The Importance of Coming Last

My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”

Right?

Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.

Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.

Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?

And on and on. We finally ended up at might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.

And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.

Here’s a confession (between you and me, right?): It never occurred to me he’d come in last. He’s notoriously hard on himself. I just assumed he was exaggerating. 

“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.

“What?”

“I came in last.”

At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.

We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.

It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.

We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.

We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.

So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.

By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.

And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.

It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**

What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.

Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.

Plus, you know. Ice cream.

**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids,  but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.

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Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.

 

The Absolutely True Story of Our Family Holiday Card

Some people are really good at gifts, a knack for finding that perfect something. Others love to bake…hundreds of melty snowmen cookies and cute little Santas made from tiny pieces of dried fruit which must be cut with nail scissors they’re so small. I have a good friend (you know who you are) who makes gorgeous, elaborate ginger bread structures. One year she microwaved Jolly Ranchers to make stained glass windows. Not even kidding.

Me? I get paper cuts from wrapping and, like the Christmas goose, I’m getting fat. There are certainly no hay pennies to toss in this old woman’s hat by the end of all the gift-buying. But I have my own little piece of the holidays where I go over the top, down into the valley, and up the other side.

Our family holiday card.

You see, I may not love Christmas and all the trimmings, but every year we do a family holiday photo card. It started out with a picture of our eldest son in cute little outfits. Then it extended to include all of us. Now it’s morphed into a full-blown production.

I just got this year’s out and I’m already starting to stress about what to do next year.

Not really.

(But yeah, sort of)

****

A friend said, when she got this year’s card (via email–postage in Denmark is ridiculous), “Oh, when I look at your card I think, I wish we were one of those families!”

I burst out laughing.

You see, the finished product is one thing. The process? That is something else entirely.

We are..most decidedly…not one of those families. And by those families I mean ones who actually measure up to the lives their holiday photo is portraying. Which is why we forgo the cutesy family pjs in lieu of something a bit less Rockwell and more…say…Parker family from A Christmas Story. More representative of us.

You know, the ones who are thinking of getting a crest with the family motto: Don’t be a dick.

****

I don’t tend toward anxiety, but when I do, it’s almost always about time. My kids are thirteen and almost ten and if it’s 7 pm and I know they haven’t had dinner I still get a knot of anxiety in my stomach. Getting to the airport is a nightmare, I can never get the timings right. This year, I knew the set up for the card was going to be time-consuming and time? Time, unlike my middle-aged spread, is in short supply this year. A traveling photographer, visitors, plans, more visitors, more traveling for the photographer.

Basically I had a 2 hour window to get it done.

Cue me, hurling clothes from the cupboard looking for a wig and the family Santa hats in an anxious fit which more accurately resembled semi-rage.

You see, this is what goes on behind the card. Not Happy Families. Snarky Ones.

****

Things I do not do when shooting our Christmas card:

Xmas Card 2015 From The Usual Suspects
Gather my children round and speak to them in soothing, dulcet tones

Regal them with warm and fuzzy stories of the holiday season

Snuggle up next to them with hot cocoa and sugar cookies

Things I DO do

Threat, beg, plead, bribe

Swear never to do it again

Say things like “It’s doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year, does it? For fuck’s sake, it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year! Show some gratitude for the wonder!”

Thank the universe profusely when it’s over.

Here’s what the scene of shooting our holiday card really resembles:

Hours of prep work on my part. Hours of my husband (the traveling photographer) taking too long to get the lighting just right, the camera sitting precariously perched on a pile of books on an upturned stool on a jerry-rigged tripod. The kids getting fidgety about thirty seconds after I announce we’re good to go, at least thirty shots where everyone looks good….except one person. In years past we’ve spent an hour taking photos only to end up using the first one we took. This year, we ended up using the last one so there was some karmic retribution there.

Last year’s shoot was probably the worst. The fake fur rugs we were wearing kept slipping off. Wrapping paper swords were denting. We couldn’t decide on fierce or funny. The lighting wasn’t right. My photographer was getting frustrated. There was yelling and I think there may have been hissing.xmas-2016-christmas-is-coming.jpg

All witnessed by my mother and sister.

Not our best.

The card looked good though.

This year was pretty mild in comparison. The camera fell from its perch once and there was a collective intake of breath. Would it crack? Would the photographer be in a foul mood? Would we finish within our two-hour window?

It didn’t. He wasn’t. We did.

****

All for what you may ask?

Well, part of it is definitely memories. And part of it is the fun of the finished product. But I’m not going to lie. I’m….good at holiday cards. It’s become an annual challenge to come up with something quirky or different. I like giving my friends and family something fun or funny to look at each year. And buried beneath all of that, we actually are making memories.

They just have more swearing and less sugar plums than you’d think.

My holiday gift? My husband and kids indulging me in a ridiculously over the top tradition. It may be a silly tradition. It may be an over-the-top one. But it’s ours. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

 

****

 

 

 

Mothers: We Get the Job Done

I remember making a quip a long time ago about sending a mother in to negotiate peace in the Middle East.

I was mostly joking.

Mostly.

There are times when I watch, in aghast amusement as football tournaments blunder along, as team travel plans are made at the last possible minute, ensuring confusion and delay, when I stand and bear witness as what should be an easy organizational exercise turns into the Olympics of incompetence.

Sometimes I’m with a group of women, mostly mothers, and we just kind of nod and chuckle. Inevitably someone will say, you know what this (fill in the blank) needs, don’t you? And someone else will say “A woman!” And we’ll laugh and laugh and laugh. Until they come over and ask one of us to help sort out the mess. Then it’s no fun anymore. None at all.

But seriously….why wouldn’t you want a mother in charge? I mean, mothers have got this shit down. I mean down. I suspect women in general do, but it’s hard for me to separate pre-mother me and post-mother me. It’s been a long time since I haven’t been expected to pull, with total recall at a moment’s notice, a schedule of who has which sport on what day and which socks they need. Plus where said socks were last spotted.

And it’s always there, that little list of who/what/where/when/how. Exactly when and where I need it. Because mothers? We get the job done.

Organizational skills? Please. On any given day a mother remembers exactly where her child/children need to be, how they’re going to get there, and who is going to take them home. What they need to eat before they get there, the equipment they need to take, and an extra snack for someone else’s child in case they forgot. I’ve seen mothers bandage a flesh wound, make plans for Halloween costumes, RSVP a birthday party and arrange a car pool. Simultaneously. A mother can carry on at least four different conversations at once, remembering exactly where she was at any given point. Total recall. But with Mom instead of Arnold. (This last Jedi mind trick drives my husband b-o-n-k-e-r-s, but it’s handy when you are doing twelve things at once. Which mothers usually are.)

Negotiating Experience? Pah. Mothers spend almost every waking moment in negotiations. We are experts–experts–in the bribe/distract/threat school of getting shit done. You don’t know what hard negotiations look like until you’ve negotiated yourself out of a hostage situation involving a hungry toddler draped over a kitchen chair whining about how he doesn’t like the same meal he had three helpings of two days before all while helping your older one with homework, listening to your spouse tell you he’s going to be late, speed dialing the sitter with an eye on the clock to get everyone bathed and in bed before the sitter comes so you can go to book club. (And let’s stop pretending. Let’s just call it Wine Club). You know that 10,000 hour to be an expert rule? Yeah, done. And dusted.

Fierce advocate? Check! Hell hath NO fury like a mother whose child has been unfairly targeted. (On a serious note, look how many successful activist and advocacy movements were started by mothers. Candy Lightner’s daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) four days later. Shannon Watts planted the seed for Moms Demand Action the day after Sandy Hook to address gun violence in the US. Autism Speaks was started by grandparents.) You do not screw with our children. You do not overlook them or sideline them or under any circumstances put them in danger. We will come for you. Hard.

I’ve said it before. If you ever need the impossible done? Talk to a mother who has lost or is in danger of losing something dear to her. And watch it happen. Mama magic isn’t just kisses and band aids.

Able to cope with stress? Check! Watch a mother whose alarm didn’t go off get a household of kids out of the house in under ten minutes on a school day. Pb&J sandwiches–boom, like a boss. Lunches, breakfast, find the football socks, the keys, the homework, stuff the backpacks, supervise brushing of teeth, combing of hair, on and on and on, kiss, see ya later, door slam.

The Art of the Deal? Puh-leeze. Any mother worth her salt knows how to make a deal. She knows threats don’t work for long. Compromise is the mainstay of motherhood. It’s your bread and butter. We’re good at it. Scratch that. We are great at it. You know why? Because it takes a mother about 15 seconds to realize living in an environment in which everyone gets a little bit of something they want/need is much more pleasant. A mother knows Jimmy doesn’t like rice, but Josie does. So she’ll make the rice for Josie but make sure dinner includes at least two other things that Jimmy does like. Every damn night. Times infinity. It’s not giving in. It’s not weakness. It’s listening and doing what you can to make sure everyone gets a piece of cake. Everyone in life–everyone, I don’t care if you are the President, or a toddler throwing a fit in the middle of IKEA, everyone wants to feel listened to.

Recently I went away for a week. I left food in the fridge, lunch cards stocked up with money. I made meatballs. I listed who needs to be where on what day, with what gear, with which food. I left numbers and prearranged pick ups and playdates. The list took up most of a kitchen cupboard. It was color coded and highlighted.

When I returned everyone, as I expected, was absolutely fine. My husband is an eminently capable adult who manages other adults through their crises for a living. As he stood in the kitchen upon my return he said, you know, I can maintain what you do. But I could never actually DO what you do.

As far as compliments go, it was a pretty dang good one.

So next time, before asking us to clean up the mess (we’re pretty good at that too), maybe ask a mother to take charge beforehand.

Because, mothers. We get the job done.