I Thought It Would Get Easier When My Kids Were Older, But I Was Wrong

As a new mother, I gave myself over to my babies, every last cell of my body and brain, every second of my time, with the assumption that the chaotic feeling of having sacrificed myself would be temporary.

I approached every aspect of new motherhood with frantic anxiety, especially with my first. It was 13 years ago — I agonized over every tiny decision. Motherhood felt so enormous to me, it was as if I had invented it. I needed to share the discovery with everyone. YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW MUCH WORK THIS IS, I wanted to shout in people’s faces, including people who were already parents, as if they didn’t know.

My house exploded from an immaculate, ready-for-visitors-at-any-time showcase to a toy-cluttered playground for my kids. My hours filled with doctor’s appointments, play dates, cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and squeezing in some work-from-home work whenever I could because I hated feeling like I wasn’t a financial contributor to the household. Motherhood was all-consuming. But that early hustle was temporary. Babies are hard. One day you’ll have time for your friends again, your hobbies, your career, your body. It gets better. Life slows down.

Um… does it? When?

In some ways, the hustle of early motherhood was temporary. I have emerged from the baby years and my body is mine again, no longer subject to the demands of round-the-clock breastfeeding, no longer with a toddler dangling from each leg. Except… this isn’t my body, not the one I so willingly gave up 13 years ago. I hardly recognize this body. It’s like I left town for a decade and came back home to find the old theater has been boarded over and is sitting vacant and the local park bulldozed to build a mall. I don’t recognize this place.

And my busyness looks different, but if anything, I’m more busy. My time is (I think?) more and more my own, as in, my kids are independent in many ways. They feed themselves and clean their own rooms and bathroom and fold their own laundry. But the hustle never stopped or even slowed down. It just shifted.

I thought things would get easier as my kids got older. I was wrong.

I am still really busy. I still don’t get enough sleep. I still rush through my skincare routine because I choose sleep over a moisturizing mask and vitamin C serum. My legs are hairy AF because I always rush through showers and have to choose at least one thing to give up on, and the legs always lose. Sorry, legs. I thought once the kids got out of the baby stage, my house would be cleaner, and, okay, so there aren’t legos all over the floor anymore, but now there are multiple cups stacked in each of their bedrooms, and wrappers and mismatched socks strewn about the house. I can’t keep up with this shit.

And oh my god, the driving. I marvel at parents of more than two children. How do they manage to get their kids where they need to be every day? We carpool for school (no buses here), so that helps, but UGH, all their damn activities. Of course, I want them to have activities, but holy shit, I am a taxi. Thank goodness I work remotely and can lug my laptop around and still get work done.

And my worries have grown in proportion with whatever new time I have gained as a result of my kids’ independence. I used to worry about sleep schedules or whether I should medicate my child who has ADHD. I used to fret over their diets–all organic, limited dairy, no food coloring. Now I worry about my teenage son’s friendships and social life. It’s so hard to get him to talk. I find out from other moms when there’s a conflict in his friend group.

I Thought It Would Get Easier When My Kids Were Older, But I Was Wrong

Why doesn’t he talk to me? Is he okay? Does he care enough about his grades? Is he always as kind I’ve taught him to be? And for my daughter, is she as confident at school as she appears at home? Does she know she doesn’t have to conform to society’s ridiculous beauty standards? Have all those lessons I taught her sunk in? And what about college? Will they get in? Have their father and I saved enough to be of actual help to them?

The truth is, I belong just as much to my children as I ever did. I still drop everything for them when they need me. (When they really need me. Not when they want a snack. They can make their own damn snack.) They may no longer be babies, but they always have my attention in one way or another, and if they don’t, I’m hunched over my laptop trying to cram some work in.

So currently I have this strange mix of feeling like time is running out with them and that I should spend every moment with them because in the blink of an eye they’ll be gone — but also, I am approaching middle age and have been doing this shit for 13 years and I’m tired and want a professional massage and to attend a painting class.

I experience wild moments of panic thinking of the literal mountains I want to climb and wondering if my body will still be in good enough condition to do all those mountain-climby things once my kids have flown the nest. And yet I also don’t ever want them to leave the nest. I mean, it would be great if they picked up their socks, but damn I love these assholes and really don’t want them to leave.

Parenthood didn’t get easier. It got busier. It got more complicated and in many ways, harder. The stakes are so much higher. But as it grew more complicated, life also got richer. And I know my kids inch closer to independence every day while, despite the never-ending hustle, despite my weariness, every day I’m less and less sure I want them to leave me. All that means is that, in every possible way, absolutely nothing got easier. But I guess that’s okay. Because this sure is a rich life.

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Tweens And Teens Should Have A ‘Go-To’ Adult Other Than Their Parents

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a group of really wonderful and eager mentors. They were looking for better ways to navigate tough conversations about diversity, specifically around LGBTQIA+ topics. They wanted to understand the nuances of gender, sexuality, and gender expression. I wanted them to be comfortable with themselves so they can be comfortable with human interactions that require empathy, patience, and vulnerability.

My new friends were learning how to be good allies. I was also teaching (reminding) these mentors how important it is to be the adult a tween or teen can go to when they can’t go to their parents. This isn’t just a gay thing or a coming out thing. It’s about making space and soft places for our kids to land.

As a parent, I hope my kids feel comfortable telling me anything and everything. I want them to confide in me and ask for my opinion or advice on the little and big things in their lives. But I am also realistic; I am their limit-setter, their boundary-keeper, and their disciplinarian. I don’t expect my three kids to always like me. That’s okay. My kids don’t need to like me all of the time, but I want them to love me and trust me. I recognize that any person’s story—my own children included—is more than about trust. Their story may come with consequences that will get them into trouble or perceived trouble. Or they might just be uncomfortable with a particular conversation, because, Ew, gross. That’s my mom. It’s not my right to know all of their stories.


Rather than feeling insecure or defensive about this, I want my kids to have another adult they can go to when they don’t think they can come to me with a specific topic. All kids should have that person who is not their parent or their peer to give them unconditional love and hopefully (mostly) unbiased advice. This could be an aunt or uncle, a family friend, a coach, or a neighbor. Tweens and teens need an adult with more life experience than their friends to help them sort out big emotions in a way that feels safe.

According to Search Institute, a research-based program that helps strengthen youth organizations across the country, kids need development relationships in order to thrive. These relationships help tweens and teens, “discover who they are, cultivate the abilities needed for them to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them.” It’s not like kids are going to advertise their need for this, but a solid mentor is able to give them these important connections and skills. And confidence.

And research done by North Carolina State University revealed that “young people who have had mentors are more likely to find work early in their careers that gives them more responsibility and autonomy – ultimately putting them on a path to more financially and personally rewarding careers.” The research done by Matt Shipman and Dr. Steve McDonald showed that natural mentor relationships that form between young people and adults, not their parents, are just as powerful as those formed from mentor/mentee specific programs.

As parents, I think it’s necessary to check our egos. We can be all kinds of loving and accepting, but our kids may not be okay talking to us about certain things. It’s important that they have someone they can confide in though. You want to approve of, like, and trust the adult your child is seeking advice from when it comes to dating, drugs, school, and yes, you. Because as much as we need help with navigating parenting, young people need help navigating childhood and early adulthood separate from us. They are their own people; we are their parents, not their everything. And while I may have given my kid the same advice as another adult, as long as they are getting useful guidance from someone, I will be grateful.

Also, not all parents make themselves available, physically or emotionally, to their child. A tween or teen may be forced to find solace in an adult who is not their parent. Teens who are under stress at home, not safe at home, or are discriminated against at school benefit from a supportive adult in their lives. Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D., shared her research on the matter for Psychology Today: “Regardless of income level, my study showed that teens grew intellectually, interpersonally, and emotionally from supportive mentors,” she wrote. “For example, most reported they were better planners, organizers, and problem-solvers. And they grew in self-confidence and self-awareness.”

While interviewing over 40 young mentees, Price-Mitchell Ph.D. heard several recurring qualities that made an adult a good mentor. Active listening, gentle pushes to get out of their comfort zones, and lack of judgment while making decisions were a few of the reasons teens felt supported by the nonparent ally and mentor in their life.

All young people deserve the gift of being able to tell someone their story. That person may be a parent, but they don’t need to be the tween or teen’s parent. The adult just needs to be a supportive mentor willing to be a safe space.

I had supportive coaches in my life, but I never really had that go-to adult I could talk to in ways that made me feel validated and heard. I had a lot of secrets, questions, and shame but I didn’t have a person I felt comfortable talking to. I didn’t have anyone in my life who gave off the vibe that they wanted to listen to me. Kids need someone willing to say, “I’m here.” Show up for all kids, not just your own. And when a young person opens up to you, your job is to say, “Thank you for telling me. I want to help.” And mean it.

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My Mom Has Breast Cancer, And I Feel Guilty All The Time

When my mom phoned to say that her most recent mammogram showed some abnormalities, I instantly felt sick to my stomach. I just knew that her subsequent biopsy would show breast cancer. Unfortunately, my gut instinct was right and she was officially diagnosed in October 2018. Since then, she has undergone extensive treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Our family has had our fair share of medical drama – from brain tumors and epilepsy to atrial fibrillation and Alzheimer’s disease – so I’m no stranger to heartbreak in the health department. But I wasn’t prepared for the intense feelings of helplessness and guilt that accompanied my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis. Months later, I still ask myself: “How do I support my mom while also living my life?”

My husband and I work full-time and our daughter just turned two years old. Between work and the immediate needs of my household, I don’t have much time to spare. I’ve wished I could just quit my job and take care of my mom during this difficult time, but that’s not financially realistic. I’ve also wished I could just completely lose it, cry all the tears and go hide away in a cave somewhere. But once again, that’s not super realistic.

Guilt Sets In

So how do I help my mom cope with this scary disease? The truth is, I feel like I’ve done a poor job of helping her cope. That’s probably because I watched my mom care for my grandma – her mom – when she was diagnosed with breast cancer almost 15 years ago. My mom gingerly cared for my grandma’s draining tubes after she had a mastectomy, and helped her through all the stages of her chemotherapy. She did this as a self-employed, hard-working artist while taking care of a teenager and a household.

Because I have a 9-to-5 job and a young daughter, I can’t do everything I want to do for my mom. I’ve wanted to be there for each infusion, each doctor’s appointment, and to hold her hand when she felt nauseous from all the medications swirling in her bloodstream. But I haven’t been there, and for that I feel guilty and selfish. Not to mention totally helpless. It hurts when you want to “fix” something, but have no way of eliminating the problem.

The hardest part has been sequestering my daughter from my mother at the first sign of any sniffle or cough. Chemotherapy is extremely hard on the immune system, and the last thing a cancer patient needs is the latest strain of a cold that’s been mutated by a bunch of toddlers in a daycare facility. There have been multiple times where we’ve planned a visit and then my daughter has gotten sick. That means I can’t see my mom either since the risk is too high of passing something along. This inability to physically see each other and hug has been beyond difficult for everyone involved. Especially since my daughter is such a huge motivator for my mom to get well.

Doing What I Can

I’m really not sure what I would do if my mom didn’t have the support of my dad, my extended family and my mom’s close friends. They’ve been able to go with her to her infusion appointments and take care of her in the ways that I haven’t been able to. I’m beyond grateful for these people and at a loss of how to ever begin to thank them for the loving care they provide.

Despite feeling guilty and inadequate in my caregiving contributions, I have found some ways to help my mom. I hope my list of small ideas and gestures can help others who also feel helpless during a loved one’s health crisis.

1. Research Everything

As soon as my mom was diagnosed, I took to the Internet to learn all I could about her specific type of breast cancer and the treatment options. I know more about axillary lymph node dissection and chemotherapy than I ever wanted to know. But this has helped me be informed when my mom and her doctors make decisions about her treatment.

2. Appointments via Speakerphone

It’s difficult to take three hours off from work to drive to and from my mom’s doctors’ appointments. My solution? I take a little break, call my mom’s cellphone and she puts me on speakerphone. That way I can hear the conversation and also ask questions.

3. Take Notes During Appointments

I’ve learned from my family’s previous healthcare experiences that it’s important to have someone act as an advocate for the patient and track information. I am an expert note-taker, so I took copious notes during my mom’s appointments. Then I typed them all up and sent them to her in an email for her reference.

4. Color-Code Medications

The sheer number of prescribed and over-the-counter medications that my mom had to take during chemotherapy was astonishing. And the regiment changed based on how many days it had been since her infusion. I made a list of all the medications to take each day and color-coded the list to the medication bottles, using simple colored marker dots. This may have been more for my peace of mind, but I do believe it helped my parents.

5. Hire a Housecleaning Service

For Christmas, I gave my parents a gift certificate for a couple of housecleaning sessions. I knew my mom would be completely exhausted from treatment and that my dad would feel overwhelmed by everything. It has taken some of the stress away and given them a small break from chores. I’ve also cleaned their house a few times myself to help ease their minds.

6. Let Them Vent

I consider my mom one of my best friends, and I’ve encouraged her to call or text me when she needs to vent. Whether it be complaining about the oncologist’s cold hands or just wanting to scream at the world, I’ve asked my mom to share these things with me. Giving her an outlet to express her feelings is important.

7. Send Greeting Cards

I love greeting cards. Especially in an age of everything digital, there’s nothing like getting a handwritten note on a greeting card in the mail. It just makes you feel special. I like to send my mom “Thinking of You” cards in an effort to brighten her day.

8. Check-In Often

I don’t know how many times I’ve texted my mother asking: “How is my momma doing today?” I’m pretty sure that entire sentence comes up as predictive text now. I’ve texted her when I’ve been unsure how she’s feeling, and hesitant to call for fear of waking her from a nap. When I know she is doing OK, I call on my drive home from work via my handy Bluetooth device. This typically gives me a good 45-minute period of time to talk with her.

9. Be There During the “Big” Ones

It was important for me to be at my mom’s first surgery consultation because I knew we’d have to have the lumpectomy versus mastectomy discussion. That’s a big deal. I also knew I wanted to be with my dad during my mom’s surgery and to be there to help my mom when she woke up. These are the “big” ones – the crucial times that it’s best to be there in the flesh.

10. Visit Whenever Possible

Obviously, there’s nothing like in-person care and the healing power of a hug. Now that my mom is over the hurdles of chemotherapy and lumpectomy surgery, we’re able to see her more frequently because she has more energy.

I imagine my list will grow and morph as my mom undergoes radiation, but at least I have some ways I can provide support while going through the motions of daily life. And hopefully in a year from now when my mom has completed all of her treatments, we’ll celebrate another “big” one by toasting her remission.

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Why I’ll Let My Teens Have Sex In My House

My husband and I were high school sweethearts. We met at 14, started dating, broke up, got back together, got serious AF – and at 16 years old, we started having sex. And for the years that we still lived at home and were enrolled in high school, we had a shit-ton of very loving, safe, and consensual sex with careful and correct use of birth control … in our parents’ home, and with their knowledge and permission.

Looking back at the whole experience now, as a parent, I have a few thoughts. First, as the mom of a 12-year-old, I can’t freaking believe how close in age my son is to the age that his dad and I met, fell in love, and became sexually active. I mean, hello? This kid can’t even remember put to on deodorant. I can’t imagine him entering into a relationship anytime soon – and the idea of him becoming sexually active in the next few years? As a mom, the idea of it seriously freaks me out.

And yet, if he does go that route – and with the average age that kids lose their virginity these days at about 17 years old, it’s isn’t too far-fetched – I will likely do the same thing my husband’s and my parents did. I will knowingly let him have sex in his room, under my roof. Though I sure as shit don’t need to know about each and every time it happens!

Let me tell you why.

Growing up, my mom was very upfront and frank about sex. I understood how it worked in a clinical sense from a very young age, and was in touch with how my body worked and even what I liked sexually before I had sex. Thanks to my mom, I also understood that sex was a sacred act, at least in the sense that it should happen between two people who love and trust each other.

And I understood – because she had always been so open about it – the importance of safe sex. I knew about all the birth control methods that were out there, not from health class, but from my mother and her handy copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In fact, I remember schooling my friends about how to use condoms –that yes, you had to use one each and every damn time so help you God.

So at least in my case, being open about sex had huge benefits in terms of my ability to start my sex life in a mature and responsible way. In fact, my mother was the first one I told that I had lost my virginity. I won’t pretend it was the most fun conversation on earth. I mean, I was a moody teenager at the time and I remember being pissed off about at least one thing my mother said.

But I also knew that telling her was important. And I was right. She helped me make an appointment soon after to see a gynecologist. She and I discussed birth control in general. It’s one thing to know about birth control theoretically, but it’s quite another to discuss it with an experienced adult, and it’s something all kids should have, in my opinion.

The part about me and my boyfriend having sex under her roof wasn’t spelled out exactly. But she knew, and I knew I had her blessing.

I remember hearing of friends of mine who had sex in all kinds of questionable and potentially unsafe ways. Often, especially in those scenarios, birth control was “forgotten,” and sex happened with people who my friends didn’t exactly trust. Knowing that I could take my boyfriend into the comfort of my own home – which was well stocked with birth control – and that sex was not something you did on the run, or in a secretive way … all of that was major for me as a young person just finding her groove as a sexual being.

I was lucky in that my husband’s parents took the same exact approach, and so we had two safe places to get it on.

I know my story is just one, and can’t be used as a model for every kid, in every situation. But I also know that kids – yes, even my kids, and your kids too – are going to have sex. Not all of them will being doing it at 16, like I was. Some will even start earlier, and others will start later.

But they’re going to be doing it, whether we want them to or not, and whether we think it’s time or not. And OMG, I would much rather my kids have sex and hook up in my home, where it’s safe and clean, and where birth control will be plentiful (because yes, I will be buying my kids’ birth control, or at least making sure they are buying and using it themselves).

Do I think this is going to encourage my kids to have more sex than they otherwise could? Nope. I may have been a teen 25 years ago, but if I recall, teens are going to find a way to have as much sex as they damn well please no matter what their parents say. And I would much rather they do so in a safe and educated way.

I truly believe that allowing my teens to have sex under my roof will only encourage safer, more loving and committed sex. By telling them that sex is banned in our house, I am basically inviting them to do it in some shady place where they are more likely to be unsafe. No thanks.

Of course, my kids may still be stupid about sex. Aren’t we all at least a little stupid as teens? But I’d much rather they act stupid in my home than anywhere else, and that they know, should they do anything abysmally dumb – whether it’s with sex, relationship, drugs, you name it – they can come to me, and we can figure out, together, how to address it.

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One Of Your Favorite Teen Idols Is Releasing An Album For Kids

Have you ever wished your favorite musicians made more music that you could listen to with your kids? Well, you’re in luck. Backstreet Boy Howie D. is releasing Which One Am I?, a children’s album drawing from his own childhood.

We were able to have a chat with Howie before he took off for the Backstreet Boys European tour to learn about the inspiration behind Which One Am I?, and how being a dad is impacting his new music.

Courtesy of Howie D

The album’s lead single, “No Hablo Español,” focuses on the struggles he faced as a young kid. Howie grew up in mixed race home — his mother is Puerto Rican, and his father is Irish. According to the album’s press release, the song “expresses the dilemma of being a thoroughly American-raised kid who is also part of a minority community.”

Like many children, especially back in the day, he didn’t really speak a lot of Spanish, which was challenging around his peers. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, he was around other Latinx children, many of whom did actually speak Spanish. “I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, and the first thing I learned was ‘No hablo español,’” he says.

Photo by Nicole Hensley Courtesy of Howie D

When we spoke, Howie hadn’t yet filmed the video for “No Hablo Español,” but he did tell us that there would be some very special guests in the video. Now that the video has finished filming, we know who the special guests are. His son, James, plays a younger version of Howie, while Howie’s mom Paula makes an appearance as “abuelita,” a role she’s clearly familiar with.

Even though he didn’t say that James would essentially be the star of the video, it comes as no surprise. During our talk, Howie mentioned that James seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. In addition to taking music and singing lessons with Howie’s sister, he also has his own YouTube channel, where he likes to share his performances. “He’s a little ham,” he jokes.

Since Howie is on the road so much (The Backstreet Boys are currently on a tour in Europe before touring the U.S. this summer), having his son in the video is another way for Howie D. and his son to connect. And it’s clear that being a dad is his number one job. Though he credits his wife with holding things together, especially when he’s on tour, when he’s home, he’s all in. “I’m the bus driver, and helping them with their homework. When I am off, I come back home and wear a different hat.”

He always shares his work with his sons (he also has a younger son, Holden), but now he’s using them as his creative sounding boards too. “I’d have to learn the songs, so I’d play them in the car, and they’re like little sponges,” he says of the songwriting process. “They’d play the song like once or twice and they got the song already”

Courtesy of Howie D

Making Which One Am I? parent-friendly was important to Howie D. as well. He knows the struggle we parents go through. When your kids really love a song or movie, you’re going to be hearing it a million times.

“I wanted to make something that kids and parents could get into,” he explains. So, even though the album is clearly made for kids, parents will enjoy listening to it too!

Having the songs appeal to parents is actually a two-fold concept. As we pointed out, many of the folks who were fans of the Backstreet Boys as tweens and teens are now parents. Being able to share an artist they’ve grown up with listening to with their kids makes for an even more unique experience.

Photo by Nicole Hensley Courtesy of Howie D

Sadly, we still have to wait until July for Which One Am I? to be available. But Howie D. told us that themes of some of the other songs include living in the shadow of your older sibling (“Pollyanna’s Shadow”), wondering if you’re ever going to be tall (“Small Time Blues”), and confronting the anxiety of childhood fears (“Monsters in My Head”).

We’re literally counting down the days to release date, but in the meanwhile, you can pre-order Which One Am I? from iTunes, Amazon and other digital retailers.

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The Real Struggle Of A Mom In The Sandwich Generation

The last six months have challenged me. I think that’s the best word to use. My relationship with my parents has always been a relationship that I love and value. I would and have willingly done anything and everything within my power to help them and support them.

In July, I wrote about my dad’s health.

In July, I stepped in as I think I always do to help my family in a time of need. It wasn’t until January if this year that I realized I was not only NOT balancing my career, my kids, my husband, and my parents well, I was actually failing terribly at three of the four priorities, and self care had fallen so far from my view I forgot it existed.

I worked through two Arizona state long-term care applications for my dad, which if you haven’t had the pleasure of doing I hope you never have to go through. The amount of paperwork and documentation and follow up is a full-time job. Both were rejected. We started an appeal process and a third application that is still not sorted out.

If you’ve ever managed healthcare choices for a loved one you know it’s not only time consuming, but there’s a steep learning curve and time is not on your side. You are second guessing yourself. Your loved ones are second guessing you. You are researching doctors and treatments and possible reasons for symptoms and possible drug interactions. Your head is swimming with medical terms you half understand and you are looking at your loved one daily, reassuring them they are where they need to be and we are getting the best care possible.

I was also managing people’s goals and finances. These people trusted me and I promised to guide them through important life changes and yet I was taking their calls in hallways of hospitals and on the side of the interstate. I was not available, I was distracted, and I was and still am grateful for the support I have in place professionally to help care for my clients.

I was tired. I was low on patience and leaning on my husband a lot. My girls were desperate for time with me and I missed my time with my husband.

Stephanie Stackhouse

In December, we stepped away to visit family in Colorado that had been neglected because I was afraid to be away for too long. I didn’t have time left to nurture those relationships and we needed time as a family. I brought the Arizona state folder, I brought my notebook with all my dad’s care information, and I brought my work computer. I was unable to figure out how to disconnect.

And then my mom and dad gave me a gift. It was not at first received as a gift, but now two months later I realize it was a gift. I called to check in with my mom and she informed me that she had taken my dad home and he would not be returning to the care facility. My parents had decided it was not how my dad was going to live and his care could be managed at home. I did not originally view this news as a gift or even good news. I immediately went into panic mode. I started looking for in home care. I started calling professionals during the Christmas break to ask for personal advice and recommendations. I began running through a million possible outcomes and the what if’s and could haves stopped me from thinking about anything else.

And then it all just stopped.

I was at the gym at 4 a.m. because I didn’t want to impact family time and I was running through the checklist of calls and research to do and I saw myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time. My coloring was grey; even with sweat on my forehead and cheeks there was no glow to my skin. I had bags under my eyes. I had a spare tire I’d ignored and thought I’d been hiding, but realized I was fooling no one. I took a deep breath and started thinking about what I wanted my kids to learn from me.

And that’s when I found my peace.

I realized there is a difference between being loving, caring, and supporting and taking over total control. Although my parents were not in the ideal situation, they had a roof over their heads and food to eat. My kids could not yet fend for themselves. If I kept on the path I was headed, my kids would have no roof over their head, no food to eat, no stability in their lives. They’d lost that stability in July when I checked out of my life and checked into my parents’ lives.

I started to breathe. I started to relax. I called to have one of the most honest and loving conversations with my mom I’d ever had. For me, I was choosing me. I was loving me so I could continue to love and support my parents. I told my mom, I loved her and I was so sorry for everything they were going through, but I could no longer be the driver. I needed to take a supporting role.

I know my mom did not hear it the way I intended and I also knew I had not delivered the message exactly as I had intended, but I felt lighter and fuller at the same time. I could hear in my mom’s voice her panic. I knew she felt abandoned and I knew I’d be able to show her she was not alone, but she needed to take the reins. The calls slowed in pace between my mom and me, and conversations were strained.

When I got back into my office, I was immediately overwhelmed with guilt and disappointment. Reviewing notes for clients, I realized my to-do’s had become to-don’ts. I had a backlog of people that needed and deserved my 100% and I hadn’t been able to deliver.

It’s three months later and even though I thought we’d worked through the emotions and I’d proven to my mom I’m still here in a supporting role, there are still calls like tonight that leave me sad because my mom is not yet confident in my love for my dad or how I fit into the healthcare decisions for my parents. I hope that my mom does know I love her and I had to step back to keep myself whole. I think she knows I’m here to listen and support her, but it’s a harder adjustment then I expected to not step in and take the reins when I think I know what to do.

I don’t think where we are as a family is what any of us pictured, but I do know I love my parents and I know they love me. Isn’t that in and of itself a success?

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Open Letter To Parents Of High School Seniors

Dear Parents of High School Seniors,

This is not a list of all the things you must do before your child graduates/leaves for college. There are enough of those out there and every one of them put a giant pit in my stomach. This is a letter to tell you everything is going to be okay. I promise.

A year ago I was sitting in your seat (truth be told I was curled up in a ball on my couch). The last few weeks of my son’s senior year I was filled with dread. Dread of change, dread of him being on his own, dread of the unknown and, honestly, dread of him leaving me. Dread of the inevitable: my child was grown and was moving on.

All the lists of things to do before they leave overwhelmed me. Why hadn’t I done that? Had I done enough? Had he experienced enough? Had I given him enough? Had I given him too much? Can you ever love someone too much? Had I helicoptered and created a young man who couldn’t fend for himself? My son went to small, private schools. Imagine my surprise when he told me he wanted to go to Ohio State – one of the largest schools in the country.

Joylynn Brown

I could go on and on about all the things I worried about, but let me share this: many nights of my son’s senior year and leading up to him leaving I would lay in bed, paralyzed, crying and praying that I would not let this dread ruin all the amazing moments to come. I would always do this in private – if I felt the tears coming I would leave the room so my son wouldn’t see me.

In the blink of an eye, it was the morning he left for college. My confident kid was moving like a snail, laying on the couch with the dogs, not saying a word. I immediately recognized the look on his face because I had been wearing it for months: dread.

Had I passed that on to him? All my insecurities and fears? I hugged him and told him it was going to be great, and that I knew he would be fine, and that we had to go. It was that moment I realized I needed to get over it and be strong. This wasn’t about me. It was like a switch flipped. I did not want him to sense any of my dread so I shut it down. It was just the two of us on the short drive there and next thing you know we are in it. And we enjoyed every second.

I kept it together and genuinely loved everything about that day: meeting his roommates and their families, picking up his football tickets, watching his dad and stepdad assemble furniture together, all of it. When I watched him walk away, there were tears, but there was also a shift. A new chapter of his life, and our relationship, had begun.

He takes his last final tonight and will be home for the summer. Here are some things I learned this year about my son, and me:

– He is an adult. I don’t get to make decisions for him anymore. He is much more independent than I ever thought he could or would be. He handles his business and doesn’t appreciate me reminding him to do things. This is tough, but he needs to find his own path and sometimes learn the hard way.

Joylynn Brown

– Our relationship is different, but stronger. I have changed my way of communicating with him. Instead of asking “Are you (fill in the blank: drinking, partying, etc.),” I ask “How often are you (fill in the blank).” This was a game changer. He answers me honestly since I go in with the assumption he is already doing it. Some of his answers I wasn’t ready for, but I did not react. I would rather know the truth, and if something really concerned me, I would address it privately at another time. We have grown much closer because of this, and he trusts me.

There is one thing I recommend (add it to your to do list!): Write a letter. The night before I took him to college, I wrote him a letter and shared things with him I had never shared before. I tucked it away in his things where he would see it when I left. He brought it up on the phone and said he really liked it (high praise from this one), and I felt good writing it. Leave nothing unsaid.

Joylynn Brown

Bottom line: life is very different. Different does not equate to bad. Some days are harder than others and I am overwhelmed with thoughts of the way things used to be. The best days are when I have honest, real conversations with my adult son and realize I did a damn good job.

Joylynn Brown

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We Need A Middle School Moms Support Group, ASAFP Please

When I was a new mom, people would often ask me how I liked being a mom? I never really knew how to respond to this. I mean, I loved my son but being a mom? Well, that shit was hard.

Except it took me a long time to find a group of people who were also willing to admit this because it seems like most new moms say things like “I love it!” and “It was love at first sight!” and “Isn’t being a mom the best?!”

There was a while when my kids were little when parents seemed a little more willing to talk about how hard it all was. Maybe it was because those middle-of-the-grocery-store threenager tantrums are hard to conceal or because those no-more-napping preschool years are filled with some hilarious shenanigans. Whatever the case, there’s a stretch of time when parents get more comfortable in their roles and accept the fact that kids do some bonkers shit and parenting is madness sometimes. We’re all hanging on by a thread.

And it’s refreshing as hell. We’re all in this shitshow together.

Except then middle school happens. And silence.

When your kid starts middle school, people often ask: “How’s your kid like middle school?” with this weird trepidation. Most of the time, people answer with “It’s fine.” Kind of in that veiled way people talked about how much they loved being a new mom. I’ve said it. You’ve said it. We’ve all said it.

But you know what? IT’S NOT FINE. IT IS SO NOT FINE.

It is exhausting and scary and emotional and confusing and holy hell can someone please help me because I don’t know how I’m going to survive the next handful of years.

But yeah, sure, it’s fine. If you say so.

There are support groups for new moms, breastfeeding moms, attachment parent moms, and free-range moms. But what we really need is a support group for I’m Just Trying To Survive Middle School Moms. Can someone create that? Please and thank you.

Every day is like going to battle, except the rules are constantly changing. Will your middle schooler be in a good mood or sulky? Will they want to hug and snuggle, or will it be an eyeroll and heavy sighing kind of day? Will they come home in tears or practically bouncing off the wall due to all the hormones jumping around in their body?

When I was a kid, middle school was brutal. BRUTAL. But I never realized that it might have been brutal for my parents too. I never realized that my mom might have lost hours of sleep with worry or that she likely went into the bathroom to cry because I was being an overly dramatic, snippy a-hole that day. But let’s face it, middle school sucks for everyone. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone. (Okay, for the contrarians out there, for a LOT of us.)

Except none of us are talking about it. We’re too busy with the “it’s fine”s and arguing with our kids over their cell phones and reading their texts and driving all over town for this activity or that sports practice.

Every once in a while, though, when asked, someone might say, almost in an embarrassed whisper, middle school is fucking rough. Or maybe they’ll say nothing except sigh real deep and long and heavy and you just know. You know. Because it’s the same sigh you make a hundred times a day.

Because yay, middle school is that freaking hard.

Even “normal” middle school stuff is fucking hard. There are raging hormones. Kids change schools. Old friendships change. New friendships are formed. Different teachers have different standards. Romantic relationships and crushes start. And everyone is awkward and scared. EVERYONE.

Add to that the 21stcentury complications like cell phones and social media and, OMG, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. When I was a kid, you might get busted passing notes in class or with a naughty magazine in your backpack. Now we have to worry about cyberbullying and sexting – for kids who have massively underdeveloped prefrontal lobes.

The expectations change, the stakes are higher, and everything feels a bit more serious and uncertain. Which is why the biggest lesson I want my middle schooler to know is to understand that middle school is just plain hard. And it’s really hard for lots of people. Find those kids and make it a little less hard.

And fellow parents, let’s do the same. Let’s be each other’s support group. Let’s stop immediately responding with it’s fine, and tell the truth. Let’s help each other out. (And NO, that doesn’t mean smugly letting so-and-so know you saw their kid acting a fool or humblebragging about your kid’s travel baseball schedule or the honor roll ceremony.)

And if you’re one of the lucky ones who’s been spared the middle school suckiness or you aren’t there yet or you’ve made it through, thank your lucky stars. Or if it’s not hard now, hold tight and bite your tongue. And even if it’s not hard for you and your kid, it’s probably hard for your kid’s friend or your friend or your niece or neighbor. Because middle school takes no prisoners.

Bottom line: BE KIND. You never know who’s dealing with middle school.

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What My Tween’s ‘Mid-Childhood Crisis’ Taught Me About Mid-Life

“We didn’t even get crayons this year!” my daughter is telling me incredulously as I walk her up to school this morning. “It’s the first year we didn’t have crayons,” she says again with sadness. I tell her that I swear I paid for crayons, and I kiss her face and watch her nine-year-old lanky body walk inside the building before I turn around and walk back home.

Her “we didn’t even get crayons this year,” is part of a rallying cry she’s been having about getting “old.” I’m not sure how many nine-and-a-half year olds sit around bemoaning the fact that their childhood is almost gone, but this one does. She is a highly sensitive child, and a deep thinker. It probably doesn’t help that my husband, her father, died suddenly when she was only 21 months old. The passage of time and her growing up have been bittersweet for me, every first that he missed, every birthday without him. She must have felt it too.

And now, as she transitions from carefree little girl to slightly intense tween, I am transitioning too. I am 42 years old. It’s been more than seven years since my husband died. My thirties were spent grieving and mothering a young child, and then they were gone. Before I had time to notice, I was no longer “young mother with small child,” but a woman in her 40s.

Maybe it happens this way for everyone. I find myself still single, chipping away at a writing career, and still very much living in survival mode. In the suburban town where we live, the parents at pickup chat about kitchen renovations and upcoming vacations. On social media, I read about the well-established careers and accolades of friends. Just like my daughter misses the crayons of her younger years, I miss my thirties and the feeling that I was still on a level playing field with most of my peers, all of us still climbing up the hill, not starting to coast down.

My daughter misses the attention she got when she was younger. “Nothing I say seems as cute anymore. No one laughs as much!” she says in dismay one morning. I actually miss the old women telling me to “enjoy her while she’s little” as I pushed her in a stroller through supermarket aisles. Even though she says she feels awkward now on playgrounds, she misses her days of endless monkey bar swinging until her palms were blistered and pink and she came to show me, “Look at my hands!” To my surprise, I actually do miss the endless quality of those long days with a young child. Now it seems there are ends around every corner. Recitals, spring concerts, graduations.

Julia Cho

She misses picture books and bounce houses, and also just feeling completely uninhibited the way a younger child does. Now there are reading logs, standardized tests, and there is self-consciousness. I miss my days of being a night owl, and I miss my narrow waist. Now there are night time skin serums and new spots on my face, and I am surprised by my sudden vanity when I notice them.

For my daughter, this was the year of pierced ears and a palate expander. There was a lot of swabbing crusting ear holes with saline solution and the unnatural turning of a “key” to crank open her mouth. “I wanna go back to the time when I didn’t have pierced ears or go to the orthodontist!” she cries out in frustration one day. For me, the last few years have meant the start of yearly mammograms that compress my breasts into an impossibly, unrecognizable flat shape between two sheets of plastic. I’ve been introduced to a vernacular I’d never even heard of in my thirties—words like “highly dense breast tissue,” LSH and FSH hormones, and perimenopause.

I think we both feel a bit blindsided.

My daughter and only child, I realize one day, is in the middle of her time with me. In another nine years she will be in college. We have only eight more summers to take family vacations. I am entering the middle of my life, and I still barely recognize it. I’m not at all where I expected to be. But here we both are together for a brief moment—in the middle.

The middle is unassuming; it doesn’t have the freshness of a beginning or the accomplishment of the ending, but it’s usually the part of a narrative where transformation happens. Maybe that looks like braces and an “awkward phase,” or maybe it’s realizing you’re not where you want to be, and it’s time to make some changes. “Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth,” writes Brene Brown.

One night she finally breaks down and cries for a long time. “I miss being little. I was so carefree! Everything was so new and exciting. I wish I had just enjoyed it then! I was so eager to grow up, and now I don’t like it!” I can’t help but smile just a tiny bit inside listening to her diatribe because what she’s expressing seems so beyond her years. But I get it. I really do. I hold her tightly while she cries.

I tell her that, yes, something is ending and it’s OK to grieve that.

But mostly I tell her, “You’re actually still in your childhood. If you keep spending your time wishing you were three or four, you’re going to wake up at 13 and realize you missed this time, right now, being nine.” “You’re right…” she says thoughtfully.

After she’s done crying, we both feel better. We cuddle up like we always have at night while we read in my bed, and tonight, instead of a longer book, she gathers up a few of our favorite old picture books. Before she goes to sleep, she wiggles her newest loose tooth with pride. “It kinda hurts though,” she says. It does.

Julia Cho

The next morning after I drop her off, I dutifully take my 30-minute walk, enjoying the feeling of stretching out my legs, and the bursts of color in the yellow forsythias spread around the park. Afterwards, I put on what I call my “mid-life red” lipstick and head to Trader Joe’s for my weekly groceries. I always buy flowers, but today while I’m already on line to check out, I run back to get a second bouquet of daffodils. I don’t really know what the future holds: more mammograms, more poignant conversations with my daughter, and probably a few surprises. Who knows, maybe a published book, or even falling in love again—but right now it’s spring. And I don’t want to miss it.

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An Orthodontist Visit Helped Me Understand What My Single Mom Had Sacrificed

We took our two oldest to meet with an orthodontist, found out they will both need braces, and left with an estimate that made my knees weak. Norah was nine and Tristan was 12, and yeah, it was pretty obvious that they would both need braces. Mel and I both had braces as children, and our children more or less inherited our crooked smiles. But I always assumed our insurance would cover more than it did — which as a father of three, I’ll admit was a pretty naive assumption. I should know better by now that dental insurance for a family of five feels a lot like struggling to make a monthly insurance payment only to be punched in the crotch each time we visited the dentist.

Anyway, Mel and I discussed how we were going to pay for it, how much our insurance would cover, and as we did, all I could think about was my mother. I was 12 when I got braces, same age as my son. This was three years after my father walked out. He didn’t pay child support, so he certainly didn’t help with my braces. Mom worked days at the local power plant, and evenings cleaning houses. At Christmastime, she worked Saturdays at a music store.

Late in the evening, she arrived home wearing paint-stained sweat pants and a T-shirt. A plastic bucket filled with yellow rubber gloves, toothbrushes, Lysol, and a scrubbing brush was in her right hand. She’d drop the bucket, fingertips wrinkled from scrubbing toilets. Then she’d step out and return a moment later with the dress she wore to her office job at the power plant slung over her forearm. There were times when she woke me up for school moments before she left for her first job and then came home late in the evening, just in time to hold me accountable for my homework.

I don’t know how much braces cost in the early ’90s, but I have to assume whatever it cost, it was too much. I can still remember mom late at night sitting at our kitchen table, bills fanned out, right hand holding a calculator, her left elbow bent against the table top supporting her forehead.

Not that I, as a 12-year-old boy, appreciated her sacrifice. I felt like those braces were a personal attack. I didn’t wear my headgear or elastics, and each time I met with the orthodontist I argued with him to take them out. I can still remember my mother waking me late at night, her eyes bloodshot from working more hours than I’d ever worked. In her left hand would be my headgear. “Put it on,” she’d say. And I’d grudgingly roll out of bed, and slide that uncomfortable apparatus over my head, and then spend the next several hours sleeping uncomfortably as my teeth were tugged into alignment. I’d love to say that in moments like this I appreciated my mother’s insistence that I wear my headgear, but I didn’t. I honestly hated my braces, and my headgear, and my orthodontist, and at times, my mother.

But now, at 36, I have a pretty nice smile, and I have my mother to thank for it. So after we got those quotes for my children’s braces, and I got over the sticker-shock, I went into the bedroom, and called my mother.

We talked for a moment about the kids. She went on about her retirement, her heath, and my stepdad. Then I told her about the estimate we received from the orthodontist, and she laughed. It wasn’t a “sucks for you” kind of laugh. It was more of an “I’ve been there” kind of laugh.

“How did you ever afford my braces?” I asked.

She let out a long breath, and said, “It wasn’t easy.” She told me about how my father refused to help, saying, “Not that it should surprise you. Somehow I made it work because I knew it was important.” When she said “it was important,” I knew what she really meant was “you were important.”

There was a pause and then I said, “Well… I know this is long overdue, but thank you for doing that. And I’m sorry for being so difficult about all of it.”

She laughed and said, “You’re welcome.” Then she told me that I’d have had a pretty crooked smile if she hadn’t. “I knew you’d appreciate it eventually.” Then she laughed and said, “I will say, I assumed you’d probably appreciate it sooner than now.”

I apologized again, and then she told me something that made me feel a little better about this whole getting my kids braces situation, “And don’t worry about your kids. If I figured out how to pay for braces, you will too.”

It’s funny how sometimes it takes having children to become thankful for the parents you had. Mom and I had our differences during my teen years, no doubt about it, but when I think back on all those sacrifices she made for me, how much she invested in me, I cannot help but feel loved.

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