Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summertime

Away from home is such a mixed bag. Time together with three of my favorite humans - Bubba, Eve, Lola - with nothing to do but enjoy each other is something to be so grateful for. Very little is asked of me in the way of my normal home-based duties. There is no chauffeuring, no cooking, no dish-doing, laundry perhaps once a week in some local, worn-formica-and-linoleum coin-op. And, frankly, I enjoy it. After togetherness all day (even sharing a hotel room with these three loves of my life), that 90 minutes of solitude in the laundromat is welcome. I get to see the natives as they do their wash, take note of the water-logged magazines and who brings their kids with them. I have fantasized about making a photo collage of the facilities and the characters who inhabit them - the rusty machines and change-makers on the walls, the folks who walk in barefoot (in Hawaii, anyway) and the tiny Asian men who shuffle in to wash their boxer shorts full of holes.

Summer vacation is a pleasure that flings me altogether out of my routine and nearly out of my skin. I read and read and, while I am often inspired, the only writing I do is to scratch out ideas on a fluorescent pink pad of paper, the threads of which I hope I can retrieve when I return home. By the time I set foot back on my own worn hardwood floors, I am torn between lying down with the pets on the floor and snuggling or restocking the refrigerator with our favorite things and simply retreating to my room to type, type, type. It takes a few days to slog through the email and the mail mail and the ever-present laundry (why can't I just do it once a week at home? Is that some magic of the vacation? That everyone is judicious with their clothes because they only packed so much? Would it be wrong to just ask everyone to wear their bathing suit every day all summer with some flimsy cover-up instead of shrugging on shorts and t-shirts?).

I am full of ideas and also full of children and pets. There are walks to take, camps to drive to, meals to fix and extra kids to entertain and every summer I hope to stumble on the elusive perfect balance that will allow me to write all I want and soak in every drop of sunshine with my family. I have learned to accept this unease, this tension of desires. This morning, Bubba and the girls all went to the gym together and I asked him, "Is it wrong to say that I can't wait to be here all alone for an hour this morning?" Walking the dog in the cool morning air, I avoided the route that would put me in chatting range with any friendly neighbors and when I reminded myself to breathe and just acknowledge what I am feeling, the image that came to mind was of a taut guitar string that had just been plucked. I vibrate with it all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dispatches from Another Place

I used to have this fantasy about vacations - that you could go away and leave everything behind, and I think when I was a kid, that was true. Growing up in the 1970s, I didn't have access to the news unless my parents turned on the TV at night when we got home from whatever adventures we had embarked on during the day. I certainly wasn't going to pick up a newspaper to learn about what else was going on in the world.  I didn't have to spoon out the smelly canned dog food on vacation, and I didn't have to make my bed (unless we were camping in the pop-up trailer, in which case I had to completely dismantle it every morning). I didn't have to take my turn doing dishes except over a campfire-warmed pot of water which was an adventure in itself, and I didn't have to do homework.

As an adult, my first realization that vacations were different came when Bubba and I started traveling with the girls. As my brilliant friend, Sarah, put it, for a mom, a vacation was simply "parenting in a different place." And it was often more challenging when you didn't have all of the things you needed at hand, plus there were often strangers looking at you and judging your mothering decisions when the kids cried or acted bratty.

Even though the girls are now both teenagers and fairly self-sufficient, I have been reminded on our most recent trip that life is life no matter where you go.  Lola started complaining of a toothache the night before we left but I didn't do much beyond imploring her to floss really good and swish with salt water.  By the time we landed in Honolulu, she was inconsolable and I knew something was really wrong.  After one altogether sleepless night and several doses of ibuprofen, we found ourselves at a local dentist on Saturday morning. And there we stayed for the next two and a half hours, getting her an emergency (half) root canal. It's a long story, but they were only able to do start the procedure and put her on antibiotics, and we were told to wait until we get home to have it finished.  She was amazingly resilient and bounced back to engage in all sorts of fun activities within hours - paddle boarding and shadowing a dolphin trainer for five and a half hours. We have had a few rough moments of pain, but other than hoping the tooth holds on until we get home a week from now, it seems to be okay.

And then there is the news.  From the strange (reports of a naked, drunk woman in our area driving her car into a power pole and knocking out electricity to 4000 customers) to the horrifying (the shooting in Charleston), we have access to it all via Facebook and smartphones.  And as I sit on the lanai looking out at the waves crashing on the reef and the families playing on the beach, I am reminded that life is life. That no matter where we go, we are still called upon to be our best selves, that there is no vacation from being human. We may choose to disengage from news reports or work emails for a week or two, but it is the interactions that we have with all of the people around us that make up the entirety of our lives. I could no more ignore the incredible sadness I feel inside as I think of the people who lost their lives inside that church in South Carolina than I could stop breathing.

The dentist who cared for Lola was a lovely, smart, funny woman. Despite her packed schedule and the fact that she was the only dentist in the office that day, she took care with Lola's tooth, encouraging her, and patiently taking the time to ensure that she did as much as she could do that day. I know that her other patients were forced to wait, but despite the dental assistants who periodically came to remind her that there was someone else waiting for an exam in the other room, she never got angry or frustrated. She kindly acknowledged that she was needed elsewhere, and continued doing what she was doing with Lola meticulously until it was done. She explained everything clearly and that evening, as we lounged near the pool with ice water, my cell phone rang. It was her, calling to check on Lola, to make sure she was feeling okay and to see if we had any questions.  She has checked on her twice since then, each time making sure to tell us to enjoy the sunshine while we are here.

Even though we are on vacation from our home, from our normal routine, we are not on vacation from who we are. The kindness of the dentist and the tragedy of Charleston are a stark reminder to me that each and every interaction I have is important. Several journalists have pointed out the pervasive attitudes of racism and hatred that exist in the face of people in South Carolina - from the streets named after Confederate Generals to the flagpole outside the capitol that proudly displays the Confederate flag, not to mention the racist slurs and comments many people hear every day in that part of the country. There are more subtle, but no less harmful, examples in my part of the country, and it is up to us to challenge them, to find ways to be better to each other in small ways every day. Like building blocks, these kindnesses all stack up to create something we can be proud of, instead of tearing down our communities.

We are off to another island for one more week of bliss and beauty and, while I am hoping that we have no more surprises - dental or otherwise - I will do my best to live by the values I have at home; kindness, compassion, love for others, and be grateful for a vacation from the dishes in the kitchen sink.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Courage and Competition

I don't go in much for pop culture. I'm not much of a TV watcher and I don't know who most of the people on the covers of fashion magazines even are, much less what they are famous for. But I don't live under a rock, either, and so I couldn't possibly have missed the much-talked-about Caitlyn Jenner debut this week. I have witnessed (via my Facebook page) the discussions centering around white privilege, male privilege, and socioeconomic privilege with the same kind of mild interest that I generally reserve for pop culture - basically noting that people are really interested in the parts of things that resonate for them and also that so many folks love tearing away at celebrities for any reason at all.  I have acknowledged all of this and not waded into the fray, knowing that the important conversations will rise like cream to the top and the rest will fade away as soon as the next big celebrity story happens - someone will have a baby or get a divorce or drive while drunk and it will all start over again.

But I woke up this morning to this on my Facebook feed. Apparently, Caitlyn Jenner was awarded ESPN's Courage Award and some people got upset. For whatever reason, I followed the link and spent a few minutes reading about some other athletes who folks thought were overlooked.  Normally, that would be the end of it - I would  note it all with interest and move on into my day. But the whole thing got me thinking about courage. Reading some of the comments from people on Facebook sparked thoughts about competition. And a blog post was born.

Here's the thing. I think our culture has a tendency to see things in such stark, black-and-white terms that whenever someone "wins" an award, we assume that whomever didn't win "lost." In some cases, that is true. If there is a spelling bee in which hundreds of kids are competing and are gradually eliminated, the ones who didn't ultimately win the prize lost, by definition. The folks who don't go home with the Nobel Prize for chemistry "lost," but they are by no means losers.  And I think it is an enormous mistake to frame everything in terms of a competition. In the case of this particular ESPN award, why can't it just be that Caitlyn Jenner's courage is one shining example of courage that they felt deserved to be called out? Why does it have to mean that these athletes are pitted against each other and whomever doesn't get the award is seen as having less courage?

I don't think it is harmful to praise courage. For the sporting world, which is in many cases patriarchal, paternalistic, and often homophobic, to acknowledge the courage of a transgender athlete is pretty amazing.  I hope it signals a turning point for us culturally, and I hope it is a positive sign of things to come. But. I think it is harmful to open a conversation by comparing forms of courage, to pretend that some are more important or more laudable than others.

It takes courage to get up and face a new day when you struggle with depression.
It takes courage to care for a loved one with a chronic physical ailment every single day.
It takes courage to stand up for yourself when you're being attacked.
It takes courage to walk away from an abusive relationship - any abusive relationship.
It takes courage to start something new.
It takes courage to come out of hiding.

There are so many examples of courageous acts that people undertake each and every day and it is a mistake to believe that some are more important than others. What if we held up all of these instances of courage as things to praise? What if we stopped comparing them and acknowledged that what might be easy for one person is tremendously difficult for another, and that anytime someone can overcome an almost debilitating fear or situation to triumph, that triumph deserves to be celebrated? What if we didn't talk about courage in terms of "big" or "small?"

I hope that Caitlyn Jenner is proud of her award. And I hope that we can find ways to lift up all of the people in our lives that display acts of courage in their own lives, to remind them that there is no such thing as a small act of courage.

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.
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