Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Forever Young

Your transition to the middle of parenting happens swiftly and silently like most other phases. You don’t remember when the baby starts sleeping through the night, or when they started talking in full sentences. Or when one day that stroller, the one you fretted so deeply about which one to buy - well one day cobwebs spring up around it in the garage where it lies, unused and untouched. You aren’t a mom pushing your babies in the stroller anymore. You’re not that mom anymore.

The thing about parenthood is that just when you gain your footing in whatever moment your kids are in, they change and so the whole experience sort of feels like you are perpetually bracing yourself, constantly searching for some sort of solid ground. There are these brief moments where the water seems foolishly calm and free of ripples. But even then you know that’s not how all of this works. The stillness is the exception. Parenthood is entirely about riding the waves.

Here now in the middle I’ve got tweens which is a new thing because tweens (and I’m guessing teens too) don’t talk to you that much. They are so full of all of this stuff, they are just brimming with near explosive emotion - anger, love, rage, curiosity - they are literally about to burst from all of it, and yet they just simmer, a device in their hand, and a parent who desperately wants to know more safely at arm’s length.

My best moments with my now nine and eleven year old happen at the most inconvenient and unexpected times and I don’t get to pick or plan them. Maybe suddenly they want to open up to me in the dark when I just want to say goodnight and walk away. Maybe that’s when they want to let me in. Or in the car right before they jump out. They reveal themselves and their hearts and their worries and questions in drips, puzzle pieces that I try to assemble in my mind as I lie awake worrying about them at night.

The thing about your children growing up is that you have to trust them. You have to trust them to navigate this utterly gut busting complex emotional minefield of lunch and middle school and social media and all of it. There are more moments that they are away from you then they are with you, and you have to hope that all of the stuff that you put into them during the first 11, 12, 16 years - is that still in there? Were they listening? Anyway this isn’t like tying their shoes. There is no hard and fast way to know if they really got it. If they internalized how much you love them, how much you need them to trust their instincts to guide them toward good and through difficult decisions. To remember that your love doesn’t get revoked when they make bad ones.

I guess that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. As we talk seemingly less, as more of our days become about meals and activities and homework and video games, I’ve been looking for some sort of proof that all of this stuff Phil and I have been whispering in their ears, some sort of evidence that they might have been listening. And one freezing December night, Ruby left me one such breadcrumb.

I’d bought us tickets to the symphony to see Leslie Odom Jr. perform. She’s obsessed with Hamilton and the thing is big kids don’t really want or need lots of toys anymore for their birthday or the holidays. And after all of the devices and the video games, what is there left to give? Experiences seem to matter more. The performance was dazzling for lots of reasons. He’s terrific of course, but even more so the chance to get one on one time with our middle child was particularly gratifying. When he finally came out for the encore I found myself staring not at him, but at my girl watching him.

May god bless you and keep you always…

It was the opening refrain from Forever Young. When my kids were little I bought an illustrated version of Bob Dylan’s song and I would read it to them almost every night, often serenading them in my terrible voice. They would roll their eyes and yell Mom, stop! Your voice is awful! And anyway it’s a mother’s job to serenade her children with her terrible voice and illicit infinite eye rolls and believe me, I did my job.

I haven’t read that book to them in years. Somewhere in the shuffle of life and changing bedrooms and adding a third, the book got lost and you wonder sometimes as moments get farther and farther away from your present, did any of it ever even happen, or matter, or count?

But I happened to be watching her that night as he started to sing and I actually saw her face light up. I saw that moment of recognition. She remembered all those nights where I whispered in her ear and sang with my terrible voice and prayed out loud to god and anyone that would listen, that she would stay forever young. And she turned to me and with tears brimming in her eyes and now mine fully running down my face, she exclaimed Mom, it’s the song! I know this! It’s the song you used to sing to us!

I’m telling you this because you don’t get many moments like this nowadays. In a world with them that is filled mostly with grunts that pass for hello and requests for video games and inhaled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and so much angst that we couldn’t possibly understand even though we do and even though we thought the same of our parents and even though they did, what I’m telling you is all of that stuff that you’ve been pouring into them from day 1 is still in there. Even when they don’t tell you or talk to you, even when you feel completely unsure of yourself and of them you can feel anchored by the fact that it’s in there. Your love, the way your arms felt around them when they were small, the way you tell them you are proud of them and sure of them even when you aren’t really sure of anything, least of all yourself. They hear you. Honestly I believe this and it comforts me. They are listening.

At the Oscars the other night, Regina King in her acceptance speech said, “I am an example of what it looks like when love and support is poured into someone.” Indeed the middle of parenting seems much less clear. There are far few markers and milestones than the beginning. But I guess my job is to keep pouring in the love, and to hope that even when they won’t acknowledge it, or you, they feel it. That even when none of us are sure what happens next, this will always be enough.

And that Bob Dylan song? I’m rereading it again this morning. I wonder perhaps if all those nights ago I wasn’t just reading it for them. I guess it was always about me too.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

In these middle seas, I’m not looking for an anchor anymore. Anchors stay in one place. I’m looking to find contentment in the consistency of the tides.

And to stay afloat amidst all of it.