Thursday, June 26, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

It is day 2 of camp mommy and I am exhausted. Somehow I had completely underestimated what the pace of the day would feel like having all 3 of them home together all the time. When the slip n slide that was supposed to be the morning’s activity broke, I almost cried. It was 9:07 and everyone was ready to tear each other from limb to limb. I quickly flashed back to something I read on The Fortuitous Housewife’s blog about having children color in printable mandalas as an activity that creates balance and focus (you can find that interesting piece HERE). Shockingly, this worked.

For nearly 45 minutes the children blissfully colored together in peace. At one point Ruby looked up to compare her work to big brother’s page. Her page had more scribbles, more coloring outside of the lines. This didn’t bother me or him, but her reaction was, “Dylan, yours is the best.” Immediately, I pulled out a lie that I deemed useful enough to overshadow the downside of lying to them because I was going to teach them something. I do this way too often as a general parenting strategy and am sure it will come back to bite me in the ass someday but for now I have no problem telling them they build instantaneous muscle mass when they eat broccoli. Whatever.

Anyway, I told them that the ancient Buddhist monks who designed the mandalas they were coloring (versus going to teach us that beauty and perfection are entirely different concepts. That only you know what is beautiful because that is a deeply personal and individual thing and it is found not by comparing yourself to somebody else, but only by asking yourself if you think your work matters.

As I listened to myself lecture on how comparison is the thief of joy, the utter ridiculousness and irony of me teaching this lesson wasn’t lost. This is particularly true given that as of late, I’ve been stuck in a joyless, nasty comparative loop created entirely by my own neuroses.

A week or so ago a not so covert group began to form via social media comprised of a large number of insanely talented writing and publishing phenoms. Every day, women chime in to introduce themselves to the larger group which is awesome and they say things like, “29 and finishing my second book. So excited to meet everyone!” And rather than feel inspired by these incredibly talented women, I inexplicably binge eat Twizzlers and feel bad about myself. It’s a self-defeating, if not bloating cycle.

In a group designed to lift women up and support each other, more than ever I feel filled with just a total sense of deflatedness about my own story, envious of their relative success. Intellectually, I know their achievements do not limit my own abilities. Only I can do that.

And then tonight I got served up a true piece of literary karma courtesy of Lisa Jo Baker (you can read more her lovely piece HERE). Lisa writes: “Our DNA is desperate to be recognized. To be heard. To be valued. And while we might write all day in our heads, our fingers hesitate to type it out for fear no one else will recognize what it cost us, what it means to us. So we hide our stories where no one can ignore them but ourselves. Here’s the thing, though, your story doesn’t matter because of who reads it.”

And so I stand: the blogosphere equivalent of the falling tree. Regardless of whether you read me or hear me, Lisa reminds me that my story matters. Only I can tell it and only I can convince myself its worth being told. So here’s my story: today I am wrung out. I am sick with an excessive amount of red dye from the licorice that accompanies all my unexplored and super ugly feelings of jealousy. My story is often about a woman in her 30s desperate to love her young children while maintaining a shred of mental clarity.  Sometimes my story is about a woman who is also a wife and mother at war with herself over how to balance these pieces of her in a way that feels complimentary, not pointy and out of balance. Perhaps most importantly and as a final note to self: my story fundamentally can never be about who or what I’m not. It’s about where I am, where I want to be.

Approaching Camp Mommy day 3 with a big sense of possibility and a lock on the candy cabinet. I can do this. This summer there will be green everywhere, but mostly only under my toes. Not a stitch on me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Parents Just Don't Understand

Yesterday there was another school shooting. That makes 74 since Sandy Hook. There have also been a myriad of stabbings and other insanely violent encounters that just a few years ago, I don’t think would have entered our wildest nightmares as even a faint possibility of things that could happen in real life.
Truth? I’m pretty sick of the guns, but regretfully I don’t actually think that is the most common thread here. For me, it is violence. Violence inflicted on and by children.
Our children are literally killing each other.
Stop and take a moment. Just think about it. That baby that you are tucking in tonight, or rocking to sleep, that gentle toddler carefully stacking his blocks. Will it be him in 10 years squeezing the life out of another child? Or will he be the victim instead? It seems incomprehensible but this is real and happening to someone, many someone’s babies out there.
And I want to tell you that all of this is about the guns. In fact I even wrote a whole post about this very thing and then never published it. But then there was another shooting and it got me thinking that even though we obviously need to take semi-automatic weapons off the street (unclear why we are still debating this – military grade weapons were designed for use by, well, THE MILITARY) I’m not sure this would solve the problem.
Because the real truth of it is that we are the problem. You and me. All of us in our 30s and 40s doing all of the raising of children nowadays. We obsess over it really, we fill our days reading best practices and commentary on how we do it, why we do it, the best ways to do it. And the irony of it all is that we just suck at it. In the history of this nation, I think we may be the suckiest parents ever and I completely include myself in this indictment. We are like the greatest generation except the exact opposite. We are the laziest suckiest generation. And here’s why.
Children are like tiny little sponges or vacuums really. All day long they just suck up new information. But the number one thing children lack because they are children and this only comes with age and time and maturity, is context. Children have no context within which to place the information they’ve just learned. They have no concept of how big or small or likely they are to ever encounter what they’ve just learned. They struggle with the ability to apply relevance and give the same amount of weight to bullshit as they do to pertinent information.
As parents, this is our one big job. Give them context. Give them a framework within which to place the information they are regularly taking in every minute of every day. So that they know if they should disregard it, remember it, remember it as it applies to school, bedtime, relationships, tooth brushing. Whatever it is. The contextualization that the smart grown-ups around them are supposed to offer, helps kids to sort out all of this complex stuff. This matters because if kids don’t know what bucket to sort stuff into, or how to handle the emotions that come with what they are learning, this will lead to confusion. And confusion eventually turns to anger. And then you’ve got a lot of confused and angry kids on your hands.
This also matters more than ever because as a society and starting at ridiculously young age now, we take in an insane amount of information every day. When I take my 4 year old and 6 year old to Chuck E. Cheese and there is a video game where they can pretend to shoot and kill people and this is framed as fun, they might think this is actually as entertaining and harmless as the giant six foot talking mouse next to them. And they might think they are just as likely to encounter the giant talking mouse in their day to day life as they are to participate in some sort of play that is like this game. After all, it’s just play, right? I mean, if I don’t give them any context that tells them killing isn’t a game will they instinctually know what is real and what is not?
Well of course they won’t. How could they when most of the adults around them don’t know themselves. Dylan is in kindergarten. In kindergarten you learn that something is alive if it draws breath, takes in oxygen. And yet we stare all day at these tiny little pieces of plastic. They talk to us but they are not alive. But we give them equal or more attention than living things and so we teach our children that living and non-living things should be treated equally. That human beings do not require greater levels of depth, emotion, or attention. The implicit lesson we teach them is that our phone is their equal.
And so we look down all the time at our stupid little piece of plastic and because we look down so much, we don’t teach them anything about eye contact. They fail to pick up on and learn to read important social and emotional cues which is developed through practice. And as we fail them here, we erode the very foundation that might have ever enabled us to teach them empathy. They don’t look, they don’t see, they can’t relate and they don’t care.
And then to top it all off, we teach them that they should never be expected to wait for anything. That if they have any gap of time waiting for their meal, waiting for the performance, just waiting, they should fill it with some sort of garbage on the stupid little phone. WE teach them that they don’t have to learn to sit with themselves or with their feelings ever. They can just escape from all this the same way as their grown-ups all around them do: through an app.
And so we give them all this access to information with no idea what any of it means. We fundamentally inhibit their development of social cues, or their ability to manage their own complex feelings and emotions. We teach them that the line between what is real and not is blurred. And that if you are hurting or angry or bored you can escape into the not real side and never really deal with any of it, and that there will be no consequences for that even though we know that’s now true. Even though we know that dodging hurt feelings almost always comes back to haunt you and anyone else in your path.
And so the reality is that we are sucking at this and we are failing them. They are the building blocks of our society and when they crumble, we all fall. It isn’t the fault of the guns or the phones or any of it. It’s us. We should be TEACHERS, not babysitters. Our jobs are not to just sit back and hope that their little pea brains will instinctually know how to triangulate a fake world with pseudo real horror characters that are “telling” them to do bad shit, or hope that they will just get how to deal with rejection or fear or anger. You learn that stuff and not from Wikipedia either. You learn it by modeling the grown-ups around you who do this. You learn it from your parents. We have been outsourcing these lessons and the consequences of this lapse in our collective parenting judgment is coming back to bite us, now on a daily basis.
So look your kids in the eyes. Tell them what is real and what is not. Teach them pain and teach them how to live with their pain. Give love. Show them, teach them. It is our one stupid job. And if we don’t start doing it, they’ll keep descending into this meaningless little violent virtual vortex that lately I just feel like our society as a whole is spiraling down toward. And blood will continue to be spilled. And it will be all over our incompetent hands.

Monday, June 9, 2014

This Is What It's All About

I am the youngest of three. He is the youngest of four. It's our thing together: we are the babies of our families. My father loves to remind me, as his mother often did for him, that no matter how old I get I'll still be his baby. And indeed it's true. In my heart I am still 5 years old and laughing wildly as he reads my favorite story to me for the millionth time. Now a grandfather to my children, I watch as he reads the same silly story to the next generation. It reminds me of a lifetime of moments just like these, of the father he was and is, and of the lessons he's shared to help me raise my own babies up right. He taught me to work and love hard, and feel grateful for the hardness because it makes all the sweeter parts of life that much more so. In other words, he taught me how to parent. Here are five particular lessons I keep in mind:

1. Find your beach.
Life is hard. Being a parent is really hard. And when the noise and the chaos and the pace of it all begins to overwhelm, you need to know where to go to regroup for your own and your family's sake. For my father, this place is the beach. The beach was and is a transformative space for him. He's different at the beach. The sand, the water, and its salty, damp air offer restorative powers. As a parent now myself, I can appreciate how deeply you need that place in your life, literal or figurative, that refuels you to do hard work. As a child, I can picture him in some small boat floating out into the ocean. We'd often to beg to climb in with him and sometimes he'd relent, but I see now how much he needed that time to just be with his own thoughts. He took what he needed from those waters to find calm and strength. In parenthood, I can think of no greater lesson. Find your beach.

 2. Notice the details.
Notice them everywhere in your life, your day to day, and in the innermost and uniquely wonderful parts of your children. My father's ability to do this is in large part what makes him such a phenomenal amateur photographer. One of my most favorite photographs by my father shows a set of stacked dishes and tea cups on a table at an open market in Italy. The picture is stunning with its colors and textures. With his lens he is able to capture life at its most micro level. Indeed, the best stuff can often be found in these tiniest moments. Singing from little voices in the backseat, sticky-fingered hugs, laughter from under the blankets long past bedtime. This is the good stuff. Don't miss the details.

3. Be a parent, not a friend.
This one goes down as probably the most famous speech my father ever delivered to me and my sisters and as a child, and I can tell you we weren't big fans of it. What was his problem? Why didn't he want to be our friend? Now, as a parent myself, it is clear that this was one of his finest and most loving parenting hours. Friends are for fun and fluff and light. And when it gets hard, friends can walk away. Friends are your peers, your equals. My father reminded me that he was not. He was a teacher, showing us that he deserved a different level of respect which had to be earned. Learn the difference between friendship and parenthood and elevate your status.

 4. Do your job.
As annoyingly simplistic as these words were (and are), each time that I hear them, they are always exactly what I need. Regardless of the task, you need to show up and work and get it done as if it's a job. Perhaps it's a marriage that seems too hard to fix, a test you feel too inadequate to pass, a friendship you don't know how to salvage. You need to show up and work like there is no option to walk away. Giving up is not a choice. Loving my children is easy, but the day to day can sometimes feel long and tedious. And just when I feel like that last bit of me that is tethered to what is possible is about to break, it is my father who so lovingly and often reminds me to put my head down and dig in. Because I can, because I need to, and because 98 percent of life is showing up and working hard. Indeed, whatever it is, do your job.

 5. Know what matters.
Not a family meal or holiday goes by EVER without my father looking around the table and uttering this now-famous line: "This is what it's all about." It's often met with eye rolls and giggles, but I think deep down we all look forward to hearing this, to have this reminder. The "it" he's talking about is the stuff of life. Living a good life takes work, hard work that isn't always fun or pretty. But it's worth it for these moments to love and laugh and be grateful for our time together as a family.

Dad, thank you for these pearls of wisdom. I had no idea how hard being a parent was until I tried it myself. You often downplay your role in raising us, but you were there, right alongside Mom, teaching us and shaping us all along the way. For that, for these lessons, I am grateful. Happy Father's Day.

 Also, hey Dad? You were right. This is what it's all about.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Friday Night Favorites: My Top 5 Favorite Blog Posts

Tonight I’m thinking about other writers and bloggers. Women that made me laugh, inspired, motivated, and downright humbled me. Maybe you’ve read all of this before because these women and their words are awesome and have been widely disseminated. But actually I don’t care because they are all so phenomenal that you should read them again anyway. And just in case you haven’t and even though you never asked, here are my top 5 favorite blog posts that if you’ve never read you better pull up some Ben & Jerry’s and do right now.

This was the very first blog post I ever read. I did not know what a blog was (I’m truly a late adapter and have only recently given up my walkman). I’d never heard of Glennon Melton or Momastery. And then I read this. It blew me away. This is the part I read over and over again: “I used to worry that not only was I failing to do a good enough job at parenting, but that I wasn’t enjoying it enough. Double failure.  I felt guilty because I wasn’t in parental ecstasy every hour of every day and I wasn’t MAKING THE MOST OF EVERY MOMENT…And because I knew that one day, I’d wake up and the kids would be gone, and I’d be the old lady in the grocery store with my hand over my heart. Would I be able to say I enjoyed every moment? No.”

She got it. I didn’t know her. She didn’t know me. But somehow she knew exactly how it felt to love my children so deeply and not love every minute with them. Do you know how this feels too? Glennon understands.
For every mother, every parent stuck in the Target line with three screaming kids, read this one.

Also, buy Glennon’s book Carry On Warrior. I laughed, I cried, I made my husband read it. I bought three more copies and gave them to my sisters and friends. I peed a little bit when I read the part about the dentist and smelling like a bar. Go and get it.
Worst End of School Year Mom Ever

This one is making the rounds again and it should because it is the greatest thing every written about the end of the school year. The part I keep reading and nodding and laughing again and again is this gem: “Then Ben tells me Tuesday that he needs a Ben Franklin costume for the Living History Museum today, and I’m like (what fresh hell is this??)… I cannot even handle signing a folder in late May; a colonial costume is cause for full, unrestrained despair.”
Right this very second, you are that parent. Put down the string cheese and cereal bar that you are trying to pretend counts as your kid’s lunch for tomorrow. Read this one TONIGHT.

I had never read Kelle Hampton’s blog before but after I read this, I was hooked. Her ability to describe the simple gifts of life through her exquisite words and photographs can truly break my heart open. I sobbed when I read this post for the first time, that loud, messy ugly kind of crying that is also super cathartic. Kelle’s blog is a love story about her entire family, but this post is specifically about the birth of her beautiful daughter Nella who was born with down’s syndrome. Kelle writes: “Life moves on. And there have been lots of tears since... But, there is us. Our Family. We will embrace this beauty and make something of it. We will hold our precious gift and know that we are lucky... there is a story so beautiful in store...and we get to live it.”

Read Kelle’s story. We are the richer for her sharing it with us. And then buy her book Bloom, and remind yourself that beauty can be everywhere, but especially in the unexpected.
This Is Thirty-Eight

Do you remember all those wonderful “This Is” pieces about the different stages in childhood? Lindsey Mead wrote the “This is Ten” piece, which later inspired her to pen this wonderful post on thirty-eight. I loved many parts of this piece, but it was this section in particular that I got stuck on a little bit: “Thirty eight was leaving my injured mother’s side before surgery a couple of years ago to run home to my daughter, who was crying that I wasn’t spending enough time with her.  Thirty eight is the middle place.” This place she described so resonated with me; this description of the middle. Often I feel sandwiched in between worrying/loving my father and worrying/loving my children.  I know I’m not quite there yet, but in this and so many other ways, 36 sure feels a whole hell of a lot like 38. Lindsey nails it.
By the way, Lindsey’s This Is Ten essay is also featured in Brain Child Magazine’s new book This Is Childhood, highlighting the nuances that make each age with our children so special. In my humble, all of 5 followers opinion, the contributors to this book are some of the most talented bloggers and writers out there right now. Read it.

I first came across Claire Bidwell Smith when she wrote a guest blog post for Kelle Hampton. Every once in a while you read something and find when you get to the end that you’ve been holding your breath while you were reading and you didn’t know it. I didn’t exhale until the very last word. For me, this was Finding My Mother. I write often about the loss of my mother, about being a motherless mother, and what that feels like. For the very first time, someone else’s words effectively captured what I felt. I knew immediately I had to write her and tell her that this one took my breath away and I thanked for her saying out loud some things I hadn’t yet managed to quite process myself.

This is the line where I knew Claire got what I felt when I mothered my children and missed my own mother: “It’s not even that I feel like she’s been given back to me, but that my mother has been given to me anew. I understand her in a way I never did before. I see her in a way I never did… I often find myself breathless with the realization of just how much my mother loved me.”
When you are done reading this, buy her book, Rules of Inheritance. It is a phenomenal story for anyone, but particularly for those who struggle between the tricky space of love and loss and parenthood. Also, it’s being turned into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence so you’ll want to read the book before you see it in the theaters. Obvs.

So that’s your Friday night favorites. Not that you asked, but I told you anyway. Now get reading!