When the kids were little I would eye my friends with older children with longing and desire. One friend noticed my creepy looks and warned me, “Be careful what you wish for, Jen.”
I shrugged, because it didn't look so bad from where I was sitting (which was the floor of my pantry where I could hide and scarf Halloween candy without little grubby mitts pawing at me for a gummy bite).
My wise friend then informed me that raising older kids was actually more hands-on than I thought. “Just you wait,” she warned.
I didn't know what she was talking about until last year. Last year I released Working with People IWant to Punch in the Throat and I embarked on a multi-city book tour across the country. I had never done anything like that before, but I figured I could sneak away and no one would notice. That first leg of my tour, I flew off without a care in the world. I told my husband the name of my hotel and that was all the info I left behind. What more did they need? I figured. My kids were 11 and 13. Everyone wiped their own butts and could work the toaster oven. They didn't require five pages of instruction anymore. Just Hot Pockets and a valid insurance card.
Sure, my kids said they missed me and they even called me occasionally, but I couldn't find any evidence that they actually missed me or needed me while I was gone. They figured out quickly once they ran out of clean underwear and cereal bowls there were some issues with making sure someone was doing laundry and dishes on a regular basis, but otherwise it was smooth sailing.
Or so I thought. I was home in between stops when I got a call one afternoon from Gomer's assistant principal.
“I've got Gomer here in my office. He was in a fight,” she said.
A fight? Gomer? No, she must have the wrong child. Gomer is my easy-going child. Adolpha will throw down over anything, but not Gomer. I figured someone must have hit him. It was the only logical answer.
“Is he okay?” I asked, concerned.
“He's fine,” she said, emphasizing the he. “He attacked another student.”
“What?!” I couldn't believe it. Did she really have the right kid? There was no way Gomer would ever attack anyone. I was positive. I'm a good mother. I've raised a well-behaved and kind young man.
“Is everything okay at home?” she asked.
“What?!” Did I mention that I'm a good mother? That I've raised a well-behaved and kind young man?? Of course everything is okay at home. I mean, sure, I've been on the road a lot this year and he hasn't had two parents nagging him to pick up his dirty clothes. And, sure, when I'm in town, I'm a bit distracted, because I'm finalizing plans for my upcoming trips. And, sure, I've been dealing with some health things this year and so I'm more tired lately. But, still! My child would never--
“He did a pretty serious thing,” she said.
“What did he do?” I asked, sinking into my chair.
“He pants'd another kid.”
Okay, I know your first inclination is to laugh. I had to stifle a giggle myself, because REALLY? That's his move? He's the son of People I Want to Punch in the Throat!
“Did you hear me, Jen? He pulled down another student's pants. This is very serious. This could be seen as sexual assault.”
I sat up straighter and wiped that smirk off my face and got down to some real parenting. I figured out what prompted my son to do such a thing. Apparently there's a boy at school that isn't very kind. We'll call him Irving. And let's say what we mean: Irving is a bully. He's been picking on several students throughout the year. On that particular day Gomer had finally had enough. In the past he'd tattled to the teachers, he'd told Irving to go to hell, he'd told the bullied kids to ignore Irving, but nothing changed. Gomer was tired of watching his friends get picked on and so he thought through his options. He knew telling Irving to fuck off wouldn't work. Gomer knew if he actually punched Irving in the throat or anywhere else he'd physically hurt Irving and he'd be suspended. He wanted to make Irving feel as small and as insignificant as he made others feel. Gomer needed to mortify Irving. So, Gomer waited until the perfect opportunity and then he pulled down Irving's shorts in front of their class. (He left the undies in place. Because he didn't want to go THAT far.)
I was shocked.
I was shocked for several reasons:
- That Gomer actually did that. Like I said, he's the mild-mannered one. His sister is the hot-head. She will pants you because it's Monday and Mondays suck. But not him. The amount of rage Gomer must have been feeling to do such a thing really stunned me. It was like I didn't know what was going on in his head anymore. We used to talk about his feelings and lately we'd stopped. Did we stop because he's in middle school now and it's “weird” to talk to your mom about your feelings or did we stop because I'm traveling??
- Who the hell is Irving?? Seriously. I'd never heard that kid's name in my life. He had been tormenting my son and his friends for the entire school year and never once did Gomer think to mention him to me? What was happening? When I asked him why he'd never told us about Irving and his troubles, Gomer said, “I couldn't tell you, because you'd over-react.” WHAT? MEEEEE????
- He thought through his options? Who does that? Who gets into a fight AFTER they've considered all the repercussions and picked the best of the worst outcomes?
I felt terrible. I felt terrible that my son had put his hands on another child. I also felt terrible that my son felt that was his only option. When I asked him why he didn't talk to us he never said, “You're always gone.” Thank God for that, because no one ever tells a traveling father that, but it still bugged me. It was in the back of my mind. That maybe, somehow, I'd caused this with my absence. But what could I do? I can't stop traveling. That's a big part of my job now. I travel all over the country to speak and promote my books and if my kids want new shoes, I need to keep going. But something had to change.
After that phone call I resolved to do a better job parenting on the road:
- You are the most important thing to me. With our busy schedules and time differences it can be hard to call and talk on the phone, but I told Gomer and Adolpha that if there was something really important they needed to say to me, they should call me and I'd pick up the phone, no matter what. I told them if it was kind of important, they should text me and I'd respond as soon as I could. I told them if it was a little important, they should talk to the Hubs, because he's a parent too, after all.
- “Hard pass” is not an option. In the past when I called from the road, no one wanted to talk to me, they were all too busy, but now I force them to get on the phone with me and tell me about their days.
- Keep pushing, but keep cool. I ask all the annoying questions I used to ask but now I work really hard not to over-react. I didn't realize I was an over-reacter. (That's not true. I kind of knew that. Adolpha is my daughter, after all. Hot-heads unite.) I decided to take a lesson from Gomer and try to think through tough problems before just making a snap decision. I try to let the kids lead the conversation and I try not to pry TOO much, but sometimes you just gotta pry.
- Sleep is for the weak. I realized that when I'm on the road, I'm exhausted. I drag myself back to my hotel room at night and call home and I'm too tired to really listen and read between the lines of what my kids AREN'T saying. I have to do better.
- Share the responsibility. I also make sure I read all the emails from school and coaches. I'd really let that slip. I wasn't keeping up with what was happening back home. I appealed to my working mom friends and they helped me get more organized (a Google calendar shared by the whole family is a life-saver). I also make sure to forward important emails to Gomer and Adolpha to read too, because they should be taking some responsibility for their schedules now.
- Be present. And finally, I try to be more engaged when I'm home. I've always worked from home since they were babies and I used to be able to turn off work and be with the family. With wifi and social media, that hasn't been the case for years. I'm always on my phone or my laptop checking in, updating, writing, editing, or just sending one more quick email. I'm not going to go all sanctimommy on you here, but I do think I've been sending out a message that my work is more important than my kids. And sometimes it is, no doubt. If I have a deadline, nothing will get between us, but if I'm telling my kid to wait a minute while I reply to yet another witty political tweet, then I need to take a closer look at my priorities.
I've been working with Responsibility.org for several years now and I'm always learning about how to have tough conversations with my kids and I felt like I was prepared for just about anything. I think that's why this shocked me. I thought I knew my kids and I thought I'd taught them our values and our expectations. But I've been slacking. It's time to start talking again. I realized that I can't stop talking. When they were little, they wanted to talk to me. They wanted to be taught. Now I have to force myself into their lives and it's hard work and I got lazy. In the whole scheme of things, Gomer's disagreement with Irving wasn't a huge deal, but huge deals start when the little deals slip through the cracks. It was a wake up call to me and now I know that I can't be so complacent. He's in seventh grade. I've only got a few more years until he's on his own and making his own choices without us. I need to do a better job preparing him.
I have no idea if my parenting—or lack thereof—from the road caused this event, but I do know that the changes I've decided to make can't hurt.
PS - Normally Gomer doesn't like me blogging about him. He's a private kid. But he did give me permission to tell this story.