Saturday, April 28, 2012

requiescence - ebb and flow

Some days, I think I can - or should - be supermom.  Up at the crack of dawn, a flurry of laundry-washing, house-cleaning, dog-walking, kid-dressing, family-feeding, course-prepping, work-going, Halloween-costume-sewing, playdate-organizing, Daisy-leading, school-volunteering, paper-grading insanity.  If I can manage more than an amazing 4 days in a row of supermomdom, I typically fall hard into overslept, crabby, rushed, snappish, disorganized, lazy, laundry-ignoring, mess-of-a-mom for a day or two.  The anti-supermom.  It's like I'm my own nemesis.  By the by, did you know that there are 2,030,000 image results on google for "supermom"?  Did you know that "Supermom" is also a Nintendo DS game?
I'm pretty sure that part of the problem is my (almost) subconscious working mom's guilt (which is perpetually fostered and fluffed by women's magazines and websites).  I overhear other moms talking about the 10 daycamps and 4 extracurriculars they're lining up for June.  I read Family Fun in the bathroom like it's a dirty magazine, and walk out feeling inadequate yet determined to be more ... more.  Like because my daughters have less of my time than if I didn't have a career, I should Make Every Moment Count -- by DOING THINGS.  So I make grandiose plans and obligate myself into big, busy weekends that serve best to land me at Sunday night feeling headspun and winded, wondering where the relaxation went.
When I was a camp counselor the summer I turned 19, my cabin had a tradition called "low point high point".  We passed around a flashlight in our pajamas, and everyone said the best and worst parts of their day.  It was a way of reflecting on our activities and feelings, and a non-threatening way to air out some otherwise festering disappointments or resentments.  A few years ago, I started to do that with my daughters at bedtime.  They love sharing their peaks and valleys, and surprisingly love even more to hear about my own.

Most surprising, though, is what we all end up saying.  Yesterday my high point was watching 5 kids from the neighborhood in my backyard looking at bugs, dirt and leaves, while snacking from our salad garden (who wouldn't love hearing 3 4yr olds & 2 7yr olds saying, "would you like some more spinach?").  After a 7hr crazy Daisy excursion today, C's high point was cuddling and watching E.T. this evening with her sister and daddy ... "WITH POPCORN IN BED!"  My mad push of time commitment, planning, organizing, coaxing, braiding, managing ... was appreciated and fun, but didn't match up to unexpected popcorn and 80's family movies.  It's good, sometimes, to have this reminder that the ebb and flow of my supermomdom vibe isn't actually the driving force behind the low points and high points of my daughters' days.  So maybe I can start working on convincing that guilty subconscious that I can linger a bit on the ebb and that lazy at-home weekends aren't blank spots in my children's life experiences.  Someday I may even approach requiescence,  or at least a bit more balanced sense of life.  Or maybe just die trying.

requiescence - retiring into silence or naturalness and ease; ebb

Sunday, April 22, 2012

extemporaneous - use your words

For all parents there are times when our children reduce us to the worst versions of ourselves. It seems my worst self resembles Biff from Back to the Future. My only defense for calling my son a “butthead” is that it stopped me from saying something worse.

When I pondered this month’s theme, parenting highs and lows, every example that came to mind involved my use of words. I guess that’s appropriate for a lexophile—though you’d think with words as my stock in trade, I might have chosen a better retort than “butthead” to my son’s combative behavior.

The thing is, words spoken—as opposed to words written—can’t be edited. I want my children to grasp this, to consider their words before loosing their tongues. My son’s propensity for arguing is the very behavior that inspired my Biff impression. In essence, I used immature language to censure his immature use of language. Thankfully, the verbal communication menu includes an apology section, from which my kids and I select frequently.

Despite my juvenile example, both of my kids have recently caught me off guard with their conscientious use of words. In particular, they have somehow learned to ask for what they need with neither a sense of entitlement nor shame. Jack demonstrated this in the same way he does most things: visibly and memorably. In a one-on-one talk about a recurring playground conflict, Jack told me he needed help identifying appropriate ways to handle his frustration. Because his principal is a former school counselor, I suggested we meet with him to inquire about resources. I should know by now what happens when you give Jack a seed. (There’s a fairy tale about it, for goodness’ sake.) Nevertheless, I was surprised when the current school counselor called to tell me Jack had walked into the principal’s office at the start of recess and said, “Mr. C___, I need to talk to someone about my anger issues.” Thanks to his straightforward request, the counselor began offering a weekly anger management workshop, which Jack proudly attends.

I almost overlooked, or even rebuked Signe’s recent expression of her needs. We’ve been working with her to respond agreeably when it’s time to clean her room, instead of going into hysterics like a female witness on Perry Mason. Not long ago, Signe simply said “okay” when I announced clean-up time. I agree in theory that we should catch our kids “doing good,” but I failed to offer positive reinforcement and was annoyed when Signe said, “Mommy, what do you say?” “What do you mean, Signe?” I asked, though I was pretty sure I knew the answer. “What do you say to me for not whining?”

Pause with me here. You may be thinking, as I did, that asking for thanks was audacious. A child should be expected to take responsibility for her possessions—which her parents have provided—and to reply respectfully to a parent’s request. You may believe I should have told her as much, and I almost did. Gladly, in the split second before I launched into an oration, I remembered something about my daughter: She’s very much like me in her need for verbal feedback. Now I’ve read Nurture Shock and I know that praising a child can backfire, but there’s a difference between false praise and genuine appreciation, between a fragile ego and a sense of confidence in one’s growth. Signe had just made a conscious decision that required some effort. She had behaved agreeably where she’d previously melted down, and she needed me to acknowledge as much. The fact that I did so is, for me, both a high point and an occasion of grace.

extemporaneous - spoken or performed without advance preparation

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Choosing the Road Not Taken

Is it just me, or do we spend too much of our lives daydreaming?

In my youth, I was always thinking … not really pondering big questions of the meaning of life… but thinking about the next major milestone I would be achieving. Life would be better after 10 years old, when I (finally) had my ears pierced. Life would be so much better after 16, when I could drive sans parents. Life would improve dramatically after 18, when I was “on my own,” and no longer had a curfew. Life would be better after marriage... career... kids... house... and so forth.

For the record, daydreaming can be a very positive pastime. It fosters imagination, and encourages excitement. Who doesn't enjoy imagining how different life will be after an interesting, life-changing event occurs? Who doesn't derive some happiness and positive anticipation from thoughts of a new ring, salary, bundle of joy, vacation destination, etc?

However, too much daydreaming can actually backfire, and prevent true happiness from being realized – for example, when you find yourself spending too much time in absent thought about an upcoming trip to Mexico that you fail to recognize the beauty and warmth of the same Mexican sun on a wonderful spring day in Minnesota.

Now, I'm not a brain expert, but I imagine that so much time thinking about the future builds strong neural tendencies to continue this behavior – long after “traditional” milestones are behind us. As a result, we either create new ways to look forward, or find ourselves enamored with the “good ole' days,” reliving memories to try and feel better about today.

These tendencies to dwell in the past or attempt to predict the future have evoked many emotions – from angst to yearning. Not happiness. And that bothered me. I was tired of being anxious about something that happened earlier. I was bored with reliving 'shining' moments. Anticipation was great in theory, but when the anticipated moment had past, I felt incredibly deflated. Being the bookworm that I am, I started mulling over happiness as a concept, finding many interesting reads along the way – poetry by Rumi, meditations by Thich Nhat Hanh, philosophical musings by Lao Tze, more contemporary analyses by Rubin and Carter. I found myself searching for the source of this discontent.

What did I find? That daydreaming, and my tendency to be preoccupied with past events or anticipating the future were not symptoms of a larger problem. They were the problem. Thus, to achieve a sense of equilibrium and contentment, I needed to abandon the well-trodden neural paths established in my mind, and opt for a newer route, one of mindfulness. 

As a result, I've been working on thought-stopping – not allowing myself to spiral to a new place in my mind when my family is otherwise enjoying time together. I make time to work on meditation, exercise that pushes me, active engagement with my kids, and other things that help to ground me and keep me present with the situations and loved ones around me. For the record, mindfulness still doesn't come easily to me – after all, I had many decades to live my inveterate life of daydreams. It may take a few more to embrace these goals, and solidify this new path. In the meantime, I'll try to make my peace just where I am.

inveterate - stubbornly established by habit

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How to Write About Happiness and Not sound like a Self Help Book. Or like I'm Lying.

I really am not good at happy.  At all.  In fact, I loved living in Washington State because the weather invariably matched my mood. It was rainy and cold. Rainy and warm. Rainy and wet. Snow turned to rain.  Rain melted snow.  Clouds came. They stayed.  It was great “sit in a room and drink tea and be morose” weather. It was great weather for reading the French theorists and then arguing why they are (or are not) relevant. It made for great “If I only had x, I’d be happy” thoughts.  It was nice, because I got to put off figuring out how to be happy because it was obviously the weather. Or grad school. Or the fact that I wasn’t settled and hadn’t really started my life yet. If I had the job I really wanted and did not have to go to the Laundromat…well then, I’d be happy…

But now I’m in this part of my life. This part of my life that I always looked forward to as the part where I get to be happy because I would have these great kids who would be multi-lingual and play stringed instruments. I would have this this great job that made my life meaningful and allowed me to contribute to society. And I would have this great person to be with and we would travel to foreign countries with our well behaved multi-lingual children.  The part of my life, this part, that if I’m not enjoying it, it’s my own damn fault.  The part of life where now, sometimes, in my darker moments, I say to myself “I can totally see how people have nervous breakdowns”.

 Maybe it has always been my own fault when I wasn’t happy,  but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t blame my parents, the childhood bully or the failures of my past for my state of mind. This has been a big responsibility shift. Some people have written that they have found this realization empowering.  They are now in charge. I’ve found it difficult.  

So now I’m left with the task of being happy. Some days I’m good at it. 
I can tickle fight.
And smell flowers.
And listen to birds.
And breathe. 
And notice.
And enjoy.
I love those days--the days when my life more closely lives up to the Hollywood movie version of my life.

Lately, though, my life is more like the independent film version of my life. This is not all bad, but it does mean that there is more peeing in the bathtub (the children) and more cross words at the dinner table (me). It means there are fewer light-hearted montages (with Beatles music in the background) where we take in butterfly wings and watch sunsets. Where we snuggle on the couch and everyone fits. Where we cuddle the kids off to sleep and then sip wine under the starlight.  Instead, it is more cracked corners and out-dated decorating and flat tires than I’d like in this part of my life.

And yet, the cracks and the shag carpet and the flat tires are there. And I think “Dammit.” And “I wish it was a bit easier. I wish there were fewer stains on the carpet and fewer bug corpses in the skylight.”

I wish I could tell you that in these moments I decide to be happy, or grateful or breathe or enjoy the imperfection. 

But I don’t. Most always I don’t. I wallow. I grump. I wish. But not always.

Sometimes, for one quiet second, I can notice the rain start and the train call in the distance while the insistent cardinal continues his song, and
I do.
Sigh - breathing in and out