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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

Constructive Procrastination

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I’m running a half marathon on Sunday. I really shouldn’t be; I haven’t trained for it, and the weather forecast is horrible (hot, humid, windy, rainy). And yet, I am stupidly excited about the whole idea of getting up at 4:00 am to run 13.1 miles, including a long painful uphill stretch that will most likely be straight into a driving headwind.

Also? There’s a chance of thunderstorms. And yet, I’m still excited. Which probably says something about how things have been going around here.

This has been a hard school year, for a lot of reasons, and the worst part fell just as I was starting to train for this race. A stretch of terrible polar vortex-induced weather kept me off the roads and on the treadmill, which is frustrating because I’m not someone who can run long miles on the treadmill. But at least I was running. That is, until I wasn’t.

See, the treadmill is at my gym. On the days when everyone went to school, I would stop on the way home and run. But we had a lot of days this winter where Henry didn’t make it to school, and leaving him home alone to go work out just wasn’t an option.

(When I say that Henry “didn’t make it to school” I mean exactly that: He was completely unable to get himself together to go to school. If you don’t have a child like Henry, you are probably shaking your head in bafflement at this point — and also maybe judging me a little — because why can’t the boy go to school? Just make him go to school! I can’t explain it; some days, he just cannot find it in him to get dressed and show up for class. Of course, if you are raising your own Henry, you read that and started nodding your head and looking for my email address so you could reach out and say GOD YES! US TOO! SOLIDARITY, SISTER!)

So between the weather (stressful) and the boy (more stressful), I essentially stopped running. Instead of logging my usual 30ish miles a week, I was down to 10. Or 5. Or, in one particularly bad week, 0. It was awful.

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My Communist Approach to Kid’s Homework

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My Motto: “From Each According to His Ability, to Each According to His Need”

I like to believe that I don’t ever help my kids with their homework, although that’s only half true and really depends on how we are defining “help.” I never cross the line into actually doing the work for them or telling them the answers, although the temptation is often there, particularly at the end of a long day or a long project or both.

But I always resist. Because, as I like to remind the boys, this is their homework, not mine. I’ve done middle school English/math/social studies/whatever and I’m not required to do it again. Thank goodness.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t help at all. And it doesn’t mean that I offer both kids the same kind of help.

Last week, I helped Charlie memorize the preamble to the Constitution. My help consisted of two specific things: finding the Schoolhouse Rock video for him on YouTube and listening to him recite the whole thing over and over once he had learned the words. (I also encouraged him to sing it for his teacher, rather than simply reciting, but he had no interest in that, which is kind of a bummer because how awesome would that have been??? So awesome.) My help was so minimal, in fact, that even he didn’t realize I was helping, which is exactly how it should be. For him, at least.
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The End of Family Vacation

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Last summer, we went to New Mexico for a week, to spend time with my extended family. On the first day, Henry’s ear buds broke and we spend fully a third of the week trying to find a replacement pair that sounded exactly the same. This meant driving to a Best Buy store that was nowhere near where we were staying — twice. It meant managing the nightly panic attacks Henry had about how he was going to survive the drive back to Oklahoma City without his music. It meant borrowing a car from my parents so that we could split up during the day and give Henry a chance to unwind and recover.

It was not fun. At all.

We went in to that vacation thinking we had it all figured out. The summer before, we’d gone to Colorado with Wade’s family and had managed to have a fairly pleasant week. We’d planned lots of activities to keep everyone busy and built in lots of down time for Henry, to let him recover. The trip was a success, but it wasn’t at all what I would think of as a “vacation.”

In fact, it was kind of a beating.

When my kids were little, my friends used to joke that traveling with children was never really a vacation; it was a trip. Taking small people on the road is a lot of work — the packing and unpacking, the sleep deprivation, the new foods. But eventually, those little kids turn into big kids and travel gets to be fun and being away from home is restful and relaxing. A vacation, in fact! Right?

Not always.

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The Road Not Taken

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Autumn Park AlleyOne day this week, I got dressed in an outfit I thought we would be equal parts comfortable and hip: slouchy turtleneck sweater, skinny cords, metallic ballet flats. I added a necklace (long and skinny to balance the oversized sweater) and a puffy vest (because it’s winter and it was cold outside) and left the house to run errands.

At some point in my meanderings through Target, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and realized that I looked like a middle aged housewife. And I started to feel a little depressed, until I remembered that I actually am a middle aged housewife.

And then I was even more depressed.

In lots of ways, my life has not turned out the way I imagined it would when I was 20. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; my 20-year-old self was fairly clueless and completely impractical. She liked to imagine that she would live in a city and ride the train to work and wear heels and sleek skirts every day. Instead, I drive an SUV and wear flats and work at home because that gives me the flexibility to deal with any emergencies that might come up with the kids.

That’s not at all what I thought life in my 40s would be like. But to say that my life has turned out differently than what I imagined is not the same as saying that it has turned out badly. At all.

In some ways, my life is exactly how I envisioned it. For one thing, I am happily married; for another, we are financially stable. And I have two delightful children.

In my 20s, I expected to have all of those things some day. But I never imagined children like mine. I don’t know how I could have.

Charlie is precisely the kid I was anticipating when I thought about raising sons. He is so much like my brother that it’s eerie — the same hilarious personality, the same deep love of sports, the same gangly frame. I know exactly how to interact with him, because it’s like traveling back to my own childhood, to the first little boy I ever knew and loved. And while I won’t say that parenting him is easy, it is certainly predictable.

At least as much as parenting can ever be.

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What It’s Like Having A “Favorite” Child

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iStock_000027492566XSmallMy kids like to play a game where they pretend they cannot remember how old I am. (I’m 45.) They will tell me that I look great for someone my age, and then add, “You’re what? 35? 30? 25?”

And I will always say, “You’re my favorite.”

Of course I am kidding. (I will also tell whichever kid brings me a glass of water or volunteers to fold the laundry or drags the trash cans up from the curb when it’s freezing outside that he is my favorite, largely because at that moment, he really is.)

If I’m being honest, though, I will admit that I do have a favorite child — but before you start to worry about the other kid, the neglected one, let me add this: My favorite child is not always the same one.

I have one son who is laid back and self-reliant and flexible, and another who is high strung and routine driven and anxious. And yes, that means that one of my kids is easier — and often more fun — to be around than the other one. It would be logical to say that the easy kid was my favorite — and no one would hold that against me.

But that’s not the case. At all.

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Finding Balance With a Family Manifesto

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iStock_000014725542XSmallI’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions; I find the idea of dramatically declaring that for the next 365 days I will — or will not — do some specific thing incredibly stressful. It’s not that I am opposed to big changes (a couple of months ago I gave up eating wheat, which is a pretty big change), it’s just that I feel like I am failing at something pretty much every single day, so resolving to fix it all, starting arbitrarily at the stroke of midnight on January 1, just seems like one more opportunity to drop the ball.

And if there’s anything I want going into a new year, it’s less stress. Seriously.

I have to admit that I do have some goals for the new year — it is impossible to get away from the idea of January 1 as a fresh start of some sort. I’m hoping to find a better balance in my life, to have more joy and less stress. I’m thinking carefully about what it is that keeps me awake at night and distracts me during the day, and I’m trying to eliminate those things.

2013 was a hard year for my family. As my boys get older, their commitments get more stressful and difficult. This past year, Wade and I found ourselves, over and over, trying to articulate why we encourage the boys to do certain things. We talked endlessly about what we hoped Charlie was getting out of basketball and why we wanted Henry to keep taking karate. We tried, hard, to put into words the lessons we hoped they were learning from these commitments. And it made me think about how those lessons need to be part of our everyday life.

Over and over, I found myself returning to a few simple guiding principles that I want to see my sons live out every day — a kind of manifesto, if you will. These are the values that underly our family life and they are the ideals that I hope my sons will carry into the world with them. In 2014, instead of making a list of resolutions we won’t follow through on, I’m asking my family to be mindful of these six principles, every day.

Be polite, especially when you’re feeling frustrated or angry. People listen to polite.

Be respectful — to adults, always, but also to your peers. They will appreciate it more than you know.

Have grace with others, especially when they are struggling. You will be in their shoes one day, possibly very soon.

Don’t be afraid to cry. But think carefully about what is really worth crying about.

Always do your best. And don’t worry if your best isn’t as good as someone else’s — effort counts for more than you think.

Know that sometimes “I’m sorry” is all you need to say. But try to say “please” and “thank you” and “I love you” more often than you say “I’m sorry.”

Does your family have a manifesto? Or are you good at making resolutions work for you?

What is This “Date Night” of Which You Speak?

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date nightHere’s a little bit of trivia for you: The last time my husband and I saw a movie in the theater without our kids was in July of 2004. We had dinner at a Bennigan’s near our house (remember when Bennigan’s was a thing???). We got to the theater just as the credits were starting and had to sit in the very front row because there were no other seats left. Spiderman 2 is not a movie you want to watch from the front row, in case you were wondering.

We were celebrating Wade’s 39th birthday. He’s 48 now. That’s a long time to not go to the movies together.

My mom asked me recently what I wanted for Christmas, and I said, as I do every year, “I don’t need anything. I have all the things!” Which is true. But later I realized that there is one thing I really want this year: A date with Wade.

Date night has always been a tricky proposition at my house. When our kids were babies, Wade and I could afford either the $10 (or, often, $12) an hour sitter or dinner and a movie (or really, dinner or a movie, because once we set aside the money for the sitter we were tapped out). We had family and friends who were always willing to watch the boys, but because of all of Henry’s issues, we were always hesitant about taking people up on their offers. It just felt like a lot to ask.
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Holiday Survivial Strategies — Anxious Teen Edition

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iStock_000011096103XSmallWhen my kids were little, they played a game called What’s Your Favorite Holiday? There were two versions; in one, they named two holidays — say, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day — and asked you to name your favorite. In the other, they just asked outright what your favorite holiday was and then demanded and explanation.

(Their favorites, always, are Halloween, because costumes, and Christmas, because presents. And, in both cases, candy.)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Everything about it makes me happy, particularly the part where no gift buying is required. Thanksgiving is like an island of calm in the chaos of the winter holiday season, and I look forward to it every year.

What I do not look forward to is the entire week of no school (I don’t know why my kids are out of school all week — I would be more thankful if they could go to class on Monday and Tuesday while my husband and I are working). I also don’t look forward to the fact that my anxious kid gets more and more anxious as the week wears on, because he is out of his routine, which makes him cranky and unpleasant to be around. So while I am looking forward to sitting down at the table with my family for a lovely Thanksgiving meal, I am also dreading the fact that by Thursday, Henry may very well be almost unbearable to be around.

And then, once we survive Thanksgiving, we do it all over again at Christmas. But for longer. Ugh.

This year, I enlisted the help of our family therapist. What could we do, I asked her, to help Henry stay on track during the long vacation week? How could we balance the fact that the rest of us need a break from the routine while Henry needs things to keep moving along in the exact same way?

Here’s what we came up with.

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The Upside Of Quirky

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Coping With Peer PressureAny number of simple, day-to-day things are hard for Henry: new foods, new clothes, unfamiliar people and places, changes in the weather or our routine or the arrangement of the furniture. His frustration tolerance is low and his anxiety is high, and he overreacts to things that don’t register as important to the rest of us.

It’s just part of his quirkiness.

The combination of Henry’s anxiety and his inflexibility made the transition to middle school incredibly hard. Students at our school start changing classes in 6th grade, which means new teachers every period and the new responsibility of having the right books for the right class.

Last year, having to move from room to room while keeping track of his bag and his books and the various homework assignments from the different teachers nearly did Henry in. It was overwhelming and chaotic and he came home every day strung out and exhausted.

Middle school was a long time ago for me, but even 30-some years later, I am still acutely aware how hard it all was. Not only adjusting to harder classes and multiple teachers, but the drama and the politics and all the other things that are not actually school-related but that seem so much more important in the moment than a math test or an English paper. I was ready for that last year, for the social chaos, but on that front there was nothing but calm.

It was changing classes that got us.

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Running to My Own Beat

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I’m a runner; in a typical week, I log between 25 and 30 miles. I run three or four half marathons a year, and while I’m not fast, I always finish, which is good enough for me. I run outdoors, in big loops around my neighborhood, in all but the worst weather — then I go to the gym and hit the treadmill (which I hate).

I don’t think of myself as particularly athletic. I started running three and a half years ago, as part of a mid life crisis, as unromantic and cliched as that sounds. Running has changed my life, and while I realize that is also a cliche, it’s entirely true. I’m in better shape than I have been since high school, and I am also more confident and comfortable with myself — not just physically, but emotionally as well.

Running gives me time to think, to problem solve and plan. Running gives me a release for stress that I would otherwise channel into something less healthy — like a 4 pm cocktail hour or a bag of Hershey’s kisses. Running reinforces that I am stronger than I might think: If I can run 10 or 13 or 15 miles, I can certainly survive whatever particular crisis might arise in the course of my day.

The last few weeks have been a real test of my patience, and my runs have become a sanctuary. I’m suddenly faced with with all kinds of middle school-related catastrophes. One of my children is dealing with some pretty significant drama with his friends, and is handling it with grace and patience, while the other is consistently forgetting to finish his homework and flipping out because he cannot find his books.

(I’ll give you one guess which kid is which.)

These days, running is about the only thing keeping me sane, and I am thankful that I have the time to hit the road nearly every day. I listen to music when I run; my iPod holds a carefully curated playlist of songs that help me pace myself and keep me motivated. More and more, Henry is picking out music for me, and while we don’t always share the same taste (I have a strict NO NICKELBACK policy because my god they’re annoying) he’s done a good job of recommending songs, including Taylor Swift’s “22,” which I have to admit really grew on me (“We’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time…”).

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