Prepper Mom

21 Sep

Judging from the posts on Facebook I know I’m not the only one. I don’t like making the kids’ lunches. My first year as a single mom, I was unemployed and I qualified for my school’s free lunch program. It spoiled me; I made almost no bag lunches that year.

Fortunately my finances have improved. And I’d be happy to pay full price for school lunches for three children every day. Ecstatic, actually. They are supposedly nutritious, modestly priced, and well worth the time and stress they save me.

But alas, my kids don’t like school lunches. They would rather send their poor, sleep-deprived mother over the edge every morning by forcing me to pack lunch while at the same time dress them, feed them, make sure they don’t smell, brush their hair, inspect their feet for socks, and ensure they don’t miss the bus at 7:25.

Did I mention I happen to be friends with the now-famous “napkin notes dad?” He is one of the most inspiring people I know, and I wish some of his example could rub off on me, but I routinely forget to include napkins, much less write notes on them.

40 minutes is not enough time for me to get my kids ready for school and pack lunches. So I sometimes just postpone the lunch making for the two younger ones until after they’ve left, with the intention of taking them to the school office on my way into work. More than once this school year (that’s less than three weeks at the time of this writing) I’ve forgotten to take the lunches. Thank goodness for the hot lunch backup. Still, I have to face shaming from the 10 year old family dictator when she gets home.

More than once I’ve heard the advice, “Make lunch the night before.” That sounds great, but I’m even less motivated to make lunches at 8:30 pm than I am at 7 am.

One of the main reasons I dread lunch packing is the same reason I struggle with all meals – lack of preparation. Sometimes I’m missing the all-important protein. Other times I’m all out of chips or snack crackers, or a fresh fruit or veggie. The thermos and plastic containers need washing. Then there’s the worst of all – I have all the necessary foods but no plastic baggies.

Yesterday I did something new. I went to the store and spent $75 on lunch supplies. Including plastic baggies. And when I got home, I set everything on the kitchen table and prepackaged baggies of goldfish, teddy grahams, cheezits, veggie sticks, and triscuits. I pulled out three small baskets from the pantry and filled them with tuna packets, granola bars, lance cracker packs, etc. I filled the fridge with mini pepperoni, baby bells, carrot sticks, apple sauce and pudding cups, yogurt tubes, and juice pouches.

This morning, lunch was a breeze.

I’m curious to see how long the supplies will last. I’ll be guarding the pantry and the fridge like a hawk, lest the locusts descend for an after school snack. No! Water and ritz crackers for you! No ruining your dinner and depleting my store of sanity, little ruffians!

. . . and It Gets Easier

16 Sep

Yesterday I received a wonderful email from my brother, not only wishing me a happy birthday, but responding to my most recent blog post, “It Gets Harder.” If I were to copy and paste his entire eloquent email here, the title would be, “It Gets Easier.” But instead of copying all his words and private experiences, I’m just going to share some of them and write the flip side of Wednesday’s reflection.

“Truth and acceptance. It’s a concept I have seen you study in the deep, analytical way a scientist dissects molecules to understand how atomic elements combine to create some totally new form of matter,” my brother said. “It’s elusive and in our unique human experience as relative as it is absolute. I would never dare lecture anyone on truth. As the saying goes, ‘Only God knows…’ But I will offer one tiny, yet impactful observation: there is a light side and dark side to every truth. It is my belief that how we choose to accept the truth will in turn reflect either the light or the dark. Let’s choose the light, as it is our divine duty and human right.”

How we choose to accept the truth. How. That one word makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In my spiritual practices, “HOW” is not only a word, but an acronym for “Honest Open and Willing.” Embracing those qualities is “how” I can keep my focus on the light side of truths that are sometimes hard to swallow.

My brother was born with some physical limitations. I often overlook this fact because in my home, we never focused on it. Ever. To me, he was just an annoying little baby who became an annoying little toddler who followed me around, and then an enjoyable little playmate, schoolmate, friend, and confidant. My parents and my brother never let his limitations define what he could do or not do. Yes, he had casts on his legs. There was a surgery, some physical therapy in his puberty years, and some kind of leg brace he wore at night when he was a little older. Although I never saw it, apparently there was a little bit of teasing in school. But from my perspective, my brother was no different than anyone else.

No, that’s not quite right. From my perspective, my brother was better than anyone else. He was an exceptional baseball and tennis player, a multi-talented musician, and a social butterfly who was liked and respected by every clique in high school. He made good grades without even trying, excelling at math, science, and foreign language. Things that came hard to me came easy to him. I was never jealous of this, but I did marvel at it.

In his email, my brother shared, “I could drown in the sorrow of what will not or cannot be. But in doing so, I miss the point on how easy life is. It is in never having the ability to straighten my legs fully that I gained this perspective. When you face something that is so hard all your life, the rest of life is icing on the cake.”

I never knew his physical defect was hard for him; that thought never even occurred to me, because my brother approaches life with such a positive attitude without any apparent effort. He shared other things in his email about what has been “hard” for him, especially in more recent years. Yes, getting older throws every one of us curve balls, in our careers, families, and physical health. No one is immune, and everyone carries a hidden burden. And yet, throwing my words back at me with a twist, he said, “In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been celebrating the wins. Easy. (See what I did there?)”

Have I been letting my defects define me? My defects are not physical; they are emotional and they are just as real as my brother’s neurophysical defect, even if they are not visible. But are they even defects at all? I once heard a speaker talk about the difference between a “shortcoming” and a “defect.” He said, a shortcoming is like being a baseball player who isn’t very good at sprinting. He can’t control it. A defect of character is being a baseball player who isn’t a sprinter, yet tries to steal a base.

A baseball player who isn’t a sprinter need not resign herself from them team. Maybe her batting average is enviable. Maybe she’s one hell of a pitcher. Maybe her team appreciates her gifts and overlooks her shortcoming as long as she doesn’t try to be something she’s not.

What are my wins? When I was pregnant with my second child, I had anxiety about becoming a parent of two; I felt like I could barely handle being a parent of one. But within a few hours of her birth, I had showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and asked the nurses if I could drive us home now. (They said no.) My nipples never got sore and cracked. My body felt better than it had in a year, and when I did finally get home, I packed up all my belongings and a newborn baby and moved my family to a brand new house without a single anxiety attack. Everything about being a parent was surprisingly easier with two because I’d done this before. Taking care of a newborn without a learning curve gave me a confidence that carried over into taking care of a preschooler, which was uncharted territory.

Life does get harder. But it also gets easier. It gets easier because I’ve learned the hard way what I can reasonably expect from myself and other people. It gets easier because I’ve gotten better at communicating, and I know when to keep my mouth shut. It gets easier because I’ve practiced saying “no” and “enough.” It gets easier because my kids are becoming partners in their own choices and beginning to take responsibility for their own destiny. It gets easier because as I let go, I carry less. I don’t care less, but I do worry less, because I’ve had enough experience to trust things to work themselves out, usually in ways my imagination could never conceive. It gets easier because I get out of the way. I don’t bang my head against walls like I used to. I strive for contentment and practice gratitude, instead of striving for things beyond my reach and feeling like a victim. It gets easier because I have faith that meets every fear head on.

I could echo the closing words of my brother’s email, because they are as much mine as his:

“What I have learned most, though, is who I am not – and it is in this knowledge that life truly sets sail. So with 40 years in your rear view mirror, take comfort in knowing all of what you are, and just as importantly all of what you are not. I admire how true to self you have become. It gives confidence that for so many years I’ve seen you grasp for but could not always grip. You have it now. Truth and acceptance. I leave you with an oldie but goodie from the Church of John Leonard, ‘Faith is the emptiness of not knowing and the fullness of not needing to know.’”

It Gets Harder

14 Sep

When I first became a mom, the first few postpartum days and weeks were hard. Really hard. Cracked nipples, swollen bottom, and sleep deprivation took its toll on me physically. The magnitude of caring for a being who was often inconsolable for long stretches of time quickly drained any emotional reserves I had left. The joy of new life was there too, but it was overshadowed most of the time by the ever-present anxiety of being in uncharted territory.

I got myself through those first few weeks the same way I’d gotten myself through many other challenging stages in my life – by telling myself it will get easier. This is what grown ups tell their children who are learning new skills like tying their shoes or reading or navigating the social waters of puberty, and they can say it with confidence because it’s true. With practice, many things do become easier.

But life itself is not one of those things.

I remember the moment this first dawned on me. My son was two months old, and I was bouncing him while walking around the kitchen at about three in the afternoon, hoping he would stop crying and fall asleep deeply enough that I could lay him in the crib without waking him, get some rest, and get dinner started by the time my husband came home at 5:30. So far that wasn’t looking likely. And with tears streaming down my face, my inner voice acknowledged to myself the truth – it does not get easier. It freaking gets harder. And as it gets harder, the skills I mastered yesterday get tested in new ways today. My skills continually improve. My cracked nipples and swollen bottom heal. But motherhood? That just keeps getting harder.

I’m glad I came to this realization early on. Knowing this truth has not made each progressively difficult stage of parenthood any easier, but it has kept my expectations a little more realistic. Imagine how much harder motherhood would be if I had clung to the fantasy of things getting easier?

More recently, I’ve learned it’s not just parenting that gets harder, not easier. Tomorrow I turn 41, and as I pass out of the milestone midpoint year, I do so with a new set of physical limitations. I have some subtle joint pain. My muscles ache after doing yard work. My eyes strain when I read. If I cross my legs, my feet get numb and tingly. “Old” people for years have been saying, “Just wait until you get older,” and “Growing old sucks.” They have been forthcoming about it. They may have said it with a chuckle, or they may have said it heartbroken, but they haven’t kept it a secret. Why is it I’m so surprised?

When I was a child, the world was a great unknown waiting to be explored, and the only limitations were my size, my skills, my age, and my parents’ rules. My teens and twenties were spent consciously overcoming those limitations, and still believing in a promise of limitless opportunity. In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been mourning the losses. Hard.

Grief is simultaneously crippling and healing. Crippling because the weight of it makes me want to not get out of bed in the morning. I’ve had memory loss and a lot of careless mistakes. Anxiety and depression have all but overtaken me at times this year. Healing because every ugly cry feels cleansing. In letting go of misplaced hopes, I’ve opened my hands to receive new gifts.

The end result of the grieving process is acceptance, especially acceptance of myself and my limitations. Acceptance of life on life’s terms gives me new choices, especially the choice to change my attitude, to forgive, to show mercy, to focus on what is essential, and to ask for help when I need it.

Life may not get easier, but it can get healthier as I practice acceptance.

The difficulties give me gratitude for the brief moments of respite – the sunset, the spontaneous hug from my child, the early morning writing, the exhilaration of singing at church.

Happiness may be elusive, but joy is not. Joy is the sweet in every bitter moment. I need only open my eyes and my heart and grab hold of it for comfort.

Deadheading Discipline

23 Aug

One of my favorite hobbies is gardening. Not that you can tell by looking at my yard this summer – what a mess! Some seasons offer more challenges than others, the least of which is time to dedicate to weeding and planting and pruning. The excessive heat has not helped either, so I’ll blame that.

One of the reasons I love gardening so much is that it’s so rich with analogies and lessons for living. Recently one such lesson occurred to me, not while gardening, but while practicing yoga.

I take a yin yoga class every Thursday. Yin, I’ve found, is more meditative than your typical yoga class, and my teacher infuses each session with a theme or intention for our practice, reading quotes and inspired sayings as we soften into our poses and surrender to the practice of sitting still. The theme of the day was inner beauty.

She told us the story of the lotus flower, which has to struggle through the mud and muck before its blossom reaches the surface of the water to release a pleasing fragrance. It was a beautiful analogy for any of us who feel our circumstances are less than desirable.

After class, though, I was struck by another analogy on my way to the car. I thought of my roses, which have had a very hard summer. Between the heat and the beetles and some kind of disease that caused all their foliage to drop in late spring, they’ve suffered so much I considered just pulling them out of their beds and planting something else. But in one last ditch effort, I did a heavy pruning of all the diseased parts, and within a few weeks they seem to have recovered a little. My climbers even have flowers.

When a rose flower passes its peak and starts to fade, the plant puts energy into the “fruit” so it will have seeds. This is the natural reproduction drive of pretty much any green growing thing. This time of year especially, you’ll see a lot of gardens filled with overgrown, stalky, spent blossoms. Garden folk call this letting a garden “go to seed.” Eventually those ratty, faded blossoms will be replaced by dried pods that will release seed into the air or drop to the ground to reseed itself. It’s self-preservation, and it isn’t always pretty.

A well manicured garden doesn’t “go to seed.” Why? Because the gardener cuts the blossom heads as soon as the petals fade. With no fruit, no seed pod, no offspring, the plant, without any consciousness at all, instinctually is driven to survive by producing new buds which will eventually be new flowers, new opportunities for seed. This is called “dead heading.” As long as you keep cutting off the fruit, the plant will continue to put its energy back into making more flowers through its growing season.

God often seems to remove, to prune, the parts of my life that in one season seem so unspeakably beautiful. I’d rather He allow them to be perpetually beautiful. But that’s not the way God’s nature works. God may extend the beauty of the growing season, but he does it the way any gardener would, by removing spent blossoms. Short term pain for long term gain.

To me, the fading blossoms in my life are cause for grief. God’s pruning, too, seems cause for grief. To God, all is love. This weekend’s letter from Paul to the Hebrews, he reminds us, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” Like a gardener who does a heavy cold-season pruning to improve the health and eventual harvest of a plant, God removes every branch that does not bear fruit. He “pinches” back my early growth like a gardener pinches the early spring leaves of a mum, so that my growth will not be tall and undisciplined and wild and easily destroyed in a late summer storm, but coiffed and compact and full, strong enough to retain a beautiful round shape even after a hurricane. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

The spiritual life – like the natural world – is so full of paradox. As Jesus reminds us in this weekend’s Gospel, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” If God is removing my spent blossoms instead of letting them go to seed, perhaps I need to remember that dead heading is the gardener’s way of sustaining beauty in the world before the seasons change. My growth is not just for my own self-preservation, but for the Master Gardener’s pleasure, and maybe this season He wants flowers, not fruit, for His glory.

Simple Dinner

18 Aug img_3921

This is not an elaborate recipe, but it was a hit with my children – a reminder that when it comes to my family, simple is better.

My ten year old could have made this meal without supervision.

Step 1: Rice and water in the rice cooker for 15 minutes. Maybe a dash of salt.

Step 2: Cleaned chicken breasts in the pan, sprinkled with soy sauce, covered and cooked over medium heat. After about ten minutes, flip, another splash of soy sauce, turn down heat, cover, cook another 10 minutes.

Step 3: Put a bag of “steam in bag” mixed veggies in the microwave.

Step 4: Get kids to set the table.

Step 5: Put all the cooked contents in a pretty serving platter and feel like a sophisticated adult who has her act together. Enjoy the bliss of children actually eating their dinner and liking it. Savor the, “Wow, this is good!”

***

I sometimes over-complicate things. I set unrealistic expectations for myself. I forget that it doesn’t have to be so hard.

First Family Vacation, Check

11 Aug

Last week, I took my kids on our first family vacation. This probably comes as a surprise to most everyone; after all, I’ve been a parent for 13 years, and you’ve seen me post pictures of my travels with the kids for the last eight years I’ve been on Facebook. Some of those photos were even taken at Disney World! How could this possibly be our first family vacation?

Well, for starters, I don’t count the Disney trip in 2013 as a “vacation.” I was traveling with my three kids and two parents in one minivan for 10 days without even one hour of solitude (even sleeping)! It was an amazing voyage filled with highs, lows, and everything in between. Also, it was made financially possible by the generosity of my parents, so, no, I don’t count the Disney trip.

But what about the other travels? Believe it or not, I’ve never had all three kids with me on any of our overnights in D.C. or Yorktown or camping. The only exception to this was a weekend beach trip five years ago, and again, my mom and dad footed the bill and provided the additional adult presence necessary for taking three young kids anywhere more than an hour or two.

Surely, you say, I must have gone on a vacation when I was married, right? Not really. Our extended families were all local, so we didn’t have to go far to visit anyone. We did mostly day trips. The only time my ex and I went away from home for more than one night was a long weekend when we left our then two children with grandparents. And when our son was four years old we took a train ride to D.C. to see the zoo and stayed overnight. Those little trips don’t, in my mind, “qualify” as a legitimate vacation.

I could probably fill whole journals with my explanations and excuses for not taking family vacations. When I was married I was pretty sure it was because my ex was some kind of workaholic who couldn’t leave his job at home for more than a day without freaking out. It turns out if I point a finger at someone else, it leaves three pointing back at me; I’m just as much a workaholic as he ever was. In recent years as a single mom, my excuses boil down to lack of money, lack of time, and lack of confidence at being able to handle three kids alone away from the familiar.

It embarrasses me to write this, but there are times I’ve felt like a complete failure as a parent because of my inability, whatever the reason, to give my children a proper family vacation. Social media hasn’t helped. My friends and even my brother have taken their families to some pretty exotic locales, including Thailand, Key West, Maine, and places in South America that I can’t pronounce. The ex took them on a Disney cruise last year. Not that I’m comparing myself to you, but . . . yeah, I’m comparing myself, and I come up short.

I haven’t just been comparing myself to you. I’ve been comparing myself to my parents. The family in which I grew up travelled to Pennsylvania for a week to visit grandparents at least twice a year, and we almost always made visits to historic side trips like Gettysburg and D.C. and even New York one year. We took occasional “big” trips to Florida and California, and we went to Disney World two times, Disneyland one time, and the beach for a week pretty much every year from the time I was a tween until I graduated from high school. To me, this is what normal “modest” families did, and this has been my expectation for myself.

(I realize the last several paragraphs of whining should be followed with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. If you’ve made it this far, you’re a real friend, and I thank you for putting up with me.)

This year I made a commitment to take my kids somewhere. I considered renting a beach condo for a week (too expensive), taking us camping (too hot and buggy and stressful), taking us to a luxury resort for a short stay (too little appreciation for the finer things). One friend offered her river house, but I didn’t want to impose a specific time, as there was only one week I could easily take off work. So, I opted for the most “basic” vacation I could fathom – a two night stay in a cheap hotel in Williamsburg with side trips to Virginia Beach, Colonial Williamsburg, and Water Country.

2016-08-03 19.09.23

Although there was a little sunburn on all our shoulders, there were no meltdowns and everyone had a good time. I felt gratitude at being able to financially provide a good time for everyone. I had a 13-year-old son who could keep an eye on his littlest sister while me and the daredevil redhead took in a more adventurous waterslide. My three mild-mannered kids didn’t want to do anything at the water park except float in the lazy river and the wave pool, so it was actually pretty relaxing. The boy caught Pokemon everywhere we went, and we were lucky enough to get a room with a king-sized bed and a sleeper sofa, so no one had to sleep on the floor.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me we don’t have to be gone for a week to feel like we’ve been gone for a week. Although I still very much want to take my kids for a relaxing week at a big beach house one day, I’m no longer feeling guilty that I can’t take them for a week to Florida amusement park heaven. Our brief time away from the break-neck pace of summer day camps and evening dance classes put the whole vacation thing in perspective for me. My parents may have given me trips to Pennsylvania, but it was out of necessity (visiting grandparents); my kids get to have a relationship with their grandparents every day. My parents may have rented beach condos, but not until we were teenagers; before that, our experience with the beach was limited to long weekends and modest hotels planned around times when my dad had to go to Virginia Beach for work. Our pilgrimages to Florida and California were not just trips to expensive theme parks, but marathon visits with the many uncles, aunts, and cousins who lived along the route there; I now have Facebook to stay in daily contact with distant relatives. My ex may be able to take the kids on Disney cruises, but I get to wake up to their faces almost every morning.

Rather than focus on the glass half empty, as I’m inclined to do when I compare myself to others, I now see the glass as more than half full, and I realize how lucky I am. In preparing to write this reflection, I thought of a famous quote from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

As a mother, especially a single mother, I need to remember it’s the small things I do with great love that will make a difference for our family. They usually don’t ask for big things anyway. It’s my big ego that insists on setting unattainable goals.

Evidence

9 Aug

This weekend’s scriptures were so rich and full of quotable verses; I’m still digesting and trying to figure out what I want to write. One of my favorites was this one from St. Paul to the Hebrews: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”

It is one of the most confusing verses in all of scripture. Usually when I think of “taking something on faith,” it means that I’m making a decision to trust something even when I’m unsure. The modern understanding of faith is to be sure something is true without having evidence.

Paul said faith IS the evidence of something being true.

I know a lot of people who’ve had faith that something for which they hoped would come to pass, who were disappointed in the actual outcome. How can faith be the realization of something that never happens, like a healing, or a new job, or conceiving a child?

Perhaps it’s that we don’t really understand faith. It’s not an intellectual exercise, nor is it blind belief. Faith is not about outcomes or earthly circumstances. Faith is about action. Faith is deciding to act as if God is present in my pain, God cares about me, and God can and will use my circumstances to bring love and healing into the world if I offer my brokenness and incompleteness for Him to use.

We can’t always see the ripple effect our actions and attitudes have in the world, but our faith, our “acting as if” our pain has purpose, is itself the evidence of the unseen purpose.

As for “the realization of what is hoped for,” exactly what IS it that we hope for? My experience has taught me that when I hope for a bigger house, a better job, a happier relationship, etc., those things do not satisfy even when they are realized. It’s human nature to want more, bigger, and better. Discontentment is one of the shadow sides of being human. Whether we understand it or not, there is only one thing that will satisfy the inner longing, and that is a relationship with our source, our creator. The moment I hope for that relationship above all other things is the moment that hope is realized, and the moment faith is born.

There’s a song that came to mind as I meditated on Paul’s mind blowing words: Evidence by a group called Citizen Way. It gives us another word for faith – love.

“My life was changed by the evidence of love.” This is a message we all need more than ever as political season ramps up into high gear. I do my best not to look at the bumper sticker on someone’s car as evidence of their love. I look at their actions. When I do, I find that many people with whom I don’t always see eye to eye still live a life of faith and love, and those qualities are what we all need to have hope. When we outsource our hope to a figure behind a podium, we lose sight of the true source of lasting peace in the midst of chaos. Let’s keep our eyes on the evidence.

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