I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Category: Parenting

True Love

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Mothers and Daughters

After the memorial service for my mom, I returned to New York and hunkered down for a few days, a rare luxury. (Just as one is allowed a parental leave of absence on the birth of a child, we should be granted a child’s leave of absence on the death of a parent.) I slept, spent time with my family, and watched movies. I was drawn to see Maleficent, Wild, and Into The Woods. Wonderful movies with rich characters. Spoiler alert – read no further if you have not seen them and want to.

Maleficent is the story of the scorned woman, scorned by a man not worthy of her, who gets her revenge by cursing his child. It’s the more interesting and complicated story of the older woman who has lived and raged, not the story of the virginal princess who has yet to learn that “happily ever after” is a fairy tale. As the kiss scene approached, it was obvious that the prince, a marginal character, who is entranced by the princess’s outward beauty but doesn’t know her inner soul could not possibly offer the spell-breaking kiss of true love. I began to ponder the implications of Diaval, Maleficent’s raven/human confidant, being her true love, when my daughter whispered, “It’s Maleficent!” GASP! Of course! What truer love than a mother’s – or fairy godmother’s or revengeful witch’s – for the precious girl in her charge?

Next up was Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her physical quest and spiritual journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after hitting lower-than-rock-bottom following the death of her mother. I had read the book upon the recommendation of a yoga friend of mine and loved it, as I love most memoirs by women telling their stories overcoming whatever it is that is holding them back. What came through in the movie for me, even more so than in the book, was the deep bond of true love between mother and daughter. Cheryl is unmoored by the loss of her mother, beautifully played by Laura Dern. Cheryl doesn’t know how to love herself without the presence of her mother. It is mother Bobbi’s passionate insistence on choosing love and a life with no regrets, even while facing death, that is so moving. How could she regret her marriage to an abusive man when it resulted in her amazing daughter? GASP! Indeed.

I found myself sobbing into my daughter’s shoulder when Meryl Streep, the not-so-evil witch from Into The Woods who is raging at the loss of her youth and beauty, sings “Stay With Me” to Rapunzel. I, again, identified with the raging old and ugly witch watching over the beautiful princess, anxious to protect her from selfish and unworthy men and other dark evils of the world. Anxious to restore her own youth and beauty.

Stay With Me (from Into The Woods)

Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?

Someone has to shield you from the world.

Stay with me.

Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.

Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.

Stay at home.

I am home.

Who out there could love you more than I?

What out there that I cannot supply?

Stay with me.

Stay with me,

The world is dark and wild.

Stay a child while you can be a child.

With me.

Stay with me my beautiful girl!  I not-so-jokingly sobbed.

But off she goes. Again. For her second semester of college. As she should. As I want her to. I will miss her. Each homecoming and each departure become more familiar but not more easy. My heart is bursting with love and pride. I will return to my busy busy busy life, shocked at the old face I see in the mirror. She will return to new classes, new experiences, deepening friendships, and explorations into the world of love. I want to protect her, but she must learn her own lessons.  It is her turn.

As I mourn the loss of my mother whose love for me was deep and true, I pass on a love for my daughter that is deep and true. I have new appreciation for the tears my mother shed when I left home.  When I cry at each step my daughter takes away from me, they are bittersweet tears of pride and loss.  I don’t really want her to stay with me.  I want her to go.  I will create a haven for her to return to, while encouraging her to create a life she loves apart from me, while together we figure out how to build a grown up mother-daughter friendship.

Live your life my beautiful girl! My love for you is true.

 

Photo Credit:  from Disney’s Maleficent

Find Bliss in What You Follow

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But Whatever You Do, Don’t Be an English Major!

Right on schedule, a little bit more than halfway through her first semester of college, my daughter is wondering what she wants to be when she grows up. Enrolled in the engineering school, slogging her way through Calculus and Chemistry for Engineers, elbow-to-elbow with “nerds,” she is wondering, “Do I really want to be an engineer?”

College is the transition time where you begin to fully absorb that you may not be a prima ballerina or a number one tennis champion or a talented singer-songwriter with millions of screaming fans or any number of other glorified, popularized, famous and lucky celebrity success stories that get served up as role models. How do you integrate your childhood dreams into a viable career that is fulfilling, soul-satisfying, contributes to the world, and earns you a living?

Since I still wonder what I want to be when I grow up, I have a host of reactions to the smorgasbord of life choices she is now facing. Hope, anxiety, and excitement mingle with some midlife regret and wisdom. What kind of advice and support can I give her? Follow Your Bliss versus Gotta Get A Job? Live for Today versus Plan for Tomorrow? Whatever you do, don’t be an English Major (like me)!

Mainly I stay calm and coach her: “Be patient and be open. You will be surprised at the opportunities engineering will offer you.” Inside, I am less calm. The thoughts swirl:

  • Please don’t go into communications. There are a bazillion girls like you working for nothing in Manhattan.
  • When the apocalypse comes, we will not need more pop rock and fashion critics, we will need engineers!
  • You want to be a healer? Engineers do more to heal and build than celebrity talk show hosts!

(Nobody is more surprised than me, the ultimate humanities/arts girl, that I am championing engineering. Go S.T.E.M for women!)

Really though, if life is uncertain, unfair, and short – how do you want to spend it? When all is said and done, what I want her to be when she grows up is … happy.

I grew up with parents who wanted to encourage me to do or be anything I wanted to be. The fortunate benefit of this philosophy is that I was exposed to many different activities and allowed to try new things and quit things as I tired of them. The downside is that while I became good at many things I never became great. I expected to feel a calling, a life purpose, and that I would follow this path to great success. The reality of earning a living was glossed over.

Very few of us have one specific life purpose. Very few of us are so talented and so disciplined and so well-connected that we rise to the top. Very few of us don’t have to earn a living. We do our children a disservice to hold out a vague promise that they should follow their bliss (if they even know what their bliss is) and the money will come.

Oprah is on tour with many people I follow and adore. (I love you Elizabeth Gilbert!) I am not an Oprah fanatic, but I do appreciate that her charismatic message of responsible self-empowerment is important and transformational, especially for those of us lucky enough to have the resources to transform. I am, however, having trouble with her mantra (intermixed with commercial marketing messages) that “You are the master of your fate!”

Well, yes and no. I believe we have the power to control our attitude towards our fate, which very definitely can affect the choices we make and the direction of our lives. But we do not have control over whether we are born into freedom or wealth or an educated environment. The Nigerian girls (remember them?) are not in control of their fate. My nephew’s girlfriend’s 23-year old friend who died suddenly of an aneurysm last week is not in control of her fate. (God forbid! Can you imagine? Those poor parents.)

The truth is, dear girl, that there is no clear-cut path for you to choose. You must make your own path. Your Own Path. The one that makes you happy. Not me. Not Dad. Not anyone else. It will have many turns and branches along the way. Any path you choose will require some boring and tedious and frustrating and just plain hard tasks along the way. It is your approach to your path that will contribute to your happiness and success.

Perhaps, though, the question should be reframed from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “What kind of person do you want to be?” When reframed in this way, it becomes more clear that there is no one answer. There is no one direction. Grow up to be you. Wise, honest, and compassionate. The rest will follow. Find bliss in what you follow. Because if you wait for bliss to find you, you will be disappointed.

Oh, and be patient and be open. You will be surprised at the opportunities life will offer you.

Scrubble

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Boys Soldier On

I’ve spent the last year focused on preparing my daughter (and myself) for her leaving the family nest and starting college. My son, on the other hand, spent the last year quietly growing up. I think he thinks no one noticed. Maybe he wishes no one noticed. But I did. We did.

Not that long ago, he was still sneaking in (occasionally) for a reassuring snuggle around 4 am one or two nights a week. We never chased him out because we knew the day would soon come when our boy-man would no longer galumph into bed with us. Sure enough, that day came.

Not that long ago, his little boy voice would crack as his young man voice began to assert itself. Now, the little boy voice is gone. Family and friends mistake him for my husband when he answers the phone.

Not that long ago, he would chatter away endlessly. Now, I get one-syllable answers mixed in with eye-rolls and grunts.

I recently read a post about creative ways to get your child to talk to you about their day. Instead of “How Was Your Day?” try “What’s the funniest thing that happened today?” Yeah right, I tried that years ago and just got “M-o-m!” accompanied by an eye roll. It didn’t help that as a working mom, his school day was over eons ago by the time I got home, hindering spontaneous sharing sessions.

Now, he is shaving the scrubble from his face, at least once a month. (“Scrubble” is a combination of scruffy stubble, appropriately descriptive.) And learning about styptic pencils, while I grimace as I imagine the razor slicing his still-quite-smooth face.

The signs appeared on his door over the summer, around his 15th birthday. We had gotten into a bad dynamic where I nagged him to clean his room and he passively-aggressively didn’t. Keep Out! No Coming In! Fair enough. I don’t really like nagging him anyway. Clearly, he was ready for some privacy and some ownership of his space, of his self.

My son is sweet, empathetic, and sensitive. When he was a little boy, I worried that he would get teased. I balanced my desire to keep him sweet and naïve forever with the knowledge that at some point protective layers would envelop him. And so they have. Part of growing up, especially for boys figuring out how to be a man in our culture today, is to adopt some outward characteristics of being cool, which usually means acting like you don’t care, even if you do care. Deeply. And I know he cares. Deeply.

As John Mayer sings in Daughters:

Boys, you can break

You’ll find out how much they can take

Boys will be strong

And boys soldier on

But boys would be gone without warmth from

A woman’s good, good heart

I listened to Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech at the UN. Intently and gratefully. The one where she mourns the fact that her male friends stopped expressing their feelings by the age of 18. The one where she invites men to support feminism and to recognize that men are damaged by gender inequality. The one where she hopes for a world where men can be sensitive and vulnerable and valued as fathers. Because when men don’t feel they have to be aggressive and controlling, then women won’t feel they have to be submissive and controlled. I encouraged my son (who has had a long-standing crush on Emma Watson, though I’m sure I’m supposed to not know that and I’m sure I’m not current on his current crushes) to listen to her speech. Just as I hope my attempt to expose him to lots of nutritious food will someday pay off with him opting for a broader range of food choices beyond macaroni and cheese, so I hope my offerings about life and love and the search for meaning will serve him well as he learns to be true to himself and not be overly bound by social conventions.

Right now, he is eager to fit in and to become a man. Right now, that means appearing to be too cool to care too much. Right now, that means spending more time with friends, identifying with Dad, and carving out some personal space where Mom is not welcome. At 15, that is as it should be.

Mothers (and Fathers), let’s be good to our sons. They will learn how to love from us. While he sorts out who he is and what kind of man he is becoming, I will follow his lead. I’ll listen when he’s ready to talk. I’ll help when asked. I’ll cherish our hugs and Mother-Son movie nights. I’ll imprint those last boyish expressions before they are gone forever, so proud of my young man, who feels so deeply.

The Countdown

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Extra Strong or Maximum Strength?

My daughter moves to college one month from tomorrow. In 32 days. Exactly. Not that I’m counting the days. Except that I am. It’s this big looming day that seems to mark the end of family as we currently know it. I think I’ve been counting the days since the day she was born. Only 18 years with her! They’re going to fly by! Better enjoy it because before you know it she’ll be going to college!

So. Here we are. She is going to college. In 32 days.

We spent two days at Orientation. Thankfully, schools now include parents in the process, allowing us to familiarize ourselves with the campus, the curriculum, and all the transitional support services. It’s a massive relief to have spent those two days together — together but separate…they whisk the kids away from the parents.  It’s a massive relief to have spent those two days together in July, well Before Moving Day. I can approach the next 32 days with some familiarity about what her life will be like After Moving Day.

It’s not how it was done when I went to college. I moved into a dorm under construction into a tiny room with bunk beds and a roommate I had never met. My mother broke down in tears. Who could blame her? Except that it made it even harder for me to separate. I was very homesick. I think my daughter will miss home, a lot, but I don’t wish that kind of homesickness on her. As the mothers who have gone before me have told me would happen – I am sad and anxious but also excited and proud.  Really, all I want is for her to adjust as smoothly as possible and to find her own way as a happy and successful (whatever that means) young adult.

So. Here we are, cramming in doctors’ appointments, filling out paperwork, paying the first tuition bill, making to-do lists, and getting lost in the details of what needs to get done. In 32 days. Before Moving Day. Should I get the Extra Strong garbage bags or the Maximum Strength garbage bags? (Who is the marketing copywriter who thought those categories were clear to the consumer?) Frankly, I never would have even known that garbage bags are better than boxes if it weren’t for my amazing sister-in-law who seems to know everything I don’t know. I pretend I am more capable than her. I research stuff and come up with my own opinions. But when it comes to getting things done, she is way more capable than me. So when staring at the confusing array of garbage bag choices, I knew I had to consult her. Get the Extra Strong, she said. Extra Strong is better than Maximum Strength? Yes, she said. You can throw pillows and bedding into them. And for heavier stuff, like shoes, you just pack as much as you can carry. Okay. Well said. I completely trust you.

All this To-Do Busy-ness is a distraction from the momentous emotion of this still pause in time, between high school and college, a caesura before she leaves. I am too busy to cry. I am too busy taking care of the details to stand back and do what really matters. Be With Her.

So yesterday, we spent the afternoon together. She introduced me to Reiki a while back and we decided to do Reiki training together this year. Yes Reiki. Crazy Hokum, I know. I, the only offspring of scientist, aetheist parents, discovered Reiki through my yoga friends and my wise daughter who explained it to me, simply: “I don’t know. It feels warm and nice.” Indeed. She is so wise. Those engineering students are going to be lucky and grateful she is in their midst!

As my swirling nervous energy entered the Reiki training workshop, our wonderful Reiki Master reminded me to get out of my head and just be. Just feel the moment. Let it happen. Instead of wondering if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and feeling what I was supposed to be feeling, just appreciate the moment. When my nervous energy wakes me up in the middle of the night, sends me walking briskly at dawn, drives me to pick my cuticles or rub that poor sore spot by my right ear, she suggested that I feel my feet on the ground. “I feel my feet on the ground, calm and peaceful.” I try to say this when I’d rather be picking at the sore spot by my right ear.

At the end of the afternoon training, my daughter and I took turns offering and receiving Reiki from each other. As I was on the table and she was offering me Reiki, she was radiating energy. Such love and warmth were emanating from her. I wondered if I could offer my mother Reiki, allowing her to rest and be peaceful, to touch her with love and warmth? I imagined (or was it a vision? I have visions when receiving Reiki. Yes, I really do. Call it crazy hokum, but it’s the truest peace I’ve found in my nearly 52 years of this life.) I saw myself as old. Old and dying. And that she, my daughter, was offering me Reiki to send me love and peace. I can’t imagine a better way to die. I just hope it’s a long time from now. But it’ll be here before I know it. So I better slow down and enjoy every day. With her. (And all the people I love.) Before Moving Day. In 32 days.

If Mothers Led the World

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Whither Hope?

Remember the Nigerian girls? The 200+ girls that went to school to take their exams and were abducted by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (“Western Education is Sin”)? The story that took weeks to hit the front page until outrage took the form of a brief-but-intense social media frenzy with #BringBackOurGirls? Three months have passed since the kidnapping and the girls are still not rescued. What are those mothers going through? Good God! Those poor mothers.

Since the kidnapping of the girls, the next event that transfixed me with horror was the death of the three missing Jewish teens that led to the eye-for-an-eye death of the Palestinian teen, escalating the latest violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Can you imagine saying good-bye to your child in the morning and them not coming home? Ever? Good God! Those poor mothers.

The thing is, I can imagine. I do imagine. It’s my biggest fear. Bringing home my newborn and hovering over her several times every night — every night for months! — to make sure she’s still breathing. Checking in with my son the first time he is home alone without a babysitter and then the first time he IS the babysitter. Putting my daughter on an airplane for her first international trip on her own. I pray he is safe. I pray she comes home. I worry that the world will see ever more conflict and that my children will be called upon to fight as soldiers. Good God! Whither peace? Don’t THEY love their children too?

Don’t you think there would be less conflict if mothers were the leaders of the world? I guess we are too smart or too busy or too subjugated. I know, I know. I know that mothers don’t have a lock on compassion and wisdom and I know many non-parents who are compassionate and wise. But Good God! Imagine if the leaders in power filtered their decision-making through the lens of having children. Because then the overriding question governing all decision-making would be: “What is best for our children? How will this action improve their future?” Ego would diminish. The differences between us would diminish. We would lead with our hearts, with compassion and tolerance and empathy. And wisdom.

It seems a lofty but unattainable goal. Even the pacifist Caesar in the latest blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes comes to a pragmatic and tragic understanding that the fear of what is different and the desire for power will lead to distrust and war. Spoiler alert, there is no hope at the end of that movie. Well, I take that back. There are the sons, both human and ape.  (Where are the daughters?)

Whither hope? It is in our children. We nurture them. We teach them. We love them. We hope. We hope they will be able to create a peaceful future where girls can go to school and boys of different religions can appreciate what is holy in all beings as they set aside their differences to save our Earth.

Photo:  The New Yorker

 

Why Did You Marry Him?

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The Father of My Children

When I fell in love with my husband, it was love at first sight. We shook hands in greeting and I was electrified by his touch. We met each other’s eyes and I fell hard and deep. I was not thinking about whether or not he would be a good father. He was handsome, strong, intelligent, loyal and truthful, and not particularly introspective, which was a relief. I was sufficiently introspective for both of us, and then some.

My children sometimes wonder about the differences between us, my yin to his yang, and ask, “Why did you marry him?” especially after he revels in teasing me with some comment or action that we all know I will disagree with or when is excruciatingly logical while I swirl in my anxious emotionality. After the glorious and passionate first phase of infatuation settled down, there was a compelling sense of belonging together, that we would be good partners. But nothing prepares you for parenthood. Except, perhaps, a desire to do it better than your own parents.

One area of commonality between us was that we both were children of undemonstrative fathers. The dysfunction was different and the effects were different, but one outcome was that we were united in our desire for a close family in which he would play an involved role. Because I worked full time, there was no other way. We set out to raise happy children who feel loved. We taught them to cook, ski, read, play tennis, knit, tell jokes, dance, nurture plants, enjoy music, watch movies, sail, value family, be alone, ride a bike, practice yoga, taste food, listen to their bodies, be responsible and diligent, write, figure out math problems, and know when to play hooky so as not to get the perfect-attendance award. If my husband was the go-to parent for dessert and tv-watching, playing sports and fixing things, I was the go-to parent for feeling comforted and for taking care of the day-to-day schedule. Together, we complemented each other well.

There is a new book out, Do Fathers Matter? by Paul Raeburn, that reviews all the recent science about the impact of fathers. Apparently, and incredibly, it is only recently that fathers have been acknowledged to have an impact on their offspring. Ask any person and they will be able to comment at length on how their father affected who they are, for better and for worse. In our gut we know that a wise and supportive father can lead to a confident and happy adult and that a judgmental, abusive, or absent father causes lasting damage to the psychological well-being of that person, and even that person’s children. A healthy and happy father can offset the effects of a mother’s depression. An involved father can delay the onset of his daughter’s puberty and sexual initiation. Certainly a nurturing father must be a crucial component of raising sons with emotional intelligence.

As we prepare to celebrate my daughter’s graduation from high school this week and transition her to college this August, I am spending this Father’s Day (and beyond) feeling grateful that I fell in love with a good man who complements me and loves our children (and me). While we have both passed on to her all that we love and all that we value, we are learning to let go and trust that we have given her all she needs to make good decisions, to love good people, to try new things, to find her own way. We will hold hands as she crosses the stage to accept her diploma. I will cry. He will swell with pride.  Together we have nurtured an amazing young woman.

Fly Like an Eagle

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Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping … Into the Future

If the metaphor of life as a mountain is apt, then I am a bit past the summit, wondering how I missed it after all those years of working towards reaching it. Now, I am urgently trying to slow down my hurtling pace toward the valley. I thought the summit would be some grand career achievement.  Looking back at all that hard work on my career, with all the other bazillions of mid-level executives, it’s not the career moments that have been meaningful, it’s the connections with other people that have provided meaning. And my most profound joy has been being a mother to my children.

So you would think Mother’s Day would be a happy day. It is more than a happy day.  For me it is a day of intense emotion, so intense I don’t know what to do with it. Mother’s Day Eve, the intense emotion manifested itself as PAIN, from my heart, through my throat, and up to my ears. I first identified it as sadness and then realized it was mixed with anger. I don’t easily recognize anger, being much more comfortable and familiar with feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety. Sadness is easy, an easy disguise for more negative emotions. Anger is much more difficult and it takes enormous care on my part to identify it accurately, to not swallow it inwardly, but to express it constructively. Even harder is to acknowledge the mixture of sadness, anger, loneliness, regret, disappointment, longing for what might have been and to let them go. Or at least let them coexist with happiness, to allow room for what is funny or joyful. So much is happy and joyful about my experience of being a mom. How can that joy take up more room in my heart so that there is less emphasis on regret and nostalgia?

I feel such pressure on Mother’s Day to have some kind of outpouring of honest emotion to my mother. Another Mother’s Day has come and gone and I have failed at taking any steps that will bring us closer. I have felt the emotion of love, loss, anger, regret and all that is associated with being a middle-aged daughter welling up in my chest and my throat, but I said nothing new to my mother. Perhaps I will never say all that I would like to say. Perhaps I will never hear all that I would like to hear. It simply may be all that it can be. Perhaps one way to honor my mother is by being more open and honest with my children than she was able to be with me.

It was a segment on NPR’s Studio 360 last Saturday that released the emotion. Beth Greenspan read a poem that is meaningful to her, through tears, about that time in adolescence when you realize that your child is fully separate from you with a world of his/her own that is unknowable to you. And that is how it should be. Part of the parent-child relationship is that the child must create their own life which does not include the parent and it is the parent’s job to allow that happen. The most joyful and heart-wrenching moments of parenting are all those steps they take away from you.

For Mother’s Day, I want my children to be who they are: on the road to becoming responsible and compassionate beings with a sense of ease and confidence. I want them to be less careful and less anxious than me and more able to express their emotions, especially love. I hope they take advantage of opportunities and find pursuits that are fulfilling and fuel their passion. I hope they know that I love them more than anything, certainly more than my career. I hope they know I am proud of them.  With my heart in my throat most of the weekend, sad and excited about what my children are becoming, I told them.  I love them.  Fly!

Into The Kingdom, by Mary Karr

As the boys bones lengthened,
and his head and heart enlarged,
his mother one day failed

to see herself in him.
He was a man then, radiating
the innate loneliness of men.

His expression was ever after
beyond her. When near sleep
his features eased towards childhood,

it was brief.
She could only squeeze
his broad shoulder. What could

she teach him
of loss, who now inflicted it
by entering the kingdom

of his own will?

Paradise Revisited

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What is Vacation?

For me, vacation is when I have time. Time away from daily routines. Time to listen to the people I love. Time to speak to the people I love. Time to do something different and new. Time to do something familiar and comforting, but with a fresh approach.

With limited time and money for vacations, we have worked hard to make vacations a priority, planning meaningful family vacations that are an opportunity to nurture and connect, a time to take a break from our overscheduled daily lives and have fun together, and a source of memories, especially for our children’s memories of their years with us. Our vacations fall into a few categories. The visit to family and friends. The annual ski trip. And lately, our sailing trips, with my children and I learning to sail to find out if we share my husband’s passion.

For Spring Break, we traveled to the British Virgin Islands, chartering a 35’ sailboat for a week.  (We’re pretty sure it was the smallest boat in the Caribbean that week.)  We lived on the boat and crewed it ourselves for the week in what I expect will be the last official family vacation before our daughter goes away to college. My husband planned the trip. I was calm and cool (or pretended to be). After all, it was the third time we’d done this trip. But let’s face it, I have to work hard at being calm and cool and having fun is not something that comes easily to me.

What am I Going To Wear?!

Two days before vacation, I spied the cutest pair of white shorts in the store window of a local boutique. I had to have them! They were perfect. I suddenly realized that the vacation wardrobe I had decided would be fine was completely lacking in the perfect pair of white shorts and that I could not possibly have a good vacation without these shorts, not to mention the elegant gray tunic that would look perfect with my white pants. I should probably get that too. This panic over what to wear was vestigial anxiety, left over from old patterns that I’ve outgrown, but which rears up when I am under stress. For every special occasion of my life, I have dealt with my anxiety by shopping for the perfect outfit. If I had the perfect outfit, then I would: fit in; be liked; be admired; be confident; hide my flaws; mask my anxiety. I would impulsively buy whatever specific item was going to solve all my problems this time, only to regret the purchase later and still feel anxious and dissatisfied. Recognizing the old familiar anxious pattern, I did not buy the white shorts nor the elegant tunic.

What If We Die?

One day before vacation, my daughter whispered that she had a sore throat. I groaned. A cold. But then I panicked. What if it’s not just a cold? What if it’s strep and we can’t get to a doctor for antibiotics? Should we run around like lunatics the day before vacation and get a prescription? What if she dies? (I had a childhood friend who died of strep while on a family vacation when she was the age of my daughter. It Could Happen.) Recognizing the old familiar anxious pattern, I breathed, and told myself to STOP.  I was overreacting and being illogical. (I did watch the safety video on the airplane, identifying the exits and locating the flotation devices.)

Judgment Day

After my overt anxiety dissipated, I transitioned to a mixture of envy and judgment of my fellow tourists, who I deemed either fabulously wealthy, which made me jealous and feel inferior, or crass, loud and obnoxious drunks who didn’t respect the local culture nor the natural beauty, which made me scornful and feel superior. Neither feeling of inferiority or superiority, of measuring and comparison, allows for much social connection. Either way, on this third trip to the BVI, I was more acutely aware of how the tourists and the locals rubbed up against each other.  Paradise?

After the long travel day with 15 hours of taxis, planes, a ferry and customs; after our first day adjusting to cooking, sleeping, bathing and peeing on the boat (I try to poop only on land), oh and not to mention sailing; after our first quiet morning with coffee on the boat and our first evening watching the moon rise and looking for shooting stars, I began to settle. It usually takes me until Tuesday. To get out of my head. To focus on someone other than me, myself, and I. That is the antidote to anxiety. Focus on other people. Finally, with time to observe and listen to the people I love, I saw what was really going on.

My daughter was grappling with where to go to college. Not just where, but what kind of curriculum she should undertake. If she pragmatically decides to take the path of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math – underrepresented with women – what happens to her love of popular music, fashion, and pop culture? Can she be both a girly girl and a wicked smart engineer? Excited to leave home, scared to leave home, how does our relationship shift and evolve as she becomes an adult child?

My son was grappling with the hormones of puberty. Exhausted, he wanted to sleep all the time. Eager to please but afraid of making a mistake and inciting a scolding, he withdrew a bit. What does it mean to not be a little boy any more? How does he separate from us and become more independent, his own self, while still living with us, a teen child?

My husband was grappling with the responsibility of captaining the boat with us as crew, a not-very-skilled crew at that. Does he do everything himself? Does he delegate, with less than ideal results? When does he have fun? Perhaps the best day was when I said, “I am the Captain now!” I made him take a break and forced my son to take more responsibility as my first mate. Or perhaps the best day was our day off from sailing.  We just sat on the beach reading our books and taking walks and staring at the amazing clear turquoise water.

We were all grappling with the impending shift in our family. How will it be when my daughter is at college and my son is not so far behind? How will my husband and I connect when we have time for the two of us instead of pouring our energy into our children? When and what will our next family vacation be?

Jason Mraz sings “You don’t need a vacation if there is nothing to escape from.” I disagree, dear Jason. Everyone needs time and space away to reflect and reconnect. To experience the shift.

It happened, the shift. My daughter has made her decision and is behaving with a new maturity. My son is considering some options for the summer that will require some separation and independence, with awareness of his mixed feelings about this awkward, in-between state transitioning from childhood to manhood. My husband and I are talking about what our hopes and fears are as we get older and prepare for our next phase together.

Our week in the BVI was not always perfect, but it was paradise – a special and momentous vacation, with many memories.

Sex and the Dorm Room

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Sometimes Yes Means No

Buried on p.18 of the New York Times about two weeks ago was “Obama Seeks to Raise Awareness of Rape on Campus.”  President Obama is creating a task force charged with, among other things, recommending best practices for colleges to prevent and respond to assaults on campuses.  Rape is most common on college campuses and several deplorable statistics were cited in the article.  20% of college students (primarily women) have been assaulted, but only 12% of those students actually report the assault.  In one study, 7% of male students admitted to committing or attempting rape and 66% of those students said they had done so multiple times. 

I am terrified of violent rape by a stranger, as most women are.  It informs how I deal with strangers.  No eye contact.  Walk swiftly and confidently.  Pair up with someone for safety.  As I’ve become older, my concern is less for myself and more for my daughter.  Perhaps of more concern however, is how to talk to her and help her prepare for the variety of more nuanced sexual overtures she is bound to receive.  I have been thinking a lot about sex on college campuses, as I prepare to send her to college this fall and wonder how to talk to her about it in a loving and supportive way.  It’s not an easy conversation to have.  My mother certainly didn’t have it with me.  I found out about sex from boys who wanted to have sex with me.  Talk about a conflict of interest. 

While rape and sexual assault are of obvious concern, it is crucial that we teach our sons and daughters about navigating the murkier areas of sexual exploration and identifying some guidelines for consensual sex and nonconsensual sex.  Yale published a document at the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year tackling the question of sexual misconduct and presenting a variety of grayer scenarios and how the university would rule on whether or not the situation was consensual.  The goal is worthy but the tone was clinical and Gawker mocked the androgynous fictitious characters.  Perhaps Freshman Orientation should include small group discussions facilitated by trained upperclassmen that would role-play various scenarios, teaching men to be respectful and teaching women to trust their instincts and teaching both to not be afraid to slow the process down.  And to be aware of the disinhibiting effects of drinking alcohol.  Consider this familiar scenario:

Young woman goes to party and flirts with young man she finds handsome.  She is attracted to him.  She wants to please him.  After all, she has been brought up to be compliant and accommodating.  She wants him to like her and only her.  She is aroused and wants a physical encounter.  As well as a lasting relationship.  Young man wants to prove he is a player.  He gets off on the sexual conquest, adding another encounter to his tally.  The more sexual encounters he has the more likely he is to be considered popular and desirable.  The more sexual encounters she has the more likely she is to be disdained as a slut.  Not to mention she bears the risk of getting pregnant.  Or an STD.  It is in his best interest to get her to have sex with him.  As curious as she is, sex is a much more mixed bag for the woman.  Back in the dorm room with him, she may have second thoughts.  No, I just want to kiss, she says, I am not ready for sex.  Oh come on, he says, you led me on!  She reluctantly acquiesces.  After all, everyone else is doing it.  Maybe she enjoys it, maybe not.  Either way, she feels out of sorts about the encounter.  The boy gets his win.  It’s over.  Is that consensual?  No, it’s not.  But it happens.  All.  The.  Time.

It seems there is increasing pressure on girls (and boys) to go along and hook up casually, as if sex were just a physical need that must be met regularly with no emotional consequences.  Consensual sex has gotten more complicated.  Oh yeah, she pretends, I’m cool with sex and hooking up and comfortable with lots of experiences with different guys, with different girls, and all types of sex acts.  Huh?  Sexual contact is intimate and results in a range of emotional reactions.  Young women may be propositioned by other women as well, which can be confusing.  Is it trendy?  Is it taboo?  Female sexuality is more fluid and women form deep and intimate bonds with their friends which may lead to sexual intimacy.  But women should be encouraged to say no to other women as well as to men, if she doesn’t want to go down that path. 

Mother to daughter to granddaughter, it takes generations to change women’s attitudes and behavior toward men, sex, and intimacy.  My mother, whose second husband was abusive, imparted to me through non-communication that sex is better left undiscussed and to be wary of men.  The residue of her experience and its impact on her impacted me.  The essence of her being is at the core of my being which is at the core of my daughter’s being.  

Call me a prude (because I am), but casual hook-ups are not what I want for my daughter.   Nor do I want her to be afraid of physical intimacy.  Here’s what I want for my daughter as she becomes a woman and learns the difference between sex and making love.

Feel beautiful.  Because you are beautiful.

Enjoy your body.  Be comfortable with your naked body.

Have fun exploring your sexuality.  Unafraid, but safely.

Know that it is okay to wait until you are older.  Even if everyone else is doing it.  The older you are, the more self-awareness you will have and the more likely you are to have an emotionally mature experience with your partner.

I hope you will move slowly when you explore your sexuality with another person.  Get a sense of them as a respectful person who will appreciate you, body and soul.

I hope you have a number of fun and joyful sexual experiences that leave you confident and feeling loved.

I hope you have as few experiences as possible that leave you feeling bewildered, hurt, abandoned, violated, ashamed.

Remember that men may approach sex differently than you and that it may not serve you well to acquiesce.

You can say no.

You can ask for help.

You can talk to me.  There is absolutely nothing you can say to me that would surprise me.  I went to college.

You don’t have to talk to me.  Thank goodness for aunts and cousins and wise friends who love you.

I love you.

Don’t Know Much About Football Games

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But I Like the Costumes

I am not a big fan of football.  I follow the news about traumatic brain injuries in football more than I keep up with who’s winning.  I was transfixed by the Penn State scandal about sexual assault and the cover up by university officials.  I am currently somewhat amused and dismayed by the latest UNC Chapel Hill scandal about bogus classes for the athletes where they all get “A’s” for not attending class.  To me, football is a violent game played by adrenaline and testosterone amped up “thugs” – to quote (or misquote) the highly charged word of the week.

My father would watch football every Sunday, a Redskins fan.  My mother did not.  Condescending of sports and stereotypically male activities, I absorbed her scorn, rolling my eyes at the ridiculous obsession of sports fanatics.  I never quite understood my father’s fascination.  After all, he was a violin-playing, slender and awkward physicist who had an equivalently condescending attitude toward popular entertainment and anything trendy.  But his father was a strapping man who did play football.  What an enigma his son must have been to him!  Sometimes, I would join my father and he would patiently explain the rules of football to me.  I absorbed his respect for the game.  The sound of whistle-blowing referees and cheering fans on the television on Sundays has become nostalgic for me.

In high school, our football team was noteworthy for not winning (though the players and the cheerleaders were at the top of the social hierarchy.)  When I went to the home games, it was purely social – to hang out with my friends, to enjoy chanting in the stands, and to support the marching band.  I don’t remember actually watching the games.  Football also was not part of my college experience, attending an all-women’s college.  I never dated someone who was a football fan, so it has always remained on the periphery of my life.  I’ve spent many a Super Bowl Sunday at the movies or knitting with girlfriends, alternating between grudging tolerance of the spectacle and hostile avoidance. 

Several years ago, my kids began clamoring to watch the Super Bowl.  What?!  Where did I go wrong?  I decided to humor them.  Why should they be saddled with my baggage?  Why should they belong to the weird family that shuns the Super Bowl?  Besides the commercials are funny and the half-time show is a spectacle in and of itself.  The Giants, our home team, were in it.  I actually watched the game.  I became interested in the strategy.  And awestruck by Eli Manning’s amazing pass and David Tyree’s amazing catch in the 2007 game.  The grace and choreography won me over. 

Now that sports journalism has broadened to include more player profiles, I can’t get enough of Super Bowl week.  This year, I’ve read up on the Nike-designed costumes.  Oops, I mean uniforms.  (I prefer the Sea Hawks blue and lime green costumes over the obnoxious orange of the Broncos.  Is that a good reason to root for the Sea Hawks?)  I’ve read up on Richard Sherman and his college career at Stanford.  Apparently, he is NOT a thug and appears to be more complicated than that incident makes him out to be.  I’ve read up on Russell Wilson and his multi-talented foray into baseball.  I am sympathetic with the aging Peyton Manning and would love to see the wisdom of experience beat out the brashness of youth.  (Is that a good reason to root for the Broncos?)  My favorite piece was on the Bronco’s offensive coach, Adam Gase, a brilliant and analytical non-player who is a creative play-maker and has established an astonishing synchronicity with Peyton Manning. 

Mainly though, I am happy to be able to have fun participating in a popular culture event with my family and without all the scornful judgment of my upbringing coloring the experience.  Go Sea Hawks!  I love your costumes.

Oh, and note to NFL:  Please address the mounting evidence of traumatic brain injury from football.

Photo credit:  New York Times

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