“I may not have been there when he was born, or been present to witness him sound out his first word, but I have been fortunate to love a little boy turned into young man for the past 15 years. My now 18-year-old stepson. Our relationship hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s always been formed on a foundation of love. I gave him a letter today as he left for college. I never could’ve predicted how hard that drive away would be.
I met my husband, Jaime, when I was still just 21 and definitely wasn’t looking to start a relationship. We met one night while I was home from college. We became fast friends. Even though he was five years older than me, we grew up in the same town, and I knew he had a young son. I had no plans of sticking around our small town as I would be transferring in a few months to a college about three and a half hours away to finish earning my teaching degree. We spent all our time together before my departure, and after we made our relationship official, Jaime decided it was time for me to meet his son, Peyton.
We met at a local fast food restaurant, so the then 3-year-old little boy could run around on the restaurant’s play equipment as we visited. I remember the first time I saw that sweet little boy’s big obnoxious grin that I was hooked. We spent the next few months together every chance we could get. The time finally came for me to move, and Jaime and I decided we wanted to try to sustain our relationship despite the distance. I lived in Spearfish for two years during which we took turns visiting each other and spending hours over the phone. I have so many wonderful memories of Peyton coming up to see me, or the three of us giggling on the phone together until his little voice began to trail off from exhaustion. Those are the moments when we became a family.
When I finally graduated college, I went to a job fair put on by my university, and administrators from my hometown were there to interview for positions, including one in middle school language arts. I had a minor in English, but I was actually certified in Elementary Education. I had a few conversations with them and finally decided to interview for the job. I was offered the position which brought forth so many emotions. Did I really want to go back and live in Alliance for the rest of my life? Does a 23-year-old woman really volunteer to spend her days with hundreds of teenagers? I guess as they say, it wasn’t logic. It was love. I moved back to the place I vowed to never return, and haven’t looked back since.
I can’t imagine all I would’ve missed had I never given this life a chance. I’ve kept the same role in the same middle school ever since, and I know it is the job I was born to do. My students are like my own children, and I can’t imagine teaching at any other level. I also can’t imagine not spending my days attempting to catch Peyton’s fastballs which were quickly increasing in strength and velocity. I would’ve missed tickle parties and candlelight spaghetti dinners. I can’t imagine my life without treks across the state to watch baseball games, even those in scorching heat or frigid lows. I mean, it is Nebraska. What if I wasn’t there for the home run? What if I couldn’t hug him after his first no-hitter? I know you can’t miss what you didn’t know. I’m just glad I didn’t miss them.
Through all the business of helping raise an active young boy, Jaime and I still found time to focus on our relationship as well and after a request for forever was made inside a fortune cookie, Jaime and I made our family official in 2008. Peyton was just 8 years old.
As Peyton grew older I always felt fortunate that we had such a strong bond. Peyton was so obsessed with his dad. He walked like him. They happen to have the same favorite color, loved to eat the same foods, had the same hobbies, and all the same favorite teams (which became mine too. Bonds are made during a Lakers championship series, let me tell you!). All my friends who were mothers of preteen boys would constantly complain about their sweet boys turned disrespectful tyrants, but not my Peyton. We got to spend a lot of time with him as he was growing up, especially when his mother began working in a neighboring town. We got to pick him up every day from school, work on homework together, read books, and eat dinner. We rarely had a disagreement, never any backtalk or sideways glances. We tried to make every moment count.
I thought everything would be that magical forever, and for a while, it was. In 2012 over a plateful of Peyton’s favorite meal I made for him, spaghetti, we informed Peyton he would be a big brother. He appeared to be elated, but I’m sure getting both your mom and your dad and stepmom to yourself all the time might have been something he wasn’t willing to give up. On July 1 of that year, Peyton was introduced to his little brother Paxton. Any insecurities he felt about that seemed to melt away. He was there every day to help in any way he could. You could see his face fill with pride when he’d talk about his responsibilities as a big brother. Could life be any more perfect? I guess not. The next thing I knew, we had a teenager and things drastically started to change.
While still the sweet, respectful boy I’d always known and loved, Peyton wanted to spend more time without us, fleeting to his room or trying to spend hours calling or texting his first girlfriend. Even though the time we spent together became less valuable to Peyton, it did not to us. Since we didn’t get to have him every day, the time we had together was special. We also felt he was too young for such a daunting romance. He wanted to spend less time at our house. We also had high expectations academically for him, so when his grades started to slip during his 8th-grade year, we were at odds. The next few years our relationship continued to dissipate. He pretty much quit coming over altogether. We spent many nights brokenhearted, frustrated, and lost not knowing what move would be best. It’s hard to force someone to be with you.
To this day, I wish that’s what we would’ve done. I didn’t want to drag him through court, or sit across the table from a sullen-faced teenager, and so we just gave up. We quit fighting the fight. We didn’t lose contact. We still went to all his school and sporting events and would talk to him after games. We’d send messages or make calls, but as soon as the conversation turned to expectations and responsibilities, it was quickly ended. There’s no way to know what the right thing to do really is in the moment, but all I know is that when I reflect back, it just feels wrong. I don’t regret expecting more from him. I think that’s part of what parenting is: having hard conversations, helping our kids realize their potential, not letting them settle for less than their best, not quitting when things get tough, but really isn’t that what we did? We quit. The biggest regret of my life. He needed to know we weren’t going to quit trying, and in so many ways we did.
Luckily teenagers do grow up and start to see the world a little differently. In the past few years, Peyton and his friends have made many more appearances at our house. It’s nice not to have to wait for baseball season or a major holiday to roll around just so you can catch a glimpse of your kid. I think Peyton began to realize our intentions toward him and also the important role he plays with his brother. Pax can go months without seeing Peyton, and he is still his favorite person in the world. The two of them wrestling around on the floor for five minutes makes Paxton’s whole world. Peyton’s close friends have become like Pax’s older brothers as well. Peace and unity has been restored. My heart laughs again. Now Peyton is 18 and just today, he moved into his new dorm room at a junior college 4 hours away from home, the same day his younger brother had his first day of kindergarten, and I started my 13th year of teaching. Peyton is playing on the school’s baseball team, and I couldn’t be more proud of how far he’s come. I’ve definitely spent many moments this week in tears reflecting on the highs and lows of our relationship, and it brought me to the moment when I decided to write Peyton a letter before he left. I needed to get out all of the things I wanted to say to him – the good and the bad. I needed him to know how much he means to me and what a large part of my heart he occupies. After all, he’s the one who helped me learn what a blessing it is to be a mom, whether it’s following a prefix or not.
I can’t believe the time has already come for you to go to school. I still have a hard time not seeing you as a small boy grinning from ear to ear as you play lava around the living room or shoot your thousandth trick shot of the day outside on the basketball hoop. I know even though you now have a deeper voice and tower over me – that boy is still in there. You have always had a few traits throughout your life that has helped you find success: your competitiveness, your silliness, and your inquisitive mind. Never lose those. Those are the things that can help you have a happy and successful future. I know the relationship your dad and I have had with you has been so full of twists and turns. We went from being playmates and cuddle buddies to people who felt like they lost you.
I know through your teen years you felt frustrated with us but, to be honest, the feeling was mutual. It is hard to see someone you love so much not work toward what you know they can do, and it’s frustrating to feel so many God-given gifts were being thrown to the side. If I have one regret in my life, it’s that I wish when you were 12-13 and started to resist our tough rules and high expectations, that we would have fought harder for you- harder for us as a family. You didn’t want to deal with our discipline and standards that we tried to set like most teenagers. I wish we would have fought the fight anyway. Instead I feel for a few years that we just let you make the decision to push us to the side and not deal. We can never have those years back. Sure, we had holidays with you from time to time and went to all your sporting and school events, but we lost you – the real you – and it is something that will forever be hard for me. Maybe it was the right thing for our relationship to turn around and become stronger like I feel it has, but maybe you just needed us to continue to battle to show you how much we loved you and how much we believed in your potential for greatness. I’m sorry we took the easy way out. I really missed you.
As if by God’s design, you began to mature and change and our relationship has improved through the years. It still isn’t anywhere near where I wish it was, but my heart soars every time I hear your voice as you walk through the door or see you interact with your brother. I think the only person it brings more joy to is him. You are such an important part of our family, and as I told you before, so many of the best moments of my life have you in them. I’ll never regret trying to push you in all aspects of your life because I truly feel you are capable of so much more than you even realize. I will forever support you in the decisions you make, but I pray you fight for the wonderful life you deserve and truly could have. To close this letter, I have a few words of advice from one former college student to another:
- Maintain a strong connection with God. Don’t just turn to him in times of strife but have solace in the fact he is always there and always willing to listen.
- You have been surrounded your entire life by so many people who love you and would do anything for you. That is such a blessing, but in some ways a curse. It is now time for you to go on your own and do things for yourself. You many feel that because you haven’t had to do many things for yourself, that you can’t. There is nothing further from the truth. You can do anything if you are willing to learn, ask questions, try, and persevere. Just believe in your potential in all things from making a sandwich to graduating from college. Don’t limit the things you do because you are scared you might fail. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Never stop trying.
- Go to class even when you don’t want to. Make your education a priority. Even when you are exhausted, hungover, come home late from a game, or your roommate is snoring away and missing his classes, get there. Education at that level is not a right, but a privilege. Take the opportunity to learn all you can. I wish I would’ve taken my first year much more seriously.
- Your mom and Josh are working really hard to pay for your education, so give it your best effort and thank them often. My parents made me pay for my own school, so I know the massive expense involved. Call them frequently to thank them for giving you the gift of a college education. When things come up where you may be tempted to make a less than honorable choice, think of them, and make your family proud.
- In the lower moments when you are burnt out and homesick, you may wonder if you should just come back to our town and call it quits. I’m here to tell you to fight the urge… Just keep moving forward in the direction of your future. From experience, I know that even in our darkest moments when we cannot find the light, the sun will begin to shine again. Don’t live a life of regrets.
- Despite rule #5, I do believe in your capacity for making good choices. Please feel free to talk to me or your dad anytime about what’s on your mind. I want to know about the problems you encounter and the fears you have. Even though I never want you to quit, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to listen when you need me or offer advice when you ask. I’m no longer here to lecture, just to listen. I just care about what’s on your heart and mind – good or bad.
- Please don’t forget about all the magical moments we’ve experienced between the two of us, with you and your dad, and with the four of us as a family. I know the older you get the lower we go on the list of priorities but please remember that even when you don’t need or want us as much, we still want to be a part of your life so badly.
- Work hard to have a growing relationship with your brother. It does not matter how long it’s been since he’s seen you, you will forever be the person he aspires to be. The love he has for you is written all over his face when he hears your name. You are his walking hero. I know you can live up to that title. Be involved with him as he grows up. Call or Facetime him often. Come home when he has events of his own. There are so many times in my life I don’t know how I would’ve made it without my sister. Be his best friend.
- Form new relationships. I know from experience that going to a place where everything and everyone is new can be very intimidating. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Spearfish, and I was terrified to approach classmates and professors. I soon learned that being brave enough to do so helped me in so many aspects in life. I met so many amazing friends in school and learned so much because I was willing to take the leap.
- Lastly, remember that despite any decision you could ever make, any mistake, downfall, or disappointment, you, along with your brother, will forever be the most important people in our lives. We would do anything for you, and we will love you forever and always.
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