FhaC protein of Bordatella pertussis

In December, Eve had whooping cough.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but when I finally took her to the doctor three weeks later to see why her cough hadn’t resolved, we figured it out. Of course, by then, she was 90% recovered with just the lingering chest-rattling hack as evidence. Me? I was instantly chastened and laughed to the Physician’s Assistant, “HA! Sign me up for Mother of the Year!”  She was quick to let me know that I shouldn’t worry – there wasn’t much they could have done for her anyway. And, hey, now she likely has natural immunity, so it’s all good, right?

The thing is, it didn’t really occur to me that whooping cough was a possibility, mostly because Eve was vaccinated on schedule.  I had peripherally heard about whooping cough outbreaks – mainly in high schools around the area – but they never really penetrated my consciousness enough to worry about it.  (That said, I will relay the memory of one time a few years ago when a local private high school was closed because of a widespread outbreak of whooping cough and my Facebook feed suddenly reflected a whole lot of vitriol directed at “those people who don’t vaccinate their kids” despite any sort of hard evidence that it was an unvaccinated student who was the cause of the outbreak. That was a little shocking to see, but since I didn’t have a dog in that fight, I left it alone.)

So how the heck did my kid (and all the other high school kids in the area) get whooping cough, especially those who have been vaccinated against it?

There seem to be no simple answers.  At least not any based in medicine.  I was told (on Facebook) by a friend that my daughter likely “got exposure from another who had not been vaccinated,” but I don’t see how that’s the most likely explanation.

Certainly, it seems that the whooping cough vaccine that kids are getting is not as effective as it was meant to be. Most kids get their final booster around age 11 or 12, and the outbreaks are happening to high-school aged kids – the vast majority of whom have an unpleasant week or two and then are absolutely fine.  The CDC speculates that it is possible that the kids who have been vaccinated against whooping cough can harbor the bacteria in their system and when the vaccine efficacy wanes, as it is wont to do, it rears its ugly head and voila, kids get sick.  Of course, they also speculate that it is possible that there are some unvaccinated kids out there who get it and pass it along.  And they also speculate that the bacterium itself has mutated just enough to render the vaccine itself useless.

Like I said, no simple answers.  Folks who like to believe that there is an anti-vaccine conspiracy often say that if everyone were vaccinated, there would be no virus/bacteria left to mutate and that is why everyone ought to just go get their kids every shot offered.  Except that many of these shots are NOT SAFE for babies of a certain age, so there is no way to ensure that the virus/bacteria is gone forever.  And there are some folks whose medical status is too fragile for them to get the vaccine, which means they have to weigh the odds of potentially dying from getting the shots against the potential that they might one day come in contact with the virus/bacteria in question.  Again, no such thing as 100% vaccination and, thus, eradication.

In the days before vaccines, people did get sick and die from diseases like whooping cough, although generally that was because their health was not great for other reasons – malnutrition, immune disorders, age.  More often than not, people got viral or bacterial infections and recovered from them and built natural immunity. Nursing mothers could pass this natural immunity on to their children in many cases, and there was very little need for a vaccine, much less a boost of immunity later in life.

All this is to say that I don’t think we can continue to place an inordinate amount of faith in the vaccination system. Yes, smallpox was eradicated by a vaccine. We all know the story. But one success story does not mean that this solution fits everything. And it also doesn’t mean we ought to stop asking questions about vaccine efficacy for other, different, less deadly diseases (READ: HPV). And it certainly doesn’t mean that we ought to feel free to vilify and radicalize people who are rightly concerned about their own children’s individual health.

Eve most certainly caught whooping cough from someone at school.  Whether or not they were vaccinated against it means nothing to me. That kid came to school infectious, whether they knew it or not, coughed on Eve, or at the very least in her close vicinity, and the rest is history. Should I go on the school website and rail against the parents who send their kids to school with a fever or a nasty cough because it resulted in my kid getting really sick? I don’t think so. Generally, the only people who end up needing hospitalization for whooping cough are babies, the elderly, and those whose health is already compromised, so there was almost no chance she would suffer long-lasting effects from her illness.  Going to school where there are other people – heck, going out in public, touching a door handle, using an ATM machine, breathing on an airplane – is putting you at risk for catching all sorts of things from other people who are either knowingly or unknowingly sick.  We cannot ever hope to eradicate all possibility of getting sick from other people unless we choose to live in a bubble and that is a pretty sad, pretty fear-based existence.  I’m not pissed off at the person who shared their whooping cough with Eve. I consider it part of the price of ‘doing business’ as they say. I’m only a little bit sad that Lola didn’t manage to catch it at the same time, if only so I know they’re both immune.  Shhh, don’t tell her I said that.

Holiday breaks are a great time for me to learn new things about parenting. As an introvert who has crafted her life to include working at home with no other companion but the dog and the occasional lunch or coffee date if I feel like it, having my kids and my husband home all day every day for two weeks feels a bit overwhelming.  Add Bubba’s family to that for one of those two weeks and you can be sure to find me ‘meditating’ at the sink as I do dishes a few times a day. It’s the one place where I know my kids won’t come near me for fear of being asked to help clean up after fourteen hungry family members.

I won’t bore you with the details, but here are a couple tidbits I picked up over this year’s break thus far:

1. The use of superlatives is altogether unhelpful.  In particular, I am referring to the words “always,” “never,” “everyone,” and “nobody.” I am just as guilty as anyone else of using those words to make a point, but the problem with them is that they are rarely true and they serve to escalate the emotional intensity of any situation rapidly.  When my kids come to me claiming that “nobody ever includes me in ________,” or some such notion, my first tendency is to dispute the claim and point out all of the other times that she has been asked to join in the fun. It may be true, but it certainly isn’t helpful. Generally the best thing I can do in that situation is to acknowledge hurt feelings or frustration and ask what their preferred solution might be.  

Those words also have the added effect of convincing us that things are worse than they actually are. In my case, when my kids tell me “everyone hates me,” I have little else to go on. While I think it is highly unlikely that each and every single person around them wishes them ill, I don’t honestly know if it’s true, or even if my kid really believes that it is. But sometimes, if I’m not fully paying attention, I take them at their word and then I get all wound up in the belief that it’s true. The more I react to those kinds of statements, the more I reinforce for my kids that I believe what they’re saying and that’s how destructive patterns get laid down. When we all start buying into the always/never/everyone/nobody stories, it’s a dangerous time.

And so, I have asked my kids not to use those words about each other or their friends or family, especially when emotions are running high. It gets me wound up, it winds them up, and we all go down the path of darkness and gloom on a false belief.  They agreed to do their best. And then they busted me when I did it the next day, whining that NOBODY EVER offers to help with the kitchen clean-up after dinner. I guess they took the new rule to heart.

2. The use of apologies, especially parental ones, is incredibly important when it comes to trust-building. I don’t recall the parental apology being a thing in my childhood and I have yet to talk to anyone from my generation who does. When my dad was dying, he told me several times how sorry he was for certain things that he did or said when I was a kid and I can’t even begin to say how important and meaningful that was to me.  That said, I often wonder how different all our lives might have been if we had learned to apologize to each other early and often.

I was in my thirties before I fully realized that my parents were human beings and always had been. During my childhood, they subscribed to the school of thought that said you didn’t back down to your kids, didn’t show a chink in your armor, didn’t let ’em see you sweat. While I often questioned my parents’ wisdom and choices, I never thought of them as fully fallible human beings who might be unsure of themselves as parents. It never occurred to me that they weren’t 100% sure of what they were doing. It certainly occurred to me from time to time that they were evil or hated me or were hell-bent on making my life miserable, but I never considered that they could be just making mistakes along the way. Until I had kids. Then that reality hit me full force.

I started letting my girls know from the beginning that I am human, mostly for selfish reasons. I didn’t  want them to expect too much from me, so I made sure they knew I was doing my best, but would be mistake-prone until I figured things out.  The best way to let them know I was fallible was by apologizing when I really messed up. When I freaked out disproportionately and screamed at them, I came back later to say I was sorry and tell them how I wished I had dealt with the situation. After falsely accusing them or punishing them without all the facts, I would later admit my mistake and ask for redemption. Now that they are teens, this policy is paying off with trust. Not only do my girls know it’s okay for them to mess up and lose their cool, but they know how to apologize for it as well.  I know parents who balk at admitting their mistakes to their children and I understand how hard it is, but I have to tell you that there are not many more powerful ways to connect with your child on a truly authentic level than to let them know you’re sorry for hurting them. Even if I feel like my girls have over-reacted to something emotionally, the fact is that perception is reality and if they don’t trust me to empathize and acknowledge their feelings, they aren’t likely to come to me with other emotionally charged topics.  Apologizing is a small price to pay for keeping the lines of communication open. And, fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve had enough fights with my kids to have had lots of practice saying I’m sorry.  I can tell you that it gets easier with time and rarely (I can’t say “never” anymore) has there been a time where they didn’t apologize right back.

  1. Don’t assume that just because your niece/granddaughter/friend is a teenage girl, she is interested in watching your children for hours on end while you go drink wine with the rest of the family and get a break. She may well enjoy spending time with your toddlers playing games, coloring and watching Frozen for the 437th time, but she also enjoys being part of the adult conversations going on. That’s how she learns to interact with adults and her opinions are important for the adults in the group to hear as well.
  2. Please don’t ask her where she wants to go to college and what she thinks her major will be (or any other questions related to that, including what she wants to be when she grows up). If she wants to talk about those things, she will bring them up on her own. Generally, though, this is a great source of stress for many girls in high school – they spend a lot of time thinking about their future and being told that their high school grades matter a lot when it comes to where they will go to college – they don’t need more pressure during their holiday break.
  3. Please don’t ask her if she has a boyfriend, especially if you do it with a certain tone of voice or a wink and a smile. Again, if she wants to talk about her love life, she will bring it up on her own. Intimating that you are truly interested in this aspect of her life will either feel incredibly personal and a little too familiar (even creepy) or it will put her on the defensive wondering whether you’ll follow up by telling her she’s too young to be in a serious relationship.
  4. Don’t comment on her wardrobe or physical appearance before you ask her how she is or tell her it’s good to see her again. In fact, unless she has a new haircut (or hair color) or a pair of boots you want to try on because they are so awesome, it might be wise to abstain from talking about her physical appearance at all. Girls get so much reinforcement from the world that their looks are of paramount importance that if you want to connect with them on a personal level, it would be really great to talk about who they are and what they’re interested in.
  5. Don’t comment on her plate. Don’t point out that she is eating mostly carbs or five desserts or avoiding the greens at the table. Again, teenage girls are so conditioned to think about food that spending a holiday with people who love them ought to be devoid of any of that nonsense. Trust me, anything you say will only make most girls feel badly about themselves.
  6. Don’t offer your advice unless it is specifically solicited. Much of what these girls need is a compassionate ear and your comments about “when I was your age…” aren’t tremendously helpful in general. When you begin talking about what you think without being asked, they feel judged and belittled and are not likely to open up to you again. Listening carefully and keenly will endear you to her, I swear.
  7. Don’t make back-handed comments about her phone or tablet use. Girls this age are committed to their friends like nothing else and it’s important for them to feel connected to them. It may  make you uncomfortable to see the glow of the screen on her face for most of the day, but unless her parents have an objection, your sarcastic judgments about how much time ‘kids these days’ spend with technology will not help her relate to you.
  8. Do not compare her to any other teenage girl, real or fictitious (or you when you were a teenager). There are far too many opportunities for girls to measure themselves against the photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities and come up short, or to weigh themselves against the unbalanced information their friends and cohorts post on social media and find their own lives lacking. These girls are all individuals and just because there might be another ‘ideal’ teenage girl in your life or your mind doesn’t mean they aren’t great, too. Get to know them, you might be surprised.
  9. Don’t, don’t, don’t belittle or make fun of their interests in music or movies or books. PLEASE. I’m begging you. Think back to when you were a teenager and you loved KISS or “Sixteen Candles” or thought that comic books were the best thing since acne medication. They have a right to their own tastes and if you want to connect with them on a genuine level, you should ask them questions (honest, not sarcastic or snarky ones) about why they love “The Fault in Our Stars” or have that enormous Justin Bieber poster on the ceiling above their bed. 
DO: 
Listen. A lot. Ask open-ended questions about what is going on in her life (not her favorite subject in school – ask her about the most fun she has had in the past week). If she complains about school or friends or the stress of the holidays, listen. 
Invite her to do something with you that she enjoys doing, even if you couldn’t care less about it. If she senses that you are truly interested in who she is as a person and willing to spend time with her on her terms, she will be grateful and engaged. Better yet, ask her to teach you something – the lyrics to her favorite song, a goofy dance kids her age are doing, or anything else she is particularly knowledgeable about that you are clueless about. She will feel empowered and intelligent and you just might have fun together.
         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear
evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in
place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are
protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun
violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school
student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple
times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and
turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still
Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I
am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening,
not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am
saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting
until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions
instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout
their lives.
            Two
vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally
wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to
emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that
portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling
strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are
simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To
expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply
unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to
acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we
expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and
we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We
spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to
apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in
history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be
human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within
family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional
challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that
learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor,
we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported
within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The
second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection.
People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling
with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an
individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more
likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through
that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is
much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have
demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and
competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’
both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education
that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the
context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We
may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy,
but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and
rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a
dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with
an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion
and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about
individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is
about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing
physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional
development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention.
What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?

Frankly, I would rather be neither of those things. I’m not interested in being the guy who flattens others, and I certainly don’t want to be smushed face-first against a windshield.  I know there are days when my kids feel as though those are the only two options, though, and you can’t blame them with all of the social dynamics they are navigating in high school and middle school.  But, as the Chief Positivity Officer in our household (well, Bubba’s pretty good at that, too, but frankly, I’m willing to be more in-your-face about it), I’m always looking for ways to re-frame their experience.  When you’re surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight.

Enter my new invention: The Appreciation Board.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy enough to have actually called it that. Nor am I naive enough to have presented it in some sort of formal way. I simply commandeered the chalkboard in the kitchen and altered it a bit.  This is what it looks like now

 I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve’s name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, “Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend.” Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person (or at least that is the story she tells herself), so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn’t suppress the twitches at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn’t expect an instant sea-change.  I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling “Dad” and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up.  This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast.  She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, chuckling to herself.

On Saturday night, Bubba and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don’t want their parents in earshot for.  When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board.  It read, “Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general).” What was so staggering is that it was in Eve’s handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal.  Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family.  Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they’re already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn’t often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling.  Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.

It occurred to me this morning that I’ve spent much of the last three weeks borrowing trouble. I am feeling a little frantic, fairly depleted, and terrifically confused and I have brought it all on myself.

I have been relying on my tendency to be a ‘fixer’ instead of sitting back and owning what is mine to own. To borrow a phrase, I have been “leaning in” far too much.  As a parent, it is difficult for me to separate what is mine from what belongs to my daughters, but every time I get entangled in their stuff, I learn the same painful lesson – namely, that nobody is getting what they need when I jump in and try to make things better.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been fooling myself that I wasn’t really getting involved. Instead of telling my girls what to do, I simply went and did a ton of research and offered up the Cliff Notes versions as potential solutions. I have done a great deal of listening, given many hugs and words of encouragement and left them with strategically-placed notes that I fervently hoped they would take to heart.  And then I have left the room and entered my own head. I have spent hours debating strategies, ordering and reading books that I thought might give me important insight, reached out to other mothers for ideas, and basically ignored all of my own stuff in an effort to help my girls.

I understand that it is important for my kids to experience pain and disappointment and come out the other side.  It is horrible to watch, but as a parent, I know it is more harmful to try and shield them from the slings and arrows of life than it is to let them feel the sting and discover that they will survive despite it.  That much I am clear on.  What I realized this morning is that because it is uncomfortable for me to see them suffer, my agenda involves them acknowledging their suffering and moving on quickly. I want them to take the fast lane to enlightenment, drawing on my experience and knowledge instead of taking the time to form their own, and have an “a-ha” moment in record time. I want their wounds to heal completely within days or hours and leave a scar that will help them incorporate this wisdom into their lives forever. Voila!

Ridiculous.

The other night when I pushed my way into Eve’s room to offer all of the information I had gathered while she was at school, she got angry with me.  She tolerated my 20-minute download, but just barely, and then asked me to leave. My feelings were hurt. I felt unappreciated and instantly angry that she didn’t see how I had sacrificed hours of my day to ruminate, investigate, and collate on her behalf.

Within minutes, I got a text message from her that made me sit down hard.

“I’m sorry I was rude. But I didn’t ask you to do all of that. I have a plan. I am figuring out how to deal with this and you have to give me a chance to do it my way.”

She was right. In running around searching for answers and spending time and energy fixating on how to help my girls deal with the disappointments they experience, I am serving my own need to be useful, to solve a problem, to fix something.  There is a fine line between giving thoughtful advice when it is asked for and projecting my own stuff onto someone else. In my experience, it is always easier to see how to solve someone else’s problems than it is to work on my own.  When I hover over my kids and offer solutions, even if I’m not advocating for one over another, the message I’m sending is that I don’t trust them to figure it out on their own (at least not as quickly as I would like). I am also not giving them the chance to truly integrate the lessons of these challenges into their lives. They can’t remember pain from the scars I carry and as much as I might talk to them about my personal mistakes, in order to learn, they have to make their own.

All of this isn’t to say that I can’t love my girls fiercely and worry about them and offer my two cents. I will also not hesitate to jump in if I think there is a situation they absolutely are not equipped to handle yet, but getting emotionally tied up to the point where I set aside my own life in order to spend hours thinking about how to help my kids is a waste of energy. This morning I found myself exploring several scenarios in an effort to help Lola with something she hasn’t asked for help with and it stopped me short. I have a lot to do today and Lola’s got this. If she doesn’t, she’ll let me know one way or the other, but indulging my desire to have things tied up neatly and see my kids happy is only going to make us all crazy.

I’m going to tell you something you already know: it’s
easier to be angry than it is to feel sad. It is harder still to acknowledge
the fear that lies behind both the sadness and the anger without becoming
entangled in it and letting it take over. 
And the most challenging scenario I’ve yet encountered is when the fear
and anger and sadness spring from incidents that involve my children.  There is a certain intensity to the
feeling, the difference between a freshly-honed butcher knife and the paring
knife you’ve used for everything from slicing apples to cutting bread to
peeling cucumbers. That sharp edge makes all the difference and it gleams in
the light.
Even though fear underlies both sadness and anger, the anger
comes with a drive to act, a sense that I can do something to mitigate or
repair or eradicate. It feels like a positive force, propelling me forward. The
sadness feels like a pit, a low spot in the landscape where I have to just sit
and see my limited view of the horizon for a while. That feels hopeless and
helpless, especially when it comes on behalf of someone else, someone who will
benefit more from quiet compassion and understanding than any action I could
possibly take.  I am much more
comfortable being the Mama Bear, putting out a forearm to block incoming
trouble and uttering a frightening roar because it feels proactive and
empowering. Sitting in that ditch with my kid while she sobs is not so
satisfying.
If I were a caveperson, I would understand. Sitting in that
sad pit will get you eaten. Injury to the soul is of little consequence when
you aren’t sure whether or not you will find a meal or be the meal. And so I
suppose it is a consequence of our relatively luxurious life that I can feel so
acutely the emotional pain of my children and long for a solution that will
instantly make things different, or at least one that will give me the illusion
of control.  But the backdrop of
luxury doesn’t make my heart hurt any less. And reminding my kids that they’re
not the only one this has ever happened to doesn’t make their hearts hurt any
less. It is nice to know you’re not alone, but it sucks to know that you still
have to make your way through the hurt in your own way, in your own time, no
matter how many people have been there before and how many others are sitting cross-legged in that damn pit with you.
And as a mother, it is far more difficult to watch my
children make their way through, in fits and starts, with frustration and doubt
and, sometimes, utter desolation, and know there isn’t a damn thing I can do but
love them and love them and love them until my heart feels like it will burst
with a single touch. As I walked the dog this morning I wished for anger, for
someone or something to project my fears onto because holding this emotion is
exhausting and anger is exhilarating in its power, even if it is often
destructive.  Anger feels
galvanizing, strengthening, and when I go all Mama Bear, I am certain my kids
know I’ve got their backs and it feels good to express it publicly. Telling
them quietly that I acknowledge their pain and sadness and letting them see my
sadness feels supportive but falls flat because it doesn’t have all the
attendant bells and whistles of action. It isn’t necessarily in my nature to choose the easy way out but, man, do I really want to sometimes. 

One of the things I love best about the middle school my girls attend is their focus on service and community. They are encouraged to find something they are passionate about, big or small, and use that energy to connect with others and make a difference in the world.

Three years ago, Eve partnered with a friend of hers who started an organization focused on kids with serious illnesses who were spending large chunks of time in the hospital or places like the Ronald McDonald House.  The group is called That Lucky Bracelet and the girls put together customized “Smile Packages” for sick kids. It has been a terrific thing for Eve to be part of and the girls have a lot of fun making gifts for kids based on the things each one tells them they love. The weekend before Easter, we hosted a gathering of four of the girls in our backyard and they spent hours stuffing and decorating hundreds of plastic Easter eggs with candy and bracelets and stickers and bouncy balls that they would drop off at our local Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House for the kids and their families.  If you know of someone who would love to get a smile package from these bright, determined girls, hit their website and fill out a questionnaire. Some of the kids who have received packages continue to communicate with the founder for a long time after getting their initial package and it has been a really rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Three weeks ago, Lola was thinking about school supplies, not because she is anxious to go back to school, but because we were talking about the homeless shelter we worked in last Spring. One of the things the girls did while they were there was to volunteer in the childcare room and watch the toddlers while their moms took parenting classes or ESL classes or went to job interviews.  Ever since then, Lola has been talking about those kids and thinking about what it must be like to be homeless as a young child.  She asked me, “How do those kids get school supplies if they can’t afford food?” and I replied that I figured it was probably pretty hard.  That they probably had to look through the donated items to find what they needed.  An idea was born. She got together with her best friend to create Education Belongs 2 Everybody, a place where folks can go and donate money to help these kids buy school supplies.  We started thinking, and between backpacks and calculators and binders and all of the other things that kids really need to get for school, the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars easily. And what a great feeling it would be for these kids to get to go to the store and choose their own lunchbox or folders based on the things they love!  If you’re so inclined, go check out their website and donate a few dollars through PayPal. Each and every penny donated will go to the shelter we have worked with in the past so that these kids can be better equipped to start their school year off right.

The past couple of weeks (and the next week or so, as well) can only be characterized as volcanic. Most of the time, my life moves along at the same pace, even with minor changes in routine, and while I know that time is marching on and things are changing incrementally, imperceptibly, I have accepted that one day I will look back and be astonished at how far we’ve come from one place or another.

And then there are times when it feels as though I am lost in an unmanned capsule hurtling through space at the speed of light en route to a destination I knew about but somehow didn’t realize was so close.

Eve graduated from 8th grade last night. After four incredible years at my favorite middle school on the planet, she is done.  We watched her play basketball for four seasons, learn to tap into her own unique talents and tendencies to develop into a strong leader, forge friendships with a diverse group of girls who make her laugh and cry, and I knew this day was coming, but like these things do, it happened slowly and then instantly. She is so ready to move on to the next chapter, and I am so glad I have the next two and a half months to get more mentally and emotionally prepared for it. She likes to torture me by saying things like, “You know, Mom, I can get my driver’s permit in less than a year if I want.” For my part, I continue to remind her that we live in the city and there’s a bus stop half a block away if she wants…

She was home yesterday when a friend came to have lunch with me and we invited her to join us.  At first I was afraid she might be bored with our conversation, but I needn’t have worried.  Somewhere along the way she has grown into her aspirations of confidence and independence and she was a lively and appropriate part of our visit.

Tomorrow, Lola turns 12. When she got dressed for last night’s graduation ceremony and appeared in the kitchen ready to go, I noticed how long her legs are getting and how the roundness of her cheeks has melted away as she heads inevitably toward teenagerdom.  She still loves watching SpongeBob Squarepants and snuggling with me on the mornings that I wake her up for school, but she is following her sister’s example of spending more time in her room alone and asserting her ability to make more decisions.  The great debate this year revolved around which movie she and her friends would see this weekend, given that some parents are uncomfortable with the PG-13 content of the ones on their short list. It is such a challenge to watch these girls straddle goofy girlhood and the desire to be grown up, although I suspect it is more of a challenge to be living that dichotomy.

As for me, I am struggling to find some clear perspective on what my role is at this juncture.  I don’t want to hold on too tightly, clenching my fists around the golden threads that tether them to me, but I’m not ready to completely let go, either.  As I watched Eve and her friends glide across that stage last night to get their diplomas, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the hours of sleepovers and carpool driving I was lucky enough to be part of, privy to some inside jokes and candid conversations and the march toward young adulthood they each took in their own time.  I was moved to tears when I heard one of them acknowledge the strength of the foundation they have all given each other, a platform from which they can all leap confidently.  I am looking forward to two more years of that with Lola, starting with next week when I’ll chaperone their final trip of the year – a three day bike and camping excursion on a local island a few hours away.  I am excited to watch them challenge themselves physically and emotionally (and I’ve already told them they are responsible for pitching my tent since I’ve never done that in my life) and come together as a class to problem solve. I fully anticipate that there will be tears of joy and frustration and at least one girl will likely get shoved into the water, whereupon the rest will follow in solidarity.

In the abstract, I know what is to come for Eve as she heads off to high school, and I also know that these next four years will march by slowly and surely until there is another seismic shift forward that lands us squarely in the lap of high school graduation, amazed that it came so quickly.

I am a little sad, and very nostalgic, but more than anything, I am overcome with love for my girls and my fabulous husband and an intense feeling of gratitude that I am lucky enough to witness and be part of their lives each and every day as we move toward these momentous events in all our lives.

Spring Break. That’s why it’s been a while since I wrote anything.  It is this particular week that both strikes fear in to my heart for the coming summer (and having the girls around all day every day) and thrills me because I get to hang out with my girls and do things like walk the dog and read books in the sunshine and bake cookies.  This week has been a perfect window in to just that. And now that it’s Thursday, I’m ready for them to go back to school. And I have no idea how I’m going to survive summer.  None.  I will certainly have to be more diligent about carving out time to write (and read) if I am to preserve what little portion of sanity I have left.

One incredibly bright beacon this week came thanks to Kris Prochaska and her talents.  Kris is a counselor by training who has built a practice around helping people decipher what she calls their “human design,” in an effort to optimize the way they work and live in the world.  I wrote about one session with her last November where I had a multitude of “a-ha” moments and, following that, I became interested in seeing if she could help my girls navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence.  I pulled up our Human Design Charts (a mixture of information based on chakras and the zodiac and the I-Ching, among other things) and asked Kris to work with Lola first.  On Tuesday, she spent a little more than two hours with us helping Lola understand what Kris calls the blueprint of her personality in order to better understand how she can most effectively make good decisions that are in alignment with her design.  Kris explains it better on her site:

“In every case, when I am talking with my clients about miscommunication with their family, stress around money and marketing, and feeling overwhelmed around their calendar it boils down to the initial decision and commitment they made.  Invariably they say something like “how did I get in this AGAIN?” And we look at the energy and emotion behind the decision and realize they were making the decision and commitment from their little voices of fear, doubt, shame and lots of guilt.  Ugh.  No wonder stress and overwhelm is there.

Sometimes it’s not so much the little voices that are pulling us this way or that, but rather living out of alignment with how we are uniquely designed as individuals to manage our energy, communicate our message, or commit to the next business venture.All of your results stem from the moment you choose a course of action and how you approach that choice emotionally and energetically.  Wouldn’t it be prudent (and totally freakin’ powerful!) to know exactly what voices are making those choices, and how you best listen to the only voice that you need ever heed: your Inner Voice?”

We all have different ways of listening to (and finding) our inner authority and after talking with Kris, Lola has a much better shot at honoring hers. I am convinced that, armed with this information, she will be able to make her way through the challenges of teenagerhood with more clarity.  Eve is already bugging me to schedule her session with Kris, but my brain is so full from Lola’s I feel like I need to go sit in a dark cave for a week to process it all.

I was looking forward to a few hours free today while the girls head to school for an exciting opportunity, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay away.  Their school was one of four in the nation chosen by The Clinton Foundation to engage in a Skype discussion about empowering girls to change the world.  I am fairly certain that neither Eve nor Lola truly understands the significance (I know I wouldn’t have when I was their age – hang out with a former Secretary of State on video? Who cares?), but I’m happy that the sun has gone away for today so they won’t be resenting me for intruding upon their Spring Break by making them participate. Of course, because I understand the significance of it, I will likely be sitting on my hands in the back of the room, clamping my lips together to force myself to stay quiet and let the girls speak, so my “few hours free” won’t be.

It will all definitely give me more to write about, although that isn’t a challenge right now. I have so many half-begun essays and poems, so many pieces sent out for submission to different publications (some hanging out there for weeks, waiting, and others simply rejected), that I hardly know how to tell them apart anymore. It would take the entire summer of writing in a vacuum to complete them all, and that’s only if nothing else occurred to me while I was writing.  There is a constant buzzing in my head from all the ideas and thoughts, both disparate and connected, and it’s all I can do to remember what Kris told me about my particular cycles of activity and how this happens every Spring.  I will wait for the bees to settle in and be still so that I can take the time I need with each one and it will all get done – or at least the stuff that needs to get done will get done. The rest can just buzz on away like so much background noise.

How do you survive Spring Break?