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Letting Go: How To Survive Your Child Leaving The Nest In 10 Easy(??) Steps

August 27, 2019

“Oh darlin’, don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up, just stay this little. Oh darlin’, don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up, it could stay this simple.” ~Taylor Swift

As much as this sentiment rings true, we know that the ultimate goal of parenting is for our children to grow up and leave the nest. But, as with every stage of parenting, the sweet comes with a side of bitter. Each new phase brings excitement and joy, but also mourning of what’s left behind. Parenting is all about forward motion; we can never go back to the age our child was before, we can only treasure the one he’s in now and anticipate what’s to come.

Which is all well and good until you actually have to let go. So I’ve prepared a handy checklist to help parents who are going through this transition. I have the full experience of almost an entire week, as well as a jumbled mix of emotions I’ve barely begun to process, both of which make me highly qualified for absolutely nothing. You’re welcome in advance. Here goes…

Step 1. Cut a hole in a box. Oh, wait…that’s for something else. (And now you’re singing it.) Spend unhealthy amounts of time poring over old photos and reminiscing about how quickly the past eighteen years have gone. Tear up every time you hear a song that makes you think of your child. Hug him more often than he’d like, for longer than is entirely comfortable. Attempt to imagine what life will be like when he no longer wakes up under your roof, when you no longer know the ins and outs of his days. Seek reassurance from your husband, who will attempt to downplay the significance of your child moving out by reminding you that he will still be living in the same town and will likely be home “all the time.” Try to make a list of perks you’ll experience with your child out of the house. Come up with exactly two: you won’t feel like you have to wear a bra at home and you have one less person to consider when you’re planning dinner. Acknowledge that you’re seriously reaching. Throw away list.

Step 2. Take your child to Target. Buy all the things. ALL the things, people.

Step 3. Offer to help your child pack. Remind him repeatedly to pack. Take deep breaths when it’s t-minus two days to the big move and he hasn’t begun to pack. Hope that he remembers to pack everything he needs. (Side note: Act surprised on move-in day when he inevitably leaves something important behind. Choke on your “I told you so.”)

Step 4. Moving day. Comfort your younger child when she has to say goodbye to her brother and head to school. Offer her the same words of comfort your husband shared with you, knowing full well you’re both full of shit. Pack your child’s vehicle like you’re on the final level of Tetris. Drive to his new dorm, act like you know what you’re doing in the loading zone. Frantically look for someone who actually knows what she’s doing. Unload your child’s important belongings. Note the ratio of basketball shoes to school supplies but refrain from commenting. Realize you’ve forgotten tools and attempt to put together flimsy shelving with your bare hands. Give up and send your husband back to the house for his tools. Watch your child as he arranges and unpacks, his excitement so contagious it overpowers your grief and worries. Remember how exhilarating it was to have that first taste of independence. Surprise yourself by feeling more joy than sorrow. Realize it’s time for you to leave him in his new home. Say goodbye for now, relishing the long hug he initiates.

Step 5. Spend the first few days post-move pretending your child is on vacation. Enjoy the fact that he has to come home to get the things he’s forgotten. Empathize with your dogs as you now understand how excited they feel when you come home. Think to yourself that this isn’t so bad, at least he’s close by and you’ll probably be seeing him all the time.

Step 6. Go a full day and night without communicating with him. Realize that this is your new normal. Watch your husband offer to help your child set up something in his dorm, only to be told thanks but no thanks, that your child and his friends can do it. See the disappointment on your husband’s face as he realizes what you already have: your child doesn’t need you, at least not in the same way he always has. Text your child covertly and suggest he call or text his dad to say hi and thank him again for offering to help out. Play dumb when your husband looks up from his phone a few minutes later and asks, “Did you tell him to text me?”

Step 7. Wake up feeling off. Notice how cloudy it is, how quiet your house is. Realize this heavy weight that’s pressing down on you just might have something to do with your child moving out. Feel surprised because you thought you were stronger than this, that you weren’t someone whose entire life revolved around your child and who would be lost when he was no longer around all the time. Sit with the knowledge that you feel unmoored and empty in a way you never expected to. Wallow a little. Or a lot. Repeat as needed.

Step 8. Your child’s first official day of college. You worry that he’s forgotten to take his ADHD medicine. You worry that he’s forgotten to bring the right materials to class. You worry about the weather and the distance he has to walk between classes. You forget for a moment that he’s a very capable, intelligent, independent adult. Sit on your hands so you don’t text him and offer to pick him up in the rain. Time your errands so you’re close to campus when he might need you. Remember that he’s not in kindergarten, he’s in college. Run your errands and avoid campus. Bake him cookies and hope he’ll come by the house to get them; smile when you realize it worked.

Step 9. Wake up to sunshine. Feel something shifting, some acceptance creeping in. Force yourself to go to the gym. Leave feeling stronger, physically and emotionally. Drive with the windows down and the sunroof open. Meet a dear friend for coffee. Buy some plants. Sing along with a few cheesy 80’s tunes. Feed yourself a delicious, nourishing lunch. Write. Begin to feel like this is something you can survive.

Step 10. To be determined. I don’t know what to expect, but I do know this: letting go is harder than it looks. But a mama’s love is made of tough stuff. I got this. And if not? I’ll just bake more cookies.

Dear Daughter

August 14, 2019

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This morning I dropped my heart off at middle school.  Our youngest is entering sixth grade and that minefield of years when her sense of self will be tested on a daily basis.  She was nervous but excited as we talked about what this year will hold and the new freedoms and challenges she will likely experience.  Many of her closest friends are attending a different school which added a level of anxiety to her preparations, but she has some good buddies who will be at school with her and I assured her that middle school is a time for making new friendships and meeting new people.

As she begins this new chapter in her childhood, I shared with her some advice that I pray she’ll take to heart.  I realize there will be times she forgets what we’ve talked about, whether by accident or choice.  I know she won’t always do what her heart tells her is the right thing, but I hope those times are few and far between and that she learns from them.  My advice to her isn’t complicated, but it’s also not easy.

  • Be YOU.  It may be trite, but I can think of nothing more important.  When you want to fit in and make friends, it can be all too easy to become what you think others want you to be.  That’s especially true at this young age when you aren’t always sure exactly who you are!  When you say or do something and it makes you feel good about yourself, when you behave in a way that you would be proud for those who love you to observe, and when you listen to that still, small voice inside and it approves of what you’re saying or doing, that’s being true to who you are.  Conversely, if you say or do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed or worried, that probably wasn’t behavior that aligned with your true self.  Don’t hide the parts of yourself that you’re afraid others won’t like; those may be the very things that attract people you have the most in common with.  Fitting in with the crowd might feel good for awhile, but finding real friends who truly accept you feels a whole lot better. 
  • Be KIND.  If you see someone who looks lonely or unhappy, reach out to them, even if it’s just a smile or a “hello” in the hallway.  That simple interaction may make that person feel less alone.  Middle school is a time when groups tend to form; that’s not always a bad thing as long as it doesn’t mean exclusion of others.  Be a connector; introduce people to each other whenever you have the opportunity.  Stay open to new friendships and never waste a chance to greet a familiar face or smile at an unfamiliar one.  If there was a time when you felt unsure or isolated, remember that feeling and recall it when you see someone else in that situation.  If others go low, you go high.  Speak out if you see someone being treated poorly; silence is acceptance.  Being kind isn’t always the easy choice, but it’s always the right one.
  • Make learning a priority.  It’s easy to focus on the social aspects of middle school and let academics take a backseat.  Don’t let that happen!  The study habits you develop now will carry into high school and college; make sure they’re good ones.  Homework comes before extracurricular activities and socializing.  Classrooms are for learning and your teachers are there because they have valuable information to share with you; take advantage of it.  Explore different subjects with your mind open and your curiosity engaged.  You never know what might spark an interest if you’re paying attention.  
  • Approach social media and texting with caution.  Assume that whatever you type or post will be saved and shared with everyone you’ve ever met, and with perfect strangers as well.  Never send or post anything when emotions are running high; wait until you’ve had time to process and think through what you want to say or share.  Only say things online or in texts that you would say to the person’s face.  Before you post or message, think to yourself, “How would I feel if my parents saw this?”  Spend more time experiencing the world than photographing it.  Spend less time taking photos and videos of yourself and more time focusing on and nurturing what’s inside you that makes you special.
  • Try your best not to compare yourself to others.  Whether it’s that skinny bikini model on Instagram or the girl in your homeroom who seems to ooze confidence and make friends effortlessly, remember that you’re only seeing one side of them.  Social media is filled with strategically posed, airbrushed, filtered people showing their best side to the world.  That girl who gets straight A’s without seeming to try may be filled with anxiety about not measuring up.  The friend who constantly gets attention for her appearance may be jealous of what an amazing dancer you are or how close your family is.  Embrace your own special gifts and blessings.  Accept yourself and treat yourself with care just as you would a close friend.  Focus on fueling your body with healthy food and moving it in ways that make you feel strong and capable.  You are unique and awesomely made! 
  • Be patient with your parents.  We may embarrass you.  We may want more hugs than you’re willing to give.  We may seem hopelessly out of touch, our attempts to connect with you may seem awkward, our rules unfair and unwarranted.  All that may be true, but never for a moment doubt our reasons.  Everything we do and have done and will do is because we love you in ways that you can’t yet begin to understand.  Our desire to protect you and keep you safe in a world that’s changing so fast we can hardly keep up makes us a little crazy sometimes.  It’s because nothing is more important to us than you.  So go ahead, roll your eyes.  Slam your door.  Yell at us about how clueless we are, how no one else’s parents are so strict or so lame.  But deep down, please remember that no one can ever love you the way we do.  Nothing can change that, despite what will likely be your best efforts. 

We’ve survived the first day, all of us.  The coming days (and years) may sometimes be challenging, but they will also be filled with opportunity.  May there be more good days than bad days, more smart decisions than questionable ones, more leading than following, more becoming than pretending, more connecting than excluding.  May our children never forget where they came from and who they have cheering them on from the wings.  And may we parents travel this new road with grace and understanding, with patience, and most definitely with love.  

 

The A Word

May 18, 2019

In the past I’ve been guilty of starting conversations about abortion with “I could never personally have one, but…” I’ve come to realize this is a lot like the “I’m totally straight, but I support gay rights” bit. It’s meant to indemnify the speaker while passively showing a semblance of support for “those other people.” Gee, aren’t I progressive and open-minded…but please don’t lump me in with that group!

The abortion debate is one that stirs up a lot of emotion, obviously. Issues like it are often the most difficult to talk about because we messy, irrational humans often don’t want to hear facts; we would rather engage in rhetoric that supports what we already believe. My goal is to set aside my own emotions and context and try to see it from all angles, ones that I can relate to and ones that I have to struggle to understand. I’ve come to see that it’s not enough for me to hold surface opinions on topics like this, I need to dig deeper.

For example, one of the hot buttons on the recently proposed bill in Alabama is the fact that it would no longer allow for exceptions in cases of rape or incest. That’s long been my personal line, the one I’ve held to when discussing abortion. And yes, we should be outraged that women who have faced such trauma would be required against their will to bear their attackers’ children. We should be horrified at the thought of an 11-year old child being forced to carry her rapist’s baby to term.

But there’s a much larger, more complicated problem with that caveat, particularly when abortions are restricted to the early weeks of pregnancy. Imagine for a moment that your 13-year old daughter is raped by someone she knows. Listen to her attacker threaten to kill her family if she tells anyone. Think of how unfamiliar she still is with her own body and its inner workings, and how long it might take for her to realize she’s pregnant. Process your feelings as she tearfully tells you not only of her attack but of her suspected pregnancy. Now look at your calendar. Picture the process of reporting the rape to police. Do a little research into how long these types of investigations typically take. Inform yourself about how often rapes and sexual assaults are actually prosecuted, much less how often attackers are actually sentenced.

Now imagine a world in which your daughter has to wait for that process to be completed, one in which by the time she reports her rape and realizes she’s pregnant it is too late, or worse, the timing doesn’t even matter because the law says she has to go through the trauma of carrying her rapist’s baby, the public humiliation of teen pregnancy, the pain of childbirth. All because the government dictates what happens to her, the victim.

It’s not just victims of rape and incest who would be punished by these proposed laws. Picture your sister. She and her husband have longed for a child and are finally expecting. They walk into the doctor’s office full of hope and joy. The leave in tears, carrying with them the knowledge that their baby will never survive outside the womb. Your sister is already 12 weeks pregnant. She undergoes a barrage of tests over the coming weeks, all confirming the initial diagnosis. She is now 14 weeks pregnant. She and her husband talk with her doctor and together they make the heartbreaking, intensely personal decision to terminate the pregnancy and prevent the trauma of carrying this baby to term and watching it die seconds after it is born. But wait…look at your calendar again. Too late.

Imagine your niece, 18-years old and heading to college on a volleyball scholarship. On prom night she loses her virginity to a boy she’s liked since middle school; he wears a condom. It breaks. She knows that if she has this baby she will lose her shot at a college education, her entire future will be forfeited. Abortions are now illegal, so she makes the only choice left to her. She bleeds out in a back room.

These aren’t exceptions. These aren’t rare circumstances. This is our future if we allow religion and misogyny to determine the law. It doesn’t matter if I agree with abortion. It doesn’t matter when my church says life begins. It only matters that without access to safe, legal abortions, women will pay the ultimate price. As a woman, as a human being, I have to make a choice; and choice is, after all, what’s at stake.

I believe life does begin in the womb. I morally disagree with abortions after a certain point unless the mother’s life is at stake or there is a valid medical reason to terminate. But I am not a doctor. And I am not a woman facing that situation. Therefore, it shouldn’t be up to me to decide what those reasons are. It isn’t my place to determine or even be privy to what is an extremely personal, absolutely private decision between a woman and her doctor. If we are willing to trust medical professionals with our own lives and believe in the Hippocratic Oath, then why are we not willing to trust their judgment when it comes to terminating pregnancies?

If we can agree that we live in a country founded on the concept of religious freedom, and if we can bring up the Second Amendment whenever we think our personal rights are being tread on, then how can we willfully choose to ignore the First Amendment? Our laws cannot be dictated by the views of our religious leaders or by the tenets of our religious texts. To allow that to happen is to disregard our very Constitution, the one so many love to quote whenever their own liberties are perceived as being threatened. Should we also jail men who cheat on their wives? Should we ban divorce except in cases of proven spousal abuse?

And where do we land at the bottom of this slippery slope? El Salvador has some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the world; women there have been jailed for having miscarriages and stillbirths, suspected of terminating their pregnancies intentionally. Under the bills currently proposed in several US states, doctors could potentially be investigated for suspected abortions in cases where women miscarried or gave birth to stillborn babies; those women could then be questioned and asked to testify in such cases, further traumatizing them after their losses.

Another consideration in this whole debate is a practical one: who takes care of these babies the government says must be brought into this world? If a woman realizes she is pregnant and knows she doesn’t have the means to care for a child, whose responsibility does it become to ensure that child receives food, shelter, and education if that woman is forced against her will to have it? There is so much talk about “heartbeats” and “fetal rights”, yet in the same breath many of those same people support capital punishment, refuse to enact sensible gun reform that would save lives, and denounce social programs that assist those born into poverty and disadvantage. The foster care system is inarguably broken. Children are neglected and abused on a daily basis. We can’t even take care of the babies that have been born; how exactly do we propose to care for the ones being forced into this world? One cannot be both pro-life and refuse to do anything for the “heartbeats” once they become people.

Abortion is polarizing. It’s often presented as very black and white: you either believe in women’s rights or you don’t. You either value life or you don’t. It’s just not that simple. We all have to recognize our personal biases and beliefs as what they are: opinions colored by our history and our associations. We must look beyond our initial reactions and be willing to face some challenging truths, ones that might shake up long-held assumptions or cause us to revise the way we view the issue of abortion.

And the law must remain structured in a way that accounts for the gray, the myriad situations that might lead to this choice. To remove it altogether is to take an enormous step backward and to set our country up for a future that should be left in the past. It’s time to take off the lenses of religion and rhetoric and see that this issue is complex and should be approached as such. Failure to do so could be the last choice we’re allowed to make.

Me Too

September 29, 2018

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Survivor.  The word carries a lot of power.  It’s used to describe people who have grappled with potentially terminal illnesses, those who have lived through horrific car accidents or terrorist attacks or wars.  When we hear the term “survivor” we not only recognize that it refers to someone who endured something, we understand that he or she lived through it.  Living through something doesn’t mean one comes out unscathed; a breast cancer survivor may carry physical scars and emotional trauma.  A survivor of a plane crash may experience guilt and fear.

But no one denies them the right to heal however they need to.  No one questions whether they really had cancer, or whether the plane crash was their fault.  No one suggests that perhaps the cancer or the plane crash wasn’t that bad, that maybe they’re overreacting or being overly sensitive.

I sat down in front of my computer to write this not because I wanted to (I really, really didn’t), but because I felt compelled to.  See, I’m a survivor.  I still cringe using that word to describe myself because I don’t feel worthy of it.  I’ve been conditioned or convinced by a lifetime of living in this society of ours that what I experienced wasn’t that bad.  And I’m usually pretty adept at putting a lid on any feelings that might threaten to escape when a situation comes up in the media or in my life that reminds me of my experience.  Until now.

This time feels different.  Maybe it’s because my assault happened in high school, too.  Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter about to enter the fraught and dangerous waters of puberty.  And possibly it’s that I’m finally fed up.

After all these years, I’m calling a spade a spade.  I’m done convincing myself that what happened to me was my fault, that I had been drinking and I led him on.  I’m finished telling myself it wasn’t really rape because a stranger didn’t force me at knifepoint in a dark alley.  I’m absolutely done lying to myself and swallowing my truth because it might make other people uncomfortable.  And I’m grateful, so very grateful, to women like Dr. Ford whose bravery finally gave me a voice.

Let me be clear: I don’t blindly believe every accusation.  I recognize the reality that false allegations exist.  In fact, I have personally witnessed this with someone I care deeply about and it was extremely traumatic and terrifying for him.  Falsely accusing someone of sexual assault or rape is heinous not only because it damages the accused, but because it gives people an excuse not to believe those who truly have been assaulted.  However, I also understand that at most these false reports represent between two to eight percent of reported sexual assaults, and that even that percentage is likely inflated.  I also recognize that over sixty percent of assaults and rapes are never reported, further weakening the argument that false allegations are common.

Given those statistics, I find it irresponsible and reprehensible that our society’s knee-jerk reaction remains one of doubt when it comes to believing victims of sexual crimes.  When someone is mugged or carjacked, we don’t ask if they’d been drinking.  We don’t wonder if they’re just looking for attention or whether they have a vendetta against the alleged perpetrator.  Yes, we as a society do believe that everyone should remain innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  Kavanaugh isn’t in court, though, he’s essentially in a job interview, one in which the stakes are incredibly high.

What Dr. Ford is experiencing now is precisely why so many victims are afraid to come forward.  Expressions of outright disbelief, attacks on character, attempts to undermine credibility, dragging the accuser through the public court of opinion…all the things she feared have come to pass.  And still she bravely stood up and spoke her truth because the weight of silence had become too heavy a burden to bear.

What I find most troubling about this particular situation are the specific arguments being used in the attempt to discredit Dr. Ford.  “Why didn’t she come forward sooner if it was that important?”  One simply needs to have a basic understanding of the neurobiological and psychological impact of sexual assault and rape in order to recognize the weakness of this question.  “Yes, but her memory is so shaky, how can she be sure it was Kavanaugh?”  Again, one must take into account how assault impacts the recovery of specific details, as well as recognize that with the passage of many years, peripheral facts may become unclear.  What remains, despite any attempts to dislodge it from memory, is how the attack made the victim feel and the identity of the attacker.

Ask me to tell you the date of my assault, the clothes I was wearing, the identity of every person present that evening, and I will be unable to answer.  Attempt to confirm with me the specifics of everything leading up to or following it, I will likely fail to provide that information.  But ask me to tell you how I felt that night or the days following, ask if I have ever been able to shake that memory or the image of his face, and unfortunately I will be able to recount it all.

I am in my forties as I write this.  I was a teenager at the time of my assault.  Ask me if it still matters.  Ask me if I mind the idea of my now 10-year old daughter experiencing something like it.  Ask me why until now I haven’t even told my husband of 20 years, my parents or my sister, my friends.  And ask me what I would do if I found out my attacker was being considered for one of the most powerful positions in our democracy.

But don’t ask me if it happened.  Don’t suggest that I made something out of nothing.  Don’t question my memory, or my integrity, or my decision to remain silent for so long.  I am a survivor, and get to decide when and if I talk about it.  I get to choose how I share my experience.  You know why?  Because I’m the one who had to live through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Treat Yo Self

August 11, 2018

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Self care.  It’s one of those overused, Oprah-style buzzwords that tends to make me roll my eyes.  It’s not that I don’t believe it’s important, or that I don’t appreciate the focus on something that many women have traditionally struggled to justify.  But my knee-jerk reaction is basically, “No shit.”  I’ve always subscribed to the If-Mama-Ain’t-Happy-Ain’t-Nobody-Happy school of thought.

Of course, I realize how fortunate I am to be in a position to take care of myself.  My basic needs have always been met, and for those whom that isn’t true, self care takes on a completely different meaning.  For purposes of this ramble, I refer to those of us who are privileged enough to think beyond survival to some form of personal enrichment.

While the concept may not be novel to me, my definition of it has certainly evolved.  In the past, me time equalled fun.  Usually it revolved around something mindless and frivolous, an escape from reality like shopping or drinks with friends.  Sure, it often included reading (because that’s pretty much my favorite of all time), but when I thought of self care I was more likely to picture a spa day or a girls trip.

Somewhere in the midst of growing older, I’ve realized that what’s fun isn’t always what brings me actual happiness.  A lot of the activities I considered entertaining weren’t what truly brought me joy or peace.  Sure, laughing hysterically over a few too many glasses of wine can be fun.  Shopping for pretty things can give me a thrill.  Pampering myself with a blowout or a pedicure can be relaxing.  But ultimately, none of those things feeds my soul.

I’ve also started taking issue with the rationale that is rooted in the self care movement: I have to fill my cup in order to pour into yours.  In other words, caring for ourselves is only important inasmuch as it allows us to better care for others.  I would argue that true self care should be undertaken simply because it benefits the individual.  After all, aren’t we enough?

In my forties, I’ve finally begun to understand what self care really means to me.  It isn’t necessarily about doing what feels good, it’s about being true to myself. It’s about choosing to participate in and experience things that will bring deeper meaning to my life and leave me feeling content and positive long after the moment has passed. Time spent in nature, in meditation, in movement…time spent with people I can be myself with, who bring out the best in me…and yes, time spent reading.  These activities fill my cup.  I’m always glad I invested my time and energy in these pursuits.  They never leave me feeling guilty or empty or depleted.  (Aside from staying up too late to read “just one more chapter!”)

Real, true self care is the antithesis of self indulgence.  Caring for yourself means heeding your inner voice, whether it’s whispering or shouting.  It may be urging you to create, to write or paint or compose.  It may be coaxing you to sit in quiet contemplation and just breathe.  It may be inspiring you to climb a mountain with close friends or hike a solitary trail.

It also may be telling you to let go of things, people and activities that aren’t healthy for your mind, spirit or body.  Deep down, you recognize what those are.  Perhaps you’ve allowed fear or guilt or just plain old habit to win out even though doing so undermines your well being.  Self care can be every bit as much about the things we choose not to engage in.  Sometimes what we elect to say “no” to can have as much impact on our happiness as what we say “yes” to.  Freeing ourselves from the weight of other peoples’ expectations and judgments, declining invitations that feel like obligations, freeing up our time to devote to the people and activities that truly nurture us and enrich our lives, that is self care.

If I want to truly take care of myself, I have to be honest about what I need, both with myself and with others.  Subscribing to anyone else’s version of self care will only leave me feeling unsatisfied.  That’s why it’s crucial to remember that there’s no “right” way to care for ourselves.  What brings me peace may give you anxiety.  What you find energizing might sap my spirit.  The ways we choose to be kind to ourselves may look nothing alike.  But ultimately if we’re true to ourselves and pay attention to how things, people, places, and activities make us feel at our core, we are giving our minds, bodies, and souls what they need to feel fulfilled.

So go ahead, treat yourself.  To a good book in a quiet corner.  To a walk in the woods.  To a sunrise on the water with strong coffee and good company.  To an uninterrupted hour of writing.  To whatever stirs your soul and feeds your fire.  After all, we each only get one self; we really ought to take care of it.

 

I Choose Us

May 15, 2018

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Despite the fact that we are clearly not old enough for this to be true, my husband and I are about to celebrate twenty years of marriage.  Twenty years of ups and downs, of good days and bad days.  Twenty years of making memories, of raising a family.  Twenty years of choosing each other over and over again, even when we weren’t sure we wanted to.

Last night he gave me my anniversary present…three weeks early.  To be fair, we will be out of the country on the actual date and it wouldn’t be especially wise to bring an expensive gift with him where we’re going.  But he probably would have caved early anyways, truth be told.  He can never make it until Christmas, or my birthday, or Valentine’s Day…when we got engaged he’d already shown the ring to nearly all of our friends and family because he just couldn’t keep it to himself.

So in the waning hours of Mother’s Day, his first without his own mother, my guy handed me the most beautiful bracelet made up of interlocking infinity symbols.  Because that’s what this marriage thing is about for us: forever.  We both got choked up thinking of all we’ve been through together and imagining/wishing/hoping for all that’s to come.  It became one of those defining moments, one when you both recommit to the choice you made however many years ago.

Twenty years.  A lot changes in that amount of time.  I was only a few weeks out of college when we said our vows.  We were one of the first couples we knew to tie the knot, having been together already for several years and figuring we had a good enough thing to make it official.

We moved into a tiny duplex, the first home we would share together.  If those walls could talk, they’d tell the sometimes bumpy story of our early married years.  In fact, one of them may even still have a dent in it from the time I threw something (the specifics escape me, I like to forget I was ever such a hothead) during a particularly heated fight.  Those walls held the raised voices of arguments, the sighs of lovemaking, the smells of burnt dinners…they held two amateurs trying to act like they knew what the hell they were doing.

So after twenty years we should be pros, right?  Wrong.  Marriage, like parenthood, is constantly evolving.  The people involved are constantly evolving.  The situations they face are constantly evolving.  There are no pros, just aging amateurs.

But I have learned a few things over the years that I thought might be worth sharing:

  1. At the end of the day, your spouse is the person you’re most likely to take out all your stress and frustration on.  Try really, really hard not to.  Be nicer to him than you would be to your barista, or your child’s teacher, or the coworker who secretly drives you bonkers but who you have to get along with.  Absolutely share your stresses and frustrations with him, just don’t treat him like he’s the source of them all.
  2. Your spouse is going to have habits that bug the hell out of you.  Guess what?  You have habits that probably bug the hell out of him.  Let it go.  And pick up your socks while you’re at it.
  3. You aren’t going to parent exactly the same way, or celebrate holidays the same way, or perhaps even vote the same way.  You each carry your own upbringings, your own experiences, your own baggage into this union.  Recognize that.  Withhold judgment.  Share.  Compromise.  Create something together from your differences.
  4. Be realistic.  We’ve all watched too many rom-coms and Disney movies over the years.  Marriage isn’t a fairy tale.  Your partner isn’t going to sweep you off your feet on the daily.  That initial rush of romantic excitement isn’t sustainable long term, at least not consistently.  I guarantee even the characters from Fifty Shades will end up spending more nights watching reality TV in their sweats than they will in the Red Room.  It doesn’t mean the thrill is gone; it’s just really, really comfy on the couch right now.
  5. Gratitude matters.  Showing appreciation for your spouse when he does something that makes you feel loved or cared for and taking time to do the things you know will make him feel the same creates a self-sustaining pattern of kindness in your marriage.  There will be times when you just don’t feel very grateful, or when you’re so overwhelmed by the business of life, or parenting, or simply surviving that you let this slip.  It will show.  Stop.  Think about what your spouse does that you might be thankful for.  Tell him.
  6. Make an effort to stay connected.  Whether that means regular date nights or simply cuddling and catching up on each other’s days before bed, prioritize time and communication with your partner.  When life gets hectic it’s very easy to become roommates and (family) business partners rather than lovers and friends.  Be aware of it and work together to find ways to connect as a couple.
  7. Have each other’s backs.  It’s natural to share things about your relationship with your friends and family, it can be tempting to get a laugh by making a joke at your spouse’s expense, it can be hard not to let on to your children when you disagree with the way your partner handles a parenting situation.  But ultimately you two should be each other’s greatest supporters and staunchest defenders.  Don’t make a habit of talking behind his back or undermining his parenting decisions.  If you can’t count on each other and feel safe with one another, you’re setting yourselves up for heartache.
  8. Have fun together!  Between work and kids and the all-go-no-quit nature of our society, it can be challenging to carve out time to just enjoy each other’s company.  Make each other laugh, do things together that you both enjoy, be silly with each other.  When you share a lifetime together, you’re bound to face your share of hardships and serious situations.  Balance it out with levity whenever you can.

I’m sure I could add to this list every day for the rest of our marriage.  And I’m sure there are others out there with much better advice.  I imagine couples coming up on fifty years could share a whole lot more.  Hopefully that will be us one day.  We never know how long we have on this earth, how many years we will get with the people we love.  There’s a song by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit that says it best:

“Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone.”

Until that day comes, I’ll just keep choosing us.  For better, for worse.  In sickness and in health.  For richer, for poorer.  For as long as we both shall live.  I choose us. 

Happy Anniversary, B.

Peas and Carrots forever.

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Musings

May 12, 2018

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Mother’s Day: does any other holiday arrive so fraught with emotions and expectations?  It’s understandable.  After all, motherhood is in and of itself a complicated, emotional business.  Mothering and being mothered are the very foundations of humanity, a weighty distinction to be sure.

But all that weight can get…well, heavy.  Expectations can set us up for disappointment, in ourselves and others.  When Hallmark and Facebook are constantly telling us how important this day is and giving us examples of how it should be celebrated, we can begin to believe it ourselves.  We start doing the one thing guaranteed to make us miserable: comparing.

In this way, Mother’s Day really does reflect Motherhood.  We all go into it with certain ideas about what it will be like, about the kind of mothers we will be.  I remember judging parents before I was one, smugly shaking my head at the tantrumming toddler in Target, rolling my eyes at the mom bribing her preschooler with candy to make it through the checkout line, frowning at the mother who raised her voice in the parking lot when her little one wouldn’t hold her hand.  I had a degree in this shit.  I was going to totally win at momming.

Fast forward to my inevitable reality check: namely, my firstborn.  Suddenly all those classes and all those books seemed to mock my inability to help him sleep through the night.  My prior hubris bit me in the ass when he threw himself on the ground at Dillons and screamed bloody murder.  I was failing at the one thing I most wanted to excel at.

And yet…it didn’t really feel like a failure.  Sure, I may have spent my days coaching other parents on how to handle parenting challenges and my nights in survival mode, ignoring all of my own advice.  I might have lost my cool when I intended to be patient, caved when I meant to consistent.  But through it all, the guilt and the sleepless nights and the desire to burn all my parenting books in a bonfire at 2 a.m. (hey, I was already up, might as well), there was love.  Boundless, ferocious, breathtaking love.

When his sister came along, I thought I had at least the early years figured out.  After all, I’d done this before, how different could it be?  (That sound is God laughing hysterically.)  She was born pissed.  Her first four months were a blur of sleep deprivation so extreme I’m certain the Geneva Conventions would have banned it.  She wouldn’t nurse, she screamed non-stop, she couldn’t be comforted…and I fell apart.  It was a dark, lonely time for me even though I was surrounded by supportive loved ones.  And once again, I questioned whether I had what it took to be a good mom.

Eventually I found my way back to the light, and she stopped crying incessantly and made me fall completely in love with her.  Though I’d questioned how I would ever be able to feel as much emotion for anyone but my son, my daughter answered with a force of love that swept all questions away.  I might not have been a perfect mom, but I was their mom, and that was all that mattered.

My expectations were so very different than my ultimate reality.  I could have easily allowed them to make me feel less, to lower my estimation of what I was worth as a mother.  Instead, I chose to forgive myself, to commit myself to being the best mom I could be.  When I faltered, I granted myself grace and I prayed that God would give me what I needed to be what they needed.

I am fortunate in so many ways, but one of my greatest blessings is that I was born to a woman who truly lives what it means to be a Mother.  Not just to me and my sister, but to anyone who needs nurturing.  I never, ever take that for granted.  I realize there are so many who have strained or difficult relationships with their mothers.  There are those who have no contact with the women who raised them, who have suffered years of hurt and disappointment and heartbreak.

For them, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder of all that is missing.  The sappy commercials, the gushing posts on social media, they’re like barbs stuck into hearts that have never really healed.  All the flaws in their mothers and their relationships with them are brought to light in a seemingly unavoidable way once a year.

Then there are those for whom motherhood has resulted in the deepest pain imaginable: the loss of a child.  There are women who long to be mothers, whose bodies have betrayed that desire, or whose circumstances have prevented them from acting on it.  There are those for whom Mother’s Day is a day of mourning, for the mothers they loved and lost.

And there are those of us who simply feel let down if our day doesn’t look like we think it should.  We scroll through Facebook and see breakfasts in bed, pampering spa sessions, gourmet dinners, meaningful homemade gifts…we create a vision of what Mother’s Day will hold.  We grow impatient when our children still bicker, when our spouse forgets to buy a card, when we find ourselves doing the dishes and picking up socks from the living room floor.  After all, THIS IS OUR DAY AND IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE PERFECT, DAMNIT.

Just like motherhood, right?  Oh, wait…we haven’t totally nailed that, have we? Our reality doesn’t always measure up to our expectations.  Does that mean we aren’t good mamas?  Does it mean we don’t love our children?  Of course not.

So perhaps we should wake up on Mother’s Day with that same understanding.  Maybe we should acknowledge that the reality of our day may not measure up to our expectation.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace the idea.  It doesn’t mean our families don’t appreciate us or care about us.  It just means this day is no different than any other: special, ordinary, meaningful, hopeful, disappointing, challenging, magical, mundane…a gift.

To everyone who has mothered or longed to, who has been mothered or longed to be, may your Mother’s Day have fewer expectations and more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more healing.  And more chocolate.  Because HELLO.  Chocolate.

Happy Mother’s Day, y’all.

~Ashley

 

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