Latest Chart: Managing worry

July 29, 2022

By Ekta R. Garg

Unlike the majority of parents of teens these days, Sixteen didn’t get her cell phone until this year. My husband and I were pretty single-minded about the fact that she really didn’t need it until she started to drive. Did she complain through the years? Yes. But we let her know, gently, kindly, that we were the grownups in charge of making decisions for her. If we felt like waiting on the cell phone was in her best interest, we would do so.

I’ll admit, there have been several times since she started high school and went back to school in person when I thought it would be handy for her to have a phone. It would have been so easy to text her with questions about after-school schedules or to let her know something had changed. Since she’s gotten her phone, I’ve taken advantage of that fact by doing a quick check-in on days when she’s out of the house.

I have to wonder, though, if my older child having a cell phone has made me worry about her more.

Yesterday, I had to take Fourteen someplace. Sixteen was at drama camp working as an assistant director. The time camp would normally get out was at same time I had to drive Fourteen to meet her friends, so I asked the drama teacher if she would give Sixteen a ride home. Because the camp is not far from our house, she agreed without hesitation.

I took Fourteen to the movie theater to meet her friends, chatted with one of the other moms for about 10 minutes, swung by the grocery store for a few items, and then came home. Sixteen hadn’t arrived yet, which surprised me a little but not much. The drama teacher is very good at what she does and excited about it; I figured they were probably still working on the play the kids in the camp have been rehearsing.

A small part me wouldn’t let it go, though, so after a few minutes at home I picked up my phone and called Sixteen. No answer. Again, I wasn’t thrown completely. A true Gen Z’er in this regard, she says she’s more likely to respond to a text than a phone call. So I sent her a text, and my phone dutifully noted that my text had been Delivered.

I waited for that notification to change to Read. It didn’t. Not for several minutes.

In the ordinary scheme of life, when we talk about five minutes here or 10 minutes there, it doesn’t seem like a long time. When you’re waiting for your child to come home safely and have entrusted her care to someone else, though, those five or 10 minutes stretch and pull like caramel. Things start to get a little sticky if you have to wait too long.

I debated about calling the drama teacher and went for a compromise; I texted her instead. In our ways of cell phone etiquette today, I feel like a phone call probably raises more alarm than a text. A text is just a single block in a long train of a conversation. Ongoing. Casual. Just checking in.

Fortunately, the teacher texted back within a minute or two and confirmed they were, in fact, still rehearsing. She mentioned that Sixteen had said she had no other commitments for the afternoon, and I said she was right. As I looked at the clock, though, I knew my child, even with her immense patience for the teacher and the young kids in the play, would be hungry.

I was able to move on to other things in my work day. As soon as I heard that Sixteen was okay, that she was safe and just doing what she’d been hired to do for this week and next, I could focus on the practical aspects of timing her lunch so she could eat soon after she got home. Normal tasks. I could handle those.

It’s harder to worry.

By contrast, when I dropped Fourteen (who doesn’t have a phone) with her friends, she went and watched a movie with them. After that, the group of girls went home together and had a sleepover. I thought about Fourteen a few times throughout the day and into the evening because sleepovers make her a little nervous. I’d reassured her on the drive to meet her friends that if, at any point, she wanted to come home, all she had to do was call. I wouldn’t question it, and neither would anyone else.

I didn’t hear again from Fourteen until I picked her up this morning from the sleepover, but I didn’t think too much about it. My level of worry was on a different scale and a different breed than what I felt about Sixteen. For my older child, I’ll admit, the one thought that kept going around in my head in lazy ellipses was, “Why didn’t she text me back? What’s keeping her from responding to me?”

I wonder if other parents have felt this way, that the addition of cell phones to the mix of family conversations has heightened their awareness of all the things that might happen. It doesn’t help that I read a fair number of thrillers, a genre where things are engineered to go wrong for a long time before they ever go right again (if ever.) Add to that my overactive imagination, and, well…that makes me a worried mom.

I try to keep my worry in check. Try to remind myself of my own childhood when I would go with my friends or be at school events for hours at a time without talking to my family. They trusted that I was okay, and I did the same.

At some point, I’m going to have to do that for Sixteen when she goes to college. I know I’ll blink and will probably be pouring my heart out in a Growth Chart about that day about two years from now. Two years. That gives me enough time to get used to worrying in the right proportion, right?

I hope so.

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Newest Chart: Special birthdays

June 24, 2022

By Ekta R. Garg

I’m now the mother of a 16-year-old.

It feels surreal and exciting and confounding all at the same time to say or read or think that sentence. Between all the moves for my husband’s medical training and the act of actual, you know, parenting, the last 16 years are a blur. When I hear people tell stories about the day their children were born or I see one of those sappy, Hallmark-worthy moments on TV, I wonder how parents remember those moments with such clarity.

Confession: I remember certain points of the time around Sixteen’s birth with crystal-clear precision, but there are other patches of time that are lost to me. I know how I felt being in labor and the time immediately around her birth, but I have vague recollections of the days afterward. Sometimes someone else in the family will tell a story of those first weeks or months, and I tilt my head in confusion. Did that really happen, I wonder. Where was I?

Parenting is a weird, wild ride. It’s brought me to my knees in tears, and it’s provided me with some of my greatest joys. It’s left me speechless at the wit, the affection, and the tenacity of my older child, and it’s made me grateful that I get to watch this young woman grow into the person she was meant to be. The fact that I have some small part in that still leaves me bewildered at times.

When I was in school, our principal would often say in all-school assemblies that if you want to know what a person is like, you should look at their children. My child’s birthday is all her own, and I’m so grateful that we get to celebrate it with loved ones close to us. At the risk of stealing a little of the spotlight, though, some days I wonder what kind of person people might think I am when they see Sixteen.

Regardless of the answer to that question, I look at my daughter and hope for all the best for her. We live in a world now fraught with strife and violence, with shattered hopes and hard truths. But there is also so much good. So many positive people and movements and ideas. I don’t know if Sixteen will make any major contributions to any of those good things; I certainly hope she does. If that happens, all of her accomplishments will be hers. I know I won’t have claim to any of them, and I don’t need to.

No one tells you, when you hold that baby in your arms in the hospital, how easily you’ll be rent in pieces once you take her home. Your attention is now divided. Your ambitions, while still important, become a little sidetracked from time to time. You’re agonizing over the fact that you want to make a good impression on your own child while understanding that kids often just want that bowl of ice cream and haven’t really given thought to the histrionics you had to undergo to make sure they had it.

Fathers play a crucial role in their children’s lives, of course, there’s absolutely no doubt, but mothers take their children’s successes and failures, their highs and lows, to heart in a way that no one else can or does. I ask myself a dozen times a week, a hundred times a month, whether I’m doing a good job as a mom. Whether I’m making a good impression, setting a good example, taking care of them enough, not too much, never too much.

They say it’s the hardest job in the world, being a mom. Unequivocally, without a doubt, yes. On the hardest days of all, it’s a job that we wish we could escape for a few hours or a day. On the best of days, though, it’s good. So good.

It’s worthy of a celebration. And I’m so grateful, from the bottom of my heart, that I get to be there to dance and eat and laugh with her and everyone else. At the end of my life, I know, these are the moments I’ll remember with clarity. With crystal-clear precision.

With love.

Brand new Chart: The quiet of parallel dimensions (i.e., when one of the teens is out of town)

April 29, 2022

By Ekta R. Garg

As I sit here writing this, my younger teen is traipsing around Washington, D.C., with her classmates.

The house is quiet without her constant chatter. Fifteen is here with her funny quips and updates from her day, but Thirteen is most definitely a force. When she’s home, you know it because she can’t stay quiet for long.

We’ve always known about this difference in Thirteen and Fifteen’s personalities. Fifteen is my thoughtful child, taking in life, absorbing situations and making her own private determinations about everything. She shares what she wants, when she wants, and not a moment before then. She can spend hours reading in silence and wile away her time with her head tilted to the side in rumination.

Thirteen is my chatterbox, my firecracker. When it comes to her homework or her drawing, she’ll stay bent over sketchpad or device without a word. All of the other times, though, she’s talking. She’ll frequently pop into the studio while I’m writing or editing with questions or comments or a funny video to share. At night, as I’m doing the dishes after dinner, often she’ll come downstairs for one last story, one last random thought that can’t wait until morning.

Now that she’s not here, like I said, the house is quiet. For these few days, we get a taste of what life would have been like had Fifteen remained an only child. Only one lunch to pack in the morning; one pickup or drop-off to worry coordinate. It’s illuminating and a little unsettling, because it feels like living in parallel dimensions and observing both at the same time.

There’s also the question of not hearing Thirteen’s chatter by virtue of the fact that we don’t have direct contact with her while she’s gone. She doesn’t have a cell phone, but most of her friends on the trip do. We’ve asked her to check in with us once a day from one of their phones just so we can make sure she’s okay. In all the quiet, though, I wonder about the times my parents sent me off for trips. Our senior class trip to the Wilds in the mountains of North Carolina, for example, or even away games for the evening as I headed the cheerleading squad to root on our teams.

Back then there were no cell phones. No way to keep parents apprised of bad days, bad games, bad meals. Homesickness.

People often talk about how social media and digital technology has made us more wary. As a parent, I can see the truth of this during this time when Thirteen is away. This urge to check in every little while can, if I let it, create its own cycle of stress. Why hasn’t she gotten back to us? What is she doing? Is she in trouble?

As I put Thirteen’s clothes in her roll-on before the trip, my mind couldn’t help turning over all the ways things could go wrong. If you’ve traveled much at all, you know there’s always the possibility of unexpected changes in an itinerary. Luggage gets lost; flights get canceled. In more extreme cases, money is stolen. Or worse.

I tried not to focus too much on those really bad things. Instead, as I wrote out a list of phone numbers to tuck into her wallet, I let myself concede that the list was probably a symptom of my over-cautious parenting self. That when she comes home, I’ll pull it out of the wallet and let it flutter into the recycling bin while she shakes her head at me and says she was fine, she never needed it, why did I worry so much?

I’m a parent. It’s in the job description, right? Something that kicks in the minute we bring them home from the hospital.

Admittedly, there’s also the other part of me that’s looking at the good things about the trip. Thirteen and her classmates are going to visit some cool places in DC. Although I was just there at the beginning of this month myself, looking at her itinerary for each day made me want to hop on a plane and go back. There’s the appeal of a vacation, of course, and also the sense that I didn’t get enough time in the city. There were just so many good things to see and do; my own trip to DC left me wanting more.

There is also the aspect of her making memories with her classmates. Both kids found the pandemic challenging, as did all of our kids across the country and the world. Between the two, Thirteen struggled more. Getting to do something so normal seems like a luxury now, and I’m so glad she gets to enjoy it.

As a writer, there are days I crave quiet. I long for extended stretches of time where no one talks to me so I can spend a few hours lost in my own thoughts. Occasionally when Thirteen has barged into the studio, already going a mile a minute, it’s interrupted my concentration to the detriment of whatever I have on the screen at the moment. While she’s gone, I get to enjoy my own little bit of luxury in these longer segments of time where I can think.

I do miss my baby, of course. I’m excited to see and hear about her adventures and to see how she handled the myriad of little tasks that traveling brings. Because in actuality, our kids are singularly ours only for a short time. When they grow up, we have to share them with the world. I’m glad I get a little practice at that this week, but I’ll also be really glad when she’s all mine again.

Brand new Chart: The cell phone invasion

March 25, 2022

By Ekta R. Garg

It’s official: the 15-year-old has a cell phone.

It might surprise many of you that my husband and I elected to wait to let our children have cell phones. After all, they have iPads and laptops. Why put a ban on cell phones for so long?

Some of you can also probably already answer that for me. Cell phones are easier to hide. Easier to sneak into (and out of) places. Although a teen could, in theory, do everything on a larger device they can with a cell phone, the phone offers a sense of intimacy (in all senses of that word) that a tablet or laptop don’t.

Also, it’s much harder for a teen to shove a large device into a pocket/purse/bag in one smooth motion if they’re doing something they shouldn’t.

For the record, I trust my children. I know they’re good kids. I know their friends well enough to know those kids wouldn’t get Fifteen and Thirteen into shady things. I’ve read countless articles on parenting that have instructed me on warning signs of drastic changes in mood and behavior that indicate drastic changes brought on by social media problems.

I also know, even being a conscientious parent, that I could miss things. In the busy-ness of life, in just moving along in our normal routines, we could get blindsided. Plenty of news reports and YA novels confirm this.

My parents have often said they think raising kids today is much harder than when they were raising my sister and me, and to an extent they’re right. There are so many more places to monitor, to check, to ask about, so many more avenues where kids can get lost and end up in bad spaces. At the very least, it’s exhausting. At the worst, it’s life shattering.

We started hearing about Fifteen and Thirteen’s friends getting cell phones back when they were in elementary school. For some kids, we thought, it made sense. Children of single parents need a way to check in with those parents and other guardians, because their lives involve more houses to live in, separate people to pick them up and drop them off, different schedules for different days.

For other kids, though, it seemed purely like a bid to stay current with the times. And my husband and I have never been worried about trying to march with society only because the tune changed. So we waited on cell phones.

Because Fifteen will be 16 this summer, however, and will have her driver’s license by the time school starts in the fall, we figured this was the right time. After doing some research, my husband suggested a phone and I agreed with him on the make and model. We were getting a good price, so he ordered it about ten days ago.

We told Fifteen about the phone, and her eyes got big and bright. Her smile was even bigger. She immediately jumped online and started researching phone cases and pop sockets.

Then my husband made the mistake of forwarding an email to her that contained the phone’s tracking information.

“My phone’s in New Mexico,” Fifteen told me with glee on Monday. “It started out in California, and now it’s in New Mexico.”

On Tuesday it was, “My phone is still in New Mexico.”

On Wednesday, we heard, “My phone is in Oklahoma! It was in New Mexico, but now it’s in Oklahoma.”

Curse those stupid tracking emails.

Eventually, yes, the phone made its way to Illinois. My husband called me yesterday morning to check on it; he’d gotten an email that the phone had arrived and wanted to make sure I retrieved it from the mat outside the front door (who knows, he may have been tracking it from California too.) Later in the afternoon, he picked up Fifteen from school and took her for her last school-required Covid test of the year. On the way, I got a text from my husband’s phone.

“MY PHONE ARRIVED AT 10:23 THIS MORNING. I AM COMING HOME SOON TO CLAIM IT.”

“DID MY POP SOCKET COME?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Why are you shouting at me?”

“LET ME SPIT INTO A TUBE REAL FAST AND I WILL COME HOME AND EXPLAIN,” she wrote back.

The explanation was that her phone had arrived. She was slightly disappointed that there was no fanfare—her word—when she walked in the door. I’m not sure if she was expecting a burst of confetti or raining balloons, but she didn’t get either. Then she forgot all of her disappointment as she ran upstairs to find the phone on her desk. Her excitement reminded me of the time she was little, and we surprised her and Thirteen with a trip to Disney.

To Fifteen’s supreme credit, she didn’t ignore her younger sister throughout this process. Once the initial thrill of holding the phone and setting it up wore off and both girls finished their homework, Fifteen called Thirteen over right away to ask for her suggestions in what she should set as her lock screen, her home screen, and her ringtone. More than that, she listened to Thirteen and took time to show her the various options the phone offered. The wallpaper she eventually chose came largely from Thirteen’s suggestion.

Given that Thirteen hadn’t had the best day in school, I was touched that my older child would go out of her way to share this excitement with her younger sister to help cheer her up.

After dinner, I asked Fifteen to share her social media information with us. She asked about getting Instagram, about posting on it versus just following people. She told me she’d thought about it and decided she didn’t want SnapChat. Too much to keep up with, to compete with, to worry about. She’s had Pinterest and Goodreads for a while. Instagram will probably be the next thing she joins. After that, she says, she doesn’t need any more social media (for the time being, anyway.)

So our 15-year-old has a cell phone. While I was writing this Chart, she texted me to say she would get done with school early today because of a class cancellation. The worries still exist about our kids being on cell phones, but so do the advantages. The possibilities. And so, too, does this next phase of parenting for us.

We might be late to the party, but if it means keeping our kids safe and having open conversations with them about the pros and cons of life I don’t mind.  

Latest Chart: Learning other people live in your village

February 25, 2022

By Ekta R. Garg

During Thirteen’s parent-teacher conference with her homeroom teacher at the beginning of the month, we started talking about the G word: Graduation. How emotional that day might be for her and the other eighth graders. How Thirteen didn’t want to think about it, much less prepare for it.

(The irony here is that she’s part of a cohort from her class responsible for planning the day along with the teachers. Life is funny like that.)

As one of only a few students left from her original kindergarten class, Thirteen has a unique relationship to her current school. She’s literally grown up there, and she doesn’t want to leave. She doesn’t like change; it makes her fidget while she tries to figure out just where everything is going to land and how she fits within it all.

But the day is coming, and after that she’ll have summer break and then have to go to high school. Lots of changes on the way; big ones at that. As Thirteen explained her uncertainty, her homeroom teacher, Ms. P., shared how much she’d miss Thirteen’s class and got a little emotional herself.

Ms. P. came to the school almost straight from college and started teaching the same year Thirteen started middle school. For Ms. P., then, this graduation will also be a little bittersweet; her first set of sixth graders is getting ready to leave. Despite her own feelings on the matter, she was able to collect herself pretty quickly and mentioned to Thirteen that if she ever needed to talk about all of the emotions they could meet after school one day to do so.

Thirteen leaped at the idea, and within days they met on a Thursday afternoon for what my younger teen jokingly refers to as her “therapy session.” At the end of that meeting, teacher and student decided it would be beneficial for them to keep meeting for next few weeks. Maybe, Ms. P. added, a friend or two could join them at some point to talk through similar feelings and thoughts.

So now Thirteen and Ms. P. have a standing appointment for every Thursday afternoon, and, funny enough, this makes me feel more like Thirteen is growing up than the thought of graduation does.

I know, of course, that one day my children will leave home. My older child is now driving; in the summer, at some point, she’ll go and get her license. In August she’ll be a junior in high school and Thirteen will be a freshman. I know that I’ll blink, and the time will come when I’ll spend more time with both kids over video chat or text than I will IRL.

Somehow, though, the fact that my child is spending once a week talking to another adult—one not related to her—has driven home the reality that the kids are branching out when it comes to connecting to other adults in their lives. People they trust and admire and believe they can confide in, which I know is an immense gift. Not all kids have that, although all of them need it.

Still…it may sound funny, but in all my ruminations about my children getting older, it just never occurred to me that there would be other adults/elders who would be there to offer them guidance and love. Even though my younger child won’t leave for another four years, it seems like a small piece of her has slipped away from me. Like she’s grown up already, and she hasn’t even gone through the motions of graduation yet.

Since becoming a mother myself nearly 16 years ago, I’ve often thought about my own parents. I’ve considered my relationship with them and examined a situation from both the parent’s point of view and the child’s point of view. Occasionally I’ll also think about the fact that there are plenty of things in my day or week that my parents know nothing about, simply because I’m an adult with my own family who is handling her own responsibilities. I don’t need to check in with my mom and dad about every tiny thing, because everything they’ve taught me has equipped me to deal with life and its circumstances.

That included allowing other adults in my orbit to help me with various decisions and tasks. If I think about it now, there were several conversations I had, small decisions I made, without talking to my parents. An adult I trusted talked me through it, and that was enough. It made sense in the moment, so I did it.

What sounds great as a meme or in a greeting card, though, is a sense of bewilderment for me now that I’m on the receiving end of it. Thirteen knows adults who care for her and are there to help her. Who she can turn to without needing to come to me or her dad or her grandparents or aunts. This self-assured young woman, who I helped create and gave birth to, may feel sad about graduation and uncertain about how she’ll process the upcoming changes, but she feels confident enough to approach people she thinks will give her guidance and talk her through any challenges she might face.

Do I feel like I’m being replaced? Not at all. Often, though, parenting is a lonely experience. We feel like no one else fully understands the difficulties in the moment we undergo them. So I’m just a little bewildered, as I said, and, possibly, even a little relieved.

I guess this is what it means when they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Newest Chart: Tying our shoes while driving or…something

January 28, 2022

By Ekta R. Garg

About ten years ago, I sat down and taught my older child something that I realize now was a major step toward independence: I taught her how to tie her shoes.

She didn’t get it on the first try or the second. She did eventually catch onto the concept but seemed to take loooong minutes to complete the task. Every morning as we sat on the bottom step of the staircase just inside the front door of our condo in Salt Lake City, I watched as then-Five patiently worked the laces. Around the loops (she never did take to the concept of bunny ears) and through them.

For weekend mornings, this didn’t matter so much. On school mornings, in my brain and heart I was bobbing with enough impatience to fill a swimming pool. I fought to keep my calm on my face where then-Five could see my emotions reflected. I’d been a parent long enough by then to know that I didn’t want to be the type of person who screams at her kids because they’re taking too long to do something when it’s clear they’re making a sincere effort.

(I’m not saying I haven’t done that, just that I don’t want my kids to remember me only for that.)

After about five weeks, she got the hang of it. Her fingers moved faster. She started to tie her shoes with greater speed by practice and then by instinct. By the end of two months, she didn’t have to think about it anymore.

Now, a decade later, I’m setting my daughter up for her next step of independence. Except it’s a little more complicated than tying her shoes, which meant refining motor skills and memorizing steps. This…well, maybe the motor skills are related after all. Just a different kind of motor.

These days on school mornings, a conversation between Fifteen and me inevitably starts with the following.

“Pull forward,” I tell her. “Pull forward. A little more…a little more. There. If there’s a lot of traffic, it’ll be harder for you to get the full length of the car into the intersection before another car comes. Remember, this is a minivan. It’s got a long body.”

“But I’m supposed to stop behind the stop sign,” she says. “You want me to break the law?”

“You’re not breaking the law,” I tell her. “When you go for your driver’s test, yes, stop behind the stop sign. When you’re driving on your own, pull forward to get closer to the edge of the road.”

See? Motor skills. Just a different kind.

When she got her permit in October, I honestly wondered what kind of teacher I would be to her. I taught my sister the beginnings of how to drive in the back roads of our neighborhood, but my parents took her out for the bulk of her driving practice. I taught my husband how to drive when we got married and he migrated to the States. He’d driven only rarely in India—the public transportation there is frequent enough that people can easily get by with it in most places—so it became an experience for us to share.

It’s different teaching a child, though. As parents we’re hardwired to protect them from everything. Yet now, five mornings a week, I slide into the passenger seat as I let my child operate a heavy machine that has the potential to do harm if the conditions for that situation fall into place.

Yet she hasn’t run into any truly tricky situations. Bit by bit, one ride to school or dance class or her violin lessons or theater rehearsals at a time, she’s racking up the required hours for getting her driver’s license. Among other things, new drivers in the state of Illinois are required to have 40 hours of daytime driving plus 10 hours of nighttime driving practice with a licensed driver before they an even take the road test. School might take us 15 minutes one way, yet that means an automatic 2.5 hours added to the log she’s required to keep for a week.

In the beginning, I kept my eyes straight on the road and my body taut. Several times I even tugged on the steering wheel from the passenger seat to help her correct going too far in one direction or the other. I haven’t done that in months, though. Now I just direct her with my voice.

I’ve watched as Fifteen’s confidence has grown, as her body has relaxed into the rhythm of the road and watching for traffic. She still makes little mistakes that all new drivers make—hesitating at intersections when she’s not sure if it’s her turn or slowing down far too early for a red light—but I keep my voice even and my tone steady. As we make our way around town with her in the driver’s seat, I’m cognizant of the fact that if I bark instructions at her I could distract her more than an errant driver.

So I instruct her carefully, patiently (even though some days I want to step on the accelerator for her,) and let her absorb the ways of the road.

There’s something special about sitting in the passenger seat and letting her try out adulthood for those 15-minute increments that reassures me about the future. Whatever it brings, she’s ready to face it with her hands at 10 and 2 and her gaze steady. She’ll glance at what she’s left behind her, sure, and let her peripheral vision tell her what might be coming at her sideways. But she’s facing the road ahead of her with a wide smile and, increasingly, relaxed shoulders.

Our conversations, too, remind me of how fast she’s growing up. We’ve talked about differences in language and culture, about situations with friends and her uncertainty about what to do in college. We’ve laughed over books we’ve shared and funny videos we’ve watched or want to show one another. Although I don’t think it’s my role right now to be just a friend to my teenagers, I find it easy to slip into that mode for a little while on these drives. It’s fun and exciting to think about how this time together will shape our future relationship.

It’s funny, first-time parents always wonder when their children will become more independent. When they do, we wonder how we can slow it all down. I don’t have access to the brake anymore on those morning drives to school, so I have to trust that Fifteen will learn to gauge when to slow down and when to speed up. No matter what the future brings, I’m glad I’m along for the ride.

Latest Chart: When the students become the master or the kids become the parents or…something

November 5, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

Within the last month or so, I’ve been parented twice…by my own children.

Since June of 2020, I’ve done several virtual writing workshops for our library. My intention in doing the workshops is twofold: first and foremost, to help the writing community. I know how much I appreciate these kinds of workshops when I attend them—they’re local, the speakers are usually very approachable, and they’re free. I think about plots and characters all day anyway; this way I’m putting all that knowledge to good use.

My second motivation for doing these workshops is to plug into the local writing community. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and meeting more of the tribe empowers all of us. I also want a place where I can talk about writing and the listeners know exactly how I feel and what challenges I face.

In late September, a program coordinator at our local community college sent me an email. She’d seen the information about one of my library workshops, she said, and she wondered whether I would be open to teaching a formal class. It would be for the continuing education department, she said, so I wouldn’t need teaching credentials like someone would who taught for academic credit. These are classes people take for their own personal enrichment, and she thought a writing class would be a good addition.

I won’t lie; I was flattered. I also thought about how this kind of offer fit right in with something I’ve toyed with for a while. A writing friend of mine here in town mentioned the idea to me a couple of years ago, and I’ve considered it, off and on, ever since.

Promotions for Elves has ramped up quite a bit, though, and I’ve been busy with the local magazine that hired me as its managing editor. I also continue to freelance edit, and at the time I got the email from the program coordinator at the community college I’d begun brainstorming my next book idea.

In other words, I’m a little busy.

I didn’t think anyone else noticed, though. After all, I’m home alone during the day with my computer and my day planners. Everyone else is out of the house for the most part, leaving me to spend the day in my writing studio talking to writers all over the country and the world and pursuing my writing dreams and goals one page at a time.

Apparently, the kids picked up on my crowded schedule. When I picked up Thirteen from school on the day I received the coordinator’s email, I mentioned it to her.

“They want me to come and teach,” I said.

“And you said no, right?” she asked in that tone of hers. The one edged with incredulity that I could even consider the opportunity.

I hesitated, as much in surprise at the force of her reaction as to how I would answer her.

“Nani and Nanu always say don’t shut down an opportunity right away,” I said, referring to her maternal grandparents. “They’ve always taught me that when something new comes your way, listen to the information, think about it, and then make a decision based on that.”

Thirteen didn’t say anything for a minute. She adores her grandparents and didn’t want to sound like she was contradicting them. She also has her own ideas, though, and I think she was trying to figure out a way to express them without sounding like the typical teenager.

“I understand that, but, Mamma, you already have too much going on. You have, like, fifty thousand jobs.”

“I really don’t,” I said with a wry smile.

“Well, you have enough to deal with. You don’t need to add something else.”

Later that same day, I told Fifteen about the job opportunity.

“You said no, right?” she asked.

“What is it with you and your sister telling me to say no to things?”

I repeated what I’d told Thirteen earlier, about listening to the details of opportunities and making a measured, thoughtful decision about them instead of just shutting them down out of hand. She replied with the same arguments Thirteen had: apparently I’m working 50,000 jobs and am too busy. She strongly recommended saying no. I shook my head at the sage advice from both my children.

The kicker to all this came when I turned down the opportunity for now. After meeting with the program coordinator of the community college, I decided that what the college wanted from me was more than I could give. I encouraged the coordinator to stay in touch, though, and let me know if her lineup for the fall of 2022 would have space for me. She promised to get back to me if it did.

Both girls nodded with self-satisfaction when I told them. They had given advice and it was heeded. Did I take the advice specifically because they’d given it? No. But it was oddly comforting to see how happy, proud, and a touch relieved they were that I’d followed what they’d suggested.

*****

When a writer releases her work into the world, it’s a given that people will read it and offer their own opinions on it. I knew this would come as part of the package when my manuscript, The Truth About Elves, was accepted by Atmosphere Press earlier this year for publication. Now that we’re past the release date, I’m waiting and watching as people share their thoughts online.

Don’t tell my older teen that I read the reviews, though. I’ve already “gotten in trouble” for it once. I don’t need to be grounded from my devices completely.

As the first reviews for the book started rolling in, people’s positivity and excitement about it enhanced my own. Then came the day of the first negative review, and I recoiled from my computer. It’s not the first time I’ve received a negative review, but no one likes them.

I mentioned the negative review to Fifteen in passing when we drove to her dance class a couple of weeks ago; her response startled me.

“Don’t read them,” she said.

“Well, no, I know, it’s just—”

“I’m serious, Mamma. Don’t read them. Do you know what happens to creatives who read negative reviews?”

(She actually used the word “creatives” as if we’re a different species, albeit an amenable one.)

“Creatives who read negative reviews focus only on them,” she went on, without waiting for me to respond. “Then all of their time and energy stays on those reviews, and they don’t have the energy to do their work. They end up spiraling into depression and spend the rest of their days all sad and lost and alone. Do you want to be sad for the rest of your days?”

This child had me going from a simple two-star review to a complete depressive episode within the space of 30 seconds; I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“Negative reviews are part of the job,” I said in a mild tone. “Not everyone’s going to like what I write, and I know that.”

“Okay, but you’re not going to read the negative reviews,” she said. “You’re supposed to have someone else read them for you.”

“So, what, they can become sad and depressed for me?” I joked.

“Yeah, pretty much,” she said with a grin.

“Do you volunteer as tribute?” I asked. “Are you going to read my reviews out loud?”

“Sure, I’ll take one for the team,” she said, still grinning. “But you have to promise you won’t read the reviews yourself. If you want to know what people are saying, I’ll read it for you on the weekend.”

Not long after this, I mentioned the negative review to my sister during a text conversation. She had a few choice words for the reviewer, including very mad emojis. I showed the girls the text chain, and both of them laughed and worried for their aunt’s mental well-being (and they’re telling me I could have a potentially bad reaction.)

The following weekend, while they talked on FaceTime, my sister and Fifteen and Thirteen talked about the review. The discussed how unfair the person was being, how they didn’t understand the book at all, and how I didn’t need their review anyway.

“But it doesn’t matter anymore, because Mamma isn’t going to read her own reviews,” Fifteen said. “I’ll be reading them for her.”

She’s appointed herself my official review reviewer, saying she’ll weed out the negative ones and only focus on the positive feedback. Of course, she doesn’t know—and please don’t tell her—that I’m still reading the reviews. All of them, good and bad. The bad ones hurt, of course, but I also know they’re not going to make me stop writing.

Does that make me the rebellious child in this case? I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve stopped talking about reviews completely on the off chance Fifteen wants to come back and do a full psychological evaluation on me.

*****

So, yes, parented twice in the last five weeks by my own children. I’m touched by their concern and a little surprised at how level-headed both of them have been in giving me advice. Maybe a little credit for that goes to their parents.

Even if I didn’t ask for the advice in the first place.

Latest Chart: Navigating the gray area

September 24, 2021

I’m the mother of a child old enough to drive.

Do you all hear me? I’m the mother—of a child—old. Enough. To drive.

I keep thinking I’m going to wake up at 2 a.m. and realize this entire thing has been one long dream and I still need to stumble to the bathroom where we keep a huge jug of filtered water and powdered formula. I’ll be squinting through one open eye by the trusty nightlight illuminating the tiny lines on the bottle as I measure out several ounces, dump in the formula, give it a vigorous mix, and hope it’s all dissolved. As I turn back toward the bathroom door, I’ll manage to narrowly escape running into the doorframe this time and trudge, bleary-eyed, back toward the crib where my whining child is now doing mini squats as she seems almost ready to jump hurdles.

What life is this that I’m in now, where my child stands a solid four-plus inches taller than me and is fast and hot with her hilarious quips as we’re watching TV? Where she teases me about the memories I’ve shared from my own childhood one too many times? Where I’m buying “Please be patient, Student Driver” magnets for my Odyssey?

Oh, and did I mention she’ll be starting driver’s ed next week?

I’m the mother of a child old enough to drive.

I’m also the mother of a child who knows what lines she will and won’t cross. Many of Fifteen’s friends have already gone through driver’s ed and gotten their own permits. It’s a topic of hot discussion in their class, which probably won’t surprise any of the adults reading this column.

Late in the summer, Fifteen begged for time behind the wheel. By the time we got around to practice drives, school had started. We went to empty parking lots on a Sunday afternoon, and she seemed comfortable with the pedals and the steering.

As I talked her through when to accelerate and when to brake, I got mini flashbacks to the time I did the same thing with my younger sister. I also taught my husband, because he didn’t have a license in India. The public transportation there is so frequent and there are so many modes of it that he didn’t feel the need to concentrate on driving. He poured all of his focus into studying how to save lives instead.

Fifteen’s relative calm didn’t surprise me; this child is fairly unflappable. What did take me aback, though, was how, a few weeks after we started, she was sure she wanted to stop practicing driving with us.

“My friends say that if you don’t have your permit or license and you get into an accident, you could get a major fine,” she said one day after school.

“Daddy and I have our licenses,” I said, “and we wouldn’t take you out if we didn’t think it was safe.”

“But I don’t have my permit yet; you could get fined,” she said, her eyes widening a bit. “I don’t want to get fined.”

“It’s okay, kiddo, really,” I replied.

“So you’re actually asking me to break the law?”

This is the problem with raising a child who reads so much. She’s able to formulate her arguments so fast. Add to that the talent I mentioned for improv—and that she’s a teenager with much more energy than her parents—and my brain needs a minute to catch up.

“Look, I guess technically it would be,” I said, “but Daddy and I are using our common sense. We would never take you places where there’s a lot of traffic. That’s why we always go on a Sunday afternoon. And we would never ask you to do something that would put you in danger.”

“I don’t want to go until I have my permit,” she said, resolute.

This conversation, by the way, happened more than once. The last time Fifteen and I discussed it, I was driving her to school one morning. I could hear the discomfort in her voice as we made our way down the road. I didn’t even have to look at her to know she was practically squirming.

We’d entered a gray moral area, I know, and she had trouble wrapping her brain around the fact that we were telling her it was okay to break the rules. All we’ve ever done is give her and Thirteen rules, and those only apply to the two of them inside our house. Now we were asking her to look the rules of the land in the eye and ignore them.

I realized in that moment that I didn’t want to put her in a place where she would go beyond her own personal boundaries. I’ve talked about boundaries, of course, with both Fifteen and Thirteen, but it’s always been within the context of their peers trying to persuade, cajole, or even bully them into doing something they didn’t want to do. My advice in those situations has been to stand firm, that if someone wanted to push them into doing something their consciences wouldn’t allow that the person didn’t really care about them in the first place.

I had run up against my own parenting, the principles and values we’ve instilled in them. The only logical response, then, was for me to back down. So I did.

In reality, I’m grateful that the roles weren’t reversed, that Fifteen wasn’t the one begging me to turn a blind eye to the rules. That’s usually the way the movie goes, right? The teenager begs for some leniency, the parent comes down with a hard no, said teen goes out and does something stupid, and then life gets really complicated.

In this case, there were no complications. The question of whether to drive at all without a permit had a simple answer. And even though I had no trouble taking her out for practice drives on empty back country roads, I’m glad Fifteen remained clear-eyed enough to stand up for what she believed is right.

It means I may have the hang of this parenting thing after all.

Latest Chart: You think you’re a negotiator? You haven’t met a teenager.

April 23, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

People think that political candidates have to be great negotiators, and often they do. They have to figure out how to balance the demands of their constituents with their own goals, maybe their own personal ambitions for power. Their tactical abilities don’t hold a candle to a teenager on a mission, though.

The following has become a running joke—at least, I consider it a joke—for Fourteen and me any time I’m driving her places.

“Do you want me to put in the directions to Starbucks?” she asks, gesturing to the GPS screen.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re not going to Starbucks.”

“But we’ve got time.”

“School starts in twenty minutes, so, no, we don’t have time.”

“But it’s so close by.”

“Nope.”

“But you could get a treat for yourself, Mamma. Anything you like, you can get.”

“That’s really generous of you, but no.”

The context might change a little—we might be driving to her violin teacher’s house where they have lessons in the teacher’s back yard socially distanced, say, or to her dance class where she and four other students share a huge dance studio the space of two bedrooms. On the rare occasion I do use the GPS, she’ll tell me I’m spelling “Starbucks” wrong as I input street names. She’s even “failed” my driving several times as I drive right past the coffee joint instead of turning into the parking lot.

The argument, however, is always the same. Take me to Starbucks. Buy me a treat.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not in the habit of taking my children to Starbucks much. We’ve stopped there during road trips a few times for a cup of tea and to use the bathroom. There was the infamous episode with Twelve, when she was in preschool and still gaining confidence in using the bathroom like a big girl, when she made me stop there every day for a week after school just so she could pee. She never even asked for something to eat. She just wanted to stop in this one particular Starbucks on the way home.

Now, however, thanks to visits to Myrtle Beach with the grandparents and the girls’ close friends (who are really more like honorary cousins) who live there, Starbucks is high on the priority list for my 14-year-old.

This week she tried to sweeten the ask by including her sister. Yesterday, after picking Fourteen up at school, I had to make a quick stop at the grocery store near home. We had just enough time for me to go to the store, grab the one vegetable I needed to make dinner, and then get in the car and drive to Twelve’s school in time to pick her up after track club.

“Are we going to Starbucks?” Fourteen asked after we chatted for a few minutes about her day.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have a lot to do at home,” I said.

“What do you have to do?”

I cited the two magazine articles I still had to write plus a few other tasks.

“So wouldn’t getting some Starbucks help?” she asked. “Just think, it’ll make your work so much nicer.”

“No.”

“Oh, come on,” she said in a teasing tone. “You know you want to.”

“Not really,” I countered. “I really just want to go home and write my articles and finish my day. Plus, it’s not even on the way.”

“That’s okay, [Twelve] won’t mind if we’re a few minutes late to pick her up.”

“You really think so?” I asked wryly. “How would she feel if you got Starbucks and she didn’t?”

“So get her something too,” she said. “She’s your favorite child anyway. Don’t you want to make your favorite child happy?”

“She’s not my favorite,” I said automatically, “I love you both equally, and I’m still not going to Starbucks.”

In truth, I really was tired, and I could feel my resolve slipping a little. If we’d actually driven by a Starbucks on the way, I would have probably at least considered stopping, not because I wanted to give Fourteen a treat but because she was wearing me down a little bit. In a rare moment of fatigue, I knew I would have considered giving in to her just to make her stop begging.

The trouble was that I knew it wouldn’t stop her completely; she’d just again start after week or two.

(Toddlers and teenagers; really, someone has to find a way to bottle that quality and monetize it.)

We arrived at the grocery store, and I told her she could stay in the car. As I walked toward the entrance and put on my mask, I decided to let my teen’s persistence wear me down a little anyway. I wouldn’t go to Starbucks for her, but I could make a peace offering.

I grabbed the vegetable I needed then wandered to the bakery section of the store. After perusing the choices for a couple of minutes and glancing at my watch, I picked up a box of eight snickerdoodles. Within minutes I’d zipped through the self-checkout area and made my way back to the car.

As I got back into the driver’s seat, I handed her the grocery bag and told her to look inside. Her eyes lit up when she saw the little box. Feeling my firm hold slip even further, I told her she could have two right then.

She has a snack after school every day anyway, and I knew when she went home she’d have a glass of milk. I figured the cookies could count as the snack part of her after-school routine.

We got to Twelve’s school several minutes early and sat in the pickup line talking as we waited. I turned off the car and watched as Fourteen pulled her second cookie from the box. Without a reminder or any admonishment, she closed the box right away and put it down.

I stared at the box for a minute then retrieved it from her lap and opened it.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I pulled out the first of my own two snickerdoodles.

“Having a treat,” I said.

I might be (mostly) impervious to teen begging, but even I need a little fun every now and again, right? And hopefully this will put off the constant requests to stop at Starbucks. For a week or so anyway.

Latest Chart: “Going back in time…”

March 26, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

This week I got a blip from the past.

On Monday, after months of a hybrid online/in-person school schedule, Twelve went back in person for good. I dropped her off that morning with what I presume was a huge smile on her face. Her mask covered her mouth, but I could hear the excitement in her voice.

When I went back to school at the end of her day, she did this weird hobble-hop movement to the car. Her tone still held the excitement of the day—the fact that she could see her classmates and teachers face to face again; going to her locker; not having to whine about internet issues—but she informed me that she sprained her right ankle. Apparently, the teachers thought it was a good idea to take advantage of the beautiful weather in the afternoon and took the entire middle school to the enormous field behind the building to play Capture the Flag.

It actually was a fantastic idea. Twelve, though, couldn’t enjoy more than five minutes. That was her estimation, anyway, of how long she chased after one of her friends when her foot twisted in a strange way and she fell to the ground.

I don’t think she absorbed what a sprained ankle meant beyond the fact that she couldn’t put any weight on it whatsoever. We got home, and I instructed her to stay put as I trotted around to the passenger side of the car. With one arm slung across my shoulders for support, she hopped from the garage into the mudroom. I trotted back out and grabbed her school things from the car.

The short version of this story is that Twelve spent Tuesday and Wednesday at home attending school from a comfy chair and ottoman set. By Wednesday afternoon, she could put some weight back on her right foot. She was limping, but she was mobile.

She was also antsy.

“I have to go back to school,” she said Wednesday evening. “I can’t stay home another day. This is driving me crazy.”

The longer version of this story is that for a couple of days, my baby girl needed me again in a way she hadn’t in a long time. After school on Monday, I supervised while she butt-scooted up the stairs to her room so she could change out of her school clothes and into her PJs. I watched her as she made her way back down the stairs the same way, and then I became an animate crutch for her across the first floor of the house whether that meant going to the kitchen for a snack or hopping to the bathroom in the opposite direction.

On Tuesday morning, for the first time in probably five years, I helped her out of the shower. Granted, I kept my eyes closed when the shower curtain scraped open that morning (Talk about mad mom skills. Have you ever tried to help a kid stand up from the tub and coach them on how to get out of it when you can’t see what they’re doing? Not exactly the easiest task in the world.)

Once she was comfortably standing on one foot, I turned my back to her, opened my eyes, and kept talking to her as we discussed her day. I had to hang around to help her hop into her bedroom so she could get dressed and then supervise yet again when she did the butt-scoot to go downstairs. Then it was hopping all the way across the house to our home study where she settled herself with her device, all of her school books and papers spread out around her, and an ice pack for her ankle that her daddy had wrapped in an ace bandage before going to work.

Throughout the day I checked on her, and she tolerated my hovering with a great deal of patience. I think, though, that it bothered her a little bit. Twelve doesn’t like being the center of attention, and she really hates asking for help. That quality can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she’ll never sit around waiting for other people to make things happen for her. On the other, if she’s in a tough spot and can’t manage something on her own she may refuse to acknowledge that. She might not even recognize it.

For the first time in a long time, Twelve needed me on a physical level. I’d forgotten, almost, how that felt: to care for a child’s tangible requirements. Bathroom stops; meals; packing up a bag. As is the case with all kids, at some point both Fourteen and Twelve started doing most of these things for themselves. Eventually they’ll take over all of them.

Their needs now are different: emotional; mental; psychological. Especially in this last year. When they were babies, I thought, naively, that nothing could be as hard as waking up night after night for 3 a.m. feedings/diaper changes or trying to figure out exactly what they meant when they were crying and couldn’t talk yet. Now I know that while those things were physically demanding, the physical demands have their own place in terms of how hard things are. Raising teens and tweens is a whole different level of difficulty.

Of course, this is Twelve. My wiggle-worm. Even she jokes about how she can’t sit still for long, and that extends into her independent mind and spirit. By late on Tuesday, she started pulling away from me, wanting to hop all by herself across the house. I don’t know if she was embarrassed that her mother had to help her, or she was impatient to get better again. Maybe she wanted to get over this little hurdle so she could course correct and go back to school in person. It’s probably a mix of all three.

I get that and I don’t. We hear about people having babies or I go to a store and see baby clothes, and I’m truly astounded that my children—my 5’6.5” teen and my 5’3” tween—could ever have been that small. Surely not them, I think. It feels like they came to us fully formed with their humor and snark and maturity that pops up at the most surprising of times.

With all the challenges that parenting poses and how this last year has pushed us, at times, to our limits, it was kind of nice to have to think only about the small things this week. To only have to worry about refilling an ice pack or moving a rug out of the way so Twelve didn’t slip on it. Little things that, as young parents, meant the world would end if we didn’t get them right.

Now we know better, of course. Now we can make jokes about these challenges, even chide Twelve not to move too fast when she went back to school yesterday. And she can give me an eye roll and a “I know” with a tinge of tween angst and remind us that they don’t stay little for long.