Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Deep Thoughts

I've developed a possibly irritating tendency to ask people what they remember about their adolescent experiences in hopes of developing some idea of how to effectively parent my own adolescent.

(If you've stopped returning my calls, I understand.)

Last night, driving home with two exceptionally smart women, the question somehow led to the subject of the moments when we first realized that we were smarter then most other people. For B, it happened in adolescence during a social studies group project. She wondered why the other kids were wasting so much time and doing so many stupid and pointless things, until it dawned on her that their brains simply weren't working the same way hers did.

E had to think about it a bit, but told us about her first major interaction with a teacher who was just flat-out wrong. She tried to correct the teacher, and we all know how well authority figures take being told they're wrong.

I remember pointing out to my folks that the direction they had drawn the bathroom door opening and the location of the mirror meant that anyone sitting on the west side of the dining room table would have a direct view of anyone sitting on the toilet if the door was inadvertently opened. I noticed some impracticality about the way the stairs came down into the garage, too - the cars were going to get in the way of the doorway, or something.

What do you mean, your parents didn't design and build a house around you when you were a kid? How did you climb up into the rafters of your house if the the drywall was already up?

One thing I remember about my childhood is spending lots of time thinking and figuring things out for myself. I remember thinking about ways to weave hair together, and trying it out and realizing that I was braiding. I can tell you where I was sitting and what doll's hair it was, too. Ditto with loops of yarn that turned out to be crocheting: I was sitting on the left end of the couch and the yarn was red. I remember how smart I felt when I figured out that the freeway exit numbers correspond to the mileposts and that a solid yellow line means do not pass.

Twelve spends a lot of time on her own, but what if she doesn't think about things?

Okay, okay, I heard it. She probably thinks about something, even if it's just how cute Niall is and how Harry is her favorite.

I also wonder if Twelve is ever going to experience the kind of existential clouds that pretty much all of the adults I know live under. What do I want to be when I grow up? What do I want out of life? Am I making a difference in the world? Am I really happy? Twelve doesn't seem to be asking any of these questions, and as we discussed last night, it's the interesting people who do.

B added that adolescence was when she developed a critical perspective on life. She read The Beauty Myth and realized that her bodily self-hatred wasn't coming from her, but from the media, and began to fight back. I didn't discover feminism until adulthood, but I was completely miserable in middle school, so complacency was never an option for me either. I worry that Twelve will be complacent. She's popular, attractive, tall, privileged, and verbose, so she doesn't have much to fight against. The world works for Twelve. I almost wish someone would tell her that she can't do something because she's a girl - then she'd have something to get riled up about.

What if Twelve just grows up and gets a job that she likes, keeps it until she retires, and that works for her? I don't understand people like this. I hear they exist, but I have no category for uncomplicated contentment. I cannot fathom doing the same job for several decades - or even for several years, to be perfectly honest. I am too busy getting bored and asking those damn unanswerable questions.

As we concluded in the car last night, it would be okay if Twelve does just grow up and choose a career. I don't have to understand her - ever. Hell, she can take care of me in my old age, since clearly I am not contributing the maximum amount to a 401(k) at the moment.

Popular, confident, content ... it's a good thing she looks like me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Interstitial Parenting, Part Four: Teaching the Grays

I recently learned that two young adult men that I know - a cousin and a longtime family friend - have done the same faith-based residential rehab program. The cousin just entered, according to a recent email asking for prayer. The friend, according to another email, is getting married after over a decade of trying to get his life on track via the same program. I don't know all the details of either situation, but both lost control of their lives to alcohol and drugs.

Both of these young men were raised in politically conservative, fundamentally religious 'intact' families in which the father is the head and the mother does the reproductive labor. Both families reject alcohol completely. Both families, I'm sure, reject extramarital sex, same-sex marriage, comprehensive sex education, and abortion.

It must be so easy to raise a child from a conservative/fundamentalist perspective! Clear, concise answers exist, and you don't even have to think about them, much less come up with them on your own: Alcohol is a tool of the devil, so don't drink it. Sex is bad until you're married. You can only get married if you're heterosexual. Children should not learn about contraception because that will make them have sex. Abortion should be illegal because it kills people who aren't born yet.


Raising a child to see things in black and white does her a grave disservice as she becomes an adult. If you're raised with the mindset that everything is black and white, it must be incredibly difficult to deal with the inevitable grays of the real world. What happens when an aunt (let's say) reveals that she's going to spend the rest of her life with her female 'roommate'? What happens when a cousin ends up pregnant by the wrong guy at the wrong time? What happens when you discover that tequila is delicious and that having a few drinks lowers your inhibitions in a good way?

Moral absolutes don't help you navigate the inevitable ambiguities of life - they prevent you from doing so. You have to disown your lesbian aunts. Your cousin has to have a child she doesn't want and can't support. You can't have any more tequila and by golly don't have any fun with friends.

Twelve is exposed to lots and lots and lots of grays: In conversation, in the explanations she's given (there's lots of 'on the other hand'), in the way we make decisions (clothing production is evil, but we wear mass-produced clothes anyway, ditto for conventionally produced food), in the way household rules are made (we acknowledge adult/child power differences, but we make her do things anyway), and in the very topics R and I are expert in (critical perspectives on ecology and gender demand an articulation of ambiguities).

Twelve's conversational diet is (sometimes comically) varied and from multiple perspectives. On a recent camping trip with friends visiting from Columbia and Israel, topics of conversation ranged from torture methods used throughout history to the best method of cooking biscuit dough on a stick over a campfire to how to estimate the heights of trees. Granted, Twelve doesn't participate in every conversation and granted, the easiest way to estimate the height of a tree is to point R's laser range-finding binoculars at the top, but the point is that complex conversation and ambiguity swirls around Twelve all the time. Any statement is fair game for challenge or critique. In our household, it is nearly impossible to get away with making an unchallenged statement of position, fact, or even preference. You think abortion should be illegal? Okay, but you're going to need to explain yourself.

Conversations with Twelve are also characterized by the exploration of multiple perspectives. Yes, R and I do have moral stances and yes, we express them to Twelve, but she is also quite aware that there are other acceptable points of view. She also knows that many of our behaviors - particularly around food and clothing - are fraught with contradictions. She's getting fairly adept at pointing them out, too. "Why won't you buy the [item she wants]? You bought [item I've previously purchased]!" Because there are gray areas, sweetie.

I will admit that I occasionally use the 'Because I'm your mom and I said so' line with Twelve occasionally. And then we look at each other and roll our eyes, because I know Twelve's too smart to fall for that and Twelve knows she's too smart to fall for that. She demands logic, but - so far - when I acknowledge that I'm simply pulling the 'mom' card, she goes along with whatever it is that I'm expecting or vetoing. So far.

I figure that since adulthood is all about complying with the occasional pile of unnecessary-seeming administrative bullshit, it's not a bad thing for Twelve to be able to deal with that. Sometimes parents are irrational and sometimes the people who are in control are wrong. When her fifth-grade teacher told the class that sharp-shinned hawks hang out alongside highways and red-tailed hawks live in the forests, Twelve experienced this first-hand. Sharp-shins, you see, do not hang out alongside highways. They live in the forests. Those big birds that you see on power poles and fence posts along the freeway? You guessed it, red-tails. Twelve knows this, living with an ornithologist as she does, and from my excited identifications of red-tails on our travels. (In six years with R, I've managed to learn a dozen birds or so, and I get a real kick out of seeing the ones I know. Yes, it's annoying, but I don't care. Sorry.)

She didn't press the issue at the time, but we sure had a good chuckle about it at home, and it was an excellent lesson in knowing when there's absolutely no point in pressing the issue with incorrect authority figures.

I think (smugly) that Twelve's well on her way to being an incredibly annoying college student.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Congratulations, You've Won Olympic Gold in the Douchebaggery All-Around!

Do you ever have one of those days where you want to sit down and write, but you are too busy talking to your lawyer and wondering if you'll really have to put your baby on an airplane the next morning?

Welcome to my yesterday.

The short version is that my ex is winning yet another gold medal in douchebaggery, and somehow it hasn't been four years since the last one. Last Thursday morning, the unexpected knock at the door was a guy who handed me yet another batch of legal paperwork. Motion for enforcement of parenting time, or something. He wants six weeks of make-up parenting time (when is this going to happen, pray tell? Have you lengthened summer? You certainly have a sufficient god complex to believe you can!), for me to pay for the make-up parenting time, six weeks each summer in the future, and for me to pay for his legal costs.

I had kept my word and didn't send Twelve for that six-week trip that my ex booked months ago, while reiterating that I would be happy to work with him to arrange for one or both three-week trips. (Bizarre side note: I got a text message from him the day that the six-week flight left, asking if I had or had not put her on the plane. Apparently, he seriously thought that I was going to do what he told me to do after all and not tell him about it.)

I hadn't heard back from him about a three-week visit, and summer is practically over, so I emailed him a couple of weeks ago at Twelve's request, asking if a summer visit could still happen. In response, I got an unrelated question about Twelve's scheduled November and December visits: She has a whole week off for Thanksgiving this year, and R and I are going to Mexico at the end of December for a friend's wedding. Twelve's dad technically gets Wednesday-Sunday over Thanksgiving, and it hasn't yet made sense for her to fly 3000 miles for that length of time. I had hypothesized to Twelve that she might be able to come to Mexico with us if we could work everything out with her dad. My ex wanted to know if I would be okay with him having the whole week at Thanksgiving, and was just checking in about December to make sure that we weren't planning to infringe on his time to take Twelve to Mexico. (No, he didn't say, "What an amazing opportunity for Twelve to visit another country and get to go to the wedding of people she cares about!" That would be the normal, non-asshat/good parent reaction.)

You've threatened to take me to court and now you want me to be nice and give you a whole week at Thanksgiving? You've got to be fucking kidding me. Promise you won't take me to court, and we can talk.

I said it much more politely, of course, and a couple of days later the court papers arrived. Okay then, you want to do it the stupidly expensive way? Game on.

I called in my attorney for a strategy session, and said let's make him feel like he's really getting something here. Let's tell him he can have all the things I would have given him anyway - a visit yet this summer, a whole week at Thanksgiving, and two weeks at Christmas. Also, while we're at it (at hundreds per hour), let's build in some restrictions: Six weeks the summer after next only if he actually exercises all the time he's entitled to between now and then and calls Twelve once a week. Let's clear up some financial loose ends from the last go-round, just to make me feel better about those hundreds: Unaccompanied minor fees are part of the flight costs, and you DO have to pay them (remember, I know how much you make, you stingy asshole).

It worked.

We did have a slight difference of expectation about what it means to fit in a trip before school starts. I was thinking next week sometime. He was thinking tomorrow. So, at five o'clock last night, I got final confirmation from my attorney that he agreed to the settlement and that a flight was booked for 10 o'clock this morning.

Twelve, true to form and to the way I've raised her, was gung-ho at noon yesterday about the idea of leaving home at seven this morning. (Gratuitous side note: Damn, I'm good!)

After she boarded, I was sitting there tearily, waiting for the plane to leave, wishing that there was a half-used tissue in one of my four pockets (I am my grandmother's granddaughter, and this is how we roll. In another decade, the half-used tissue will be up my sleeve), and pathetically composed a text message to my sister, R, and a friend.

There's an attentive father hanging out with his three boys near me. Thanks, Universe, for reminding me what Twelve's never had.

Checked in with Twelve - window seat, apparently decent seating companion, characteristically uninterested in talking to me.

I dripped a tiny bit more, just decompressing. "At least she's blessed with a great mom!" from my sister. "He's only attentive so his kids don't melt down because he wants to pick up airport babes" from R.

I'm pretty much out of emotions at this point and am ready to move on. The fact that the kids got out of hand three seconds later and got quite a semi-manipulative lecture from their dad helped, too.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Guilt Trip Down Memory Lane [or] Interstitial Parenting, Part Three

I was interviewed the other day about my involvement in advocacy on behalf of college students who are also parenting. Apparently a story is being written about the six+ years I've been a part of a group that does things to help remove barriers to student parents' access to the full University experience. We've done some awesome things; I'm very honored to have been a part of it all.

The interviewer asked me about the conflict between the demands of parenting and the demands of being a student, which got me thinking: I've been stressed out for most of Twelve's life. Between the stress of being a college student and the stress of being an underemployed college graduate, there were maybe a couple of years of regular life - total.

This makes me sad.

On the one hand, it's good for children to learn that parents have other important priorities in their lives and that we do not always practice perfect parenting.

On the other hand, it's lousy to be reminded of all the times that you haven't been the parent you want to be.

Thanks a lot for the guilt trip, interviewing story-writing dude! (He is actually a great guy - his daughter just graduated from Twelve's school and we got to chat a bit about that.)

As I've made decisions in the last several months to work less and be home with/for Twelve more, I've really been conscious of the effect that stress has on our interactions since she's become an adolescent. When I've been worried about money or trying to get a paper written or studying for an exam, I just didn't have as much emotional energy left for her. When she senses that I'm stressed out, I think it affects her behavior now in a way that it didn't in the past. I can't quite put my finger on the difference, but it's almost like she's getting defensive and fighting back, or something.

Structuring my life so that I can be home a lot this summer and after school next year just feels right. It means that I will be able to respond to whatever parts of Twelve's life that she wants to share with me (according to my research, these will become fewer and fewer from here on out). I'll have time to supervise school performance more closely (sigh). I may even postpone the pursuit of a tenure-track professorship - assuming that's even what I want - until after high school (gulp).

All of this is absolutely an exercise of privilege, of course, and I'm intentionally as conscious as I can be of the way luck, systematic privilege, and my life skills and choices have worked together to make this possible at this time. I'm looking at it in the same way that I did the decision to send her to Waldorf kindergarten: I'm not going to not do it because it's something that's unavailable to so many others. I'm going to do the best that I can for my daughter, period. Hypocritical? Maybe. Pragmatic? Yeah. Welcome to the space between the principle and the reality.

Also, this sets back my plan to buy a new(er) car by at least six years, so if you want to be a sanctimonious pedant, go do it somewhere else.