Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Blog!



As all things must change, so goes my little blog. Having undergone a makeover, you can find me now at The Light Will Find You. Same words, new look. Please join me over there!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Get Your Belly Over... to the Elephant Journal


If you missed my post on lovin' your belly over at New Approaches, come over to the elephant journal.  I'm talking about some unique ways to increase the peace with your body image.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Good Death


 
Picture from the Juneau Empire files
 
 
For my grandfather, Bill Ray
 
 
These are the sounds after a quick death following a long life: The telephone rings are steady, but not constant. Arrangements are made swiftly, with no big decisions, discussions or surprises. Voices are calm. You hear a lot of sighs. Only a thin layer of shock drifts by, like a cirrus cloud.

 
My grandfather lived to be 91. We loved each other and said so in later years, but we didn’t speak often. He was strong-willed and difficult with those he loved the most. He was a storyteller and a lawmaker. A liquor hawker. A secret-keeper and a gold collector. He was a name caller. A fisherman and a painter and a writer.

He was a child of the universe who was here, and now isn’t.

A constellation of ancestors, long twists and turns of accident or fate. A mother’s eyes, a grandfather’s nose. The birth name, Will, that he grew into, but later changed.

My best memories of him are when he told stories. He sits at a table, one hand on his coffee mug. He is already laughing, his eyes shining with anticipation. “This is a good one,” he says. “Wait until you hear this one.”

It’s the one where his father’s dog, Whitey, fell out of the fishing boat, perilously close to the falls. “‘What’d you do, Dad?’ I asked him.”
‘I said, So long, Whitey!”

He shakes his head and chuckles, his laugh still sturdy among the laughs of his listeners.

I wish I had listened better, had a better memory. I wish I’d written the stories down instead of letting them sing by, all wisps and trails. I wonder where do all those stories go when we die? Do they live on, swirling and hanging in the air where he was? In the cells of his great grandchildren who he never met? In the pages he wrote?
 

“Reaaad boooook, Mama,” my daughter says, pattering over to me.

She hands me Goodnight Moon. Her eyes are big and blue, her cheeks full and smooth. I start reading, my eyes taking in the flat greens and tomato reds of the book. By the time I get to And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush, I am in tears.

All those goodnights. The words of the book, a childhood favorite, reach back through my mind, unlocking the little girl inside of me. The one whose grandpa was larger than life, full of laughs and stories. He was big and handsome. He slipped her sips of beer in the kitchen. Sent her postcards when he travelled. He appeared on the radio and TV, making jokes and laws.
 
These are the sounds after a good death: Quiet sobs. Voices on the phone, shaky, but not shattered. Patter of small feet, new tales unfolding. Goodnight stars, goodnight air. The rush of memories, of stories, rising and falling, lifting into the sky.
 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Superpowers



In a wildly generous move, my cousin offered me a free photo shoot with the photographer she works with. So this Wednesday, I met up with cousin Meghan and Kevin Ouelette, photographer and DJ at Amazing DJ Music, Sound and Photography.

Getting my picture taken is not my favorite thing. Despite the fact that I can air many of my vulnerabilities here, there is something about being photographed that makes me feel so very naked. Not in a good way.

I was that painfully shy kid growing up. I kept my lips pursed and my head down, slouched in a desk at the back of the classroom. I internalized most of my emotions. I thought I was fat and ugly and therefore unlovable, so I hid. The more I hid, the more I became convinced that I wasn’t worthy of being seen.

 Add to that a mysterious talent for closing my eyes at exactly the same time as the camera clicks.

 Fortunately, Kevin had a way of putting me at ease. After greeting me with a warm hug, he asked, “So tell me what you don’t like about yourself.”

 I thought for a moment, trying to figure out where to start. I began listing my physical flaws.

“I have a nose smile,” I confessed, referencing the little slash that blooms beneath my nose when I grin. “And sometimes in pictures I look a little cross-eyed.” I almost started in on my “strong” nose, and hadn’t even gotten to body parts below the neck, but Kevin was ready to get started.

“Okay,” he said. “Cool. Let’s go!”

As Kevin drove, we chatted about my writing so he could get a sense of what to capture in my photographs. I told him I wrote mostly about parenting and grief and spirit, and that— SPOILER ALERT!— I was working on launching a new website. Our conversation flowed easily, and I felt instantly comfortable.

What impressed me most was that Kevin operated purely on instinct. He drove around for awhile, then suddenly said, “I’m feeling like I want to park here and walk around.” So we did. Because he trusted his instinct, I did, too.

He asked me to sit on the front steps of a stranger’s house, which would normally leave me feeling anxious. But I didn’t feel anxious. It felt like we were on a fun little jaunt, instead. “Think about elephant bums,” he said, pointing his camera at me.

As if summoned by a camera-wielding wizard, a big, genuine smile spread across my face.

We continued that way, walking and chatting our way through a neighborhood of lovely old houses. We paused at various stoops, stairs and fences per Kevin’s hunches. I cheerfully envisioned the nether regions of pachyderms while Kevin snapped away. I wasn’t thinking of my nose smile at all.

“So how long have you been doing this?” I asked.

“About three years,” he said.

“Wow. And you have no traditional training?”

“None.”

I was stunned, having seen some of his gorgeous photos on Facebook.

Kevin shared that capturing the essence of people was his superpower. He grinned, as if thinking of elephant bums, while he expressed how amazing it was to produce images that helped people feel good about themselves. The way he said it was devoid of ego—he sounded almost surprised that he had discovered this ability. It made me feel happy—what a wonderful way to be able to make people feel good.

At one point, he was photographing me from my left side. “You do have a bit of a lazy eye,” he said.

Though I died a tiny bit inside, and briefly doubted his claim about making people feel good, he said it with kindness and objectivity, as if proclaiming that I had a strand of grass in my hair.

“You knew that, right?” he said, concerned that he had surprised me.

“Sort of.”

After about forty-five minutes of walking and shooting, we headed back to his studio. “You know that this whole time, you’ve only talked about your imperfections? Which aren’t really even imperfections—you just perceive them that way.”

 “Yeah, I do that,” I admitted.

 Back at the studio, Kevin scrolled through the images he’d taken, selecting favorites. We swiftly narrowed it down to our top four favorites, and then he began lightly editing them. “Turn this way,” he said. I did. “Do you have some carrot in your teeth?” he asked, an eyebrow lifted.

 “Oh, dear God.” I stared at his computer screen, where a big chunk of carrot was wedged between my back teeth. I watched as he digitally flossed my teeth.

“Hmm. Show me your other side,” he said, again referencing my teeth. I did. He started laughing.

“Maybe you can photoshop a little bunny into the pictures, going after all the carrots,” I suggested.

I silently made a vow that if I ever had my photo taken again, I would floss beforehand. Twice.
 
As Kevin worked on the photos, I sat there thinking about imperfection. About my Forest Whitaker eye and my carrot teeth and my nose smile. When I zoomed out and focused on the whole picture, the photos looked really, really good. So why was I focusing on the imperfections, which we all have?

“Which one is your favorite?” Kevin asked.

“That one,” I said. I liked the little orbs of light in the background.

 


 

“Really? That’s actually my least favorite. I think you look a little inhibited in that one,” he said. “This is my favorite. I feel like it really shows who you are.”


 
Later, my mom would declare that Kevin had “captured my essence,” in that photo.

 
Ever since I left the studio, I’ve been thinking about superpowers and imperfection.

It occurred to me afterwards that one of my superpowers is that people often feel really comfortable sharing personal things with me. I frequently hear, “I don’t usually share stuff like that with other people.” Just the other day, I was getting some bodywork done and the practitioner, who is highly professional, ended up sharing some very personal issues her family was facing. As I was leaving, I said, “I’m really sorry you’re going through that.”

She looked a little alarmed. “I don’t usually share stuff like that with my clients.”

“I know you don’t,” I said, with a gentle smile.

In retrospect, during my visit, I’d been vulnerable with her and had talked about my issues with anxiety. Though my focused attention on my own flaws causes me a lot of discomfort, I think that my ability to openly share those flaws might be related to my tendency to make other people feel comfortable. Because I am fairly at ease with removing my social masks, other people feel like they can go ahead and lower theirs a bit, too. It’s not unlike how I trusted Kevin’s instincts because I could tell that he did.

So much of my personal growth work is about accepting the whole deal. The grey area. The AND. The carrot teeth AND the photo that I love. The superpowers AND the vulnerabilities, both of which our world desperately needs. And seeing that sometimes, sometimes, they are actually one and the same.

What’s your superpower?

 

 

 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Guest Posting at the Elephant



I'm over at the Elephant Journal today. Come on over to find out why this non-athletic, gentle moving gal has taken up running.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The AND




When I was pregnant with my son, I asked a friend with an almost two-year-old what parenting was like. I knew it was too broad of a question, but I asked anyways.

My friend thought for a moment. Then she said, “Hard. And amazing.”

One of the great, continuing lessons of my life has to do with the grey area. With understanding and accepting that nothing is just black or white. That we constantly hold a myriad of aches and joys, triumphs and tragedies, struggles and success.

Take, for instance, yesterday. We took the kids up to Freeport to have lunch with friends and to procure preschool supplies for the kids. Towards the end of our trip, none of us were happy. And we still had 45 minutes to wait for our son’s backpack to get monogrammed.

Our two-year-old daughter was about an hour past her naptime and proceeded to screech and weave through the crowd of shoppers unless she had the giant L.L. Bean bag containing her new pink rain pants strapped over her little shoulder. Max was whiny.

I hadn’t imbibed my daily quotient of caffeine, and soon I was whining, too. My husband was done with all three of us. Strangers were giving us that look. The can’t you control your horribly behaved children?!? look.

It was hard. Not in a ‘capital H Hard’ way, like with natural disasters or serious illness. More in a why did we decide to take the little crazy people shopping kind of a way.

Finally, Max’s new shark backpack was emblazoned with his first name and last initial, and he was so delighted that he cuddled it all the way home, where the kids and I all napped.

Amazing.

When we got up, we were mostly refreshed. The Kastaways, the mascot band that plays for the local Portland Sea Dogs baseball team, was scheduled to make their last appearance of the season. Max loves music—it is his thing. And he’s been infatuated with the Kastaways since he first heard them play last summer at his very first baseball game. After which he began talking about them constantly.

The thing is, he has always liked the idea of them more than the reality. Often, when we go to hear them play, he just stands there watching, looking slightly frozen and cowering if any of the mascots approach him. The rest of us usually sway and enjoy the chance to hear some live music. You wouldn’t guess by looking at Max standing there on the crimson bricks outside of Hadlock Field that this would be the moment he would talk about for weeks to come. “Tell me about the time we saw the Kastaways and that boy had a birthday and the Kastaways sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to him,” he would say at bedtime. Every night.

Having been a shy child myself, I find it slightly heartbreaking to see him scared and holding back from one of the things that most brings him alive. The thing he talks about all the time and replays in his head and with his words. Often. It is one of those soft spots from my own life that I have to watch out for—it’s far too tempting to try and parent from my own wounds. I have to just let him, sometimes, be scared and frozen and trust that he, like we all are, is on his own path.

So last night, when we decided to go see the Kastaways, we expected him to be shy and tentative. But I actually did the unthinkable anyways; I woke him up from his nap so we could make it in time to see them play. “Maxie,” I said, lowering myself to his bed. His eyelids fluttered, then dropped. “Do you want to go see the Kastaways play for the last time this season?” I whispered. His eyes grew round, and he sprung up, rubbing his eyes. “YEAH!” he said.

When we arrived at Hadlock Field, the Kastaways were taking a break between sets. We sat and waited, while hundreds of people headed in to watch the actual baseball game. Finally, we heard the telltale sound of the musicians saying, “Check,” into their microphones. Sir Nigel Rathbone the Wharf Rat, Spike the Porcupine, Clarence the Clam, Pete the Puffin and Herman Dean the Power Hog strutted by us. They introduced themselves and began to play. I watched a huge grin slide over Max’s face as they started playing “Centerfield,” Max’s favorite. Within moments, Max was tapping his feet and spinning around.

Then, the lead singer, Sir Nigel Rathbone the Wharf Rat, beckoned for Max and another little girl to come up and dance in front of the area where they were playing. I was stunned when our guy headed right up. As the music started, Max started busting out donkey kicks and rock lunges to “Twist and Shout.” He danced for several songs, the sound of the keyboard and drums propelling him. He was wholly in the moment. In his body. In the music. It was beautiful, and it brought me more into the moment, too. My boy—my sensitive, determined, mercurial boy—let the music pool and swirl inside him as dozens of people streamed by.

 
 
 

I watched him, and I watched my husband, who was videotaping the moment. I watched the faces of the other people in the audience, smiling at my son’s freedom. I felt like the late August sun was shining right down into my chest, soaking my heart.
 



It was amazing.  

Life is hard and amazing. Life with young kids is hard and amazing. Sometimes, like this morning, when my chest was pulsing and expanding with love as my kids were snuggling like kittens, and then with no warning, slapping at each other, it is both hard and amazing within mere moments. Sometimes you just get the hard stuff, and sometimes, like last night, you get just the amazing stuff.
 
 

Friday, August 30, 2013

. Lighten Up



Yesterday afternoon, Scott, Max and I went candlepin bowling. We were all excited about the rare chance to spend some time together doing something that would be challenging with our toddler in tow.

Something that most people don’t know about me is that get very competitive when playing games, which vacuums all the fun right out of it for me and those playing with me.

I managed to hold myself back during bowling. I will admit to smugly thinking I was winning the whole time, only to realize at the end that I was looking at Scott’s score, not mine. The mild deflation I felt was redeemed by knowing that Max had a blast, slamming the small balls down the lane, equally distributing them between the left and right gutters. In between turns, I sipped my ice coffee and looked at Max, trying to figure out once again how he morphed from the tiny, red-faced infant into a small person who could walk and talk, play the drums and bowl. Earlier in the day, Scott had told me I needed to, ‘lighten up.’ I was trying to take his words to heart. Trying to be present.

After we finished the thread of bowling, we migrated to the small arcade behind the lanes. Max wanted to play air hockey. I was delighted, as I love air hockey. And by love, I mean it sends me into a frenzied fight or flight cortisol party, where my pulse ramps up and I slam the puck around as if fighting for my very life.

 Which would be okay, except I was playing against my four-year-old. “Too fast, Mama!” he whined.

“Sorry bud! I’ll slow down.”

Thwack.

I couldn’t slow down.

“I want to play with Dada instead!”

I reluctantly handed the paddle to Scott and positioned myself on the sidelines.

Scott and Max gently passed the puck back and forth, back and forth.

Oh, I thought.

Slap.
 
Maxie giggled and cheered as he scored on Scott. “Yay, Maxie!” I yelped.

Slap.

Maxie and I cheer again. Scott made a pretend pouty face.

It was at this point that I realized Scott was letting him score. The thought never would have occurred to me while I was playing.

 “Mama, do you think you can chill out a bit and play with Max again?” Scott asked.

“Of course. Sorry, Max. Mommy gets a little excited when she plays air hockey,” I said. “I’ll relax.”

I glance at my sweet, fiery four-year-old. So big, yet still so little. Lighten up, I thought.

But the minute the paddle was in my hand, my wrist flicked, firing the puck off the sides of the table and slap, right into Max’s goal slot.

 “MAMA!” he cried, throwing himself onto the carpet.

 “Baby!” Scott said. “What the heck?”

 With my head down, I silently handed over the paddle to Scott.
 
 

Lightening up, relaxing, having fun—these are challenges for me.

Later that night after we picked up Violet from daycare, I had another opportunity.

Max loves music. It is like breath for him, and it has been since he was an infant. We encourage his passion, though it is often very, very loud. For reasons that I can’t quite explain but blame solely on Scott, lately Max has been into “Africa” by Toto, circa 1983. Most nights, he asks to watch it on Scott’s iPad while he slams away on his drum set.

Last night was no different. Scott put the song on.

I hear the drums echoing tonight
 
We huddled around the drum set while Max crashed about on his drums with abandon, not unlike the way I had become possessed with the air hockey paddle in my hands only hours before. I listened to the song, which somehow sounds better and better each time I hear it. Which is often. The melody washed over me as I watched the musicians on Scott’s screen, and I found myself swaying.
 
Hurry boy, It’s waiting here for you
 
I listened and I watched. I didn’t even stop to make any jokes about the curly 1980’s mini-mullet on the lead singer’s head.

Or the keyboard player, who looked like this:

 


Without really thinking about it, I zoomed upstairs and may have came back looking like this:
 
 

I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become

I lightened up. I grabbed my son’s keyboard and rocked the hell out. Of course, even as I was lightening up, I was thinking, Hey! I’m lightening up! This is me, lightening up! Hey, do you guys see what’s going on here? I’m all light and stuff! Weeee!

We played the song another time or two, and then the day was done. Without too much ado, the kids were in bed and quiet. I collapsed onto the couch to watch some Netflix. We had bowled and air hockeyed and rocked out. I had possibly found the seed of an idea for my Halloween costume. I settled into a long, deep sleep. Lightening up is hard work for some of us. 


How do you lighten up?

Monday, August 26, 2013

High Needs Mother




When my son was a baby, I wanted answers.

This new little red-faced infant wanted to nurse every twenty minutes. Max was up six times a night. The ‘quiet alert’ phase that we heard about—the one we imagined where our peaceful, silk-cheeked baby would silently gaze at us—was non-existent.

Long days dripped by in a haze of milk and tears—both of ours. Our pediatrician said that he didn’t have colic because he could be soothed by nursing. And Max didn’t save his sadness for just the witching hour—any hour of the day or night was fair game. In my attempts to ‘fix’ my son, I lugged him to osteopaths and homeopaths. I went on an elimination diet consisting of brown rice and carrots. I spent hours with him hooked to my breasts while I surfed the internet for solutions. For a way to make him happier. To make us both happier.

I came across an article by Dr. Sears, a leading proponent of attachment parenting. In the article, Dr. Sears described ‘High Needs Babies.’ These intense babies tended to sleep poorly and required constant holding and attention. Max fit ten out of twelve of the criteria. The article suggested that it was possible that my son’s temperament was just who he was, who he was born to be. Not something to fix. I was a bit devastated by this theory; if I couldn’t fix it, the tears and sleepless nights would continue. We were already utilizing many of Dr. Sears’ suggestions for calming the ‘High Needs Baby’—co-sleeping was the only way for any of us to get any rest. I carried him in the Ergo so often that I felt like the straps were melding with my skin. I nursed on demand—and the demand was high.

The only thing that really helped was time. Ever so slowly, our nursing sessions stretched out. After about sixteen months, Max finally started piecing together four or six hour stretches of sleep.  

Max is four and a half now. He’s been weaned for a few years now, and he usually sleeps through the night. But he is still intense. When he’s happy, he’s down-to-the-toes effervescent. And when he’s not—which is often— he’s shrieking, writhing puddle on the ground miserable.

We have a daughter now, too. She smiles and laughs easily and often. Loud sounds don’t phase her, and she weaned with little effort. At 21-months, she still requires a lot of care. But her whole being vibrates with ease, with lightness. I sense that life is much easier for her than it is for my son.

Than it is for me.

You see, I’m a High Needs Mother.

Before my kids were born, I practiced extreme self-care. I went to yoga and dance classes. I attended twelve-step meetings and therapy. I took long walks and joined a Unitarian church. I signed up for retreats and workshops. I did all of this to help me simply feel normal, which has always seemed much easier for most people than it did for me. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I struggle with anxiety and depression. Maybe it’s because I’m what Dr. Elaine Aron describes as a ‘Highly Sensitive Person.’ Or maybe I’m just in touch with myself, and aware that humans weren’t really designed to withstand the fast-paced, over-booked life that much of the western world thrives on.

My husband and I vowed that when we had children, I would keep up my rigorous program. We promised we would support each other in doing the things we loved and the things that kept us sane and happy.

And then my son arrived.

And I was the only one who could sooth him.

I fantasized that my husband could induce lactation so my nipples could get a break. I pumped milk during the three minutes a day that my son wasn’t nursing. After a few months, I went to a yoga class by myself. As I backed the car out of the driveway, I felt half giddy to be on my own, and half naked, because my constant companion wasn’t strapped into the empty car seat in the back.

At the class, I breathed. I tried to root my body on my yoga mat, to let the ground cradle me like I so often cradled my son. In between surrendering to gravity, my mind wondered how my son was. If he was screaming. If he would take the bottle. If he would nap. During the closing shavasana, I felt the sharp zing of my milk letting down. In those days, I rarely went an hour without nursing.
 
 
 

I kept attending yoga classes, though I’d often return home afterwards to a sobbing child and a frustrated husband. The classes were a small burst of freedom, but it wasn’t enough. I fantasized about the day Max would start kindergarten, the day’s hours stretching ahead, all mine. But kindergarten was still years away. Between working so hard to meet my son’s high needs, and my inability to take care of my own, I felt withered.

When my son was twenty months old, we discovered that my husband’s work would subsidize part-time child care. We enrolled Max two days a week in a nearby daycare. The guilt I felt was expansive. I had wanted children, badly. So why did I so need to be away from my son? And how dare I ask other people to care for him two days a week when I wasn’t going to be filling all of that time with paid work? When I might use some of it to go to a yoga class or do laundry or lug my laptop to a coffee shop and write?

My guilt was huge, but my need for a break was bigger. When I dropped my son off that first day, I came home, melted onto the couch and cried. When I finally peeled myself off the couch, I wrote Max a letter. In my home, alone, all I could hear was the hum of electricity. For the next several hours, my body was all mine. I felt guilty and blissful, free and lost.

With time, the guilt shrunk.

I hate that as a mother, I felt like I had to choose between caring for my child and caring for myself. Because really, I can choose both. I can teach my kids—by example, which is perhaps the most potent way of teaching—that they are worthy of listening to their own needs. To the quiet, still voice that might tell them they need a break. That they need to lie on a yoga mat and sink deep into their own body and breath. To wander through a cemetery, alone, slow enough to read the names on the gravestones. To sit down and write about how they’re feeling, or to surrender to sweet sleep for an hour.

Maybe you don’t need to hear this. Maybe you are a working mother who longs to be home with her kids but needs the paycheck. Or a stay-at-home mother dreading your child’s first day of kindergarten. Or a home schooling mom who finds that the daily tasks of child-rearing light you up from the inside out. I honor you. We are, like all humans, all mothers, the same but different.

When I take good care of myself, I am more present for my babies. I can play air guitar with my son and orchestrate dance parties to Footloose. And when I don’t take care of myself, I’m a stringy, soggy, limp wash rag of a mother. Slowly, over the years, I have been able to add more and more self-care back into my life. To come back to myself and meet my own needs.

Over time, I learned that there was nothing wrong with my son. He just happens to be a lot like me.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

This



So, this really amazing thing happened this week.

I sent one of my recent blog posts to the Huffington Post and they published it. And all these friends and family members on Facebook have been complimenting me and sending love and it feels like a really great birthday, like going from celebration to celebration and getting piles of cards with little notes from all my favorite people. It feels like lying at the beach and letting the sun sink into my skin. It feels like being at my own funeral and soaking in all the really sweet things people have to say. Except I get to be alive.

There's been some hard stuff this week, too. Someone close to my husband died. The kids were a bit spasmic. I worried about some people close to me.

Life is hard and good. Parenting is hard and good. Love is hard and good.

But right now, I'm going to do something I don't do so often. I'm going to soak it all in and enjoy it a bit.

And then I'm going to write.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Good Mother


 

I remember talking to another new mom at a mom’s group at Birth Roots when my son was a newborn. The other new mom was clearly connected with her infant daughter; I could almost see the cord of love twining them to each other. I could see it in the gentle but sturdy way she held her daughter and the way she smiled and gazed at her. While my son alternated nursing and crying, nursing and crying, we chatted.

“I have this ‘good mother’ voice in my head sometimes,” she admitted. “The other day, Julia was napping and I realized I’d forgotten to turn the baby monitor on. I checked on her and she was still sleeping, but I thought, ‘a good mother wouldn’t forget to turn the baby monitor on.’”

I nodded, but not because I agreed that a good mother wouldn’t forget to turn the baby monitor on. I nodded because I had that voice, too. It seemed to have arrived about the same time as my son’s placenta and was equally unpleasant, but unlike the placenta, it carried no nutrients. It said: A Good Mother wouldn’t forget to bring extra clothes when her baby has a diaper blowout. A Good Mother would read her baby books every day! A Good Mother would be fully focused on her child instead of surfing the internet while she was nursing. A Good Mother would know how to soothe her baby.

Unfortunately, four and half years later, the sneaky, unpleasant voice still pipes up. I was bringing my son to school this morning, and in the bright sunlight, I noticed that his shirt had a few small pink smears on it, most likely dribbles of frozen yogurt. My mind raced. Getting dressed this morning had been a battle, as my son is still in his monochromatic clothing phase. It is “Wear your class color” day at his school today, which meant his friends and teachers from the Green Room at his preschool would be wearing green. After a brief, heated discussion, I realized that my son would wear his favorite matching grey shirt and shorts instead.

“I want to be in the Grey Room,” he sulked.
“Honey, there’s not a Grey Room at your school, unfortunately,” I replied.
“Mama, make it the Grey Room!” he demanded.

So as we were walking and I noticed the stains on his grey, not green, shirt, I quickly decided that the easiest thing would be to let him wear his soiled shirt. He didn’t care. But the Good Mother did. A Good Mother wouldn’t let her son wear a dirty shirt to school! And a Good Mother would’ve noticed the stains before she left the house, she hissed. I shooed the voice away, but she popped back up when we arrived at my son’s school and I saw the sign for the school potluck, which happens to be tonight. I had forgotten all about it, and I have no idea what to bring. A Good Mother would have a casserole, the voice whispered. Apparently, the Good Mother voice comes from 1955.

 
I am curious about whether dads have a Good Father voice. I often hear people saying, “Scott is such a great dad.” My husband is a great father. He is affectionate and fun, and he spends a lot of time with our kids. He bathes them and changes diapers and takes them out for ice cream and tries to soothe them when they’re sad. But it occurs to me that we set the bar much lower for fathers than we do for mothers. Because all those great things that my husband does, I do, too. I smother my kids in hugs and kisses. I say, “I love you,” with my words and my actions throughout the day. I take them to the beach with their friends and keep them reasonably clean and reasonably well fed. I read their favorite books to them over and over again until the words feel like they’re melting my brain. And still, the Good Mother voice pops up to remind me that it’s just not good enough.

One of the hardest things for me about being a mom is that I make about 107 little decisions every day, and most of the time, I am totally winging it. Unlike work at a paid job, I don’t get regular feedback on how I’m doing.  

So I think that as moms, we need to tell each other, “You are such a good mom.” And we need to really hear it when our friends or family says it to us. We all parent differently. We parent from our personalities and from our wounds. From our heads and our hearts. We parent from our unconscious family patterns and from tips on books and blogs. And it is never perfect because we are human and messy, and our kids are human and messy.

Maybe someday I’ll know what to bring to the school potluck and be more caught up on my laundry. But maybe not. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad mother if I don’t do those things. And it doesn’t mean I’m a good mother if I do. Honestly, the Good Mother— the one in my head— is not much fun. She doesn’t laugh when her son makes a joke about boogers. She is so busy baking casseroles and folding underwear that she misses out on dance parties in the living room.

When I quiet the Good Mother down, which requires a good deal of mental duct tape, here is what I think makes me a good mom: My kids know they’re loved. They are growing. They trust me. I keep them safe. And they go cuckoo with delight when I pick them up from daycare.

And maybe, just maybe, by cozying up to my imperfections, my laundry list of weaknesses, I can teach them that they don’t have to be perfect, either.

I’m a good mother. Say it with me, even if your kid is wearing a yogurt shirt today like mine is. Say it if you have no idea what’s for dinner. Say it after you raise your voice because your kid won’t get in her freaking car seat. Say it out loud to yourself. Say it to your friends or your wife or your own mother. Keep saying it, even on the hardest days.

Especially on the hardest days.  

You’re a good mother.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Come on Over....




I'm over at the elephant journal again today with two articles:

5 Tips for Increasing Kindness on the Road

and

Parental Overload: A Parenting Lesson from the 1980's
(You may have caught this over at another Jennifer.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Migraines, Mojo and Moments



Last Saturday, I got a migraine for the first time in about fourteen years. It started as a lingering headache, which stayed at bay while my husband and I went out on a rare dinner date. The moment we got back home, a small squiggly, clear worm floated into my field of vision, and I knew the headache was about to get worse. I went to bed at 7:30 PM and slept and slept and slept. The next day, the headache felt like it was resting in the nape of my neck, ready to uncoil and spring back into action at any minute. I felt spacey all day, like I probably shouldn’t be driving and what the hell am I doing at the gym? and there is no way I can go to the potluck for my kid’s classroom. I handed the kids off to my husband and slept for most of the day.

When I woke up on Monday, the headache had retreated a bit more, but I still felt spacey. In fact, I felt spacey all week. I started googling things like migraine brain tumor and sleepy aneurysm head. I finally went to my doctor on Thursday, who theorized that my body was just all freaked out from the migraine, and I probably wasn’t dying. This was good, relaxing news, and I felt ready to re-enter my life and start writing and exercising again.

That night, my daughter came down with a fever and was home from daycare with me the next day, so my plans for writing and running were replaced with incessant reading (“Elmo book! Elmo book!”) and naps and lying on the couch while my daughter watched Thomas movies on Netflix.

I don’t like it much when things don’t go the way I plan them to. I complain and I pray and I try to go with the flow and then I complain some more. Despite the fact that so much of life consists of things not going how we plan them to, I still fight it.

Yesterday, I heard a man say, “Around every corner is another spiritual experience.” And I thought, Oh.

Things had felt good lately. Writing has helped me circle back around to myself. When I’m really in the flow, it feels like a spiritual experience. Like I’m doing no more than just sitting here, letting the words stream through my fingertips.  And running, or yoga or dancing brings much needed endorphins my way. So when I miss these things, for even a handful of days, I feel bereft. I feel like I’ve lost my mojo. Instead of not being able to wait to sit down and write, I want to avoid it. Same with exercise.  

Maybe the spiritual experience of this unplanned week is that life is about moments. That despite the crappiness of that headache, damned if it didn’t feel good to sleep. That in between being grumpy that my daughter was home sick, we nuzzled up to each other, and I felt like a mama cat with my little kitten, close and warm and right. And maybe getting my mojo back is as simple as sitting down and writing even when I don’t feel like it, even when the words are trickling instead of flowing, and running that eleven minute mile even when it feels like slogging through mud.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Head and the Heart






 
The band is from Seattle, where I lived for a year half a lifetime ago. I try and focus on the strings and drums and words, to let the music swirl around me. But most of my attention is on my son Max and his friend Iza. They shriek with joy, tossing fistfuls of grass at Iza’s dad, Patrick. I laugh, too, and I listen. I glance around the large crowd a bit; it’s an eclectic mix of families, teenagers and older couples.
 
My friend Dorota, who sits next to me, asks, “Have you ever been to Seattle?”
“Yeah, I actually used to live there.”
“Really? How old were you?”
“Twenty,” I say. This is what happens when you become friends because your kids are the same age. You start off in small conversations, a baby clamped to your breast. You talk about the babies and how they eat and sleep. Slowly, over the years, between trying to stop the kids from hitting each other or running into the road, between feeding them and fielding a constant stream of hey, mom’s, you weave in stories about your own life. The parts of you underneath all the diapers and bisected grapes, all the fatigue and fidelity, and slowly, you find out what each other’s lives were like in that alternate reality Before Children. And if you are lucky, and Dorota and I are, you find out that the Before Children versions of you would have been friends, too.
 
“Twenty,” she says. She shakes her head and smiles. “Can you imagine?” I imagine we are both thinking all that freedom. All that youth. We will both turn forty within the coming year. I think for a moment about that twenty-year-old me, and how she is both still completely me and not at all me.
 
The kids are screeching, and before I can shush, a lady with red glasses yells at us. I assume she’s telling us our kids are too loud, or that we’re outrageous failures as parents, but I honestly can’t hear a word she’s saying. I just see her angry red lips moving and her narrowed eyes beneath the red glasses. Her husband stares at us like a principal. We gather the kids and try and separate them in hopes of dampening their volume.

At twenty, I had short, purple-tinted hair, a beautiful little loft apartment, my parents’ full financial support, and I was miserable. Which seems impossible, because I was so free. So much of what I struggle with now comes from being so tethered, so owned, so consumed by our kids. I want to tell Dorota about how lonely I was, and how I used to chain smoke on the roof of my apartment while scribbling out lyrics to songs no one would ever hear. How I didn’t know how to make friends. I want to tell her about the beautiful little loft with candles everywhere, and how I couldn’t enjoy it because I was so completely untethered, so alone in that big, wet city. But I can’t say any of this because the music fills up the air and I’m trying to divide my attention between the sweet sounds and keeping my kid from making the lady with glasses yell at us again.
 
It is after nine now and Max is fading fast. He morphs from the bright-eyed, excited kid who gets to stay out past bedtime with mom, to a wiggling, pushing, irrational version of himself. Every time I try and exchange a sentence or two with Dorota, he karate chops the space between us. The sky has turned navy and the band is finally playing their hit song, “Down in the Valley.” I pick Max up and he is wriggly and yelling, “I don’t like being a kid!” I want to tell him to enjoy it, please, please enjoy it, because it feels like just yesterday that all I had to do was ride my bike in wide loops around my neighborhood, and today my to-do-list is as long as those loops.
 
Instead, I close my eyes and the music sinks into my blood and I breathe. I just want to swallow the song, but Max is kicking at my shins and I can only give the song a sliver of my attention. And at the same time, I am a little bit afraid to really let the music in because it might hurt, it might leave me restless, the way music sometimes does.
 
I look behind us for a moment. Three girls huddle close, singing along. They are seventeen or eighteen or nineteen. One has her eyes closed, and her face looks so content, so smooth, so blissful. I release Max to the soft grass. He says, “Mama, look at all the stars!” I smile wide and stare at the lady with the red glasses, daring her to complain.
 
Then I close my eyes and decide to let this be enough, this smallest moment of stars and violin and curving words: I am on my way back to where I started. The words make me want to drive and drive and drive, all the way back to Seattle, all the way back to twenty. So free.
 
I open my eyes, and there between my friend and I, is my son. His face is so beautiful in the diffused glow of light from the stage, and for just this second he is smiling and flirting with my friend. I look over at Iza, who is falling asleep in Patrick’s arms. Her eyelids flutter like Violet’s do when she’s falling asleep, and I think when was the last time I saw Max’s eyelids flutter like that? And I think of how less lonely I am now than when I was twenty, how much I’ve opened to love, and maybe right now— and maybe forever— love takes the place of all that freedom. That freedom that was so endless that I didn’t know where or how to start carving a life from it. I pick Max up again. He is so heavy, but I wonder if he will remember this, if he will be imprinted by this moment of music and mom, and that thought lifts him up, makes him buoyant.
 
And there’s that song, oh god, that song, and I feel like I might burst because this moment has to be enough, it is all we have, and so it is enough. I think of that twenty year old me and this almost forty year old me, and how we both have something the other aches for. The warm anchor of my son and the weightlessness of the music both fill my chest and I think thank you, thank you.
 




 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What our parents can teach us about parenting....



Hi there! I'm over at another jennifer's blog today. Find out what I learned about parenting from growing up in the 70's and 80's.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Outwards and Inwards


it's a spiral party!
 
The other day, I wrote about the concept of an upward spiral. In a nutshell, if we are mindful and conscious about our lives, I believe we move forward. But sometimes as I move forwards, even after much work and therapy and training and re-training, I feel stuck. The old issues rear up again, and it feels like I haven’t budged an inch. Instead of thinking I’m backsliding, I like to think that this means I am moving up and around. And as I do, I’m bound to revisit the old, hard stuff.
I’ve been thinking about the space around the spiral. On the outside of the spiral are all the material parts of life. Our jobs, how many likes we get on Facebook, our homes, our clothing, television. The things that are mostly solid and tangible and exist outside of us. These are fine and fun and mostly necessary things, but I don’t think they’re the most important things.

The best stuff is on the inside of the spiral. Our souls. God, or whatever I call something bigger than me: love, the ocean, music, sunlight. The things I can’t touch with my fingers, but that pour into me like blood and fill me up.

Lately I’ve been focusing too much on the outward stuff. Countless times throughout the day, I check my texts and my email and my page views. It is unconscious and mindless and it distracts me from slowing down to breathe and pray and eat foods from the earth and remember that I’m enough, this very second, exactly as I am, I am enough.

When I focus outwards too much, I get lost. I get dry. I eat more food than my body needs. I get snappy and distracted with my babies.

Balance has always been hard for me. So I’m trying something new. Each time I find myself reaching for my phone or my laptop, I’m going to remember the inside of the spiral. I’m going to pause and whisper a quick prayer. I’m going to take a breath big enough that I can hear it. I’m going to read a meditation or listen to a favorite song. Maybe I’ll simply put my hand over my heart until I feel a small shift, an opening, a quiet, steady beat.

How do you fill up and re-center?
 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Onward and Upwards


Fear crouches in my chest. The voices start up: who do you think you are? Why don’t you get a real job? You are going to embarrass yourself. You should be spending more time with your kids instead of writing.

Really? You guys again? I think.

With my recent recommitment to writing, I feel more like me. More alive. I’m finally, finally doing that one thing that I’ve always wanted to do but been too stuck or afraid or busy to really dive into consistently.

I’m not sure why writing feels easy and fun right now. Maybe it’s because I’m on the fast track to 40’sville and I’m realizing this is it, this is my life. Maybe all those years of therapy are finding kicking in. But wherever this tailwind is from, I’m grateful.
 
But I’m also scared.

I used to get frustrated when I’d work and work and work on an issue, seemingly moving forward, and then without warning, I’d backtrack. Fear and external challenges would pop up and sometimes I’d sabotage myself. The sabotage usually showed up as overeating, too much television, or isolation.

Then I heard of the concept of the ‘upward spiral.’ The theory is that as we move through life, working on our issues, we move forwards and up, around and around. On the Slinky of life, if you will. We don’t backtrack. But as we circle around, propelling upwards, we revisit old places. Hard places.

As a slowly recovering perfectionist, the idea of backsliding is blasphemy to me. But the idea of spiraling up makes sense. I’m writing and I’m running. Most importantly, I’m cozying up to myself. I’m showing up and showing myself: the awkward parts, the scary parts, the funny parts. All the parts.

I’m cycling up and around.

Last week, someone I care about criticized my writing, and worse, me. Because I believe in kindness, I’m not going to say more about that. But because I also believe in truth telling, I’m going to say that it sucked and my heart hurt. And for about 24 hours, that external, critical voice melded with my internal, critical voice and those voices were freakin’ loud. I doubted myself and the choices I was making in writing and sharing this all with you.

And then I talked to some friends and to my husband. I realized, oh, I bet this is that upward spiral thing again. And I breathed and I slept and when I woke up the next day, I felt a lot better.  

So see, you silly voices? I’m on to you. You saw me circling around and came out to meet me. You even brought friends. If you’re right? If this writing thing doesn’t work out? I can get a job. I can regroup and try something else. But before that, I’m going to give this thing a chance. This one thing that brings me alive, that brings me up and up and up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Connections


image by Bas van de Wiel


For John Witham
 
I first set eyes on Portland on Valentine’s Day of 1998. I was 23. A friend and I were road tripping across America, and I wanted to see the city I’d read about in Stephen King novels.

We arrived in the evening, taking Congress Street to the east end and then looping back into downtown. The sidewalks were piled with snow, and the lights of restaurants and shops along the street glowed. Just a month earlier had been the famous ice storm, leaving power lines and branches laden with glistening ice. I don't remember noticing the paper hearts that peppered the city, the work of the famous Valentine's Day bandit. But as we walked the city that night, passing I felt like some warm, braided force was tugging at my feet through the packed snow, through the brick and cobblestone sidewalks and the earth buried below. I had left Alaska with a broken heart, and there was something about Portland that seeped into that empty part of me.

I met John when we parked my car in the lot he attended. He was warm and friendly, and he waved each time we retrieved my little red Subaru. When I told him the next day that Portland felt right to me and I might come back, he grinned.

**

My friend and I drove down to Florida, then to Mardi Gras, and then to Memphis, where we had tickets for a G Love concert. Lovesick, I thought of Portland the whole way. My friend caught an airplane back to Alaska. I headed north, then east.

**

John’s faced curved into a big smile when he saw me return to his parking lot. Over the weeks and months to come, he was a grounding force. I was 4000 miles away from Alaska and everyone I had ever loved.

John took me out to watch bluegrass at a pub between his parking lot and the Everett Hotel, where I was staying. Over cigarettes and drinks, we talked about his love of music and how I wanted to be a writer. The warm twang of the banjos and fiddles swirled around us. 
 
Another time at another bar, I watched him play. His stage name was the Hollerin’ Man, and I enjoyed his wholehearted bellow as he strummed his guitar. He played North to Alaska, dedicating it to me.
 
I sensed that John had a little crush on me, but he was twice my age and he never tried to cross the line of our friendship. He was kind and affable, but there was a sadness to him, too. A loneliness that didn’t seem to bother trying to hide. It spilled out into his voice when he sang. It scared me a little, because I recognized it as something I felt all too often. Something I see in so many creative, sensitive people, who often turn to addictions to try and dull that ache, that seeking. I could tell that John drank too much. He had a son who I don’t think he saw often, but when he talked about him, I could see the pride rise off of him like steam.

John helped me find a small apartment just steps away from my new job at Coffee By Design. The apartment was tiny, and I would crouch in the bath after work to scrub the coffee smell off of my skin. At night, through the wall by my bed, I often heard my neighbor having sex. Somehow that sound of connection through the paper-thin walls made me feel lonelier than ever. But I had a place to stay, and I was grateful to John for helping me.

As time passed, I made friends with co-workers who were closer to me in age, and I saw John less. When we did run into each other, he always had that big smile, and that sadness pooling just beneath.



I had been living in Portland for just under a year when my brother died. I went home to Alaska. I had a return airplane ticket, but I kept pushing the date further and further back.

For the next year, I lived with my parents again. I went to grief groups and wrote letters to my dead brother. I sat on the porch behind my brother’s rusting basketball hoop and smoked. I stared into the sky, looking for signs that he was still out there somewhere.

Sometimes I wondered about the life I’d left in Maine, and whether I’d find the strength to leave my parents again and return to what I’d started to build there.

**

In 2002, I returned to Portland.

Within the first weeks of being back, I was introduced to Scott. I got a job. I started recovery for my food issues. I bought a house. With surprisingly little effort, my life was being woven.

A few years later, I saw John. I had heard that he’d stopped drinking. We smiled at each other and he waved. He looked thin. I ducked away before we could catch up with each other. Maybe I was afraid of that sadness in him, and that it might still be lurking in me, too. Maybe I was tired or hungry. I regret that I didn’t go up to him and thank him. For his kindness, for helping me grow roots in Portland.

**

Recently, I found John occupying my thoughts. I hadn’t seen him in years, so I searched the internet to see if he was still local.

I found out John had died a few weeks before my son was born. While I was waiting, belly bursting, he was dying of liver disease. My son was born eleven years and one day after I’d met John.

I read about John’s life. I learned that after being diagnosed with liver disease, he’d received a transplant. The experience bled into his music. He’d gotten sober, written and sang about his second chance. Then his illness worsened.

I thought about how thin and tenuous the strands of our lives can feel, the way one person can appear and our entire course changes. I don’t know if I would’ve stayed in Portland without John’s friendliness and help. If I hadn’t stayed in Portland, my whole life would be different. My children, if I had them, would have different faces. Maybe I would be in Seattle or Alaska or Spain. Sometimes it feels like our lives are like bumper cars, colliding and shifting course, a fragile fate.

I wish I could sit with John over a warm cup of coffee. We would catch up and talk about music and writing. We would talk about our sons. I would say: Thank you for your kindness. For your smile. You changed my life. My good, good life. Thank you.

** 

“I’m taller than J.D., right Mom?” Max asked me this morning. Everything for him is a competition right now. I find it unnerving.

“Yes, you are. Some people are taller than others, some are smaller. People come in all different sizes and shapes,” I told him.

“But not shapes, Mom!” I paused and tried to squint through his four-year-old perspective. ‘Shapes’ to him means triangles and hexagons, not pear-shaped or muscular, top heavy or petite.

“Okay. But people are all different. But we’re also the same.” He looked at me. “I’m going to go play some music now.”

I said, “Okay.”

I want to tell him that we, like most everything, are made of the ancient dust of exploded stars. That our DNA is 99.9% the same. That the electric energy of the human heart extends several feet past where our skin stops. That we are all born lonely, and too many of us do crazy things to try and fight it. That the people running our country and the person in the little yellow car who just cut me off are different but the same. That the music he just ran off to play might be inherited from his uncle or his grandfather, who both died years before Max was born. That I had a friend named John who loved music, too. That our connections are like spider webs, sometimes invisible, sometimes glimmering. That sometimes we meet people who pivot us in different directions, for better or for worse, and we are forever changed. 



Is there someone who appeared like an angel at a turning point in your life?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hey, Jealousy



Image by Hazel Bregazzi

If my four-year-old son, Max, had his way, I would never:

Hug anybody besides him and Violet
Talk to anybody besides immediately family, but mostly him
Finish telling Scott a story or listening to Scott tell me a story
Laugh about anything funny unless he is trying to make me laugh
Do anything fun with anybody besides him

 
In a way, I get it. I am a jealous person; ask my husband. Except don’t ask my husband, or I will gypsy curse your ass. Seriously, step away from my husband.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend who I hadn’t seen in a year came over with her son. Without thinking about it, we embraced. My son instantly heaped himself onto the floor and began screeching. Eventually, I could make out the words.

“NOT A GOOD IDEA TO HUG!” he bellowed.

From then on, he was wary. “Not a good idea to talk,” he said when my friend and I were chatting in the kitchen. “Not a good idea to laugh,” he hollered from upstairs as we swapped parenting war stories and giggled.

At a birthday party a month ago, anytime I dared to talk with the birthday girl’s mother, another good friend, Max didn’t say anything. He just stomped up to us and performed a karate chop between us with his hand. It reminded me of those old Ginsu knife commercials.

“It’s hard to share Mama, isn’t it,” I say to him, nodding. He narrows his eyes at me. “Mama has enough love to share, Maxie.” I say these words over and over, with slight variations, whenever these jealousy flares occur. Sometimes the jealousy makes me feel bad, because it’s clear that his hurt is real to him. Sometimes I have to hide my mild amusement, such as when he debuted his karate chop technique. Other times, his reactions are just plain annoying.

A few Saturdays ago, we went to Sebago Lake with Max’s godparents. Max happily splashed around and flirted with his godmother. Then, his godmother invited me to paddle around on floats with her. We headed to the dock, where I slowly lowered myself into the water, allowing it to swirl above my bellybutton. Finally, proud of myself for venturing outside of my comfort zone, my friend and I kicked and floated in the lake, giggling. The water was a welcome respite from the 90 degree weather and I felt like a little kid.

Until I heard my little kid screaming from the shore. He had spotted us. My sins were numerous: having fun. Laughing. Talking to someone else. Being beyond Max’s reach.

There was nothing to do but continue floating and paddling and let Max be pissed.

And pissed he was. When we reached the shore again several minutes later, he met me in the water and proceeded to slap and splash me. At one point, he even lunged towards me with his lips peeled back like a Doberman pincher, and I had to dodge his rabid bite. “Maxie, I know you’re mad. I can see you’re really, really mad,” I said. “Arrgghgharrr!” he responded, continuing to flail his arms in my direction.

After a lot of splashing and hollering (mostly Max) and coaxing and a popsicle, Max finally calmed down. There was another brief incident where he popped his penis out of the top of his swim shorts and announced, “Can’t make it!” (to the bathroom) and the hollering began again, but with nudity incorporated.

Eventually, we coerced him into his clothes and got in the car, where he slumped into naptown.


When I’m not annoyed or humored or empathizing with Max’s jealousy, I’m wondering if there’s something it can teach me.

How do I react when I don’t think there’s enough of something or someone to go around? Enough love or money or time? Enough attention?

Does my rational brain shut down, leaving me anxious and internally collapsing in protest?

Maybe Max is acting as a mirror for my own jealousy. Maybe he’s offering a chance for me to see how ridiculous envy is. How jagged and narrow, a shard of mirror casting a warped image. Maybe it’s a chance to remember how expansive life is. How much of each of us there is to go around. To hear my own words to him: Don’t worry, sweetie. There is enough.

 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Truth about Vacationing with Young Children


 
Yesterday, I stood outside and chatted with a friend whose children are the same age as mine. She was getting ready to leave for a family trip. As she talked about staying in a hotel room with the kids and how she and her husband would probably have to go to bed at the same time as their children, I thought she sounded a little stressed out.

“It sounds a little stressful,” I reflected.

She agreed. She mentioned a few other aspects of the trip, which involved both a family reunion and a memorial service.

I leaned in and said, “It sounds really stressful.” I paused for a second. Our oldest sons were tackling my daughter, Violet, on the driveway. I stepped forward, ready to rescue her. “Gentle, you guys!” Violet, though, was smiling as she rolled around in the dirty asphalt, the two boys embracing her.

I turned back to my friend. “It sounds super stressful,” I said again. “Honestly? I think travelling with small children is hell on earth.”

She glanced at me, then nodded.

As soon as I had uttered the words, I felt a little burst of energy. The kind that comes when you’ve been holding a quiet truth inside you and you finally let it out into the sunlight.

 
My husband and I held off on travelling with our children until last summer, when our son Max was three-and-a-half and Violet was six months old. Besides a quick 16-hour getaway during my pregnancy with my daughter, we hadn’t vacationed since our son was born.

Some of it was because of finances; my husband changed careers right after our son was born, and I became a stay-at-home mom. We didn’t have a lot of disposable income. But mostly, we were overwhelmed enough with life with tiny kids at home. The effort required for travelling just seemed like too much work. Thinking of security checks and suitcases and time zone changes while dealing with little children made me sleepy; I get overwhelmed enough just packing up for a day at the beach.

I had watched with awe as friends whisked their newborns and toddlers away on airplanes to the Caribbean and Florida and the Midwest, and as others embarked on long road trips with their little ones. I thought of all the family vacations we took when I was a child growing up in Alaska. A collage of hazy, bright memories from those vacations lives in my memory: feeding frozen peas to tropical fish at Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, paddling around in a skiff on an Alaskan lake, the flashing lights of arcade in Oregon.   
 
Last summer, we decided to finally give travel a whirl. I made compulsive lists of all the things we would need, and I frantically checked them off in between little anxiety meltdowns: ohmygod we’re not going to have enough fruit! I almost forgot the wipes! My husband gently reminded me that we would have access to supplies on the small island we were headed to. We jammed up our car with groceries and sunscreen and diapers and headed to the ferry terminal.



We were doing it.

Taking a leap. Vacationing, like real grown-ups do with their small children! A chance to escape the mundane chaos of home. We headed all the way to Peaks Island, a twenty minute boat ride from our home in Portland.

We rented a house on the beach on the island where my husband grew up. His parents still live there, and his brother and sister and their families were spending the Fourth of July week there as well.

As we unpacked, the first thing I noticed was that I had to carry my daughter. All. The. Time. At home, I had little stations set up to contain Violet. There was the exersaucer in the kitchen where I put her so I could “cook.” The swing in the living room where she napped. The bouncy seat in the bathroom that allowed me to shower while she happily jiggled up and down. I had brought none of these tools with us. She had not quite learned to sit on her own, and if I put her down she would usually topple right over.

Then there was our son, Max. Our strong-willed preschooler who likes things to be predictable. Bereft of the routines and boundaries of home, he took to darting out the screen door of the beach house. Once, while I lugged our daughter around, my husband became frantic to stop Max. He blurted, “There’re monsters outside! Come back in right now!” Max’s eyes widened, and for once, he listened.

Max also got so relaxed on vacation that he took to naked snacking. We have a picture of him perched on a bar stool in the kitchen, eating a cereal bar in the nude. While charming, he was not yet potty trained at the time, and I wondered what toddler scat might mean for our security deposit.

Also, there was sleep. The lack thereof. Neither of our kids were good sleepers to begin with. Whisking them away from their normal bed and crib did not help. Our daughter began teething the moment the boat docked.

There were also environmental issues. The ad for the vacation house had not shown the narrow spiral staircase right in the middle of the vacation house. Trying to keep Max away from it was tiresome. And every time I carried him up the stairs to where our bedrooms were, I envisioned both of us crumpled and lifeless at the bottom of the stairwell, a vacation gone terribly awry. To top it off, the owner of the house popped up around the property throughout the week of our stay. Perhaps he needed to monitor the rusting graveyard of dead cars and boats that lined the property.

I knew that our first vacation with children wouldn’t be like vacations of the past. I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to read a stack of books or take naps or have some afternoon sex. But I still hoped we would have a chance to rejuvenate.

Being kangarooed to my daughter while my son attempted to escape into the Atlantic Ocean and the homeowner crept around the property did not feel rejuvenating.

Vacation was just like being at home. We changed diapers and fed the kids every few hours and tried to get them to sleep. It was just like home but we had to pay hundreds of dollars for the rental house. It was just like home but without the exersaucers and routines and toys. It was just like home but with a spiral staircase of doom and a looming landlord.

To be fair, we had some lovely moments. We had lots of cookouts with Scott’s family. We watched Max and his cousins prance around the beach most mornings, and everyone was happy and playful in the sea air. Max drumming on the big rocks by his cousins' cottage on the back shore. Max still talks about our vacation. He remembers the ocean and how he used the butterfly net we found in the vacation house to catch candy at the Fourth of July parade.


 
Maybe other families have more docile children or are better at managing their own expectations of vacationing. Maybe my own parents were able to hide the frustrations of travelling as a family so I could capture the positive memories I have. Or maybe the hardest parts of travels fade like the body memory of labor pains, leaving you thinking that wasn’t really so bad. I could do that again…

But this summer, we’re staying put. We’re going to the beach and the aquarium, to splash parks and lakes. But no overnights. Perhaps in a few more years we will venture out again. When both kids are more likely to sleep and can help haul their own luggage. When they don’t need constant supervision from the crack of dawn until sunset. And several times in between. Or we could wait until we can go to one of those fancy family resorts that offers child care—and figure out a way to not feel guilty when we pawn our kids off on strangers so we can have grown up fun.

Or maybe we just need to learn to roll with the punches a little better. To be more like my daughter, who can be sandwiched between two rambunctious four-year-olds, covered in driveway detritus, and still smile.

 
 Tell me the truth... do/did you really enjoy travelling with young children?