When all the things feel like big things

When all the things feel like big things

If you read my last blog post about visiting colleges, you might have gotten the impression that I have been winning at parenting. In fact, I even felt that way for about 2.5 minutes.

Then, I woke up Tuesday morning.

I suddenly remembered that prom was on Saturday.

I mean, I knew it was Saturday. I have been carefully monitoring the weather everyday to plan out my son’s prom photo shoot. I’ve been asking him about the color of his date’s dress. And I’ve been thinking about poses for the photos.

But somehow, in the midst of all of that, I realized that I completely forgot to get him something to wear. I’m not kidding. Prom is literally five days away, and we had not rented a tux.

Later that afternoon, I suddenly remembered that I had not filed our taxes. Thankfully, Tax Day was April 17 this year, rather than April 15, because I had completed our tax return, but never clicked the button to file.

A few hours later, I was giving my daughter a ride to her tumbling class, and she mentioned that she only has a few weeks left of junior high. What?!? How did I forget that my daughter is GRADUATING FROM EIGHTH GRADE?!?

This has been the escalation of my life lately. As the mom of four kids who tries to juggle a busy work life with coordinating everyone’s schedule, I’ve always had a lot to keep track of. But these days, I feel like most of the things I’m assigned to remember are significant.

My mental to do list is filled with things like:

  • Don’t forget to apply for college.
  • Research college scholarship opportunities.
  • Apply for financial aid.
  • Pay fees for second born to play on the high school baseball team.
  • Sign up for the 8th grade trip to Springfield.
  • Get daughter a dress for the 8th grade formal.
  • Make sure your daughter doesn’t miss try-outs for high school cheer.
  • Go to high school athletic night.

I can no longer afford to forget any of the things. It’s not like back in the days when I would let my child wear the same outfit several days in a row or mess up the carpooling schedule or miss T-ball practice. These days, all of the things feel like they have major consequences if I screw them up.

And it’s not just the to-do list. It’s all of the conversations. The issues that can’t be avoided. All of the things we need to discuss feel big and important.

Have I talked to them enough about drugs, alcohol and vaping?

Do I need to check in with a discussion about cutting and other forms of self-destructive behavior?

Then there’s high school dating, which brings up a ton of opportunities for conversations that can’t be avoided.

Not to even mention their spiritual lives. Is it even possible to properly explain God’s grace and love for them? Have I done all I can to help them understand the things that really matter?

In the end, you know you can’t monitor their every move anymore. Once they can drive, you can make rules and set standards for your home. You can ask them to keep doors open and lights on. But the reality is that even watching the path of their vehicle on the Life 360 app doesn’t give you any control over their decisions. You have the big conversations and pray that they will use what they’ve learned to make good choices.

The hardest part is that you do most of this kind of parenting in relative isolation. You no longer get to have play dates where you can trade ideas about getting your baby to sleep or funny stories about new words they’ve learned. You don’t get to post your teen parenting struggles on social media or seek advice. The moms in this stage of life are uniformly quiet, but you know how they feel when Facebook asks them, “What’s on your mind?”

It’s big stuff. That’s what. The challenges they face and the battles they fight on a daily basis go way beyond a social media post and you wouldn’t want to embarrass your kids by posting them anyway.

Then, you have those days when you have to face the woman at the prom shop and humbly try to explain how it’s even possible that you completely forgot to order a tux for the dance that’s five days away.

“Just so you know,” she kindly explains. “If your son goes to prom next year, you probably want to order his tux about a month before.”

You feel like you need a character reference to vouch for the fact that you are normally an organized person. This woman standing here begging for a tuxedo isn’t actually someone you even recognize.

Somehow, in the midst of the regular things — like trying to figure out what to have for dinner, the excitement of your son’s baseball game, checking the volunteer schedule for second grade and juggling a ton of work projects — mixed with the bigger things — like researching colleges and getting your third child ready for high school — you simply forgot that boys have to wear nice clothes to the high school prom.

**

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When your mom gets overly excited about the college visits

When your mom gets overly excited about the college visits

During the last few weeks, my oldest son and I have been visiting colleges. At first, I was scared to death to start this process. I gave myself a deadline of January of his junior year to start making appointments. I pushed our start date back to February, and finally started scheduling them in March.

We’ve visited five colleges so far, ranging from a large state school with a student body of 40,000 to a small private school with 1,200 students. Since we know for sure that our son wants to study film, it has helped narrow down the list significantly. At this point, he doesn’t want to move to California, and there aren’t a ton of schools in the midwest with a great film program. Of those that do have a film major, it’s often focused more on broadcast journalism, rather than creative film making, which is his passion.

We were both pretty nervous heading into our first college visit. We spent our two-hour car ride talking about what college life would be like and the pros and cons of a big school versus a smaller one. But by the time we visited our fifth university on Friday, we both felt like we were experts at visiting colleges. We have a much better idea what we are looking for and know what questions to ask.

In fact, it’s possible that one of us might go a little overboard on asking questions during these visits. Many of the film departments are part of a communications program. And when your mom has spent most of her career working in communications, she can get a little overly enthusiastic probing innocent college professors and department heads about their programs.

Our second college visit was to a smaller private school where the head of the communications department spent an hour and a half with us one-on-one. A few days earlier, we had gone on a tour with hundreds of other prospective students at a much larger school, so we couldn’t believe that we were getting such personalized attention. At one point during our interview… um, I mean… conversation… the professor remarked that he felt kind of bad that I had stumped him three times with my questions. Oops!

We like to describe our fourth college visit as a cozy campground. We loved this small Christian college set in a quaint wooded area in the western suburbs. We arrived a few minutes late to the opening presentation, just as some guy was telling all of the prospective students to put his cell phone number in their phone and call or text him with any questions. Andrew followed instructions, labeling the contact as “Mr. UniversityName.”

We learned a little later that the guy up front was actually the president of the university! Later in the day, the parents had a private lunch while the students ate together in the cafeteria. Just by chance, Mr. UniversityName came and sat down right by me for lunch! (You can probably guess where this is going.)

We had a great talk at lunch during which I had the unique chance to ask him some very specific questions about their film program and plans for the future. He was super helpful in guiding me through their thought process and whether the school would be a good fit for our son. And I promise, I did let the other parents ask questions, as well.

I decided to take him up on his earlier invitation to send him a text message at the end of the day. He connected with me on LinkedIn, and then through a few other exchanges over e-mail, he ended up inviting me to be a guest speaker in one of his classes. 🙂

Thankfully, my son has not given up on going to college visits with his mom, who now seems to see these as much as networking opportunities for her as college visits for him.

We visited our fifth college on Friday, and I think I made some big improvements in not asking too many questions or texting any college presidents. In fact, we sat by ourselves at both breakfast and lunch, and we were a little disappointed that no one from the school even came by to say, “Hi.”

We attended a class in which a group of students was giving a presentation on the history of the Internet. They boringly recited the timeline of the Internet, which I didn’t even realize was invented the same year I was born. Their presentation felt more like a timeline of significant events in my life, rather than an explanation of something that happened long ago before the students were born. I resisted the urge to raise my hand during the Q and A session to quiz them on net neutrality, the deep web or their views on government regulation of the Internet.

Finally, we went to an open house in which the head of the film department gave a presentation on their mission, classes and opportunities. She was going through a slide show, pointing out students who have gone on to find careers in film. In one slide, she was telling us about the opportunity for students to spend a semester in Hollywood. She showed us a photo of the guy who organizes the program, and casually mentioned that his name is Andrew Neil. My son’s name is Andrew Neal.

“Wait? What?” I asked. There were only two other students in the presentation so she knew everyone’s name. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “His name really is Andrew Neil.”

It was a freakish moment in which I was trying to decide if this was a sign from God or just an odd coincidence. Or maybe it was just a reminder for a crazy mom about who the college visits are really for. 🙂

Anyway, that will go down as one of the many funny memories that we’ve had the last few weeks traveling all over the place visiting colleges together. I can’t say that I’m ready to let my baby go off to college. But we are getting one step closer to tackling what feels like the most daunting challenge we have faced so far as parents. And instead of it feeling super scary, I’m starting to get excited for him about what lies ahead!

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“But you don’t look sick…”

“But you don’t look sick…”

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a fellow autoimmune disease warrior. She was explaining to me a physical symptom that she has been experiencing the past few weeks, which causes her entire body to itch. She pushed up the sleeve on her cute top to reveal pink welts forming around her elbow.

The more we talked about it, the more uncomfortable the itching became. She couldn’t stop rubbing her arm. I noticed that the welts were changing from a dull pink to a brighter red. I couldn’t believe that even as we talked about everyday topics, my beautiful, out-going, kind friend was being silently tortured by her body’s never-ending reaction to the environment.

I knew better than to say the words we’ve both heard so many times.

“But you don’t look sick!”

I’m guessing that most people who carry a chronic illness have mastered the art of not looking sick. I try hard to smile and laugh even when I’m secretly dealing with major digestive woes, painful heartburn, joint pain, fatigue or a foggy brain. This week, I’ve been dealing with the symptoms that I dread the most and the ones that are the most difficult to admit: anxiety and depression.

I know how important it is for me to keep my life in balance so I can be as healthy as possible. This means eating clean, getting plenty of rest and managing my stress level. I feel like my body is now fragile. Even a minor disruption can push me into an unhealthy place.

The past six weeks or so, I’ve let my stress get out of control and with that, I haven’t been sleeping well. I knew that Sunday would be the first chance for me to play catch up, and I guess my body also knew that was when it would be OK to crash.

I slept almost the entire day. During the few hours that I was awake, I binged on Netflix, unable to work up the motivation to even clean up the dishes or cook a meal. At one point, I decided it was time to get out of bed, and I know that doing something creative always helps me when I’m down. I imported my photos from the baby shower and edited them. I posted them on Facebook, and then regretted it a few hours later and deleted them. I felt like such a fraud making my life look so perfect.

Monday morning came and our backyard was covered in several inches of snow. Even by Chicago standards, that much snow in the middle of April felt like a smack in the face. Still, it was a fitting portrait of the heaviness that was settling over me. I struggled with the darkness that covered me like a heavy blanket. My anxiety was spinning out of control, reminding me of all of my failures in life.

“Why do you even try?” the anxiety whispers. “You’ve screwed up as a parent. You suck at your job. No one cares about you.”

Thankfully, I’ve been in and out of this state enough now to be able to recognize what it is.

I tried reaching out to a few friends with a text message. I know that thinking of others can pull me out of the darkness.

I debated whether to talk to my husband about it. It would be easier not to make him worry. I know how to pretend I’m all good for the few hours that he’s home in the evening before bedtime. I know how to not look sick.

It’s embarrassing to admit the truth, but I matter-of-factly explained what was going on.

“My anxiety is going crazy today. I’ve been too depressed to do more than what was absolutely necessary.”

I thought about searching the Internet for some herbal tea remedy or a magic fruit that might give some relief. Instead, I knew that this was as much a spiritual battle as a physical one. I prayed and asked God to lift the darkness.

By Tuesday morning, I could feel my hope returning. The snow had melted. The sun was shining. I ran an errand to get something that was just for me.

Today, I’ve given myself permission to ignore the house and not start a to-do list. I’m taking some time off work this week, so I had planned to organize my house. Instead, I took a nap at 9 a.m. (NOT KIDDING!) and then went for a long walk to soak up some Vitamin D and long overdue warmer temps.

I’m thankful today for my bouts with anxiety and depression. I know that some people get buried much deeper than I do and for far longer.

A friend of mine reached out today and shared his own struggle with anxiety. There was something so comforting about knowing that I’m not alone. He reminded me that God is in control of the details and I don’t need to worry about begin good enough. It was helpful for someone else to give me permission to stay in bed, to rest or do whatever I needed to do to deal with it. I was thankful not to hear those words:

“But you don’t look sick!”

Maybe we all carry an unseen weight that’s hard to admit. Maybe we’re all covering up our own form of endless itching, digestive issues or anxiety, even when everyone around us looks so happy and healthy. It feels way too vulnerable to even push the “publish” button on this today, but it helped to write it… And maybe someone else needs to know they aren’t alone.

 

 

 

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A shower made for a storybook

A shower made for a storybook

Do you have a favorite children’s book?

You know… that one you can recite from memory because you’ve read it so many times?

On Saturday morning, I hopped out of bed early with storybooks on my mind. I sorted through our shelves of books, pulling out all of the ones that were classics. I had teamed up with two of my friends, Jami and Sarah, to host a baby shower for our friend, Lindsay.

 

We had found tons of ideas for a storybook themed shower on Pinterest. Jami had planned out all of our themed foods, like a Hungry Caterpillar fruit salad, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs meatballs and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie cookie tray.

I designed and cut out banners with characters from classic children’s stories. And Sarah planned out some cute decorating touches…

 

But we needed just one thing more for our decor… books!

I set up children’s books all around the living room, entry and kitchen. When my kids saw them, they immediately sat down and started reading them to each other. I was amazed at what a flood of memories washed over me just looking through those books and hearing them read the words again.

Now that they are 17, 15, 13 and 8, and can read on their own, we don’t spend much time reading books together. But the words came right back, and I could recite many of them by heart.

My favorites:

  • Dinosaur Roar
  • Are You My Mother?
  • The Bear Snored On
  • Put Me in the Zoo

Oh, how I cherish those days of little kids snuggled up in my lap reading books together!

Anyway… Here are a few other details from the shower, which was SO fun to put together. I had been working super hard the month before to get ready for Easter at our church. (When you work for a church, Easter is pretty much the biggest day of the year!)

My husband saw me cutting and pasting together the banners and other decorations, and remarked at how happy I looked. There’s nothing like doing something creative to help me relax after a long few weeks! Somewhere in my secret dreamworld life, I imagine myself spending my days as a professional birthday party planner. (Is there such a thing?!?) I wonder if I would get bored designing and cutting out decorations for parties all day long.

Anywho…

I was in charge of creating the invitation for the shower. After searching the Internet for ideas, I came up with this one… an invitation designed to fold out like a little book. I Photoshopped characters from classic stories to create this simple, but cute invitation.

Jami did an amazing job planning out our spread of children’s book-themed food!

I used my Silhouette to print and cut the banners and signs for the food. Since I had already found a lot of storybook characters to create the invitations, it was easy to put together the other signs. I used the “registration” feature on my Silhouette to first print the characters on shiny cardstock, then cut out the circles on my Silhouette.

 

Sarah created this adorable wreath, using small books and stuffed animals she found in the $1 aisle at Target.

She added lots of other tassels and finishing touches…

We simply printed out one more themed cover for these little clipboard notebooks that we gave as party favors…

And then we added more books and quotes to finish off the decorating…

For our party games, we created a sheet with lines from classic children’s books and the guests had to guess which book they were from.

And then, we played the game, “Guess what’s in the diaper?” I loaded diapers with an assortment of candy, fruit and other foods, like melted cheese, mashed up Fig Newtons and my favorite, guacamole! I think this photo says it all!

As always, planning the party was almost as much fun as the party itself. But I especially loved my little stroll down memory lane through the pages of all of those books.

**

So what about you? What’s your favorite children’s book?

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Ten years of making movies at the age of 17

Ten years of making movies at the age of 17

Our oldest son was 7 years old when he was infected with the film-making bug.

He recruited his younger brother and sister as actors, and asked me to shoot them making a movie. I’m sure it’s something that kids in lots of homes have done at that age.  I showed him some basic editing skills in iMovie, added sound effects and some special effects, and he had his first movie, “Dr. Cortex’s Magic Plan.”

It was a crazy screen play that involved inspiration from Narnia, a plan to destroy the world and lots of random costumes.

For the next few years, I served as my son’s video editor and producer as he came up with script ideas, recruited actors and begged me to point the camera in his direction.

By the time he was in fifth grade, his grandparents had given him a flip camera so he could shoot his movies without having to wait for his mom to fit it into her schedule. Any kid that has been a friend of Andrew’s over the last decade has been recruited at some point to become an actor in one of his films.

At age 10, he filmed his first series, “Old Grandpa.” Then, he and his brother created the characters, “CJ Watermelon and Bub Franklin.” Many of his projects have involved some kind of music video element, starting with “Turkey in the Straw”, our first attempt at using a green screen when he was about 9, and my all-time favorite, “Thanks, Mom.”

Over the years, my role has diminished from movie editor to editing consultant to the person who asks my son for editing advice. We both started with iMovie, then graduated to Final Cut Pro. The summer after fifth grade, he invited groups of friends to come over, assigned them roles, filmed their movies and then conducted a class to show them how to use iMovie. A few summers ago, he mowed lawns weekly, then spent all of his savings on special effects packages.

In the past ten years, this kid has created 76 movie projects of his own. Not bad for someone who is 17.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I sit and watch his latest short film being played on a screen at the local high school as part of the annual Film Fest. These moments are the compilations of years of investing in a child’s interests, offering advice and supporting every new idea and endeavor. I think about all of the times he’s come running in the door, exclaiming, “Mom! I have an idea for a movie!” It’s been amazing to see a kid so passionate about something, and then invest so much time and energy into pursuing what he loves.

Sometimes, he has irritated people with his style of using cinematography to create a film that looks deadly serious, only to find out he was being sarcastic the whole time, as in the short film devoted to a man’s obsession with “Pudding” or the guy who wouldn’t die in his western “Bulletproof.” There’s no hiding the humor in his series devoted to making fun of his crazy younger brother in the series, “Day in the Life of Matt” or his take on “The Office,” played out in his own series, “Picnic.”

He doesn’t shy away from talking about his faith in projects like this one. He has created public service announcements for his school and event advertisements for his church youth group.

He was so blessed his sophomore year of high school to get to take two broadcast journalism classes with a teacher who really invested in his interest. This teacher started a Film Fest at the school to give students a format to display their creative work. He learned a lot from his entry last year, which ended up taking second place.

This year, Andrew asked two friends he met from participating in school plays to be the actors in his short film. His actors are hilarious, and he had so much fun working with them on his entry, which had to fall into the theme of “friendship.”

Both years of the film fest, another student has walked away with first place. Although the students are heavily judged by professionals in the industry on the writing of their screen play and plot development, the other student has taken her script from the Internet both years. The organizers of the event have given her permission to submit a film that isn’t an original work, but we are hoping that at some point, they will consider creating a separate category for films that weren’t actually written by the students.

Anyway, that disparity has taken some of the joy out of the Film Fest competition. It’s probably hard to imagine how much time and energy go into creating a story, filming it, working with actors and then all of the editing and production. We can rest in the way Andrew handles himself with so much dignity and humility. We’ve encouraged our son to learn from the judge’s comments and enjoy the reaction of a room full of people, laughing along with his original work.

These days, I often find myself in a bit of a role reversal from back in the days of Dr. Cortex, Old Grandpa and CJ Watermelon. I’m always in need of video producers to help me create content at my job, and often end up begging my son to work one of my projects into his schedule.

As he wraps up his junior year of high school and we visit colleges this spring, we are starting to really figure out what it could look like to help our child turn a lifelong passion into a college major or a career. I think I just needed to take a few moments to look back at how far he’s come over the last 10 years. The Film Fest wrapped up a stressful week that also included four days of high school baseball tryouts for our other son, who is a freshman. (Hopefully, I’ll write about that soon, too!… He made it!!!)

Thank you to everyone who has shared in this journey with us, and thanks for reading! Leave me a comment to say, “hello!”

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