“We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.”
― Ken Levine
So two of the blended teenagers cleaned up nicely, found wonderful dates, donned their best duds, and attended the junior/senior prom at their new school last weekend. Too expensive dresses and flowers, oversized limos, lots of friends and family, big smiles that seemed genuine, and too many pictures marked the event. The high heels and rented shoes that made walking a challenge were later discarded on the dance floor, while the certainly not functional must-wear dresses and tuxes the kids (and parents) worked weeks to afford were soon treated like sweatpants, but they returned with big smiles and lifetime memories, sleeping most of the next day. They even posed for a photo together for us, certainly not something they would choose do on their own!
The smiles on the two harried parents who ushered the kids off to the promenade and burgeoning independence and adulthood were genuine, too. Not necessarily of happiness, although that was certainly a large component of it. The biggest reason for our smiles, though, was relief.
The hardest part of parenting – by far – is decision-making. Parents have to tow the line between discipline and independence, allowing their children enough room to make mistakes, but not mistakes big enough to affect the rest of their lives. We have to choose between our dreams and desires and the needs and wants of our children, between their safety and strangulation from boredom. There are no formulas to follow, every child and situation is different every time, and the world changes so fast now that there often isn’t precedent and wisdom to fall back upon.
It is even harder to make the difficult decisions as a single parent. I found this out immediately, and in the hardest way possible, as my wife literally lay dying, and I had to decide whether my nine- and twelve-year old boys should be there with their mother or not through the hardest of all journeys. It was the rudest welcoming to single parenting imaginable, it struck abject terror into my heart, and left me trembling and questioning how I could ever do it.
Fast-forward a few years, and a strong beautiful angel who knew a few things about making hard decisions by herself (like deciding to start a life and family with a man just diagnosed with a brain tumor and given only a couple years to live) was divinely thrust into my life. I honestly don’t know where I, and this family of boys with me at the helm, would be if my wife and Kim’s husband hadn’t arranged for us to get together. I’m pretty sure it would not have been in the many good places we are today, though.
And so it is that the smiles of relief Kim and I share today are rooted in gratitude for the miracle of our meeting and the wisdom to follow our hearts. For we certainly needed the lessons life had forced upon us soon. One of the first and hardest decisions we had to make was to blend these families (even knowing as we did so that 75% of blended families fail) – especially when that entailed moving three of the kids out of the only school district they had ever attended, right smack dab in the hardest school years to do so for the two who are now attending the prom.
Making decisions of this sort is truly a sort of torture, for while of course it affected us, it also changed incontrovertibly the course of our kids’ lives. What we wouldn’t have given for a crystal ball to peer into the future and see we were doing the right thing, and not fucking the kids up for the rest of their lives! And oh man, it certainly felt like we had made the worst decision ever when Emily curled up in ball, crying her guts out and begging her mom to turn the car around and “please let me go to my old school” that very first day. It’s true, we are always just one decision away from a totally different life.
But of course there is no way of knowing the outcome at the time major decisions have to be made. That is why it is so hard. That is why you have to know what your priorities are, and know what is real for you, and retreat to those places of firmness in your life, in you heart, when the tough decisions need made. It’s when making these decisions that we find out who we really are, and how strong we really are. “It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do”, says Elbert Hubbard.
Kim did not turn around on her way to the new school with Emily that day, despite her heart breaking. She did pull off the road to ball her eyes out, though, after dropping Emily off and before continuing on to work. This parenting thing is hard, and sometimes the hardest part is being strong in front of the kids, to give them the courage and strength they will need, even when we want to turn around and run, too.
“It is our choices that show who we really are, far more than our abilities”, says Dumbledore to Harry Potter, says a mother to her daughter, says life to all of us. We get to decide how we will respond the loss of a parent, a spouse, to a broken family, to a new school, to growing up, to making the hard decisions a good life requires, even in the face of long odds.
So maybe we have all done some things right – for both of these dressed up high schoolers who are looking all grown up today, chose to make the most of their new school, their new opportunities, their new house and neighborhood, and new living arrangement (though we wish they would do a little more here 🙂 They both have grown and expanded the last two years, making a new volleyball team, taking new classes, making new friends, and learning new skills that have helped them to grow and mature and will certainly benefit them in the next phases of their lives. Both have expressed that yeah, maybe changing schools wasn’t so bad, maybe even some good things have come from it, maybe we are better people from having lived through it.
Kim and I certainly know they are. Growth comes only at the end of our comfort zones, as these kids now know a bit, too.
And so for Kim and I, our smiles today are not about how good they look, but for how proud we are of them for choosing to embrace the choices we foisted upon them, that they themselves would not have chosen, but for which we felt a few years ago was best for them. Certainly for two worried parents living with the results of making the tough decisions, getting this confirmation that yeah, maybe we did do the right thing – well, that is certainly reason to smile, and further reinforcement to continue trusting in our hearts. I hope the kids are seeing a bit of that, too…