Adventures in Parenting

Dating Advice for My Kids

Some of my children are now dating. I found this out several years ago when my oldest son stood in the kitchen with his arm around a pretty teenage girl and a big, stupid smile on his face. “This is my girlfriend, mom.”

Uh oh. It was time to take the ‘conversation’ to the next level, I thought, eyeing her mini-skirt. So I talked with him, well at him really, about the difference between love and infatuation, the importance of safe sex, mutual respect, how we know when it’s the ‘one,’ etc. etc. Of course this wasn’t our first go around with these topics, but the ante had just been upped and I felt the need to repeat myself many, many times.

However, while I was imparting my infinite wisdom, his eyes were glazing over. Apparently my advice needed to be streamlined into golden nuggets of twitterable length. So here’s what I’ve come up with, and I think it applies to anyone dating, not just teen-agers. My kids have since verified that this is in fact useful information, and occasionally they will ask me to repeat it.

There are only two rules.

Number 1: Never date anyone more messed-up than you. People are not projects. (I sometimes use colorful language here for emphasis, and to sound cooler than I am, but since this is a blog post…)

Okay who remembers thinking, and maybe this one applies to the ladies more, “I know he has some issues, dare I say red flags, but he will change for me.” Um, nope. We all hope that the right person will help us become the best version of ourselves. In a healthy relationship, I think this is absolutely true. But the raw material has to be there, and in recognizable form, right from the start. It’s exhausting and sometimes destructive when it isn’t.

Further, and from a different angle, it really isn’t fair to think you have the right to change someone else. People are not projects, and I surely wouldn’t want to be considered one.

When my son broke up with his first serious girlfriend, he shared that the relationship had been one struggle after another. When he ended it he told her, “Don’t change. You are the absolute perfect person for someone, it just isn’t me.” If we can’t be honest about this, we deny our self and our partner the opportunity to be with that someone who really is a perfect fit.

Number 2: Everyone has issues. Your partner’s issues can’t push your buttons.

No one is perfect. For example, my husband and I both have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Case in point - I have a particular counter space that needs to stay cleared, and if it isn’t then the things on it must be arranged geometrically and to my liking. If they aren’t, I begin to twitch and pace. My husband likes his t-shirts folded and arranged a very particular way in his drawer. If they aren’t, he will take them all out and fix them.

Now, my t-shirts can be squashed haphazardly, and his counter space can have keys and money strewn all over, but if I’m doing the laundry, I put the t-shirts in the drawer the way he likes, and if he’s cleaning the kitchen, my counter items are arranged neatly. The thing is, we get it about the other one’s quirks. And we try hard not to sweat the small stuff.

But if something really does bother you, it probably isn’t small stuff and you should pay attention. Bigger things that push our buttons need to be handled. Or we need to admit that they are fundamental differences and may make us incompatible.

Fast-forward a few years and the same son is breaking up with another girl. He tells me he thinks he just annoys her all the time. His lighthearted nature is interpreted as not caring deeply, his charming forgetfulness is considered callous, his interests are said to be frivolous. “Mom, I push her buttons and she pushes mine, and soon we are not going to like each other very much.” Oh he does listen!

Back when I was dating, one of my very wise aunts suggested I identify the three things that were most important to me in life. Whether this was having children, practicing a faith, a career, whatever, these fundamental things should not have to be compromised in a relationship. It would be worthwhile, she said, to seek a partner who shared these key values, because that person would truly understand me, and I him. It was excellent advice and I sometimes use it as addendum 1 to rule #2.

As my kids move from dating, to long-term relationships, to possible marriage one day, my wish is that they find someone they can build a satisfying life with, someone who loves them for who they are, not despite who they are. So I repeat my dating advice often, encourage them to trust their instincts, and then relax and enjoy the new and interesting young people that grace our lives because some of my children are now dating. 

On Motherhood and Mountain Climbing

So I decided to climb a mountain for my 40th birthday. Not a small mountain, but a sleep outside for 9 nights, no running water, altitude sickness, sub-zero at the top kind of mountain. Why would I want to do this you ask? A legitimate question - when I invited my sister to come, she responded that for her 40th we would be doing something sensible like drinking wine in Italy. She of course came out of obligation and duty. But truly, as this birthday approached, I could feel my life changing in profound ways. My oldest child was moving out of the house. My youngest child was in grade school. There were no babies about and no more coming. Sleep can be counted on in regular 7 or 8 hour intervals, date night is an established thing, everyone can buckle themselves into seatbelts, and they can all push themselves on the swing at the playground (well if I’m truly honest, she’s the 4th child and we don’t actually go to any playgrounds) but you get my meaning. Space was opening up in my life, space for me. What did I want to do with it? 

Now let me explain. I love being a mom and I have had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom, a part-time working mom, and a full-time working mom. We did what we felt was right at different phases of our family’s life. I have no regrets about my choices and my life is blessedly full. So this climb was not about dissatisfaction. It was more about what’s next and how will I know, because for the last 18 years, I have really been a mom first, above all else. It’s not like my children don’t need me now, but they need me differently. 

So I climbed. And it was hard. There was no running water so the tent smelled rather interesting by day 3, and by day 4 I wouldn’t step outside without a hat. Some nights were so cold we filled our water bottles with hot water and used them as little heaters at the bottom of our sleeping bags. When I hit 15,000 feet my head hurt so badly I wanted to fling myself off the side of the mountain. 

There were also moments of raw beauty, like the lava tower gleaming against the bright blue sky; or the clouds flashing with electricity thousands of feet below us; or the glacier whose transient presence brought us to tears; or a first glimpse at the Southern Cross

On summit day, we woke up at 4 am in the freezing darkness, and began a grueling day of switchback hiking 3000ft up. No one wanted to eat, and no one really wanted to talk. We focused on putting one foot in front of the other for 8 hours. Some of us had a mantra. Mine was nothing more than counting in increments of 60 just like I do on the treadmill. Part way up, my best friend since middle school (yes, she too accompanied me on this crazy adventure) said, “What do you think, this or labor?” And in that moment, I really couldn’t say which was more difficult. 

And then we were there. I have a picture of me smiling in front of the sign at the summit, and then kissing that same sign with delirious glee. I think there are pictures of me kissing my newborn babies with a similar expression on my face. Looking back at the experience, I just don’t remember the pain. 

Now I’m back to my life and the “real” world, or at least my world, and here is what I’ve learned. First, motherhood prepared me for this climb like nothing else could. From endurance, to functioning on little sleep, to appreciating a small moment in a large experience, motherhood is an excellent teacher. It is a long haul endeavor, not a sprint to the finish; it requires us to adapt to new situations and environments with little or no training; it calls on us to participate fully and without reservation. One of our mountain guides shared that the most successful group of climbers are generally middle-aged women (am I middle aged???). The mothers in our group smiled at one another knowingly. What’s a little mountain climbing compared to months of morning sickness, 15 hours of labor, years of sleeplessness, fearful nights in an emergency room, fearful nights waiting for a new driver to come home? What’s a little mountain climbing compared to a tiny hand holding yours, a warm body with footy pajamas snuggled in your bed, sticky ice cream cone kisses, sunny afternoons at a ball field? Kilimanjaro was big, but we’d already done something bigger.

Here is what else I learned. Sometimes you get answers, but not to the questions you are asking. I didn’t receive any earth-shattering revelations about my future, but I did find a little worthy insight about being mindful. Living intentionally is a practice and one that requires constant recommitment. Sometimes this means making a change, and sometimes it means fully embracing just where we are. When we remove the background noise, the essential becomes clear.

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I have been practicing this mindfulness lately and the unexpected, overwhelming emotion that I experience as a result is gratitude. I am so grateful for summer beach days, colorful changing leaves, the starry winter sky, laughter around the dinner table, hot cocoa and mittens at the front door, a good book, good friends – the experiences and people that make up my full, messy, wonderful life. I don’t need to know exactly where I will be tomorrow or the next day because I am truly present in this moment. And it’s a good moment, and that’s enough.