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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Preparing for life underwater

Part of my work is to help expectant women prepare themselves for becoming mothers.  And it's a delicate thing, you know, because it can't be done.  I mean, I do my best, and what I do is valuable, but.... inadequate.  Because the thing about motherhood is this: you can't prepare for it.  Trying to prepare someone for motherhood is like trying to prepare a rock for sitting at the bottom of a riverbed for a hundred years.

The stone has been sitting happily on the riverbank for a long time now, enjoying the sun and the insects and the fresh air and the sound of the water rushing past.  And the stone says, "listen.  I can do this.  I've seen other rocks go down there, I've seen how smooth and worn-away they get after they've been there for a while.  I've seen the water, and I've felt it rush over me from time to time, in storms or in the rain."  And the stone thinks it's ready.

And one day, along comes a child, who smashes the stone open.  Carelessly, inexpertly, perhaps violently.  And the child throws the sundered rock into the depths of the river.  The very heart of the stone is exposed, raw and jagged, for all the world to see.  And there is no way to prepare for what comes next.  Not only the disorienting moment where you are immersed, where your world of sun and air and birds is swapped for one of water and stone and strange light and strange creatures, but also for the constancy of the current.  The way that you live in it every day, every minute of the day, and how it changes you.  

It's not the abrupt splitting-open of a volcano (although there's that, too, at the beginning), or the heat of a lightning strike.  It's not even like being struck against steel to start a fire.  It's a slow, constant wearing-away of the self.  The constancy of the current wears away your rough spots, and you get surprised at what is revealed underneath.  Underneath, it is smooth, pale from lack of sunlight, and fragile and beautiful.  The insides, the workings of yourself, are revealed over the months and years.  And there's no preparing for that moment of meeting a bit of yourself that you never wanted to admit was there.  There's no preparing for those raw, smooth places that are exposed over time.  There's no preparing for the relentless, slow sweep of the current that wears you away hour by hour.  

And this, after all, is motherhood: parts of yourself that you thought were gone become exposed, parts of yourself that you didn't know were there see daylight.  You think you are one thing, and you learn, through the slow erosion of your surface self, that you are wrong.  Always, I saw myself as a stone in the rough: unattractive, abrasive, brittle and grainy, unfinished.  And here I am, nearly 9 years after the moment I first learned there was a life growing in this body of mine, eight years after that careless child (or two) smashed my rock-self open on the riverbank, and I am not what I thought I was.  At my core, there has been revealed a chunk of stone that is stronger than any diamond, as smoothed by the currents of motherhood as if it had been at the bottom of the river for a thousand years.  I am stronger than I ever imagined myself, more worn away than I thought I would ever become.  And more beautiful than my wildest imaginings.  I am still becoming myself.

This job is not just hard; it is actually, literally, impossible.  It's not possible for our bodies to run on no sleep and only the nutrition we can cram into our mouths in a spare moment.  It's not possible to love another human so desperately.  It's not possible to survive this much anxiety on behalf of the small people we find ourselves responsible for.  

And yet.

We do it anyway.  Every day.  

This, then, is my prayer for you mothers: don't be prepared; be patient.  May you break, and then heal.  May you find the beauty in your new watery world.  May you find yourselves able to bear up under this relentless, loving current that both destroys and creates us.  May you be wrong in the best of ways: stronger than you imagined, and only growing stronger as your beauty is revealed.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Human Shields and Social Anxiety

I have been drowning in statistics homework lately (you know, in case you haven't read my facebook rants whining about it).  I promise I won't continue whining about it, but because it's been a difficult week for me, my amazing mom offered to take the boys overnight so I could get caught up.  As a reward to myself for working so hard, I went to church this morning all by myself.  And it was amazing.

I didn't have to wrestle anyone else into their shoes, or listen to anyone complain about having to get out the door; I just put on my shoes and jacket and hopped in the car.  So easy!  I forgot that's what it was like before I had kids.  And I didn't have to worry about getting anyone settled into the nursery, or having them fidget on my lap until it was time to sing the children out.  And don't get me wrong, I am perfectly happy doing those things on any given Sunday, but it sure was nice to have a different experience.  I listened to a service that spoke to me about being kind and compassionate to others, and it was great.

But I have to admit that going to coffee hour without the kids felt a little bit like going into battle without my armor.  In social situations where I feel nervous or unsure of myself, it's become very easy for me to make everything about the kids.  If I'm stuck in an awkward conversation or feeling a little too vulnerable, I tend to make a quick joke and excuse myself because "the kids need me" or "we'd better head out before meltdown time".  And often, those things are true.  But, also often, I use them as a way to get around or out of social situations where I feel uncomfortable or vulnerable.  You read me right: I use my children as human shields.  (I figure it's okay for their health because they have no idea, and they're not shielding me from anything violent).  And the anxiety that rose up in me today at the thought of heading into coffee hour unshielded, vulnerable, and exposed was a real, live thing, like a serpent rising in my stomach.  What if I didn't have an out?  What if people wanted to interact with me in a way that was real and honest?  What if they didn't?

And as that service ended, I decided: I was not going to do it.  There was no way I was going to coffee hour without my little buddies.  I would simply duck out, and nobody would notice, because of course nobody would notice; I'm not important (at least, according to my anxiety).

But then something happened.  Someone from my small group ministry that I like very much asked how I was doing, and I could tell she genuinely wanted to know.  And within the space of that short, kind conversation, I was somehow carried on the current of moving people right into the heart of coffee hour.   And I stayed.  That one interaction gave me the backbone to tell my anxiety to shove it, to move into that room and smile at people who I have met and would like to get to know better.  And you know what?  It was all right.  In fact, I got two phone numbers and promises to get together from two women who I've had friend-crushes on for a while (you know?  that thing where you meet someone and you think, "Oooooh, we have GOT to be friends!"), and it was really nice.

If I had left that church service without going to coffee hour, I would have had a relaxing morning but I would have missed something really important.  Instead, I left feeling like my cup was full, something I have felt only very rarely since becoming a parent.  I felt like I was part of a beloved community, and I felt excited for new friendships, and I felt good because I think maybe I helped others feel that way for a moment at least.

So.... I think it's time to work on maybe not using my kids as human shields.  It's hard to think about how that will work, but at least I have the reminder that being able to have actual grown-up conversations without that protection was really wonderful.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Icarus Mom Syndrome

I think I've discovered a new parenting disorder, because I'm suffering from it this week.  And I bet I'm not the only one this happens to.  Thankfully, I'm having a good laugh about it today (after the fact).  Sometimes in my life I have moments that are so ridiculous I just have to share them.  So..... you're welcome.

Me, on Wednesday: Oooh, the kids have a half day Thursday and no school Friday or Monday!  I am going to make this so fun for them!  We are going to do so much cool stuff!  I'll be the best mom evarrrrrr!"

Me, on Thursday afternoon: This is good.  Some whining is happening, but we went out for ice cream and a lovely Fall bike ride on the bike trail, and we'll just run one quick errand before we head home.  

Do you see my error?  I know.  In retrospect, it's glaringly obvious.  I pulled an Icarus; I flew too close to the sun.  Feeling good about my parenting; why not add just one more little errand with three kids in tow?  What could possibly go wrong?

And then I end up at the pharmacy with three kids to just pick up one little thing and suddenly I hear it, the unthinkable:

 "Mama, I have to go poop!"

Okay.  It's okay.  I'm supermom.  I can handle this.  CVS has a bathroom, right? Oh god.  Where is the bathroom?  "Ah, excuse me. Do you have a restroom?" I hope she can't see the panic in my face. Oh god, he's all hunched over like he's trying with every fiber of his being to hold it in. And what the hell do you mean we have to go to the grocery store, all the way on the other side of the plaza?!

So then we are running, trailing crumbs and children, down the sidewalk to the store with a bathroom.  And never mind that one child is running all hunched over, crying and yelling, "it's too late, mama! It's coming out!"  "Come on guys, we can do this; just keep going!  We are going to get to the bathroom!"  People are staring.  And another of the kids trips and I see him go down in slow-motion, scraping all the skin off one knee and narrowly missing knocking out a tooth.  And then he's up and he's crying,  and I scoop him up but we're still running to the bathroom, but now the third one is crying and asking why does everyone have to be so stressed out?!

"Guys, come on!  We can do it!  Let's just keep going!"  But they don't hear me because they are all crying and I'm shouting inane attempts at encouraging phrases and trying not to totally lose my shit. Now people are REALLY staring.  But it's okay, because we've finally made it to the grocery store, and we burst in the door with three screaming children, one of whom is waddling and yelling, "It's too late! I already pooped!" over and over again, and another one screaming, "It's bleeding!  It's bleeding! AAAAUUUUUGGGGGGHHHH".  So, as you can imagine, everyone in the grocery store was super excited  to see us but I didn't care because where is the damn bathroom?!  Right where it belongs, in the far back opposite corner of the store.  Why are grocery stores so cavernous?  So we traipse the length of the store at a screaming, crying, run-trot ("It's too late, it's too late, mama! I already pooped!" "Whyyyyyyy is everyone so stressed out today!?" "I'm bleeding!!!" ) With my shouts of encouragement getting more shrill and panicked, and finally make it to the bathroom.  Thank God the big stall is open and we rush in and get the one that has to poop onto the toilet.

"I don't have to go anymore."

Icarus down.

I need to set the bar lower.  Don't do it, moms: don't fly too close to the sun.  Next time, I am staying at home and letting my kids hula hoop on the porch for a fun mini-vacation activity.  Or, let's be honest, Netflix Daniel Tiger for an hour while I do homework.

So natch, we are driving out of state tomorrow for a fun family outing*.  But thankfully, blessedly, there will be two parents along for the ride.

Away I go again!

Yup, just call me Icarus.

*in all fairness, I actually am excited to go visit people we like.  I'm just less excited about the drive.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Initiating peace talks

This winter, I gained some weight.

 I can't tell you how difficult that sentence was to write. But it's true.  Last year, I lost a bunch of weight, and this year I have put it alllll back on. Plus some.  And there are a lot of reasons for that.  One of the main ones is that this winter was really, really really hard.  My mental and my physical health suffered.  I wasn't able to care for myself the way I would have liked, and honestly, most of my energy was spent just getting us all through.  It's not an exaggeration when I say that I needed to focus my energy on just staying alive.

And for months now, I have been hating myself for it.  Just hating myself.  Feeling disgusted with my body, feeling like I have failed, like I am worthless and unattractive and just plain ugly.

And you know what?  I have been ugly.  It's ugly to treat anyone, especially myself, that way.  My inner dialogue has been comprised almost entirely of things I would never, in a million years, say or think about another person.  Ugly.

And I am done.  Just done.  As a feminist, I'm frankly embarrassed by how much I've let my body issues determine my self-worth.  And as a human, I am exhausted and demoralized from living this way.  In what other setting would it be okay to hate something until it's perfect?

I am initiating peace talks with my own body.

I am tired of being at war with myself, of fighting and hating and criticizing myself.  I am working toward accepting myself, even loving myself, as I am.  Not some possible future self, but my present, imperfect, fat self.

And it's hard.  It's really hard not to slip back into those habits of self-loathing.  But I am working every day on it.  And, in the words of the inimitable Fred Rogers, "Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now."  And striving to accept myself is where I'm at right now.

I'll leave you with two quotes from Eat Pray Love, which I have been re-reading again.  This is the passage in the book that most speaks to me, that I probably need to read and re-read weekly, at least. 
"You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That's the only thing you should be trying to control."
"I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore..... I pictured the harbor of my mind - a little beat-up, perhaps, a little storm-worn, but well situated and with a nice depth.  The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self...You may not come here anymore with your hard and abusive thoughts, with your plague ships of thoughts, with your warships of thoughts - all these will be turned away.  Likewise, any thoughts that are filled with angry or starving exiles, with malcontents and pamphleteers, mutineers and violent assassins, desperate prostitutes, pumps, and seditious stowaways - you may not come here anymore, either.  Cannibalistic thoughts, for obvious reasons, will no longer be received. Even missionaries will be screened carefully, for sincerity.  This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island that is only now beginning to cultivate tranquility.  If You can abide by these new laws, my dear thoughts, then you are welcome in my mind - otherwise, I shall turn you all back toward the sea from whence you came.
This is my mission, and it will never end."

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Chore chart

So this past week was school vacation.  After several days of breaking up fights, throwing up (I had a nasty stomach bug), and listening to the kids whine and complain about everything I did, I was fed up.  I was tired of being whined at for doing nice things for my kids, and tired of trying to do everything around the house while they didn't help.  So I decided I needed to get some help around the house, namely from the kids.  I took to Pinterest to find a useful chore chart that would help me and the kids get organized.

There are a ton of chore charts on Pinterest, but I had some requirements: 1. I don't want to pay my kids to do chores (at least not their daily chores). 2: I needed it to look nice and be functional. 3. I needed to be able to make it out of materials I already had on hand, since we are in a major budget crunch.

Which meant that all the cute magnetic charts with custom, homemade magnets were out.  Unfortunately.  But I settled on one that I really like so far, and it is changing my world.  This morning, we had a conflict-free send-off to school, which NEVER happens at our house.  The boys got dressed without a fuss (also NEVER happens), and they have been helping keep the house clean by doing chores after dinner every night.  There is some grumbling, which is to be expected, but they are doing what they are supposed to do.

I only wish I had done this sooner: the boys seem much happier, and here is why I think that is: they are in charge.  I think it gives them a sense of agency in their world.  They feel grown-up and responsible, and I think it feels good to them.  Last night, as Owen was sweeping the kitchen floor, he started telling us that we need to be appreciative of him because he doesn't HAVE to do all this stuff.  And while my first instinct is to say, "you bet your ass you do, mister! And also: don't steal my line.", I was able to say, "You know, buddy, I do appreciate this.  It is so super helpful of you do help out this way."

So here's the system I came up with:

I made this out of spare fabric I had laying around, hot glued together with ribbon trim.  I dipped the clothespins in paint (color coded: blue for Jonah, yellow for Emmett, and green for Owen) and wrote chores on each one.  Every day, all the clothespins start out on the left side with the green ribbon, and as they complete each chore they move the clip to the right-hand side.  Emmett just kind of plays with his, but Owen and Jonah seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from moving the clothespins from one side to the other as they complete their jobs.  I guess that shouldn't surprise me; they come by it honestly, since I am the type of person who will put already-completed tasks on my to-do list just for the satisfaction of crossing them off.
Here are the things I put on the clothespins:
-get dressed
-make bed
-backpack (pack your backpack for school)
-clear dishes (they get to move this one after they have cleared their dishes from all 3 meals)
-pick up toys
-sweep kitchen (one does it after lunch and one does it after dinner)
-pick up toys (evening pick up at the end of the day)
-Read (they need to have some reading time during the day)
-lay out clothes before bed, for the next day)
-brush teeth
-Pick me

So most of these are either self-care or cleaning up after themselves.  Which is good, but I also wanted them to take some responsibility for the rest of the house, so I created a 'pick me!" jar that has popsicle sticks in it, each with a chore written on it.  Here are the chores in the jar:
-wash kitchen table
-wipe down kitchen counters
-wash bathroom counter and sink
-scrub walls behind high chair
-wipe kitchen baseboards
-wipe bathroom baseboards
-wipe down edge of bathtub (this is perpetually dusty and grimy at our house and no, I don't know why)
-wash the floor around the toilet (it feels appropriate to make the boys do this one, since they are the main reason it always smells like pee in our bathroom)

They are all relatively quick chores, but some of them I have a really hard time getting to on a regular basis.  Each day, the boys pick a popsicle stick after dinner and do the chore on it, in addition to their others.

I also made one more jar: money-makers.  All of the previous chores are just ones that they need to do, and we have had many talks about how families help each other out, and being part of a family means taking care of our space.  But if they want to earn some money (there is a Lego set they are saving up for), they have the option of taking a popsicle stick from the 'money maker' jar.  Each stick has on it a chore and a price.

So it's not perfect, but it really is saving me a lot of nagging, because it's just hanging in the corner of our living room for the kids to see.  So far, so good.  I only hope we are able to keep the momentum going!

Do you have a system for chores in your house?  I would love to hear what others are doing!

Monday, February 24, 2014

So far

It's Monday of school vacation week.  I know; everyone else in New England had it last week, but New Hampshire has to be special.  I am starting my week with a big pile of paperwork that has to be done by Friday, including a birth-related recertification and a self-evaluation for work (I am rating myself really really high on everything because a) I like to think I am awesome and b) I really need a raise. Badly.)  But I am also starting my week with a quiet cup of coffee and some reflection while the kids play happily (for the moment). 

I have to say that so far, 2014 has not lived up to my hopes for it.  We are not even two months in and already I've spent a full month trying to get over an antibiotic resistant strep infection, had a long-lasting allergic reaction to the one antibiotic that worked, had our bank account hacked into, had to start a very restrictive anti-imflammatory diet because after so many antibiotics and illnesses and poor self-care, my immune system was basically trying to kill me.  I also have an infection in my finger that sounds like a small thing, but I assure you that it is searingly painful, though at least not dangerous.  It feels lately like the hits just keep coming.  Add to that all of the snow and cold and cancelled and made-up classes, the cabin fever and cooped-up kids who are yelling and fighting and running through our tiny house, and you have a recipe for bad feelings.  

I took a step I've never taken before, and this winter I reached out for some serious help. Of the pharmaceutical variety.  I've wrestled with depression for years now, and always felt like I could manage it with diet, exercise, self-care, phototherapy, or some other means.  But not this year.  After a month solid of feeling horrible, being in pain, and (most importantly) not being able to sleep because my tonsils were so huge they blocked my airway when I laid down, I was in a very bad place.  Thankfully, I was able to reach out for some help.  A coworker covered for me so I could leave work early to have an emergency appointment with my therapist, who immediately knew something was wrong when I called.  I never call.  My doctor was able to sit down with me and talk about what some of the contributing factors might be, and I am so thankful to have a doctor who actually is familiar with my chart and my family, and who told me point-blank that if I didn't get some sleep and start taking my thryoid meds, nothing was going to get better.  And who also understood that I was reluctant to go straight for the zoloft and was willing to explore some other options with the caveat that if things didn't get better pretty quickly, we were going that route.  

And thankfully, my husband was there to step up as much as he was able in his limited time at home.  After my last post about building a local safety net and appreciating the one I already have, this was a pretty damn concrete illustration of how the safety net works.  And things have been getting better, despite the fact that the hits keep coming.  I stumbled, and I fell hard, and then people were there to help me back up.  I think that maybe now I'm up and I'm walking, just maybe not as fast or as efficiently as I normally do.  

Things are hard.  This winter is hard.  And it's not looking likely that things will ease up in the foreseeable future.  But I am trying to care for myself the way I would care for a sick friend, and that's the part I really wanted to share. 

As mamas, we are so hard on ourselves.  I feel, so often, like I am doing everything wrong and I have messed up my kids forever.  Like all their shortcomings and difficulties are somehow my fault or my responsibility.  The stakes feel very high with all of this parenting stuff.  In the space of 3 minutes with your kids, you can have both a breathtaking victory and a devastating setback.  And as women, our self-talk is often atrocious.  I say things to myself that are so horrible, I would never say them to another human being.  I have so much compassion and understanding for others, particularly those in a difficult situation, but i direct almost none of that toward myself. 

I am on a mission to change that.  It's exhausting to monitor my internal dialogue so closely, to make the effort to speak to myself as I would speak to a friend.  But thankfully, I have good people to model after, good friends who check in on me by phone and by facebook and email.  And I have a small amount of energy that I am directing toward building a local support network as well.  So while at this point, I will not (even remotely) say "bring it on", I will say that I think I can handle what I've got.  So maybe, universe, just keep it right here for now?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Running away

For Christmas this year, I only wanted one thing: a vacation.  When I told my husband this, he got all nervous and said something like, "babe, I really wish we had the money to get plane tickets, but..."
"No", I said, "from you guys."
What I really need right now is a break from my kids.  I love them dearly.  So much, seriously, so much, but I am burned out.  I have caregiver burnout.  That is a thing, you know.

I have been reading a lot of great blog posts lately, like this one from Momastery about how important it is to be needed, but also to need others.  And this one, from a dear friend whose thoughts about parenting and journalism are always smart and caring and well-thought out.  And let's face it: there are a lot of really good parenting blogs out there, all touting the joys and the trials of parenthood.  This isn't one of them.  Not today.

Because there are a lot of joys in this life, and I really want to think like Josh does, that I can sleep when I'm dead.  I fully understand how fortunate I am.  But what happens at burnout point?
What happens when you are lucky enough to have a partner who is a completely awesome co-parent but who also works about a million hours a week?
What about when you have been doing this parenting thing with not very much help or rest for a very long time?
What happens when you are really sick and you need to lean on someone else and your partner does his best but (see above about the million hours a week)?
And what about when you have so many amazing women and mom friends but they are scattered all over the country and you don't really have any family (or let's face it, friends) nearby?

I think, at that point, it's okay to be burned out.  It's okay to ask for help, and it's okay to feel sad if you can't get the help you need.  And it's okay to need a vacation.  It's even okay to run away from home for just a little bit.

So this weekend, hubby will be home with the kids on his own, and I will be running away from home for a couple of days.  I am heading to a friend's house (one who doesn't have kids!), and we will be dining out like real adults in real clothes (not yoga pants!).  I will be drinking wine and sleeping through the night, and reading a novel.  I am bringing a crochet project, and a little gift I bought myself today: a pack of really nice colored pencils and a mandala coloring book.  My lovely friend has to work half of the weekend, but she has so kindly offered to let me stay at her house with no one bothering me for the whole weekend.

I want to be rested.  At this point, it's kind of an emergency-need kind of thing.  And then maybe, by the end of the weekend, I'll be ready to come back with a smile on my face and feel excited about parenting again.

Maybe I'll be ready to see that I am surrounded by amazing local mamas if I only had the time to hang out with them.  And maybe I'll feel less sick after some rest.  Maybe after a couple of days of rest and peace, I'll be ready to be that patient, thoughtful mama I would like to be.  And maybe I'll be ready to see that precisely at the moment I am losing my mind and bemoaning the fact that my village is so spread out, people in my village are stepping up for me to lean on.