Twenty-three and Flying

First I turn 57-½, and now I have a 23-year-old child. The numbers are racking up! What the heck is going on? Where has the time gone?! It reminds me of a time when I was in my mid to late twenties, working my first real job as a young government lawyer in Washington, D.C., and it suddenly dawned on me that I was no longer “right out of college.” That was the day I witnessed a group of young people who truly were “right out of college” disembark en masse from a bus. One look at these babies, and I was struck by the cold harsh reality that I was NO LONGER “right out of college.”

Now I see young moms at the YMCA carting their little boys and a part of me still identifies as close in age. Or at least closer than the “old ladies” in my exercise classes. Maybe I am just young at heart. Or immature. Or delusional.

In any event, today is my son’s 23rd birthday and, hard as it to wrap my brain around, I now have a child who is “right out of college.” And as I have found with most of my life as a parent, just when I get used to one phase, things change and I’m forced to adapt to a new one.

I am finding this “right out of college” parenting phase quite fascinating. My son is now completely independent from us. He has his own place to live, a car, a job, and a bank account. We try to talk to him once a week (if he has time) and we text often. But after years of controlling, then directing, then advising his actions, it is part unnerving, part deeply gratifying, to step back and watch him navigate life on his own. He still sometimes calls for advice, but his decisions are clearly his. And wise ones. It’s like finally nudging the baby bird out of the nest, taking a deep breath, and watching him soar.

There is freedom in not being responsible for him. And immense pride in the responsible, competent, unaffected adult he has become. My grandest joy, however, is the genuine love and affection my husband (his father) and I share with him. It is perhaps the greatest prize of parenting to raise a child that becomes a treasured adult companion.

My son currently lives halfway across the country from us, and although part of me wishes we were closer and more intertwined in his life, it oddly feels right to be physically removed from him. (I do remember being 23, and being glad my mother was not too close by.) At this phase of his life, he is truly coming into his own and this is his time to soar (especially since he is just starting flight training!) We love the excitement of getting updates on his life and marveling at his adventures from afar.

We also find it rather exhausting when he comes home to visit. We forget about the hours that “right out of college” aged people keep, and it always seems someone is coming or going in our house while he’s there.   Much as we love the visit, and we are incredibly sad when he leaves, we also welcome the return of quiet and routine and appreciate the “empty nest” life we’ve grown accustomed to.

My drawing on a recent card I sent my son, totally age-appropriate for a twenty-three year old

My drawing on a recent card I sent my son, totally age-appropriate for a twenty-three year old

As with every other period of his life, I grieve the passing of each stage, since I’ve cherished them all, but I am eager to see what’s next. Like turning the pages of a captivating novel, I am excited to see how this story unfolds, without the pressure of being the author. In this tale, I’m proud of the hero, and am more than content being a supporting character. Happy birthday to my son who occasionally makes me feel old, but keeps me forever young.

The Kid is Alright (And So Am I)

We spent this Thanksgiving with our son (my only child) in Florida. He graduated from the Naval Academy in May and is now waiting to start flight training. I am therefore passing into yet another new stage of parenting, having an adult college-educated son who is completely independent. He has an apartment, a car and a job. He really doesn’t need us for anything.

Looking back, the two hardest transitions for me were his first day of kindergarten and the first month after he left home for college. My husband had to peel me away from the front door of the elementary school when we dropped him off at kindergarten. I blubbered all the way home about this being “the beginning of the end.” The first month of his “Plebe Summer” at the Academy, I missed him terribly. Our house and lives suddenly became strangely quiet, and I found myself pacing anxiously around the house and staring at his empty room. I physically ached from the loss of his everyday company.

Somewhere around the beginning of his senior year at the Academy, long after finally and happily settling into my role as USNA Mom, I began to feel a pit in my stomach, knowing that my son would soon be leaving the relatively safe Academy environment (that I had grown to love) and that his chosen career would become increasingly dangerous as he pursues his future training and then faces prospective deployments. After we said good-bye this past May, following his graduation, we knew we might not see him again until Christmas. I anticipated another tough adjustment, but I have to say, so far this stage has been much easier than I thought.   I feel surprisingly at peace being less actively involved in his life.

I believe there gradually comes a point in the parenting relationship, where both our kids and we realize that it is us (the parents) that yearn for more time with them (the kids) than they yearn for with us.  The early to mid twenties is also an important time for our kids to independently build their own identities.   When I reflect on my own past with my own parents, I am reminded of the importance of “releasing” my son for his vital personal development.   Besides, quite frankly, I find much in the life of a 22-year-old male somewhat unappealing, and often the “son” I miss hanging out with is the 8-year-old version (the one for whom I was the center of his universe). Added to that, my husband and I have built an active and enjoyable life together.

As for the future dangers in my son’s military career, I try not to think about it too much.  I put his safety into God’s hands and remind myself that he is doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do and he will be well trained.  (Of course, it is still relatively easy to ignore my fears while he is waiting around for training to begin, so check back in another year or two on that one!)

What is important to me personally, though, as I adjust to this stage of parenting, is to (1) maintain a connection with my son, and (2) know that he is okay. In my quest to sustain a connection, we frequently text each other, and routinely talk every Sunday by phone. Our Sunday calls, however, are often more interrogation than chat. Our son is not naturally talkative – he doesn’t hide information, but he doesn’t freely volunteer it either. Therefore, expertly framing and posing the right questions is a key skill when talking to him. When physically with him, however, we have long conversations (usually over meals) and I feel connected and caught up with his life. Since he had plenty of time on his hands (waiting for flight training to start) our Florida visit was pure gold. He was relaxed; we talked, laughed, and enjoyed several activities (and daytrips) together. He and I have always shared a sense of humor (that sometimes stumps even my husband) and he can make me laugh like few others. We are fortunate that our son still enjoys spending time with us (or at least cheerfully tolerates it). And though I admit I occasionally still long for my little boy, there are many parts of this stage of life that I enjoy even more. What a godsend to realize I’ve raised someone that I truly like!

A visit to my son's workplace

A visit to my son’s workplace

Most importantly, I was able to do my “Mom’s Due Diligence” and feel content that my son is okay. I saw his apartment. It is attractive and in a great location. I met his two roommates. They are polite and respectful. I visited his workplace. I inspected his car. No scrapes or dings, and it has been conscientiously well maintained. I met some of his friends. They are solid buddies. I went to his volleyball and basketball games and chatted with his teammates. They are affable and supportive. He introduced us to his new girlfriend. She is adorable, funny and smart, and she clearly appreciates my son and treats him with respect.

I know I will have fewer such opportunities to pop into his life as his career progresses. The future may be uncertain, and although it may not always be so, for now, we are connected and the kid is alright. And so am I. And that is my Thanksgiving blessing.

Psalm 46:1

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Help Wanted: Sisters to Get Me Through Life

The sweet Valentine my niece Megan sent to her sister Tamra

The sweet Valentine my niece Megan sent to her sister Tamra

Oh, how I wish I had a sister!  This has been a life-long refrain.  A recent Valentine post on Facebook between my two nieces, Megan and Tamra, stirred my envy embers anew.

As a little girl, I regularly begged my mother to make one more trip to the hospital to bring home a little bundle of pink sister joy.  Getting no results from her, one Christmas I elevated the request to Santa, still to no avail.  As the youngest of three siblings and the only girl, I tired of the never-ending rough and tumble of boys.   At home, my brothers used me as unwitting pawn in their sinister boy games, setting booby traps and ambushes that left me in a perpetual state of suspense. One brother abducted my paper dolls, snipped off their heads, and hung them on the clothesline.  And when they did invite me to play with them, it was usually a physical game in which I invariably turned up injured since they were so much bigger than me.  One game of ball tag ended with a head-on collision between my older brother and me.  He remembers the sensation of being momentarily slowed by some minor turbulence.  My recollection is of being flattened by a Mack truck. That same brother enjoyed fabricating and telling chilling stories designed to scare the bejeezus out of me.  One particularly complex tale told of the origins of a mole over his lip, recounting a terrible accident in which his lips were pulled off his face after they froze on a car door outside, and ending with the startling revelation that the mole was anchoring his lips.  (He did get in trouble for that one after I ran screaming to Mom begging her never to remove Tom’s mole lest his lips fall off.)

Me with my brothers and Mom.  Notice how my mother seems to be protecting me from harm.

Me with my brothers and Mom. Notice how my mother seems to be protecting me from them

My brothers especially enjoyed the nights my parents went out and left them in charge of babysitting me.  They were then free to wreck havoc unfettered by parental interference.  I still remember my attempts to fall asleep looking pained, sure that when my parents returned they would look in on me, see my look of torture and then give my brothers hell.  That never worked either.

Of course it wasn’t all bad having brothers, and one benefit was that I had my own personal goon squad.  My brothers could torment me endlessly; however, if someone else looked at me cross-eyed, my older brother wanted the name and address of the perpetrator, and he was off to take care of business.  There were few repeat offenders.  But I was convinced my life would have been perfect, or at least calmer, had I had a loving sister as a companion.

Then I grew up and married a guy who came with a son.   I later gave birth to one more male and no females, and again found myself grossly outnumbered.  Further, none of the males in my nuclear family are particularly sensitive types. There are no art lovers or musicians or writers.  My husband’s favorite pastime is watching sports, any sport, preferably contact.  My son played just about every sport, and in his free time enjoys grisly video games, like Call of Duty and Halo, that I can’t even watch without getting nauseous.  There were many days I came home after work to find football on one TV, COD on the other, and dirty sweat socks hanging in every bathroom. I did insist my son take piano lessons, but his complaining was so incessant that I finally let him quit and he never went within six feet of the piano again. But my upbringing was good training for this environment, as I know the rules to just about any sport and I know how emotionally simple guys really are.

Throughout my life, my mother was a calm island of estrogen in my vast ocean of testosterone.  She and I were close, and we did girlie things together as time and money allowed, although neither of us was overly girlie, and probably out of convenience I developed into a tomboy anyway.  She told me repeatedly how happy she was to finally get a daughter after being surrounded by males the first 8 years of her marriage, and as I grew into my own version of token female, I understood the sincerity of that statement.  I really miss her. Since she passed away, I find myself the only surviving female from either my family of origin or my nuclear family.

Oh, how I wish I had a sister!  I know people who have sisters they wish they didn’t.  I know sister relationships can be rocky and emotionally fraught. But some shining examples of sisterly love abound in my extended family.  They have an emotional bond and deep DNA understanding that seems fundamentally different from the brother-sister connection.  Women tend to be more natural caregivers and nurturers, and when you have a best friend who is also your sister, what a blessing!

My friend Sue and her little sister Kathie

My friend Sue and her little sister Kathie

One early “sister act” that made me think I was missing out was my childhood friend Sue and her younger sister Kathie.   I met Sue in 6th grade math class and before long I was spending time at her home.  The Warrens’ house, unlike mine, was clearly matriarchal with a definite female sensibility.  Sue’s mom ruled the roost, along with Sue’s grandma (Sue’s mom’s mom lived with them) and there were no brothers.  I only vaguely remember Sue’s dad  – usually sitting in the living room watching football games by himself.  Sue and Kathie adored each other and their house was like a sorority.  If I had a problem I need to talk over, I could go to Sue’s and have a ready female support group of four available for consultation and advice.

My lovely nieces.  Clockwise from left, Alyssa and Kelsey; Genoa and Carey, Megan and Tamra

My lovely nieces. Clockwise from left, Alyssa and Kelsey; Genoa and Carey, Megan and Tamra

My two nieces, Megan and Tamra, probably love each other more than any two sisters I have ever met.  My husband’s sister Judy, their mother, once told me that Megan fell in love with her little sister Tamra the day Tamra was born and they have been best friends ever since.  They have supported each other through thick and thin, and are now facing a serious health issue together.   But in the midst of everything, they laugh, they talk, and they love being together.  My husband’s brother Rich also has two daughters, Genoa and Carey, who share a similar bond of love and affection.

My brother Jim was rewarded with two girls of his own.  Besides his two daughters, he has a severely disabled son, which has complicated and challenged their family life.  Yet my nieces Alyssa and Kelsey are growing into gorgeous, gracious, capable young women who support each other and their parents and who inspire me with their adaptability.

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t trade my husband, son or brothers for anything.  I love them all to death.  I adore them.  I enjoy hanging out with them.  I love sports!! I just wish I could inject a close female relative into my nuclear world.  I often crave that female perspective and hug in those situations where the guys either want to “fix” me or just get that clueless befuddled look.

And more than just wanting a close sister/friend I can talk to at Thanksgiving, there’s a practical side to this problem.  One that is picking up more urgency the older I get.  Who will take care of me in my old age?  One thing I learned, in caring for my parents during their decline, was that either a sister or, more commonly, the oldest daughter in the family is typically the caregiver.  That was me for my parents.  Who will be that for me?  My son wanted nothing to do with visiting grandma in her assisted living facility and he found her rather disturbing once dementia claimed her mind.  One day, during my Sandwich Years, when I had him as captive audience while driving to school, I went on an embarrassing (in hindsight) rant that went something like this:

 Me:  [out of blue]  “When you meet a girl that you think might be The One for you, I want to meet her right away.  Right away!!!  You need to understand – this girl is going to be very, very, important to me.  Why?  Because when I’m old and Dad is dead and I get dotty like Grandma, who do you think is going to take care of me?  Not you!   No, hopefully your wife!   She’s going to tell YOU where to go and what to do, and she’s going to decide what to do about ME.  If she doesn’t like me, I’ll get parked in some God-forsaken Looney bin, and nobody will even visit me.  If she likes me, maybe it’ll be a nice place and you guys and my grandkids will come visit.  If she loves me, maybe I’ll even live with you.  So, [picking up steam] I get veto power over this girl that you are getting serious with.  Understand?!!”

Son:  “Mom, I’m only 14.”

Me:  “I know that!   Future reference.”

 Oh, how I wish I had a sister to discuss all this with! But the sad fact is, I don’t have a biological mother, sister or daughter.  I do have wonderful sisters-in-law, nieces, cousins and aunts, but they mostly live in other cities. I have noticed, particularly in the past few years (once I started slowing down in anticipation of retirement) that I have instinctively put more energy into friendships, particularly my female friends.  Furthermore, I’ve increasingly reached out to long-standing friends and family members, in some cases renewing connections that had been dormant for years.  I am finding these relationships to be deeply comforting and rewarding.

What is it about sisters and close female friends that are so impactful? For answers, I did a little research, and my findings confirmed what I’ve already discovered from my own non-scientific experience.    The need for community with other women is biological.  In The Tending Instinct, by Shelley E Taylor, (as described in the article “The Girlfriend Instinct – The Value of Female Friendships” by Debbie Haupert) a variety of studies lead to the following findings:

 Longevity – Married men live longer than single men, yet marriage is not a determinant of life expectancy in women.  Rather, women with strong female social ties (girlfriends) live longer than those without them.

 Stress – Women don’t have the same ‘fight or flight” response to stress that men do.  Rather, women under stress have the need to ‘tend and befriend.’  We want to be with our young and our friends.  Time with our friends actually reduces our stress levels.

 More stress – When we’re with our girlfriends, our bodies emit the “feel good” hormone oxytocin, helping us reduce everyday stress.  By prioritizing our female friendships and spending time with these friends, we take advantage of a very simple, natural way to relax.

 Even more stress – One study show that prairie voles, a monogamous rodent, have a similar response to stress.  When a male vole is put in a stressful situation, he runs to his female partner.   Female voles, when stressed, immediately run to the females they were raised with.

 Health – Women without strong social ties risk health issues equivalent to being overweight or a smoker!

So, now it all makes sense!  I have instinctively been assembling a close network of “sisters” that will support me and nurture me, friends that I can talk with and laugh with, who know me well, and that I can discuss my feelings with. My lunches with friends are actually inexpensive therapy sessions and important emotional work.  (In fact, I wonder if I should write them off as medical expenses?  I’ll ask my CPA – who’s a man. Never mind.) And hopefully, someday my “sister-friends’ will visit me at the assisted living facility (in case that future daughter-in-law thing doesn’t work out.)

Second Class Parents Weekend: My Brush with Bernoulli

To the surprise of no one that knows me, I have now definitively ruled out science or engineering as possible areas of interest for my post-retirement life.

This past weekend my husband and I were privileged to visit the US Naval Academy in Annapolis for 2/C Parents Weekend.  Our son is a Midshipman Second Class (2/C) (or Junior) and an Ocean Engineering major. This was the one time during his four years at USNA where we were allowed to tag along to classes and visit his dorm room.

I say “privileged” because we are always impressed by our visits to this beautiful campus and by the young men and women who inhabit it.  The start of 2/C year is a significant time for the Midshipmen; it is when they formally make a 5-year military commitment in exchange for their 4-year education.  Up until 2/C year, they can elect to leave USNA and incur no financial or military commitment.  The young people who choose to incur this obligation, particularly in time of war, humble me. And even though it scares the daylights out of me, I am proud of my son’s decision to make this commitment.

As a mom, I find it wonderful when my child surpasses me.  My son long ago passed me in height, and I would argue in personality and looks as well.  It was an extraordinary realization that my son grew up to be braver than me.  This weekend demonstrated that he has also left me in the dust in the brains department.

After I signing my liability release form, I boarded the YP for Periods 1 and 2, placing my lives in the hands of the Midshipmen crew

After I signing my liability release form, I boarded the YP for Periods 1 and 2, placing my life in the hands of the Midshipmen crew

Friday began with Navigation class.  As my exposure to navigation has been limited to Google Maps and Garmin, I was surprised to learn that we would be boarding a Yard Patrol (YP) boat.  Would there be skirmishes or pirate drills I wondered?  Onboard, I opted to position myself on the bridge, witnessing a scene that was part Gilligan’s island and part Star Trek.  The Mids took their positions while the Navy LT and the Chief of the Boat alternatively coached and barked orders at the Mids.  Our son was busily plotting positions on a map.  He seemed to know what he was doing and kept his cool under pressure and the Chief wasn’t yelling at him much.   And that’s about as much as I can say about what was going on.  There were no scuffles with enemies and we came back to port safely.

The next class was  ‘Materials” where the Mids worked a lab that required them to drop different metals in liquids and perform measurements.  I wasn’t completely clear what the metals were and what they were measuring, but I can happily report no explosions or injuries.

This makes total sense, just not to me

This makes total sense, just not to me

Following Materials we went to “Fluid Dynamics” and there the Croatian-born professor gave a mad scientist cadenced lecture on the Bernoulli Equation.  That’s when it became clear I was in over my head.  Between the warm room and the diagrams on the chalkboard, I nodded off several times.  I noticed my son’s head bobbing and I feared he was equally lost.   As far as I could tell, this was an overly complicated method to measure water pressure coming out of a hose.  But why couldn’t one just turn on the hose?  Don’t they have computer chips that measure these things?  After lunch, with my head ready to explode , I inquired of my son whether he was also having trouble following the lecture, to which he replied that he was simply “bored” because it was such “simple” subject matter.

After lunch in King Hall, we headed off to “Electrical Engineering” and were treated to a lecture and problem-solving on how to determine voltage, followed by another lab. The cool diagrams the professor projected onto the screen looked like the math problems in the back of the Southwest Airlines magazine (like Sudoku, that I almost always skip), where everything miraculously adds up, whether you go down, up or diagonal.  It was interesting that there are so many rules and assumptions that automatically render numbers negative and positive and equal; however, if a problem came up for me personally where I needed to determine voltage, I would simply call an electrician.

What did I learn this weekend?  That science and engineering are like foreign languages to me.   I am not a spacial thinker.  I have trouble putting a pizza box together.   I do not enjoy pondering such questions as the proof of why 0 is less than 1. I have a renewed respect for those who do.  Apparently, though, I have some recessive engineering genes that I passed on to my son.  Or at least my genes were smart enough that they didn’t cancel out my husband’s (who I know has solid technical genes).  My son can not only put a pizza box together, he is learning to build ocean structures, navigate ships and jets and understand the science.  It is baffling and incredible to me. He and his classmates are choosing to not only serve our country but to study the sciences at a time when many of the brightest minds in their generation are chasing business degrees in search of financial rewards.  Supporting him, therefore, has been my biggest contribution to science.