When Mom Is the Problem

Dear Daughter,

The other day I realized something I guess I had been trying to ignore. As we drove to school, you were more withdrawn and serious than usual. We had argued about you not wearing a coat that morning, but I thought you were quiet because you were tired and dreading another long day at school. When you stepped out of the car, however, your entire demeanor changed. You smiled, you chatted with your best friend, you were happy. It was then that I knew exactly what the problem was: me.

It’s OK and normal for you to feel that way. When you are 12 years old, everything your mother does is a) annoying, b) embarrassing or c) both. I felt the same way at your age. Whatever my stepmother said or did made me cringe, and I did my best to keep my distance from her. I spent my free time alone in my room or with my friends, and always as far away from her as possible.

Intellectually, as a woman, I understand and empathize with you. Emotionally, as your mother, it breaks my heart. I hated my stepmother at your age, and my girlfriends all had issues with their moms. Somehow, though, I was under the impression things would be different with my own daughter. It turns out I was wrong. The little girl who clung to my leg for dear life as a toddler now can’t seem to wait to get away from me. It kills me to admit this, but I know it’s true.

We’ve been arguing more and more lately, and I know some of it is my fault. Your attitude toward me makes me angry and tense. I’m on edge whenever I ask you to do something because I’m not sure what your reaction will be. I know that sometimes I lash out too quickly and respond more severely than I should. For that I am sorry. But I am not sorry about calling you out when you treat me with disrespect. I want to be your friend, but I am your mother first. As I have told you many times before, you can think whatever you want about me. How you treat me, however, is not negotiable.

These next few years are going to be challenging for us. I am feeling the full weight of that after watching you walk into school with your friend the other day. I know you are growing up and that part of the process is to separate from your parents and form your own identity. But please don’t think I’m going to let you pull away completely. I’m not ready to give up my position in your world even though I do accept that I am no longer the center of it. I’m still going to ask about your day. I’m still going to coax you out of your room to watch TV or go for a run with me. I’m still going to take you to lunch or the mall once in a while, even though I know you’d prefer to go with your friends. When we’re out I’m going to put down my phone and talk to you and tell you to do the same. I’m going to ask questions, I’m going to embarrass you, I’m going to annoy you.

I’m going to do all those things because I am your mother, and you will always be the center of my world. Get used to it, kiddo. I’m not going anywhere. And someday, I hope, you’ll be happy about that.



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May I Have This Dance?

Homecoming 2013 (corsage by Bella Fiora)

Homecoming 2013 (last-minute corsage by the talented and helpful folks at Bella Fiora in New Lenox, IL)

My son is going to homecoming tonight. He’s a high school freshman, and it’s his first dance. The corsage is in the fridge. The clothes are ironed. The post-dance party plans have been made. Everything is in order, and I’m thrilled for him. But I have to admit, there’s a little melancholy mixed in there too.

For one thing, my husband is in China on business. It’s our son’s first dance, a milestone in a teenager’s social life. I am upset for my husband because I know how much he wants to be here and how bad he feels that he will miss it. I am also sad because I won’t have my rock here beside me to squeeze my hand so I don’t cry and embarrass our son in front of his date and friends.

For another thing, my little boy is taking one more step away from me. I know this is normal, healthy. I am happy he found a girl he wanted to ask to the dance. I loved taking him shopping for a new shirt and a tie to match her dress. I bugged him for days to let me help him choose a corsage. I want him to enjoy high school, to be involved, to have friends and girlfriends, to do all the things teenagers should do.

I just don’t want to become irrelevant in the process.

Is that so wrong for a mother to admit? We spend every waking — and sleeping — hour with our children when they are infants, nurturing and soothing them. When they are toddlers and preschoolers, we help them learn to talk, to walk, to ride a bike, to spell their names. When they are school-age, we pitch in with their homework, attend their soccer games, host their playdates. And through it all, we’re there to cheer them on and kiss away the bumps and bruises. Until one day, when they don’t want us there anymore, or at least won’t admit that they do.

No one tells us when our children are young and want our constant attention how much it will hurt someday when they don’t.

This morning, as my son sat silently in the car on the way home from ordering his date’s corsage (yes, he waited until the day of the dance despite my prodding), I made an important realization. I can either let him push me away, or I can push back. I decided that whether he likes it or not, I am going to do my damnedest to remain firmly rooted in his life. As he distances himself from me emotionally, I am going to force myself to keep trying, to ask questions, to be understanding and offer help. He may shut me down, act surly or even withdraw completely. But I was a teenager once. I know he doesn’t want me to stop asking, to stop trying to understand even when he thinks I don’t.

Tonight when he sighs after I ask to take yet another picture of him and his date, when he mocks the music I play on the radio as we drive to the dance, I’m going to do my best not to take it personally. I know my little boy, the guy who used to worship and adore me, is still in there somewhere.

I hope he has the time of his life tonight.

The Key to the Lock

I had been seeing her for a few weeks, and today’s session was no different from any of the others. I sat in her Chicago office nervously spewing my life’s stories, some from the present but most from the past, all the while hoping desperately for answers to the questions I was too afraid to ask. Why couldn’t I feel happiness? Why couldn’t I maintain a relationship? What was wrong with me?

As usual, she nodded occasionally, took random notes and said nothing. There were no comforting words. No supportive smiles. Does she think I’m crazy? Should I keep talking? How is this helping me?

Fifteen minutes into the session, I knew I couldn’t tolerate her stoic expression anymore. I couldn’t bear to regurgitate another story from my string of failed romances or my troubled relationship with my father and stepmother. If she wasn’t going to offer a diagnosis, I would have to ask for one. I wanted a label, something to which I could attach the pain, the fear, the emptiness. If I gave it a name, perhaps it would finally go away.

So I did it. I asked her the question I was most afraid to ask. I asked her what was wrong with me.

And she gave me the label I thought I wanted to hear: post-traumatic stress disorder.

But how could that be? I was a 26-year-old magazine editor. I had never served in the military or held a dangerous job. I had never been the victim or witness of a violent crime. How could I have PTSD?

She explained that children who lose a parent at a young age often experience PTSD symptoms, even into adulthood. My mother had died when I was a toddler. I had no memory of her death or any effect it might have had on me. But there it was: the reason I couldn’t visualize my own future, the reason I felt perpetually detached from others, the reason happiness seemed constantly out of reach, the reason change terrified me.

I had lived with my mother’s death all my life, yet I had no idea, until that moment, how much it had haunted me.

* * *

Several friends back home had told me about the “Love Lock” bridge in Paris, where couples attach locks to symbolize their undying love, and I had hoped to visit it during our family’s trip there earlier this month. But when you cram London, Paris and Amsterdam into a seven-day visit, some things just don’t make the cut on your itinerary. When we stumbled upon the bridge during our walk to Notre Dame, I was thrilled at the chance to squeeze it into our adventure.

Our visit to the bridge was unplanned, so we had to buy a lock and borrow a marker from a street vendor. I wrote our last name and the year on it, while my husband and children searched for a vacant spot on the lock-laden bridge. Apparently there is a lot of undying love in the City of Light. When we finally settled on a location and affixed the lock, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This trip had been both an ending and a beginning for us. Summer was over and my oldest child was about to start high school. I had spent much of the past few months struggling with my own fears about the changes in his life and ours. I had been worrying so much about all the bad things that could happen that I hadn’t been able to see the good.

As we stood there on that bridge in Paris — my husband of almost 18 years, my 14-year-old son, my 12-year-old daughter and 45-year-old me — I imagined my kids returning to it as adults. I saw them married with children of their own. I pictured my husband and me coming back as silver-haired grandparents. I knew we would be holding hands, and I knew we would still be in love.

On that bridge with my family, I saw the future for the first time in my life. And it was happy.


Love Lock Bridge, Paris, 2013

The Swing Set

I remember my aunt and me sitting in lawn chairs next to the swing set, talking and watching my children play. I would jump up every so often to push my preschooler on a swing or guide my toddler up the ladder. My aunt, who raised me in the 1970s, teased me for hovering over my kids. Deep down I knew she was right, but even then I wasn’t good at letting go.

A few years later, on a sweltering summer afternoon, my older sister and I sat in the shade drinking margaritas as my children played in the swing set’s sandbox. They fought over the sieve, the bucket, the shovel. Anything one of them had, the other one wanted. My sister had no kids of her own, and I knew she envied my life. As an overwrought mother just wishing for a little peace, I questioned whether she would want it if she had any idea how hard it was.

Those are two of the memories of our swing set that stand out most in my mind. But there were also hundreds of ordinary days when it was just me there watching my young children, lost in my own thoughts. I wondered when they would stop bickering all the time. I wondered when they would stop needing me so much. I wondered if I was a bad mother for wanting them to. And all the while, I watched the hands of the watch on my wrist, willing them to move a little faster, for things to get a little easier.

Gradually they did. My son started kindergarten; my daughter went to preschool. They made friends at school, and our lives revolved around play dates. When their friends came to our house, my kids remembered the swing set. For an afternoon, it became their fort, hideout or pirate ship again. But once their friends left, it stood alone and neglected; they forgot it until the next visit, and eventually they disregarded it altogether.

When both kids reached middle school, my husband and I spoke casually about getting rid of the swing set. The only use it got was the occasional visit from a relative or friend with young children. We agreed we would look into selling it, but there it stood, both of us too busy to follow through, me not quite ready to let it go.

Last weekend, three days after our oldest child graduated from middle school, my husband arranged for a friend to take the swing set. He didn’t consider the timing, and neither did I — until I saw the vacant spot in our backyard. My son was about to start high school, and all that was left of this fixture of his childhood and my daughter’s was the sand from the sandbox and the memories.

I thought back to those early days spent at the swing set, the special visits with my aunt and sister, and the days on my own, when I felt all the typical frustrations of life as a stay-at-home mom. But as I stood in the yard 10 years later, staring at the empty space where the swing set used to be, all I could remember was my children’s laughter, their sweet faces, my limitless love for them.

Sometimes a swing set is more than a swing set.

My kids four years ago during a visit from my niece and nephew: Our poor, forgotten swing set was happy to welcome them back.

My kids four years ago during a visit from my niece and nephew: Our poor, forgotten swing set was happy to welcome them back.

Red Lipstick

My older sister said our mother never left the house without lipstick. Before she carried the garbage to the curb or hung the laundry out to dry in the backyard, she painted her lips a glamorous red and wound her blond curls into a tidy upsweep. My father said when she walked into a room, everyone stopped to look at her. She was a talented seamstress who could spot a dress in a department store and recreate it at home without a pattern. My aunt said she kept an immaculate house and dressed herself and her children impeccably. She was a homebody who had few friends, and she seemed to prefer it that way.

I don’t remember my mother, but from other people’s stories and memories, I have woven together an image of her, and it has profoundly affected the way I navigate my life and relationships. I compare myself against the image. I decide which parts of her I wish to embrace and imitate: the confidence, the independence, the self-assuredness. I recognize the ways I am like her and accept the ways I am not.

The part of the picture that puzzles and intrigues me most is that she didn’t have a lot of friends. Was that by choice or default? I wonder who taught my mother how to read the subtleties of female behavior, to avoid being sucked into the vacuum of cliques, to spot real friendship in the sea of selfishness and phoniness. Did her mother teach her those lessons, or was their relationship the reason she didn’t like or trust other women?

My relationships with my stepmother and the aunt who raised me had a major impact on the type of women I choose to befriend. From my charming, popular stepmother, I learned that those who follow the crowd often do so because they neither know nor love themselves. From my aunt, I learned that strong, confident women make the best friends because they don’t want or need anything other than your companionship. Neither of them ever told me how to interact with other women; they showed me.

I think of my own daughter as I watch her unravel the inner workings of middle school friendships. I wonder what effect I have on which girls she chooses to befriend. Like my mother, I don’t have lots of female friends, but the ones I do have are loyal and true. Like my aunt, I speak my mind and do as I please. Unlike my stepmother, I will never be popular and am fine with that.

I hope my daughter will learn to be herself and not succumb to the bullying and peer pressure that happen even in adulthood. I hope she will ignore the static and forge her own path. I hope she will wear red lipstick when she takes out the garbage and not give a damn what the neighbors think. I hope she will be a little like the grandmother she never knew.

Jeanne Marie (RIP 3/26/27 - 4/28/70)

Jeanne Marie (RIP 3/26/27 – 4/28/70)

Wake-Up Call

Our morning dance begins with my calm, cool attempt to rouse my seemingly comatose teenage son. “It’s time to get up,” I say, tapping him gently on the shoulder. No response. “Get out of bed, please,” I continue, my voice gaining volume and force. I shake his shoulder, not violently, but with intent. No response. My cheerfulness spent, I break out the mom-means-business voice: “We are going to be late. Get. Out. Of. Bed. Now!

We do this wake-up dance every day, my son and I. Yesterday was no different. Once I safely delivered him and his sister to school, I nestled into my home office chair with a second cup of coffee and started sifting through the weekend’s accumulation of email. When the phone rang and I saw the middle school’s number on the caller ID, I sighed with exasperation, wondering which of the kids had forgotten a gym uniform or lunchbox.

But no one had forgotten anything. My son was horsing around with a friend during band practice, the woman from the school office told me. He fell off a countertop and hit his head on the floor. “He seems a little out of it,” she said. “Do you want to pick him up, or should we wait and have the nurse look at him when she gets here?”

How bad could a fall from a countertop be? I thought. I am not a pessimist; I don’t always expect the worst. In fact, I figured my dramatic firstborn child was playing up the injury so he could miss a day of school. “Let’s wait for the nurse,” I said.

The nurse called me 10 minutes later with a laundry list of symptoms: nausea, fatigue, light sensitivity, sluggishness. She suggested a trip to the pediatrician’s office for an examination, so we went. But even after the pediatrician confirmed that my son had a concussion and would need a CT scan to rule out internal bleeding, I assumed she was just being overly cautious.

Thankfully, I was right. He did have a concussion, but the results of the CT scan were clear. The doctor said he could return to school the next day but would have to miss gym class for a week. Considering how much he loathed his gym teacher, I knew the latter part wouldn’t be a problem.

On the drive home from the hospital, he talked about his latest favorite video game, but I only half listened. I kept picturing him on the CT scanner table covered in a royal blue lead blanket, moving slowly into the spinning, humming machine. We had made it through almost 14 years without him breaking a bone or suffering a serious illness. We had always been lucky; I had no reason to expect the worst to happen. But in that moment, watching my suddenly small, fragile child on that table, I knew it could.

Our morning dance began as usual today, with my son feigning sleep, despite my best and continued efforts to wake him. “But, Mom,” he finally whined. “I have a concussion.”

“Yes,” I said. “Now get out of bed.” Even I didn’t buy my mom-means-business voice. We do this wake-up dance every day, my son and I. But this morning it was different.

Class of 2017

I opened the envelope in the driveway, shivering as the January wind ripped through my pink flannel pajamas. I scanned the letter quickly, finding everything I hoped to see. My son, a soon-to-be high school freshman, had earned honors placements in all his classes, a clean scholastic sweep. My first thought was to call my father, my own academic drill sergeant. The tears stung my freezing cheeks as I imagined his voice, knowing I could no longer hear it, but relishing the sound of it in my head.

As a parent of two, I am no stranger to the bittersweet thrill of watching my children reach milestones. As a woman who lost her parents at various stages in life, I also know the haunting emptiness of experiencing my own firsts without them. What I did not fully recognize until I opened that letter last week is how much more I ache over my children’s milestones now that all three of my parents are gone.

I brushed away my tears as I headed inside to tell my husband, wanting to escape the cold and my melancholy. I watched his anxious anticipation as he took in the vision of me in his office doorway, still shivering in my pink flannel pajamas, eyes wet and red, clutching a mysterious letter. I stumbled tearfully over the words, and somehow he managed to surmise that, in fact, no one had died and the letter contained positive news.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I told him, sobbing as he read it. “This high school thing — it’s not gonna work for me.”

I can only imagine what he was thinking as he patiently consoled me, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of: “Oh, boy. Here we go again.”

You see, I am not like those other mothers who healthily anticipate change and eagerly prepare themselves and their children for it. I was anxious, borderline neurotic, for weeks before my oldest child’s first days of elementary, intermediate and middle school. Now every time he or anyone else says “Class of 2017,” I catch my breath. In a year and a half, he will be driving, and I will be forced into the passenger seat. I will be able to suggest alternate routes, different turns, safer speeds, but he will control the wheel. How will I let go and allow him to venture into the unknown world of adult disappointments and heartbreak?

These were the bleak thoughts I wrestled with that day, as I waited for my son to get home from school. I wondered what advice my father, a stoic World War II veteran, would give. When he and I tussled verbally during my tumultuous teenage years, he often said, “You know, if there were classes on parenting back in my day, I would have taken them.” I’m sure he chuckled heartily at my expense over all the parenting books I read years later, knowing that none of them would prepare me for the hard-knock lessons of watching my own children grow up and away from me.

When my almost freshman walked up the driveway that afternoon, I thought of how proud my father, who hadn’t finished high school, had been of me when I graduated an honors student. Although I could not tell him about his grandson’s achievement, I felt his pride right there, next to my own.

I met my son at the door and gave him the letter, watching the relief and satisfaction wash over him as he read it. For a moment, I felt only his joy and none of my dread. “You earned this,” I said, hugging him tightly. “I am so proud of you, so happy.” And I was — tears, pink flannel pajamas and all.

2008 153_2

My soon-to-be high school freshman on his first day of fourth grade.

Hockey Skates and a Not-So-Lucky Cat

There are moments in marriage when you look at your significant other and remember why you got hitched in the first place. Of course, there are also moments when you wonder, “Who is this person, and why on earth did he just do that?” The best moments are a bit of both: His actions take you by surprise but in a way that makes you see him as you once did.

I never thought I’d find my husband of 16 years more attractive in a pair of hockey skates, but it happened two Sundays ago in Chicago.

School was about to resume after a two-week break, and everyone in our family was dreading Monday’s arrival. A friend suggested dim sum in Chinatown, and it sounded like the perfect beginning of a winter-break last hurrah. It was. We spent an hour at Phoenix Restaurant stuffing our faces with mostly unidentifiable but delicious steamed and deep-fried dumplings. Dim sum, like marriage, requires a leap of faith.

As we sipped our tea and patted our bellies full of heaven knew what, we decided the next leg of our journey would be shopping in Chinatown, followed by ice skating at Millennium Park. My 13-year-old wasn’t interested in shopping or skating, but I promised him an overpriced hot chocolate at the Park Grill and he kindly acquiesced. My 11-year-old wanted some panda paraphernalia for her collection, and I was dying to find a “lucky cat” (a.k.a. maneki-neko) to add to my tchotchke trove. Five (more like 10) stores later, our daughter scored a panda coffee mug, and I settled on a bright-eyed mama cat with a full litter of kittens, figuring all the babies made her extra lucky. With our dining and shopping needs satiated, we headed to the rink.

My not-so-lucky cat

My not-so-lucky cat

My new cat may have been cute and fertile, but she didn’t seem to have much going on in the luck department. We spent at least 30 minutes trying to find parking, and when we finally arrived at Millennium Park, the wait for renting skates was an hour. My daughter brought her own skates, which meant she could hit the ice immediately. But what fun would it be to skate alone? When my husband saw the dejected look on her face, he donned his super hero cape and hatched a solution. All we had to do, he said, was hop a cab across town to the nearest Sports Authority and buy him a pair of skates. It was an impetuous, overindulgent and completely out-of-character move, and it thrilled both my daughter and me.

Thirty minutes, two cab rides and about $65 later, Super Dad was slipping and sliding across the ice in a brand-new pair of hockey skates. I enjoyed the warmth and libations of the Park Grill with my son, both of us laughing as we watched our super hero try to keep up with our figure skater in training. The man had no clue how to skate, but he knew how to make his daughter happy.

I’m not banking on my not-so-lucky Chinatown cat winning me any lottery jackpots, but she makes me smile every time I look at her on my living room bookshelf. She reminds me of a day when I remembered why I love my husband so much. And so do those hockey skates in the garage.

Super Dad and the figure skater

Super Dad and the figure skater


P.S. Thank you so much for all the supportive comments on my post about quitting smoking. I’ve been smoke-free for 21 days now, and I feel great. It truly helps to know you guys have my back.

I Quit

I don’t remember my first time, but by high school I was doing it pretty much daily. I was underage, I knew I could get in trouble, and sometimes I did. But I didn’t care. The risk and danger were part of the appeal. I was a teenage rebel without a clue, and I thought smoking was cool. The ignorance and arrogance of youth excused my behavior. I told myself I’d quit when I was older. It was no big deal because I wouldn’t do it forever.

James Dean made it look so cool.

James Dean made it look so cool.

Yet, here I am, a 45-year-old mother of two justifying inhaling toxins into my body and risking lung cancer by saying “I only do it on the weekends” or “I don’t smoke around my kids.” I know I’m deluding myself. I can’t rationalize shaving years off my life in the name of instant gratification and a nicotine buzz. I no longer have the years to waste.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to cut back or quit over the years. In fact, it was easy to stay smoke-free during both my pregnancies. The smell of smoke nauseated me, and I had my unborn children’s health to protect. But after my babies were born, and only my own health was in question, smoking became my secret vice, my mother’s little helper. I’d sneak a smoke while the kids were napping or slip outside after dinner while my husband was playing with them in the living room. It was my own unhealthy version of “me time,” a twisted yet comforting way of staying attached to my pre-mom self by indulging in an old, familiar vice.

When I started running five years ago, I shifted to more of a social smoker, lighting up only after a few cocktails when I was with friends who smoked. The intense training schedules of long distance races made puffing on a cig less desirable, but I never managed to pack away the ashtray for good.

During stressful times, smoking is like the bad boy I couldn’t stop dating in my twenties: I know it’s wrong for me, but I can’t seem to help myself. I’m addicted to the ritual: lighting the cigarette, inhaling the smoke, even stamping out the butt. Whenever I’m around someone who’s smoking, the urge and nostalgia envelop me. Before I can consider the consequences, I’m doing it again.

I hope things will be different this time, though. After a particularly bleak year, when I started buying packs of cigarettes and smoking more than socially, I think I’m finally ready to end this dysfunctional relationship. In a snap but sober decision on New Year’s Eve day, I signed up for the 2013 Chicago Half Marathon. After wimping out of what would have been my second Chicago Marathon last year, I thought I was done racing. But it’s a new year, and things seem a lot brighter. I think I have at least one more race in me, and I’m excited to get healthy and start training for a new personal best time.

I know I can quit smoking; I did it twice for nine months. But this time I’m doing it for me. Sometimes quitters do win.

Happy New Year, peeps! I missed you over the past two weeks but enjoyed a fun, relaxing holiday break with my family. I hope you did the same.

It Really Is a Wonderful Life

Source: RKO/NBC

The first time I watched Frank Capra’s magnificent film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I was a single twenty-something living in Dearborn, Michigan. The movie made me sob, first and foremost because I am a gigantic sap. But also because it made me think about how much value each of us has and how many other lives we touch, whether we know it or not. It made me think of my future and the place I wanted for myself in the world. It made me realize I wanted to matter to someone.

I’ve watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas since then (the black-and-white version, of course), and each time it says something new and different to me. There was the year I watched it for the first time in a Chicago apartment with the man who would be my husband, and he loved it just as much as I did. There was the year we watched it in our first house, a 1920s’ bungalow in Chicago, and I understood exactly why Mary wanted to fix up and live in the drafty, old Granville house. There was the year we watched it for the first time with our kids, neither of whom liked it all that much, and I cried extra hard when George found Zuzu’s petals in his pocket. There was the year we watched it after my husband lost his job, when Mr. Potter seemed extra villainous and George’s victory celebration was particularly poignant.

This year, the line that resonated most with me was Clarence’s inscription in the copy of “Tom Sawyer” that he leaves behind for George: “No man is a failure who has friends.” It has been a tough 12 months for me (parent’s death, job loss), and I don’t know what I would have done without the strength and support of the friends who buoyed me through it. I’m also very lucky and grateful to be married to my own George Bailey, my best friend and the richest man in town.

On this Christmas Eve eve, I am happy and thankful to be exactly where I am. I wouldn’t change a thing. The bad times only make the good ones mean more. I guess I don’t need Frank Capra to tell me it’s a wonderful life, but I do enjoy the reminder.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays with those you love the most in your own wonderful lives.