Family, Uncategorized

The Closeness That Does You In

This essay was published in the Johns Hopkins Mass Ave Review many years ago. I’m posting a shortened version today because it’s the first day of school and in my current empty nest life, it still feels right.

Through the month of August, I listened to moms count down to the first day of school.  They anticipated glorious freedom.  But when I dropped off Annie for her first day of preschool, I felt an odd sense of loss that turned into a nagging worry over everything from whether I researched the school well enough to whether she would remember how to unhook her overalls to go to the bathroom.

When we pulled up to the “parent drop-off” curb, Miss Vivian and Miss Sandy greeted us.  Annie, my petite, blue-eyed blonde, climbed out of the van, confidently took Miss Sandy’s hand and walked away, never looking back.  She dragged her bright red Trinity Preschool book bag behind her until she disappeared through the door.

Since I experienced this separation with Sara, I felt like a seasoned mother.  I knew Annie’s day would be filled with coloring, playing, and mastering essential skills like cutting with small scissors.  Still I worried.

I followed the other vans out of the parking lot and headed to an aerobics class by myself for the first time in five years.  Before class started, I heard other moms talk about their newfound freedom.  One woman said, “this is payback time.”  She finally had plans to do her things instead of their things.

I politely smiled, but I didn’t share their feelings.  I missed my kids. For the rest of the morning, I wondered if I would ever relate to their feelings of emancipation.  I felt lonely.  While I watched the clock for “pick-up” time, I perused my old journals and came across one of my favorite lines from Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” when the character Pearl summarizes her family life, and says, “It’s the closeness that does you in.”  My closeness to Annie was doing me in. I felt the natural tension of that closeness during that brief separation.

While I only intended preschool as a way to help her grow, that tiny act of letting go tapped a fear in me that made me feel like I was losing a vital emotional and physical connection to her. On a smaller scale, it felt like when I turned away from my dad’s burial plot and went home without him. Our closeness to the people we love produces rich and complicated ties.

Before I became a mother, I trivialized “maternal instincts.” While I was pregnant with Sara I wondered how and when those powerful instincts would kick in.  When she was born I was so relieved to hear her healthy cry and know she was a perfectly formed infant, I forgot about how I was supposed to feel.  It was one of those brilliant moments when you’re so consumed by the reality of your experience that you can’t thing of anything else.  There was no vacancy in my mind or heart for anything except what was happening at that precise moment. An intense love completely enveloped me.  I felt like my heart surfaced and landed on top of my chest as I absorbed the reality that she was my child.

Some moments in life surprise us by knocking our props out from under us.  Having children did that to me.  When I held them for the first time I couldn’t comprehend what I had experienced.

I brought life into the world.

Beautiful baby photo from Pinterest

The miracle overwhelmed me.  I couldn’t believe these two very real, physical, living extensions of my husband, God, and me.

By some grand design they ended up in my arms as these glorious eternal spirits in human forms that I could touch, love, and nurture.

Few moments in life pull our hearts right up out of us like having children. But when they do, they make us feel like the Velveteen Rabbit in the classic children’s book by Margery Williams.  The book, “The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real, is a timeless story of a stuffed rabbit who wanted to know what it would be like to be real.

As much as we try to control our lives and feelings, some rare and indescribable experiences catch us by complete surprise with their strength and power.

They are the experiences that make us real.

On some level, we all want to be like the rabbit and know how it “real” feels, but we don’t want any pain in the process. We can’t experience intense love without a little pain because love like everything else has a natural ebb and flow.  If we give everything to someone or something, we have to accept the inevitable pain that will come when there is separation, even if the distance is something as small and innocent as preschool.

In the end, my ambivalence about leaving Annie for a few hours of preschool amounted to nothing more than a miniature lesson of my reality.  She is one of the people in my life that make me real.  Just as I can’t short-circuit my heart and worry less about her, I can’t expect to find a short-cut through the other more painful parts of life either, grieving a bigger loss.  Both experiences take sure-fire aim at your heart and there is no armor to protect you from how it feels.  If you believe the Velveteen Rabbit, there is no other way to become real, and once that happens, we have to brace ourselves for a closeness that can do us in.

Family

Just Like Me but Better

While visiting my mom recently, I said, “Mom, remember when you used to say, ‘I hope you have a daughter just like you?’ In case you haven’t figured it out by now, your wish came true.”

My 18-year old daughter Annie is so much like me it’s scary.

I realized how much Annie is like me as I drove her to a doctor appointment in Utah. I almost drove off the side of University Avenue in Provo while listening to her rattle off her long list of urgent goals. She sounded so much like the college version of me that I screamed, “Annie, you sound just like me!”

I quickly apologized, knowing that she might not appreciate the comparison.

I felt like I needed to assimilate what I was experiencing. It sounded like she read all my journal entries and absorbed them in her DNA somehow.

“I’m so stressed Mom. I need a plan! I need to know how everything is going to progress over the next four years. And, by the way, I don’t think I can do everything I want to do in four years. I think it will take five. I want to do an internship in Africa. (Oh, and did I tell you I’ve been learning the tribal languages? I have words and sentences taped around my dorm room.) But, back to how I need a plan. I need to know how to schedule out my classes over the next five years so I don’t miss anything.”

“Annie, slow down. You don’t have to know these things now!”

Hypocrite, a little voice echoes in my head.

“Mom,” she protested. “I don’t want to waste time!”

“Annie, you’ve been her for six weeks! You can’t expect to know your major, have every semester’s schedule planned in advance, and know your career plans now. It will all evolve. You don’t have to control it all right now.”

Hypocrite! The voice says a little louder.

Be quiet, I command the inner voice. I’m an adult now, and I don’t need to know my entire life’s plan. I trust the universe and all those other platitudes. Don’t you think I remember how I obsessed over my short and long-term plans, and how frustrated I became when I didn’t know everything I needed to know to fill in the blanks of my entire life? I’m not like that anymore.

Hypocrite!

Well, I am wondering about this empty nest life I’m facing. But, I’m confident it will evolve naturally, and my life will still be fulfilling, rewarding, and fun.

Ah huh…

“Mom, it’s just that everything is so important now,” Annie said. “I just can’t afford to waste time or I won’t get what I want.”

“Annie, this is so eerie! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said exactly what you’re saying. Now I wish I’d slowed down a bit. It’s good to have plans, but sometimes you have to let life happen. Sometimes we get so consumed with our plans, schedules, goals and dreams that they become burdens and just pile on more stress. If you don’t loosen your grip on your plans sometimes, you miss out on some of the lessons you really need to learn.”

John Lennon~

Wasn’t it John Lennon that said something about how life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans? Plan or no plan, life just happens sometimes. I’m all about letting it happen now.

Sure you are, the voice whispers.

“Mom, you don’t get it. Everything matters more now that I’m in college.”

I know she’s right. I felt that way too when I was in college. I believed it even more when I had children. Wasting valuable time was my worst fear. I wanted to remind her that life doesn’t always go according to The Big Plan. In fact, sometimes it goes way off The Big Plan and we need a little flexibility to accommodate for the stuff we didn’t anticipate. But, I let it go, knowing that I was already in eye-rolling territory.

A few days after I came home, she called and said, “Mom, I’ve been thinking about my life and how things have played out for me lately. I mean, I had a big plan, and it didn’t work out. When I tore my ACL playing lacrosse everything changed for me. It took me out of my favorite sport during my senior year, and killed my dream of playing college lacrosse, at least for now. It’s weird how things change because in college, nobody knows the “me” I was at home. I’ve lost my status as class president, my athletic ability, my friends, and everything that was familiar and comfortable to me, but I realize now that I can find new things and just rework the plan a bit. I can build my confidence in other areas, and it’s all okay.”

I hung up the phone thinking, I love that girl — that cooler, wiser version of me. I love that sometimes when I hold back from spewing out too much advice, she learns more from her own life experiences than she ever could from my words. Then she one-ups me and teaches me something new.

As I move into my new phase of empty nest life, and lose all my labels, I’m going to dip into Annie’s well of wisdom and rework the plan, build my confidence in new areas, and trust that it will all be okay.

After all, it’s working out pretty well for her.

Friends

Things you don’t say…

My oldest daughter just turned 21 years old.

She is home for the summer working to bulk up her bank account after draining it with a semester abroad in London with side trips all around Europe. (Oh, to casually say, “When I lived in Europe…”)

I’ve noticed a new maturity about her since she came home.  Some are small things like how she makes her bed, whips up masterpiece desserts in the kitchen, and actually seems to enjoy being a mentor for her younger sister.

There are the big things too like how she is planning for an independent future.  She resists the idea of graduate school but knows she selected a major (human development) that essentially requires more education to use it in the working world. Her future is coming at her too fast and she doesn’t feel ready for it.  In fact, at 21, she feels old.

I remember being at that transition stage of my life and 21 really did seem old.

She casually mentioned recently that she doesn’t have her life all planned out like I did when I was her age.  Ah, sorry to break it to you honey, but I certainly did not have my life planned out when I was 21 years old.

In fact, I distinctly remember believing that if I could just make three major life decisions, the rest of life would be just a smooth walk down my well-planned life path.

As I pondered my life when I was a student roaming around the campus of Utah State University, I thought the three most important decisions in life were what to do for a living, where to live, and who to marry.

While those might be major decisions, I was extremely naïve about them being my only big life decisions.  It shocked me when the decisions just kept coming and the path never smoothed out.  Instead, my path had sharp corners where I couldn’t see what waited on the other side.  There were steep hills, dark areas, and lots of surprises.

I explained to her that when we look back, things seem planned out because the awkward transitions from one phase to another don’t really show up on resumes and in conversations about our past. The murky parts get skipped most of the time.

So now that she is contemplating life and where she’ll go, I wonder whether I’ve taught her enough.  (I clearly misled her about my life following a well-thought out blueprint.)

She knows how to do laundry, make dinner, and manage money.  She knows how to create and sustain friendships, fill up a tank of gas, and get the oil in her car changed regularly.  She even knows how to host a great party, make small talk with strangers, and boy, can she pull an outfit together.

She knows the importance of faith, and how to draw on the powers of heaven for direction and comfort.

There are so many other things I want to teach her.  Unfortunately, they are the kinds of things that cause eye rolls, and groans.

There are definitely things I don’t say because they don’t easily fit into conversations. In fact, they would mostly be categorized as lectures.

Here is the lecture I’ve wanted to deliver lately:

Don’t ever doubt your beauty or your power.  You will have instances every day that will make you doubt both. Your beauty is yours. Don’t look at Kate Middleton and want to be like her.  Just be your kind of beautiful.  And don’t doubt what you can do because you see others who do things better. This is probably the biggest mistake women make.  We compare ourselves to everyone around us and it zaps us of our self-worth and power.  If you start believing others are better, smarter, prettier, etc., you start to withhold your contributions from the world, thinking they are too small, too insignificant to share.  This thinking is flawed.  You are magnificent in every way, and you must make your mark on the world with all the confidence you can muster.  God created you to make a difference, to stand out, to believe in yourself.  Don’t hold back.  Give the world your best every day and send the self-doubts packing every time they rise up their destructive little heads.

 I know that you and your friends follow blogs with beautiful brides and GQ husbands who live in Pottery Barn homes with clean, well-dressed children. Naturally, you want to be like them, look like them, and have the kind of marriages that you imagine they have. Remember they put all the pretty, glossy stuff online.  They leave the gritty stuff out.  So don’t buy into the perfect life idea.  There are no perfect lives, even if blogs make it look like it. Oh, there are great, happy lives, (I have one) and you will have one too if you set your mind on it, and always choose to be happy.  But, create your vibrant life in your own way, and remember you’re reading only the bright and lovely things of their lives.

No matter what happens in your life, remember this:  NEVER want something or someone so much that you compromise for less than you deserve. 

 Now, it will be hard to find the right man because not just any ordinary guy will do.

 You have so much to offer and that means your Mr. Right must have a lot to offer you. 

 You can have fun with different guys and enjoy their company but don’t even think about marrying a man who isn’t worthy of you.

(I could tell you whether he’s worthy but you’re not going to want that when you’re cross-eyed in love.)

So I want to tell you my marriage advice now, hoping that it will burn into your heart, and become part of your love radar.

This is what I want for you:

  • A man who has fought just as hard as you have to do what’s right; a guy that never retreated, gave up or took the easy way out. I want you to marry a man who shares your beliefs and values, and has a past to prove it.
  • A man who values education as the only way to have a happy, productive, enlightened life as a successful, contributing member of society.
  • A man who loves God just like you do and puts His will first always.
  • A man who loves his family, honors his parents, and respects and honors women, and cherishes children.
  • A man who wants a strong woman for a wife, a woman who will lead the family with confidence and courage, a woman who will speak her mind and exert her independence in healthy, productive ways; a man who will support your dreams in every way and never hold you back from achieving your own success.
  • A man who can laugh at the silly foibles of life and take mistakes in stride.
  • A man without a temper.
  • A communicator, someone who will talk about everything with you and listen to you with his heart to really know who you are, what you want, and what you’re trying to say.
  • A hard worker, someone who never sits back and expects success to come to him without serious, hard work and continued learning and education.
  • A big, tender heart; a sense of humor, and a man who will be a great addition to our family.
  • Someone that you can stand next to at the trailhead of your lives, and see a beautiful vista open up in your future — a big panoramic view of opportunities, fun, family, love, and everything you’ve ever wanted.  I want your heart to feel full, but light, and happy. 
  • I want you feel like he will make you a better person because he believes in you, sees your divine nature, and wants to nurture you to be every good thing you can possibly be.
  • I want you to feel safe with him in every way — emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically.
  • I want you to feel confident that he will always hold your hand, walk down the same path with you and, never stray and go off on his own path.  
  • I want you to love how he sees you because you will see yourself through his eyes for the rest of your life.  Make sure you LOVE how he makes you feel about yourself because you won’t believe how his love and vision of you will get you through some very tough times. There will be times when you need to rely on his vision of you because it is better than the one you have for yourself, and it will elevate you, enlighten you, and make you return to loving yourself. Just trust me on this one.

I know this is lofty list, and you probably shouldn’t show it to a date because he will think you have a psychotic and overprotective mother, but it’s what’s in my heart.  It’s probably in every mother’s heart.  We are wired to want the best lives for our kids.  The person you marry will have the greatest influence on your happiness in your future.

I will love the man you love.  But, I won’t be able to stand happily at your wedding if your dreamy, handsome husband doesn’t also make you feel like a million bucks every single time you look into his eyes.

I want to look at him and know that he will never break your heart, never be less than you deserve.  I want you to have the assurance that he is a man of deep, solid substance.

I guess in the end, I want you to marry someone exactly like your dad.  He meets all these qualifications and more.

If you hold out for someone like that, I’ll never have a day of worry in my life about your happiness.

I’ll confidently smile at you on your wedding day knowing you chose a man who will make you happy.

Your happiness will be his mission in life, his reason for living, and I will thank God from the deepest part of my soul for giving you the very best, a man like your dad, the kind of man you deserve.

(This goes for you too Annie!)