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Build Your LEGO City: Tales from the Almost Empty Nest

the three musketeers + stella

These are my most important, most favorite, best-ever people in the whole wide world: my son Jackson and my daughter Taylor. They are 21 and 19 respectively, so I am using their real names. I’ll also use Stella’s real name. She’s our 11-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback who only has 8 teeth left and makes us laugh when her lip gets stuck on one of them. (Here’s one of our favorite YouTube videos on this pressing dog issue.) We always find the bright side. It’s our family way. 🙂

But things are changing. My first musketeer just moved out.

I recently helped my son move to Iowa City for work and university. After a few years at community college and working nearly full time, Jackson applied to and was accepted to the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. He is paying for the majority of his school, living expenses, etc. His father and I are helping financially as we can. But he is the driving force. To say that I am proud is the understatement of the year. If you know me, Jackson, us, or if you follow my blog, you may know that we have had a tough road, me and my three musketeers.

This is a huge win for our little family. A hard-fought, heartfelt win.

In seventh grade, my son’s first progress report was dismal. It was no surprise, considering he hated school, his parents had just gotten divorced, and he was struggling with an undiagnosed development disorder. But I knew this was one of those critical moments where he could go left or right – and it could all go off in a ditch fast. That night, we had a serious conversation. I did most of the talking, which I know I should not do but I can’t help myself when I am all fired up. His eyes glazed over. I was losing him. Then I remembered how much he loved LEGOS.

“Hey, remember when you showed me Darth Vader sitting on that LEGO toilet the other day?” I said.

He perked up and stopped slumping into a puddle on my kitchen counter.

“Yeah.”

“It was pretty funny, yeah?”

He chuckled, imagining Darth Vader taking a dump on his LEGO toilet. I had to chuckle, too.

“What about your LEGO Cities? You like those, too, right?”

“Oh yes,” he said quickly.

We talked for awhile about his favorite LEGO City, why it was his favorite, the time it took him to build it, etc. I listened. He relaxed.

“You know what, kiddo? Right now, with these grades, you’re working up to a LEGO toilet for your future. A really nice LEGO toilet. But it will just be a toilet. Don’t you want a LEGO City?”

My son stared at me. In that moment, I knew.

I finally found the right words to reach him.

It’s different when your child has special needs.

I don’t share much about my son’s issues because frankly, it’s not my story to tell. But at this point in his life, he deserves a huge shoutout for what’s he’s overcome, what he’s accomplished, and how hard he’s worked to build his dream LEGO City. Given all this, I can only tell this story from my perspective. He was finally properly diagnosed in his teens after years of us struggling to find answers, hope, and healing. Before then, we were told so, so many different things.

Here are some of the most stupid, unhelpful things:

  • “Just try to get him through high school. If you can.” A therapist.
  • “He is very immature, he annoys the other kids and still likes to play with action figures, he’s much too old for that.” Fifth grade teacher who would not follow my son’s 504 accommodations.
  • “Your son has accommodations that were supposed to carry over from grade school? Hmm, we can’t seem to find that.” Middle school special needs “team.”
  • “Wow, why is your kid so out of control?” There were so many variations on “you’re a shitty mom, Mom,” from so many places, this sums them all up pretty well.
  • “Mrs. Miles, this is the school. Your son won’t do x, y, z…” Various teachers and teachers’ aides in grade school calling me at work 50 miles away to complain about my child.
  • “He’s a momma’s boy.” “What a Sally.” “I’m not going to hold his vagina for him if he can’t get his homework together after school, he’s in seventh grade for Christ’s sake.” “I didn’t give him his medicine. I don’t think he needs it.” His father.

I didn’t know what he “had.” But I knew who he was.

The most amazing, wonderful, smart, creative, funny, sweet, awesome kid I’d ever known (until my daughter came 18 months later, and then I was lucky enough to have two). My son was born in 1999 and the diagnostics and awareness were not where they are now. Google was only a year old. So in addition to talking to my pediatrician, working with the school, trying different doctors and therapists, at different points medication, I did what I do best: I researched. I read. Voraciously.

I researched the impact of diet on children’s behavior – sugar, red dye 40, gluten, dairy, every single thing. I researched innovative ways to discipline and parent. I learned the importance of routine and structure. I read books like Raising Your Spirited Child. I tried the seemingly straightforward, simple things that made sense to me. For my son.

Here are some of the most helpful things:

  • “Don’t say your child is stubborn. Say your child is persistent.”
  • “Say, my child’s energy will serve him well someday in his career, whatever he chooses to be.”
  • “Marinate your kids in love.”
  • “If they need to talk at 3AM, you are there, listening, at 3AM.”
  • “Know that your child is special. Unique. You just have to find the right way to help them harness the power of it.”

I tried everything: all the medical interventions, therapists, specialists, you name it.

I reached out to everyone I could find, spending whatever I had, to try to help my child. Out-of-pocket, not covered by insurance to see a specialist at Northwestern Hospital? $300 for one hour? Okay, I can do one hour (gulp). Tutor? Okay, I can do once a week for awhile. (More worth it than the Northwestern “specialist” but still more than I could afford.) While I did find an excellent team at my son’s high school once he was approved for an IEP, there were so many other people who were not helpful, if not downright hurtful, like the psychiatrist who yelled at him for asking questions (as I had guided him to do, so he could start being his own advocate) when he was 16. I was grateful I was there. She was not. I was a raving Mama Bear Bitch, fired her ass, and found someone 1,000 times better.

Do not fuck with my kids.

Truth? I’ve always found it hard to stand up for myself.

But when it came to my kids, especially my son, I realized I had to get strong fast or he would be lost and it would be all my fault. I would never let that happen. I had to be their advocate. I had to fight to get them the care, accommodations, support, money, whatever it was, that they needed. No one else was going to fight for them like I would. And it also meant I had to quickly discern who was the right professional to help – and who wasn’t. Who was telling me something that made sense and who was talking bullshit.

In the beginning, I trusted the “doctors” and “experts” because I thought they knew best. After enough bad experiences and outcomes, I quickly realized that the one person who knew best for my child was me – and I had to arm myself with as much knowledge as I could so I could identify the right people, the ones I could trust, to help my son. To this day, I look at all “experts” with a healthy dose of skepticism. So do my children.

As it should be.

I tried it all. Even a fortune teller. 🙂

We were in La Jolla, California. It was our last vacation before the divorce. One night we popped into a fortune teller’s place. I had a reading, and she did one for each of the kids with me sitting beside them. She said nice things to both of them, all good stuff, and they thought it was silly and fun. As they ran out the door, the woman rushed after me, calling my name. I stopped, one arm holding the door open.

“I know you worry about his mind,” she said. “But his mind is strong. His mind is strong, Christy.”

I imagine I wore the same dumbfounded look my son did when I told him he was building a lovely LEGO toilet for himself. I knew in my heart that she was right. But no one had ever said that to me before. You know you’re on thin ice when you cling to a fortune teller’s words.

Sometimes you have to take your hope where you can get it.

But that was then. This is The Now.

When I hugged my son goodbye in his little studio apartment, I didn’t cry. I’d rehearsed that moment in my head so many times because I so badly wanted it to feel Rocky Balboa triumphant, not me doing an ugly cry. I wanted it to feel like:

We did it! We won! We beat ALL the odds!!!

And there were a lot of them. Kid with special needs. Sibling struggling with all that this implied. Divorced parents. Dad checked out. Single mom running the show. Just Google the negative outcomes of single moms running the show. I honestly don’t know how we did it. How we got here. I’m afraid to talk about it too much in case I jinx it. So many others don’t make it. So, so many. I think in my heart I will always be a little afraid of a shoe dropping. But in this moment, I know my son is in a good place. He’s ready for this. It’s what we’ve worked for all these years. It’s so fucking awesome!!!

“Bring it in, dude.”

My son gets a kick out of doing the “man hug” with me. 🙂 We grab each other’s arm, pull ourselves in, slap each other on the back two or three times (must be short and crisp, hands should not linger), then break apart. (The video does a much better job of explaining it.) I always do it a little wrong because I am a dork, short and a girly girl and I end up stepping on his feet (size 11, in my defense) but I try really, really hard. So we did the man hug and this time I did it all right. I gathered up my things, knowing I had a three-hour car ride home alone to cry it out. He followed me out to my car.

Jack: Hey Mom

Me: Yeah kiddo?

Jack: “It’s a pretty cool LEGO City, huh?”

Me: 😭

Tonight’s Creative Writing Inspiration:

My daughter sent me this song a few years ago, saying it made her think of me. It inspired me. It kept me going at times when I felt I had nothing left. I listened to it as I wrote tonight. (I think the character is a hooker but let’s overlook that dramatic element lol). I love that I share music with my children as an emotional language when words fail us. I love that my daughter felt this song in us.

Two Mama Bears and a Scholarship: Transforming Loss into Hope and Healing

When your child has special needs, especially when they look “normal” on the outside, life is different. There are fun times, happy times, but sooner or later the realities of your child’s struggles come bubbling to the surface. There is often silence when others speak about their children’s accomplishments. Not because you are jealous. Because you know your child’s accomplishments are different. Less socially accepted. Less understood. It can be lonely.

Yet there we were, sitting in the dark auditorium for Senior Night, as my son’s name was called to accept his award: the David A. Conrad scholarship for $500. As he walked back to his seat, the auditorium filled with applause. The look on his face…

<insert Mama Bear heart clench here>

I had a chance to sit down recently with Karen Conrad, who created this scholarship in her son David’s memory. I wanted to know about the young man whose legacy had given my son a such a boost of optimism and confidence. We were just two Mama Bears, fierce advocates for our boys all their lives, having breakfast and bonding over eggs, coffee, and shared stories. It’s important to share David’s story today, as it’s the anniversary of his passing, and his scholarship fund opens for donations.

David Conrad: Quintessential White Sox Fan for Mayor

David Alan Conrad loved the White Sox, politics, and history. In fact, his favorite colors were black and white for his beloved White Sox — when he was in eighth grade, he was lucky enough to see the Sox win the World Series. He loved politics so much that he used to ask his mom’s friends – “If I run for mayor of Downers Grove someday, would you vote for me?” Of course they all said yes. 😊

David was on the high school swim team and once swam so hard, for so long, he had an asthma attack. He gave it his all, in the pool and in life. He always saw the best in everyone. And even with the challenges he faced, he always said, “I’m fine.” He never wanted to worry anyone, let anyone down.

This is one of my favorite photos of David and his mom, dancing at a family wedding.

Like my son, David attended Downers Grove South (DGS) High School and was fortunate enough to be in the special education program with an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The program made a huge difference in both our sons’ lives. Both our boys went on to College of DuPage with their “blue cards,” a continuation of their IEP from high school. But sometimes, all the love, support, and blue cards in the world are not enough. David passed away at the tender age of 21 in 2013.  

About the David A. Conrad Scholarship

Karen and her family started the scholarship to honor David’s memory in 2014 with their own money, after she read that starting a scholarship fund can be healing.

“David once wrote a letter to the Women’s Club, on his own initiative, for a scholarship, and he won. He was so proud! The look on his face when he won…” Karen trailed off, pressing the locket around her neck to her heart. Inside is her favorite photo of her son. She wears it always, keeping David close to her heart.

The David A. Conrad scholarship is awarded to student(s) at DGS in the special education department. Someday, Karen would like to extend it to Downers Grove North High School if she can raise enough money this year. While Karen leaves it with the faculty to determine the criteria and winners, she has said that it is typically awarded to someone like David: hard working, kind-hearted, and open to people from every walk of life.

I recognize that times are hard, and I don’t typically promote fundraisers. But this cause is near and dear to my heart, as are Karen and David. If you would like to donate to this special cause, here is the link to the scholarship Go Fund Me page.  

David in Three Words: Sweet. Innocent. Loveable.

Karen says if he were alive today, David would tell students who receive this scholarship: “Believe in yourself! Do your best! Be optimistic. Move through your challenges! Even if no one else believes you can do it, know that you can. Don’t worry if you make mistakes. You got this!”

I know David is an angel now, watching over his mother and his family. I imagine his spirit is with my son, invisible wings now on his journey as he transfers to University of Iowa this year to study writing. Karen said she thinks David brought her and I together. I know he did.

Thank you, David. 😊

Resources:

Why Teaching Our Kids to Be Inclusive is Not the Answer

Group of playful children in studioI just read this post on Scary Mommy, “Why I No Longer Tell My Child to be Inclusive and Kind” by Julee Morrison and I am pissed off enough to write about it. First, let me say that, as a marketer and a writer, I know that these headlines (accompanied by the sad child stock photos) are designed to incite emotion, clicks and comments. (That said, please forgive my stock photo, I don’t have a real one that truly fits this post and this one hit the mark for me.) On Facebook alone, there were thousands of comments on this article.

But this is not a post about marketing.

This is a post about taking back control as parents.

Look, I’m a parent of two teens, one of whom is special needs. I don’t write about that last part on my blog because it is not my story to tell and I respect my child’s privacy. I say this to clearly establish the fact that I understand to a heartfelt degree that there are people in the world who have huge struggles and deserve extra kindness. I’ve got 18 years under my belt on that personally, but that is a topic best kept for another post.

Both of my kids have been bullied, especially my special needs child, so I understand how the dark side of being “non-inclusive” hurts in a profound way. My kids have not always been perfect either, none are, and have probably hurt others along their journey to becoming adults. We are all guilty of this at some point or another. Including me. I will forever be haunted by the time a girl was taunted on the playground right in front of me and I did…nothing.

But it’s more complicated today than it has ever been. 

Gun violence, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual predators, school shootings, bullying, mental health, gender, race, politics and religion are driving forces in our awareness and conversations today more than ever before. Our kids are growing up and dying in the crossfire of it all, trying to make sense of the insensible. As an adult, I am still trying to make sense of it all and I am struggling. Our kids struggling, too. Mightily.


According to suicide.orgteen and adolescent suicides have continued to rise dramatically in recent years. Consider these alarming figures:

  • Every 100 minutes a teen takes their own life.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
  • About 20 percent of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.
  • Between 10 to 15 percent suffer from symptoms at any one time.
  • Only 30 percent of depressed teens are being treated for it.

Source: Why Today’s Teens Are More Depressed Than Ever


If our only message to our children today is: be inclusive and kind…than we are failing them miserably.

Hear me out.

Continue reading “Why Teaching Our Kids to Be Inclusive is Not the Answer”

What Another (gulp) Birthday Taught Me

Writers often use life events in their stories because they are the perfect settings for drama, the stuff all good stories are made of. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, retirement parties…it’s all fair game. Characters come alive. Conflicts ensue. Add alcohol, loaded expectations, cheesy music, and voila! The perfect scene for chaos story is born. Or, in my case, reflections.

It was my birthday recently. 🙂

This is us. Me and my musketeers.

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We went to dinner at a nice place, which we don’t normally do on our budget. For once, we ordered everything – appetizers, salads, steaks, even desserts. We tried everything. Twice. One of us had to unbutton our jeans. Not telling who. 🙂

So I always tell my kids – no gifts, please – just a handwritten note is all I want. But they are teenagers now, with jobs and bank accounts and minds of their own.

My daughter made me open her gift first as soon as we sat down. It was a sparkly gold Continue reading “What Another (gulp) Birthday Taught Me”

Finding Your Voice in a World of #MeToo

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me and my girl one fall day

The other day, my *almost* sixteen-year-old daughter read to me out loud her response to one of the questions on an assignment in her advanced English class. The question was:

“Who or what has had the biggest impact on the development of your voice?”

Me [best attempt at no expression]: “Ooh!!!  Good question.”

Me [inside]: ME!! PLEASE SAY ME!! But it might not be me. Shit, I don’t have a poker face, Christy, get it together here!! If it’s not you, you don’t want to make her feel bad. Whatever she says is fine, whoever it is. OH PLEASE LET IT BE ME!!

Spoiler alert: It was me. 🙂 !!!

I want to share this with you because as a writer, a mom and a human being trying to do Continue reading “Finding Your Voice in a World of #MeToo”