High School. Enough Said.

High school:  Does it ever just go away?

High school: Does it ever go away?

Everyone remembers the pain, the glory, the sheer intensity of their high school years.  But does it ever recede into memory, or are it’s effects more permanent?  In her spellbinding recent article in New York magazine called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School,”  Jennifer Senior makes the case that, despite your longing to forget those angst-filled years, high school really does last forever.  Ah, shit.

Last night, while hanging out with friends in the ‘burbs, more than one of us commented on the other-worldliness of our current life situations.  Those mortgage payments are ours?  Those cars?  Those husbands?  Even though some of us have burgeoning middle schoolers, the thought that we are actually responsible for other humans occasionally comes as a shock.  It’s like that Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime“:  And you may ask yourself…  Well, how did I get here?  You didn’t form these ideas, of who you would be in the world, in childhood.  You formed them in adolescence.  Mostly during high school.  Right or wrong, it’s the barometer of your sense of self.

Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, tells us that there is a maelstrom that occurs during our teenage years.  As it strikes, we form our identity and conceptualize who we are.  This is when you start trying to figure things out on your own instead of relying on your parents.  It’s when you begin to think abstractly and form your own opinions.  It’s when you begin to learn how to control your impulses (spending, sex, staying up all night).  It’s when you are developing an internal mirror:  being able to reflect on your behavior.  However, note the words “begin, start and develop.”  The pre-frontal cortex is not fully formed until your early twenties.  Which is why you, me and everyone else in high school, were complete idiots.   Probably not the best time to figure out who you are.

We are also told by Dr. Steinberg and Brene Brown PhD, that a complex cocktail of dopamine (swirling around in large amounts to make feel things more intensely), sex hormones and shame combine to add further injury to an already perilous time.  Vision, hearing and the other senses?  Fully onboard in adolescence.  Executive function and emotional regulation?  Not so much.  As a result, lots of us develop coping mechanisms to get us through the flurry of emotion surrounding us.  These strategies often stay with us on into adulthood:  gossiping, keeping secrets, people pleasing and becoming the class clown.  Sound familiar?

A recent Pew Research study found that 22% of Facebook friends are from high school.  Kinda makes you not want to go to your high school reunion.  After all, you already know the football team’s star quarterback is bald, the prom queen’s been divorced five times and your “best friend” posts photos smoking pot with her 14 year old daughter.  Why pay for a dress and bore your husband with an evening among people who are barely “friend”-worthy on Facebook?  Meanwhile, the kid who got his face pushed into the locker on a daily basis made a billion with an internet start-up.  Clearly, your assumptions in high school were at best inaccurate and at worst, embarrassingly wrong.

And now that you drive a car that doesn’t break down every other day, go home to a house of kids (and not a too small apartment with too many roommates) and have a significant other that doesn’t resemble a pile of neediness, now, yes now, is when your child enters high school.  And that is precisely when it starts all over again.  In Senior’s article, she advises that as parents, we “re-experience” the horrors, and perhaps joys, of high school all over again.  When our kids go through what we went through, it’s as though it’s happening to us.  Again.  Shit.

So, suburbanites, let’s make a plan, okay?  When those painful moments come up, the breakups, the frenemies, the turf wars, the stereotypes; let’s remind them and ourselves that their bodies are still growing and changing.  Their brains have yet to form the last wrinkles and creases of a fully formed cortex.  Things right now feel really bad for a reason, there is in fact a neurochemical basis for their powerful feelings.  Let’s tell them we don’t expect them to make decisions like an adult yet, and that we are here to help.  We will tell them stories of what we went through, but not too many, to their cringing faces but still open minds.  We won’t label them at a time in their lives when they are most susceptible to becoming what they hear.  When needed, we will call them out.  By letting them know that being vulnerable is a universal human emotion, maybe they will feel community even as they hurt.  As we tell their rolling eyes that they are worthy and lovable, we have to believe that we are getting in somehow.  We have science that tells us definitively that teenagers have a highly distorted view of their social world, and we should tell them that.  Carefully.

They will tell us we are full of shit, but we will do it anyway.  Because we know better.  We are the grown-ups.

In the meantime, I will be celebrating my friend Sharron’s 40th birthday.  The theme?  “Prom of Your Life.”  This time, there will be no weeks of starving before putting on the dress.  No crying on the tile floor of the high school bathroom.  No drinking California Coolers til your vomit turns raspberry red.  No waiting to be asked.  This time, it’s going to be fun.

I know, HOT.

I know, HOT.

Cute photo on top courtesy of Barbara Paulsen, Mt. Hood Mama photos.  Not so cute photo, yours truly.

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Conversation #3: Extra Special Extrovert

I spent an absolutely delightful afternoon with my friend Michelle at Pine State Biscuits last Monday.  It was sunny outside, a welcome change, so we took advantage by sitting outside in the sun.  Michelle is technically not a suburban mom, she lives in the city limits, but her upbringing was solidly suburban and she fits in well with suburbo-types.  Michelle is a “work friend,” she is an occupational therapist (like me) and we work together at a local clinic.   As a new hire last year, Michelle was the first OT I met and we worked together pretty intensely covering a maternity leave for another OT.  I instantly felt a connection to her, and you would too.  Trust me.  She is one captivating gal.

Michelle has a wide-eyed, curious, outspoken and open-armed view of the world.  She has a huge smile and you feel completely unjudged, listened to and giddy when you are around her.  The best word I can use to describe her is twinkly.  She is just that nice to be around.  Don’t get me wrong though, she has her opinions.  She is resistant to pigeon holing because she is a dichotomy in a few ways.  Michelle worries about underserved kids and families, but is also a cute dresser with a flair for color and finer textiles.  She is patient, calm and easy with the kids we work with, but will raise her voice when it comes to things she finds an outrage.  She is the parent of three Waldorf educated boys, shuns technology and enjoys the creative process.  However, she has high standards for her crafts.  No crap crafts, please.  Michelle believes in healing and the ancient practices of Qigong and yoga.  She is a certified cranio-sacral practitioner (and a few more certifications that are less known to readers) but the glory of a walk outside is also a direct route to curing what ails you.  She sits in the front row at her church so her boys are well behaved while in attendance.  Despite the stereotypes of churchgoers, Michelle is liberal and open minded and she has no tolerance for things which block the path to happiness, yours or her own.

“Most people would probably say I’m a good mom,” is what Michelle says when asked what is the most frequent compliment she receives.  That’s an understatement.  I personally feel empowered by Michelle’s parenting style which steadfastly upholds her ideals.  Those ideals would be togetherness, fun, firmness, free thinking and good old fashioned values.  She has an uncanny ability to not get sucked into peer pressure.  Talking about a friend who starts worrying about summer camps in January, Michelle says she shuts it down.  Her first priority is family time, not scheduling, worrying, list making and competing.  She says she can’t be bothered by that stuff, it’s a drain on her and all the things she would like to do with her family.  Michelle travels back to childhood home in New York at least a few times a year.  This is incredible to me, a native East Coaster.  Three kids and mom and dad making the cross country trek so frequently?   But when Michelle describes her family, I see why it’s so important to her.  While her siblings are all very different, their mom was the guiding force- always telling them that they could do anything and giving them powerful messages of self ability every step of the way.  Family is the center, and that is that.

Friendships are also a high priority for Michelle.  She gravitates toward others who feel the same way about family and together time.  Michelle is a self professed extrovert.  When I was younger, I probably could not have been friends with Michelle.  Her ability to completely pay attention to me, eyes never failing to connect, ideas always supported and firmly entrenched in an underlying confidence: this would have been unnerving to me.  It would have scared me and made me uncomfortable and nervous.  But now I welcome her strength because I think it strengthens me.  It motivates me to be a better parent, friend and less wishy-washy.  She understands that community begins with family and extends to friendships and neighbors and her loyalty is a result of that.  She craves relationships with other like minded people, like school moms or neighbors.  She feels drawn to others by something not quite known, but trusts her ability to recognize a friend.  She is practical too, instinctively knowing it’s harder to be friends with people whose kids are different ages.  Michelle and I are drawn together by the similarities in our husbands and how they think alike, in a very pragmatic way.  We also bond over our the fact that we are most definitely not techno-savvy. When it comes to gossip (topic of an upcoming post), Michelle enjoys a bit of it now and then but knows where to draw the line.  She stops if it comes down to saying something that you wouldn’t say directly to the person.  And she would.  Believe me.

In 10 years, when two of the three boys will be out of the house, she sees herself as being the same in many ways.  But she would definitely like to travel more with her husband, something she loves but has largely let go of in order to raise her family.  Michelle will no doubt be the same anchor for her children that her own family in New York continues to be for her.  She will be the same protective, loving and compassionate person she is, but with more time to sew and create.  She will be the same person with the same “can do” attitude.  I love that the next work day after I interviewed her, she came in and said, “I keep thinking of things I should have said when you asked me things!”  She is compelled to get it right.  Just by virtue of knowing her, so are you.  In 10 years, I am sure that Michelle will be sending home made care packages to her sons, continuing to frequently visit family members, traveling, voicing her opinion (loudly), struggling with technology, working a pop of color in her outfits, giggling, and in general making the world a better place.  I only hope I am still her friend to see it all.

Thanks Michelle!  Biscuits and tea are awesome.

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Peer Pressure: Not Just for Teenagers Anymore!

After doing a Google search for “peer pressure,”  I found mostly articles about teenagers, advice from parents to teenagers, tweens and the like.  What about us suburbo-types?  Peer pressure really is about comparison:  comparing ourselves to others, then freqently finding ourselves coming up short.  When we do this, our “monkey brain” (as my occupational therapy colleague calls it) takes over.  Monkey brain is assuming the negative, jumping straight to conclusions without intermediate steps.  Take this morning at yoga…

I took my usual 8am yoga Saturday class, and there were announcements that the 10am class was full after the sign-up had been filled to capacity (so you know, there is not usually a pre-sign up for class, nor is it usually completely filled).  I wondered what was going on, and I read a posting in the locker room that said there was a postural clinic available with this class.  I went straight to monkey brain… Why didn’t I know about this, I’m here at least three times a week?  Who was invited?  Why wasn’t I?  What am I missing?  They must not like me.  Why don’t they like me? Then I saw a huge stream of other yogi’s I know coming in the door.  This only intensified the monkey in my brain.  I heard that chimp screeching and jumping up and down and going into full-on histrionics.  What the hell is going on and why am I not a part of it??!!  All Zen obtained during class:  out the fucking window.

Or you may be familiar with the peer pressure from these little snippets overheard in suburbia:

“Both my kids are taking piano lessons at home.  We just really believe music should be introduced early in their lives.  Do you want the teacher’s number?”

You:  (okay, me):  My kids aren’t taking piano.  Should they be taking piano?  Are they already behind?

“Where are your kids going to (preschool, middle school, gymnastics lessons etc.)?”

You:  I haven’t even thought about this yet!  What’s wrong with me!  I have really screwed up now. 

“My last (massage, botox, facial, laser whatever) was amazing!  I feel so good!”

You:  Shit!  I look old.  That’s why they’re telling me this.  I gotta book an appointment.  Wait, I don’t have any money.  Shit!

To avoid monkey brain and the comforting assertion that we actually have some control over what happens in our lives, we attempt to straighten the fuzzy edges and smooth the wrinkly corners.   In other words, we want to be the most perfect we can be, and mistakenly think others are living the perfect life that is as yet just one treatment, class or dollar out of our reach.  Brene Brown PhD, a researcher at the University of Houston, suggests that by trying to straighten the blurry line, we are keeping meaning from our lives.  We are numbing ourselves from the discomfort of unpredictability.  She says we attempt to make the uncertain, certain.  This is obvious in the unbelievably toxic political discourse in our country:  I am right and you are wrong.  Period.  The End.  From this vantage point, how is a relevant conversation supposed to happen?  No wonder I get all sweaty if someone brings up politics in book club or while we are waiting for our kids to get out of school.  The idea of trying to get someone to your side is exhausting and potentially relationship ending.  Ick.

Brown also believes we numb ourselves of our lack of control by perfecting ourselves, or worse, our children.  For ourselves, we go in for a “mommy makeover.”  Okay, don’t even get me started on the mommy makeover terminology because I find it deplorable.  Why do we need plastic surgery simply because we are mommies?  Hey if you want plastic surgery, go right ahead but don’t suggest it’s what I deserve because I stretched my body to accommodate a baby.  That was part of the deal for me, and as far as I’m concerned it was well worth it.   As for our children, we save them far too often from struggle.  I catch myself doing this as well.  It’s not easy to see your child flail and contort against pain and conflict, but it’s how they learn.  It’s our job as parents to lovingly inform our children that life is full of challenges, and that they are worthy of the love and guidance it takes to face them.

Lastly, Brown states that we do a good amount of pretending in order to protect us from uncertainty.  We think that what we do does not affect other people.  That if we put up walls and tuck ourselves away, we are in some way protecting ourselves from the big bad outside world, and from all the pressures that weigh on us.  Actually, what we do has a huge effect on the community at large.  In light of all this, let’s kick this baby into gear and figure out how to live a “whole-hearted” (Brown’s term) life.  This means living without shame, not being afraid to be flawed and releasing pre-conceived notions about what you or your children should be.  She suggests we do the following:

1.  Show up.  Let yourself be seen.  Be vulnerable and open to not being perfect.  You can compare yourself to others if you want, just be aware you may stumble and fall.  Isn’t it comforting to know that even if you screw up, that will lend itself to making you feel like a more authentic you?  That your failures and missteps are in fact badges of honor?  Think about the last insprirational book you read or movie you saw.  Was it about someone who got everything they wanted and was a master of everything?  I know you, you are way more complex than that.  Even Rocky got his ass kicked.

2.  Love with your whole heart.  Open yourself to new experiences and people.  Stop thinking you have to hold back.  Your brain becomes stronger each time you do something new.  More neurons not only fire but are created.  Think of it as your defense against Alzheimers. (Okay, I don’t know if that’s totally true.)  I remember being told in occupational therapy school that you shouldn’t get too attached to your patients, that you shouldn’t cross boundaries and always maintain professionalism.   All very valid points.  But I can’t help telling my little kiddos at work that I love them and give them hugs and kisses.  They’re just so beautiful, I can’t help it!

3.  Practice gratitude and joy.  There are great ideas for these everywhere.  Create a “no technology” day where you just spend time together outside.  For Christmas this year, we did a gratitude chain.  We shared things we were grateful for at the end of every day.  It got long enough to hang all the way around the Christmas tree a couple times.  Do your scrapbook, make a quilt, take the dog for a walk; whatever makes you smile.  Email me ideas, I’d love to hear them.

4.  Believe you are enough.  Because you are.

Peer pressure is partly our brain’s way to try and win the race and conform to groupthink.  But it doesn’t have to be.  It’s nice to know that there are ways to overcome monkey brain and the seething judgment it inflicts on both ourselves and other people.  Imagine the lessons it will teach you and your children.

Now if only I knew what was going on at that fucking yoga studio…