Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

High school graduation hats high

By Francie Arenson Dickman

“Focus on how you want to feel when you’re finished.” My daughter texted me these words of advice—a tip I assume she acquired from her time spent dancing on stage—minutes before I took the stage for a show I was recently in called, ironically, Listen to Your Mother. I’d had no problem writing the essay I was about to read, but reading it aloud to hundreds of people terrified me. As I stood in the wings, waiting to hear my name, I marveled at my daughter’s maturity. But just for a moment, because that’s all it took. Not for my name to be called but for my daughter’s next text to roll in. “I need a haircut.”

With that, the wisdom of my daughter was superseded by that of Lisa Damour, author of Untangled; Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. “Teenagers,” she tells us, “are totally competent, until they’re not.” How I love this line. It’s a reminder—if not a wake up call entirely—because I have a tendency to rush to judgement. My girls are fourteen years old, almost fifteen, they are about to graduate 8th grade. Yet my presumption is still that they are my children and I am the adult, therefore I advise and they listen, I know more and they know less. When clearly, this is not the case. They have whole subsets of knowledge and ability and insight that I lack. Not only did my daughter advise me before I went on stage, but my other daughter dressed me.

“You can’t wear that,” she said when I came into her room to check myself out in her mirror wearing an outfit I thought was proper performance attire.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s a dress. You don’t wear dresses.”

I, in the role of the teenager, said, “But I’m sure all the other women will be wearing dresses.” (They weren’t.)

She, in the role of the adult, told me that I had to feel comfortable on stage, I had to feel like myself. After this, she outfitted me. She even layered my necklaces. Then, her sister came into my bathroom to do my makeup. “I don’t know how a 47-year-old woman could get this far without knowing how to do makeup,” she told me. (I can and do, for the record, apply theirs.)

Also for the record, I should add that they had an easier time dressing me than they did themselves. Their process of finding graduation dresses smacked of insanity. If your UPS packages arrived late for several weeks last month, I apologize. We were monopolizing the delivery trucks. It was embarrassing actually but, as I kept reminding myself, they are teenagers, and teenagers are totally competent, until they’re not.

There is no surer sign of competence than the ability to recognize another’s incompetence, which my kids surely can because I got a self-help book for Mother’s Day. You heard me right. My fourteen-year-old gave me a book called something like How to be Badass because, as she explained after I looked at her cross-eyed—in a who’s guiding who sort of way—she didn’t like my attitude towards getting my book published. She told me I needed more badass.

On the very first page of Untangled, Damour explains that when it comes to raising teenage girls, our default setting is fear and our expectation is trouble. “If you are reading this book,” Damour writes, “someone has already remarked about your daughter, ‘Oh just wait till she’s a teenager!'” This is true. I got this line the minute I started to cart them around in the stroller. “Cute now, but just wait til they’re teenagers.” My mother told me several years ago to take a deep breath and hold it for the next ten years.

I’m not saying the expectation is unfounded, as evidenced by the ill-timed haircut request or the 4,000 dresses ordered for graduation. But I admit that the stereotype and my natural tendency to anticipate the worst has unfairly undertoned my parental assumptions. Much the same way my skeptical mindset about getting my book published has been colored by word on the street that the publishing industry, much like the parenting one, is brutal.

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I was great when my girls were younger, when they were four and spent mornings around the kitchen table and my job was to read and teach and theirs was entirely to listen.    I’m good at the molding and the shaping. It’s the next part, the letting go, the sending of my projects off into the universe and trusting that they’ll fly that trips me up. And so I keep hanging on by talking and teaching and lecturing and advising even though I know and Damour confirms that I am “wasting my breath.” When a teenager nods her head with glazed over eyes, she’s not listening. She’s simply wearing her “veil of obedience.” I imagine that my daughters’ veils are well worn. And they’re only fourteen. Apparently mothers, too, are totally competent until we are not.

Being a badass, according to my Mother’s Day present, doesn’t mean being tough, it means being brave, acting despite your fear, and trusting in the universe to give you what you need. Indeed, at least on occasion, it does. I was—what do you know—preparing to give my girls a bunch of advice upon graduation. Instructions for how to proceed in the next phase of life. Instead, they gave it to me.

So I will sit in the audience as this time my daughters take the stage, in the dresses they picked, in the make up I’ve done, in the hair that’s been cut, and I will graduate, too. I have four more years with my girls, my girlfriends, under my roof. Why don’t I just take a page from their book, and focus on how I want to feel when I’m finished.

Francie Arenson is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at:

This piece was originally published in Brain Child in June 2016.



The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around

By Allison Slater Tate


It’s not easier to watch a child grow up the second time around. It’s harder.


When we filed into the elementary school last May on the morning of fifth grade graduation, my husband and I didn’t need to be told where to go or what to do. We dutifully walked around the arc of chairs set up around the stage, saving only what we needed toward the back. We knew the seats in the front would already be gone, snatched up by early bird parents wielding cameras on their laps, their faces eager with anticipation. We were more excited to be close to an exit; we knew how hot the auditorium would get by hour two when that many people filled the room and the class photo slideshow was on song three of the soundtrack.

From the time I held the fateful pregnancy test in my shaking hand, I wondered what it would be like to have more than one child. Our firstborn had consumed us, especially me, the first year of his life—literally and figuratively. I had submitted to the tide of motherhood and let it take up every thought, every feeling, every physical twinge. How could I do that, but squared? It seemed unfathomable.

But my second son was nothing at all like my first, and my experience as a second-time mother wasn’t motherhood squared, exactly. Where my first seemed to come from the womb speaking in sentences after we survived the colic of his first six months, my second was a quiet, content, jovial baby who eventually needed years of speech therapy. I feared I would suffer the same extreme sleep deprivation with my second baby that I did with my first, but my second ended up being a completely different kind of newborn—one I didn’t know existed—and he slept in his own crib early and often.

My first two children continued to be completely different personalities and people despite being separated by only 21 months in age, one independent and assertive, one more reserved and shy, one literal and straightforward, a fan of math and science; one lost in his own world of make believe and imagination, an artist and a dreamer. We added two more children, another boy and a baby girl, later. They too are distinct individuals, none of them following in the footsteps or even on the same path as any of their siblings.

A lot of my experience of being a mother has been marked by firsts: first birthday, first day of school, first ER trip, first lost tooth, first cavity, first field trip, first sleepover, first time going to sleep-away camp, first elementary school graduation, first teenager. All these firsts have been daunting in part because they were firsts; they hit me hard when they happened because I had never experienced them before as a parent and didn’t know what to expect. So when my second child prepared to go through each one, I thought, I got this now. I’ll know what to do, how to react, how to prepare. This will be easier.

But I was wrong. Because for as much as I desperately wish parenting worked that way, it just doesn’t. The second time around, following hot on the heels of my first, has still been its own individual parenting experience. I thought it would get easier to say goodbye to footie pajamas; instead, it was tougher, because I knew it meant the true end of babyhood. I thought I wouldn’t grieve preschool as much the second time, but I did even more, knowing that now time would speed up through the elementary years. In fact, every milestone hits me harder. I know exactly what I am saying goodbye to with each watershed moment—though I am never sure what I might face next, because it’s always different in some way or nuance.

That is how fifth grade graduation crept up on me. I have four children now, and my days fly past me in a blur of drop-offs, pick-ups, practices, meals. I was so focused on my firstborn going to middle school that I didn’t quite process how quickly my second child was finishing elementary school, and with it so many wonderful elementary school things: field trips to the zoo and daily recess on actual playgrounds, class holiday parties with games of BINGO and 7-Up, endless supplies of FunDip Valentines, shoebox dioramas about sharks, kickball games. I hardly paid attention to the details of the final days of school last year. I knew the drill.

But sitting at the graduation, surrounded by first-timers tucking in their kids’ shirttails and adjusting their collars, I was surprised to find myself feeling overwhelmed and a little shell-shocked. When my first child went through all of it, it was daunting, but exciting. It was new. It was an adventure. It felt surreal. I was nervous about middle school, but also so curious. I wanted to see where the path led, what the baby I brought home so many years ago now would look like as an adolescent.

But with my second child, though I still embraced that same excitement and curiosity about what his own future would bring, I couldn’t help fighting off grief for the things I knew would be over now. It felt final. It felt real. He is no longer the baby of the family, but he was once. He was the second child that made my first baby look gigantic overnight in the way newborns do to toddlers. He was the second child that promised to always seem little compared to my first. But now he is no longer little.

I’m preparing now for my oldest child to graduate from middle school. We’re filling out high school registration forms and going to open houses and talking about course selection. My second baby, now 5’5″ and wearing man-sized shoes, is finishing 6th grade. He still has his baby face—his beautiful skin hasn’t met hormones yet, thank goodness.

I wiped tears away from my eyes that morning, realizing that it’s not easier to watch a child grow up the second time around. It’s harder.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and a mother of four children ages 13 to 3. In addition to Brain, Child, her work can be found at her eponymous websiteToday Parents, Scary Mommy, the Washington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

BT 15 Graduation Speech ARTBy Ellen Lesser

In the graduation speech I won’t give at the therapeutic academy, I’d tell them all how cute you were when you were little, with your one dimple that showed up more when your cheeks were round and those hazel eyes, crazy big. Cute and smart as could be and so good—easy, at least that’s the way I remember it, though certain relatives and professionals would say that’s because I let you do whatever you wanted.

Didn’t set limits or enforce consequences, two things you’re getting in spades in the intensely restrictive school program, on the theory that the extreme dosage now can correct for the early deficiency.

For the graduation speech I won’t give, I’d be that shameless parent who puts on a slide show. I wouldn’t wind it all the way back. Let’s say we kick it off with that shot of you in your high chair on your first birthday, presiding over the gleeful wreck of strawberry shortcake, your face and what hair you had, your bare chest and arms slathered with fresh whipped cream.

Later, once you were almost a teenager, you demanded to know why I’d dressed you for the occasion in only a diaper, like that wasn’t obvious. Like it constituted some form of abuse. Of course in the rest of the slides you’d have clothing on. How about that great Halloween costume: the big, reversible satin cape I sewed, red with white stars on one side, solid blue on the other, lightning bolts stitched onto your pilot cap, and on the front of your sweatshirt, the shield with the big golden “S.” Super Suzie.

And what would the soundtrack be? I could pull out the stops and find that cassette we ordered from the kids’ magazine. We filled in the card and physically mailed it, then waited the predicted eight weeks. How’s that for deferral of gratification? Ten “very special tunes” with lyrics customized to feature your name, just like the ad promised. Cloying but hopelessly catchy, so naturally you played them over and over, though even once through they got plenty repetitive. I want to sing a song about Suzie. I want to sing a song about Suzie. Let’s sing a song about Su-u-ziestretched to give it three syllables.

Did I really steal into your room one night, slip the tape from your player and make it mysteriously go missing? Or did I just dream about doing that? I remember hysterics and tearing the house apart and finally needing to bribe you with something way cooler, whatever that was right then, thereby, in the words of the treatment team, robbing you of the chance to learn how to self-soothe.

No doubt before long you’d have forgotten it anyway, or grown out of it, like you grew out of a lot of things you once loved: dance classes, art projects, mother-daughter baking, the flute, even basketball. A whole slide deck of leotards and paint-splattered smocks and crisp concert blouses, not to mention the treasured Allen Iverson jersey that started out down to your knees. The requisite, adorable get-ups for all those fun and enriching activities you accused me in our last family therapy session of making you do.

Not that I’ll ever really be showing those.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech I’d give for real at the treatment academy, I’d try my hardest not to embarrass you, though every kid must cringe a little when a parent gets up there, wondering what we’re going to say. You are still teenagers—young adults—despite all the therapy.

It’s an odd tradition, asking the parents to make speeches, since we’ve been so far away, having shipped you off to this place where it takes a whole specialized staff and system of rules and ascending ladder of stages to accomplish what we so spectacularly failed to at home just as mothers and fathers. But actually, calling anything at the school a tradition is kind of a stretch, considering how it only sprang up a few years ago, this outpost of authentic Montana-style lodge buildings tucked up into a wild hillside at the end of a road so remote, only the most in- trepid or desperate or crazy would try running away from it.

The parents who get to stand up and give speeches have kids who didn’t try running away. Who only hiked on the designated trails with their teams farther up into the hills every weekend. Who didn’t find the chance unsupervised moment to, say, touch a boy in the cubby room and get caught, because although the school is co-ed, it runs on the strictest no-contact policy. Who sat down at the end of each day and listened to extensive feedback about their actions and attitude and didn’t tell the staffers charged with providing it to go fuck themselves. Who didn’t pioneer a closet method of home-fermentation, filling Nalgene bottles with grape juice and yeast stolen from the school kitchen, until a whole team of girls was found inexplicably drunk in the dorm one night. Who, even though their families were blowing their college funds or invading 401(K)s or taking out second mortgages for the stunning tuition fees, not only made their beds and kept their own shit picked up but swept floors and scrubbed toilets and washed pots and pans, to help break them of an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Who didn’t talk other kids into forking over their meds for depression or bipolar disorder or ADHD, then crush and snort them in the far bathroom stall when they thought nobody was around to hear and report on them. Who themselves scrupulously followed the code requiring them to come forth about anyone else’s infractions, not because they were sucking up to staff or angling for promotion but because they sincerely bought into this as an act of love, a life-line for the person they ratted on.

“I’m not like some snitch,” you said. But then you got tired of listening to the bulimic girl every night through the wall by the head of your bed. You already had enough trouble sleeping.

The team counselor you told would assure you that had nothing to do with the girl, a week later, smuggling a paring knife out of salad prep and slitting her wrists—not very effectively—then being pulled from the school. But that’s hard to swallow. Which means you either messed her up really bad or actually saved her ass.

Wrapping your head around that: now there’s something to keep you awake at night.

*   *   *

In the speech I’d like to deliver for your graduation, I’d leave out that part of the story. Forget the setbacks and stumbling blocks, the delays and demotions, all the scary-bad or just stupid shit that made the odds of my standing up there seem impossibly slim. Better to keep it light and upbeat. Beginnings are good that way. So I’d tell about our arrival at Glacier Airport in the dead of the night that first time. What was the end of one road but the start of this new—let’s call it journey, a popular word in the lingo there. I’d booked us on the last flight into Glacier, a plane we’d only make if we hit no snags earlier. Such a long way from home for us, and we weren’t even starting from home. Home, which already you hadn’t seen in three months, since you first shipped out for wilderness treatment. But at least that was wilderness Eastern Standard Time. That’s where our day began, before dawn, under the canvas tarp you strung for us between trees in the Family Transition Camp.

“Montana: is that even a state?”

That’s what you asked your field counselor when she delivered the news about your therapeutic boarding school placement. Because of course, you weren’t coming back to our house and your regular high school—not yet. Twelve weeks in the woods was only Phase One of the cure for what all was ailing you.

In the letter I wrote that same week, I admitted I’d had to pull out your old atlas myself to check the location. (This could make a good laugh line for the speech: Geography had never been an “A” subject for either one of us.) But then I assured you the distance on a map didn’t matter, since once we got you out there, traversing it would be on me, and I’d come see you, whatever it took, as often as the school let me.

That sounded fair enough—smart—when I said it. But by the time we rode the rental SUV out of the forest to the base office, where you took your first actual shower in twelve weeks, and cruised the couple-hundred miles back to the airport from which the wilderness transporters had collected you; by the time we flew across the plains to the eastern slope of the Rockies then over the mountains up to Salt Lake; by the time the western night had fallen and deepened and we boarded the tiny prop plane through this weird cross between cattle stalls and gates at a bus depot, and roared over an expanse of unbroken black to touch down at the one brilliantly lit, empty terminal, it might as well be the moon we had landed on.

Mom,” you said in that tone you reserve for me and me alone, that particular mix of outrage and disappointment, like the world is this appalling place and my fault on general principle. That’s when you spotted it, in a giant glass case between us and the one baggage carousel. Our eyes were so bleary from traveling, so struck by the glare, it looked to be out in the open just standing there. “What the fuck is that?”

It was a mountain goat, though I didn’t know that yet. A massive billy with its lush coat of pure white and curving horns and great beard and kind but no-nonsense expression. I stared into the glassy black eyes, out of which it appeared to gaze back at me.

“Is it real?” you said.

“I think so. But dead. You know, stuffed.”

You gawked at me not so much like I’d just stated the obvious, but as if I’d killed the creature and performed the taxidermy myself. “And you decided to send me somewhere they’d have this Thing in the airport—why exactly?”

At that moment I had no answer. Do I have one now? But I’ve lost my thread. Why was I thinking the arrival bit would work well for the speech again?

Something about beginnings—that’s right. How distant and alien it all seemed, unlikely as the mountain goat greeting us at one in the morning, this sentinel at the gate to another world. How maybe you had to go that far out to find your way home again.

How we passed through that portal and stepped into the Montana night air, which was thinner and smelled different—dry—I guess. How we climbed into another rental car and steered toward the town, along a road littered with motels and fast-food places. How even driving that strip you sensed something. Lowered your window and stuck out your head.

“Oh my god, Mom—the sky. It’s so big. How is that even possible?”

When we hit a red light I looked too, through the neon wink of a pawn-shop sign, and saw what you meant. The sky was bigger than ours back east—exponentially—though strictly speaking that didn’t make sense, since really it was the same one.

Why did this suddenly fill me with a mad hope? The sky itself, but more, the fact that you noticed it.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech that runs through my head, I follow that train. I don’t mention the silence in which we drove the dirt track up to the school the next morning, or the emptiness I felt once I left you there. I don’t say I had to pull over at the base of the hill to beat back the voice shouting this was all a mistake, and I should go scoop you up and fly you back home with me.

In the speech I still hear myself giving sometimes when the roaring stops, I stick to the positive. How I looked forward all week to those Thursday nights, for the scheduled phone call we had once your homework and chores were done. How I had to pinch myself to believe it really was you, given what you were telling me: that you actually liked your school classes, not just because there were boys but because you could feel your brain starting to work again. That the academic subjects were cool but art was your favorite. That you were busy and working hard and actually happy in a way you’d forgotten you knew how to be. That you missed me and loved me—how long had I gone without hearing that?—and were counting the weeks until my next visit there. That you’d earned your Stage Two pro- motion, so when I came, after family therapy, we could leave the school grounds for a whole afternoon. That you’d made Stage Three, so you could stay with me at my motel overnight, and we could tour Glacier National Park, try to spot a live mountain goat.

So when did it change? When did things start to turn again?

You won your Stage Four promotion, which meant that if you kept on course, you’d graduate in three months. But part of how you earned that bump was ratting the puker out. Is that what started to eat at you? The guilt, or maybe the jealousy, since she was gone? Or was it the community service glitch?

You were gung-ho about that requirement: twenty volunteer hours for a local non-profit or charity. After all, hadn’t you spent the past year and some reawakening empathy? Habitat for Humanity seemed like an excellent cause: helping fix up vacant buildings in town so homeless people could live in them. We talked right after you worked your first shift. (In Stage Four, you could call whenever you wanted to.) You were crying so hard I could barely make out what you were telling me. Something about an abandoned crack house—”like, what the fuck?” About how there were pills everywhere: stuffed behind the rank toilet, under the piss-smelling mattresses, inside the slashed-up, mildewed upholstery. How you couldn’t believe they’d send a crew of kids with drug problems into a place like that.

I kept saying I was sorry, that someone had clearly made a mistake. You didn’t have to go back, you’d switch over to some other agency. I figured it was the unspeakable squalor that got to you, but maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe the vision of all those pills—of a life where such freedom and plenty existed—fired that other part of your brain back up.

Maybe you managed to pocket some and smuggle them back with you, because in the calls after that, something wasn’t quite right. I want to say you didn’t sound like yourself but that wouldn’t be true. You sounded like that other Suzie, the one before wilderness therapy. Always some reason for indignation, some run-in with staff or a teacher or another girl on your team; some way that the stage system, the school, the universe, was singling you out for special injustice.

You’d go on about it in that old way you had of cycling up, then catch yourself and apologize; say you’d just had a bad day, you hadn’t been sleeping well. You still talked about graduation, but more and more it was with this speculative, vaguely confrontational air, leading with “if” instead of “when.”

“If I graduate, remember you promised I could get a tattoo.”

“If I graduate, what’ll you say in that speech?”

“If you fly out for graduation, can we skip Glacier Park this time?”

When I saw the school name on the caller ID last night, I had that little thrill I always get when I hear from you, but something else too. I caught myself thinking, what now? then feeling so bad about that, it took me a second to realize it wasn’t your voice but the staff person’s.

She said they weren’t sure how many hours you’d been gone exactly, but probably only a few. They had reinforcements fanning out in the hills, and the local police were putting extra cruisers on the roads to watch out for you.

“What can I do?” Even as I spoke the words, I sensed the cosmic futility, all those thousands of miles away. But she said my job was to stay by the phone, in case you got someplace and tried calling me. ?I was about to ask if that happened—a kid runs away then calls home—but she was still talking. “And praying might help.”

If we’re down to that it doesn’t look good, I thought, but didn’t say that aloud.

I said the same thing I did when I found out there were schools like this: “I’ll try anything.”

*   *   *

The whole time I’m packing, the different speeches spool through my brain. The school people said don’t fly out right away but that made no sense. Of course I need to be there, in case you turn up. Or to hunt for you.

I should start with the meth dens, the crack houses, those sketchy, falling-down places on the wrong side of town. Ask if anyone’s spied a girl with huge eyes, green or brown—it depends on the light; with a dimple that won’t necessarily show that day.

But really, I see myself steering across Glacier Park again, scouring the cliffs and crags like we did when we searched for the mountain goats. I picture the nanny and kid—perfect miniature—materialized on that ledge, as if our wishing had conjured them. And suddenly it’s like the first time we took that drive on Going to the Sun Highway.

I’d read the warnings: this trip was not for the queasy. And yet it led off mildly enough, winding through woods along boulder-strewn streambeds, and I thought, I can handle this. Then we started to climb, threading the switch-backs up, up, up until my gaze slid sideways and I glimpsed the sheer drop—three-thousand feet downward to the glinting seam of the river below, not so much as a guardrail between us and that gorgeous oblivion.

Vertigo. It would occur to me later that was the sensation but it struck like pure terror, paralysis. And it came to me, we could die like this. Then it hit me I couldn’t let on how afraid I was. I’m the grown-up, I had to push through. Plus oxygen—maybe that’s what I needed. A while back we’d shut all the windows, the gusts had gotten so strong. Now I scanned the dashboard and punched AC, cranked the fan dial.

I don’t think you even noticed, you were so awed by the view. The whole attack might have lasted mere seconds, though it felt like much longer. Once I drew in the cool air, the dread lifted and I could go on.

How about that for the graduation speech, if I were still giving it?

Forget graduation, screw the speech, only breathe. But that’s what this loop in my head has become: a method of breathing, a mantra.

In the graduation speech that’s no longer a speech, it’s a meditation, a promise, a plea—

In the speech that was never a speech but a prayer, I ask that you live is all.

Ellen Lesser is at work on a collection of linked short stories about mothers and teenage daughters in crisis. She is the author of The Shoplifter’s Apprentice, The Other Woman, and The Blue Streak. She teaches in the MFA Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.

Our Tearless Graduation

Our Tearless Graduation

Start-Making-Necessary-Preparations-for-Graduation-600x338By Jennifer Magnuson

For several weeks I have scrolled through a Facebook feed teeming with high school graduation announcements and party planning as all around me friends and acquaintances prepare for their teenagers to matriculate soon. Parents post sepia-toned pictures of pig-tailed toddlers, little faces painted in first birthday cakes and slightly blurred evidence of inaugural attempts without training wheels, all complete with nostalgic commentary and cries of My baby is leaving us and Where have the years gone? Those with younger children comment, supportively echoing the sentiment to freeze time—to keep their own small children in situ—in an effort to avoid the looming empty nest. Amidst the festivities, upcoming barbecues and open houses hangs a heavy cloud of grief, a palpable mourning for an era that is gone, or near as much, and can never be replaced. I hold the invitations to graduation parties in my hands, some more thoughtfully curated than the ones for my wedding. My friends and neighbors host parties and post mini-movies on social media where I watch video montages set to tear-jerking songs; all of this makes me feel as if I am reading obituaries of childhood.

I live among friends who have chosen a life that has held their families in one place, instead of moving around the country—and world—as we have done until quite recently. I too have the photos from preschool, birthday parties and school concerts to post, but don’t feel a part of the pack because our players and backdrops haven’t been the same from milestone to milestone as we moved, from Washington to Idaho, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, India, Abu Dhabi. It never bothered me before the way it does now, looking at split-screen Instagram pictures; on the left, twin gap-toothed grins from the first day of kindergarten, on the right, a shot of the same friends in the same pose, caps and gowns signaling graduation day. The biggest indicator of the passage of time, aside from the obvious, is the significantly larger flowering hydrangea in the background. While I celebrate that my kids have endured the obligatory snapshots taken everywhere from the mountains of the American West to the sands of the Middle East, right here and now I wonder what it would be like for them to have known the same friends, neighbors, and yes, even the same hydrangea bush, for all of their school years.

Here is where we get to my soft spot. The tender place where I feel most conflicted, where I, too, feel sentimental and bittersweet about the looming transitions ahead. I also wonder how something that I once felt would remain forever can up and disappear. There remains, however, for me a disconnect as I reflect on our unique path to graduation.

The oldest two of our five children, Chloe and Maddie, will graduate this month. In a few short weeks they will finish high school—Chloe a year early—after having spent the bulk of the past five years being educated overseas. Chloe chose to spend her last semester here in the United States, enrolling in a local school after our return from the Middle East. Maddie completed her final three remaining classes online so that her diploma still bears the name of the international school she attended in Abu Dhabi. For Chloe, her decision meant spending less than six months in a school surrounded by people who grew up together; their journey more of an unbroken, straight line to the finish, Pomp and Circumstance marking the finite “end.” In this setting, Chloe felt unmoored and disconnected, her first taste of being the square peg.

Because we chose a non-traditional path, our lines have been more circuitous than linear, sometimes veering toward the chaotic. As we moved from state to state, then country to country, for my husband’s career, we’ve counted the stamps in their passports as a tradeoff for not having roots that extend deeply in one place. While in India, we homeschooled the younger four. Maddie was the first to attend an International School and spent her freshman year of high school with kids from all over the world, learning Norwegian from her best friend, an expat from Oslo. Chloe, still in middle school, completed her work from home, dutifully hammering out her assignments in the morning so she could spend the rest of her day sketching skirt designs and planning forays into Chennai’s rich textile markets. I viewed our rickshaw-driven excursions along the Ana Salai as the lessons that stuck with her most that year. Within a few months she had forged a working relationship with a tailor who spoke a smattering of English, just enough for her to jab authoritatively at her sketches so that he could stitch together her designs using fabric she had carefully chosen, a heady experience for a thirteen year-old girl. It typically makes me feel special to stand out in this way, but now that we have returned to the small town where I was raised, I wear the shroud of an outsider as we near the graduation ceremony.

Perhaps because they have already spent large swaths of time away from me as we transitioned back and forth between two countries, perhaps because of the nature of being a “Third Country Child”—a term used to refer to the children of expatriates—perhaps because the International School our children attended in Abu Dhabi routinely sponsored lengthy trips to other countries for Habitat for Humanity builds or Model United Nation competitions (I shed my first tears of separation when Chloe was barely 15 and off to Romania for a month), or perhaps because we lived among families from other cultures who viewed this kind of separation as normal, I am not grieving in the way I feel I am supposed to. In addition to not posting old pictures of the girls with friends who have been with them from kindergarten through high school, I have no song planned for a memory-filled slideshow that I will play for family and neighbors, primarily because both girls have insisted on wanting minimal fanfare for this transition. In Chloe’s case, she has little desire to celebrate her departure from a school she hardly knows, so we have come to view it as a box to check. Graduate early: check. Volunteer or work until turning 18: check. Leave for college: the check she is most excited to make. Maddie is equally blasé, and while most of me has come to understand and accept that this is the inevitable result of our choices, I can’t deny that I want to join in, not be still where others are busy with the purposeful movement of choosing party themes and planning post-commencement celebrations. As much as I value our unique experiences and the feeling of having lived a special life, I also want to join in with the people around me. I want to be the same.

When we lived in the United Arab Emirates, my son Jacob had a best friend, Alec. Soon after he turned eleven, Alec’s parents announced that he would be attending boarding school in England, as his older siblings and parents had done before him. At first, I was shocked. Who willingly parts with such a small child? Nearly numb with sadness for my friend and Alec and thinking about such a separation from my own son, I wondered how she was coping. Aside from the obvious—it was a family tradition, his older siblings had done the same, he would visit home regularly—her answer was the first of many lessons gifted me on the practice of letting go of the people who are born to us.

“Of course we will miss him, Jennifer.” Her tone was kind, which helped as she added, “Once I stopped believing my children were mine, it became easier for me to make the choices that were best for them.” The implicit “as opposed to best for me hung between us. Her words were like a small trowel, gently loosening the earth around the bedrock of control I believed I could maintain.

I try and remember this lesson as I struggle to let my daughters’ graduations pass with just a small family gathering. If I am being honest, I realize that a large part of my angst is because I want to have a big party and make a big deal out of things like everybody else because that is the currency I trade in now. I’m no longer a far-flung expat living exotically, posting travel pictures for my friends back home to admire. I live in a comfortable, quiet town with Little League and swim team and moms who cry when their children graduate from high school.

But if I allow myself to look into the hearts of my daughters, I know I would be doing that for me. The instructions from them are clear, if partially unsaid. Dont. Don’t pretend it was the same for them. It’s weeks before the realization of the motivation behind my girls’ insistence hits me: my desire to grieve and celebrate in the same way as my friends is a tacit admission that our life choices were somehow wrong. I need to let them finish this leg the way we started—a little differently.

So a small gathering it is, the money formerly allocated for the entertainment of people they scarcely know spent instead on plane tickets taking them to visit friends in other countries and states before returning to me, where we will begin preparations for college the following year. And when they are on the plane, I will allow myself a good cry and wait for them to come home.

Author’s Note: My new tribe of rooted friends and neighbors continues to flourish. While I experienced the sting of feeling like an outsider during the peak of graduation festivities, I am happy to report that as both of my girls prepare for college this fall, our connection to our new community is growing. Maddie will be attending university here in Oregon, and while Chloe is off to the East coast, she will be attending the same small university as the daughter of one of my new friends and neighbors.

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of the travel memoir Peanut Butter & Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which is currently an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Finalist. She has also written for Writer’s Digest, Bitch Magazine and Nickelodeon. You can find her at

Proud Enough to Bust

Proud Enough to Bust

proudtobustMay, 2014: Elementary School Graduation at SRS

I walked with my family down the aisle of the sanctuary of the church that houses my youngest son’s school (I’ll call it SRS, The School for Remarkable Students). We took our seats on the long pew behind a dozen students who were tussling like puppies, crowded together and as physical and comfortable in each other’s presence as happy siblings.

The teachers took their turns at the podium, passing out awards and speaking kind words about their students, and each student in turn walked to the front, some with heads bowed and hands shoved deep in pockets, some pumping fists and shouting their excitement. The students in the pew cheered and hollered for their classmates.

When the clapping and cheering was finished, my son Carter brought his certificate of elementary school graduation to me and we marveled over it. “I did it, Mom!”


July, 2013: First Day of Fifth Grade at SRS

Carter was anxious about the first day of school, but not so much that he couldn’t walk to the door by himself. He would be the Big Man on Campus, the elementary student who had been at his SRS the longest. He spoke firmly to me about his important work setting an example for newer, younger students. “Mrs. D is counting on me,” he said, “and I could never let her down, especially since it’s my last year with her before I go to the middle school room.”


February, 2010: Carter’s First Day at SRS

“Mommy, Mommy, please! Mommy, promise me it’s not like the other school! Promise you’ll come get me if I need you! Please Mommy, I’m scared!”

“Babe, I promise it’s different. It’s especially for kids like you who have a hard time with some things. Everything is different here.”

Mrs. M, the school principal, met us at the door when she heard Carter crying. “Aw, honey. This is really hard, I know. Lots of the kids have a hard time at first and we’re all going to help you.”

I hugged and kissed him and although he was still crying hard, he allowed Mrs. M to lead him into the classroom. She looked at me from the classroom door and said, “Call me in an hour.”

An hour later, I called her from the parking lot. I’d been unable to drive away.


December, 2009: Homeschooling

“You have to kill me! Kill me, Mommy! Call the police and tell them to kill me!”

I was crouched on my knees over Carter, trying to restrain him without hurting either one of us. His face bled into the couch cushions because he had slammed it against the stairs until his nose bled, his lip was split, and he’d raised a giant blue lump on his hairline.

Carter cried under me for an hour, shrieking for long, wordless minutes. Tears dripped off the end of my nose and onto the back of his head and my muscles trembled from holding my static position for so long. As his rage finally began to burn out, he turned his head and looked into my eyes. Cold and low, he said, “Someday I’m going to kill myself and there won’t be anything you can do about it.”

I made my firm Mom face, the one that caused my three older children to straighten their spines in a hurry, and said, “I will never let you do that. I will always keep you safe no matter what.”


September, 2009: Carter’s Last Day at Public School

Carter screamed. I put him in the car to drive him to the 14th day of school of his first grade year and he screamed.

The day before, he had screamed.

The day before that, he had screamed.

Every day, he screamed. His regular education teacher sent him to his special education teacher because he wouldn’t (couldn’t) stop screaming, and the special education teacher (I overheard her from the hall) told him, “You stop that right now! There is nothing wrong with you!”

The special education teacher sent him to the nurse because he wouldn’t (couldn’t) stop screaming, and the nurse in turn sent him to the principal.

They all (the teachers, the nurse, the principal, the social worker, other people sent to tell me things in stern voices) told me that I must not baby him. I must drop him off on time and I may not pick him up before the final bell, or I would again be referred to truancy court, to which parents are sent after some specific number of absences, no matter the cause.

Except finally, in spite of those threats, the screaming was too much, Carter’s anguish unbearable, and I turned the car around and took him home.


March, 2009: Parent Teacher Conference Day

I had a letter in my purse that informed me, in formal language, that I would soon be referred to truancy court for Carter’s excessive absences. Also in my purse were copies of letters from doctors documenting the cause of those absences: one each from his pediatrician, psychiatrist, gastroenterologist, and psychologist. I had sent each of those letters to everyone at the school. Nevertheless, it seemed I would be facing a judge.

With those letters tucked into my purse, Carter and I headed to the public school to meet with his teacher to discuss his progress during his second trip through kindergarten. On the way, Carter collapsed into a migraine as he did most days back then, and as he moaned over the little bucket we kept in the backseat for that purpose, I decided we would proceed to the conference as planned.

I bundled Carter into the classroom and tucked him in with a blanket and pillow (we were always prepared for illness back then) and his bucket.

I sat across from the teacher and her aide. “Don’t you want to reschedule?” asked the teacher.

“This happens almost everyday,” I answered, dabbing at Carter’s mouth with a wipe. He vomited some more and cried.

“Well, maybe we can talk on the phone or something,” said the teacher. “He should probably be at home.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” I said, and put the truancy letter from the district on her desk.

I picked up my weeping, wretched son and made my way to the door. As I rounded the corner, the teacher said to her aide, “I guess she was telling the truth after all.”


August, 2007: Carter’s First Day of Kindergarten

My husband and I stood on the playground with Carter and all the other parents and their excited 5-year-olds, waiting for the first bell. Carter looked handsome and adult in his khaki shorts and new sneakers.

The teacher came to the door and smiled, “Children, welcome! Wow, look at you, ready for your first day of school! Give your moms and dads hugs and kisses and we’ll all line up and go to class.”

Carter hugged and kissed us and trotted off to line up with the other kids. He walked into his new classroom behind a little girl wearing a sparkly pink backpack and he turned, just once, to wave to us.


May, 2014: Elementary School Graduation

The graduation evening was long and by the time Carter and my husband and I got into the car, Carter was yawning. He buckled himself into his seat and was quiet for a few minutes.

“Carter?” I asked, “How are you feeling? Are you happy?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m so proud I could bust.”

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