby must have liked it. It stopped shrieking in tongues.

We looked at each other.

“Just for one night,” she said. And she walked off with Real Baby.

Both my girls had their heads together the next day and Real Baby disappeared back into the school system that had spawned it.

The alternative project was a five page essay. It looked pretty easy now.

My kids don’t need lessons on sexual identity, methods, ethics, ideas or vocabulary that will expand their childhood horizons.

Don’t tell them sex can be a safe game to play, and you expect them to join in any day now.

If you really want to educate a kid on what happens when you decide to have sex…hand them each a Real Baby for a week.

Soulstice

When I was in high school, a girlfriend told me I had an “old soul”. This was super exciting for me because she was also the one who thought my aura “might be pink”.

Close…but everybody knows if I’ve got an aura, mine’s green. Hellloo.

It will come as no surprise to you that I spent girl time back then the same way you did, getting together with friends trying to make sense of life in general and boys in specific. Occasionally our families threw us a curve ball and we went straight to our peers for the answers.

This was actual face time, people. Not Facebook.

We earned our friendships the hard way.

I was the friend who dispensed answers. The rock in the middle of the emotional storms. The listener-to-delimmas and leaned-upon-of-shoulders. I discoursed on everything from religion to school politics. I passed around advice like Little Miss Know-It-All.

It’s no surprise to me that as years passed, my knowledge shrank.

After all, as life progresses, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

Often what passed for knowledge turned out to be opinions wielded with almighty conviction and surprisingly, it’s harder to tell the difference than one might think.

But if my soul was already elderly and wise, what happened since?

Many years and a handful of kids later, I am handing out the exact same advice to my teenagers.

Only this time around, they are staring at me like I’m from Mars.

I had a frantic, emotional daughter pleading her case before me and upon realizing that, sadly, my answer was still “no”, she announced in no uncertain terms: “Mom, you have no soul!”

Off she stormed to her room, the end of the world absolute.

I pondered the idea. What was actually ending was the remnants of her childhood, making way for the understanding of adulthood. I can relate. But I can’t recant my position on our argument.

And I suppose it’s only natural that my super old soul has, somewhere along in the trenches, died.

I gave it a good hard run for the money.

Certainly there are many opportunities for pity parties during child-rearing that you don’t have the luxury of indulging. At some point you pull up your big girl panties and put dinner on the table anyway. No advice needed.

You just keep swimming.

I remind my daughter of her statement once in a while and she smiles.

She says she hands out my lectures on occasion to friends who need to hear it.

They think she’s Socrates.

Meanwhile, I have discovered that going without a soul is very convenient.

Any time I have to say “no” to a whiny, demanding, entitled or irrational child, I look them straight in the eye and say, “My dear, I love you very much, but I have no soul, just ask your sister. Discussion closed.”

Yes, Mr. Precedent

Life ain’t fair. Make a note of it.

It’s one of a great many repeat statements your kid will chant: “It’s not fair!”

Probably you say it once in a while, too, but by now the little voice in your head has made his peace with Murphy’s Law and possibly learned to laugh about it.

Or throw something.

Whichever.

You spend all his little childhood explaining that he has to share and take turns and not scream or throw things and then you put him into a sport.

And scream at him to grab the ball away from the other kid and throw it at some other kid and not share the ball under any circumstances unless he hears you scream from the sidelines to do it.

Tell him it’s all very fair so long as the rules are followed.

And then be prepared for him to hold you to the rules till your dying day.

My poor firstborn.

Firstborns are the practice pancake. You make it to test out the heat, the pan, and the oil and then set the burnt or soggy thing aside to start on the real pancakes.

Don’t talk to me about the angst of the middle child or the eternal childhood that shadows a last-born. Unless you’ve felt the complete unfairness of the firstborn, struggling to grow up as a guinea pig, you’ve lost me.

You are never sure what the rules are until you’ve tested them on the firstborn.

Every question in the world gets a first fly-by with this one.

We usually erred on the side of “no” in case the other four were taking notes.

They were.

You’d better believe it.

Watch your precedents. Start small.

If you’re planning to have a face painting clown and pony rides for your child’s third birthday, you’d better be ready to spring for the Blue Angels fly-over and Luke Skywalker himself serving the cake when he’s ten.

Maybe you are actually that parent. Maybe you will be filthy rich (or deeply in debt) and maybe your sweet little tater tot deserves it. But we multiplied every new situation by five and extrapolated it over the next fifteen to twenty years.

You do the math.

At first, you’re just trying to keep up with the baby photos. First kids are easy. Are you counting how many you took? It almost killed me, but my fifth has an equal amount baby mementos.

I may have had to shred some of the firstborn to make them equal.

But no one’s going to be screaming at me about it thirty years from now how I loved one kid more than the other.

Then you have to keep up with the politics. Did someone get their ears pierced? What age? Did someone get to attend the wild party as a sophomore? The freshman is taking notes.

And what about finances?

It’s scary how expensive high school is. This is “free” public education, not counting the enrollment thousands of a private school. But if your firstborn went public and your last born went private, did you really think neither child would notice?

Who gets to date and when and who had a bigger graduation party? If you paid for athletics for one child are you obligated to pay for the other if she would rather do theater? The same amount? What if one child goes to college and the other wants to travel to Istanbul?

Was there some sort of precedent set for “life goal parental support”?

Who gets a car and when, and how is it paid for?

Imagine the first wedding over here! Can we pay for five weddings? At what quality? Do our brides get more monetary support than our grooms? Why?

Will the grandchildren be held over our heads at competition level?

“Dad, you helped coach little Timmy’s basketball team, why won’t you coach little Eva, Amanda, Donny, Larry, Jonathan, Zoe and Mikey’s teams, too?”

How do you stay fair and stay alive??

The answer’s simple, honest, and very painful.

I love you.

But life ain’t fair.

Five Kids Five Ways

It’s scary that my kids are so radically different from each other.

For a person who lines up her cans in the pantry, it’s pretty harsh.

I submitted identical genetic samples, raised them in the same house with the same rules with unvaried routines, and they are from five different planets.

And that’s only if Pluto counts.

I see the new mommies struggling with nap times and feeding questions and juggling all the baby books I used to have memorized and I just want to group hug them.

We try so hard to get it right the first time. Ok, every time. The responsibility of an entirely dependent little human is overwhelming.

What you need to know is that your little one was born with a complete personality.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Maybe the instruction manual didn’t appear with the placenta but baby will be telling you all about herself as time marches on, so on the other hand, you can’t really screw it up.

Having kids is like going on a blind date with someone you’ve already promised to marry.

You have no idea in advance if he is stubborn or artistic or has a harelip or will drive you nuts with a bad knuckle-cracking habit.

You assume, however, that it will be love at first sight.

And you’ll spend the rest of your life being regularly surprised by who this person is.

Kid number one I raised “by the book” (there’s a new one every year) and a more free-spirited independent thinker, you won’t find.

Kid number four was raised by a pretty independent free-spirited approach and he’s a steady, linear thinking, self-possessed person. He loves to go “by the book”.

By kid number five, I just shook the Magic 8 Ball and let it decide whether his nap time was going to be attempted or not.

I look at a child once in a while and ask, “Who are you? Where did you come from? This must be from your father’s side of the family. Waaaay down the line.”

It’s stupid that one size won’t fit all when it comes to discipline, either.

Kid number one couldn’t be begged bribed or beaten into obedience. If it was his idea in his own time and he had his own reasons, he did it.

Kid number two dissolved into tears with one harsh look. She’s 21 now and still hates being naughty.

Kid number three treated everything as a good laugh. And she still laughs at my attempts at discipline.

Can you understand why I just gave up?

These days, I’m begging kid number five to please just send me to my room for a time out.

I wouldn’t trade motherhood for all the tea in China (and that’s really saying something) but frankly, along with all these free-wheeling celestial bodies, I would have loved some order in my universe.

Maybe NASA has the manual.