Let’s Hear It For The Boys!

basketball

Warning: Read at your own risk. This is not a masterpiece, so if you’re looking for that, stop here. It’s a goodbye letter to my son’s friends, who have brought me so much joy over the years, and a thank you note to the women who raised them. They’re going off to college and we’re all a little sleep-deprived, a little crazy, and a whole lot poorer………

My boys are going off to college. I say “my boys,” because if you have even one son, you have about 50 “boys”. Girls are different. They travel in pairs and trios. Not boys. Boys travel in packs. The packs come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Where there’s one, there are at least four more. I owe the mothers of my son’s friends a debt of gratitude for sharing their boys with me over the years.

Thanks to the women who raised “my boys” and raised them so well.

They’ve been handy for things like eating the food that’s been in the freezer too long, bringing in my groceries without me even asking, and moving heavy stuff. It’s no secret that I’m a mom with a sense of humor and not easily offended, so they’ve excelled at making me laugh so hard I lost my breath. They have reminded me what it feels like to be young and on the edge of something great. They’ve watched sports with me and kept an eye out for my teenage daughter like she’s their sister too, weighing in on who she can and can’t hang out with. They’ve made me hope that when my daughter does start dating, she’ll find a boy even half as wonderful as her brother and his friends.

Thanks for teaching them to say, “Yes, ma’am” and “thank you,” and for giving them permission to come to our house. Thank you for teaching them to pick up after themselves. They may not do it at home, but take comfort in knowing that at my house they make you look good.

Climbing in bed on Friday night, without even my own son at home yet, and waking up Saturday morning to a family room full of sleeping boys was a blessing to me. I’ve cooked for them and loved doing it, despite the fact that my kitchen skills are marginal, at best. I turned our backyard into a basketball court and allowed the living room to evolve into a “man cave”, with gaming systems, a mini-fridge and a giant TV, in hopes that they would come and stay.

Initially, that was my crafty way to keep Jake close so that I knew he was safe. It wasn’t long before I realized how much it mattered to me that your boys were safe too.

Thanks for sharing the love of your life with me. Your boys have been great friends to my boy and that is an invaluable gift. I promise you, I will walk through fire for any of them. Their presence grew my heart to triple its normal size and, for as long as I live, they can always seek refuge here if they need it.

I wish I had the resources to give them something more than the promise to walk through the proverbial fire for them, as they head off to change the world, but alas, Jake is going to be paying off college loans until he’s 102, so I’ve had to scale back my spending.

What I can do is send them off, armed with some advice. I’ve been told our attention spans have deteriorated to the point where most people won’t read a paragraph that’s more than four lines, so I’m going to put it in list form in hopes that they will accidentally read a little before a squirrel happens by.

Pearls of Wisdom for “My Boys”

  1. If it needs to be a secret, you shouldn’t be doing it.
  2. This is your chance to evolve into the person YOU want to be. Reinvent yourself. Don’t buy into the labels assigned to you in your youth. You don’t know it yet, but your mind and your life are about to expand in ways you can’t imagine.
  3. GO. TO. CLASS. There is no substitute for your physical presence. Someone, maybe you or maybe your parents, is paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 for you to get an education. The least you can do is get to class.
  4. Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and ambitions. Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future. I didn’t make that up, but I wish I had. No truer words have ever been spoken.
  5. Avoid the girl who needs to be the center of attention. Why? Because the minute your focus is redirected to your studies or your job, she will go out and find someone else to feed her ego. Let her go off and break someone else’s heart. Otherwise, I’ve got to hunt her down, and well…..that’s not going to end nicely for anyone.
  6. Forget your SAT scores and high school GPA. They’re irrelevant now. New ballgame. Prepare to work your ass off. Determination and perseverance will take you so much further than you realize.
  7. Be bold. Meet new people. In addition to determination and perseverance, you need connections. When you graduate and begin looking for employment, connections are everything.
  8. Professors are people too. Let them see that you’re serious about being successful. A wise man once told me, if you make a good first impression they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt when you most need it.
  9. “O Captain! My Captain!” Yes, I’m talking to you. You are your own boss now. If you don’t have a great deal of self-discipline, you better find some. There are going to be distractions and opportunities to derail you, like you’ve never imagined. Your education has to be the priority. You need to be better qualified than the other applicant. If you flunk out and go home you won’t be.
  10. Do not, under any circumstances, bring a strumpet home to meet your mother. You should all be able to recognize them on sight. I know your mamas and they’ve all worked hard to raise you right. Don’t make us act ugly, because we will.
  11. Take care of yourselves, both physically and mentally. We’re not naïve, and we expect you to have some fun, but know when to say “when”. There is nothing attractive about a drunk guy. In one glance you are sloppy, stupid, uncoordinated, and helpless. Not a good look.
  12. Take care of your friends. Partially developed frontal lobes sometimes lead to stupid decisions. If someone has too much to drink or is visibly impaired, do not leave them alone. You were raised better than that. Be the responsible one.
  13. Get a job. It will greatly improve your time management skills, and you will meet some incredible people.
  14. Step into this new experience with an open mind. You’re going to be surrounded by people from a multitude of regions, religions, backgrounds, ethnicities, and belief systems. Learn from them and appreciate the insight they’re able to give you. I promise, it will pay off in the real world.
  15. Call your mama. We’re proud of you, we’re confident in your abilities, and we want to see you grab the world by the tail, but when we look at you, we still see a chubby little boy with fat cheeks and muddy shoes, who loves us more than oxygen. That will never change. Never.
  16. There will be drugs. Don’t do them. Just don’t. Nothing good can come of it.
  17. Embrace your mistakes and learn from them. If you don’t make some, you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s okay to fall down, as long as you get back up with renewed purpose.
  18. Call your dad. He misses you too, but may not be as obnoxious about it as your mother and I are. He has knowledge that can benefit you; access it while he’s on this earth.
  19. Be kind. It’s free and it changes lives. Yours, as well as someone else’s. Be a positive voice in this world of ours that is so fast, complicated, and at times, self-serving.
  20. Don’t come home too much. This is your time to really discover YOU and practice adulting. If you’re home every weekend, you’re still absorbing the energy of who we want you to be and what we believe is best for you. Separate from us a little. We’ll hate it and it will hurt, but we will survive; and then we will marvel at this man you’ve become with your own identity, belief system, and ambitious plans for the future.

Make us proud, your mom and me, because we both love you to pieces. I know you will. And when you’re home, mi casa es su casa. Come by, give me a big hug, and tell me how great you’re doing. This old lady is going to miss looking out the back window while you play basketball, listening to your seriously awful music, and having free labor at my disposal.

Now get out there and kick ass. You owe us at least that.

 

 

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You’re Fantastic and I Love You

IMG_0505Dear Teenage Girls,

You’ve been fed many lies over the course of your life, and I’m going to apologize on behalf of society for all of the misconceptions you must surely have regarding your purpose on this earth, and your value as a human being.

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, it’s not your job to be sexy. You’re a teenager, not a woman. You can stop with the pouty-lipped selfies and the midriff prom dresses. What’s perfectly normal is for a teenage girl to look in the mirror before a date and think, “I hope I look pretty.” What’s not normal is for a teenage girl to look in the mirror before a date and think, “Do I look hot?” It is not your job at 16 to look sexually desirable, nor should it be your goal.

You’ve grown up watching commercials where VS models with unrealistic measurements, parade down runways in their underwear. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s not okay to walk around in lingerie in front of people you don’t know. Nor is it okay to send photos of yourself in lingerie, or less, to attract the attention of a teenage boy. Additionally, you’ve tuned in while groups of women alternate “hooking up” with some random man, so pathetic he has to go on a network television show to find a date, in hopes that he will choose them. I’m going to let you in on another little secret. Normal women with a healthy self-esteem, don’t compete with a gaggle of women for a man’s affection. Normal men with a healthy self-esteem, don’t invite the attention of 20 women, simultaneously. Do your very best to be normal.

For reasons I’ve been unable to determine, my generation of parents has one hell of a time telling your generation of teenagers, no. This has resulted in many of you leaving your homes with your ass extending well past the hem of your shorts, and in some cases, wearing shorts so tight that you must surely be doing permanent damage to your circulatory system. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to do stupid things. Your frontal lobe is still under construction. This is why you are impulsive and unpredictable. As parents, it’s our job to be your frontal lobe. We’re supposed to say, “I’m sorry, honey. There’s no way in hell I’m buying those shorts for you. You look like a working girl.” Should you wear shorts down to your knees? No, you’re not 70. But, you should wear shorts that completely cover your butt cheeks. Unfortunately, due to either your parent’s own struggles with propriety or their inability to tell you no, you’re leaving home dressed in a way that misrepresents who you are and what you aspire to be. Or at least, I hope you’re being misrepresented. If you’re not, life is going to get a whole lot harder in a couple of years. My father, Big Jerry, would have turned beet red, gritted his teeth, and spontaneously combusted, if I attempted leaving his house wearing a push up bra and short shorts. It was this crazy setup we had where I was the child and he was the parent. I’m currently working on a handbook entitled, “What Would Big Jerry Do?” It would serve as a guide for those parents just too submissive to give you boundaries that will protect you from your own impulsiveness, and will set you up for the kind of life you deserve.

So, in an effort to combat this image the media has perpetuated, that you are just underdeveloped women out parading your wares to underdeveloped men, and to give you the frank advice and boundaries you’re not getting at home, I’ve created a list of stuff you need to know. Why? Because, as I tell my daughter every single day, “You’re fantastic and I love you.”

  • You are special. There is no one else on this earth like you. Not everyone is worthy of your time and attention. Be selective.
  • Teenage boys, even the nice ones, will say whatever they think they need to say to see you naked. They are driven by hormones. In that moment, they may even believe what they’re saying, but it’s only their penis talking.  You’re driven by hormones too. This means your body will tell you, you want to do things you shouldn’t do. Stop. Emotional people don’t make good decisions. Wait until you’re not in “the moment” to determine what you may or may not be ready for….and trust me, while your body may say it’s ready, you are absolutely not ready emotionally. Sex changes everything. Your mother may not tell you that, but I will.
  • John Mayer is right. Your body is a Wonderland, but it’s YOUR Wonderland. You’re not a ride at the county fair. Protect it. It’s the only one you get. And contrary to what the writers of the show, “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” would have you believe, it’s not glamorous to be an unwed teenage mother, and it puts a serious cramp in your dating life. In fact, once you have a child, your life is no longer your own. Every single decision you make is made with another human being in mind. A human being that is completely dependent upon you for survival. Sound like a tremendous responsibility? It is. It is if you’re doing it right, anyway.
  • You want to be attractive to others. I get that. First, ask yourself, “What kind of guy do I want to attract?” Then conduct yourself accordingly. Here’s the cold, hard truth. If you go out dressed like a strumpet, I guarantee you that you will get the buyer you advertised for. You will get a player. You will the get the guy that is charming, and good-looking, and can’t wait to move on to the next girl who presents herself as “willing”. Because, you see, as much as we like to say, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” we do. We all do.
  • You have been led to believe that your value lies in your sexuality. This is why some of your friends fall into the trap of sending nude photos to boys they hardly know. They aren’t bad girls. They’re struggling. Subconsciously, they think they’re showing someone they find attractive their “value”. That isn’t where your value lies. As young women, you have more opportunity now, than any generation before you. You are intelligent, creative, capable, well-educated, and on FIRE! The STEM professions are begging for women….and they pay well. Be an achiever. People are naturally attracted to people who are successful. Find something you love to do, and do it well.
  • Teenage boys are lazy. They like life the easiest and most effortless way possible. This means they will do as little as you will allow them to do. MAKE them come to the door to get you. EXPECT them to open your car door on a date. DON’T agree to a date via text. Remember, you are special and you should be treated as such. Repeat after me: “As long as I allow it, it will continue.” Set expectations and boundaries. Demand that those expectations be met and that those boundaries be respected.
  • Nothing that happens between you and a teenage boy, who is not your established boyfriend, is a secret. I grew up with mostly male friends and I can tell you that they tell everything: Every. Single. Little. Salacious. Detail. As well as some extra stuff that they make up. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “If I hookup with this guy tonight, am I going to feel the least bit uncomfortable running into him at a party tomorrow night?” If the answer is yes, or maybe, just don’t.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other girls. Beauty is not just physical appearance. It’s a combination of qualities that include kindness, intelligence, integrity, talent, creativity, and humor. You’re never comparing apples to apples. Some of us wax where others wane. For some reason, girls view each other as adversaries while guys view each other as teammates. You don’t need more adversaries, you need more teammates. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot make yourself look better by making someone else look worse.
  • Do you have a friend who’s engaging in promiscuous behavior? Does she laugh it off and tell you she’s using them too? Guess what. She’s lying. Men are wired differently than we are. For many boys, sex can be a purely physical act. They can engage in sexual activity with someone that they have little or no attraction to and feel no emotion for. Girls are different. Sex is tied to your brain, as well as your body. I’ve never known a girl who could engage in sexual activity with a boy and not suffer emotionally if she was then rejected. If you have a friend who is selling herself short, talk to her. Help her see her value. She’s looking for love, validation, and attention, and a hormone-driven teenage boy is not where she’s going to find it. Sex is a wonderful thing when it occurs between two people who are emotionally mature, committed to one another, and engaged in a relationship founded on love and trust. Otherwise, it is a minefield from both a physical health, as well as a mental health, perspective.
  • As high school students, you face a whole host of temptations that your parents never did. In my day, we could legally purchase alcohol at 18, so there was alcohol and a little weed here and there. Now, high school experimentation encompasses prescription drugs and illegal drugs we didn’t even know existed. Would you eat food you pulled from a trashcan? No? Well, if you ingest anything that wasn’t prescribed to you, and hasn’t been regulated by the federal government, you are basically playing Russian Roulette. Drug dealers aren’t concerned with your safety. They are in it for the money. Period. You could be putting stuff in your body that it can’t cope with. You know, that body you only have one of. And trust me, you need all the brain cells you can get. My father once told me that there’s nothing more unattractive than an inebriated woman. I worked as a bartender in college and I can tell you that’s a true statement. It’s actually true for both sexes, but right now we’re talking about you. Not only does it make you less attractive, it leaves you a potential victim. Never, ever leave a friend who has consumed illegal drugs or alcohol alone anywhere. I can assure you that there is some low-life out there just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of her.

Do I seem angry? Good, because I am. I look at your generation of young women and I see the potential for greatness of a kind we haven’t realized in the generations that came before you. I’m scared too, because I fear that we’re failing you, and you don’t realize just how remarkable you are. You don’t know that you’re much, much more than the sum of your reproductive parts. Sit down and make a list of every positive quality you have. The catch? None of them can be related to your physical appearance. I don’t care if your eyebrows are “on fleek” or you’re “skinny thick”. I care about how you’re going to leave your mark on the world. I care about what your dreams are….and I command you to dream big. I care about your intellectual strengths, whether they’re academic or artistic. Contrary to what you may have been told, there’s tremendous value in both. Are you tenacious? Great! Contemplative? Perfect. Are you fiery? Brilliant. It will keep people from taking advantage of you.

You are perfect in your imperfection. Every day, I want you to look at yourself and say, “You’re fantastic and I love you.” Start showing the world who you are and what you’re capable of, instead of what you’ve got. If you need a mentor, let me know. Seriously, let me know.

Because, you’re fantastic and I love you.

 

 

Letting Go

Letting Go

June 27th, 1999. I’m making a quick trip to the grocery store. As I’m backing out of the driveway, I have this nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something. I brake and look over; purse is in the passenger seat. I shift to reverse again and give the car a little gas. Still not out of the driveway, I screech to a halt. Then it hits me, “Oh, shit! I have a baby!”

Now, in my defense I had given birth four days earlier and had gotten maybe a total of 45 minutes sleep in the days that followed. I was determined to breast feed this child. All of the research said he would be more intelligent, have fewer ear infections, and bond more completely to me. I was sold on the idea. I had visions of me, clad in skinny jeans, laughing and rocking him while he breast-fed and cooed, lovingly and contentedly. The reality was me, a zombie (seriously, I was hideous and a little surprised that my baby didn’t recoil from me in fear) wearing men’s sweatpants, and crying hysterically while my baby drank ferociously from my mangled breast, then passed out cold like a binge drinker at an open bar.

It was my first clue that, despite the fact that I was head over heels in love with this kid, I wasn’t going to be a natural at the motherhood thing.

The breast feeding experience gave me a new found respect for animals that can’t resort to Enfamil when the going gets rough. In fact, I still wince when I see a baby anything latch on. I did find, though, that what I lacked in breast feeding expertise, I made up for in other areas. I perfected cleaning with my right hand while I carried him in the crook of my left arm. On the rare occasions when I actually laid him down, I placed a compact mirror under his nose at regular intervals to be sure he was breathing. I selected his baby food with great care, trying each jar first and discarding the truly nasty stuff. There’s a lot of truly nasty baby food.

Because I lost the coin toss, we named him Jake instead of Landry. Jake and I became inseparable. I shielded him from that psycho purple dinosaur, bought him Baby Einstein DVD’s, and introduced him to classic rock. Imagine my pride, when at 2 1/2 years old, he launched into ‘Purple Haze’ in the middle of my ultrasound appointment while pregnant with his sister. Even the doctor remarked that he had never heard a 2 year old sing Hendrix before. Jake was having lots of fun ruling my universe. So much so, that when I brought his sister home from the hospital, he took one look at her while I was changing her diaper, expressed his dismay over the fact that she didn’t have a penis (after all, what would she play with in the tub?) and asked how long before we could take her back.

In time, Jake acquiesced and his younger sister became a much loved, although not breast-fed, part of the family. Then, when he was about 6 years old, his father and I separated. Divorce isn’t always a bad thing. There are times when it turns an emotionally-charged and unpredictable home, into a relaxed and stable one. This was one of those times.

Relief doesn’t describe how I felt. It was a physical lightening. If you’ve been through it, you know what I’m saying is true. I was worried though, about my kids and how they would adjust. My daughter was 3 and too young to really have a grasp of what was happening, but Jake was 6 and he understood exactly what the deal was. On top of that, he was a boy and I wasn’t. There was stuff he would have to be taught and I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

It’s no secret that I wasn’t the conventional, “Dr. Spock” kind of mother. My kids listened to rock instead of Kids Bop because I consider bad music a form of child abuse; I didn’t make them eat green baby food; I never had the extra outfit, remembered to pack a snack, or watered down the juice; neither one of them took a nap after they were about a year old; and when they fell down and skinned their knee, I clapped. Yep, that’s right. I clapped and cheered like they had just jumped the Grand Canyon on a Honda CR-50. In the blink of an eye, they would go from a possible level 10 meltdown to thinking they were the coolest cat on the planet and wearing that Band-Aid like a badge. Learned that one from my good friend, Gina. Try it.

So, as the years rolled on, I began to truly see what this boy of mine was made of. I did my best to fill in the voids and I’m sure I failed miserably often, but he never let me know it. Sure he would love football, I signed him up to play. After much research, I took him out in the yard to teach him how to tackle. I went into this detailed explanation about velocity being the result of the distance he traveled and the time he traveled it in. “It’s important” I said, “that you not hesitate or you’ll lose force.” He looked at me in complete seriousness and said, “Why do I want to run into another person at full speed? That doesn’t seem very smart.” A better mom would have seen the light, scrapped football and signed him up for tennis. He played for a few years, trying to make me happy, before he finally admitted he hated it.

And so began the evolution of this boy who, through no fault of his own, was forced to deal with the shortcomings of an unconventional mother as he evolved into a man. Being a single parent, mother or father, creates a parent/child dynamic very different than the one that exists in a two-parent household. When you’re a woman trying to raise a boy to be a man, it’s a true balancing act. As much as I wanted him to grow up blissfully unaware of the challenges we faced, that would have been impossible. Had he not been wired with the emotional maturity of a 40-year old, the wit of a stand up comic, and been smarter at 10 than I am now, life might have gone in a different direction. I desperately wanted to do right by him, and he never wanted to disappoint me, so we navigated life as a team.

I learned that the perfect time to talk to him about life was while he was shooting basketball. He loosened up and I had my best shot at dissecting his world to figure out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. He learned that even though my jump shot was sketchy, I was great for running down rebounds.

I learned that being left out of father/son outings wasn’t going to kill him, even though it almost did me. He learned to surround himself with kids who had similar situations or who were the square peg in the round hole for some other reason.

I learned that the legendary “good ole boys” club is alive and well. He learned to be his own man and to let something go when it stops being fun.

I learned to stop worrying that he was too shy, or too laid back, or not motivated enough. He learned to step up and take control of his life, his grades, and settled comfortably into being who he was born to be.

I learned that no matter how I tried to hide the stress of too many bills and not enough money, some kids can’t be fooled. He learned that with life comes challenges and that giving up isn’t an option.

I learned to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t home to bake the class cupcakes and I was way too tired to cook dinner many nights. He learned how hard single parents work to keep life on track…and I guarantee you he’ll be one hell of a great husband and dad because of it.

When I took him to kindergarten, we were both excited and said goodbye with a big smile and a fist bump. I looked around at the red-rimmed eyes of the other mothers and thought, “What is wrong with these people? They aren’t going off to war, they’re going to school. This is the natural progression of things.” I saw it with each transition; elementary to middle school, and then middle school to high school. There were a couple of times I was sure I had pulled something during a hard eye roll. I called those women bad names. Names that mean weak and wimpy and look like the word fussy.

Enter karma.

There are 206 days until this boy of mine graduates from high school. 221 days until I can no longer call him a boy. I know because I remind myself every day. I often hear parents say to their children, “I’m not your friend.” They say it as if they’re proud of that; as if it, in some way, makes them a better parent. Hell, I’m no expert. Maybe it does.

I’ll tell you this though, my son is my friend. He has walked all the way through the fire with me. Helped me find ways to make $10 last four days. Convinced me the meal I fed him was absolutely delicious when I knew it was barely edible. Reminded me that it was important for me to nurture my own love relationship, because one day he and McRae were going to be gone. Made me laugh so hard I cried, when all I really wanted to do was collapse in a heap and have a pity party. Stepped in and educated his sister on the many short-comings of teenage boys, among those the ability to lie through their teeth when they’re talking to teenage girls. Forbidden me from going to bat for him because he wants to be his own man. Told me he’s proud of me when I wasn’t very proud of myself. Taken care of me when I wasn’t feeling well. Supported my volunteer efforts. Gotten up to discuss world events with me over a cup of coffee, even when he could have slept in. And best of all, over the years he’s kept my house filled with happy, funny kids who consistently reminded me what life is really about.

In my book, that’s not just a friend. That’s a best friend.

So, on most days I find myself trying to quell the tears that appear for no real reason. No real reason other than I’m one day closer to letting him go. One day closer to not hearing him call out “Stevie”, instead of “Mom”. One day closer to chasing the boys away from McRae by myself. One day closer to only having one child to say, “You’re fantastic and I love you” to as we head out into the world each day. One day closer to collapsing in a heap and having that pity party, but quietly because I know it’s selfish. One day closer to sending my man-boy off into a world that doesn’t seem as kind as it did when I was his age. One day closer to reducing my role in his life to one that’s less bossy and more advisory. One day closer to having no idea if he’s going to class or hanging out with the right crowd.

One day closer to having no idea if he’s home safe before I go to bed. And that, my friends, is the worst part.

I’ve done what I set out to do, but never believed I could. His entire life I’ve stressed independence and self-sufficiency. I’ve reminded him how my job is to prepare him to leave. In every aspect of my life I’ve been an underachiever; until now. I knocked this out of the park. There are days I wish I had eased off the gas a little. I wish I could see some hesitation in him. I don’t. I see a man ready for the next chapter. Eager to expand his world intellectually, physically, and emotionally.

He’s ready. The question is, am I? Regardless, I’ll practice what I’ve preached.

I’ll be tough, stay focused, give him a smile and a fist bump, and whisper to myself,  just like I did all those years ago, “This is the natural progression of things.”

Parenting: Are We Getting a Raw Deal?

12711307_10206480078338131_5829653117437408897_oSummer 1974. I’m 9 years old. By 7:30 am, I’m up and out of the house, or if it’s Saturday I’m up and doing exactly what my father, Big Jerry, has told me to do. Might be raking, mowing, digging holes, or washing cars.

Summer 2016. I’m tiptoeing out of the house, on my way to work, in an effort not to wake my children who will undoubtedly sleep until 11 am. They may complete a couple of the chores I’ve left in a list on the kitchen counter for them, or they may eat stale Cheez-its that were left in their rooms 3 days ago, in order to avoid the kitchen at all costs and “not see” the list.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re getting a raw deal where this parenting gig is concerned. When did adults start caring whether or not their kids were safe, happy, or popular? I can assure you that Ginny and Big Jerry were not wiling away the hours wondering if my brother and I were fulfilled. Big Jerry was stoking the fires of his retirement savings and working, and working some more. Ginny was double bolting the door in order to keep us out of the house, and talking on the phone while she smoked a Kent. Meanwhile, we were three neighborhoods away, playing with some kids we’d never met, and we had crossed 2 major highways on bicycles with semi-flat tires to get there. Odds are, one of us had crashed at some point and was bleeding pretty impressively. No one cared. We were kids and if we weren’t acting as free labor, we were supposed to be out of the house and out of the way.

My personal belief is that the same “woman with too little to do”, that decided it was necessary to give 4- year old guests a gift for coming to a birthday party, is the same loon who decided we were here to serve our kids and not the other way around. Think about it. As a kid, what was your costume for Halloween? If you were really lucky, your mom jabbed a pair of scissors in an old sheet, cut two eye holes, and you were a ghost. If her friend was coming over to frost her hair and showed up early, you got one eye hole cut and spent the next 45 minutes using a sharp stick to jab a second hole that was about two inches lower than its partner. I watched my cousin run directly into a parked car due to this very costume one year. He was still yelling, “Trick or Treat” as he slid down the rear quarter panel of a Buick, mildly concussed. When my son was 3 years old, we had a clown costume made by a seamstress, complete with pointy clown hat, and grease makeup. His grandmother spent more having that costume made than she did on my prom dress.

At some point in the last 25 years, the tide shifted and the parents started getting the marginal cars and the cheap clothes while the kids live like rock stars. We spend enormous amounts of money on private instruction, the best sports gear money can buy, and adhere to psycho competition schedules. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve bought the $300 baseball bats with money that should have been invested in a retirement account, traveled from many an AAU basketball game, or travel baseball game, to a dance competition in the course of one day, and failed to even consider why. Remember Hank Aaron? He didn’t need a $300 bat to be great. Your kid isn’t going pro and neither is mine, but you are going to retire one day and dumpster diving isn’t for the elderly. My brother and I still laugh about how, when he played high school baseball, there was one good bat and the entire team used it.

Remember your clothes in the 70’s? Despite my best efforts to block it out, I can still remember my desperate need to have a pair of authentic Converse shoes. Did I get them? Negative. Oh, was it a punch in the gut when my mother presented me with the Archdale knock-offs she found somewhere between my hometown and Greensboro. Trust me. They weren’t even close. Did I complain? Hell, no. I’m still alive, aren’t I? We’ve got an entire generation of kids spitting up on outfits that cost more than my monthly electric bill. There were no designer baby clothes when we were kids. Why? Because our parents weren’t crazy enough to spend $60 on an outfit for us to have explosive diarrhea in or vomit on. Our parents were focused on saving for their retirement and paying their house off. The real beauty of it is that none of these kids are going to score a job straight out of college that will allow them to pay for the necessities of life, brand new cars, and $150 jeans, so guess who’s going to be getting the phone call when they can’t make rent? Yep, we are.

Think back; way, way back. Who cleaned the house and did the yard work when you were a kid? You did. In fact, that’s why some people had children. We were free labor. My mother served as supervisor for the indoor chores, and the house damn well better be spotless when my father came through the door at 5:35. The battle cry went something like this, “Oh, no! Your father will be home in 15 minutes! Get those toys put away nooooow!” The rest of our evening was spent getting up to turn the television on demand, and only to what Dad wanted to watch.

On weekends Dad was in charge of outdoor work and if you were thirsty you drank out of the hose, because 2 minutes of air conditioning and a glass of water from the faucet might make you soft. Who does the housework and yardwork now? The cleaning lady that comes on Thursday, and the landscaping crew that comes every other Tuesday. Most teenage boys have never touched a mower, and if you asked my daughter to clean a toilet, she would come back with a four page paper on the various kinds of deadly bacteria present on toilet seats. Everyone is too busy doing stuff to take care of the stuff they already have. But don’t get confused, they aren’t working or anything crazy like that. Juggling school assignments, extracurricular activities, and spending our money could become stressful if they had to work.

I don’t recall anyone being worried about my workload being stressful, or my mental health in general. Jerry and Ginny had grownup stuff to worry about. As teenagers, we managed our own social lives and school affairs. If Karen, while executing a hair flip, told me my new Rave perm made me look like shit and there was no way Kevin would ever go out with my scrawny ass, my mother wasn’t even going to know about it; much less call Karen’s mother and arrange a meeting where we could iron out our misunderstanding and take a selfie together. Additionally, no phone calls were ever made to any of my teachers or coaches. Ever. If we sat the bench, we sat the bench. Our dads were at work anyway. They only knew what we told them. I can’t even conceive of my dad leaving work to come watch a ballgame. If I made a 92.999 and got a B, I got a B. No thinly veiled threats were made and no money changed hands to get me that A. Ok, full disclosure, in my case we would be looking at an 84.9999. I was the poster child for underachievement.

Back in our day, high school was a testing ground for life. We were learning to be adults under the semi-vigilant supervision of our parents. We had jobs because we wanted cars, and we wanted to be able to put gas in our cars, and wear Jordache jeans and Candies. Without jobs, we had Archdale sneakers and Wranglers, and borrowed our mother’s Chevrolet Caprice, affectionately known as the “land yacht”, on Friday night. No one, I mean, no one, got a new car. I was considered fairly lucky because my parents bought me a car at all. I use the term “car” loosely. If I tell you it was a red convertible and stop right here, you might think me special. I wasn’t. My car was a red MG Midget, possibly a ’74 and certainly a death trap.

Look at your coffee table. Now imagine it having a steering wheel and driving it. I promise you, it’s bigger than my car was. The starter was bad, so after school I had the pleasure of popping the hood and using two screwdrivers to cross the solenoids or waiting for the football players to come out of the dressing room headed to practice. Those guys pushing my car while I popped the clutch, is a memory no 16-year old girl around here will ever have, and it’s a great one. Had I driven that car in high winds, it’s likely I would have ended up airborne, and there were probably some serious safety infractions committed the night I took 6 people in togas to a convenience store, but I wouldn’t go back and trade it out for a new 280Z, even if I had the chance. I was a challenging teenager, and in retrospect the fact that it was pretty impressive every time I made it home alive, may not have been an accident on the part of my parents. Go to the high school now. These kids are driving cars that grown men working 55 hours a week can’t afford, and they aren’t paying for them with their jobs.

And those new cars don’t do a thing for telling a good story. I tell my kids all the time, the very best stories from my teen and college years involve Ann’s yellow Plymouth Duster with the “swirling dust” graphic, Randy’s Valiant with the broken gas gauge, and Carla’s burgundy Nissan that may or may not have had a complete floorboard. A story that starts, “Remember that time we were heading to the beach in Carla’s Nissan and your wallet fell through the floorboard onto the highway?” is so much more interesting than, “Remember that time we were going to the beach in your brand new SUV, filled up with gas that your parents paid for, and the…well, no, never mind. Nothing happened. We just drove down there.” To top it all off, most of them head off to college without a clue what it’s like to look for a job, apply for it, interview, and show up on time, as scheduled. If they have a job, it’s because someone owed their dad a favor…and then they work when it “fits their schedule”.

We all love our kids, and we want to see them happy and fulfilled, but I fear we’re robbing them of the experiences that make life memorable and make them capable, responsible, confident adults. For the majority of us, the very nice things we had as teenagers, we purchased with money we earned after saving for some ungodly amount of time. Our children are given most everything, and sometimes I wonder whether it’s for them or to make us feel like good parents. The bottom line is that you never value something you were given, as much as something you worked for. There were lessons in our experiences, even though we didn’t know it at the time. All those high school cat fights, and battles with teachers we clashed with, were an opportunity for us to learn how to negotiate and how to compromise. It also taught us that the world isn’t fair. Sometimes people just don’t like you, and sometimes you’ll work your ass off and still get screwed. We left high school, problem solvers. I’m afraid our kids are leaving high school with mommy and daddy on speed dial.

We just don’t have the cojones our parents had. We aren’t prepared to tell our kids that they won’t have it if they don’t work for it, because we can’t bear to see them go without and we can’t bear to see them fail. We’ve given them a whole lot of stuff; stuff that will break down, wear out, get lost, go out of style, and lose value. As parents, I suppose some of us feel pretty proud about how we’ve contributed in a material way to our kid’s popularity and paved an easy street for them. I don’t, and I know there are many of you that are just as frustrated by it as I am. I worry about what we’ve robbed them of, which I’ve listed below, in the process of giving them everything.

  • Delayed gratification is a really good thing. It teaches you perseverance and how to determine the true value of something. Our kids don’t know a damn thing about delayed gratification. To them, delayed gratification is waiting for their phone to charge.
  • Problem-solving skills and the ability to manage emotion are crucial life skills. Kids now have every problem solved for them. Good luck calling their college professor to argue about how they should have another shot at that final because they had two other finals to study for and were stressed. Don’t laugh, parents have tried it.
  • Independence allows you to discover who you really are, instead of being what someone else expects you to be. It was something I craved. These kids have traded independence for new cars and Citizen jeans. They will live under someone’s thumb forever, if it means cool stuff. I would have lived in borderline condemned housing, and survived off of crackers and popsicles to maintain my independence. Oh wait, I actually did that. It pisses me off. You’re supposed to WANT to grow up and forge your way in the world; not live on someone else’s dime, under someone else’s rule, and too often these days, under someone else’s roof.
  • Common sense is that little something extra that allows you to figure out which direction is north, how to put air in your tires, or the best route to take at a certain time of day to avoid traffic. You develop common sense by making mistakes and learning from them. It’s a skill best acquired in a setting where it’s safe to fail, and is only mastered by actually doing things for yourself. By micromanaging our kids all the time, we’re setting them up for a lifetime of cluelessness and ineptitude. At a certain age, that cluelessness becomes dangerous. I’ve seen women marry to avoid thinking for themselves, and for some it was the wisest course of action.
  • Mental toughness is what allows a person to keep going despite everything going wrong. People with mental toughness are the ones who come out on top. They battle through job losses, difficult relationships, illness, and failure. It is a quality born from adversity. Adversity is a GOOD thing. It teaches you what you’re made of. It puts into practice the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It’s life’s teacher. Our bubble-wrapped kids are so sheltered from adversity, I wonder how the mental health professionals will handle them all after the world chews them up and spits them out a few times.

I know you are calling me names right now, and mentally listing all the reasons this doesn’t apply to you and your kid, but remember I’m including myself in this. My kids aren’t as bad as some, because I’m too poor and too lazy to indulge them beyond a certain point. And I’m certainly not saying that our parents did everything right. God knows all that second hand smoke I was exposed to, and those Sunday afternoon drives where Dad was drinking a Schlitz and I was standing on the front seat like a human projectile, were less than ideal; but I do think parents in the 70’s defined their roles in a way we never have.I worry that our kids are leaving home with more intellectual ability than we did, but without the life skills that will give them the success and independence that we’ve enjoyed.

Then again, maybe it’s not parents that are getting the raw end of this deal after all.

Stuff I’ve Learned the Hard Way

1) Love, when done right, is an endless act of forgiveness, under-promising, and over-delivering.

2) Tequila, when consumed, should always be chilled and chased with OJ.

3) It is not enough to have a goal, you must also have a plan that outlines how you’re going to get there.

4) Children should be celebrated for who they were born to be, not molded into who we want them to be.

5) Travel is important…especially for children. And while I love the beach, I don’t mean just that.

6) The laziest person you know will get a job because of who they know. Connections are everything.

7) Everyone has the power to make a difference for someone.

8) Being dependent is dangerous, especially if you’re a woman.

9) Allowing someone to be dependent upon you is dangerous, especially if you’re a man.

10) All pets should be spayed and neutered, regardless of how cute they might be. There are lots of really cute, really awesome dogs and cats out there looking for a home, right now.

11) Always buy white towels and linens.

12) What’s inside a person can make the outside really attractive….and vice versa.

13) There’s no intimacy without vulnerability.

14) If you still have your best friend from when you were 12, at 50, you’re pretty darn lucky. I’m pretty darn lucky.

15) I may be as wise now, as I believed I was in my 20’s.

16) Always put your best foot forward, but don’t stress too much. Not once, in my adult life, has anyone ever asked what my class rank was or what kind of GPA I graduated with…..thank god.

17) There’s always going to be someone prettier, smarter, and more successful than I…and I’m good with that.

18) Personal integrity is not overrated. Look for people who have it. Keep them in your circle.

19) Parents should never coach their kids.  You’re much better suited to be a #1 fan. If you’re the coach, they are never really sure how good they are.

20) Eat the damn doughnut; but only once in a while, not every day.

21) If you have a personal struggle, the best way to combat it is to get outside of yourself and do something for someone else.

22) Watching too much TV kills productivity and creativity. Turn it off.

23) Expose your children to information and encourage them to develop their decision-making skills. Don’t force feed them your beliefs. Critical thinking skills are crucial to survival. The Internet and helicopter parenting have created a world full of followers.

24) Gossiping about what other people’s children are doing is a slippery slope.  After all, did your parents know everything you were doing? Do you think you know everything your kids are doing?

25) Once your children are in high school, the die is cast. Stalk them all you want to but they’ll find a way to do exactly what they want to do, and it will erode your relationship in the process. Instead, set reasonable boundaries and resist the urge to freak out when they come to you with something you kind of wish you didn’t know.

26) Some days you won’t like your significant other….at all. Guess what? That means you’re normal.

27) The right man or woman will love your kids from a previous marriage as much as you do.

28) Regular exercise fixes a lot of problems that medications, therapists, and booze won’t.

29) Nobody likes an idiot. Don’t be one. And yes, it’s a choice. Read a book.

30) Down time with your kids is essential. No TV, no phones.  Just conversation, and maybe a card game or some Scrabble.

31) If your relationships aren’t working, it’s because your selection criteria sucks.

32) Being positive gets you a whole lot farther down the road than negativity ever will.

33) Almost everyone looks good in pink.

34) Whatever you’re currently saving for your retirement, probably isn’t enough.

35) The reason that church and state need to remain separate is because this is where the majority of corruption lives. To combine the two would be catastrophic.

36) You will open your heart and trust people. Some of them will betray that trust. Only an ass does that. Move on.

37) Fresh cut flowers make a house a home.

38) Beneath anger you will almost always find a thick layer of hurt.

39) Emotional people never make good decisions. Close your mouth and wait.

40) There will be times you have to choose between your job and your children. Choose your children every single time. They grow up entirely too fast and this Merry-Go-Round only makes one rotation.  Enjoy every single moment.

When that Time Comes….

image2Sixty yards offshore on New Year’s Day and I watch as she tosses her head back, laughing with delight. Her smile infectious, even with the braces that she’s scheduled to wear another five months. A couple of hundred feet off the back of the boat, a dolphin breaches the surface, shiny and gray. Beautiful in the grace and simplicity of its silent swim. As I watch it curve effortlessly, I think just how perfect the moment is; the potential of a new year in its infancy, the wide, full smile of my 13 year old daughter, and that lone dolphin seemingly joining in on the fun. But that’s typical of my daughter, McRae. She’s human glitter. No matter the occasion, her presence always ups the ante a little. She and her friends, Addi and Payton, step to the edge of the boat, clasp hands and fling themselves into space, laughing through their screams, as their brightly colored tutus hit the 58 degrees Fahrenheit ocean. Their first New Year’s Day Penguin Plunge together is complete.

There is not one thing we do on this earth more rewarding, or more challenging to our self-confidence, than parenting our children. Despite all of our grand expectations of who and what our children will be, they show up with a plan all their own. Sometimes our expectations and their personality merge; but more often they do not. One thing is consistent: Our underlying fear that we’re failing them in a myriad of ways. You could have six of them, and no two would need to be loved in the same way. It’s a dance of sorts where the longer you’ve been together, the more graceful you become in finding a rhythm that serves both of you. Like dance partners though, the interaction is more instinctive with some than with others.

My son, from day one, was in step with me. He didn’t sleep unless he was in my arms. The temptation of finger painting and snack time with friends wasn’t even close to enough to keep him from crying until he was officially a Mother’s Morning Out flunky. As he grew into a boy, the relationship between us was effortless. We share the same sense of humor, the same taste in music, and our mutual interest in sports means that we always have something to discuss that we’re both engaged in. At 16, he’s easily my favorite person to trade a sarcastic barb with or make reference to the satirical genius of South Park, resting comfortably in the knowledge that he gets it too. Every parent, if they’re honest, has one child they know would have been their best friend had the universe made them biology lab partners instead of parent and child.

Over the years though, I’ve seen McRae as she watches us. Seemingly a little distant, almost certainly feeling like the one that walked up on the joke about 30 seconds too late. I know in my heart that she thinks for a hundred different reasons that he’s my favorite; our relationship is less combative, he looks like me, we are quick-witted and sarcastic, we’re homebodies and introverted, we love sports, and Jake is the “easy” kid.  When my patience is at its end because I’ve asked them to put their clothes away five times, to no avail, Jake diffuses my anger by cajoling me; teasing me about “watching my blood pressure” and my “advanced age”, and fulfilling my request. McRae fires back at me. Challenging my statement that I’ve asked her five times with, “No, you haven’t. It’s only been three times,” or trying to procrastinate just a little longer by needing to finish doing “this one thing”.  I don’t have to tell you how well that goes over. And so, with Jake and I, it’s like two old friends sparing over a beer. With McRae, it’s like a matador and a bull. Each dancing around the other, challenging and withdrawing, but prepared to fight to the death.

I wonder if the fire that she sends in my direction is just the hormone fueled angst of being a teenaged girl, or something deeper. Maybe I’m the deserving target of an anger that’s a result of our struggle for control, and my clumsy attempts to do a better job of relating to her. It leaves me with a hollow ache to think that there are times she might feel left out in our little family of three.

As I watch her break the surface of the ocean, face toward the sky and mouth open, gasping at the shock of the cold water, I’m overwhelmed with love for her and all that I want her to know about this complicated union we have. I want to pull her into my lap and explain that while Jake and I may share a sense of humor and a love for sports and music, she is everything I ever wanted to be. I can almost see her future stretched out before me, and I’m both excited and a little frightened by who I know she’s destined to be. Whether she realizes it or not, there are parts of her that are distinctly me; her fierce independence and brave front are fruits plucked from my genetic tree. Because of this, I know that there’s no telling her anything at this age. She will be driven to decipher life on her own, and I love this about her. McRae is unique in a way that I always wished to be, and I’m fascinated by all that she is every single day.

I know and understand her struggle as she swims against the current of emotional and physical biology that’s taking her from child to woman. She’s still fighting to understand herself. I know that the wrong word or tone can slam the door to her heart shut, and the opportunity to connect with her will be gone.  So, instead of telling her aloud all that I want to say; I arrange the words carefully in my mind and shelve them for the perfect moment when I sense that she might be receptive. Because there will be those times the door will crack open, and I will get to offer her my carefully constructed love in doses that she can accept. Nuggets of wisdom that will remind her how much she is loved, and give her a soft place to rest when life isn’t going so great.

So, when that time comes…..

I will tell her how I look at her full lips and long eyelashes and marvel at just how beautiful she is. She’s never gone through an “awkward stage”, while I spent a large part of my life in one. She doesn’t realize it now, but I refrain from complimenting her on her physical beauty and focus instead on her very brilliant mind, because I want her self-worth tied to something concrete instead of something fleeting. She will need something she’s sure of when other girls treat her poorly out of sheer jealousy. I wish I could pretend they won’t, but I know all too well they will.

I will tell her how I hold my breath every single time she takes the stage, dancing for the pure joy of performing, because I lacked the self-esteem to open myself up to the criticism of the world. I will tell her of my admiration for the way she faces every challenge with the underlying attitude of a winner; and how, on those occasions when she isn’t the victor, she possesses the confidence to lose with grace and a sense of humor. Only I know that, in that moment, she’s mentally formulating a plan to be better next time.

I will tell her how the enthusiasm she has for life is one of the things that makes her so extraordinarily beautiful.  It’s as if she has some sixth sense and already realizes just how tenuous the thread of life is. It will someday draw the perfect partner to her, but I will warn her that it will draw a score of imperfect ones too. It will be up to her to develop a selection process that serves her well, and trust her instincts.

I will tell her to embrace her intelligence and exercise the muscle that is her brain. I will caution her that while men say they want a woman who is smart, there are many that can’t handle the competition. I will threaten her within an inch of her life if she ever dims her light to make one of those who can’t handle her at full bore, more comfortable. She has an obligation to seek knowledge and embrace new ideas. She must reach her full potential because her mother did not.

I will tell her to use all of her fire and conviction to foster her independence. I want her to know that, if she lets it, her courage and adventurous spirit will gain her  incredible experiences that she will never forget.  I will encourage her to travel with friends, live in a new city, chase her career dreams, and become exactly who she is meant to be; before she marries and starts to make sacrifices for another.

I will tell her that while you can have children and a career, despite what people tell you, it’s impossible to devote equal energy to both. From time to time, one area will suffer some and it should always be her career. Co-workers can give presentations, complete budgets, and follow up with customers; but it’s her face that her child should look up and see at awards day and her arms that should comfort her baby sick with fever.

And when the door is open far enough, I will push my way inside and I will hold court. I will tell her that over all of these years, the relationship between us has been more complicated, but no less soaked in love than the one I’ve shared with Jake. I want her to know that, that’s just how it is with mothers and their daughters. I will share how I look at her and see all the potential she has in a world ripe with possibility; not to fulfill my dreams, but with opportunity to fulfill hers. I will tell her how I see those possibilities for Jake as well, but with her the fear is greater because, as a woman, I know the very specific obstacles she will face. I will tell her how I worry that I will fail her by not delivering all of the knowledge I have in a way that she can accept it. I will tell her how, at my core, I know that she will be the one who leaves me to explore the world at its outermost edges; and how that thrills and terrifies me simultaneously. I will point out to her how unique she is in a world full of people willing to settle for the standard, and I will cheer her on and encourage her to be what most of us aren’t capable of being.

But until then, until she has allowed that door to swing open enough for me to slip inside, I will wait patiently. I will hold her hand when she lets me. I will kiss her cheek at bedtime. I will applaud her accomplishments. I will grit my teeth and struggle through the synthesized pop music, and bite my tongue when she shares the latest Kardashian tidbit.

And I will love her on her terms, until then.

 

I’ll Take What’s Behind Door #3

Not too long after I finished my first blog post, which was a little like giving birth with no epidural, someone sent me a message and said, “Hey, how about writing something for us single people on your blog?” I replied that I would be happy to, and I’ve been struggling with it ever since.

When you’re young and beautiful, dating is fun and exciting. You’re free to go out anytime and stay out until the wee hours. If you don’t hit it off with this one, there’s another one just around the corner. Your skin is dewy and smooth, your energy is endless, and you have all the time in the world.

Not so when you’re 50. At 50, the game is a changed one. What once was an ocean of potential lovers, has become a wading pool of the potentially tolerable. Dates are scheduled around your children’s ballgames, school projects, and job obligations. Forget beautiful, we’re just hoping for passable. Our once luminous skin is dull and wrinkled at worst; freshly exfoliated and wrinkled at best.

After a crazy work week running kids to extracurricular activities, doing laundry, and cooking (okay, full disclosure: picking up takeout) we’re just hoping to make it through dessert without falling asleep in our tiramisu.

Too often, what was once an exciting process of getting to know someone and their hopes and dreams, has morphed into spending an entire evening listening to a one-sided account of how and why, your date’s former spouse is cheating scum and now married to their former neighbor/boss/best friend/best friend’s spouse. Its torture; and suffering through the unabridged version is rarely worth the cost of the meal.

My dating history is long and storied. You know the part of your brain that made getting a Rave perm a week prior to your senior pictures seem like an excellent idea?  That’s the part of my brain that’s been responsible for the majority of my relationship choices.

For me, college was a time to focus on doing the bare minimum to keep from ending up on academic probation, regularly changing majors to avoid graduating, and a record-setting amount of fun. While other girls were settling down and flipping through issues of “Brides”, I was systematically eliminating any man who could even spell responsible. If they had Peter Pan syndrome, struggled with monogamy, or had career aspirations that included living in a hut on the beach so that they could jump on the best waves first, I was in.

While other girls were quietly scooping up the responsible, level-headed men with a secure future; I was running from them. I remember this med student, in particular. I went on one date with him. He was cute, outgoing, quick-witted, and pursuing a surgical career.  I ran from him like he was Ted Bundy. To someone like me, who had the emotional maturity of SpongeBob SquarePants, marriage and children sounded like some sad, last resort for people who lacked creativity and a sense of humor.

Many years later, when I had run out of single friends to have fun with, I married. Remember that part of the brain I mentioned earlier, that part that made the Rave perm a week before senior pictures seem like a great idea? It was working overtime. I won’t elaborate because I want you to finish reading and still think me sane. It ended, not a moment too soon, and I focused on my nearly perfect children, and insuring that they never felt like they were competing with anyone for my attention or affection.

Some years passed and, as fate would have it, I became reacquainted with a gentleman from my college days who was a genuinely nice man.  The timing was right and we began dating. I couldn’t imagine a better situation. I already knew him so I didn’t have to worry that he was some sociopath, he was handsome, attentive, and we still shared mutual friends. We lived in different cities and our work schedules weren’t the same, but I was committed.

Our relationship moved along fairly effortlessly. It wasn’t too long before I knew he was the love of my life. My heart was home. He felt the same way and over the years, we settled into a life of driving back and forth between houses and becoming a long distance family, of sorts. I looked forward to the future and growing old with him. We would still hold hands when we were 80, make each other coffee in the morning, and our house would be full on holidays. He loved me just as much as I loved him. I really believed I had it right this time.

When he proposed earlier this year, I was over the moon. He had two children and a family I had come to adore, and was clearly choosing to overlook my ever-expanding wrinkle collection and the fact that, despite my endless squats and running, my butt seemed determined to take up residence somewhere around the backs of my thighs.

Less than six months later, about a month into our 6th year together, he broke off the engagement. There was no “deal breaking” behavior; no infidelity, no lying, no substance abuse or physical abuse. He just felt that our obstacles of distance and differing work schedules were too great and he wasn’t happy anymore.

Saying I was devastated would be like saying Mother Teresa is a nice lady. I wanted to be angry with him, but I couldn’t be.  This man is a good man. He didn’t want to hurt me, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that he gave me everything he was capable of giving me.

I spent the first few days ugly crying in the fetal position, before it finally occurred to me that not everyone’s “forever” means forever. The hard truth is, if he were going to give up on us this easily, there is no way we would have ever made it all the way to the warm family holidays, and the coffee-making and holding hands in our 80’s.

You, dear reader, are going to be the beneficiary of the soul-searching and contemplation that resulted from the excruciating pain I suffered. In order to survive, I had to make sense of it all.

Life is brutal. It comes at you from all sides.  It’s tempting, you know, to think of every single undesirable trait you have when a relationship fails. I know I “go internal” when I have a problem and shut people out, I forget to return phone calls, I hate to cook, read when I should probably be talking, and don’t know how to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.  There are a million negatives to offset my wit and charming personality, and render me undeserving of love.

Here’s the thing though, every day people lose their jobs, battle exhausting, financially debilitating diseases, try to save their children from drug addiction, confess infidelity, and care for aging parents. In my world, love is what you combat the inevitable obstacles with. If I love someone, I don’t give up on them. That applies whether you are my lover, my child, my family, or my friend. “There is a solution for every problem.”  It’s my motto.  In fact, when you tell someone you love them, I believe you’re actually saying, “I will always give you the benefit of the doubt. I will stand beside you through the very worst of what life throws at us, and love you when you’re not very loveable. You will never face anything alone. I will be honest even when it hurts, and every single day, I will wake up and choose you.”  And I swear I did not rip that off from some Lifetime movie, or Lloyd in “Say Anything”. That little nugget is all mine.

When you get down to it, those married couples out there aren’t that different from those of us still looking. As individuals, most of us want similar things out of life. No one wants to die alone.  We want to feel safe, appreciated, and understood.  We want to know someone is out there who will celebrate our accomplishments, pluck us from the wreckage when everything implodes, and kick us in the ass when it’s required.

Ultimately, we want someone to share with that we can trust. The highs are that much higher when there’s someone else lifting you up; and when times are bad, they’re not nearly as overwhelming when there’s someone helping hold your head above water. Because, here it is: We are all imperfect.

Most of us go out into the world every day with good intentions. The problem is none of us are whole, so we use up our best behavior on the people we barely know and unleash the demons on the ones we love. Some of us do it a whole lot less than others, but we all do it. This is where it gets tricky, because we don’t choose WHO we love, but we do choose to STAY in love. This is where we single people differ from those couples you know that have been married 20 years.

No matter what we might think, they don’t have the perfect, blissful marriage full of sex, playful banter, and exotic vacations. What they do have are two emotionally mature people, who are doing their best to communicate their needs, and who are consciously choosing each other and choosing to stay in love each and every day.

My children are the reluctant recipients of my wisdom. I’ve told them time and again, “The good times will pass, and so will the bad. Don’t get too caught up in either one of them.” This is something people in successful relationships know instinctively….they aren’t always going to be happy, and they aren’t going to stay sad or angry. They expect the roller coaster, they ride it, and they never, ever give up. They CHOOSE to continue to love their partner.  Finding someone to fall in love with is the easy part, the challenge is finding someone who will always choose you, even when it might seem easier to walk away.

What we’re all looking for is a warrior. Someone who sees past our imperfections and the armor we wear every day, and loves us for our potential, our passions, and our own unique set of gifts.

What I’ve learned is that romantic relationships aren’t anything more than friendships on steroids with physical attraction. Aristotle believed that there are three main categories of friends:

  • Those who love you because you’re useful to them.
  • Those who love you because your company provides them with pleasure.
  • Those who love you because you’re a good person.

People who are a part of your life primarily because you’re useful to them, or your company provides them with pleasure, will always end up leaving. I don’t know about you but as hard as I try, I’m not always useful and my company is sometimes anything but pleasurable. Why? Because, I’m imperfect. Because there are times in my life I’m a dream come true, and there are times you would probably just want to fast forward through a couple of weeks.

Someone that loves you based on your usefulness and/or the pleasure you bring them, will almost always stop choosing to love you and abandon ship when they hit high seas. It’s category #3 you’re looking for; the relationships that are based on your partner’s ability to see you as a good person are the ones that last. The first two types of relationships exist when one person wants to “be loved” more than they want “to love”. They’re looking for someone to flatter them and fill them up. Real, lasting relationships are the result of two people who are more focused on the act of loving. When someone loves you for your inherent goodness, they love you through the times you just don’t have what it takes to be useful or pleasing, and their focus isn’t on what they are or aren’t getting from you. They stay focused on what they can give. They continue to choose you, even in the worst of times. While there are obvious differences in the physical properties of a parent/child relationship and a romantic relationship, the quality of the love we extend should be the same.

Just today, I read an article that a hospice chaplain wrote about ministering to the dying. She said that many people were surprised to hear that the dying didn’t talk about their religion or God. They overwhelmingly talk about love. They talk about the love they gave and received. They talk about love that they felt in their lifetime, and love that should have been unconditional but wasn’t.  Many talked about love they withheld, or never knew how to offer. Sometimes they talked about love they walked away from and shouldn’t have.

We’re surrounded by opportunities to choose love every day in our interactions with our family, our friends, and our children. I believe that every act of love leaves us more beautiful than we were before.

After a loss, our first instinct is to tell ourselves we’re done. We’re giving up. But let’s face it, there is no greater gift in life than love and the conscious commitment to choose that love over and over again. While I still catch myself at stop lights every now and again, drifting off and wondering where I fell short, I’m pretty sure that up until this point I’ve spent most of my time in relationships with men whose love was rooted in categories 1 and 2. And while my life is full of love from some amazing people, I’m still hopeful that someday I’m going to find a category 3 kind of romantic love, and join the ranks of all those couples who figured it out way before I did.

But you know, when you think about it, a full house during holidays, making each other coffee and holding hands at 80, are all rooted in giving love and goodness. Maybe, just maybe, I’m headed in the right direction.