On Being a Mom Without a Mom on Mother’s Day

Red knitwork, horizontal

“Yes, Mom, what do you want?” I said quietly into the phone. “My boss is sitting right here, I can’t talk now.”

My Mom had been calling me every day at the office for six months. She had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the spring of my 3rd year of law school.

As a newly-minted lawyer at a government agency in downtown DC, my first job, with a boss and my own office (albeit very small and without a window), I was learning to deal with her daily calls.

No, I can’t tell you that,” I told her.

She persisted.

Please, just tell me what your bra size is,” she asked again.

Mom, c’mon, I’m at work, I’m in my office,” I pleaded. “My boss, he’s a man, he is in my office, too.”

She pleaded right back.

I’m at the yarn store in Westport. I’m knitting you a sweater. Just give me the number.”

I gave up.

36B,” I whispered into the phone, as my boss rolled his eyes upward, squelching a laugh.

Exactly one year later my Mom died of cancer. (well, actually she died because of malpractice related to her cancer but that is a tale for another time.) She was 54 years old, I was 28.

I still have the beautiful red, V-neck cotton sweater with the just-below-the-elbow length sleeves she made me, although it no longer fits. It was as stylish then as it is now. She was a woman of both good taste and great kindness.

Some women complain that their elderly moms call them too often.

Every night, can you believe it, she calls me every single night, and then she worries if I am not home by 9 p.m. She tells me to eat my vegetables, have I gotten an eye check up lately, she bugs me about the kids or my job or my husband. When are we going to visit her? Who’s going to drive her to her doctor appointments? Or run to the store to get her a new light bulb or better reading glasses. I’m tired of hearing her complaints about who did or who didn’t sit with her at dinner. Honestly, my mom is driving me crazy. Doesn’t she know what a busy life I have?

I bet she does know you have a life. Hers is shrinking in scope, yours isn’t and she wants to be a part of it.

My Mom called me at the office for over a year when she was ill. Then one day she stopped calling. Three weeks later, on a sunny spring afternoon in May as my Dad and I sat by her bed, holding her hand, in the ICU of a cancer hospital in New York City, hearing the beeps from the machines that had kept her alive ebb away, she died. It was mid-afternoon, on the Tuesday after Mother’s Day. Thoughtful as ever, she chose, I felt, to wait and not ruin the holiday for us.

I would give anything for one more phone call, nagging, annoying, insistent, critical, I’d take it.

And you know what, Mom, I’d say? You have two wonderful granddaughters and two terrific grandsons that you never got to meet. And in 2013 you became a great-grandparent, too.

What else would I tell her? Oh yes, my bra size has changed in the past 34 years. I don’t like the color red as much as I once did. But the sweater remains in my closet and it always will.

Miss you forever, Mom! Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

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“No Woman Is An Island” (Even When She Wants To Be)

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Twice last week I was reminded of the famous John Donne poem.

First, when I listened to President Obama use the phrase “No man is an island” while speaking before a U.K. audience alongside Prime Minister Cameron –  (and no matter what you or I may think about the foreign policy implications of “Brexit,” that word itself is fun to say.)

But I digress.

Second, when we read a stanza of the Donne poem in the Haggadah during our Passover Seder on Friday night. Friends put together a contemporary “Haggadah”  (the name for the Seder service telling the story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.)  Modern versions of a Haggadah, like the one we read from last Friday, often include non-religious readings on the subjects of freedom and humanity.

Thus, we come to the British poet John Donne who in 1624 wrote, in part:

“No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent” – an ode to the connectedness of mankind (and womankind too.)

Yet sometimes connectedness can be over-rated  – as proved by my recent dreams about fleeing to a remote island where WiFi is unavailable .

Which is an odd thing, perhaps, to say for someone who is likely perceived by friends and family to be an “extrovert”, but lately I’ve had severe pangs of over-connection leading to fervent wishes to relocate to an island where no one can reach me.

(with the possible exceptions of weekly visits by my toddler and baby grandsons and the occasional conjugal visit from my husband.)

Or as Greta Garbo was to have said, “I want to be left alone.”

I think we all sometimes get to this stage – when we have given SO MUCH of ourselves to SO MANY PEOPLE that there is very little left and we just want to retreat and not hear, talk or write to anyone for a few days. Or maybe longer.

In my case it has been a confluence of the extraordinary neediness of a certain family member which has overwhelmed me, combined with having to deal with the many trivial “issues” that come up when trying to get a house ready to be sold. Too many demands, too long of a “to do” list and I long to cover my ears, hide my iPhone and escape.

Hence, the “island” metaphor. How good that looks to me at this moment.  Solo and selfish seems like a wonderful place to be.

And though we may want to run off with a small suitcase (for me, it would be very large, because I never have packed light and don’t intend to start soon) to a tropical island (or by a lake or near a mountain, you pick the scenery ) retreat where no one can:

  • irritate us with their ceaseless questions,
  • checks to be written,
  • deadlines to meet
  • calls to make
  • and responses to our emails that show us that they never bothered to read our initial email – for if they had read our first email with more care, they would not have responded with yet another dumb question…

(plea here: we have become a nation of skimmers. a bad thing! I urge you to read emails all the way through. with care. that will enhance our inter-personal communications. trust me on this.)

…we cannot really flee, because, yes, as Donne said, we are all inter-connected, on the same continent of life, and our personal relationships – even when they are mighty demanding – are what – in the end – hold us together and make us human.

So much for the island idea. I must comfort myself with the knowledge that we all go through these episodes of being overwhelmed by life’s demands.

Retreat isn’t the answer even if those tropical drinks with the little perky parasols (but who would be on the island to prepare and serve them to me?) do seem awfully appealing just about now.

 

 

 

 

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Make New Friends, But Keep The Old: Silver and Gold

Silver and Gold

 

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.”

That bit of childhood wisdom has stuck with me. I’m such a literalist that I spent years wondering – which was which? are the new friends the “silver” and the old ones the “gold?” or is it vice-versa?  Who knows? The older I get, the more I value both kinds of friends.

Let’s call new friends the “silver” ones –  like my writer’s group.

I met these five women in 2014 at a class we took together. Different ages, varying backgrounds, but connective tissue among us in our similar approaches to life. Laugh at the funny parts, laugh harder at the tragic parts. Growing older with our imperfect husbands and trying to stay connected to our teen and adult children who make us wonder or worry, sometimes simultaneously.

Through the essays and stories we’ve written and shared with each other every month when we get together, we’ve learned about each others’ pasts – to a point. These women, wonderful as they are, didn’t know me when I was an uncoordinated eight year old with a fondness for meteorology and the nickname of  “nimbus” (SEE: clouds). Nor had they met me as a young married women going through rocky times when my mom died, or as a working mom who once forgot to pick up a child after a late day school activity.  As I did not know them through their passages of life.

Friendships are different when you bond together as fully grown adults.

I recently shared with my writer friends a short story I wrote about an episode in my working mom/lawyer life of which I am not particularly proud. I called it “fiction” but it was – pretty obviously –  based on a personal experience. It was painful to write – and even more painful to hear their responses.

One of them said: “I admire your story because it shows you have layers to your personality that I didn’t know you had.”

She didn’t know that? Do I come across as a superficial person? That was my first thought.  Sure I tell jokes and laugh a lot and try not to take myself seriously. That’s the glossy part you see on top when you first meet me. I’m not like that all the way through. Underneath is the part this new “silver” friend doesn’t know (yet?) about me. That I have inner layers. Layers that get peeled off in years of friendship that we haven’t yet had.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend in the “gold” category.

Caroline is a person I met in a birth education class while pregnant with our first children, born three days apart. Turned out we had graduated from the same all-women’s college, then gone to the same international relations graduate school, where we had met our respective husbands – who also bonded during our shared birth education class by paying as little attention as possible to the instructor’s exhortations to have us take cleansing breaths in unison.

Caroline knows my “layers” and I know hers. Not all of them. But enough so that she understands why I had such a hard time yesterday at lunch talking about getting our house ready to put up for sale. How unsettling it is. How I don’t do transitions well. Living in one house for 33 years is a pretty good indicator of being someone who does not handle change well.

With “gold” friends, you don’t need to explain yourself. They know all your foibles, all your less than desirable attributes and they’ve decided they can deal with them. Maybe not admire your flaws, but accept them.

With my newer “silver” friends, we are still getting to know each other. It’s more challenging when we are in our 50’s and ’60’s to open ourselves up to someone new. What if they don’t like what they see, as we peel the layers back on our personalities? We don’t have a shared history of friendship to fall back on. They could decide I’m not as fun as I seemed to be when they first met me – that I have quirks they can’t accept. What then?

It’s worth the risk. Treasuring the “gold” ones while hoping that my “silver” friends become “gold”.

 

 

 

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Say “No” to an Admission Offer from a Highly Selective College?

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Sometimes I cringe when I re-read some of my older Blog posts. And sometimes I think I was spot on.

Early April is here – and with it, I’m moving beyond the March Madness of basketball (that final game where the underdog team Villanova beat UNC at the buzzer was well worth staying up late for) – and again observing the annual “madness” that the college acceptance season has become.

I wrote a Blog post in April, 2015 expressing my thoughts on what really matters when making a college choice.

Here is what I said then  – I think it rings as true today as it did a year ago ———>

 

———> Yes, it is a ridiculous and harmful obsession that some parents, shared at times by their teens, have with getting accepted to an elite, highly selective college.

And yes, “getting in” can become the narrowest of goals in the madness of this college admission season.

But – can I be honest here?

I think it really DOES matter where a student goes to college.

But probably not for the reasons you think.

1st – Attending a college with a well-known brand name DOES open future doors.

I agree 150% that fit matters far more than brand name. Yet brand name can help, especially in the post-college years – – let’s not kid ourselves.

When I applied for internships and jobs, every interviewer I met labeled me (rightly or wrongly) as smart based upon the school from which I had graduated.

“You went to Smith? My (daughter/wife/sister/niece/cousin) went to Smith. You must be smart.”

The name of my college opened doors – got me interviews, introduced me to well-connected alums.

Here’s the key though: It was up to me to achieve once I got in that door.

So if your teen pushes for a brand name school, he understands its’ name will always be on his resume. He’s right; that name alone may ease his path to jobs and graduate schools. But he has to do the work once he gets there.

2nd – Going to a college that offers a diverse and intellectually stimulating community in which to live DOES matter.

Much of the learning in college comes from outside the classroom – which is why it is important to attend a college where you will be surrounded by people you will learn from.

And, assuming a student, is open to new ideas, because this is really what college is about, isn’t it? –  she will not learn as much from people who look like her, think like her and grew up near her than she would from people who are dissimilar.

Diversity DOES matter – because highly selective schools usually can and do offer more financial aid, a student may find a truly diverse student community, in terms of background, beliefs, ethnicity, race and social class in a more selective school.

3rd –  and most important to me  – Where a student goes to college DOES matter to that student’s Mental Health.

Parents and their teens must discuss the topic of college student mental health – before the student sets foot on campus next fall.

The absurd stress of the college admission process is but a harbinger of things to come. If a student gets accepted to the dream elite school of her choice, the prize is an entrance ticket into an even more stressful academic environment.

Highly selective schools function as pressure cookers, packed with intensely focused kids driven to succeed and achieve, to get that A, to find the best internship, to land a prestigious job after graduation or get into a top medical school.

And the impact of all of that stress?

An increasingly deleterious impact on the mental health of college students. More students than ever, according to recent studies, report feeling anxious, depressed and/or stressed.

The University of Pennsylvania, seeking its own answers after a series of student suicides,  wants to change its own campus culture of  self-described “destructive perfectionism” – – a culture sadly familiar to many at similar top colleges where driven students put immense pressure on themselves to achieve and then think they have failed themselves (and perhaps their parents) if they don’t meet their often overly ambitious goals.

So step back a minute.

If accepted to a highly selective school, congratulations – and yes, it’s true that its’ name brand will be a helpful lifetime credential and alumni connection.

And yes, a top college often offers the most intellectually intriguing and diverse community in which to study and make forever friends.

But perhaps – if your student gets accepted by the most tippy-top, elite of schools, because of his perfect grades, mega test scores, impossibly impressive list of awards, achievements and leadership positions, even if your son or daughter is the kind of student who could barely find time to floss in high school, given how busy he or she was –

Perhaps your student should do the unexpected –  and  consider saying “no, thank you” to that most elite of colleges?

What if your student instead considered instead a college with a culture that is not one of  “destructive perfectionism” – but instead one that will support as well as challenge a student.

Here’s the plan:

  • Colleges themselves must take the first step to lessen the pressure to be perfect in order to be accepted.
  • Parents should dial down their own expectations.
  • Students should put their own mental health first (and second, and third) – and start rethinking about college (and high school) as places in which to enjoy learning, to thrive in instead of being driven into a frenzy of unrealistic achievement goals.

Then the only March Madness will be the games we watch on T.V.

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Your Own Lane in “Semi-Retirement”

stratton mtn

On a family trip one summer to Vermont we stopped at a familiar ski area to ride its’ alpine slide.

For the uninitiated, an alpine slide starts at the top of a non-snow-covered mountain where you sit on a sled, with a control stick between your knees, and guide your own ride along the twists and turns of a trail down the hill to the bottom.

The best part about this summer slide at Bromley Mountain is that it’s a triple track – described as “North America’s first triple-tracked” alpine slide, 2/3 of a mile long.

Triple Track means (duh) that each rider has three tracks to chose from. As I remember they were labeled – Fast, Medium and Slow – or maybe the three tracks had more clever names like #1 -“Speed For Teens”, #2 – “Active Dads” and #3 – “Moms Who Are Very Cautious.”

Whatever their designations were, I chose – no surprise here  – the latter, the slowest but steady track, kind of my life mantra, expressed on the side of a mountain. My husband and teenage son picked the faster paths, then whizzed down the mountain on their own sleds.

They were waiting for me when I arrived, five minutes later, having applied my own s-l-o-w sled’s brake multiple times as I approached every sharp turn and fast straightaway.

That triple alpine track was made for me – I like to be in charge of my own ride. I love the opportunity to choose my lane. If only life was like that alpine track.

Lately I have been veering from lane to lane.

One day I am happily zooming around with multiple plans and projects, volunteering, lunching with friends, going to meetings. The next I am contentedly at home by myself – along with our trusty terrier at my side – thinking that nothing is better than being able to sit alone in a comfortable chair (I know, don’t sit too long! bad for your health. I get it) – and write.

I did not choose to retire from my law firm at age 60 – that was an unexpected decision made for me by the cardiac authorities.  All of the articles on what to do to plan for retirement were suddenly irrelevant. I was plopped into it whether I liked it or not.

Three years have passed since then and I am still finding my way in what I call “semi-retirement.” Every day I either do too much – or I do too little.  Finding the right balance, the right lane has been tricky.

I would love nothing more than to sit at a desk all day and write. I’ve written a few short stories featuring (what else) witty and worried women in law firm settings.  Do I turn one of my favorite of these short stories into the first chapter of a novel? Or do I keep writing stories until I come up with a collection of them? Haven’t I set aside my childhood dream of becoming a published author for too long?

How ambitious those plans sound. And how self-indulgent. I now have the choice to spend hours doing what I love – while my husband is very much not-retired – (he likes his job, but loving it? you’d have to ask him.)

I  feel responsible to be productive. So some of what I write is non-fiction and earns a (tiny) fee, and I talk and write about young adult mental health and get paid for that too – and next fall, if it happens and I hope it will, I may get to teach a class about the state of mental health on college campuses.

Do these small paying “gigs” add up to giving me the right to stay in the slow lane with my writing projects?

Will the guilt I feel when I sit down to write ever subside?

I think about this as I veer from “semi-retirement” lane to lane and then back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The “Greige-ification” of the Spring Home-Selling Process

lilacs - spring, 2015

I am so not a beige person.

Yet here I am watching – sorrowfully – as the inside of our home – is transformed from its former colorful self into a bland, freshly-painted beige – or perhaps more accurately  – “greige” –  (you do know that gray is the new beige) –  to best attract potential house buyers.

Our realtor tells us that would-be buyers would be put off by my rather obvious fondness for color in every room. By my deep sea-blue dining room and my inside-of-a-peach family room with its chili-pepper red, built-in bookcase.  Seeing our lively green front hall would cause potential buyers to flee in dismay.

Farewell to my formerly colorful home – and welcome to my greige abode.

What is it, I ask the realtor (who happens to be my close friend, Liz and in her personal capacity, she likes color, but as a realtor, she does not), that would-be house buyers find so attractive about bland and boring greige?

She tells me that today’s would-be buyers want to walk into a clean and neutral canvas, freshly-painted walls, without any family photographs or personal items that would give any clues to the personalities of the current inhabitants.  Today’s home buyers apparently have trouble picturing themselves making your house their home if they are distracted by any signs that you happen to live there.

This has changed since 1983.

When my husband JP and I bought our house, a smallish, three bedroom brick colonial built soon after WWII, we purchased it from its’ original owners who made no efforts to hide their decorative preferences. As we entered for the first time, we were treated to a symphony of stuck-in-the-1960’s era color and texture – including thick, brown shag carpeting in the living room, a front hall covered in silvery foil/black/brown/fake tree wallpaper and a kitchen done up in matching harvest gold appliances.

We did not run out in horror, but instead headed to the basement, saw that its’ knotty-pine walls had been painted black to match the floor – and that the basement ceiling sported a large spinning silver disco ball. Did I mention the burnt orange built-in basement bar?

You can’t make this stuff up, truly.

Upstairs to the three bedrooms – where the master bedroom ceiling had a light fixture that resembled a giant wrought iron wagon wheel, ready to impale you the minute you lay down on the bed below it.  Instead of closets, there hung long strands of dangling beads from two alcoves. The one-person-at-a-time master bathroom was tiled in a fetching pink and black combo.

And the piece de resistance? Following our noses we spotted a large mixing bowl of chopped raw onions sitting on the kitchen counter next to the stove. Surely nothing says “I can’t wait to sell my house” as much as the smell of freshly cut onions in the air. Was the older couple selling the house sending mixed signals?

Somehow JP and I saw beyond the house’s distasteful (to us) decor – and aromas – and snapped it up. We were not deterred by its’ extremely overly personalized appearance.  In fact, we appreciated seeing evidence that another family had lived there, who perhaps once had teenagers who likely danced in the basement and a mom who put pencil marks in the linen closet door to show the height of her children as they grew.  It was time for their family to move out –  and for ours (I was newly pregnant when we first saw our house) to begin.

Fast forward, and later this spring our house will have been completed de-nuded of anything that would indicate that a family with real lives and personal preferences has lived here for 33 years.  Family photos boxed up, my prized collection of blue ceramic bowls packed away and all bathroom items removed (Because if someone sees the kind of deodorant you use that would tell them too much about you and we can’t have that, now can we.)

From inviting warmth to the most grayish of greige – our home is now in the process of becoming a boringly bland canvas.

Watching it as it morphs from a warm, lived-in home to an it-could-belong-to-anyone kind of a house distresses me. When it stops looking like our well-loved home, I tell myself, it will make it that much easier to say goodbye.

Or else I can leave a bowl of freshly-chopped raw onions on the counter in our newly-greige-painted kitchen on the day of our first open house. Don’t tell Liz.

 

*To Be Continued

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Leaving A Support Group After Leading It: Parenting & Young Adult Mental Health

iStock_000044753522Large doors

“If you founded the parents’ group, then why did you stop attending?”

A legitimate question I could not readily answer.

That question was posed to me in the Q and A after a Mental Health talk I gave a few weeks ago.  I had been invited by a Northern California synagogue to speak as part of their open-to-the-community “End The Silence” series on mental illness. They asked me to talk about the parents’ support group I started – and led for 6 years –  at my own synagogue in DC.

If you’ve read this Blog, you may have come across my post from September, 2014 – titled a “Different Kind of Kvelling” where I first mentioned our P/YAWS – short for “Parents of Young Adults Who Struggle.”  The Washington Post then published a version of my post in its @OnParenting section – and word spread.

One of my life goals (truly) is to foster the creation of support and strategy sharing groups for parents of young adults who struggle with mental health challenges such as anorexia, anxiety disorder, bipolar, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia at synagogues throughout the U.S.

So I was thrilled to come to California to explain why I started our P/YAWS group, how we ran our meetings and why our network of parents had been so helpful to me and to many others.

Many hands raised with questions during the Q and A session – most I could easily answer, but when asked if, after I stopped leading the group, I remained a regular participant, I stopped to consider. I gave a short response, which I forget (blame it on the bad cold I was getting over that night).

Now that I’m back home I’ve been pondering the real reason I no longer attend our P/YAWS meetings.

At first – so I tell myself – I didn’t attend because I wanted to give the parent co-facilitators who replaced me some space to develop their own style. Running a group like ours isn’t easy. Parents come with heavy hearts and worried minds. Sharing stories is painful. We support each other, offering ideas for doctors, therapists, meds, local and distant treatment programs and strategies to use with challenging young adults. Tears flow, laughter too; sometimes everyone wants a chance to talk, sometimes people want to talk too much. There is a different rhythm to each meeting. My personal “weapon” of choice was a strong sense of humor – perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but it seemed to work. The group thrived.

And it continued to thrive without me.

After I stopped going to meetings, I was surprised at how relieved I felt.

For years I had been carrying around in my own heart and head everyone’s else’s stories. I could facilitate the back and forth based on what I knew –  I would ask S. how her son was doing on his new med or remind C. that the last time she came to the group, her daughter had been hospitalized, how was she doing now. Not being the sole person in charge freed me up to let go of the knowledge weighing on me of other participants’ pain.

The more I thought, the more I realized didn’t want to go to the group anymore, even as a participant.

In part because I didn’t want to scare anyone away.  Mental Illness happens on a spectrum. When a new parent comes to his first meeting, it can be because their young adult son has just had to leave college because of a mental health crisis. That parent is confident that there will be an effective medication, a promising therapy and that next semester their child will be back in school. And sometimes it works out that way. Our group has had many successful “graduates.”

But for those of us on the longer-term, “work in progress” path, our stories are more like roller coasters than linear tales of successful coping. I didn’t want the new parent to listen to my longer-term narrative and fear that their trajectory would resemble ours. It might or might not.

P/YAWS has been amazing for me and my husband. We could not have gotten through all that we did without it. From a wisp of an idea to a thriving monthly group for eight years, I’m proud of my role. It was through our group that I learned that a parent can only do so much. Most young adults with mental illness can change, can grow into stability but the parent cannot do it for them. Your young adult child has got to want it more than you do.

For now I’ve facilitated all I want to; I’ve encouraged, I’ve supported, I’ve shared plenty. I’m not letting up on my plan to prod other synagogues to create groups similar to ours. The need is clearly there.  But I’m going to be on a hiatus from participating around the table. Let others speak, share and be comforted. I’ve had my turn, time to sit back for a while in silence (unusual for me!) and apply the lessons I learned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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