The empty hole in the toothbrush holder

toothbrush holder

It struck me hard several days after our elder son left for college: One of the four holes in our toothbrush holder was empty, and it would remain that way. I think I cried my first big tears over his departure that morning. And that toothbrush holder became a metaphor for the new dynamic in our home. We are still a family, of course, and it’s not like he’s gone forever, but there is a hole. Our daily life goes on with only three of us, not four. I’ve come to realize this is not bad, exactly–there have been real blessings in our new threesome–but it is different.

Last night, our son returned home for fall break, his first time back in our house since August. After getting ready for bed, he placed his toothbrush in its rightful place in the plastic holder. I smiled at seeing the empty hole filled. But his toiletries bag also sat on the bathroom counter–a reminder that his presence in this house is temporary. He’ll be leaving again soon.

Last week, for his university’s Family Weekend, we spent some time in his dorm, he showed us around campus, and we met his friends, several of whom joined us for lunch. It’s clear he is making his home there–his toothbrush has a new rightful place in his dorm room (even if that place seems to be wherever he tosses it on a bookshelf instead of in a proper toothbrush holder). This is how it should be; it’s what parents hope for. Yet, it’s bittersweet to think that our house, here with Mom and Dad and Brother, will only become less and less his home throughout this year and into the future.

And in a couple years, our younger son will venture off to college, too, creating another shift in our family dynamic. Sigh. We might have to buy a new two-hole toothbrush holder.

We become our best in community

In one month, my eldest son will graduate from high school. It’s an exciting, overwhelming, and humbling time of transition for our family–and it’s causing me to reflect on, well, just about everything in life. One thing that keeps bubbling up in my mind and heart is all the people who have walked with us along life’s path and their influence on so many aspects of our family. Some of those people have been with us through every milestone through the past 22 years. Others have come and gone from the daily rhythms of our lives. But each has left lasting impacts.

We humans are meant to do life in community. We all need others to join our hearts with–in love, in friendship, in faith, in vocation. I am abundantly blessed that I have had those relationships in spades. My soul overflows with joy when I recall the many individuals who have supported and encouraged me, challenged me, corrected me, pointed me to God, brought out my best, and stood by me at my worst.

I know my boys have had those relationships, too. With the obvious folks, like parents, grandparents, and extended family. But also with teachers who recognized what was special in them and nurtured that. The parents of their friends, who provided a safe and welcoming place to hang out. Other adults at church who’ve taken an interest in their activities week to week. Scout leaders and coaches who have challenged them to work hard and reach for the next level. YoungLife leaders who have shown them what living out your faith can look like. And good friends who have been playmates, teammates, confidantes, and sometimes partners in crime throughout childhood and adolescence.

We have been complimented frequently in this season on our boys’ accomplishments and told that they have become delightful young men. Those words warm my heart tremendously, but I know we can’t take full credit. The generous gift of community we have experienced in so many ways has shaped who they are as much as we have. And I’m excited to think about the individuals who will form their community as they venture off to college, start careers, and raise families of their own. I pray for those individuals now, and I pray that my sons will be positive influences on the people they encounter along life’s way.

How I Hope My Boys Will Remember Me

mom and boys

Some conversations I’ve had over the past several weeks with my mom and with friends about their moms/stepmoms has left me wondering what my children will say about me when they are grown and on their own, and even one day (many decades from now, God willing) after I’m gone.

I am certain they would not say now, nor will they ever say, that I was the perfect mother, best mother, ideal mother. And I’m OK with that–I’ve never claimed to be anything but imperfect. I’m sure as they get older, they will tell stories of some of the embarrassing and terrible things I did, and they’ll laugh or shake their heads.

But what I hope they would also say is this:

I love them 100%. My heart expanded at the birth of each of my boys, and as they have grown, so has my love for them. They are among my very greatest blessings and joys. And my love has never waned, even when I’ve had to discipline them, gotten angry, or been disappointed. I hope they know with certainty that there is nothing they could do to diminish or change my love for them.

I love their dad. I’ve heard it said that the best thing a dad can do for his kids is to love their mother. It goes the other way, too. My marriage existed before children entered the picture, and I intend for it to last long after they’ve left the house. Thus, I’ve cultivated a strong relationship with my husband, their dad. I’ve made time for date nights, shared in his interests, and shooed the kids off to play when we needed time for adult discussion. When my boys consider a spouse, I hope they will recall how mom and dad love each other, enjoy spending time together, and make each other a priority–and I pray they will seek the same for their marriage.

I am their mom… and many other things, too. I have proudly worn the title of Daniel and Adam’s mom and have lived into that role the best I can. I’ve gladly worn baseball photo pins, bejeweled my wrist with bracelets beaded by clumsy little-boy fingers, and even answered to a young friend who addressed me, “Hey, Daniel’s mom.” But I have made a point to maintain an identity of my own, too–making time my own interests and pursuits, both professional and personal. I think it’s important that my boys know that as wonderful as motherhood is, the role of mom alone does not define me. I am many things–writer, colleague, singer, volunteer, leader, friend. I hope this example will prepare them to understand one day that the woman they marry can be many things in addition to “wife” and, if they have children, “mom.”

I’ve helped without hovering (well, without hovering too much). Knowing when to step in and when to step back can be one of the toughest decisions as a parent, whether the kids are toddlers or teens. I hope that my boys will say I did a healthy combination of both (at least that was my intention)–giving them freedom to spread their wings and to learn from their own mistakes, but offering guidance and support when needed. When they were little, that meant stepping away from the climbing wall to let them scale the height on their own, but also swooping in to tend a scraped knee when their ambition exceeded their ability, then encouraging them to try again. As they’ve reached the teen years, it’s meant giving them latitude to manage their own time for school, extracurricular activities, and social time–and offering suggestions for how to better apportion that time, or removing some activities from their plate, when grades started to slip. I have tried to be a steady presence for them without being ever-present.

I’ve insisted they learn to do for themselves. Since the kids were in middle school, they’ve done their own laundry. And when they want to eat between meal times, they are expected to fix their own food. I even made one of them iron his shirt the other day (the nerve!). I work from home in order to be available to the kids, so one might wonder why I don’t take care of these things for them. But one day, when my boys move out on their own, they will need to know how to wash, iron, cook, clean, shop, etc. Better to learn it at home, where they can receive some instruction and coaching, so they enter the world prepared. I believe their future college roommates and future wife will thank me, too.

I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them. I’m hoping neither of my boys has kept a mental record of all of my parenting foibles (or maybe I should line up a counselor for them now). I have raised my voice and spoken harshly to my children. I have forgotten to do something they needed. I have expected more than they could give developmentally. I have set boundaries that were too rigid and given more leeway than was wise. Thankfully, none of my missteps has had dire consequences. But from these mistakes, I have learned to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” I’ve learned different/better ways to react and respond to certain situations, and how to avoid them altogether. I hope I’ve shown my boys that it’s possible–and wise–to realize you’re doing the wrong thing and change your behaviors or decisions accordingly. Since they have continued to love me despite my shortcomings, I hope that means that as a result of my mistakes, they have learned a bit about forgiveness, too.

Not a perfect mom, clearly. But I hope and pray that my boys will think of me as being a good mom–or at least good enough. And that they will discard any bad examples I’ve set and perpetuate the healthy ones.

Parenting: A Journey Toward Separation

My eldest son got his license two weeks ago, ushering in a new (and slightly terrifying) age of independence. And yesterday, we met with his school counselor to discuss plans for college and the future. All of this has made me quite aware of how quickly the clock is racing toward his adulthood. (OK, that’s not an entirely new awareness as I realize my last blog, just a month ago, also acknowledged that my boys won’t be home with me forever.) It has also made me reflect afresh that parenting is in large measure a gradual process of separation.

This moving apart begins the day a baby is born, leaving the confines of Mama’s womb, and becoming his own little person in the world. From that moment, our job as parents at every stage of development–whether we realize it at the time or not–is all about helping that little person become more and more independent and preparing him to one day leave us.

For most of us, the transitions toward separation come quietly and routinely, and we may not even recognize fully what’s happened until we look back from the next stage of childhood or adolescence.

One day, he needs you to hold his tiny head steady against your chest. The next, he’s rolling over and sitting up all by himself.

One day, he relies entirely on you for nourishment. The next, he’s feeding himself Cheerios in his high chair.

One day, he is sitting on your lap on a park bench. The next, he is climbing the jungle gym while you watch from a few feet away.

One day, he needs you to dress him and put his shoes on. The next, he’s shouting, “No, I do it!”

One day, you’re driving him to preschool. The next, he is hopping on a bus or walking to school with a group of friends.

One day, you’re pulling him in a wagon. The next, he’s speeding down the street on his bike.

One day, he is working on homework at the kitchen table and asking you for help. The next, he’s studying in his room with the door shut, rolling his eyes at you if you interrupt his work.

One day, he’s picking you flowers from the yard. The next, he’s picking out a corsage for his date to the dance.

One day, he’s asking you for a ride, and you get to sneak in some one-on-one conversation on the way. The next, he’s borrowing the car and driving himself to wherever he needs to go.

One day, he’s sleeping in his room just like any other day. The next, you’re dropping him off at a big, new university, where he’ll set up a new room, make new friends, and cultivate a whole new life you’re not regularly part of.

We’re not quite to that last transition point. But it’s looming on the horizon, growing closer every day. And it’s scary.

Yet, he’s navigated all the other transitions just fine–all those baby steps toward independence (and the big ones, too). So I suspect he will do the same when the day comes for college. And I’ve survived all of the growing-up moments so far that tug at a mom’s heart, and sometimes break it just a little. So, I suspect I’ll make it through the transition to college, too, when it comes….and when he moves away for his first big job….and when he gets married. (Oy! But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!)

In the meantime, my job is to continue doing what I can to help him, and my younger son, too, become their best selves. To equip them with practical skills, solid values, a compassionate heart, and a strong faith that they can take with them into this wide, wonderful world. And to make sure they know that no matter how far the distance, no matter how old they get, no matter how long our time apart, there is no degree of separation that Mom’s love can’t span.

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Heat… Will Keep This Mama from the Sidelines

It was cold yesterday afternoon. A snow-flurrying, wind-blowing, teeth-chattering kind of cold. And I was sitting in a camp chair along the fence at the little league ball park, huddled under a blanket watching Adam’s team go for a second win in the playoffs.

In the parking lot at the top of the hill, most of the other parents were watching from the comfort of their cars, sheltered from the wind and chill. I considered doing the same after a couple of innings, as my nose began to run and my toes grew a bit numb through my lightweight sneakers.

But watching the game separated by distance and a windshield didn’t feel right. I’m not as present that way. My teenage boys may not come running over to me with excitement between innings or at the end of a game like they did when they were in elementary school, but I know they still appreciate me being there to cheer them on. They glance at the sidelines or into the stands to find Mom and Dad. Sometimes they even give a nod or a smile. They can’t do that if I’m way off in the parking lot or just dropping them off and returning a couple hours later.

Not judging the other parents. Only speaking for me here. And for me, it’s important to be at as many games and other activities as I can and to be close enough to see their faces (or at least the number on their uniform) and hear the ball hit their bat or cleat kick the football–even if that means waving bugs or dust away from my face, sweating in the summer sun, huddling under an umbrella, or wrapping up in as many layers as I can find.

These boys of mine will only be at home for a few more years. I want to take advantage of the opportunities I have now to watch them do what they enjoy. To watch them interact with their friends and coaches and youth leaders. To get a glimpse of who they are in the world, not just within the boundaries of our home and family.

My hope is that, because I’ve shown a deep interest in their activities, when they go off to college and enter adulthood, they might be more inclined to share what they’ve been up to. They’ll know I’m interested. They’ll know I want to hear their stories. And maybe they’ll even remember the example we set and be interested in each other’s lives, too, and actively involved in their own kids’ interests one day.

Someone Will Always Have More

As a breakfast diversion, I was watching the Today Show (or maybe Good Morning, America—they all seem the same). One of the segments was about two NFL stars who went undercover for a day as homeless men to learn a bit about the people who live on the streets and to bring awareness to the issue. After airing the video footage, the hosts talked with one of the players in the football locker room, all cleaned up and back in his designer T-shirt, surrounded by jerseys and gear with his name and number on them. The hosts asked about his insights and, with furrowed brows, waxed eloquent about poverty in this country and the plight of people who are homeless. Almost immediately after that segment, they broke into surprised laughter while showing viewers a fancy pink designer handbag, adorned with gold and diamonds, that had sold at auction for $200,000, some sort of record. What a contrast in have nots and haves!

Later that day, I had a discussion with my son about the home of one of the boys leading a high-adventure trip he is going on next summer. After attending several meetings at that home, my son had become impressed with its size and furnishings and declared that this family must be “loaded.” Apparently this boy also doesn’t need to do any fundraising for the expensive trip, as we’ve asked our son to do. “It must be nice,” he said. He also shared that a big topic of conversation among some of his peers lately (all of whom are 16-ish) is what kind of car they’re getting or will be getting; he finds this topic annoying, he says, because we’re not gifting him with a car. He went on to tell me how his goal as an adult is to be rich like, he believes, most of his friends’ parents are. I suggested that he should aim, instead, to be a good person, help others, and have a career that makes him happy and allows him to live a comfortable life.

We live in a world of vast differences in wealth, from people who have more money than they could spend in a lifetime despite purchasing every toy and luxury known to man, to people who lack enough money to procure the basics of life like food, water, shelter, and health care. I told my son that just as he looks at that one boy’s family and thinks they have it made, there are others who would look at my son’s life and think the same—and I don’t just mean starving children in Africa, but other teens right here in the Pittsburgh area.

I reminded him that no matter how much money you make, there will be those who have more than you and those who have less. Unless you end up as the richest person in the entire world, someone will always have more than you. If your success is based entirely on your wealth, and your happiness dependent on how your wealth compares to others’, you can easily find yourself constantly pursuing more. You will never feel you have enough, will never be content.

But it’s hard to talk to a teenage boy about the more intangible measures of the good life, particularly when TV ads promote luxury cars as a sign that you have “arrived,” we hear often about the multi-million dollars our sports stars are paid, and many people are talking to my son about where he will go to college so he can get a “good” job in his desired field. Not that there’s anything at all wrong about wanting a career that will bring in a good salary—I do wish that for both of my boys, so they can have a nice home, take a vacation now and then, and provide for the needs (and many of the wants) for their own children someday. At the same time, I surely hope that we have adequately conveyed through word and deed that there is more to life than your bank account balance, the size of your house, the number of times you have traveled overseas, and the number of toys you have in the garage or media room.