the boys of fall
Football has been on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps it's because I just binge-watched Last Chance U. Or, perhaps it's because I am currently working my way through Friday Night Tykes. Maybe it's because my family spends most of our afternoons on the football field. It could be because my husband has now become a head coach for the youngest youth football team in our town. It could even be because I have joined my first Fantasy Football league (and I'm winning!). Whatever the reason, Kenny Chesney's "Boys of Fall" is the soundtrack to my life these days.
When I was in high school, sitting in the football stadium stands playing "Carry On My Wayward Son" on my trombone with the rest of the high school marching band (I was SUPER cool), I remember thinking that football was violent and never ever pictured myself being a football parent. In fact, when my oldest son was 6 years old and started asking about playing football, my initial and frequent response was "absolutely not!!" I recall thinking that it was too rough, too unnecessary and far too much of a commitment from me and for him. I was a solid "no."
But, he was determined to play and one year later, after I had done lots of research and talked to some of the local youth football coaches, I decided to let him try it. After all, in that year since I had said no to football, I had witnessed some pretty serious injuries in his little league baseball division. I convinced myself that on some level football might be safer since my child would be fully padded and always in a helmet with a face shield. Plus, I am also firmly against children specializing in just one sport at this young age and much of the research backs my stance.
I sat, in horror, through those first few weeks of football practice as children ran laps and worked out, sometimes until they puked because they had eaten too close to practice, often through tears and while coaches yelled at them. "What the hell did I sign my son up for?"
My son asked me if he could quit football after just two weeks. While a big part of me wanted to take his little hand and march him back to my car, leaving his stinky football equipment on the field, a voice inside me told me that I couldn't let him quit. He needed to stick it out and see what a game was like before he walked away. I didn't want him to have any regrets and I was convinced that he would be completely done with football after one game. So, he continued on and was one of the children selected to dress (but probably not play) for the first varsity game - a home game.
That first game day was almost magical. The sun was bright and hot, a perfect New England September day. The music pumped throughout the stadium and my son got to hear his name announced over the loud speaker at his high school's football stadium as he ran through streamers held by cheerleaders. Although I cannot recall for sure, I am fairly certain that I cried. After all, I cry a lot - especially when I am proud of my children. I was proud of him and his teammates. They had made a commitment to each other and to themselves. Even though he didn't play much that game, he was hooked and he never ever asked to quit football again.
That season, our family's inaugural football season, was perfect. My son, my quiet, insecure and timid son was changing before my eyes. He was becoming more confident, more assertive and more hopeful. I suddenly understood what sculptors like Michelangelo must have felt as they began to see their works of art being carved from blocks of marble. My son was being chiseled into an amazing version of himself, a version I had always known was inside and I had football to thank for the transformation.
Our second season of football was a bit different and after two games my son cried again - not because he didn't like the game but because he felt "invisible" "not good enough." We talked about it as a family and he decided that the best thing to do would be to talk to the coach and find out how he could get better, how he could get more playing time. I watched him have that brief but terrifying conversation and I teared up again (see? I cry. A lot). I knew many adults, including myself, who were too afraid to approach an authority figure and ask for such feedback. But, he did it and things began to change. He ended the season a starting varsity player and truly became him that season. I saw football's lasting impact on his school work, his friendships and in his other sports.
So, when our youngest son became old enough to sign up for football, I didn't hesitate. He knew what he was signing up for - he had just watched his brother play two full seasons. Of course, the transition into the practices and conditioning was difficult for him but he never asked to quit. Just three plays into his very first football game, he scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak play. I suspect that moment will be one of the moments that sticks in the photo album of his childhood in his mind - one of those moments he'll tell his own children about someday. He beamed coming off the field and couldn't wait to talk to his big brother about it. It should come as no surprise that I cried then too :)
But, in the back of my mind, I hear a voice of doubt. "What if they get hurt?" "What about a concussion?" "Is it too much for them at such a young age?" Then I watch shows like Last Chance U and Friday Night Tykes and have moments of disgust as I watch those coaches swearing at and belittling other football players. Is this what my children have to look forward to? Each season I watch as new children join our football teams and I see the same sheer panic overcome their parents' faces as their child takes their first tackle or stays on the ground longer than the other children and they feel the "Oh my God! He's hurt?!" feeling that sends a parent's heart into the pit of your stomach.
If I'm being honest, I have that same level of panic every time I watch my boys ride off on their bikes or walk along a busy street or rough house on a playground or do almost any of the crazy things boys their age do. I have that same fear when I drop them off at school and have to push back the worry that something bad could happen there too. I feel the same dread when we are in a large public gathering. What if??
But, then I arrive at game day and Kenny's words ring in my head and I remember that I cannot let fear dictate or direct my life. When people ask me "Why football?" my reply is always the same. I cannot wrap my children in a bubble (even though I really wish Amazon Prime would sell one). My children love the game of football. They love creating these memories with their friends. They beam with pride when their lap pace increases, they score a touchdown, have a great block on the line or make a key tackle. Football has helped my children gain confidence and identify their limits in ways other sports have not. It has helped them build character and forge lifelong friendships. It has created change in them that could not have been done with just my parenting alone. It unifies my family in the fall and allows us a shared experience. More importantly though, football is just one piece of our life. In addition to being football players, my boys are baseball players, musicians, basketball players, compassionate friends, academically bright, insightful, creative, funny and great with animals.
At this point in my children's lives, the positive benefits of youth football outweigh the risk of negatives. They even outweigh the nasty, smelly football pads that stink up my car after practices and games. And no matter what time of year it is or how far my boys go with football, on some level they will always be Boys of Fall and I will always be a Mom of Fall.
I have always been an animal person. If I am being honest, I am just a few pets away from being the stereotypical crazy cat lady of the neighborhood. In fact, there is a high likelihood that the 90 year old version of myself will live in a house with at least a dozen stray cats and five rescue dogs. Animals find me everywhere (ok, maybe I find them). During my high school years, I somehow adopted more than one neighborhood feral cat. I once left a beach party in the Dominican Republic to hang out with the local beach dog. A feral kitten climbed into the wheel well of my tire 8 years ago and she still lives with us. I went to the pet store for cat food one day and witnessed a pair of juvenile cats get separated as one was purchased; so, I adopted the other one. I now have three dogs - all rescues and all a bit quirky.
Why do I have so many pets? It's simple, really. They bring me and my family lots of joy. They teach us invaluable life lessons; things like love, patience, responsibility and care giving. But, they also teach us about something else - grief and loss.
When our senior dog, Sandy, made it clear to us that her time was coming to an end, we had a long conversation with our two boys, ages 5 and 8 at the time. The plan was that our veterinarian would come to our house and euthanize Sandy in front of the fireplace, her favorite spot. We asked our boys if they wanted to be there and arranged for child care in case they didn't. Surprisingly, they both wanted to stay and be a part of it; and so they were. After spending the afternoon loving Sandy, giving her all her favorite things and carrying her to her favorite places in our home, the four of us sat on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace, in a circle around Sandy while the vet and his vet tech helped us to say goodbye. She died in our arms and it was the most beautiful, amazing and heart breaking thing we have ever experienced as a family. Saying goodbye to Sandy after 12 years was nearly impossible; but watching our children say goodbye to a pet they had known their whole lives crushed us.
Death is death. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. For many people, losing a pet is exactly the same as losing a human and for children, the loss of a pet is often their first experience with death. It was for my boys. It was their first family member to die and I so badly wanted to shield them from the grief but I knew that I just couldn't. Death is as much a part of life as birth and one of my jobs as a parent is to help my children understand and process all the things that surround death. Having worked in the bereavement field for many years and having experienced pet loss twice as a parent, once as a sudden loss and once as a planned loss, I have developed some important insights into how best to handle pet loss with children.
1. Remember that every child is unique.
A family friend recently lost their dog and I asked my two children for some advice for their friends. One child said "Talk about him. A lot. It helped me to remember stories and look at pictures." The other said, "Think about happy things - vacations, movies, stuff like that. Don't think about the dog. I didn't like when I thought about her." Their approaches could not be more different and both approaches are ok. Remember that no two children are the same. Siblings will likely grieve very differently. It is normal. How one child handled one pet loss may be different than how they handle another pet loss later in life. Remember that there is no cookie-cutter approach to handling loss with children. Let their individuality guide you and resist the urge to compare.
2. Be honest
If you know a pet's health is failing, be honest with your children. Children are smarter than we often give them credit for and they probably have already noticed the same signs you are noticing as your pet's health fails. There is a tendency, especially with smaller pets like fish, birds and hamsters, to lie to children and quietly replace the dead pet with a new pet. I always advise against taking this approach. For starters, your children will, at some point, find out that you lied to them, and while we lie about things like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause, lying about death is a different type of lie and can cause confusion in children later in life. Death and grief are painful but your children will encounter them in their lives. Help them face death, grief and loss head on. Look at it as an opportunity for growth rather than an impossible challenge.
3. Invite them to be part of the process
If euthanasia is being considered, let children know, in developmentally appropriate terms, what is happening in the pet's body and what the plans are for saying goodbye. Let your children know they can ask you and the vet questions (check with your vet ahead of time). Invite them to be part of the process and explain what their involvement could look like. Let them know they can back out of the process at any time and have an escape plan ready for them. While having them be part of the process may be scary for us as parents, it can actually provide children with the concrete information they need to more effectively handle the loss. It also sends them a message that they are important and their input is valued.
4. Have grief books available for them.
There are countless books available for children of all developmental stages about pet loss. Purchase books, borrow some from a friend or take home a few from your local library. Leave the books in a designated spot in your home and let your children know you are always available to read the books with them or they can take one and read it on their own. This approach gives children control and power but also sends the message that you are there to support them. Take some time to read the books first to make sure they will be appropriate for your children. A list of books can be found here.
5. Don't be quick to put everything away
We had to put Sandy's dog bed away immediately. It was too painful for all of us to look at. But, we kept her collar out. In fact, it's still out. Her ashes and collar sit on our mantle, a reminder that she was real, our love for her was big and that she was an important part of our family. We found a way to keep memories of her around without breaking our heart into a million pieces. It might be helpful for your children to leave at least a few things out to remind them of your pet. Talk with your children and get their input.
6. Consider some sort of memorial service
This tip may sound a bit hokey and cheesy. This service is not for your pet, but for your children. Formal services help us to acknowledge and share our grief. Children often need this time to openly and formally express and share their own grief and also observe the grief of others. Children can draw pictures, write out cards, put together a memory board or picture book and say a few words. Invite them to participate but let them know it is not necessary. Let them sort of drive the bus. One child may want to participate while another may not want to be involved. Both approaches are acceptable.
7. Have some quiet family time
There is a tendency to distract and keep everyone busy following a pet loss. While this is a good approach to a point, it may send the message that grieving about your pet is not normal and not allowed. It might send the message that grieving is abnormal and shameful. Some quiet time as a family should be scheduled to allow for some natural grief reactions to occur - things like movies at home, board games, quiet time for reading, etc may be quite healing for everyone. Sometimes, especially when we have active children, our lives move 100 miles an hour and time for things like grieving just slips away. Create some space and time for your children to feel and express their emotions. Bedtime also seems to be a good time for families to share some quiet moments together.
8. Remember that "mad" and "sad" do not equal "bad"
Anger and sadness are two of the most common emotions felt by children following a loss. For many children, these feelings are complex, confusing and overwhelming. As children are concrete thinkers and death is such an abstract concept, expressing their feelings with words can often be a challenge. Thus, it is common for some children to express their grief through actions and sometimes these actions can be labeled as "bad" behaviors. You may see increased acting out behaviors like siblings fighting and bickering more, teasing, negative attitudes and grumpiness. You may also see regressive behaviors such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, asking for help with things like tying shoes - things they were able to do for themselves previously. These reactions are often normal and are temporary. As children have opportunities to express and process their feelings, their behaviors will often return to normal.
9. Communicate with other adults
Depending on your child's age, they may have other important adults in their lives. Send a quick email to those important people (i.e. their teachers and their coaches) to let them know that your child just experienced a pet loss - not as an excuse for behaviors but as a heads up for the child seeming off and also as an extra set of eyes. Let your children know that you are doing so. When Sandy died, my boys were in 2nd grade and preschool. Both boys' teachers were great and pulled the boys aside privately to express their condolences and gave them an opportunity to talk about it with classmates. One did. The other didn't. The younger one did draw about it later on - sometimes during school, sometimes at home. The teacher appreciated knowing about the loss as it helped guide her discussions with him about his drawings and writings.
10. Be real
The trickiest part of all of this is that you, as a parent, are also grieving. Contrary to what many people think, it's ok to let your children see you cry. You do not need to "be strong." Rather, be real and let go of some of the pressure you put on yourself. When Sandy's remains were ready to be picked up, we were not prepared for how intense our emotional reactions would be. When we got everything home and took the urn out of the bag, I broke. Sobbed. Then, we all did. You know what? We were ok. We supported each other and my children were not scarred by seeing me cry. Rather, they had the opportunity to see me safely express my raw feelings and saw me put myself back together. Give your children a good model for grief.
For most people, many of the suggestions provided feel strange and uncomfortable. I get it. It is quite likely that my suggestions are completely opposite of what your gut may be telling you to do. So many of us have been conditioned to not openly grieve, to not talk about our feelings. Think about how we, as a society, view death and grief. We avoid them, at all costs. We provide 3 days off for bereavement and then send the message to those that have lost someone that they should hurry up and move on, get over it, find closure. I firmly believe these messages are wrong.
There is no such thing as closure. We never heal after a loss. There is still a hole in our heart and sometimes something triggers us, sending us right back into the dark depths of grief. That is normal grief. As parents, we can choose to send our children a different message about grief than the message that many of us were given. We can teach them that feeling pain and grief after a loss is normal, acceptable and healthy. We can provide opportunities for our children to express their feelings and can reassure them that grief, although at times messy, uncomfortable and frightening, is normal.
CLICK HERE to listen to The Changing Perspectives Podcast Episode; Dealing with Pet Loss.
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
The Pet Loss Support Page
The Bus Stop
It's that time of year again! The sun is setting a little earlier each day and the night air is beginning to cool. Sleeping with the windows open is becoming much more pleasant. Television series are returning to our screens. Football teams are gearing up for the season. Pumpkin flavored beer, muffins and coffee are returning to menus and shelves. But, perhaps most importantly (or at least tied with the pumpkin flavored things and football), schools are back in session. During this time of year, parents everywhere are exchanging looks equal parts relieved and overwhelmed.
Last week my family and I dashed to the bus stop, the very last ones in the neighborhood to arrive to the corner for the first day of school. Despite laying out outfits the night before, having all required paperwork signed and packed neatly in backpacks, lunches prepped, schedules reviewed and everything in order, the last 15 minutes before we left for the bus stop turned into a panicked frenzy, the likes of which are often captured in sitcoms. Tied shoes suddenly became untied. Water bottles began leaking. Dogs refused to come inside. Keys were nowhere to be found. It was chaos and madness. We rushed out of our house, 5 minutes late, quickly snapped our obligatory first day of school photos in front of our house and then headed down the street in two cars so that my husband and I could scurry to work as soon as the bus left. I'm fairly certain a cartoon-like cloud of dust surrounded us as the four of us pretty much fell out of the car and crossed the street to the bus stop, me with my lint brush in tow as I had, of course, forgotten, about the dog hair all over my black pants. In case there was any doubt, our family is a disaster in the morning and the first day of school was no exception.
As the neighborhood kids lined up for the annual bus stop photo, I was slapped in the face by reality. My oldest was THE oldest at the bus stop. He wasn't just the oldest by age or grade, he towered above the other kids and looked completely out of place. He looked like he already belonged in middle school and was lined up at the wrong bus stop. It was in that moment, as I looked around, that I realized my neighborhood bus stop has become a microcosm of childhood. It is as if every single phase of childhood is now reflected in our bus stop. Factoring in siblings, our bus stop ranges from newborn to toddler to preschooler to kindergarten and then all the way through 5th grade. It's like looking at my family's life in slow motion.
There is the newborn baby who everyone hovers over and asks the same questions about; the toddler playing in dirt and eager to dart into the traffic; the preschooler with a million questions and comments about the world; the pre-kindergartner who desperately wants to be getting on that bus this year; the kindergartner dressed in his very best khaki shorts and polo shirt who is about to the ride the "big bus" for the very first time; the first grader who feels so much more confident this year than last year and can't believe they cried their first day a year ago; the second grader who boards the bus with secure confidence - they've got this; the third grader who is now just about half way through their elementary school experience and is feeling great; the fourth grader who gets to sit near the back of the bus and now begs to wear Under Armour shirts and basketball shorts on the first day of school; and the fifth grader who is beginning to feel out of place and ready to move on. They are all there - every single stage of childhood.
But, the bus stop isn't just a snapshot of each stage of childhood, it's also a cross section of parenthood. There is the single parent managing it all on their own; the work from home parent who can only be away from her computer for so long before her boss gets mad; the parents who work opposing schedules and are handing off child care responsibilities in the morning; the stay at home parents who are somewhat grateful for one less child to entertain that day and the new-to-the-neighborhood parents who don't know anyone. They are all there too!
If I were to hit "pause" in that moment, I could see myself, my husband and our children reflected in almost every family and every child. We've been there. We remember the sleepless nights, the non-stop chasing of the toddlers, the expert way a 3 year old can make their body go limp when a parent tries to pick them up, the blood curdling screams that a 4 year old can make during a tantrum, the nervous fear of a shy 5 year old getting on the bus for the first time, the battles over independence that happen when children begin choosing their own outfits for school. We've lived those moments. Looking back on each of those stages, I remember feeling as though those moments, those really hard moments, lasted forever. They dragged by slowly. Yet, standing at that bus stop last week, I remembered that someone recently told me "the days go by so slowly but the years go by too fast." Yes! In each of those challenging moments, the moments where our inner dialogue sounded something like "I suck at this" or "I'm the worst parent" or "I can't do this anymore" or "What am I doing wrong?" time felt like it was moving too slowly. Yet, there I stood, with my 5th and 2nd graders, thinking that all of those years had flown by too fast. Where did the time go?
As I drove to work just a few minutes later, I reflected on our morning - from the chaos of getting out of the house to the few minutes at the bus stop with everyone else. Perhaps on some level my family wasn't ready to officially say goodbye to what had been one of our best summers. Perhaps we were nervous about what this school year would bring. Perhaps I wasn't the only one who had come to realize that this morning would be our last "first day" all together at a bus stop. Next year my oldest will be off to middle school and my boys won't ride the bus together again until my oldest's final year of high school - 7 years from now.
Maybe we were trying to force time to slow down a little bit. Maybe we all were feeling a bit like the years are moving by too fast.
In just a few days fall sports officially kick off, homework assignments will start to be sent home in my children's folders, my teaching semester begins, and the leaves will prepare to change from green to the colors of fall. In the blink of an eye, winter will be upon us and 2016 will soon be behind us. Before we know it, we'll all be standing back at the very same bus stop, this time on the last day of school and, once again, it will sink in that the years are moving too fast.
While I haven't figured out how to make time slow down or how to really live in the moment, I know I need to try to focus more on the here and now. I need to appreciate the small stuff. I want to find a way to enjoy the chaos of our morning routine and pause for just a beat each day before my kids transition into their school day to be thankful for these moments. Even when the moments are crazy, test every ounce of my patience and make me feel unhinged, they are still my moments and these crazy moments that fill so many of our days as parents will soon be gone. One morning we will wake up and no longer need to go to that bus stop at the corner. One day, sooner than we think, the bus stop will no longer be our bus stop.
"Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life." - Omar Khayyam
Parenting is one of life's greatest challenges and greatest rewards. Here we explore all aspects of parenting from pregnancy onward, highlighting both the struggles and the triumphs.