Alpha Mom » Mir Kamin parenting and pregnancy opinions and information Wed, 25 Mar 2015 13:22:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Independence For Lunch, One Way Or Another Tue, 17 Mar 2015 15:50:45 +0000

Perhaps my most regrettable failing as a parent (oh, believe you me, there are so very many from which to choose) is my temper. I am not a mellow person. I go from zero to pissed-off in under a second. And it took me years to squelch my knee-jerk hollering when one of my kids was being a complete butthead, because, c’mon, stop being such a butthead! Through more hard work than I should admit, I’ve managed to bring down the volume, but I am still prone to the snap consequence in a moment of pique.

This brings me to my own personal, ongoing internal game of “Would you rather…?” where I’m forever trying to determine whether it’s best to follow through on what I said in the first place or admit that perhaps I was hasty and renege. (Why, yes, it is just super-great being me, why do you ask?)

This is preface to explaining that after a particularly difficult week, my particularly… erm… challenged-in-the-gratitude-department teenager was, I felt, being even more challenging than usual, and I… snapped. The good news is that I didn’t yell. (Yay me!) The bad news is that in my knee-jerk response to undesirable behavior I heard the following pop out of my mouth: “And you need to plan to get up early enough tomorrow to pack your own lunch. This is a service I provide for you out of the kindness of my heart and you’re clearly old enough to handle it yourself and have no appreciation for when I do it, so you’re on your own.”

Um. Whoops?

Because on the one hand: I finally had packing lunches down to a manageable science, plus I am still keeping tabs on my daughter managing adequate nutrition, and it was a very sudden pronouncement. On the other hand: This child is nearly 17, and what I said is true—she can handle it, so why should I continue doing a thankless job she can do herself?

I did the internal debate over going back on what I’d said. I decided the edict would stand, even knowing that might mean biting my tongue through some choices I didn’t love witnessing.

It’s only been two days, but I’d say be hard-pressed to tell you which one of us is struggling with this more.

On the first day, someone (not naming any names here…) was clearly spoiling for a power struggle. I could practically picture the “How inept and oppositional do I need to be before she rescues me…?” thought bubble over her head. I tried to think calming thoughts while I packed lunches for my husband and son. I made sandwiches; I selected fruit; I put treats in tiny containers and cut up veggies while picturing myself relaxing on a sandy beach with a good book. I kept my face neutral as my daughter raced around, running late as she so often does, and paused to stare inside the pantry as if it might suddenly grow sandwiches. I didn’t say anything… until—a minute before the bus was to arrive—she reached into the pantry and grabbed a single protein bar.

“That’s not lunch,” I said, trying to keep my voice light.

“I know,” she said. “I’ll buy lunch today. This is just a snack.”

“I’m not paying for school lunch,” I said, still working to stay very neutral. “If you buy, you pay. There’s plenty of food here. And you don’t even like school lunch.”

She shrugged. “They have pizza. I’ll figure it out,” she said. And she left.

I managed to bite back the question for several hours after she arrived home that day, but finally it escaped: “So, hey, what’d you have for lunch today?”

“I bummed off of A.,” she replied. “She didn’t want the second half of her sandwich so she gave it to me.”

So, lunch, Day 1: Half a sandwich and a protein bar. Fabulous.

I may have suggested she pack the next day’s lunch the night before. You know, just to save time because mornings tend to be hectic. “Nah, why would I do that?” Breezy. Maddening. I let it drop.

The next morning she was in front of the pantry again (seeking the magical sandwich dispenser, one assumes), only this time she was still in her pajamas.

“Please finish getting ready and then deal with your lunch,” I said.

“But if I get ready first I won’t have time to make lunch,” she protested.

“But if you make lunch but miss the bus, that’s not any better.” (Note to self: Don’t try to use logic on a kid with ADHD before the meds kick in.) She considered this, then wandered back upstairs to get ready… but not before watching me pack her brother’s lunch and asking me to just “toss a banana in my bag, too, while you’re right there?” (I obliged.) Two minutes before the bus came, I heard rustling in the pantry.

“What’re you packing?” I called, from my office. I heard giggling and the zip of her lunch bag. I couldn’t help it; I went into the kitchen and as soon as I appeared, she burst into full-pealed laughter. “Please show me what’s in your bag.” She rolled her eyes and unzipped to reveal her banana had been joined by… the remaining half a loaf of bread, the jar of sunbutter, our honey-filled bear bottle, and a butter knife.

So many words fought among themselves to pop out of my mouth. SO VERY MANY WORDS. I looked at her. She looked at me. In my head, I reminded myself that experience is the best teacher and problem solving is a skill cultivated by doing. I sighed. “Please don’t lose that knife,” I said, finally. She grinned, triumphant.

“I won’t,” she said.

I know it’s wrong, but I kind of can’t wait to see what she packs tomorrow.

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To Sleep, Perchance To Teen Tue, 10 Mar 2015 15:38:06 +0000

There are very few things I know for sure about this life, but here’s one of them: Sleep doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Sure, when we’re raising babies, nap-time is practically a cult (consider: “We can’t go out then, that’s the baby’s nap time,” signs on doorbells imploring people not to ring, and a multi-billion dollar industry built on bedding, clothing, and various other devices designed to woo little ones into slumber), and even with small children we’re still comfortable chuckling, “Someone’s cranky! I think you’re tired!” (And every parent in the world knows that the response to that, 99 times out of 100, will be a stamped foot and an indignant, “But I ‘m NOT TIRED!“)

Once our kids hit their teens, though, most of us figure they’re “basically adults” (pro tip: nope!) and also that if they get tired, they’ll go to bed. Most teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived and their parents don’t even realize it. Start here if you want some science: This is a good read on the importance of sleep for physical and mental health, and if you’d rather see some statistics on what, specifically, too little sleep does to teenagers, check out this piece. If you already know your teen is likely not sleeping enough but you’re not sure how to handle it, well… come sit by me.

I am, perhaps, hyper-attuned to this issue because sleep is near and dear to my heart. Rather—more accurately—sleep is key to my mental wellbeing in a way I simply cannot ignore. Everyone is healthier when they get the proper amount of sleep, but due to my particular genetics or my chronic struggle with depression, a little bit of sleep deprivation is enough to throw me into an emotional tailspin. I know, for example, that my husband can function just fine on about 7 hours of sleep each night. I can survive on that (though I’ll sleep longer on the weekends), but in a perfect world, I’d sleep more like 9 hours each night, instead. Throw me into a situation where I’m getting less than 6 hours/night several nights in a row? Look out. Put me in a predicament like I had last week, where for four nights in a row I averaged only 2-3 hours of rest? Take cover. On the fourth day I felt like I was losing my mind, and I knew it was because I was tired, but that didn’t make it any easier. “I am just so tired,” I sobbed, while my husband made worried eyebrows and patted me. Even during a lesser crisis, the first thing that my brain does is refuse to stay asleep—I’ll go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. The lack of sleep worsens the very emotions that beget the lack of sleep and thus a vicious cycle is born. Moral of the story: Give me my sleep, and no one gets hurt.

Both of my teenagers will say that sleep is no big deal, but that’s where their similarities end.

My firstborn fought sleep from the moment she was born. She was the baby who cried when you put her in the crib, napped only under perfect circumstances and only for 15 minutes at a time, woke up just as cranky as she went down, and if there were lawyers who specialize in negotiating later bedtimes, well, she’d be set for her future career. She’s a night owl who wants to read “just one more chapter, then I’ll turn the light off, I promise.” Melatonin is her friend, as sleep never comes easily for her (at least not at the hours we suggest she avail herself of it). Now a junior in high school and theoretically a short step away from moving out and holding the helm of her own life, her room currently contains three separate alarm clocks. She is capable of sleeping through all of them, even the one that rolls away and gets louder the longer you let it go. To say she’s not a morning person is like saying that active volcanos tend to be warm. She is the picture of chronic sleep deprivation despite our best efforts, and although she no longer stamps her foot when she says it, she still insists she’s “not tired” if it is mentioned at any time other than when she’s supposed to be getting up for the day. And yes, she may claim to be “not tired” just before falling asleep on the floor in the middle of the day.

My youngest, on the other hand, went from a colicky babyhood right into being the world’s easiest toddler, the main feature of which was his innate and peaceful sense of when he was tired. “Night night?” he’d ask, gathering up his favorite blanket and pointing to his crib. He’d do this at night, if we weren’t hustling the bedtime routine along fast enough for his liking, or midday, to let us know he needed a nap. After those years of believing that depositing a child in a crib meant a symphony of wailing, I scarcely knew how to react to his sigh of relief and immediate relaxation when he was tucked in. Now a sophomore in high school, my son pops out of bed when his alarm goes off and heads straight to the shower. Much to his sister’s chagrin, he doesn’t have a bedtime—because he announces he’s tired and going to turn in each night well ahead of when I’d feel like he must be in bed in order to be well-rested. He sleeps late on the weekends, now, but that’s a relatively new development (one that coincides with a recent growth spurt).

Both of my children (and me!) have issues with emotional regulation. When sleep deprivation is part of the mix, things can get ugly pretty quickly. I know for myself, getting back to a place of equilibrium after a run of disrupted or otherwise lacking sleep can take days, sometimes even weeks. My daughter, however, never seems willing to recognize sleep as a culprit in her poor mood, and while my son is always happy to hit the hay, school and activities sometimes make that difficult.

So what do we do? I don’t have a perfect solution, unfortunately (though if you do, please share), but we do have a few rules we follow in times of Sleep Deprivation And Other Calamities:

1) Do as I say, not as I do. I’ll admit it: when I’m dealing with sleep deprivation, I drink more coffee. It’s a workable strategy but not a great one, and thankfully neither of my teens have picked up the caffeine habit. I’m trying to keep it that way—for them, I encourage good hydration (drink your water!) and extra protein for energy-boosting, instead. And sometimes I even try that, myself.

2) Build in down days. Science shows that so-called “sleep debt” is hard to erase, and it’s not as straightforward as sleeping late on Saturday, but every little bit does help. Whenever possible, I try to make sure we have at least one day each week where nothing is scheduled. The kids often opt to stay in their pajamas all day, and that’s fine with me.

3) Make evenings boring. No electronics, no excitement around bedtime as much as possible. I may not be able to force them to sleep, but I can make sure the last hour or so before they should be turning in is calm and non-stimulating.

I wish I had a way to make sure we all get the amount of sleep we need, all the time, but my magic wand is on the fritz.

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Crisis House Rules Wed, 04 Mar 2015 19:36:41 +0000

Recently a friend linked back to an old post of mine about the Hardship Olympics, and so I got to have the somewhat uncomfortable experience of witnessing a lot of commentary about what I’d said, years after I’d said it. On the one hand, I’m glad much of it still resonates with so many, and I also recall writing down my frustration at the time feeling cathartic. On the other hand, I cringed, a little, rereading it. I was angry. I was furious, really, and only partly due to the situation which had evoked the post. I was floundering in a scary time of wondering if my child would ever be okay, and I felt like I’d been kicked while I was down, when really I was just a giant, pulsing glob of fear and sadness and anything could’ve set me off in that state.

I stand by my assertion that there are far better ways to be supportive than the tired “it could be worse” approach, but with the benefit of time and hindsight I realize none of that mattered as much as learning how to take care of myself when life was hard. And lashing out in anger, as I did, was satisfying in the short term, but not who I want to be in the long run. A couple of years after my post, the now-iconic How Not To Say The Wrong Thing piece ran in the LA Times (with the brilliant accompanying “Ring Theory” graphic showing how to keep from being That Person) and went viral, and that is more how I wish I’d been able to organize my thoughts. My piece said “People can be real jerks and I wish they’d stop,” whereas the LA Times piece said, “Crisis is hard on everyone, but here’s how to make sure you’re not being a jerk.” It’s a kinder, gentler approach.

In the spirit of growing and learning (and surviving, though sometimes it may feel like just barely), I thought I’d revisit this topic from another angle; let’s forget about everyone else. Here are my rules for myself when times are tough, as I both take responsibility for my own choices and free myself from the guilt that can accompany them if I get too mired in “shoulds.”

Rule 1: Be gentle with yourself. Much as the bible says the first commandment encompasses all of the ones which follow, if you can latch on to only one rule here, this is the one to follow (and the rest really are just refinements). When life is hard, being hard on yourself is counterproductive and makes everything worse. I’d love to live in a world where we’re kind to ourselves and others all the time, but at the very least, cut yourself some slack when you’re struggling. Life is hard enough. When you’re tempted to berate yourself, stop and consider how you’d treat your best friend in the same situation… then show yourself that same kindness.

Rule 2: Forgive yourself. You are going to make some poor choices when you’re stressed. You might snap at a family member or write a strongly-worded post that you later regret. Mistakes will be made. Ask for forgiveness, when necessary, and then forgive yourself for being human.

Rule 3: There are no calories in crisis-time food. It’s never more important to take good care of yourself than when life is stressful, but there’s also a reason we call some things “comfort food.” So no, probably you don’t want to be eating a whole cheesecake for breakfast every morning, or anything, but just to give you an example, I try to keep my diet fairly healthy, but have a long-held personal rule that french fries or ice cream purchased on the way either to or from the hospital are “freebies.” That’s just how it is. Snacks are not going to solve a true crisis, but fretting over calories when you’re barely eating or sleeping isn’t going to help, either. Eat the damn fries. (Quick note/corollary: Although I’m a social drinker, I stay away from alcohol entirely when life is really challenging—it would be too easy to overindulge, and I’d rather not risk getting into a dangerous coping pattern.)

Rule 4: Find a soothing activity. As a lifelong TV junkie, I’ll often plop down on the couch and watch all manner of mindless programming just to stop thinking about life. This isn’t the worst game plan in the world, but I don’t know that it really soothes me so much as it distracts me. I also enjoy complicated jigsaw puzzles, but sometimes they require more concentration than I can muster during a difficult time. After recently reading about how coloring can help even adults combat stress, I have come to learn that I love coloring and find it totally relaxing. (This is a huge revelation to me, as I feel like the least artsy person on the planet, and I don’t recall being into coloring even as a kid.) My current favorite source for fun coloring is Don’t Eat The Paste’s extensive collection of printable mandalas. Bonus: This is a great activity to share with a stress-prone kid, too.

Rule 5: As the song says, let it go. No one ever died from eating blue box mac-and-cheese instead of a home-cooked meal. Dust bunnies are not a life-and-death situation. Laundry that sits neglected in a basket for a week or more is not going to spark an international crisis, not even if you eventually run out of clean underwear. Take care of yourself. Take care of your family. Let the minutiae go. If you find it soothing to do the dishes, go for it. If they pile up in the sink because you don’t have the energy, that’s okay. Life will eventually return to some semblance of normalcy, but until then, who cares?

Rule 6: Sleep whenever you can. Remember when you had a newborn and people told you to “sleep when the baby sleeps?” Stress is hard on the brain and body, and you need sleep to repair. If you can’t sleep at night (either due to the logistics of your particular crisis or insomnia), try to nap. If someone offers to come help you in some way so that you can catch a few Zs, say yes. For me, sleep deprivation is the fast lane to InabilityToCopeVille. Sleeping isn’t selfish or lazy. It’s survival.

Rule 7: Appreciate the helpers, inside and out loud. Some people are good in a crisis. Some people are not. The people who check on you and love you are a blessing and should be told as much. The people who “should” be there for you but aren’t… well, don’t waste precious energy on ‘em. Tell the people who nurture you how much you appreciate them. And here’s a secret: for every time you’re tempted to believe someone is letting you down when you need them most, someone you never imagined would be a valued support will step up out of nowhere and hold you up for a while. Concentrate on your gratitude rather than your disappointment. Saying thank you is good for everyone, too.

Here’s to a life free of troubles and hardship. Barring that, here’s to dealing with it as gracefully as possible.

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When Smart Isn’t So Smart Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:27:27 +0000

I don’t know why I was so surprised to watch the same process unfolding with my kids that I went through as a teen and young adult, but it still caught me off guard. Maybe I’d forgotten about it—it certainly wasn’t a shining time in my personal history—or maybe I’d just hoped they could avoid it. Maybe I’d half-groaned my way through various articles and think pieces on “twice-exceptional” kids, and even though the designation fits my own children, I’ve never wanted to be one of those people with my special snowflakes and a corresponding list of reasons why their lives are hard.

Because… both of my children are gifted, which means their innate intelligence is very high, and many things come easily to them. But also… both of my children have learning differences, so yes, they meet the definition of twice-exceptional, even though that term makes me want to poke out my own eyeballs. (I realize it evolved to foster understanding of, to put it bluntly, how really smart kids sometimes feel or appear less smart, but it feels pretentious to me, somehow.) In some ways, sure, their lives are hard because of this. In other ways, their lives have been immeasurably simpler because at the end of the day, they’re really, really smart, which tends to make a lot of things easier. I am uncomfortable with any discussion of “how hard” it is to be gifted. It’s a leg up, in many ways, and while it does present specific challenges, I am simply uneasy with the notion of it being a handicap.

Even knowing all of this, even having once-upon-a-time been a gifted kid, myself, I was shocked when faced with the cold, hard truth enough times that I had to accept it: My gifted kids are lazy, but they don’t know it. Worse, it’s making them think they’re stupid.

This isn’t uncommon, and I’ll cop to a similar trajectory, myself. When you’re smarter than most of your peers, school work is easy, and you finish it sooner. You rarely have to try to accomplish what’s set in front of you. And if this goes on for long enough, I guess you start believing that everything should be that way. Because you’re smart! And school is easy! It’s all you’ve known. All those praises you receive for having “worked so hard” or “really giving your all” are garnered without breaking a sweat… or maybe even from finishing your homework on the bus the morning that it’s due. No biggie. The problem is that eventually, for most of us, sometime in your teens you reach a point where it’s not easy anymore. You’ve done so well in school, you start taking advanced courses, and those require actual effort, or you pick up a new activity that doesn’t click right away. And if you’re one of those gifted, kind of lazy people? You assume the world is ending. If you can’t do it right away, your whole life as a high-performer has been a lie. You used to be smart, but now you’re not!

Is it fallacious reasoning? Of course! You don’t suddenly “get dumb,” and needing to work hard isn’t an indicator of intelligence (or lack thereof). If you’ve spent your whole lifetime believing everything should come easily, though, it can be a real ego blow.

Here’s where I blow my kids’ cover, to explain what I mean. Bear in mind that we’ve addressed these situations (without shame, I hope) and the goal is always to help them understand that it’s not about their smartness or their worth, but what it means to commit to working hard.

Example 1: After a lifetime of high achievement on a ridiculously accelerated math track—which delighted me to no end, as math has never been my subject—my daughter enrolled in AP Calculus this year, as a high school junior. I barely got out of Calc alive as a college freshman, so I was nothing but impressed and excited for her. About a month in, however, it got… hard. There was a lot of homework and it was complicated. A different sort of kid might’ve worked harder/longer, gone to the teacher for help, asked about tutoring… stuff like that. My kid, however, my gifted child, opted to… stop doing her work altogether. This enraged me, once we discovered it, because who does that? (Answer: My kid.) She made sure she was so far behind by the time the drop period was drawing to a close that the teacher was in full agreement that she should drop the class, because there was no practical way for her to catch up. I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until much later that I realized she did this because she was convinced she was stupid and incapable of doing the work required—all because she had never had to work so hard to understand, before. That entire scenario went down with me trying to teach her about responsibility, when really it was a missed opportunity for me to help her understand that her ability and even self-worth do not hinge upon homework being effortless.

Example 2: This one was more recent, and my bungling of the situation with my daughter set us up for greater success with my son. (Sorry, kids… can’t we just be glad I’m batting .500?) At a recent band concert, I watched as my son stood frozen at his marimba and barely played for an entire song. When I (gently) asked him what happened, afterward, he exploded into a diatribe about how he’s just bad at music and never does anything right. Guess who got a brand new wooden xylophone for home practice for Christmas this year? Guess who hasn’t used it even once? When I mentioned the dreaded P word (practice), he insisted he practices plenty in his band class at school… but in unraveling the issue, yes, he practices plenty in his percussion class and promptly got lost when performing with the entire band (which he rarely does) because it was “really noisy” and he hadn’t practiced enough with the entire ensemble. His conclusion: He’s terrible at everything. My conclusion: Make a habit of practicing at home while listening to the recording of the entire band. (Bonus music teacher’s added solution: write in instrumental cues on his sheet music like “trumpets here” and such so that he can recover if he gets lost.) After a couple of days of being mad at the world and convinced he’s terrible at everything, my kiddo is back to feeling capable. Hooray! Too bad we had to wander through the valley of the shadow of I’m So Dumb, I Can’t Do It to get there, though.

I know plenty of gifted kids who are also hard workers, but I know many more (not just my own kids) who suffer from this sort of laziness and precarious self-image where anything “hard” sends them into a tailspin. I did a mini “Oh God it turns out I’m really dumb” crash-and-burn my first semester of college, and while I obviously survived (and learned how to apply myself), I’d rather my kids not follow in those particular footsteps. How do we help these kids learn the value of hard work—and that it’s a feature, not a error, of being smart—before they’re out on their own?

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The Unbearable Wrongness of Sportsing Tue, 17 Feb 2015 15:36:53 +0000

Of all of the parenting transgressions I have committed in the eyes of my children’s father—and I assume there are many, though because we are grownups (or just, you know, old and tired and divorced for about a dozen years by now) we no longer bicker about them the way we once did—my lack of enthusiasm about sports may just top the list. It’s not that I don’t enjoy watching various sports, it’s that I am not a sporty person, myself. I never played organized sports as a kid (save for a brief stint in Little League which hinged upon my devotion to the weekly after-game ice cream), and even now, I struggle to find exercise I enjoy. I grew up as an asthmatic bookworm who abhorred everything about the culture of teenage sporting, and now… ummm… well, my asthma has improved.

Listen, I put the kids in sports when they were little. I understand the importance of exercise and I think team sports offer lots of important life lessons. My standard approach was always, “Does that sound like it might be fun? Let’s try it!” Once a commitment was made to a class or a season, the kids had to see it through. For a while, there, I thought perhaps they did take after their father’s side of the family: My daughter gleefully twirled her way through both kiddie ballet and youth soccer, then devoted herself to Tae Kwon Do for years (though she quit once she reached a high enough level that she was expected to spar on a regular basis). My son’s experience with youth soccer was more complicated, as even “amoeba ball” presents a number of challenges for an autistic kid with sensory defensiveness, but we moved on to swimming (“No one is touching you! Just swim!”) and that seemed promising right up until a coach gently suggested that when the amount of crying exceeds the amount of swimming, it may be time to find a different activity. My daughter enjoyed swimming until a chronic skin condition forced her out of the pool. My son played baseball in a special needs league for a few years, but—like me, way back when—was mostly there for the snacks. My daughter took yoga with a friend for a while, then lost interest. I offered other options. I tried, for years. But the older the kids got, the more opinions and resistance they had. Lo and behold, by the time they made it to high school, neither of them wanted to do anything involving exercise. (Except marching band, of course. I’m willing to count that as a sport, but it’s not a very long season.)

My ex has a standard speech he gives about how he was never very good at the many sports he played, and that wasn’t the point; he did it for the exercise and the team-building and all of the other benefits of participating. He’s not wrong about it being a great pursuit for him. Where we disagree is on whether it’s a good idea for our kids.

On the one hand: I wish they would exercise more. I know it’s good for them. And I do think there are benefits conferred by team sports participation that are hard to get elsewhere. You don’t have to be the best or even particularly good if you’re willing to work hard and support your team, right? I would love to believe that’s true.

On the other hand: My ex went to school in a different time and place, and P.S., his parents were both teachers at the school he attended. While he wasn’t immune to bullying, I’m going to venture a guess that having his parents there (and often, having his parents as the coaches of the team) curbed a lot of the abuse he might’ve otherwise encountered. My kids attend a large public school known to be… ahhhh… well, let’s just say it can be a little rough around the edges. Some of the sports I might otherwise suggest as being compatible with my not-terribly-athletic children are ones where it’s not a question of if they’ll be bullied, but how badly. And while I wish they would be more physically active, at a certain point I think the emotional cost is too high. (Exhibit A: At one point I did extract an agreement to “try a spring sport” from my daughter, and her brief stint on the Track team was… unpleasant, to say the least.)

Throw in today’s teen culture of constant attachment to various screens, my daughter’s involvement in a dozen (non-sportsing) school clubs, my son’s deep and abiding love of Dungeons & Dragons and other sit-and-snack-while-you-slay-dragons gaming, and you have a couple of busy-but-sedentary kids and a mom who has guilt.

The good news is that the kids are lean and eat pretty healthfully, thanks to good genes and the fact that I have no guilt about controlling the food that comes into the house and cooking most of what we eat. But the bad news—as I am now discovering in my 40s—is that good genes only keep you healthy like that when you’re young. I struggle with forming good exercise habits now, and I need them, because I can no longer coast on youth to keep the pounds off and give me boundless energy. I’m working on it, and I would love to get those habits in place for the kids before they find themselves middle-aged and wishing they’d taken better care of themselves. Plus, I can see that both of my teens function better both emotionally and physically when they get regular exercise.

“Do you want to come take a walk with me?”
“No thanks.”

“Hey, who wants to go for a bike ride?”
“Not me!”

When they were little, I could announce they were enrolled in a class and put them in the car and take them there. I can’t force them, at this point. (I guess I could try, but I prefer to pick my battles, and I’m not sure this is one I want to have.) I offer up a variety of not-at-school options to circumvent the social shark tank issues, but no matter what I suggest, neither of them are interested.

I don’t know how hard to push, or what would be workable options at this point, even. I feel like there must be a solution rather than just letting them stay on the couch with their books. I’m just not sure what it is, yet. 10 points to Gryffindor—or my eternal gratitude—for any fantastic ideas on how to get my teens up and moving in ways they love. Hit me with your brilliance, please.

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Dogs Are Easier Than Teenagers (Sometimes) Thu, 12 Feb 2015 19:06:47 +0000

I’ve come to believe that there are Dog People and there are Not Dog People. Dog People totally get my devotion to my two furry children, and if they, too, have teenagers, they really get it. Not Dog People will ask if they aren’t too much trouble and with all we have going on, aren’t the dogs a hassle? You know what’s a hassle? Standardized testing in our schools. The fact that one of the kids’ doctors only ever has available appointments in the middle of the day. Snow. Running out of milk. Those things are hassles. If you’re a Dog Person (Hi, my name is Mir, and I am a Dog Person)—and I’d like to remind you, here, that I both work from home and have two teens—there’s no hassle in sharing space with two furry lumps of persnickety love who think you’re the greatest simply because you possess the dexterity to open the treat jar.

Dogs are uncomplicated. Sometimes they’re expensive and sometimes they move off the linoleum specifically to puke on the carpet and sometimes when it’s raining they refuse to go outside to potty (wait; it’s possible that last one is just my dogs), but they’re not complicated. I appreciate that about them, more and more, as my human children continue growing both taller and more perplexing.

It’s possible that after my daughter and I rescued a dog that was wandering in the road I believed my inherent Dog Person-ness rendered me irresistible to dog-kind. I’m not saying it was hubris, exactly… but… okay, maybe it was a little hubris. I love dogs, and dogs love me. Nothing wrong with that, right?

I spend more of my days at the desk in my home office, which positions me at a window overlooking our backyard. Our property backs into a forest and our yard has hosted all manner of critters, so it’s not that unusual to look up and see visitors eating our grass. One day last week, some motion caught the corner of my eye, and I looked up. A small beaglish mutt was snuffling her way through the dead leaves at the far end of the yard, just before the tree line. I watched her for a minute—it looked like she was tracking something, but maybe not—and waited to see if anyone came after her. No one did. So I opened the door to the porch and stepped outside, at which point she sat bolt upright, looked at me, and took off like a shot through the woods.

I didn’t realize until after that my dogs hadn’t even noticed her. They’re happy to bark at deer, squirrels, the mail carrier, and also lint in the air, so I found it strange that they hadn’t heard her (or hadn’t reacted).

By that evening I’d forgotten all about the beagle, and didn’t mention her to anyone. The next day she came back again, and came a little closer to the house, and this time I could see that she looked pretty healthy (good) but had no collar (bad). This time I went out onto the porch as quietly as possible, and she ignored me for a few minutes and continued shuffling along on the dead leaves.

“Hey, baby,” I called, trying to hit the right volume for her to hear me but not be scared. “Whatcha doin’?” She stopped, looked up at me, then returned to the leaves. “Pretty girl,” I called. “Do you want a treat?” She stopped again, looked at me, and then… took off through the woods. I walked out to try to figure out where she’s been going and/or where she’s coming from, but it was impossible to tell.

That night I told my husband about the dog. “No!” he said. “You can’t have her!” I laughed a long time at that. I don’t want another dog. (And I definitely don’t want a beagle; sorry, if you love your beagles, but they are one of my least favorite breeds. I think they’re very sweet but they smell.) I’m just worried about her. Stray dogs make me sad because, remember, Dog Person here, and also I am a giant sap. What if she gets run over by a car? Or attacked by other animals? When he realized I wasn’t lobbying for another pet, my husband suggested a few different ways I might be able to lure her into our (fenced) run with some food, but all of them involve getting close enough to close the gate behind her, plus that would mean our dogs might get out. Hmmmm.

The mystery dog continues to appear every day. I can stand on the porch and talk to her for a while, now, and that doesn’t seem to bother her. If I open the door to descend the porch stairs to the yard, though, she leaves. My two doglumps continue to act as though she isn’t there, so I’ve just about convinced myself this dog is an apparition. I’m the only one who’s ever seen her! I always figured I’d eventually sink into senility in my old age, but maybe it starts with a ghost dog, instead. I can spend my days trying to corral two dogs who believe I’m a treat dispenser and two teenagers who believe I’m the most annoying person on the planet, but while the teens are at school and the dogs are napping, it’s just me and the dog who doesn’t want to be saved. (Okay, in fairness, she’s scared and has a brain the size of a ping pong ball… if she’s real.)

The thing is, I know what to do with a stray dog. If she would come to me and let me feed her I could make sure she’s okay. She’s determined to be on her own, though, which… hmmm… sort of reminds me of some other creatures in my daily life….

I guess I could go down to Animal Control and borrow a live trap. We’ve been discussing whether or not that’s a good idea. I mean, it is a good idea, I suppose, but only if the mystery dog actually exists. I’m sure she does. Probably she does.

Heaven knows I have plenty to worry about aside from this stray dog. So why am I so worried about her?

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College Planning: Mid-Junior-Year Check-In Tue, 03 Feb 2015 15:32:38 +0000

Hello, February. For most of us, January—with its shiny new year and resolutions and such—feels like a new chapter. I’m not saying I didn’t feel that way, necessarily, but it didn’t feel like a huge change. But February… February with a high school junior feels like a major shift.

The seniors are doing interviews, applying for scholarships, and starting to get their college acceptance and rejection letters. They’re figuring out where they’re headed in the fall. And juniors like my daughter are taking notice.

Our original plan was to do some college touring over the summer, between junior and senior years. Several parents of seniors, though, had mentioned to me that they wished they’d done it earlier, both to experience campuses while they were teeming with students, and to have longer to process what they saw/learned. I’m beginning to see the wisdom of that suggestion, and so we’re planning to start doing campus visits over spring break (which is next month).

When I first wrote about our early college planning with my daughter, the focus (both of the piece and life) was on—for lack of a better way to put it—financial logic. What can we afford? What’s the financial aid landscape likely to offer? What’s the limiting scope, here? College applications are expensive, and you can’t put a price on crushed hopes, either; the idea was to head off any pie-in-the-sky desires that would simply be financially unfeasible. So maybe it hadn’t even occurred to her, but hey, let’s just stipulate that no, kid, you’re not going to head to, say, Sarah Lawrence or another college with a $65k+ price tag. Not only is that money we don’t have, I don’t believe anyone needs to spend that kind of money to get a good education. I did such a good job of driving this point home to my child that I recently discovered she had no plans to even apply to any non-public, out-of-state university. And that’s when the needle scratched across the record, for me. That wasn’t what I’d meant to do. And soon it became clear that I’d approached this all wrong.

Practical vs. Allowing Yourself To Dream

I stand by my assertion that no one needs to bankrupt themselves to get a good college education. But at the same time… if there’s a school that doesn’t fall into the narrow band of affordable options my daughter is viewing but offers something unique that matters to her, heck yeah, I want her to apply. There’s all kinds of financial aid out there. Who knows? Sure, I don’t want her applying only to schools we can ill afford, but I don’t want her ruling out options based on money, necessarily. You just never know what financial aid might be offered. So now I’m trying to revise her stance into something that looks more like, “Make sure you have schools on there which appeal to you and we know we can afford, but don’t be afraid to consider a few reaches, too. Let’s just see.” It’s an ongoing conversation, because this will, ultimately, be a huge decision, and money is definitely part of it. But only part.

Program of Study

My daughter has friends who already know, without a shadow of a doubt, what they want to study in college. Although she would never admit it, I think she feels some envy, viewing these kids who are certain they know where they’re going and how to get there. This one wants to be an architect, and that one is going pre-med, etc. My daughter’s interests are diverse, and while she suspects she’ll end up in one of two or three special interest areas, she’s really not sure, yet. As someone who majored in one field, then picked up a second major, then went to grad school, switched fields multiple times, and am now working in a career for which I never went to school, this stuff… doesn’t worry me a whole lot. You can always make a change. But for a teen surrounded by other teens proclaiming to know their optimal life path already, it can feel like a lot of pressure. Given that we know “something in liberal arts” is the likely goal, and also knowing that she may want to explore, some, that means we should look for schools with a strong liberal arts core and lots of options.

In addition, it means we have to do this delicate dance with her of “explore now” without making it feel like she has to make a hard-and-fast decision. Example: a great opportunity came up for my daughter to do a lab internship at our local university this summer. She might want to pursue a career in science, though she’s not positive. We supported her in the application process and now we wait with crossed fingers to find out if she’s won a placement. If she does, that’s some fabulous real-world experience for her to either realize she loves it or doesn’t. If she doesn’t get this internship, well, we’re already talking about what else might make sense for her this summer; she wants to make some money, but will bagging groceries help her with her college decision? Or are there other similar internship-type opportunities which may be more useful, if potentially less actual cash?

Student Life

This is the area where I feel like we’ve really let my daughter down, and part of the reason we’ll hit the road next month to start checking out schools. With this extreme focus on “what do you want to be?” and “what can you afford?” I feel like my daughter has all but forgotten to consider perhaps the most important question of them all: What sort of life do you want to have for the first four years of your adulthood? This encompasses so much—where do you want to live, what sort of student body composition do you think will work for you, what kind of fellow students’ motivation will best match your own, etc. It recently became clear that my kiddo was looking only at giant public universities, and somehow it had never occurred to her that, environment-wise, that might be all wrong for her. (Spoiler: That would probably be all wrong for her. Between her learning disability and personality/learning style, giant lecture halls are not going to be her friend.) Marching band has been such an important part of her life in high school, she was looking at schools with big football teams and bands. But… she’s not planning to major in music, and while band would be great, what about everything else?

It turns out that there’s a small college not too far from here where the student body (at least from what we’ve been able to learn) is composed of young people who sound a lot like my kid—smart, engaged, diverse in their interests, and passionate about their choices. The average class size is 20 students. They offer a wide variety of majors and a tight-knit community on a beautiful campus. I don’t know, yet, if we’d be able to afford it, or even if she’ll get in… but the more we dig, the more it becomes apparent that this has to be a school she checks out. And—beyond that—it’s clear she has to start really thinking beyond marching band or where “everyone else” is applying. She has to find the school that fits her.

It’s all starting to feel really real, and it’s scary, but it’s also really exciting.

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Date Night Meets Home Alone Tue, 27 Jan 2015 16:12:44 +0000

Last night my husband and I did something we hardly ever do, and certainly don’t do often enough—we went out for the evening. Alone.

It’s not that we never go places without the kids, because we do. And it’s not even that we don’t leave them home without us, because of course we do, more and more, as they get older. I’m happy to grab my purse and toss a cheerful, “Don’t burn the house down!” over my shoulder as I head out for groceries or other errands, on the weekends. At 15, my son loves being home alone. He enjoys the quiet, the dogs’ undivided attention, and the freedom to read or game without interruption. Nearing 17, my daughter is only slightly less comfortable being home alone; sometimes she worries about when we’re coming back, but she, too, enjoys the spoils of a parent-free house (read: control of the TV remote and all the junk food she can find). Leaving the teens at home is hardly a new thing for us.

But last night was different, because last night was a weeknight and we had tickets for a show. I am embarrassed to admit I cannot remember the last time my long-suffering husband and I went on a date. This is terrible, of course, because “nurturing our relationship” should be high on the priority list, and it is, I swear, but… most of the time we have to do that nurturing from the couch while we talk about how tired we are. It’s not that we don’t spend quality time together, it’s that it’s hard to find ways to “do stuff” in the midst of everything else. Last night, we had tickets, so off we went.

Here I’m going to pause to point out that my youngest is just getting over the flu. He was the sickest I can remember him ever being, and even though he’d been fever-free for a day and was definitely coming out the other side of this thing, I was nervous about going out because I am an overprotective worrier. My oldest had homework and chores and made solemn promises to complete both, but I had my doubts. Our arthritic, hypoglycemic dog has been stiffer and crankier than usual in the cold, and I was worried about leaving him, too. But I was being ridiculous. Because: tickets. And the kids and dogs would be fine.

As I was writing this, I remembered the last time we had event tickets and abandoned the children. It was over a year ago, and I left an itemized list of instructions behind. Overkill? Perhaps. Yesterday I didn’t leave any instructions. Look at me, letting go! Trusting!

We all ate dinner together and then we adults headed out. All I said by way of preparation was that they could go ahead and set the burglar alarm if that made them feel more comfortable, but to be sure to turn it off if they needed to take the dogs out.

Well. Off we went—and we had a wonderful time—and it was quite a bit later than we’d expected by the time we were headed home. Neither of us could remember if we’d told my daughter (who was surely up later than her brother) to feed the needs-to-be-fed-every-few-hours dog at his normal bedtime feeding. I suspected we hadn’t as we hadn’t anticipated being so late. The bigger question: Would she still be up, with no one to chase her into bed? How awful would getting up for school be, in the morning?

We pulled into the driveway and saw there wasn’t a single light on. That was a good sign, right? Only sort of… turns out the back door was unlocked, the alarm wasn’t armed, the dogs were running around barking, and the family room was a mess. Also, the hour-past-his-feeding-time dog was hungry and also clingy. This morning we learned that while my son slept, oblivious, my daughter had tried to take the dogs upstairs with her, but the arthritic one didn’t want to go (and he can be a little nippy when perturbed, so she didn’t want to pick him up). Of course Duncan barked when left downstairs alone, then cried, so she came back down and tried to sleep on the couch. That would’ve been fine, but he wouldn’t stop poking at her and barking, so eventually she just left him and went upstairs to sleep. (She isn’t around when he gets his bedtime feeding, usually, so didn’t realize he was trying to tell her he was hungry.) None of this constitutes a crisis—though Duncan did insist on joining us in our bed last night, which is unusual—but I’ll confess to being a little annoyed.

This morning—that is to say, in the light of day, with my son bouncing around declaring he felt so! much! better!! and the dogs having forgiven everyone for the change in routine—I realized that any worry or annoyance about the mess or cranky dog was just… not that important in the grand scheme of things. (We did have a conversation about locking the door and setting the alarm, but I kept it light.) Everyone survived. My husband and I had a fun evening, just the two of us. My son had a good night’s sleep. My daughter dealt with some minor obstacles in maybe a different way than I would’ve suggested, but that’s okay. Everyone was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as it were, this morning. Life goes on.

On the drive home last night, my husband and I got into a discussion about whether we’re getting older in normal ways or experiencing true cognitive decline. (I am experiencing a disturbing trend, more and more, where I open up my mouth and the wrong word pops out. Worse, sometimes it takes me a few beats to realize it. To wit: I was trying to tell one of the kids to take their pills, and I said, “Take your peas!” My husband, on the other hand, says he’ll sort of slur/mispronounce a word on the first try. We were both horrified and relieved to discover we’ve both been wondering if we’re going senile.) We joked about how we have to hurry up and get in all of our quality time before we have to move into a nursing home.

Even as I packed lunches this morning (because I want to, not because anyone can’t feed themselves without me), I sat with the realization that my tenure in true child-rearing is almost over. We can go do our thing and they’ll do their thing and they might not do it the way I want them to and that’s just too bad for me.

We’re thinking about getting season tickets for this concert series so that we go out more often. I think it might be time to do that.

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Letting Go Of Normal Wed, 21 Jan 2015 14:17:37 +0000

“Normal”—much like, say, a unicorn—is something I’m not sure exists. But I want it to exist. In the case of unicorns, it just seems like it would be cool and increase the World Glitter Quotient (that’s a thing, right?); in the case of normal, I cannot tell you why I continue to believe that this is something important.

There’s a small part of my brain that believes normal must be like True North on a compass. It’s not that I need normal or even that I feel like normal is a necessary or desirable destination. It’s simply that I believe it would offer some semblance of guidance to have an absolute point of regularity to reference. If I knew where “most” people were, well, then I would know when and how far off the norm our family is, and that might bring some sort of comfort or other useful information.

[Brief disclaimer: In clinical parlance, there is no “normal” in child development, only “typical.” I refer to my kids as being “non-neurotypical” when we’re discussing goals, nuts-and-bolts, etc. But some mythical “normal” remains an accepted construct, spoken or not, and I am not immune to its lure.]

Hmmm. I can see that in the abstract, this isn’t making a lot of sense. If you believe in the concept of normal (and, again, I do kind of rank it alongside unicorns), you have to understand that I don’t have any “normal” kids, which means I am often baffled about what’s their particular foibles and what’s just “like every other kid.” Let’s go with some examples to make things clearer.

Example 1: My teenage son is autistic. Because his world view tends to be very black and white and concrete, any sort of school assignment he completes is done to match the absolute bare minimum of the requested work. If the rubric for a paper specifies it should be 2-4 pages, he will write exactly two pages. If “show your work” is not specified, he won’t, and if it is, the work he shows is maybe an additional step or two out of 10, if we’re lucky. My son is plenty bright and capable, and also very eager to please his teachers, but fifteen years of trying to explain to him that going the extra mile is almost always a good idea has been met with an unshakeable belief that such additional effort would be a waste of his precious time. I consider this a “feature” of his autism, and something we are (ever so slowly) working on changing. But if I happen to mention any related difficulties to parents of “normal” teens, they assure me that their kids are the same way. So is this normal?

Example 2: My teenage daughter has ADHD. She has benefitted from medication, but of course medication is not the same thing as a magic brain-changing potion. She struggles with staying on task and completing what she starts, particularly when it’s not something she’s interested in. It’s not uncommon to ask her to do something… and then ask again five minutes later… and ten minutes after that to threaten to take away her phone/computer/iPod until said task is completed… and then end up having to stop everything to redirect her while she complains bitterly that she was going already, geez, why are we always on her? We’re as patient as possible (usually) and sometimes we go with natural consequences, which nearly always elicit some sort of meltdown because she didn’t know and but why and so on. It’s not my favorite part of parenting, but I consider this a “feature” of her ADHD… until other parents insist to me that their teens are exactly the same way. Is this normal?

For me, this stuff brings up a lot of mixed emotions.

For starters, autism (and even ADHD, depending on your point of view) is a spectrum. Of course some undesirable behaviors that are part and parcel of autism (or ADHD) are going to be found in the general population, albeit maybe with less severity. I am always torn between appreciating that someone is trying to commiserate and being annoyed at the glossing over of the difference between “garden variety adolescent behavior” and “truly life-challenging issues brought to the table by neurological differences.” When I’m dealing with a teen whose behavior suggests they remain years behind their peers developmentally, it’s hard not to ruffle at the suggestion that I’m overreacting. (Related: Hell hath no fury like hearing the suggestion at an IEP meeting that “but all kids…” when trying to get appropriate accommodations for your child. Just saying.)

On the other hand, part of me really wants to take comfort in the idea that my kids really aren’t so different; shouldn’t it be reassuring to hear that the selfsame behaviors which leave me wondering if my children will ever be able to move out of my house and live on their own are common among all kids their age, and therefore my worry might, actually, be overblown? Because all kids are disorganized, and try to get out of homework, and lose things, and get distracted, and don’t want to do their chores. All of them. My kids are normal!

In the end, I come back to that word. Normal. I wonder if it really exists. I wonder if we would want normal, for real, given the option. Sure, my husband and I joke all the time about how other people fantasize about being rich and/or famous, while we have daydreams about our family being utterly run-of-the-mill and normal, but without the quirks that drive me up a wall, my kids wouldn’t be themselves. And while unicorns sound exciting, normal sounds… kind of boring.

“Mom, I have some very sad news,” my son said, this morning, while packing up his backpack.

“What’s that, honey?” I asked, wondering what on earth could have him looking so glum.

“I am not a bird,” he said, deadpan.

“Oooooo…kay? I’m sorry?” He burst into laughter—unselfconscious, delighted, and utterly himself. Is he normal? Do I care? (Probably not, and no.)

I’ve lived a pretty good life without a single unicorn, and I’ve never felt like, “Oh, but everything would be so much better if only unicorns were real!” Perhaps I just need periodic reminders that the same is true of any supposed normal.

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Pride And Prejudice And Siblings Tue, 13 Jan 2015 14:56:09 +0000

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” I tell my kids. If I had a nickel for every time I say it, I would have a lot of nickels. Other nickel-worthy phrases in my arsenal: “Fair isn’t equal,” “You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be the best you,” and “If you were already perfect, what would be the point?”

Honestly, I’ve become a walking Hallmark card. I’m proof that parenthood is a cliche despite the best of intentions.

One thing I’ve always managed as a parent, I think, is to make it clear to my kids that the only person they’re in competition with is themselves. Strive for excellence, of course, but compare yourself to others? That doesn’t have to be part of the game. What’s more, it shouldn’t be, because there is always someone who is better/smarter/funnier/prettier/more. That way lies madness. You do you, and let everyone else do them, and don’t worry about whether you measure up to some mythical standard set by others.

This notion goes double when it comes to siblinghood. As painful as it may be to feel you don’t measure up to another kid in your class, the sting of feeling that your sibling is “always better” is a sharp and lasting one. My kids are less than two years apart, and now they’re only a grade apart in school—comparison is inevitable, you might say. Except I choose to believe it’s not. I don’t compare. Most of their teachers see them as so different from one another that we’ve been lucky to escape classroom comparison, as well. Even the challenge of watching them share a class has—thus far—been relatively smooth sailing in the comparison department. All kind, reasonable humans know better than to say, “Oh, but your brother always…” or “But your sister managed…” or similar. Their teachers haven’t said it to them. We parents don’t say it to them.

No comparisons! No making anyone feel bad! It seemed so reasonable and logical. It was. I mean, I was sure it was.

And that’s how I managed to screw up big-time and almost not even realize it.

I share because I care! Also because 1) confession is good for the soul and 2) maybe you’ve done something similar, inadvertently, and can use a friendly reminder to be a little more aware of how the best intentions can go askew…?

It’s all good and well to challenge your kids to be their best themselves and not compare and all of that, but it’s also (I think) human nature to swing a little too far in the other direction. To wit: I would never, ever, if faced with my teens’ rather disparate midterm grades (which arrived over the weekend), tell the kid with the lower grades to be more like their sibling. That would be terrible, obviously. But here’s what I did do, without even realizing it at first: I totally downplayed the hard-won achievements of the kid whose grades were awesome. I just… didn’t make a big deal about it. Or any deal, really, lest I make the other kid feel bad. And I didn’t just stay quiet in front of both of them, I just… didn’t react at all. For several days.

And then I realized that in my quest not to make one of my kids feel bad, I was robbing my other kid of well-deserved praise, and that wasn’t right, either. After this shameful realization, I waited until we were alone in the car one day and said, “Hey, I don’t know if I told you this before—” (lies! I knew I hadn’t, but I was trying to be casual) “—but I am really proud of how hard you worked last semester. I hope you’re proud of yourself, too. You pushed yourself and rose to the challenge and it paid off. Nice work.” The teen in question just shrugged and said, “I guess,” and immediately changed the subject, so I wouldn’t characterize it as an after-school-special-worthy moment, or anything, but I’m still glad I took the time to be very clear about my pride. Hard work is something to celebrate, full stop. Whether my kids think so or not, I don’t want to be the kind of parent who just skips that out of fear of making the other kid feel bad.

As for the other teen, well, we had a conversation about working up to potential, and—as you might expect, when having such a conversation with a teenager who, y’know, didn’t—it involved a lot of sighing and eye-rolling and “I get it, Mom”s. But what it didn’t involve was “you expect me to be just like [my sibling],” at least. I think they both know that’s never the case. And I tried really hard to emphasize that it’s fodder for motivation rather than despair. It’s just one tough semester. Live and learn; make this next semester a better one.

I don’t know if you know this, but if you have more than one kid, it’s hard to make sure they each get what they need without feeling like they’re being compared or otherwise impacted by their sibling(s). Who knew?? I’m still working on it. But I’m really glad that I caught my mistake here.

(Turns out I’m still working on being my best me, too.)

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