Posts Tagged ‘Midlife’


August 12, 2013

We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:


Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.

Empty nest, two months in

October 15, 2012

After putting up with a year of my anticipatory angst, you might be wondering, How’s it going with that Empty Nest? 

And after about two months I can answer… really well!

Here are the visible changes in my life:

  • Got rid of the station wagon and bought the Chevy Volt (which I love – but more on that in a future post).
  • Started taking an intense 90-minute bike/row class at the gym at 6 a.m. three days a week.
  • Cooking more “adult” foods — bok choy, kale, chard, cauliflower.

Stinson Beach – an empty nest weekend walk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

  • More free time on weekends — autumn without kid soccer games! — for birding, hiking etc.
  • Ability to take a vacation in the middle of the fall, not on school schedules.

The biggest change, though, is not a visible one. There’s an entire part of my brain that was tied down and now is suddenly free. It wasn’t taken up with major worries, just a constant drone of minor stuff — when will she be home from school, is she done with her homework, should she be going to bed, should she be waking up, what’s the status of the college applications, what are her plans for the weekend, etc.

It felt like a computer with a DOS program running steadily behind Windows — you don’t see it, you don’t hear it, but it ties things up and makes everything run a little more clunkily. For eighteen years. And now suddenly it’s gone! Wow!

(In other words, my brain went from PC to Mac?? Am I now insanely great?)

There have been other changes that are more nuanced. They have to do with relationships:

The Alice in Wonderland Marriage

My marriage seems more intense, as if it had inflated, Alice-in-Wonderland style, to fill a room.  I suddenly feel more dependent on Sam. We’ve gone from a household of three to a household of two.

Before, if he went out of town overnight for work, Daughter was still around — most likely busy, or staying out late, or closed up in her room video-chatting, but still around for a good-night hug or requesting a lift to BART. Now when he is gone, there is no one but me and the cat. It’s a little unsettling to feel this dependent on him.

The Assembly Line Has Shut Down

For the past 18 years, our marriage has been intertwined with a huge, all-consuming Project — raising a child. Even when we went out for dinner by ourselves, this was always there at the table with us. Now suddenly the Project is gone.

Returning to my computer analogies, imagine if the Apple workforce showed up one morning and were told they should keep on working, but they would no longer be manufacturing Macs or iPhones or iPads.

You look around and think, Um, now what are we supposed to be doing? Why are we all here? 

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

I’m newly conscious that I don’t have that many strong, current, one-to-one friendships. I have a zillion Facebook friends, including some very old, very dear friends from my teenage years with whom I have marvelously reconnected via the Internet. I have blog readers. I have co-workers. I have people I see at synagogue. But I don’t have as many nearby, frequent, get-together-and-laugh-until you-pee female friends as I had in my teens and 20s and early 30s.

Basically — confession time, a little post-Yom Kippur al cheit here —  I let my own friendships slide when I became a Parent. I wanted to spend my free non-work time with Daughter and Sam. And we were constantly socializing in child-centered formations — school potlucks, soccer weekends, dinners with parents of Daughters’ friends. There were lots of people with whom I spent lots of time, but never really developed a meaningful individual relationship. We related through our children. And now those children and those potlucks and soccer weekends are gone.

That just heightens the unsettling feeling of dependence on Sam. And you read those articles about aging and how people with close friendships stay healthier and live longer than those who are isolated. Aak! I don’t want to be an 80-year-old cat lady alone in her house.

So resolved: I will put effort into reviving and cultivating individual friendships.


All told, I can understand how marriages fall apart when the children leave the house. (Even more, I suspect, when spouses retire and suddenly find themselves together at home all day.)

Now, Sam and I are not going to fall apart. (Don’t worry, Dad!!) But there is subtle recalibration that needs to happen — even with all the positive changes, the freedom, the opportunities, and the knowledge that Daughter is happy and healthy and doing what she needs to do.

I do need to add this as a postscript. The sense of freedom, of losing that DOS program of worry in the background of my brain, is only possible because Daughter is happy and doing well.

The empty nest would be a completely different experience if it were empty because a child had gone AWOL, or was floundering or making dangerous choices. That isn’t our situation… fortunately.

Do-it-yourself empty nest blog post

April 15, 2012

This week it became apparent that the end had arrived for my 17-year-old Camry station wagon, the mommy car I bought when my daughter was 18 months old. 

The blog post seemed ready to write itself: Another sign of transition to en empty nest. Feelings of sadness, astonishment, mortality. Et cetera.

But I feel like I’ve written this same post about a dozen times so far this year. First rule of blogging: Don’t be tedious or whiny. 

So I figured: If people know what I’m going to say already, why not let them say it for me? Here goes — fill in the blanks to create your own empty nest blog post —  

Yet Another Empty Nest Blog Post

As a young adult, I fantasized about little flashy sports cars like the _________. As a good environmentalist, I drove little high-mileage cars like the __________. 

But when I became a parent, I needed a vehicle that was more ________. I envisioned ferrying bevies of children on field trips to _________  or camping trips to _________. With only one child, a minivan seemed like overkill. So we bought a white Camry station wagon, the kind with a back area that could be turned into two rear-facing seats to carry a total of seven passengers. 

The Mommymobile, almost old enough to vote / Photo by Ilana DeBare

It was huge. It was bulky. We nicknamed it the Great White ___________. The first few weeks when I looked at it in our driveway, I couldn’t believe who I had become. I was suddenly a suburban ___________. I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a Parent. And that felt so wrong! I was supposed to be someone who HAD Parents, not someone who WAS a parent.  That big white stationwagon was a symbol of all the _______  I felt about the transition to parenthood. 

Well, I got used to it and the station wagon did a sterling job for 17 years and 140,000 miles. Field trips, ski trips, camping trips. Trips to the Oakland Zoo, Fairyland, the Monterey Aquarium, Marine World. (That’s before Marine World got all __________.) 

Then last week the computer that runs the _________ gave out. I was told it would cost $3000 to replace it. That crosses the border into “time-to-buy-a-new-car” land. 

And since B. is going off to college in four months, the next car won’t be a station wagon. It will be smaller. Probably a _______ or maybe a _________, since I remain the good environmentalist.

I can’t help thinking that this is the first in a series of downsizings over the next couple of decades –- smaller car, smaller grocery bills, eventually a smaller house and someday leaving houses entirely for a _________. 

The parenting period of my life is ending.

Even scarier, the expansion period of my life is ending. 

I don’t want to be morbid, and I know there are lots of upsides to this transition, but I still feel __________.

Mamma Mia!

March 4, 2012

I took my daughter and a friend of hers to see the live touring company of Mamma Mia! in San Francisco last week. We had a blast! Daughter had seen the movie a gazillion times; friend had seen the show twice before. At the end, all three of us were standing up and waving our arms and singing along to “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” with the grey-haired lady a few seats down and the entire rest of the theatre.

Daughter & friend with Mamma Mia cast members / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I’d previously seen and loved the movie version with Meryl Streep.

And what struck me, as we left the theatre, is that I absolutely hated Abba when all these songs originally came out.

Abba — four Swedish musicians with a series of international mega-hits in English — were around from 1972 to 1982, my high school and college years. They were hardly on my radar. I was into folksingers like Phil Ochs and Dylan in high school and then rock/New Wave in college: Springsteen, the Clash, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Talking Heads.

To the extent that Abba entered my consciousness, they were a symbol of everything that seemed vapid and repulsive about the 1970s. Disco culture. Singles bars. Girls with poufy hair and platform heels and nothing on their minds beyond looking for Mr. Hot. Abba’s lyrics were meaningless drivel:

Honey honey, how you thrill me, uh huh
Honey honey, nearly kill me, uh huh
I’d heard about you before
I wanted to know some more
And now I know what they mean, you’re a love machine 

You couldn’t get much further from the poetry of Dylan or the pounding political anger of the Clash. Why the hell was a Swedish band writing in English anyway? They seemed all commercialism and no artistic vision. I put them in the same box as, say, the Bee Gees or the Captain and Tenille.

So why do I love Mamma Mia? Why did I spend the day after the show bopping around the house and office singing “Dancing Queen?”

Sure, the tunes are extremely catchy. But there’s something else going on. The plot of Mamma Mia! has virtually nothing to do with Abba or their 1970s cultural milieu. The show saucily subverts Abba’s lyrics:  “Honey Honey” isn’t sung by a girl with a “love machine” boyfriend, but by a bride-to-be who has decided to find out who her father is by inviting all three of her mother’s old flames to her wedding.

“Dancing Queen” doesn’t show some disco blonde prowling for a one-night stand, but a middle-aged Meryl Streep bouncing on a bed in overalls and then dancing with her best friends through their small Greek town, as old peasant women and housewives drop chores to dance along.

That scene is one of my favorites in the movie. And this is where Mamma Mia, as hokey as it is, speaks to me.  I suspect my daughter identifies with the young bride. I identify with the Meryl Streep character — the bride’s mom, worn down with money worries and single motherhood, who rediscovers romance, spontaneity and joy long after she had given up on them as possibilities for herself. With the help of her two best female friends from girlhood, no less!

The “message” of Mamma Mia is that everyone is a Dancing Queen. The middle-aged mother of the bride. The old Greek peasant women. The grey-haired woman down the row from us in the theatre, shaking her hips and waving her arms in the air.

And that is most likely 180 degrees distant from what the Abba lyricists were imagining when they wrote the song. I think Mamma Mia is ripe for some structuralist PhD thesis on deconstructing or decoding or whatever the correct jargon is — basically, how a work of art starts out with one meaning and is reinterpreted to have an entirely different meaning.

Then again, I finished my English degree just before structuralism engulfed American universities. (Thank goodness!)

So I’ll just end by wishing that all of us find our internal

Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing Queen, feel the beat from the tambourine
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen.

The accidental networker

February 12, 2012

Thinking about the past three years since I left the Chronicle, I realized that almost every job I’ve had came about through a personal connection.

This wasn’t nepotism or favoritism. I didn’t get the jobs because of connections. But I got the interview or the initial contact because of a connection.

One of my main freelance clients was referred by an old small-business source from when I was at the Chron. Another came from a former colleague, who was also now freelancing but didn’t have time to take on any more projects. My Technion assignment last fall came through someone I knew from Hashomer Hatzair during high school. And so on… Over three years, I landed exactly one freelance assignment from a “cold” response to a Craig’s List ad — and even there, it turned out I had a couple of acquaintances in common with the client.

Career counselors always talk about the power of networking. Well, here was firsthand evidence of it — and I hadn’t even been aware that I was networking.

I hadn’t been going to Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and handing out business cards. I hadn’t been mustering troops on LinkedIn to help me find assignments. I’d barely been looking for work, in fact — too busy trying to rewrite a novel and figure out the next stage of my life.

What I take away from this is that if you live long enough, and you’re involved in your community, and you basically do good work and try to help people out, you create a network. You may not think of it as a network. Or you might call it by some other term — goodwill, good karma, social capital.

But it is a clear advantage to midlife, a solid hammer in our career tool kit. We may not be fluent in the latest social media jargon, we may not be willing to write Web content for $10 an article, we may no longer be able to flirt our way into workplaces run by powerful, chauvinistic men.

But we have reservoirs of experience and wisdom. We have community. We have networks — even if we don’t know that we do.

I wonder what things will be like for my daughter’s generation when they reach our age. I graduated from high school with maybe a few dozen friends from school and from Hashomer.

She’ll graduate with about the same number of flesh-and-blood friends… and then her 800-plus Facebook “friends.”

Who may mushroom to a network of 4,000 by the time she is fifty.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion

January 15, 2012

I have spent about fifteen hours over the past three days obsessively creating digital photo albums on Snapfish. One was of our recent vacation in Puerto Rico; the other included all of our family photographs from 2011.

I’d finished the first draft of my Technion manuscript. I didn’t have to start my new job at Golden Gate Audubon until next Tuesday. In the interim, I could have worked on my poor long-neglected novel. I could have immersed myself in checking out Bay Area bird-related Web sites and blogs, or reviewed the past two years of Audubon’s newsletter, or collected resources on nonprofit marketing, or… you get the idea.*

Instead, I uploaded and and edited and arranged  a gazillion photos.

And before that, I gathered up all of our home videos from B’s childhood and took them to the camera store to be transferred onto DVDs. That costs a ton of money. I’d been putting it off for about four years. But I did it this week.

It doesn’t take Dr. Freud to diagnose that there’s something psychological going on here.

On one level, this is just trying to tie up loose household ends as I move from one phase of life into another — from working at home with total freedom and flexibility, to working in an office with a whole additional set of external demands on my time. It’s a new calendar year, a good time to organize mementos from the past year, and who knows when I’ll have this kind of available time again? It makes perfect sense.

But I think there’s also a deeper level. Maybe I’m quietly gearing myself up for B. going off to college in the fall. I’m starting to tie up the loose ends of her childhood. There were twenty-one VHS tapes that needed to be transferred before they someday decay and before our decrepit VCR gives up the ghost. There are about six years of family photographs sitting in my computer, waiting to be put into albums.

B. will always be our child. She’ll come home on vacations, we’ll fight over chores just like we do now, we’ll help her with her problems, maybe even more than we do now. But as of this coming summer, her childhood is officially over. The years of outings to the Oakland Zoo and Children’s Fairyland, the birthday parties at gymnastic studios, the horrific Disney princess dresses and early-morning soccer games and lousy attempts to braid her hair. All gone, tied up like a package that has just gone into the mailbox with a metal, unarguable clang.

So some part of me wants to tie all these photos and videos up too. To have her childhood neatly organized and packaged, lined up in a row on a shelf. So I can look at that shelf and feel, “We did it. We did this project of raising an entire child.”

Some of this may be a little obsessive and Type-A personality. I just spent 20 years in a career where every project I undertook left a written record, a page of newsprint with my name and work on full display. I keep a lot of those clips jammed in a file drawer. Are these photo albums an effort to turn B.’s childhood into similar proof of my productivity?

But some of it is perhaps a normal reaction. She’s going away; our time with her will become a wisp of smoke, a tuft of cat fur floating in the living room sun. And these albums and DVDs are something tangible that can remain.

Perhaps when the albums are done and arranged, I will be able to read  them in order like a graphic novel and perceive the patterns and plot turns that were completely invisible to me as we were living through them. Perhaps the albums will help me make sense of it all.

When B.’s soccer team was little, we bought them cheap plastic trophies at the end of the season — whether or not they’d won any tournaments — so they would have a tangible reward for trying hard and being good sports.

These photo books and videos are my cheap plastic trophy.

I’m not sure how to tease out all these intermingled causes, but I do know my syndrome — SOSC.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion.


*Author’s disclaimer: In all honesty, I did engage in some productive activities like looking at bird-related blogs this week. But I also did a ton of photo album stuff. :-) 

Eighteen, chai, life

December 13, 2011

My daughter turned 18 this past weekend. Eighteen!

I remember so clearly being home with a new baby, sleepless and overwhelmed and terrified of losing my independent adult life. Every half-hour seemed to drag on for a year. (Especially at 3:30 a.m.) The nurse/diaper/cry/nurse routine felt like it would go on forever. I couldn’t imagine her sleeping through the night, let alone going to school.

The juncture she has reached now — turning 18, a legal adult, applying to colleges — would have seemed as impossibly distant as Star Trek’s 23rd century. But of course here it is, and like going through a Trekkie wormhole, it feels as if practically no time has passed.

Ice cream cake with Rollos and Kit Kits, by my sister-in-law Esther / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I could write about how proud Sam and I are of the person that B. has become. But I won’t.

Instead I want to play with numbers, which is a polite way of saying I want to write about me.

She is 18. I am about to turn 54.

Eighteen is one-third of 54. I look at her and see my life divided into neat thirds: From birth to 18, I was growing up. From 18 to 36, I was an independent adult. From 36 to 54, I was a parent. Yes, I continued to work as a journalist, but my main creative energy went into being a parent and into projects that spun off from parenting (helping start the Julia Morgan School for Girls, writing a book about girls’ schools, etc.).

Now my next 18 years will take me from 54 to 72. What will that entail? A return to being the independent adult, a chance to invent a new career, more time for fiction writing?

Eighteen also connects to the word “chai” in Jewish tradition. The Kabbalist mystics assigned numerical values to each Hebrew letter, and the chet-yud of “chai” add up to 18. I learned this around the time of B.’s bat mitzvah, when she started receiving checks from relatives in weird random amounts — a check for $36? or $72? It was mystifying until someone explained the tradition of giving sums that are multiples of “chai.”

And then 54 — thrice eighteen — is the age at which my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later. Almost two decades after that, I learned that I had inherited the BRCA2 gene that creates a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I undertook preventive surgeries so my actual risk of breast/ovarian cancer is now very low — lower than that of the general non-BRCA population. But still, the age 54 carries undefined emotional weight for me. I’m not sure how I will react to it. Part of me irrationally assumes I will follow in her path, and that age 54 signals doom. Another part is prepared to celebrate every day after 54 that I’m cancer-free — Hooray! I made it another day longer than expected!

What does this all add up to, all these 18s and multiples of 18?  B. took the graphing calculator to school for her math final today, but that’s not why I’m stymied.  Perhaps this is just continued perplexity at the strangeness of a system where children’s birthdays inspire joy and wonder, but our own aging feels scary and bittersweet, if not downright sad.

At some point in those years between 18 and 54, birthdays shifted from being a moment when doors perpetually opened more — and more! and more! —  to a moment when they wobble on their hinges and maybe start inching towards closure.


Lost: two minds

October 16, 2011

After 21 years of marriage, Sam and I do many things together. Today losing our minds was one of them.

It was an early morning after a week of early mornings and late nights — up at 5:30 to drive Daughter to a soccer game 35 minutes away in suburban Dublin, which at that hour on Sunday might as well have been Vladivostok. We had a good plan, which was to bring his biking gear and let him have a leisurely cycle home while I rushed back to get Daughter to San Francisco to meet her boyfriend for a music festival.

The problem was toward the end of the soccer game, when Sam took my car keys to fetch his bike, suited up in his lycra bike clothes, and pedaled off. You know what he took with him.

Yep, the car keys.

So there we were, on a soccer field in the distant suburbs surrounded by tract homes and empty patches of land that had been destined for more tract homes until the collapse of the housing bubble. I left a furious voicemail message on Sam’s cell, but it did no good: He turns it off when he rides.

Fortunately another soccer parent was able to give us a ride. And even more fortunately, at an intersection near the freeway, there was Sam, pedaling back (backpedaling?) to the field since he had belatedly remembered the keys. If we had been a minute earlier, we would have been on the freeway already and  completely missed him.

So happy ending, right?  I got the keys, our soccer friend drove us back to the field for the car, I raced home to allow Daughter time to shower and change, and then we tore across the bridge into the city to Boyfriend’s house in the Haight. The traffic gods smiled on us, mostly. We arrived, and Daughter and Boyfriend went off to their festival. I sat down for a cup of tea with Boyfriend’s congenial mom. Sam left me a voicemail saying he’d made it home safely.

After an hour of pleasant chatting, I drove home.

And realized — as I turned off the engine in my driveway —  that I’d left my purse at their house.

Moral of this story: Hmm, maybe you can tell me. Is it the old “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?” Is it that after enough time passes, married couples not only start to look alike but become equally demented? Is it that we all would benefit from a little more sleep?

In any case, Sam lucked out. When I came in from the car he cringed, ready to eat humble crow for taking my keys. But it’s hard to be self-righteous when your purse is sitting under a kitchen table on the other side of the Bay Bridge.

The push and pull of parenting a teenager

July 7, 2011

When I started this blog, one of the topics I intended to write about was parenting a teenager. But that’s turned out to be nearly impossible, since I want to respect her privacy. I did one blog post back in January about an ill-fated escapade of hers, and somehow she found out about it and was furious. Rightly so. I removed the post.

But I do want to say – if I can do so without embarrassing her – how I have been spending more and more time feeling sad about her leaving the nest.  She still has one more year of high school, so it’s not imminent. But the signs are all around.

When she attended her school’s graduation in June, we were all thinking that next year it would be her turn. As I organize a weeklong camp for her soccer team later this month, I’m aware that this is the last summer it will happen.

My neighbor Leslie Laurien painted this picture of my daughter and her son at Stinson Beach when they were little. You can see more of Leslie's work at Copyright by Leslie Laurien, 2001.

I look out the living room window at the horde of five-, six- and seven-year-olds playing catch and riding bikes on our street and I feel nostalgic. I think about  the things I assumed we’d do someday – like renting an RV and driving to national parks – and realize that the window has closed. At least for doing those things with her as a kid.

I feel like I’m in a mild state of advanced mourning. I’ll probably stay in this state for the next year. No matter how close we’ll be as adults, we’ll never be as intimate as we have been for the past 17 years – living under the same roof, eating the same meals, cuddling when she was little, driving her around now that she’s big but still unlicensed. I wish I could turn back the clock to ages four to eleven, probably my favorite time period as a parent

And yet this week, when she left town for six days, it was such a relief to have her go.

We’d entered into one of those ruts where we were both driving each other crazy. I felt like she was constantly sullen. She probably felt like I was constantly nagging.

 Mom: Want lunch? Come on down. We’ve got great leftovers.

Daughter (entering kitchen): What is there? 

Mom: I made turkey curry. There’s leftover prosciutto. Leftover sliced turkey. I got some little salads at the market. Fresh melon and blueberries. Lots of great stuff.

 Daughter (opens refrigerator, peers in, makes face, goes to cabinet and pours bowl of cereal, goes upstairs with it silently).

One thing that drives me crazy is preparing food and then having it rejected, or eaten grudgingly. Fortunately Sam is always appreciative – we would have divorced long ago if he weren’t.

So I’m delighted this week to be cooking exactly what Sam and I like, without worrying about the taste buds of the younger generation. (Catfish! Lamb! Arugula!) I’m delighted to have the house to myself during the day. I’m relieved not to be nagging anybody, and feeling their anger at being nagged, and then getting angry at their anger, and so on…

Weird. I’m crushed that she’s going to be leaving us next year. And I’m delighted that she’s gone right now.

The parenting books talk about how teenagers have a conflicted push-pull going on – wanting to break away and be independent, yet at the same time not wanting to leave the nest.

I think I’m experiencing the parental version of that teenage push and pull.

Two role models, close to home

June 9, 2011

We often think of role models as people on a grand pedestal — the Abe Lincolns, Emma Goldmans, Nelson Mandelas of the world.

But this week I’d like to nominate two people close to me, my dear hubby Sam Schuchat and my friend Carolyn Said. Both inspire me, but not in the ways that first seem to jump out at you.

Sam is right now about 80 percent of the way through a seven-day 545-mile AIDS/LifeCycle charity bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, on his recumbent bike.

Sam and an AIDS LifeCycle volunteer -- can you guess which one is Sam?

Carolyn just bought a house after completing chemo and radiation treatments for breast cancer.

Carolyn Said and her husband Mark Friedman in their new house / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Why does Sam inspire me? It’s not the sheer physical feat of pedaling all those miles, although that is impressive. It’s that he took up biking as a serious hobby in middle age, ten or fifteen years ago. He also learned to swim for the first time in his late 40s. Recently, he started taking saxophone lessons for the first time in his life.

I love that he keeps trying new things at a point when many people trot along in the same comfortable lanes they’ve traveled for years.

Meanwhile, Carolyn went through a grueling year of cancer treatments right on the heels of her father’s death from cancer. (And she’s written a great, funny blog about it, which you can read here.) But that’s not the part that inspires me — it’s that she was still in the last stretch of radiation when she and her husband found the house of their dreams and bought it!

A piece of Carolyn's view / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This wasn’t something they had been planning, or fretting over, or hunting, for years. In fact, I had never heard her utter a peep about “we need a new house” in all our walks together. They happened upon this house, fell in love, and took the plunge. I visited them last night, and it’s like something from Sunset magazine — open, spacious, sunny, with a spreading panorama of the Bay from a wall of living room windows.

What inspires me is not that she made it through all those treatments — which is, like Sam’s bike mileage, no small thing — but that she immediately threw herself into something so completely new and all-absorbing and unexpected.

I didn’t realize it until I started writing this post, but there’s a common thread to both Sam’s and Carolyn’s stories, and why they inspire me.

It’s their willingness to throw themselves into life, try completely new things, experiment, learn.

Not just during those phases of life like school and college when we are “supposed” to be learning — but in middle age. At any age.