Two of my kids embarked on very different adventures recently and all I could do was hope that one of them posted a photo or two on social media so that I knew he was still alive. But, this being 2017, if the kids did post anything on social media, it would be on Snapchat – where I’ve been blocked from seeing either’s Snap story – or on their Insta story, where I have also been banned. So basically, I was just hoping for the best for a few days.
While it’s just a weird coincidence that the trips overlapped, I’m beginning to understand that I compensated for not having any control over one of the trips by crazily micromanaging the other. I don’t think my youngest child – a boy who taught himself to tie his own shoes and ride a bike when he determined at a young age that everyone around him was too distracted to step in and help – had received that much attention since the time he fell as a toddler and knocked his tooth back up into his gums. You can always count on blood to get me to sit up and take notice.
My oldest left for an overnight flight to Barcelona for a week’s vacation with a friend, and I didn’t even know what airline they were flying on. I mean, I know he mentioned it at some point, but I was busy trying to memorize other details, like arrival and departure dates and where they were staying. So I guess that fairly major one slipped through my mental cracks. I tried Googling it but didn’t have much luck finding a flight that left Newark bound for Spain at 11 p.m. the night he left.
After about 10 minutes of searching, I realized I was running behind schedule if I was going to prepare the special breakfast I’d promised – a porkroll and egg sandwich – for my 14yo who was leaving early for the iconic 8th grade trip to Washinton, DC for three days.
I’d gone on that same trip with his two older sisters years earlier and had hoped to continue the tradition this year with my baby, my one-last-middle-school-hurrah. Alas, the administration did not feel equally nostalgic about inviting me to come along. In an uncharacteristically organized and prompt manner, I’d sent an email to the principal on the first day of school announcing my desire to chaperone the trip and enumerating my many qualifications. I hit SEND and then sat back and waited for my anointment.
Instead, I got a note from the school secretary about a month later thanking me for my interest but informing me that there just wasn’t enough room to accommodate all of the requests they received.
“Don’t they know who you are?” my 20yo daughter asked in horror when I reported my rejection over glasses of rose.
“Apparently not,” I told her, taking a long sip. “It seems I’ve been running on fumes these last few years and I got passed over.”
Note to younger parents interested in nabbing a future spot as a school trip chaperone: you’re only as good as the last fundraiser you ran. Or race you organized. Or three-years spent on your school board (that was my golden ticket for a number of years).
I’d run into other moms of other 8th grade boys at our local Bilabong store where we all flocked after learning our sons needed to wear collared shirts for touring, and we agreed that boys were so easy to dress. I ended up buying my guy three pairs of shorts and two shirts and honestly, I won’t have to buy him any more clothes until he transitions to longer pants in, like, December.
I brought his bag of new clothes into my room for safekeeping, so the crisp new shorts and shirts with tags wouldn’t get swept up into the detritus littering his floor or, one of his favorite tricks, stuffed into his dirty laundry hamper. Later that night, I laid them all out on my bed and added underwear and socks to create an outfit for each day, which I then showed my son before packing into his suitcase.
“Should I get post it notes?” he asked, obviously getting into having a mom who does things like, pack his suitcase and create outfits for him.
Earlier, we’d gone to pick up some snacks and beauty items for him to take and we unwrapped the zit cream from its package and popped it into his dopp kit along with his deodorant and sunscreen. I could tell he was taking it all a little more seriously than his usual slapdash packing jobs – you should see the crumbled mass of clothing he brought with us for a recent long weekend in Boston – because he was even packing a toothbrush. He didn’t bother to bring one to Boston.
In the meantime, I kept an eye on the clock and considered the best time to text my oldest to give him a speech about safety overseas without coming off as crazy or, worse, that I didn’t have faith in his decision making abilities.
I’d messaged him on Facebook an article I’d seen earlier in the week about what to do in the event you find yourself in a terror attack. Tips like “Don’t use the elevator, take the stairs instead,” and “Don’t play dead.” Useful things like that. But just six months ago, the kids and I had spent a lovely afternoon walking over the London Bridge and poking around nearby Borough Market – eating Scottish quail eggs over greens and crisp Asian dumplings – before we headed to a nearby pub for a pint. The same path terrorists recently took to attack innocent people. Tourists like us.
So of course, I worry.
This isn’t the first time one of my children has traveled to another country solo. Both my girls – who are bookended by their brothers – flew to Europe over spring break with their high school during their respective junior years. This spring break, my younger girl visited Italy as part of a class she was taking in college to study European hospitality. She initially balked at my request that she text from time to time to just let me know she was alive but in the end, we were in constant communication.
I saw her on Instagram sitting with the hills of Tuscany in the distance and she texted photos of amazing meals she was enjoying . Thanks to SnapChat, I also saw her holding one of those giant drinks – you know, the kind that comes with a bunch of straws – late at night surrounded by a bunch of other kids. Apparently, hospitality was alive and well in Tuscany.
I was happy she was having fun but also couldn’t stop thinking about that Amanda Knox documentary I watched on Netflix and tried to slide in texts to her like, “Fun! Don’t leave the bar with a stranger!” and “TTYL! Oh, and pay attention if you wake up and there’s blood all over your bathroom!” I tried to be cool, I threw in some emojis for good measure, but it’s hard as a mom not to worry about your kids getting, like, implicated for murder in a foreign country and shit.
When my older daughter went to Italy during high school, things were pretty chaotic at our house. By then I was divorced and working full time at a relentless job and had four kids in four different schools and – as an added bonus – three teenagers living under my roof. This was probably around the time that the baby took matters into his own hands and learned to do things for himself.
After my daughter left, I realized I had no idea when she was expected to return. I mean, I knew the day – thank God – but not the time the buses would pull back into the high school parking lot. School was closed for the break and I didn’t really know any of the other parents well enough to call up and make a joke about the whole thing. No one who would laugh and be all like, “Been there.”
No, instead I had to call the parents of a boy with whom my daughter had gone to grammar school. The kind of parents that really seems to have their act together. The kind of family that sends all three of its children to Ivy League schools. The dad, who I knew even less well than the mom, answered the phone and had a hard time hiding his dismay when I confessed my sin. “It’s in all the paperwork,” he told me.
“LOL. Paperwork,” I thought, wondering how I could still have in my possession Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons that expired three years earlier and not papers containing vital information for this Italy trip.
The dad gave me the arrival time and then assured me it was accurate as he’d confirmed when his son called the day before. Then it was my turn to hide my surprise that he’d actually heard from his child on the trip. All I got was radio silence and then some some slightly stale biscotti upon my daughter’s return.
I mentioned all this to my friend Dan, how I worried about my oldest navigating a foreign city and whether I’d taught him everything he needed to know to stay safe.
“That’s how we learn,” Dan reminded me, and I thought about my own maiden voyage overseas. How, following a terrible breakup, I enlisted a pal to travel super-low-budget to Europe for 10 days and, having only been on a few jaunts to Florida during high school, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And that was 100 years before the Internet and cell phones.
We were so clueless, we even got on line as soon as we entered the International Terminal at JFK to have our baggage searched, not realizing it was for people flying to, like, the Gaza Strip or some shit. And I packed an actual suitcase for the multi-city journey, which was sans wheels, and ended up lugging that thing through train stations in Milan and Paris and up and down the cobbled streets of Trastevere and Nice looking for cheap hostels.
My friend and I learned the hard way that beer in Europe was much stronger than the Busch beer we were used to drinking at fraternity parties, and that Italian men were good kissers but terribly persistent (we had to dodge a pair for a few days who’d come back to take us to the beach that we’d drunkenly agreed to visit the night before).
Upon our return to New York, tired and pretty broke, we discovered that the subway back into Manhattan from JFK could get a little dicey, circa 1990, making stops in Bushwick and Bed Stuy. But we survived with nary a scratch (but maybe a few hickies that we tried to cover up with our new Parisian scarves) and learned going forward to always go easy on the Italian beer and – for the love of God – pony up the extra 20 bucks for a cab out of JFK.
I ended up texting my oldest guy after work the night of his departure and reminded him to call so I could wish him a bon voyage. When he called a little while later, he quickly got annoyed and told me he felt like I was judging him, which I probably was. He was leaving for the airport way later than I would ever leave to catch an international flight. (Interestingly, the only time I am never, ever, late is when flying.) But my son sensed my vibe, the one I tend to put out when people aren’t doing things the way I think they should be doing them. I get a tone. For those who love me, it makes them nuts.
But I apologized and asked a bunch of questions and we got back on track. After a few minutes, he told me he was going to finish up eating dinner and get ready to go.
I wanted to say, “Watch out for terrorists,” or “Keep your wits about you” or at the very least, “Can you send me your travel itinerary?” but in the end, just told him to have a great time. And then, because I just couldn’t help myself, asked if he’d just text me when he got to his gate. And maybe again when he landed.
“Mom,” he said, “I’ll text you when I can.”
So I woke up early the next morning and remembered my child was somewhere in the air over the ocean and that’s when I tried to figure out what flight he was on before making breakfast for my other guy. While I was flipping his egg, my phone dinged and I looked down to see a text from my oldest son. “Just landed. Here safe.”
And that was that. I’ve seen daily photos on Instagram and a whole album on Facebook, but haven’t really heard from him again.
In the meantime, I received an all-points bulletin when the 8th graders’ buses departed and my girlfriend got a text from her kid reporting that they’d made it to Maryland.
Ten years ago, when that same boy who is in Barcelona traveled with his 8th grade class to D.C., there was no communication until the buses pulled back into the school’s driveway three days later. There were no CODE RED texts and emails and he certainly didn’t call or text. I don’t even think they were allowed to bring cell phones with them back then.
So maybe I’ve just become conditioned to be able to contact my children at any time of day or night over the last decade. And, thanks to location sharing technology, I can even stalk three out of the four kids to see where they are at any given moment. But the person I really want to keep track of – my wily 14yo – is the hardest to pin down as he’s usually blown through his allotted amount of data about four days into our Verizon billing cycle, rendering him unable to text or be tracked until the 20th of the following month.
And maybe I should be glad for that. Maybe in the end it helps me let go of trying to control and monitor his every move. Give him some latitude to figure things out on his own. Kind of like he’s always done.
I’m thankful I didn’t have the technology available today around when my oldest child was still in the grip of my highly-involved parenting style. Back then, I would have put a chip in him if that was an option. And I think I was so up his butt when he was younger that by the time high school rolled around he spent a good deal of time trying to shake me loose. It wasn’t pretty.
Ten years and three kids through high school and two kids through college later, and I’ve managed to reign in my desire to micromanage my kids’ every move. (Almost.) I’ve learned to have faith in their decision making and, more importantly, to learn from their mistakes. (Pretty much.) I’ve decided it’s much healthier to adopt a “let it go” attitude. (Well, not so much.)
But I have my limits. I still want to know when their plane lands after a long flight or they’ve arrived at their destination following a lengthy drive. I’m not a worrier in general but do fret when they’re in transit. I need to know when they’ve dodged the travel bullet.
I guess everything else is gravy.
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