Figuring Out What’s Next

In a few days, we’ll move our oldest son into his freshmen dorm at university. I surely join all the moms who go before me in experiencing this tumultuous storm of emotions that includes pride, joy and happiness for him all while (mostly unsuccessfully) stifling tears.

He’s beautiful. He’s brilliant. He’s strong. He’s almost gone…

His being “gone” doesn’t really bother me that much. He’s going to school across town and it feels a lot like we’re sending him to summer camp. I know we’ll see him more often than some parents get to see their college kids who travel greater distances for an education. So it’s not his leaving (or maybe it is and I’m delusional) that’s causing my rumination.

It’s more the sense of coming change and a fear of the unknown that might be nagging at me most. I didn’t fear the future when I was young. I couldn’t wait to grow up.

I looked forward to getting a driver’s license and graduating high school and college. I dreamed of landing a good job, getting married and having children. This is it! I’ve been living my dreams all this time. Lucky me.

But I never dreamed of one day becoming an empty nester.

I know some people surely have or have had that very dream every damned day. Those of you who’ve been raising kids and maybe even grandkids for the better part of your life have likely dreamed of having the house to yourself for once. Finally!

But not me. I’ve never dreamed of growing older, of winding down or living a quiet life. So I’ll need to discover some new dreams. Figure out what I want to look forward to next. Get excited rather than feeling gloomy about this impending change. But until I begin to feel excited, I’ll need to learn to cope with what I’m feeling now–whatever the hell this (likely somewhat hormone induced) hurricane is that’s washing over me at the moment. I know it will pass. I’ve seen moms survive and thrive after their kids are gone. But if it’s helpful to anyone reading this to know of some things I resolve to do and not do during this particular time–they are:

  • Refrain from spending money as a salve for sadness. I truly am tempted to remodel rooms in our home and buy a new wardrobe. Such expenditures are fine and may actually be overdue, but I must not ignore the budget completely when I’m feeling blue.
  • On the flip side, I must be willing to spend some money on new dreams. The hubs and I have discussed our increasing freedom to travel and pursue new interests but we often squash those talks with fears of spending any money. What about all that college tuition? What if the car breaks down? What if we get laid off in our 50s and no one will hire us? We must not let irrational fears cause us to clench too tightly to that which does not ultimately provide real security.
  • Be mindful of the lure of social (or anti-social) drinking/eating. For me, alcohol magnifies rather than numbs my emotions. So it’s best not to overindulge when I’m feeling particularly prickly. But no matter how a glass of wine (or a cheeseburger) might make any of us feel, those of us experiencing life transitions would likely do well to continue the practice of moderation even though we may be freer to “live it up” or feel some need to “cut loose.”
  • I will not be tempted to attach strings to my love. Teens can be real self-centered assholes sometimes. But I will not seek gratitude or genuflection for every care package mailed, tuition bill paid or inspirational text message sent (and likely ignored). I’ll do those things in love because I love my kids, not because I need them to love me back in some particular way.
  • I will think less about myself and more about what I can do to add a little joy to the lives of others. It’s said that dwelling too much on one’s own predicaments can lead to negative emotions and depression, while doing for others improves mood and instills a sense of purpose.
  • I will remember Who loves me unconditionally, what is true about me, what my purpose in life continues to be no matter how many humans actually live in my house.

I have no idea how this new chapter in my life will eventually look for me. I’ll surely cling a bit longer to what was, and kind of still is, since we still have one more high schooler at home for a couple of years. That kid is about to get the full on “baby of the family” treatment which he will either love or hate.

And for those of you whose kiddos are still little, I won’t spoon out the tripe about “enjoy them while you can.” I always hated that. The truth is, it just goes. Some things stay the same for a while and then they just change. We can’t adjust the speed of it all or even control our reactions to the change. But we can support one another through each season with love and kindness–and hopefully no little judgment for excessive occasional whimpering.

 

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Give Thanks

Credit: Google Images

Credit: Google Images

I can hardly ever stay awake late enough to watch the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. But our family does enjoy Fallon’s sense of humor and Friday nights are our favorite time to watch the Tonight Show because Fallon does this bit called “Thank You Notes.” His fake thank you notes are always good for a giggle. But it’s Fallon’s comedic delivery and the band’s silly participation in the gags that really make me chuckle.

But the whole endeavor does get me thinking… do younger people–the Tonight Show’s more consistently awake late at night demographic of millennials–actually write thank you notes in real life? Is the concept of a thank you note even still a thing in 2015? Well, it should be.

I was never taught the proper etiquette of writing thank you notes as a young person. But I’ve learned over the years that it is something we should not let slip from the culture or our good manners. Now, I’m not saying I’m very good at always remembering to send a thank you note. But I do try and I also try to instill the practice in my children.

As I mentioned in a previous post about gift giving, repayment in kind when receiving a gift is unnecessary and shouldn’t be expected. Repayment for an act of kindness is also unnecessary, is sometimes not even possible, and should be paid forward to others. But saying thanks is a must and should often be expressed via a thank you note because writing and sending a note requires just a tiny bit more effort than simply saying the words. (I’m planning a future blog post about how effort improves self-discipline and is a useful act of character building. Stay tuned.)

For now, purchase an inexpensive box of blank notes or boxed note cards with “thank you” printed on the front. And whenever you receive a gift or have been blessed by some out of the ordinary act of kindness, take a few moments to jot a note and send it along.

The process of regularly sending thank you notes accomplishes several things. It builds character by actively practicing an expression of gratitude. It improves your writing skills. It lets the gift giver know you’ve received their gift and that you appreciate the thought even if you don’t always truly appreciate the gift.

Be sure to have your children send thank you notes for birthday gifts and any other gifts they receive for special events like confirmation or graduation. I asked our son to write four thank you notes each day after his confirmation party. That way, he was finished within a week and didn’t feel overwhelmed by being asked to write them all at once. And believe it or not, some young people don’t know how to properly address an envelope or construct a thoughtful yet concise thank you note. This is good practice and the importance of expressing gratitude is always a good topic of discussion with the kiddos.

That said, I have a couple of additional opinions on the matter:

Electronic thank you notes are okay. I’ve used Red Stamp and DaySpring to send electronic greeting cards via email or text message. A handwritten note is still best but I’m not a stickler about the method of delivery. It’s truly the thought and effort that count. Plus, sometimes you just don’t have any stamps. And don’t get me started on the United States Post Office. A friend believes many young people don’t even understand how the mail works. She may be right. She often is. Do school children even go on field trips to the post office in the digital age?

Nobody should expect a thank you note. Sending them is a good habit to get into. But not getting a thank you note is by no means any reason to get your undies in a bunch. Let’s pull the tree trunks from our own eyes before picking at the pollen in someone else’s. No need to pass judgment on a simple lack of tutelage or time.

Finally, thank you notes should be sincere, succinct and simple. Gift recipients are not required to fawn over or act like they’re in love with any gift purchased for them. If I buy you a crummy gift and you give it away or donate it to your favorite charity, not a problem. Gift giving is about showing that we care enough to make an effort at being generous just as writing a thank you note is about showing we care enough to make an effort toward expressing gratitude. But if we choose gifts poorly, no harm done. Better luck next time. So if you ever end up buying me a crummy gift, I surely hope I’m gracious enough to send a thank you note before I toss it in the donation pile.

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How Much is Too Much Parental Guidance?

Credit: Google Images

Credit: Google Images

Graduation season is upon us. Bring on the cured meats, dinner rolls, deli salads and sheet cakes. Glad-handing graduates is always a good time. Plus, there’s no need to cook on open house days.

But as I stuff envelopes with overpriced and unoriginal greeting cards and bits o’ cash, (what is the going rate for grad gifts anyway?) the hubs and I find ourselves in a looping conversation about where to send our kids to college.

It seems adults tend to project their own experiences onto their offspring and it’s no different with us. For me, having lacked guidance and financial support during that stage of my life, I’ve always felt a bit short-changed of education opportunities afforded to upper-middle class students. Plus, when I was in high school, the college test prep and application process had yet to become an extreme sport for American parents. But either way you shake it, I’ve dreamed that my kids would receive what I lacked–access to the highest levels of academia. But I’m unsure how to get them there. I don’t micro-manage or even check up on their homework. But I have mastered the stern, eyebrow lifted look of disapproval at any lack-luster grades. And our kids are at least bright enough to understand their parents’ expectations regarding academic achievement and try to avoid “the look”.

But the hubs and I diverge when it comes to my hero-worship of well-branded institutions. He sees little incentive to pay big bucks so that our kids can have a well-recognized name stamped on their degree. Maybe he’s right.

But the hubs is also extremely cautious of steering our kids toward any particular degree or career choice. One of our boys excels in math and science. So I figure–since the world seems to be clamoring for brainy math and science types–that it’s wholly appropriate to chat him up about possibilities in the realm of engineering. I’ve poked around online for engineering school rankings and once signed the boy up for a career day at 3M–a math and sciencey type employer in our own backyard.

But the hubs is concerned that we might be pigeon-holing our son too early. That a high school freshman who shrugs whenever you ask about his “passion” is too young to know what he wants to be when he grows up. The fear is that without a burning desire to pursue any particular career, kids will just do as parents say and potentially end up stuck in a job they hate; bored and burned out. (Ahem, projecting our own experiences?)

On the flip side, our middle school son is an artsy people person. He has on occasion said he’d maybe like to be a schoolteacher or even a pastor when he grows up. Prepare to shake your frowning face and say “tsk-tsk” when you discover that I’ve nay-sayed both of these vocations. Why? Because I fear a lack of job satisfaction, job security and low income. (Gah! Projecting fear based on my experiences with being broke.)

What I’ve said to the younger son is likely worse than what I’ve said to the older one. Unless you believe a child with some idea what they want to do with their life won’t really listen to reason anyway. Plus the hubs, with his always irritating and irreverent logic, reminded me that becoming a pastor is a calling and is not something I’m likely to wholly negate with concerns about financial stability. His concern is more about kids who don’t have specific ideas. Kids who might aimlessly follow their parents’ advice and later blame them for any potential unhappiness. (Or credit them for success? I know. I know. Shame on me. Blah blah.)

Okay. So I am reminded of a friend’s struggle with this issue. She’s the mother of children exponentially more brilliant than my own. One of her brainy kids once said they wanted to be a schoolteacher. She scoffed at the notion since her then soon-to-be high school graduate was accepted into a prestigious smarty-pants college science program surely more suited to her child’s potential. But that didn’t last long. What followed was a couple of years in community college and low-skilled employment until these exasperated parents inquired about their twenty-something’s plans for the future. Welp, guess what? The kid sheepishly admitted to still wanting to be a schoolteacher. And God bless those parents for coming around to support that decision.

You see, this parenting thing is a learn by doing endeavor. And most of us really are trying our best. And that’s good because our children need our guidance and wisdom lest they cleave to the notion of becoming professional video game designers or athletes. Oh hush, it’s unlikely your kid will become a professional athlete. Just sayin’.

But how do we balance parental guidance with our children’s self-discovery? How willing are we to trust that our kids will be alright? I suppose it begins with recognizing that we are doing alright. We made it through. And if we’ve laid the proper groundwork, so will the next generation. Some will discover their passion. Others will stumble into a suitable vocation. And college is simply a step along that path. It’s not an end of the line–a win or lose gamble. So let’s all try to relax. Or at least help me try to relax.

Kudos to your graduate! May they navigate their next steps with guidance more divine than mine.

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What I Wish I’d Known Before Going to College

Credit: Google Images

Credit: Google Images

Soon, young people across America will graduate from high school. And many will head off to college in a few short months. I have no grandiose thoughts to share when it comes to one of life’s great transitions. No lofty commencement style speeches to make. But I do know a few things now that I wish I’d known back then. So strap in. Cause I guess I do have some grandiose thoughts to share!

1) A willingness to work hard is more valuable than above average intelligence. As an 18-year-old high school honor student, I presumed my aptitude would carry me through college as well as it had in high school. It did not. And the ensuing frustration I experienced when discovering I wasn’t the smartest person in the room occasionally led me to question my ability and worth. So brace yourself. College can be hard. But life is hard. Egos be damned. A strong work ethic prevails.

2) Education is never a waste of time, even if you change your major. Some folks in my hometown didn’t put much stock in “book smarts” and viewed college as mostly an expensive means to employment. But we can never completely know where educational exploration might lead. Take a variety of classes. Learn something about the world, not just about your chosen field. In my opinion, every college student should take at least one course in ethics, philosophy, logic and economics. Please provide your college course recommendations in the comments section.

3) Figuring out how to get things done is more important than being done. If you already knew everything, it wouldn’t be called higher learning. So stop rushing through your homework and studies in a frenzied attempt to check items from your daily to-do lists. The red Solo cups can wait. Learn to value the process of discovery. Network. Ask for help.

4) Avoid taking early morning, late evening or summer classes whenever possible. Because it sucks. Period. You’re welcome.

5) Seek community. Study groups. Lab partners. Sorority sisters. Well, I actually have no idea about sororities. But I do know it’s important to connect with people who are experiencing the same challenges and incremental successes that you are. You are not alone. Somebody out there understands what you’re going through. Find them.

6) Internships! I’m pretty sure I made the short-sighted mistake of thinking paid part-time employment waiting tables was more valuable than an unpaid internship in my field of study. Recent college grads tell me that many internships are paid and that the long-term networking, skill acquisition and work experience are priceless. Check it out. Let me know. Please share your insights in the comments section.

7) Make time to discover extracurricular athletics and the arts in your college community. Whether it’s ultimate frisbee, pick-up basketball or a trip to an art exhibition, lay the groundwork for a full life. Plus, exercise and art appreciation are good for your health. Trust me. It’s true.

8) Don’t neglect your spiritual life. Find a local church, chapel or campus ministry. Getting and/or staying connected to the Creator and Sustainer of life will center you on what’s most important. Remind you of your worth beyond a GPA. Provide a purpose beyond achievement for your own sake. Encourage you when you’re feeling lost or low. And continually point you toward the only true source of fulfillment and joy.

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