The MoMs

I performed this piece at The Horse’s Mouth Storytelling night in Lexington, KY. You can watch it here, beginning around the 12 minute mark. I would also encourage you to listen to the other fabulous women sharing stories around the theme Mothers And Others. It was a wonderful night!


Today is my 30th birthday. Five years ago I was celebrating with my best college girls. They assembled this amazing brunch on our kitchen table and held my babies while I feasted. Babies. It was still shocking to say. I was 25 and somehow had 6 week old twins. These women who had been with me through every transition and change of our adult lives were with me now – caring for us, feeding us, showering us with gifts – but something had shifted. My whole world had shrunk down to fit within the walls of that tiny apartment – the couch where I spent my long days and the bedroom where I spent even longer nights. My friends bubbled with news of life beyond, catching me up on their work and relationships and hobbies, weekend plans and upcoming special events and I just sat there eating french toast while my milk leaked through my dress, realizing that things would never be the same again. For weeks I had been trying to learn the new rhythms of motherhood, feeling overwhelmed, incompetent, and lost. I thought a day together would restore me to my old self, but instead it made the distance between our paths even more pronounced. I missed my old self, I resented my friends for their freedom, and I didn’t know how to explain any of it.

As time went on I grew more confident in my mothering – learning how to tandem nurse and occasionally time their naps together so I managed an hour of peace – but I couldn’t seem to launch us outside the walls of our fortress. Visits from friends became less frequent. The loneliness grew heavy, and I felt helpless to free us from our captivity. The first time we tried a walk, just the three of us, we made it to the sidewalk before my daughter was screaming so loudly I feared someone would call the police, assuming I was hurting her. A few weeks later I powered through the screams and made it to the house of a “mom friend” a few blocks away. I sat, exhausted, on her couch until I had the energy for the return trip.

(Did you know that women lose their identities when they become mothers? I didn’t. Friends with kids quickly became “mom friends”, or “charlie’s mom”. You meet someone at a park or playgroup and nobody even asks’s your name. You’re just someone else’s mother, everything else about you now irrelevant in the face of your new all consuming tiny dictator(s).)

The first time I tried to attend a “mom group”, my kids were nearly 6 months old. We were late, because: twins, and when I rolled our massive stroller full of screaming children through the silent building I felt every head turn to stare. I deposited my still screaming children with some nice old ladies in the nursery and  forced myself to go sit with the energetic, well dressed women drinking coffee around circular tables. The speaker that day encouraged us to prioritize making ourselves presentable for our husbands. You know, make sure you don’t “let yourself go”. I was too exhausted to be outraged. We went home early.

I did have one outlet that was just for me. A podcast called The Longest Shortest Time. Every week the host/producer, Hillary Frank, tells stories about parenthood that are honest and vulnerable, stories that reflected her un-shiny experiences as a mom who felt like she was always screwing things up, always failing to follow the “right “advice, always stretched to her limit. She interviews ordinary parents about all the crazy, ridiculous expectations, the mythology of “perfect parenting”, the loneliness of all the posturing and pretending everything is fine. She started a facebook group for her listeners – parents desperate for a judgement free space to share honestly about their experiences. It was exactly what I needed.

While I nursed in the dark, lonely hours of the early morning, I mined posts for insights about the weird new things my kids were doing, asked all my rookie questions, and vented about how hard it all was. I felt instantly connected to people across the country and around the world who were also stuck in their tiny apartments, people who also felt disconnected from their old friends and even from themselves as they learned the new terrain of parenthood.  

One day I came across a post from a woman asking if there were any other parents of multiples who wanted to commiserate. That thread turned into a group of women who would become my closest companions on this journey – mothering me through the darkest parts of those early years, helping me to see the light beyond them.

Of course, it started timid and cautious: we were all sweet and clever and started our posts with “not to bother you all, but…” or trying really hard to be funny and upbeat. But the veneer of politeness didn’t last long. We were all just surviving, minute by minute, and we didn’t have the energy or time to be cute. We bonded instantly over our parenting failures, exhaustion, non-existent sex lives, and endless kid illnesses, and also over the magical moments of kid love – we were all in the thick of it together. Nobody was less than. Nobody was smug. We were just radically for one another.  

Our guiding rule is non-judgement – if you don’t agree with the philosophy of the person posting and can’t find a way to share your ideas without judgement, go ahead and scroll on by, that post was not for you. And maybe it was just our desperation for connection that kept us in line, but it worked! And as our friendships grew, so did we. We held space for the important work of re-imagining ourselves. Who were we, and who did we want to be, beyond this new role? There is such power in naming our secret dreams, longings, and ambitions. It’s the first step in fleshing out the path that will bring them to fruition. In these conversations, I regained my voice as a woman and a writer. I found courage in the brave women around me, and in weekly check ins and off the cuff messages we cheered each other along, each step of the way.

There are so many jokes about moms and facebook, about social media as a meaningless, phony, time wasting sphere. And I get that. I know there’s plenty of posturing and sanctimonious advice giving and unhelpful shaming that happens online. It can definitely highlight the worst of our humanity. But it’s also this incredible tool that allows us to reach across miles and cultures and work schedules and religious/political/insert-your-divisive-issue-here differences to support one another in the minutiae of everyday life. I have come to think of it as a sacred space. And when we tend it well – reigning in our insecurities and judgments, opening our hearts to learn from others – it serves us with beautiful connection.

Last year I got to meet some of those women in person at our first ever conference. I use the word conference loosely – we rented out a fancy old home on airbnb, stocked up on wine and snacks, and bunked up for the weekend. But it was a big deal – an attempt to bring to real life what we had been cultivating online for years. Leading up to it I was so anxious, it felt like I was going on a first date but worse – these women already knew all my neuroses, all of my greatest failures and biggest dreams and I needed them to still like and support me when this was over! But I shouldn’t have worried. The embrace of someone who has seen and loved you at your worst is a gift I wish I could give every parent, every person that I know. These friendships forged in the fires of early parenthood have forever changed me. They have shown me that vulnerability shouldn’t be rare in friendships. That it should be the core of how we connect – sharing our truest selves in a crisis, in the mundane, and everything in between.

As an introvert, I find it exhausting to do this in person. It’s much easier to pour my heart out from the safety of my couch. But there’s nothing like that moment when you finally take a deep breath and reveal a dream or confess a weakness and the person across the table lights up and says “Me too! I thought I was the only one.” I hope to live a long life collecting those moments. They make me feel alive, reborn to the possibilities of growth and what could be. These “internet moms” have given me an enduring optimism about cultivating space for those moments to bloom, no matter how many awkward first friend dates I have to persevere through to get there.

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❤ 

 

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When the Experts Fail Us

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about expert advice.

I crave it.

The alluring notion that there is an objectively best way to do everything in life is pitched to us in every sphere – books, blogs, seminars – if you’re anxious about it, there’s someone waiting in the wings to teach you how to overcome it.

And I fall for it every time.

From obsessing about parenting, driving my husband crazy with my endless evaluations of our tactics and the kids’ needs, to convincing myself that I can offer darn near professional support for my spouse in his battle with mental illness if I just read another book or listen to another podcast. I even find myself daydreaming about all sorts of futures I don’t actually want – degrees I don’t really care to pursue, jobs I know would burn me out – all because the lure of being an expert in that area is so strong.

So, when my daughter started experiencing a lot of school-related anxiety, I turned to the experts. I buried myself in a browser full of tabs about child mindfulness exercises and warning signs of ocd and websites for child therapists in our area.  I sought advice on parenting forums and followed each of their leads to websites, books, and studies that promised they had the key insights to solve my problem. One suggested a diet that “transformed” her son. Another tells me about a special kind of massage tool that releases stress and must be used every two hours. Another suggests that my own anxiety is causing my daughters’. Awesome. 

I understand, of course, that nobody can be an expert in everything. Expert advice is developed in a vacuum of academia and institutions and isolated variables. Expert advice, by nature, conflicts with previous knowledge. It’s always evolving, always presenting shiny new models to replace the outdated offerings that are now poked through with holes of exceptions and experience.

But I just can’t help myself. I go home and spend a week compiling a long list titled “strategies for child anxiety”. I dedicate a few minutes each afternoon to setting up a stress relieving sensory activity, putting out a snack, and preparing the notebook and markers where she can draw pictures of her big feelings, just the like the experts suggest. I begin to feel more confident as I head out the door. Hopeful, even.

The bus pulls up and I hear it before I can even see her face — that open mouth mournful cry that just tears my heart wide open. Through panicked sobs she tells me she is so sorry she was naughty and didn’t get a green star on her hand even though she ‘sat really still with her legs criss cross and a big smile like Ms. Rosa said!” She wails into my coat that her teachers are always mad at her and she  is NEVER going to that school again. Meanwhile, Rowan is at my elbow, tugging my sleeve and waving his hand in my face to show off his bright green permanent marker star. He is beaming with pride, branded with his goodness. The arbitrary way this teacher does discipline and rewards has been a battle all year.

I’m finally full of rage.

And, for once, I let myself feel it instead of trying to fix it.

We went home and dried our tears and drank hot cocoa and read library books all cozy and smooshed together on the couch. It didn’t “fix” anything, but somehow we were all set to right. I wonder how often the expert advice drowns out our own intuition or our ability to really hear the ones we love tell us what they need.

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Today, I sat in my friend Jaci‘s beautiful kitchen and asked her how she helps her kids through anxiety. I especially wanted to know how she discerns when she’s overreacting and when she’s not engaging enough.  Even with a squirmy toddler on her lap she responded without hesitation, “I don’t think you ever do. I think that’s just how it is, always wrestling between the two. You want to equip them to solve some problems on their own, so sometimes that means letting them work it out with peers. Sometimes it’s more complicated and that means advocating for them with teachers and staff. It just depends. There isn’t one right answer.”

I felt myself exhaling with every sentence. In two short minutes she had offered me advice that was far more practical and a million times more affirming than anything I had read in weeks of late night searches for answers that would fix my kid or soothe my guilt. She offered me her humanity and she opened up space for my own, no certainty required. She reminded me that only in friendship can we find the nuance and grace that no expert can capture.

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Photo by Roman Koval on Pexels.com


Last night Rowan re-appeared for the fifth time after being put to bed, throwing himself to the ground and declaring he would NOT get dressed tomorrow and would NOT be going to school. All the minimizing and dismissing and exasperated responses bubbled up inside me, followed quickly by the expert advice that I didn’t have an ounce of energy for. I mustered a half-hearted, “You really don’t like school right now. You wish you could stay home all day and play.”

“I’m SO MAD!” He dives into the couch face first, punching the cushions.

I exhale, slowly. “You know, I remember feeling like that when I was in first grade and had a not very nice teacher.”

His turns his face toward me, his expression changed from anger to curiosity. “Really? You did? What did you do?”

What did I do?  At first I’m trying to think of the ‘right’ answer, something practical that will reassure him, some behavior I want him to try. But then I’m transported back to Ms. Felix’s 1st grade class. I focus in on my clearest memory – sitting in a reading circle on the floor and the teacher accidentally bumps a metal oscillating fan off a table and onto my head. I’m blinded by the pain but don’t move because we’re not allowed to leave our spot on the carpet and she’s yelling at me because now the fan is broken and somehow I’m to blame. I couldn’t stop crying so she sent me to the nurse’s office, a tiny windowless room that became my safe haven after that incident. The rest of the year I had a lot of mystery stomach pain and headaches that were cured with a little rest on a cot in that quiet safety. What a gift that nurse was.

I look back up at his little face. The anger is gone but one last tear is still slowly tracing down his cheeks. “Well, sometimes I cried at school.  Sometimes I talked to other nice teachers. When  I got home I would tell Nanni about it. I always felt better when I played with my friends, and sometimes I told them how I was feeling too. ”

His jaw dropped open. “That’s like me! And I can tell you all of my angry feelings and then I feel better! And mom, I was thinking that maybe we can we have an activity and snack tomorrow after school? I will remember it all day when I am sad waiting to come home to see you.”

“Of course buddy.”

He gives me a hug and then turns to hop back up the stairs, stopping to crouch down at the very top step so I can see just his ankles and his little forehead and eyes peering at me upside down.

“Hey mom?”

“Yes bud.”

“You’re the very best mom for me. Okay?”

Oh my love.

I swear to stop trying to fix everything and just sit with all the emotional children while they stomp and make threats and weep bitter tears from now until the end of time if I can just have this sentence said about me on my dying day.

She was the very best mom for her kids.

And so are you, dear reader.

So are you.

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An Imprinting of Love: How to Be Gentle With Your Kids and Yourself (at the Spiritual Parent)

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I was nine when we moved from our small New England town to the suburban sprawl of Colorado Springs. Everything was bigger there. The houses, the churches, the mountains, somehow even God was larger, more real, more present.

Christianity had been an important part of our family culture before, but now it took center stage. Our social lives oscillated  between attending a mega church (and all of the classes, groups, dinners and activities that came with it) and hanging out at the Focus On The Family complex which was conveniently just down the street.

My brothers and I spent countless Saturdays exploring in the Adventures In Odyssey wonderland while my parents steeped themselves in Dobson’s philosophy. His empire pumped out radio programs, magazines, and parenting books that explained how our “sin natures” caused us to misbehave and directed parents to set firm boundaries via physical punishment and authoritarian shaming to help children understand the dire consequences of their sins.

I’ve been trying to shake off the effects of this toxic approach for years…

Click here to read the rest of this post on the Spiritual Parent blog.

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