Why The Pandemic Is Making Me A ‘Backseat Mom’

As a psychotherapist who has treated many mothers over the years, and as a mother myself, I’m fascinated by the history of maternal identity. How do American moms think about their role in raising their children, protecting them from harm, and helping them become well-adjusted adults? I’m seeing signs that the current pandemic is triggering a change in that identity, away from the “helicopter parenting” of the past 25+ years.

First, some context. In the 19th century, parenting was mostly authoritarian. Children were seen and not heard, doing lots of chores, always putting the family’s needs first. Most women didn’t worry about their kids’ emotional health, just their physical survival in a time of rampant child mortality.

The first half of the 20 century brought the Freudian revolution. Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts about adult disturbances and intrapsychic conflict didn’t offer a blueprint for parenting, but they got mothers worrying that they might give their children “a complex” if they did something wrong.

Benjamin Spock’s 1946 bestseller, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, launched an era of more active child-rearing – repudiating rigid toileting practices and feeding schedules in favor of positive experiences that allowed each individual child to lead the way. Over the next few decades, middle class American moms began responding to their children’s cues and parenting in more flexible ways.

By the early 1990s, the rising trend was “helicopter parenting” – a stronger focus on ensuring good grades and college admissions. Mothers worried more than ever about minimizing all kinds of risks, big and small – from drug abuse and teen pregnancies to skinned knees at the playground and heartbreaks at the 8th grade dance.

But in 2020, powerless against the pandemic’s devastating toll, I see mothers losing faith in their ability to shield their kids from any sort of harm – physical, emotional, academic, or social. Many are worrying about hanging onto their own jobs or trying to stay productive while working from home. Some are also feeling stressed out about their food supplies or their own elderly parents. And though it was always difficult to work while raising kids, the new challenges of homeschooling and isolation-induced anxiety have raised the bar dramatically. My patients are reeling from the sudden shift: instead of feeling like they can (and should) fix any problem for their kids, many are feeling like they can’t fix anything.

“COVID makes me feel powerless as a parent,” Colleen said when her daughter, Emily, a college junior, opted to remain halfway across the country, close to campus and her research lab. When Emily began feeling stressed and experiencing chest pains, her mother begged her to see a doctor. But she became angry, saying she was busy and it was hard to get a telemedicine appointment. The more her mother pushed, the more Emily resisted. While her symptoms eventually remitted, stay at home orders made Emily feel isolated, and she began lashing out.

In our sessions, Colleen agonized over whether to helicopter in to relieve her daughter’s misery. She lamented that Emily rejected offers to visit and shot down suggestions about finding ways to socialize. It all came to a head during one especially heated FaceTime exchange, when Colleen pleaded, “You can’t be alone all the time. At least meet friends in a parking lot. Stand six feet apart.” Emily threw her hands up and yelled, “Please stop! You can’t help! You can’t fix this!” When they hung up, Colleen retreated to her bedroom and cried over her helplessness. “It was as if mothering as I’d known it was gone forever.”

These sorts of questions about how involved to get rang true in my own home, where my teens had also been struggling since the onset of the pandemic. I had always prided myself on being helpful – listening, understanding, guiding, and stepping in when necessary. I’d tried not to hover, but had been active and present, seeking tutors or fighting for medical specialists. I encouraged my kids to fight their own battles, to get back up when they stumbled. Whenever they faced something they couldn’t handle and asked for my help, I was there.

But recently, amid closures and cancellations, it has become harder to help my teens cope. My suggestions and empathy often aren’t well received. I can’t protect my kids from a potentially lethal virus, or even fix their disappointments or repair losses they’d suffered. That strikes at the core of my identity as a nurturing and protective mother.

I’ve been worrying lately about the re-opening now underway: Will the virus come steamrolling back, forcing a second round of school and workplace closures? Can our already fragile economy handle this additional stress? How many more lives will be lost to the pandemic? The only certainty right now is uncertainty, which takes its toll on people of all ages.

While my high school-aged son has adapted, taking on household challenges like figuring out to snake a backed-up sink and reboot the WiFi, my daughter has had to deal with mounting losses, including an early return from college and the loss of a coveted summer internship. Despite repeated suggestions of walks, TV time, cooking, and reading material, my every outreach brings an angry smack-down. After each K-O, like a boxer on the ropes, I head back into the ring. My job as a mother is to show I care: survive the attacks and set limits while being present and loving, and help her integrate painful emotions, without rushing in to resolve the difficulties.

Following a particularly charged weekend, I found myself questioning my approach. Feeling terrified that months of disappointment and isolation had taken a permanent toll, I considered arranging a telehealth consultation or booking online meditation classes for my daughter. Would she ever be okay again? Would I?

After we started venturing out, first only for necessities like groceries and doctors’ visits, then for socially distanced visits, I noticed that tensions appeared to be settling. My daughter found a virtual research position, brought home stellar grades, and practiced social distancing without being reminded. When a new challenge arose – her school cancelled all in person classes and on campus engagements – she cried bitterly, and I worried that her already negative outlook could not survive another blow. But within a day she’d contacted friends, taken virtual tours of off-campus apartments, and proposed a plan to use savings to offset rental costs.

It was then I knew that amidst the deprivations, losses, and challenges of the past few months, I’d been given a gift: a unique opportunity to get to know my children in ways that might have eluded me had daily life been as frantic as usual. Seeing my teens on a daily basis, shepherding them through their fears and bleakest moments, I’ve had the privilege of watching them build resilience and strengthen their inner reserves.

Parenting through sadness, fear, and adversity has shown me that I can’t fix everything for my kids, and that’s okay. After watching them in action over the past few months I know that they are equipped to handle whatever comes their way, and I no longer feel a pull to repair every single thing that goes wrong.

Hearing echoes of this same theme from patients, neighbors, and friends, I think we’re starting to see a new version of maternal identity, winding down the era of the overly obsessed helicopter parent. After living through so much loss and disappointment,I can’t imagine seeing moms stressing out nearly as much about excessive screen time, a B on a report card, or too many snacks between meals. Involved mothering won’t go away, of course. We’ll still have huge investments in the health and happiness of our children, and we’re not going to ignore them when they need help. But I think we’ll bring a more balanced perspective to the post-pandemic world. Call us backseat moms.

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‘Wouldn’t That Be Great?’: How 4 Simple Words Changed My Tween Son

The storm gathered quickly, erupting from the clouds and shocking me with its rage. No clouds dotted the horizon. No warnings sounded in the distance.

That’s not exactly true, actually. If I had paid attention, I would have seen the changing barometer of his face. I would have noticed the frustration and the building pressure, threatening to burst. But this phase of life is new; I’ve never been the mother of a tween before.

Today, he is angry and hurt because I don’t support his dream of being a gamer and/or YouTuber. It’s almost funny, typing that, except that to him it’s not. His best friend has a strong affinity for the apps that kids love to play currently, and the best friend’s father shares his love for them as well. My son sees them playing together and he envies that.

To our son’s chagrin, neither I nor his father are gamers. I did have an Atari console when I was a kid, but Pong hardly held my attention the way games do now. So the idea of him becoming someone who spends hours in an online world and not pursuing something else … anything else, practically … is something I can’t fathom. And so the conversation goes like this:

“I want to be a gamer when I grow up,” he says.

“You’re not going to be a gamer,” I say. And then I lay out the reasons why he needs to get offline more often.

My son and I have had talks about puberty and hormones and his changing body, for a few years now. I bought him a book called “Guy Stuff” by the makers of the American Girl doll because I had given my oldest niece a similar one for girls when she turned 13. We’ve talked through mood swings and the ways his body will change and I tried to prepare him. I remember the confusion and bewilderment of his age and how rapid the transformation from kid to young adult felt to me.

Courtesy of Kristin Shaw

Tonight, though, the emotions are overwhelming to both of us.

Tears stream down his face as he struggles with the feeling of loneliness that accompanies feeling misunderstood. And he surely feels betrayal as one of the people he loves and trusts most has just told him that his ideas are invalid. He hears me say that his dreams, in a word, are garbage. To him, I have just said that he, by extension, is garbage. Now that I can see that in my rear-view mirror, I am heartbroken by my callous and flippant response.

So I did what many moms have done for eons: I asked for advice from my friends. Explaining that I am opposed to the idea of my son locking himself to a game console for hours on end because I don’t want to encourage this pursuit, I laid out the situation. My mom friends, as they often do, offered real talk about how to process this hurdle. First of all, they said, he’s 10. His windshield to the world is partially obscured; he’s still figuring out his place and expanding the view every day.

My friend Leigh Ann has three girls with daydreams of their own, and when they bring up an idea that seems preposterous to adults or a silly notion, at best, she says four little words that validate them, shows that she is listening to them, and stops to imagine that with them for a moment. All this, without telling them that their desire to be an animal trainer for bearded dragons or a trapeze artist or even Batman is impossible.

“Wouldn’t that be great?” she says.

Think about that for a second. What did you dream about becoming when you were a child? At one point I wanted to be a child psychologist. Then I wanted to be an artist. Then I was sure I’d be a fashion designer. No one ever said to me, “That’s ridiculous.” Or “That’s impossible.” Maybe I got a neutral “Mmm-hmmm” from my mom when she was distracted.

By telling my son that he could not be a gamer, I was telling him that his hopes and reveries don’t matter. I’m supposed to be the one who lifts him up and tells him that not even the sky is the limit. That he can be anything and anyone he wants.

I started to take Leigh Ann’s advice and started saying, “Wouldn’t that be great?” when he daydreams aloud. And I found something remarkable started to happen: he daydreamed even more. He built a roller coaster for his stuffed animals in our living room. He designed a whole theme park on paper. He and my husband created a game with wood and power tools. It’s as if he started to bloom again, nurtured by rain and rich soil and someone to bathe him in sunlight instead of putting a blanket over him. These four words have kicked open the door to possibility. And not a second too soon.

I could beat myself up for being insensitive and obtuse, but instead I’m going to give myself a little grace. I’ve never been the mother of a 10-year-old boy before, and I want to be the ideal mother who never wants to make any mistakes ever again.

Wouldn’t that be great?

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My Son Started Middle School Today — From Home, From This Desk — And I Have All The Feels

Six years ago I walked this tiny boy into kindergarten. My oldest child, my first round of real “goodbyes.” I came home after the teacher literally pushed me out of the classroom and closed the door, and sobbed.

Did I do a good job? Was he ready? How on earth was he going to make it all those hours without me? Surely he needed me for something. I stared at the clock. Time stood still. I was at school pickup 45 minutes early that first day eagerly staring at the dismissal door.

For the first few weeks of school that year, I invented ridiculous reasons to email his teacher, hoping for a glimpse into his world. Hoping for, frankly, a detailed report of what he was doing at that very minute and every minute before and after. As a seasoned teacher, she’d had plenty of first-timers like me and usually responded with a short email—maybe a sentence or two—and it crushed me, not being a part of every single thing happening around him anymore.

Well, somehow that little boy with wire-rimmed glasses and an adorable lisp and affinity for all things Harry Potter sailed through six years in five minutes, as kids heartbreakingly are known to do.

And now he’s nearly 12.

Tomorrow is a day I’ve thought about for a long time. Another first. I will now start learning how to be a middle school mom. This kid—my first pancake kid who always shows me the way and gives me grace as I mess up—is starting 6th grade.

From home. From this desk.

And he’s totally chill and ready, despite me buzzing around him, still trying to be over-involved.

“Can you log into all your Zoom links okay? Do you understand your schedule? Do you see how you now have a 3-minute break between classes to get up, stretch, pee, do you want me to help you make a lunch ahead of time…”

And, of course, I’m met with a “I got it, Mom. Really. I’m just gonna watch a video with my headphones on, k?”

And I slink away, knowing he really does “got it.”

The truth is, this is never in a million years how I expected my oldest child and I to jump into the middle school experience, but here we are.

6th grade. Old enough for me to say, “Dude, go take a shower” but young enough to still snuggle with Mom on movie night. Old enough to stay home alone now and then and download a game called Dead Cells, but young enough to still want to play board games & say prayers with me at night.

I’m not any more ready to watch him enter middle school as I was to watch him enter kindergarten. Again, is he ready? Did I do a good job preparing him? Does he know what to do when ___ happens or how to handle ____?

I probably won’t sob tomorrow like I did all those years ago, mostly because all my kids will be 10 feet from me all day long doing online school, but it will be an emotional day nonetheless.

Another chapter closing. A new one opening. A worried mom who, when she looks at her newly minted middle school son who’s nearly as tall as her, still sees that tiny boy and remembers that first goodbye all those years ago.

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Why Teens Are Less Likely To Follow COVID-19 Safety Rules

I’m going to be honest here. Since March of this year, I’ve been faced with a number of challenges. I’ve had to figure out how to work from home while also educating my children. I’ve had anxiety about everything — from the health and safety of family and friends, to the very real risk of losing my job. There has been the stress on my marriage of living through a pandemic, and the stress of paying bills after a salary reduction. But at the top of the list of all of these challenges has been trying to get my teenage son to understand the importance of following COVID-19 related safety guidelines.

He’s 13, and let me tell you, he knows how to make his own pancakes, and that somehow translates to him knowing a lot about everything, and informing the whole family about his opinions on what is and isn’t safe. He likes to point out contradictions, because you know, that’s what teenagers do. And he is always on the push to move the rules around so he can spend time with his friends. And you know what, on the whole, he’s not a bad kid, and nothing he’s doing is atypical behavior for his age, but when you are looking down the barrel of a pandemic, keeping your teenager safe can be a real stressor.

So why are teenagers struggling so hard with following COVID-19 rules?

Well… according to the experts, there are two things to consider, and the first and foremost is brain development.

And according to Dr. Judith G. Edersheim, co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, most teenage actions and disinterest in following COVID-19 safety rules can be blamed on the developing teenage brain. “Adolescents are programmed to seek independence. Pushing limits and taking risks are the evolutionary way in which they master these challenges. Blaming teenagers for their illicit socializing is like faulting a bird for leaving the nest — it runs counter to a basic biological imperative. But ignoring this risky behavior poses a grave threat to themselves and the rest of us.”

As maddening as it is to try to get our teenagers to stick to the basic rules of mask wearing and social distancing, it obviously goes in direct contrast with their need to socialize and push up and out into the world. This is the reason you are seeing college campuses implementing a long list of safety measures, only for students to disregard them by throwing a massive mask-free party, and ending up with an outbreak. This is why you are having one argument after another with your teen about staying away from friends, only for them to lie about where they were because they just really, really, needed to see their friends at the beach.

So what’s the second reason? Well… it’s grief.

According to psychologist Robin Gurwitch, from Duke University, in Durham, N.C., a lot of kids are experiencing loss. “Many teens aren’t getting to participate in typical rites of passage–getting your driver’s license at 16, sports competitions, proms, graduations, and even younger children have activities they’re not doing. We need to acknowledge that there is grief and anger and frustration and sadness,” she said. And those feelings are causing teenagers to act out in strange ways to make up for those losses. They are being more impulsive than they might be otherwise, and they are pushing boundaries even at the risk of further spreading the infection.

In the case of my son, I must say, his soccer season was canceled. He hasn’t been able to see his friends for months, and he won’t be able to anytime soon because our school district just went online. And it’s in moments like this where it’s good for me, and for all parents, to acknowledge that hardship when approaching our children about why they are fighting us so hard on this whole social distancing thing.

So what are parents to do? Well… going back to Gurwitch, acknowledging that, “It’s part of their normal developmental trajectory to try to make their own decisions, and now, the response to the virus is taking all their sense of control away.” It’s also good to discuss with them the loss that they might be experiencing due to COVID restrictions. Being understanding can really go a long way when it comes to getting your teen to follow along. And I know this might be a tall order with how inconsistent COVID-19 regulations have been up to this point, but trying to be consistent with your expectations can really make a difference when explaining the COVID-19 safety rules.

But I must say, as frustrating as it has been personally to get my son on board with COVID-19 safety, knowing that this is typical teenage behavior, and that he is struggling with his own grief, does give me some insight into his mindset. And sometimes, figuring out how to meet your child in the middle can be a huge advantage.

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Girls Are Undergoing Labiaplasty, And We Need to Talk About It

For the vast majority of cisgender girls, the physical changes in puberty can feel downright uncomfortable. We get periods, grow breasts, sweat more, discover hair in spots we didn’t expect. Compounded with this is the gross lack of information presented to us about the awesome individuality of our bodies. Not only have we been cheated out of some kickass female empowerment lessons as kids and teens, but we’ve also been conditioned through the media and beauty industry to see skewed images of women that give us a ton of anxiety if our physical parts didn’t match up to them.

There are two really important topics in my high school health class that no one ever covered, and I really wish they had. They are the sexual pleasure we as females deserve to receive and experience, and that it’s normal AF to have your labia look unique to you. Can you imagine if our teachers had been given free rein to openly discuss the undeniable magic of the clitoris and how female orgasms have unexpected health benefits, or if they had shared with us this nifty photo gallery courtesy of The Labia Library? I know I personally would’ve been getting my big O on a little earlier had I known how to actually make it happen and felt totally cool to doodle underneath that poster of my teenage crush Angelina Jolie hanging in my bedroom. Instead, I was taught to see my reproductive parts as two main things — the source of my generationally stigmatized menstrual cycle, and that spot where the unprotected sex need never happen. 

Seriously though. Maybe, just maybe, if our educational institutions acknowledged the very real and very deserving perks of having a vagina, the right to choose what to do with it, and the confidence that comes with allowing ourselves the pleasure of enjoying it, we might not have a growing number of teenage girls feeling so ashamed of their vaginas that they’re going to extreme lengths to surgically alter them. 

I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. According to the BBC, over the past five years in particular, girls as young as nine have been seeking out cosmetic labiaplasty and going under the knife to voluntarily trim their labia in an effort to make it appear closer to what they think one is “supposed” to look like. And yes, our adolescents are most definitely being exposed to images of vaginas online and taking mental notes, I can assure you. They’re also looking at their own body parts in confusion and potential disgust, because they don’t have the necessary resources around them to understand that each labia is different in its size, shape, and composition. Hell, there’s even a surgery available to fuse the outer labia together like a clam shell called “The Barbie,” and it’s gaining popularity among teens. 

This is obviously a terrifying reality, considering that Barbie is completely made of plastic and doesn’t even have a vagina. 

“Labiaplasty, which is the trimming of the inner and outer labia, is the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery among teenage girls,” says “Girls and Sex” author Peggy Orenstein in her 2016 Ted Talk. “It rose 80 percent between 2014 and 2015, and whereas girls under 18 comprise two percent of all cosmetic surgeries, they are five percent of labiaplasty.”

Between 2013 and 2018, The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that labiaplasty surgeries have seen a 53% increase, with more than 35 million dollars spent in 2018 on the procedure and 12,756 total surgeries performed. Of those documented procedures, 491 had been performed on girls under the age of 17.

Between 2018 and 2019, The American Society of Plastic Surgeons noticed a 9% increase in cosmetic labiaplasty procedures, and I can only imagine that girls and teens may very well still be an active demographic for those seeking out the procedure. There are also few extensive guidelines for screening adolescents prior to surgical approval. This poses a huge risk to our girls in more ways than one. Since their outer labia doesn’t finish growing until they turn 18, there is the great potential for scarring and even asymmetrical genitals if an adolescent surgically alters her vulva before it’s had a chance to properly grow.

“The labiaplasty trend has become so worrisome that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a statement on the procedure, which is rarely medically indicated, has not been proven safe and whose side effects include scarring, numbness, pain and diminished sexual sensation,” explains Orenstein. “Now, admittedly, and blessedly, the number of girls involved is still quite small, but you could see them as canaries in a coal mine, telling us something important about the way girls see their bodies.”

Just months before the author’s groundbreaking Ted Talk, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published an article stating that the surgical alteration of the labia is not necessary to the health of an adolescent girl, and it can even be considered a violation of federal criminal law in many cases. And yet, girls under 18 have still been getting this procedure, with one of the only major screening guidelines suggested being the examination of whether a young patient has body dysmorphia

For these impressionable young girls, the desire to cosmetically alter their genitals can often stem from our society’s impossible beauty standards and the media imagery they compare their bodies to, along with the infuriating lack of positive sex education available to them in school. According to Orenstein, this assuredly results in female adolescents feeling shame and the fear of humiliation if their anatomy does match up with what they may see online, keeps them from prioritizing their own pleasure during sexual encounters, and leads a bunch of girls to even avoid self-exploration. 

“Kids go into their puberty education classes and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations, and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy,” she says. “And they see that internal diagram of a woman’s reproductive system — you know, the one that looks kind of like a steer head — and it always grays out between the legs. So we never say ‘vulva,’ we certainly never say ‘clitoris.’ No surprise, fewer than half of teenage girls age 14 to 17 have ever masturbated. And then they go into their partnered experience and we expect that somehow they’ll think sex is about them, that they’ll be able to articulate their needs, their desires, their limits. It’s unrealistic.”

Obviously, a major fucking shift needs to happen here. It’s ridiculous enough that there is still an overwhelming amount of stigma around periods and postpartum bodies, not to mention living with racist and discriminatory industries that constantly pick apart our perceived physical “flaws” in order to profit off of the self-loathing they helped to create. We don’t need to add into this harmful mix the damaging reality of teens thinking that their vaginas are a problem to be fixed or an area devoid of pleasure. And we certainly don’t need them seeking out a cosmetic genital surgery named after Barbie.

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Explaining COVID-19 Safety To Our Teenagers Is Madness

My 13-year-old son went out for a bike ride the other day. And naturally, I sent him with a mask and some hand sanitizer. I reminded him about needing to stay six feet away from people, and how I wanted him to exercise, but I also wanted him to stay safe. And in true teenager fashion, he nodded, eyes glossy in that “I know, Dad” sort of way that teens get when they think they have everything figured out, even in the middle of a pandemic.

About 20 minutes later, he called me to say that he had stopped by a friend’s house and wanted to go inside and play video games. We had discussed this sort of thing previously. He was allowed to talk to friends in the neighborhood as long as it was outside, and he maintained social distancing. However, he was not allowed to go in their homes or cars.

I reminded him of the no-friends’-houses rule, and he started arguing with me (because he’s 13). He went on about how we go to the grocery store with masks, and he didn’t see how that was any different than him playing video games with his friend, sitting next to him on the sofa, playing games and eating snacks. He also told me that his friends’ parents told their son that this whole COVID thing is a big sham, and that it’s not worse than the flu, and obviously he’d rather listen to his friends’ parents than his own, because then he’d get what he wanted.

We went back and forth for a while, me explaining to him that so much of this “COVID thing” is very real, and that over 170,000 Americans had died from it. Then I went on about how staying safe means mitigating risk, and going to the grocery store is a risk we have to take to get food, and how we hardly even go into the store anymore because we do curbside pickup.

Then I told him something that really ticked him off: “Playing video games at your friend’s house isn’t an essential risk.”

Boom.

He got so offended, and you’d think I’d just told him that his friend was a no-good loser, and that he shouldn’t ever play with him again. Which isn’t what I was saying at all, obviously, but when you’re 13 you hear things differently than normal people.

I don’t want to speak for all parents raising a teenager in the middle of a pandemic, but I have to assume that this all sounds very familiar. Explaining COVID-19 safety to my teen has to be one of the most complicated and argument-ridden things I’ve ever done.

My son is a pretty good kid. He does well in school, and he’s good to help out around the house. I am lucky in the fact that I can trust him to follow the rules, and before he might break one, he will call me and ask for permission. He also has good friends, even if some of their parents are COVID-19 deniers.

But this 2020 summer on quarantine has been the most boring thing he’s ever experienced, and he really wants to spend time with his buddies. So I suppose it should be natural that he’s spent most of the summer finding any way to poke a hole in the safety regulations his parents are trying to enforce. He asks a lot of questions that honestly, at times, I don’t have the answers to. He has set sail on a lot of arguments, all of it coming out in a long list of grievances over how lonely he is, hopeful that he will find some way to get around the rules he doesn’t particularly want to follow.

To be fair, I don’t really like following COVID-19 safety rules myself. I’d much rather have my son riding around town with his friends, playing games at their homes, and dreading the impending school inside an actual classroom. But that isn’t the reality of right now, and so I have to help him understand how to stay safe for himself, his family, and his community. So I’m being a stickler about all of it, and my son is not digging it. Not at all.

Raising a teenager in the middle of a pandemic means setting forth a bunch of new rules and expectations, along with a number of limitations. And those safety rules have changed and adapted as new information has come forth about the virus. Explaining that to my son has been pretty difficult, particularly when many of his friends’ parents are not on board with following the same rules. All of it is a new form of frustration for parents in 2020, and by the time I got done arguing with my son over the phone about playing games inside his buddies house, I was good and tired.

Ultimately, he relented, and we settled on a compromise: he could come home and play Roblox online with his friend, and that seemed to work for him. But I have no doubt that the longer this pandemic lasts, the more I — and parents of teens everywhere — are going to find ourselves locked into similar arguments.

Let’s just add this fact to our list of 2020 grievances. As if it weren’t long enough already.

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I Dread The Day My Son No Longer Wants To Cuddle

I miss touching people. Okay, as a standalone statement I acknowledge that this sounds incredibly creepy…but it’s not meant to be.

I miss hugging. I miss shaking hands. I miss high fiving. I miss wrapping my arm around someone’s shoulder. The fist and elbow bumps just aren’t doing it for me. Another mom and I tried to celebrate our sons’ semi-final baseball playoff win with toe taps and I inadvertently kicked her in the shin. Air hugs, waves, and blowing kisses leave me longing for the way things used to be…when we could touch people.

I get it, though. I understand that we are trying to battle a virus that we are still learning new things about on a daily basis. No-touch greetings are necessary in order to slow the spread. I certainly want to keep the people that I care about healthy and safe…for all I know I could be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 right now.

Knowing and understanding all this, though, still doesn’t mean that social distancing isn’t hard.

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely not deprived of physical contact. My husband is very affectionate. His love language is clearly physical touch, whereas acts of service cause my heart to pitter patter. “What Hon, you woke up super early to scrub all three bathrooms from toilet to tub to surprise me…DAMN, YOU FREAKING LOVE ME!” (FYI, my husband is an amazing man, but this scenario would only happen in my dreams).

Like father like son, Andrew — who will be eleven in October — also freely expresses his love through touch. He is a cuddler, hand holder, hugger, kisser, and snuggler. He always has been since birth. However, there definitely has been a shift in the past year. These acts of affection between mother and son can no longer happen in public…where other people can see.

This does not come as a surprise to me. This is totally normal, as he is now a tween and becoming more and more independent. Giving your mama a big hug in front of your friends is a sure fast way to lose cool points and street cred.

Two days ago, we were at a park sitting on rocks by the lake, sharing cups of Italian Ice when I said, “Gimme some sugar.” From the time he was a little boy, whenever I would say this Andrew would give me a smooch on the cheek. Not this time, though. Instead, he responded, “Mom, we’re in public. People can see us.”

I looked around and there was literally no one around us, which is why I made a go for it in the first place. When I asked him what people, he pointed to a teeny tiny person in a canoe about 200 feet away from us, paddling in the opposite direction.

So yes — getting rejected hurt my feelings, but overall I’m okay with it because I know behind closed doors Andrew is still mine.

In the comfort of our home, Andrew cuddles with me on the couch every night as we watch a show together before bed. We love reality shows like America’s Got Talent, The Voice, or baking competitions on Netflix like Sugar Rush and Nailed It. It is my absolute favorite part of my day; I look forward to it! Sometimes Andrew will sprawl out and lay his head on my chest or stomach and I will stroke his hair. Other times we just sit side by side and hold hands.

The other night as we sat down, Andrew said, “Mom, do you know what is going to feel so good? The hardcore cuddling that we are about to do.” I laughed out loud because this sounded absolutely hilarious. But what my son said was music to my ears, because I know that time is not on my side.

The day will come when Andrew will not want to touch me at all, much less “hardcore cuddle” with me. He will not reach out to hug me. He will not reach out to hold my hand. He will not give me a peck on the cheek. His future teen self will most likely be mortified that he ever uttered those words (…and now I’m crying).

As a rational adult I understand that this is natural and expected as he matures and becomes a teenager, but how will I survive my child social distancing from me? Right now, I feel like I need Andrew’s touch as much as I need air to breathe. And Andrew is an only child; I don’t have another kid to get my cuddle fix from. So while I acknowledge that transition and change is the essence of child development, it doesn’t stop me from occasionally sighing and saying, “Where did my baby go?”

The old adage “The days are long, but the years are short” is finally hitting me over the head like a ton of bricks. One evening in the near future Andrew will lay his head on my chest for the final time. How will I know when that is?

Are there support groups for moms of teen boys to help each other cope with the lack of physical contact with their sons (and maybe it’s not just boys … maybe it happens with teen girls too)? My boss once told me that she had to bribe her 16-year-old son to hug her. It crushed me to hear this, but I was also hopeful for the possibility: “So Andrew, you want to use the car tonight? Sure, if you hold my hand for thirty seconds.” Maybe I could accept this. After all, bribery has been in my parental toolkit since the beginning.

All I can do is enjoy each cuddle session like it’s the last. I can have gratitude in my heart that I have the opportunity to watch my baby grow into an amazing young man. Quoting Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

And hey, at least I’ll still be able to peek in on Andrew when he sleeps. A mom can always stare at her child while they are sleeping no matter what age they are … that will always be okay, right?

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I Weep For What My Kids Have Lost In This Pandemic, But Celebrate What They’ve Gained

Although the pandemic has hurt me as it has the entire world, my everyday life isn’t really that different. I can easily work from home as a psychotherapist, and my favorite people (and pets) are with me all the time—my husband and children (and two cats!). I can still see my mother and best friend (albeit from six feet away on my front lawn, but I do see them every week). My other best friend is available by phone at the ready. My father lives far away, but we Zoom regularly (even more so now due to the pandemic).

But … the effects this pandemic is having on my children send me into my closet daily for full-blown weeping sessions. I weep over how powerless I am to provide them with a solution to their isolation, loneliness, and grief.

I’ve watched my 16-year-old feel more and more alienated from her friend group because she is wearing a mask and social distancing and they are not … which has replaced the “my-friends-drink-and-I-don’t” peer pressure of high school. I weep for her because of the injustice, the gaslighting, the out and out insanity of it all—why does she feel bad for doing what you are supposed to do? She watches on social media as they run around town (without masks), acting like they are immune from the virus. It is the epitome of the injustices of the high school experience: you’re popular, you’re “in” if you follow the crowd, and if you have any deviation, you’re out, an outcast, a loner, a weirdo.

I’ve watched my 12-year-old’s developmentally appropriate sudden switch from cuddle bunny to surly almost-teenager become edged in a type of sadness and despair that is not only not her personality, but most definitely due to the inevitable isolation of this pandemic. Although, you could say she’s the luckier one of the two since at least her two closest friends wear masks and are socially distancing and thus can see each other often. Yet, even with routine hangouts with those friends, she is very sad and very angry.

She tells me she misses the smallest of things—seeing her friends at the bus stop, eating her favorite hot lunch meal at school (the BBQ chicken calzone), and hugging her best friends. She is emotionally mature enough to know that there is no one to blame, yet she has the hormones of an almost young woman coursing through her, causing a tug-of-war of emotions. Over these last few months, she went from 11 to 12 and with that, her mood went from “it’s nice to spend so much time with you” to exploding just last week at my husband and me, “I’m just so sick of you guys!”

I wanted to tell her, “Me too, honey. Me too.”

Although I weep over my powerlessness to make my older daughter’s friends be more empathetic, I also am awed by how she has coped with that loss. She’s delved deep into her own internal world—reading books she’s never had time to read before, teaching herself embroidery, taking online yoga classes, and watching documentaries on race and feminism. And though I do weep for my younger daughter who wishes for those small, regular, middle school moments with friends and school, I also am amazed at how she’s thrown herself into studying art more through online classes and YouTube videos.

The girls are forced to look within themselves, and I’m hoping that what they have found is their infinite resilience and creativity. As for me, I will continue to weep for all they have lost and, at the same time, I will celebrate what they have gained.

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Normally I Hate My Son’s Gaming, But Now I’m Grateful For It

If there is a refrain in my house it’s this: Can I have more screen time? I’m pretty sure everyone reading this right now, with kids, can relate. It was like this long before the pandemic, and it will probably be that way long after, but right now, with a deadly virus in the air, and my 13-year-old son stuck in the house longing to spend time with his friends, and his parents not sure how to keep him socially connected, online gaming has been a total life saver.

And yes, I said that. I said that I am grateful for gaming, and I suppose that really speaks to how strange a year it has been. I cannot count how many times my wife and I have discussed throwing every single device out the window because we were so tired of listening to our son ask to play them all day, every day. It’s funny, sometimes it feels like gaming is his only real motivation, and everything he does is attached to screen time. He has to earn every minute by completing a list that includes cleaning his room, working around the house, exercise, and reading. And to be honest, if we didn’t keep his gaming in check, all he’d do, from sun up to sun down would be play games.

But right now, with 2020 being a total madhouse, we have let up on the regulations some — because we know it’s the only way our son will get to connect with his friends safely.

He sits at the kitchen table, computer open, Roblox on the screen, an iPad to his left; pretty serious, but also pretty dorky, headphones over his scruffy head, a glowing blue microphone in front of his mouth. He makes odd sounds and grunts, and says “newb” a lot, and laughs, his little face twisted into dimples. Since March, this is probably the most social interaction he has had. All of his friends play with him, in different parts of our small Oregon town, giggling and telling silly 13-year-old jokes that make no sense to this 38-year-old father.

When I was 13, I spent the summer at an old rope swing along the Provo river with my friends, swimming and getting into some trouble, but nothing illegal. All of it was very similar to the movie Stand By Me (without the dead body). But I must say, we told pretty similarly-stupid jokes, and laughed until our sides hurt. And although I was outside, enjoying fresh air, and my son is indoors playing a game, I can feel the same sense of little boy camaraderie coming from our kitchen that I experienced as a teen swimming in the river.

This has been such an odd year, with a lot of uncertainty, and my wife and I have been weighed down with the burden of keeping our children free from infection. We have spent many hours sifting through contradictory information on how the virus spreads, and how to keep our children safe. To say it has been a stressor is an understatement, and it gets even more complicated when your children start to ask questions about staying safe, and why they can’t spend time with their friends.

And those questions, with all their contradictory answers, can be pretty difficult to navigate when face to face with a teenager ready to point out any sign of inconsistency.

But with gaming, I know that he’s safe, and I know that he’s spending time with his friends which he really needs right now.

Yes, he is still expected to do his chores before he can play. And yes, we expect him to play games in the living room so we can keep an eye on where he’s going online. And no, he is not allowed to chat with anyone online that he doesn’t know in real life. And yes, we have put all sorts of security and safety limitations on his games. But on the whole, if anything has dramatically changed during this pandemic, it’s my feelings about online gaming. If this pandemic hit back in the ’90s, when I was a teen, I’d have been stuck at home watching The Price is Right and Ronco infomercials, with no real ability to stay safe while still connecting with my friends.

And I suppose the real question is, am I experiencing a long term change with my outlook on gaming? I don’t think so. I’d still rather my son get outside, and enjoy face to face interactions with his friends. But for now, in the middle of a pandemic, I’m happy he has this safe outlet to spend time with his friends.

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I Used To Write My Kids Little Notes — And I Miss It

I wish that young-mom me had listened more carefully to the wisdom of aunts, cousins, and grandmas. “You’ll miss this one day,” they said. “All of it. Even the things you didn’t realize were things.”

As my not-so-tiny-anymore kids age at what seems like lightning speed, I am starting to feel the absence of them in tiny flashes. No more LEGO injuries, fewer toys to put away, quieter mornings. All good things, but with that calm and quiet also comes an odd sense of loss.

Before I actually became a mother, I envisioned I would write letters to each of my kids once a month (or at the very least once a year) and that I would show them the letters when they were old enough. It would be such a special moment and forever treasure.

Somehow, though, in the midst of running through life, writing hundreds of resumes for clients in between carpools, doctors’ appointments, practices, games, and dance recitals, it just never really materialized.

During my pregnancies, I assumed that I would create beautiful baby books documenting all my kids’ milestones in books that they would treasure like I did the one my mom created for me. I picked out beautiful books and brought them to the hospital to get their newborn prints.

My daughter’s baby book was in great shape until about month 16, when my son joined the party. At that point, taking a shower became a small victory and leaving the house was a full-on miracle. Baby books were no longer even in the realm of possibilities. Spoiler alert: my son’s book has tiny finger and footprints and the rest of his milestones are saved in iPhone notes and on an old Blackberry I keep in my junk drawer.

Somehow, writing lunchbox notes became my thing. From the first day of preschool, before my kids could read, I started writing little notes on scrap paper with hearts, stars, and lots of XOXOs.

When my kids were really little, I wondered if they even noticed. Often, my notes, which typically read “I love you. Love, Mommy XOXO” came home wet, crumpled, or in the same pocket I had lovingly folded and placed them into that morning.

I Wish I'd Paid More Attention To The Tiny Moments of Childhood Before They Were Gone
Courtesy of Rebecca Henninger

One day, I came into my office (downstairs and laundry-room adjacent of course) to find a perfect post-it in my daughter’s chubby toddler writing: “I love Mommy love Alaina.”

Little love notes started popping up around the house and I kept writing mine to them, confident that my kids would always remember notes from mommy and would, as a result, write them for their kids. Notes started to build up in outside pockets, saved for weeks at a time and then moved to other special places.

My notes began to be little pep talks on days with big projects or exciting events, stand-ins for my presence on field trips when I wasn’t a class mom, or an invisible kiss on the cheek after a long morning of standardized testing.

Like most things in childhood, I wish I had been more aware of how finite it was. As moms, we move so quickly through the days and, just like that, things that we never contemplated having an end are over. Without notice, the opportunity to savor that very last one slips away.

Similar to the last time my son napped in my lap and the last time my daughter wanted me to lay with her at bedtime, I never thought about it being something I would miss. In fact, many mornings I cursed the note and was tempted to just reuse yesterdays, just like many days I would silently stress about the things I could get done if I didn’t have a sleeping baby on me.

On an otherwise uneventful Thursday, my daughter dropped the bomb. I could stop writing notes—if I wanted. Casually, she said, “Mommy, you don’t have to write notes to me anymore if you don’t want to.”

It wasn’t a big deal to her, but I could see (and hear) the meaning behind it. “Mommy, I’m a little too old (and way too cool) for notes in my lunchbox. My friends see them, and I feel embarrassed.”

Foreshadowing many more moments to come I’m sure, this was a window into a future of dropping at the corner, far enough away from the crowd of friends, and being way less fun, funny, or needed that I used to be.

I hope I can hold on to more of these lasts, that I can be slightly more present in the moment and more consciously grateful for the whispered “I love you,” the tiny forehead kisses, or those sweet, not-so-chubby-anymore fingers that almost imperceptibly slip into mine when no one is looking.

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