Family On Friday, Uncategorized

. . . and It Gets Easier

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.’”

Family On Friday, Uncategorized

First Family Vacation, Check

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.

Family On Friday

Feeding Her Feelings

Yesterday my eight year old daughter came home from school crying. She made a snowman out of sand in a latex balloon as a craft at school, and it didn’t survive the trip home. She was pretty heartbroken.

Now, it is common for the kids to ask for a cookie when they get home from school, and it is also common for me to say yes. This happened yesterday. Then I went upstairs to write while they started working on homework. A few minutes later, a very weepy eight year old came to me and said she was so sad, she “deserved” another cookie.

Insert teachable moment here.

Insert fears about my daughter’s relationship with food.

Insert guilt about my own destructive habits to avoid feeling my feelings (i.e., fast food, donuts, flirting, etc).

Insert God’s undeniably ironic sense of humor and timing.

Insert that we learn best by teaching.

I held my crying daughter as I explained that a cookie would only maker her feel better for a few minutes. I told her that we all feel sad at times, but that all our feelings, even the sad ones, are a gift from God, and that they pass.

I told her that when we use food to avoid feeling sad, it doesn’t work. It makes us feel worse, and then it becomes a habit we can’t stop, and then we get sick.

I gave her tools for handling the sad feelings – talk to someone, ask for help to find a solution, wait, and do what we would do if we were not sad. In this case, homework.

Can I tell you how grateful I am that I could give her that comfort? Because a few years ago, I wouldn’t have had those tools. A few years ago I was so sad, I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

But someone took the time to teach me that feelings are like thunderstorms. They rage, and they pass. Sometimes a lot. But they pass with less pain if I don’t compound the pain with my own doomed attempts at avoiding them.

I cannot control whether my daughter develops an unhealthy relationship with food. I can model good behavior though. I can educate her. And I can give her healthy solutions. Even at eight, it’s up to her to make her own choice.

But just to be safe, I ate the rest of the cookies when she was asleep.

Just kidding!

Family On Friday

Family On Friday

I had two distinct yet parallel experiences yesterday with my children. The first involved my oldest.

He’s 10 going on 40, and in fifth grade. Next year he goes to middle school. He doesn’t seem old enough to be going to middle school. I just dropped him off at Kindergarten yesterday. Yes, I know every mom says that in fifth grade. Probably every dad, too.

So, in spite if yesterday’s snow day, the guidance counselor called and asked if we still wanted to come for our scheduled middle school registration. I just wanted to get it over with.

As we walked into the school, my son’s shoulders squared. His feet walked with purpose. He was excited. He knew what classes he wanted. He knew where he was going, unlike his mom who still gets lost at times in this huge school that is only a fraction of the size of the one he’ll attend next year.

Walking behind him, following his lead, I was keenly aware that with each passing day I am becoming less and less the dictator of his life and more and more a guest he allows into his world, not unlike the parents who are welcome guests in mine.

I’m both proud and heartbroken.

Later that night, after the two oldest were tucked into their beds (yes, he still wants me to tuck him in, thank God), I had my second experience. It was the little one. The one who has always been the cuddler of the three. The one whose affection is nearly impossible to reject. The one who breaks through my frigidity every time.

She got out of the tub. I toweled her off and carried her to my bed, like I’ve done since the day she was born in that very room five years ago. I brushed her wet hair and braided it, dressed her in her PJs, and tucked her in next to me while I scanned through Facebook and Pinterest, until I could hear her soft snores. Out cold, totally peaceful, her arms stretched over her head not unlike they had been when she was an infant, if I had dared to watch her sleep.

You see, I didn’t dare. I’ve never been one of those co-sleeping parents, despite my commitment to no-drugs birth, cloth diapers, and a home birth in a water trough in my bedroom. My kids slept in their cribs since birth. I shut the door and let them sleep, stir, cry, play quietly in the morning. I attended to their needs only as needed, and I didn’t dare go in and watch them sleep, for fear of waking them.

My alone time was too precious. My sleep, also, was too precious. My hour of showering and relaxing in the early morning was too precious.

With my oldest and my youngest I suffered what I now recognize as postpartum depression. I know, because I did not have it with my second. But with or without the PPD, bonding with my children was a struggle. I may never understand it. I did the best I could, and I have no regrets about my alone time, my sleep, my precious shower every morning. I needed those things just to stay sane, and sanity is the most important thing any mother should guard. Everything else comes second – breast feeding, idealism, marriage, work, housekeeping, friends.

But as I looked at my baby sleeping in my bed last night, I was incredibly grateful that I’m not missing it. That by the time I drop her off at kindergarten next year, I’ll know that school like the back of my hand, and I’ll be present there even more than I have been. And at the middle school, too. And high school, hopefully.

Blink and you miss it, seasoned parents told me. It’s so true. I cannot change the past, but I can enjoy the present.

Family On Friday

Family On Friday

I’m instituting a new category on my blog – Family on Friday. It’s an area of my life that I touch on in my other posts but really deserves to be highlighted, because after taking the past few years to focus on myself and recover the me that was lost, I now want to be able to share that me with them while I can.

My son turned ten this summer. Ten. A decade has gone by, and while I’ve done the best I could at the time and refuse to beat myself up for my shortcomings as a mom, the simple truth is that I have not been the parent I imagined becoming. Some of that was admittedly the fantasy of a young woman who knew nothing of the realities of being a parent. But some of the ideals I once had are still worth pursuing. Cultivating good habits. Passing on my faith. Teaching by example. Being consistent. Vacationing together. Sleepovers with friends. Crafting. Conversations over dinner. Piano lessons, dance class, Scouts.

I am so blessed that I had parents who showed me through example that these are not some Donna Reed Leave It To Beaver ideals that are impossible for “real” people. I lived it. It is totally possible, and my kids deserve all of that and more. They deserve to know without a doubt that they are loved by their mom, that they matter.

This column is about how I’m showing them. It’s Friday, and we’re family.