Parenting is not an out-of-sight-out-of-mind commitment

Hugo surrounded by his proud family after his senior recital at Eastman School of Music in Nov. 2019

Months ago, everyone in our family cleared their calendars to travel to Rochester, New York, this weekend for my son Hugo’s graduation. Instead, last Friday we gathered around a computer here in Akron for a virtual graduation. It didn’t have the pomp and circumstance of a hall with caps and gowns, but we made it festive.

Hugo went to middle school at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. After picking him up one spring afternoon, I called his father to tell him about a college financial aid talk at Firestone High School, where our eldest son, Claude, was a junior.

“My child support payments are my contribution to the boys’ college funds,” he told me. And, in this, he has remained true to his word.

I helped Claude and Hugo apply to and visit colleges. With Claude, I took him only to schools where he’d been accepted. I don’t have the time nor money to travel the country looking at campuses my kids may never attend.

But as a vocal performance major, Hugo had to audition. And so, the winter of his senior year, we traveled many miles together. His first audition was in January at his “reach school,” Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Following semi-truck tire tracks in deep and swirling snow, I white-knuckle drove us there without stopping.

The next day, I listened to Hugo’s audition from a doorway just off stage. I thought he sang brilliantly, but what do I know? By day’s end, both of us felt Eastman was where Hugo belonged, but doubted he’d get in. He’s talented, but it’s Eastman.

Months later, on an April afternoon, Hugo walked into my office while talking on the phone. As soon as he hung up, he shouted, “I got into Eastman!” I ran to him and we spun each other in circles.

“What did they say about financial aid?” I asked when we stopped to catch our breath.

We learned the financial aid package from Eastman would leave him with $80k in debt upon graduation. However, if he obtained a dual degree from the affiliated University of Rochester, he’d end up with only $20k in loans and two bachelor’s degrees.

Even though it would take a fifth year of college, it was a no-brainer.

That August, Max and I helped Hugo move into his dorm and were with him when he met his vocal instructor for the first time. Walking through the facility that has hosted musicians from George Gershwin to Renee Fleming, I felt a wave of sadness. Hugo’s father wasn’t there.

My ex-husband last saw our three sons in the crowded halls of the old Firestone after Hugo’s high school graduation in 2015. I last saw him at a child support hearing the February of Hugo’s sophomore year of college. He asked me what Hugo was studying.

A woman I once worked with told me that when her father divorced her mother, it was as though he’d divorced the entire family. I often hear similar stories. But when we started our beautiful family, I would never have imagined my then-husband would one day abandon any pretense of a relationship with our children.

As bad as our marriage was (I have recurring nightmares that we are still together), it’s his post-divorce relationship with our boys that taught me he never was the man I had believed him to be, the man I wish he was and, quite possibly, the man he wishes he were.

Last November, Hugo gave his senior recital. Along with my partner, Max, and me, all four of Hugo’s siblings and his grandma attended. Several friends and family members across the country also watched Eastman’s live stream of Hugo’s resonant baritone singing opera in multiple languages. But not his father.

When I graduated from Ohio State University in December 1992, friends, including my ex-husband whom I’d just started dating, were in attendance, but none of my family. Some for good reasons, others because for them it was irrelevant.

Then-President Gordon Gee mentioned my thesis in his commencement address. Afterward, grads spilled into the crowded hallways outside the arena space. A tall black man in a camel-hair overcoat grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.

“Did you graduate today?” he asked me. “Congratulations! So did my daughter!”

The generous beauty of that father with pride to spare touches me to this day.

A week after COVID-19 closed down Ohio, the boys’ father called me for the first time in ages. He asked if everyone was home, and I said they were. “By the way, where did Jules decide to go to college?” I told him and then he said, “Well, give our boys my love and tell them I’ll call them soon.” He didn’t.

Like so many things, the joy of parenting is the journey through tantrums and teen angst along with laughter around the table, piles of people cuddling in bed and, yes, the milestones of each achievement. For those who show up for it all, the reward is the richest.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 17, 2020.


That Which Doesn’t Kill the Kid

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. ~The Buddha

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Hoping to nap for fifteen minutes in the middle of an afternoon in late March, my eyes snapped open at the sound of the bedroom door smacking into the wall. Hugo had flung it open and was bouncing towards me with his arms and legs bending and twirling at every joint like Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.

“Guess who got into Eastman?” he asked, his voice pitched high and squeezed, nothing like the resonant baritone he’d advertised to several colleges during winter auditions.

“What?” I asked as I sat up in the middle of my bed.

“My phone just rang and it said ‘unknown’ so I almost didn’t answer it, but it was the admissions director and, ohmygodohmygod! I’ve been accepted to Eastman!” I leapt out of bed, embraced Hugo, who picked me up and twirled me around before we began bouncing up and down while spinning round and round.

“What about the money?” I asked when we stopped moving.

“They’ll send me an email with my financial aid package in a couple of days and so will the University of Rochester because I registered for a dual degree, but I can’t combine the packages.” At the time, neither of us really understood what this meant, nor did we care. The Eastman School of Music accepted Hugo, O-M-freakin-G!

Okay, so until last October, I’d never heard of The Eastman School of Music because, frankly, I know squat about preparing a professional musician. “Eastman is the Harvard or Yale of the music world,” the artistic director of an arts performance organization in the Cleveland area told me. I cannot imagine the scenario in which I would encourage one of my children to apply as an undergraduate to an Ivy League school, institutions of learning that were solidly branded before PR firms existed to encourage branding, because there are plenty of fine colleges without the high cost and pressure of an Ivy. As for the top-tier music schools, repeatedly Hugo and I have heard that these places give their undergraduates limited time with, and little attention from, faculty. In other words, they charge a premium price to receive training from a graduate students. Except, however, at Eastman. Still, given all the hoopla about Eastman, we had low expectations when we drove to Rochester for his audition on a snowy day in January. Then, within an hour after arriving, we just knew: Eastman is where Hugo belongs.

Well, Maybe

Then that proverbial other shoe dropped. Eastman offered Hugo a generous financial aid package of $41,000 a year. It costs $65,000 a year. “Hugo, I cannot advise you to take out nearly $100,000 in private loans for any degree, but particularly a degree in music.” The other offers had also come in—two universities offered Hugo a full ride, ironically both my alma mater, Ohio State University, and his bio-dad’s alma mater, Miami University of Ohio. Two other schools, Baldwin Wallace and Capital University, offered him packages that would have cost only $2,000 a year. Capital University in particular made it very clear that they wanted Hugo in their program. Being wanted feels good, and Capital has strong faculty and a well-regarded music education program. Then, in April, when competing at the National Association of Teachers of Singers, which is open to both high school and college-level students, Hugo observed a camaraderie among the Capital students that is not necessarily commonplace among vocal performance students.

“I’m okay with going to Capital, in fact, the idea of it makes me happy,” he told me sometime during the week before May 1, the national deadline to commit to a college or university.

Money, Money, Money

Lynne Twist, a co-founder of the Hunger Project, an organization with the lofty mission of eradicating world hunger, wrote in the The Soul of Money that money is like water—we need it to live, but it must flow. If we do not allow it to flow, it becomes like a stagnant pool. But more importantly, Twist encourages aligning finances with values and recognizing the falsity of what she calls “the myths of scarcity,” which are: 1) There is never enough; 2) More is better; and 3) That’s just the way it is.

Looking back, my basic needs have been met throughout my life. From time to time and by necessity, expenses are problems that need creative solutions. My belief that my needs will be met through hard work and creativity was never so challenged as when I left my ex-husband. Throughout our marriage, he had discouraged me, both directly and through subterfuge, from pursuing a career (even telling me in the months before I left him that he feared I would meet someone else should I become gainfully employed). When he quickly withheld money after I had told him I wanted to separate, I applied for food stamps and Medicaid. I cleaned houses with a friend and took out student loans while finishing my MFA. Times were lean, but my boys and I were fine. In the second year of our long divorce when my ex-husband refused to contribute ever again to Jules’ education, the Waldorf school provided financial aid for his tuition and his tutor for his dyslexia reduced her fees. As their father believes the child support garnished by the state from his paycheck is his contribution towards the boys’ college education, a belief he has steadfastly held and often reiterated, Claude received a non-custodial parental waiver for the purposes of calculating financial aid at his college and receives, based upon my income, the highest need-based package available.

My mother’s constant refrain when I was growing up was, “We don’t have enough money.” Yet we always lived in nice, if not expensive, houses bought in public school districts with good reputations. We had newer cars, plenty of food and clothing. Though not deluxe, and often combined with work-related conventions, there were vacations. “I don’t know how I’ll pay the bills,” said my mother each time a paycheck arrived. Perhaps a function of her generation more than her obsession with control, I was forbidden from looking at any bills and, therefore, had no sense of what it cost to run a household. Of all the things that made me anxious as a child, worrying about how the bills would get paid was not high on my list but her continual cries of the wolf at the door added warp and weft to an already stifling pall of stress.

I wanted something different for my children. When each has turned three, I gave them jobs and money. For years I deposited their weekly allowance, determined at the rate of a dollar for each year of their age, into their bank accounts. By the time they were ten years old, Claude and Hugo had saved enough to purchase a $500 certificate of deposit. And when they turn 13, I show them my online checking account statements. “Here’s the deposit, and here are the expenses,” I explain as we scroll line-by-line through two months of entries. I’d like to say all this has made my kids equally thrifty, but personality is a powerful determiner of behavior. Claude and Jules, who may as well be identical twins born six years apart, sit on enviable nest eggs. While not skinflints, they use their money for purchases that are considered. Hugo, on the other hand, better make a ton of money. Magnanimous by nature, he spends whatever cash he has rapidly and generously. As a result, he’s usually broke. Sometimes when he’s in a financial pinch, he’ll throw his guitar on his back and head to a bustling area to busk, playing guitar and singing so passersby will toss cash into his open guitar case. It works. For now.

Walk the Talk: Turning Over Every Rock

I wrote the Eastman School of Music and asked for more money. They upped Hugo’s financial aid package to $45,000. While generous and far more than the full cost of all the other colleges to which Hugo had applied, it was not enough, even if Hugo won every private scholarship for which he has applied this spring. That’s when Hugo determined that his number two choice, Capital University, was more than fine. But also we investigated the University of Rochester’s package, learning two important things. First off, the UR paperwork mistakenly had listed Hugo as not interested in financial aid and to correct that error, I spent two days filling out and emailing documents needed to process Hugo’s financial aid application for UR. It was like doing my taxes five times over. What we also learned was the reason Hugo was listed as a dual degree is because on his application he wrote that he wanted to pursue a bachelor of arts degree, or BA. We did not know at the time that the degree the Eastman School of Music gives vocal performance majors is a bachelor of music, or BM. (Remember when I said I know squat about preparing a professional musician?) At 3pm on April 29, we learned that Hugo’s UR financial aid package requires us to cough up only $6275 a year. However, it also requires Hugo to enroll as a dual-degree major—vocal performance and something from the University of Rochester, like history or English.

It was no slam dunk and we had 48 hours to make a decision.

The Challenge of Talent

I practice because I think I’m making progress. ~Cellist Pablo Casals at age 90

More than any other person or topic, Whoopsie Piggle essays are frequently about our daughter, Lyra, and how her dual diagnoses of Down syndrome and bilateral cataracts have and have not effected who she is, repeatedly underscoring that Lyra is not the syndrome she has nor is Down syndrome an illness. She is fully human and deserves the same rights and privileges as all other humans. But her Down syndrome and vision impairment undeniably influence her identity. And for both diagnoses, Lyra has teams of professionals, including doctors and private therapists who work with her at Akron Children’s Hospital and state-employed therapists who visit her at our home. Beginning next fall, Lyra will have a new team of therapists working with her at an integrated public preschool. I also have a local support group, a national Facebook support group, aggregated by the age of our children with Down syndrome, and Max and I attend the annual National Down Syndrome Congress’s convention. If I have a problem or question regarding Lyra or her Down syndrome, I have multiple resources at my disposal.

IMG_2563Undeniably, the second member of our cast of characters about whom I most write is Hugo. He is simply the hardest child I have had to raise primarily because he is someone who excels easily. And for that there are no squadrons of professionals to help guide my parenting. Hugo the second born who, unlike his first and third-born brothers, has encountered but one significant challenge in his life: simply himself. Claude and Jules, both dyslexic, required years of remediation to learn to read. Hugo picked it up in the first weeks of the first grade. Claude and Jules struggled with the coordination to play baseball, while Hugo is a natural catcher and, to a lesser degree, pitcher. Claude, who is three years older than Hugo, forced himself to ride a bicycle when it looked like five-year-old Hugo was going to do so first. Along the way, and seemingly because of their struggles, Claude and Jules developed incredible self-discipline and strong work ethics in all that they do. It is how they overcompensate, something Hugo, who succeeds at whatever he attempts, never needed to do. That is, until he wanted something he could not possess merely by desiring it to be so.

Music is for Hugo what water is for those with gills, what air is for those with lungs, what jet streams are for those with wings. Every instrument he picks up, he soon plays well and he went to the Akron School of the Arts at Firestone High School as an instrumentalist. Before long, however, he knew differently. Hugo is a vocalist whose voice, with time and training, has become rich, his phraseology clear and engaging, and he takes the stage with the pleasant confidence of someone who enjoys performing. I suppose it was always there, this unpolished vocal talent. But he did not stumble upon it. Another young man, someone Hugo grew up with and who was his teammate throughout eight years of Little League baseball, was the star vocalist of their class the day they entered high school. This needled Hugo’s competitive side and he worked his freshman year, his sophomore year and his junior year to surpass the other singer. Their senior year, Hugo was named king of the madrigal choir, a role that is not just musical, for together the king and queen manage the choir from booking gigs, collecting fees, arranging transportation, calling for additional rehearsals and whatever else comes up.

Great. This kid does one thing well. With most everything else, however, his modus operandi is a devil-may-care attitude. My parenting mantra is “Push, Support; Push, Support” push them to strive for what they desire in life and then support them to reach their own goals (and, sure, a few of my own). Instead for Hugo, and only for Hugo, the mantra is “Push, Push, Push, Dammit, PUSH!” Consider:

Chores: For most of their childhoods, the boys had Saturday chores that included floors (vacuum and Swiffer), bathrooms (scrub sinks, toilets and tubs, wipe mirrors and counters) and dust (wipe all furniture surfaces, lifting and dusting under objects). They rotated these three jobs each fall so they all learned how to keep house (their one-day partners can thank me). Do the job right and you can be done in less than an hour. Do the job poorly and you get to do it again. Three times over was the average for Hugo and I came to dread Saturdays.

Homework: “Hugo, how is it you had an A in math last term and an F this term?” I asked him when I received his final report card for the fifth grade. “Well,” he told me without a drop of irony, “the teacher just started assigning too much homework.”

True confession: Through grade school and middle school, I received mostly As in language arts and social studies. In math and science, Ds and Fs, but mostly Fs, were not uncommon. And I did not care. Nor did my mother. My freshman year in high school, my Latin teacher changed that. But nothing has happened to Hugo to make him determined to succeed in courses that do not specifically interest him. Yet. But the truth is in college, unlike high school, coursework is primarily in the student’s areas of interest and all required courses have multiple options.

Big Picture

Waldorf educator and author Jack Petrash once said that it is the job of parents to get children to do their work and it is the job of children to get out of as much work as they can. All kids dawdle, make excuses and cut corners when presented with chores or homework in a subject they don’t love—at least all my children do. And when a child is clever, so too are their methods. When Hugo was about six years old, I remember stopping mid-sentence in a tug-of-war talk with him. “Why am I negotiating with you?” Somewhere between the acquisition of speech and that day when I suddenly realized what was going on, Hugo had been riding me to town and back, requiring me justify my demands of him. I stopped negotiating (mostly), but he continues to ask me why.

No, Hugo is not the bean counter, he’s not the detail guy—except when he is. He prepares, over-prepares even, in all his musical endeavors. And Hugo is a leader. He responds positively to sound leadership and, particularly in his last two years of high school, he provides strong leadership, whether as section leader in marching band, leading the madrigal choir with his partner, the queen, or working with the students in the intermediate choir at the request of his choir director. He wants to start coaching Little League baseball next year when he comes home from college. Can he be self-absorbed? Sure–after all, he is a teenager. But he also easily gives his time and energy to help others, including me. He is far more willing, in fact, to rearrange his schedule when I need help with errands or picking up the little kids than Claude ever was in high school.

Supporting Hugo

I have pushed Hugo to do his best. “No matter how talented you may be nor how much a music school wants you,” I told him, “with bad grades you won’t get into a university.” I hired a tutor to help him with math and prepare for the ACT. I have paid for many years of music lessons, which he cared about so deeply that at times I stopped sending him when he was not turning in homework. It was the only consequence that felt punishing to him and got his attention.

I also support Hugo when he gets lost in his ambition and needs reeled back. Last fall he was so overcommitted, he became ill. I told him he would be better off doing less, but did not force him to quit anything. He came to that decision on his own. I went with him when he resigned from marching band, saying only what was necessary when the band directors became jaw-droppingly inappropriate. (Marching band is currently off the table for Jules, Leif and Lyra.)

Now life has handed Hugo something he wants dearly at the cost of facing what he knows are some of his weaknesses—time management and prioritizing multiple demands made of him. He will, in essence, need to excellently serve two demanding masters. It is a path most anyone would find daunting. The Buddhists (and probably all great teachers) say that when you must make an important choice, choose the harder path. The harder path will likely cause discomfort, thereby disrobing you of your delusions. The harder path is the path of transformation, choose it and you may become the person you wish to be. Avoid it and you will never know the true value of your potential or even, perhaps, who you truly are.

His Choice

“What do you think I should do?” Hugo asked, lying on the floor of my bedroom. It was the day before he had to commit to a college. We spent the afternoon together. Nobody else was home.

“It is not for me to decide, Hugo,” I said, lying on my bed. “In order to go to Eastman, you must do a dual degree, which means by default you’ll be overscheduled. You’ll either learn to manage your time and prioritize your work or you will flunk out, probably in your freshman year.”

“Yeah, I know.”

That same day, Hugo talked to four Eastman vocal performance majors who are in the dual-degree program. They all said it was hard but worth it. The reason Hugo put down a BA on his application is because I have always told the boys to get BAs and not BFAs because a liberal arts undergraduate degree is a buffet of learning and an opportunity that comes only once. Graduate school is the time for specializing and professional degrees. And Hugo, like Claude (and me), enjoys history, art and foreign language. He also loves chemistry.

“Mama?” Hugo called as he walked down the hallway first thing the next morning. He walked into my bedroom still in his bathrobe, a cup of coffee in his hand. It was May 1, national college commitment day. “I’ve decided I’d regret it the rest of my life if I didn’t go to Eastman.”

“Ok. Call the admissions director at Eastman and let her know. I’ll send in your deposit.”

Thrilled and scared in equal measure, and also relieved to have the college admission odyssey behind him, he chose well.