Turnstile

revolving-door-1
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.

(But just in case, click here for his upcoming trip. Pass it a long if you’re so inclined.
Just don’t tell him that I asked.)

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On Being Mom, by Anna Quindlen

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.

(On Being Mom, by Anna Quindlen)

33

Round Two

Thirteen is… training-wheels adolescence. Fourteen is hardcore, biker adolescence.
~Anne Lamott

Just before the storm (photo: Kelly Salasin)
Almost 14~Just before the storm
(photo: Kelly Salasin)

Parenting a teenager is a lot like New England Weather… Everything is going along nicely… the sky is clear, the birds are singing, the world is right-side up, and then BANG! A storm rolls in. Thunder. Lightning.

Suddenly you’re without power.

Maybe all your connections are zapped.

“Where did that come from!” someone says.

And you say something like: “Polar Vortex.”

Or in our case, “FOURTEEN!”

We’ve arrived. Just yesterday. And as if on cue, the thunder rolled in, the lightning struck, and I was ready to quit. Give up. Move out.

MOTHERHOOD SUCKS.

It took all the maturity and self-restraint cultivated over the past 50 years not to put the power back in my hands. To let my heart lie there, trampled upon, without striking back.

And it took all the self-compassion cultivated since becoming someone’s mother, to walk away, to lick my own wounds, without taking any of it too personally.

There is a scene from a favorite movie of mine: Spanglish. With Adam Sandler. Do you know it? Remember what he says when he finds out that his wife has betrayed him? Something about hearing the universe crack…

My universe, as a mother, cracked twice this week. Once with each of my offspring. And I have to admit that I could barely summon much affection for either of them afterward.

Maybe they deserve it. Maybe I’m being melodramatic. Maybe THIS is parenthood. Or maybe this crack is an opportunity for something new.

I’m on the lookout for what that is. For how it will shape me. And reshape our lives together.

But right now?

I want to move out…
timthumb

Tall. Taller. Tallest.

imagesI’ve watched it happen. I’ve waited for it to happen. I’ve measured it repeatedly. Measured us against one another.

And he’s come close. But I’ve remained. His mother. Taller. By a lot. And then a little. And a little less. And a little less than that.

Until today.

I saw it coming…

He’s been home sick. On the couch. His neck. His chest. Some how broadening, right there, in front of me. His back, his silhouette, becoming a man’s, swiping the child inside.

This morning I sat in the kitchen, and he passed me, noticing… something.

“You look small,” he said. “Stand up so that I don’t feel so tall.”

And I did.

And then, we did, what we’ve done, all year long.

Stood back to back.
Called for someone to come compare us.

It was his older brother who broke the news. We held our breaths. He chided his younger brother to stop tilting his head to make himself taller. And then he spoke the words that I’ve been waiting for. Been resisting. Known would come.

“Aidan is taller.”

A wide grin broke across my 13 year old’s face.

I took a seat.

(Tears sprung to my eyes.)

Beloved

She felt motherhood slipping away, like an ice cap, slowly melting over time, and then suddenly breaking apart, drifting further and further…

Knuffle-Bunny-300x226Alone, at a children’s book museum, she released silent tears, as she read Knuffle Bunny Free to herself.

She had read the first in this series: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale to her youngest when he was just a boy. Then there was Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity ; and finally: Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion–where the beloved Knuffle Bunny is lost yet again, and not grieved so much, as released.

Just this week her youngest son found his own lovey–a penguin–lost amidst the covers of his bed. He guessed he had been there for weeks. Without noticing. Without crying for help. Without the imperative of finding his Pengie.

Her older son was off to college and his kitty, Slimmy, once a treasured companion, now sat on a bookshelf, beside cologne and cds, in a vacant room.

Her own puppy, Mine, was similarly stowed, without the daily attention its weathered body received all those years ago.

And then she wondered, what becomes of Beloveds like these, when WE ourselves are gone?

Leaving the Nest

cropped-nest-by-irish-eyes1-1By now, I know that this is how it goes. I expand into a new aspect of my life and the nightmares return. There was the one where I prostituted my youngest son. Or the one where my house was on fire. Or the one from this week where I cheated on my husband and abandoned the baby.

I don’t have a baby. I haven’t had a baby for 13 years. My kids don’t even need me. Not in that moment to moment, or even day to day way. In fact, when I’m gone they’re delighted. Not that they want me out the picture altogether, but that they welcome the opening that any familial absence brings.

And yet, each time I leave, I sense my world less secure. Threatened by my lack of attention–not so much because it’s needed, but because it’s necessary, as a ritual, of protection. Of vigilance. Of coping. Of childhood, mine, not theirs.

I have a therapist. I address these challenges as they come up, but they always return with the tide of life’s changes, particularly as I grow beyond home.

In last night’s dream, I was on a trip. I stopped at the police station on a city corner for help. Somehow my favorite sweatshirt was tangled in the traffic light lines overhead. I turned my back on my car only to hear it get hit by another. It wasn’t a bad accident, but my car was immediately pushed to the side of the road, by a bulldozer, and totalled in the process. Hood crushed. Windows smashed. Contents looted. Particularly during the night when I couldn’t watch.

At dawn, I returned to my vehicle, which had grown into a mini-van and then a trailer and finally a small warehouse, and came upon throngs of inner-city homeless shopping through my stuff as if it were a tag sale. I dashed after one object and then another, unable to stop the flow of my belongings departing.

I couldn’t remember what I had packed, and I couldn’t figure out what items were in greatest need of my protection. I stopped two women walking out with my books, and I said, “Those are mine,” and to my surprise, they seemed to care, not so much about the contents in their hands but about me. They asked if I had food. They asked if needed money. When I explained that I had eaten breakfast and that I had insurance for my things, they looked at me differently, and with that, they turned, with my things in hand.

Just then I saw two large men walking off with my Baggalini purse and tote bag. Finally, I was certain of something I should protect in this chaos. I ran after them, and then paused, considering if the belongings were worth my life. The men looked threatening. Maybe the had weapons. I had left those bags on the front seat of car, which became the chair, at my desk, near the piano, in the last classroom in which I taught before leaving my career as a teacher.

I followed these men out the back doors and onto the stairs, and grabbed after my bags, explaining how long it had taken me to choose this particular brand for my international work; but then I remembered, that I had left that job too, and didn’t really need those bags in the same way. The men kept rummaging through them, looking for something they wanted. I kept hoping that they wouldn’t find my wallet and my computer, which I couldn’t believe that I had left behind. I called out for help.

My husband appeared outside the building, at the top of the steps, outside of what had become glass doors;  and he waved pleasantly as if nothing was wrong; as if to say…

Hadn’t I chosen this sale of my life?

This what happens when you leave.

This is what happened each time I turned my back on my life as a daughter. My mother started drinking. My cat disappeared. My Nana was killed in an accident. My parents divorced. We lost our house. Our family was torn apart. My mother got cancer.

Pay attention, Kelly

Pay attention.

Kelly is constantly distracted.

Kelly is a constant source of distraction.

Kelly needs to focus.

Looked what happened when you weren’t paying attention, Kelly! Look what happened when you went away.

For this reason, I am terrified of wanting more. Of needing something other than the gift of my family and our home and our lives together.

I watched my father lose his family out of neglect for “other.” I watched my mother lose her family out of neglect of self. I want to be responsible. I want to do it right. I want everything good to last forever. I can’t bear to be at fault when it doesn’t. It is all such a precarious balancing act.

But now it is morning, and spring is awakening on our snowy hill. Geese call from overhead, and new patches of grass greet me out the window. The smell of sugaring lingers in the air.

I am hungry for breakfast. I will make eggs in my kitchen. And in a week’s time, I will abandon my family during our spring vacation for an opportunity to expand and enrich my own life, with the hope that they will be safe and secure and sublimely satisfied themselves.

My youngest is at first appalled that I will miss the trip (that I so carefully crafted) to visit his brother at school; though later he confides that he’ll enjoy the time alone with his dad. His brother tells me that he’d be mad if I didn’t go, if I didn’t take this opportunity. As a freshman at college, he knows something about the push to leave and the pull from home.

In fact, he was the one who, at four years old, when I took him to the art studio to sign up for classes, and discovered that he was too young, encouraged me to take a class instead. “You can do it, Mom,” he said. And I did. Because he believed I could.

This is how it is. Loss comes with light. Growth comes with pain. Opportunity requires giving something up.

Sometimes life’s choices aren’t as simple as good and evil, right and wrong, true and false; sometimes they’re both good and right and true–all at the same time.

I went back and forth on whether this post belonged on my personal journey blog, Two Owls Calling, or on this parental journey blog, The Empty(ing) Nest Diary, and I wished there was some way to have it rest–in between. I want to visit my son and take this opportunity in my life. But I have to choose.

And so I leave this post here,

and head off to myself–there.

Kelly Salasin

(Click to head “there” for the companion piece to this one, written 10 years earlier: Lobotomy)