Friday, July 31, 2015

The Best I Could Do

I never had dreams of being a parent.

Looking back, I never really thought about getting married. To me, growing up and becoming an adult meant living on your own and having a career. For some reason, the fancy white dress, handsome groom, white picket fence and 2.5 kids never really entered my mind. It's not that I didn't want it; I just didn't think about it.

So when I got married in 1995 and then pregnant in 1996, I kind of took it on like any new job or other challenge. I studied everything I could get my hands on, talked to as many people as I knew who had experience, and set myself up as best I could for this new parenting gig. I took my prenatal vitamins, ate right and exercised. I had a doula and a birth plan that outlined my wishes to have things happen as "naturally" as possible. I breastfed for a year, introduced solids at the recommended age, kept a baby book to record all the milestones and made sure my newborn son wasn't lagging behind in any areas of growth.

My plans to go back to work changed when my husband, a Major in the Army National Guard, decided to do a 10-month command course in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. We moved there just three weeks after my son was born. I worked from home (halfheartedly) and my son spent five or six hours a day during the week with a wonderful nanny. I took him to Mommy and Me classes and met with a military child development specialist every other month to make sure he was on track physically and mentally. We went on walks every day where I'd spend hours talking to him about the sky and the trees and the leaves and the grass, because I heard it was important to talk to your baby, and not in a baby voice but in a regular voice. I never played that crappy kids' music because I wanted him to love real music, so I played the Beach Boys and other oldies songs because they didn't have any bad stuff in them. Most weekends, his dad was gone getting his EMBA, so we'd go to the park or to one of the playgrounds on Post to pass the time.

After Leavenworth, we moved to Chicago and by then I was no longer working at all. I started two playgroups in our neighborhood on Tuesdays and Thursdays so my son and I would meet people and have some social interaction. We joined a children's museum and went every Monday. We took art and tumbling classes at the local community center. On weekends, we'd play in the sprinkler in the summer or stroll through one of the big malls in the area when it was cold, or go home to see my parents when his dad was out of town or had monthly Drill.

After two years in Chicago, we moved back to Peoria and into a neighborhood teeming with kids. I hadn't thought about having another child - once again, it just never entered my mind. I loved my son, but I hadn't planned on being a stay-at-home mom and didn't really have the confidence in it that I had in my career. But after living on a street full of families with multiple children, we welcomed another son a year later.

It was then that I kind of embraced - or was worn down to embracing - true mommy mode. My husband had retired from the military but had taken a job an hour and a half away in Springfield that required him to be gone 14 days a month. To make up for his absence, I was determined to make every moment count so my children would have all the awesome experiences I had as a kid with a stay-at-home mom. Over the next few years we had neighborhood baseball games, endless rounds of flashlight tag, pumpkin decorating and carving, t-shirt tie dying, pizza parties, slip 'n slides, chalk sidewalk racetracks and snow forts. I walked my kids to school every morning and picked them up in the afternoon. Every once in awhile, I'd surprise them at lunch with ice cream or a cookie. I was a room mom and volunteered on the PTC.

During that time, their dad and I divorced. My biggest fear was that when my kids grew up and someone asked them about their childhood, the first thing out of their mouths would be, "Well, my parents divorced when I was a kid." I didn't want that. Neither did their dad. We actually went to divorce counseling to learn how parent effectively in spite of our failed marriage. The day after we told our oldest son, who was seven at the time, we all went out shopping for furniture for his new bedroom at dad's and then out to lunch. We never argued about visitation or what time to bring the kids home or who's buying this or that for them.

My ex and I never talked badly about each other to our kids. If anything, we talked each other up. Aside from a few bumps here and there where the kids tried to play one of us off of the other, we projected a united front. We all went to Disney World together. We spent every Christmas and most Thanksgivings together, and would occasionally go out to dinner as a family. We'd sit next to each other at soccer and baseball games and school concerts. People would comment that we had one of the best divorces they'd ever seen. I always thought we were better divorced than we ever were married. And when shit hit the fan a few years ago with our oldest son, we joined forces once again to make some very tough decisions - initiated by both of us, discussed by both of us, and decided upon by both of us - that we thought were best for him.

See, my ex-husband and I are very different people. He's laid back; I'm pretty rigid. He's more spontaneous; I'm a planner. He goes through life happy-go-lucky for the most part; I'm constantly anticipating the fall of the sky. His way of life and his rules for the kids are less stringent than mine. In some ways, he's a grown up who decided he didn't ever quite want to grow up. And that makes him incredibly appealing to my kids, especially my oldest one.

This used to bother me, and I'm not going to lie, sometimes it still does. But I know both of our roles in our children's lives are equally as important. I have said it more than once that my kids are lucky they don't have two parents like their mom and just as lucky that they don't have two parents like their dad.

My kids are lucky.

They are lucky that they have their dad and me as their parents. The boy who never wanted to grow up and the girl who never thought she'd marry and have kids grew up and married and had kids. And we did our very best.

Did we make mistakes? Yup. Lots of them. I let my son "cry it out" one night, only to finally break down and go in his room where I realized his foot was stuck in between the crib slats. Another time I drove across town before I realized he wasn't buckled in his car seat. When he came home crying because he said the kids were bullying him, I yelled at the kids before hearing the whole story and giving him the power to work it out for himself. I sent them both to school when they were sick, only to get a call less than an hour later that they had a fever/threw up/have pinkeye. I couldn't handle either of them being disappointed so I made sure that I always "fixed" anything bad that happened to them. I monitored their online grades so closely that I knew if they were failing a class even before they did, and already had a plan outlined as to how to get them back on track. I cleaned their rooms, did their laundry and their dishes, picked up their toys and rarely had any chores whatsoever for them to do. I never let them handle money so they would learn its value and how to manage it. And those are just MY mistakes. I'll let my ex-husband tell you his.

I'm sure if you ask my kids they can tell you a plethora of additional things I did wrong. But here's the deal. I did the best I could. And I think I did more good than harm. I truly believe that there is no job harder in this world than being a parent. I used to tell people that if it were in fact a real job I would have resigned long ago. But that's not how it works - and the days you love it just barely outnumber the days you don't think you can go on. So you keep trying your best, because you know what's at stake. You're raising another human being. He's looking at you and that in turn makes you look at yourself and think, "Regardless of whether I think I'm effed up or not, I'm going to try my damndest not to eff up this kid." So you suck it up and wake up every morning and do the very best you can.

My kids won't realize this unless they become parents - and frankly, that's up to them if they want to go down that road. And until then, my oldest son may continue to blame me for his shortcomings, or his issues, or his problems, or his faults. He may say my Type A personality dominates his dad's Type B, but what he needs to understand is that sometimes it takes the Type As and Type Bs together to make the proper decisions - especially when those decisions are big ones. It's the strong-willed one telling the passively mellow one that something needs to be done, and the passively mellow one calming down the strong-willed one so she doesn't go too far.

So no, I don't think I am the root of my son's issues, nor do I think that how his dad and I parented him is to blame, either. In fact, after thinking back on the last 18 years of parenting - that parenting I never thought I'd do - I'm confident and even have - dare I say it? - a touch of serenity - that I did the absolute best job I could do, and therefore refuse to carry that burden of blame. And if he looks back on his childhood and thinks he got a raw deal, then that's something he needs to work out on his own.

There are very few things I'm proud of in my life, because I have made an assload of mistakes in just about every arena. I have many regrets. But I don't regret having my children, and I don't regret how I parented them overall. In fact, I'm actually kind of proud of it. I've abandoned many things in my life for a variety of reasons, but my kids weren't one of them. There is nothing I have put more effort into and there is nothing I've ever tried so hard to be better at every day. And as far as my adult child is concerned, well, I'll always be his mom, and I'll be here in the capacity in which he needs me to be. But I will never, ever apologize to him for how I parented him ... because I know I did the best I possibly could.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

To my son on his 18th birthday

Dear Son,

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I can’t believe this day is here already. I know it sounds cliché, but it seems like just yesterday that I held your 8 pound, 15 oz. bald beautifulness in my arms for the very first time, and I will never, ever forget that moment. In that moment, I looked at you – and you were utter perfection. Not a flaw, not a problem, not a care in the world. Just a promise. A promise of anything and everything that you could become.
Eighteen years to the day later, I look at you with that same feeling – that you are in fact a promise, but to yourself and yourself alone. Not that I won’t be here for you – you should know that by now. I have always been and will always be your biggest fan. But the days of me writing the script are about over, Son, and now it’s up to you.

I’m not equipped to tell you what you need to do to be a man. I raised a boy, and I raised you with the morals and values that I felt were important for you to grow up and become an upstanding adult, and I hope you carry those with you wherever you go. That alone will be part of your manhood, I pray.

But I do know a few great men, namely your grandfather - my father. I know you feel the same way about him. So I want you to think of him, and men like him, and remember some of the qualities that make them what I simply call “good people.”

Qualities like humility and selflessness. I know technically you’re still in your teen years, and those are by nature selfish ones. But you will soon find that most people don’t give a rat’s ass about what you’ve accomplished, and they don’t remember how good you were to yourself. What they will notice is your actions and what you do for others.

I once had a boyfriend who was pretty full of himself. One day, I’d had it with him regaling me with tales of things he had done and how puffed up he was about himself and said to him, “You know, my father is a great man, but he’d be the LAST person to tell you that. Great men don’t need to.”

It’s true. And great men also have a great work ethic. I know you’ve learned this to an extent in your experiences over the last few years, so hopefully you’ve gotten a glimpse of the truth that nothing good comes easy. Oh, sure, you may get a break here and there, but don’t expect it, and don’t wait for it. And working hard “for a while” doesn’t automatically guarantee you “deserve” a break. You don’t. Think of the men who work three jobs to support their families and still barely make ends meet. Even the millionaires didn’t get there sitting on their talents. They worked their asses off – and not just for a couple of weeks or months. Years upon years. There’s no “end” to working hard. You should always work hard at whatever you do. You CAN do it, even if you don’t WANT to. And if you enjoy it? Well that’s gravy on the biscuit.

That’s another thing. You’re going to have to do a lot of shit you don’t want to do – plain and simple. In adulthood, you can’t pick and choose like you could when you were a kid. In fact, there will be days when all you do is shit you don’t want to do. And you won’t get a medal or a pat on the back for it, either. The attitude in which you approach this is going to say a lot about you and how your life’s going to go.

And while I wish you enough success that you have all the material things you need and a few you want, you’re going to have to quickly learn discipline, and you’re going to have to keep that trait in the forefront of your mind. Discipline means bills get paid first, and credit card debt is not a road you want to go down. Discipline means work before play, and making sure play doesn’t interfere with work (think late nights and early mornings.) Discipline means evaluating short-term gratification versus long-term gain. Remember easy/hard, hard/easy? Take the easy way out now, it’ll be hard later. Put in the hard work now, you’ll make it easier on yourself in the long run.

Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” This is going to be tough for you, because for the first time you’re going to be out in the world with nobody telling you what to do and what not to do. They say the world is your oyster. It can also be your worst enemy. And some things may be dangerous even in moderation for you. You’re going to have to be vigilant about that. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s right, and just because others do it doesn’t mean you should. Recognize your dragons. Know your triggers. Embrace your strength to turn away, and reach out to positive reinforcements when you need to. You know where they are.  

The same thing goes for love, and I know from experience that this will be trial and error. It’s easy to fall for the ones who aren’t good for you. It’s easy to fall for the ones who you think you can “save.” And you’ll do it more than once. What I hope for you is that you find someone who brings out the best in you, and you in her. I hope you don’t lose yourself in that love, but are committed enough that you make her a priority in your life. Be loyal. Be kind. Be respectful. And by all means, be careful. I once read, “Boys fall in love every day. However, falling in love, and picking up the pieces if they fall apart, is part of manhood.” I’ve had my heart broken, and I’ve broken a heart. It’s a pain like no other, but we both survived, and you will too. But don’t let it jade you. We’re not all the same, you know.

Finally … listen. Listening is a true gift, and one that gives back every single day. You’ll learn more than you ever thought possible by listening versus waiting for the other person’s mouth to stop moving so you can speak, and formulating your response instead of truly hearing what they have to say. Listening will serve you well in your schooling, your work and your relationships. There is no greater compliment than being told you’re a good listener. And you never know what part of your own story could get solved or improved by listening to someone else’s.

My son, it has been a privilege to be your mother for the past 18 years. It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure, but there is this thing called unconditional love that I discovered the moment you were born – and someday I hope you experience it too. Only then will you be able to understand how much I love you, why I do some of the things I do, and why I care so damn much.

There’s a very popular poem that you may or may not be familiar with, but it much more eloquently puts into words what I’ve tried to do above. Read it, live it, and know that even when you’re a man, my son, you’ll always be my light, my joy, my sweet baby boy.

Happy 18th birthday, Son. I love you today, tomorrow and always, more than words can say.