10/15/2007 01:25 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Santa Card

I played the Santa Card yesterday. And the Easter Bunny too. I'm not proud, so I've decided to come clean. If you've ever played the Santa Card you know just what I mean. But I'm here to let us all off the hook.

Here's how it went down...we were headed home for the weekend and had pulled into a diner for a pit stop. In my household, pit stops come with an enforced peeing session. Everyone must "void," as my mother used to say with her voluminous wanna-be medical terminology. I think of the word "void" when I am in pubic restrooms now because of my mother. She missed her calling not going into medicine. She has all the clinical terminology and she loves to use it. Shelasium, tinnitus, shunt, and of course, bowel movement. That was one we three sisters used to snicker at growing up; usually in the church pew during the sermon.

And so, in our favorite diner with the mountainous rotating pies, I stifled the urge to yell "Void--all of you... NOW!" Instead, I cajoled and pushed. "C'mon girls, go to the bathroom, hurry!!" I admonished my seven year olds. "Mommy is not stopping again. This is it."

My one daughter seemed to pop out of the stall a little too quickly.

"Nora?' I questioned her. "Did you really pee?"

"Yeeees Mom," she said, But she looked mighty sheepish.

"I am not stopping again. If you are lying to me, your stomach is going to hurt and pee will fill up into your eyeballs until they turn yellow." They laughed. "I'm not stopping," I yammered authoritatively.

"But what if we really have to go?" Nora said softly.

"Tuff noogies" I said. "You'd better be telling the truth, cause if not, Santa will know. AND the Easter bunny." That last part just kind of came out. I didn't mean to invoke it. I could hear the woman in the other stall cough loudly, as if disapproving of my cheap tactic.

I know, I know. It was only "voiding" for heaven's sake. It wasn't a life or death matter. But to a mother driving alone with four kids during a rain storm, a movie on in back and the thumping strains of Kanye West in front with my 13 year old--sometimes a pit stop DOES feel precariously close to do or die. It prolongs the agony of the drive.

We all have low moments. We all have times when we are so tired of drilling the same things into our kid's heads we just go straight for the windpipe, brandish the trump card.

My kids are each getting older and wiser. The older two are thankfully still keeping the flame alive for our younger twins, but now at seven they are sniffing around the edges of the Santa myth. Yesterday I fielded the question of why, if there is no real magic, like the kind in Harry Potter movies, how can deers and sleighs fly?

I think back to the moments when they all believed incontrovertibly in the little magical mythical moments of childhood. I never worried that we were "lying to our children" or muddying the waters between religion and traditions. I felt we had good answers for these questions and we knew how to segregate the two. On Christmas mornings, watching my kids eagerly waiting at the top of the stairs until my husband gave the OK to come down, it wasn't so much their belief in Santa that was the magical part. lt was simply them; their bright, hopeful eyes and collective intake of breath when they saw the Christmas tree, the nibbled carrots and half sipped glass of milk by the fireplace. I loved their excitement, innocence and especially their awestruck gratitude.

I miss the kind of blind authority I used to have. I was omniscient in those days, all-powerful. My word was as strong as the Easter Bunny, or the naughty and nice judgment of Santa. Oh, my word is still law. It has to be, I'm the Mom. I help pay the bills and run the laundry. I'm responsible for meals and whether or not there is Cookies N' Cream ice cream in the freezer. Most importantly for the teens, I have the wallet.

But they are growing up, a fact I both celebrate and mourn. As I watch my colt-legged daughter walking out of the house with lip-gloss on, I have to marvel that just yesterday, it seems, I had to scream at her to shower or she'd soon attract flies. Now on some mornings it almost takes a pipe bomb to pry her out of the bathroom. My son, always slightly smaller and younger for his grade, now towers over me, his voice ten decibels lowers. When he places his arms over my shoulders in an act of tenderness, I melt like some little old lady who needs help crossing the street.

These changes have happened slowly, inexorably, or have they? While our heads are down mothering, we are watching little pieces of them stepping out into their own brave new worlds. They are doing precisely what we've given them the right stuff to do.

My 16-year-old son was in Amsterdam with his soccer team this summer and a phone call came that he had broken his collarbone in a particularly grueling match. Thousands of miles away, I felt a flurry of emotions; helplessness, love, the need to protect and to "do something." When I finally spoke to him on the phone, his deep voice took me back at first and he sounded so wise and unflustered that it quieted me. This was the boy who once thought I'd left him behind in McDonalds at age four. When he didn't immediately see me through the revolving door, I can still picture, clear as day, how his entire face crumpled in fear, terror and then relief when I scooped him up in my arms, so afraid was he of being separated from my side.

"I'm OK Mom, honest," he assured me from another continent. "The shoulder doesn't really hurt. And I love you too," he said out loud and in bold print, right in front of his teammates, whom I could hear were horsing around in the background. I thought about that all day. Just a few months ago any pronouncement of "love you" in public would have resulted in a stony silence from him. Totally uncool.

Somehow, during this past summer, he'd made some leap; done some kind of internal calculation about his own comfort level with himself. It gave me a peek at the man he would become. He was changing and defining his world just a surely as his little sisters were questioning the world of magic and giants and raising one eyebrow quizzically when I pulled out the Santa Card.

There is an awful lot of literature about peer influences. During these pivotal teen years as parents we are supposed to have about as much sway over our kids as say, a corrections officer has on his prisoners' bedtime fantasies of bouncing Baywatch beauties. That die has been cast way back when we hung the moon for our children. Now it is their peers who hold equal or sometimes greater power; who can cajole, model behavior, punish and set the bar for many levels of judgment.

I think the scales of our influence probably begin to tip right around the time the Santa Card stops working. That's the moment I see wavering in my seven year olds eyes right now. It's about the time that the whole peer influence thing begins to gain a little ground.

I can no longer pick out some old "schmata": for my twins to wear to school. Suddenly they have strong opinions. My uncool idea of cute Grr-animal style clothes is laughed out of the bedroom, which tells me that it is all beginning, that slow, slide to independence. Their little thighs are thinning out, the baby fat is melting from their cheeks. They still need me in so many luscious and trying ways, but it's beginning. Like a rocket ship disengaging it's nose cone in space, I can feel the umbilical cord beginning to slip.

But as much nostalgia as this brings me, as much as there are days when I want to stop the clock, most days I celebrate that so far they seem to be making all the right choices, to be navigating waters with the compasses their father and I tried to build for them.

That's why when I tucked my twins into bed the night of the Santa Card explosion, I had to smile at my daughter's response to my hug and kiss. "I love you so much Mom," she said. "I love you and God the same. Oh, and I love Santa too." Maybe, just maybe, the Santa card still had some legs on it. Or maybe I was raising a daughter clever enough to hedge her bets.