Why We Created A Loan Agreement With Our 12-Year-Old

My 12-year-old son has always sucked with money. He’s the burn-a-hole-in-your-pocket kind of kid. He likes to ask to borrow money, but he isn’t all that good a paying it back. He’s basically your shady uncle with a big time business plan that needs a few hundred bucks to get off the ground. It’s a problem.

So a few months ago, when he asked to borrow money to download a game for our Nintendo, we offered him a loan instead. The game was around 60 bucks. Mel and I found a Family Loan Agreement online (a quick google search will pull up several), made a payment plan, added a percentage, and consequences for missed/late payments. We even broke down how much more he’d be paying with interest. We went all out. We wanted this to be as real as possible.

My wife is the real money manager in the family. I’m better at laundry. She actually put together a spreadsheet that showed him how much he would spend with the percentage over the life of the loan. When she showed it to him, his eyes glossed over and it was pretty clear that he didn’t care about any of that, only the game. All I could think about was the first time I signed a car loan. I told him that the payment would be close to 50% of his “income,” and how that is never a good decision. He shrugged, happily signed, and then downloaded the game.

Two months in, it happened. He didn’t do all his chores during the month, and he bought another game, along with some candy, so he missed a payment.

We held a “financial meeting” in the kitchen, Mel and I sitting on one side of the table, him on the other his hair mashed on one side from sleep, his blue hoodie with crumbs along the front. He wasn’t exactly dressed to impress, but at that age, he never is.

Our family computer open with the payment information, the contract was between us on the table. We asked him about his missed payment, and he gave us a shrug that seemed to say, “What’re you going to do about it? I already passed the game.”

It was then that my wife leaned forward, and read the second paragraph of the loan where he put his game systems up as collateral, and they would now be repossessed until he was back in good standing (minimum payment + $6 late charge).

I half smiled, looked at my wife, and winked. “Gotcha!”

But had we?

He went through a number of emotions in just a few hours.

Disbelief: “How can you do this to me?”

Desperation: “How much can I earn by picking up after the dog?”

Boredom: “I’m sooooo bored.” (Times infinity)

Quiet disdain: Glared at Mel and me for a considerable amount of time, hopeful that we would crack under the shame of his eyes.

And naturally, I was left with the question of: Did we make the right decision?

Gosh, I don’t know. During those first few days, I was 100% confident that he hated me. Perhaps even 150%. I had this deep pit in my gut that he would hate me forever, when what I wanted was for him to have an AHA! moment and realize he learned a valuable lesson about finances that will keep him out of the red for the rest of his life.

Never in my whole life did I ever desire to work for a bank, issue a loan, or draft a contract. I wasn’t not interested in making money off this deal. None of it is for my gain.

This is the tricky part with kids and money. It’s so difficult to help them understand how the real world works. I want them to understand how to manage their own money, but honestly, I didn’t really understand how that all worked until the first time I got a late charge on my rent. I didn’t get it until I was two clicks from getting my truck repossessed. I did get it until I spent almost 10 grand on a credit card, and then had to struggle for several years to pay it back.

So I tried to give my son a little taste of that. But honestly, who really loves the loan officer or repo man? No one. And Mel and I were both of those roles. But I suppose these feelings are normal, right? I hope so.

What I know for sure is that parenting is a gamble: financially, mentally, emotionally. So we stuck to the terms of the loan. We dug in our heels, and hoped for the best, because as much as it sucked for all of us, I kind of wish someone would’ve done something like this for me when I was young. Perhaps it would have kept me from, you know, getting that first credit card and using it for all those video games, DVDs, and burgers back in the late ’90s.

Six months after the loan, and three months after taking away Tristan’s game systems, Mel and I were at dinner discussing what he wanted to do for his birthday.

He asked how much he had. Then he calculated a few things in his head and said, “I could get out of debt with that and still have $10.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That would be a mature decision to make.”

We went back and forth for a bit. He negotiated a payoff number that left him with $20 instead of $10 for his birthday. And he went for it.

I must say, I was pretty proud of the little guy.

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The Best Friends Are The Ones You Had When You Were 12

Twelve was a strange age. Full of insecurity, puberty, self-doubt, and trying to fit in. But you know what made those pre-teen years a fond memory to look back on, and also, kind of great too? The friends I made and still have today.

For those with friends who met in an age group similar to mine, newsflash, you met when the rest of the world considered you “quirky.” Therefore, there’s no obligation to try and pretend any of you are even remotely “normal-ish” if you’re still friends with them today… after all, they know better. 

They were and are the ones who take you as you are, and that’s what makes them so irreplaceable. You found each other in the middle of trying to find yourself. In a time when you didn’t feel like a kid anymore, but you also didn’t feel even remotely grown either. Because of that, you get each other on a level most others don’t. Your relationship is intimate, and the roots run deep.

When you were 12, you were watching horror films in the basement with each other, and then lulling yourself to sleep with some kind of Disney film to undo the harm you’d caused your mental state by watching “The Ring” even after your parents had forbidden it. These were the days when T-Ping was fair game on the weekends, and more Fridays than not were spent begging the parents who hosted the sleepover to pretty please take the lot of you from point A to point B.

Courtesy of Caila Smith

Together, you learned that using bright blue eyeshadow alone is never okay. Also, you were dumbfounded to find out that you are, indeed, supposed to apply mascara to your bottom lashes. Also, those cork-wedged shoes… those are just not cute.

Now, life is different. You have evolved individually. Each creating new lives which do not resemble the ones you first found each other in and all of you living out your purpose so uniquely… and every bit of it is so beautiful.

Through every fad, stage, heartache, loss and victory, these friends remain true. They are cherished on a personal level, because they’ve stood the test of time.

Courtesy of Caila Smith

Surely there were and will continue to be moments of frustration between you. (Does anyone remember those dreaded, gossip-filled and unknown three-way calls from way back when? UGH.) But you outgrew the pettiness stage of your lives together. Now, as adults, you’re able to actually listen for the sake of listening, not just listen for the sake of responding. You’ve been friends for so long that you’d hate to doom it by sweating the small stuff, so you admit your wrongs and right them when needed, as do they — and it’s what keeps the many-years-long friendship still burning.

You’ve started families of your own, lives of your own, and it’s nothing short of astounding to see your childhood friends grow into the parents they always wanted to be (or for some, the ones they swore to God that they would never be — ha!).  And although life stands in the way of seeing one another’s kids as often as you’d always intended, you love them as intensely as you love your own.

Because of them, your kids have playdates (although rare sometimes) that are comfortable for you and your friends. There’s no trying to be somebody you’re not. Messy buns, elastic pants and no makeup is preferred, actually. Without these people, who could you run to while venting, “My kid is being an asshole,” because you know their child is being an asshole too, and they are just going to be thrilled you were the first to admit to it out loud?

In the worst moments, they are right beside you without hesitation. And in your mountaintop victories, they are the ones cheering you on while saying, “I always knew you could do it.”

Friends like these are a platonic love like nothing else. Whereas you’ve grown used to questioning friendships, relationships, and other aspects of your life for years in the past, there’s no need to do that with them, because they’ve proven themselves to be the real deal time after time again. They are the ones who have stayed while the rest have come and gone. With them, are so many sacred and wholesome memories. And even though life is not now what it once was, the friendship remains firm.

Now, these friends and myself are grown. But beneath all of this adult exterior, there’s still a group of 12-year-olds swimming (not “laying out”) in the backyard pond while my friend’s mom makes us fruit smoothies and/or chocolate milkshakes. The nostalgia of rainy days spent making a “Sims” family while eating ramen noodles is frozen in time and near and dear to my heart. I miss those days. But the best part about them? We made lasting memories without even knowing it or planning it; we were just living our best life and doing it super carefree-like.

We are all moms after these many years. And now, we potentially get to see the other side of this kindred friendship in our own children. We might forget to stock the pantry for weekend sleepovers, drive around relentlessly from activity to activity, and build campfires in the pit.

I, for one, really do hope so.

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How The Filtered World Of Social Media Is Changing Our Kids

Last week, as my daughter and I were driving, I noticed an odd series of gestures happening in the front seat next to me. A quick glance to the side and I realized that it was my daughter taking picture after picture of herself with different facial expressions each time. When I asked her what the heck she was doing, she replied, “I’m doing my streaks.”

After realizing (thankfully) that she was not referring to the act of running buck naked through a crowd, I quickly regrouped to inquire what that meant in “teenspeak.” I should have known from the get-go that it was one of those social media time-sucks that seemingly drives teens and parents to the brink of insanity on a daily basis.

After a quick tutorial from her about Snapchat stories, I was in the know. If I have this right, Snapchat streaks require kids to keep up a daily routine of sending out live shots of things they are doing throughout the day to pretty much anyone they have ever met or will possibly ever meet or will never met. If perchance they happen to be sick, Wi-fi fails or they lose use of their opposable thumbs, then the streak ends and apparently the world with it.

I couldn’t quite shake the concept that across the globe, millions of kids like my daughter were doing the exact same thing. The idea that they were under the gun to send quick snap shots of themselves with forced smiling faces really bothered me. I decided that this was worthy of a discussion over a glass of wine with friends on a recent girl’s night. I was ready for my friends to rally behind me and share in my dismay of what our kids are doing on social media.

I was surprised, however, to find out that both of my friends used Snapchat themselves. One friend even told me that she actually kept up her daughter’s streaks for her when she was at camp and didn’t have phone access. I was floored. I mean props to my friend for taking that on, but the irony of sending her daughter to camp to unplug for a week only to keep said daughter “virtually” plugged in the whole time astounded me.

The heart of the issue for me is the constant need to present a happy facade. This is not reality, obviously. I worry that the lines between what is presented and what happens when the phone is off will become muddled for kids. The need to perpetuate a false persona on a regular basis seems a dangerous road to travel for anyone, much less an impressionable teen.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my smartphone and it is never far from my grubby little hands. I like looking at 100 versions of chocolate chip cookie recipes on Pinterest. I LOL frequently at the clever memes on Instagram. I even don’t mind the constant string of humble brags on Facebook. I’ve been guilty of that myself. I understand that that has become the new “norm.”

I am not okay, however, with the incessant stream of social media that portrays kids as some Stepford version of themselves. Where does that end? Will they never reach out when they need help because they don’t want anyone to see that they are not really happy 24/7?

Omkar Patyane/Pexels

It comes down to this for me — I want my kids to realize that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes. Happiness is great and boy do I hope that my children are living that dream as much as possible. But I also think it’s equally important to be able to deal with the problems and issues that life will throw their way, because that is inevitable and unavoidable.

A more recent car ride with my daughter prompted a conversation around this very subject. I think it’s unrealistic to expect her social media habits to drastically change. We did, however, have a very candid talk about knowing that it’s all right to raise that little white flag and show her true self. We discussed the importance of talking to her friends about her problems and to listen to theirs.

My hope is that my daughter realizes that, despite what she sees and sends on Snapchat every day, it is not real life. Life is not all rainbows and sunshine and Kylie filters. Real life is taking the good with the bad and learning to deal with everything in between. I know that her smiley faced “streaks” will continue, but I will also be there to nudge her back to reality too.

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After Her 12-Year-Old Attempted Suicide, This Mom Has An Important Message For Parents

Trigger warning: suicide/suicide ideation/self-mutilation

Tweens and teens today eat, live, sleep and breathe school, friends, family and social media. So when any or all of these areas of their life present struggles, it can sometimes make adolescents feel as if their entire world has come tumbling down. And, in a sense, it has. 

These people, places, and things are the focus of their life for the time being. How are they supposed to know there is a big wide world waiting for them just beyond the next door when they don’t yet have the key to unlock it? Truth be told, they can’t without parental guidance. And even though mental health issues amongst adolescents are taking thousands each year due to death by suicide, there is still a lack of awareness surrounding the severity of childhood, pre-teen and teenage mental health struggles.

With suicide being the third leading cause of death in those aged 10-24, children’s lives depend on the destigmatization of adolescent mental health, the support of loved ones, and the help of suicide prevention advocates.

One such advocate is Julie Lutz*, a single mother of two whose youngest daughter, Annie Lutz* nearly died by suicide at just 12 years old.

Lutz describes her now-13-year-old daughter as a “beautiful, outgoing, social, caring, ray of shine.” But sometime around November of 2018, Annie’s personality seemed to fade, and Lutz noticed a drastic change in Annie’s mood which she says she attributed to the run-of-the-mill teen angst. 

Annie was experiencing difficulties with friends, bullying, issues with her father, and her grandmother’s brain cancer diagnosis. She eventually confided in her mother that she had begun self-mutilation through cutting. The first time Annie practiced self-mutilation, she sought help from her mother out of fear. Later on, Lutz discovered that her daughter had cut herself again. Only this time, she hadn’t sought her mother’s help. As soon as she learned of it, Lutz to seek counseling for Annie right away.

Emiliano Vittoriosi/Unsplash

It seemed to Lutz that Annie was improving with time and counseling, but after what Lutz describes as a “fantastic weekend,” Annie admitted that she’d taken too many over-the-counter-pills while attempting suicide. Those moments are what Julie describes as her “saddest moment ever as a mom.” 

“This language of cutting and suicide is not uncommon now,” Lutz tells Scary Mommy. “There’s a lot of layers surrounding [cutting and suicidal thoughts] that we are uncovering.”

Since the attempt, Lutz has been pro-active in supporting her daughter’s mental health by enrolling her in extensive counseling through school and outside of school, as well as installing a security software — Bark — in her daughter’s phone. Bark’s software contains an algorithm designed to notify parents via text and/or email of any potential risks (e.g. suicide, self-harm, sexual-predator “grooming,” drugs, violence, nudity, etc.) detected in a child’s technological devices.


Technology’s grip on children today is foreign territory to many parents, and this is the first generation raising kids who have had the accessibility of the world wide web at the touch of their fingertips since they were born. Therefore, it’s important for parents to know what is going on inside that universe they hold in the palm of their hands. 

While the internet may be a wealth of information when looking for resources about suicide prevention, a research article led by senior lecturer at Bristol Medical School, Lucy Biddle, infers that the internet may influence the appeal of suicide in an already suicidal individual.

Biddle and her team conducted a web search using 12 search terms one might be likely to use when looking for suicide methods. They focused on analyzing the first 10 sites listed, with research conducted for a total of 240 valid searches. Biddle’s results showed that roughly half of the sites were pro-suicide sites or chat rooms while the other half were suicide prevention pages.

The scariest part? The three most commonly occurring sites across all searches were all pro-suicide.

When Lutz downloaded Bark, she was notified nearly 100 times a day, mostly for bullying and profanity. Two months after her daughter’s suicide attempt, Bark notified Lutz that her daughter had been browsing and searching for pills around the house with the purpose of self-harm.

Lutz tells Scary Mommy, “Nothing could have prepared me for this.” 

After Annie’s search was flagged and reported to Lutz, Bark sent a “Love Box” with a heartfelt card, beautiful art and checked in later to see how Annie and the rest of the family were doing.

This road may not be easy for Lutz, Annie or the rest of their family, but through intense counseling, loving interventions, boundaries with negative peers, and maintaining a safe and open environment, Annie is continuing to find better ways to manage her mental health and stress. 

Now, Lutz is advocating for those who are suicidal, as well as raising awareness for parents who may or may not know their children are having suicidal thoughts or tendencies. The Internet and social media follow us everywhere, but this technology is seeking to monitor the safety of that accessibility.

Lutz’s recommendation: “Monitor your kid’s technology. [It’s] so important.”

*Names have been changed for minor’s sake. 

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Teaching Pre-Teens Proper Hygiene Shouldn’t Be This Hard

I was going through my 12-year-old’s sock drawer when I realized every single pair smelled like butthole. Is that too strong? No. No it’s not. They smelled really bad. They had sweat stains. (And yes. They were sweat stains, not the other stains that sometimes boys put in socks. I know the difference. I was once a teenage boy. You can trust me).

I had been in his room, helping him pack for a weekend father-son camping trip. Not that he’d asked me to help. I told him to pack. He went upstairs, and came back down almost instantly and announced he was finished, so I checked his bag. There was one pair of dirty socks, zero pairs of underwear, and no sleeping bag. No toothbrush. No comb. No water. Just some sweats and a T-shirt, a couple bags of candy, and his Nintendo Switch… You know, the essentials.

I was rummaging through his sock drawer after finding some underwear, when I realized I couldn’t, for the life of me, find a single clean pair of socks.

“What is going on?” I asked. “Why do all of these smell bad?”

He looked up at me with a confused I-know-you’re-going-to-get-in-my-business-just-leave-me-alone look preteens often give. His hair was shaggy brown and hung well past his ears. It was a little greasy and still mashed on one side from sleep. He slumped his shoulders like he often does when annoyed, which had, more or less, become his default stance.

“You told me to change my socks every day,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“In the morning I put on new socks, and put the old ones back in the drawer.”

He shrugged like he was nailing the hygiene thing.

I corrected him.

Listen, I’ve made some stupid assumptions in the past, but I suppose the new winner was that my preteen understood that dirty socks go in the hamper and clean socks go on feet. But now, suddenly, I understood why when he took his shoes off as we drove home from soccer practice I had to practically stick my head out the van window to keep from vomiting.

I don’t know what it is with hygiene and preteens. I don’t know why I have to ask Tristan if he used soap in the shower, only for him to say, “I forgot.” I don’t know why I had to ask him if he changed his underwear, only for him to ask, “Why?” And I don’t know why he has this “outfit” he insists on wearing 24/7.

It’s nothing special, trust me. It’s a blue zip-up hoodie, a pair of black Adidas track pants with white stripes up the side and a small hole in the right knee, and a grey T-shirt with the cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Once a week, I pry the outfit off his body, soak it in stain remover, and wash it, and you’d think I actually removed his skin. I once missed a week because I didn’t feel up to fighting with him. I now know what teen spirit smells like.

We are in this stage where even something as basic as putting on clean socks is a challenge, and I’m at my wits’ end with keeping his smell down. I feel like I have to micromanage everything about keeping his body clean. I have to state the all too obvious. I used to check his toothbrush to make sure it was wet. Once he caught on to that, he’d just put his toothbrush under the sink for a bit, so now I have to actually watch him brush, a timer going on my phone, him staring at me, grudgingly, all pissed off because I don’t want his teeth to rot out of his head.


And you know what, I keep using the term “have too.” And frankly, I don’t have to do anything. I could just let him live his life as the stinky, greasy, yellow-teethed little boy he wants to be. But I just can’t. I need him to understand the importance of hygiene. If not for his sake, then for mine.

Of course, we pick our battles. I only make him comb his hair on Sundays, because approaching him with a comb is like approaching him with a chainsaw. And as much as I want him to floss his teeth, getting him to brush is about all I have the strength for at the beginning and end of the day. But when it comes to taking a bath with actual soap, and putting on clean socks, I just can’t let those things slide.

All of these hygiene battles are driving me bonkers. And I cannot get over how often I have to state what seems incredibly obvious. I should admit, however, that I’ve been at this parenting game long enough to realize that nothing should surprise me. When my kids were born I literally had to teach them how to eat and sleep. Raising children means working with a pretty raw product.

Scary Mommy and FG Trade/Getty

And I hear from a lot of parents that this is normal for his age. Well, as normal as taking a shower and forgetting to use soap can be. I take comfort in that. And I take comfort in knowing that he’s a kind kid who does well in school. People seem to like him despite his disregard for hygiene.

Fingers crossed that in a few years, it will solve itself. But in the meantime, I’ll be there, sniffing his sock drawer and asking him the important questions like. “Did you put on deodorant? Because you smell like a locker room.”

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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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I Love Parenting My Autistic Tween

It’s 5 AM, and my 11-year-old son is standing at my bedside, shaking me awake. He needs to tell me about something he learned in science class yesterday. Not related, but also very important, he wants to read me a section of the novel he is writing.

“Baby,” I say. “I need a minute. I’m really tired.”

“This is important, Mom!” He runs back out of the room, and I hear him preparing to write. He’s chattering to himself, his fingers drumming on the dining room table as his computer starts up.

I drag myself to the kitchen and see that he’s already emptied the dishwasher. Anxiety can be rough for kids on the spectrum, and to-do tasks are anxiety-provoking, so this is one less thing for him to worry about.

I make coffee and watch him tapping frantically at the keyboard, pausing to chirp and flutter his fingers, then diving back in to his chapter. He is writing a science fiction novel about a humanoid robot that becomes self-aware, who looks like all the other robots but believes that he is a real boy. A combination of Pinocchio and I, Robot, adding in an unconscious narrative of his own unusual neurology.

“They think I’m like the other robots,” he reads to me. “They don’t know I have feelings and ideas, that I learn and mimic what I see just to fool them. I want them to see me, but I’m too scared to show them who I really am. What if they don’t care? What if they lock me up?”

His writing pulls me back to years earlier, when I first started wondering about his behaviors and mannerisms.

“Thank you for helping us,” he said to the lady bagging our groceries one day. “You must be a good person, to choose a job that helps people. Not everyone decides to do that.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Three,” he said, and offered his hand to shake.

No doctor ever mentioned autism, not with his early speech and love of hugs, and he charmed everyone with his shrewd, literal observations of the world.

But his charisma turned to awkwardness as he got older, anxiety and mood dysregulation kicking in as he entered his elementary school years. Sensory issues escalated. Social challenges snowballed. Kids bullied him for being “weird,” and teachers misconstrued his unusual hand gestures, pressured speech, and misinterpretations of social cues.

He melted down, triggered by mysterious causes I struggled to pinpoint. He had few friends. Even with therapy and near-constant school meetings, it took years to get a diagnosis. And when we finally got one, it devastated me.

It’s hard to acknowledge the way I rejected my own child when I first saw him for who he was.

But having to fight for him in school and the larger world changed me. I grew angry as teachers and principals listed all the things that were wrong with him. Why didn’t they see what he was capable of? My own perspective shifted and refocused as doctors and behavioral therapists tried to train him to be more like the typical kids around him. I wondered why I was allowing others to train my child at all.

He stayed calm and productive when we supported him at home by reducing stimuli and avoiding overwhelming situations. He built Lego rocket ships with his sisters, helped his dad cook dinner, and took walks with me, discussing his plans and dreams.

We moved him to a school that didn’t tolerate bullying and celebrated the value of all learners. As his teachers learned about his needs, accommodating him with short breaks and a quiet space to work alone, his meltdowns at school reduced dramatically. After a year, he became a school ambassador and got straight A’s. He needed support, but also supported others, making friends through his efforts to include other kids who struggled along the margins.

It took time, far longer than it should have, for me to realize that this wasn’t about me or my expectations. It was about my son, about getting over my idea of what parenting was supposed to be and simply showing up and loving my kid. It’s hard to admit that I wept when I first heard a doctor say “autism,” to describe the shell-shocked, heartbroken mother I used to be. I lost sight of his deep belly laugh, his soft blonde hair, the way he cuddled close and asked me questions about space as he fell asleep.

My son transforms everyone he comes in contact with. The more I learn about him, and about autism itself, the less I want to change or “cure” him. In many ways, he is profoundly disabled. In other ways, he is extraordinary and independent. In all ways, he is funny, smart, and loving. The baby boy I was supposed to have, to raise, to hold close and adore.

I love parenting my autistic child.

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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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I Don’t Let My Tween Have Drop-Off Playdates

“We should totally get our girls together,” my daughter’s friend’s mom gushed as we stood side by side casually chatting at the skating rink. “What’s your cell?”

As I gave her my number, I knew the reality. I wasn’t going to drop my daughter off at their house.

I am “that” mom, the one who is generally labeled as overprotective. I need to “just let kids be kids.”

Though some mean the overprotective label as an insult, it doesn’t offend me. I’m proudly cautious when it comes to my kids.

When I was growing up, my mom did the same. I wasn’t allowed to attend a slumber party until I was in middle school and my mom was well-acquainted with the friend’s parents. I wasn’t dropped off at the mall or movie theater until I was in high school.

While some of my friends were allowed to meet up with their boyfriends in the sixth grade, my parents didn’t allow me to date until I was a sophomore in high school. And even then, there were strict rules. If they weren’t followed, my privileges were revoked.

Of course, in those moments, I was furious. Why were my parents so incredibly uncool? What was the big deal? Everyone else (in my dramatic mind) was allowed to have fun but me. I would slam my bedroom door, blare my Boys II Men album, and furiously write in my diary that my parents sucked.

What I realized is my parents’ strict rules regarding my social life was their way of being good parents to me. They weren’t being helicopters. Instead, they were waiting until I was mature enough to make good choices — including knowing when to ask for help to escape a bad situation — before putting me in environments where things had the potential to go wrong.

This started when I was quite young. When I was in third grade, I got my first slumber party invite to which my parents responded with a hard no. I was a sobbing mess. I imagined my friends watching the newly released Beauty and the Beast VHS while giggling and eating Pop Qwiz. Why couldn’t I be included? My parents allowed me to hang out with the group for a few hours before I was picked up at ten.

Later, my mom would explain to me that a lot of my friends had older siblings or moms whose boyfriends stayed over, and those people may or may not be safe. It was, in fact, better to be “safe than sorry.”

Now that I’m a mom, I can look back and see that my parents made the right decisions. I had friends whose parents allowed them to have too much independence too soon and thus, made terrible choices or had bad and undeserving things happen to them because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Recently, when my tween daughter asked to have a friend come over and hang out on a Friday night, I agreed, found the mom on social media, and sent her a message. She promptly replied that of course her daughter could come over. In my mind, the mom and I would sit at the kitchen bar and chat over a glass of wine while the girls played.

When the mom and daughter arrived, we introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries, and then the mom smiled and said she was off to dinner with her fiancé, and she’d be back in two hours to get her daughter. Then she was gone.

She never walked into my house beyond the welcome mat. She didn’t ask if we had guns and were they locked up? Did my daughter have older siblings? What types of things would the girls be doing? Would they be watching or listening to anything I needed her approval for?

I asked if her daughter had any allergies I should be aware of in case the girls wanted a snack. Beyond that, all we had were each other’s first names and cell numbers.

I was shocked. Not because my mind goes to drastics like serial killers on the latest Dateline special. Rather, she knew nearly nothing about us and left us to care for her child. I’m guessing the cell phone she left her daughter with provided all the relief she needed.

The girls played happily together until the mom returned. We chatted for a few minutes by the front door, and then the mom offered to have my daughter over to her house. “Let’s pick a date!” she encouraged.

In that moment, I didn’t know what to say. How would I share “there’s no way in hell I’m dropping my tween off with people I do not know” without offending her? Without insulting her for the very thing she just did?

I absolutely do worry for my kids’ safety. I worry that the friend’s four older, teenage siblings are going to listen to or watch things that aren’t appropriate for my daughter. I worry they’ll have their own friends over, and what if one of those friends tries to harm my child?

I worry about gun safety. I worry about drugs. I worry about sexual assault. Why? Because preventable incidents happen every day to children.

We live in the real world with real threats. And because I’m my daughter’s mom, my number one job is to ensure my child’s safety and well-being.

Our compromise is that I offer to meet up with another parent and child for a date in a public space like a park or the skating rink. I want to get to know the parents. If I get an OK vibe, I’d be up for meeting up at their house while the mom and I chat over coffee. But I’m definitely not going to drop my daughter off with nothing but an exchange of pleasantries, names, and phone numbers.

Trust takes time and experience. And I want my kids to learn that it’s perfectly OK to take their time getting to know someone and to listen to their instincts. I do not care how unpopular or uncool that is. I’d rather my children feel temporary anger toward me, just as I did with my own parents, than deal with the forever trauma of a horrific and preventable event.

I’m sure I won’t always make the right call. I’m certain that at times, I’m too protective. But I’m OK with making the occasional mistake of being too careful.

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