I am in between one son practicing his cello and one son writing his college essays. After ten years of homeschooling while being the breadwinner, my parent intuition tells me one kid is only going through the motions.

On a good day I could say, “What are you doing?”

Rather than answer, “Wasting my life in a state of inattentiveness and fooling no one,” the checked-out boy would visibly check back in.

Today is not a good day. The older son thinks nothing in his whole life has transformed him so he cannot write an essay about personal transformation.

Maybe I should prepare him for the sink-or-swim terror of adult life and tell him, “Ok, then don’t apply to college.” I don’t say that. I’m a helicopter parent or a tiger parent or a Jewish mother. Whatever I am, I’ll throw him a life vest til the day I die.

So I throw one now. Though maybe it doesn’t land as softly as a life vest, because I scream: “We just read five sample essays that got kids into Harvard and they were the most non-transformative transformative moments ever! That girl wrote about finding the singular verb in a Latin sentence! Have you not done anything as transformative as that? What the actual fuck?!?!”

“Mom. Why the actual fuck did you just say what the actual fuck? You are ruining our language. You are poisoning our ears.”

“That sounds transformative. You should write about it.”

Really I want to write it. I want to write the whole essay. Thank goodness upstanding citizens who had no real reason to break the law for their children are now in prison for cheating on college applications. This keeps me in check. I want more than anything to be a good parent and prison is structured to destroy families.

Aspiring to parenting greatness means stopping the flow of my own writing to say to my son “Get a metronome.”

He says he doesn’t need one. He says, “I’m practicing shifts.”

“Then use the tuner.”

He turns on the metronome. I don’t play an instrument and I can’t read music but I know cello practice is probably pointless if there is not a metronome or tuner involved.

The best parents lead disjointed lives. Because the best kids are independent enough to give their parents just enough time to think: Why am I just sitting here? What the hell am I doing with my life? And then just as you’re standing up to call a friend and launch a publishing company (if you’re rich) or get a job (since they’re all from home now) your kid says, Mom look what I made. Or, I’m playing Lalo all the way through.

The latter is the teenager way of saying Mom look at this. Which I do. I’m sitting in between the boys, ready for a concert at any moment. I put my phone down to listen, because I heard Cat’s in the Cradle too many times to risk him not picking up his phone when he’s all grown up and I see him only on Mother’s Day and Passover.

Back to the college essay that I can’t write. I buy flowers at Global Rose because they are wholesale and they send way too many for any one home. I like way too many. Also before we go one step further this is a great advertisement for Global Rose. And they didn’t pay for it, but they could show gratitude by sending me peonies. I want the coral ones for $257. Thank you.

I spend more money than you would think is reasonable for flowers. They make me really happy. I like rearranging them to put different colors near each other. I like having many vases full of flowers and seeing how they make a space feel different.

If I have lots of flowers then when the boys knock over a vase I don’t mind. I have extra flowers everywhere. That’s transformative right there: with enough flowers even the most high strung mom can brush off a broken vase.

Global Rose can have that tagline in exchange for another round of snapdragons.

I have been working like this for years. Small thoughts interrupted by big boys. It used to be big thoughts interrupted by little boys but now I know the limits of parenting –– I wouldn’t dare try a big thought because I’d just blow up at the kids and then blame them for my career demise.

Instead, I have just enough time to string ideas together. I fear that string is the equivalent of a child’s art project, macaroni pieces sliding back and forth on a piece of yarn around my neck. But I always hope they look like rare gems, sparkling in a way that makes me charm.

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45 replies
  1. MB
    MB says:

    This just made my day. You are the best mom. I smiled through this. I feel like we’re having the most boring summer of our lives and it’s nice to know boredom can be filed with skill building and growth and working through our family tough spots. The flowers are a great idea I think I’m gonna get some too. Thanks Penelope. Way to find a way to be kind and loving when a vase breaks. I think that right there is the essence of building a great relationship with your kids.

    Reply
  2. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    You have written here about what I think is a pretty interesting life so far. I think he could come up with something! Best of luck.

    Reply
  3. Carol
    Carol says:

    Transformational: your son lived on a farm. was homeschooled. lived through two divorces. lives in communal house now. Those are transformational.

    Reply
  4. Garen Corbett
    Garen Corbett says:

    I have been reading your blog for many years. As my 7 year old came over 4 times throughout, concerned about her Zoom background pictures, I remained smiling though your post. Thank you for being such a transparent, interesting, and thoughtful writer.

    Reply
  5. Casey Henry
    Casey Henry says:

    This is my whole life right here. And my kids are only 8 and 4. Disheartening to know that it will last until they are teenagers…

    Reply
    • Joe
      Joe says:

      I feel like this post was written with a lot of tongue-in-cheek. She is a very loving parent and also does want to be an excellent parent (true of most parents), and often reaches her goals. And she also can look at herself (and some of those goals) with humor. I loved this post.

      Reply
  6. celeste
    celeste says:

    Parents’ separation and coming together? Living in Wisco on a working farm? Determining what subjects are important and what can be left by the wayside for college?

    I like the flowers.

    Reply
  7. dave
    dave says:

    Here’s some useless metronome info …
    set one side on something so that it is tilted. When you get the height just right, you can have it click beats 1 and 3 of a waltz or if a little faster, any 6/8 time march.

    Reply
  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I hope Global Rose shows their gratitude by sending you the Coral Peonies. Then you could show them off in a future post with a link to another arrangement you’d like for them to send you. And so on and so on. There would be flowers shown from Global Rose on every or almost every post. And you could show us the flowers before and after you rearranged them. Now that’s what I would call an incentive for you to write posts even more frequently here on this blog and your homeschooling blog.

    Reply
  9. sarah Mckinney
    sarah Mckinney says:

    Great post, Penelope! Do you have any links that go into the “best parents
    lead disjointed lives” comment further? Or your own expansion on it? That comment interests me.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great question. Life outside of children is largely linear.

      People who are focused: there is a goal, and a path to reach the goal, and you do that. It’s a linear existence, and people who live like this know where they are going and what is most important at any given time.

      People who are passionate: there is a routine and the person is all about the process. They would say life is about the journey. They choose what they want to do with their day and they do that, day after day. Sometimes there are changes, but they are relatively small and controlled. Even people who hate routine have a routine where they consciously look for serendipity.

      But then people have children: People who take care of children start out as the first or second type of person. And the children ruin that. Because children are not a goal and they are not a process or routine. Children are changing constantly and require the parent to change with them.

      If someone is really taking care of children and not just making children a to-do list item, then the person interrupts plans and dreams and routines to do what the children need. Not because we must — kids will survive fine with third-party childcare — but because we choose to.

      The number three choice is consciously choosing to respond to the needs of children because it’s interesting but more because we love our children. In this scenario, there is no linear experience of a goal-oriented path, and there is no stable experience of a life of routine. There is only the random demands of impetuous kids who take your presence for granted.

      It’s a hard life, so it’s understandable that we reach for goals or routines. But we are constantly interrupted and undermined by the needs of the people we love most: the children.
      That’s what I mean when I say the best parents lead disjointed lives. I can look at someone’s goals and someone’s routine and tell how involved they are in parenting.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • MK
        MK says:

        Thank you. This made me cry. I’m homeschooling my strong-willed 7 year old, and the giving up of a life focused and/or passionate has been so difficult for me.

        After attempting to write a meaningful reply, and being interrupted several times, I’m giving up on this small thing, too, because … you know.

        But thanks.

        Reply
  10. Alan Perkins
    Alan Perkins says:

    Your son thinks he has never transformed? Despite having lived through multiple tumultuous changes? OK, then suggest he write about how he hasn’t been transformed. He could use that as a basis for a discussion of nature vs nurture, about the true nature of the self, his sense of personal identity. He could make an argument that no matter heat happens, even the way we change, is based o who we are. If that is what he believes when he says he has never been transformed. Transformation could be about non-transformatio, character, steadfastness, resolve, identity, courage, etc if he wants.

    Reply
  11. Christine Spies
    Christine Spies says:

    First, Penelope, I am going online in a second and ordering myself some flowers. Just because I deserve it and it has been too FRIGGIN long since I got any because no one leaves the house. Second, this post was very funny and made me laugh out loud – thank you. Third, with my second child, a son, I just let him write the essays by himself. They had to be done or he would not go to college, so he did it and well, to this day I don’t know what he wrote but he’s heading to a good school for engineering in a couple of weeks so it turned out okay….that is not how it went with my first, my daughter, but that was hell.

    Reply
  12. harris497
    harris497 says:

    This post was like watching an episode of Seinfeld. It was seemingly about nothing, but yet full of truisms about life. Thanks for making me think.
    My2centsworth
    P.S. Help the kid with the essay…

    Reply
  13. Susan P
    Susan P says:

    I was just telling my kids I never think deep thoughts anymore because I always get interrupted… 🙂.

    My husband is currently back in school with a major that requires a lot of uninterrupted focus. Which means he goes into the basement for homework and online school and I don’t see him for hours. I haven’t had much opportunity for uninterrupted focus since my first child was born 12 years ago… Actually I think it is the thing I like best about working part-time: no interruptions!!

    Reply
  14. Kat
    Kat says:

    You are amazing and I love every email you send me. Even the ones that make me feel uncomfortable.
    I get so many emails from so many places and your emails the only ones I read every single time.

    As a mom and woman who loves to work and build my career, I appreciate you and just wanted to say thank you and I think you are amazing. Keep it up and I’ll read every word.
    Stay safe and healthy.

    Reply
    • Jane
      Jane says:

      What a joy you are. And a decorating genius, if the unforgettable photographs of the inside of your apartment are any indication. Visual clues– The cascade of books. The mix of velvet couch and glass table and rug. The weird shapes on the wall, outlines, from several blogs back. Thank you.

      Reply
  15. Chantell
    Chantell says:

    The way you string together your thoughts is the whole reason I’ve been reading your stuff for years. No one writes the way that you do.

    Reply
    • Chantell
      Chantell says:

      PS I wrote my college essay about my hair and ended up at Duke. Apparently absurdity was the order of the day.

      Reply
  16. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I grew peonies at my last house, giant pink ones. The flowers were so heavy they’d bend the stalks to the ground. So I took to cutting them and bringing them into my home, where the fragrance filled any room I put them in. Here’s one of my peonies, still attached to its plant, shot with my old Nikon F2 film camera.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/mobilene/14603322152/

    I don’t have time for growing peonies these days. I don’t even have time to patch all the bare spots in the front lawn, which look terrible and frankly are embarrassing. It’s because we have kids, and they do create a life where we can set all the goals we want but their lives mean our path toward those goals happen only in fits and starts.

    One of our adult children is currently in the process of seriously fucking up his life. Until recently he lived with us. Even though he is an adult and we can’t rescue him (even if it were healthy for us to do so, which it isn’t), it’s incredible how much emotional energy this consumes. We worry. We stress. We make hard choices that we hope help without enabling. We end up enabling half the time anyway.

    As a result, we’re exhausted. A lot of our goals have moved forward at a snail’s pace; others are stuck. Thank God I’m in a stable situation at work, doing a job I know how to do very well. At least I can go do that all day and function well enough. Nobody there has any idea what’s going on at home.

    Reply
    • Vroal
      Vroal says:

      I hear you. That is stressful and exhausting to watch someone you love making a mess of their life.

      Many people fall into an enabling role without thinking. You’re consciously working against that role. That’s all any of us can do. We learn as we go.

      I’m happy for you that you have a stable career and life otherwise to help you weather this.

      Thanks for the reminder that the disjointed life of parents goes beyond toddler years and high school years… part of our heart will always be out there, wandering around outside of us.

      I hope you can find the grit to keep moving on at least one of your goals. Even if it’s at a snail’s pace, it’s progress.

      Best to you and all the parents here.

      Reply
  17. Joe
    Joe says:

    I am assuming Harvard has one essay question and that’s what he’s stuck with, right? But I wonder what he would write about if he could pick his own topic? That way he’d just start writing. Have him just free-associate. Not to worry about sentences, grammar, adjectives. Suggest that he enjoy the first pass by writing about anything he wants in any way he wants. All capital letters. In rhyme. Illustrated. Incomplete sentences. Music notes. Whatever. And when he’s done, he can look and see if there’s anything transformational in the essay. And maybe then he’d take that and expand on it. Or maybe the first pass is pretty much the last pass and he’s done.

    Reply
  18. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    This is a beautiful post. As a single mother with 2 young boys of her own, I want to say thank you for sharing this. It resonates so well.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I totally agree. I have discouraged college forever. But in the end, I have to do what my kids want. My older son wants a Ph.D. because he wants to do policy research. So he has to go to college. I have a feeling my younger son won’t choose to go to college – he’ll go to a music conservatory. We’ll see.

      Penelope

      Reply
  19. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I found this post to be so incredibly refreshing and accurate. You took the nagging feelings lurking in the back of my mind and formed them into coherent thoughts that I can tuck away to ruminate on, even as I am outwardly splitting hairs with my kids over screen time and explaining the correlation between picking up one’s socks and their mother’s sanity. What you said about a disjointed life and stringing together thoughts describes the remains of my career precisely. And I have no regrets…. but- there are days, days where I definitely need more flowers, like whole ‘freakin’ truckloads. Thank you Penelope.

    Reply
  20. Anaon
    Anaon says:

    You say, “After ten years of homeschooling . . .”

    But from you’ve written over those years, it seemed much more like ten years of paying tutors and personal “teachers” of various kinds to do the work for you.

    Private school. At home.

    Reply
  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “I have been working like this for years. Small thoughts interrupted by big boys. It used to be big thoughts interrupted by little boys but now I know the limits of parenting –– I wouldn’t dare try a big thought because I’d just blow up at the kids and then blame them for my career demise.”

    I understand everything written above. But I think it would be helpful for you and all parents to include parenting as part of their career. Parenting for some parents is their career exclusively while for many parents (especially today) their career includes both their paid professional career and parenting career. In fact, you’ve written on this blog how much a parent would be paid/skills worth in the marketplace. So I’m saying I don’t think “career demise” works here as it’s trying to compartmentalize parenting skills and professional skills and have one work against the other. Once you become a parent, as you’ve said and well know, your life changes dramatically. Your career now becomes parenting and any other pursuits to earn income inside or outside the home.

    Reply
    • Gene
      Gene says:

      I so agree! Just to think of the quality parenting if this is how we all thought about it – parenting a career, all other things are just putting bread on the table.

      Reply
  22. Jake
    Jake says:

    Is the essay the real issue? Or is it Harvard?

    My oldest son is starting as a college freshman in the fall. All through his sophomore and junior year, he had been receiving the marketing materials from the elite universities. He had been eating it up. Everyone was talking about the great schools they attend.

    Then he started more seriously to think about school. He starting reading more about these schools. He was especially interested reading the information from Harvard lawsuit. He is not a legacy for any of these schools. He is not a star athlete nor the first person from the family to go to college.

    In the middle of last summer, he started to lose interest in them. After he lost interest, he never seem to make any progress on the applications to an ivy league (or similar) schools.

    Reply
  23. stephen
    stephen says:

    Teenagers haven’t even formed, much less transformed. It’s a bullshit question, designed to see how well the applicant can bullshit. They WANT you to lie and to be creative about it. Because that skill, it ensures the products are well-behaved as they matriculate into the employment pool, graduate school pool, and most so, the entrepreneur pool.

    Reply
  24. Dora
    Dora says:

    Penelope,
    I dropped in tonight to check out the last few months of your blog posts and between the current page and “page 2”, there is a gap in the posts after March 18 (the date of post that is listed at the top of “page 2”) and before April 28 (the post that appears at the bottom of the first page, page ‘naught’).
    I only realized that there were some missing posts when I clicked on a link elsewhere on your site that took me to a blog post that was from April (with a date prior to April 28th), the title of which said that you had coronavirus, and I knew that I had not seen that post title in your main blog.penelopetrunk.com chronological list.
    I checked out some other dates between March 18 and April 28 — by entering them manually in the address bar — and I found maybe 4 or 5 other blog posts that you wrote in that time period which are showing up fine on your site, but which do not appear in your main blog list of chronological posts — looks like they were inadvertently not added to the chronological sequence.

    Reply
  25. Scarlet
    Scarlet says:

    That snapdragon bouquet is gorgeous! I have never seen one so pretty! Also, you know how flowers make everything better for you, small squares of dark chocolate do that for me. I have secret staches!

    Reply

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