Recently there was a gaggle of girls at my house. As it often happens, a dance-off ensued. Never one to shy away from getting my groove on, I jumped in with my signature move: The Running Man. Of course, I have my own take on it, but I think I killed it.
My nine-year old didn’t agree so much. In fact, her exact words were: “Oh my Gosh Mom, you are embarrassing me!”
This was a crushing blow. These words have never come out of my children’s mouths. I almost turned to go back to unloading the dishwasher, but about 45 second later I did what I had to do: a little MC Hammer “u can’t touch this” shuffle and even some moves I learned from one Vanilla Ice. I am one bad mutha on the dance floor. Luckily there was no more “embarrassment” comments, and I even got a few cheers. I ended on a high note.
Later that day I talked to a few other moms about how I finally got the embarrassing comment, and we lamented about how we were entering that difficult time with our girls. Surprisingly, one mom said that she did scale back on how she interacted with her teenage daughters. Her goal was to be more aloof and cool so her girls would talk to her more, since she had always thought her own parents were ‘lame’.
All I could think of the entire time she was speaking was did this mom not learn anything from watching the movie Mean Girls? Didn’t she see how ridiculous Amy Poehler played the “cool mom”, and subsequently how the girls disrespected her (because of course, Mean Girls is just like real life in my head.)
But in all honesty, when did we get so scared of our kids and what they think of us (I address this a bit in my article Does Your Kid Bully You?) And why do we care?
I think growing up with parents that embarrass the heck out of you truly makes you a stronger person. My dad was a lunatic. He would blast show tunes while I was hanging out with my friends in the pool growing up. He would do the moves to cheers when I was on the sidelines in high school. When I brought my very Italian boyfriend home in college, he asked if he could kiss his ring and call him “Godfather.”
It was mortifying. And hilarious.
I also was embarrassed at times by the rules my parents enforced. Curfews earlier than my friends, calling to make sure I was where I said I was, staying up until I walked through the door…how did I endure this behavior????
But even with all that embarrassment, I learned early on that people loved my parents. My dad was the entertainment and my mom would always feed them. Sure, there were times I wish they would dial it back a bit, but it taught me early on that anyone worth having as a friend thought my parents were cool, even when they embarrassed me. I still do.
And when I look at my friend-set, we’ve all shared the embarrassing parental unit stories. One of my besties told me about how her parents and her neighbors used to ride behind her school bus on mopeds. All the way to school. How awesome is that?
Or another friend talked about her parents who were overly affectionate to each other. Not in a gross inappropriate way like they needed to go to their bedroom, but in a way that I now realize is endearing. It used to drive her nuts, but now we admire it.
Now, I am not saying that I will purposely do things to embarrass my kids. I won’t show up to their school wearing my bunny slippers or chaperone a school dance wearing my old prom dress (well, probably not), but I’m not going to change who I am — or what I believe in — just to ensure they are not embarrassed.
Because where does it end? There is a limitless list of things kids can be embarrassed about: not arriving to school in the right car, not having the right shoes, mothers who don’t wear make up, too curly hair, having to wear glasses, a dad who dresses funny, and yes, even a mom who does the running man extremely well.
And I know that sometimes they will get embarrassed by what I don’t let them do: like wear make up just because the other girls are or go to a party where I know there is no supervision. Because I only get one shot with my kids, and I plan on making the most of it.
I remember growing up in elementary school and a friend telling me how embarrassing it was because her mom wouldn’t let her eat any processed foods while the rest of us stuffed our faces with twinkies and ho ho’s. That mom didn’t care that her kid was embarrassed….she was true to herself and her beliefs. And look at how smart she looks now.
I often think about that mom when I try to explain to my own kids why I don’t want them to drink soda or eat Lunchables. I’m sure they are a little embarrassed by my rules, but I hope one day they’ll get it.
It is a delicate balance when raising older children. I’m pretty sure that at some point in the near future just the mere fact that I exist will embarrass them. But I’ve already lived through those painful teenage years of trying to fit in, and I just don’t feel like doing it again as a parent. Being “cool” was never my forte, but I was always stellar at having a good time, and I like to think being kind is my version of “cool.”
My job as a parent is more about showing my kids how to enjoy life and be a responsible, productive member of society than being their friend. And if they learn a few super-cool dance moves along the way, then that’s just a bonus.
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The other day “Ice Ice Baby” came blasting through my iPhone while doing dishes. I instantly squealed, “Oh my God! I used to love this song!” (Don’t judge me. You know you loved it too.)
I put down the dirty dish I held and started busting out my signature move, The Running Man. Of course, I have my own version, but I killed it.
That’s when I received a crushing blow to the gut. My nearly eleven-year-old daughter shouted from across the room, “Mom, seriously. You are so embarrassing.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. As I turned to face her and three of her friends eating pizza at my kitchen counter, I caught the last rotation of an eye roll as she turned her back on me.
So I did what any mom would do. I threw down my dish towel and did a little M.C. Hammer “U Can’t Touch This” shuffle across my hard wood floors and ended with “The Sprinkler,” which may have involved some PG-13 gyrating.
Her friends cheered me on but I could see the pink rising on my daughter’s cheeks. She was smiling, but I could tell the mortification was real. She was ashamed of me.
Later, I thought about how I drew a line in the sand with my daughter by continuing the dance-off. My fellow moms of tweens and I often discus how are lives are changing. Trips to Starbucks and the mall now replace princess tea parties and pretend fashion shows. iEverything’s seem to be glued to their palms and sleepovers replace playdates. And inevitably, there are a few more door slams and sighs then cuddles and kisses.
Some of my friends want to keep their relationships with their tweens/teens in tact and choose to relate to them on their terms. Some respect boundaries and allow their children more independence. Some even insist that they will be the parenting white unicorn — the cool mom.
I could have tried to be more hip to bond with the group, demonstrating that I once was like them. I could have stopped dancing and changed the station to something a little more current. I could have altered who I was at that moment.
But what fun would that be? When did we get so scared of our kids and what they think of us?
There is a lot of discussion about the role shaming has in parenting, so much so that as a culture we bend over backward to ensure we never say or do anything bad that may impact the self-esteem of a child. We worry that our every move will have an impact on their physical, intellectual, and even social well-being.
And this is important stuff. We should not publicly shame our children or make them feel ashamed about their behavior, appearance or choices. They should never feel degraded or diminished.
But that does not mean we should not teach our children the difference between shame, the mis-placed kind because of something someone else does, and good, old-fashioned parental embarrassment.
I think growing up with parents that embarrass the heck out of you truly makes you a stronger person. My dad was a lunatic. Growing up, he would blast show tunes while I was hanging out with my friends in the pool. He would do the moves to cheers when I was on the sidelines in high school. When I brought my very Italian boyfriend home in college, he asked if he could kiss his ring and call him “Godfather.”
It was mortifying. It was annoying. It made me want to curl up in the fetal position and not come out until adulthood.
And he was not the only one. My mom could be worse. She would stay up each night until I walked through the door. She called the parents of my friends —whether she knew them or not — to ensure I was where I said I would be. She would say no to my requests even when every other parent said yes. I am not sure how I survived.
If parenting is about being brave and steadfast in your decisions, then my parents had cojones the size of Texas. And even with these “flaws,” my house was where my friends wanted to be, where we could all laugh and be ourselves.
I may not purposely do things to embarrass my kids. I won’t show up to their school wearing my pajama bottoms (if you don’t count the drop off line) or chaperone a school dance wearing my old prom dress (unless I can fit in it), but I’m not going to change who I am — or what I believe in — just to ensure they are not embarrassed. And if their friends don’t like me, well, that’s on them.
Because where does it end? There is a limitless list of things kids can be embarrassed about: not arriving to school in the right car or not having the right shoes; mothers who don’t wear make up or don yoga pants every day; or dads who scare boyfriends or dress in ridiculous ties. And yes, even a mom who does the Running Man — even when she nails it.
I know that my kids also will get embarrassed by what I don’t let them do, like wear makeup just because the other girls are or go to a party where I know there is no supervision.
It is a delicate balance when raising older children. I’m sure shortly that just the mere fact I exist will embarrass them. But I’ve already lived through those painful teenage years of trying to fit in, and I am not doing it again.
My job is showing my kids how to enjoy life and be a responsible, productive member of society. If we can get through that and still be friends, then so be it.
And if they learn a few super-cool dance moves along the way, then that is a bonus.
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For as long as I have had children, people have commented about the hormones that were one day going to invade my home. I have always laughed it off, because it seemed so very far off in the distance. And although I listened to other parents talk about how at age nine their daughters started to change…a little bit more attitude, a little bit more tears, a little more moody — I didn’t take it very seriously.
Because like most parents do, I chose denial as my force field, telling myself that my kids were different. I was different. Our journey would be different.
And it has been. For girls, they aren’t very dramatic and though we experienced a few doozy of some tantrums in their younger years, most of the time they are remarkably even-keeled. Just like their mom.
Up until recently. Because over the past few weeks it seems like someone is always on the verge of tears. And by verge I really mean out-and-out uncontrollable sobs.
I don’t think my parenting style has changed much. No one is sick, under too much stress or been faced with a recent tragedy. Yeah, we’re not on too much of a schedule and probably haven’t been sleeping as regularly, but it’s not like we’re staying up late every single night.
Yet there seems to be a heavier tone in the way the girls respond to me — more sass, more exasperation, and a little more defiance. There seems to be a borderline eye roll and some heavy sighs after I ask them to do even the smallest tasks. And there has even been some slight embarrassment when I do my killer running man moves in front of their friends.
But could it be hormones? Could it be puberty? There are no physical signs, so could this really be the big change?
I was not convinced. After a particular trying day today with my sweet girls, I thought I would reflect on what I could do differently for my kids. Maybe it wasn’t all them….maybe I played a part in the tears. So, I wrote down the things that made my normally good-natured girls upset today. They include (but actually aren’t limited to):
+ Helping to learn long division. One of my girls is entering a new math program this year and needs to complete some work before school starts. Today’s lesson was long division, and she wasn’t understanding it based on the computer program. I got as far as: “How many times does three go into 22” before the water works started. Apparently I didn’t know how to teach it right.
+ Asking to change into a bathing suit that actually fits. Remember when I said that there were no physical signs of puberty yet? Well, that doesn’t mean my size 10 daughter can fit into a size 6 swimsuit. Apparently it was pretty traumatizing to have to walk up the stairs and change.
+ Offering to brush her hair. Yeah, I still haven’t figured out why that one brought on the water works.
+ Encouraging them to watch E.T. Apparently one of my daughters thought my choice of movies was so hurtful that it made her cry, so we watched the Disney channel instead. Again.
+ “Hey, can you guys jump in the shower before dinner?” This actually brought two sets of tears and one full waterworks. I like to think that maybe they were protesting for clean water in some third-world country, but I’m pretty sure they were just mad because they had already taken a shower the night before.
Could hormones really be the cause of so much angst? My twins are approaching double digits in just three short months, and although I don’t see any physical signs, the attitudes are very real. And although she’s just 16 months younger than her sisters, I’m pretty sure my eight year old is just coming along for the ride.
This is happening.
Yes, I think we may be approaching Tweendom in our house. And although I’m completely unprepared, I am comforted by the fact that so many brave moms have fought this battle before me and survived. Some even lived to tell about it, passing valuable secrets such as the book above which will help me discuss terms like breast buds and body odor with my three prepubescent lovelies.
I’m still holding out that maybe — just maybe — we’ve been having a few bad days lately and maybe some ice cream and a few snuggles will bring my sweet little girls back. Because if this is the opening number to what the teenage years are going to be like, I told my husband to buckle up, because this is going to be one heck of a ride. And we need a lot more wine.
Game on girlfriends.
“Alright, Dad. Let’s do this,” I muttered under my breath as I gingerly placed the heavy cardboard box in my carry-on bag.
I quickly checked underneath my childhood bed for anything I may have left behind, and then completed my standard mental checklist before departing for the airport.
Eyeglasses and wallet, check.
Cell phone and computer, check.
My father’s cremains, check.
Seven days passed since I received the phone call on New Year’s Day. “Dad died,” my brother’s said in a cracked voice. It was not a surprise, but hearing the words sent a shock through my body.
“Leave it to Dad to delay dying until the first of the year just to get that last tax break,” I responded, deflecting the pain I felt in my heart. My father spent the last three weeks in Hospice care, and finally succumbed to the grapefruit-sized tumor that infiltrated his nicotine-filled lungs.
The next week was a whirlwind of funeral arrangements, paperwork, and purging. My mother believed the best way to get through a difficult time was to stay busy, so she attacked the clutter accumulated after three years of tending to my cancer-stricken dad with the same determination she used caring for him. The days passed quickly planning for funeral services and visitors, returning hospital equipment, clearing out closets and wrapping up his estate.
In between, we reminisced and divvied up special items my dad held dear to his heart. My sister took the vintage records, my brother staked claim to the monster movie collection, and I scored the broken pinball machine. We met with the probate attorney and sold his car, a gigantic 1984 Grand Marquis that my mom couldn’t back out of the driveway. We accomplished so much each day that there was never a second alone, so there was never a moment to shed a tear.
My last task was to bring my father back to Connecticut to spread his ashes near the property of our childhood home. According to him, it was the place where he had the happiest memories. Although we had not lived there for 15 years, I promised my dad that I would make it happen, despite fearing the new owners would call the police thinking I was spreading Anthrax.
Before zipping my carry on, I placed a copy of my dad’s death certificate alongside the Taylor & Sons Funeral Home box. “Just show them this letter before you pass through security,” the funeral director solemnly told me. “You’ll need to run it through the X-ray and they may do special testing on it for security purposes. They’ll know what to do.”
“Well, we are in Florida. I imagine this happens all the time,” I joked as I thought again about the irony. A man who smoked for fifty years literally reduced to ashes.
I drove alone to the airport and for the first time felt the soggy weight of my heart as I tried to distract myself by creating a to-do list for the week’s work I missed. Stepping into the long security line, I struggled controlling the anxiety that suddenly crept into my body, causing my hands to tremble. “Deep breaths,” I chanted to myself as I watched the slew of elderly grandparents patiently wait for loved ones to walk through the Arrivals gate.
My heart beat in my ears as I stepped up to the conveyor belt. I kicked off my leather sandals and placed them in the gray bin. I lifted my laptop out, and then my quart sized Ziploc filled with trial-sized toothpaste, makeup, and eye drops.
The only thing remaining was the carton holding my dad. A man larger than life reduced to six pounds of dust.
I felt the panic rising in my chest as I stared into the depth of my luggage. A flood of memories rushed my brain, as I tried to wrap my head around a world without my father in it. There would be no more letters in the mail with a $10 bill and a newspaper clipping of a salmon recipe. No more phone calls filled with off-color jokes or political debates. No more advice about insurance premiums, fights with my husband or job decisions.
I jumped when a businessman placed his hand on my shoulder to let me know it was my turn.
As my denial went into over-drive, I deliberately closed my bag, placed it on the moving black belt and walked through the metal detector without a beep. As I hastily grabbed my items from the tray, I could see the security screener out of the corner of my eye staring at what must be my father in the X-ray machine.
The sweat was beading on my forehead when a large man in a royal blue shirt approached me. I envisioned him interrogating me about the dangerous materials in my Vera Bradley luggage, placing my name on the FBI’s “Watch List” of criminals no longer allowed to travel by plane. I briefly considered running out of the airport, anything to get away from discussing what was in that box.
“Miss, can you step over here please,” he said with his arm stretched out to the right. My face turned hot as I gathered up my things and followed him barefoot to behind the screening area. He leaned in and whispered, “Are these cremains in the box?”
I hung my head down and for the first time since hearing those dreaded words, I wept. Somehow I landed on a hard plastic chair, and a wad of kleenex magically appeared in my hand as the tears stained my face. “Yes,” I told him in between heavy heaves. “Yes, my dad. My dad is gone.”
“I am going to take it right over there and test for any flammable materials per TSA regulations. You may watch from here as you catch your breath,” he said, ending with a close-lipped smile. It clearly was not his first time seeing someone ugly cry in the middle of the airport.
A few moments later, I tried to sniffle back the emotion that comes with losing a parent. As he handed my dad back to me, I met his eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I just couldn’t get the words out.”
“It will get easier,” he said as he touched a gloved hand to my arm.
I knew he wasn’t talking about getting through airport security.
The 10-year old girl with the top hat and glasses slides up to the podium. Forgetting to adjust the microphone, she leans down and loudly exclaims: “Do you know which president’s real name is Thomas? That’s right, it’s Woodrowwwwwww Wilson!” The comment sounds more like the introduction for a Chicago Bulls basketball player than a 4th grader giving a speech on the 28th president of the United States.
The audience giggles and my friend leans in close to whisper, “She is a riot!”
I smile big and roll my eyes as I watch my daughter yuk it up in front of roughly fifty parents and her classmates, only looking slightly nervous.
Of the thirty students giving speeches this morning, my daughter is the only one to perform it like a stand up comedy routine. She rehearsed her delivery to ensure a few laughs.
I hear the audience chuckle again as she tells them that Wilson accomplished a little more than just being a father to three girls. I know the speech verbatim as we practiced it for two straight weeks. As it often happens when I watch her “perform,” a slew of other phrases pop into my head:
“She will most likely have learning problems like dyslexia.”
“We are hopeful that she may live a normal life.”
“You need to prepare yourself for a long road ahead.”
These aren’t phrases out of a carefully written speech; instead they are prognoses from a slew of medical experts about my daughter when we weren’t sure how to help her as a struggling toddler with significant developmental delays.
As she passed the first year mark, I knew something was wrong. She did not possess any words and seemed extremely high-strung and frustrated. She was an early walker at 11 months, but she quickly transitioned to walking only on her toes. I often watched her play with her toys in odd ways and she did not seem interested in other children. The rise of autism was all over the news, and of course I was scanning the Internet trying to figure out what was wrong with my baby.
Doctors could not pinpoint what was actually wrong with my her, and we received a slew of mis-diagnoses: apraxia, dyspraxia, Sensory Processing Disorder, PDD-NOS, Asperger’s. The list was long yet never seemed to fit.
Over the course of the next four years, my daughter participated in a range of therapies, including speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, social skills classes, developmental therapy and more. We saw progress, but our lead case manager prepared us that she would most likely need an aide when she started kindergarten.
“Whatever it takes,” I responded, but I felt dejected and helpless, like we were on a hamster wheel running to nowhere.
I sought solace by building friendships with other parents of children with special needs, other people who understood what we were going through on a daily basis. We compared therapists and shared books. We celebrated successes and offered shoulders to cry on when it was a trying day. We discussed how to deal with our “typical” children and our fears of what lay ahead.
What is it like to raise a child with special needs? Sesame Street writer Emily Perl Kingsley, mom to a son with Downs Syndrome, equated it to planning a vacation but the destination gets changed suddenly.
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip—to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”
But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.
That is what special needs parenting is like. Except I was fine not going to Italy, but I sure wanted to know where I was! I wanted answers. I needed to know where we were in my daughter’s journey so I did not feel so in the dark.
When she was almost five, we saw an orthopaedic surgeon to assess her legs since therapy was not helping. He told us our daughter had a minor case of cerebral palsy. In his opinion, although it did not show up on her MRI, she had experienced trauma in the womb that caused a neurological issue forcing her lower leg muscles to not function properly and interrupting communication with the brain to other regions. This, coupled with some tight tendons, caused her to be a constant, extreme toe walker (think all the way up on your toes, not just the balls of your feet). He also explained that of course her development was delayed. Could you imagine trying to spend your life balanced on your tippy toes and then process information?
While the news was a shock, I was relieved at the same time. The peg finally fit in the hole. CP often causes issues with speech and fine motor skills, but it was non-progressive, which is why we were seeing her developmental skills improve, albeit slowly.
We decided to aggressively pursue treatment for my daughter’s toe walking, which seemed to be a major issue for her both in developing motor skills and her confidence. The doctor would cut her Achilles tendons, elongate them, and then re-attach them in order to allow her to walk on her flat feet without pain. It was bittersweet when the doctor came out to tell us that she had one of the most severe cases he had ever seen, but felt it was successful.
Immediately after the surgery, she began to flourish in leaps and bounds. With a more centered core, it was easier for her to find words and process information for conversation. Her spatial awareness improved. Her sensory needs reduced and she expressed a desire to learn to read. She became more confident and easier to deal with since she could now communicate her wants and needs.
On her first day of kindergarten, she walked through the door on her flat feet and without an aide. Although she was still behind her peer group and required additional support in a few areas, she had surpassed all expectations.
The rush of clapping brings me back to the library, where I see my daughter’s braces-filled smile as she nods to the crowd, acknowledging the applause. My husband and I look at each other, grateful to see her exceed our expectations yet again.
After the last speech, the kids assemble for photos, and my daughter joins three of her friends, arms around each other, smiling for the iPhones snapping pictures at a rapid pace. It is hard to imagine her as a crotchety three-year old that could not even say, “More milk.”
Five years after her surgery, nine years after our first appointment to assess her development, my daughter no longer has what the State would deem “special needs.” She reads at an above average level and excels at math. Our time allocated for additional therapy is now used for horseback lessons and theater class. Kindness and compassion have replaced frustration when I describe her every day attitude.
Yet, sometimes, it is hard to let go of the past, the life I lived as a special needs parent. It’s hard not to worry each time she doesn’t understand a piece of homework or struggles to find the right words. It’s hard not to obsess over any small idiosyncrasy or awkwardness. It’s a struggle to accept that her differences have now become her strengths instead of her handicap.
I know I am one of the lucky ones. It is unusual for a child with severe developmental delays to be so heavily impacted by a surgery or even years of therapies. For most, it is a life-long struggle.
I know we are lucky, and I am grateful for this. And although I wish my daughter’s beginning was less complicated, I am thankful for what I have learned, such as:
Opening up my eyes to the beauty of different.
Understanding that I am my child’s best advocate — and sometimes even highly educated, well-meaning professionals are wrong. Always believe you child can do more than what you are told.
Accepting that it is okay to take help.
Celebrating my daughter’s milestones on her schedule. Little things are always big reasons to celebrate.
Struggling can bring your entire family together, and can impact the kindness and compassion of all your children.
But most importantly, I learned to celebrate my daughter for who she is, and not worry as much about what she has.
My journey with my daughter hasn’t changed. I will still advocate on her behalf and continue to ensure she has all the resources to succeed in this life; however, I am slowly accepting that our path is headed in a different direction. We may be leaving Holland and headed to Italy.
There is a line in my daughter’s speech that she delivered with impeccable precision and compassion: “President Wilson struggled in school in his early years. His teachers thought he may have dyslexia, but he eventually overcame it.”
May similar words be spoken about my daughter one day as well.
Author note: Special needs parenting is hard. In no way do I want to portray that most kids can outgrow their developmental delays or diagnoses. This is only a reflective essay regarding my experience with my daughter.
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