Tag Archives: motherhood

Sister, Sister

Change is coming in our house, but we’ve managed to blithely meander through most of the summer either too busy or too relaxed to think about it. But it crept in a little today.

This is one week when neither kid has a camp, a class, a veritable summer school self imposed by repeatedly ignoring spring deadlines (but I’m not bitter). We aren’t going anywhere, and no one is visiting. Just a week to chill together.

Chill. Like by eating lots of cold stuff packed with sugar.

Chill. Like by eating lots of cold stuff packed with sugar.

Excited by the prospect, 11yo Victoria tries to initiate activities with her older sister, but 15yo Violet wants to read, write music, text friends, and draw. Kinda solitary activities.

So Victoria finally says, tentatively, during lunch, “We could role play.”

And Violet says, calling out from her reading position on the couch, “Nah, I think I’m too old for that.”

Those of us still sitting at the table are silenced, and a gloom settles over the cold fried chicken.

We eat without speaking, deep in both nostalgia and clouded projections of the future. I don’t know what Victoria is thinking, but it feels like we’ve all taken a step that we can’t take back. “Role playing”—pretend games, living utterly in a fantasy world for days at a time, whatever you want to call it—was the basic stuff of my kids’ childhood, but especially Violet. There were times at the dinner table when she seemed literally unable to stop, to come back to Earth and be herself, whoever that was. I suspect that from ages 7 to 9 she spoke in a British accent more than half the time.

ABC -- Always Be in Character

ABC — Always Be in Character

If you Google around you’ll see that drama and pretend play are supposed to peak at about 5 years, but I’d say for Violet it was more like 12. I know what’s “normal” because her fantasy realms and invented characters and identities were so real to her I took to books and Dr. Internet to see if there was something wrong.

Though I also remembered that my little sister, possibly into the double digits, wanted to be a bunny when she grew up. Maybe it’s hereditary.

By age 14 it had cooled down, but it had definitely not gone away. Still, it’s a little harder to role play when your friends are 14. And now, it may be done. This seems normal and healthy to me—especially knowing it is all channeled into notebook upon notebook of character sketches and story ideas. And there’s always D & D. I can sigh and move on, but I notice Victoria across the table–nearly under the table–with a dark expression on her face.

We go outside to talk, and she starts to sob in her open, earnest way. Never one to hide her face or swallow tears, she lets her feelings gush forth like a fire hose. I brace for it, and she tells me that she knows that her older sister is only going to keep growing up and away. Three more years and she may be gone. She leans forward in the patio chair and tells me wide-eyed that she’s afraid she’s losing her sister.

One year ago: still not to old to go everywhere in partial costume

One year ago: still not too old to go everywhere in partial costume

I’m stuck. I can only tell her the truth. First, I didn’t grow up living with my siblings every day, so I can’t honestly say I know what she’s going through. But more than that, I can’t tell her she’s wrong. I tell her about adult friends of ours who remain very close to sisters and brothers, I tell her that siblings don’t have to see each other frequently or even talk frequently to stay one of the most important people in each other’s lives. I make the mistake of starting to say that I too feel sad when I think about my girls growing up, but this threatens to transform the mild weepiness I feel watching my girl cry into big, ugly, personal tears. I stop.

Thankfully, I don’t say what is on the tip of my tongue, which is, “You sure gotta lotta nerve, girl.” Victoria is the one leaving us first, after all, to go to school.

Girl with nerve -- Exhibit A

Girl with nerve — Exhibit A

We’ve been homeschooling for nine years. My first homeschooling blog, on homeschool blogger, is so old it’s disappeared. But my 11yo wants to try something new, admittedly in part because the 15yo is growing up and away. Homechool is less of a family venture than it used to be, and more of a solitary pursuit, and that’s a change that hasn’t been sitting well with my socially oriented girl.

We’re all mostly excited for her. To tell the truth, I’m mostly excited for me, too. Mostly, I am looking forward to giving a little TLC to my own work. Mostly, I’m happy to step back from the co-ops and playdates, despite the great people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. And mostly I am not letting myself think too hard about the rest of it: the guilt over not sticking with it (we could always come back!), the worry that middle school is the worst time to dive in to classroom-based education, the suspicion that were she given to a more extraverted family she’d be a natural-born unschooler, the certainty that no public school language arts program could ever satisfy me.

Victoria, on the other hand, is already thinking about planning a dance and having a party for all the new friends she’s going to make. Like I said, she’s sure gotta lotta nerve. Good for her.

Our conversation ends with Victoria taking a deep breath and saying to herself confidently, “I know we’ll always be friends,” before going inside to slice more watermelon. She sighs and moves on, and I try to clear the sadness now shading my face as I follow her, always just a little further behind.

Oops, no, sorry. Changed my mind. We'll always be together just like this.

Oops, no, sorry. Changed my mind. We’ll always be together just like this.

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Something for My Second Child

Just as most photo albums have more photos of the first-born than any other children, I suspect first-borns also get more words devoted to them. They have an unfair advantage–ask any younger sibling. First off, they’ve been alive longer, and usually they’re the ones who make childfree people into parents, which is kind of a big deal.

The next child makes for a transition that is a little harder to document. I’ve heard it said that the first child makes a parent, the second child makes a family. As my mom’s only child, allow me to say that this is crap.

However, going about your rounds with two kids in tow is quite different from being the young, hip couple who totes along an adorable baby in pristine, expensive mini couture wherever they want. The second child comes along and you are older, you’re more tired, and the hand-me-downs that survived are more stained. You enter into what we came to call The Fog of the Second Child, which took us a solid two years to get out of–and only then did we realize we had been in it. This is a time of life to get through, not a series of baby-bookable milestones.

I don’t know if there is a consistent personality profile for second-borns, but ours seemed determined to let us know that four years of parenting her sister were totally inadequate preparation for her:

  • She hated the baby swing and sling that her sister loved, and insisted on being carried at all times, approximately 20 hours a day for the first 9 months. Not held. Carried. In motion. On your feet. No sitting, no stopping.
  • She drove our family out of vegetarianism with a lust for animal flesh that was almost unseemly in a toddler. Whole Foods will be forever grateful, as we tried to assuage our guilt with the most humanely raised, most sustainable–most expensive–meat we could find.
I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

  • She’s outgoing, which probably would have made my husband go in for DNA testing did she not look so much like his entire side of the family. She likes to go places and do things with people. And since she is not yet 16, that means I have to go places and do things with people too.
  • She loves clothes, make-up, and popular culture. My older child rode around listening to NPR for the first 10 years of her life, but little sister has a love affair with the radio stations that play the songs that make you say “Wait, he wants her to touch his what?”
The spa birthday party of a 10yo's dreams

The spa birthday party of a 10yo’s dreams

I could go on, but what I’m realizing as I make this list is that if Victoria threw us into a fog when she was born, she was also instrumental in bringing us, me, out into the world not long after that. She enjoys Tinkerbell, My Little Pony, and Taylor Swift without an ounce of worry about whether they are feminist, edgy, intellectual, or cool. She asks the neighbors about vacations and flowers that I didn’t even know they had. She remembers injuries and asks if they’re better, and she makes get well cards for her friends.

One of the hardest things for me to adapt to was her love of holidays and birthdays, things I can hardly remember, let alone plan for. Her birthday hovers around Mother’s Day each year, and as usual I am unprepared, while she has been making plans for months. She tells me about clothes, decorations, treats, and games, while I try to remind her that last year was a great big party–in celebration of turning double digits–and that we agreed at the time that we wouldn’t be able to repeat something so elaborate next year.

“I can still have streamers, right?” she says, “and maybe balloons?” She asks so little it is almost embarrassing that I sometimes struggle to provide it. But after eleven years she has taken us pretty far.

A few years ago I finally caught on that even the smallest recognition of Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Baby Squirrel Day (don’t ask), Pi Day, or my birthday would be enough to satisfy her, and that has made all the difference. If I don’t think of some small thing I’d like on Mother’s Day, she’ll be distressed no end, so I hold off on buying some fancy shampoo, knowing that a trip to the Aveda shop will indulge her love of cosmetics and perfumes as much as it will relieve her need to do something on a day that I’d be otherwise content to let slide by unnoticed.

I sympathize with my friends who have a hard time on Mother’s Day. Some had horrible, cruel mothers, some had wonderful mothers who died far too young. Some people just don’t like a fuss on any day, especially a fuss with them at the center.

In this house, however, we’ll mark the day at least a little. When I’m sniffing my Shampure and eating my strawberries, I will of course be grateful to my husband and my first born, without whom I would not be a mother. But I will reserve a little extra thankfulness this year for my second, whose love of the wider world is a continual source of surprise for me, and it is very nearly contagious.

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Welcome to the Foxhole

This New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior was making the rounds on Facebook this week.

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If you can’t bring yourself to read all seven pages, which you should, just know that there is interesting stuff about how stressful the teen years can be for parents. Like, how our perception of the difficulties of our children’s adolescence may have more–a lot more–to do with our own stress than it does with whatever they’re going through. And apparently–surprise!–it’s worse for mothers, and really worse for mothers of daughters. I guess mothers and teen daughters fight a lot.

It’s good food for thought for any parent of teens, though especially trenchant for those of us homeschooling high school. Everything seems to matter so much now: this allegedly radical life choice we’ve made, doubted, defended, and doggedly (deludedly?) stuck with is about to stand trial. Did we really ruin our kids’ chance of getting into college? Did we ruin them, period?

I know lots of parents ask themselves these questions, but there’s an extra sense that you’re facing a moment of truth when you’ve made a non-mainstream choice, whatever it might be. That kind of pressure makes it hard to take that necessary step back and let go. (And if you don’t face that kind of self-doubt as a parent, please, keep it to yourself. Or no, maybe bottle it somehow and make millions.)

When my kids were little, I had a particular piece of parenting wisdom I liked to share with stressed out newbies. I got to use it again last weekend when a friend pointed me to a mom who was new to our local gifted group and who needed a sympathetic ear. It didn’t take long for our conversation to cover the “and then the teacher said . . .” and “who ever thought I’d be telling him not to . . .” and “people think I’m pushing but really I’m just trying to keep up” and all the other touchstones.

It would get boring hearing people recount them, they are so familiar, but then you look over and see that a mom or dad you just met has eyes shining with tears and hands reaching for yours while they say “You get it!”

After that moment of connection, I hate to disappoint, but I think I invariably do. I used to share information about this curriculum, that school, this psychologist, that support group, but my heart isn’t in it anymore. Much of the time that stuff, just like 1-2-3 Magic, and time outs, and chore charts, is busywork for parents. Yet it is necessary busywork for many of us. Which is why my best parenting advice has boiled down to this:

Do whatever feels right to you, because, generally speaking, child-rearing methods and philosophies are things that keep parents busy and preoccupied while kids figure things out on their own.

It was true for potty training, it’s been true for homeschooling, and it sure seems to be the key to keeping it together during the teen years. Find a way of parenting you feel good about, for yourself, and let that carry you along and keep you out of the kid’s way. Just like the sugar pill that cures your headache after a few hours of rest, miraculously, much of the time your brilliant parenting will bear fruit right about the time your kid grows out of whatever she’s going through.

Quoting researcher Laurence Steinberg, the New York mag article put it somewhat more pointedly:

“[A]dolescence is especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby, to absorb their attention. It’s as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.”

Ouch! But yes, that too.

My friend (and brilliant advocate for gifted kids and parents) Stacia Taylor said it even more succinctly–and more convivially–when my oldest turned 13 and I was fearing the teen years:

“Welcome to the foxhole. We have wine and chocolate.”

As we navigate my oldest’s last few years of homeschooling–and anticipate my youngest’s arrival as an adolescent–that’s where you’ll find me. Whatever imaginary moments of truth lay out there can pass unnoticed. I’ll keep my head ducked, dodging bullets, keeping busy, covering my eyes when it gets too scary, passing out the libations, in good company. With any luck, whether or not we emerge victorious, we may come out to find young people who were worth not fighting for.

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Filed under education, gifted education, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, raising girls

What becomes a legend most?

After spending the morning thinking about what kind of impact I — homeschooling mother, writer of obscure things — might have on the world, if any, I found in my Facebook feed a tribute to someone who made an enormous difference for so many people.

Todd Kolod was an early childhood educator: he taught preschool, and he taught parents of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers about surviving and thriving in those first five years of parenting and beyond.

The article describes him as a legend. How does someone go from preschool teacher to legend? Or rather, how does someone stay at preschool teacher and still become a legend? I can’t imagine it happens often.

Growing up as a strong student, ambitious and motivated, and now being part of an education community, I know that growing up to have a career in preschool education isn’t legendary. Smart kids who become successful adults are professors, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs; girls who want to be mothers become preschool teachers.

Many of the families in Todd’s classes were successful in just that way. And then again, many of them weren’t: the Rondo site where Todd taught drew from St. Paul’s poorest neighborhood and its richest. Parenting is a great leveler: no matter where you came from, you were there because you needed those other parents, and Todd made that kind of intentional community happen.

He did it over 30 years, which means he must have reached thousands of families. Some children who by now are having children of their own.

I loved finding this story, because it reminded me of those sweet years when my own children were in ECFE. They were too young to remember Todd now, but I remember those days, even though they seem far far away. And it’s a great story of someone who could have been an unsung hero.

When I think about people who’ve done “great things” with their lives, or just people who have done well-known things for which they are paid large sums of money, I’m not inspired to do great things myself. I’m inspired to get on Facebook and give up on great things, because it’s too late, or I’m not important enough, or I lack the skills.

When I remember Teacher Todd, though, there’s something about the humility and the calm he brought to every encounter, with every parent and every child, that makes me want to try harder and do better with what I’ve got.

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Filed under education, grown up life