Age of Enlightenment (06/18/14)

Recent birthdays bring change and redefine a family as college closes in

Last week my older son celebrated his 20th birthday and in a few months my younger son marks his 18th birthday.

While their birthdays fall within a couple months of each other, the significance and difference between their June and September birthdays is as distinct as their personalities.

My older son celebrated his 18th birthday the week before his high school graduation and it commemorated his collegiate milestone.

My younger son will celebrate his 18th birthday as he starts his senior year of high school. Adding an 18th candle to my youngest son’s cake will symbolize the shrinking gap between high school ending and college starting.

Their landmark birthdays put them both legally on the path to adulthood and leave me in the dust contemplating the consequences.

As they abandon adolescence and enter adulthood, I’m no longer a mom of minor children. For years when asked about my kids’ ages, I’ve replied by saying I’m a mom of two teenagers.

As my youngest turns 18 years old, to say I’m a mom of a teenager is somewhat misleading, since I’m lawfully the parent of a young adult.

But it sounds so awkward to say I am the mom of young adults. All I think of when I hear young adult is the type of fiction I searched for when they were in middle school and needed a novel for a book report or to participate in their school’s Survivor Book Club.

According to the United States Census Bureau, I am the parent of millennials. Instead of labeling my sons as young adults, maybe I’ll reply that I have two millennials. Although, some people might think I parent potted plants.

My boys are part of the millennial generation: a segment of the population born between approximately 1980 and 2000 that doesn’t know life without digital technology or the internet.

As much as I complain about technology and my boys’ constant attachment to their cell phones, I admit it’s hard to imagine parenting without my cell phone. My phone acts as an umbilical cord keeping us connected.

Ages ago, as a college freshman, I’d communicate with my parents once a week to check-in on a Sunday night. Today I can’t imagine only talking to my college kid once a week. I’d prefer to hear from him once a day, but he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for conversation.

I confess, technology has become my crutch; I rely on it to keep me in contact with my young adults. I know all about positive empowerment and destructive hovering, but with the Internet’s instant access to information and my lack of willpower it’s tempting to bypass boundaries.

A couple weeks ago my cell phone died an untimely death. Once I received my replacement phone and began reconfiguring it, I discovered several new and enticing applications available.

Naturally, the first app that caught my eye asked, “Do you want to know where your family members are?” It was as if my new phone could read my mind.

I naively clicked on the icon and up popped something called the Family Map. After a few more innocent clicks I immediately received two rapid fire angry texts: “Why are you following me?” and “No, you are not tracking me!”

It’s complicated parenting my soon to be 18 year old who is about to experience unprecedented freedom and tremendous responsibility, and my 20 year old who is embracing independence and celebrating adulthood.

This year my boys’ birthdays represent major milestones for them and me. I’m no longer the mom of adolescent minors but not yet the mom of autonomous adults.

I’m still undecided how I will identify myself this year as my boys transition to adults, but next year I know my identity is inescapable: I’ll be the empty nester. Suddenly, young adult has a nice ring to it.

And So It Ebbs and Flows (7/16/14)

Paradise found and lost

I dread airplanes and flying. But the lure of 10 secluded summer days spent with my boys sent me rushing down the jetway battling for an overhead bin.

I couldn’t wait to suspend time and forget with each passing day they drift further into their own lives, while I struggle to stay afloat in the sea of change.

Arriving in our island destination, I told my husband my plan to reclaim our boys from the swells sweeping them away as he announced his plan to whisk them away on an adventurous hike.

I wasn’t surprised, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean it always happens, he changes. I’m usually asleep so I don’t witness the transformation, but flying 2,600 miles over the ocean he acquires superpowers. When I awake I expect to see the “S” emblazoned on his chest.

Maybe it’s the air pumped into the plane’s cabin, but something causes him to think he’s suddenly Superman and ready to leap tall buildings or cascading cliffs.

Fearing a Griswold-like escapade, I reminded him of our visits to island clinics and crutches. He assured me he’d planned a safe excursion and provided proof of his hours spent researching the trek—on Yelp and Wikipedia.

I countered with Internet articles documenting deaths from falls and drowning along the same stretch of rugged coastline. But, since these facts weren’t reported on Wikipedia, he claimed my sources lacked credibility.

Firm in his conviction, my husband, whose only exercise consists of our dog walking him in circles around our neighborhood, declared with or without me, they’d embark on the 8-mile hike to a majestic waterfall.

Since my idea of braving the outdoors is sleeping with our bedroom windows open, I opted out of the hike, foregoing the magnificence of the 300-foot waterfall for the beckoning beauty of a renovated resort nearby.

I dropped them off at the trailhead at 8:30 a.m. and promised to be back at 1:30 p.m. My husband assured me the hike takes five hours roundtrip, according to Yelp.

I arrived back at our appointed time and waited. At 3 p.m., minutes from hiring a helicopter to search for their limp bodies, I spotted young hikers descending near the trailhead. I asked if they’d seen my superhero and sons. They reported seeing all three at the falls but added I’d be lucky to see them by 5 p.m. since “the older guy was really struggling.”

Thankfully, all three arrived back earlier than predicted. They appeared bruised, muddied and tired, but entirely intact—except for my husband’s ego.

Their adventure over and my husband hardly able to walk, he popped Advil like Tic-Tacs and shuffled to the pool.

With our family forced to slow to an island pace, I initiated my vacation plan: relaxing days basking beachside and savoring meals served island-style.

It’s seldom the four of us come together for meals anymore, and when we do it’s even rarer that grades, goals and graduations aren’t mentioned.

This vacation, our conversations shifted and our young adults started spearheading our chats and sharing their perspectives and experiences.

I don’t want to know everything they do, but it’s fun catching glimpses into their worlds and hearing their thoughts instead of reading cryptic messages or viewing fleeting photos via text.

We shared lots of laughs, ribbings for minor mishaps or jokes that are funny only to us—and, therefore, not immediately relayed via Snapchat but instead kept as our cherished memories.

As much as I fear the flight over, the flight home is even worse but for a much different reason.

It starts in the airport waiting to board our flight home. “Mom, I just got a text, thinking of having a few people over for a BBQ tomorrow, OK?” And, “I’m going to the beach with my friends all day tomorrow, OK?”

The change happens that fast and the rip current pulls them back into their own lives, initiating the tide’s ebb and flow until next summer when they drift back to me.

The Short Road to Graduation: What I Know About My Son’s Senior Year (8/20/14)

Deja Vu All Over Again

Seven years ago when I enrolled my older son as a freshman in high school, I arrived a bundle of nerves. This week, as I enroll my younger son as a senior, I’m still a basket case—but for very different reasons.

When my older son started his senior year I didn’t have a clue what to expect. Clearly, I knew how the journey would end, but I wasn’t prepared for the potholes along the way.

This time around, as my younger son starts his senior year, I know the terrain and some of the pitfalls to avoid but I also know the road won’t be any easier.

So far my sons’ senior years are off to similar starts. Less than a month after completing their junior years of high school each received letters inviting them to sit for their senior yearbook photograph.

Last week, with my younger son dressed in a collared shirt and coordinating tie, we arrived as instructed for his official senior portrait.

As I stood in the photographer’s studio mulling over portrait packages, I felt a familiar rush of anxiety. I flashed back to my older son’s portrait appointment remembering it initiated the slippery slope toward graduation. My heart hurt knowing in an instant I’ll be sitting teary-eyed in Thalassa Stadium, again.

Returning home from the photo shoot, I recounted to my husband my traumatic afternoon and fear that in the blink of an eye our son will be gone.  My husband responded by blinking his eyes and saying, “He’s still here.” I warned him, one more satirical flicker and he might not see our son pick-up his diploma in June.

I discovered during my older son’s senior year how cruelly the calendar races from September to June. The next ten months kick-off with football games, homecoming events, and themed dances then jumps to midterms and spring break, and finally sprints to senior barbecues, grad night and graduation.

Amid the year-long flurry of fun activities, my younger son will spend his Thanksgiving break completing college applications. Months of anxious waiting will follow while we wait for the decision of an anonymous admissions panel to announce how lucky we are that they’re taking my son from me for four years.

This time around, instead of counting down the days until his departure like I did with my older son, I intend to enjoy the day-to-day high school routine. I pledge to shed some of my black clothing and stop marking the maudlin list of every “last” milestone—his last birthday at home, his last prom, and so forth.

I’m rationalizing by living in the moment I’ll minimize my misery—the denial gene runs like a river through my genetic pool so I stand a great chance of temporarily fooling myself.

I expect as my son’s senior year progresses he’ll begin to push the boundaries of the last three years. He’ll challenge our rules and decisions to taste his impending freedom and independence. This time, I’ll try to loosen the leash and accept it’s good to gain some autonomy under our roof before sending him into unruly student housing.

I know, as the calendar comes to a close, senioritis will strike but I vow to leave the battlefield of “The Great Curfew War” less bloodied than with my older son.

We butted heads as he fought to free himself from my jurisdiction and jump into the world of young adulthood, and I fought letting him go and losing my beloved job as fulltime parent. In retrospect I realize our conflict wasn’t about the neon numbers flashing on the digital clock, but instead the fleeting hours remaining on our household clock.

This time around I’m less naïve, but it’s still difficult enjoying the journey when reaching the destination is dreaded.

Too soon I’ll find myself sitting in Thalassa Stadium watching my younger son cross the stage to receive his high school diploma.

The second time isn’t any easier, but at least this time I know to bring more Kleenex.

September’s Rush Creates Added Stress (9/17/14)

The Greek bonds of brotherhood and secrecy

September often sparks anxiety in students and parents as another school year starts. My younger son is a high school senior in his second week of classes. My older son is a junior at college in his fourth week of classes and so far so good, but fraternity rush events begin this week.

I have John Heath to thank for my annual panic attack—he founded the first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa Society, at The College of William and Mary in 1776.

My frat fears started at a midnight screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 and escalated when my son announced his intent to go Greek.

As a freshman, my social son jumped at the chance to join the rush tradition. I responded by emailing him news reports about dangerous drinking games and risky hazing sometimes associated with Greek life.

He replied with emails about the merits of his hopeful fraternity’s respected social, academic and charitable status. The chapter’s Parent Board even mailed us a Parents’ Club Newsletter affirming the accolades of the organization. He rushed a few frats but set his heart on pledging only one. He’d call excited about rushing and I’d try being supportive but the Greek fraternity names all sound alike to me so he’d balk as I butchered the name of every house.

Most fraternities consist of just two or three Greek letters but it’s still confusing. The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters starting with alpha and ending with omega. The first three letters are alpha, beta, gamma—I thought it was a fraternity.

As rush came to a close, my son called ecstatic to report he’d received a bid from the fraternity of his dreams and an invitation to participate in a pledge weekend. I asked if he’d learned any secret passwords or handshakes. He didn’t answer and said he had to hang-up, adding he’d be too busy to talk over the weekend so he’d call us Sunday night.

Saturday afternoon I received a voicemail about possible fraudulent charges made to our credit card. I returned the call and spoke to a nice woman at the bank who informed me it wasn’t my credit card in question but my son’s.

She asked if my son was out of the state, to which I replied, “He’d better not be.” She laughed and said his credit card activity indicated he’d traveled to Las Vegas. My son’s credit card is only authorized in California. Reluctantly, I approved the out-of-state charges and got back down on my knees. Finally, my son called Sunday night elated and exhausted.

He explained his weekend involved a scavenger hunt of the Western states with a carload of his brothers taking turns driving to mapped locations to find an item, retrieve it and follow clues to the next destination.

I hate the Greek alphabet but there’s one thing I love about Greek life: their brotherhood of secrets. Their cloak of secrecy prevents my son from sharing much about his frat life and the less I know the better. My son kept his pledge experiences quiet but his real brother heard enough to declare he’s never joining a fraternity—a win-win situation for me.

Since joining his fraternity, my son has embraced Greek life and taken on leadership roles: he’s board member of his fraternity and an interfraternity council member. Last month at freshman orientation he answered questions and calmed the nerves of parents facing future fraternity anxiety. Years of placating me prepared him well to pacify other parents—he’s yet to thank me.

The fraternity my son joined maintains its well-regarded reputation, impressive academic record and charitable community contributions. My son has found a big brother who’s a great mentor, succeeded at internships and forged lifelong friendships.

As much as my neck hurts at times from turning my head the other way, I do respect his bonds of brotherhood and am happy he found his house away from home. But, from alpha to omega, it’s all Greek to me.

Fall Applications Lead to Spring Anxiety (10/15/14)

Trading Back to School Night for collegiate sweatshirts

I usually look forward to fall and its seasonal transitions, like switching from swimwear to sweatshirts—but this fall is bittersweet.

My two sons share a combined enrollment of eight years at the same high school, and recently I attended my final back-to-school night. I welcomed the opportunity to meet teachers and learn about my younger son’s senior year; and I hoped, for just one night, to escape the college deadlines creeping closer.

Arriving on campus, my naïve optimism quickly clashed with well-meaning questions about my son, “Where’s he applying?”

Immediately I realized, ready or not, I’d better buckle up to ride the college admissions rollercoaster set to impact my family, again.

As much as I complain about the application process there’s one part of it I cherish – the college tours with my son. I covet our trips together visiting vibrant campuses, exploring scholastic bookstores and imagining his academic future.

After returning home from our last college trip, my son narrowed his college application list into the three suggested categories: safety, probable and reach.

Poignantly, my son’s number one choice is a reach school the furthest distance from our home. This school is also the most elite and extensively diverse university on his list.

Since my son’s middle name may as well be homogenous, I’ve gathered academic information about his legacy ancestor hoping he’ll find a way to weave a thread of his heritage into his application—personally, it’s a double-edged collegiate sword.

Students applying to colleges today face an increasingly competitive environment and it’s predicted to continue as each year it appears the number of college applicants go up and the rate of acceptances go down.

The University of California system recently released its freshman application data for fall 2014. The nine campuses reported receiving approximately 383,000 applications for approximately 33,000 spots.

It’s heartbreaking seeing my son stress about test scores, grade point averages, extracurricular activities and application essays, all intended to impress college admissions boards.

Many colleges expect prospective students to craft a compelling essay of approximately 500 words articulating to an admissions committee how they will stand out, while at the same time fit in, at their university.

Students labor for months to perfect their essay and admissions committee readers spend an average of less than five minutes evaluating each essay that can make the difference between an exhilarating acceptance and agonizing rejection letter.

Even though I hope (sort of) that my son gets accepted into his dream college I warn him that the school he attends doesn’t necessarily determine a bright and successful future.

I’m reminded about the story of a mom whose son received a rejection letter from an elite university, she coped by repeating her mantra, “The Unabomber went to Harvard.”

My older son spent his Thanksgiving vacation completing college applications and I anticipated my younger son delaying the process until then as well. But last week he started the application process to avoid the frenzy of filings over the holiday and risk of websites crashing causing him to miss crucial deadlines.

Armed with his college application checklist and my credit card, I suggested he tackle the state college applications first. I assured him his older brother found their application easiest to complete since letters of recommendation, essays, resumes, and transcripts aren’t sent electronically.

Apparently, like childbirth, I blocked out the painful process from three years ago, and the procedure proved far more labor intensive than I recalled.

Soon my son will complete all of his college applications. Then he’ll spend anxious months anticipating and hoping for university admissions letters inviting him to wear their collegiate sweatshirts in the fall.

After he’s reviewed every acceptance and rejection letter, my son will make his final decision and commit to one college.

And, just as I shed tears of joy 18 years ago when my son arrived and I wondered how our family would adapt to life with one more in our house, this time I’ll weep wondering how our family will adjust with one less at home.

Thankful for the Bonds of Motherhood (11/19/14)

Giving thanks along the road to the empty nest

Last week my sister-in-law invited me to lunch to catch-up and celebrate Thanksgiving. We live in the same school district, barely, but she with two younger girls and I with two older boys rarely see each other more than a couple times a year. My husband’s family isn’t cut from the tightest of knit but rather the loosest weave of fabric. Although not related by blood, my sister-in-law and I share a stronger bond: motherhood.

We met at the restaurant and before being seated she said she had big news. Her older daughter, a high school freshman, has her first boyfriend.

She nervously described driving them on dates to the movies and followed every detail by adding, “But it’s cute.” Then she whipped out her phone to share the first homecoming photos of her daughter’s group gathering for park pictures and a traditional dinner.

The young couple recently celebrated their one month anniversary; to mark the occasion my sister-in-law sent a text to the boyfriend’s mom asking to meet for coffee since they’ve not met. The boy’s mom routinely circles my sister-in-law’s street; he jumps out of the car and into their house.

My sister-in-law said his mom never replied to her inviting text. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t share her enthusiasm to meet and discuss the teenagers dominating their lives.

Interrupting I replied, “He must be the youngest.” She reacted as if our napkins turned to tarot cards. She asked how I knew and added he’s not only the youngest but has married siblings. I laughed and said, “His mom’s over it—forget coffee.” My sister-in-law sat in stunned silence.

I flashed back to my older son’s first real girlfriend as a freshman. I admit I reacted similarly to my sister-in-law and peppered his girlfriend’s innocent mom with curious questions.

My son’s girlfriend happened to be the younger of two siblings, but thankfully her mom patiently and kindly calmed my anxieties without ever suggesting I seek therapy.

Today my older son’s a junior in college and younger son’s a senior in high school, and this teenage milestone feels like a lifetime ago.

I envy my sister-in-law sitting in her full, feathered nest unaware how empty it feels to have one flown and grown.

She walks down a hallway to see her daughter.

I drive down a freeway to visit my son.

She picks-up her daughter from high school and talks about the details of her day.

I send my son text messages between college classes hoping for an emoticon reply that day.

She tucks away and turns off her cell phone at night so she can sleep.

I place my phone on the nightstand and pray it stays silent while I sleep.

She waits evenings for her daughter to walk through their door at curfew.

I wait mornings for my son to call indicating he made it home at some time.

She planned a week-long family vacation during her Thanksgiving break.

I pleaded for 48 hours of family time during his two-day Thanksgiving break.

Reminiscing with my sister-in-law over our Thanksgiving lunch, I remembered my freshman fears and empathize with her. We share a strong bond, but we’re still separated by the defining high school graduation divide. As mom of a freshman in high school, my sister-in-law’s holding on and finding her footing. Me, as a mom of a senior in high school, I’m letting go and losing my footing.

My sister-in-law’s just merging onto the empty nest highway looking out the windshield marking heartwarming high school firsts. Whereas I’m nearing the end of the road looking in the rear-view mirror counting down heartbreaking high school lasts.

As we left lunch we hugged, and I reminded my sister-in-law to give thanks for every minute of motherhood. The rear-view mirror doesn’t lie: the empty nest is closer than it appears.

Treasured Traditions of the Season (12/17/14)

Holiday season’s magic shines for all ages

A series of unexpected events led my family to celebrate Thanksgiving untraditionally. Last month, I didn’t cook a turkey or run the annual Dana Point Turkey Trot. Instead, I watched strangers gnaw on turkey legs and logged 13 miles at the busiest … I mean happiest … place on Earth.

Our unconventional holiday, combined with my mildly melancholy mood, has me planning a festive Christmas celebration filled with time-honored traditions from my boys’ childhood, despite their entering adulthood.

Two weekends ago, and in need of seasonal decorations, I wandered through a store’s sparse aisles of holiday lights and décor. Nearby I noticed a dad and son searching for old-fashioned wire hooks used to hang ornaments on trees. When they couldn’t find any the dad asked a passing clerk for assistance who replied, “Sorry dude, this is all we have left.” The dad questioned why inventory was so low the first weekend of December. The clerk shrugged and said, “This stuff’s been up for two months.” Then the crusty curmudgeon suggested the dad use paperclips to hang his tree ornaments.

It’s no secret the holidays are big business and bids for hard-earned bucks begin earlier each year. December ‘tis the season of added expense and additional work; and, this year I have several friends opting to forgo the work and enjoy the expense. One girlfriend convinced her family to skip traditional gift giving and instead booked a cruise. She reasoned the wonder of the season can be found anywhere, especially in a tropical climate, so she and her family will set sail for the holidays.

Coincidentally, after hearing her plans, my college kid called to say his friend won’t be hosting his annual ugly sweater party this year since his family is swapping their sweaters for swimsuits. I suggested something similar saying next December we should trade stuffed stockings and pretty packages for plane tickets and secluded togetherness. My son replied saying something sounding like, “Scrooge that!”

My melancholy mood is attributed to my younger son completing the process of sending out his college applications. Having been through this experience once before, I know how it ends. Next holiday season my younger son won’t help to trim our tree, he’ll spend his December days in a dorm room with collegiate stickers as decorations.

This year in particular, I pine for the days of my tiny tots climbing onto Santa’s lap pleading for Pokémon cards. I miss Christmas mornings spent together constructing Hot Wheel tracks and building LEGO landscapes. This year I’ll watch as my boys rip open electronic gifts they plug-in to disconnect.

I’m trying to stop morbidly marking every ‘last’ of my younger son’s senior year, but this time of year  that’s about as likely to happen as a fat man sliding down my chimney. The thought of next holiday season and the reality of decking the halls of an empty house—not technically if you count my husband and dog—motivates me to pull out all the stops and make this a jolly holiday worth remembering.

Sure, it’s a lot of work to recreate the same holiday hoopla season after season, but it’s one of the few traditions in my boys changing lives that they can count on every year. Just as, each year, I rely on counting down the days until my older son’s homecoming. The December day my son finishes finals he arrives for his short stay and reunites with friends attending far-flung colleges. With both my boys home, for a few fleeting weeks, our house is again filled with spirited celebrations, merry laughter and joyful smiles—making this truly the most wonderful time of the year.

With Christmas one week away the stockings are hung, gifts are wrapped and the tree is trimmed. Only one last childhood tradition remains: seeing my sons’ eyes shine bright Christmas morning. That never gets old even if they do.