Earlier this month I experienced mounting anxiety as my youngest approached graduation; but not because he wasn’t ready.
It was me.
I’ve devoted a lifetime to children, and not just the past 21 years to my boys and their school; but the decade before that to the children in my classroom, and even the decades before that, to my seven younger siblings.
Underneath the separation anxiety is
and underneath that,
a deeper truth:
I AM READY!
I’ve been ready.
But the readiness doesn’t diminish the loss.
Where there once was Everything.
Last night, he graduated.
(From the last of them.)
My baby will leave the hill that shaped our lives together,
and head to town,
to the high school,
where his father teaches.
And me? How do I feel?
That’s what people ask, expecting
I barely slept.
I tossed and turned and fretted.
It may have been the champagne,
but I kept thinking of bubbles
and all things
Finally, my mind settled in on
and then to a single
3:36 pm. The school bus stops at our driveway, across from the pond, but no one gets off.
Our youngest, 14, has just, this very moment, touched down in Liberia, Costa Rica with his Junior High classmates.
When his older brother made the same trip a handful of years ago, I was a wreck; but he was only 12.
Still, I’ve splintered this entire day checking the status updates of Jet Blue and the posts in our parent Facebook group.
We brought our kids to school last night at 2:30 in the morning, and gathered in the parking lot in front of the bus until everyone arrived. We chatted like it was normal to be there, in the dark, in the middle of the night, hanging out. Someone joked about getting breakfast, and we all felt the pull of longing after a long winter that has protracted itself into spring.
The yellow school bus heading to JFK, manned by their classroom teacher, pulled out, on time, at 3:00 am, and two sets of parents cheered. Not for the kids. But for us. We were heading home childless. For 9 days!
By the time I got in the car though, the emptiness overtook me, and when I crawled back into bed, my mind skipped from thought to thought and wouldn’t let me rest.
Aidan graduates this June. People dismiss elementary school graduations as excessive and unnecessary, but they are truly poignant in our community. This particular rite of passage comes after 12+ years with the same peers before splintering off to a number of different public and private schools in the area. (Our town doesn’t have a high school so the tax dollars are applied to a school of choice.)
The graduation is also distinguished by the school itself. Completing your tenure at Marlboro Elementary is a one of a kind experience–steeped in ritual, initiation, rigor and love.
At the graduation ceremony itself, the students proceed through a canopy of teachers and staff joining hands above them; and then the students take the podium to host the ceremony themselves, even secretly choosing the guest speaker in the months before hand.
Theirs is a combined class of 7th and 8th graders, so it’s the families of the youngers who host the reception afterward; and the next day, these 7th graders return to their classroom, on their own, to greet the upcoming sixth graders.
Prior to the graduation ceremony, other rituals take place:
the reading of poetry from their own kindergarten days in the company of the current kindergarten class;
the weekly literature tea followed by an annual game of croquet–with students dressed in their finest hats and light colored clothing (a sight rarely seen in these parts);
a hands-on tie-tying examination which is a longtime rite of passage at Marlboro Elementary;
a private Consortium for graduates and their families where 8th graders step up to the podium in the Town Hall, built in 1822, to share an exemplary personal essay;
a portfolio presentation where an individual graduate (assisted by a 7th grade classmate) presents his best work from each of her years at the school to his parents and select teaching staff;
a Cabaret, put on by the Junior High, and held in the evening, in the theater at Marlboro College;
and my favorite–the last All School Sing–highlighting the favorite songs of the graduates at the final all school gathering.
This past Monday, feeling the departure of my son on the horizon, I attended the weekly All School Sing, and sat across the room from the boy who once insisted on sitting on my lap, and then at my feet, and then just a few bodies away.
Now he has his own chair in the outer circle with the adults while his younger peers take a spot inside the circle on the floor.
I look over at my son from time to time to see if he sees me, but his focus is on his peers until one of our favorite songs is sung: Kindergarten Wall.
I imagine that I began punctuating the lines, “CLEAN UP YOUR MESS,” to his older brother long before I began turning toward Aidan with them; and it’s become a family joke; a duel of sorts; particularly as Aidan turns the song back in my direction with his own emphasis of a handful of lines, punctuating the “grownups”:
But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget…
I am relieved to see that at 14, Aidan still plays along, even from across the room; although now he does so with his eyes more than his voice. After school, he reminds me that the part directed to adults is a whole section long; and I smile, happy for the connection, with a tinge of loss, knowing that has already left the messy stage of childhood and had has headed into the foolishness of aging.
The last song sung was another family favorite, one which is always shared at the Sing before the Junior High takes their bi-annual trip abroad:
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Long mistaken as Peter, Paul & Mary’s, my boys and I know to whom this song belongs.
Their sixth grade teacher, a jazz lover, detests John Denver’s crooning, so we make a point to emphasize that this is his song; and David makes a point to leave the room.
Last year, Aidan argued at great lengths with his music teacher about it. She finally conceded in a phone message to our house that evening: “Aidan was right; but Peter, Paul and Mary were the ones to make it famous.”
As we sing, “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…” a lump forms in my throat, just as Aidan motions for me to turn toward the back of the room where David is departing.
I smile and simultaneously realize that Aidan and I have sung in this room together since he was a babe in arms. We sang Leaving on Jet Plane to every class since then.
But when that school bus pulls back into the parking lot next week after midnight, there will only be a few All School Sings left between us.
When I was a little kid not so long ago
I had to learn a lot of stuff I didn’t even know
How to dress myself, tie my shoes, how to jump a rope
How to smile for a picture without looking like a dope
But of all the things I learned my favorite of them all
Was a little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall
Of all you learn here remember this the best:
Don’t hurt each other and clean up your mess
Take a nap everyday, wash before you eat
Hold hands, stick together, look before you cross the street
And remember the seed in the little paper cup:
First the root goes down and then the plant grows up!
Well, it was first, second, third grade, fourth grade, too
Where I had to learn the big things the big kids do
To add, subtract, and multiply, read and write and play
How to sit in a little uncomfortable desk for nearly half a day
But of all they taught me my favorite of them all
Was the little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall
But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget
So I’m sure we’d all be better off if we would just recall
That little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall
But what I’ve failed to fully admit is how much easier it would be to do everything myself.
(And it would be done a lot better.)
Why do I bother?
I’d like to say that I do it all for them–to make them better citizens, humans, energetic beings (and that is true); but another truth is that I don’t want to do everything so it’s worth it to have some jobs done less than perfectly.
BUT the angst. THE ANGST!
The reminding. The redirecting. The reprimands.
Sometimes I find myself questioning if it’s worth it, and questioning whether I should be encouraging other people to suffer like this by leading workshops on chore sharing in the home.
And then there are those other times, when in the distance, I hear the sweet and soothing sound of a boy swishing a toilet, or vacuuming a room, or emptying waste baskets; and I think: I AM BRILLIANT.
But what if you like doing your own chores and want them done perfectly?
And here’s something even more radical for your consideration:
Since conflict is a necessary part of the developmental process, particularly with teens, then how cool is it that they get their daily/weekly dose of parental conflict in a way that makes such a foundational difference in family life–working together to honor and contribute to the space we share–rather than investing it in other areas with much higher stakes. (Think sex, drugs, alcohol.)
At 5, they’re eager to help. At 8, they’re earnest. At 10, they begin to complain:”This is unfair…”
THE FULL PLATE project was created in response to my first born when he hit the ripe age of 10 and started complaining that his chores were “unfair” and that he “had too much to do.” (Which, of course, was completely absurd, but there was no way to get through to him around this, until…
THE FULL PLATE project: after which he NEVER complained again.
In fact, he was actually HAPPY about his small share of chores; okay, maybe not happy, but at least satisfied because he didn’t want to have to face the reality (and potential consequences) of The Full Plate project again.
Another bonus was that this activity was a wakeup call for my husband, who realized that he wasn’t the only one “doing everything.”
And lastly, as a mom, The Full Plate project provided a sense of validation and recognition for ALL I did (and do) behind the scenes of home and family life.
The best part is that no one knew what hit them. When the night came for The Full Plate family activity (Step II of the three-part project), I made their favorite dinner and even served dessert…
…And then I put out 4 clean plates and a bunch of what look liked fortune cookie strips, and life as they previously perceived it changed…
Now, all I have to do is mention The Full Plate project and everyone gets moving on their share of the household work.
Does this sound like something you’d like to try with your family?
Find out about the next group of moms tackling this challenge as we “gather” in a private FB group (with password access to the three-part project on this site) with flexible online participation according to your schedule.
Contact me with questions or to inquire about joining the next group.
Next group launching with the New Moon of the New Year.
Current rate: $33.33.
Sign up with a friend; combo rate: $55.55
(Private/non-group online facilitation available at: $77.77-111.11)
We sent our very independent and surly 18 year old off to college last August, and he returned this past May, thrilled to be home.
We were taken aback by this deep appreciation for our small world given his desperation to escape it a year earlier, and we mistook this as a leap in maturity rather than a deep disappointment in his experience at college and in himself there.
His new plan is to take a semester’s leave and to volunteer in his field (International and Community Development) to help bring the excrutiating static classroom experience to life; and to shed light on how to move through with passion and meaning and integrity.
With this aim, he has been working with a non-profit organization in Central America to find a good fit. They have decided on a women’s artisan cooperative in Costa Rica in the same town that he visited with his Junior High class in what seems like another lifetime ago.
He leaves in two weeks. He leaves. He.
As parents, we’re not sure about our role; which has been increasingly true for a least a couple of years now.
I’m beginning to understanding that parenting, all of it, is not so much a nest as it is a reverse toll booth or a turnstile or one of those revolving doors through which others move from the outside to the inside to the outside again.
In this analogy, I find it important to distinguish the role from myself. This distinction seems to have growing relevance as our children become adults.
I want to communicate support and encouragement without robbing initiative and autonomy, and that is a tall order.
Breath has become one of my greatest tools. And silence. And listening.
The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the blackbutton eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin. ALL MY BABIES are gone now.
I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like.
Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.
Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, all grown obsolete.
Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories.
What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations — what they taught me was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at 2.
When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing.
Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow.
I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk,too.
Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, What did you get wrong? (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons.
What was I thinking?
But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.
Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.
The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts.
It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.