It’s a new day, Mom…

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.

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Lessons Learned


When that Mama worry takes ahold of a woman you can’t expect no sense from her.  She’ll do or say anything at all and you just better hope you ain’t in her way. That’s the Lord’s doing right there.  He made mothers to be like that on account of children need protecting… Helping that child be up to the Mama.  But God never gives us a task without giving us the means to see it through.  

                                    – Florence’s voice in Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan.

Mothering has offered me many opportunities to grow past the simplistic outlook that life should be easy, and I’ve mostly ignored these moments.  I’ve never been able to embrace the idea that hardship brings about blessings, but I hear enough people recite it as truth that I am trying to embrace it.  I have seen children, my own included, go through painful seasons of social difficulty and against all odds, come out on the other side, maybe not stronger for it, but strongish.

Often, the only blessing I can see in the face of suffering is the gift of offering empathy to others who will someday walk down the same path of pain.  In the spirit of sisterhood, I send these lessons learned out to all the broken hearted mamas who will watch their children suffer under the words and hands of cruel kids.  I wish that I was a clinical psychologist or at least understood the social lives of children better, but I don’t.  I just know that when kids go through these sorts of rough patches, the watching of it can be very painful on their mothers.  (The following list assumes that your child is not being physically harmed, but is enduring verbal teasing, lack of friends, and social isolation.)

Why this happens to some kids, how they spiral and what intangible powers are at work is all still unknown to me.  Why and when it stops and turns around also seems unpredictable and random.  But here are some lessons I learned that I hope makes traversing the path during this season a little easier.

Lesson #1: Always remember, this too shall pass.

This is the most important lesson, so I’m putting it first. It will not always be this way.  This season is not a predictor of things to come.  I know your worse case scenario and it’s not pretty.  You are imagining him homeless at age twenty-five, wandering the streets with his hands in his pants. I promise you that is not where he is headed. One day in the not-so-distant future you will happen to glance over at him when he doesn’t know you are watching and you will see a bright-eyed, happy, well-adjusted boy who has friends and loves his life. In that moment, it will actually be hard to remember the kid who came home from school each day crying, the one who couldn’t seem to navigate any of the social dilemmas or status-jockeying that seemed to come easily to his peers. (But of course you will remember, because Mamas never forget.) Hear me: he will be joyful again. This is only a season.

Lesson #2: Keep it positive.

As frustrating as it is to see what is happening, try your very best not to pile on.  Sometimes it’s so obvious what she is doing wrong and how she is setting herself up to be picked on, but when you start sentences with Oh my God, if you are ever going to have friends, you need to stop doing this, it just feels like more people hating on her.  She already knows she is making social mistakes and she doesn’t need your yelling about it.  Recognize how deeply disappointed you are that your kid is “like this,” go into your closet and yell and scream at how unfair it is. Leave your disappointment right there in your closet and walk away from it.  It’s not doing you or your daughter any good.  She is the kid you got and she is the one who needs you right now. That means that when you hear that she fell on the gym floor sobbing when someone called her a retard, you give her a hug and a big smile and you say, I wonder what might have happened if you had stuck your tongue out at her instead of crying? instead of throwing your hands up in the air and shouting How many times have I told you not to cry at school?  When she tells you that everyone at recess was in a two person game and there were no three person games so she grabbed the ball and ran away with it to pout in a corner, don’t give a big sigh and say with exasperation, When will you ever learn?  Don’t allow her to misinterpret your own frustration with blame.

Lesson #3: Stay away from the bullies and their parents.

Allow yourself to daydream about all the ways you’d like to inflict pain on the mean kids and their clueless parents. Get creative and think up wild scenarios.  And then leave them in your daydream and go about your normal life.  Do not act on any of them because doing so will make things much worse for your child and you will be modeling retaliation.  I know it’s hard to understand this right now, but those mean kids are most likely kids on the receiving end of similar treatment.  Likewise, calling the kids’ parents and politely explaining what is happening is tricky terrain.  If your intention is to build community and strengthen your friendship with those parents, by all means, make the call.  But without those guiding intentions, the call usually ends badly.  When you are ready, say a prayer for those kids.  The words will likely stick in your throat the first five hundred times you try it, but eventually it will become a habit and will feel good.

Lesson #4: Recognize that your pain is separate from his pain.

This is a tricky one because it comes close to implying that you are making it all up in your head and he is just fine and nothing is really happening. I know you are hearing enough of that kind of thing already, so trust me that I am not going in that direction.  But it is very important that you figure out what kinds of things this experience is bringing up in you.  Rejection, betrayal, loneliness, shame and disappointment are just a short list of what you are probably dealing with.  If you’ve never been to therapy, now is a great time to check in with someone who can guide you toward healing. Your kid needs you to be healthy in this way so you can provide him solid support.  If possible, don’t operate from your own well of emotional need.  Get yourself together and be crystal clear about what you are feeling as compared to what he is experiencing.

Lesson #5 Cancel your Friday night plans.

I know a million parenting books will remind us that we are called to be Parent not Friend and I usually agree with them.  But these are not normal times and you are going to have to take on a new role in her life and it’s called B.F.F.  No matter how bored you are with the card game, ping-pong, scrabble, or the Nancy Drew computer game, you play it.  I don’t care if you hate watching fantasy or romantic movies, you go with her and act interested while you are there. Never say, Wouldn’t you rather invite someone your age to go with you?  If she had that option she would already be calling friends. Pointing it out is just rubbing her face in it and the message you want to convey is this: You are fun to hang out with and your interests, opinions, and comments are fascinating to me. You are all she’s got right now and you need to keep her social and active!

Lesson #6: Don’t be disappointed in your own friends.

They will not understand what you are feeling.  They are looking through their own unique lens and simply cannot see or feel what you are experiencing.  You will feel let down if you expect them to make any sort of difference.  Feel grateful if you find even one friend who will let you vent about it.  You probably sound like a broken record, and if even one gal pal has the patience to let you tell your stories over and over again, you are lucky.  Let them off the hook! You are alone in this and you are strong enough to handle it.

Lesson #7: Don’t blame!

Yes, kids are being mean and people need to protect your son from it. This season is hard to understand, layered with complexity, and all the players involved — including your sweet child — are flawed human beings.  The adults in his life (the teachers, the youth group leader, the coaches) are likely trying very hard to help.  Do engage those adults and partner with them to support your family.  But leave blame behind.

Lesson #8: Act!

Switch schools, get her into a social skills group, hire a shadow, sign her up for karate lessons, get her evaluated or simply try some new summer camps.  Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by this.  Getting help is not the same as deciding all this is her fault.  Sometimes tweaking one small aspect of the equation is all the help she will need, but you won’t know what will help until you try something.

Lesson #9: Show him unconditional love.

I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised to notice all the ways our parenting offers conditional love.  Think about how you give a hug or a kiss or an I’m proud of you! when he gets an A, cleans his room or clears the table without being asked, and how often you offer a frown, a sarcastic comment, or a frustrated tone when he disappoints you.  All that adds up to a clear understanding of conditional love whether you mean to pass that along or not.  Now that he is in trouble, you’ve been given the perfect opportunity to adjust your parenting so that you discipline, guide and well, parent with unconditional love.  If the world were writing all the rules right now, he’s falling to the bottom of the food chain and is feeling pretty love starved.  You have a chance to make a difference. Show him how loved and valued he is.  This season can really stretch our abilities and our emotional bandwidth.  Anxiety and worry are exhausting and I am betting they are filling your days and nights.   The Five Love Languages of Children might be a great book to get you thinking about creative ways to show unconditional love.

Finally, Lesson #10. Root her identity.

Only you know your value system and what your family culture honors.  But consider this: there will always be a better skier, a smarter science major, a tougher basketball player and a more skilled flute player. During this time when she is feeling torn down by her peers, honoring and celebrating her natural gifts is very important.  Helping her find her worth outside of these gifts is difficult but much more life-giving. Be careful about the message you send her during this time.  When you are tempted to say things like The kids pick on you because they are jealous that you are smarter than they are, choose instead to say, I’m proud of your compassion and how you help people.  I hope today gives you an opportunity to help someone. When she graduates from this difficult phase she will be sustained for the long haul if her value is placed in something more eternal than her GPA.  Her sense of herself has to come from a deeper place, a place we might call her soul. She needs to know that no matter how others treat her, or how accomplished she becomes, she is known and loved.  This is the hardest lesson of all. We live in a pressure-filled, accomplish-driven world.  Rising above it to a place of spirituality, surrender, trust and hope is the challenge placed before you.

Mama, you’re going to get through this in one piece and so is your loved child.

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