Spreading Her Wings

cheering woman student open arms at campusThere is a shift taking place in my life right now. As regular life continues to happen around me, I feel trapped in a time warp, a black hole of sorts.

A vortex of emotions.

The stack of boxes, bedding and trinkets has been growing for several weeks. Staged in the back room, away from the path my regular routine takes me through the house each day. The room that used to hold all things Little Tikes, LEGO and My Little Pony. Where imaginations turned boxes, blankets and couch cushions into castles. The game room, formerly known as the playroom.

Teens don’t like to hang out in a playroom, you know. Hence, the name change.

This summer has been deemed “The Longest Summer Ever” for my daughter, who graduated high school on June 17 and doesn’t start college classes until September 22.

College.

I can feel her absence already, as boxes are taped shut and “lasts” are marked off an imaginary list.

And in a twist that seems particularly cruel to a mother, I can clearly remember a time when I would have given my right foot to have a little break from parenting. Maybe an overnight with the grandparents or a few hours away while Dad mans the ship. When your kids are small and needy and so very BUSY, the mere thought that one day they will be out on their own and adulting might be the only thing that keeps you going.

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, the holy grail of parenting — the young adult child.

Because toddlers can be tough.

I honestly enjoyed parenting, even when I had to dole out a punishment or deliver a lecture. There were times when I cried, when they cried, times we all cried together. Through the foot stomping determination of a 3-year old to the eye rolls of a tween, I pushed ahead with new determination each and every day. Even after the toughest of days I would find myself standing at her bedside after she fell asleep, watching her chest rise and fall as the rhythm of her breathing brought me back to the starting line.

Ready to tackle another day.

Most days, I’m almost giddy that she’s going to college and choosing her own path. Some would say I have made it to the finish line, that I’m done parenting and can hang up my cape. Empty nest! More time for yourself! Freedom! These are the cheers I hear from my parenting crowd, many of whom still have tiny hands leaving fingerprints on the sliding glass door and pounds of Goldfish crackers ground into the carpeting in their minivan. They look wistful, envious maybe. I feel like I’m betraying my people if I don’t have fabulous plans to cruise to Alaska, take up yoga, get a tattoo or start my own organic food co-op.

But some days the tears pool right on the brink of my lashes.

Because I’m still parenting.

What did I forget to tell her? Is there one must-have piece of advice I was supposed to frame for her dorm room wall? I can’t swaddle her in a hug when something goes wrong, can’t ask her to tag along on my Target run on a whim. I won’t see that adorable bed-head when she wakes up or even know what she’s wearing. My grocery store cart won’t hold any of her favorite snacks or that disgusting green juice she insists on drinking every morning.

I should probably still get the ice cream.

It’s like watching a movie unfold as you fall in love with the characters, the story line, the flaws and challenges they all overcome. But you don’t know how it ends just yet.

Is this the end of a chapter, or of the whole novel? My brainer-than-me writer/parent friends often debate this topic as a way of postponing the inevitable letting go. Which is really all it is. But am I launching or casting out? One implies setting free, while the other leaves room to reel them back in when needed.

Letting go.

That’s what I am doing this weekend. I’m not getting a tattoo, not hanging up  my parenting cape just yet.

But I am glad I bought the ice cream.

Eighteen Candles

mom holding baby girlParenting.

One of the few jobs that doesn’t necessarily get easier the more years you have under your belt. Because while your skills might sharpen as you balance the tightrope between “yes” and “no” every day, your child is changing the playing field.

Constantly.

You might have one child or five — all boys or a mixture of kiddos — but each and every day you suit up to play a game that isn’t the same game you played yesterday.

I’ve done this parenting thing once already. With 22 years under my belt and a son recently launched into young adulthood, I thought I had it all under control.

My baby girl changed the game.

And now she’s ready to fly.

My last child, my only girl… I’m not sure what it is.

But while I am incredibly excited for her next chapter in life — college move-in only one month away — my heart is already missing that little girl who has been my sidekick for so many years. The toddler who grasped my legs while I cooked dinner and now shares my love for iced coffee and Target runs.

She’s 18 today.

I still can’t wrap my head around it.

From the day she was born, she’s been such a presence in my life. This tiny 6-pound baby girl who couldn’t wait for her due date to make her appearance; who threatened to be born while her father was off in search of a soda machine in the depths of the hospital hallways.

She altered the course of our lives, bringing a new perspective on parenting to two people who thought they knew it all. Her 4-year-old brother had no idea what a game-changer she would be… or that she would be his trusted ally and playmate for years to come. To watch them interact now as young adults is incredible. These two little souls who grew up in a heartbeat — right under my nose — as I fed them, bathed them, read to them, taught them, laughed with them and cried over them.

But my daughter.

How can I sum up 18 years of memories in just a few sentences, or a few memories pulled from the pre-digital years? Shuffling through the old photo boxes this afternoon I wished Steve Jobs had been a little bit quicker with his iPhone… or that I had not worried about the cost of a roll of prints from the neighborhood photo shop.

The cost of the missing memories is steep right now.

She is tenacious and caring, both a deep thinker and a free spirit. She makes me laugh and makes me think, makes me want to be smarter and do better. She loves a debate, yet loves a silly conversation just as much. She is fiercely loyal to her family and friends.

For the past 18 years she has graced our home with so much energy, laughter and love… and when she leaves for college next month her absence will echo down the hall, towards her empty bedroom.

But give me some Facetime, a text filled with emojis, a funny meme shared with an LOL or a call out of the blue — I’m good with that.

She’ll always be my sidekick.

Happy 18th birthday, sweet girl.

It’s time for you to fly.

kak grad walk

 

Watching Her Walk Away

She tosses her school bag on the table and heads into the kitchen to grab her lunch. Just like any other ordinary school day that starts with a quiet breakfast for two and ends when she exits the car and tells me to have a good day.
And she usually adds a thank you.

Those melt my heart a little bit. Because at 16, you don’t always consider the fact that the other members of your family are also heading into their “day,” whether it be work or errands or chores.

She retrieves her sandwich from the refrigerator — which she made for herself this morning — and adds it to her school bag. She senses that I’m staring at her and glances up.

“Are you excited?” I ask, in an eager attempt to sound cool and unaffected. To make this seem like just an ordinary school morning. Which in my heart feels NOT at all ordinary.

Her smile is my answer. She IS excited, and whispers “yes” as she leans in to hug me. I don’t usually get a morning hug, since proper teen protocol means no touching or otherwise acknowledging your familial relationship in the high school parking lot drop-off zone.

Like a taxi driver with no payment other than the quiet, “Have a nice day.”

We break our hug and she looks me in the eye, while cracking a smile. “How are YOU?” she asks, and I realize that to put on an act won’t work this morning. She’s on to me.

I’m screwed.

My baby is driving herself to school this morning.  For the very first time.

ALL ALONE IN THE CAR. (Mothers of toddlers, let that sink in for a moment.)

And I am trying to be OK with it, really I am.

Milestones are awesome, each and every one of them. She is a good driver and we spent countless hours driving all over our area over the past six months. A few miles to school should be a piece of cake.

For her, anyway.

My son started preschool a week after she was born, and our carpool days were just beginning. But now it’s been years since we were a carpool group of three. When she was in fourth grade her brother started high school, and he walked to and from school every day.

So for the past seven years, it’s been just the two of us on the morning slog to school. Sometimes we talk a little, nothing too heavy that time of day. Some mornings are quieter than others, and I just try to let that happen. Since she started high school, I often drop her off on a side street on days when the weather is nice— close enough to consider it a “ride” yet far enough away that nobody would see her with her mother.

And I watch her walk away.

And in that mom part of my brain, I see a little girl wearing a tiny backpack not large enough for any high school textbooks. A tiny little girl wearing adorable round glasses, a pair of pink leggings and cute bangs that framed her sweet, smiling face.

And I imagine that I am dropping her off at kindergarten.

It’s only for a few hours.

And I know she is growing up, and I LOVE watching her spread her wings and begin to mold her future. But I can’t always reconcile in my heart that the tiny girl in pink and the long-haired, leggy 16-year-old girl carrying a trendy handbag for her books and wearing Chuck Taylors are the same person.

She’s heading for the door now.

In her hands, she grasps a brand new lanyard that holds the keys to her independence.

And she is radiant.

“Have a nice day!” I say in a forced but chipper voice. She turns at the door and tells me to have a good day, too.

The door shuts behind her.

And I watch her walk away.

50 Shades of Play

They’re sprinkled all over the internet, in stock photos and pop-up ads.

Those moms.

The moms who actually play with their kids and smile and seem so incredibly good at mothering.

Because playing is fun, right?

When I pictured  myself as a mom, one of the things I was sure I would do all day long was play with my kids. Like really play and laugh and enjoy myself.

Um, yeah. I soon found out that there are more layers to playtime than I had ever imagined. And it changes as your child grows. While playing with your 6-week-old baby might involve nothing more than peek-a-boo and rattles, playing with a 3-year-old gets complicated. There are characters and voices and nuances that even the most attentive mom might not “get” all the time.

Let’s just say it’s not as easy as Stock Photo Mom makes it look. And while I loved, LOVED the time when my kids were young and full of wonder and energy, I also enjoyed the changes as they came… and that’s why I was so excited when I was asked by Rachel Cedar to participate in the 28 Days of Play 2015 at You Plus 2 Parenting!

youplustwoparenting
I would love it if you would head over to read my post about play, Escape From the Land of Pretend.

Then go play with your kids… before they stop asking.

My Biggest Parenting Secret

Wouldn’t motherhood be so much easier on everyone if we all shared our secrets? Those little pearls of wisdom that make us feel at least we have done one.thing.right today? Good news — I’ve decided to share one of my best go-to parenting tips. You can thank me later.

One of the biggest challenges moms face is getting their kids to eat vegetables. Because, seriously, what kid really gets uber psyched over broccoli? Um, yeah. Not mine.

Neither does my husband. Unless you count corn chips as a vegetable.

So from the time the pediatrician said I could start introducing solid foods to my first kid, I have tried to create the perfect vegetable. That one vitamin-loaded side dish that would ensure my kids would not only ace the SAT and be an incredibly gifted athlete but also solidify my position in the Mom Hall of Fame.

How hard could it be?

Side note: why they call puréed baby food “solid” is beyond me.

So I started buying veggies. I cooked them, puréed them and froze them into cute little cubes in ice cube trays.

Cute, right? And so handy. My mom friends were totally impressed, I’m sure.

It made my husband gag. “Are you really going to feed him THAT?” he asked, already taking sides in the vegetable war I would fight for the next 18 years.

Traitor.

But one by one, those little cubes were thawed, heated and maybe even mixed with other “solid” foods like rice cereal or something else (ricotta and peas, anyone?). I took pride in creating these one-of-a-kind combos, especially when they didn’t immediately come slithering back down my baby’s chin and onto his lap.

And then, finger foods.

Smoothly pureed vegies like carrots, butternut squash and green beans are not finger foods, regardless of what your toddler might like you to believe. So I had to change up my menu and start thinking of vegies that my wee one would actually eat with his fingers, rather than simply using his fingers to throw them over the side of the high chair.

Side note: cats do not like green beans.

We tried lightly steamed green beans, small cubes of roasted butternut squash, peas (that didn’t end well), tiny little broccoli “trees” and small pieces of avocado until we found a winner.

Carrots.

The little dude liked carrots.

And so began an 18-year obsession (mine) with the baby carrot.

You could steam them and cut them small for little ones, or set out a bowl of them at snack time for older eaters. Stumped on what to serve for lunch? A bowl of baby carrots can easily elevate dinosaur chicken nuggets or mac and cheese to healthy lunch status. Playgroup at the park? Grab a plastic container and fill it up with baby carrots. They’re the perfect snack in the car, because unless your kid uses it for a magic marker or spits them out, they aren’t messy. Sure, I still included the always-handy pretzel sticks, goldfish crackers or pieces of string cheese. But the carrots were always there. Like a vitamin A packed BFF.

When my kids went off to elementary school, the carrots trudged along… safely wrapped up in a wet paper towel and a plastic container or sandwich bag (don’t judge). After a few years my son asked if I could leave the carrots out of his lunchbox, claiming he “didn’t have enough time” to eat all of the items I included.

Looking back now, I can clearly see. It was the beginning of the end.

My kids continued to grow, in part because of (or in spite of) the baby carrots in the bowl on the table.

I mean, what’s not to love? They are crunchy, colorful, small and easy to eat. Full of vitamins. Like a little mommy insurance policy that I’m doing this gig right.

Until about three months ago, when it all came crashing down.

I had still been putting the baby carrots on the table, even though my kids are old enough to choose their own snacks and lunches.

But I noticed that nobody was eating them.

They would dry up and turn a chalky white before the bag was even half empty. I was worried that my one tried-and-true mom trick had lost steam.

Then? The intervention.

I decided to put it all out on the table. Bare my soul.

“Um, hey… so I’ve been thinking that maybe we’re a bit tired of baby carrots?” I choked out at the dinner table. My mind was racing with ideas for our next veggie star. Rutabaga? Baby bok choy? Beets?

And my husband and daughter let me down easy, gently. They admitted that yes, they were tired of the old stand-by vegetable and that they would be perfectly fine if I stopped buying them. My chest tightened a bit. How would I keep them all healthy?

And life went on, amazingly much the same as before. I stopped buying the baby carrots and resisted the urge to quickly substitute a new crunchy vegetable in a bowl at mealtime. Chinese snap peas? Jicama?

Until fate introduced me to the spiralizer.

This incredibly cool kitchen gadget has opened up a whole new world of vegetables to me. I can turn vegetables into noodles! Substitute them for pasta! I can spiralize parsnips, beets, zucchini, butternut squash, jicama and broccoli stems.

And carrots.

And suddenly, I’m back on my game.

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This essay originally ran on the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop site. I may have been giddy about it.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

It was the end of a long holiday break, and we were trying to squeeze those last few relaxing chunks of time from what had seemed an eternity on day one. The kids were busy, as they often are once they reach the age of driver’s licenses, jobs and “significant others” in their lives.

With four walls closing in on us at home my husband and I decided to visit a park about half an hour away, to hike a trail we haven’t hiked before. We needed to be outside, to soak up some sun and escape the house. When the air is crisp and the sky is a cloudless blue, there really isn’t anything more stunning than a winter day in California.

Hiking boots laced up and water bottles filled, we took off for one of our almost-empty-nest adventures, leaving chores and errands for another day.

When we arrived at the trailhead my husband took a map and we started to plan our hike. We still had a few hours before the sun would begin to set, so we chose a loop trail that would take us high enough for a stunning view of the area, yet be short enough to get us safely back to the car before dusk.

Always cautious. Always planning ahead.

We walked in silence for a while, quietly savoring the fact that we’re comfortable enough to embrace the quiet. After a while, my husband broke the silence with a comment about the view off to the side of the trail.

And that’s when I noticed.

I’m not looking around.

I am so focused on the trail right in front of me that I’m missing the view.

So I forced myself to look up and around and savor the adventure and wow — it’s such a beautiful day, such a gorgeous view. We kept hiking along the trail, passing others here and there with a friendly nod or “hello.”

But I almost immediately went back to looking down. To worrying about the rocks and ruts and uneven trail right in front of me or just below my feet.

So I stopped for a water break, and forced myself again to look around.

Beautiful, yet not perfect.

The years-long drought in California has left towering trees dry and creek beds empty. Recent rains have brought back green grasses, but the long-term effects of drought are still very evident.

I turned around to see the path we had taken up this hill. It was steep and covered in a patchwork of uneven soil, horse tracks and mud. It wasn’t obvious to me as we walked that path just how very difficult it was.

But we did it. Cautiously, carefully and continuously we climbed that hill.

You don’t always realize where you’ve been until you turn around.

Isn’t this the case with life? We trudge along over obstacles ranging in size from pebbles to boulders. Push ourselves through the murky parts when parenting is tough and relationships are cracked. Past broken friendships and milestones reached, straight through our kids’ childhood, which seemed to expire quite a while before we were ready.

Shouldn’t we look back once in a while? See where we’ve been, gain perspective on the road ahead? Not to wallow in the past, but to acknowledge it and more forward?

These feelings hit me in the quietness on that trail — that our 20+ years of parenting hadn’t always been a smooth path. That as hard as you try, your kids need to grow at their own pace, learn valuable lessons for themselves, to fail or stumble on the path — or even get lost for a bit.

Sometimes you need to look back.

Up ahead on the trail? A leafy, tree-covered walkway with towering pines on one side, sturdy oaks on the other.

I might have missed it if I hadn’t stopped.

I spend a lot of my time being cautious, living in this moment here rather than looking forward or back… and fretting about it, too.

I waste time being worried about stepping too far off the path, of stumbling or getting lost.

I’m just looking down.

It’s time I started looking up.

The Christmas Ornament

I found it at the local Hallmark card store, just in time for Christmas.

1981: First Christmas Together

The package included stickers so you could customize your ornament with names. I added them before I wrapped it, and couldn’t wait for him to open it when we exchanged gifts.

Sherri & Scott

In hindsight, it’s an ugly ornament. Made of thin glass with a plastic coating, the Christmas scene on the front — a Victorian couple ice skating — looks cheap and cliché. But to a 16-year-old girl, it felt like something real. Like a way to say I’m crazy about you without really saying it.

So I wrapped it up and presented him the ornament, along with a few other gifts he probably preferred but have been long forgotten. What 17-year-old boy wants a Christmas ornament, anyway? The years I have spent as a mother since then have given me insights into the mind of a teenage boy I didn’t yet have back then.

Pretty sure I should have just kept the ornament for my own tree.

But somehow I was claiming my territory, trying to anchor our relationship within the envelope of his family. To have our ornament displayed on his family’s Christmas tree gave me a tiny shred of confidence that they could see me. See that I was important to him, too.

The holidays can be a particularly difficult time to work a new relationship into the mix. Moms usually have expectations and routines and traditions, certain events and family gatherings that are a “must-do” each December. Some of these begin to fall off the list as the children grow older and Christmas loses a bit of that magic it held when they were small. No more family visits to see Santa, no more driving around the neighborhood in jammies to check out all of the Christmas lights. But family bonds are tight around the holidays, and it’s tough to break in.

I think buying the ornament was a pretty bold gesture, especially from a girl who had only been dating their son for 9 months. But somehow, it passed inspection and his mother agreed (maybe reluctantly) to display our First Christmas Together ornament on the family Christmas tree.

At least when I was expected to visit.

I wouldn’t have blamed her at all for discretely moving it to the back of the tree once I was gone.

You see, there is a special dance between the mother of a son and the girl who steals his heart.  A give-and-take that many young girls take as a sign they aren’t welcome or liked or even tolerated. But it isn’t always about the girl, and that part I didn’t understand until I had a son of my own. Until our first Christmas together in 1981 unfolded into a lifetime of them spent as a couple, then a family.

And while the girl or young woman sees a potential future in the handsome young man, the mother still has her heart wrapped around the little boy who used to sit on Santa’s lap and leave crumbly cookies on a plate each Christmas Eve. The boy who willingly wore a red sweater vest for the Christmas Eve church service and belted out carols like nobody was listening. The boy who untied the bows on the advent calendar with excitement and the anticipation of ringing the bell at the bottom on Christmas Eve. The boy who played with silvery strands of tinsel and stole candy canes from low-lying branches.

The boy whose eyes brightened when the lights were first lit on the Christmas tree each year.

Now his eyes brighten at the sight of her.

And maybe she is very special to him, and the mother understands that to hold her son in her heart she needs to make room for one more.

One more person, one more ornament.

This year, I am that mom.

Our First Christmas Together ornament hangs front and center on our own family Christmas tree, 33 years later.

And I have room for one more.