i learned the truth at thirty-five

On Friday, I will celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday.  Janis Ian had things figured out way sooner than I did.

Typically, I don’t tend to have any reaction to birthdays.  They come and go without much noise.  I don’t get hung up on the number (in fact, for a few months out of this year, I thought I was a year older than I am). But this one has me thinking.  Maybe it’s because, as one friend pointed out, I’m halfway to seventy.  Or, as another one put it,  I’m part of a new age demographic.  I don’t know, yet, if I agree with the idea that I’m now “middle-aged,” but that might be because I’m lucky enough to have a still-living, almost-ninety-one-year-old grandmother.

Whatever the reason, thirty-five seems like kind of a big deal.  For the first time in my life, I think I’m aware of the aging process.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I think I feel or look old.  In fact, from a few feet away, I look a lot younger than I am, and people often mistake me for being in my twenties (until they get up close).  But there are things that do affect me differently now that I’m getting older.  If I wear high heels to work, my hips will hurt the following day.  If I drink too much beer during summer vacation, I’ll start the school year with a few extra pounds. Staying out late on a Saturday night means I’ll spend the rest of the week pining for the sleep that was lost. If I am accidentally tanned in the sun, there’s no such thing as a healthy, youthful glow. Instead, it appears as though I’ve been suddenly wrapped in animal hide.  And I’m pretty sure I have my first sunspot.  Thank you, Florida.

Also, when did the skin on my neck become loose?  I feel a little bit like a turkey.

But what’s nice is that there are some things I’ve come to accept about myself at this age.  The front tooth  I chipped at seventeen is probably going to stay that way because I’ve replaced the filling too many times.  And it’s not like I’m eating rocks or something.  The last time, it popped off as I kissed my daughter’s forehead.

I now know that if I re-establish any kind of serious workout routine, my butt will actually get bigger before it shrinks (and, let’s be honest, it will probably never ever shrink) and so my pants will be tight.  (But the alternative is much worse.  And much squishier.)  At least I’m aware of this ahead of time.

Also, I learned recently that women my age who have birthed and nursed multiple children and still have full and even ebullient breasts have had some kind of surgery or “work done.”  So I’m okay with being, well, naturally deflated.

I feel like there’s a kind of surety that comes with being in my mid-thirties.  And I like it.  I have enough years behind me to finally stand up for myself when I’m being patronized.  Even though I never meant to be a teacher, I’ve started to undertand that I am, in fact, a teacher, and I might even be starting to feel like I sort of know what I’m doing (it only took ten years).  And perhaps, at this point, I’m no longer considered a “young mother,” and so I am free from all of the connotations that come with that term.

The best part about this thirty-five thing is thinking about what lies ahead; if I’m lucky, it’s another whole lifetime.  Maybe more.  And that’s good, because there are so many things left to do.

I haven’t yet published anything of significant length.  Sure, there have been poems here and there, but I was so certain I would have that “book” at this stage of my life. And I’ve realized that if I want to do so (before I meet the next demographic) while working full-time as a teacher and raising three small children, it requires getting up at 4am.  So that’s what I do.

And I was always pretty sure my life would resemble some kind of Country Time Lemonade commercial.  So far, that hasn’t happened.  But I’m working on it.  I mean, I still see it.  So it must be there.

I’ve never been to California.  I don’t know why that matters, but people are often surprised when I tell them that.  At some point, I should probably go to California.  Maybe touch a redwood tree.

The truth is that, at this age, I am wise enough to be grateful for what has been so far.  And maybe still naive enough to be hopeful for what’s ahead.

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we are family! get up everybody and sing!

“But are they related to us?” She slows down on that one word, related, emphasizing each syllable, holding the long a even longer, as though I have just, at this moment, learned to speak this language of ours. It plagues me when she asks this question, mostly because I have no idea how to answer it.  If I say yes, she’ll want to know how, and who belongs to whom (because with her, answering one question inevitably leads to another question).  If I say no, I’m afraid that it will, in her heart, somehow diminish the relationship that already exists.  Her six-year-old science mind wants proof of bloodlines in charts and family trees.

When our kids were born, we started referring to our friends as “Uncle Stu,” or “Uncle Matt,” or “Aunt Ricki.”  Even though there was no blood relation.  Even though there was no familial obligation.  The only thing that separated them from our “family” was the idea that they actually had a choice.

I had a student last year who, for whatever reason (I’m not sure if the story was that people had always told her she looked like Lilo or that she had actually dressed up as Lilo for Halloween the previous year), made  a reference to “Ohana” from Lilo and Stitch at least twice a week (which seems a little bit weird for a high school student, but if you knew Sabrina, you’d understand).  The conversation would go something like this:

“Ms. Lavelle?”

“Yes, Sabrina?”

“You want to know something?”

“Sure, Sabrina.”

“Ohana means family.  Family means — ”

“No one gets left behind.”  Sigh.

“Or forgotten.”

“Or forgotten.  I get it, Sabrina.”

But maybe I didn’t.  She drove me crazy.  She would say it at least once a day.  She would send me Facebook messages (when she wasn’t supposed to) that had funny pictures of our class, or artwork that somehow incorporated the word “Ohana.”  But no matter how many times she told me, I really don’t think I got it.  Until now.

Last week, I learned that, sometimes, family has nothing to do with genetics or marriage. Family is comprised of the people you take care of, the people who take care of you.

On a Sunday evening, I sat around a table eating pizza with people who have known two-thirds of my children since before they were born, who love my kids almost as much as they love their own.  And they have no duty; they aren’t the people who, in the words of Robert Frost, “have to take (me) in.”  But they are people whose very existence has made my life better.  If you don’t call that family, well, then I don’t know what you do call it.

I watched as my three-year-old gave these people all kinds of love with reckless abandon, and I realized that if she isn’t hung up on technicalities, then why should I be?

So, yes, they are related to us.  They are our family.  They are the ones who won’t forget us and who won’t be forgotten.

this is ground control to major mom

I’m not a helicopter parent.  I’m a spaceship parent. 

And I’ve discovered that this is the very reason I can’t seem to make myself fit in with the other first-grade moms when, on occasion, I visit my daughter’s classroom.  I’m pretty sure they think I practice some form of “detached parenting.”

This was first pointed out to me, rather blatantly, when I opened the door to my daughter’s pre-kindergarten class on the afternoon of her end-of-the-year party.  My husband and I had been sharing a car for months at that point (though we worked in two different cities) because the Jeep was waiting for its refurbished engine, and so I had asked a colleague for a ride.  I had arrived just a few minutes late, and my then-four-year-old was crouched by the window, searching for something outside.  She jumped up when she saw me, yelling, “I told them you were coming,” as she ran at me across the classroom.

I told them you were coming.  And they hadn’t believed her.

It was then that I learned I was the mom who didn’t show up enough.

And two years later, nothing has changed.  I feel the sideways glances and I know they’re thinking, “Oh. That must be Georgia’s mother.”  I see the moms of two of her classmates at the splash park downtown in the summer and so I do what I think I’m supposed to and make an attempt at small talk (I really hate small talk). They entertain my questions with terse replies, and when I walk away, they continue the conversation I (clearly) interrupted.

I’ve tried.  I promise, I’ve tried.  Hell, I joined the PTO Board, for chrissakes.  But when I showed up to the first meeting, I was egregiously underdressed in my jeans and flip-flops, and so I stood by myself in the kitchen, drinking a beer, and thinking that I should have chosen the wine or rum punch.  Yep, probably the pretty, sherbet-y rum punch.  And then I saw a group of moms from Georgia’s class, so I decided to join them.  I asked questions that I thought were harmless, small talk questions, but quickly came to the realization that I was the only mom who didn’t know the names of every student in the class.  That I was the only mom who didn’t know that Alex was the “new kid.”  That I had no idea the Assistant Principal had left abruptly and had already been replaced (I got some wide-eyed looks for that one).  And when the conversation turned to how many spelling words the kids were supposed to use in their sentences this week (all twelve? only five?), I had to turn away.  Because what I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just ask your son?”

It’s not that I’m detached. It’s just that I feel like her schooling is her thing.  Not mine.

But I can’t help thinking that if everyone else is a helicopter, then the spaceship has to be wrong.  And, sometimes, I feel that parenting is all about proving to everyone else that what we’re doing is right, about measuring ourselves against others, and using our kids to do that.  So at the end-of-the-year party for kindergarten, when no one was really talking to me (except for the lesbian couple who, I’m sure, got sideways glances, too), I busied myself with my toddler and my three-year-old (and, come on, even though I didn’t have a babysitter, part of the reason I wanted them there was so that I could say, “Look! My hands are full!  I can’t be here all of the time!”).  But I know all of those other moms were looking at me as my daughter won every award, certificate, or trophy given.  Perfect attendance.  Citizenship.  Perfect score on her standardized math test. I tried not to react.  But inside, I was saying, “See?  See?  I don’t hover, and I’m still a good mom!”

And that was just plain stupid.  Because my daughter was the one who won those awards. Not me.

What’s good to know, I think, is that we’re all a little neurotic.  And none of us knows what we’re doing.  What we do know is that there’s more than one way to do this.

I can’t be the helicopter; I can’t drop into her classroom whenever I want because I have this job that I have to go to.  And, fortunately or unfortunately, my work hours are inflexible and coincide with my her school hours.  I can’t be in her classroom all day because I have to be in mine.  (Although, sometimes I’m pretty sure my students wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t there.  And they’d probably even stay in their seats that day.)

So I don’t always know what she’s doing at school.  I don’t always know exactly what she’s learning.  I don’t always know exactly how she’s behaving.  And I have to be okay with that, because I make myself crazy enough with everything else.  When she does well, how do I know how much praise is too much?  How do I know how much praise is too little?  How do I show her that I’m proud without making her think that hard work is something she’s supposed to be rewarded for and not an expectation?

How do I know if I want her screened for the accelerated academy?  And then, if she is screened, what if she doesn’t get in?  What if she gets in and doesn’t succeed?  What if she feels like I’m pushing her to be one of those kids?  What if, what if, what if . . .

I know this:  I have to trust my child.  I don’t need to be in the classroom, criticizing the teacher (and, trust me, it’s so easy to criticize a teacher when you’re not a teacher).  I have to believe that my daughter will tell me if something is wrong.  And I have to believe that she will make good choices.  And, if she doesn’t, well, then she’ll learn something from that, too.

Because, really, my goal as a parent is not to raise the smartest kid with the highest test scores.  There will always be someone smarter, anyway.  Instead, I’d like to raise a kid who’s confident enough to be independent, who feels good about who she is. I want to raise a kid who practices tolerance, who doesn’t talk badly about the boy with two moms.  I want to raise a kid whose heart stays big enough to house compassion.

Even if it means the other moms think I’m lost in space.