What Nobody Tells you about Your Child’s High School Senior Year

Although I already have been through senior year with one child, who is in her sophomore year in college, I think a bit of Jeremy senior yearamnesia must have occurred (sort of like having a baby) as I find myself with child #2, a high school senior, almost surprised by the high levels of stress and the ongoing flurry of emotions that accompany the year that marks the end of a very important life chapter.

Now that I am almost half way through my oldest son’s final year of high school, I have had a few epiphanies and have concluded that the challenges of your child’s senior year are two-fold. Firstly, once your child finishes their insanely stressful junior year, many of them do a premature victory dance and declare either in their head or out loud that they are DONE. They go through their summer psyched about their last year of high school and can’t wait to slide their way through senior year. But here is the catch, unless they have scored a perfect 36 on their ACT, visited or extensively researched all of the colleges they are interested in applying to, and finished all of their college applications, they are far from done.

First semester senior year is by far one of the most demanding times for students, and because we live in “helicopter” times, it feels very stressful for parents as well. College applications are due, which means the kids actually have to make real decisions about where they are going to apply (which is no small task for many). And once the list is made, many kids (and parents) are completely flabbergasted by the amount of work involved in the application process and in writing the essays required for various schools.

Another biggie is the standardized test issue. Many students, both of my older children included, do not get the score they need/want until the fall of their senior year. So, for my son, his first semester senior year consisted of staying on top of his challenging course load (reminder: almost all colleges want to see a student’s first semester grades), playing a fall sport, trying to figure out where he wanted to go to college, where he could get into, filling out college applications, visiting and researching colleges, dealing with the baseball recruiting process (which is a story in and of itself), and studying for the ACTs. It was grueling, and he truly did not know what hit him. He was blindsided, despite my attempted warnings, by the heaviness he felt in trying to manage all of it.

And the second piece of the fold that also takes students and parents by surprise (yes, even the second time around), is the roller coaster of emotions that arise over the course of senior year. For starters, there are college application/acceptance/rejection discussions happening everywhere you turn for students and parents alike. There is the elation for those kids who get accepted early decision or early action and for the athletes who sign their letters of intent to play their sport in college. But a few lockers down, there are kids dealing with the sadness and disappointment of receiving news that their dreams of attending and/or playing a sport for a certain college will not be realized. It is a difficult time for the kids to navigate the waters of being happy for themselves and each other when good news comes in, and also being sensitive and supportive to those who must alter their dreams. And then there are the many students who do not apply early, or do, but get deferred from one or more colleges, and live in the land of “I don’t know where I am going next year, and please don’t ask me again” for most of their senior year, which can be a very uncomfortable place to live for both students and parents.

And the last piece that often takes kids and parents by surprise is the mixed bag of emotions that accompany this year of “lasts,” some of which my daughter beautifully described in her letter to her younger brother, (which I also hope to address in another post). There is no way for our kids to prepare themselves for the feelings that arise when looking at the reality of leaving the only life they know—their family, friends, school, house, room. And a lot of times, they can’t even find the words to talk about it. It’s just too big and too scary. And for the parent, gulp, it feels like a lump in your throat, a dull ache, a peeling off a bandaide ever so slowly. It’s anticipation mixed with slight panic, signaling the need to make some significant internal adjustments before the inevitable gutting of the heart ceremony that takes place when you stand in front of their dorm room and give them that final “I’m setting you free” hug.

So, as easy and natural as it is to be swept away by the strong tide of the senior year stressors, try to remember to allow the tide to bring you back in. Right now I can see clearly through the waves that my son is getting ready. Ready to move on. And I am getting ready to let him go while savoring the lasts. And when I feel my heart twisting into sadness and bracing itself for the sting of the separation, I try to remind myself that senior year is not so much as an end but a transition to a new and exciting beginning.

The Start of Letting My Son Go

my son's game faceI had to let go. That firey feeling in my throat and heart like a bomb was about to explode in my chest told me I had to let go. Even though I hate letting go. Because I am really good at putting every piece of myself into mothering my children but I am terrible at the letting go part.

I look at the pile of clothes on my floor and I can’t will myself to put them away. Those clothes were supposed to be moved into a suitcase—a suitcase that I would need for my much anticipated trip with my son to visit a college in California. But there was no need to move the clothes into the suitcase. And no need to put the clothes away right now and dig the knife into my heart any further.

I am not going on the trip to CA with my son. He begged to have his dad take him instead. “Mom, I have a baseball tryout, I really need dad there. You don’t lose any money because you used miles for your ticket. Dad wasn’t going to be able to go because of work but now he can go. I hope you can understand that it’s not personal. This is not about you.”

Understand that it is not personal. It’s not about me. Except that it is. It is because I was looking forward to spending this time with him. Because he is slipping away. Because it is his last year at home. Because as hard as I try not to, I am doing the countdown, noticing the “lasts,” while trying to hang onto the now­—the time he is still living in the house. Because I thought I would be better at all of this with him, my second child, a boy. I really should be better. His older sister, now a college sophomore, had already taught me how to say goodbyetwice

But I am NOT better. And he knows it. And it is too much for him.

He can’t be too close to emotions right now and I represent the emotions. He can’t be too close to the parent who talks about feelings and love and compassion. This is a dangerous and scary place for a 17-year-old boy to be. And even though his wife will thank me some day, right now I am a distraction from his mission—his mission to become a MAN. To prove that he is strong and capable and able to stand on his own ready to exit the nest—without his mom. And his mission in CA is to perform—to shine on the baseball field and to be sharp during his admissions interview. He needs to think, not feel. He needs to put his Game Face on. And dad is most definitely the Game Face guy.

But where does that leave me? In unknown territory. Adult son and his mother. A mother who needs to let go, and a son who is telling her to start now. She tells herself to trust that that her son loves her, that he will always appreciate having her as his mother, and that letting go doesn’t mean completely disconnecting from him—growing further and further apart so that eventually he will merely tolerate her, as is the case with so many grown men and their mothers she knows. It will be different. It has to be different. She tells herself all of this as she stares down at the pile of clothes that will not make it into her suitcase.

And maybe he is right. Maybe dad is the one to take him to CA. Because dad doesn’t look at him and allow nostalgia to plow him over—seeing a little boy who cried non-stop for the first 6 months of his life and then could not bear to be more than an arm’s length away from his mom. His dad does not feel, or certainly does not display, the ache of the snap back to the present moment when I see that this little boy is all grown up—and he doesn’t cry and does not want to be within an arm’s length of his mom. My son doesn’t see the pain of the inevitable separation all over his dad’s face like he sees it all over mine. My face is not a Game Face. My face reveals the love I feel for my son, and shows signs of the pain in my heart felt by a mother who hates letting go.

But the train is leaving the station and I can’t stop it. My son is getting ready to board the train. He went to CA with my husband. Readying me for the start of letting him go. Maybe I could start real simply—by putting away that pile of clothes on my floor.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Being a Parent of an Athlete

my kid playing baseballI wrote a “slice of life” piece about my son’s baseball game last week but felt that it was important to include some personal background to give you some context for the story:

Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast, tennis player and golfer. I had a driving force that would send me to the gym, tennis court and driving range for hours on end (Too many injuries pulled me out of gymnastics and I fizzled out of tennis because I simply wasn’t good enough). Over time, when I hit a rough spot during my teenage years, my internal drive was still strong but it had shifted. I was motivated more by negative forces than positive ones, and my self talk often sounded like this, “If you don’t win, you are worthless, a nothing. Work harder and whatever you do, DON’T FAIL.”

Surprise, surprise, those messages, which pounded in my head for years, would ultimately destroy my ability and motivation to compete. I never developed the essential coping mechanisms for dealing with failure that all successful athletes must cultivate for times when they are in a slump, they lose a game or a match, or are not performing at the level to which they are accustomed. My lack of resiliency would explain why after shooting a terrible first round in the state high school golf tournament my junior year, followed by an equally terrible second round, I refused to pick up a golf club for decades.

Which brings me to today. I have now have a son who is a competitive baseball player, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that it is game of failure. The best of the best pro baseball players hit the ball three out of every ten times, and the scoreboard has an actual spot that highlights the number of ERRORS the players make (not fouls, like in basketball, but errors-as in how many times you totally screw up). And my son plays two of the most high-pressure positions out there: short stop and pitcher.

I love to watch my son play. But in all honesty, there are times when I think I will explode from the nervous energy that brews within me. As much as I try to push my old demons away, to try and separate my stuff from his, so that I can support him and love him no matter what successes or failures he experiences on the field, there are times when my competitiveness takes some of that joy away. Every single time I find myself feeling stressed or anxious about a game of his, I have to talk myself off the ledge and remind myself that this is my MY fear of failure and MY difficulty in dealing with competition—not his, and that it is crucial that I do not drop my old baggage on him.

I have seen him have moments when he did not deal with failure as well as he wanted to. But watching him work his way through these issues, and find coping and recovery strategies for dealing with failure has provided him with some of his most important life lessons and has been incredibly healing for me.

The Story:

I needed a break. I could tell that my energy wasn’t helping him. My perfectionism, my fear of failure, my feeling that I could some how control the outcome of his baseball game by willing him and his team to succeed. It was time for me to separate myself and let him play his game. He was in a slump, had had a tough game the night before, and I felt that my presence at his game was some how hurting him.

Could that be true? What if it was?

The section tournament game—a game not to miss.  The team wins, they move on; they lose, they are done. “I’m thinking of sitting this one out, hun,” I mentioned to my son the day of the big game, trying to sound casual about it. “It seems like that the games that you played when dad and I were out of town were the best three games of your season. How would you feel if I didn’t come? Do you think it’s less pressure for you if I am not there,” I asked him somewhat tentatively.

“Mom, it doesn’t matter if you are there or not. Do what you want,” he responded, like a typical 17-year-old.

Ok. Got it. But I still felt unsure. How could I really not go? Would the other parents think I am not supporting him? Am I being crazy? My husband said that it is okay either way. “He knows you love him,” David said, trying to ease my tension. And he repeated my son’s message, “Do what you need to do,” but added, “It will be okay.”

My youngest daughter and I headed out to the lake and she jumped thrillingly into the hot tub while I sipped a beer and sat on a deck chair allowing the blazing sun to warm my face and offer me some semblance of calmness. I exhaled and felt like I was a million miles away, and that a million pounds had been lifted off my chest. I knew I could support him better from where I sat; that my energy was positive and detached—not in an “I don’t care” kind of way, but in a spirit of letting go and practicing self-care kind of way. It was better for me to not be in the stands riveting with anxiety, and deep down I knew that this was most likely better for him.

But there was that all-too familiar feeling of guilt to reckon with—that frustration with myself and more questioning, ”Why can’t you just go enjoy your son’s game? What kind of mom doesn’t go to his son’s section baseball game?” Well, I guess this kind of mother, whose 10-year-old daughter splashed in the hot tub, thrilled that she would not be dragged to her millionth baseball game of the season. Thrilled to have time alone with me—a relaxed me (or at least trying to be).

“J just got a hit and drove in a run,” my husband’s text message popped up on my phone and pulled my eyes away from my daughter, and away from my here and now. I smiled and mindfully tried to stay focused on her, chasing the “I SHOULD be there” thoughts away. “Mom, watch me swim laps! Time me,” Jo blared toward me before submerging her entire body under water.

As I a concentrated on my stop watch on my phone, it buzzed again. “They are hitting us like it’s batting practice. We are down 6-2,” my husband revealed. O.k., another big inhale as my mind turned to the seniors who could be playing their last game, and then jumped ahead to next year when my son would be a senior (oh my!). Then my heart became even heavier as I thought of the 8th grader who made the varsity team and whose dad was rapidly losing his 3-year battle with cancer. Would his dad get to see him play another baseball game?

“Mom! How many laps did I swim?! How fast did I swim them? Mom, come on, please get off your phone!” I peeled my eyes away from my hand held device and back to the here and now. Back to my daughter’s youth and innocence—a reminder that despite the fact that life is filled with all different kinds of losses, there is also so much joy. I was reminded that it is okay to sit back sometimes and allow myself to just be, and to take care of myself, and trust that my son knows how very important he is to me, and how much I love and believe in him, no matter where I am or where he is. I hoped that all my children feel this.

“Twenty-five laps in 35 seconds! Best yet,” I shouted loud and proud, as if she had just beaten Michael Phelps’ record (there I go again!).

My phone vibrated. That magical and yet baneful piece of plastic and metal, which has the power to instantly pull me out of the present and split me in two—I’m here but I’m there—which is actually kind of nowhere.  I should just turn it off. Yep, I’m turning it off. I grabbed the phone out of my pocket and positioned my finger on the power button. As I started to press down, I glanced down for a split second as the words flew off the screen and and hit me on the head.

“J hit a home run.”

My eyes filled with tears and my heart began to pound so loudly I was sure my daughter could hear it from under water.

“No way,” I managed to type, half wondering if my husband was telling me the truth. My son had never hit a home run.

“Yep, first of his career,” my husband revealed (as if I didn’t know).

My daughter looked at me and asked me what was wrong. “Honey, you need to dry off, we are going for a ride,” I told her, and continued to explain to her about her brother’s milestone and that I just needed to be there when he walked off the field.

As we drove out to catch the last few innings of the game, I felt at peace. I didn’t know if he would have hit his first home run if I had been in the stands that night. But it didn’t really matter. I was truly and completely happy for him. And I was happy that I was able to let go and create some healthy space for myself and for my son.

This was a victory in and of itself.

How a New Book on Childhood Helped Soften the Rough Edges of 17

This is Childhood-bookThis Is 17

It was 2 a.m. on a Tuesday evening and I tried to lay still but my mind spun and heart raced. I was replaying a conversation I had had with my 17-year-old son earlier that evening. It was one of those difficult, reality check, let-me-give-it-to-you straight types of conversations that included messages about the hard edges of life, how there really are no short cuts, that wanting something is usually not enough, that effort is almost always rewarding regardless of the outcome and how when you hit difficulties that seem insurmountable, you have a few choices: you can crumble and quit, or you can do everything in your power to try to help yourself achieve your goals.

Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. I heard the words leaving my mouth, traveling across my office to reach him where he stood with his arms crossed at the doorway. I saw his eyes pull away from mine and the corners of his mouth turn downward. I knew these words/my words stung him.

Shoot the messenger!

I was overwrought with guilt for feeling like I needed to deliver these messages when I could see how heavily the toll of junior year was weighing on him. And these messages were not new to him. He has not only heard them from his parents but from teachers, coaches, and mentors who have cared about him enough to give him an extra push and some constructive guidance. And, most importantly, he has learned them himself—out there in the real world—succeeding, failing, picking himself up, succeeding, failing, trying again—just like the rest of us. I knew he had been listening and learning…but I told myself that I needed to make sure that he REALLY “got it.” But after the words came out and I felt the regret sink in, I asked myself, “What does REALLY “getting” something mean at 17? What does it even mean at 47?”

I went into the kitchen and poured myself a bowl of cereal. Maybe the Wild Berry Clusters and Flakes would take away the pit in my stomach that accompanied the thoughts of, “You really screwed up. You didn’t need to say those things to him. You are putting even more pressure on him. He is going to crack.”

I knew that my intention was to ready him for the sometimes harsh world that periodically hurls daggers of disappointments at us, whether we are ready for them or not. And even though I had made sure to tell him that I have always and will always love and accept him exactly the way his is, I also told him that the world might not always be so kind; that colleges would only know him by his GPA, ACT score, and a 500-word essay. What I wanted to say, but chose to omit because I knew he would immediately roll his eyes and say very clearly, “STOP, MOM,” was that the seemingly powerful people who will only know him by a piece of paper and will soon determine his fate (or at least where he is admitted to college) won’t know some very crucial things about him. They won’t know that he bear hugs his younger brother every day and helps him with his homework without being asked; that he tells funny stories to his little sister when she has trouble falling asleep; that he drives his siblings to school every day; and that he loves and treats his friends like brothers. But I do know, and so does he.

And this is 17: Mothering him with unwavering love and support, but trying to determine when the unconditional love includes honestly and intentionally delivering messages that will help prepare him for the real world; helping him formulate his future plans while guiding him in the management of his the immensely growing number of current responsibilities and pressures; and slowly and gently turning the reigns of his life over to him as he moves toward exiting his boyhood dependence and responsibly embracing his adulthood independence.

And in the midst of it all, when I least expect it, I find myself staring at him. Wanting to slow down the clock, and maybe even rewind it to revisit a few moments of his childhood where I could hear him say, “Uppy, Mommy” one more time, or see his ear to ear grin when he impressed the whole neighborhood by riding his bike with no training wheels at 20 months, or to feel the warmth of his small, trusting hand clutching mine as I walked him into his first day of preschool. But I can’t because time is flying by at a pace unlike anything I experienced in his early years—before he drove a car, attended school dances, spent the summer in Israel, and began his college search—before he was readying himself to leave his childhood behind.

This is 17.

This Is Childhood

My eyes, damp with tears, veer away from my cereal bowl and fall upon the book that I had just received in the mail. I opened “This is Childhood,” edited by Randi Olin and Marcelle Soviero of Brain, Child Magazine, and was immediately pulled into its wonder and comfort, and into my own memories.

As I read through the 10 essays, each one representing a different age of childhood, 1 through 10, I felt an immediate connection with the writers and their stories, including local writers Nina Badzin (This is Three), Galit Breen (This is Four) and Tracy Morrison (This is Seven). Each essayist gives a unique, realistic and poignantly beautiful portrayal of what that particular age looked and felt like. Within their personal stories lie many universal themes like “three has an almost worrisome obsession with bandages that we parents accept for the speed at which they make tears go away” (Nina Badzin) that unite all mothers and make us nod our heads in unison, “Yep, mine did that too,” or “I felt the exact same way.”

I love this book and my only regret is that I didn’t have it sooner. My baby is 10 and I am already beginning to forget the “time stands still” moments that spill out onto every page of this book. And at the end of each essay, there is a prompt that encourages the reader to take a moment and reflect on what that particular age looked/looks and felt/feels like to them by zeroing in on a specific moment or angle like: “Is your little one more big or more little at age four? Capture the words and the faces, the jokes and the stories that make it so.”

My extremely inconsistent journaling and nearly empty baby books (not even positive that I have one for my 4th child) have left me with only fading memories of these years (wish I had started my blog 19 years ago!). But I think to myself that maybe I will try to resurrect some of these memories and jot them down in my newly treasured book.

But for now, it’s 3 a.m. and the few remaining flakes of my cereal rest soggily at the bottom of my bowl. My tears had dampened many pages of my new book as reading the deeply meaningful essays triggered the release of many sweet memories of my children’s early years; especially, those of my 17-year-old. I am baffled by the passage of time.

In returning to the thoughts about my earlier encounter with my son, I feel more at peace. The book reminded me that I have spent the past 17 years loving and guiding this green-eyed, loving boy who was well on his way to manhood. I knew he was going to be just fine. I knew he trusted me to tell him the truth, even if it stings a little.

But once in a while, it certainly would be nice to be able to revert to the fail-safe, take-the-pain-away-immediately band aide method. Unfortunately, however, this no longer works at 17.

Click here to order your copy of this wonderful book—Enjoy!

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