To The Parents In the Trenches

I’ve been thinking about parenting. This week a friend I hadn’t heard from in a while asked how things were going. I gave some short, glowing reports about my children. A sense of well-being flooding me. My kids are doing so great!

Then I thought about a couple different friends of mine who are struggling with their teens. And I thought about how my glowing reports might not be taken so well by parents who are currently in the trenches with their own offspring.

When we are struggling we tend to look around us at how everyone else is doing. If our friends are doing better than us we feel condemned, less than. If our friends are doing worse than us, we feel validated, superior. If they are in the same boat as us, we feel encouraged, we’re not alone!

For those of you who are on the battlefield right now with your teen, I want you to know that you are not alone. I would guess that most parents of older children have fought those battles. We don’t talk about it much. We can’t. We can’t gossip or malign our own children. We can’t air our dirty laundry because it affects their lives too, not just ours. We can’t betray their confidences, their privacy. So, we mostly suffer alone. Privately. Perhaps sharing only with a very close friend. It is very lonely.

I want you to have hope. Not all problems with teens automatically mean that they are going to end up homeless drug addicts, wandering the streets. A big percentage of those kids conquer their problems. They move on to become productive, wonderful adults. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to cry and feel like I’ve completely failed as a parent. Bewildered at what colossal mistake I must have made to make my child act this way. Not sure if this child and I can live in the same house together much longer. Pondering how much boarding school really costs. Could I get a loan to cover that? Can I legally kick an underage kid out of my house?

Even though it is lonely in that we can’t share our troubles with the world at large, I really encourage you to seek help. Pastors, teachers, doctors, psychologists, prayer warriors…There are people that it is appropriate to share your troubles with. People who have seen it before. People who might have some wise counsel or are just willing to stand in solidarity with you. People who are willing to go that extra mile or one hundred miles and come pick up your teen and take them away for a couple days so that everyone can have a cool down period.

Here’s the thing…one day, you notice things aren’t as bad as before. And then a while later, you realize, things are actually getting better. And then one day, you look at your teen, and you swell up with pride because they have actually become someone you like.

Yes, there are many stories of parent/teens who don’t make it. It ends ugly. But, maybe, even for those horror stories we hear, maybe, down the road many months, years, possibly decades, peace happens. Reconciliation. Where there is life, there is hope.

I’ve only been in this parenting game for eighteen and half years. During that time I’ve had some pretty amazing highs and some heart-wrenching lows. I have a two year old. I am nowhere close to being finished. As I look at my large brood, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have some rough years ahead for some of them. It seems to just be part of growing up for some kids.

I hope you know that when I brag on how great my kids are doing, I’m just telling you the highlights. We have to stay positive after all. I’m not free to share all the crazy episodes I’ve had, but maybe you’ll feel better knowing that I’ve had them, and that you’re not alone. Here’s praying for all you parents in the trenches. May God give you peace and wisdom and hope. You are not alone.

 

 

Fifth Grade Graduation

Today I went and saw my eleven year old’s fifth grade graduation. He’s finished elementary school and will head off to middle school next fall. They had a nice little ceremony. About a hundred fifth graders were sitting on folding chairs in the middle of the gymnasium while all the parents crowded the bleachers and lined the walls when the bleachers filled up. Our community is all about celebrating children’s accomplishments. There were parents there with balloons and noise makers, ready to holler as loudly as possible when their child’s name was called. I was the only family member there to cheer on my son. I had taken my two little boys with me to the kindergarten graduation in the morning and that had been an exercise in frustration. They were not very interested in sitting quietly on the bench next to me. By the time I got them home, I was thinking Never Again. I knew I still had the afternoon graduation to go to, and so I was very relieved when my highschooler came home at lunchtime after getting released early. I set her up to babysit and went off to the next graduation of the day.

My son won an award from the librarian for being an enthusiastic and voracious reader. He also met his math and reading goals for the year. Yay! I watched my handsome boy, standing happily holding his certificates. A little embarrassed to be the center of attention, but obviously pleased with his accomplishments.

This week has been the week of awards and ceremonies for my children. They have all done well. Some of them shining like stars, their accomplishments impressive. Others did the equally impressive feat of just getting through a school year with the the knowledge that their teachers were pleased with them and happy that they had had them in their classroom.

As I sat there in the bleachers I was overwhelmed with pride in my children. How on earth did I get such amazing kids? I looked around the gymnasium and saw a room full of parents who all seemed to be having the same sentiments. I took a closer look at the other kids, sitting in their folding chairs. My son’s classmates. His friends. His peers. At the beginning of the ceremony, the music teacher had lead all the kids in singing “This is Me” from the Greatest Showman. (If you are not familiar with this song then you are obviously not plugged in to pop culture nor do you have teenagers in your house!) This is apparently a popular graduation song, as the kindergartners sang it also, and the high school dance team did an amazing dance to the same song at the high school graduation. The words are very inspirational..

 

Look out ’cause here I come (look out ’cause here I come)

And I’m marching on to the beat I drum (marching on, marching, marching on)

I’m not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me…”

Another line from the song says, “For we are glorious!”

 

Now, I don’t buy into the philosophy that children are these innocent creatures, mini-gods walking amongst us. I have ten kids. I am very aware that children are just mini-humans. Capable of anger, jealousy, pettiness, and all the other unlikable things. But, in children, it’s like it hasn’t completely taken root yet. There is so much potential. They are still at a place where you can correct their mistakes, direct them down better paths, teach them in hopes that they will avoid some of the big pits that you fell into yourself.

I sat and watched these little 5th graders. Each one an individual in their own right, marching bravely into the future, optimistic and full of energy. I joined the other parents as we clapped and cheered. Those are our kids! We believe in them! We are dedicated to doing everything we can to turn them into happy, productive adults. We are ready to show up and cheer them on, no matter how small the milestone. Yeah, my kids are amazing. And so are yours.

 

 

House Fires and Photos

We have had a crazy couple days. On Sunday my parents house burned down. Or, burned? There is still a house standing, so it didn’t technically “burn down”, but just saying “burned” sounds weird. It is no longer livable and a large percentage of their belongings were destroyed. My parents were out of the country when it happened and so my husband and I became the ones in charge of the situation. Let me just say, my parents can be very relieved that I married who I married, because my husband has been superman in a cape. I have basically stood off to the side wringing my hands. My brother also stepped up to the plate, long distance, and got all the insurance stuff moving while my husband worked on the grunt work of cleaning out paths of debris so you could walk in the building and boarding up broken windows and doors. The two of them have been amazing. Me, I have listened, nodded my head, said uh-huh, and hovered on the sidelines, available, but not sure how to help.

I ended up with 3 totes of water-soaked, charred photo albums. This became my baby. I told my brother I would try and find a company that could help with photo restorations. I called around. Everyone I talked to were full of lots of useful advice on how I should go about drying the pictures, and then, when the pictures were dry, I could bring them in. I asked one lady on the phone, is there anywhere I can take these where someone can help dry them? Oh no, she said, we really don’t have room for that. I’m sure you have a lot more room at home. Right. We have houseguests at the moment. I informed the lady that I had, literally, thirteen children in my home at the moment. There was nowhere safe I could lay out pictures to dry. She also didn’t seem to realize that we were talking closer to a thousand pictures or more. Not, a little handful. My mom is a photographer, my late grandmother was a photographer, and my mom is interested in family history. We’re talking about a 100 years worth of family photos here, from families that liked to take photos.

I finally took the very unorthodox method of sitting on a stool on my lawn and spreading wet pictures all over the grass. When they dried, I would then gather them up and put them in a box. I have been doing this for two days. I still didn’t finish all the photos. My brother, who drove down to help, finally came this evening and took the rest of the photos from me since I am now having to shift my attention to my son’s high school graduation which happens this Thursday, and all the hoopla that goes along with that.

It has been an interesting experience, going through all my mom’s photos. There’s pictures of me in the hospital, covered in wires. I was born a month early with weak lungs and then got pneumonia. According to the little notations on the photos, I didn’t go home till I was nine days old.

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Then there’s a pic of my parents when they were engaged. They were so 70s!!

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I found an awesome picture of me with my maternal grandparents when I was three years old. This picture means a lot to me. My mother was British and has two sisters. My mother married an American, one sister married a South African, and the other sister married an Englishman. Needless to say, I didn’t see my relatives on that side of the family often. My grandparents were missionaries in South Africa, our family was in Haiti or the US. I met my grandparents three times in my life: when I was eight months old, when I was three years old, and when I was ten years old. My grandfather died on the trip home after that last visit. I met my grandmother one other time when I was fifteen. They were amazing people, I loved them, and I wished that I could have had a chance to know them better.

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I found my dad’s baby book. My grandmother’s careful, elegant handwriting, detailing important facts of his first year of life. There was a picture of my grandparents holding my father. I have always been proud of the fact that my grandparents had an interracial marriage in an era when that was not very acceptable.

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As I gathered up all the dried photos, scattered across the lawn, everything got mixed up. Pictures of my children mixed up with pictures of my mother as a baby, mixed up with pictures of the Picazo family, mixed up with pictures of the Rigby family. All the time periods blurred together into a box that represented Memory. Memories that we were here. Memories that we lived in families, we hugged our babies, we smiled at birthdays, we got married, older generations died, newer generations were born. Memory of the human story. So Universal. So Personal.

In the end, I have played a small role in helping my parents with this tragedy. But I think it was an important role. Keeper of the Memories. I wasn’t really preserving these pictures just for my mom. I did it for me. For my children. For my grandchildren. Here is the story of our family. Let me tell you about these pictures.

 

Going Home

There’s a quote that goes something like, “You can never go home again”, which I’m guessing to mean that once you leave home, things will never be the same again if you try to return. I left home when I was nineteen, just before I turned twenty. Yeah, I had gone away two years before that for college, but I always came back for Christmas and summer breaks. Coming home back then meant coming back to our little upstairs apartment in Bethel, Alaska. It was small, but very cozy. My mom had bright colorful pictures all over the walls, and house plants on every available surface. I had my little spinet piano, and my bedroom had all my memorabilia displayed on my bookshelves.

I finished two years of college, but now I was dropping out and going to Haiti for an open-ended visit. I remember getting on the plane to leave, saying goodbye to my mom, fighting off a panic attack. My mom asked me what I was most worried about and I remember my answer was, “I don’t know when I’m coming home.”  As it turned out, I never did. Not really. I went to Haiti for four months and then went to Chile for five months, came back to the States and got married shortly after in the Lower ‘48 without ever making it back up to Alaska.

The next time I walked into my parents’ little upstairs apartment in Alaska, I had a husband and a ten-day-old daughter in tow. In many ways it felt just like coming home from a term at college, and in other ways it was completely foreign. My husband had graduated from the University of Tennessee and we had stuck around Tennessee until I could give birth to our firstborn, then we had planned to go straight to Alaska. The idea was to stay with my parents until my husband could get a job and we could save up enough to get our own place. My mom had reorganized my old bedroom so there was now room for my new little family. It felt like home in that my mom was in full-blown mother-mode. I had just gone through the stress of giving birth and moving from Tennessee to Alaska with a newborn. Some mothering was exactly what I needed. It was foreign because I was now heading off at bedtime to my old bedroom with two extra people, and these people were now my first priority.

We stayed in Bethel for a year and half. During that time my parents’ apartment was a place of rest. We would go over and hang out on Sunday afternoons, eating lunch, taking naps. I enjoyed those brief moments when I could relapse to just being a daughter again and take a short break from the new “mom” role I was in. Then we moved, and later my parents moved out of that apartment into a different house. A later visit to Alaska had us staying at my parent’s new house and it did not feel like my home at all. It was where my parents lived. It was inviting, but I had no childhood memories there, and my role had solidified as mother to my own children. I never really relaxed back into the daughter role. My parents stayed in Alaska and we settled in Tennessee and for the next eighteen years (aside from two visits to Alaska) we only saw each other when my parents flew down for their yearly visit.

About a year and half ago my parents retired and moved down to Tennessee, about an hour away from us. We have really enjoyed having them closer. The kids love going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and we try to get out there as often as possible. It’s a wonderful house, but again, I have no childhood memories there, and my role, when I visit, is mom to my kids, keeping them out of trouble. It simply where my parents live.

This week is my kids’ spring break from school. I was trying to think of fun things we could do on the break so I called my mom to see if we could come out and spend the night and a day with them. She said yes and we made our plans. Since they’re only an hour away, spending the night is not necessary, but the kids love it. It makes it feel like they’ve gone on a holiday somewhere. I’m not so keen on spending the night, only because my youngest doesn’t sleep well in new surroundings which means I don’t get to sleep well. But, a visit to my parents sounded really nice and who knew, maybe the little boy would sleep better this time.

Well, he didn’t. I didn’t get him to sleep till closer to midnight and then he slept fitfully all night and kept me up. In the morning my mom looked at me with concern. Are you feeling ok? No. I was tired and on top of that I had a bad cold. I had actually wondered if I should go see my parents with this cold hanging on me, but when your children have been counting down the days before they can go to Grandma’s, there is no way you want to change your plans. Also, being sick at Grandma’s sounded like a good idea. I had this vague notion that maybe my mom would help me feel better. Sure enough, Mom pulled out the cough syrup, urging me on as I choked down the vile liquid. My dad brought me a cup of some kind of fizzy drink that was supposed to boost my immune system. Then my mom told me to go back to bed whenever I wanted, the kids would be fine. I finally took her up on it and crawled back into bed for several hours. When I woke up around noon the house was silent, they had all gone outside apparently. I browsed through my mom’s cupboards, looking for lunch. My parents are vegans and so their house was fully equipped to handle my new diet which just entails fruits and vegetables. I found a can of lentil soup and then threw in some frozen vegetables. More exploration in the cupboard found some plantain chips. Perfect. I sat in the silence and ate my lunch, feeling rested and relaxed. And at home.

Something shifted. Something inside of me. I think I allowed myself to just be a daughter again. Mom, I’m sick, take care of me. And that felt like coming home. It’s not a place I can stay. I’m a mom myself now, I’ve got my own house full of children who look to me to hold their lives together. It’s a heavy responsibility, a full-time job. But, it was really nice to just go home for a short break. Feel like a kid again. Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.