In Praise of Single Parents

The first thing that went wrong was the lock on the door. It didn’t work.

Our friends S and R generously lent us their Cape Cod condo the weekend of Father’s Day. They were away and Ken was on an extended business trip. I thought that a quick outing to the Cape would nicely break up the time while he was away. We unlocked the door of the condo just fine, but locking it was another story. I leaned heavily on my technologically savvy teenagers to figure out the lock’s mechanism. No dice. None of us had a clue about how to work our friends’ door.

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My first inclination was to call Ken who was a continent away. After all, the man can walk me through complicated computer problems over the telephone. But I quickly realized that, as talented as he is, even he could not figure out how to work a lock he had never seen. The kids and I did the next best thing. We called a locksmith who, five minutes and $65.00 later, showed us that all we had to do to lock the door was lift up the handle.

And then it hit me like a megaton of bricks—this is what single parents go through every day. They don’t have the luxury of calling on a partner to get them through a rough patch. I can remember the extensive debates Ken and I have had over the years about little things like low-grade fevers, sleepless babies and fussy toddlers. Tylenol or Advil? We had no idea what we were doing, but it was less scary to be in the dark together.

Here’s another thing about our weekend away—driving. I had to do all of it. Ken always does the driving while I snooze in the front seat. This time it was completely up to me to get my kids from Point A to Point B since neither of them has a driver’s license. That’s a lot of pressure on someone with a lousy sense of direction that doesn’t like to drive.

But one of the biggest things that I learned on that fateful weekend was that Anna and Adam weren’t thrilled to be so far from their friends. That’s right, I’m not their whole world anymore. Not even remotely. So I expended a lot of energy on trying to make them happy. Unfortunately, the two of them have very different ideas of happiness. One likes the beach; the other hates it. One likes the movies; the other is not so keen on sitting in a theatre for two hours.

I finally ditched the kids and called Ken from a coffee shop. “They’re driving me nuts,” I said breathlessly into the phone.

“I think what they’re doing is developmentally normal,” he said. “At this stage, they don’t want to hang out with us that much.”

I knew that Ken had spoken the unvarnished truth. I even accepted that truth; it was just hard to see it in action.

By the end of the weekend we had had enough of one another. My children demanded that we leave the Cape a day early. No Monday morning departure to beat the Sunday traffic for this solo driver. They couldn’t stand to be away from home for another minute. That’s when I did something I swore that I would never do as a parent: I gave them the “You do not appreciate me” speech. I hate to admit this, but it was not the first time I’ve done that.

“I am, “ I said in my best martyr-like voice, “only as good as my last favor or the last thing that I bought for you.” Then my kids got into a row with me about how that wasn’t true as we waited to be seated for brunch. People were staring.

At the table their bottled-up resentments came tumbling out. Adam was still furious that we didn’t go to his favorite beach, missing out on eating the best onion rings on the face of the earth. Anna had passed up several invitations of a lifetime that had been sent in rapid-fire text messages throughout the time we were away together. And I took out a small loan to take them to the finest restaurants and buy them the loveliest souvenirs.

“Neither of us asked you to bring us here,” Anna said. “This was all your idea,” Adam said. That’s when I really blew a gasket. “You have no idea how much I do for you.” As soon as I said it, I heard how flat and clichéd the comment sounded. Of course, my children had no inkling of everything Ken and I do for them. How could they? They’re not parents yet.

As for me, I am humbled and awed by those parents who bring up children on their own with grace, wisdom and the hard-won experience of figuring out how to lock a door.

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The Next Phase by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The young woman sitting across from me at the dinner table talked enthusiastically about her research at the MIT Media Lab. She was involved in designing prosthetics that would enable a person to climb a mountain or run a marathon. She was also graduating the next day from MIT and on her way to a masters program clear across the country to study mechanical engineering. Only 14 percent of engineers in this country are women and my niece is one of them.

My nephew graduated the day after his sister and is off to college to pursue his dream as a video game designer. At the other end of the table, Anna is telling my sister-in-law about her internship shadowing a cardiologist. She’s been scrubbing in to observe procedures like putting in pacemakers and defibrillators. “And you don’t feel like fainting when you see all that blood?” I ask in disbelief. Adam is excited to start a research internship in a lab studying stem cells.

These kids alternately awe me and make me weepy. When did they become young adults with interests and expertise so far from my own area of knowledge? When did I stop becoming my children’s primary confidante? Their first line of defense? I don’t write to their teachers anymore about this or that or send notes that they have to sit out recess because of a cold. They advocate for themselves. I watch Anna explain to a server about her severe dairy allergy. I used to do that stuff.

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My role as a mother is undergoing a radical realignment and I’m not ready. I’ve known that my kids would only belong to me for a finite period of time. They’d grow and want to stumble into the greater world on their own. What young adult wouldn’t? I did.

So it was with great reluctance and more than a bit of trepidation that I let my children take the train down to Manhattan to stay with their respective friends for the weekend. I know there are kids younger than they are that literally travel the world by themselves. I also know that my kids are more than capable of taking trains and catching subways on their own. They’ve spent extended time away from home at camp and on school trips abroad. But this was a new adventure for them, navigating New York City on their own. Adam told me not to worry—in New York you’re never lost for long. You just count. I wasn’t concerned that he’d get lost, I was hyper about him looking like he was lost.

There are books written about parents like me. The classic on the subject of the overprotective parent is by Lenore Skenazy. She wrote a book called Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. After her book came out a few years ago, she was on the Today Show with her then nine year-old son whom she allowed to navigate the New York City subway system without a cell phone. It was jaw dropping for me. I thought about Skenazy when I interrogated my almost sixteen year-old about his pending maiden voyage on the Times Square shuttle. He shrugged me off and said he took the T in Boston. And then I remembered he’s the kid who debates at school and speaks Spanish fluently. My niece the engineer backpacked through Europe after her senior year in high school. At her college graduation dinner she told us a story about dusting off her French to ask a hotel concierge where she could do laundry. And my computer science nephew will likely be acquiring skills to control a drone someday.

It’s thrilling to watch this generation put down a stake in their future. But does that future include me as a mother? Friends with grandchildren assure me that there’s a Round Two in the mothering game and it’s even sweeter the second time around. One friend went so far as to tell me that if she had known how wonderful grandchildren were she would have skipped having children and gone straight into grandparenting.

I have no doubt that my niece, my nephew and my own children will have a great impact on the world. Like any experienced chess player, I can see the endgame already. And my part is to let go and wave goodbye after each milestone. The other day I was helping Adam through some disappointing news. I sat on the edge of his bed and he said that he felt like a five year-old. I told him that sometimes we need to feel like a little kid to be nurtured.

For the moment, though, I’m going to pretend that the only changes I have to cope with in the near future are to wave goodbye at the train station and cheer on my niece and nephew for receiving their diplomas.

The Perils of Re-Entry by Judy Bolton-Fasman

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, it seemed like there was a spaceship launch every week. A rocket was followed by a plume of smoke, and off the brave astronauts would go into the unknown, possibly bumping into God.

Launching a spacecraft is one thing. Bringing it safely back to earth is another kind of business. Launch and re-entry have been on my mind quite a bit this past month when Anna returned from her first year of college.

As Ken and I launched our girl into higher education last August, the venture made nervous astronauts out of the three of us. It was a bit of a bumpy start, but that did not last too long and soon enough, Anna was orbiting her new world 300 miles away. She had a successful launch and last month, we all had to reverse course for her to re-enter our atmosphere.

Depending on your perspective, this return was either a setback or a simple change of venue. I’d say it was a little of both. Just as spacecraft re-entry can be a very tricky business, so is getting your college freshman acclimated to home life again. Note that when an object enters the earth’s atmosphere it experiences a few forces, including gravity and drag. Gravity has a natural pull on an object and will cause the object to fall dangerously fast. Think of this as your college freshman reluctantly comes back to home life, reacting to the natural yet disturbing force of your parental gravity.

Moving back home can prove to be a challenge for college students.
The earth’s atmosphere contains particles of air that a falling object hits and rubs against as it descends to the earth, causing friction. The object experiences drag or air resistance, which slows it down to a safer entry speed.

You and your returning freshman will have your own version of friction. True enough, your child will experience drag and air resistance, but in the end will not be happy to adjust her life to a safer entry speed. Again, take a lesson from physics in understanding that friction in relationships is, at best, a mixed blessing. In addition to causing drag, it also causes intense heat.

In researching the particulars of space-shuttle descents, I came upon some physical realities that make re-entry safer, and in the case of a college student returning home for the summer, a bit smoother. Any astronaut will tell you that re-entering earth is about attitude control. In the case of space flight, this is not a psychological term, but instead refers to the angle at which the spacecraft flies. I submit that similarly adjusting one’s view of welcoming your college student back home also has to do with attitude control. You and your child are in your own private descent back to family life, and how you adjust the angle of your relationship is the key to success.

Don’t make a rookie mistake and think that loving phone calls and happy Skype sessions while your child is at school will translate into a seamless transition back home. In reality, we parents are the ground crew to our children’s ongoing launches. You and I both know that she’s still under heavy parental support, but it doesn’t feel that way to a daughter who has been in charge of her own schedule for the past nine months. Your child believes she is a high-flying adult living on her own.

We can cull further lessons on our kids’ return to home life by understanding the descent of a space shuttle. In order to leave its orbit, a spacecraft must begin the process of slowing down from its extreme speed. The parties, the 2 a.m. pizza call, the constant flow of company, all of that comes to a screeching halt back at the ancestral home. Just as a spacecraft flips around and flies backward for a period of time to slow down, your college student will need to thrust her life out of orbit to return back to your home base.

The descent through the atmosphere can be a bumpy ride. Once a spacecraft is safely out of orbit, it turns nose-first again and enters the atmosphere in a position akin to a belly flop. The nose is pulled up to what is called an angle of attack, which stabilizes the descent. The lesson to learn here is that friction is inevitable and even necessary to guarantee a safe landing.

spaceship
Landing a space shuttle today is a lot different from landing one of the Apollo missions, of my childhood. In those days, the astronauts returned to earth in their command module and made a dramatic splash in the ocean. Today’s shuttle lands more like an airplane and glides into a landing strip, deploying a parachute to slow it down.

In the end, does the re-entry of your college student look like the big splashdown of one of the Apollo missions or is it the smooth computer-assisted glide of a shuttle landing? We’re still working it out at our house, and the return back from dorm living vacillates between the two, feeling as mysterious as the heavens.

Sex and the Boy Scouts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

By the time you read this there will have been a raft of articles and columns about the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to allow openly gay boys to participate in the organization. The new policy states that, “no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” Wayne Brock, the BSA’s chief executive, called the decision “compassionate, caring and kind.”

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The outcome of the vote, however, is a deceptive one. The BSA will continue to exclude openly gay leaders, and when a gay youth member turns eighteen he will have to turn in his badges and bid farewell to his scouting career. Quoting from the BSA’s internal documents, Reuters reports “when youth members become adults they ‘must meet the requirements of our adult standards’ to remain in the group.”

It’s disorienting to think that just last summer the BSA reaffirmed their anti-gay policy in bureaucratic doublespeak.“ We do not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open to avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

The BSA describes itself as “one of the nation’s largest and most prominent values-based youth development organizations.” If you look at the membership roster it is, in many respects, a faith-based organization. The majority of troops are affiliated with churches. The biggest feeder is the Mormon Church, which to its credit did not have a knee-jerk response to the BSA’s latest change in policy and, as of this writing, is studying the proposal. But contemplating theological issues is not within the scope of this particular column. The real issue for me is the unhealthy national obsession with our children’s sexuality.

For a more nuanced look at the subject, I take you down to Florida where an 18 year-old teenager named Kaitlyn Hunt faces 15 years in prison for having sex with her 14 year-old girlfriend. Hunt and the younger girl were on the same basketball team and the girl’s parents brought the criminal charges against Hunt. As CBS reported, these parents blamed Kaitlyn for their daughter’s homosexuality.

Reporting on the story in Slate magazine, Emily Bazelon writes that “[i]t’s hard for me to see how you can take the homophobia out of this case.” Yet that’s exactly what the mother of the younger girl and the prosecutors in the case are doing. The State Attorney charged Hunt in February with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child. Additionally, Hunt has been expelled from school. The only leniency offered to Kaitlyn in this sorry affair was a plea bargain to lesser charges of child abuse. The offer was two years of house arrest rather than face the possibility of onerous jail time and the prospect of having to register as a sex offender. So far Kaitlyn is not budging.

Bazelon’s article gets very interesting as she ponders the outpouring of support for Kaitlyn. Hunt’s family has used social media to great effect to draw attention to Kaitlyn’s case. A Facebook page called “Free Kate” has links to T-shirts, bracelets and a petition, which more than 45,000 people have signed. The Florida ACLU is also behind Kaitlyn calling the relationship “harmless and consensual.”

But Bazelon goes a step further in considering Kaitlyn’s plight by citing:

the denunciation of various 17 and 18 year-old boys who have been charged with sex crimes because of their relationships, or encounters with 15 or 14-year old girls. Is this case really so different because it’s about two girls? Or does it reveal a larger problem with charging older teenagers for having sex with younger ones?

I originally cited Kaitlyn Hunt’s case as one of homophobia. Like Bazelon, it’s hard for me not to see anti-gay sentiment exacerbating the situation. But Bazelon also brings up a much more complicated issue—should sex between older and younger teens spanning less than a five-year difference be decriminalized? Hunt’s parents are calling their daughter’s case an example of selective prosecution. I think they’re right. How often do the police get called for heterosexual consensual sex between a freshman and senior in high school? I daresay, not very often.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, you may wonder how we began with the Boy Scouts of America’s new policy towards gay scouts and ended up talking about consensual sex between teens. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for sex between teens. What I am saying is let our teens figure out their sexuality without shunning them or prosecuting them.

Toward that end, let’s free Kaitlyn Hunt and the Boy Scouts of America from the hate and prejudice that dogs both of them.

 

Driving Miss Anna–The Sequel by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Her learner’s permit expired last year. There have been no road hours clocked in over a year and the classroom hours are a distant memory. The upshot is that I am still driving Anna around. True, I’ve had a respite while she’s been away at college. But now she’s back and the girl needs rides. Luckily, she’s become very adept at bumming rides from her friends. Sometimes she’ll do a very complicated automobile leapfrog to get from here to there. Sometimes it’s more like ballet and it can be a thing of beauty to watch her arrange her transportation.

Parents far wiser than I have told me not to push the matter. She’ll drive when she’s ready. Two years ago Anna wrote an editorial in her high newspaper about why she refused to learn to drive. “Every time I turn the key in the ignition, my blood pressure spikes and my heart rate doubles,” said my girl. “In the back of my mind, I know that I am driving a two-ton piece of weaponry. With one wrong move, I could end up hurting myself or the people around me.”

My daughter declared war on driving.

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In my day the quest to get a driver’s license at 16 was an American rite of passage. But the more research I did, the more I learned that Anna’s aversion to driving is part of a national trend. In a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, 46 percent of all 16 year-olds had a driver’s license in 1983. By 2008 that number had dropped down to 31 percent. The study’s principal investigator concluded that the Internet is a big reason for this drop in the drive to drive.

There’s no question that teens rely on the convenience of high-tech social interaction to communicate with one another. Why leave your house when you can Skype or chat on Facebook? A recent survey finds that 46 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds would choose Internet access over owning their own car. But according to another study out of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, there are other mitigating factors for the decrease in teen drivers, including the health of the economy as well as state licensing systems that have more rigorous requirements in place to acquire a learner’s permit and eventually a license. Additionally, driver’s education has been cut back in many public school systems, leaving families to come up with up to $600 for private driving schools. Add that to the growing cost of gasoline and astronomical insurance rates for teen drivers and virtual socializing is a bargain.

As keen as I am for Anna to drive to the grocery store, I’ve also read some very sobering statistics about teen drivers. Although kids between the ages of 16 and 19 count for just one in 20 drivers, they are behind the wheel in one of seven accidents that kill either the driver or a passenger. To that end, 16 year-old drivers are more than twenty times more likely to crash a car than other drivers, and six times more likely to total a car than a 17 year-old. What a difference a year makes.

According to the Centers of Disease Control, these alarming statistics on teen driving are rooted in physiology. Coordinating eyes, hands and feet to drive is a relatively new experience for a teen. A younger driver is also more likely to miscalculate a traffic situation and is more easily distracted than an adult driver. There’s also the underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex of the teen brain, causing them to take risks like speeding, texting while driving or cutting off other cars.

But all is not lost. Parents are critical to driving safety for their teens. Start with something as basic as giving your teen extra practice behind the wheel. Driver Education programs typically provide a total of six hours on the road. To be a reasonably proficient driver, experts put the number at closer to 50 hours and recommend spreading out those hours to cover the winter months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics further recommends that teens have a restrictive license until the age of 18 or until they have been driving under adult supervision for two years. States that have officially adopted a graduated system of driving privileges have seen a 9 percent dip in automobile injuries and fatalities among 16 and 17 year-olds. Teens are also four times more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash at night. Cities that have instituted a curfew on night driving have seen a 25 percent drop in teenage car fatalities.

To see an additional reduction in car accidents the Institute for Highway Safety recommends that teens drive mid-size or full-size cars with air bags to provide more crash protection. The Institute further suggests avoiding sleek, high performance vehicles that may tempt teens to speed. And sport utility vehicles have higher centers of gravity that make them less stable and more likely to roll over.

As for Anna, she’s finally declared a truce on driving. She’s considering getting her license this summer at the age of 19. Maybe she was right to wait. After all, the statistics are on her side.