Alpha Mom » Mir Kamin parenting and pregnancy opinions and information Wed, 04 Feb 2015 15:17:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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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More Than Just A Birthday Tue, 06 Jan 2015 22:31:41 +0000

My son—my youngest, my last baby—turned 15 this weekend. Fifteen! One five. Somehow I think I kidded myself that 13 was really just barely a teenager, and when he turned 14 I began to realize that yes, okay, really he’s a teen now for real, but only kind of, right? Fifteen, I realize, is as close to 20 as it is to 10. And somehow that feels huge.

Denial is harder when I have to look up into his face. Not too far, mind you, not yet, but we’re definitely there. And all too often when I look up into it, the first thing out of my mouth is, “When did you last shave? You’re all stubbly.” I hear a deep voice booming through the house and realize, with something that feels like surprise, every time, that it’s my son, not my husband. Sometimes when I walk past him reading a book or glued to the computer and I stop to drop a quick hug across his shoulders, I’m shocked by their width.

My kids have a friend who is undeniably “quirky,” by any measure. He marches to the beat of his own drum, and seems unfettered by popular opinion or expectations. I adore this about him, and am delighted that he’s part of their circle of trusted geekdom; but beyond that, this particular kid is the most Zen teenager I’ve ever met. Heck, he may the most Zen person I’ve ever met. He’s calm. He’s comfortable. He appears to content with who he is and where he is and the drama and angst that hangs around most teens is nowhere to be found within his personal bubble of awesomeness. I don’t know if it’s this kid’s influence or simply time and maturity (or something else entirely), but my son is having brief periods of that kind of calm comfort in his own skin. It’s not all the time, or even most of the time, yet, but it’s sometimes—and for him, that’s a big deal. Nothing makes me feel more grateful than seeing either one of my kids just being happy with who they are.

Back when my son was finally diagnosed with autism when he was 9, a well-meaning but insensitive doctor kind of waved his hand when I was talking about how hard things had been lately and said, “Oh, this is nothing. Wait until he’s, say, mid-high-school. That’s when these kids really tend to fall apart.” (Ummmmm. Thanks?) My son’s been back in public high school for a year, now, and this past semester was his first full-time, rigorous schedule, plus marching band and other school activities. The course of acclimation did not run smooth, to put it mildly. As much as we expected issues, it was still hard to see. Sometimes it all felt like too much for him, and then in addition to whatever the problem was (too much work, too much hassling from other kids, too much noise and sensory overload spending an entire day in a crowded school), it was often followed by a despairing cry of, “Why is everything so much harder for me?”

Self-awareness can be a terrible thing. As little of it as many teens have (and as much as I often wish they had more…), it can be a tough cross to bear.

Still, I see glimpses of a future where my son is comfortable and happy with himself more often than not. Happy vestiges of tiny him remain—he is still quick to laugh, given to heartfelt gratitude for even the smallest kindnesses, and eager to please—and as he works through the complicated business of approaching adulthood, I worry less than I used to.

This birthday was perhaps the most jarring one so far, in that I barely saw him, and that was okay (good, even). My late bloomer has hit Typical Teenhood (whatever that really means) and so after his traditional homemade cinnamon rolls birthday breakfast, he spent half his day gaming online with one group of friends, then the other half of the day with some other pals who came to spend the night. The boys downed enormous plates of food at dinner with record speed, then tossed “thank you”s over their shoulders while retreating back upstairs to do… whatever it is that teenagers do. When I went up to suggest that they turn out the lights, though, he gave me a big hug and a kiss goodnight right in front of his friends without a shred of self-consciousness. (I offered to kiss them, too. They declined, with impressive restraint of their obvious horror.)

The cinnamon rolls lasted for several days. As he polished off the last one this morning before school, he said, “Thanks for making cinnamon rolls for my birthday, Mom. Those are my favorite!”

“I know, honey,” I replied, somewhat amused. “I’ll always make them for your birthday.”

“Hooray!” he said, hands waving above his head, one part genuine enthusiasm and two parts attempting to make me laugh. (It worked.)

My baby is 15. He’s busy doing the hard work of unfolding into his skin and making peace with who he is, and I am amazed every day by the man he is becoming. He is smart and kind and hilarious and weird. He’s exactly who he’s supposed to be, exactly where he belongs. 15 feels like a little miracle.

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Notes From The Passenger Seat Wed, 31 Dec 2014 14:43:06 +0000

I grew up in New York (upstate, not the big city), and twenty-mumble years ago when I turned 16 there, the law was like this: You could take your driver’s permit test at 16, after which you could pretty much take your license test whenever you felt ready. Once licensed, the only caveat of a “Junior License” (for those under the age of 17) was that you not drive after 9:00 at night unless it was related to a school activity. (I found this a fascinating rule. For one thing, my friends and I always joked about how the worst part of being 16 was that assumption that you’d lose control of the wheel the moment the clock struck 9, sort of like how Cinderella’s coach turned back into a pumpkin at midnight. For another, you could legally drive home from prom but not to the store to grab a jug of milk if it was dark out.) I don’t remember how long it took me to get my license (I got my permit as soon as I turned 16, over the summer, and I want to say I got my license the following January), but my parents promptly allowed me to drive myself to nightly play rehearsals a town away, as years of chauffeuring me back and forth was quite enough, thank you. I was instructed not to speed and to tell any officer who might pull me over that the play was a school activity (it wasn’t).

I had a boyfriend who had his own car; I rode around with him all the time, starting when I was much younger than 16, and it wasn’t unusual for us to cram another three (or four or five) people into his car as well. That’s just what you did.

Well, eventually the safety experts figured out that teenagers aren’t 1) all that safe or 2) all that bright. Most states have adopted stricter rules about licensing itself as well as graduated licenses. Here in Georgia, imagine my horror to discover that you can get a permit at 15. Sure, your 15-year-old was a paragon of rational thought and responsibility, of course (and congratulations), but when my oldest turned 15, I’m not sure I trusted her to operate a can opener, much less a motor vehicle. We were not one of those families who ran out and got her permit on her birthday, that’s for sure. It turns out, we were hardly unique—teen driving rates have been declining, and plenty of my kids’ eligible friends also aren’t driving yet. I think it’s due in large part to the new rules about licensing; first, you have to have your permit here for a year before you’re even eligible to test for your license. A year is an eternity to most teens. Next, once you have that license, for the first six months you can’t have anyone in the car who’s not part of your immediate family, and for the next six months, you’re still not allowed to take more than one underage passenger. What’s the point of having a license if you can’t load up your friends? Might as well have Mom or Dad drive you, especially when that crummy license requires said parents to certify you’ve had at least 40 hours of experience behind the wheel.

Anyway, we waited, for all sorts of reasons. My oldest was nearly 16 when we finally allowed her to get her driving permit, and once obtained, it was brought home and put away. We had no intention of teaching her to drive at that time, we were just mindful of the fact that she needed to have her permit for a year before licensure. Without getting into the specifics of why we felt she wasn’t ready, I can tell you that this last month, we decided It Was Time. I don’t mind telling you that many of the issues which had previously concerned us seem to have resolved in the last three months or so, for one thing. Also—and perhaps more pressing, depending on your point of view—said teen’s younger brother is about to turn 15, making him eligible for a driving permit as well. (Not driving: Not embarrassing. Not driving when your little brother is driving: Kind of embarrassing.)

It is perhaps interesting to note here that my son has no interest in obtaining his permit. He thinks driving is scary, and “where would I go, anyway? You can drive me.” Due to their individual personality quirks, I’m less worried about him learning than her. This isn’t a slam on my daughter, please understand; she has ADD and difficulty multitasking. And while I assured my husband that he could teach her to drive because I wasn’t having any part of it, I realized I was being silly and needed to participate in this process, too. (We are also planning on driving school.) The first time I sat in a big empty parking lot with my daughter behind the wheel, I realized just how many things a good driver must attend to at once—things I do by instinct, now, after years of driving, but which must’ve sounded like an insurmountable list to my nervous teen.

Did I Google “best ways to teach a teen to drive” before we went out? Yeah, I did. I read articles. I skimmed tip sheets. They all came back to the same things: Be calm. Be encouraging. Praise rather than criticize, as much as possible. Temper correction with assurances that they’re getting it, it’s fine. (Rules for driving or just plain good advice for parenting, period? I say both.) We drove in long, looping ovals, discussing getting the feel of the road, the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brake pedal. I made her speed up, slow down, stop at countless imaginary stop signs.

“Watch the curb. You’re fine, just know where it is.”

“What do you do if an animal runs out in front of you?”

“You can be doing everything right and someone else either doesn’t see you or drives poorly—that’s why they call it defensive driving, because you have to watch for the stuff you can’t control.”

“There you go… you’re getting the feel of the pedals now. See how much smoother that is?”

I let her drive home (we weren’t far, and we don’t live in a busy area), continuing my running monologue, hoping she found it calming rather than annoying. “That’s it, okay, the speed limit here is 50, but if that feels scary, go 40. Too slow is just as dangerous as too fast, when it comes to other drivers, but you can go between 40 and 50 and that’s fine. Notice how smaller steerings have a bigger effect at a higher speed, see? It’s fine, sweetie, you’re doing great. Watch that car up there, he’s far away but if you see brake lights, remember, it’ll take longer to stop from a higher speed. Glance down and check your speed; there you go. Yep, it’s super easy to forget how fast you’re going when you’re paying attention to everything else. That’s something that you’ll get the feel of over time. Perfect, I like how you’re signaling and slowing down. Great stop. Yep, let that car go, they were here first. You don’t need to wait for the other one, you’re next, but do check that he’s going to let you go… okay, perfect, make your turn. Nice! Yup, signal again, this one’s a right turn so just slow down enough to make the turn… wooooo, okay, maybe next time slow down juuuust a little more—it’s fine, honey, you’re fine—and on home. Great! You can park right in front of the garage. Put it in park, put the brake on, turn off the lights, turn off the car. You did it!”

She exhaled, beamed a smile at me, and as I got out of the car she reached into the glove box and extracted her phone. She snapped a selfie behind the wheel and posted it to her friends with the caption “I DIDN’T CRASH THE CAR YAY!”

Sometimes it feels like we’re inching towards adulthood with our teens, and sometimes it feels like we’re careening there at top speed with no brakes. This feels like… a little of both.

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If You’re Shallow And You Know It, Clap Your Hands! Wed, 17 Dec 2014 19:33:00 +0000


I am not, in general, a “material goods” kind of person. My husband loves to tease me that I am the most un-sentimental person he’s ever known. I would rather throw it away than have a mess of things to store. I don’t collect stuff. I abhor the epidemic of “he who dies with the most toys wins.” When my son asks me what I want for Christmas or my birthday, he follows the request with a hasty, “And don’t say ‘peace on earth’ again!” Unfortunately for my kids, this means I am completely impervious to the whine of “… but everyone else has….”

In short, I’m a terrible, mean mother determined to make social pariahs of my children. I mean, they’ve never said that, but it’s been heavily implied.

It’s not that I’m some sort of saint who travels the world in my rags with only a small notebook and a pencil to record my thoughts. I’ll be the first to tell you that I like nice things and I probably spend more money on shoes than is strictly necessary. We have a lot of technology in our house. Once I caved and got an iPhone (several generations in…), it took over part of my brain and now I have trouble functioning without it. But… I pay for my own stuff because I have a job and enough discretionary money with which to do so. Also, hi, I’m a grown-up. A child—excuse me, teenager, practically an adult, Mom—who badgers me for a $400 gaming console is going to be cordially invited to find gainful employment to fund their desires.

There’s another dimension to this puzzle, too, and that’s the Divorce Dynamic of gifting. Believe me when I tell you that I have always been more pragmatic/minimalist about gifting and my children’s father has always believed in gifting extravagance. That’s just how we’re wired, I guess. But when we divorced (and I gather this is not uncommon), those separate proclivities stretched into even further polar opposites. There were years, back in the early days, when what few presents I gave the kids were the result of painstaking thrifting and eBay stalking, because it was all I could afford; meanwhile, their father showered them with more items than a single person could possibly even use, never mind any concept of actual need. I’m not going to lie, that was hard. I was bitter (for a long time). I didn’t like that in addition to being the everyday “unfun” parent I now could never, ever possibly measure up when it came to special occasions, and I resented that I even wanted to, because I was not going to get into a pissing match of stuff in some attempt to make it “more fair.”

Time passed and my anger and annoyance faded. I became more financially stable but still adhered to basic tenets about gift-giving, specifically that “more is more” would never be a guiding principle, and that not getting everything you want the second you want it is good for your character. My kids’ father continued to give them more than I ever would’ve, but I figured out how to disengage from that power struggle and simply smile and say, “Wow, that was really nice of Dad! Lucky you!”

My teenagers have had “dumb” phones for years. Even though “everyone else has smartphones!” (This may or may not be true.) My son doesn’t care too much, but my daughter has bemoaned her lack in this area for a long time, and it was easy enough to convince her that she would never, ever be receiving a smartphone from us. The thing is, non-smart cell phones are no longer in demand (because everyone has smartphones), and although we upgraded them from crummy phones a while back, both of the kids’ phones have recently stopped working properly. My daughter’s phone likes to randomly power down, while my son’s phone often forgets how to pick up signal. This is frustrating for everyone, because it means that ability to send a text or make a call—the reasons I allow them to have the phones in the first place!—is hindered. Yesterday I got an email from my son that said, “My stupid phone is refusing to work and I’m not sure this email is even going to work but can you pick me up at 4:45?” Hey, good for him for figuring out an alternate method of contact, but I received that email at… 4:50. As I tore out of the house, I both texted and tried to call him, but his phone wasn’t working.

Even though it shouldn’t be a surprise, I recently realized my daughter will be off to college in just 18 months, with her brother following a year later. We’d decided a little while back to upgrade them to iPhones for Christmas; after yesterday’s pick-up snafu, we decided to give the kids the phones last night. So it was a double surprise, because no one was expecting a Tuesday night iPhone (ha!) and neither of them were expecting iPhones, period. (And for those who are curious, because I know I would be: Noooooo, we did not get them the latest-and-greatest. We got them the cheapest models available. Poor pumpkins.) My daughter, especially, was ecstatic.

I would love to tell you that this was purely a sensible logistic move; their phones had become unreliable, and years of dealing with good-for-texting-but-no-data phones have taught us that those phones are crappy, and also, thanks to some wheedling, we managed this upgrade without increasing our monthly bill (even though we added in data for two more phones). That would be a lie, though. That was a big part of the decision, sure. But the whole truth is that it is very, very rare that I get to be the one to give either kid a “big” gift. Both kids have been doing a lot of hard work this semester, and I don’t mean schoolwork, either—my son has adjusted to being a full-time public high school student, has strayed out of his comfort zone in countless situations, and has generally been a rock star about handling everything, and my daughter is coming off of a very rocky few years and is finally making real strides in taking the helm of her own life. I tell them all the time that I’m proud of them (and oh, I am), but yeah, okay, I wanted to be the one to give them something “cool” as that material “You’re awesome, here’s a tangible goody” reward. Good behavior is its own reward, sure, but… it’s fun to play Santa, too.

The delighted dancing I witnessed last night made my day (week, month, year).

Does this mean I will start giving them everything they want, whenever they want it? Or that I won’t take those phones right back again if there are problems? Nope. I’m still the mean mom, in some ways, but I sure am enjoying what’s likely to be a very short-lived stint as The Greatest Mom Ever. If this makes me a shallow person, I can live with that.

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Your School Meeting Baking Guide Tue, 09 Dec 2014 17:14:39 +0000

You know how fine dining guides and cookbooks will give you tips on wine pairings? I’m terrible at that; my feeling about wine is “it’s good and you should drink the kind you like regardless of what you’re eating,” so I’m the wrong person to query about the proper vintage to go with your risotto. On the other hand, I am absolutely the right person to ask about what to bake for school meetings.

See, there’s usually one of two reactions when I tell people I never go to a meeting at school without a basket of home-baked goodies: People either think I’m a genius, or they think I’m being “too nice.” Here’s a little secret I’ve learned after a decade of special education meetings with a wide variety of teachers and school administrators: There’s no such thing as “too nice.” Most of the time I’m meeting with folks who have a vested interest in helping my children and who are amazing and well-meaning. Those people deserve treats! Some of the time I’m meeting with folks who are rude and/or unhelpful. Those people also deserve treats, because I’m setting a tone of kindness and cooperation… and even if I’m offering those treats through gritted teeth, I try to remember that people who are making my life more difficult probably aren’t all that happy, themselves. With that in mind, here’s a handy….

School Meeting Baking Chart:

Early morning non-emergency meeting. (This would include plan renewals or other routine sorts of check-ins.) Go with a muffin that’s hearty and healthy; you want something yummy, but not overly sweet. You’re going for “I’m a responsible human who enjoys a balanced diet but still wants to bring you baked goods.”
Best selections: Raisin oat bran, morning glory, anything with rolled oats.

Early morning kind-of-an-emergency meeting. (Called because there is An Issue you’d like the school to address.) These meetings call for a lighter and sweeter muffin. Citrus will make the room smell good and kind of brighten everyone’s outlook, which is a subtle way to make things more pleasant. You’re going for “I realize this is a difficult conversation but I think we could all use a little treat.”
Best selections: Orange cranberry, lemon poppy, anything with berries.

Early morning sorry-my-kid-is-such-a-butthead meeting. (Called because there is An Issue for which your child is culpable.) If you must stick with muffins, now is the time to pull out all the stops: go with a streusel or icing topping (or both, if things are really bad). Even better: make scones. Scones are impressive. You’re going for “I am totally pretending not to grovel with my baking but I am totally groveling with my baking.”
Best selections: Apple fritter muffin, cinnamon streusel muffin, any flavor scone.
(Note: In the case of A True Crisis, I Am Going To Kill That Child, from-scratch cinnamon rolls—preferably utilizing a Cinnabon copycat recipe—may be warranted. Proceed with caution and bring extra napkins.)

Midday or after-school non-emergency meeting. Again, your message is one of moderation but taste. This is a good time for the kinds of cookies your children like to insist aren’t really cookies because where’s the chocolate, Mom?? Don’t make anything so healthy that it’s no longer a treat, though. (Any cookie recipe which uses whole wheat flour doesn’t count.)
Best selections: Oatmeal raisin cookies, homemade granola bars, macaroons, mini-meringues.

Midday or after-school kind-of-an-emergency meeting. This is a great time to bust out any “family favorite” cookie recipe. When in doubt, use chocolate chips. You have a wide field of discretion, here, in that you’re going for sweet treats that won’t lead to a sugar coma but cannot be mistaken for health food.
Best selections: Chocolate chip cookies, gooey bars, lace cookies, any cookie that’s made someone spontaneously declare, “I need this recipe.”

Midday or after-school sorry-my-kid-is-such-a-butthead meeting. Go for the sugar coma. Make it clear that you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the kitchen wishing things had turned out differently. Your goal is a treat so delicious, your child’s sins may be forgiven in a haze of diabetic ecstasy.
Best selections: Cake (with frosting), homemade versions of whoopie pies or Oreos, truffles.


Christmas is coming! Here’s your bonus recommendations:

Winter break teacher gifts, no active crises. This is the perfect time to hand out entire buckets of assorted baked goods, assuming that you’ve already had enough interaction with these teachers to know that they tend to appreciate your offerings. If they like everything and nothing difficult is happening, bake an assortment, pack it up in something pretty, and wish ‘em happy holidays.
Best selections: I like to go with at least four options—one traditional holiday (I do old-fashioned molasses), one “broad-appeal” (like chocolate chip), one that’s simply pretty (generally a shaped and/or frosted sugar or mint cookie), and one slightly more decadent offering (fudge or bark).

Winter break teacher gifts, recent or low-level active crises. Have you been paying attention to which teachers like what? Good. Give them their favorite, whatever that is. I have one school person who doesn’t eat sweets at all, so for Christmas I’ll make spiced nuts now that I know what they’d actually like.
Best selections: Whatever you decide to make, make it the prettiest and the most delicious batch of it ever.

Winter break teacher gifts, active and hair-pulling crises. Sometimes baked goods simply aren’t enough. Recognize and honor those times.
Best selections: Money, booze, tears. (Kidding! I’m kidding. No one wants your tears.) (Still just kidding! You could get in trouble for giving booze or money. So, um, don’t ever give money. And I would never recommend booze because that would be wrong. Would you like a cookie…?)

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To New Parents, From A Parent of Teens Tue, 02 Dec 2014 18:02:36 +0000

We live in a time where waiting until your 30s or 40s to have children seems more common than not. If I’m making small-talk in the grocery checkout line or at a cocktail party and mention that I have not one, but two kids in high school, the response is almost universally shock. “You’re not old enough to have high schoolers!” Well, obviously I’m old enough to have high schoolers—without having had them as a high schooler, myself, even—and it’s not even that I look especially youthful. It’s just that lots of women my age just started having kids a few years ago, or only in the last decade.

I was 26 when my daughter was born. Now she’s headed towards 17 (which means I’m 43); I’ve gained a bunch of weight and wrinkles and gray hair, and as my very favorite hobby is sleeping I will be the first to tell you that if I had an infant at this stage in my life, I’d go insane. I feel old, a lot of the time. I also feel out of place, a lot of the time, because so many of my same-aged peers are in a different life stage than we are. Two of my coworkers had beautiful baby boys this year, and our family gained two gorgeous nieces, too. I don’t want to be that annoying person who’s all, “Oh, just you wait!” or “Let me tell you what it’s like,” because one of the most hard-won lessons of parenting, for me, has been the realization that you just have no idea, heading into it, what awaits you or what you can handle. Besides, no one wants to hear supposed wisdom when there are tiny toes to count and soft bellies to kiss. This is their time to hold their babies, inhale that delicious aroma of hope and promise and organic baby wash, and believe that everything will be perfect.

If I was going share some sort of pseudo-wisdom with those new parents, though, without fear of rolled eyes or hurt feelings, I know what I would say.

I would say that parenting is joyful, terrifying, fulfilling, and rage-inducing. I would say that the hokey “the toughest job you’ll ever love” thing is true, but also that there may be plenty of times that love feels pretty far down on the list of available feelings.

I would say that no matter how or when you come to this parenting gig, children have a way of holding up a mirror to our deepest secrets and fears, even ones we were sure had already been handled or tucked away. Sometimes being a parent will bring out the absolute best in you; you’ll want to be a better person, and more often than you might realize, you are. On the other hand, sometimes being a parent forces you to confront the ways in which you are broken (usually while fervently pleading with the deity of your choosing that you don’t break your kid) and lacking.

I would say that the day will come when you open your mouth and one of your parents’ voices comes out. This may delight you or it may make you cringe. Maybe both. Don’t worry; it will happen more than once, so you’ll have plenty of chances to experience the full spectrum of emotions from nostalgia to horror.

I would say that there will come a point in this parenting gig when you realize how much you can’t fix, and that realization will leave you breathless. At the same time, you will probably remember an instance or two or ten when you judged another parent for something which you believed was their fault, which you now (perhaps with some shame) realize was not only uncharitable and unhelpful, but likely made an already difficult time even worse for them. It’s true that we’re all parenting experts until we have children, and even then, it may be years before we face the stuff that makes colic look like a sunny day in the park. Be kind to other parents. Be kind to yourself, too.

I would say that there will be times when you don’t like your child, and some of those times, you may wonder if there’s something wrong with you, or with them. It may be impossible to picture, as you cuddle your precious infant in your arms, but it will happen. It’s okay. Accept your feelings, but moderate your behavior.

I would say that there will be times when you look at your child and see a stranger and question every parenting decision you’ve ever made. But there will also be times when you behold your adult-sized child and it occurs to you that someday you could be friends. Not just “friends,” but real friends—good, close friends who survived the war together and enjoy each other in spite of it all. That time may still be a long way off, but if you can picture it—at all—that’s a victory. Trust me.

I would say that you will do and say things you never imagined, and you won’t even be sure they’re the right choices, at the time, but you’ll make decisions as best you can and hope for a decent batting average. Sometimes you’ll get it right; sometimes your choices will be catastrophic. I would say that if you’re not already someone who’s comfortable admitting when you’re wrong and offering a heartfelt apology, start cultivating that skill right now, because you will need to apologize to your child countless times over the years. If you do, you’ll both get better and stronger. If you don’t, the trust needed to grow a relationship will erode and create a chasm between you.

I would say that we talk about wanting our children to be healthy and happy, but we’re often terrible at teaching them the tools most likely to result in health and happiness. Or we teach them to the best of our ability and set a great example and they still just don’t get it, and then we blame ourselves. So again, here’s what we need to do: Be kind. Be kind to them, be kind to ourselves, be kind to those we love, be kind to strangers. Keep being kind even when others are mean. Keep being kind even when our children seem bound and determined to demonstrate that kindness doesn’t matter to them. Keep being kind even when your heart is breaking.

I would say that I hope that baby in your arms grows into a strong, confident, capable adult with only the tiniest of hiccups along the way, but no matter how things go, you can handle it. Even if you’re hiding in your closet, sobbing, convinced you can’t? You can. You will. You will let that child go hundreds of times over the years, and many of those times you’ll be convinced they’ll never come back. But you’ll do it. And chances are, they’ll come back again, and you’ll let them go again (and again).

I would say that someday your baby will be a teenager and you’ll look at other people’s new babies and be amazed. You will be a different person than you were when your journey began. You will be envious of the innocence of the new, gobsmacked parent. You will be tired, and frustrated, and worried, and sporadically triumphant, but most often bewildered. You will also feel lucky, and hopeful. Maybe not all the time, but enough.

I would say: It’s a very bumpy ride, but it’s amazing.

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Why The “Best” Holiday Gift For Teens Isn’t For Us Tue, 25 Nov 2014 19:59:20 +0000

“Everyone complains about how hard it is to shop for teens,” I told them, “except for these people—” I gestured to my screen “—who write articles like ‘Great Gift Ideas For Your Teen’ who say it’s easy.” There was some crowding around my computer, and we scanned the article together.

“Lame,” declared my oldest.

I felt like the article was kind of lame, myself, but I was curious on her take. “Really? Why?”

“Because that should be a very short article that goes like this: ‘Great Gift Idea For Your Teen’ should just be followed by a bunch of dollar signs. The end.”

I queried her brother to see if he agreed. He gave me a very “duh, Mom” sort of shrug and said, “Well, money is the best gift. That way I can get whatever I want.”

All about the spirit of giving, my children are. They appreciate the care and thought that goes into gifts, value any kindness presented to them, and… yeah, no. They want cash. Cold, hard cash is the language of teens, and if we would just fork it over, please, that would be great.

Spoiler: I don’t give my kids money as gifts (or, you know, ever). I get what they’re saying, and I understand that at this age there is nothing headier than making your own buying choices and having the means with which to achieve them, but I don’t love the idea of just handing over some cash—even though that’s what they truly want—and conveying that at this special time of year, I love you so much that I couldn’t be bothered to figure out what you like. (They wouldn’t see it that way, and I’m not saying that’s what it means when someone gives cash. I’m saying that’s how I feel about it, because I happen to love picking out gifts for others. To me, part of the joy of the process is the surprise element, the “how did you know?” part of it. It’s my hang-up and I’m not attempting to project it onto anyone else.)

Money feels impersonal to me, even though the kids assure me that they don’t see it that way. At the same time, my kids are well taken care of and don’t want for any essentials, and the things they do really want are things they won’t be getting from us. (Did you know my teenagers are the only ones in the whole world, or at least the only ones in the whole high school who don’t have smartphones? Because their mean and terrible parents don’t think they need them? Feel free to report us to Child Protective Services now that you know the awful truth.)

I’ve never been a bury-them-in-gifts person for Christmas. When they were small, I either did three gifts (Jesus got three gifts, you know) or the “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read” approach. As they’ve gotten older, it’s shifted a bit. Nowadays it’s more One Big Gift and a few small things, but even that big gift is something I could argue they need—a computer, one year; an upgraded flute for my daughter, one year, and a marching piccolo, the next; the trampoline which was meant to lure my couch potatoes outside.

When relatives ask what to get them, I suggest gift cards. To me, that’s better than cash, because they have their freedom but at the same time, we know where the money goes. My gaming son is crazy for Steam, while my daughter makes short work of any iTunes credit or the opportunity to shop at her favorite teen consignment clothing store. Those are gifts they love which are easy for people to get them. And that’s great.

But when I shop… I want to shop. It doesn’t need to be a lot of stuff, or super-fancy stuff, but I enjoy picking out goodies for them. “Something to wear” and “something to read” are still easy enough; there are never too many books or too many t-shirts from Threadless. Sometimes that One Big Gift makes itself apparent early on, and sometimes it doesn’t.

My approach, these days, is to focus on stockings. As I said, I’m not an over-the-top gifts person, I’m not super-sentimental so I am not prone to collecting, and I tend to dislike anything that’s sort of “for the sake of having more.” At this age, I just have to trust that the best gift I can give my teens (short of that coveted cash, of course) is knowing who they are, and stockings are a great way to give that to them via small items in a non-sappy way. Like… they always get chewing gum in their stockings. But my son likes mint gum and my daughter likes fruit-flavored ones. Not a big deal, but they each get what they like. Every year everyone gets a new ornament for the tree, and it has something to do with that past year and thus comes imbued with meaning. My daughter always gets doo-dads for her hair, and that’s something we’ve been doing since she was tiny. My son always gets some sort of sensory fidget (also something we’ve been doing since they were small). Everyone gets socks, and those socks have gotten weirder over the years (but that’s okay, because so have we). The year my son wouldn’t stop randomly declaring “I am… Batman!” his stocking was topped by a Dark Knight mask, and he was delighted. The stocking gifts are not expensive or extravagant, but they are a simple, quiet way to tell these nearly-adults who are working on pulling away from us that we still see and know and love them.

As for the “main” gifts, this year? It’s almost December and I’m still stumped. I’ll figure it out. I don’t know what they’ll be getting, but I do know it’s not cash, much to the kids’ disappointment. I keep telling them that cash is a great gift once you have actual life expenses, like a mortgage, but they persist in believing I’m just mean. Maybe I am, but I’m okay with that.

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