My Daughter Left for College

What I’ve Been Doing Instead of Blogging-Part 1

Empty nest has finally arrived for Ron and I. Lindsey now lives in North Carolina and attends Elon University.

Sending Lindsey off drained me physically and mentally. The month prior to her departure was an emotional elevator—up and down with seemingly random stops. And someone else was definitely pushing the buttons.

Pride alternated with panic. Joy and excitement flooded me whenever I remembered how much I enjoyed my time own college years at Cal. Emptiness and longing took over when I dwelled on the fact that my baby—on to bigger and better things—would no longer be living with us.

And then there was all of the wondering. Is Elon the right college for Lindsey? Will she get along with her roommates? Will she like her classes? Will she be happy? That was the big one: Will she be happy?

My physical exhaustion came from the endless trips to Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond to acquire dorm room stuff. I visited these stores more times in the month before Lindsey left—than in the past five years combined. Lindsey perpetually needed “A quick trip to get just a couple of things.” Risers to loft the bed. Hooks for the back of the closet door. Command Strips for mounting photos of her friends to the wall of her new room.

Lindsey’s college shopping list took on a life of its own. New items appeared at the end of the list as quickly as we checked items off the top. Every “quick trip” took an hour and by the time we got to the checkout, the “couple of things” overflowed the cart. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. It nearly wore through the magnetic strip on my credit card. I think both stores should send me a thank you note—or perhaps make me an honorary stockholder.

The most painful part for me was the repeated visits to Target. I just don’t like that place. Because its TV ads lie. On TV, Target has funky merchandise and an artsy aesthetic. I go to the store expecting excitement and fun. And then when I get there, it’s just Walmart with wider aisles, better lighting and more colorful merchandise.

So. Disappointing.

Ron and I both drove to Elon with Lindsey. The drive from Maine to North Carolina took fifteen hours each way. The entire trip—including helping Lindsey move-in and a couple of additional trips to the local Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond to procure additional plastic storage containers and even more Command Strips—took six days.

During those six days, I felt proud. Beat-my-chest, brag to strangers proud. I wanted hug and squeeze Lindsey. Tell her how wonderful she is—and how much I’m going to miss her. Every time I looked at my daughter I felt like crying—both in sadness and in joy—all at the same time.

I held my feelings back as much as I could. I didn’t want to upset Lindsey. Or worse, be annoying. So instead of hugging her, I turned around so she wouldn’t see my eyes tear up.

When it was time to leave Lindsey and head home, Ron and I exited quickly. Once again, Lindsey missed seeing my tears.

Lindsey has been at school for a month now. The good news is that she loves Elon. And that makes me happier than just about anything else in the world.

The second piece of good news is that I wont’ have to step foot in Target again. At least not until Lindsey’s mid-October break.

Worth Every Penny

Yesterday, my daughter, Lindsey, left to study in Spain for a year.  I’ll miss her every minute of every day. But the thing I’ll miss most is the time we spend together in clothing store dressing rooms. An essay about one of our trips: 

My sixteen-year-old daughter, Lindsey, has agreed to help me find jeans nice enough to wear to work. This mission has led us to downtown Boston.

When I try to enter Anne Taylor at the Prudential Center, Lindsey stops me. “Step away from the frumpy beige cardigans,” she orders with the delicacy of a drill sergeant. Lindsey wants to keep me on task. As a typical teenage girl, Lindsey doesn’t want to enter a store she views as having nothing for her. I don’t like it, but I obey. I know I’m lucky that my teenager has agreed to spend time with me at all. Plus, I’m afraid that if I don’t listen, she might demand that I do pushups in the middle of the mall—right in front of everyone from the well-heeled housewives perusing throw pillows at Pottery Barn to the geeks fondling accessories in the Apple store.

Lindsey escorts me into Free People, which is one of her favorite stores. Inside, we are surrounded by flowing garments designed for modern-day flower children. Lindsey acts as though she’s just arrived at her home planet while I feel awkward. I inhale wool and cotton and try to relax. But against the backdrop of long sweaters with funky wide sleeves meant to be worn with leggings, I look like what I am—the mother of someone who fits the store’s target demographic. I do not belong. Lindsey, on the other hand, is their dream customer—petite with the kind of curves that would look good wearing a mail sack—or even a mailbox.

“What about these?” Lindsey asks, waving a pair of jeans with extremely wide bell bottoms. I assess the jeans and nod. I don’t want Lindsey to feel like I don’t appreciate her effort, but I know these jeans won’t work for me. I picture myself wearing them as I walk across our living room, the bottoms swinging from side-to-side like church bells—picking up lint and cat hair as I move across the room.

“I guess I could try them on,” I say.

Lindsey smiles, then selects a flower print sun dress with tiers of ruffles and just a bit of lace trim for herself.

A waif-like sales girl approaches. “Can I start a dressing room?” she asks.

Lindsey hands her the sundress and I hand her the jeans. “Can you put everything in the same dressing room?” Lindsey asks.

My heart melts and I stifle a smile. Lindsey is going to allow me to try on clothes with her! For the few minutes while we are in the dressing room, I will have Lindsey’s undivided attention. These are the moments that mothers of teenage girls dream about.

Lindsey pulls back the fifteen-foot-tall, yellow tassle-trimmed, purple velvet curtain that serves as the door to the dressing room. Inside, the walls are papered with a pink and yellow fleur-de-lis pattern. It is almost Disneyesque in its theme saturation.

I try on the jeans Lindsey has selected for me, but they are a definite no-go. Bell bottoms aside, they squish my sagging behind upward—in an unsuccessful attempt to lift it back to where it sat thirty years ago. Once again, I am reminded that gravity is a harsh and persistent foe.

Meanwhile, the sundress looks great on Lindsey. So great that it makes me want to cry. I am overwhelmed with amazement that someone this beautiful and perfect could be the result of the combination of her father’s and my incredibly ordinary gene pool.

“Will you buy this for me?” she asks.

I want to scream, “Yes! yes! yes!” But I hold back. Lindsey receives a generous monthly allowance that is supposed to cover her clothing purchases but she would much rather spend my money than her own. I flip over the price tag. The dress is one-hundred and ninety-eight dollars. “You have your own money,” I say. Lindsey is disappointed, but not disappointed enough to pull out her own wallet. We leave the store without the dress.

At Lindsey’s suggestion, our next stop is the junior department at Saks Fifth Avenue. Lindsey’s shoulder-length brown hair flies and her eyes glow like the Terminator as she leads me through a throng of skinny girls with no behinds trying on tiny Alice+Olivia party dresses. Lindsey amasses a pile of jeans for me to try on. Hudson, J Brand, Seven for All Mankind—all brands so cool that I’ve never heard of any of them (I haven’t been up on hip jeans since Guess was big).

A well-groomed twenty-something guy named Royce introduces himself and offers to start a dressing room. Royce wears slim black pants, a white shirt, a touch of mascara, and a baby-sized gold hoop earring. Shopping euphoria overcomes me as Lindsey and I follow Royce’s tiny derriere. He unlocks a wooden door at the end of the hall, piles my jeans on a square table adjacent to the three-way mirror, and tosses his head. “I’ll be back to see if you need another size or anything,” he says. A glance toward Lindsey confirms that she is as excited as I am.

Lindsey and I both giggle. She grabs a pair of Citizens of Humanity jeans and wiggles into them. She poses hands-on-hips in front of the three way mirror, tilts her head down and turns her eyes up. “What do you think?” she says.

It’s a perfect fit. Lindsey glows. “You’re beautiful and the jeans look good too,” I say.

Lindsey blushes.

I dive into my stash, attacking the pile top-to-bottom. Unfortunately, I learn quickly that trendy jeans are not my friends. They make me feel conspicuous and ridiculous. I am a Chihuahua wearing a red satin jacket with its nails painted to match. Although some of the pairs fit, the waists are too low for me. I’m just not comfortable having a breeze blowing down my butt crack.

Worn by a teen, these pants defy gravity. On me, even the pairs that fit comfortably slide down my hips when I walk. I know a teenage girl has a different body shape than a forty-something woman, but how anyone keeps these low-rise jeans hovering is a mystery to me (It occurs to me that I can’t keep a hula-hoop up either. Perhaps the two skills are related). The next size smaller stays up, but pushes the loose skin on my stomach into a paunch that protrudes over the pants. The crotch is so snug that I would have to re-adjust myself as often as a baseball player just to make it down the stairs.

“You look great,” Lindsey said, eyeing me as though I were a craft project she’d spent hours creating. She grins with pleasure. I fight back a tear and resisted the urge to hug her, which would probably be pushing the bonding thing a bit too far. I don’t want to ruin the mood.

Now I face a dilemma. I want to like the jeans because I want to like what Lindsey likes. But the jeans are just too tight. I decide to go with honesty.

“I feel like a sausage about to burst out of its casing,” I say.

Lindsey rolls her eyes. “That’s the way they’re supposed to fit.”

Determined to succeed, Lindsey asks Royce to deliver more styles. Boot cut, skinny, flare, straight, ultra low rise, boyfriend—I try them all, basking in my daughter’s attention. After rejecting a dozen or so pairs of jeans, I find one that isn’t too bad. Not unbelievably comfortable, but no roll in the front and no draft whistling through theGrand Canyon.

Then I see the price. One-hundred and ninety-eight dollars.

I feel woozy. The room spins. The most I’ve ever spent on jeans was eighty-nine dollars, and that was a special treat I justified by wearing those jeans four days a week for the following three years. The thought of spending twice that on a single pair of jeans evokes a memory of my mother with that serious look she gets when she’s trying not to look judgmental—the look that makes her look even more judgmental.

Don’t I deserve this? I wonder. A couple of time I’ve purchased jeans that cost this much for Lindsey. But now that the jeans are for me, the answer is a resounding NO. There are so many other ways to spend two-hundred dollars: Six pairs of jeans at Old Navy, two bags of groceries at Whole foods, or enough mini M&Ms to wallpaper my entire house.

“I am sure we can find a pair that is just as good for less money,” I tell Lindsey.

Lindsey looks disappointed. Then the glow returns to her eyes. “I have one more idea,” she says.

Lindsey leads me up Newbury Street to a store called Second Time Around. “Resale goes upscale,” says the sign.

As we peruse the racks of clothes, I recognize familiar brands—Ralph Lauren, Theory. Not that I own any of them, but I know that each of them usually comes with a fairly hefty price tag. This place is fabulous. It’s like the USA Network for barely worn but good quality clothes.

At the jeans rack, I find a pair of those same two-hundred dollar jeans. Here they only cost forty dollars. Much more affordable, and they fit even better: the previous owner has pre-stretched the butt for me. Lindsey accompanies me into the dressing room. When I put the jeans on, I feel taller, smarter, younger and better looking—they are perfect for work.

Lindsey nods with approval, which makes me feel even better. “They look great. Are you gonna get them?” Lindsey asks.

I hesitate. Of course I want the jeans. But more than that, I want my day with my daughter to continue. As soon as I whip out my credit card, we’ll head home and our dressing room intimacy will be over.

I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know,” I tell her.

“Well hurry up, and decide. I want to go back to Free People and look at that dress again,” she says.

The mention of Free People makes me grimace. Just as Lindsey has a limited capacity for stores like Ann Taylor that have nothing for her, I am not in the mood for more giant bell bottoms and the free-form sweaters. But then I remember the up side. There is plenty of room in that dressing room for a girl’s mother to come in too. Even if it does look like something out of Toontown.

“I think you should try the sundress on again,” I say.

“Will you pay for it?” Lindsey asks. She knows she’s got me.

I smile and pay for my new jeans. “Maybe,” I say.

The Good Parent Game

First Appeared on www.ErrantParent.com

“You know when people have sex?” asks Lindsey. She is in the third grade at Peaks Island School. This afternoon, we went into Portland for ballet class and are now on our way to catch the ferry home. Lindsey sits behind me on her grey plastic booster seat as our battered Ford Windstar minivan slows for a red light. Our Best of Disney IV cassette tape, wound a little too tight, auto-reverses, filling the van with perky Hailey Mills singing “Let’s get together, yah, yah yah!”

I glance into the rearview mirror. Lindsey pulls at what is left of her bun, which was messy to start with and has deteriorated into something similar in texture to a brick of shredded wheat. She sits up straight in her ripped tights and pink tank top leotard as she waits for my response.

“Yes?” I say. I have no idea where this is coming from — or where it is going.

“How does it work?” asks Lindsey.

I have no idea what Lindsey is really asking. I’ve already gone over the basics of sex, which, from what I can tell, is more than what most of her friends know. I have explained in real and honest terms exactly where babies come from. I identified body parts by their proper names and described their roles. Lindsey sucked up the information like a vacuum cleaner.

I tread lightly. “How does what work?”

“How does the penis get into the vagina?” Lindsey wrinkles her tiny nose. Then she gets right to the point: “Does it just slide in, or does the man have to shove it?”

Every muscle in my body tenses. My scalp tightens and I can feel my hair. I tap the brake a little harder than I mean to. The car jolts to a stop, launching a forgotten toy into the air — some sort of plastic moose that has been hibernating in the graveyard for Happy Meal novelties under my seat.

I feel my cheeks grow warm. Thoughts zoom through my head like a herd of preschoolers racing Big Wheels. What is the appropriate answer to a question like this? What should a mother say? I am sure that if there were a Master Manual of Good Parenting, there would be a whole section on why it is inappropriate to talk about sex from this perspective — on a mechanical level — with your child. Especially a child of 8. I’ve never heard of an 8-year-old whose curiosity extended beyond knowing where babies really come from. Yet my child has asked a question that makes me blush.

At the same time, I don’t want to lie to Lindsey or put her off. A child brave enough to ask this sort of question isn’t going to accept, “Never you mind,” or “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” as a response. Telling her that I’ll discuss it with her later at home would give me more time to think, but it would also elevate her question into too big a deal. Plus, I don’t want to create any sort of an expectation — good or bad — of what sex will be like. Someday, eventually.

I rack my memory for something — anything — that I can base my response on. I need an answer that is age- and maturity-appropriate — that contains neither too little nor too much information. Time decelerates to super slow-motion as I realize for the first time how much parenting has in common with reality game shows.

Who Wants to Raise a Successful and Well-Adjusted Child?

I imagine Survivor‘s Jeff Probst in cargo pants and a tee shirt sitting on the hood of my van. He issues a polite but firm warning: “You have five more seconds to complete the challenge.”

As Lindsey’s mother I live in the metaphorical hot seat, which, at this moment, is the driver’s seat of my car. Every challenge I face — from how to punish Lindsey for painting the family room carpet with pink nail polish to whether or not she is allowed to entertain boys in her room — is increasingly difficult. Based on my responses, Lindsey moves either one step closer to becoming an independent and healthy adult — or one step sideways toward lifelong neurosis, co-dependence, and chronic drug abuse.

Like the contestants on Survivor, Lindsey, her father and I belong to a tribe — our Peaks Island, Maine community. By definition and intention, the tribe works together for the welfare of the group and is a source of support. The reality is a lot more complicated. Every tribe member — from Constance Howard who wants to revamp the school curriculum, to Paul Marco who wrote the grant that funded the new solar-powered trash compactor — has his or her own agenda and belief system. Half of the island wants to remain part of the City of Portland and the other half wants to secede. Passion runs hot on these issues, even the small ones. As stated by my neighbor Bob: “I respect your right to your opinion, but if you don’t agree with me, you’re an idiot.”

I turn my head and face Lindsey in the backseat behind me. She smiles and resumes stretching the small holes in her pink tights to make larger holes.

What should I tell her? I want to reach out to another parent who has been through this for advice — a “lifeline” so to speak. But counsel can be costly. After last month’s PTO meeting, I heard my neighbor, Maureen, ask a friend for a suggestion on how to stop her 2-year old, Terry, from throwing tantrums. Constance, one of our tribal elders waved her coffee cup. “Just walk away, even in public,” she said. Constance shoved a third brownie into her mouth, then comforted Maureen with anecdotes about what her own children had put her through. “Everything will be fine,” she promised.

But as soon as Maureen went into the kitchen to refill the coffee pot, Constance turned to her close friend Trudy. “It’s hopeless. How could any kid not be a whack job with Maureen as their mother?” she said. Based on this experience and others, I know that sharing family business — such as Lindsey’s sex question — would expose us to public analysis and ridicule. I certainly refuse to go there on purpose.

What happened to Betty Silva demonstrates what happens when your private life becomes too public. Betty dated a guy 10 years younger who had money but no discernable source of income. And she allowed her 8-year-old daughter, Gretchen, to have friends over (and jump on the trampoline in their yard) while she and her boyfriend had dinner at the Cockeyed Gull, half a block away from her house.

Betty was branded a Bad Parent. There was no physical mark that identified her, but somehow every adult in the tribe knew — via some sort of an internal radar-like sixth sense. Parents, especially mothers, can see and sense things other people cannot, the same way dogs hear sounds that people don’t. (It’s the same witch-like ability that enables some parents to stand in the kitchen and know that their children are misbehaving in the backyard.)

As a Bad Parent, Betty was victimized with backstabbing and gossip. “I think she’s a prostitute,” said one neighbor. “White trash,” said another. “Lonely victim of child abuse with father issues,” diagnosed a third. Eventually, the tribe banished her from the ArtFest planning team and the Sailing Club scholarship board. At first, Betty felt relief. No more selling raffle tickets to benefit the Health Center and no more lengthy debates on key issues such as whether the PTO should sell baked goods before its meetings, after its meetings — or both. But then she experienced the larger consequences. The children of the Bad Parents are punished, too.

No Good Parent’s child plays at a Bad Parent’s house. I once witnessed Constance anticipate the presence of Betty’s daughter Gretchen — from three blocks away.

“We have to go in, kids. We don’t want her to see that we’re home,” she said. Evidentially, Bad is contagious and can be spread airborne, like the flu, even hours after the carrier has left the room. Eventually, Betty and Gretchen had enough of being shunned. They moved away.

Lindsey waits for my answer. She looks at me from the backseat of the car. Her innocent eyes reveal that she has no idea how many nerves her question has touched. The other mothers will be horrified if they realize the wealth of information I’ve already shared with her. And while I’d be relieved to never receive another invitation to a Tupperware party, I know that to jeopardize Lindsey’s inclusion in Laura Bowman’s upcoming Cinderella birthday party would be unforgivable.

It is time to answer Lindsey’s question.

I blurt out the most brief, honest, non-graphic explanation I can think of.

“It’s a matter of personal style,” I say.

The moment I say it, I know I’ve probably said something inappropriate. In the eyes of the tribe, my answer is definitely a walk on the Bad Side.

I watch Lindsey in the rearview mirror. The look in her eye reminds me of when the cursor on my computer turns to an hourglass. I can see her process the information. Then she smiles and nods. She is satisfied with my explanation.

I exhale. In this moment, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the tribe thinks. I gave Lindsey the best answer I could. It might turn out to be the wrong answer, but that discovery is (hopefully) years away. I’ll take my chances. As I turn my attention back to the windshield, I notice that the light has turned green.