Category Archives: Children
Ten years ago, I was changed.
There was the Before Me, and the After Me.
I am not the person I was in December 2001. There are elements of who I was that are a part of me now, and as time goes on, I reclaim more and more of the pieces of me from before that time that I want to claim. But there is still a huge chasm between Before and After.
He was tiny, born still at 22 weeks.
January 17, 2002. Forever changed.
I discovered strength that I had no idea was there. I discovered a drive to live and to feel joy again. I embraced parenting my living children, then 2 and 12, as best I could, while battling deep grief. I discovered what grieving looks like and feels like, and how important it is to be there for those who are hurting. I discovered how the internet can link us to others who are experiencing what we are, and in doing so, discovered an amazing group of mothers who were also grieving and we survived and thrived together.
I went on to have another healthy baby, 2 1/2 years later. That was and continues to be very healing. I discovered a lot about fertility and pregnancy loss (I also went through several first trimester miscarriages) and about how grateful we all should be for every healthy baby and child in our lives. It’s not as simple as it sometimes seems. I learned a lot about how to be sensitive to people around me who may be hurting quietly as they long for children of their own, or who may be grieving the loss of much-wanted pregnancies.
We just never know what someone else’s path has been…
What are some of the Before and After moments that have forever changed you?
I had a lovely moment of serendipity today. I don’t believe that “the universe provides” for those who ask — unless the universe seriously hates the Congo and has a mad crush on upper-middle-class Unitarians — but I do believe that having ears that hear and eyes that see happens more often when you know what you’re looking for.
Last night I had dinner with my husband while my girls were out trick-or-treating with other friends, and I took advantage of the time between my girl-tini and the arrival of the sushi platter to talk to him about the stuff I thought I might figure out by writing (sporadically) on this blog. In short: how did I wake up this side of 40 somewhere I didn’t plan to be, and how do I get somewhere else, somewhere I like a little better?
I don’t believe in trying to reclaim your younger self, but as I said to him over little scallop purses, there was a time when I paid more attention to making things and making them well, and learning things, and mastering them. When it didn’t seem the point of the day was to get to the end of it as quickly as possible, ideally — oh, the high standards! — with enough energy left to watch a sitcom before going to bed.
“You need more art in your life,” he said: art as in making, art as in beauty, art as in creating something for the sake of creation.
Today while I was cleaning up in the basement, I found stacks of old notebooks, mostly containing useless notes about ancient freelance projects. But in one of them I happened to find this. It’s so old I can almost share it without being too embarrassed, like a poem by a relative rather than something of my own. It’s a poem I wrote, no revisions, for no reason, 10+ years ago. It’s not great, but that’s the thing: I made it to make it. And it’s about doing things just to do them.
I sweep my floor like
my daughter does . . .
Not yet two, she gently
strokes the hardwood with a hairbrush
or maybe a comb.
Her purpose is not to whisk away
the dirt, the crumbs, the onion skins,
but to care for the floor,
like you might pet a cat,
like I might stroke her brown hair
while she sleeps,
imparting a tender blessing.
I can’t go back to being the person who wrote that poem: the person who was waking up from a terrible depression, or the person who was, consequently, falling in love with being a mom and discovering an earthy, messy joy in a way of life that had seemed, only a few years before, a lame consolation prize in the race to the top. I can’t be her anymore than I can be a teenager again, but I can remember some things that she knew.
Finding that poem reminded me that I know how to have art in my life. Everybody does; we’re born that way. Why I stopped, I don’t know. Stuff gets away from you. But starting again doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’d like to start playing Chopin again, or publish a book of essays, or audition for a play, but I can also just pick up a pen and a notebook, or a broom.
After dinner last night we went to pick up one of our girls, drank some wine with friends, and then drove home singing Elvis songs. The day had been insanely long, and almost 4 hours of it had been spent driving in construction and traffic. My most creative act of the day was making green cupcake frosting, most of which ended up in the trash anyway. I stretched out on the sofa to watch 30 Rock but I couldn’t get to the end; my eyes kept closing and then the storyline kept changing in nonsensical ways until my husband woke me up and told me to go to bed. It was a fine day, but no art. Not even a wakeful sitcom viewing.
There’s been precious little art in this day too, but I still have about 4 hours to go. What will it be: the salad? a little piano practice? another poem for the archives?
And you: do you have enough art in your life?
I try hard not to fall back on the old cliché “It could be worse” when trying to console someone or boost morale. “It could be worse” is almost always true, and yet it is so far from comforting it almost feels like scolding.
“Quit yer bitchin'” more like. Not helpful. “There’s a first-world problem,” someone says when you’ve lost one too many rounds with the technology in your life. Great: now I can feel frustrated, overwhelmed and ashamed of what a yuppie douchebag I’ve turned out to be. Thanks for that.
So when someone posted an article on Facebook with the one-word comment “perspective” I was hesitant to read it. Plus it’s called “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” which made me think that it was related to that whole “Tiger Mom” thing, and I’m sure we can agree no one needs to go there again.
But I didn’t want to leave my desk chair and go face the onerous task of grinding the morning coffee beans (“There’s a first-world problem”), so I read it anyway.
Wow. Perspective. Read It. Really.
The author, Emily Rapp, writes movingly about parenting a terminally ill child:
Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.
Her point isn’t that those of us with healthy children should feel guilty for that unearned grace or foolish for having dreams for the future, but that parenting—living—is ultimately a “here and now” experience.
The truth is that healthy children and healthy parents die unexpectedly, as our family learned personally and painfully this summer when we lost 3 friends in a car accident. And there are less dramatic changes and surprises: a career ends abruptly, lifelong friends move away, a mental illness appears out of nowhere and settles in to stay. It now takes me two hands to count up the number of friends—mostly mothers 40 and under—diagnosed with breast cancer in the last two years. What Rapp writes about parenting is true for all the plans we make: “none of it is forever.”
Gratitude for not having any of those problems is great, but it’s still a short-term perspective. The long view, ironically, reveals that regardless of whether we’re healthy or sick, successful or at sea, today is really all there is. The only way we can be sure that we’ll achieve the desired consequences of our actions is to do them “for the humanity implicit in the act itself.”
If I set that as the standard for what I put on my agenda today, what stays? What goes? And what do I need to add to make this day worth doing, just for the sake of doing it? If I set that as the standard for how I perform the day’s necessary but ordinary tasks, would I do them differently?
One of my favorite little books on meditation, mindfulness, and all that jazz is the classic “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh.
It opens with the story of a father who never has time for himself. Maybe this will sound familiar: housework to do, career stuff, children demanding time in so many ways. Even a child’s wish to play with a parent is just one more thing that must be addressed before getting “Me Time.”
Eventually, however, the father figures out a secret to getting limitless time for himself: he counts it all as his time. By bringing all of himself to the activity at hand—bathing the baby, helping with a math problem, washing the dishes—all of that time is his. Brilliant and beautiful: I love this kind of reframing.
As the gentle Thai monk points out in the next chapter, however, chances are quite good that the father doesn’t remember to bring all of himself to all of his activities, all of them time. One reason for that, he suggests, is that we all need practice and training in mindfulness, so that our habits support us rather than carry us away from that goal of limitless time.
But I know something the monk doesn’t, at least not as lived experience. Or maybe he is just too kind and gentle to point this out: sometimes, living on someone else’s time is easier. A mom can spend a full day living on family time: getting kids up and ready for the day’s activities, driving, shopping, cooking, mediating arguments, taking care of bedtime, planning for tomorrow. Even in 2011, you get Good Mom Points for spending a day this way. You’re busy, so you must be important, and you put your desires last, if you can even remember what they are.
It can be exhausting, true, but the dirty little secret is, you spare yourself the labor of choosing how to use your time, and so you absolve yourself of the responsibility of what happens with it. Dissatisfied with how the day went? Well, what could you do—you were never on your own time.
Even in a relatively healthy family, it’s not unusual to see each individual’s time get tangled together with everyone else’s. Kids rely on mom to be their engine, waiting for her reminders to get ready for their own activities. Dad counts on mom for maintaining social connections and organizing what happens around the house. Mom plans vacations and weekends around what the rest of the family would enjoy. There’s nothing malicious or insidious about this state of affairs: part of it is training kids, part of it is efficient division of labor, part of it is the joy of making other people happy. Still, it’s the rare family woman who doesn’t find herself wondering, like the father in the story, where her “Me Time” has gone and—much more challenging—what she would with do if she ever found it.
This is a mind hack Triple Salchow: be fully present in the endless loop of household activities, acknowledge the choices that you’re making, and acknowledge your own desires. You gotta get the first part right, or you won’t be set up to land it at the end.
I trip on all of these sometimes, but I’m worst at the last one. I admit it: sometimes I will do something for the kids or for my husband because it just feels too hard to think of what to do for myself. My birthday’s coming up this week, though, so I’m going to work on sticking the jump at least once, as a gift to myself.
Sometimes I have morbid thoughts. Today, I asked my daughter to take a picture of me blowing out the candles on my birthday cake (tomorrow is my actual birthday, today was just the cake and some presents) because I thought “What if this is my last healthy birthday? What if next year I am sick and going through chemo again?”
Even though I told myself that I am not going to let the fear of dying ruin my life, sometimes negative thoughts like that occur to me. Actually I am not sure how negative it was. It was practical in a way. I am the family photographer so I am more likely to be behind the camera and not in the pictures. But recently I have been trying to make sure more pictures of me exist, for my daughter’s sake. I want her to have pictures to remember me by, just in case. And, if I live to be 100, I still want to have pictures of these days.
When I thought about not knowing where I will be next year it opened my eyes, my heart, and my brain to where I was right then and I smiled and felt grateful to be with my family, who were smiling, singing and directing joy and love to me. I closed my eyes and blew out the candles and echoed the sentiment “and many more!”