Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Valentine's Day nostalgia

My babies are giants. When they hug me, I am still surprised by the scratchy stubble, broad backs, and nearly-grown-men muscles. But they are still my babies. (Don't worry. They know this. They are okay with it. In fact, I think they kinda like it.) Back during the preschool days, we used to spend the week before Valentine's painstakingly addressing cards for classmates. Then during the elementary years, we would have family dinner celebrations, complete with heart-shaped paper plates, crystal goblets (which they looooooved using), and pink frosted cupcakes. A couple of years ago, it was an afternoon poolside picnic. This year, one of the boys has beach plans with his buddies, and the other one is planning a picnic with the new girlfriend (yikes!).   My babies are certainly no longer babies, but before I left for work this morning, I left pink and red gift baggies filled with giant chocolate candy, mushy cards, and cash (they ARE teenagers, after all...), and covered each of their bedroom doors with 14 construction paper hearts of handwritten compliments. Because no matter how stubbly or muscly or grown they get, they will always be my babies--and my Valentines. 

This following was originally posted here on February 14, 2020, on the first Valentine's when they were both in middle school.

I miss those little Valentine's Day cards

My knees barely fit under the table. It was my boys' coveted Little Einstein's arts-and-crafts-and-everything-they-wanted-to-do-table. There were accidental scribbles on it, and pieces of dried up play-dough. The cubbies underneath had mommy-assigned and boys-ignored designations: one was for the crayons, another for construction paper, and another for puzzles. (Needless to say, those cubbies were always a mess and it always drove me crazy.) I spent countless hours at that table. First with Ben, then with Kai, and sometimes with both. We drew. We colored. We made pizzas out of clay. When Ben had to decorate a t-shirt with 100 things of his choice to celebrate the 100th day of school and he absolutely insisted on making 100 paw prints (his school's symbol) in the alternating school colors in glitter, I sat at that table with him: I dribbled the 5 little globs of Elmer's glue with painstaking precision and he sprinkled the blue and gold glitter over each one. It took us days. But it came out perfect.

Today, the first Valentine's Day in which I have two middle school boys, is also the first Valentine's Day that I did not have to buy cards and candy for class distribution. Maybe if I had realized that last year would be the last year, I would not have complained so much about spending money on candy and cards for his classmates. (But isn't that the thing with parenting? You never know when those tedious tasks you rush through and sometimes dread...bedtime stories, bathtub battles, carrying them asleep to their rooms...will be done for the last time.)

I feel like it was simultaneously yesterday and a million years ago that I sat at that little table, for a few consecutive years, helping them form the letters of their classmates' names and making them fit on those teeny Valentine's Day cards. There were the years in which one or both would insist on finding just the right cards: they had to be Mickey, or Transformers, or sports, and we would have to go to multiple stores to find them. Doing those cards with them was one of those tasks that took forever, and I wondered over and over again why I wasn't doing what so many of the other moms would do: simply label the To/From myself. But it was one of those things that mattered to me. As a teacher and a mom, I felt that these were those important moments when your 2 year old kinda learns how to write and your 5 year old kinda learns some patience. It was tedious and tried my patience probably even more than it tried theirs. I don't really recall with absolute certainty the last time I did it with them. I think I was on the couch instead, and they were kneeling at the coffee table. It was more of a making sure they were following through and their handwriting was neat enough to fit within the card than actually doing it with them. I was probably a little impatient then, too.

This morning I excitedly placed their Valentine's Day gift bags and cards on the breakfast counter. Bags filled with nonsense that took me almost an hour to find at Target yesterday. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to find something cheap and Valentine-y to give a 14 year old who is now shaving?!?) As I roamed the store aisles, I debated skipping the whole thing. Why spend $40 or $50 on cards and junk and candy they really don't need? But the truth is, they're still my babies and I actually miss sitting at that little table and being annoyed and wondering how much longer it would take to go through that darned preschool class names list so I could go deal with dinner or watch TV or take a frickin shower. Those days felt endless. I felt like I was trapped in a perpetual fog of little kid responsibilities and mommy minutiae. And yet here we are now: I am spending my Valentine's Day remembering that little table and those little hands with the dimpled knuckles clutching the fat pencils and clumsily forming the letters of their names.

What I realize now, all these years later, is that all those hours I spent torturing myself by making all those Valentine's Day cards with them weren't just about their handwriting and spelling skills. It was about Me and Them Time. Days like today, when their time is spent in a whirlwind of adolescent distractions, and I am but a blip in their day, I can think back to the days at that table and sit with those memories. I can miss them. I can relish them. And I can know that even if they don't think that those days were particularly important, they were for me. Much more so, in fact, now that they are long gone. Don't get me wrong: I want no part of parenting little kids anymore. I love the young men they are becoming and the relationship and life we all have now, but those days filled with messy art tables and Transformer heart cards are forever etched in my heart. And those two big kids right there...they will forever be my little Valentines.

A blurry picture I managed to find of THE Table

2019 Notice the fancy drinkware
2019...check out the fancy drinkware

2020 I thought they were so grown that year!
2020...and I thought they were so big then!

My forever Valentines
My forever Valentines

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Our teenagers still need us

When my children were little, I was exhausted from all the work:  pottytraining, playdates, homework, bake sales, sleepless nights. I worried about their friendships, their grades, their eating habits, and their manners. There were so many moments I thought: “I can’t wait for them to grow up and go to high school, so I don’t have to worry so much and have so much to do!”

Joke’s on me.

The potty training has been swapped with nagging about keeping their bathroom clean. The playdates have turned into epic teenage hangout sessions. I’m still worrying about their eating habits, grades, manners, and I won’t even get into the fretting about friendships. The sleepless nights I spent rocking, changing, or feeding are now replaced with checking their locations on my phone, hoping they are making good choices, and waiting up for them to get home safely.  

The reality is: our teenagers need us.  Maybe not in the same ways they did when they were babies or toddlers or school age, but perhaps even more so. 

A wise friend (who obviously had grown children) once looked at me when I was complaining about how hard it was to raise little kids. He chuckled and said: “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

Parenting a teenager is scary, but if we are going to be fair, being a teenager is scary, too. Kids nowadays have a lot more on their plate than we did: academic and athletic pressures, navigating college admissions, and the infamous game changer with which we didn’t have to contend: social media. The rate of depression, anxiety, and suicide among teenagers is staggering. Despite what they may think, our high schoolers need us to be involved, maybe now more than ever before.

I know, as parents, we are tired—really tired. And let’s be honest, half the time, most of us would not even begin to know how to help with that geometry homework, but these are not the years to take a step back. So, here are some things we can do at this stage of the parenting game:

Talk to your teen. A lot and often and about everything. I know…they don’t always seem like they’re paying attention, but they are—more than we realize.

Listen. Listen even more than you talk. Do so without turning every situation into an interrogation or a lecture. Try very hard to not react. If you’re doing it right, you will probably start hearing some things that will make you want to gasp and lock them in their rooms until they are 30. However, doing this will guarantee that your teens will stop communicating with you as openly as you need them to.

Ask questions. If you are sitting there, thinking: “My child never tells me anything,” strategically posed questions can help nudge them to share more. For example, instead of asking “How was your day?” try “Tell me about the best and worst part of your day.” Plus, asking questions about what’s important to them will show that you care about those things. “What do you like about your new friend, so-and-so?” or “How did your team feel about that game loss/win?” or “Which video game/book/movie/Netflix series is that?” When there are empty spaces in the conversation, don’t rush to fill them. Often, once we can get them to start talking, they realize they have a lot to say—especially if you are truly listening (see previous bullet!).

Get involved in school. Even if your schedule is too full to volunteer for events, joining the PTSA is essential. Not only does that help the school (read: your kid!), but it will keep you in-the-know on all things school. Check their grades—often. Ask about assignments, teachers, fieldtrips. Join the school’s social media page. Go to open house! (Yes, you should still go to high school Open House!)  Attend anything and everything you can.

Get to know their friends. Consider being the parent taxi for events. You’d be amazed by the tidbits of information you can collect while they talk in the backseat. Encourage your teen to invite friends over to the house. Yes, I know what kind of noise and chaos a group of teens can make in a house. Trust me: I have two teenaged boys. The long-term payoff will be worth the short-term mess left in your kitchen.

Talk to other parents. Our kids didn’t come with instruction manuals. We can all learn from each other, and there’s nothing more validating and relieving than hearing another parent has gone through the same thing. We should be each other’s greatest allies.

Respect your teen. I can’t take credit for this tip. After reading this article to my 17-year-old, I asked him if he could think of anything else, from a teen’s perspective, that a parent could do in order to be more involved and connected at this stage. He tilted his head for a minute after listening to me, and with almost no hesitation, replied: “If parents really want to know how to win over their kids, it’s by giving them respect. Kids won’t listen to their parents or care what they think if they don’t respect them. If we feel like we are being respected, we will give that back.” Out of the mouths of babes.

Seek help. Sometimes, no matter what we do as parents, we need more help. Talk to a school counselor, a therapist, or search for community organizations that can help. Getting through the teen years is ridiculously hard (for everyone); there is no shame in asking for help.

These days, I have many moments when I think: “I wish I could go back to when they were little and it was so much easier!” But then I look over at my teens, in their nearly adult bodies, who think they know it all, and I catch glimpses of those two little boys who kept me so busy all day and night. So, I know I have to continue putting in the hard, exhausting work that they need at this age. And when I’m lying awake, worrying and checking their locations on my phone, I tell myself: “Hey, at least I’m not changing diapers…”