The Beginning of the End

IMG_0067It’s cliché to say that it happens when you’re not looking. It’s trite even think, as I look upon the young man who sits across the dinner table from me, that yesterday he was only ten or five or two. Time passes. We expect it to and often even want it do, sometimes willing it to go faster. Colic couldn’t pass soon enough, nor could countless illnesses. Surly and irritable patches, rare and brief in my older, weren’t to be lingered over, nor were his periods of anxiety and sadness.  Of course, I could no more accelerate those than linger over the piano recitals (at least when he was playing), the snuggly read-alouds, the enthusiastic ah-ha! moments, and the happiness I experience when watching him be happy. So it goes. Somehow, when we look back, we see it all at top-speed. We warn those with small children: “Enjoy it! It goes so fast.” Others told us the same, after all.

Suddenly, but not really, he’s seventeen. A high school senior applying to colleges. The beginning of the end of our homeschooling tenure. He sits for the road test for his driver’s license in a few weeks. He starts his third semester dual enrolled at a local community college, launching into eleven credits he’ll add to the twenty-five he’s earned so far. He is taller than me by enough that I have to scoot my seat forward after he drives, and he seems to love little more than looking down as he stands next to me. He can lift what I can’t lift and tell me a host of things that I don’t understand. He has skills I don’t, interests that he’s explored deeply without me, and dreams unknown to me that are his alone to savor.

Children always have their own unspoken thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires, but it may not be until their teens that, to their parents, the breadth and depth of this private life becomes so apparent.  It’s hubris to think one can completely know one’s child, and it only takes reflecting back on my own childhood to realize that a rich interior life kept private starts quite young. I say I know my boys well while remembering that they are sovereign beings with their own valid ways of thinking, feeling, interacting, and being.  That’s how it should be. Growing up requires recognizing that sense of self as separate from parents, siblings, and friends.

Thanks to homeschooling, my older and I have had plenty of time together. Homeschooling produces an intimacy that, for either party, can feel like a warm embrace or a chokehold, depending on the day. It’s easy to let homeschooling take over, becoming a parent’s primary purpose and identity. But all of us were something else before we parented and homeschooled. As have many homeschooling parents, I’ve dropped my pre-homeschooling professional life into a lower gear, working a bit on weekends to keep up my skills as a physician assistant but veering sharply from my intent a decade and a half ago to seek a faculty position in a PA program.  As many homeschooling parents have also done, I’ve built a small business, a job that can be done from home. It’s something for me, something along with my writing that is not about my children (although I doubt it would have happened without my experience homeschooling them). In that intimacy of homeschooling, I think it’s essential to retain an adult identity beyond the very important job of raising and educating children.

After all, at some point, if all goes well, they graduate and eventually leave home. Homeschooling isn’t a tenure-track job. It ends, either after that last high school year or earlier, depending on family choices. And from what I hear, there really is life after homeschooling. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a different path or even a path after my children leave at least the homeschooling nest. I can’t imagine our lives without it while still planning (and often yearning) for the day I’m out of a job.

Some days I second-guess myself. The days where friction is high and teens are being teens (and mom in her mid-forties is being a mom in her mid-forties), I wonder if we’d get along better if we weren’t sitting so close to one another and if someone else could give the instructions and do the reminding for six hours a day. But life’s not a controlled experiment, and second-guessing the past is a frustratingly futile task that always ends in tears. We’re here, and he’s seventeen. It’s the beginning of the end.

In just over two weeks, he starts his senior year of high school with the next round of classes at the community college. Two weeks after that, his homeschool group starts. An online class starts whenever he’s ready.  I’m still searching for a few missing pieces — a an acceptable government class and maybe a bit more literature. I’m fighting my urge to shove it all in, everything I wish we’d done over the past decade, everything a well-rounded student should have.  I wonder at what I’ve neglected while knowing that there really are only so many hours in a day.

It’s the beginning of the end, and end followed by a new beginning somewhere studying something that is not administered by mom. Before that beginning, there is a transcript to wrap up in a bow, paragraphs to write while wearing my counselor hat, and decisions to ponder with my son, along with a good amount of prodding as he works on his applications. There is plenty to do this final year of homeschooling my older, plenty to do for both of us. After all, he has a whole new beginning just around the bend.

 

 

Review: Searching for Meaning (James T. Webb)

I am prone to a winter funk, a recurring time of personal darkness starting with the holidays and extending until spring seems possible. This year was no exception. As I have other years, I reached for my full-spectrum light, just the right amount of human interaction, and a mix of escapist fiction and practical nonfiction. When struggling emotionally, I tend to reach for books on mindfulness and meditation.  I hold a special affection for Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, doled out in small parts to be read and reread as needed. While only an intermittent meditator, her wisdom steers my thoughts away from the existential muck while still giving advice remaining firmly rooted in the here and now. It works for me.

This year, I stumbled upon help from a different source: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James T. Webb, PhD. Webb, founder of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and psychologist renowned for his work in gifted education. In Searching for Meaning, Webb identifies idealism as a central cause of existential depression, the sort of depression associated with a questioning of the purpose and meaning of one’s life. This, according to Webb, can happen to anyone after a loss or other jarring event but seems more spontaneous in gifted individuals, including children.

So how does idealism fit in? Idealism requires that one has a sense of what is right and good — what should be. What is ideal varies by culture and religion and is made up of, according to Webb, relative rather than universal truths. Ideals are also illusions, which Webb points out doesn’t make them bad but is essential to managing those ideals. They are simply structures we create based upon the where and when of our lives, with plenty of influence from those around us helping them come to be. Some idealists recognize this illusion of ideal, realizing that different people have different ideals, while other struggle to see that their way is not the proverbial highway for all.

Idealism, says Webb, is also borne out of dedication to fairness and equity, and gifted children and adults, keen observers of the world, seem quick to hold to these ideas early in life. Idealism paired with the observation that ideals often go unrealized can quickly lead to despair. Mismatch of belief and reality hurts. Add in a sense of powerlessness (“I can’t fix all the pain in the world”) and the intensity present in so many bright and gifted people,  and the train to existential angst has left the station. Webb spends two chapters exploring idealism and giftedness, time well spent, as accepting that these premises are linked is essential to the rest of his exploration.

If you weren’t experiencing existential depression before starting the book, Webb’s fourth chapter will bring to at least of taste of what it’s like. My routes to the blues are two-fold: perfectionistic thinking that reveals how often I and other fail to live up to ideals and a more episodic sense of existential aloneness. It was here I thanked Webb for managing the theism issue without apology to either side. As an agnostic raising atheists, I was grateful that religion wasn’t brought as an answer to the question of meaning. Religion wasn’t demeaned either, although those who hold their particular religion as a universal ideal and not just their chosen schema for managing life may be less than thrilled with this portion of the book.

If the book had stopped there, I’d have been fine. It was this connection between intelligence, idealism, perfectionism, and deep thinking about our place in the universe that helped me connect the dots of my recurring bouts of the blues. While light deprivation is a piece of my problem, most of my mood dumps occur when ideals don’t match reality. Holidays, where my ideal family together, clash with reality, shuffling children between houses. This mismatch and my attachment to a vision of the ideal family (one that isn’t divided by divorce) lead directly to the blues. This is the first domino to go, for the next step my ever-busy brain takes is to question our connections, which leads me to a profound sense of loneliness followed by concerns that my children will also feel alone in the world. And so the dominos fall.

Awareness of the first thought — that idealism (an illusion) crashing with reality causes pain — can stop the cascade. The part of me drawn to Buddhist thought finds comfort in even that simple revelation: I’m unhappy because my ideal doesn’t match reality. Is this the path out of that particular ideal-driven depression? Not entirely, but paired with letting the feeling be rather than chiding myself for it (If the ideal is NOT feeling depressed, not meeting that ideal is also…depressing) and thus perpetuating the cycle help. Knowing where the discomfort originates is somewhat comforting as well as informative.

Webb spends a good deal of the book describing just what existential depression is and what others have said about it. While interesting, those of us realizing just how our idealism has landed us in these funks will be wanting more practical assistance, and that arrives a few chapters later. Those looking for detailed instructions about what to do and how will be disappointed at his brevity here, but Webb’s list of healthy and less-healthy coping mechanisms should provide grist for many a mind mill. The healthy mechanism bring the reader beyond illusions and are practical: Humor, bibliotherapy, volunteerism, healthy relationships, mindfulness, and many more make this list. Webb recommends restraint with less-healthy methods: distraction, business, narcissism, apathy, substance use, and the like.  He acknowledges that even these less-than-ideal coping methods can have, in small amounts, mitigating effects on existential depression, alas at the price of maintaining illusion.

And that’s perhaps the essence of his message and advice. Webb isn’t against the illusion of idealism. He does encourage an awareness that ideals are illusions and promotes conscious choice if one continues to hold to those illusions. He also supports an active engagement in this imperfect world paired with an active search for personal meaning as antidotes to existential despair.

Searching for Meaning steps far away from the traditional self-help book, offering no simple solution for the pain of being human. Webb avoids the trite, explores deeply the connections between idealism, giftedness, and questions of meaning, and offers solutions that demand metacognition (thinking about thinking) and personal responsibility. This is a book about the gifted for the gifted, and it is written to the adult or older adolescent. (Younger readers may benefit from the chapters on coping mechanisms, but it’s heavier than many younger readers may find comfortable.) It’s certainly a tool I’ll add my box for my recurring wonderings about meaning and bouts of foot-stamping idealism that brings my mood south. It’s a fine complement to my current regime of  meditation,  Pema Chödrön, a full-spectrum light, and kind companions who accompany me on this shared journey of life.

For more on how I manage the challenges of existential despair:

Strings Attached

018Birth is the start of a separation that most mothers long for, as gravid bellies grow beyond all believed limits and small hands, feet, head, and even pointy elbows poke the most intimate parts of their host. Nothing, for the pregnant woman, is done alone, and all that mom does during those 40 weeks is done with two beings in mind. But at the end, those weeks before birth, most moms are ready for the change to come, if only to experience less trips to the bathroom and to stop pushing that foot out from under her ribs. The first-time mom learns quickly that birth just changes rather than severs the connection.

Sure, squeeze-induced bathroom trips decrease in frequency after that first separation, but for the next oh-so-many years, they are rarely the private venture they used to be. And while babies out of the womb can be passed to another set of loving arms or even set down for at least a bit, they are persistently vocal about their preference, even when all the available arms full of groceries, in the shower, or holding onto someone else. And while we moms don’t do it with grace every time, we accept that our separation at birth was only the cutting of a single strand of connection. It was only the beginning.

And so it goes. That cord-cutting starts a cascade tiny separations. Weaning. Walking. Talking. Eating and toileting and dressing and bathing — with less and less assistance. Reading. Writing. Exploring the world and their place in it. Finding their own voice and learning to use it to show how separate they are from their parents and siblings. And all the time running away and coming back, more on elastic bands than string, with the furthest runs out followed by crashes back into the safety of a parent.

It’s not a linear process, and it’s often unclear when a given separation occurs. The child who spends weeks working solo suddenly wants mom by her side for math — every day. The boy who was saying goodnight to mom with little more than a quick and squirmy hug suddenly needs stories and conversations between the stuffed animals that returned to his bed after years of absence. No wonder it’s easy to be confused and conflicted about when and where and how to let go.

My older son is sixteen. He is a bit more man than boy everyday. I’ve not tucked him into bed in years, as his sleep cycle sends him to bed hours after my eyes close. He’s driving on a permit, taking college classes, and shaving (occasionally), and he spends much of his day in his office, a corner of the basement where interruptions are fewer and where, I guess, he feels more his own person. He’s working on the organizational skills required by college classes and the high school variety, a process that reminds me of whiplash. For days on end, all cylinders seem to be firing. Each time I check on him, he’s working on schedule or making adjustments as needed. I start to loosen my hold to the string that seems attached to his frontal lobe. I might even set it down for a bit.

And then it’s mayhem. Deadlines are missed. Assignments remain undone or not turned in. Test grades plummet. Alarms go unheeded. Chores are abandoned midway. 

And so I pick up the string, tie it around my wrist and pull. Hard. The resulting unpleasant collision of mother and son makes for all sort of ugly exchanges. I’m disappointed that he couldn’t maintain the organization needed for his life. I’m frustrated that I’m again his frontal lobe, which leaves me a bit short-handed for my own life. And I’m scared that he’ll not be able to manage just a few years down the road when I’m not so close to grab the string.

It’s that last part that’s the key. Separating is scary. Not separating is scary, too. As with the rest of parenting, there is no guidebook about when to let go. If my experiences are any indicator, there aren’t any clear rules. Strings are rarely cut outright or even set down with forethought and intention. Often, parent and child just set them down, either worn out from holding Most just slowly dissolve out disuse by both parent and child after some time on the ground, . It’s hard to see what separations have occurred without stepping back a good deal and seeing where you haven’t been in years. I’ve not tied his shoes in almost a decade. I don’t recall when last I cut his food, coaxed to shower, or thought twice about wondering if a household chore was within his ability set.

As he’s grown, we’ve formed other attachments, the sort where I need his assistance or occasions, those borne out of common interest. I’ve long turned to him for computer problems and other technical challenges, and he’s now the one who manages what’s up high and too heavy. There’s a comfort in this pattern of give and take, each of us with skills that help the other, an interdependence that feels somewhat similar to my relationships with other adults in my life. Somewhat.  He is still — and always be — my son. Strings attached.

Wrestling With Authority

Every day, I tell my kids what to do. Get in the shower. Pick up your dishes/clothes/books/shoes. Remember your English homework. Get ready for bed. Many of those requests begin with a “please,” but let’s face it. For most of us, “Please brush your teeth,” isn’t offering choice but rather a veneer of manners we hope helps our children that there are polite ways to tell someone what needs to be done when. “I’d appreciate it if you’d pick your dirty clothes up off the floor and put them in the hamper so they can be washed,” is just a sanitized, “Pick up your clothes.” It’s not an invitation to debate or discussion, and both child and parent know it.

But that’s not the kind of parenting I prefer. In the parenting world in my mind, we all do what we should because, well, we just should. We pick up our things and put them away because it is then easier to find them later. We do our respective jobs because they are simply our jobs to do or because they make our life as family better. We all brush our teeth because that’s good for our teeth. I pay the bills because it keeps the heat on and the keys to the house in our hands. We all take up the tasks of keeping that house intact, each to ability and time of life. And we never run out of ice cream or dark chocolate because that’s just not how we roll.

Yes, I have a rich fantasy life. It sustains me when I’m again reminding children to finish math, pick up socks, and place their own dishes in the dishwasher. I’ve pleaded my case for collaborative living and personal responsibility on numerous occasions, often being met with blank stares or, sometimes from my older, a ducked head, indicating a bit of remorse but no real idea what his crazy mom is requesting.

I’ve been known to struggle with authority. Not with appropriate authority — the kind that is given with respect, but not just the verbal trappings of respect. “Please” means nothing if paired with a useless, unreasonable, or impossible request. Where I’ve struggled with authority is where the authority is simply there for the sake of being authority. Authority should have purpose, and a person with authority should have wisdom and vision that those following the authority do not. 

Parents, theoretically, have that wisdom and vision. We are the first authority in our children’s lives, and most of feel ill-equipped as we wield use it. If we’re thinking as we parent, we wonder daily about when to exert authority and when to let go. Aside from the obvious health, safety, and legal points, knowing when to hold fast and when to let a child lead is largely a matter of opinion swayed by our own upbringing and our peers.  We’re charged with keeping our children alive until eighteen when, theoretically, they’ve gathered the knowledge and vision to move into the world with less parental prodding. How we interpret the vagaries of that job is up to us.

When I look back, the authority issues those first few years were simple, revolving around sleep, safety, and nutrition. The sleep issues bogged me down. My children weren’t big on naps. One just needed far less sleep that it seems a small child should, and one just found leaving mom’s moving arms too risky to chance. But I needed their naps. As an introverted mom, finding time to recharge alone was a priority for my own mental health. At many a nap time, I wondered who needed the naps more, me or the small child. But while you can lead a child to bed (or other comfy nap spot), you cannot make a child sleep. Not one to let my child cry it out for purpose or principle, I did what many moms do. I took to the car. Ah. Quiet for me. Rest for the little one.

Authority issues expanded as they grew. I found myself locked in ridiculous power struggles, which any thinking person would recognize as unmistakable signs of authority gone awry. Debating clothing color choices with a four-year-old is a sign of insanity, and yet, I found myself explaining the lifetime woe my older would experience if his idea of matching was to wear a red shirt with an almost-red pair of pants. Yes, I learned. Clothing — and hair length — aren’t areas where my wisdom or vision help one whit. I learned a bit about when to let go.

As the boys grew, I continued sometimes to explode into unneeded authority tantrums, bids for power, really, which is the not-so-virtuous cousin of authority. I say with minimal embarrassment that one pleasure I take in my professional life as a physician assistant is that people actually at least pretend to listen to my wisdom. Yeah, I know they don’t all go home to exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, and quit smoking, but they often say they will. Shallow? Perhaps. But some days, I just want some recognition that have wisdom and vision in something.

Homeschooling added another arena for the authority question to flourish and, in some ways, raised the stakes to the authority game. While I live in a state with no reporting and no regulation, I have always been acutely aware of the level of responsibility I have educating my sons. What to teach, how to teach it, when to start and stop, how to assure their competence — how to decide what competence means — and much more is firmly in my hands. It’s daunting. Heck, it’s often overwhelming. As my older reaches the end of high school, it’s no less daunting to count credits and wonder where to balance his passions with what he’s not so passionate about. And it’s daunting to know when to let him lead and when to exert authority about his schedule.

So where’s the line? I don’t know. I think it’s different for every parent and every moment in time. While I appreciate the adage that a parent is the one who best knows his or her own child, it’s not that comforting when the parent knows perfectly well that skills ignored today are going to still be required in college in a few years. And just as I’d have been remiss for failing to remind my children at four to brush their teeth or to give another child a chance at the swings, I’d be equally remiss if I did not insist on balance to their education. Computer programming is not a sufficient curriculum for my older. He must learn to read with comprehension and write in a way that transmits information and is readable. My younger must ingest more than literature and history — some math and science are necessary for a well-rounded education.

Of course authority extends beyond academics when parenting older children. Curfew is just as much about respecting the needs of the rest of the family and your obligations the next day as it is drawing a line of “late enough”. Talking back, while mostly just annoying at home, is the possible precursor to disrespect to professors, bosses, and partners in years to come. And nothing about parenting teens excludes reminders about basic hygiene.

So I continue to wrestle with appropriate authority. I wonder when to let a child walk away from an activity and when to insist he try at least a few more months. I ponder whether to legislate bedtimes and waking times for those who find themselves with too few hours in a day for homework. I wrestle with choice — how much to give about coursework and free-time choices. All the while, I yearn to step down from the role of authoritarian, or at least to step back into a more supportive and collaborative role. It’s work, figuring out how to let children grow up and finding your place as they continually grow and change. It’s hard work, the sort that haunt a mom in the night, wondering to which side she’s erred the previous day. It leaves me wanting an authority of my own, an instruction manual, specific for each age and stage of my children.

But there’s nothing, of course. So I make my own way, blundering daily, stepping on their toes one moment and letting them wander too far the next, always wondering if they’ll be ready when it’s their time to leave the proverbial nest.  Wondering what they’ll think once firmly ensconced in their adulthood about the level of authority they experienced at home. Wondering and just wanting them to be okay.

I’m Not Ready

DSCN0678You, my sixteen-year-old son, are at a party with friends and without parents. There are two adults in attendance, I suppose, since two of his friends have past their eighteenth birthday, but that’s not quite the same as knowing a parental unit is on the scene. Okay, it’s nothing like it. You and your friends are good kids, friends for years with parents I know well, all growing into their mid- and later-teens with fairly reliable histories of good conduct and judgement. Mostly.

But, you see, I was sixteen once. The rule in my house was that parents had to be present where teens were present. As I said, I was sixteen once: a careful, cautious, and always safe sixteen, but, well, sixteen. And so, I’m not ready.

I know tonight there is really no cause to worry, although I ran through my not really concerns with you on the way to the party, reassuring myself while likely amusing or disturbing you. If you drink (and you shouldn’t drink), don’t drive (although you are still on a permit, so that can’t happen). If your driver drinks (and he wouldn’t), call me. I’ll come get you without hesitation and not discuss it all with you then,  or probably not, or at least I won’t be mad at you for keeping yourself safe. Remember all you learned in OWL, that great sex ed and relationship class a few years back through church. Remember the parts about birth control, and about how nothing works as well as abstinence (which despite all you learned is what I really want you to practice for a very long time, like until I am ready to have grandchildren, which might happen in 20 years). Remember.

I’m never ready for the next stage that brings you to places that just might bring pain or fear or failure. I wasn’t ready when you weaned himself at eleven months. The books said a year, and, by gum, I was going to go a year. But trying to nurse a child who wants to run and see the world just doesn’t work, and ultimately, child-led weaning won out. You were ready to lead, and I had to follow. But I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t any more ready when you went off to daycare at 14 months or three years later, when I sent you to Montessori each day, the only school experience you liked but, for the first two weeks, worried you to tears through the morning, the long wait before your afternoon session. “Why are you worried?” I asked. “Because I worry that I will worry when I am there,” you replied. How could I be ready for that?

I wasn’t ready when, at ten, I sent you to your father’s apartment, a place I’d never seen that embodied the shame and pain of my failed marriage. I cried after you left (and again while I write this note, while you celebrate freedom and youth and all that with friends — carefully, please). I wasn’t ready to not be your mom with your dad in the same house, although I was more than ready to leave the anger, fear, despair, and pain behind. And I was not ready — could never be ready — to see the pain in your eyes for the years that followed.

I wasn’t ready the fall you started homeschooling high school, the start of the end or of some new beginning. I’d prepared and planned and panicked, afraid neither of us were ready for the next four years. We weren’t. And when I realized that, I wasn’t ready for the fear I felt that I’d failed you nor the frustration that filled me as I watched you flounder. I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t ready when I dropped you, at fifteen, off at the local university at the first of your two dual enrollment courses. You looked so young and so small compared to those around you, and I wasn’t ready to find out that perhaps you weren’t ready to be there. You were, mostly, and you found your way, mostly. But I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t ready when you sat in the driver’s seat while I took the passenger’s seat, gripping the door handle and reaching for that brake that the driving instructors have. Lucky driving instructors. I wasn’t really ready to turn you over to the lucky driving instructors, worrying from that first day of Driver’s Ed about a year from now when no one is at your side in the car, when you must remember the rules I repeated tonight: If you drink, don’t drive. I  could never be ready to lose a child.

Back to tonight. And a few hours back, I wasn’t ready to see you off to a parentless party, even the safest one I can imagine,  if only on principle. Most of parenting is about letting go to children who are more capable than we feel they possibly could be and while trying to smile as we do it. It’s about trusting that I’ve raised you well, or as well as I know how, and that for the most part, the world is a safe place. It’s about knowing that you have to face fear and pain and failure on your own to grow further, and that as much as I want to protect you from fear and pain and failure, I can’t. And, to some degree, I shouldn’t try. If I buffered you from every possible misstep, you’d never leave your bed, which would be a mattress on the floor, since I’d hate to see you fall.

So be safe and responsible while you have fun. Laugh until you cry. Tell jokes. Talk with freedom. Listen to others.  Eat like only teenagers can. Stoke the campfire (carefully, please), and tend to your friends. Be sixteen. I’m ready. Sort of.

Twelve

IMG_0591It’s hard to say when my drift away from childhood started. It can’t be at the point where each thought isn’t spoken and shared, for I can recall private success and shame from age three onward. We work to separate from parents from our first step. But at some point, the move isn’t just to more autonomy but away from childhood and toward all that comes next.

It might have started at twelve, in the basement of a new friend from my new junior high. Being the new kid in seventh grade may not really be any worse than being any kid in seventh grade. Almost everyone swings and sways the hormonal winds of puberty, starting each morning trying to dress a body that isn’t one’s own only to face crowds of kids in the same predicament, each deciding to flaunt or conceal nature’s most recent trick. But I weathered this storm with three girls who provided sure shelter in this period of shift, and with them, I found myself in the basement, music blaring.

Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind. oh, Mickey! 

I can’t recall the dance moves paired with that unfortunate pop song of the early 1980s with lyrics I am sure I didn’t entirely understand at twelve. But the sense of experiencing and embracing what was mine — that made perfect sense. This wasn’t the music of my childhood – the classical, folk, and show tunes that had been the soundtrack of my first dozen years. This was…something else. Toni Basil’s Mickey begat Top 40 radio stations, followed mix tapes of favorites of the radio and long conversations over the phone or behind the bedroom doors of my girlfriends about school,music, books, mean girls, and cute boys. These were conversations for girlfriends only — no parents allowed.

His twelve is of course different. He parks himself in front of Minecraft videos and the game itself for hours, if left unchecked. (And sometimes, because I need the peace or I know he needs the same, I turn my head.) His siren song has riffs of zombie attacks and choruses of spawning cats and horses.  Sometimes he plays with a friend beside him, their loud voices exhorting each other to gather arms or resources or just to get out of the way. It’s public and loud, their banter and games.

His friendships look the same at twelve as they did a few years back, lacking the confidences and collusion of my version twelve. Sword fights and fantasy play dominate his offline time with friends, and his play still screams little boy. His conversations with buddies revolve around video games and trading cards, with occasional plots to bother siblings. He holds all the spirit of eight with his friends, although with an ability to compromise and apologize that are just beginning to bloom.

Twelve brought me changes to my body that bewildered and irritated me more than brought me delight. There seemed more to hide and disguise during that year, and too much time was spent in front of my closet’s full-length mirror trying to determine if my bra’s straps showed under my short sleeve white uniform blouse, and, if they seemed to, deciding whether to sweat out the day with a sweater to cover said straps, in a thicker long sleeve blouse, or wearing a t-shirt under my uniform blouse. Braces. Deodorant. Glasses. Hair that suddenly needed something done to it. My twelve was a constant tug between the desire to be invisible and to be seen.

His twelve smells sweetly sweaty, lacking the pungency of adolescence. His clothing choices revolve only around what is comfortable and within reach — the mirror in his bathroom receives little attention. His voice has gradually lowered in pitch to the point where callers confuse it with mine, a curse of the preteen boy. And while he is firmly, passionately male, his golden hair, which sweeps below his shoulder blades, throws off almost all strangers, who ask about my daughter. He’s confident in his masculinity, reminding me that after puberty, no one will make the mistake again. He is still far more boy than almost teen, from the soft curves of his cheeks to the bounce in his step, but the autumn of childhood is here.

At twelve, my father read to me most nights. Sitting on the edge of my bed as he had done since as early as I can remember, he introduced me to classic and contemporary literature. Whatever growing up I did during the day, I was still glad to have my father’s voice bring me mystery, adventure, fantasy, and a bit of childhood in the hour before I went to sleep. An affectionate child raised by affectionate parents, twelve brought less exuberant demonstrations of love, but goodnight hugs and kisses persisted at a point where physical reassurances that you are real and loved and still your parents’ child despite the churning changes you can’t control.

Firmly attached to mom, at least at the end of the day, he still waits for the snuggle before bed, greeting me with purrs and meows, rubs of his head against mine, feline behavior being his only way to express his affection and love for many years. This ritual tugs some nights, and sometimes my eyes fill. At twelve, we are reaching the end of this scene of childhood, and I don’t know which purr and rub will be the last. Each “good night” leaves me wondering. In daylight hours, I’ll just sometimes find his hand in mine as we walk somewhere. I hold his back with equal strength, allowing his to slip out as quickly as it came. Grasping works no better here than when a child learns to walk. Letting go at the loosening of their hands is part of the deal.

My twelve is only available to me in snippets, like the trailer for a movie. Sleepovers with girlfriends. Gut-knotting moments on the playground with girls who met puberty with vitriol. First crushes on oblivious boys. Math tests. Books that introduced me to the adult world, tantalizing and cautioning at the same time. Time home alone, similarly exciting and frightening. Homework on weekends. The constant tug of childhood and adolescence, with the latter winning out thanks to the unrelenting forces of nature.

I cannot recover the inner narrative of being twelve anymore than I can guess that of my son’s at twelve. His twelve is knowable only by what he tells me, and that is very little. I have no doubt his interior life is rich, but temperament and gender and Asperger’s keep it within his heart and mind. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can make a guess at what is behind his increasingly irritable tone, guess at worry and anxiety at a world that just holds too much mystery. Then bits come out, but still just glimpses at what it means to be him at twelve. In all ways, his twelve seems bigger than his eleven, with more talkback, more hair, more brilliance, more negligence, more sideways humor, more misunderstandings about the world, and even more tears. How does his still small body carry all that bigness?

Perhaps its hubris to try to understand his twelve through the lens of mine, over 30 years buried in my brain, but it’s the only lens I have. We share neither gender or life experience, but our temperaments are similar, and so I try to extrapolate — to guess, really — what might be inside. And for what? A chance to understand him a bit better before the throes of adolescence consume him even more. It’s coming. My little boy is going. But for now, we have twelve.

Will I Eat My Young? (Homeschooling for Beginners)

Thanks M.M., a new homeschooling mom who asked the big questions all new homeschoolers asked. Here’s a longer answer to one of her questions. Click on the blue links if you want to read more I’ve written on a particular subject. 

Welcome to homeschooling.

Perhaps you’re bringing your 5th grader home from school because she was miserably bored in 4th grade. Perhaps you’re skipping kindergarten round-up, suspecting kindergarten won’t be a good fit for you or your child. Or perhaps your son is in the middle of second grade, in the second school of his elementary career, and is miserable, and with his mix of exceptional giftedness and learning disabilities, you know home would be a better environment for him to grow. Wait. That last one is our story.

Whatever the reason you’re coming home or staying home, you likely have concerns about curriculum, co-ops, dual enrollment, online classes, transcript writing, and the laws in your state about homeschooler. I’ll be addressing none of those today. Curriculum is a matter of opinion. Procedures and laws vary from state to state. Transcripts give me headaches. Those are all important issues that have been written about here and elsewhere, but they aren’t the crux of what a new homeschooling parent should be pondering but either don’t speak aloud or simply don’t consider.

You won’t eat your young. Fear of conflict ranks high on the list of concerns of homeschoolers-to-be. I’ve known many a frustrated homeschooling parent who often wondered if consuming a child would take care of uncomfortable and perhaps toxic conflict while also solving the perennial question of what to have for dinner, but from my last count, all their children are still present and accounted for. Mine are still here, ages 12 and 16, and I’m not so long in the patience department, so I’m sure yours will survive, too.

But there will be conflict. There was before you homeschooled, right? Kids and parents don’t always agree. Kids don’t always listen to their parents, and parents don’t always listen to their kids. And while as parents, we usually speak (or sometimes yell) our concerns and requests, kids often act them out instead. That stalling on the math assignment? That may be a way to communicate boredom with thirty more problems so much like yesterdays that they hardly seem worth doing. The refusal to sit down at the piano bench for just twenty minutes? That may be a message from the perfectionist child who fears starting what might not go perfectly.

And, yes, your kids will avoid assignments that are Goldilocks just right. Minecraft calls. Books you didn’t assign beckon. The cat desperately needs to play. Even chores seem more interesting than the volume of cones and cylinders or the lab report on kinetic energy. The result? Conflict. You may yell. You may patiently redirect. If you are more relaxed than I often am, you may dump a subject for a day or week or month or even year, finding a way to make your child’s passion the lesson instead. (Warning. This works for some kids, like my younger son. My older then just switches passions. Know when to keep your hands off.)

You will sometimes be afraid. That inability to learn multiplication tables before starting algebra won’t make and engineering career impossible. The writing disability or even just unwillingness won’t eliminate all careers except the skilled trades (although a plumber or electrician in the family would be a serious boon). And that playdate that ended badly? Your child will likely go on to have friends and even a partner someday. Okay, I’m short on data here, but my fears for my children have yet to be realized. Somehow, they keep growing and learning and having other people enjoy their presence. And that’s what we’re after, right? Watch your fear, however, since for many of us, if the fear is ignored — if we refuse to listen to it and accept it — it morphs into anger. And while you won’t eat your young, anger again and again isn’t so good for anyone.

You’ll have to apologize. Own up to your mistakes, those time when your fear boils over into anger and those times when a lack of sleep three nights running overlaps with the sudden coffee shortage in your pantry. You’ll lose it sometimes. If you’re anything like me, you’ll yell at points and say things you’d love to take back moments after they leave your mouth. But you can’t. So apologize often. And try again next time after some healthy reflection on what went wrong. Conflicts happen. Demonstrate that they can happen in healthy, productive ways, and when you can’t demonstrate that, demonstrate humility and the art of the heart-felt apology.

Protect your relationship with your child. Conflicts can remind us that our priorities are out of whack. Yes, we’re trying to raise kids that can go to college (or high school), perhaps go to graduate school, and hold jobs. It’s easy to see today’s refusal to do math or failure to write a coherent sentence as tomorrow’s disaster. At points, I’ve put my educational worries about my children before my relationship with them, worrying about this skill or that skill while losing sight of the child who needs the skills. It’s never made any of us happier or my children any more successful. Yes, there are nonnegotiables when parenting and when homeschooling. Health and safety matters aren’t debatable, and insisting on these rarely causes friction in our house. Yes, there are skills I see as mandatory for adult life, including some academic competencies as well as planning and organizational skills and knowing how to get up in the morning. But even these skills are best learned on the child’s timetable. (Those that know me in real life, please remind me of this next time I lose it. Thanks.)

Don’t make plans beyond the present year (or month or sometimes day). Homeschool today because that is what works today. It might work next school year, or it might not. You’re sure you’ll homeschool that darling 5 year old forever? Don’t be. Life changes. Kids have wills of their own. Positive you’ll return your miserable middle schooler to high school next fall? Leave it open. Sure, keep your child on track for returning if that’s a possibility, but  don’t marry yourself to a plan for a year not yet upon you. While I worry decades down the road, I’ve always taken the decision to homeschool one year at a time. It’s like trying to buy a swimsuit for your post-pregnant body when you’re one month shy of delivery. The shape of things change more than you’d think. Stay open.

Take care of yourself. Those first few years, its easy to lose yourself into the all-consuming world of homeschooling. With thousands of curricula, hundreds of homeschooling boards, and dozens of methodologies, it’s easy to make a life out of your child’s education. Don’t. Read books that aren’t about education and homeschooling. See friends and talk about things other than your children. Nurture your relationship with your partner, and create time to just be alone.

Develop your own talents and pursue your own interests. Take that class. Start that new business. Maintain your professional credentials (or pursue new ones). In short, have a life that is bigger than homeschooling, a position that is not a tenure track job. Also, it’s good for kids to see parents learning and growing and generally taking care of themselves.

Chances are that you’re not doing it wrong. There are as many ways of homeschooling as their are homeschoolers. It’s easy to read the email lists and forums and assume you are raising knuckle draggers who will never be able to make it in the world, much less move out of your basement or that you are the laziest, meanest homeschooling parent in the world. Walk away from the lists and forums. Look at your kids. Are they learning? Are they relatively happy and developing skills that allow them to give back to the world? Are they nice kids? If yes, you’re likely doing just fine. Continuous improvement is exhausting for all involved, so give it a break.

Breathe. Laugh. Sleep. Sit still when you desperately feel like you shouldn’t or can’t, because that’s likely when you should. Do less than you think you should, because there really are only 24 hours in a day, and some should be spent on contemplating the universe, reading for fun, playing Scrabble, watching BBC dramas, wrestling with your children, playing with kittens, and writing blog posts about homeschooling. You’ll make your own list, of course, but only follow it if you want to. Homeschooling, like most worthwhile endeavors, is hard work requiring long days and sometimes sleepless nights. So take nap. Take a walk. Take time to recharge. And have fun.

 

 

Modeling: Do As I Do

This afternoon, I sat down to an episode of The West Wing with my 11-year-old, my historian/writer with an interest in politics who took to the show after watching a short clip during the election cycle. It’s odd fare for a preteen, but I’m considering it educational.  As I generally do, I brought my phone with me to the couch while he searched Amazon Prime for our next episode.

“Put it down!” he emphatically requested.

I turned the phone over onto the couch next to me, but that was not sufficient.

“Down there,” he said, pointing at the floor, just out of reach.

I mentioned something about waiting for his dad to text about pick-up time tonight, left it by my side, and pointed out the popcorn on the end table. The phone stayed face down on the couch, but his point was made.

While “do as I say, not as I do”  is fine to say, it’s not really the best in parenting methodology. We are models of adult behavior for our children. What we do matters far more to our offspring than what we say. Personally, this disappoints me. My behavior is less than ideal far too many times, and I realize that I say one thing and model another, constantly aware that my actions speak louder than my words. And while my younger son is still phone-free and my phone-wielding son shows restraint with his, I can’t think that my attachment is likely the healthiest behavior either child could observe.

My too-regular responses to texts and checks on my Scrabble games are just two of the types of distracted behavior that serve as poor models for my kids. When working online, I tend to keep one eye out for email and another out on Scrabble or Facebook, not because I’m waiting for anything important but simply because my own ability to focus on one thing at a time is becoming challenged. I dispense advice to my older: Keep only your work on the screen. Close Facebook. Don’t read with windows open on the computer. He has a fair amount of the inattentive type of ADD and is easily distracted. I have no native ADD and am, perhaps, even more distracted. And yet I say one thing and do quite the opposite, with predictable results — he keeps screens open and flounders to finish tasks while I also accomplish less than I could if I minimized electronic distractions.

My modeling of mealtime is similarly poor. We’ve always been a meals-at-the-table-together kind of family. That worked well when dinner found us all at the table at the same time and the boys woke at dawn, making these natural family times. But with classes in all directions at all hours and three differing interpretations at what constitutes morning (and thus breakfast time, which influences lunch time), this meal bonding time has become less secure. And with online classes running over meals and hurried people with work and homework, eating at the computer became a new norm. Sticky keyboards aside, this practice also leads to meals consumed without thought and appreciation. The part of me that embraces at least the idea of intentionality and mindfulness shudders at this new trend of ours. Periodically, I’ll make a demand to return eating to the table. And for a while, we do so. But when the kids aren’t there, it’s easy to take my meal to the computer (lentil soup tonight), and when my older is busy with homework or Minecraft, he doesn’t want to remove himself from his lair and ascend to the kitchen.

Reading is another modeling opportunity gone bad. Now, I read, but much of the reading I do is while at my weekly allergy appointments, in the parking lot during my younger’s piano lessons, in bed before sleeping, in bed before waking, and at other points where no one is around to see it. So while I’m doing what I say, I’m not doing it visibly. My younger is quick to read without being asked, although coaxing him to read new material takes work. My older, who read prolifically when younger, hears the Siren’s song of the computer more loudly than the whisper of a good book or even an edifying magazine. So in addition to making reading a book previously unread number one on the summer list of tasks for the day, I’m making more time to read in front of my offspring. Given I’m three weeks from my recertification exam as a PA, that’s mostly medical journals and books, but it is reading they can see me doing. (To my defense, moms who sit down to read, write, talk on the phone, think, or sleep are seen as infinitely available to appreciate witticisms, field complaints, and receive requests that require leaving one’s chair. My public reading time diminished as a result of some sort of conditioning gone wrong.)

I model other bad stuff, too. On occasion, I’ve been known to yell for a child rather than walk to find him, despite telling my own to do the opposite. I even sometimes yell at a child (gasp!), and my mouth is not the font of always-genteel language that is was when they were smaller. My younger son loves to call me on all of this and more, having appointed himself the Master of Civility and Manners. Well, of Mom’s civility and manners. He feels free to follow his id while experimenting with the milder end of foul language and innuendo, behavior somewhat due to age but also a product of a mom with a loosening tongue. According to him, Mom, it seems, should be all superego, restrained, calm, and utterly consistent. I suppose in theory I agree, but that’s just not the mom the universe brought him.

This is not a cry for perfection from parents. We are human, despite what our children may say. We have our foibles and failings, and our ideals for our children often rest in the hopes that our children will have different ones – somehow better ones — themselves.  Somewhere in the first third of this post, I closed the split screen, with Scrabble on the left and this post on the right, switched to full screen for this document, so the email wouldn’t show, and set to doing one thing at a time. There is no one around aside from a rather silent foster cat on my lap to know about my focus, and she’s unlikely to tell. But tonight I’m modeling behavior for myself, reminding myself that at one point, I could attend to my writing, my work, my meals without other stimuli. I’m trying to do as I say, to do as I want to be, to do as I want my children to do.  And tomorrow, when the boys return, I’ll try that again.

Developing Yourself: Planning for Post-Homeschooling Life

What are your plans for yourself after you’re done homeschooling? Are you returning to your old career, searching for a new path, or feeling completely uncertain? What do you do to develop yourself while educating your children? Join the conversation.

094In an online group I frequent, a mom recently asked what other parents did to assure they would have a life past homeschooling. It’s a pressing question for many of us who have suspended or altered careers to develop our young. Many homeschooling parents leave careers to tend to their children’s needs that are unmet in school, while others educate at home because they see homeschooling as a natural extension of parenting that is worth pushing the pause button on a career. They leave jobs in law, medicine, engineering, academia, and more, jobs preceded by years of (expensive) education and training. Many, including myself, never planned on leaving the workplace after having children, at least not for more than a few months. And many never dreamed of homeschooling at all.

I planned to work. After an undergraduate degree in English, I earned a Masters of Science as a physician assistant. I married, went to work full-time in family practice, and some years later, had a child. After four (long) months off, I returned to part-time work at the same clinic, stopping again four years later after my second was born. Chance, choice, and circumstance, as well as a seat on a corporate step stool while my then husband was climbing the corporate ladder led me to stay home full-time  A year later, three years before I started homeschooling, I returned very part-time to a PA position some Saturdays. I’ve maintained that position for over ten years. My younger son wasn’t the type to be left with anyone, and neither my then husband nor I wanted to return to the push-pull that comes with two demanding jobs and kids who become ill at daycare when Mom has three rooms full of patients and Dad is in a meeting.

I’m a bit restless by nature, and staying home with two young children didn’t come naturally to me. I soon became a La Leche League leader, which gave me a chance to use my diagnostic acumen in another way, helping moms troubleshoot when breastfeeding didn’t come easily. As well as stimulating my mind and helping me keep some rudimentary social skills, it provided something for me to do that worked with my job as Mom and gave me more sense of purpose. No, I’m not the type who reveled in the stay-at-home mom job. I missed adult contact, and this volunteer work gave me that while making me feel useful to adults. It kept me sane.

Nine years ago, my older son came home to learn, finding little intellectual stimulation in the gifted second grade classroom he’d attended, which, ironically, overloaded his sensory circuits quite handily. I’d done my research, connected with others, read everything I could, and dove in. It became my job. I loved lesson planning each weekend, and I perused catalogues and websites too often, seeking for whatever might be the best. Being a homeschooling mom became a large part of my identity, although my sometimes-PA work and often-La Leche League work remained parts of who I was, too.

I’d like to say I planned it that way, always maintaining more to my life than homeschooling my children. I didn’t. I worked because the job fell in my lap, although I’ve long been grateful to have that opportunity to maintain my skills in a career I still enjoy. I went to LLL because I was having breastfeeding problems (we worked them out) and was soon asked to apply for leadership. Keeping my world bigger than my boys was accidental rather than wise, but I’ve reaped the benefits anyway.

Somewhere in the last nine years, I became more intentional about my pursuits. I still take phone calls from nursing moms and work in family practice some Saturdays, but three to four years back, I started to write. I started one blog, Finding My Ground, where I explored the questions life was raising while dusting off the skill I’d honed in undergrad, although this time in personal form. A year later, I started this blog as a way to share my journey homeschooling separately from my personal walk through life. Something had changed.

Actually, a lot changed. I was homeschooling two twice-exceptional kids. I’d left the religion of my youth. I was separated and nearing divorce. My role at spouse had finally died after a prolonged, painful illness. I was, as corny as it sounds, looking for who I was outside of all that. I started teaching another person’s child along with my own biology followed by chemistry. I wrote more and learned to knit. With my boys, I started fostering cats from the Humane Society (there isn’t much volunteer work available for young children).  I found a Unitarian Universalist church that worked for my boys, and I and took an active role within in. I taught more kids who were not my own, which led to me finding the gumption to ask for pay for that work rather than volunteering. I became a writing instructor.

I found more of me. In the volunteer work, the writing and knitting, the new business, the old career, and the search for meaning, I found more and more of me. No, doing isn’t being, but doing can help one figure out just who one is and how one fits in the world. I was driven somewhat by the passage of time. The boys keep getting bigger and more independent. Mostly. One takes college courses. The other cooks for himself and reminds me often that he can do it all himself. They aren’t getting any younger.

So I’ve worked under the assumption that they’ll leave at some point. At times that unnerves me a bit, because I don’t have the full picture of what I’ll do then and because they still must just be seven and three. I don’t think I want to return to full-time PA work. I’m not sure I want to teach in a PA program, a goal I’d held when I started work almost 20 years back. I’m pretty sure I can’t make a living writing, even if I start submitting more than one article a year. I don’t know how I’ll feel about teaching writing in six and a half years, when my younger will be an adult. There’s time to figure that out.

Developing oneself benefits one’s children. My boys have watched me pursue my interests, give my time to others, start a small business, go into the office, study for re-certification exams, work in our church, and otherwise do things that aren’t all about them. While I occasionally sing a chorus or two of, “Mom’s a person, too,” my pursuits in the world clearly show that to them. They know they are valued. They know they are home because it’s the best option and something we usually enjoy. And they know I am someone  — an individual — in addition to the amazing job of being their mom and educational coordinator. There is value in that, this teaching our kids that we are part of the world which we’re sending them into.

After reading through the online thread on how to plan for life after homeschooling, I was astounded by the paths of others. Some had changed careers. Others were fostering pre-homeschooling or pre-child careers.  Several volunteered. A few returned to school to launch new careers. Many followed passions that had developed in the course of homeschooling their children.  And some were scared and struggling, unsure of what would happen when the kids left home. The question of self-development was on everyone’s mind.

We return home or start at home for our children. Sometimes we find we like it better this way. Sometimes we just do it because we’re out of other acceptable options. However we start, at some point our job ends. We work with an aim to put ourselves out of business. So if you’ve not already, join me in developing yourself. Learn a new skill. Volunteer. Take a class. Follow a passion. Someday you’ll be forced into retirement as a homeschooling parent. Prepare, and enjoy the process.

A Letter to my Older Son: Homeschooling a High Schooler and Just Being Mom

To my older son, who’s mom who feels a bit out of sorts while wondering best be Mom while homeschooling to her teenager

When you were young, when we started homeschooling, educating you seemed a natural extension of parenting you. After all, it’s at home that you learned to walk, talk, and run. It’s at home that you learned to add, subtract, read, write, and ride a bike. Homeschooling you, a choice made when traditional school failing you, seemed easy in comparison to sending you to school only to know it exhausted you. It seemed simple next to watching your face at the end of each long school day. It seemed tranquil compared to meeting with teachers and school staff at meetings that never got anywhere.

Of course it wasn’t perfect. I made mistakes. But overall, it was fairly easy and almost always fun. We learned together about history, a subject that had never interested me. We read together and watched documentaries together and even managed some science experiments when your younger brother was otherwise occupied. We both relaxed, and you finally seemed happy again. Perhaps most significantly, most of the time I was being Mom the way I’d always been Mom — showing you the world and talking to you about it, playing with you and watching you play, and giving plenty of hugs and snuggles along the way.

Time passed, and life became more complicated. Homeschooling two seemed more than twice the work of homeschooling one, and by the time your brother was working on a task list of his own each day, I was emotionally stressed by problems beyond which math curriculum to choose.  I’ll never be able to take that time back, those years where my worries about my marriage to your dad didn’t take my head and heart away from the two of you. I can’t remove the yelling you heard and the times you saw me cry. There are parts of when you were ten turning to eleven that I can’t even remember. I don’t know what we studied. I don’t know how you felt about it. I can’t recall anything but hurt, anger, fear, and sadness. Knowing you and your brother needed me to be strong kept me going, and I hope you knew I loved you more than ever during those years. I’m sorry, though, for that rift in our lives.

But time went on, and we gradually healed and saw ourselves as a family. Homeschooling continued, and high school loomed. Homeschooling became more daunting but no less wanted or needed. You did better at home than at school academically and emotionally, and I appreciated that. What’s more, I enjoyed having you in my presence each day. I marveled at your growing skills at math, piano, and science. Your kindness and compassion touched me, and watching you play with your brother each day brought me warmth and assurance that growing up deeply within family had value.

But high school scared me. It counts in high school. College comes after high school, and then comes Life. Or graduate school, if you’re looking for a way to delay Life. High school mattered. Before it formally began, parents of your peers talked transcripts and tests. And I grew scared. What I’ve wanted for you and your brother has always been modest — I’d like to see you reasonably happy with your jobs and personal lives, giving more than you take and being people others actually enjoy. I don’t care if you end up rich or famous or accomplished. I do want you to have choices and know how to meet challenge. Did I mention I want you to be happy?

It’s easy to lose the happiness, what with the worry about what colleges and the world will think of you. Or, more precisely, what they’ll think of your transcript from me (the one with no grades) and the ones from your dual enrollment college courses (the ones with grades). What they’ll think of the tests required to prove that we weren’t studying our navels all these years. What they’ll think about the on-paper you that you’ll present them in just under two years.

Sometimes, in all that worrying, I forget about the not-on-paper you. The young man who is always eager to help at home and outside of home. The one who charms me with his banter when I’m edgy and fighting the charming. The one who is both man and child at the same time and sometimes a distant teen. The one who is sensitive to the world and the people in it, caring deeply and, possibly at times, overwhelmed by all of it. The one who doesn’t want to offend or bother anyone, even when it is in his best interest to do both. Sometimes, I forget that one.

And that’s the heart of this apology. Out of fear about events years away, I worry. In that worry, I forget to attend to my boy, my baby. (Yes, I can see you cringe, but you will always be my baby.) I fail to remove my hat of teacher and school counselor and just be Mom. It’s hard for me to do that, since teacher and counselor are only two of my hats, and it seems like the Mom one is buried under those and a dozen more. In the days when I tucked you into bed, reading to you then snuggling in for a chat, the Mom hat was firmly in place and rarely hidden under other. When life took less organizing and arranging and more sitting and playing, I found myself wearing only that hat for much more of my day.

But now, when your bedtime is after mine, and you are the one who peeks in on me to say goodnight, I’m not as sure always what being Mom means. It doesn’t mean snuggles and stories anymore, nor does it mean kissing hurt knees and applying band-aids. Some of it still means reminding and correcting, but I don’t really like those parts, necessary as they are. (moms whine, too.) I know it means listening openly and working to know who you are becoming. I know it means letting you fall…a bit…so you can learn to catch yourself or at least how to avoid the more dangerous edges of life. I know it means that well-timed hugs and back rubs will likely still be accepted…and needed. I know it means that bringing you a sandwich or snack is a reminder that I love you, more potent than the words we share each night. I wish I knew more.

You are a remarkable young man — kind, compassionate, sensitive, smart, capable, funny, creative, and more. I’m a fallible, well-intentioned mom working continually to remember my real-life son requires more of me than the on-paper son for whom I want to have so many choices. It’s not easy, parenting a child who is in this stage of life, and I’m certainly not doing it perfectly. But I love you, with every breath and every fiber of my being. And that’s forever.