Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Legacy of Love

It was the freckles. I'm the only one in my house that has them - scattered all down my arms and hands, but as a kid, half of my household had them, and as far as I was concerned, they came from Grandpa. Most of his kids had freckles dotting their faces and arms and hands and many of their kids did, too - my cousins. But I don't see that side of the family much except on Facebook, so when we flew to California for my cousin's wedding this weekend and I walked in the door and saw people with freckles, I felt that tug of home, of connection.

There is something about going back to a place that holds so much history for me and spending time there with the people who first introduced me to it. Even though I never lived in that town, I have touchstones there - landmarks and memories that sit steadfast in my head and heart, and somehow I am able to navigate my way from the beach to the zoo to my aunt's house and back.

Sitting in her living room on Friday night with my cousins, telling the same stories we always tell about the things we did when we saw each other once a year as kids, I felt so strongly a part of something bigger. Every once in a while I glanced at Eve and Lola and was glad they get folded in to this tradition every few years as well. Bubba has been around enough that he slips easily in to the group, trading jokes and recalling some of the same family lore.

On Saturday, when more cousins and aunts and uncles arrived, the chaos felt warm and comfortable. We met up at the beach, greeting new babies and walking in a pack, seamlessly moving between generations as we stopped to gaze at crabs and fish, use the bathroom, reapply sunscreen, talking and laughing easily. In the evening, in a crowd of more than 100 people, we continued the dance, shifting to say hello to more family with firm hugs and slipping into conversations without small talk. This is where I learned to do family - with these people who are smart and stubborn and funny and freckled. This is where I learned that you can disagree and tease and be in a bad mood and still be loved and cherished and celebrated. This is where I began to understand that, even as you display your own quirks and unique personality, you are tied to others by virtue of your similarities - like those freckles or having the gift of gab.

No matter how big this family gets, with weddings and babies born, it will always be strong and solid, cemented by the stories of childhood pranks and the sweet memories of Grandma and Grandpa. As we sat on a bench near the water one day, I looked over and saw my uncle wearing the opal ring that my grandfather used to wear and I felt a warmth, a continuity, a solid foundation behind me. He has the same freckled hands, the same long, graceful fingers, the same generous heart I remember, and when I see him holding his own grandchildren I know that the legacy of love my grandparents started will live on.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Myth of the Supermom

http://www.clker.com/clipart-super-hero-flying-silhouette.html
Yesterday was one of the loveliest Mother's Days I've had. My girls are old enough to temper their sibling interactions with each other and put up with my sentimental slobbering with minimal complaining.  They were sweet and kind, funny and gentle, and Bubba had planned the day with lots of relaxation in mind.

I saw lots of wonderful messages in texts and on social media and I was so happy that so many other mothers out there were feeling the love yesterday. But there were a few things that gave me pause, even though I know they were meant with love and gratitude.

The whole "Supermom" thing has a twist on it for me, especially when it is held up by corporations trying to sell us something or organizations that are designed to support or revere motherhood. I am no Supermom. I am hardworking-good-enough-human-mom, and it has taken me years to get to the point where that is all I aspire to.

Several years ago, in my therapist's office, I began my journey toward good-enough-mom. As I described some of the pressures I put on myself on a daily basis, the lessons I wanted to be sure to impart to my daughters, the life I wanted to provide for them, the people I hoped they would become, I noticed my therapist's face change. I can't describe it, but her energy shifted from wholehearted agreement and mentally patting me on the back for my wonderful ideas and intentions to skeptical, thoughtful.  I stopped talking mid-sentence and asked, "What?"

"You are trying to be Supermom. Good, healthy, hot, nutritious meals three times a day, enough mental stimulation, lots of emotional support for your girls and your husband. Keeping a tidy house, never being late for anything, making sure the girls get enough social interaction and their doctor and dentist appointments happen on time. Seeing that everyone gets enough sleep and not too much TV and good exercise daily, right?"

None of that sounded bad to me. I was confused.

"Where is the time for you? Where is the flexibility for mistakes or spills or spontaneous resting time?"

There will be time for me when the girls are older, when Bubba isn't traveling so much for work, when....I thought to myself.

"You know that your girls are learning as much or more from watching you as they are by listening to what you say, right? They see that you are putting all of your efforts into making everyone else's life perfect and smooth. They see that you have no needs of your own, and that is what they think mothers do. They see you utterly exhausted to the point of tears at the end of most days and they will internalize the message that they are expected to be Supermoms, too, when they have kids. Is that what you want for them?"

Oh, shit.

As hard as it was, from that day forward, I did my best to give up on the idea that being a Supermom was the highest form of parenting. I began trying to give myself some slack, to give myself permission to make cereal and bananas for dinner some nights, or order a pizza. I began to work toward a goal of good-enough-mom, if only so that my daughters would see that as a viable path for themselves. I started working on saying no to things I didn't want to do for them and articulating that my desires were just as important as theirs. And it took a long time, but most days that is where I am. And so when I see messages in the mass media about "Supermoms," it makes me sad to think that there are folks out there who are setting our girls up to believe that being hard-working-full-of-love-most-of-the-time-good-enough-moms aren't worth celebrating.  Because I'm here to tell you that we are.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Shorthand for Teens and Tweens

I had dinner last night with a good friend whose daughter is on the cusp of teenagerdom. We were talking about the pitfalls of communicating with kids this age - especially girls - and I told her about one idea I had with Eve when she was 12 that shifted things for us significantly. I swear I wrote about it once before, but I can't find the post anywhere, so please indulge me if you've read it here previously.

When Eve was in 6th grade, we lived about 45 minutes from her school. This gave us ample time to both prepare for and debrief from her days in the classroom and I really appreciated hearing from her for the most part. We had several other girls in our carpool for at least part of the drive and listening to them talk about assignments and teachers and social dynamics of middle school was a real education for me. From time to time, when the other girls would peel off at the end of the day, Eve would sigh and get ready to talk about something that was bothering her.  In the beginning, my instinct was to fix things. I assumed that she was telling me because she wanted my insight and I often interrupted her to tell some story of a similar situation I had endured when I was her age. (Seriously, I'm cringing just writing that - what the hell was I thinking?) Not surprisingly, she often got frustrated with me - both for the interruption and for turning the attention to myself. After a few outbursts over a few weeks, I realized that if I continued to react to her in this way, I was going to shut her down and she wouldn't likely tell me anything about her rough days anymore. So I created a shorthand.

As soon as she would start to talk about an unpleasant experience, I would ask, "What do you need from me right now? Is this venting, do you want my opinion, or are you asking my advice?"

More often than not, she was simply venting and when she replied in that way, it gave me permission to relax and simply listen. I didn't have to get caught up in the emotion of it and rush to find solutions because her definition of venting was simply to release the negative feelings and move on. I was performing a valuable function by being there and receiving the frustration, often only nodding my head or murmuring a supportive sound.

From time to time, as she wound down, she would change her mind and ask for my (short) opinion, and occasionally she wanted to know what I thought she ought to do. More than anything, this shorthand gave her the control she wanted and let me know what my role was. My overriding instinct to be the mom and fix things led me to rush in and annoy her, and by asking her what I could do that felt the most supportive, I was sending her the message that I believe in her ability to take care of things herself, or that not everything needs to be taken care of. Sometimes what we really need is to just let go of the day and move on.

Now that Lola is older and struggling with many of the same things, I have begun using this strategy with her as well. Advice, opinion or venting? And, true to her nature, she has kicked it up a notch. The other night, she was helping me prepare dinner, she began venting about something that happened at school. I stood next to her quietly listening and taking it all in with the occasional nod of my head to make sure she knew I was paying attention, but when I didn't say anything for a while, she raised her voice a bit,

"Mom! You need to be on my side! You can't just listen when I vent, you have to say that you're on my side and you see what I mean. Even if you can see the other person's side of things, when I'm upset and venting, I need you to be fully on my side, okay?"

I had to laugh. I told her that I am ALWAYS on her side and she nodded. "I know that. But you need to say it when I'm venting. Something like, 'you're right - I'd be upset too.' "

Duly noted.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Shifting Perspectives

I was reading a mental health journal this afternoon and the following phrase leaped off of the page and smacked me in the forehead,
" 'Defiant, combative, hostile, and uncooperative,' were labels used by many people who knew Sarah...but what if we saw her as "frightened, struggling to cope, confused, and abandoned" and dealing with the effects of extreme stress?"
Yeah.
What if?

It occurred to me that those labels used by so many mental health professionals, teachers, social workers, and other folks tasked with teaching and serving individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities are selfish. They reflect not the individual's feelings or challenges, but the frustrations of those around them.

How many times have I seen someone from afar in public who is acting in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable or sad or afraid and labeled them according to what I feel instead of thinking about what they might be feeling? I would say, pretty much always.

And while it is important, to be certain, to protect ourselves if we feel as though we're in danger from someone, these phrases - defiant, uncooperative, hostile, combative - are generally used to pigeonhole people who would benefit more from our help than our defensive posturing.

I am reminded of a time when Eve was little and we were meeting with our toddler group. The kids were all around 18 months old and had varying degrees of language. They had all had lunch and were tooling around the living room playing while the moms cleaned up and visited a little bit.  One of the boys walked up to the keyboard, climbed on the bench and sat down to play, but within seconds he was throwing an absolute fit, screaming, red-faced, flinging himself off the bench and causing all of us to come running in to see what was wrong. Nothing was immediately apparent - none of the other kids had touched him or tried to take his place, he was simply freaking out and nearly inconsolable.  When his mom picked him up and folded him into her arms, he arched his back and pulled away, screaming and clawing at her hair and face. We could have easily called those behaviors erratic, defiant, hostile, combative, uncooperative, and so on and so forth.  I remember pulling Eve close to me as she stared wide-eyed at the spectacle.

After running through a few options of what could be making him so angry, all the while fending off his little fists, his mom laid him down on the carpet and undid his overalls. None of us actually believed that a dirty diaper could be causing this much mayhem, but it was worth a shot.  When she undid the velcro fasteners and folded down the front of his diaper, she found a fork. Somehow, he had taken one from the lunch table, slipped it down the front of his overalls, and as he walked around and eventually climbed up onto the piano bench, it had fallen so far down inside his diaper that the tines were stabbing him in the penis. Every time his mom had moved him as she tried to console him, it poked him again. I'm pretty sure I'd scream and resist, too.

Even as we age and become more able to communicate with those around us, it isn't always possible for us to find ways to express what we're feeling, especially if we struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we take the time to unravel the stories and really pay attention to the individual, it is possible to come to a point where we take their actions less personally and begin to see them as indicators of what this person is dealing with. Many people with mental illness have suffered significant trauma in their lives and while that doesn't excuse all of their actions, labeling them with things that reflect how they make us feel rather than what they are feeling only serves to keep us at arm's length, and connection is a powerful tool when you want to help someone. I have a feeling it's going to take a lot of practice to shift my thinking, but I'm willing to try.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Power of Cats

My mother loves animals, but none more than cats. There has not been a day in my 43 years that she has not lived with at least one cat, and while she doesn't go looking for them, the strays always manage to find her and move in.

My grandmother hated cats. I don't know precisely why, but despite the fact that almost all five of her children grew up to have cats for pets, she was disdainful of them and wanted nothing to do with them. Grandma loved baseball, teaching, reading and traveling. Cats, she had no time or love for. Until she developed Alzheimer's.

My aunt and uncle had a house in the hills above Santa Barbara and one summer, shortly after my grandmother began really struggling with her memory, a wildfire ripped through those hills and burned their house to the ground. For an agonizing bit of time, the family looked for their beloved cat, Cecil. When they found him, hiding among the hills, safe and sound, Grandma fell in love with him. We were all astonished. This woman who, for sixty years or more, had loudly proclaimed her hatred for felines, suddenly found a companion in Cecil, an enormous orange and white tabby.

One of my favorite pictures of her is this one, proudly clutching her new friend as he barely tolerates it.

Last weekend when I was at Mom's house, I noticed her fixation on her cats. They both enjoy being outside during the day, and when we were at home, Mom got up every five minutes or so to peek out the windows or open the garage door to check on them. I was so taken aback by the size of her favorite, Moses, that I asked her if I could take a picture to send to Eve and Lola. I swear he's part raccoon. He must weigh 40 pounds, and part of that is because Mom feeds him over and over again all day long, forgetting that she has already done it, and he isn't about to protest. 

First of all, let me say that I know Mom would be upset if she knew this photo was posted. I know it's not the most flattering shot of her, but it is the only one I got before the cat got too heavy for her to hold. I was struck, later, by the similarities I saw. Even though Mom has always loved cats and Grandma hated them for most of her life, the comfort and companionship they both got from interacting with cats is the same.

For the few days I was with Mom, we were both exhausted. I could see her trying really hard to hold on to the thread of conversation, to pay attention to everything I said and it made me wonder if I ought to slow down or tell the same stories over and over again to somehow set them in her brain. (That wouldn't have been hard - I found myself telling her the same things repeatedly simply because she asked the same questions again and again. Ironically, I wondered if she heard me doing that and thought that I was getting forgetful). By the end of the day, we were both entirely wasted from the effort. And that was when I noticed what happened when she sat with the cat. Her face relaxed, her shoulders relaxed. Her entire being settled. I don't know if it was the tactile sense of petting the cat or the rhythmic purring, the weight (oh, the weight!) on her lap, or just the fact that she could communicate nonverbally, but she was at ease. She could just interact with him by sitting quietly and petting him without any expectation that she would remember it or make conversation.

It's no wonder she is looking for the cats all day long. They are familiar to her and she can do exactly the things they expect of her - feed them, let them in and out of the house, and sit with them quietly. It has to be a huge relief to get moments during the day that are like this when so much else feels confusing and chaotic. I'm pleased that my grandmother had Cecil for a while, despite her mostly lifelong hatred of cats. If he knew, he never let on.

Monday, April 27, 2015

It's Not About Me

"My brain is just mush right now!"
"It's all just a blur. I don't know why I can't remember."
"You can put it in that...thing over there that is meant to have food in it. That big, white thing. Right there."

Mom is struggling. Whether it is due to her poorly controlled diabetes or the onset of dementia, or her family's gene pool playing out its hand and dealing her the early-onset Alzheimer's her mother had, I don't know. And frankly, it doesn't matter. The reality is, she can't be alone these days for long without consequences. And since her husband recently spent a few days in the hospital for surgery, my brother and spent a few days tag-teaming her.  I got up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and headed down I-5, a little over four hours in the car chasing NPR stations as I went without one stop to pee or eat.  It's been six months since I saw her, although I speak to her on the phone every few days, and I've been increasingly worried about her.

I wasn't quite sure what I would find, but I was on edge. Her husband went in early Thursday morning for surgery and she sat vigil at the hospital, calling me every few hours to report, and getting increasingly panicky. By the fourth call, she had lost the thread that he was there for surgery and wondered why the doctors were giving him antibiotics and wouldn't let him come home.  At 7:30, she called to report that she was at home, but it took her more than an hour to find her car in the parking lot at their small, local hospital, and she was annoyed.  When I checked on her Friday morning, she wasn't sure whether she would go visit him, but she still couldn't remember that he'd had surgery. She said he was at the hospital with a "bad cold." My brother spent the afternoon and evening with her on Friday and texted me updates that scared us both. He considered hiding her car keys, but couldn't get her out of the room long enough to dig in her purse and find them.

The hurricane of emotions picked me up and threw me side-to-side. I agonized over the four-hour distance between us, the kids I have at home that still need me a great deal, and thoughts of where do we go from here. Occasionally, I railed at the genetic sequence that put this destination squarely within my own sights and called Bubba to remind him that I've ordered him to push me off the edge of the Grand Canyon as soon as I forget the names of my friends and family. Time and time again I was sucked back into the ruts that demanded I "fix it," find a solution, put some plan in place to deal with all of this.

And on my way home today, I remembered; it's not about me. It just isn't. This is about her. Occasionally, I saw glimpses of fear before she masked them. I felt tenderness when she followed me into the kitchen to see what I was cooking for dinner and lamented my eventual departure. I watched as she doted on her two cats, continually seeking them out to be sure they were warm and dry and fed. And when I have the presence of mind to recall that this is about Mom, I can relax and listen. I can sit with her and listen to the same stories over and over and reflect on what her touchstones are, think about the moments in her day that she holds on to. If I listen closely enough, she will tell me what she wants, and for now, that is the most important thing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Picking Your Battles

Bubba and I are raising two very strong girls. We can't take all of the credit, to be certain. There is some part of each of them that is just that way - they were born strong and stubborn, I'm sure. But we have done our level best to offer them opportunities to share their ideas and express themselves, to find their voices and the places where they will be heard.

It is a pretty awesome thing to behold most of the time.

We encourage them to think about the things we take for granted, challenge the status quo.
We have told them that their opinions deserve to be heard as much as anyone else's (so long as they aren't nasty or hateful or shaming).
We have listened to their point of view and had some very spirited discussions and, a time or two, we have capitulated to them - realizing that they had a valid point.

This weekend, as I listened to the two of them have argument after argument over the most mundane of subjects (what the actual lyrics to that song are, whether a particular shade of nail polish is ugly or not, where the best tacos in town are), it occured to me that they are both really good at speaking up and making their point. I was annoyed but not alarmed at the constant bickering, because I was fascinated by their individual tactics and pleased that it never descended into physical violence.

However...

It is far beyond time that I started teaching them about choosing their battles. Being good at convincing others can be a good thing, and winning arguments can be as well. But I realized that they may not understand how fast people who aren't their family will run if every interaction is a contest of wills. Bosses and romantic partners probably won't appreciate how good Eve and Lola are at using their voices if they are used with equal fervor when it comes to what's for dinner and whom to vote for.

They are well-versed in standing up for what they think.
Now it's time to learn WHEN to do it.

Wish me luck.
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