Normal “Assassins”

It’s perfectly normal to find a full fire extinguisher of water rolling around in the back of your car on your way to church, right? Well…even with a husband who is a professional firefighter, this is not exactly…normal.

But when your son, who is a Senior in high school, nearing the end of the school year, has been playing a game called “Assassins” the entire weekend, where the high school upper classmen have formed into teams to stalk each other around town, and spray each other with water guns, (and evidently, fire extinguishers filled with water)- it makes life interesting. And, in a weird way, yes, also normal.

Pre-Pandemic, I would have worried so much more about this, kids driving around in cars, getting out and battling with water-filled “materials” in neighborhoods and parking lots, though this is a long standing tradition apparently, and obviously everyone who played before has lived to tell about it. But, after the year we’ve had, my perspective is quite different. Far from worrying, I am relishing every moment of dare I say…normal teenage activities. I am literally pushing him out the door.

On a Friday afternoon, a car pulled into the driveway, and four boys piled out of it, as Joe ran double time down the stairs from his room, out of the house – all ready with his black bandanna and awkwardly carrying the extra large fire extinguisher, bestowed upon him with the blessings of his fireman father. I hear all the boys cheering and clapping: LET’S GO! YEAH JOE! They are laughing, carefree, and they all pile into the car and drive away.

I paused for a moment, looking out my office window. Because this is the first time I had seen that kind of activity in over A YEAR. High school kids, together, laughing, ready for an adventure without restrictions, or a shadow of worry. I joke all the time that I have to stop crying over these things, that I should have invested actual money in Kleenex, but evidently it’s not going to be this month. I smash the lump down in my throat as they drove off. Because all I can think is, Normalcy.

What a difference a year makes- last year at this time these same boys were doing drive by birthday celebrations, yelling at each other from cars in the street, staying 6 feet apart, and trying to figure out what activities they could do outside in the summer to spend time together. This included going to the extent of buying fishing licenses so they could go to a lake all afternoon and sit and talk with their fishing rods in the water. A year ago, J was struggling through the last weeks of his Junior year with remote high school; we were worried beyond belief over his mental health. I was crying, but for very different reasons.

We are now at that point, after graduation, where he has one foot out the door, but is trying to be respectful of our feelings, still, we know it’s coming. He’ll be gone soon. A new normal.

Fast forward to later the same Friday night, when I awake from a fitful dozing sleep to hear him padding up the stairs after midnight. I get up out of instinct, and he greets me in the hallway.


He goes into enthusiastic detail about diving into bushes, hiding behind cars, and leaping and running across lawns. I blearily smile with relief and offer mumbled, possibly incoherent but heartfelt words of congratulations, and ask if he’s still in the game. He is. Hey, I thought you were staying over at A’s house, I say. I decided to come home, he responds. Good. Get some rest.

I climb back into bed, and two minutes later, he knocks on my bedroom door and enters, waving a Nestle Crunch bar. Hey, I got this for you when we stopped at Wawa. I admit, I had to suppress a little snort laugh. It was 12:30 at night, did he think I was going to eat it right then? But I was also overwhelmed with how thoughtful it was. Thanks, I said. Good night mom. He answered. Normalcy.

So the next morning, when I get in the car to drive to church, the dang fire extinguisher is clanging and rolling around the back seat. But rather than be annoyed that he left it there and didn’t think to take it out when he got home the night before, I smile with relief (and yes, a few tears), because in this weird way, it is actually a piece of normalcy. Sigh. {Sob}.

The Kids Are Not Alright

Teenagers have been on my mind. For those of you who are parents of teenagers, or who are related to a teenager, listen up, this is for you.

I have been somewhat flabbergasted, and frankly a little shocked at times when I asked friends over the past year how their kids (teenagers) were doing, which is kind of a big question in the time of a pandemic…and some of them shrugged and said lightly, “Oh, they’re alright.” Or… “Oh you know, he’s kind of oblivious to everything.” Or, “We are really loving our family time.” At first I thought wow, maybe my kids are the only ones having a terrible time of this. Or maybe I’m overthinking this. Or maybe I’m just a terrible parent. But no. Because you know what? They are not alright. Even the ones that you think are alright, they are not.

I have read countless articles about how teenagers are suffering through this pandemic. I have cried on the phone with our pediatrician, who assured me I am not the only one. We are not the only ones. I have spent so many sleepless nights worrying about how my son is going to continue to navigate high school like this. I’ve bargained with myself, I’ve tried the unrealistic optimism approach that things will be better. I have tried to keep a sense of humor (sometimes not very successfully). But, yet, the nagging little voice. He’s not alright. They’re not alright.

Our school district is among the best, we are very lucky, and I know this and I appreciate it. They have done all they can do to keep the kids in school safely. But yet, these kids feel they are literally being punished for going to school. Or not going to school. Or seeing friends. Or not seeing friends. You see, every choice they make comes with a set of consequences, and it’s impossible to make any good (or “right”) choices. If they see friends, they risk exposure to COVID. If they don’t see friends, they are much more likely to feel sad and depressed. If they go to school, they feel weird and it’s not the greatest experience. If they don’t go to school, they are more isolated and it’s not the greatest experience. I can’t figure out how to be supportive. I’ve tried every angle, and none of it really fits – where is the pandemic parenting guidebook? Because of the depression J suffered with last spring, we have tried to allow him some freedom to see some friends (not in large groups), but his close group in the safest settings possible. It seemed the most reasonable path in my mind, and to keep his mental health in balance.

That seemed to be working, although they still obviously are giving up and missing out on a lot of normalcy. But a few weeks ago he went to a friends house, and there were people there outside his usual “pod”. One of them tested positive for COVID and all of them had to quarantine. In the week following, J had two negative tests, so he did not get infected, but he was very quiet. He stayed more to himself, barely talking, if he even came out of his room at all. One of his friends did get the virus and had symptoms. When I was driving him to get his COVID test, I asked, “You know that I’m not mad at you, right”? And he said, “No, I thought you guys were really mad at me.” And I said, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You went to a friend’s house.” Let that sink in. He thought he was in trouble because he went to a friend’s house. He said that they all felt like they did something wrong, and that they were worried they were going to get in trouble with the school. If you add this pressure into the mix of kids who are trying to please, it’s the ultimate sadness.

It was at that point that I just thought, wow, how much have we burdened our kids? We have literally asked the impossible from them, and then we are disappointed when they can’t deliver. How have we made them feel so inadequate? They don’t deserve this. They feel punished for literally every action, and then they retreat. We (collectively, people in charge of them) said “Sure, you can play your sport, but it could be shut down literally any minute because of something you do (or don’t do) or because someone else who you don’t even know stands next to someone who has COVID.” I don’t know how we can support them, or fix it, or make it better. I have no advice. I do know that I get even more angry when I hear people being judgmental: “tsk tsk” these kids just don’t know how to behave.

Listen. They are doing the best that they can. WE are doing the best that we can. There are no good options.

I don’t know what the lasting effects of this pandemic will be for these kids, the ones poised to be independent and trying to figure things out about themselves in their Senior year of high school, and have been squashed. All I know is that there will be lasting effects. I hope and pray that they will put this in their rearview mirror eventually, but it’s no joke – it’s not something they will ever speak lightly about. I take the words of advice that are often swirling in my head, just have grace – a lot of it – be a good listener, and be forgiving. That’s the best that we can do.


Second Time Around the Block

Here I am, I blinked, and I am navigating the roads a second time with a new teenage driver.  Vastly different, yet in some ways very much the same.

A couple of things that have struck me as I have begun this process again. Shannon was terrified about driving, I mean, she would start to cry when a car came towards her from the other direction – for weeks.  We practically had to smother ourselves to not burst out laughing and be empathetic yet firm in saying: Don’t worry so much, the road is wide enough for both cars. [Insert face into sleeve and muffle gasping laughs.] She did eventually get over this.

Joseph is NOT terrified. In fact, he wants to drive, and asks to get behind the wheel whenever there is an opportunity.  He backs down the driveway like he’s done it a hundred times. I am not even nervous getting in the car with him.  I wondered if this was because I had been through it already and was like, yeah, so what if he hits the mailbox….we can get a new one…or if it was just because I am just numb to nerves at this point?  Either way, vastly different driver.

BUT yet – the SAME in that he goes so far to the edge of the right side of the road that I instinctively lean to the left. I call this the “mailbox lean”.  As in, in my mind think that if I lean to the left *inside the car*, the *outside* of the car somehow won’t hit the mailboxes on the side of the road. I realize this is irrational, but absolutely cannot help the instinct.  So, I’ll gently say, hey, how about you move over a little so we don’t end up in the ditch?  And he responds exactly THE SAME way Shannon did:  The road is so narrow! I’m not that far over mom, but WHY ARE THE ROADS SO NARROW HERE?  [Insert face into sleeve and muffle laughter].

Shannon used to pull in a parking lot and look for the “pull through” spots so she wouldn’t have to back up.  Joseph – SAME.  I’m like, you do know, eventually you will have to actually back up out of a parking spot?  Yeah yeah mom, I know.

Before Shannon drove, the car was a place where we always talked. For Joseph, he avoids talking and tends to put in his ear buds to listen to music and give me one word responses. Not so much conversation.  BUT, when he got behind the wheel, no phone, no ear buds, just me.  It was like an epiphany.  I COULD TALK TO HIM IN THE CAR AND THERE WAS NOTHING HE COULD DO ABOUT IT! (Bonus: Because he is a good driver, I’m not even correcting him,  gasping in horror, or admonishing him for not stopping soon enough at an intersection.) This leaves time for….more talking!

This evening, we drove to the grocery store. On the way home, the 70’s radio station started playing “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.”  He shook his head and said: My god, this song is 8 minutes long. What even.  So we had a good chat about what the song was all about, that I didn’t really know why it had to be 8 minutes long, and that when I was young and heard it over and over again, I had no idea what “the Levee was dry” meant either.  It was a whole. entire. conversation.  When we pulled into our neighborhood, he said – My god, Mom, it’s STILL PLAYING.  And we burst into laughter – real laughter.

Since I travel so much for work, and he isn’t amenable to texting or talking on the phone a whole bunch while I am away, much of our relationship lately has revolved around me telling him to do something, or asking why he didn’t do something, or yelling at him while he walks away from me. Which makes him not want to talk to me, and I can’t really blame him, but I also really need him to do things.  Add to that that he is suddenly taller than me, his voice deepened over night, (or so it seemed to me) – and when he walks in the kitchen and says:  “Hey mom” I almost spit out my coffee on a daily basis.  Who the hell is this new person in my house?  I am having some trouble navigating how quickly he is changing, and sometimes I just want my little sweet boy back, but then I see him behind the wheel, confident, growing up, and sometimes just like his sister. Only totally different.

So here we go around the block (literally) the second time – this motherhood thing doesn’t get easier, I’m just navigating the road, leaning to the left, one mailbox at a time.