Letters to my children (3): Raising optimists in a complicated world

I have been writing in series; pieces that are written independently but which come together as a collection of related thoughts. “Letters” is one of them. I started writing these several months ago, when my children were all living at home due to COVID restrictions, but at the same time, they were getting ready to move on to their respective destinations: college, after college, work. John Mayer sings “say what you need to say” and while I try to always do this, sometimes it comes out better for me in writing. So this series is for my children. While some letters have been written with a single child in mind, these are equal opportunity messengers, and my hope is that each child will find their own meaning in every letter.

ON FAMILY (AND KEEPING YOUR SIBLINGS CLOSE, NO MATTER WHAT). Kids: although this one inspired by Emma, it applies to all of you.

Emma you were about six, when I woke up one Sunday morning hoping to be able to laze in bed for a little longer.   It wasn’t often that Dave and I got to sleep in, but it was after 9 a.m., and with three small children at home, that was already a record.  Just when I thought I could finally breathe a little bit, that lovely, warm haze of nothingness was broken by the cries of “that’s IT.  Marco, get OUT!”  Kids will be kids, of course, but something in me always cringes when the older ones start to gang up on the younger.  Maybe because I am the youngest in my family, but it’s really more than that.  So I pulled myself out of bed, and walked over to your room to – in my quietly angry voice – say “stop picking on Marco.  It’s Sunday morning, I would like to rest, and you three need to work on getting along.”  

Thinking of course that that would be the end of it, I went back to bed, pulled the covers up, and snuggled in next to Dave, who was soft and warm from hours in bed. Finally, a little laziness…  After a few minutes, Marco started to cry.  So I got up again, and went over to the boys’ room this time, to find that Nacho had tossed a piece of playdough and it hit Marco on the eye.  This time, I got mad at Marco because he was exaggerating the crime (as he did from time to time).  So I threw out one of those parental one-liners intended to get the message across, and then went back to my bedroom, this time a little more upset.  Of course, at this point it was almost 9:30.  I thought to myself “maybe I should just get up”, but the mere thought made me mad, so I did some whining of my own, and ended up mis-judging Dave’s response, turning my frustration toward him.  Fed up with me, he got out of bed, put on his jeans, and went downstairs.  So I was left with no one to snuggle with, and steam coming out of my ears.  Happy Sunday.  

But while I was lying alone, daring myself to stay in bed all day and protest (that only lasted about 10 minutes), I realized that the reason I get so upset when you guys aren’t nice to one another is because I am alone.  I lost my brother J just a few months earlier, and my other brother, Mike, had been out of the picture so long that I sometimes tried to convince myself that I had almost forgotten what he looked like.  

I sometimes think about how things might have been.  Mike and I ought to have been able to brave J’s death together, but instead, we grieved alone.  He couldn’t lean on me, and I did not allow myself to reach out to him.  For lots of complicated family reasons, we were broken.  My resolve to keep you guys together and unified is because of this.  I never want you to be alone.  Over the years I have told you how important it is that you stand up for and protect one another.  Along life’s journey, if things go the way they are supposed to, your parents will go long before you do, and you’ll need each other.  My destiny has been to go from youngest sister to only child, and I will do whatever I can to make sure that my kids never go through this.  If that means forcing you all to be nice to each other, then so be it.    

You all were so small when we lived in that house, the three story row house with the underground garage that we had converted to a kind of craft room.  It had a large table, with everything you could wish for to make things with – markers, crayons, chalk, scissors, glue, tape, paper, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, foam balls, stickers, string… You name it, we had it.  You guys would spend hours down there making things.  And when you got bored, you’d ride your bikes along the path on the other side of the garage. It was a fun space for you, and I had just one rule.  You needed to clean up your messes.  

And so it was that one day, Nacho, who had gotten into trouble for something (I can’t remember what) was sent downstairs to clean up.  His punishment was to clean for everyone and I made it clear that he would do that alone.  After a little while, I was in the kitchen, making dinner, and I heard an odd noise coming from the garage.  I stepped out of the kitchen to the top of the steps, and heard the faintest sound of whispering.  I craned my neck a little to see if I could hear what was happening. There were definitely voices (plural) coming from the garage, where Nacho was supposed to be alone.  So I tiptoed slowly down the stairs, unsure of what I would find. At the bottom, I peered through the doorway for a moment as the two of you quietly cleaned up together.  When you turned around and saw me there, 6 year old you quickly defended Nacho, telling me that you came downstairs to help him because you didn’t think it was fair that he alone had to clean up a mess you all had made together.  I listened, looking at Nacho’s face. His eyes looked from you to me, and he was clearly nervous about being discovered.  So I said calmly that yes, Nacho was supposed to do this on his own for a reason, and at the time, I appreciated that you wanted to help him. I didn’t ask you to leave, and I didn’t scold Nacho.  I turned around and walked slowly back upstairs.  I knew it wasn’t totally okay that you had made that decision on your own, and yet I also knew that this was the one thing I wanted above all else – for you all to love, support, and lean on one another when it was most needed.  In that moment, I was immensely proud of you, and of Nacho, and I knew that what I had worked so hard to accomplish was well under way.  

It won’t always be as simple as cleaning up the garage.  As you grow into adulthood and life brings you all kinds of new gifts and complications, you and your siblings will drift apart and come back together many times over the years.   And there will be moments when you fundamentally disagree with one another.  I can remember arguing about something with J with I was around 16, and he – 22 at the time – turned to my mom and said, “when did Kim become so opinionated?” It was probably something like who was a better actor, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt? And looking back on it, those arguments were fun. It was the ones about politics, social issues, and raising children that were harder to reconcile. You may find over time that you disagree about things that are increasingly important to you. And it won’t always be easy to see one another’s side. But whatever comes, hold tight to the history that you share and the love you have for one another at this moment, right now.  Greet one another where you are. Stay curious, and loving, and never let go.

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Even as a child, I would study the unexpected turns in my life and try to find the lessons in them. I am nothing if not reflective. As an American citizen raised in Sao Paulo, Dallas and Madrid, I am a classic adult TCK*. Perspective is key, and I look at everything through multiple lenses. It used to make my son crazy when as a boy he would press me for a firm stance on something and I would often answer “well, that depends…” I am a thinker and learner, writer and story teller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, I am now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When I was around 8 years old, I starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. I have been blogging since 2010, have published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn, and I am currently working on a couple of manuscripts. One is a collection of motivational essays for women leaders in international education which I am co-authoring with my friend and colleague, Debbie Lane. The other is more of a memoir, a personal story about love, sacrifice, and hope. Hope and gratitude are common themes in my writing, my work, and in my life in general. Everyone has a story to tell. Thank you for taking some time to explore mine. I hope you’ll come back. *A TCK is a third-culture kid, someone who has spent a significant number of their formative years outside of their passport country. It is an experience that typically has a profound impact on the development of self and identity.

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