Thanking the Heroes of My Son’s Childhood, His Teachers

My son is graduating elementary school this spring. As part of the fifth grade culmination celebrations, his teachers have asked that I write a “proud letter” to him full of memories of his time at the school and stories of his growth since kindergarten, all intertwined with my expressions of love and pride. It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to let one of my favorite people know just how proud of him I am. In a few weeks I will sit down and write this letter in earnest, and when I do, I’m sure I will shed a tear or two.

 

But in the meantime, every time I start to draft a sentence or sentiment in my mind, I get stuck on the fact that I can’t possibly write a proud letter to my son, without first acknowledging the appreciation I have for his teachers over the last six years.

 

While I’m certainly proud of the person my son is and even more proud of the person he is on his way to becoming, my husband and I can’t take all of the credit. For nine of the twelve months of the year, from kindergarten through fifth grade, Jack has spent more of his waking hours at school than he has at home. At age eleven, over half of his lifetime has been shaped, defined and guided by the teachers and staff at school. We couldn’t be more grateful for each and every one of them.

 

These educators have not just filled our child’s head with knowledge, but they have filled his heart with a passion for various subject matters. And more importantly, they’ve instilled in him a lifelong love of learning. Jack has the gift of curiosity and knows that the best questions are not the ones that lead us to an answer, rather the ones that lead us to the next question.

 

I know that teachers are pulled and yanked in more directions than ever today from paperwork and procedures to testing requirements. While I can only imagine that their workload is ever expanding, I appreciate that his teachers have still made the time for the special hands on learning opportunities like releasing butterflies, building volcanoes, having a state fair and doing an immigration study. These programs follow a teaching philosophy that Jack quotes often. He’s learned it from a poster hanging in his fourth grade teacher’s classroom and references it at least once a month, as I suspect he will for the rest of his life, and think fondly of her every time he does:

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The classroom walls, hallways and landscape of the school have become so familiar that it has become a second home for our kids. When one thinks of a home, warm thoughts come to mind that evoke special memories. Some memories can be so vivid that we can almost sense the sounds, smells and feel of that space. We feel comfort and security at home. We feel loved at home. The school is a beautiful building, but it feels like home to our kids not because of the brick and mortar of the place, but because of the friendly faces that fill the hallways. All of these feelings of home exist because the principal, teachers and staff have created the spirit of home for not just Jack, but for all of the students.

 

I believe that the teachers and staff truly know my child. They know what motivates him and how to foster his interests whatever those may be, from the more common to the more unique. They’ve grown his confidence by building upon his natural talents and interests be it art, science, reading or social studies. Jack considers the greatest achievements of his lifetime to be the day that he ran 100 miles in a PE program. He spent years working towards that goal. Those teachers and that program provided a defining moment for this kid, just as there are so many defining moments created during these years at school.

 

The secretaries somehow managed to know his name and our names and cheerfully tracked him down for me so many times when I was worried that he was lost at school pick up. He was always there, just delayed at his locker. I never needed to be worried. Jack was never lost. The adults in his school don’t just see my child, they know him and see right into the heart of who he is.

 

The teachers and staff have taken the time to know not just Jack, but to truly know us as an entire family. I’ll never forget the hug that his first grade teacher gave me on the eve of my youngest child’s birth day. It was the day before school started and I had just met her twenty minutes earlier. I was scheduled to give birth to Jack’s youngest sister on his first day of first grade, so my heart was in two places. In fact each and every day that I send my child to school my heart is in two places. As seasoned nurturers, the teachers know this and have reassured me that their arms are more than capable to protect and carry my most precious cargo.

 

While Jack has grown up with the teachers and staff over the last six years, my husband and I have also grown up as parents. Jack is our oldest child, so I’ve spent over half of my lifetime as a mother in a partnership with these teachers. The teachers have provided patient support as I’ve found my own footing in these tricky waters of parenthood. I still cringe when I remember how I asked his kindergarten teacher about not just the school-related subjects of reading and phonetic awareness, but also about the non-school-related subject of riding a bicycle with two wheels. She gave such a sincere response that I took it to heart as if it came directly from a parenting book. Be it good feedback or not-so-good feedback, my husband and I have taken every comment, every grade and every thought that the teachers have expressed on behalf of our children as true words of wisdom from the experts that they are.

 

I know these amazing individuals have their own families to grow and nurture, but I hope they understand what an important place they hold in our family and so many families in the community.

Because of them, our children will navigate the world and the people and experiences they encounter in a particular way. As my son pulls upon the memories of his school years and the lessons he learned at that time, a part of every one of his teachers will be in him as he gives, parents, teaches, leads, follows, travels, goes, stays, advises and listens.

 

To these wonderful teachers and staff – you are among the heroes of my son’s childhood. Thank you for what you’ve instilled, what you’ve preserved, and what you’ve inspired! When Jack entered the kindergarten door six years ago he brought a piece of my heart into that school. And when he exits the 5th grade door in a few weeks, that same piece of my heart will stay and remain with all of you. Thank you.

I Am Their Mother, But They Are Not Mine

I’ll never forget that day and that moment.   My baby was in his bouncy chair, looking up at the brightly colored mobile toys above him, clumsily reaching out for them. He was cooing and smiling so much that his little legs kicked with excitement and caused the chair to bounce more, multiplying his delight.

 

I laughed a little myself and said, “what do you see, Jack?” but he only gave me a polite side-glance before shifting his full focus back to the mobile toys. As I observed his enjoyment, I smiled and also felt a tiny tear run down my cheek.

 

I remember thinking that until that moment I had been the soul source of his entertainment for his entire lifetime! Keeping in mind that his entire lifetime was a mere few months at this point, my milk alone was his nourishment, my touch his comfort and my voice his point of familiarity. My womb had housed him for 40 weeks where I had talked to him and played music for him. During the pregnancy, I felt like he and I had our own running list of inside jokes and intimacies. He gave me kicks as signs of gratitude for the orange juice or chocolate I had just consumed. He had been my sidekick for business trips and family vacations.

 

I was his mother and he was mine, together we were intertwined. But watching him with the mobile toys that day, I realized that while I was his mother, he was not mine. A friend once told me that our children are not ours. She’s right. Motherhood by instinct allows us to love our children with a fierceness that is so intense that it is incomprehensible to imagine losing them. Yet there is an ironic cruelty to the role of motherhood because if we do it well, we raise our children to leave us and be their own independent selves.

 

This afternoon, now eleven years into motherhood, I had another similar and memorable moment. The baby who was once amused by the mobile toys is now a 5th grader and obsessed, as all of his classmates are, with Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty. He has convinced my 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters that they too love the putty. They even set up a lemonade stand last week to earn money for the putty.

 

They’ve been saving and talking about this for a while, discussing the putty color options and Jack providing his recommendation on which putty they should choose. After school today they carefully pooled their allowance and lemonade money and realized they had enough to each purchase a putty container of their own. They asked if we could go to the very tiny toy store in our very tiny town to buy the putty. With a great deal of fanfare, I said sure. They emptied their piggy banks and excitedly grabbed their wallets, eagerly chatting and skipping their way to the car. Their hearts were soaring and their minds racing, I could just tell.

 

When I pulled up to the store I decided to let them go in by themselves. We know the owners and I could park right in front of the door, and as I mentioned before, it is a tiny little store. Plus it would be a good experience for them to work this purchase out by themselves, just as they had worked out the lemonade stand by themselves.

 

As I put the car into park, I had a second thought and almost joined them. Not because I didn’t think they could make the purchase by themselves, but because I wanted to see how it would unfold. I wondered if my youngest daughter would decide she wanted to buy other things and throw a fit. I was curious how my middle daughter would calculate how far her $5 would take her or if my son would allow the girls to choose their own putty colors after all. I knew it was really a good opportunity for them to have this independence and make the purchase themselves. But I really wished I could be a fly on the wall. In fact, I really wish I could be a fly on the wall for their entire lives!

 

Just a few minutes later when the three of them marched out of the store with their wallets, and their bags and their pride, I had a strange, but good, feeling of not being needed entirely anymore. It wasn’t dissimilar to that moment years ago when my son, then a baby, was entertained by the mobile toys and simply gave me a side-glance.

 

As I sat in the car and looked at the three of them standing there on the sidewalk on the other side of the door, I got a glimpse into their lives together in the future. It was a bit of a sneak peak into their sibling relationship, independent of me. While the feeling was accompanied by a slight heartache, it was overall surprisingly kind of settling and very nice.

 

I can feel that as they get older, my children need me less and less. Or rather they need me in different ways. They don’t need me to hold their hand across the street or to pack their lunch. But they do need to me to give them my trust and to build their confidence. By allowing them to go into that store and make their own purchase today I gave them both.

 

These kids make me smile and make me cringe a million times in a day! They’re my favorite people and frustrate me to no end. I love them more than anything so of course it’s fun to see them in action. Watching them interact with the world shows me the results of the lessons I’ve taught them and the tools I’ve given them.

 

But as a mother I know I won’t be there for everything, and I shouldn’t be. And while that fact breaks my heart a bit, I understand that there are memories, relationships and stories in their lives that are theirs, and theirs alone.

 

There is this selflessness to motherhood that allows me to believe that I am theirs, but they are not mine. I’m giving my children what they need to be their own people. And knowing this is the best Mother’s Day gift of all.

 

This post originally appeared on Today Parenting Team’s blog.

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When A Date is All You Have

What’s the date? What day is it? In its longest form, the date is written out as a series of letters followed by a number, while in its shortest version it consists of two or three numbers separated by a slash or a dash. In Europe, the number that corresponds with the date comes before the month accompanying it, while in the U.S. the month comes first. Across the world and throughout time, we have recognized the importance of tracking dates. We believe that even in ancient times, humans were able to track a series of dates using hieroglyphics. While there are various ways to denote it, a date, in all of its forms and faces, remains the same.

Some dates mark a holiday, patriotic or religious. Other dates are more personal, acknowledging an anniversary or celebration. Dates fill our heads, our calendars and our actions. A date is set and a series of actions move us towards that mark, until it is met. Then we move onto the next date representing a dinner party, a work deadline, or a school project. As the sun rises and the sun sets, we progress through a life that moves in and out of dates.

But every so often, a date stops you in your tracks. I think most of us have a date that sticks with us. For me the world briefly stops spinning on a date in mid-February. Noted as February 14th, 2/14, 14 February, 2-14, the 14th of February, or even Valentine’s Day, this is a date that forever gives me pause. Just the mention of this date, this series of numbers and letters, can send a punch to my gut and knock the wind out of me and make me truly work to steady and regain focus.

February 14th is the day I found out that the baby who had been growing inside of me for the previous 38 and a half weeks no longer had a heartbeat. On February 14th, my daughter was full term in what was a seemingly normal pregnancy with no complications. Yet on February 14th, without a medical reason or explanation, her heart stopped beating, while at the same time, the hearts of her parents broke into a million tiny pieces.

Having lost our beautiful daughter at the same time that we were about to meet her causes a disorder to the grieving process. Without memories to draw upon, our loss is one of expectation, anticipation, and hope — yet as cuttingly deep and complete as the sorrow any parent feels when their child dies. Years later, we are acutely aware of what we are missing without our daughter.

As her mother, I know exactly what other children her age are doing. I note the void in the household schedule and where her activities would fit in. What date would we have her school conference? What date would she take her first steps? What date would she graduate high school, or what date would she have her first soccer game, learn to ride a bike, need her field trip permission form signed, or have a swim lesson?

Every single date for our daughter was stolen on the day she died, except for one: February 14th. This date holds the most sacred significance for us, because it is all we will ever have of her. This date represents so much to us. It reminds us of a depth of sorrow and a reserve of strength that we would not otherwise recognize.

Yet we make a point of using this date as a celebration of our daughter and a celebration of our family. We didn’t want February 14th to always be associated with sadness, so we mark it as an occasion to defend our happiness. We spend time together intentionally doing something focused on one another and in memory of her.

Feburary 14th is mostly a date that reminds us of love. A steadfast love for our daughter, a resilient love for each other, and the warm love of friends. On this date, neighbors and friends continue to support us and lift us up. One friend dutifully makes a donation to a charity every year on February 14th, while another sends us flowers, others cards, text messages and emails.

Those who remember are the sealant that mends our hearts, and those who forget not only fail us, but also fail the ghost of our daughter and break our hearts all over again. Without a memory of our child, we have so little. We need proof from those whose lives she would have impacted that her life mattered, her presence is missed, and her soul has purpose.

By simply acknowledging a date, they let us know that they love us and love our daughter — and they help lead us back to a place we would otherwise have to fight to reach if doing it alone. There are no words to describe the warmth I feel for these friends and the space they maintain in my mending heart as a result.  heart art

We each have a different trigger, but there are many of us out here suffering through single significant dates. It might be the anniversary of the death of a loved one, a baby’s due date, a lost loved one’s birthday, the date that someone was diagnosed with a disease, or a particularly lonely holiday.

The best thing you can do as a friend is to be tuned in to those whom you care about. If you love someone whose heart is broken wide open all over again every year on a particular date, find a way to reach out and take their hand. Even the smallest gesture or most simple note can let them know that they don’t have to trudge through this period alone. We might not always have the energy to acknowledge your kindness, but we feel it and it lifts us up.

To the friends who have helped me find my way, you have taught me that Valentine’s Day can be filled with sad reminders and overwhelming love, all at the same time. Thank you.

Being Right Beside Them For The Rites of Passage

It hadn’t dawned on me that my ten-year-old son is at the age to go to a haunted house until he was invited by a friend.  It just wasn’t on my radar.  With a 10, 6 and young 4 year old in the house, I’m still adjusting to the fact that our household doesn’t quiet down every afternoon for naps and that we no longer travel with diapers.

My habit is to parent to the youngest common denominator.  While the youngest of their ages is an age that was once foreign to me, it is now where my experience lies, three times over. It is my comfort zone.   Realizing this, I try to make a conscious effort to get myself unstuck from preschool mentality every now and then and process the needs and interests of my oldest child, a tween.

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Courage

We broke it out into five steps. It was easier to process this way.

#1. Ovulate,
#2. Conceive,
#3. Don’t miscarry,
#4. Deliver a living baby,
#5. Bring the baby home.

Five seemingly simple steps and one overriding mantra to keep ourselves focused on the now, “today we are pregnant and its going well.”

Tiny fingers tighten around my index finger, while the tethers around the emotions of my heart finally loosen. No longer connected via umbilical cord, this grip continues the physical link from mother to child, but also provides the power for child to now fuel mother in the form of healing the angst and stress that I’ve carried over the past 46 months.

I was pregnant four times in 46 months and never left the hospital with a baby.

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T’was the Night Before The First Day of School

T’was the night before the first day of school and all through the house,
every man, woman and child was scurrying and hurrying about.
 
The backpacks were packed and hung by the door with great care,
filled with pencils, papers, gym shoes and art smocks to wear.
 
A new 1st grader and 5th grader were not just yet nestled snug in their beds,
instead excited chatter of teachers and thoughts of classmates filled their heads.

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The Gift of a Different Lens

As the gentle October breeze blew over the great lake it provided both, warmth on the face that evoked memories of summer days not long ago and briskness on the arms that hinted at winter days not far from now.

My family was returning to our summer cottage for the first time in four or five weeks. We spend most of summer at the tiny lake escape, but in the time since we left on Labor Day, school days had started, soccer seasons were underway and leaves were beginning to change color.

With a Columbus Day school holiday, we had just used the long weekend to board up the beloved cottage for winter and were taking a walk on the beach. This would be our final walk of the year as we grabbed fleeces and sweatshirts instead of the sun hats and swimsuits that accompanied us just two months earlier.

Often bustling and busy in the height of summer weekends, the beach was now ours to play and walk. The kids raced ahead and doubled back chasing waves or gulls while my husband and I talked and looked for rocks and beach glass.

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To the Woman in the NICU Lactation Room

The below piece was written for Huffington Post Parents in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7.

I don’t know you, yet day after day we shared an intimate experience. Divided by only a thin beige hospital curtain on a rod, as new mothers we were united by a desire to protect, nurture, and care for our children.

There we were, just days into our role, and amazingly our hearts already understood how to feel the depths of emotion that accompany this title. Prior to having a child, that range of concern and pride was unchartered territory for me. Now my heart was swelling with a redefined love guided not by a class or book, rather by the same instinct that could cause my breasts to produce milk. The emotions providing fuel for the soul and the milk nourishment for a baby that was inside of me just days ago, but now lay hooked up to monitors and tubes in a temperature controlled isolette down the hallway.

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Lessons from dad: curiosity.

Earlier this spring I learned about these wonderful boxes called “Little Free Library” popping up around the country. These boxes can be found in neighborhoods and communities and are filled with books for people to take and share. Encouraging people to “take a book and give a book”, this movement was started by a Wisconsin man as a tribute to his mother, a teacher with a love of books.

I loved the idea of community and sharing a love of reading and immediately thought that our summer cottage neighborhood would be the perfect place for a Little Free Library so friends could swap beach books. I emailed the website to my father along with blue prints that I found online and asked if he’d make one. In his retirement, my dad fancies himself a woodworker. He responded that he’d get right on it!

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Food Allergy Awareness Week – 5 Better Questions to Ask Allergy Families

What’s he allergic to?
“My son has life-threatening food allergies to dairy, egg and all nuts.”
How did you find out?
“We’ve known since he was 15-weeks-old, had his first sip of formula, broke out into hives and couldn’t breathe.”
Will he ever outgrow it?
“Based on his blood test numbers, he’ll never outgrow it. There’s advancing research to support a treatment, but not a cure.”
Do you have allergies?
“No, my husband and I don’t have food allergies and neither does anyone in our family.”
What do you eat?
“Yes, we still order pizza, but after he’s in bed… No, soy milk only in the house, we all drink it… You know I really like the taste of sunflower seed butter now… well, applesauce or baking soda and oil can be a substitute for egg while baking.”
I am an allergy-mom and these are the questions that people usually ask me when they first learn that my son has food allergies. It’s not necessarily in this order, but it’s always these five questions. I’ve been asked these questions so many times that I have the above stock answers at the ready, and respond in an automatic voice.
The questions aren’t mean spirited and come from a place of pure curiosity. However, they can be a bit daunting to answer over and over, especially in front of my son who is able to understand what, and who, we are talking about.
So during Food Allergy Awareness Week I want to take this opportunity to share five questions that friends can ask food allergy families instead. These questions are more productive and frankly, come from a place of thoughtfulness and eagerness to help the child with food allergies, rather than reassuring the person who is asking the question.
Like most of the families with food allergies that I know, we never expect special accommodations. In fact, we are quite consciously taking great steps to make sure that our son knows how to manage his own allergies and doesn’t perceive himself as a victim. However, when one of the below questions is asked, it always touches my heart and makes me feel a surge of appreciation and affection for the friend who is asking it.
With 1 and in every 13 kids in the United States living with food allergies, it is likely that you know someone who is impacted by food allergies and will have the occasion to ask these questions yourself. Thank you in advance for doing so.
1. How can I educate my child and myself to make sure we’re being extra safe around your child?
For children of any age, please reinforce two things; 1) hand washing after eating and, 2) to never share food. These little steps can make a big difference in keeping kids with food allergies safe. Plus it is just a good, healthy habit to get into.
For your grade-school aged child, teach them the seriousness and signs of an allergic reaction (swollen lips, wheezing, hives, stomach cramps) so they can help recognize when a classmate or friend is in danger and tell an adult immediately.
For your toddlers or preschoolers, give some thought to what food you bring to a park or public space, or try to minimize snacks on-the-go. At a park, pool or beach, focus on playing, swinging and sliding, not snacking. If you do have food, go for fruits, dried vegetables or pretzels. I’ve been in many stressful situations where a toddler is toting around a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a handful of pistachios at a public park. Of course this is a shared space and you’re free to feed your child whatever you want, but I believe this is a small sacrifice to make for an act of kindness.
2. As a host, what can we serve at a birthday party or picnic that will help keep all of the children safe, reinforce how welcome your child is and how glad we are that he or she is there?
Again, this is never expected and we’ve grown accustomed to bringing food for our son. But when our friends offer this as a host of a party, it is such a kind gesture that really makes us feel safe and allows us to relax and enjoy ourselves more. Our hosts have always been happy to buy a certain brand of pretzel or hot dog bun if it ensures that my son can participate freely in the event or meal.
Additionally, as the parent of a child with food allergies, it is important for me to find a quiet and convenient time (not right before the party as guests are arriving) to train a host on how to use an epi-pen, and/or offer to stay myself if they are uncomfortable doing so.
3. What can I pack in my child’s lunch so he or she can join yours at the peanut-free table?
I’m happy to provide ideas of an allergy-safe lunch and appreciate the opportunity to do so, in order for my child to sit with a friend during lunch.
Additionally, support an initiative at your child’s school to help raise awareness of food allergies. This year the principal at our school came to me with the idea for a Peanut-Free Café based on the book by the same name by Gloria Koster. For one day only, all of the students were encouraged to bring an allergy safe lunch so that the kids who usually sit at the peanut-free table could sit anywhere.
Also, on this day, food allergy musician Kyle Dine performed two assemblies (one for grades K-3, and one for grades 4-5) using songs, puppets and games to deliver tactical education lessons related to food allergy safety. Even more important, his message and this day also delivered an overarching lesson of kindness, leadership and acceptance.
Kyle Dine has food allergies himself, yet travels the world finding a kid-friendly and fun way to communicate what could otherwise be a heavy topic. All of the kids in both of the assemblies were engaged, eager and entertained. Plus they really think of Kyle as a rock star. He kind of is, check out his music.

4. What kind of event can we plan for our families to enjoy together?

As a family with food allergies it can be challenging to socialize with other families. We always enjoy events where food is not the focus like bowling, swimming or any other activity. If we’re having a back yard BBQ or getting together for a sports game, we’re happy to provide ideas for allergy safe snacks, or bring our own.
We love going to baseball games and hockey games and appreciate when a team has a special game or night where they don’t serve peanut products. Just a few weeks ago,The Florence Freedom baseball team in Florence Kentucky announced a partnership with Enjoy Life Foods to make their entire stadium peanut-free due to the intimate small setting and family friendly atmosphere.
Lastly, every year we participate in an awareness event, the FARE walk as a family and raise money to support food allergy research. We love when friends and family join us on this fun day!
5. What else can I tell my child about food allergies?
Remind your child often that different is cool! Some kids like pizza, some kids play soccer. Some kids love art and some kids eat seafood. Whether its food allergies, skin color, hobbies or interests, we’re all wonderfully unique! Being different is what makes us all interesting and gives us new things to learn from one another!
Carissa has written the below essays about parenting with food allergies on her blog, http://www.carissak.com, The Huffington Post and on Scary Mommy this week during Food Allergy Awareness Week.

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