April 12, 2021

My Teenager Taught Me New Ways To Love

I don’t love my children the same way.

At least, I don't if “love” is more often an action than it is a feeling. (And I truly believe that's the case.)

I love—the feeling—both my children fiercely and deeply in equal measure, if a mother’s love is something that can actually be measured.

But I do not love—the action—my children in the same way, because love has to look and sound like something to the person being loved, and my two children see and hear love in different ways.

Not long ago, my teenager taught me some new ways to love.

Loving my first baby through the teenage years did not really prepare me for walking through those years with her younger sister. My older daughter is my pleaser, my child who has me listed as “mommy” on her phone and jokes we won’t have to worry about her coming home for Christmas when she’s an adult because she’s never going to have left in the first place.

My second and last baby is my strong-spirited child who often prefers quick side hugs and who’s called me “mom” for a long time. She’s fascinating and intricate and determined and so insightful. 
She’s a complex puzzle worth putting together and a dance worth every tricky step.

But parenting her has been an intense experience. 

With her, I needed to find ways to love a child I wasn't always sure even liked me. I needed to learn how to give out love that was not always obviously given back.

This was love the choice, the decision, the action, and I had to learn how to do it as I went along.

I learned to still say the words “I love you.” I learned to say them even when I didn't feel like saying them. I learned to say them when they were only returned with a mumbled “love you” as my daughter bolted out of the car in the school drop-off line. I learned to say them when they were not returned or acknowledged at all. I learned to still say them, because no matter what, they were (and are) still true.

I learned to speak love in other languages. I learned to speak it in the dialects of small gifts and acts of service. I spoke it by stocking up on the protein bars my high-schooler took for lunch every day and by washing her dance clothes, babying them along on the gentle cycle and pulling them out of the load before it got thrown into the dryer. And sometimes, I spoke love by forcing myself not to say anything at all.

I learned to show love by showing up. My daughter was stoic and stone-faced and made no eye contact when she filed past me sitting in the stands at her marching band competitions. She did not get out of line to come give me a hug or even say hello when I handed out third-quarter snacks to her bandmates after they played their halftime show.

At her awards ceremonies, there was no option of a photo-op with her smiling proudly, standing between her dad and me and displaying the certificate we added to the collection we'd started in kindergarten. But I kept showing up for those things anyway, because love shows up. I kept showing up because whether or not it mattered to her that I was there, it mattered to me that she knew I was there. And I kept showing up because there is power in presence.

I learned to love by taking what I could get with gratitude. One early morning, when my daughter got in the car for the ride to school, she surprised me by enthusiastically asking, “Did you smell the air? Did you smell the Froot Loops?” (We live near Battle Creek, Mich., the Cereal Capital of the World, where the air some mornings does, in fact, smell like Froot Loops.)

Her question caught me off guard that day because morning conversations were usually limited to me asking when she needed to be picked up and her responding with the fewest number of words necessary for communicating information that would keep her life on track. That day, I could have answered her tersely, as she often did when I ask her about something. I could have reigned in my response in anticipation of being rebuffed. But instead, I made myself take the moment for what it was.

By grace, I matched her enthusiasm and told her, “Yes! I did! Isn’t it great that we live in a place where this is what we get to smell in the mornings?” I learned to receive gifts of interaction and connection as they were offered, not because I was groveling but because I was trying to be grateful.

I learned to love by reinforcing the good. At the last home football game of her last marching band season, my drum line girl was in a familiar funk. Also familiar: I had no idea what the problem was. I asked if she was okay even though the answer was obvious, and she muttered something about a cramp and wandered off. We picked her up at the end of the night, and her ear buds immediately went in as usual, but when we got home and were walking into the house, she said, “Oh, Mom, I wanted to let you know that I did have that weird cramp and I thought the rest of the night was going to be miserable, but I ended up laughing with my friends and having a really good time.”

“I’m so glad to know that,” I told her. “Thank you for telling me.” In that particular season, there was much I wanted from my daughter that I didn't get. So when she gave me something I wanted more of, I learned to put an exclamation point on it.

Loving my incredibly wonderful but sometimes prickly teen was tough sledding at times. Even now, I'm still never quite sure how things are going to play out. But here again—as in all of parenting and, well, in all of life—I have to remind myself that my job is not the outcome; my job is the input.

So I'll remember these lessons from the past and carry them into the present and future. I'll keep trying to learn how to love in new ways. I’ll keep inputting love while I hold fiercely to hope that the outcome will be love received and love given back.

A version of this piece first appeared on Grown and Flown

April 10, 2021

Aiming For Zero

The other day, my college early-childhood/early-elementary senior education major had a sub job at a school not far from her campus. She’d already met all of her substitute teaching requirements for her major: she was only doing the job to get her last few required observation hours.

On account of Covid and the fact that observing anything in person had become a hundred times trickier, I’d joked to her that she’d been trying to accumulate those hours since fifth grade.

“Feels like it," she told me.

The morning of her job, when I sent her a text to encourage her for the day, I told her, "You're on your way to zero!"

Normally, in our family, we are big on better than zero: aiming for anything more than a flat-out goose egg. But I told my daughter that, in this case, achieving the day’s goal would be even better than better than zero.

Which got me to thinking that there are some other things in life I'm aiming for zero on.

Zero days when my family goes to bed at night not having felt loved during the day.

Zero words from me that create a wound that never quite heals up.

Zero unforgiveness I think is making someone else sorry for what they did but is, in fact, only making me my own prisoner.

Zero chances to show love that I don’t take.

Zero would’ve, could’ve, or should’ve when I’m going after a good goal whose outcome I cannot control but whose input I can.

Zero settling for lukewarm faith.

Zero assumptions another day on this earth is guaranteed to me.

Zero taking my health for granted.

Zero missed opportunities to encourage someone or make their life a little easier.

Of course, “aiming” is the crux of the matter here. I’m going to miss on these sometimes...more than likely, a LOT of times. I’m going to hit one or 100.

But a wise friend of mine says, “If you aim at nothing, you’re sure to hit it.” I’m not really aiming at nothing here. I’m aiming at something that looks like zero, but would, in fact, be everything.

April 5, 2021

I’ll Keep Doing Things For My Kids They Can Do For Themselves

The other night, my teenager asked me, “I was wondering—and it’s totally fine if you say no—but I was wondering if maybe you could make me those oatmeal pancakes for breakfast tomorrow?”

I could. And I did.

Of course she could have made her own breakfast. She does, in fact, make her own breakfast other mornings when I can’t and don’t.

She didn’t actually need me to make her breakfast that day, but doing it for her smoothed out the edges of a morning that was headed toward rough.

And after I made those pancakes, I also packed her a lunch and threw in a load of her dance laundry.

I did some things for her that she can do for herself.

I made life a little easier for her.

Before anyone reminds me, I know I’m supposed to teach my kids to fend for themselves, to be independent, and, most of all, to not need me (much) anymore. 
According to a lot of articles I see out there in parent media land, I’m not “supposed” to do things for them they can do for themselves.

And I understand. I get it. I even agree, mostly. We have these children to hold them, but we raise them to release them—and we need to equip and prepare them for that releasing.

My teen does fend for herself. She is independent. She rarely needs me anymore. She runs a solid 90% of her own life and does it so well, I joke she should run for president someday. (Hello, First Mother?)

But when she asked if I’d make her those pancakes, I did it, and gladly. And I’ll do it again, as often as possible.

I’ll keep doing things for her she can do for herself. I’ll make her breakfast and pack her lunch and do her laundry. She knows full well how to do these things. She does do these things. But I’ll keep doing them for her a lot of the time while she does so many things I can’t and shouldn’t do for her.

I can’t—and wouldn’t—go to school and navigate the minefield of high school friendships.

I can’t deal with peer pressure and annoying classmates and incomprehensible geometry and public displays of affection and cringe-inducing dress code violations, all before 9 a.m.
I can’t decide what she wants to be when she grows up when the push to already have figured that out AND to have job-shadowed in that area AND to have decided where she'll go to grad school so she can be competitive in that field is coming from almost every direction.

I can’t run after her dreams and do what has to be done to make them a reality.

I can’t practice patience and kindness and self-control when teenage stress, exhaustion, and hormones—so many hormones—are bearing down hard.

I can’t balance 14 hours most weekdays of academics and extracurriculars and relationships with friends and family, all of them requiring dedication and determination.

My teenager is the only one who can do these things that matter now and matter for her future.

But I can make pancakes for her. And so, that morning, I did. Not because she wouldn't, but because I was willing. Not because she couldn't, but because I could. Not because making breakfast is some grand, magnanimous gesture, but because this is how we do family. I do things all the time for my husband that he can do for himself, as he does for me. My own parents still do many things for me that I can do for myself. This isn't a scorecard we're keeping here; it's just love. 

Of course, love wants the best for those it holds dear, and so I want my teenager to be able to take care of herself when I'm not around to do it. That's what's best for her. 

But when the time comes, this child who will always be a little bit my baby won’t be any less ready for life without me on a daily basis just because I made her a few breakfasts or washed a few dance leotards for her.

On the other hand, though, maybe I'll be a little readier for life without her at my kitchen table every morning if I do for her what I can do—even if she can do it for herself—while I still have the chance.

A version of this article first appeared on Your Teen For Parents.