Dear Charlie and Jack,

Last month, I spent a weekend in Vegas with your Aunts (let’s call them) A and B to celebrate our respective 40th birthdays. We did some of the usual Vegas stuff. We ate at Planet Hollywood’s all-day buffet, drank watered down club cocktails, watched a pretty disappointing Britney Spears concert, flirted with European boys, and reminisced about our elementary and high school days. Mostly, however, we talked about our cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and, of course, our kids.


Justine_VegasL to R:  your Mama, Aunt A, and Aunt B; October 2014

Abi ninyo,” your Aunt A confided to us, “I have this feeling that if I just left C (her 14 year old daughter) to her own device, she would never get into a topnotch university!”

Let me tell you a very important thing about your Aunt A. She works hard, very hard, with one overriding purpose: to send C to an Ivy League school.  It stresses her out to see that C is not taking as many Advanced Placement classes, logging in as many community hours, and applying to as many prestigious summer jobs as she could.

“How will she succeed in life if she only goes to a community college?” your Aunt A asked.

I understood her all too well. Until very recently, I, too, harbored the same parental desire to send you only to the “top” schools (i.e. private nursery, elementary, middle, and high schools, and Ivy League universities) because I, too, believed that is how you are going to be successful in life. I, too, believed that the education required to ensure your success in life must cost money, lots of it, and I was ready to do whatever it took to afford this topnotch education.

Over a decade ago, in my late twenties, before your Papa and I got together, I lived in Florence, Italy for a year. At the end of the year, in the summer, a friend and I decided to hit as many beaches as we could before flying back to the US. From Venice we boated over to Croatia, drove down the Dalmatian Coast, boat-hopped to Corfu and Santorini and on to the south of Italy.

Justine and Becka in GreeceR to L:  your Mama, her friend Becka; Ios, Greece, 2003

We were going for broke… except that when she did go broke, she called her mother. While my friend made her phone call, I sat in that restaurant in Santorini, a little buzzed on some ouzo, and wished, “I want to be rich. Not filthy disgusting rich, of course not. Just enough to send my kids to Stanford without having to rely on financial aid from any source. So my kids will be successful.”

Never before had I articulated any desire to be rich for any reason and it felt so grown-up to be wishing it. When the time came time to decide whether to come back to the US or to stay and gallivant some more with a Florentine boyfriend, I came back without hesitation, ready to start my journey to become rich. (I’m not sure how or why but at some point I decided the best way to make lots of money was to become an attorney.)

Maybe if I had you soon after I made that wish, I might have worked my butt off and I would be rich by now. But I didn’t have you right then.  Instead, I had more time– to fall in love, work, travel, live.  When I had you, my world started to change.  And now I’m 40, far from being rich, and questioning all the priorities that I have held dear for a long time. (Some people call it midlife “crisis” but that just sounds too pessimistic.)

“How do you define success for your kids?” I asked both your aunts.

They both agreed that it is, “Financial Independence.”

Of course, yes, I want you to have some financial means, to afford what you need or what your hearts desire.

Let me now offer you here another definition, the one that my 40-year old self is finally beginning to believe in and strive for.  Whether it as an alternative or a supplement to the above definition, I leave it for other parents to decide.  It is so basic, it boggles my mind that it took me this long to articulate it for myself and for you.   But I guess that’s why it’s said that life is a process.  Here its is: Success is being able to dedicate my life, or at least some portion of it, to doing the thing(s) that feed my soul and spirit, to the dogged pursuit of that which makes my heart sing, beat with pure joy. (And, if it’s not yet clear to you, writing and dancing do that for me.)  I highlight the phrase “or at least some portion of it” because I acknowledge the reality of having to earn a living, especially if you have a family to support.  In the end it’s a question of living a balanced life and not neglecting to do the things that make you happy to be alive.

In light of this definition of success, it dawned on me that sending you to Stanford might not necessarily mean you will be successful.  Obviously, it might, too.  And if your journey (see below, guiding principle #2) takes you to the hallowed hallways of an Ivy League university, I will be one proud and happy Mama.

But what does this all mean for you now? How does this affect the way I raise you now so you can be successful as I hope you will be?

I will tell you, as clearly and simply as I can.

First, I am setting aside this Stanford vision.  For now, forever- who knows?  The idea of Stanford breeds in me anxiety and it is making me do things totally uncharacteristic of me (like wishing I were rich or considering daily piano lessons for you when you clearly do not show any inclinations towards the instrument.)  Your aunt and her teenager might not have the luxury of more time but you and I do.

Second, having set aside Stanford, I am also letting you play as much and as long as your hearts desire.    You want to come home from school and jump around naked in the trampoline until the monkeys in you tire from all the bouncing?  Do it.     You want to bellycrawl across the entire soccer field in search of aliens?  Do it.  You want to learn how to do a handstand?  Do it.  Perfect it, if you want.  Go on a journey to get to know yourselves and the things that make you happiest.  I  don’t know how all these will eventually get you to Stafnord but for now they make you happy and that counts more.

IMG_0381[1]Charlie working on a handstand during a Capoeira class

Third, I am going to try to help you think and do things for yourself, to risk creating something your way, and not to worry too much about what others think of you and your “creation”.  I’m not entirely sure how I”m going to do this but let’s start with baking our own pies, making our own switch plates, and drawing our own story books.  It is my hope that when you get an idea of what it is that you are happiest with doing,  you will have the courage within and belief in yourselves to pursue them, with our without everybody else’s approval.

Fourth and last, I will try my best to raise you with fewer “stuff”. This means fewer toys, fewer clothes, fewer everything material. I hope you will grow up without the need to accumulate stuff to feel successful.  I want you to live simply. That might be the only way you will be able to keep on doing what you love to do, just in case what you love to do is something that is not financially profitable or is something that will not land you gainful employment.

So there. I’ve shared with you your 40 year old Mama’s four guiding principles. I labor to write all this (I mean it– THIS WAS NOT AN EASY LETTER TO COMPOSE!) because raising you boys amidst the relentless pressure and madness to race to the “top”, to pack your days with all sorts of activities so you can master as many skills as you can by the time you apply for college, to buy you the latest toys and gadgets that would stimulate your minds and give you the proverbial leg up, is overwhelming and difficult. I know I’m doing right by you when I chill and opt out of this race but it takes a kind of courage that I sometimes lack.

I wish your Aunts A and B lots of good luck.  I don’t envy the stage where they’re at– their kids are closer to college years than you both are. I’m glad you and I have a few more years to sort all these out a little more.

In the meantime, let’s shake our hair, wiggle our little sampot, stomp our feet, and let our giggles fill the air.