Swimming in the Sea of Parenthood

There are a few universities and colleges in this country from which I could never hope to graduate. These schools require matriculated students to pass a swimming test. I do not know how to swim. And I am terrified of making my way into water in which I cannot stand with my head above the surface.

Before World War II, passing a swimming test was part of the curriculum in many US universities and colleges. But by 1982, passing a swimming test was mandatory in less than 10 percent of them. Anna is matriculating at one of the holdout schools. Not a problem for her. I made sure that both of my children learned to swim at a very young age.

And, yes I’m aware that in the old-fashion parlance of the Talmud, a father is required to teach his son three things: The Torah, a trade and how to swim. That’s as great a blueprint for success as I could have hoped to devise. It presents a child with opportunities for spiritual fulfillment, financial security and self-protection.

My girl has to swim a few laps and then off she dives into her college career. I can remember the first time she put her face in a pool. She was 4, and my husband wisely said it was time for her to learn to swim. Off went my little girl to summer camp, where she’d have proper lessons. I never went to summer camp, and we all know the consequences of that missing link in my life.

I wasn’t so sure I wanted my little girl to go to a big-kid camp. But it was a camp that had a prekindergarten division with the sweet name of Owls’ Nest. Within days, she was proficient in the survivor’s float (known as the dead man’s float until someone wised up). Soon enough, she flipped over and floated on her back. I was amazed. I was relieved. My kid could swim. Almost.

The next summer my daughter graduated to two hours a day of instructional swim. Rain or shine – minus thunder and lightning – she was in the pool learning the breaststroke and the crawl. This was one way I measured that my girl was getting bigger and stronger. But then one day she got in the car and expressed my worst nightmare: “Today my counselor jumped into the pool with his clothes on to save me.” Then she asked me something mundane like what was for dinner that night.

When I got home, I found a message from the camp. Anna was never in danger. Her counselor saw that she had ventured into the deep end and scooped her up before she was literally in over her head. The word “save” was not mentioned. Later in the evening, my girl started grumbling that she didn’t want to go back to camp, and she certainly didn’t want to swim. I, the nonswimmer, knew she had to get back in that pool.

I’m reliving the arc of my child’s swimming story because it mirrors my feelings about my first child going to college. Once upon a time, swimming was completely new to her. It was a skill that challenged her and, at moments, frightened her. Ultimately she triumphed, and now, like the old cliché, she swims like a fish.

As for me, I still struggle mightily, learning to tread water in the shallow end. Right after Anna’s scare in the pool, I thought the camp was trying to cover up that she almost drowned. But soon after, I realized that she was never in danger. It just looked that way. So much parental worry stems from emotional perception.

Thirteen years later my little girl is going to a big school. I daresay she’ll pass her college swimming test. To say this is a time of transition for our family is a bit like thinking of Moby Dick as a big fish. But I have made sure she can swim. Take that as you will and apply it to other skills. I believe that my husband and I have invested in her academic success by supplying her with an education in which she has been challenged and has ultimately thrived. So, I suppose you could say that we’re well on our way to teaching her a trade by giving her a college education.

On the spiritual side of things, all we can do is hope that her Jewish day school career will emerge at various flashpoints during her college years. You can’t teach a child to be observant or to take the Torah into her heart. You can only instruct her in Torah so that she can make meaningful choices about her spiritual life.

And so it began with the doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool at a preschool summer camp and ends with swimming laps in an Olympic-size pool in a large university. That’s as good a metaphor as any, about parenting a child who is leaving home.

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Financial Infidelity

Here, in a nutshell, are the principles of economic empowerment handed down to me from the women in my mother’s family: Your money is your money. Your husband’s money is your money. All the money in the house and the bank is your money. A man only needs enough money in his pocket to buy a snack or, if he must, a lunch.

Imagine my surprise, and yes, even some guilt, when I recently learned that I’d been committing financial infidelity for years. My husband Ken doesn’t believe that all of our money is mine to control. Worse, Ken rarely buys anything for himself. For example, he put an iPod purchase on hold indefinitely until I gave him the darn thing for his birthday. Since I barely make enough money to merit a W2, it might appear that Ken bought the iPod for himself anyway. But in my paradigm of financial independence, appearances are often deceiving. There’s no question that I was the generous giver here.

Financial infidelity is virtually impossible to pull off without a trusting partner. But some perspective please: it’s not like I’m hiding a Swiss bank account. Ultimately, though, I’ve breached my husband’s monetary trust. If you ask Ken he’ll say the only way to make it up to him is to stop buying things I don’t need. He’s right of course, but it’s not that simple. Our standards about what I need often wildly diverge.

When my children were little they liked a song with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that went something like this: “Look left, look right—everything you see is mine.” As the self-appointed chief executive officer of my busy family of four, that pretty much sums up the perks I’ve awarded myself.

For example, after Ken dawdled for months about upgrading our television sets for the 21st century, I finally left the house one Saturday morning and became the proud owner of a forty-inch high definition TV. I announced to my stunned family that our new cable-ready addition was waiting to be unloaded and hooked up. It was apparent from the hurt look on my husband’s face that I had committed an indiscretion.

“I thought we were going to pick out a television together,” he said.

“You had almost a year,” I shot back.

“But this is a major purchase,” he complained.

“I know, it’s too heavy for me to lift by myself.”

My husband’s procrastination with regard to purchases (he’d argue it’s economic prudence) has an upside. It gives me the opportunity to jump in and do what I have to do making me, so far, the proud owner of a GPS, an iPad and another high-def TV for our bedroom. Financial infidelity? I call it reasonable upgrading.

Growing up my parents fought a lot about money—how Dad should earn more so Mom could spend more—an old-fashioned corollary to my mother’s mantras of economic empowerment. I’d go along on revenge shopping trips with my mother to Lord & Taylor where everything was bathed in gold light. I’ll never forget how beautiful my mother looked in her new gray suit with the military jacket and the killer boots she bought to go with it. All the money in the house was hers and she meant it. The day she went back to teaching full-time was the day she opened up her own checking account.

I’ve never thought of myself as financially unfaithful because of my own relatively harmless shopping habit. But there’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about financial infidelity. Suddenly I recognized the blood boiling, heart-racing telltale symptoms of my inner financial philanderer. Since I could never be as openly brazen as my mother, top on the list of can’t-miss signs was leaving purchases in the trunk of my car until the coast was clear. In other words—no witnesses.

Another sign.  Nine times out of ten I will carefully integrate a new piece of clothing or a pair of shoes into my wardrobe. I make it easier on myself by not buying two-toned platform leather boots, stunning as they were back in the day. Camouflaging a new handbag—my Achilles heel—is trickier, especially if it’s a tote or it’s not black.

Like most illicit affairs, my days of overt financial infidelity are winding down. My daughter is in college and I just sent back that designer bag I bought on whim, on-line, at two in the morning. But it seems that once you’re a shopping philanderer, you’ll always be a shopping philanderer. I’m sure there will be the errant purchase here and there—something on sale just begging to be bought. What else could I wear to my uncle’s recent surprise 70th birthday party  but a vest with tulle skirting attached? Reduced from $900 to $200. Just one left, lo and behold, in my size. (I’m wondering who bought the other pieces for almost a thousand dollars. I think, I know. Someone who’s finished paying tuition).

There’s a concrete bottom-line here: All the money in the house was my money. Now it’s being forked over for tuition in the foreseeable future. But I bet I’ll find a way to continue to sneak in chocolate and that pair of shoes that was wondrously reduced just for me.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Dear Teen Me:

When you were growing up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was easy to have a skewed view of love, especially with all those pop love songs you listened to — and inevitably dreamed would come true. If only there had been a meeting for you like the one I went to last week, dedicated to healthy teenage relationships. If only the adults around you had understood what I know now: that some consider teen dating a public health issue.

Today, the Boston Public Health Commission has a program called [Start Strong](http://www.startstrongteens.org), currently the largest funded national initiative aimed at preventing relationship violence and abuse among young people by promoting healthy relationships. Start Strong’s mission is powerful in its simplicity: “Stop teen dating abuse before it starts by using older teens to educate pre-teens.” To emphasize that message, the Commission has sponsored a co-ed gathering of teens for three years running called *Break-Up Summit*. This year, the event took place at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and focused on cheating as a catalyst to unhealthy relationships turning violent.

This kind of initiative didn’t exist when you were growing up — when boys were boys and girls were expected to be nicer than nice. My generation directly reaped the rewards of the Women’s Movement. Still, for many us, sexual liberation was steeped in guilt and bewilderment at how far we could go and, simultaneously, how badly a relationship could end.

At this year’s conference, teens attended workshops that helped them explore the landscape of healthy relationships, including “Breaking-Up In The Internet Age,” “The ‘What Are We?’ Conversation,” and “It’s Complicated.” In one breakout session, they debated what behavior constituted cheating and what behavior was perfectly innocent. Yes, they said, you can go out to a platonic dinner with a friend of the opposite sex. Actions that fell into a gray area were more difficult for them to agree on. “Flirting is a way of life, it’s healthy,” said one young man. “Dancing with a guy at a party even if your boyfriend’s there isn’t right,” said a young woman. Perhaps consensus is not the point. Teens need to build their own definitions of fidelity and respect.

But how often does that really happen? Today, teens are having sex at a younger age and with more partners. Their relationships are also driven by hormones and developing brains, which means they may not understand why they do what they do and feel what they feel. The drama, the moods, the end-of-the-world heartache — I wish you had known that they didn’t have to be standard issue for teenage relationships.

At the conference, I heard a lot of terms bandied about, like “hooking up,” “friends with benefits,” “just friends” and “full-blown dating.” It made me realize that while the language has changed, human nature hasn’t. One of the more potent metaphors a teenage girl used to describe cheating was a crumpled piece of paper. That’s what cheating does to a relationship, and though the deception may be followed by forgiveness, that sheet of paper will always have wrinkles.

When the program organizers displayed pictures of world-famous cheaters, some of the boys whooped when they saw Tiger Woods. And while there was not a single woman in the montage, the audience was abuzz discussing “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart’s [tearful apology](http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/kristen-stewart-apologizes-cheating-robert-pattinson_n_1702836.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment&ir=Entertainment) for cheating on Robert Pattinson. Young women, in particular, seemed to admire Stewart for responding quickly by taking responsibility for her actions. Others were bitterly disappointed in her for cheating on Pattinson in the first place. As one girl wondered, aren’t women supposed to be above that?

Maybe it’s the characters she plays, but for me, Stewart embodies the notion of a fairy tale. The version of romance she projects isn’t real — just like the Top 40 songs that inspired and disappointed you, Teen Me, all those years ago. I know it’s confusing and upsetting to consider that fairy tales don’t exist, but in time you will understand that grappling with a strong, healthy relationship — with its inevitable peaks and valleys — is more romantic than an unattainable “happily ever after.”

And so what I want to say most of all, Teen Me, is something I never knew at your age: It gets better, and until it does, there are resources out there. There are people who want to help you extricate yourself from a bad relationship. That is the biggest takeaway of the Break-up Summit. If only you had been guided to realize that love is not a Top 40 song, I would have been spared suffering that was neither noble nor useful.

Love,

(Much) Older Me

College Tripper

On the eve of Anna’s departure for college, I’m running the piece on last year’s ubiquitous college tour.

Six days. Seven schools. Three colds and one case of bronchitis later (hello bronchitis, my old friend), we are through with college touring. Okay, maybe not through, but finished with the grand sweep. In keeping with a promise I made to my children to guard their privacy when I started writing this column, I’ll just say we drove a total of 1200 miles in Anywhere, USA. And yes, we schlepped Adam along in the hope that he won’t want to embark on a similarly exhausting itinerary.

If you take away only one piece of advice from this column let it be the following: do NOT, no matter how tempting it is, immediately ask your college applicant what she thought of the school. I made the egregious mistake of pointing out that early decision candidates fared statistically better in the admissions process. Trust me, your child heard the same thing at the same information session. She doesn’t want to hear it again, especially from you

Unfortunately, a tour guide—usually a current student—can color your perception of a school. You and I know that that’s not a fair assessment of a college. But hey, we’re only human. On our college tours, I developed a twitch if a well-meaning guide used the word “schpiel” more than once, For example, one student guide at a very fine small liberal arts school kept reminding our group that the admissions office told him he had to be sure to give us the “schpiel” on—you fill in the blank. Pointing out that you are giving a “schpiel” is the irritating equivalent of overacting.

Another word I never again want to hear from a tour guide’s mouth is that the school is “awesome.” Awesome covers a large vague, area of accomplishment and fun. Which brings me to another pet peeve. You’re given the impression that kids on these campuses are conducting Nobel Prize-worthy research. Everyone’s racing to find the cure for cancer or write the semiotics textbook of our generation. If this is case, how come I haven’t noticed? I read the papers.

A lot of schools try to claim a piece of the Ivy League cachet. We have public ivies, little ivies, ivy equivalents and actual Ivy League schools. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Among them are plenty of wonderful, scholarly and yes, prestigious schools, that are not one of the “official” eight Ivy League schools. Claiming ersatz ivy status is a red flag that the school is desperate to sell itself.

Various colleges had impressive amenities. For example, Starbucks on campus was very attractive to Anna. My girl expects to go off to college with a fully loaded Starbucks card and she doesn’t want to have to go on an expedition to satisfy her caffeine fix. To be fair, she also carefully inspected science buildings and noted the variety of majors each school offered. Interesting fact: every college campus we visited has an observatory.

At this ridiculously early juncture in his college search, Adam rated schools by how boring the tour guide or the information session could become. But things balanced out if the school’s surrounding environs included a great diner.

Ken was the easiest going of the four of us. He wants Anna to be happy and fulfilled. The rest is commentary for him. He was also the brains behind College Tour 2011-2012. He planned and executed this trip like a six-star general. (That means he joins an exclusive group that only includes George Washington and John Pershing of World War I). We ran on time and our accommodations were first rate.

As for me, my priority is also for Anna to be happy and fulfilled in college. Having said that, I think she can achieve those things on campuses in quaint towns with great shopping. But when it came down to it, I liked schools that had some curriculum requirements—I was especially fond of one university where students had to be proficient in a foreign language. I also paid close attention to places that were equally strong in the sciences and humanities.

In conclusion, (don’t use that well-worn phrase on your college essay!) here are the more salient lessons of College Tour 2011-2012:

Parents, do not speak until spoken to before, during or after a tour or information session. Give your child a neutral answer if she accuses you of favoring one school over another. Say something like: My only wish is for you to be happy. Your kid won’t believe you, but it can make a three hour car ride more bearable.

Whatever you do, take this process one day at a time. That includes not freaking out about the application essays or the tuition within earshot of your future college student. Never, ever, suggest to your child to apply somewhere early decision. Let her come to her own conclusion about a potentially binding contract with a college’s admissions office.

Do marvel at how independent your future collegian is as she marches up to admissions to confirm tour and interview times. And don’t forget to take Vitamin C before, during and after the trip. Stress can weaken the immune system and lead to colds.