Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To infinity and beyond!

 When my son was a toddler, he developed an obsession with stuffed animals. I don’t mean he was partial to Teddy Bears. I’m talking about a full-blown hoarding of every obscure plush critter he could dream of with his pre-school mind. I searched the internet for just the right stuffed owl or that hawk-billed sea turtle who could spout off facts about its eating habits. He had lemurs, rabbits, penguins, and every variety of cat and dog I could get my hands on via the World Wide Web. He would separate them out on the floor of the den and offer tours of his imaginary zoo. He took great care and pride in this stuffed menagerie, so much in fact, that he even had his picture made at three years of age with his favorite toy beagle, Buddy.

We were socking money away for veterinary school, sure that this would be his lot in life. I encouraged this love of animals because – honestly – I thought it was precious. He named them and although he never slept with them or needed them for comfort, you could always tell which he was partial to on any given day by the creature that held the place of honor on his bed. He eventually became so enamored of his stuffed dachshunds that we caved and got him the real thing. (Stupid, stupid, stupid parents)

However, little boys grow into big boys, and his interest in the animals waned. His attention turned to creating the ultimate Lego world and shooting his little sister with his arsenal of Nerf guns. The animals found a new home in a couple of large toy boxes tucked away in a hall closet. Each time we would have an “Oh-my-gosh-get-this-house-cleaned-from-top-to-bottom” kind of day, I would beg him to part with some of the animals. “We’ll donate them to Goodwill so that another little boy can enjoy them,” I would plead. He wasn’t having it. Even though he wouldn’t admit it, they were a part of him. In his mind, how could any other kid take proper care of Sheldon, the penguin in a lumberjack suit? Even though he never played with them any more, he would rather have the whole lot of them squished in a dark toy box than have someone else touch them with hands that might be sticky.

On a recent dreary Sunday afternoon, my son came to me and said, “Well, I’m going to bite the bullet and throw out everything today.” He seemed serious this time. Although I was skeptical, I thought maybe his middle school brain was ready to part with the toys he associated with his little boy life. I agreed to help him, so we pulled out the boxes and started making piles. He decided that he should probably keep a few of the animals – the rhinoceros he got as a gift from his Dad on the day he was born and the Beanie Baby Pterodactyl that shares his exact birthday and year. This was really happening. I might just get another shoe closet!  (Yay, me!) We reminisced over the toys, remembering which dog was the brother of which, and how he came up with this name or that. The Goodwill pile grew larger with only a few lucky critters getting a pass to stay with us.

Then, it happened.  It was our “Toy Story 3” moment.  If you've seen it, then you know what I mean, and if you haven't, you'll understand any way.  It's the moment when reality hits a teenager and he finally understands that his childhood buddies, these seemingly unimportant toys, aren’t going to be in the house forever, and neither is he. In the movie, the boy - who starts off as a little kid in the original “Toy Story” - is leaving for college and has to decide what to do with his favorite toys: Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the rest of the beloved gang. It was painful and poignant to watch, and I haven’t come so close to crying at a kid’s movie since “Bambi”. 

About an hour after we finished sorting the animals, my son came to me and gently said, “Maybe we should just keep them here for now. You know, we could put the boxes in the garage and get rid of them later.” He didn’t need to say another word. I quickly replied, “That sounds like a great idea to me.” I knew that for as much as I want my children to grow into independent young adults, there will always be a part of me that wants to keep them close to my side forever.  I didn't want to get rid of those toys any more than he did.

We carefully packed all of the precious cargo into airtight containers and put them safely into a corner of the garage without another word spoken. We didn’t have to…we both realized that those toys, sweet symbols of a little boy’s first years in this world, will always live in his heart…to infinity and beyond.

Friday, November 18, 2011

They're all Harper Valley Hypocrites...

 I have a confession to make: My son is now in middle school, and I have never once in my life been to a PTA meeting. You may think this is no big deal, especially if you don’t have kids, but in the cut-throat, mom-eat-mom world of Elementary School Mothering, not attending this hallowed monthly meeting is an abomination against good parenting. I should just go ahead and smear black tar heroin all over a double fudge Pop-Tart and serve it to my kids for breakfast with a shot of Patron on the side. Yeah, some people think it’s that bad, but before you start the proceedings to have me declared an unfit mother, please allow me to plead my case. I have completely legitimate reasons for being an Absentee School Mom.
Before I became a mother, I thought I scored fairly high on the Decent Human Being scale. I was gainfully employed and good at my job. I kept myself in shape and made good food choices at every meal. My house was clean, and my yard looked nice, and my bills were all paid on time, and I regularly donated to charities. I sailed through life with not a care in the world more pressing than where to eat out every weekend and whether or not Nirvana was the greatest band in the history of rock. (Probably) What’s not to like…or so it seemed. My calm, cool exterior hid the fact that I was a mostly crazy, OCD-suffering control freak who hates to talk to other humans. That was my business, though, not the world's, and I planned to keep it that way.

 Then, alas, my children were born.

When you step out of your house with a child in tow, the door to your personal life is flung wide open, and complete strangers feel compelled to bestow their advice and admonitions on you at will. There is no hiding that you aren't perfect and were running late because the strained carrot proof is still smeared across your baby’s face. It’s obvious that you are a poor planner because you find yourself at the mall with a baby who is sitting in a toxic diaper and only an empty box of butt wipes in your bag. Don’t even get me started on the comments you get when the Lactation Nazi at the hospital catches wind of the fact that you have decided to give your child formula instead of breast milk. Horrors! Don’t you know that by drinking formula your child will grow up to be a maladjusted, undernourished, slacker who catches every virus wafting through the air at the mall where he half-ass works as a clerk at the comic book kiosk? (This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from “Raising Arizona” when Holly Hunter’s character was asked, “Why ain’t you breastfeedin’? You appear capable.”)
As babies grow into toddlers, the pressure to have an advanced child is palpable. The Stepford Moms will brag that their precious darling was walking by seven months of age and speaking Mandarin Chinese fluently at two. You need to be in the “right” pre-school, or your child may not master at four years of age everything they are supposed to learn in kindergarten. Since my son was cared for by my late mother instead of being schooled properly, I was already a few steps behind in the “My Kid Is Smarter Than Your Kid” game. Gee, I guess I should have been ashamed of myself for not teaching my child to write in cursive before his fifth birthday, but on the day I was going to review that, he was playing with trains, so I cut the little man some slack.

It only took chaperoning one field trip early in my son's first year in public school for me to realize I was in over my head with the other moms. It was high school all over again, and I was still the dork. They were all Junior Welfare League fundraising-types, and I was...you know...Not. When they encouraged parents to join their club aka the PTA but held meetings during the mid-morning hours, I took that as a sign that they were trying to keep out the working mother riff raff. When these same moms were more than happy to accept my meager cupcakes for their school activities but wouldn't acknowledge my existence outside of the school cafeteria, I took it personally. When did I become one of the dregs of society? For your information, MY kid isn't the one eating paste or peeing on the rug during circle time. Just because you are in a higher tax bracket than I am and have a flair for being the Drill Sargeant of the Book Fair doesn't mean you get to treat me like the hired help.

So, I wrote off the whole lot of them. I swore that as a bona fide grown up, I didn't have to suck up to group of clique-ish women in cashmere sweaters. I want to tell some of these memers that the PTA isn't a sorority of adulthood. Yes, I will help my child's teacher if the need is there, and I am more than happy to donate my time or resources in the name of furthering my child's education, but I jumped off that Social Ladder the day I donned my cap and gown, and even though we're at a different school now, I refuse to join because I have a gold medal in grudge holding.

Sadly, I never had the cojones to stand up to those women back then, but this was the anthem that played in my head...my way of socking it to 'em... (click here)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Goalkeeper's Mom

I have always been not-so-secretly glad that my son was never interested in sports. Although I hated the idea of spending my free time sitting on bleachers under the scorching-hot South Carolina sun while watching a game I neither cared for nor understood, I still felt obligated to goad him into a team activity. We fulfilled our parental duty by giving him a football, a soccer ball, a baseball and bat, but the child had zero interest in working up a sweat. Every offer at joining insert-name-of-league-here was met with a resounding, "No!"   When he was old enough to truly communicate his feelings about playing a sport, he put it very succinctly: “Mommy, I don’t want to play the game. I want to be the person who tells everyone else what to do.”  As a lifelong control freak, I have to say that his sentiment warmed my heart.

I became the Anti-Soccer Mom, relishing the fact that I didn’t drive a minivan, and I didn’t spend my weekends traveling to tournaments, and I didn’t have to arrange my life around practices and games. Honestly, though, there was always a little voice in the back of my mind that wanted my son to be a sports star. Who doesn’t? We all know that whether we like it or not, athleticism is favored over intelligence in our public schools. Sure, my son gets all A’s in advanced courses, but can he hit a homerun? He picked up German as if he had been plucked from the streets of Berlin, but if he has never scored a touchdown, then who really cares? I assured him that his hero, Apple founder Steve Jobs, was probably never the quarterback and star of the football team, but I think I was reassuring myself instead of my son.

At the end of fifth grade, he became friends with a few boys who were on a high-level, traveling soccer team, and, unbeknownst to me, he starting kicking the ball around with the kids at school. As the year was ending and we were preparing for the big jump to middle school hell, he came to me one night and said, “Mama…I really want to play soccer.”  In one of my less-than-stellar- moments as a parent I replied, “Oh, no. You aren’t serious, are you? Don’t you think it’s too late to start?”  I know it was wrong, but I desperately tried to talk him out of it.

Losing the battle, I reluctantly signed him up for a fall soccer league. While he spent the summer practicing diligently in our backyard, I spent the summer trying to gently (or not so gently) remind him that he had never played organized sports before, so he shouldn’t expect to be very good at it. I explained to him over and over that the kids he would be playing against have years of experience on him. What I saw as setting him up so that he wouldn’t be disappointed if he didn’t set the world on fire, HE saw as a complete lack of faith in his ability on my part. He said, “You’re telling me I’m a terrible player before I’ve even had the chance to prove that I can do it.”  I’m ashamed to admit it, but he was right.

The season started, and my son volunteered to be the goal keeper for the team. Due to scheduling conflicts with my daughter’s activities, his father took him to practices and the first two games. My husband kept telling me how great he was doing, but that’s what Dads are supposed to say, right? I took it with a grain of salt until the night they came home and my husband said, “The coach thinks he’s really good and that he has the potential to be a great keeper.” Really? My bookworm who used to spend his time building Lego cities and studying the road atlas? Hmmm...I would need to see this to believe it.

The first time I saw him play, I was so nervous for him that I could barely watch the game. Why was he so calm? Did he not feel the pressure of defending that goal against a field full of kids whose objective it was to get the ball around him? As he stopped every attempt from the other team to score, I started to realize that this child, MY son, has talent that isn’t related to algebra. The kid can play!

Their team went undefeated for the season. As we were walking off the field after their last game, another parent came up to us and said, “Is the keeper your son? He did a great job! He saved the game for us more times than I can count!”  I looked over at my son, and he was beaming.

The coach took the kids out for ice cream sundaes to celebrate a great season. I watched my son laugh and joke about blind referees and exciting victories with these boys and girls he had bonded with over the last few months. It was then that I realized how my self-doubts are my own, and that my children don’t share my glass-is-half-empty view of the world. That night in the chilly glow of the Dairy Queen lights, I realized what I should have known all along: My son rocks.