Responsibility & Love. What’s a mother to do?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I got into a row with my older daughter, the 11- almost 12-year old.  It left me feeling torn between teaching a child to take responsibility and helping her be happy and successful. I realized that I might not be doing a good job of taking care of her heart.

~~~~~~~~~~~

She had a school band concert last night, for which she must wear the requisite performance clothing. That is, black and white. My daughter does not like to wear anything remotely “dressy”, and so, over the years we’ve worked out a quirky combination of “performance clothes” that she can live with — black culottes, white flowy blouse that’s too big, white camisole (stretchy), and then black knee-high socks and black shoes.

Since this is the second band concert of the year, I didn’t worry about the wardrobe, because we’d worked all that out for the first concert. And since she never wears any of those clothes at any other time, I didn’t even have it in my mind that there would be a problem.

Yesterday, I was tired. I took a 20-minute nap sitting up in a chair after the kids came home from school. I did this, knowing that when I woke up I’d have to whip up a quick dinner for my saxophone player, make myself presentable, and then dash off with younger daughter to swimming lessons.  During this nap and before, she was busy playing on her ipod.

About 20  minutes before departure  time, Olivia remembers she has to dress for the concert.

Total panic ensues.  Her first instinct is to ask me where her clothes are.

But I am fixing dinner now, and I have seen the state of affairs in her closet, which means, the burden should be on her to find them.  Which I suggest as calmly as possible.  This sets off the atti-tude.  She marches upstairs and returns 2 minutes later declaring they are “not there. I don’t know where any of it is”.  I ask what she is looking for.  She replies “I don’t even know what I wore last time!” And so we go a round on trying to remember what that was.  I suggest she look again, that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the blouse in the closet.  She returns. No, not there.  “you must have put it in your closet”.  Ahh, the ole “it’s not my problem” tone.

At this point, I’m getting a little peeved that she is not really trying.

This is not new. I suspect it is classic 11-year old stuff. I hope it is. It is definitely classic for my eldest.   I have this mantra I repeat to her whenever she gets into the “I can’t find it” panic. Which is surprisingly often.  The mantra is,

“You have to believe, first”

because then you have a reason to keep looking.  It has rung true every single time.  Other examples: looking in the refrigerator for the ____; looking in the hockey bag for the missing ____; looking in the laundry basket for the favorite pair of pants I know I just washed; etc.  If you believe what you are looking for, then you will keep looking and find it.

So, I peddled out “you know what I’m going to say…”you have to believe it is there”.  But we’re tight on time. So, I snippily add, “I will go look for it, but if I find it, there will be a consequence…I will take something away!”

The ipod, and she knows it.

I march upstairs and find without much effort, buried in her pants drawer, the black culottes. Next up was the blouse. It took a bit more work, but it was hanging in her closet. There were only FOUR other items hanging in the closet, but the blouse was hung on a hangar with another shirt she never wears.  I’m 2-2! Feeling rather victorious!

Next, she says, through a red blotchy face, “What about socks? I don’t know where any socks are!”

Oh, my.  That one did me in.  The back story here, is that she never puts her socks away. I find them all over the house. Next to the couch, under the bathroom cabinet, below the breakfast bar, in the basement, scattered about the floor. The pairs are often separated.  I have a large sock ‘orphanage’ where I keep socks missing their mates until they come through the laundry. 90% of the socks in there belong to my oldest.

At this point, I completely lose it. I tell her, “I had things-to-do-before-leaving-myself-that-I-am-not-getting-done-because-you-have-waited-until-the-last-minute-and-if-you-gave-a-rat’s-ass-about-your-socks-you-would-do-a-better-job-putting-them-in-the-laundry-basket-every-day-I-just-washed-a-black-pair-of-yours-had-you-put-your-clean-clothes-away-properly-you-could-find-them-right-now”  I did say “rat’s ass”, darn-it-all.

I pull out a pair of mine for her.

And for the final say, I add “and what about your hair? Now we don’t have time to fix your braids!”

She goes downstairs, sheepishly, and comes back to tell me that she turned off the burner on the quesadillas for me, and that they’re not too-too-burned.

I mutter a “thank you”.

And then I left to take my younger daughter to swimming lessons.

I was ticked.

I was ticked that she waited until the last minute.

But I was also ticked at myself for forgetting to anticipate this likely scenario.

I do hate that she leaves her socks all over the house. It drives me crazy that her clothes are all over her bedroom, clean and dirty alike. I try not to micromanage that stuff, but when push comes to shove, it really gets under my skin.

The look on her face, after the crisis had been averted, was one of shame and disappointment. I believe she felt like she had disappointed her mother. Again.

I know that look. I wore it often growing up.  I fought the feeling of disappointing my mother throughout my teens and young-adulthood.  I could never-ever do enough to please my mother.  I heard my mother’s disapproving voice in my head long after living on my own in my 20’s.

I so don’t want to do that to my daughter.

She is my eldest.  I have high standards. I want her to try hard. To do her best. To be herself. To be happy. To be polite. To be comfortable to be herself. To make mistakes and be able to learn from them.  To be free to laugh. To be able to laugh at herself.  I want this for both daughters, to be clear, but I think it’s hardest on the oldest.

~~~~~

Scenes like this one last night tell me I might be doing something wrong. Where is that line between teaching a child to take responsibility and giving them that responsibility? She seemed too young to not help out.  Truth is, I wished I had just gotten everything ready for her because she would really have appreciated it.  Should I have set out her clothes? Would I have done that if her room wasn’t such a mess? I do not like going in her room because it makes me unhappy. I wish she were neater. Or do I wish I required her to be neater?

More than anything, I want her to feel loved.  Not pushed.

But I want her to take responsibility.

Must they be mutually exclusive?

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T-1 Back to School

It’s my kids’ last day of summer vacation; it’s my last day as summer “cruise director”.  I can’t wait. Not sure about them.  Here’s my short list of things I want to tackle as soon as the kids step out the door tomorrow morning!  

1. Haircut

2. All day NPR

3. Silence

4. Run.

5. Run.

6. Purge old carpets

7. Buy new carpets

8. Tackle basement storage chaos

9. Organize recipes

10. Run

11. Read book.

12. Inquire about adult fiddle lessons

13. I reserve the right to add to this list AFTER they’ve left the house.

Mother’s Mothers’ Mothers Day

Mother as Grandmother with my oldest

This is not the usual mother’s lament of enduring her husband and children’s attempts to show me their gratitude through being helpful for one whole hour during which I must eat a breakfast that resembles their favorites and a day full of “it’s mom’s choice”, although that all transpired.

No, I actually closed out “Mothers Day” thinking of my mother and wishing things were different now.  She is long deceased (almost 10 years now).  Yes, I am who I am because of her relentless, selfless parenting, her nurturing if not overinvolved attention, her adventurous spirit, and her fearlessness. Yes, she drove me crazy alive.  Yes, I miss her, anyway.

But this Mothers Day, I begrudged her leaving behind her role of “mother” to me. You see, upon her death, she made me and my oldest sister, Anne, “trustees” of our middle sister “Kathy’s” 1/3 portion of her investments. Kathy just turned 50 earlier this month. At her birth, she suffered a brief loss of oxygen and while she has grown up seemingly “normal” she has a just above functional IQ and the emotional maturity of a 14 year old.  Which means since she was about 14, she’s driven my parents mad with her feckless path through life, enduring accidental pregnancies and accidentally-on-purpose pregnancies, countless gumball-machine engagements, bounced checks, sky-high credit card debt, lost jobs, broken hearts, etc.  Let’s just say, “making good choices” has never been her long suit.

My mother never got a break. She was still teaching Kathy right from wrong, good choices from bad choices, budgeting, social dynamics and consequences, job training, perpetual relationship counseling up until her death. When she died, I lost a mother and a friend; Kathy lost a mother, a therapist, a teacher and a bank.

It was after she died that I learned that Anne and I were to assume her role as all of these things.  Only in our case, instead of being well down the path of life, we were just getting started. I had on child, almost 3 and had my 2nd child later in the same year she died.  Anne had twins five years later.  So in addition to raising our own children. My own children. We continue to raise Kathy.

My children are now 11 and 8 years old.  They are wonderful, healthy well-adjusted children. I am proud of who they are.  And I have Kathy.  Who I desperately want to be normal, and who I think desperately wants me to think her lifestyle is normal, and yet baffles every brain cell in my body.

She, of course, calls me on Mother’s Day eve, to tell me her live-in boyfriend has left the house in a rage and whatever is she going to do about it?  Oh Mother-oh-mother, I get to be “counselor” now! And so I calmly help her navigate through what has historically been a minor skirmish in the battle she calls love.  I know how this will end. Despite the fact that I only get the calls from her about how much she can’t live with this person any more, how she can’t tolerate this person any more, because he stormed off first she must have him back. I can’t decide if it’s the 14-year old in her or the 30 years of soap opera watching that dictates her behavioral response.

And on Mother’s Day, she calls Anne to ask for money because she didn’t get an unemployment check and she is overdrawn, and she has “no food”.  Anne calls me, on Mothers Day, so we can do Mother’s work still.  This is what we do as sisters to Kathy: we co-parent.  From 2500 miles away.

I fill in the gaps for Anne: Kathy told me yesterday in her sorrow and dismay of the relationship breakup scare, that the boyfriend wanted her to ask us for more money from her trust for them to live on.  That would be one red flag. Yes, we are constantly giving her money. That’s what we’re supposed to do as trustee, but since Mom’s instructions were essentially to “mother like me”, we have no legal ground to stand on to say no even to ridiculously manipulated situations demanding financial support.

Never mind that just last week, for Kathy’s birthday, she drove to a casino with same said boyfriend and played the slots.  Never mind that with birthday money hot in her hands, she just went shopping and purchased all new linens for her new bed (bed courtesy of the trust).   The request will be denied.  It will likely return morphed into something more tragic.

These events are by no means isolated.  It is constant and chronic. There is no let-up in the manipulations. The circumstances. The requests. The pleas. Being sought out as banker and counselor is a near everyday event.  Silence happens when she is flush. The calls come when she is short. In between is some social crisis.

And so, Mothers Day comes and goes with the frustrating reminder that I am Mother to more than my own children.  Of course, I love Kathy. Like a sister. That comes naturally. It is loving her like a Mother that is awkward and unfair. Mother meant well; it was her love and concern and care she undoubtedly wanted to continue after her death. She figured who better to carry on her mission of raising Kathy to be a productive citizen.  I’m sure she didn’t realize, until too late maybe, that she was saddling me (and Anne) with the pain and frustration of keeping Kathy safe and out of trouble. Her guilt over a difficult birth translated to a lifetime of trying everything under the sun from toughlove, to tutors and counseling and included the sacrifice of her happiness and her marriage.  While I inherited her edict and her means, I didn’t inherit the guilt and so I cannot be Kathy’s Mother.  It doesn’t come off the same.

Our relationship as sisters is perverted by my role as mother-trustee.  I can no longer think of her as a sister peer.  Perhaps that would have faded with age anyway but I’ll never know.  And my own parenting of my own children is affected. It is never naive, as I have my Mothering of Kathy as a constant reminder of what can go so wrong.

I now must work harder to keep the focus on my own children. There’s no legal contract that says I have to do that, but I do. The legal and fiduciary obligations I have are to mother my sister; a seemingly nebulous, endless task.

You have made it hard, Mother, to keep my own family a priority.  I know you never meant to do that. I forgive you.  I loved you deeply Mother. You were a great mother.  I hope I’ll be as good a mother.

To my own children.

The Unconventional Easter

Image    (Easter, 1969 with my two sisters)

Perhaps no other holiday evokes more guilt from me than Easter. As my father was a devout catholic, this was his most favorite religious holiday; and with my mother a protestant, I was always well dressed for Easter, complete with new white shoes, a hat, and a new dress — although often hand-made or handed down from my older sisters.

These memories flooded through my mind as I sat with my children at the local diner Easter morning, where we ended up because Russ and I realized we were out of eggs for breakfast. And out of bacon.  And we didn’t want to serve pancakes because they had more than enough sugar in their Easter baskets to last well through summer vacation.

The longer I sat watching my rag-tag family, the more I chafed.  Both daughters sported dirty hair, Katie wore a yellow fleece that was so dirty it looked brown and Olivia was wearing the same hockey sweatshirt she’s worn every day for the last three weeks.  The clincher was Russ, who chose to entertain our 8 and 11-year olds by hanging a spoon off the end of his nose.

I sat there and wondered where had things gone so wrong?  Why aren’t my children dressed up for Easter? No hat. No miserable white tights to match the shoes. Dear God, why aren’t they even wearing clean clothes? And Russ, for goodness sakes, really? A spoon on the nose? We are eating OUT.

Truth is, I don’t normally care too much about these things.  I’m a pretty easygoing mom, to say the least.

But as I looked about the diner, filled mostly with single older adults, or older couples eating before dashing out to Easter Service, inferred by their unusually nice dress for Vermont on a Sunday, I saw only my failures as a parent.

I should be torturing them by making them go to one of the two most boring yet beguiling of church services: the death and the resurrection of Jesus. I should be torturing them by making them wear scratchy tights whose crotch reaches your knees by mid-service. I should torment them a bit more with long days visiting with very old relatives who smell funny. I should make them eat an early dinner comprised of mushy vegetables, ham, and scallopped potatoes using only their best manners.

But no, I took them out to breakfast because I ran out of eggs at home, and I let them out of the house looking like scallawags.  Happy Easter!? I hoped no one would greet me that way today. I didn’t feel like I deserved it.

I was not being the best breakfast mate. I excused myself from the table to the restroom, to escape my husband’s spoon-dangling nose and my grubby kids and gathered my thoughts.

No, this was not our best effort for Easter. This is, however, the first Easter we’ve been completely disengaged from church all year, because Olivia’s hockey schedule and our chosen church’s schedules are incompatible. And we’ve been busy all weekend attending hockey games of the Women’s World Championships (IIHF) in our little town – a rare opportunity to see the world’s best women hockey player!  And with both my parents are deceased and no family within a four hour radius, we’re on our own for this and most traditionally “family” holidays.OK. So those are my excuses.

As I wrangle with guilt that I don’t take my children to church, that they don’t really understand Easter’s Christian symbolism, and only associate Easter with the chocolate the the Easter “bunny”, I remember that my best and abundant memories of the holiday are not about the church piece.

Dad and Mom would be so angry with each other because we were late to church and had to stand in the back — a given for the Christmas and Easter catholic masses when my mother indulged my father by letting us go to church as a family  — as opposed to him going to mass while we went to the Presbyterian service with Mom.  I did like getting new clothes, but I hated having to wait for Easter to wear them.  In the end, after so many years away from home, my strongest memories are of looking for the Easter eggs my mother would have hidden all through the house, in the cleverest of locations and the joy of the hunt. I remember the basket next to my bed first thing in the morning. Those are my most fond memories.

And those are the ones I have worked to make for my children.

Without the church piece.

Am I doing another disservice to my kids? Maybe.  Do I want them to be church-less? No. Do I want to take them only to church on Christmas and Easter? Absolutely not!

I could have married someone who was a regular church-goer, a true believer and marched my kids through sunday school and bible school in the summer.  But I didn’t. I married a questioner, and a deep-thinker. And we respect each other for our different approaches and together we are trying to raise children who think and ask questions and formulate their own opinions.  We will get to religion. We will. It’s not like we don’t discuss it. We ARE raising morally strong children.

OK. So, back to the breakfast table. I vowed to wash the girls clothes. And to make them take a bath today. And then the food came and I didn’t have to worry about that spoon on Russ’ nose any more.

The Unexpected Conversations

I’ve been obsessed for a week solid and think blogging might help.

I’ve written about my oldest daughter before.  She really is a gem (ok, they both are, but this one deals with her.).  In the past 10 days, she and I have learned that her best (new) friend has anorexia.  It’s had me pretty shaken since I learned of it.  Yes, I’m immediately thankful it’s not my daughter.   I am atwitter because it’s so close.  And because they are so young. And because this young lady is the first real friend my Olivia connected to who is a girl. She has lots of friends. Her longest, oldest friends are boys.  This young lady is the first girl she could identify with — she is athletic, she hates dresses, her parents have pretty tight rules, she’s book-smart.

Over the past few weeks her mother had mentioned to me that their daughter seemed to be obsessed with food. Wondered if Olivia was too.  She and her husband worried about her losing muscle mass.  At the time, I was still thinking she was a bit health-over-conscious.

Anyway, it all came to a head on the weekend of Olivia’s 11th birthday. Yes, these girls are E.L.E.V.E.N years old.  Her friend came over for Olivia’s birthday and watched me cook dinner. She was interested. Admired my carrots. I offered her an apple for a snack. She asked if my refried beans were the no-fat kind her parents buy. I lied and said “yes”.  She called her mom before dinner because she had a headache and wanted to go home. Unsuccessfully. I knew it was because the prospect of eating dinner with her classmates was too much on top of a long day at school where she had to skip the chocolate covered strawberries Olivia brought in to share with her class for her birthday, and lunch, where she routinely skipped most of her home-packed lunch.

While Olivia and two other classmates tore through three made-to-order tacos each, Olivia’s startlingly skinny friend ate a dollop of refried beans and some lettuce. No milk. No brownie. Then she talked about how much she likes english muffins — the whole wheat kind. She tried to engage her friends on the subject of beans and brown rice as the perfect protein. The others acknowledged her, but over a “please pass the cheese” and a reach.

The friend would not play soccer as she usually does. She stood in the middle of the back yard while the others played and laughed and kicked.  And this is HER sport.

The next day, while watching sports on television with Olivia, the commentator spoke of how the figure skater was competing again after two years off battling Anorexia. Then Olivia said “That’s what ___ has”.

I tried not to panic.

I played it cool.

I asked a few questions, but not too many.

But now we have a regular dialog on the subject. Fortunately, the friend is getting counseling with her family.  Unfortunately, she does not seem to be on the upswing yet, and yesterday missed a soccer game because of the family’s rule that she must meet the doctor’s weight target or no soccer. So yesterday was the first – of what I suspect will be many – missed soccers.

But now I am hypervigilant.

And Olivia is getting frustrated.

She said she wishes she could talk to her friend’s brain. To tell her to eat.

I know my girl. She is strong. She is healthy. She is courageous.  She will want to help “fix” her friend and she will get frustrated when the efforts fail.

But she is also intensely loyal, and so I think she will want to stick by her friend and do what she can.

Meanwhile, I have tried to find a fiction book that involves a friendship between girls when one of them gets an eating disorder.  But I can’t find one that doesn’t deal with the grisly details of bulimia, or imply something tragic that has happened at home — death of a parent, incest, or involves older teen topics of sexuality, attracting boys, etc.

Remember, my daughter is 11. She is in the fifth grade. She is a sports girl.  Boys are still her friends. I don’t want to frighten her with topics that are not age appropriate.

And so, perhaps for the best, we just talk. We talk about anorexia. We talk about being friends. About not being able to fix her friend. About how this can take a long time to change.  About staying healthy herself. About showing her you can drink milk, eat a peanut butter sandwich, a kiwi and a brownie and still be a great, healthy, happy kid.

As the subject seems to come up daily now, we’re working up to “why” this happens.

I realize as I have this precious time with my newly 11-year old, how special my kid is.  I am trying to protect her from the pain of watching a friend withdraw, as she might, and to help my daughter to remain the strong, wise, courageous and loyal friend that she is. So that she might emerge from this unexpected education even stronger.

Truthfully, I am scared. Scared for my daughter — for having to face these trials so young in life. Scared for her friend. Scared for my friends, her parents.  Trying not to show it, I do want to hug Olivia just a little bit longer and a little bit tighter. To protect her just a little bit better.

2012 State-of-the-Union

Since President Obama issued his State-of-the-Union address yesterday, I’ve been feeling like having one too.   And, having visited the financial planner yesterday, it seems no better time than to make some bold statements about 2012.

1. I will find a source of income this year.  After all, I now know that with the financial plan we’re working on, given existing income sources and adjustments for income, my kids will be able to go to a decent college, eating in a fancy dining hall, and sleeping in a dormitory that’s probably nicer than home, all with a hefty subsidy from mom & dad, but we will spend retirement eating ramen-noodles from our walkers wearing the same clothes I wear now. Seriously, I’ve always known I needed to return to work. I’ve wanted to return to work. I’ve tried to find something that suits me. But now it’s time to buckle down!  I don’t mind the ramen-noodles really (see below), but I’m gonna want to buy myself a nice pair of boots, or dear g-o-d, take a vacation to someplace warm when I’m old!

2. We will plan our expenses carefully. This is a tough one.  I am married to mr. spontaneity who’s alter ego is mr. end-cap (as in he shops from the promotional end-caps despite my advice that better deals are found deeper in the aisle).  I do usually benefit from his spontaneity.  The end-caps? Ah, we really have enough cereal.

I will make an effort to fix more things rather than replace them, whenever possible. We must plan our vacations far enough out that we budget the expenses. We have this sailboat we must equip for it’s first season (what was I thinking?) and now we must plan out what we want to spend and not just spend it all in the month of June as we launch it.  I will attempt to purchase items from craigslist — I really do need a new desk, but maybe not a brand-new desk!

3. I will try to like cooking.  After all, if I like it,  won’t I want to do more of it? And that will lead to fewer meals out.  Really, I have to learn to cook like I’m a working mom. You know, cook a big meal on the weekend and package it out as a few meals and freeze.  Perhaps a little less of “oh, what can I pull together now that it’s 4:30 and I have to feed my kids”. I really miss my single days where eating a bowl of couscous in front on the TV at 8pm was dinner. No prep. No forethought. Virtually no dishes. That was the life.  And it was 15 years ago, so really, it’s time I got my sh** together.

4. I will continue to exercise and keep myself healthy.  A cortisone shot on Friday might make this seem more doable.  But really, no excuses.  If we’re going to have to work until we’re 70 years old (which we will) then we’d better be healthy.    So on days when I don’t feel like navigating icy sidewalks to run, let me remember that I have to make this body last a long time. Next time something doesn’t work right, I’m going to see a doctor rather than just wait it out. I’ve learned a painful (literally!) lesson with this rotator-cuff.  Feet hurt? See a doctor.  I don’t want to be 70 and crippled with arthritis while I’m trying to run the cash register at the grocery store.

5. I will unclutter our lives to make it easier to live the simple life we want.  It seems a never-ending job.  Yesterday, I pulled out a box of my grandmother’s teacup collection from the basement.  If these teacups made me happy, I’d have them on the shelf. They are, instead, part of a vast collection of dead-relative memorabilia.  It occurred to me yesterday, that if I got rid of my dead-relative collections, we might have room to display our own special memories from my own special family. Nuff said.  I plan to learn unclutter AND make money by selling stuff on ebay and craigslist.  I think I might be able to make a dent in my annual income by clearing out so much stuff.

6.  A little more discipline, maybe? So, how do I make all this happen? I will have to spend less time RIGHT HERE with my friend the computer.  We have lunch together, snack, spend many days listening to music and window-shopping.  Time to get a little distance, my friend. No offense.

I’m feeling hopeful and a little bit overwhelmed.  One day at a time, isn’t that the mantra?

 

Summer’s Failures

I did it today.  I had hoped it wouldn’t happen. I  think I’ve been close before during this summer. But today I finally had my head-spinning-scary-screaming-mommy-moment which elicited the predictable deer-in-the-headlights followed-by-cowering and then sister-sister-protection from the V.E.R.Y-MEAN-mommy.  Over what?

Over my request to have my children remember to do three things every morning unprompted:

1. Make Bed

2. Brush Teeth

3. Brush Hair

I even made these cute little “friendly-reminder” signs and put them in each of their bedrooms and bathroom, so that I wouldn’t have to run through the list EVERY morning, and so I could give them the independence to “take care of it themselves”.

They did “take care of it themselves” for two days. The two days after I put the signs up.

My “Exorcist” moment now come and gone, and my children have made their beds and naturally now, they are a walking a little gingerly around me.

For what it’s worth, I am still MAD. I’m mad because I lost it. I’m mad because I almost made it through the summer without the Exorcist moment, I’m mad because my patient, gentle approach failed as much as my crazy-lash-out.  I’m mad that they won’t do basic chores without me telling them to do them every day.

I suppose I’m mad because I feel like the only tool left is to levy consequences; I just hate to start the morning that way.

One month till school starts.

Three days till the big family vacation drive.

Half a bottle of wine left in fridge.

Seven hours before a reasonable hour to drink it.

 

Peace Out.