On Disappointments & Brotherhood

Parenting is a never-ending exercise in humility. And if the firstborn did not humble you, then the second child surely will.

I remember being in the produce section, Fuji apple in hand, with a brand new baby number two strapped to me kangaroo-style, when a grandmotherly type congratulated me and asked whether this was my first child. I responded from my blissful but sleep-deprived haze that he was my second, and she said, “Oh, then you know all about babies.” To which I replied, “Well, I know all about the first one. And now I’m learning about this one.”

Each boy is so different. Just like brothers should be.

We have four sons now, the youngest a teenager, and in many ways I am still learning who they are. They are, too. Which is all kinds of fun, when it’s not terrifying. And yes, I’m referring to the premiums for their auto insurance. These young men are growing up, finding their way, spreading their wings and eating through an impressive amount of groceries. I’m a little proud.

Thing #3 is graduating from high school, and we are once again riding the roller coaster that is senior year. Achievements and awards, leadership roles, defining moments and bittersweet lasts…. Last homecoming, last music performance, and last playoff game. Looming over the entire last year of high school, of course, is the dreaded college admissions process and the omnipresent question, What are you going to do next year? It is a year full of accomplishments, anticipation and anxiety. It’s hard on the kids, too.

We’ve traveled this path before with our older sons, but it is different every time. All of our sons are smart, funny and devastatingly handsome. Just like every mother’s son in the history of ever. And each in his own way. I have long been a proponent of the theory that there is no perfect school, you just have to find the right fit for your kid. But it’s not necessarily a straightforward undertaking. Sometimes the school finds the kid.

If you’re familiar with the fateful admissions process, then you know that March is the month when many colleges release their decisions. The trepidation surrounding the Ides of March is very much alive and well in the lives of high school seniors all over the country. My husband advises me that if I were a better mother then I would know our son’s password so we could hack in to his portal and access his admissions status ourselves. Instead, we have to wait until he gets out of class for the day. The minutes drag by slowly. He sends a text message with the note “not rejected” and a photograph of the letter from his first choice of schools … waitlisted.

I send a note to my husband and the boys, all of whom are anticipating good news: sad face emoji.

It is a huge disappointment, and the fact that the school is so selective that even a waitlist opportunity is coveted brings no comfort. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that he has already received acceptances and scholarship offers from other schools, because the one he thought he wanted most said Maybe instead of Yes. The boy has no appetite that evening, which would usually be alarming for a teenager, but is appropriate under the circumstances.

His brothers rally their support immediately:

Thing #1 says, “We hate those guys!”

Thing #2 sends a text message, “Screw them!”

We gather around the dinner table, and Thing #4 says, “Hey Mom, you know what sucks?” I’m almost afraid to ask, given his recent impressions of certain inappropriate comedians, many of whom seem to comprise the student body at his all-boys parochial school, but I take the bait anyway. What is it, darling? “[Insert name of offending institution here]!” He glances at his brother, who reluctantly begins to smile.

He has successfully navigated bigger disappointments than this. All the boys have. They’ve each suffered the loss of a parent and endured the blending of a family, including a step-parent and step-brothers. Not one of them would have chosen this path. But we do not always get to choose. Sometimes the universe takes the decision out of our control and points us in a completely different direction. God’s guiding hand can be a real pain in the butt. And sometimes on the unexpected journey, we find love and joy, and brotherhood.

One of the more dismal aspects of being a parent is seeing your child suffer, and we ourselves spend a sleepless night over the discouraging news. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. But with the new day arrives a new letter… My son and I both hear the familiar squeak of the mail truck on the street, and after weeks of greeting the mail carrier and rushing to the mailbox, neither one of us flinches. My husband, the optimist, rushes up a flight of stairs, and asks “Did I hear the mail arrive?” He returns with a fat envelope, Plan B starts to take shape, and we are all getting excited.

At the end of the day, there will be disappointments. Some minor and others staggering, but if you have brothers – biological or otherwise – then there will also be peace, progress, decadent snacks and a healthy dose of irreverent humor.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And brotherhood to support you through life’s disappointments.

Signposts

(Or, How to Read Rejection Letters)

 

We did it!

And by “we” I mean, he. The boy did all the work, making the grades, preparing for the tests, writing the essays, navigating the Common App, asking teachers for recommendation letters, and submitting the applications. My role in this process has been limited to Chief Financial Officer. I handed over my credit card for the application fees and (mostly) kept my fretting to myself. It’s not my first time at the rodeo, you know.

Of course, each child is different, and his process has likewise been unique to him. The boy really wanted to know what his options were (that’s my kid!), so he chose not to put all his eggs in an early decision basket but to cast a wide net and see what he draws forth. He has thought about schools from his home in California, across several Midwestern states and including a school or two on the east coast. Plus one in Texas, just for shits and giggles, as they say. He has a confidence about his having a place and seems perfectly content to spend the next three months just enjoying his senior year in high school without obsessing over where exactly his post-graduation steps will take place. He has submitted his final application, completing this part of the whole process, and he is delighted now to do nothing. I’m not sure whose child he could be.

Now the thing to do is to wait for envelopes big and small, email notifications and updated portals. Here’s the challenge: waiting is nothing at all like doing. The kid seems to be fine with it, but it’s making me a little crazy. Or to be fair, crazier than usual.

It is his journey, however, so my role is to sit quietly, which I do, and here’s my epiphany: acceptance and rejection letters are only signposts pointing toward the next step. They are not a judgment on performance or character, they are not a prediction of future success, they should not form the basis for self-worth. Especially parental self-worth. They are simply red or green arrows for today. Oh, this is much easier said before those puny, pathetic letters arrive, lurking in the mailbox like a noxious cloud, released into an unsuspecting hand. But if it is possible to settle into the knowledge – even before the applications are sent toward a committee of admissions personnel – that each one of us has a place already reserved in the human journey, then we can sit confidently and await the next set of directions.

Sometimes – when that small envelope arrives unexpectedly, dashing dreams the way only two dismissive sentences can do – the only answer is chocolate. Don’t bother trying to find a substitute. There are simply not enough French fries in the world to overcome the deficit. Chocolate is the only way. Personally, I go for a simple, solid dark variety, although occasionally a rich chocolate cake is the ticket. And then, with a little antioxidant lift, you can read the single page missive and think of it simply as a road sign. It might say Yield, or Do Not Enter, possibly Detour. Maybe it’s a full Stop. It’s likely too soon to tell. Or maybe, it’s a green light in a direction you didn’t anticipate going, on a road you might never have traveled otherwise, but that you actually enjoy. You never know. Those letters – big and small – are simply possibilities. They are what you decide to make of them. It’s still up to you.

The boy doesn’t seem to need my advice. He is at ease finding his own path. Which is as it should be. As I look ahead to another high school graduation, perhaps I am not wondering so much about what the boy’s next step will be, but about mine. I have traveled together with him for eighteen years, and I suspect my own steps will falter without him far more than his do without me.

But I take comfort in my own advice. As the boy progresses forward in his young life, I, too, will find more than one little green arrow pointing me toward new possibilities.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your forward path. And extra chocolate, just in case.