Tag Archives: parenting

Far & Away

Since the only consistent thing in life is change, it should be no surprise that once we adjusted to sending our child off to college, she glanced at the horizon and discovered she hadn’t ventured quite far enough from home yet.  One in ten undergraduates study abroad on trips that last anywhere from a couple of weeks to an entire academic year, and they don’t have to be foreign language or art  history majors to garner benefits.

I’ve seen the statistics.  Students who’ve studied abroad are twice as likely to land a job within a year of graduation.  They have 25% higher starting salaries and a sophisticated (and marketable) global approach to the world.  If they can hone or pick up a foreign language while they’re away, this increases job prospects further and makes them international citizens, able to transition more easily between cultures in our shrinking world.

A semester in Italy sounded glamorous and exotic.  She packed and repacked, trying to meet the luggage requirements (how can you fit three months’ worth of clothes, snacks and toiletries in one 50 pound bag?), and finally we waved goodbye at the airport.  If you haven’t yet had a child travel far and away, here’s a glimpse into what it’s like.

  1.  At least once before they leave, you will suggest an evening in for a movie night. This is a good time to watch Taken, and to rewind and give in-depth and animated analysis of the part where the naive American girls give out personal information to a perfect stranger at the airport.  Point out that while you don’t personally know Liam Neeson, you do have his speech memorized and are completely willing to make good on his threat.   While it probably won’t, things can happen (Paris, Brussels, Nice), so make sure everyone has emergency numbers, passport copies in multiple locations, and international medical coverage.

2.  Staying in one place while abroad is not enough for millennials with tiny attention spans.  Hopping a train or cheap flight to a neighboring country is common, usually fairly cost-effective, and an easy way to make the most of an extended study abroad trip.  Traveling in small groups works well and offers more security.  With any more than six opinions and preferences, more time is spent trying to herd cats than actually see a new city.  Whoever came up with the name “hostel” for cheap student lodging is just spiteful.  Why pick something that to English ears sounds patently unfriendly and scary?  Might I suggest changing it to cubby?

3.  You will be amazed at the child who consistently couldn’t manage to make curfew.  Suddenly he transforms into a person able to juggle international train schedules, Google maps, and changing time zones to be certain he makes it to Bono’s concert in Berlin or a street carnivale in Spain.

4.  Aren’t they supposed to be taking classes?   Yes, there is classroom time, but much of the education is outside a textbook.  The field trips, cross cultural experiences, and interactions with each other and local people are where real learning occurs.  Immersed in a different language, the brain actually creates neural pathways to adjust.  Having to live in another culture’s rhythms and pace teaches them to let down their social boundaries and stretches them to see others differently.  Often, they come home with friends across the map.

5.  Study abroad is a life-long lesson in managing expectations.  The trip that seems so glamorous on this side of the ocean won’t always live up to the visions in their head.  They won’t love every teacher, meal, museum, or travel companion.  It won’t be sunny and 80 degrees every day. Public transportation frequently goes on strike.  Outside American culture, the rest of the world operates on a more flexible time table. The word of the day is flexibility.  A tall order for some, this is a chance to embrace the unexpected, learn a different flow and become more tolerant, agreeable, and open to change.

6.  It will cost approximately the GNP of a small country to Fed Ex forgotten or emergency items to your student abroad, with no guarantee they will arrive.  Double check the packing list.  Pre-fill medications and have back-up credit cards.  If they’re traveling across borders while abroad, be mindful of different regulations for what’s allowed in carry-on’s or backpacks.

7.  Technology can be friend or foe.  Shop around for international data plans, and be sure to get something so your student is reachable without WiFi in case of emergency.  FaceTime or Skype is wonderful when you just need to put eyes on them.  It might take the whole semester, but eventually they will remember that the time difference means that while they may be riding elephants in the Thailand afternoon, you are in a deep, sound sleep in the wee hours.  Or at least you were.

8.  You aren’t going to want to know everything before it happens.  You should’ve already adjusted to this truth of college life, but sometimes it’s better not to know until  afterwards.  My friend’s daughter bungee jumped off a 440 foot platform in New Zealand while studying abroad, and to this day her mother cannot watch the video.   It’s the age of Vimeo and GoPro, and your millennial is going to want some choice post-able footage of their time away.  Squeeze your eyes shut, stick your fingers in your ears and loudly chant:  LALALALALA.

9.  They’ll learn a measure of independence.  While you may be footing at least some of the bill, they’re having to manage logistics, relationships, and emotions from far away.  They have likely done this already just in their regular university situation, but being thousands of miles overseas forces the issue somewhat. They learn to work it out, tough it out, or cry it out on their own.  They realize they are capable.

10.  The student you dropped off at the airport likely will not be the same one who greets you several months later.  He will seem wholly different somehow in a way you cannot at first pinpoint.  She will be morphed by confidence and distance, transformed by her experiences, more worldly and seasoned person.  You will burst with pride at his accomplishments and feel his joy as he describes moments with breathless excitement.  Except the part about paragliding over the Alps.  Then you will clutch your chest and demand to know what she was thinking.

A final note:  once they arrive safely at home, don’t forget to Tweet Liam Neeson and tell him you will no longer have him on speed dial.


Sink or Swim

My father’s brand of parenting was both efficient and effective.  With five children, perhaps he lacked the time to coddle, or more likely, his military bearing precluded the impulse.  I learned to ride a bike by careening downhill in the backyard, honing my steering by avoiding pine trees as they rushed by in a blur.   He had imparted the facts at the top of the hill, pertinent information about pedaling, braking, and keeping your eyes up.  Gravity and physics are master professors.

All three of my older sisters became ace softball players, singular in their ability to field, unafraid of pop-up ground balls.  They’d lived through hours of practice in the hot Florida sun, my father beaming fast-pitch into their thin leather gloves until their palms stung. Loss of focus or flinching could mean a bobbled catch, a ball-sized bruise beneath their floral tank tops and directions to Walk It Off.  It was softball as self defense.

My younger brother learned to swim before he turned two.  A pool in our backyard and a toddler with stealthy escape skills drove my mother crazy with worry.  So she sat chain smoking by the pool while my father hired an avant-garde teacher to toss her youngest into the deep end, his blue eyes wide under the water as he blew bubbles and paddled to safety.

We learned independence early.  When it came time to pick a career path or a college, there were no fancy weekend tours, guidance counselor sessions, or laboring over applications and essays.  The process was more of a self-directed cursory decision, driven by the calendar and necessity.  No water wings, no kiddie pool–just sink or swim.

Faced with these polar options, we gained fortitude and an admirable proficiency at faking confidence even when–especially when–we felt it least.  Once when one of my sisters was about 10, my father decided it was time for her to learn to water ski.  We took the boat out on a less populated Florida lake and in she went, skinny arms held straight out in front of her and her knobby knees slightly bent atop skis that felt awkward and too large for her thin frame.   With the motor idling, you could hear the deep croaking of the alligators on the bank calling to each other.   Of course there were gators.  Every body of water in Florida contains gators.   You’ve never seen a faster study on water skis than my sister.   She got up and stayed up, at least until he had to stop to refuel.  As we slowed, she sank, her eyes growing wider as the dark lake water swallowed her whole.   I have never doubted Jesus’ miracle of walking on water.  I witnessed it first hand as my sister made it to the boat in record time.

We all learned to become high-achievers.  When the alternative to failure is becoming reptilian lunch, the non-lunch option is popular.   Some of us are just wired this way, call it Type A or chalk it up to perfectionism.  The stakes stay high.  It’s like living life in the middle of the James Bond car chase scene at all times–motivating, exciting, and intense, but exhausting.  Every little letdown becomes a crisis with personal implications.  Imagine:  your car breaks down and heads will roll because someone somewhere should have seen this coming.  Your toddler has a melt down and the entire grocery store must be judging your moral disgrace.  You get a “B” in a class and all you see are the 10 ways you should have studied harder.   In sink-or-swim living, there’s no room for error, no patience for sub-par.

Keeping the snarling dog of failure at bay means having to be constantly alert.  Because life is black and white, options get reduced to an either/or:  sink or swim.  Stepping out with something new, a change in the landscape, sends primal signals to the survival center:  fight or flight.  Because the universe has a sense of humor, all the good things come with risk of failure and the most messiness–relationships, creativity, opportunity.  When you’ve been conditioned to avoid failing, you do one of two things:  (1) dodge the risk altogether and don’t try (stay safe), or (2) do try and stay in a perpetual state of freaking out when things go awry (stay in crisis).  Both are unacceptable and frankly more than a little whack.

A provocative book called Nurture Shock discusses the outcomes of different ways to praise children.  One group was told they were smart; the other, that they were hard workers.  Hard work is something they could control; being smart is evidence of something out of their control.  After being given increasingly difficult puzzles to solve, the “smart” group gave up earlier.  They stopped trying.  Failure to solve the puzzle would mean they were no longer smart.  The “hard workers” never stopped trying.  Failure didn’t diminish their identity; it was something they knew they could work through, and even learn from, given enough time.

It’s taken some reprogramming, but thankfully I’ve learned life rarely operates in black and white.  In between sink or swim is a whole other option.  Ironically, the infant swim teacher taught us this, too.  We can float.  Floating involves no freaking out, no shortness of breath or raging at onlookers.  Turns out it’s mostly peaceful and we get a great view of the sky while we’re at it.  Unless we’re fleeing the alligators, which, let’s be honest, are mostly creatures of our trumped up imaginations, floating allows us space to trust ourselves, the universe, and other people for help.  The water itself–the very thing we were struggling against or afraid to jump into–becomes a source of buoyancy, bearing us along with the tide.

Struggle and failure hold gifts of wisdom and character that can be received no other way. When we give ourselves and our children the freedom to fail, we sprinkle grace into our lives.  We learn to sit in the mess and take stock with reasonable objectivity, picking out the good parts and tossing aside the rest.  Best of all, we learn to link hands with other failures–otherwise known as humanity–until forgiveness, humility, and grace become second nature.  We lie back with arms outstretched, fill our lungs with a long, slow breath, and float.

Too Quiet

The rules of physics shift when we become parents.  Somehow the airwaves change and we are suddenly tuned in to sound in a new way.  Noise is now a thing we both fear and crave.

A  baby can scream non-stop for two hours from colic or exhaustion or teething, fraying every nerve in your body until you make unholy bargains with the devil for some quiet.  When he finally falls asleep and that blessed quiet falls upon the house, the crazy sets in.  Now your radar is super-tuned to the static of the baby monitor.  He doesn’t usually sleep this soundly.  It’s awfully quiet in there.  You quiz your spouse:  do you think it’s too quiet? You ninja-creep into his room and hold a finger under his nose:  is he breathing?

With age, the noise increases, especially if siblings are in the mix.  I can scream louder than you.  No, I can!  Then eardrums are no longer a thing, and it’s worse than having spent three hours at an Iron Maiden concert.  It’s an endless barrage of questions, singing, yelling, and fighting. On the way home from an afternoon of errands, I used to tell my kids “Mommy’s ears are tired!  Let’s let them rest for 5 minutes!”  Who do you think invented the Quiet as a Mouse game?  A mom.

But you don’t want them to be quiet either.  You know the kind of quiet I mean.  A friend of mine foolishly relished a few extra minutes of sleeping in one morning.   Her rambunctious toddler twins were unusually quiet.  She got up to find they’d emptied five pounds of flour all over the kitchen and living room and were gleefully driving their trucks through the paths of “snow” they’d made.

Quiet does not bode well.  Quiet means smearing the contents of their diaper all over the crib and walls.  Quiet is eating the cat food, cutting their own hair with great concentration, dropping your earrings in the toilet one by one.  If siblings are involved, quiet gets more interesting:


My older sisters quietly devised a fun game one afternoon while my mother made dinner.  The oldest had to capture the younger two in a cowboys-and-Indians charade.  She found the first sister, tied her hands and feet and added a gag and blindfold for good measure. She ordered her to stay put while she went off to find her other quarry.  As the bossy first-born, she expected her instructions to be followed and didn’t think it important to tell the prisoner that she’d been stationed at the top of the stairs.  Like any self-respecting prisoner, the first sister attempted escape:  hop, hop, CRASH, TUMBLE, CRASH!  She landed at the bottom of the stairs with her knee through the drywall, the other two sisters staring wide-eyed from the top of the stairs, and my mother incredulously trying to make sense of the scene as she rushed around the corner.  On the upside, they learned from my father how to patch drywall.

As tweens and teens, the quiet is harder to navigate. The noises are loud music, friends hanging out and raiding your fridge, slammed doors, and huffy sighs.  Does an eye roll have a sound?  Yes. It speaks volumes.  That Spidey sense when it’s too quiet still works, but the signals can be hampered by hormones.  They are the ones who now both fear and crave quiet.  Mom, why do you have to ask so many questions?   Seriously? I am transported back to their loud public toddler queries:  why is that lady so fat?  why do we have to poop?  do babies come out of your bottom, mom?   In comparison, my questions seem civilized and tame.  They want you to be interested but not too interested, near but not too near, available but not intrusive.  The quiet you worry about now is the silent scrolling through the phone or clicking sites on the computer.   What are they up to?  You’re still holding a finger under their noses, checking for signs of life:  are they depressed?  lonely?  sad?  worried?

Sitting on the porch this morning with my coffee, it was blissfully quiet. The good kind, not the hair-prickling uneasy kind.  It’s nice to have an occasional coherent thought and time to just be.  I get times like these more often now that the kids are mostly grown, but now I look forward to the noise.  There’s peace to be had in noise, too.  Noise means life and love live here.  Noise is wrestling, jumping in the pool, and slamming car doors when your kids come home for the weekend.   “Guys!” I yell, when the couch almost tips over.  “Quiet!”   A little voice inside pipes up with a smile:  But not too quiet.

Just a Minute

I had a solid grasp of time before I became a parent.  I knew how to keep appointments, schedule my day, and meet deadlines.  Time was my minion.  It was just lying in wait to stage a coup, it turns out.

Once the babies arrived, it was all about the clock.  Meal time, bath time, play time, blessed, blessed nap time.  I had to schedule the day around those things or we’d all pay the piper.  My first born thrived on routine.  She needed to know what was coming next, and counted time in “how many sleeps” before the next activity.  The youngest was more of a play-it-by-ear sort.  Sleep was to be avoided at all costs lest he miss the party.

Juggling these polar opposites was part of the universe’s scheme to undo me.  Toddlers don’t live inside time.  This is why you never, never tell a small child about an event more than 5 minutes before it happens.  Their emotions are volcanic.  Anticipation cannot be contained.  When are we seeing Santa?  Is it time for Santa?  Can it be time for Santa now?  Mommy, Santa, Mommy!!!!  If you mention Christmas in casual conversation sometime in October, you will hear about it 157,000 times a day for the next three months.

Minutes mean nothing.  Minutes are sands in the hourglass.  An hourglass snagged by small, sticky fingers that gets tipped, shaken, and hurled into the wall.  You hold up a finger to indicate these minutes while you’re on the phone:  Just a minute, honey.  While you’re checking out at the grocery store:  Hold on a minute, sweetheart.   While you’re in the bathroom:  For the love of all that’s holy, IN A MINUTE!

Once, I was in a long line at the post office waiting to mail six heavy boxes of Christmas presents I’d stacked on the counter. As the line inched forward, I slid the boxes and my squirming toddler along together.  She had to go potty, of course, because she absolutely did not have to go before we left home.  “Can you wait a minute, punkin?”  She sweetly nodded twice, and then let go, all over the counter and down the sides onto the floor.   Turns out “wait a minute” in toddler-speak means “now.”

Parenting is full of now moments. Our bodies get in on the game at ground zero and we have nine months of having to eat now, sleep now, go into labor now.   Parenting puts us at melting-clockthe mercy of the universe’s clock, which looks more like the ones in a Salvador Dali painting.  Babies demand soothing now.  Small children want everything right now.  From the time they can talk, we hear “Watch me!  Are you watching?  Look what I can do now!”  It’s exhausting.  Some days you spend wishing for time to speed up.  Bedtime can’t come fast enough.  If only they could walk, talk, be out of diapers, be more independent!  Some days, the ones you just survive, last forever.   Some days, the ones full of rocking and smiles saved just for you, you wish you could freeze frame.

Parenting is full of delayed moments.  Eventually, as they grasp the concept of time, instead of making life easier and more organizable, somehow it backfires into you having to wait.  The minutes you desperately wanted them to grant you, they give you in spades.  Except with the words “five more” tacked on as a prefix.  Time for bed!  Five more minutes??  Time for dinner!  Five more minutes! I’m almost to the next level/waiting for this show to end/on the phone/doing my hair/catching a Pokemon.  Some days you spend wishing they’d catch up.  Hurry up is an impossible dream.  How long can it take a human being to finish a bowl of cereal?  Find their shoes?  Walk out to the car?  For crying out loud, we are going to be late to school/practice/church/life again!   Some days, the days you spend in a mad scramble of calendars and agendas, disappear in a dizzy haze of push and pull.  You’re Alice’s white rabbit.

Parenting is full of later moments.  Teens want everything later.  When are you going to take out the trash?  Later.  Have any homework?  I’ll do it later.  When will you be home?  Later.  How about scheduling a college visit?  Can we do that later?  Gotta run, mom, I’ll text you later.  Their time becomes more their own and their friends’ and less of it is reserved for you.  The now’s have turned into “whenever’s.”  It’s rare that they yell for you to “watch me!”  More likely, they prefer privacy and hands-off.  Still, you watch the clock with sleepless worry when they’re out late behind the wheel.  You bite your tongue and try to wait to be invited to talk about the heartbreak or disappointment they’ve faced. With fewer demands on your time, there’s somehow the backward sense of time speeding by, those hourglass grains slipping through your fingers even as you try to gather them.  Time warps:  the days are long, but the years are short.

I’m fast approaching the empty nest, when I’ll return to being able to schedule my days and minutes sans interruption.  Funny thing is, I stopped wearing a watch about a year ago.  My oldest turns 20 this week–an age I can’t fathom.  All the now’s, hurry up’s and later’s seem like both yesterday and ages ago.  Suddenly, I want to pause:  just a minute!  Five more minutes?  But time, in its own cadence, marches on.

Out of Reach: The Risk of Parenting

My oldest went sky diving a few weeks ago.  She took off with a group of friends and jumped out of a perfectly good plane while, 2 hours away, her dad and I checked our phones nervously for news of a safe landing.

This is par for the parenting game. About three seconds after I became a parent, every cell in my being zeroed in on the safety of that little bundle.  And about three seconds after that, my kids seemed to delight in finding new ways to hurt themselves.

I did all the right stuff–electrical outlet covers, car seats, a lock on the chemicals under the sink, talks about strangers, the internet, drugs and alcohol, driving skills, and safe sex. Still, they found ways to get broken arms, ding the car, and make asinine choices.  From their first steps (right into the edge of the coffee table) to the scraped elbows from the epic wreck on the bicycle, 90% of parenting felt like I was chasing them around with bubble wrap, which they’d fling off and set fire to.

I put my 3-month-old down for a nap once, grabbed the baby monitor and went to our unfinished upstairs to paint some window frames.  My husband came home for lunch that day, poked his head up to say hello, then left a short time later.  When I heard the baby stirring on the monitor, I headed down to get her and discovered he’d locked the door, which was always our habit.  I was trapped, the baby out of reach with no one around, no phone.

Panic!  I calculated how many bones would break if I jumped out the second story window. Tried throwing myself into the door to break it down.  (It doesn’t work like it does in the movies.)  Everyone else in the cul de sac was at work, except…  A solitary teen aged boy was playing basketball several doors down.  I screamed at him, hanging out the window and waving my arms like an insane person until he came over, let himself into my house, and freed me from my prison.  (Clearly, his parents had not taught him about Stranger Danger.)

This same child locked herself in her room as a toddler, and I sat on the other side of the door, our fingers touching underneath, frantically fumbling with the skeleton key.  There is nothing so agonizing to a parent as being helpless to reach a child who needs you.

Ask any parent of a chronically ill child, watching as they’re wheeled to yet another procedure.  Or the parents denied access to their adopted child month after month while foreign governments sift through red tape.  Divorced parents who share custody with an irresponsible or abusive ex.  Parents of deployed soldiers.  It’s all part of the package, except, eager to reproduce, none of us ever reads the fine print.

A friend who recently dropped off her kid at college lamented to me that she couldn’t stop worrying about something happening and not being able to get to her daughter.  I get it. My own is scheduled to study abroad next semester and I’ll admit to feeling similar twinges, especially after Paris, Brussels, and Nice hit the news cycle.  But that’s fear talking.  And fear is not the Boss of me.  “Love is what we’re born with,” says Marianne Williamson.  “Fear is what we learn here.”

Parenting is nothing if not risk.  From the time they’re born, we perform a kind of catch and release with our hearts.  It’s a tight-wire balancing act:  keep them close, send them out; swoop in to rescue, let them learn to fall.   The end goal is, after all, to work ourselves out of a job.

Full disclosure:  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when we rode our bikes miles from home (sans helmets) and drank straight from the garden hose  The surgeon general was barely even a thing.  I’m in favor of running barefoot, grabbing mane on a galloping horse, climbing trees, and “Swing higher, Daddy!”

Yes, there are moments of panic and anguish as a parent, times when you can’t protect your child or prevent every misstep.  Did we really believe it would all be giggles and lollipops?  We can’t fetishize safety because of a world that feeds off fear like it’s sugar.   When did failure became the new F-word?  Failure is the only way forward.

The flip-side of risk is where the good stuff hides out.  The flip side of risk is connection, creativity, a life with flourish.  Sometime, we have to let go of the back of the bike and quit running along behind.  I’m too old for that noise, for one thing.  And parenting was never supposed to be about my fear–it’s about their launch.


Student Driver

My husband’s grandfather once held a job as an ambulance driver.  This was back in the day when the nearest hospital was about an hour away and the town’s local ambulance also served as its Hearse, depending on the timing of the situation.   Regularly, he would drive 100 mph on the interstate, sirens wailing.   While he eventually gave up the ambulance gig, he still drove as if the sirens howled atop his Cavalier, well into his 80’s.  I’m blaming my son’s driving on him.  Kind of.  Not really.

One by one, my father taught all five of us how to drive.  We each learned the pedal coordination of a manual transmission.  I was not allowed behind the wheel until I could successfully change a tire, find the hazard lights, and check the oil.   He was calm but firm in his manner, frequently making acronyms out of instructions so they’d be easy to remember.  TSBB = turn signal before brake.  LOWR = lights on when raining.  Everything’s an acronym in the military.   “Be defensive,” he’d say.  “You gotta watch out for Isadore Idiot.”

I can’t for the life of me figure out how he made it through five fledgling drivers without hard liquor, medication, or some unfortunate facial tics.  Three years ago, our firstborn got her license.  For the most part, teaching her went well.  There was that time she drove our van down a shoulder-less road, steep ditches dropping on either side.  For the next two days I couldn’t figure out why my right arm was so sore before it dawned on me that I’d been gripping the door handle, trying from the passenger seat to single handedly pull a 2000 pound vehicle away from the dropoff as it sped down the road.

The first time she merged onto an interstate, we were neck and neck with a semi, quickly running out of lane.  My normally unflappable husband sat in the back seat behind her,  a giant tire spinning beside his window, hoarsely screaming, “WE’RE NOT GONNA MAKE IT!”  as my son obliviously played video games beside him.   Once we finally merged, he directed her to immediately get off at the next exit and pull over, muttering under his breath that we’d almost wiped out the entire Blaylock line with that maneuver.   Despite this, the daughter’s license was not so hair-raising for me.

The son, Fifteen, is another matter.  I reasoned that all those years of riding tractors with his Papaw, zipping around on ATVs at the farm, and the superior hand-eye  coordination he no doubt has developed from incessant video games should make this a walk in the park.  True, if that park is Jurassic and there are velociraptors in the bushes.

Am I a perfect driver?  No I am not.  My record has some blemishes.  A ticket here, a fender bender there. People often share knowing glances and accuse me of  “making good time” on road trips.  Still, passengers generally do not grip the armrests and pray out loud when riding with me.

I think it’s his demeanor.  He is bright, happy, casual, and possesses no fear.   Also, lately, he has decided to like the Electronica station on the radio.   If you’re not familiar, this music–and I use the term loosely–is mostly repetitive synthesized beats that gradually ratchet up in intensity until you reach a “drop,” which you can tell by the seizure-inducing bass and change in tempo.  He claims this music helps him concentrate.  I claim it gives me an aneurysm.

Also, it could be that, while driving, he blithely poses curious questions that do not give me warm fuzzies. Such as:  do you think you can you drive a car down the road backwards as fast as you can drive it forwards?  Have you ever just pressed the gas all the way to the floor to how far the speedometer would go?   These questions give me feelings similar to ones you might feel if your kid were to casually ask, “What, do you think, would be the fastest way to poison your parents where no one would ever know?”   That is, suspicion and the slightest nudge of discomfort.

The other day, I agreed to let him drive around town to do some errands.   It was not my finest hour.   After about 45 minutes of my wise counsel and fielding comments like, “Well, that’s not how dad says I should do it,” I had one very small sinuous nerve left, and he was on it.  We were sitting at a stop sign, the Electronica music was reaching an intense moment (if he’s going to play it on  his own, he may as well play it while practicing), and the car in front of us moved through the intersection.  He stepped on the gas to follow as if a red light had just changed to green.

As I looked to the left to see the oncoming car through the intersection, my brain raced with synonyms for the word “STOP,” but apparently decided that none of them were sufficient. I swung my left arm across his chest to somehow shield him from all harm, and instead, from somewhere in the depth of my terrified being, my brain accessed another, shall we say, less appropriate word, also containing four letters.   This word, the mother of all of the worst words, clawed its way from my gut through my lips as I screamed.   Turns out, hearing your mother yell this less than a foot away will also mercifully cause you to stop a vehicle.

I don’t remember my mother ever giving a single driving lesson.  Maybe somewhere along the way,  after repeated visions of her offspring in twisted heaps of metal, she no longer wanted to ride the roller coaster of near-death terror and the adrenaline depleted catatonia that follows.    It’s just better not to know.

Hours later, once I could breathe normally again, it occurred to me that we are all student drivers of sorts.  We climb behind the wheel giddy and eager for the freedom of the open road, when we can barely stay in our lane.  We are cocksure and casual, leaning our elbows out the open window with an arrogant finger barely brushing the wheel.  After about a month, surely well-seasoned by now, we discover the horn and its easy contempt for others.  How often do I know better, thinking the road signs are merely suggestions rather than protection for myself and everyone else?  How often do I sarcastically point out, “Well, that’s not how they said to do it?”  Music loud and attention elsewhere, it’s easy to disregard the voice offering counsel from the passenger seat.  I’ve surely given Jesus some aching arms from trying to pull me away from the ditches.

After our silent ride home that day, I apologized profusely and banned myself from further driving lessons.  His father will have to press on from here, while I lock myself in the bathroom and suck on some soap.

The Time My Mother Left

My mother walked out on us once, threw up her hands, turned her back and hit the road.   We didn’t blame her since we’d driven her to it; there were no more buttons left to push.  She came back eventually, but there were several long, tense moments when her return was not a given.  But let me start over.

I needed a break this week.  Just a random, purposeless, sit still and do nothing break.  These times can roll up on you until they’re suddenly breathing hotly down your neck, buzzing in your ear like a relentless mosquito.  After a couple of weeks of bringing meals to school for teacher appreciation, notarizing permission slips, attacking the mound of papers on my desk for work, trying to tame the jungle yard and keep everyone fed, the late afternoon headaches would hit, and no amount of caffeine would quench the monster.

As if on cue, some sadistic, hateful person posted a serene beach picture featuring their pedicured toes in the sand, which brought on the heavy woe-is-me sighs.  I’m sure this is only me—you’re probably breezily zipping along in the fast lane—one of the balls I’ve been juggling drops, or I eat one too many meals on the go.  I haven’t had a meaningful conversation with my spouse in three days, and if I have to scrape up one more nasty hairball from the floor, I’m going to lose it.

I thought back to when the kids were little, days when a clean house was relative, applesauce and ice cream sounded like a good dinner plan, and I’d be lurching around the house like Quasimodo, carrying one teething baby on my hip while dragging a whiny toddler who seemed to be permanently stapled to my leg.   Some days the morning hours til nap time would drag by in a blur of broken crayons and diapers, and God bless my husband who dragged in at the witching hour before dinner on days like that.  Let’s just say I didn’t greet him at the door wearing pearls and a smile.

Those days weren’t always pretty.  I’d stare out the Window of Despair, asking what had I done, seriously considering how much gas I had in the car and wondering how far I could get.   They call these black moods postpartum depression, and happily, there’s help for that.  But in the days of my own childhood, they just called it motherhood and you were expected to soldier on unaided.

Which brings me to the night my mother left.   My father was on a year-long tour of duty out of the country, leaving my mother alone in the house with three teenaged girls and two young kids.  This is a cruel and unusual predicament for all but the most unflappable.   These were the ingredients for a perfect storm:  three teenagers with synced PMS, a demanding five-year-old, and a busy toddler with a penchant for injury and going AWOL.

After 18 years of marriage and a family, my mother had finally given herself permission to take a couple of college classes, so she was trying to read actual literature and write coherent papers in between the demands of five children.  Perhaps she thought she’d been a little distracted lately, but whatever the reason, she decided to take time away from her books to make a special Sunday roast beef dinner for the six of us.  The table was set with the main dish, mashed potatoes and steaming hot gravy, rolls, and vegetables.  Glasses were filled with iced tea and we had all gathered around the dining room table to spend some quality family time together before the busyness of a new week started.

No one remembers what started it.  One of my sisters uttered some snarky teenaged remark aimed below the belt.  Another sister took offense, aiming right back, and it escalated.  Escalated in the sense of Hurricane Katrina starting out as a cool ocean breeze. The noxious cocktail of female hormones, a long week, and some innate death wish fermented to the point of fission.  The first shot fired was a spoonful of mashed potatoes.  Before my mother could scream, “What is the MATTER with you people?!” it was all out war, with hot sloshing gravy, flying green beans, vicious screaming girls, and finally, the coup d’grace:  the entire pitcher of iced tea hit the wall.

The third sister snatched up my younger brother from his high chair where he screamed, wide-eyed at the mayhem.  She yanked me by the hand, dragging me into the hallway, away from the flying feast, her only thought to “Save The Children!”   At some point during the melee, someone must have noticed an absence.  No parental intervention.  No parent, period.  Mother had left.  The driveway was empty and an eerie and remorseful silence had befallen the dining room.   Uh-oh.

Had my father been home, that would have been the end of the story.  Our family would have had two fewer children as the two at fault would have been summarily executed in the backyard.   As it was, they swallowed hard and cleaned up every inch of the dining room with heads hung low.  My brother and I were quietly put to bed where we went without protest.  The three older sisters sat somberly in their room, probably discussing options for how to pay the mortgage until dad came back.

When we woke up in the morning, she was in the kitchen making breakfast before school as usual.  We found out later she’d driven to the beach and sat on the dunes.  No telling how many hours she spent there, letting the sound of the waves soothe her nerves, watching the little crabs scurry in and out of their holes while she chain-smoked Tareyton 100’s.   She had had it up to here and needed to remember that she loved us.

We didn’t speak of that day until years later.  And it would be many more years later before my father was told, after my sisters had moved out and could ostensibly arrange their own Witness Protection.

On days when I, too, have had it up to here with whatever fill-in-the-blank calamity takes over, I remember the epic food fight story and the time my mother left.  I recognize the mental red flags that signal that it’s time to bug out to salvage some sanity.

It’s okay, necessary, to take breaks.  Time-outs aren’t just for two-year-olds!   Walk away from the computer, arrange lunch with a friend, close the bathroom door and just breathe for a few minutes.  It will not always be this way or feel like this.  We are given new mercies at the start of each day.  While you’re telling your kids to share and be kind, be nice to yourself, too.  And for heaven’s sake, go out for dinner.


Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-may-2016



Turtle Crossing

It’s spring, which means you can hear the spring peepers singing in the April rain puddles, and turtles are on the move.  As if I needed more worry in my day, for some reason they often feel the need to cross a road like the proverbial chicken.   I’m that person who stops the van in the middle of the street to usher the little guys off the asphalt onto the safety of the grass.  Not a big fan of reptiles, but I make an exception for the turtles.

I’m always sad when I see a crushed shell on the road, some careless driver’s handiwork.  It’s not like they’re darting across like those schizophrenic squirrels on steroids:  Left!  No, right!  Fake to the left, then dash right!   You’d think the slow and careful turtles would be easy to avoid.

When the kids were smaller, I’d pull over, hop out and usually bring the turtle over to where they were strapped in so they could see its little clawed feet and its head, tucked tightly into the clamped shell.   Here, we have the Eastern box turtle, with a mottled orange and green shell, and the snapping turtle, with a pointed beak and spiky shell.

Yesterday, as I was lifting turtle #374 out of harm’s way, it occurred to me how rescuing turtles is a lot like raising kids.  We see our children blithely heading down a certain path, one that seems perfectly reasonable to them, but we can see a bigger picture from above, the potential for a crushed shell, so we lovingly reach down and redirect.

They tend to react in one of four ways, whether they’re toddlers or teens.  Do you recognize any of these?

The Clamp Down:  they see you coming and the force field goes up.  Tail and feet pull in, head disappears, and the soft underbelly is protected at all costs (think teenager).  Maybe if they ignore you, you won’t see them and you’ll just go away.  Nothing here to see, people.  Move along.  You’re not getting behind that barrier without some serious artillery.

The Squirm:  at your approach, they make a panicked dash for the nearest escape.  If you pick them up (think toddler tantrum), they suddenly appear to have five arms and six legs, all twirling madly in mid-air.  If I just move around enough, she’ll put me down and I am home free.   Freedom as the only goal, they dart in a hundred different directions, without reason.

The Bodily Function:  usually attempted after the Clamp Down or the Squirm have failed.  This is an attempt to so totally repulse you that you just let them do whatever it was they were planning.  I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to rescue a box turtle only to have it pee profusely on me (to the great amusement of my children).  I choose to see it as the only gesture of gratitude they’re capable of.   Peeing, burping, odors of various kinds–all are acceptable if they successfully ward you off.

The Come At Me, Bro:   undisguised aggression.  Leave me alone or I’ll take you down with me.  I once tried to help a small snapping turtle, and that little sucker kept turning to face me in the road as I circled it, actually lunging at me to get a bite.  I finally lowered myself to its level and said, Fine!  Stay there if you think you know so much, and see what happens!   Often this type is so determined to stay on its chosen path that you just have to cringe when the speeding truck tires straddle it and hope that it lives to get a better attitude.

When my brother was very small, my dad brought home a snapping turtle from a fishing trip.  He warned my brother that this sort of turtle was always in a bad mood.  My grandfather told him repeatedly that if a snapping turtle got a hold of you, it would not let go until it heard thunder.  It sat in a box in the kitchen while we ate lunch.  At some point, conversation halted as we all heard a crash from the kitchen.  When my mother ran in to investigate, my brother stood there beside the empty turtle’s box, his blue eyes wide and innocent.  “Where did the turtle go, Mike?”  A silent shrug.  Then a slight rustle from the trash can.  A dazed turtle was trying to climb its way out of the Hefty bag.

Turns out, the temptation of that creature in the box had been too much.  The moody turtle had of course bitten him when he’d tried to pick it up.  Startled by the pain and the refrain of my grandfather’s warning about thunder, he’d flung the turtle across the room where it had landed in the trash.

From truck tires to trash cans, this type of turtle will no doubt have the hardest life.   It seems determined to rack up as many hard knocks as possible in its refusal to accept help or do anything it doesn’t want to.

If we’re being honest, it’s not just parenting where we see these types of reactions to correction.  I recognize myself in at least two of these.  How often have I been the one in the middle of the road, facing an oncoming Mack truck that I don’t know is on its way, when God reaches down to lovingly redirect?  Instead of being grateful, how often have I kicked and screamed, sulked and turned away, certain that I know better, in a determined attempt to stay onturtle crossing my own path?

While I might eventually get where I am headed, how much easier and less perilous would it be to yield and be ushered there by one who has the bigger picture?   With each turtle I rescue, I feel an elbow’s nudge in my side:  see how easy that was?   Wasn’t such a big deal, was it?  It also gives me a little more empathy for my children.  I get it.  I know the struggle.   Just another turtle crossing.


I’ve been watching the tides at the beach this week, the relentless ebb and flow onto the shelly, sandy shore (say THAT three times, fast).  When you’re lazing on the sand, propped up with a book and cold drink, the sea’s rhythm soothes and caresses like a mama with a sick child.  There, there, my love, close your eyes and rest and you’ll feel all better soon.

It’s a different story if you’re out beyond the breakers.  Despite growing up at the beach, spending a great deal of life in Florida, and having a house with a pool, my mother could not swim.  I’m not sure just how she missed out on this life skill, especially given her environment, but there it is.  She splashed in the shallows with all of us as children and made sure we could dive and swim with confidence, but she refused to even put her face in the water.  She hid it well.  I was not even aware of this lapse in her skillset until I was much older.  I thought she was joking.   “But I’ve seen you in the water,” I said.  “You swim.”    She shook her head.  “I only pretend.”

After I graduated college, my mother and I went on a celebratory cruise, just us.  As we island hopped around the Caribbean for several days, we were surrounded by water.  She watched from the deck, sipping rum, as I swung off the pirate ship’s rope swing into the clear, blue sea.  She watched from the shore while I splashed in the waves on horseback.  Towards the end of our trip, we motored out to a small island off the coast of St. Maarten where our group was to spend the afternoon snorkeling over a reef.  As the guide handed out fins and masks, he talked about the types of fishes we would see and the areas we should stay in.  I was surprised when my mother started putting on the gear.

“I think I can do this,” she said.  “It’s not that far off the shore, and I’ll have flippers.”  Thrilled, I waded with her into the ocean and we practiced breathing through our snorkels and swimming around where we could still touch.  Her face lit up when she spotted the schools of colorful tropical fish darting around the rocks.  She pointed them out, gesturing wordlessly as our fins flapped.

The reef we were headed to was not that far, maybe a hundred yards or so.  We floated on top of the ocean, bobbing with the waves, parallel to each other as we kicked our fins.  It only took about ten minutes before we reached the rocky reef, but by the time we got there, the mood had changed.  I noticed she was no longer eagerly searching for bright yellow schools of fish.  I raised my head and treaded water, yelling to her where she sat like a nervous mermaid on top of the reef itself, something we weren’t supposed to do.  She had yanked off her mask and was breathing hard.

“What?  Are you done already?”

Then, for the first time in my life, I realized my mother was afraid.  The whole way out we had been swimming against the tide, having to work for every bit of ground gained.  The wonder and expectation of the reef had vanished.  I had no idea how she’d even gotten on top of the reef at all given its rough surface, but she was there now, clutching the rock desperately.  I’d seen her fearful for her children before, especially my brother who seemed to take special delight in racking up ER visits, but never for herself.  Until that moment, to me she had been “mom,” the ever-present comforter and provider, who always knew what to do and how to fix it.  Suddenly, in a few moments of offshore panic, she had become a person with limitations and fears.

I reasoned with her, the parent-child table turning in disorientation.  “We are going to have to get back somehow. You can’t just stay out here.”  She didn’t want me to alert the guide and call attention to herself, as if she wasn’t noticeable perched on top of the reef instead of snorkeling around it like everyone else.  “I’ll help you,” I said.  “You can hold on to me the whole way.”  She reluctantly climbed off the rock, put her mask back on and let me swim her back to the shore.  When she could touch bottom again, she was angry at herself.  The swim back had been much easier, since we’d been going with the tide instead of against it.  She admitted it was silly not to have snorkeled around the reef while she was out there. If she’d known it would be so much easier getting back, she wouldn’t have been afraid.

I offered to take her back out but she refused.  She waded out and sat on the sand, afraid to try again. It’s one of the moments I remember most from our trip, being startled that my parents were real people in addition to being just my parents.  You know, that normal 20’s smack in the head that most of us experience once we’ve outgrown our childish me-centric worldview.  I kind of wish I’d had some easing into it, though, because it was truly a shock to my system that affected the remainder of that trip.

Why do parents try so hard to seem infallible to their children?  Does it mean we love them more?  Can protect them better?  Do our words carry more weight?  I don’t know any parent who’s played the “I’m perfect” card who is thereby more revered by their children.  In fact, it’s mostly just the opposite.  When we can be real to our children, confess that we don’t know something, we’ve messed up, we’re imperfect and have character flaws that we’re working on, our kids may just respond with more compassion and forgiveness than we knew they had.  Have you ever told your child “I’m sorry, I was wrong”?

We think our children will hold us hostage when we admit truths about ourselves, but the reality is their respect for us grows.  If they see us apologizing and working on our faults, it’s more likely they’ll do the same.  If we can be humble and ask forgiveness from them, they might surprise us by how bottomless their little compassionate hearts are.

If, when they’re old enough, we can even let them hold us accountable on a thing or two, as an actual real person would with another actual real person, then we’ve really made some strides in the relationship.

I wish I’d fully appreciated my parents earlier.  I’d probably have given them a break more, asked different questions, learned different lessons.  But, like my mother, I was often content to stick with things the way they were, never imagining what was beneath the surface.  I think we both learned something that afternoon.  Sometimes the work it takes to swim against the tide rewards you in ways you never would have discovered had you just sat upon the shore.


I am a fourth-born and a first-born.  My parents had this great little family of 3 daughters, each two years apart.  Then they waited 8 years and had me and my younger brother in quick succession. Though this technically ranks me fourth, the large gap made us kind of a split-level family, and I got the typical first-born personality while resting firmly in the middle of the pack.  sisters4

This also meant that my older sisters had two different parents than my brother and I.  Oh, they were the same mom and dad, but my sisters had them when they were young and fresh.  My brother and I, as usual, got hand-me-downs.   Parents worn out and frayed from years of use, whose eyes were not as vigilant, and whose determination to teach us certain skills was lagging.  The older three always accuse my brother and me of having some sort of fantasy childhoods, with no supervision or required chores (but they’re not at all bitter).

Their tales of responsibilities and chores could be true.  My “hand-me-down father” used to make me spend hours hand-trimming the St. Augustine grass under the chain-link in the backyard because the fence supposedly damaged the weed-eater’s trimmer line.  I suspect this was less of a fact and more of an excuse to get me outside and building character.  If this was an example of his lighter, more relaxed task-doling, then maybe they really were triple Cinderellas.

In my sisters’ childhoods, before my brother arrived as the family’s caboose, my father taught all three of them to play softball.  My grandmother (his mom) scolded him, terrified he pitched way too fast.  He argued that if he didn’t pitch fast and hard, they wouldn’t be motivated to catch the ball.  When your options were to either catch it or get beaned by a 50 mph fast ball, you quickly developed good hand-eye coordination.  All three of them played on girls’ softball leagues and could hit, field, and run like Geena Davis in A League of Their Own.

By the time I was old enough to have a go, the gloves were already broken in and soft.  All but one sister had flown the nest, and either my father’s interest had waned or, more likely, a decade or more had passed and he was just more tired.  He had already taught the sport three times and maybe he had run out of gumption to do it once more.  I never caught a blazing softball and, as a result, was one of those picked last in junior high gym.  In fact, I never played any team sport, and while my brother did, he didn’t stick with any of them for long.  We each ended up preferring more solitary activities:  him, fishing; me, riding horses.

My hand-me-down parents may have been worn out from repeatedly raising toddlers and teens, but they were also wiser.  In his fascinating book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains how the magic number of becoming an expert at something is 10,000 hours of practice.  If you go by the numbers, after just one  year (8,760 hours) of parenting, you’re already almost a success.  The catch, and there’s always a catch, is that right about the time you’re an expert on babies, they become toddlers and you’re back at ground zero.  Then they hit kindergarten and everything changes.  Dump some hormones and puberty in the mix, and just when you thought you were making progress, you go straight to jail, do not pass Go. Becoming an expert in parenting (if there even is such a thing)  takes twenty times longer than any other skill because the target keeps moving.  (Gladwell has no children, by the way.)   Because they had so many of us, my parents had gone through these phases multiple times and were experts 10 times over by the time my brother and I arrived on the scene.  Raising two more kids was like buttah.

If we didn’t change and grow as we age, if we parented all our children making the same rookie mistakes we made on our first-born darlings, it would be weird.  I hope I’m not the same parent in my 40’s as I was in my 20’s!   This morphing parent phenomenon is most obvious when your own parents become grandparents.  Our jaws have dropped on more than one occasion when our parents have allowed our kids to do things that would have earned us a well-tanned hide.  Remember the Abraham & Isaac story?  Faithful Abraham dutifully prepared to sacrifice his teenage son.  Show me the altar, he said.  (They’d probably just been arguing about too much texting or getting the car keys to go the mall.)  I’ve often said that if Isaac had been Abraham’s grandson, Abraham would have scooped him up and run like the wind, and Genesis would read very differently.

My husband and I discuss this in wonder.  Who are these people?  They are not the same people who raised us.  And if they’re doing it right they shouldn’t be.  The Skin Horse in the classic Velveteen Rabbit story explains how being loved by a child makes you more Real:  “It doesn’t happen all at once.  You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”

I appreciate my sisters blazing the trail with our parents.  They got the handmade clothes, bad bangs, and strict curfews.  It’s a mixed bag, though.  The hand-me-down parents I got may have been more relaxed and financially better off, but no matter what my brother and I threw at them, it wasn’t their first rodeo, and they fielded our fastballs with ease.  As younger siblings we did have the benefit of watching and learning from everybody else’s experiences.  From my sisters we learned not to let dad catch you sitsisters5ting around watching TV when he got home from work, and the best time to ask mom for permission for something was when she was almost asleep in her chair.

When we compare childhood experiences, we marvel at how different they are.  It’s not like they were in a gulag and we were raised by wolves, but to hear them tell it, well, almost. Thanks for limbering them up for us, guys.  Way to take one for the team!