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Dengue Fever and Boarding School

Quick link: Split Me Open

This week The Other Journal published an essay about parenting in hard places. My struggle to mother one child in my living room with dengue fever and one child at boarding school, about to go on her first ‘real’ date, pales when I watch mothers raising children in refugee camps. How do any of us make it through whole? Maybe we don’t. Maybe our hearts are split open all over the place.

To My Boarding School Birthday Girl

Dear Birthday Girl,

We did the whole cake, ice cream, candles, and gifts party before we left the United States. But it wasn’t really your birthday that day. On your real birthday, your sister will hand you a wrapped shoe box full of tiny gifts, each individually wrapped. Your dorm parents have a plan. The school has goofy birthday traditions. Dad and I will call you on the phone. We’ll sing the regular birthday song and our own song, the one that’s just for you.

I’m so thankful that you will be celebrated by people all over the world. I’ve seen how people at this school honor and celebrate kids when their parents are far away. I’ve seen moms Face-timing with moms on the other side of the continent during soccer games and banquets. I’ve delivered birthday packages and hugs on behalf of absent parents. You are loved by so many by being part of this particular community. It takes a tribe and you are in the best of tribes. Knowing this, reminding myself of it, is my gift to myself on your birthday.

Because, though thankful, I’m still sad. I’m learning to hold both grief and joy in the same hand, to feel both sadness and gratitude, to sit with loss and celebration.

On the real day, you will be far away from me and I won’t be able to hug you or measure your height against my own to see whether you’ve caught me yet. I won’t be able to tickle your side or run my fingers through your hair.

This is the first birthday any of you have been away from me. Your brother and sister’s birthday is in July and they are home that month. So we haven’t done this before, haven’t missed this day before, haven’t relied on other people to celebrate you.

I know you know how much I love you, how proud I am of you. You get tired of me saying it and demand specifics in ways that both flabbergast and thrill me. What, specifically, do I love about you? Why, specifically, in this moment, am I proud of you? The answers to those questions are for me and you, for another time. But I still need to say those words: love and proud, on this day.

You are our 9/11 baby, born a blessing on a day of mourning. We named you Light. We named you Gift. We named you Victory. We named you Ours. You continue to live out these names, filling them up and redefining them through the lens of your own character, talents, and personality.

You are the biggest risk I ever took, ever jumped into intentionally. I was afraid of so many things. Afraid of more than one baby again (though that was the other greatest adventure of my life). Afraid to be pregnant here. Afraid to give birth here. Afraid I wouldn’t be mom enough for all of you. Afraid of postpartum depression again. Afraid of sleepless nights and rage. Afraid of morning sickness and changes to my body. Afraid of how much love I already knew would hurricane through me as soon as we touched outside my body.

Now I think, what if we hadn’t taken that leap? What if I let fear dominate and closed myself off to all the possibilities that are you? I’m learning to acknowledge the fears and to walk through them. You’ve helped me do that.

I can’t let my fear of who I might be when I’m not with you restrict you.

All these years after that 9/11 when you were born, I’m celebrating who you are and I’m saying, go be you.

Be you, where you are. Be you, apart from me. Be you, without fear or anxiety or strings attached. Be you, with exuberance, abandon, power and delight.

Be you with your crazy laugh and your mismatched socks and your uncle’s college band t-shirt. Be you with your full body singing and no fear in sports. Be you with your love for sunrises and bird-watching and your dog-training skills. Be you with your love for creating and your loyalty and courage. Be you in all the ways I will treasure in my heart, just for me.

Happy birthday from far away. Live it wild.

***

Tips for parents celebrating birthdays from far away:

  1. Celebrate when you’re together. Early or late, doesn’t matter.
  2. Send a surprise package, either in the mail or with someone else to hand deliver.
  3. Have a distance-friendly tradition, like a goofy song to sing over the phone, or a photo tradition.
  4. Ask someone who lives nearby to bring a cake or gift or to deliver pizza to their entire dorm.
  5. Tell the people around you and around the birthday person, so they can celebrate with you and with the birthday person.
  6. Schedule a phone call ahead of time.
  7. If you have a traditional meal, ask someone to make it for them on your behalf.
  8. Be thankful for the global community who loves you and your birthday person.

***

Our 9/11 baby, other stories:

Back when I was a regular contributor at Babble, I wrote about my daughter’s birth on the anniversary of 9/11. I also wrote about it for the Modern Love column, read by Mireille Enos for the podcast last spring.

Podcast

Modern Love

Babble

 

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6 Reasons Boarding School Rocks

I get to see my kids in less than two days. I don’t think I need to say that I’m excited.

My teenage twins go to boarding school two countries away. Whenever I write that, I feel the need to defend our family’s decision but I won’t, not here. Also, whenever I write that, I feel like I could follow it up with a litany of reasons boarding school is hard, that I could instead title this post 6 Terrible Things about Boarding School. But I won’t do that here either.

One of the hardest things to do in all of life, and yet one of the most beneficial things to do, is to maintain a heart of thankfulness. In the spirit of that thankfulness (and because I get to see them so soon) here are 6 really great things about boarding school.

6 Reasons Boarding School Rocks1

Physical Affection. My teenagers still hug me. In front of their friends and at school. Even their friends hug me, big hulking senior boys I’ve known since they were in first grade and high school girls I’ve only recently met but who live with my daughter in the dorm. As precious as chubby toddler arms are around a parent’s neck, nothing compares to a 14-year old boy still willing to joyfully throw his arms around me and squeeze, to say, “I love you, mom.” And then run off to the field to roughhouse and play rugby with his friends, who have also just hugged their mothers.

Family time. Time together is infinitely precious, even to the teens. During term breaks I don’t have to argue with the family that we should take a day and go to the beach. We sit down together almost every single day of term break for lunch and dinner, which totals almost the same number of shared meals as the average American family. We have focused, intentional conversations and game nights. They play dress-up and laser-gun battles with their little sister and lavish attention on her. Very little time is wasted on silly arguments or nitpicking.

Cheers for Mom. My home-cooking never tasted so good. After weeks on end of cafeteria food, anything I put on the table at mealtime is greeted with grins and thanks and sometimes even cheers, double when dessert is involved.

Independence and Courage. The Washington Post had a recent article about helicopter parenting in which millennials brought their parents along to job interviews. My teenagers don’t even bring me along on international flights. They know how to handle themselves with airport security, customs control, at restaurants, in taxi cabs. They know how to ask for help when they need it and they are brave enough to do so, no matter what country they are in.

Confidence. My kids aren’t afraid of challenges or situations outside their comfort zone. They have traveled internationally and have been responsible for their passports, their visas, their money. They haven’t always been successful in these responsibilities and things have gotten lost, they’ve made mistakes. But they’ve also learned to take responsibility for those mistakes, that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world or a definitive aspect of who they are as a person.

Problem solving. I can’t step into every situation to resolve it for them. I can’t intervene, as much as I would like to, when they have a conflict with a roommate or a teacher. I can’t hover over their homework or do it for them or urge them to remember to put it into their backpack in the morning. This means they have to learn how to address their weaknesses of timeliness, relationships, study habits on their own. Of course we talk on the phone and Skype and offer suggestions and make plans together. But hovering is not an option.

The skills my teens are learning at boarding school involve more than academics or increased sports and musical opportunities. They are the skills they will need to function and thrive in college and employment, in social relationships, and in an increasingly global world.

Of course, some of these areas are things I long to be involved in – like homework problem solving or to experience travel together, it isn’t easy and we often reevaluate our choice of boarding school. But so far, both kids are thriving, I’m proud of them, and our family remains close. I’m practicing thankfulness every day.

What painful thing can you practice thankfulness for today?

Boarding School Term Breaks Make Me Cry

Quick link: What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

What goes on when our boarding school kids come home?

The plane is supposed to land at 2:15 p.m. Nairobi, via Addis Ababa, to Djibouti. My youngest daughter Lucy spends the morning creating welcome home signs. We have one sign glued to cardboard that she made three years ago and because it is sturdy, that is the one we bring to the airport. But she also makes a fresh one every three months. Origami swans and frogs pasted between ‘welcome home.’ Or snowflakes cut from colored paper so they look like fireworks. A sketch of herself with her big brother and big sister. These we tape to the front door.

I spend the morning baking and making sure we have enough food in the house. Brownies and fresh honey whole wheat bread and box after box of cereal on the shelf. My husband organizes the bedrooms. This year he had a carpenter build a new wardrobe for our son, and a bedframe. Fresh towels and sheets and plumped up pillows.

The kids are coming home!

home

Why do I cry every stinking time the kids come home from school? It makes sense that I would cry when they return to boarding school. But why when they come home? It isn’t a happy lump in the throat or tears of joy at the airport. So what is going on? I’ve learned to expect and accept it.

Click here to read What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

Talking to the Parents of Boarding School Kids, Do’s and Don’ts

Quick link: What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

I’m nervous. I talked to other parents, wrote this essay, and Brain Child published it today and I’m nervous. It is a topic that really sits on the ledge and could topple over quickly into snark, bitterness, anger, and misunderstanding. I really tried to avoid going there but am not my own best editor.

TASdorm1898

We all can get defensive when it comes to parenting choices. Mommy Wars, anyone? Like I wrote in the piece in the mommy war link, none of us is sufficient on our own, none of us makes perfect choices that will guarantee a certain outcome. We’re fumbling in the dark, learning to trust, and leaning on each other.

Its just that sometimes when I need to lean a little, with our particular choice of boarding school, it can seem like the support I thought would be there isn’t. Not intentionally, not always. Most people don’t intend to cause offense or hurt feelings. But there are ways of phrasing things that, quite simply, sting.

A flight attendant on our five-day flight fiasco asked why I was leaving my kids in Kenya and what we did in Djibouti. I told her and she said, “Well, you just meet the most interesting people, don’t you?”

I guess you do. And here are some suggestions on talking with those interesting people (who, by the way, don’t feel they are all that interesting).

Thank you to everyone who loves our family, our kids, and who blesses us with friendship and curiosity about our lives, even when you might not agree with our choices. Thank you for letting me lean, for asking sincere questions, for the evident care and affection you shower on my family.

There are few responses to our decision to send our 12-year old children to boarding school that are harder to hear than, “I could never do that.” Especially when that response comes from people I care too much about to offend by saying out loud what runs through my mind in the moments following this declaration.

I could never raise my kids in a country that sells five-pound gummy bears. I could never raise my kids in a culturally isolated, world-view restricted, familiar but uninspiring location.

It is a good thing I don’t respond like this because not only are these responses cruel and snarky, they are lies.

They are lies because I could raise my kids in America, I even daydream about it sometimes. I have good friends who are excellent parents raising kids in America. There are kids with healthy palates, culturally diverse worlds, wide-open world-views, living creative and inspired lives in the American suburbs.

The reason these answers are what initially rise to the surface when someone says I could never do boarding school is because those words imply a refusal to step into my world for even a second, an inability to see anything beyond the four walls of their own choices so I knee-jerk back with the same attitude. They also subtly (and not so subtly sometimes) communicate a, “You don’t love your kids as much as I do,” kind of attitude that is equally false and I want to belittle the speaker just because I can be mean like that at times.

I compiled a list of things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids as well as the responses that go through that parent’s mind when we hear them. I have personally heard each of these, and more…

Click here to read the rest of What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

*image via Wikipedia

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