My favorite teens

For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a mom, partly because I always enjoyed being around younger kids. I transitioned from playing with baby dolls to babysitting to working at an after-school care program to working as a certified teacher. The natural next step was becoming a mom.

 

When your kids are little, well-meaning people will say things like, “Just wait until she’s a teenager,” as if those early, harrowing years of keeping a newborn alive or surviving toddler tantrums weren’t bad enough. This kind of mentality—the dreading of parenting teens—would seep into my thoughts as I anxiously awaited the day that my precious babies would morph into hideous creatures bent on my destruction. I gravitated toward preschoolers, not high schoolers. Then my daughters reached that pinnacle age that made them teenagers.

 

I’m not going to say it’s been easy. Hell hath no fury like a 7th grade girl who’s having a bad day. Their moods were erratic. They suffered through the highest highs and the lowest lows. But we’ve survived middle school and nearly half of high school, so now I can say that I truly love teens. And not just mine.

 

This weekend I was a chaperone of 55 or so teen girls on a church retreat. We drove up the side of a mountain and made our beds in cobwebby cabins full of Asian beetles tapping at the windows. It wasn’t luxurious or especially comfortable, but that’s not why we went up the mountain. The five other “chaper-moms” (and two sweet college girls) and I were there for those girls. We cooked for them and prayed with them. We helped them find misplaced sweatshirts and enthusiastically played card games with them. We laughed with them and shared with them. A deep sisterhood developed.

 

The chaperones told the girls stories about dating our husbands and giving birth to our kids. We frankly answered questions and explained how we didn’t always get everything right. Hopefully, we showed these already loved girls that there are other women who care about them, too, casting that net of safety and protection just a little bit wider.

 

But the beauty of weekends like these go beyond just a few days. When you reach the heart of someone who is at such a midway place like those teen years, you can see the effects and after-effects for years to come. I’ve already seen it in my daughters. They were once those younger teens, watching and following the lead of the older girls. Now they, along with their friends, are being watched and studied. They are setting the bar for how to treat others.

 

And I know they are watching us moms, too. They are seeing how we laugh together and cry together and share our icky stuff without judgment or an ultimate need to fix everything.

 

So when I came home and sorted through the mail, setting aside a pile of graduation invitations, I knew without a doubt that I no longer consider teens “hideous creatures bent on my destruction.”

These sisters are my people.

Seeing

When my children were younger, I taught them to look at adults when they spoke to them. “Give her your eyes,” I would say when someone asked them questions or complimented their Sunday clothes. This is basic courtesy. It’s the foundation of face-to-face communication. When you look into the eyes of another human being, you are saying, “I am listening.”

 

When I demonstrated for my children how to safely cross the street, I taught them to make eye contact with the drivers. “When you look at them and you know that they see you, then you can cross in front of them without worrying,” I would say as we idled at the edge of a sidewalk, making our way to school in the morning.

 

Something happens when two sets of eyes lock. There’s a silent click that occurs, a momentary understanding, a brief acknowledgment. That moment may not translate into anything permanent or even positive. It may not get filed away as a significant memory, but there is magic in seeing and being seen.

 

I try to practice what I preach, making eye contact with all people, even those who don’t conform to the norms of society. I try to look without staring into the eyes of the disabled. I want my eyes to speak when my words might be too clumsy. I want my smile to say “Hello! I’m happy to see you!” I want to remember the words of Robert Hensel, the man born with Spina bifida who holds the Guinness World Record for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair. He once said, “There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.” I want to see more.

 

I remember so clearly when I fell in love with my husband, nearly a quarter of a century ago. This was the first time I participated in the romantic equivalent of a staring contest. It seems pretty cheesy now, but in the initial puppy love phase, we would look deeply into each other’s eyes without feeling foolish or pressured to break the gaze. The more and better he knew me—the real me, not the “First Date” version—the more I could allow myself to be seen by him. During our dating years, when he sometimes saw me at less than my best—throwing up that one time or post-wisdom teeth removal with bloody gums and high on pain meds, this vulnerability became easier.

 

We may not gaze deeply into each other’s eyes as much now, but I have been known to enter a room and stare at him while trying to remember why I came into that room. I’m not sure if that counts, but it does seem to help. Maybe he’s my North Star and his job is to realign my compass so I can get back on track. He raises his eyebrows as if to say, “Can I help you?” and I squint my eyes in concentration as if to say, “Hang on. Don’t anybody move. I’m thinking.”

 

It’s remarkable what truly seeing can accomplish. And what a difference it can make if we just look up and give each other our eyes.

Happy (2nd) Gotcha Day!

To the baby of the family,

Ezzy Bear,

Lieutenant Happy Face (more of a reminder to cease complaining than an actual title),

Ez,

Lil Man,

Ketchup or Enchilada (codenames for when we’re talking about him in front of him because spelling his name sounds too much like his name):

 

You leave no soccer ball unkicked and no question unasked and no burger uneaten.

You have taught us things about ourselves and the heart’s ability to love.

You make us smile when you ruffle the hair of your teammates and pat their backs to console them after a missed kick.

You make us laugh when you put on your “rocky roll” shows in the basement, complete with dance moves not seen since the days of Solid Gold.

You make us proud to be your family.

 

Someone asked me recently if I am at the point in my parenting of Ezra that I truly love him as much or in the same way I love my older three. I answered something generic—I don’t really remember what—but I gave this some thought later. I decided it’s not just about love. Love implies self-sacrifice and devotion and meeting basic physical needs. My maternal instincts create this kind of love for children. It pours out of me pretty easily, like water running downstream. I love most all kids, so yes, I love (read: adore) Ezra. We help him shower and brush his teeth. We pack his lunch for school and quiz him with sight word flash cards. But wholly parenting a child who didn’t come from me is more about connection than love. I loved him before I met him, all those years he grew up without us, a world away.

 

But now we have found connection.

When he leans into me when I read him a bedtime book.

When he trusts me when I offer an explanation to something confusing.

When he believes me when I say everything will be okay each time I take him to the doctor’s office to get a shot.

 

On the second anniversary of his homecoming, we marvel at all he’s learned and how he’s changed. How every time he saw an animal on TV or in person (even a squirrel), his first questions used to be: “Me touchy him? Him eaty me?” We selfishly mourn the loss of Ezra-isms like “inja” for ninja and “crocogators” for crocodiles (or alligators?) and “package” for practice and him making kissing noises to simulate a referee whistle. But we know this is a natural and positive alteration. He needs to grow and change.

 

At this point, it just feels like he fits in our family. Looking back on our original decision to adopt, I don’t know what we expected. All I know is that God asked us to make room in our family for another kid. There have been growing pains and stretch marks as we created space for this one, but God always provided the elasticity required. Now Ezra is tethered to us in a way that can never be severed. I’m sure there are times when he’s wished for a different family—one with a mom who would let him drink Coke for supper and stay up late on school nights—but he’s stuck with us, stuck because love means commitment but also because we’re forever connected.