Clean-up on Aisle Five, or What It Takes to Parent Teens

I kind of interrogated and then lectured Big Man this morning, and then I came back and apologized for being a little over the top. I told him we’re trying to figure out this parenting-of-teens thing, and sometimes we’re going to mess up. I reminded him we trust them until they give us a reason not to, but give us a reason not to trust, and they’ll go back to being treated like five year olds on lockdown. This stuff ain’t easy.

The morning conversation had me thinking during a.m. carpool what it takes to survive parenting teens. First off, God hears from me a lot, even if it’s just something like, “Sweet Jesus, get me through the next two minutes without totally screwing this up!” and “Good Lord, what  now?” There’s a LOT of head shaking involved, and frequent banging of that same head against the proverbial wall. They will insist upon messing up – often repeating the same mistakes, doing the same exact thing you’ve already had five conversations about with them. And as Little Man would say, there’s a lot of face palm too. I almost need a neck brace at this point, and my youngest JUST turned 13, which means I have a ways to go.

You definitely need your tribe. There are days the frantic texts fly – “Hey, have you been through this?”, “Hey, have you heard of this thing?”, “OMG!!!! WTF??!!”. “Would you believe he/she?”, “Do you know anything about such-n-such kid?” It’s not just bad stuff. It’s sharing the really good stuff too, along with the commiserating. There are the sanity-saving, wine-fueled pow-wows where we remind each other not to put our own crazy on our kids, and where we can actually  hash out whatever situation has come up, knowing we need to keep our mouths shut around said teens, and that they wouldn’t listen to us anyways.

Which brings me to another thing….There’s a lot of tongue-biting and teeth clenching. I think I might be rolling my eyes a bunch too. Spouse and I are having more conversations about the kids than we’ve had since they were little and we were just trying to survive baths and bedtimes. We keep checking in to make sure we’re on the same page. He checks my crazy, and I give him lessons on life with teenage girls (remember, he has no sisters and went to an all-boys high school).

I frequently remind myself to just shush – that whole “check yoself before you wreck yoself”. That. They have stuff they need to figure out on their own, without my interference or advice. Unless it’s a safety/legal issue, or will have really big-picture repercussions, I try to leave them to it. Not that I don’t ever try to help, give some direction, or at least offer my opinion, but they’re working on becoming independent young adults. You can’t stop that process by running their lives for them.

You have to take care of yourself. I run, I spend time with my friends, Spouse and I have our date nights. I remind my children I am not here at their beck-and-call, not here to serve them 24/7.  I work hard to maintain an identity that isn’t just “mom”.

It’s hard, but I admit to them – or try to – when I’ve messed up, and apologize. While as parents we need to maintain our authority, we also need to acknowledge the fact we aren’t perfect, and we are learning too. I read something the other day that to us, our kids will always be babies – baby preschoolers, baby big kids, baby teenagers, baby college students, baby adults. Every first is still a first. That means to my parents I’m a baby mom-to-teens. This is a first for me. I’m sure my parents are giggling while they’re watching this – the difference being a baby-parent-to-teens will ask her parents for advice, and will also actually listen to that advice.

If they should happen to read this post – I love you guys so much and I’m so proud of who you are, who you’re becoming. I truly don’t think this stage is the worst thing ever. It’s amazing to watch you face all these firsts, to see you experience high school and all the memories you’re creating.  I’d do anything to make the process easier, to keep you from pain or  hurt, but this is your life, your experience. Go live it. Go be great. Become.

I have good kids.   They do give me great joy. They also frustrate the hell out of me. (Why can’t people just do what I think they should do??!!). I am still figuring this whole thing out. I’m adding tools to my toolbox. By the time Little Man is a Senior, I just may have it together.

Winging It

You could probably safely call me a control freak, with a side of OCD. It’s just who I am, how I’ve always been. I’m a neat freak. I like things in their places. I crave order. I love routine. Change is difficult – it throws me off my game. I’m a planner, down to the smallest details. I hate when plans are derailed. Know what challenges all of that? Having kids, and living life.

We had Little Man’s birthday party Saturday evening. Now,  he is kid #3. I’ve spent sixteen years going crazy over birthday parties – handmade invitations, sleepovers with 13 kids, tea parties, American Girl trips, Pinterested out decorations/cupcakes/games. When he said he wanted a sleepover, I shot it down. First, I’m tapped on the sleepover birthday parties, seriously., and it was the night before I was running a 15K race. No go, my friend. His second idea was a trampoline park. Oh yeah! 1) I love any party that’s not at my house; 2) I wouldn’t’ have to provide any entertainment; 3) Food and drinks were included; 4) Did I mention it wasn’t at my house?

And so let’s just say, I was purely focused on the detail of getting the kids there, bringing them home, and the cake we were allowed to bring in. Have I mentioned things have been a little crazy around our house lately, and that I had a nine-mile race to run the next morning? See where this might be headed?

First off, Little Man, while having good friends, does not have a ton of friends, so his party was small. Spouse was at a golf tournament, so I was the solo parent. The trampoline park set aside three tables for us in their party area – THREE! We all fit, with room to spare, at one table. I put the cake and gifts on another table just so we wouldn’t look so pathetic. We also didn’t have any decorations. He isn’t a little kid, so there wasn’t a theme involved, and honestly, decorations never even crossed my mind. While the kids jumped, I sat there, by myself, at a huge, empty table, no decorations, not a ton of gifts, no other adults. #loser

I also didn’t bring any extra snacks or drinks. I knew pizza and soda were coming, and we were only there for two hours. So imagine how amazing I felt when the kids came back to the party area looking for hydration? I gave them a few dollars to get waters out of the machine as our sodas weren’t coming for another half hour.

Then it hit me….I had cake, but I hadn’t brought enough candles. neither did I have anything with which to light the candles I did have. I didn’t have any cake plates, nor forks, nor napkins. Even more, I didn’t have a cake cutter. The kids figured out something was going on, and I was honest with them. They just started laughing. So did I. Stress broken. We joked about using one of the paper pizza plates to cut the cake. When we did sing, “Happy Birthday”, a few of the kids held their fingers over the cake as imaginary candles.

They all helped clean up when we were ready to go. I checked out while they headed out to load up the car. When I arrived at my car, the Princess asked if the cake cutter the park had loaned us was ours to take. They’d efficiently, in their cleaning and gathering, packed the cake cutter in the cake box. Hysterics ensued. P took the cake cutter back into the trampoline park, from which I’m fairly sure we’ve been blackballed. And oh man, did we all laugh on the way home. I apologized for being a loser, overwhelmed mom, and for messing it all up. One of the boys said, “This is the strangest, but most fun, birthday party I’ve ever been to,” and one of the girls said, “I wish my mom were more like you. This is fun.” Hah!

Not one of them cared. Not one of them felt the party was ruined by my phoning it in Everyone had a good time. Everyone had enough to eat. Everyone jumped and had a good time.  That’s all that matters right?

I’m learning you don’t always have to plan to the last detail, especially when it comes to kids.  Sometimes things turn out better when you just wing it, rather than stressing about every little thing. And often, when you admit you’ve messed up, and are able to laugh at yourself, everyone around you will have your back. I can’t control everything. I certainly can’t control everyone. I’ve learned that while my need for order, control, organization, and routine is okay, it isn’t the end of the world when things don’t go the way I planned. Sometimes,  you get a better result when you epicly “fail.”

Huddle

We have two more weeks before our kids are on spring break. It seems an eternity since the holidays, so we are all looking forward to a much-needed break. The Herd will be headed out on an RV trip to some National Parks. We had invited a few other families along, but it didn’t work out for either of them to join us, so it will be just us – just the five of us. While I was super bummed our friends couldn’t come along, I’m now grateful for the time we will have as a family.

I’m feeling we need a family huddle – a time to re-group, reconnect, heal some wounds, help recover from some lessons, push a re-set button. It has been yet another haul this school year. We’ve had some really good things happen, but we’ve also each slugged our way through some pretty heavy stuff. I think we could each use some time to lick our wounds, figure out what we can fix, how we can fix it, what we need to move on from, what lessons have been learned, how we can communicate our needs to each other much better than we have been. We can remind each other all the great stuff about us.

Oh, it won’t all be serious stuff over the whole week we’re gone. There will be adventures – lots of hiking and biking. There will be lots of pictures, because that’s what I do. I’m already planning the scrapbook for this trip in my mind (and on Pinterest). There will be music, food, games, books, late nights, blessed mornings. Someone will say something funny and it will become part of the fabric of our family – another story to tell in years to come. We will see amazing things, go amazing places. There will be meltdowns, arguments, frustrations, but those are all part of building memories, right?

I just feel we need this time to figure out who we are as a family once again. I cannot wait to see the places we’re going to see, but more than that, I cannot wait for the time together, away from tv, friends, distractions, training schedules, classes, homework, practices, computers.  We will be contained in one RV – no separate bedrooms to run off to and close everyone else out. I’m sure that may sound like some form of torture for my three teens, but I think they’re looking forward to this as much as I am. The time with them still under our roof is speeding quickly by. I’m grateful to have the chance to be with them, experience something new for all of us.

Does your family take huddle time sometimes?

And I thought that was hard

Big Man was born 3.5 months too soon, and spent ninety-three days in the NICU. I spent countless hours driving back and forth to spend countless hours sitting by his isolette. I watched him forget to breath, watched his heart rate drop, watched him turn gray, watched him battle his own infections, watched machines keep him alive, watched him fight to survive. And I thought that was hard.

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Big Man on his birth day

Big Man came home from the NICU, and we had a home health nurse out every other week, a developmental specialist out every month, bi-weekly doctor visits for weight checks, monthly doctor visits for synagis shots to keep him from getting RSV. My life, my schedule was not my own. He didn’t want to be put down, ever. I had to learn to let go of my want for routine, schedule, time. And I thought that was hard.

When Big Man was four months old, I discovered I was pregnant with the Princess. I faced a pregnancy certain we were going to be back in the NICU. I was full of fear and anxiety. I saw a specialist OB (perinatologist) every other week, until we got past the gestational age Big Man was born. Then she had to be induced at 41 weeks 1 day. And I thought that was hard.

Big Man was developmentally nine months old when the Princess was born, so I basically had two infants under one roof. They are twelve months and nineteen days apart. Sleep was at a premium. Bottles were everywhere. We all three cried for hours every evening. And I thought that was hard.

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Big Man had high muscle tone on his left side, and a mild speech delay. Enter therapists visits to the weekly routine. And I thought that was hard.

When Big Man was nearly two, and the Princess eight months old, we moved….400 miles away.  I left my career of ten years. I left my family. I left my friends. I left my church. We moved in with spouse’s  (awesomely amazing) parents for eight months while our new home was being built. I found a new job I hated. It took forever to build new relationships. I had two toddlers in a new place, and I wasn’t entirely happy…yet. And I thought that was hard.

I had two toddlers under one roof – two toddlers who were like the wonder twins. I couldn’t keep up with their creative disasters. They finger-painted with baby shampoo in the middle of Big Man’s room. Baby shampoo NEVER comes out of carpet, ever. They unraveled a Costco-sized package of toilet paper up and down the upstairs hallway. They threw another Costco-sized package (out of the plastic wrapping) into my big jacuzzi bathtub. They ran away, down the street and around two corners, while I fed their six-week old baby brother. Big Man cut ALL of the Princess’ hair off, to the scalp, twice. They colored the underside of the pool table. I caught them, frequently, eating frozen waffles underneath the dining room table. Ditto bags of candy they’d climb on top of the fridge to retrieve. And I thought that was hard.

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I had three kids under four. I can’t even list all that drama, but I thought that was hard.

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The Herd in earlier days

There was a time they were all three involved in multiple sports….baseball, soccer, dance, piano lessons, golf. I lived at whatever field it was the season for.  I spent hours and hours in the car getting them each to whatever practice, game, lesson, or recital. And I thought that was hard.

Big Man was diagnosed ADHD, and with a mild visual processing disorder in second grade. We chose to medicate the ADHD. He fought the medication for the first year. I’d find pills hidden in the kitchen drawer, under the lazy susan in the middle of the kitchen island, and pretty much anywhere but in him if I didn’t watch him take it and make sure he actually swallowed it. He got glasses, and we got an every-six-months schedule of appointments with the pediatric opthamologist. And I thought that was hard.

I had three in elementary school. I went on field trips. I taped, glued, cut, copied, read to kindergartners and third graders, ran the book fair, was on the PTA, and basically lived at the school. We lived in nightly homework hell. And I thought that was hard.

Little Man was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and ADHD, in second grade. It nearly broke me, but we finally had an answer, and a plan, and help. We entered the world of IEP’s, special education, accommodations, speech therapy, psychiatrists and therapists. And  I thought that was hard.

We moved on to middle school for the older two – ugh, middle school and middle schoolers. They each got their first phones, and we had to start talking about internet safety, data plans, and had to come up with rules of how we would handle things. And I thought that was hard.

Now here we are…..two days away from having three teenagers under one roof. Two are in high school. I was ill-prepared for the drama, the angst, the emotional rollercoaster, the pushing back against rules we’ve had in place forever, the angry words that instantly bring tears to my eyes, the eyeball rolling, the intense search for independence, the life-lessons they are learning through which I just want to help but know I need to stand back and let them have at it, come whatever the natural consequences will be. I’ve watched my biggest baby boy struggle to find his way academically when it used to come to him so easily I think he took it for granted. I’ve watched P fight to find herself – somehow losing (hopefully temporarily) the brave, bold, confident girl we used to know. Then, recently, came the day Big drove himself and P to school, his driver’s license finally earned. And I think this is hard.

Within the next five years, I will watch as they have all the rest of those “firsts”, as they graduate, and leave for school, only ever to come back for what will essentially be visits between semesters and school years. I know I will look back on all those things I thought were hard and will know that was nothing, because watching them go be their own people, away from us, my heart living outside of me (possibly far away from home), now that, that will be hard.

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Our Little Corner on Autism Street

I finally brought myself to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the new Sesame Street character, Julia.  Julia is an autistic girl. As seems to be par lately, I sat there watching, with tears rolling silently down my face. This is our world. I couldn’t help but wish Julia had been around ten years ago or more. It may have made his life a little easier if kids had had the chance to learn about autism before he spread his own version of awareness in his classrooms. I hope Julia helps kids, and even  adults, understand autism – that it isn’t something to be afraid of, to turn away from, or to bully.

Here’s the thing – his autism is real. It isn’t ever going away. It is a lifelong diagnosis. There’s no curing it. You don’t take antibiotics for ten days and recover from autism. It is him, it’s part of him.

What does our little corner on autism street look like? Well, take this morning for instance (which mornings aren’t his favorite anyways). Big Man accidentally made too much noise while getting ready for school in their shared bathroom, which woke Little Man up twenty minutes before his usual wakeup time. Anyone can be cranky in the morning, but for us it meant Little Man yelling at pretty much everyone, slamming doors, stomping around upstairs, and just generally letting everyone know he was not happy. In a word, he threw a tantrum. This is not the tantrum you think of with a spoiled or over-tired three year old. It’s something he can’t control. His emotions overwhelm him, and this is his reaction as he can’t process it out, or put words to his feelings. This happens any time something unexpected happens, there’s a change in his routine, we run out of his favorite food, or the battery runs out on his iPad when we’re at a game/event/dinner out. He’s improved ten thousand percent in the last few years. His tantrums are fewer and further between, but they are still part of life.

Meltdowns are also part of life, although, again, there are fewer, and his recovery is much quicker than when he was first diagnosed. Meltdowns usually happen when he gets hurt, or there’s a sudden and unexpected loud noise. Lord help us if a siren goes off he’s not expecting. It’s even in his IEP he have advanced notice, if at all possible, of fire/lockdown drills at school because he will lose it if that alarm goes off and he isn’t expecting it. When we take him to movies, he will use the excuse of needing to go to the bathroom when the sounds get to be too much, or there’s too much action. He’s been known to leave the theater five times during a 2 hour movie, although lately we’ve been able to get that down to two or three trips out. The odd thing about this is, if he chooses to listen to something, he has it turned up SO loud!

He still travels with his favorite stuffed animals. He will be thirteen in a few days. Yeah, that. You should see him watch them go through the security scanner in airports – his face anxiously watching from the other end to make sure they come out safely and don’t get stuck in the machine. We tend to pre-board airplanes because standing in line, and having to get into his seat quickly when there’s a line of people behind us, makes him very anxious and overwhelmed. And  you can bet I  make sure to have all his favorite snacks packed in his airplane bag.

Speaking of food – when  your kid is autistic, you can almost bet his food choices are going to be minimal, and you’d better make sure you don’t run out of more than one of those minimal choices at any given time. I have been known to, in a panic, rush to the grocery store before going to after-school pickup just so I have what I know he will eat. Our restaurant choices tend to be based around whether they have pasta, chicken strips, or burgers on the menu.

He has a weighted blanket, and a weighted hoodie my mom made for him. What a godsend! That blanket has really helped not only his sleep, but when he’s really in full meltdown mode, he gets under it and calms pretty quickly. I can’t even hold the blanket – it makes me claustrophobic, but it’s a comfort for him to be under it.

He does have his obsessions – currently YouTube videos of gamers playing his favorite games, Plants vs Zombies, paper crafting his favorite characters from his favorite video games, coding, and video game music.

He seems much younger than his siblings did at this same age. He seems much younger than many of his peers.While chronologically thirteen, he is emotionally and socially about the level of a 7 or 8 year old. He’s intellectually the equivalent of a high school senior, if not more. It’s an interesting, frustrating combination, particularly when he can’t articulate his thoughts and feelings.

He has very little tolerance of anyone talking down to how old they think he is. Quickest way to get him to be as rude as possible is to be condescending to him. He will light you up, or he will refuse to speak to you but will let you know with his glare exactly what he thinks.

We don’t go anywhere without some kind of screen and headphones for him. It’s that simple. Yes, we frequently get those judgemental looks in restaurants, etc when he pulls out his iPad or phone, puts his headphones on, and completely disengages. Trust me – you don’t want to deal with the alternative.

He does flap his arms a bit, get over-excited, sit in odd and contorted positions.  He has his tics, for sure. We’re used to them, and I don’t think about them much, unless we’re out or around someone new and I notice the glances and staring.

He does perseverate. He doesn’t like to try new things. He doesn’t want to do anything he thinks he can’t do successfully. He pushes back on things he thinks he can’t do. His anxiety causes sleep issues, especially when he’s out of routine.

So that’s our little corner on autism street. That’s not his entire story though. He’s utterly brilliant, witty, loves puns, incredibly creative. He’s amazing, he’s mine, he’s autistic.

The Fixer

I’m a middle kid. Well, I’m actually one of seven siblings, but I’m the middle of three who grew up in one household together. Family is complicated, isn’t it? Anyways…I think I’m a pretty typical middle kid – overachieving (when I was younger….now I’m respectably average in pretty much all I do), perfectionist, self-driven, super organized. I was the mediator growing up. I liked to smooth the way between people, particularly my siblings. I translated, repaired the communication lines. I needed everyone around me to be happy, and would do all I could to make it so. I also flew under the radar a lot.That was my happy place. I tried desperately not to make waves, not to disrupt, not to make anyone unhappy with me.

It can make a person a little bit neurotic and anxious, trust me. It took me years to figure out what I was doing, and to learn to take a step back. I was not responsible for the happiness of every person in my life. It wasn’t my job to make everything happy and smooth for them. I shouldn’t change myself, or give up my voice, just because someone else might not agree, or it might cause some tension. I needed to learn to let go, a lot, especially as people will still make their own choices/mistakes. At the same time, I struggle incredibly with conflict. It makes me super uncomfortable, even now.

I was doing really well with the letting go, the backing away, the putting responsibility for a person’s happiness back upon that person rather than taking it upon myself. Then I had kids, and those kids grew into big kids, and now teenagers. I want, so much, for them to be happy, for their lives to go smoothly, to ease their paths. But guess what? Teenagers don’t listen to their parents. We’re the morons who know nothing, aren’t we? I remember that distinctly from when I was a teen. That’s fine. I can take it. But oh, when things aren’t going well, it’s all I can do to not try to mediate, translate, offer some suggestions. That middle kid syndrome is back in full force. They’re my babies – I do hold some responsibility for their happiness, don’t I? So I’m fighting myself to just step back. They   have to learn, on their own, in their way, in their time. It’s part of growing up, becoming independent, preparing to be out in the world on their own.

Middle kids – we like to fix, make happy, help create smooth paths. It’s what we do. We are, after all, in the middle.

I told myself not to get comfortable

If you have any experience with an autistic child, you know it comes with its ups and downs, backwards and forwards, twists and turns. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that we were in, and had been in for awhile, a good place. Well, yeah, I told myself not to get comfortable, and for good reason.

I’ve had two emails from his special ed teacher within the last week. I might be saying some bad words to autism right now. He’s pushing back on work. He doesn’t want to try when it’s hard, or if he thinks he can’t do  it. He’s giving up. Yesterday, he left the classroom for twenty  minutes (we’d had him down to less than five minutes, and usually staying inside the classroom, for months), couldn’t tell the teacher what was wrong nor what he needed. Gah!

Essentially, he’s not using any of the tools he’s been given, and he’s backsliding. It happens, but it’s frustrating and gut-wrenching every single time. I told his spec ed teacher I’m grasping at straws trying to figure out what may be going on. Who knows what’s triggered him this time. It could be he’s had too long without a break from routine (but then we know breaks from routine also set him off). It could be something as simple as his brother getting his driver’s license, thus setting off a change in his “normal”. It could be the cold he’s fighting. It could be the trip we have coming up. Or it could just be a normal autism blip.

I needed him to stay in a groove. I’m dealing with a ton with the other two, and his status quo was helping me stay sane. But such is the way of parenting life. Just when you think you have a handle on one thing, something else comes up. Every week seems to bring something new. difficult, agonizing.

We do have a trip in a few weeks, over Spring Break, and I can’t wait. We need a family huddle break – an insulated, away-from-it-all escape. It will be just the five of us. I’m bummed our friends can’t come with us, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to it just being us, creating new memories, enjoying new experiences, seeing new things, and reconnecting.

We’ll get Little Man back into his happy place. This too shall pass. The sunshine will return, and the rainy day will be a memory again – one more blip, one more hurdle overcome.