To My Son, Who is Turning Thirteen

Here we are, on the verge of big, bad teenagerdom.

I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. Not all the time, and not even about the big, bad things, but nevertheless, she persisted worrying. Have I done enough? Have I reminded you to please and thank you enough? Taught you how to tell a joke or to always deal cards to the left? Have I given you the confidence to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing?

Most of the time I worry because I feel like I’m running out of time.

There are days when it seems you’ve already got one foot out of the door. I have to remind myself you’ve always had one foot out of the door, from the moment you were born. You were never mine, not really. You’ve always been your own. The universe merely placed you in my care for this dance, to make sure when you’re ready, you step through with both feet, confident and secure.

But that door? It will always open to you.

When you were an infant, swaddled like a baby burrito, you’d look up at me and I felt a million things surge through my blood all at once, like wildfire raging through my veins. Thirteen years later your eyes are nearly level with my own, but my blood still sings that same fiery song.

Those times you think I’m staring at you, looking for something to criticize? I’m really looking to see if the angle of your jaw has sharpened between dinner and breakfast.

When you catch me standing outside your door, it’s not to simply to tell you to pick your clothes up off the floor, it’s also to hear if the timber of your voice has begun to deepen.

I’m terrified I’m going to miss something, afraid one day I’ll look at you and that tiny boy, the one we fought so hard to bring into the world, is going to be impossible to recognize in the face and body of the young man you’re becoming.

In case I don’t tell you enough, I am proud of you, the way you treat everyone with kindness, the ease with which you saunter through life, your even-temper. Do you remember the night we sat around the dinner table and asked, who is the least likely to lose their temper? Without hesitation, we all pointed to you.

Keep your even temper. It will be your greatest gift in life, the ability to take a situation and diffuse it, to find the funny, or the good, the silver lining.

You are so unbelievably fortunate. You have so much opportunity at times it’s almost embarrassing. Use it. Use it to speak out for those who have less. Don’t ever take it for granted or feel like the world owes you more than what you’ve already been bestowed, because those invisible gifts you’ve been born into–the color of your skin, your sex, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to you? Those things are not due to you. You do not deserve them more than someone else. So use them. Stand up for those who walk through life with less ease, with less opportunity, with less help. Be aware of your privileges and of how you can use them for good.

Find something you want to be great at. It doesn’t matter if you are great at it, but it’s important to have something to work at, to dream about. Don’t take the easy way out. Get better. Be better.

Take time to settle into your mold. You don’t have to know who you are or what you want to do with your life. You just need to live your best life. Not everyday, no one lives their best life everyday. If someone tells you that, ignore them. If you’re batting one for ten you’re doing ok. Some days life hurts. Some days it’s tough. Some days it sucks donkey balls. It will get better. Don’t think it won’t get better.

No matter how many eye-rolls or ‘whatever’s, how many door slams or a thousand other stereotypes I’m remembering from The Breakfast Club and my own teenage years, we will be here. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t need us. That’s good. That means we’ve done our job. We’ll be here anyway.

You’re going to think we’re dumb and out of touch. You’re going to think you know better. You’re going to think every sneaky trick you come up with to fool us hasn’t been tried before. You’re wrong on all counts.

You won’t believe me. I know. I didn’t either.

We’re going to argue. I’m going to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong. If it’s truly important, stand up for yourself. But choose your hills wisely. Make sure it’s a hill you’re willing to die on before you dig in.

I’m going to embarrass you. Mostly accidentally but sometimes on purpose.

You’ll want to do things we don’t think you’re ready for. Sometimes we’ll screw it up. Sometimes we’ll make shitty decisions. But even when we do, try to remember it’s coming from a place of love. You won’t believe that either, but it’s true.

The world is out there waiting. There’s a lot of shit going down, a lot of bad stuff. But so much good stuff too. Don’t let the scary stuff stop you from experiencing the good. Don’t let the good stuff stop you from trying to change the bad.

Don’t let anyone else define you. If someone tells you that you have to be or do something? If they want to change you or set conditions on their love for you? Run the other way. Fast.

Life is going to hurt. Life is going to sing. It’s going to flutter and fly and sink and sometimes you’ll feel like you are drowning in your own breath. That is life. All of it put together is what makes it worth living.

Most of all I want you to know it will never be you vs. the world. We are tied together, you and me. For nine months your heartbeat tangled with mine until it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Yours dances to a different tempo now, but mine? Mine will always skip a beat here and there, making sure there is a space for yours to return to when you need it.

Love,
Mom

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Three Things That Keep Expats Parents Awake at Night

audrey-hepburn-lying-awake-bed-insomnia-800x500Imagine a big Venn Diagram. Really, who doesn’t love a good Venn diagram?? This one is called “Things That Keep You Awake At Night.” On one side you have expats. On the other, non-expats.

Most of the things that keep many of us tossing and twisting in our beds while the rest of the world slumbers will likely intersect in a nice big lemon shape in the middle. Kids, marriage, health scares, money, retirement, the inching forward of the Doomsday clock, that crepe-y skin that is advancing across your neck (No? Just me?). That’s because for the most part, day-to-day life is the same regardless of where you live. Work, food shopping, kids, school runs, laundry, watching The Crown on Netflix. trying to remember that Mother’s Day in the UK is not the same as Mother’s Day everywhere else (No? Just me again? Damn).

But…that’s not to say it’s all the same. There are things I never really considered before we moved abroad. Things that weren’t on my radar, didn’t give me pause, and certainly didn’t keep me awake at night. Or at least not as much. I’m not even talking about the big-ticket worries–culture shock, language issues, whether or not you have to buy all new electrical appliances because the world can’t agree on socket shape or voltage–though those things have been known to cause a sleepless night or twelve.

But there are some issues which are likely unique to the expat experience, or, if not unique, play a bigger role.

I’ll take three things that keep expat parents awake at night for $200, Dina.

School

The big kahuna. The topic of conversation after conversation. Where will they go? When should we or should we not move them? Will they be ahead? Behind? If we move them once should we move them again or stay put? Will we scar them for life if we move right before high school? If we don’t? Will moving from one curriculum to another spell disaster? Can they even spell disaster? I can’t think of one other topic which dominates as much time of an expat parent’s life and conversation as trying to juggle kids, school, work assignments and moving. Even the folks I know in NYC, who have to deal with public school applications which could double as door stops, don’t usually have to add the worry of moving mid year or mid high school or switching curriculums or languages, sometimes every few years. It’s an exhausting and ever-present niggler at your bedtime peace.

venn

Friendships

Other than the military, I’m not sure there is a situation where the constant revolving door of friends is as noticeable as it is on the expat circuit. There are good sides and bad sides to this, of course. New blood is always good. New faces, new friends to meet, you never know who your next best buddy’s going to be. Then…then there’s the other side. Goodbyes are hard.  There’s the very real chance that, when a good friend picks up and moves back to say, oh, I don’t know….Perth, it’s going to be a long time before you see them again. And there is the heartbreak of watching your child say farewell to good friends year after year. My younger son starts to get anxious around March, and keeps a running list of friends who are leaving in his head. No parent likes to see their kid upset. It’s even worse when you know they are upset because of a decision you’ve made. Maybe it’s good for them, maybe it is, indeed, character building–or maybe, as you flip  your pillow over to find a cool spot, your current decisions are nothing more than money in a future therapist’s bank account.

Roots

If school is always the big X factor in decision making, it’s closely followed by the idea of putting down roots. I have a lot to say about this and it deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the idea of trying to figure out where your kids are going to feel comfortable, call home, feel grounded, is another large part of expat parent worries. I only know what it is like to grow up with feet firmly planted in one place. My kids? Different story altogether. Theirs will no doubt have a different ending, as it should, but that doesn’t mean trying to make sure it’s a happy ending doesn’t keep me awake at night. It’s an unknown, an unanswerable. They may be just fine. They may thrive. The may part of that equation is what keeps my eyes open staring at the ceiling while my husband gently snores beside me.

 

o-insomnia-570These are the things that are in constant conversational rotation. The things that keep me, and many other expat parents I know awake at night. The kicker? There is no one answer that ticks all the boxes. There is no is magic formula. You can talk to ten different people and they’ll have ten different solutions and not a single one is going to give you the one size fits all answer you seek. You can rub a lamp, wish on a star, take a sleeping pill, and those problems are still going to be there when you wake up.

If you’re like us, you talk about it until you’ve gone around the subject a hundred times and then you stick your head firmly back in the sand where you don’t have to think about it any more.

Until the next time you find yourself laying awake at night, plotting Venn Diagrams and trying to remember when Mother’s Day in the UK is.

Just me?

Damn.

 

Little Ditty about Jack and Diane

tastee freezI hope Jack and Diane rang in the New Year by sucking on chili dogs out behind the Tastee Freez.

I, on the other hand, celebrated by belting out the solid gold hits of my youth with friends.

I should add that I can’t sing. Let me clarify: I can’t sing well. But I”m loud. And enthusiastic. And apparently the am I making a fool out of myself? switch is now permanently set to the I don’t give a fuck settingEven if it means enduring the eye-rolling of a couple of mortified teenagers who were witness to the whole thing; especially then.

Oh, all you Jackies. All you Dianes. I keep trying to tell you how boring grown-up life can be sometimes, but you refuse to listen. You just keep draping yourselves in a cloak of teenage stubbornness already thread worn from being passed down from generation to generation.

Right now you’re still the Dianes from the song; debutantes in backseats, sitting there on Jackie’s lap, his hand between your knees. The thrill of living’s still right there, palpable in the thrum of a heartbeat or the whisper of a breath along your neck.

The thrill of living. I’m not that old. I remember the way those thrills trilled up my spine and exploded like tiny supernovas in my chest.

We used to sit on a crumbling concrete curb by the small, grassy circle at the end of the Dianeneighborhood and listen to Jack and Diane. A gaggle of neighborhood kids and a boom-box, a scratchy cassette tape spitting out tinny top-forty fare. I was never really a Diane, not the Diane of the song certainly, it took me until my late twenties to find my Jackie.

I also didn’t have the guts to sing out loud back then. Or play air-guitar. Or dance on a chair. Yet I seem to be doing more and more of that lately. Strange days indeed.

Quite simply put, I don’t give a rat’s ass anymore. Just like all those inspirational quotes that clog up my social media feed advise me to, I sing like no one is listening. I dance like no one’s watching. And I seem to be singing and dancing far more than I ever thought I would at this stage of the game. This is the glorious gift my 40s have bestowed upon me.

This was going to be a quirky little miss sunshine piece about my hope for those embarrassed Dianes, that I wished someday they found a group of friends to sing Sweet Caroline with; friends that recognize the art of enjoying themselves elevates itself above being or seeming cool. But as these pieces often do, it morphed into something else: the stunningly simple realization that life doesn’t stop as you get older.

The thrill of living? It’s not gone. A lot of times it’s hidden under mountains of paperwork and never-ending lists of chores. But it’s not gone.

Hold on to sixteen as long as you can. Do I wish I could have held on to the ass I had when I was sixteen? What do you think? Sometimes I think about the heart plummet of a first kiss, the backseats of all those cars. Sure, hold on to sixteen as long as you can–sixteen was good.

But 45 is pretty damn good too.

At sixteen you can’t think beyond the thump of your heart in your ears. You can’t see beyond the next moment, the next kiss, the next breath. But at 45 you can. You can see far enough to understand they’re not limitless. They’re not endless. You start to feel them again. Maybe not as intensely as the first ones, but with the intensity of never knowing when they’re going to be your last.

A little ditty about Jack and Diane. Jackie’s never gonna be a football star. And Diane probably got knocked up in the backseat of Jackie’s car. He’s probably selling life insurance now, spent too much time down by the Tastee Freez and is now pre-diabetic. Maybe Diane never lost all the baby weight. Maybe they went their separate ways when those changes came around real soon made them women and men…

Life goes on, but the thrill of living? The thrill of living is far from gone. I’d say it’s just getting started again.

So hold on to 16, sure. But hold on to 45 too. And 60. Wherever you are.

jack and diane 2All you sweet Dianes out there cringing while your parents and their friends bang their heads to Bohemian Rhapsody or shake their hips to Grease Lightning—it may look goofy to you, it may be embarrassing, because right now you probably can’t imagine anything more mortifying than exposing any of your own inadequacies, real or imagined, to the world. But the thrill of living? The real thrill of living is getting past all of that and learning to enjoy life. To flip your switch permanently to I don’t give a fuck setting.

Jack and Diane must have figured that out by now, just like I have. They’d be near fifty now. Surely they’ve learned that when life hands you a new year and a group of friends to sing with, let it rock. Let it roll. Hell, you can even let the Bible Belt save your soul if you must. I don’t have time to judge, I’m too busy playing air guitar.

 

 

 

 

Dear Middle Schoolers

dancingDear Middle Schoolers,

I admit it. I’m a sappy grown-up. I weep every time I watch E.T. and get choked up during graduation ceremonies. That scene in Toy Story when the Mom is getting ready to send her son off to college? Just. Don’t. Hell, a decent marching band can open the floodgates sometimes. So it’s no surprise I get a bit misty at your school assemblies. Blame it on a combination of nostalgia, music, and harsh fluorescent lighting. Blame it on the rain or blame it on the bossa nova. For the most part it’s simply watching a gym full of you all so gloriously oblivious to the world around you.

Your mid-pubescent bodies do me in every time. They are so FULL OF LIFE, ripe with it, fairly bursting with it, that it’s almost painful to see. From afar I watch you unfold those newly lengthened limbs. I watch you laugh with friends, watch you lost in your middle school dreams and nightmares. And always I am struck with the width and breadth of possibility in front of you.

You can be…anything. How breathtaking is that? The whole world is in front of you. You’re still lumps of clay; unformed, unpainted and unadorned, just waiting for life to come along and shape you into what you’re meant to be.

It’s intoxicating. And it makes me well up with the sheer joy of it all.

My son is one of you now. The other day I got to see how you spend your down time at an end of term holiday party. There was a room for karaoke and another for bustin’ a move. There was a room set up for games and another with snacks and hot chocolate. Yet with all that choice for letting your hair down and whipping your nae nae, there were still a few of you who sat, eyes rolling into the backs of your heads, too cool for school.

I wanted to take shake you by the shoulders. I wanted to say, Oh, honey child, if life’s got you this jaded at twelve, what the hell are you going to do when you figure out that being an adult is  all about filing out things in triplicate and saving for retirement? About arguing with the insurance company and trying to scrub skid marks off the toilet bowl?

Instead I’ll say this to you: sing the karaoke song. Get up there and belt it out, whether you can carry a tune or you drop it like it’s hot. No one’s going to remember you because you were too cool to join in. You want to be remembered? Be the one who gets up there and doesn’t give a shit whether or not you sound like Adele.

singing

Dance like no one’s watching. Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. Because life doesn’t have enough dancing opportunities as a grown-up. All of a sudden you find yourself longing for a chance to shake your booty, which is hanging down near your groove thing. I think you kids call it bass now. But whatever, dance when you have the chance. They don’t come around as often when you start squeezing in work, food shopping, and the laundry list of other boring stuff that makes up 98% of grown-up-ness.

You can be anything. Don’t be bored. God, there is so much boring shit about being an adult. When you have the chance to spend an afternoon playing games with your friends and being goofy? Do it. Play a game of Connect Four. Let yourself get excited when the little discs slide into perfect formation. Be happy when you sink someone else’s battleship.

I know, I know. You’re waiting for life to really get going. It’ll get really interesting right around the next corner, at the next intersection, toward the next bend. You’re counting down the days until you’re grown up so you can go out and drink and smoke and drive and fall in love and have real fun. Truth is, what’s really lurking around the corner is going out to work every day and coming home to decide what shape pasta you can boil for dinner. Exciting stuff, I know. You’re waiting until the right man or woman comes along to sweep you off your feet and whisk you off to happily ever after land. I wish I could make you understand that happily ever after land looks nothing like what you think it does right now. There aren’t any unicorns for starters. And there is way more shouting.

swing kidsOh, sweet child o’ mine. Go forth and dance. Get out there and sing. Don’t bend yourself into a shape that you think is the right one. Don’t settle on a mold because you think it’s cool. You still have plenty of time to find your shape. You have time to break the mold. All the time in the world. Don’t be afraid of smiling, of having fun, of acting goofy, of screwing up the lyrics to the song. Don’t peak too soon. Don’t peak now. There is so much ahead of you, plenty of days to check your phone and roll your eyes.

Dear middle schoolers, trust me. When someone gives you carte blanche to sing and dance and drink hot chocolate in the middle of a Friday?

Do it.

Signed,
BTDT x