Yesterday, I ran into an old friend who has much younger kids (Egads, one is still in preschool! Can you imagine how utterly exhausted she is?) and she asked, “How is life as the mother of a high-schooler?”
Oh, there are so many ways I could answer that question…
Normally I would reply with a quick and breezy, “It’s great! She loves it!” This is 100% true. My daughter has taken to high school like a fish to water. After an initial pause of bewilderment that was over before I even had time to panic, I’ve seen weeks of smiles.
I could have said, “Oh, it’s so far away from our house!” It’s true: I leave at 7am each morning and after dropping everyone where they need to be I finally get home to begin my own day at 8:30am. I usually have a little bit of road rage by that point and am still wearing some version of a pajama outfit. Sometimes, but not always, my teeth are brushed.
Occasionally I might say, “She loves it so much I have to keep reminding her that it’s school and not summer camp!” But this is a little misleading. She’s having as much fun as she’s ever had at a camp, but she’s remaining dedicated to her academic work as well.
Right now a lot of 8th grade Moms are calling to hear about her experience because they are in the midst of high school decision-making, and so sometimes I say “It was the right choice for her. It’s been a great fit.” And what I mean by that is she’s thriving in all the obvious ways: Good grades so far, made the sports team she tried out for, has friends to eat lunch with and doesn’t dread the day. As simple as it sounds, this is every parent’s dream for her kid.
[BTW, if you don’t live in San Francisco and you are wondering what in the world a “high school decision” is, well… I’ll give a shot at explaining. Many kids in this city attend a K-8 school and then apply to a private or public high school during their 8th grade year. The process seems to empower these 13-year-olds to make the decision themselves, but the parents are the ones who pay the tuition so we get a say as well. The kids go and “shadow” for a day at each school they are interested in, and then fill out these intensive applications, each with different deadlines and then we wait. On the same day in March, all the schools mail letters or post on-line their decisions and kids juggle waiting out their first choice and moving off a wait list or accepting immediately and plunking down a deposit. Yes, I know it sounds crazy and more like a college process, but that’s what it’s like here and I thought I would explain it.]
But back to yesterday… I had the feeling this gal was asking about me and her curiosity made me feel brave enough to be honest, so here is what I said: “It’s very different and the change is one I didn’t see coming.”
And that’s the truth. One day I was the active and awesome parent of two kids who needed so much from me and I had divvied my heart, time and energy up so that each got just enough and I still had some “me” left. I kept a busy calendar filled with work and volunteer duties and a touch of social activities thrown in. And then one day I awoke to realize that most of what I needed and wanted to do for her is already done.
And it doesn’t feel that great. It feels a little like my invisible expiration date just showed itself and I didn’t know that it had passed. My shelf life was a much smaller number than I had imagined.
On Halloween her new, super-cool, high school canceled classes for the whole day so their students could attend the Welcome Home Giants parade. (No wonder it feels like summer camp around that place!) At 8:30 in the morning she said goodbye and walked off to take the bus to meet up with her friends. Hours later I sent a text: “Please just confirm you are safe and with people.” “Yes!” she replied with no details. Apparently they wandered the crowded city, most likely inhaling gallons of pot-filled air while smashed up against other San Franciscans, and eventually made their way to a friend’s house to change into Halloween costumes and make the rounds as trick-or-treaters. It was pouring rain and freezing outside. I sent a text at 8:30pm saying, “Surely you are wet, freezing and miserable and ready to come home, right?” “No, we’re having a blast. Can I spend the night here?” was her response.
Here’s the thing. This is what flourishing looks like in teenageland. She’s happy, (and crossing my fingers in hope as I type this) safe and having a ball. But back to me for a moment….I just felt desolate. I hadn’t even seen her in her costume. I hadn’t walked up to houses with her and her friends and mentally recorded the excitement on their faces. I hadn’t weighed her candy and decided when we’d finished enough blocks. I didn’t even know if she’d used a bag or borrowed a pillowcase. The plastic bag with a pumpkin painted on it that she’s used for years sat in our garage on that rainy night. Who am I on Halloween if I am not with my kids trick-or-treating? It’s been so long since I’ve even had the opportunity to be anything other than their ever-present-meeter-of-needs that there might be a vast void opening up where mothering her used to be. And just so you know, I work a job I love, I have more loving female friends than I can count and am active in all sorts of community projects. It’s just that I have always prioritized my kids’ needs and my job as their mother way above any of those other things. So what does one do when her biggest priority takes itself off the list?
I was moping around the house mumbling things about how boarding school makes so much more sense on this side of the high school decision, when my husband looked at me and said in a very compassionate voice, “You are done. You did a really good job parenting her, and that is why you can relax now. It’s basically over.”
And you and I both know my work is far from over, but the job that I have been doing in that way I’ve been doing it… yeah, that one’s done. And seriously, if one more well-meaning mom of an older kid patiently explains that I have simply moved from “manager to consultant” I think I might scream. I get it; I just have no idea what that means or how it looks.
[BTW, It’s such a strange conflict to be rejoicing for your child and weeping for yourself. Especially when you are trying to hide your weeping from your child lest she be confused about the direction she is supposed to be heading. Like yea, you are doing such a great job separating from me in a healthy way. And like, boo, I miss my best friend… manic/depressive much, Joy?]
This week I was pulling away from my house to attend a monthly women’s group meeting. (You know, one of those things in my uber-full and rich life that’s not at all pathetic.) Bing, went my phone. “I just got on the bus now, I’ll be home in 30 mins.” I reply, “Don’t forget that I am going out tonight. Dinner’s on the stove.” And I think for a minute and then say “ AND… how was your day.” Bing: “It was actually an awful day, I’ll tell you about it later tonight.”
Because you know me so well, you must know that I wanted to veer right and drive out to the Sunset until I had tracked the bus down and carried her home myself. But I didn’t. I sent an empathetic note back, offered to cancel my plans, and then went ahead with my evening.
When I got home I heard all about her Very First Bad Day In High School. It included some stomach pain, a forgotten assignment, a lunch period full of volunteer obligations and no time to connect with friends, and finally the pervasive worry about a friend who is going through a rough patch. Nothing I could do a single thing about.
As I rubbed her feet and offered a tissue, I heard, “I knew I’d be ok as soon as I got home. I feel so much better now that I am with you. Thanks for listening, Mom.”
And one tiny block of understanding clicked into place. It seems that this new-fangled consultant gig I’ve been hired for involves a lot of waiting around and keeping myself occupied and busy until I am needed. And when I get that call or happen into an open conversation, then it means being the same consistently loving and listening mom I’ve always been.
My work is nearly done. I just need to be available, never rushing in too quickly, always looking out for her best interests and relentlessly nurturing her independent but relational spirit.
N.B.D. It’s the same job, just waaaaaaaaay less of it.