What do you do when the one person whose advice you crave is no longer there to give it?
For the last few weeks, Mark and I have been dealing with an emergent situation with Sam and his school. Perhaps I'll go into details on it later, but the short story is that we've had to decide whether it's the right place for him and if perhaps it's time for a move to another school. Obviously, that's a big decision with consequences on either side. Because of the circumstances it didn't seem that there was a clear good choice, and any choice could have some serious and long-term consequences.
Last week after a long talk with Mark (who let me know that he would go with whatever I thought was best), my eyes welled up with tears and I leaned my head on his shoulder and said, "Since my mom died, I've never wished more that she was here to talk to about this." I missed her so much. I knew she'd have the answers I needed.
But I was on my own.
I spent a few days mulling over the various ramifications of each path. I would be moving him in the middle of the year away from friends he'd been in school with in some cases for years, and to a new environment with new kids, and then we'd do it all over again when he started kindergarten. And there wasn't just Sam to consider, there was also Caroline. She is in the 3 year old class at the same school, and is doing well there. It wasn't fair to move her, too, if she was happy there. And how would Sam feel about seeing her get dropped off twice a week at his old school, and seeing his old teachers?
Then, on Wednesday I went to choir practice where I saw my friend, K. K has had dealings with the same school over a similar situation. Her reaction was a pretty uncharacteristically strong one: "That's bull**! Sam's a great kid, you are great parents. Don't let this make you think otherwise." K knows us and Sam pretty well, and is the mother of a somewhat high-maintenance boy herself, so I take her opinion pretty seriously. She went on to tell me that there was still one spot left at the school her son is doing very well at, she wouldn't pressure me and was happy to just listen if I needed to vent, she knew that there were lots of drawbacks and benefits to whatever we decided, and that she knew we were great parents who would make the best decision for Sam. Also, had I thought about talking to Mrs. B, the principal at the school we planned to send Sam to next year? I might find that helpful.
So, I called Mrs. B. She sings with the choir at church on occasion, and she and I are on good terms. She picked up on the first ring, and I went through the list of concerns that the school had regarding Sam. She laughed.
"Oh, man!" she sighed. "Boys just DO NOT belong in our school system, do they? Have you thought about switching schools?" She went on to describe some of the challenges she had with her own high-maintenance son who is now grown and how she felt they made her a better principal. She pointed out with a smile in her voice that she had her eye on Sam at Mass last weekend, and she had a feeling they'd be good friends next year. And I laughed, too. I didn't feel put on the spot or like a failure acknowledging that Sam might spend some time at her office. Her tone conveyed that this was a part of her job that she really enjoyed - helping kids who were a little "more" figure out how they fit into a classroom environment, that she was on my side in helping me as a parent figure all of this out. When I pointed out that I was working on developing the skills to help him, she said,
"Oh, Kate. You already HAVE the skills to help him. You're just finding them. God would not have given you a child with this temperament if he didn't also give you the skills to help him. I firmly believe that."
I hung up the phone with a huge weight off my shoulders. Somehow, in spite of feeling lost and overwhelmed, I had been able to find a way to people who could listen, offer advice, and support my and Mark's parenting. I wasn't as alone as I thought I was.
I thought about all the advice I'd gotten. The old school, with their recommendation that we take Sam to intensive, long-term counseling for what they believed were emotional issues. Our therapist from this summer, who told us after spending several hours with Sam and listening to us that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, and focused on helping us as parents develop some better skills for helping him. The Sunday school teachers who have approached us and told us how much they enjoy having Sam in class, how he is unusually observant, curious and spiritual. K and Mrs. B's observations and advice. My own instincts, telling me that I wasn't being blind to my own child's challenges, that Sam was in a negative cycle with his teachers at the old school and the issues he seemed to be having were, in fact, a result of him being at a place at which he was no longer thriving, and that taking him to therapy for something that wasn't wrong might make it worse.
So, we've started the process of switching Sam to a different school, and as of today I'm working on tying up some loose ends - mainly, visiting the new school and getting Sam's buy-in, and talking to the old school about our decision in an adult enough fashion that I can feel comfortable keeping Caroline there for the rest of the year. So, you know, just little things. Gulp.
And in thinking about this today, I realized something. If my mom had been around to talk to, I might have fallen into a familiar and easy trap: I could have just taken her advice and done what she thought I should do, because that was often what I ended up doing. After all, she was usually right. Instead, I had to seek out and weigh advice from others, something I'm not usually comfortable with. I had to decide on my own who to give the most weight to based on instinct and past history. I had to trust my mothering gut. I might have reached the same conclusion as I would have if I took Mom's advice, but this time it was MY decision.
And in the end, that is perhaps the greatest gift she could have given me: the realization that I can do this, and I'm not as alone as I thought.
7 months ago