Monday, December 15, 2014

This Is My Brave

Anxiety gripped Froggy this morning.

Ten minutes before it was time to leave for school, he perched himself on the side of my bathtub, hugging his knees, head down, breathing big, deliberate breaths. He didn’t ask for a hug. He knew I wouldn’t – no, couldn’t. Shouldn’t. It would just make it worse, feed the emotions. Time to head downstairs to put on coats, he slithered under my bed. I repeated that it was time to go, and he reluctantly fought his way back out. I heard him bump down the stairs on his bottom, one painstaking step at a time, as if he couldn’t bring himself to think beyond the next step. But that one step right in front of him, maybe he could sit on that one next. Maybe that was doable. He put on his coat and grabbed his backpack, resigned to the inevitability that he would have to go to school. I cupped his chin in my hands and lifted his eyes to mine and told him, again, how very much I love him and how proud I am of his bravery, for doing this very hard thing. And I turned him over to his big brother, who took his hand and headed for school, this big brother who, five minutes ago, was yelling at Froggy as brothers sometimes do, but was now supporting his little brother with such tender, unspoken care. I watched Froggy walk away, anxiety still gripping him, wondering if this ever gets easier, wondering why doing the right thing sometimes feels so very wrong.

These are the hard days.

You see, Froggy has an anxiety disorder.

He’s not worried about going to school. He’s not afraid. Those are almost the right words – the ones we used for months, in fact – but that implies that there is something about which Froggy should be worried or afraid. There’s not. Sure, we’ve had some bumps in the road, but school is a safe place, a fun place, a place he usually loves when he’s there.  The right word is “anxiety,” that fear and worry that is disproportionate to any actual risk. Froggy has anxiety about school. (And about being alone anywhere in the house, especially at night.)

When we discovered that Froggy has an anxiety disorder, there was, more than any other emotion, tremendous relief that washed over me. It explained so much about what had been going on for over a year, but especially in the previous four months.  And, as I always do, I started researching and emailing and making phone calls. I was going to figure out how to best tackle it. There had to be a plan.

And there was a plan, a plan that has allowed for far more good days than hard ones. But as I was making new connections and establishing new routines, I was, also, feeling stuck. I knew I wanted to – needed to – write about this.

When I started sharing my writing more widely, I knew there would come a time when the story I needed to tell would collide with someone else’s story, and I know that I need to be very careful about telling others’ stories. Because their stories belong to them.

But when that story belongs to your child and you write about mothering and your stories are inextricably intertwined, what do you do?

I wrestled.

I thought about how I teach my children to be truth tellers and to listen for people’s stories and about the beauty in realizing we’re not alone in our struggles, in finding connection. I thought about how I freely talk about Froggy’s stutter and the boys’ speech delays and an infinite number of other parenting challenges. I remembered turning to Mister one evening and saying to him, “We have a child with a mental illness. Are you okay with that?” and how he looked at me, utterly perplexed, and answered, “Of course, I am.”

And I realized that what had been holding me back is stigma. The stigma still surrounding mental illness.

It’s a stigma that hasn’t led me to a place of “This is bad! How did this happen? No one can ever know!” but rather to a place of “Well, maybe this is just best left private.”

But why?

What if the person I don’t tell is the person who has a piece of advice that is the key to helping Froggy talk the next step in effectively managing this illness? What if the person I don’t tell is the very person who is desperately waiting to learn that she and her child aren’t alone?

And, let’s be honest, people already know something: Froggy invites friends to have lunch with him in the guidance counselor’s office each week. Neighbors have witnessed the ugly mornings when it’s a fight to get Froggy to school. Family has seen the panic that grips him when he’s faced with the possibility of being in part of the house by himself. I’ve shared with friends how Froggy had debilitating stomachaches for weeks after a brutal GI bug tore through the family. His teacher has witnessed his perfectionism. His classmates watch him get out of his seat without permission, touch the post-it note on the teacher’s desk, and slip into the bathroom for a few minutes.

I’d rather people really know than speculate about what they almost know.

Froggy gave me permission to tell people that he has “some anxiety,” as he refers to it. When he gave me permission, he was dancing half naked in my bedroom, singing. He told me I should tell you that, too.

Here’s the thing about Froggy: If there is anyone who could single-handed destroy every iota of stigma associated with mental illness, it’s Froggy. He is kind and generous, an excellent student and a better son. People are drawn to him – teachers, sales associates, family, and friends. He’s goofy and joyful and just a delight to parent. He has fully embraced the fact that he has an anxiety disorder. When I was planning to hold off on telling his classroom teacher what was going on, assuming she’d rather wait and receive a plan for action along with the news, Froggy had other plans. He woke up one morning and asked to be reminded of the “e word.” (He obviously hasn’t mastered yet how to spell “anxiety.”) He then went to school, marched right up to his teacher, said, “I want you to know I have some anxiety,” hung up his backpack, and sat down to start his school work.  This kiddo embodies brave. And for him, there is no stigma.

There is a relatively new campaign called “This Is My Brave,” which seeks to talk openly about mental illness and share stories of those with or those who love someone with mental illness in the hopes of breaking down the stigma of these diseases. I share their hope that “[o]ne day we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it “brave” when talking about mental illness. We’ll just call it talking.”

So that’s what I plan to do: keep talking. And I pray that this is the right choice for Froggy, for me, for the rest of our family, and for those who live with mental illness.

Friends, meet Froggy. He is my brave.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Giving

I popped into Michael’s (craft store) yesterday to pick up some picture frames for some of my boys’ artwork. I love to display the boys’ art, but I don’t frame it often. So when I do, they know I truly love the piece they created, and they walk a little taller.  Because the public school system and the framing industry apparently haven’t (yet) sat around a conference table together, I wandered the aisles for half an hour, trying to figure out how to get the boys’ 5.5x7” and 8.5x14” artwork (typical sizes for school projects) to fit in standard size frames. Ultimately, I found myself at the framing counter so I could have a mat cut for the larger piece.

There was an older couple in front of me. On the counter, they had carefully laid out his jacket, his hat, and a handful of medals from his time in the army during the Korean War. I watched as they chose a shadow frame and mats and a plaque. And as I did, my heart started beating faster, tears welled in my eyes, and I started feeling a little twitchy.

Twitchy is how I describe that feeling that means I’m supposed to DO SOMETHING. I tried to convince myself that this was neither the time nor the place to do something, but the twitchiness wouldn’t stop. In that moment, I was overcome with the notion that, try as I might to be extravagantly kind and generous, there was nothing I could do that was as extravagant as putting one’s life on the line for countries’ worth of people one has never met, but that, be that as it may, I couldn’t use that truth as an excuse to do nothing. So when the sales associate told the couple how much the work would cost, I leaned into them and managed to squeak through tears, “Excuse me.” They looked my way. “But would you do me the honor of letting me pay for this.”

They were momentarily speechless. “Oh, no. No, we couldn’t. It’s just too much,” they said.

“Please, I would very much like to,” I said as I handed my credit card to the wide-eyed associate.

“I couldn’t let you. I wouldn’t feel comfortable,” the husband said, never lifting his head.

And so I finally decided to take my card back. Because the point of being kind and generous is never to make the other person feel uncomfortable.

I wiped my tears, as the couple and the sales associate began to finalize the transaction, but the weight of what had just happened hung awkwardly in the air between us. I stepped out of the space to the end of the counter and busied myself pretending to look at mats, hands still trembling. After a minute, the wife followed me, and said, “Thank you,” reaching up for a hug. We clung to each other, as she quietly said, “You made my day. No. You made my year.” She released her embrace, still holding my arms, and looked me in the eyes and said, “You are a good woman.” I was speechless.

When I walked back to the front of the counter, the couple began sharing some of their story with me. The husband (a formal army corporal) had been “dropped” in Korea on Christmas Eve 1952 and served for a year and a half. Only a couple of months ago, he lost his brother, who had, also, served but after Korea, never seeing active combat. When he died, the couple took special notice of his army jacket and two flags, framed and displayed in his home. They went home and dragged the husband’s uniform and medals from the cedar chest, ready to turn them into a “museum piece” for their descendants.

The husband was a quiet man, bordering on gruff. I didn’t see him make eye contact with anyone in the fifteen minutes I was with him. But as he and his wife turned to leave, he stopped in front of me (maybe feeling a bit twitchy himself) and reached out to me, unsure whether a hug or a handshake was the most appropriate response. We hugged, as he simply said, “Thank you.” I thanked him for his service and for sharing some of his story with me and wished them a happy Thanksgiving. As they walked away, the wife, smiling, called out over her shoulder to the sales associate, “Take good care of her.”

Sometimes an act of kindness doesn’t turn out the way we planned it. Sometimes we are turned down. Sometimes our only gift is an offer of help. But it is precisely those moments that serve to remind us that acts of kindness are never best judged by the amount of money exchanged. Acts of kindness are about connecting to other people. And that cannot be measured.

The couple at Michael’s politely declined my offer to pay for the framing service, yet they were clearly moved at the gesture. I will never know what they took from our encounter – a chance to share their story, a heartfelt thank you, softened hearts, a needed connection – but I know they took something. The husband didn’t strike me as the type who often hugs strangers.

Thank you for your service, Corporal. Thank you for sharing part of your story with me. Thank you for the hug. And…

Happy Thanksgiving.

It seems fitting that one of the pieces of art I was framing was a bald eagle.
(Scratch art by Bubba, spring 2014)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Do You See My Child?

To the teachers of my sons,

In about a week, we will be sitting down for our first, and perhaps our only, parent-teacher conference of the year. I will be listening intently to everything you tell me, but there is really only one question I need you to answer:

Do you see my child?

Everything else hinges one this one simple question.

Do you see him?

What have you learned about him beyond his grammar skills or the grades on his math tests? Have you watched his body language when he talks? Have you observed him interact with friends on the playground? Have you looked at the details in his artwork? Have you read between the lines of his poetry?

Do you see that my oldest is easily frustrated and quick to anger or tears? Do you notice how his eyes light up when you say there will be an experiment during today’s science lesson or how he talks a mile a minute when he’s excited about a new theory he’s been noodling? Do you see how vulnerable he makes himself when he shares his intensely personal fears and goals?

Do you see that my middle son has expectations of himself that border on too high? Do you feel the pride in his sweet smile when you compliment him on a job well done? Do you see how hard he works to be “good”? Do you hear the beautiful inflection in his voice when he reads aloud?

I know that what you see in school and what I see at home won’t line up perfectly and that you can’t provide a comprehensive description of my child. I’m not looking for that. I’m just listening for a little nugget that tells me that you’re watching and listening and that you’ve dug just a little deeper. You’ll probably tell me what I’m listening for without even trying. It might be a profound insight into my child, but more likely, you’ll just let slip a little something you don’t even know will resonate with me. But it will. Because it’s something only someone who’s truly paying attention will notice.

Last year, my oldest’s teacher laughed with me about his bizarre obsession with road kill, and my middle son’s teacher mentioned in passing that he sits just a little taller when she notices a job well done.  I knew then that my children were seen, and I relaxed because I knew everything else would fall into place.

Because when you truly see my child, when you take the time to notice his strengths and weaknesses and quirks, I instantly know two things:

I know you love your job. You’re not burned out or disillusioned or tired (as I know it is so easy to become in your profession). At least not most days. You still have a passion for teaching. And you almost certainly don’t see just my child. You see all of them.

And when you see my child, our children, and when you love your job, you will give them exactly what they need. You may do it consciously or subconsciously, but you will do it.

You will teach my oldest that future engineers and scientists must learn math. You will create space for him to share his ideas. You will take a step back when he’s upset and let him come to you when he’s ready. You will smile when he asks you for extra-challenging science work. You will make sure he runs hard enough at recess that he can sit still in social studies.

You will tousle my middle son’s hair or sneak up behind him and playfully cover his eyes because you sense he needs a little extra love in that moment. You will proudly display the picture he painstakingly drew just for you. You will celebrate his attempts, even when he fails. Especially when he fails. You will be the safe space he needs at school.

And, in turn, I will talk less during the precious thirty minutes we have because I won’t be struggling desperately to make sure you know my child. Because I will know you do. And I will hear all the other things you tell me about my children – that this one needs to practice his multiplication tables at home or that one is confusing the letters b and d – because you’ve already told me the most important thing you could.

You see my child.

A Mother

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Life in Transition

When I was in the process of deciding on a name and tag line for my blog, one of the phrases that popped into my mind was “a life in transition.” Ultimately, I decided against it, in large part because it seemed a little too, well, dramatic, I guess. In fact, my life would certainly appear quite stable to anyone looking in, and in many (big, important) ways, it is stable. Still, there are days that the shift occurring inside the confines of my home and my heart feels downright seismic. My fortieth birthday is days away, and this milestone has shaken me in ways I never would have predicted even just two months ago. I have three children in school this year. Granted, Monkey is just in preschool three mornings per week, but in two short years, all of my boys will be full-time students. Bubba’s tenth birthday is next month, and I’ve become a reluctant witness to the slow transition between childhood and the teen years. And his growing up is causing a huge shift in the dynamic between the boys. But, perhaps, the area currently undergoing the greatest change involves deciphering what my next big calling in life will be.

For almost ten years, I had a career as a certified genetic counselor. For all but two of those years, I coordinated NIH grants to learn more about genetic causes of hearing loss. Although my day-to-day responsibilities primarily involved contact with our research participants and our lab, I, also, regularly presented for various local and national audiences and was an author on over a dozen, peer-reviewed journal articles, in addition to co-authoring two book chapters.

After Froggy was born, I made the difficult, though obvious (for me) decision to step away from my career for a while.  The longer I stayed at home, the more fully I realized I was just where I needed and wanted to be. And then one day, it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t going back, and I made the (again, difficult but obvious) choice to let my genetic counseling certification lapse.

It was around this time that a book arrived in the mail. It was an author’s copy of what is widely considered to be the go-to reference for genetics and deafness. I had co-authored a chapter a couple of years before, not long after leaving my job and when I still thought I would return to genetic counseling. The book was slow getting published, so my copy was just arriving.

I opened the box, pulled out the tome, cracked it open, and peered into a world that was, at once, comfortingly familiar and oddly foreign. These authors were my people, and this was the language I spoke for so many years. But here I was, standing in my home, listening to the boys playing upstairs, wondering what I should cook for dinner, and I didn’t know what to do with the book. Should I show the boys? Should I share the news with my friends? I felt so disconnected from my work, from this writing. I remember being so excited when my former supervisor contacted me to say that, even though it had been a couple of years since I left work, she wanted to write this with me. Where did this accomplishment fit, if anywhere, in my current world of preschool and diapers and school lunches and homework and first steps and doctor’s appointments?

Was I still the same person who co-authored this book chapter?

Since that day, I have slowly begun to see that I am not formerly that person; I am that person. Still.

I may not be able to call myself a genetic counselor anymore because I’m no longer certified and no longer doing the work of a genetic counselor. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was I who earned a masters degree. It was I who passed the board certification exam. It was I who routinely threw around terms like GJB2, heterochromia, compound heterozygosity, and assortative mating. It was I who co-authored book chapters, contributed to journal articles, counseled clients in American Sign Language, and helped hundreds of people understand why they are deaf.

So I’ve made the deliberate choice to no longer look on my former career with a longing that suggests that I was more worthy then. That my value was determined by having a paycheck, being booked for speaking engagements, or actively publishing. That I’m wasting my degree. That I’ve turned my back on something at which I excelled and could again. Because that’s simply untrue. Because all of the skills and lessons I learned as a genetic counselor are beautifully and inextricably woven into the fabric of who I am today.

I am the mother who answers her children’s questions about nature and medicine and our bodies and our world. I am the friend people turn to when they have questions about prenatal testing or when they get an abnormal test result. I am the mother who easily says no to morning cartoons but has a hard time limiting access to the Discovery Channel. I am the patient who has mastered the art of providing a thirty-second history, so the doctor and I can immediately get to addressing my concerns. I am the author who channeled the skills learned from a decade of scientific writing into a blog. I am the woman whose ears perk up whenever a medical story airs on NPR. I am the person who delighted in helping families understand why they were deaf and now delights in serving families in myriad other ways.

I am the sum of my past and my present – my jobs, relationships, mistakes, experiences, and accomplishments. I embrace all of me, as who I was once is who I am still.


This week, I’ll be sharing some exciting news about what’s coming next
for me and for an organization that I love.
Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In which I'm Learning to Live with The Fear

My oldest boys have vasovagal episodes in response to painful stimuli. In other words, when they get hurt, they lose consciousness.

The boys have different pain thresholds, so this has happened only twice to Bubba but has happened about a dozen times to Froggy. Monkey hasn’t had an episode but is only just now about the age at which this first happened to his brothers.

At age six, Froggy has lost consciousness so many times that he can often anticipate when it’s going to happen. He tells me “the floor feels fuzzy.” I’ve been working with him to lie down wherever he is when this feeling comes over him, but he has yet to remember on his own, so I will either call to him to lie down when I’m suspicious he’s hurt badly enough to pass out or, if he’s close enough, scoop him up and lay him on my lap, feet elevated.

Froggy has lost consciousness eight times, give or take, in my arms.

I have watched his eyes roll back in his head, his body stiffen and convulse, and foam seep from his lips. I have held him while he holds his breath and then gasps for air, as his bladder and bowels relax and release. I have hugged him when he wakes up confused, panicked, wild-eyed, afraid, dazed.

On the outside, I suspect I appear calm. Even though I know Froggy can’t hear me, I soothe him with reminders. “Mommy’s here. I have you. Breathe, Froggy. Breathe. Wake up for me. Breathe. I’ve got you.” I hold him gently, remembering not to cling too tightly. I tell bystanders who’ve never witnessed this before, “It’s okay. He passes out when he’s in pain. He’ll be fine.” I must be convincing because the last time this happened, the other moms on the playground just went about their business, rarely even glancing back to see what was happening.

But the truth is, in those terrifying moments, I’m barely holding it together.

What if all the doctors are wrong and this isn’t benign? What if this episode is different from all the others before when he was just fine? What if he doesn’t gasp for breath this time? What if he doesn’t regain consciousness? What if he hurt himself too badly this time?

What if, at this very moment, I’m holding my son as he dies?

This is why, no matter how many times Froggy loses consciousness in my arms, it will never get easier. Because each and every time, I am confronted headlong with The Fear.

Usually, when we’re going about our day-to-day business, I can easily hold The Fear at bay. I don’t think about The Fear when I’m watching the boys play soccer or when we’re chatting about our days over dinner or when I’m folding laundry or when I’m mediating another disagreement. But sometimes The Fear creeps in: When the boys are sick and I can’t do anything to make them better. When, in the still of the night, I kiss them goodnight and marvel at my good fortune to be their mother and feel my heart race with the possibility that one day I might look back on The Fear and wonder if it was really a premonition.

When I’m holding my baby and it appears to all the outside world like his life is slipping away.

Sometimes, I think it would be easier if I didn’t love them so completely.

But I do. And because I do, the only response that makes any sense to me is to lean in. Lean into the love. Lean into The Fear.

When Bubba first lost consciousness, I had no idea that the boys had this condition, that it was normal, that I had the same condition. (Boy, did that realization explain a lot about my medical history.) So when my father yelled inside to call 911 because Corbin had hit his head and wasn’t breathing, I fell apart. I dialed 911, handed the phone to my stepmother, ran into the other room screaming, and crumbled, weeping, onto the floor. It wasn’t until my sister took me by the shoulders and firmly told me, “Bubba needs you. He needs his mother. Go to him.” that I came to my senses. (Yes, it was just as Lifetime movie-like as it sounds.)

Leaning in means that I now run to my boys when they’re hurt, even when I know they’re hurt badly enough that I will hold them while they slip out of consciousness and panic will grip me and The Fear will take hold. Leaning in means that when they wake up, the first thing they will see is their mother’s face, and they will know that I am always with them when they need me the most.

Leaning in means knowing that if The Fear becomes a reality the last thing my boys will know in this world is their mother’s touch and remembering that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Leaning in is remembering that I never make good parenting choices when guided by fear. Leaning in means letting my boys decide when they’re ready to hop back on the monkey bars. Even if it’s just five minutes later. Leaning in means remembering that roughhousing and running and climbing and pushing limits and experiencing freedom are good and necessary for my boys.

Leaning in is giving myself over to loving them fiercely and completely, knowing that however long their lives are, this is the kind of mother I want to be and this is the kind of love my boys deserve to know.  Leaning in means tearing down any barriers I have feebly erected in an attempt to protect my fragile heart. Leaning into The Fear, sometimes, looks a lot like letting go.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Dance

My husband’s parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Amazing. May we be so fortunate.

Mister and his brother hosted a dinner at a local restaurant, and family and friends flew in from hundreds of miles away. The evening was a tremendous success, and the following day Mister and I extended the celebration by hosting a brunch at our home. I panicked when he told me a couple of weeks prior that he wanted to do this, but I knew it was a good thing. So we set to work.

Mister set the menu. I tweaked it. (Too much gluten, not enough vegetables.) He approved. We divvied up cooking duties. He wrote his grocery list. I added my items. He shopped. (Bless him.) We figured out what would be cooked where and when. For two days, we alternated our prep work and cooking. The morning of the brunch, we covered each other when one of us needed to sneak out of the kitchen to shower and dress for the event. As soon as guests started to arrive, the food began rolling out.

I would visit with family and return to the kitchen to take care of something, only to discover that Mister had already handled it. So I’d do something else. He’d return to the kitchen after chatting to find what he needed to do had been done. So he’d do something else.

He gave tours of our home. I answered the door. He brewed more coffee. I consolidated food. He washed dishes. I put dishes away. He gathered coffee cups. I gathered napkins.

By the time the last guest left, the kitchen was spotless.

Besides the compliments that the food was delicious, guests told us that we made the brunch look effortless. The truth is… it was.

My husband tells everyone that he has made a life choice to never dance. I disagree. This brunch was nothing short of a beautifully executed dance. There was never a sharp word spoken or an accusatory question asked. In fact, we hardly spoke at all, not about logistics. We didn’t need to.  We smiled. We winked. We complimented each other’s food.

I’ve experienced this dance before. On the occasions we stay in a hotel as a family, we have a rhythm. Mister supervises bath time, while I lay out pajamas and the next day’s clothes. I distribute various lovies into the correct beds. I dress the littlest. Mister brushes little teeth. (We both give lots of hugs and kisses.) The next morning, I shower while Mister gets the boys dressed. He showers while I finish getting ready. He gathers our things. I pack them up. He herds the boys out the door. I do a final sweep of the rooms.


I thought our hotel dance was the result of practicing it a few times a year. Maybe it is, in part, but I realize now, after the anniversary brunch, that there’s more to it. Thirteen years into this marriage, we know each other so well that we can anticipate what the other one is thinking, what he will say, what move I’ll make next.

Don’t misunderstand. There are plenty of times when Mister and I trip over each others’ feet, step on toes, and struggle with the give and take of leading and following. But when we remember to listen for the same music, the dance is fluid, flawless.

I treasure the comfort and familiarity and routine that are the result of nearly twenty years with Mister. I feel safe and known. Still, I have occasionally missed the thrill of the first year, of falling in love. But I’m beginning to realize that the thrill is still there; I just have to look for it in different places. Weeks later, I’m still smiling from our beautiful brunch dance. It’s surprisingly, sweetly reminiscent of how I felt after Mister kissed me for the first time. And it fills me with the tingly anticipation of a lifetime of dances with my partner.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Lessons from a Summer of Free-Range Parenting

Not long ago, I casually mentioned to another mom on the playground that my boys have been to the emergency room six times, twice by ambulance. Eyes suddenly opened wide, she slowly turned her head toward me to gauge my expression. (Was I serious? Was I appropriately horrified by that absurdly high number?) I understand. It wasn’t that long ago that I probably would have reacted the same way had the tables been turned. But ten years into this parenting journey, I’m starting to get a better handle on what kind of parent I want to be, and who I want to be is, in part, a mother who allows her children the kind of freedom that means that sometimes they will get hurt.

Still, this doesn’t always come easily for me. I fight my natural tendency to be a mother who protects at all costs. I’m bombarded by the message that the best kind of parents are those who know exactly where their children are and what they’re doing every second of every day. I question my choices when harm befalls children given this freedom, especially when the stories hit far too close to home. But I am determined to continue trying.

In fact, I recently realized that the two primary ways I assess my success as the mother of young children are 1. how kind they are to others and 2. whether or not their knees are skinned. So this picture of the boys in Maine this summer positively makes my heart sing. Their legs are bruised, scraped, bug bitten, and covered in sap and dirt. Just as they should be.

One of the many reasons I am grateful for our annual vacation in Maine is that it provides the perfect opportunity to parent the way I long to, largely free from all the influences that constantly whisper to me that I might be doing it all wrong. Our family spends several weeks in a cottage in a spruce forest on the bay. We leave to hike mountains and to restock the pantry, but much of our time is spent in camp with hours upon hours of time to just play. Play for me involves reading and crossword puzzles and naps, but for the boys, it means large swaths of time spent outside. My husband and I provide a few basic ground rules (like “You can’t go down to the float without a life jacket.”) and then let them run free. These are snapshots of what happened this summer:

  • The boys spent hours in the boathouse, filled with tools and chemicals, and never touched anything they didn’t possess the skills to properly handle. 
  • They fell down, got up, and returned immediately to what they were doing. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sometimes they requested Bandaids; often they didn’t.
  • They came home from tromping through the woods whenever they were hungry.
  • They never wandered so far away that they got lost. 
  • The nine year old decided he wanted to build a crab trap. After rummaging through the boathouse for supplies and crafting his trap, he caught dozens of crabs. He couldn’t stop grinning. 
  • Without being told to stay away from the water’s edge, the three year old recognized the possible danger and threw rocks from further back. 
  • No one ever needed a reminder to put on a life jacket before going down to the float.
  • The three year old walked to another cottage in camp a quarter mile away, looking for his cousin, and when he didn’t find her, came right back home without our even knowing he wasn’t with his brothers. We didn’t find out about this adventure until much later in the day.
  • When the nine year old took a nasty spill on his bike while coming down the steep, gravel driveway, he didn’t let it stop him from riding again, but he did recognize that he needed to do something differently on the next descent.
  • The boys took turns trying to flip each other out of the hammock. They recognized on their own that they had to be gentler with the three year old. 
  • The boys spent an entire morning with their cousins, planning and executing repairs to the decades-old tree house, including replacing rotten boards and completely rebuilding the ladder. They doled out jobs based on age and skill. The big kids looked out for the little kids. The boys decided on their own that the second level of the tree house didn’t look structurally sound enough to climb up to, so they didn’t.
  • Mister and I almost never intervened in disagreements that happened outside of our cabin, and only once did anyone come to us needing help in resolving a problem. (Our answer was “Oh my goodness, your brother is freaking out; let him out of the outhouse!”)

I’m certain much more happened that I know nothing about. The boys spent hours tromping through the woods but reported on only a fraction of that time. Maybe one day they’ll tell me, when there’s enough distance that I’ll laugh rather than cringe. Or maybe they’ll hold those memories tightly and reminisce only with their brothers and cousins, their partners in crime. Either is just fine with me.

As a parent, I often act as though I suspect my children don’t possess the intelligence or self-control to prevent themselves from making every bad decision presented to them, when in reality, overwhelming evidence suggests that, in fact, my boys are quite capable of making sound decisions most of the time and that the few bad decisions they make are almost always rather routinely lousy and not dangerously so. So what I need to do is put in place a few safeguards for the really big dangers and for the temptations that are specific to my children and then step back.

One day this summer, I stepped outside and saw my nine year old walking by with a 2x4 about 6 feet long. Curious, I asked what he was doing. He reluctantly answered that he was going to use it as a sled to go down the hill behind our cottage. The 20-foot hill, riddled with new stumps, that ends right at the foundation of our house. It didn’t take more than a shocked look on my face for him to correctly guess that I thought that was a supremely bad idea. But I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t seen him as he walked by. Would a brother or cousin have warned him that was a dangerous idea? Would he have gotten set at the top of the hill, looked down at the stumps and at the wall that would stop his descent, and decided not to sled down? I suspect fear almost certainly would have stopped him. But what if it didn’t? What if he went careening down the hill? What if one of the boys had started mixing chemicals in the boathouse? What if someone had fallen through the floor of the tree house? What if the three year old had wandered up to the road?

My husband often tells the boys that not getting the result you hoped for doesn’t mean the decision was wrong. (These are the deep, difficult conversations that stem from losing a game of Yahtzee.) A boy with a broken arm, a concussion, or (please, dear God, no) something far worse doesn’t mean that my choice to offer my boys the freedom to play unsupervised in the woods or walk alone to a friend’s house or cook his own breakfast was wrong.

My job as a parent is not to prevent harm from ever coming to my children. That will happen, regardless of how tightly I hold the reins. (In fact, many of our boys’ injuries have occurred when Mister or I were just feet away.) My job is to help shape them into the best men they can possibly be. And I cannot achieve that goal if my boys have no sense of who they are apart from me, if they have not been allowed to experiment and fail, if they do not feel trusted to make good choices, or if they have never experienced the thrill of a success crafted entirely of their own making. If I don’t provide this space for them to spread their wings, I am guaranteed to thwart their potential. That’s a certainty far scarier to me.

When I have doubts that I’m on the wrong path, the smiles on the boys' faces, the way they straighten their backs with pride, the confidence in their voices, and the delightful way their thoughts bubble and tumble from their mouths is all the reminder I need to continue giving them the space to learn and explore, to fail and succeed on their own.

And when they do need me – to celebrate with them, to commiserate, to slap on a Bandaid – they know I’ll be right here, dozing on the couch with my book spread open, waiting for them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Letter to My Boys on the Occasion of Michael Brown's Death

[When Mister read this, he gently and correctly pointed out that this post doesn’t contain any insights he hasn’t read elsewhere. He’s right, and that’s okay with me. I needed to say this… for my boys and for me.]

To my precious boys,

Michael Brown is dead.

By the time you are old enough to truly understand what I’m writing to you today, Michael Brown’s name might be all but forgotten. It might have become buried in the growing list of names of boys and men who have died under similar circumstances. The events of last week may have become hazy because, tragically, his story is not unique. But I will remember Michael Brown’s name for us because it was his story that made me face many uncomfortable truths about my life and about our world.

For the last week, information has swirled about Michael Brown and the circumstances of his death. He was a black teenager, and the police officer who shot and killed him was white. He was unarmed. He was walking down the street with a friend. He would be attending college in the fall. He was shot six times. He allegedly had just robbed a store. He may have rushed the police officer. His body was left in the street for hours. It has been hard to make any sense of so much, often conflicting, information.

Eventually, I stopped trying to process the minutia of the story, stepped back, and took note of the broader story and who was saying what. It was only then, amidst the noise, that I finally, truly heard the voice of people of color crying, “Look!  Please!  It’s happening again! Another one of our children has died! What will it take for you to notice?!” Statistics I already knew suddenly morphed from mere numbers into names and faces and stories:  the startling rate of incarceration for black men, studies that point to a racial bias in law enforcement. A pattern appeared that had gotten lost when focusing narrowly on one story.

But it was one discovery that forever jolted me out of my previous, comfortable existence: Parents must have The Talk with their black sons. Mothers and fathers and grandparents and religious leaders have to tell their black sons how to respond with deference when they are stopped by police officers, how to react when clerks follow them around stores, how critical word choice and tone and demeanor are. They instruct their sons that good intentions aren’t enough, that simply not doing anything wrong is insufficient. Learning these lessons isn’t simply a matter of proper manners or upstanding morals; it is a matter of life and death.

I had been struggling to figure out what my response to Michael Brown’s death should be, and with this revelation, all at once it struck me: As long as mothers of black sons are having The Talk with their sons, I will have a similar Talk with you. Because good intentions and the simple absence of any wrongdoing are insufficient for you, as well. If you are doing nothing to fix the problem of racism, then you are complicit… as I have been. We will do better, together.

I don’t know exactly what doing something will look like for you or for me, but now that I have my head out of the sand, the first step is clear to me: Listen. Our brothers and sisters of color have stories they need us to hear. Ask them to tell you, and listen to their answers. I will start this important work and will do my best to share with you what I learn, until you are ready to join me.

At the same time, I will teach you about the privilege of being a white male in this world. I don’t want to make you feel ashamed of who you are – after all, you had no more control over your gender or the color of your skin than Michael Brown had – but I will try to teach you to use your privilege responsibly. We must stand with our brothers and sisters who have been oppressed. We must not let our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing prevent us from doing something.

And I promise to you that I will continue to work toward figuring out the next right step… because I want you and all our children to live in a just world.

Last year, as I was considering what might come next for me career-wise, I had a vision so clear it could have been mistaken for a memory. I was standing on a residential, urban street, in the doorway of a modest, brick building. I was there to serve the community. A black man about my age approached me, eyeing me suspiciously, and asked, “Why are you here?” I replied simply, “To listen.”

The vision ended there. I don’t know what comes next. But I now know the journey begins today.