How my nest is different thanks to DS

nestI read this blog post thanks to a friend sharing it on Facebook, and I had too many ideas to share in a comment, so I’m writing my own post with my takes on the idea. Liane Kupferberg Carter wrote “For Some Moms, the Nest May Never Be Empty.

I wrote last year that my second daughter, who has Down syndrome, turned 18, and it was a different experience than when my oldest daughter did. She’s now 19, and she completed high school this June. That change and others of this year have been more impactful than her just turning 18. This year, she’s in a new class setting that’s at our local community college, but that’s still run by our county school district, as was her high school class. She is still learning life skills, but the class is working even more toward the students being able to move about in society on their own and work as much in ways they are able to and will enjoy. She carries around a small purse with a little money and her state I.D. card. She got a bus pass and her own library card (which I just hadn’t done with her yet myself). She’s talking more about socializing. Or maybe I’m picking up on it more. With her having “graduated” from high school, having her be able to be “out there” in the world in ways that work for her seems more imminent. I’m thinking more about finding ways for her to get out there and socialize with her peers. I’m thinking about the possibilities of her immediate and slightly more distant future, whereas before I was just putting that on the back burner in my mind, “putting a pin in it,” because there’s just so much else for me to think about RIGHT NOW (I mean, having three kids still at home, plus a “grown” daughter and now a grandson — yay!!! — is just a ton of work anyway. A woman can only do so much).

My husband has kind of set in his head that she will just live with us forever, so we will never be empty-nesters, just as Carter wrote. I’ve always had in my head that she certainly could move out to different kinds of settings that she may enjoy more than just staying with her parents, at least off and on. I still think that. She’s pretty social and capable.

At the same time, my nest continues to feel different. My oldest moved out two years ago when she got married, which really changed the dynamics in our home. We have four daughters, and it’s astounding how the dynamics shifted when just the oldest one moved out. For one, I really mourned when that oldest got married. It took me months to come to grips with it. I missed her so much, and having her be married and “belong” to someone else made it different than just going off to college. For another thing, I just didn’t like the way the remaining three interacted, compared with how it was when my oldest was still at home. They still bicker more than when she was here (as one example), and it’s been 2-plus years.

I’m acutely aware of the differences between me and my friends, especially the ones I follow on social media. They have similar age gaps in their families, at least at the beginning (there’s two years between the first two, but then a four-year gap after I had Marissa — I just wasn’t ready for another infant too soon because she still felt like an infant and toddler for a longer time than the first had — and then a five-year gap between the last two because it took three long years to get our adopted girl), and while I see their oldest out and doing various fun “new-adult” things like my first, then I see their second and third children out doing those things, too, and I feel like my situation has stalled. Sure, it’s comparing, and you know what they say about that, but it’s just always there. I see it. I feel it. I feel “other.”

I still have plenty of parenting time in me: I have a sophomore and a fifth-grader. From experience, I know the remaining time at home is going to fly with my sophomore, who really keeps me hopping. Then she’ll fly on out of the nest on to all kinds of great things. She’s an achiever, like I was. And the 10-year-old, well, 8 years still seems like a long time.

So the nest is still full-ish. But I have enough taste of the birds starting to fly out that I can feel those changes. I can feel the things that aren’t changing. I also worry a bit about things I’m not doing, which certainly isn’t different from any parent, no matter their child’s situation. I have just recently watched one episode of “Born This Way,” which follows some young-adult people with Down syndrome, and it stirred up all kinds of feelings of sadness, guilt, wistfulness, worry, etc. I was happy for the ways those young adults are just being “normal” young people. I felt guilt for not doing more to get my daughter “out there” more like that. In a way, I don’t want to have that to compare my situation to, because it’s almost harder emotionally for me to compare with people who are essentially more in my situation than others I know. It sets a standard I don’t know I can meet. I mean, I’m sure it’s meant in part to give me hope for a good life for my daughter, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I compare negatively.

I certainly know I’m not ready to deal more with my daughter’s dating future (which is probably a whole other post on its own). It’s hard enough to deal with certain simpler issues with her when she acts like an 8-year-old in many respects, let alone the complex world of dating.

I guess that’s where I put a pin in a few items still, work on some that I’d pinned earlier, and know that I can do this, one or two topics and needs at a time. And whether she eventually flies out of the nest permanently or occasionally, we’ll be (mostly) ready for it when we amble up to that bridge that needs crossing.


Parents who don’t hover are the ones in danger, not their kids

I’ve read a couple of articles lately that have reminded me just how tough it is to parent these days. And not in the ways you might think.

First, I read a great column about one woman’s experience, When kids were unbreakable, remembering her “dangerous” childhood and giving her kids some more opportunities for freer play. I think most of us who are in our 40s and up fondly recall hours of free play when we were growing up. I was particularly lucky to live “out in the country” most of the time before I turned 10, after which point I was more in neighborhoods. In both living situations, though, I was away from my house (and my watching mom) for hours at a time, playing in the dirt and in creeks, exploring the woods, walking along dirt roads, riding bikes along suburban streets or cutting through unfenced yards to walk to friends’ houses. I rode my bike with no hands a number of times, and once I ended up needing stitches in my elbow because of it (and I didn’t do it again). I don’t remember a lot of other dangerous things I must have done, just that I had lots of fun, was mostly smart about it, and paid attention to what was going on around me. Dad taught me to shoot a rifle in the backyard a few times (in the country); Mom taught me how to use a knife (and lots of other tools) in the kitchen.

The short story is this: my mom and dad didn’t watch my every move. I wasn’t penned inside my house; I wasn’t watching TV or any other screens very much. I ran and played. I breathed fresh air. I invented all kinds of fun games by myself and with friends and (if forced 🙂 ) my younger siblings. I made something fun out of “nothing,” the materials at hand. My mom felt fine — and was a perfectly great parent — letting me go outside her supervision for those hours.

Today, things are far different. We live in a hyper-vigilant society, in which we have 24-hour news coming at us from TV and the Internet and smartphones. Every instance of bad things happening to kids is reported to us. We fear strangers and are sure if we aren’t watching our kids every moment, that someone will likely snatch them. We live in a time when we are told to know the signs of child abuse. This is a good thing; abuse is not pushed under the rug as much and is better reported. But it’s made us all wary of being the kinds of parents who let our kids have free creative time to explore and imagine and play, without being within 10 yards of them at all moments. We fear that our kids might get kidnapped and/or abused. We fear that we’re not being “engaged” with our kids, providing them lots of fun play options. We fear we’re not good enough. I’m fairly sure that these weren’t concerns for our parents.

Which brings me to the second, and very disturbing but not surprising, article, Woman Calls CPS After Seeing Kid Play Outside. It upsets me to read it because I’ve been in a similar position. When my first two were only 2 years old and a few months old, I was reported (anonymously, though I was able to piece together who it was because I knew her personality and modus operandi) to CPS because someone was concerned they were undernourished and one had a raw, chapped rash between her lips and her nose. Here’s what the circumstances were: my kids were and still are, many years later, petite. The infant had Down syndrome, and many people don’t realize that children with Down’s have their own growth chart. My pediatrician measured her growth against other DS kids. She was fine and perfectly healthy. In fact, we’ve always been blessed that she’s been remarkably healthy, with no heart problems, no digestive problems, almost no ear infections, even. But she looked, to one too-sensitive observer, to be “too small.” My 2-year-old just had a bad (and difficult to break) habit of licking above her lips and that small area was for a fairly short period of time just red and chapped, and I did everything I could think of to make it better. This apparently also made me an object of concern.

A case worker came out to our house and questioned me and looked at the kids, and I was lucky enough that that was the end of it. My kids also were too young to know anything was going on. But it was extremely upsetting for me. I was scared and just sick to my stomach. Raising my kids was hard, and I was always grateful for a break and me-time, but I certainly didn’t want them taken from me!

It was also my introduction to the brave new world of Big Brother: everyone is watching you. And they are given the power over your life to call a number and anonymously report the possibility of you being a Bad Parent. Then you are thrown into what I have discovered is not just a flawed system, but one that’s in some places openly hostile and dangerous to normal, good parents. I don’t have space to tell all the stories, but I could relate a number of them, of good and loving parents who have ended up having to take time-consuming and unnecessary parenting classes, hire attorneys, and be in genuine fear for their parenting and working lives because someone misconstrued something they did in public. It is terrifying.

We have become a nation of helicopter parents, it’s true. And we’ve become a nation of people who are quick to jump to conclusions, who are quick to call “the authorities” on the basis of a tiny possibility of a problem, who don’t know their neighbors from Adam, who have no idea of any context of the lives of the people they’re reporting on. If we knew each other better, knew that our neighbors were good parents who love their kids, whose parenting styles assuredly are different from ours but are NOT BAD, who support their kids and teach them and are making them into responsible adults, we’d be far less likely to go straight to the government with a concern rather than talk to our neighbors first, if we do anything. But we don’t. We are very connected with disembodied people via smartphones and tablets and computer screens, and with talking heads on the news, but not truly interconnected with a community of real, living, breathing people. We’re taking a quick way out to call the authorities and assuage some kind of guilty conscience (for not being better involved, for not knowing Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their two kids next door) or to pat ourselves on the back for “doing the right thing,” as the government and news outlets repeatedly tell us.

Would it be possible at this point to go back a little, to recapture the sense of community we had as neighbors, to support each other in the tough job that is parenting, and to let our kids have the space they so desperately need (as studies keep proving) for free play and imagination and learning how to navigate the world? I’m a little worried that it’s not, that we’ve gone too far. But I desperately hope we haven’t.

Letter to a child who’s grown up too fast

Dear oldest daughter,

So. Here we are, you with only one semester left of high school. I think this one semester has given me more grief than it has you. For years, I’ve vowed that I would not, would NOT, have specific expectations for you that were based more on my own experiences than on what should be your own. But this last month has certainly tested that vow. First, I was concerned about your unacceptably low grades in one admittedly very difficult class. Then the deadlines came and went for priority admissions to several universities you were interested in, and you hadn’t completed half of what needed to be done. Last was this past week: that challenging class ended with a very low grade, despite my (unsuccessful) efforts to reach the teacher earlier in the semester to ask what you could be doing to make it better. Yep, I admit I ended up coming home on that last day of school after trying to talk to the teacher and your counselor and collapsing into a puddle on my bedroom floor. Of course, it had more to do with all the other things I’ve been doing for you and the rest of my children, but that was the topper.

So I’ve succeeded pretty well in just letting you live your own life, with support and some guidance from me, without me choosing things for you (pretty much) or imposing my own will or interests on your plans. But now that it’s crunch time, it’s been very hard.

Marce, Cathy and baby BI think back to the day I gave birth to you, my first child, and how absolutely at a loss I was for knowing what to do next. I’d successfully navigated a pregnancy, but holding you in my arms left me gaping into a future that I had no idea how to handle. I barely knew what to do with a baby. In photos holding you, I can just see the look in my eyes of “what now?” Luckily, your dad was much more adept with handling baby stuff: changing diapers, swaddling, clipping tiny but sharp little fingernails that had scratched up your delicate face before birth. At least you took to breast-feeding pretty well; I could feed you.

I’ve become much more skilled at taking care of baby and kid stuff over the past 17 1/2 years, and I diapered and fed and toilet-trained three others after you with aplomb. Now, though, I’m feeling that same feeling I haven’t felt in so many years: “what now?” How do I let you loose on the world? How do I balance not taking over details (I would have just been on top of those priority applications, no question, when I was younger; I was a very focused and driven high school student) with giving some gentle guidance and continuing support? As a young woman who’s about to be a legal adult, you have to make your own mistakes and learn from them the way you need to. But as your parent, it’s my job to help you navigate your way, maybe minimize the number of those mistakes a bit, even tweak natural consequences a tad when I can.

Because this is transition time. I’ve always wanted my kids to grow up working hard and being confident and independent, much like my parents did for me. (My mom says it was tough, but there’s no question my sister and brother and I were independent. Rueful chuckle.) I’ve never wanted to step in and take over, to not let you carry much of your own life loads, because then you’d be in shock when you were forced to do that later in life. But it does kill me to see you bloody your knees too badly.

So if someone were to take a photo of me standing next to you right now, I suspect the look in my eyes is going to be that deer-in-the-headlights look again. “What do I do with this fledgling adult?” I have to let you fly more outside the nest, but you’re getting scraped up a bit much lately and I feel it keenly.

So forgive me for my freak-out moments; be patient as I try to navigate a new time in my life of parenting. Try to come to me for help before things get out of control so I can really help. But that’s a lesson I’m still learning too (ask for help; say no; learn your limits), so I guess it’s just the start for you.

We’ll do this together, and we’ll come through with flying colors. In the meantime, though, the colors might be a little muddled.

Love, your adoring and dedicated mom

On life: possibilities, choices, and opening and closing doors

As I have gotten older, I’ve realized just how much it means that we as human beings have choices in our lives. I believe God put us all here on this earth for a certain number of years for a reason, and he gave us the gift of choice. He allows us to do what we want to do, and we get to learn from what we decide to do and be.

In saying that, I think much gets made of that part of the equation: hey, we have free choice! Whee! We can do what we please!   It sounds so exciting, so liberating. And it is. But the flip side of that “free” coin is this: once we make a decision, we are faced with the consequences of that decision, be they “good,” “bad,” or “neutral” consequences. And part of those consequences is that once we open a door and go through it, we can’t go back through it the other way. Life is constantly moving forward. Once the door opens, it closes behind us, and here’s the kicker … if we’re standing looking at choosing among ten different doors, or just two, we can only pick one. And we can’t go back and pick one of the other doors once we’ve gone through the one we chose.

Let me try to explain and qualify: yes, we may face many doors during our lives that are pretty much the same ones we had to choose among previously, but they’re not exactly the same doors; time is always moving forward, and things change in small and big ways. We’ll never choose again, at age 18, 3 months and 5 days, which college to attend. We may decide a year later, at age 19, 3 months and 10 days, to switch to a different college, but it’s not the exact same choice. We’re not the same people, and we don’t have the exact same options as before.

I think of life as this path along which I walk. The path is constantly branching off, and there are forks always. Some are big, with large roads to choose among, and some are just little footpaths with grass tamped down by a few travelers. But we’re always at some kind of crossroads. And at each of those decision points lies a door we pass through, which closes behind us.

Me as a baby, with my mom: my whole life was ahead of me.

There are infinite numbers of paths the younger we are, from my experience. And as we choose paths and corresponding doors, we tend to have fewer big paths to choose among, and doors tend to shut more permanently the older we get. Sure, we hear “success” stories about people becoming athletes at decidedly older ages than usual, or becoming famous painters at 80, or some such thing, but those are well-known stories precisely because they are rare and unusual. (News means something out of the ordinary, and that’s what stories like this are: news.) For most of us, once we choose at 20 to pursue a career in business as opposed to chasing a dream of becoming a pro baseball player, the sports door is shut tightly behind us, and we won’t see it ahead again.

I think back on all the things I did as a young person. I acted in plays, sang, played piano, played French horn in band, went to various competitions for different academic pursuits, took all kinds of classes, dabbled in drawing, wrote, read like crazy, and baked and decorated cakes. I went to college as a chemistry major. I stood on the threshold of university life full of hope and excitement and the thrill of embarking on a grand adventure, a dream.

1988: My dad and I on our way to the airport to get me to college.

But once I was out of college, I had shut many doors behind me. Acting, playing French horn, academic competitions, drawing, even chemistry were all behind me. I still baked, I still read and wrote. I just changed my mind about being a chemistry major and focused on journalism. As life progressed and I made decisions to major in journalism, my other minor interests had to be sacrificed as I took more and more classes in my major. Then when I graduated, I worked 40 hours a week as a copy editor, further narrowing my journalistic interests, at least for the time, on editing rather than writing. As an adult and a college graduate, I had work to do. I had less time to explore and be general. Of a necessity, some interests had to be sacrificed.

My life further was changed when I decided to marry and when I decided to have each of my four daughters. Each of those choices opened up gorgeous paths with all kinds of interesting and beautiful plants along the road (not to mention some thorns and hills, let me add). But when I chose those doors, many others closed behind me. There were just certain things I would never do.

As a mother with children all at home, some teens, one just about to start school, and one in the middle, I have a road full of carriages to push along or to supervise. I can’t leave this path and try another one. When they’re all grown, I’ll have some different paths open up to me, some different doors to try out. But they won’t be the exact ones I might have tried before I went down those paths at ages 18, 23 and 26, for instance.

Sometimes I feel the loss of those paths never taken, considered but left behind. I admit I do envy others on different roads, on occasion, when my choices and their choices have put us past very different doors. Some have what I might consider “exciting” or “glamorous” lives. No, I am not talking about celebrities or anything like that. But I might have really enjoyed going into the foreign service as one friend did. I love to be in different places and get to know them, as well as the people populating them. I love languages and find different cultures fascinating. I would have loved to be a book editor at a big publishing house in New York. But either of those options would have been very difficult either with children or with the lifestyle I have decided is the way I’d like to raise my children, and where and how. (Yes, there are diplomats with kids or editors with kids, but I don’t see myself doing either of those jobs the way I’d like to do them at the same time as raising my children the way I’d like to do it. It’s as simple as that.)

I know there are still some interesting doors ahead of me, and I look forward to them. But I am now trying to really come to terms with the fact that the doors coming up are not going to be as plentiful or the same options as the doors I had ahead of me 20 years ago. I think that’s much of what aging and maturing and growing up really means. We come to grips with the naked truth that we are not who we were when we were young. Life is not an endless stream of possibilities anymore. We’ve already chosen many of those possibilities, and they are no longer dreams ahead of us but memories behind us. Our bodies are not the same as they were, our faces and hair not the same, our hearts and minds are not the same. On the first count, our society today, unfortunately, doesn’t allow us to gracefully accept that our bodies and faces are going to age and not look “fresh and young” anymore. In fact, society is urging us to do all we can to fight that fact. But all we can do is postpone it for a bit, not ignore it or stave it off entirely. On the count of our hearts and minds, however, I would like to think that despite missing some of those fun things I dabbled in as a young person, and just having the entire panorama of possibilities still ahead, that now I can be mostly satisfied with the paths I’ve chosen and where I am now. I got a good education, I’ve done some interesting work, I’ve traveled and lived in a variety of places and met many wonderful people, I’ve raised (so far) some amazing daughters. I’ve loved and been loved. I’ve experienced life, and I’ve been happy.

Me and my daughters, 2010. So much promise, so many doors.

Now, I see all the doors standing open to my daughters and feel pangs of memory of how it feels to be in their shoes. But I am excited for them and all that lies ahead in their young lives. I’m doing what I can not just to make interesting choices among the options available for me, but to support my girls as they make their own choices. What a gift that is.