I don't mean I talk a lot. (Even though I'm sure everyone who has ever met me would argue on that one.)
What I mean is there isn't a topic that's off-limits in our house. Our house is a safe space where I encourage my kids to ask me anything.
And my kids take it seriously. Sometimes the questions are so outrageous I have to clutch my pearls and grab the smelling salts. Sometimes the questions are so ridiculous I have to stop myself from laughing in their faces. And sometimes the questions are so heart-breaking all I want to do is bundle everyone up in bubble wrap and go back to bed.
But this is what I wanted. I made the choice many years ago that I wanted open lines of communication with my kids. When Gomer was a baby I was part of a mom's group and we had an active message board where everyone would talk about the color of poop and how much is enough tummy time. There were a few moms of older children on there and they'd always chime in with their sage advice.
One day an "older" mom was in a panic because her kindergartener had learned about sex on the school bus from a fifth grader. Only he hadn't learned the real story and he was utterly confused about the whole thing and a little freaked out by what he was imagining. She didn't know what to do. Did she tell a five-year-old the truth about sex or did she continue to let him believe his bizarro interpretation for a few more years until she felt he was old enough for The Talk?
The wisest of the wise older moms wrote a short book in response, but her advice basically boiled down to: you are your child's source of truth in this world. It might be scary, it might be hard, it might feel a little inappropriate, but you are their source of knowledge and you have to set the record straight. Yes, five might seem young for The Talk, but it didn't need to be the whole Talk, she said. Every "big" conversation isn't one and done. They're ongoing conversations you want to have for years to come. You start the dialogue and let them know they can come back and revisit any topic any time.
That really stuck with me. I decided then and there that's how I'd raise my kids.
And I did. Over the years I have tried to be as honest and truthful about everything Gomer and Adolpha have asked me. When they were five, I sheltered them a bit, but now that they're twelve and fourteen I really feel like there isn't a taboo topic. Gomer is going into high school next year and I can feel my window of opportunity with him closing. He's getting more and more of his information from his friends or YouTube. But just when I think I've lost all hope, he'll drift back to me. I should win an Oscar for how cool and calm I act when he asks me about his classmates drinking or vaping or sending and receiving nude selfies. I have to do that, though. He's watching me, waiting for me to judge or get mad. I try not to scare him off. I remind him of our values and what kinds of choices we hope he makes and I try to remind him that I'm always available.
The other thing we stress with our kids is that no matter what sort of problem they've found themselves caught up in, we can help. With the alarming statistics about teenage depression and the shocking amount of suicides every year, I feel like I'm really hammering this one home the most these days. If they're feeling depressed, I don't want them to harm themselves, but I also don't want them to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances.
I tell them over and over again: Everything can be fixed. You're not alone. Tell us what's going on and let us help you solve it.
A few months ago I finally admitted to myself I'd been feeling quite low for a while and I'd been ignoring my own advice. I'd been suffering on my own and covering up my feelings. When I finally opened up to my husband, he suggested I write about it. Writing has always been my form of therapy and he thought it would be a good way for me to start a tough conversation. It wouldn't fix anything overnight, but I'd at least start talking.
The blog post was really well-received and I got hundreds of comments and emails from my readers. My kids didn't notice something weird was going on until I was stopped at their sporting events or in the middle of Target or on the carpool line by other moms. Instead of our usual chatter about busy-ness and the weather, women were confessing to me how unhappy they were too. I found out some of them were printing off the blog post and sharing copies with their friends. Several times our conversations ended in tears and hugs and promises to keep talking.
"Did I see Mrs. Smith hug you and start crying in the parking lot at school?" Adolpha asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Why?" Gomer asked.
I sighed. Even though I'd told the internet my troubles, I was reluctant to tell my kids. I'm the one who is supposed to have it all together. I'm the one with the answers. I couldn't look like I didn't know what I was doing.
But I also couldn't lie. For years I've built this foundation with them of being a truth-teller. Nothing's off-limits! Every problem has a solution!
My own advice smacked me in the face.
I took a deep breath and I told them. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it might be. The conversation was fairly quick, because a mid-life crisis isn't something teens understand. I know they were expecting something jucier. Frankly, they were a bit disappointed. For them, they don't see the big deal. They can't wait to grow up. Being an adult seems like the best gig ever. Freedom to eat what you want, all the screen time you can handle, and no bedtime? What's so bad about that? Of course, they understand they'll need a job, but jobs are fun compared to school!
I was kind of disappointed in their reaction, but I had to remind myself they weren't ready yet. The good thing is we started that conversation. I always thought I'd be done parenting my kids once they were out of college and on their own. I thought I'd just be needed for babysitting grandkids and the occasional loan when their car broke down unexpectedly. I see now that parenting never stops and neither do the tough conversations. I've started this new one with my kids and hopefully, when they're in their thirties and forties they'll remember they can come to me.
A few weeks after I opened up to my kids, Adolpha came to me and told me she has been feeling low too. It could be the usual "middle school sux" malaise we all went through as kids or it could be something more. I'm just glad she told me, because we'll figure it out together. She'd been keeping it to herself for a while because she thought I'd be upset with her. That was frustrating to hear. I'd worked so hard to make our relationship open but clearly, I'd been sending a message to her. I didn't let her see that I have my own problems and issues. That sometimes I need help too. I realize now that it's important to let my kids see my bad days. I've now changed my message to them: I have A LOT of the answers, but I don't have ALL of the answers, but no matter what, none of us should be trying to figure it out alone--not even me.
This post was sponsored by Ask, Listen, Learn, a program of Responsibility.org. I am a proud partner of Responsibility.org and asklistenlearn.org. I was compensated to write this post, but as always, these are my own opinions. I always like writing these Responsibility posts, because we're all in the same boat and when I write these posts, it gets us all talking and I always learn something from you guys. Read my other Responsibility.org posts: