Monthly Archives: June 2011

Graduation time

Creative Commons license CarbonNYCTwo nights ago my twin daughters, along with 46 classmates, graduated from their elementary school. The occasion involved a morning service, with breakfast for families, along with an evening program of graduate speeches (in which each kid had their own 45-second speech presented in three languages), handing out of diplomas, dinner and dancing.

A full day of celebration, an emotional, full-pack-of-Kleenex affair for a sentimental person like me. Our babies had  grown so much and so far, and damned if we weren’t going to mark it properly.

Now I’ve had six graduations of my own over the years, and I can tell you that none were as involved and exhaustively detailed as this ceremony sending 11 and 12-year-olds off to high school.

That being said, there is something particularly momentous about the move from primary to secondary school, especially here in Canada where we don’t have middle schools. In some ways, it is probably a bigger deal than going from high school to college. They are leaving the institution they entered as baby-faced four-year-olds, moving on in awkward new bodies to schools where they will now be the youngest. They may have 12-year-old minds and accumulated good judgment, but some will already look 16. Or even 18.

The range of issues they will contend with will be bigger, with more serious consequences for poor judgment. They will be expected to assume responsibility for their own actions, solve their own problems, make their own important decisions. They will be tempted by new influences, by cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and sexual activities. They will reach the age of medical consent (14 in most cases in Quebec, 16 in most other provinces), and the age of sexual consent (16 across Canada, between 16 and 18 across the U.S.). They will be allowed to drive cars, vote and join the military.

It’s one of the trite sayings of parenthood that little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems. When you have a six-year-old who isn’t yet reading, or a seven-year-old who has no friends, this seems to ignore the gut-wrenching worry parents may experience. But it makes sense, because it takes into account the consequences of these problems: the six-year-old (most of the time) will be seen to by parents, teachers and resource personnel who can make his problem go away, and the seven-year-old will most likely (sometimes with supervision) find her counterpart somewhere in the schoolyard. But the fifteen-year-old who decides to try ecstasy or heroin “just once” may end up in a downward spiral of legal, medical, social and academic problems that can haunt him for a lifetime.

The last unit my daughters’ amazing English teacher, Stacey, taught this group of grade 6’ers before the end of the year was on drug awareness. They read the controversial, classic novel Go Ask Alice, did multimedia presentations on common drugs, had powerful visits from some rehabilitated teenage drug addicts doing community service and, separately, from two wonderful police officers. In her graduation speech to the class and their families last night,  she reminded them, as they headed off on the next exciting chapter of their young lives, to ask with each new opportunity, each difficult decision, “Does this fit in with who I am?”

I thought this was brilliant. This simple sentence crystallizes exactly what we want our children to learn. It asks them to listen to that emerging inner voice, the collective wisdom of one’s experiences, advice from parents and teachers. The voice we all have, and sometimes — often to our own detriment — ignore (that second slice of pizza, that third martini, that guy at the party…). It encourages our kids to think about who they want to be, what core values they want to espouse. It evokes the family and communities that help flesh out our identities. It means respecting yourself.

I know plenty of adults who might want to keep this important question handy as they go about their daily lives.

So for all the graduates out there  (and parents of graduates), whether moving from  middle school to high school, university to grad school or even considering making a leap from an unsatisfying job, consider keeping that question filed away, but close enough at hand for quick reference:”Does this fit in with who I am?”

Pushing my kids off the platform into thin air

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We spent a lovely family weekend at the Smuggler’s Notch Family Resort in Vermont. I was there for a Saturday a.m. blogging conference (at which I learned how little I actually know), but it was also a (generously comped) opportunity for Martin and I to spend some quality together time with our kids. Our older daughters are graduating from elementary school tomorrow (how did that happen so fast?), and about to turn 12 this summer. We’ve become aware that all too soon they will rather do something (anything) with their friends than spend a weekend with us, and we want to squeeze out every moment possible before they do.

The best part of a fabulous weekend was arguably the three hours spent ziplining with Arbortrek Canopy Tours yesterday morning. We’re a pretty active family, and we figure that even when they are teens, they will still look forward to time spent skiing, hiking, snowshoeing or camping.

I’m not a nervous person generally, as long as no toasters are involved anyway, so I was pretty sure I’d be ok with the adrenaline and thrills of a morning spent above the ground. So I was a little surprised when we got up to the first platform, waaaaay above the ground, and one of our twins was being hooked onto the cable. That thin little cable.

I tried not think about carrying those two little girls inside me.

I failed.

The 22 ultrasounds, countless non-stress tests, the weeks sleeping  in a recliner when I was too massively pregnant to lie down. The sleepless nights. Sleepless days. Tandem nursing sessions that lasted hours. Kissed away tears over bruises, band aids on scraped knees, middle-of-the-night nightmares, sore stomachs, sore throats, burning foreheads, Emergency room visits. Marathon re-readings for many months of that irritating Beatrix Potter rhyme collection. Those damned talking Barney dolls. Walking into their first day of school holding each other’s hands. Kissing away tears over friendship dramas. Chocolate ice cream proffered over boy-related dramas. Blowing out 11 years of birthday candles. Cheering them on the soccer field even though they were terrible. Cheering them on at the pool and the ski hill because they were actually amazing.

She was a little nervous. She looked over at me and her dad. I have no idea what the hell he was doing, because my world abruptly shrunk down to her two green eyes. I knew absolutely nothing about the harness she had been hooked into by those nice, seemingly competent guides. I hadn’t personally checked her equipment (what would I look for anyway?).

A perfect metaphor for adolescence. For taking some risks, pushing yourself a bit beyond your comfort level. She trusted us to take her to a safe place, but didn’t really know what we were doing.

She was so different from her siblings. Her younger sister was boisterous, begging to go first, leaping before looking. A natural risk-taker, a sensation-seeker. Her twin dealt with her anxiety with logic — asking questions about the trolley, the carabiners, the lanyards, the load-bearing stats on the massive Eastern Hemlock whose upper branches we were visiting. Each got their comforts and challenges in different ways.

Also a wonderful metaphor for parenting, for pushing your kids off the platform into thin air. You’re 99.9 percent sure the cable and harnesses will hold, and you need to bite your tongue about the rest. The slimmest chance that they might get hurt is outweighed by their need to try, to challenge themselves on things that scare even you.

I nodded and mustered a smile. And she jumped off the platform into the impossible June green of a Vermont forest, 70 feet high in the air. The cable sang its throaty hum. A tiny squeal and she flew off, away from us, her long hair fanning out from under her helmet. She disappeared from view, hundreds off feet away to the next platform.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

A group of women saved my life

It’s almost twelve years now since I met the group of women who saved my life.

My world had imploded with both good things and bad. My husband and I had these brand-new, imposibly tiny, bald, newborn twin girls, born three weeks early but miraculously healthy, and we were struggling to get from hour to hour through each day and night. We were managing on a very modest single salary while I tried to finish a doctoral thesis that would take me another four years to get done.

When the twins were three weeks out of the hospital, my father suffered severe spinal injuries in a terrible motorcycle accident. We knew he would be permanently handicapped, but we didn’t yet know how bad. He spent almost a full year in the hospital. My mom — one of my best friends and sources of support — was barely able to cope with the dramatic events that had completely changed the course of my parents’ lives. We found ourselves offering them our emotional, ourselves only recently returned to Montreal after 5 years, relying on the kindnesses of friends and family.

To make things worse, it was one of the hottest Augusts on record, and we lived in a house with no air conditioning. The four of us, hot sticky and miserable, tried to sleep in a queen-sized bed, because our infants were very high needs, and seemed completely unable to stay asleep unless constantly held. Spare me the debate on the dangers of co-sleeping — we were so completely beyond exhaustion that if someone had told me babies slept best hanging from their pudgy little feet like bats, I would have rigged up bungee cords in two seconds flat.

We were desperate. I hated my husband for going to work each morning, haggard and exhausted as he was from helping me burp, change and walk our demanding new charges. At least he got to drink his coffee hot and have interesting conversations with adults. I was actually afraid to be alone with my babies in those early days, worried I wouldn’t be able to soothe them both, worn down by the crying and rocking and too nervous to carry them around at the same time.

Moreover, I’m sure my husband dreaded coming home, where I resentfully handed him a screaming infant before he took off his shoes. He remembers one day at work when his boss gently suggested he go home and get some much-needed rest and he panicked — for the love of god, DO NOT SEND ME BACK TO THAT PLACE!

Then I got a phone call from a friend of a friend, who I’d met up with when we were pregnant. Her daughter was a few weeks older, and she wanted to know if I would join their baby group.

Would I? I didn’t even know how I would manage the mechanics of brushing my teeth the next morning, let alone get both babies changed, dressed and into car seats on my own, but I knew that I absolutely had to get out of the house if we were to survive the week.

I didn’t know most of these women the first time I met them. I remember watching them with their singleton babies, amazed at how easy a single infant seemed to be. They got to sit down! They had showered and brushed their hair (well, most of them). As for me, I’m pretty sure my shirt was mis-buttoned, and I constantly forgot to do my nursing bra back up in those days (what was the point? I was almost always nursing.) But nobody snickered. They understood. They also smelled like spit up. They were also freaking exhausted. We didn’t judge.

Those weekly meetings at each others’ houses were literally my lifeline. A second group spun off of the first one. I went to those meetings too. We took our babies for walks, compared notes on milestones, commiserated with each other. There was always a helping hand for me when I needed to juggle both babies’ demands. There was always a sympathetic ear, a lack of judgment.

Together we figured it out: Simone, Andrea, Elana, Dana, Leslie, Tamar, Tracy. Daisy, Jenn, Caroline, Amanda (not sure what happened to her), Sherry. These women literally saved my life.

There are two amazing things about this, and then I’ll get to my main point (bear with me here).

First amazing thing: Seven of the babies from these original groups (including my twins) are now in the same school; six of them will be graduating elementary school together next week and heading off to high school. I look at these adorable, gangly preteens — some almost as tall as me — and remember them rolling around on the floor together in their diapers. Turns out all those trite things our parents said were true.

Because now we’ve become them.

Second amazing thing: One of my groups has continued to meet monthly (without kids or husbands) for potluck dinners at each other’s houses. We still discuss and debate the issues about raising our kids, but now we talk about high schools instead of high chairs, peer pressure instead of pacifiers.

We’ve all hit our stride as moms, and our families have all grown beyond the initial groups of babies that brought us together, but some things haven’t changed. We are still there for each other. We’ve supported each other through new babies, new houses, new jobs, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, illnesses, family strife, deaths. We still offer support and sympathy when needed and celebration whenever possible.

My point (and like Ellen DeGeneres, I do have one) is that these communities of support are just as critical when our babies grow up as they are in those first, early, sleep-deprived days. We have so much more knowledge together as a group than we do on our own. We quickly figure out that when our kids tell us they are the only ones in grade 6 without cellphones, that it isn’t quite true. That everyone else struggled with homework and extracurriculars too. That going through puberty the second time (as parents) isn’t any easier than it was the first time.

These regular monthly meetings continue to help us stay sane and stay informed. They are the village that helps us raise our children. And even though my family is no longer teetering precariously on the edge like it was in those first crazy months of my older girls’ lives, I still thank my lucky stars for good friends like these.

Would you like to set up a support community for your older child or teen? If you live in Montreal, Ometz helps parents organize regular monthly parlour meetings. You can also organize your own informal group by asking around at your child’s school, soccer practice or daycare.

Perhaps, like me, you will find these groups become a lifeline.