Tag Archives: vulnerability

Shelter

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

Brené Brown

“Can we listen to ‘I see trees of green’?” Miles inquired at breakfast, singing the line as he requested the song. The boys were sitting at the table with their oatmeal, I was packing lunches, Harry was making the two of us some eggs, and Miles took a break from eating to sign along to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” At the end he made certain we knew that, “The sign for ‘world’ goes like this [hand gesture], because the world is round.”

As breakfast progressed, the best series of songs ever requested by a child in our household unfolded. We played James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” once Miles elaborated enough for us to figure out that “I feel nice” includes “I feel nice! So nice! I got you!” That was followed up by “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “My Girl.” “Baa Baa Black Sheep” also entered the mix; it wasn’t all nursery-free. More signs, more singing, more moments that made me wish we had a hidden camera in our household so I could watch this on repeat when I’m sad, nostalgic or otherwise needing to smile.

My episodic memory is so horrible that writing is one of the only ways I’ll file this away with most of the details accurate. Even a few hours later and I was dependent on Harry’s recollection for all the songs. I would be a horrible witness. (OMG!. Finally listening to Serial. Late to the party, but so glad I showed up. DO NOT TELL ME ANYTHING.) But I do not want to forget this morning. I want its sweetness seared into the depths of my cortex.

These beautiful, not-to-be-missed moments seem brighter to me now than they have for months. A crucial part of this season of struggle for our family is how we let it refine us. Harry and I are acutely aware that our stress can be handled countless ways. We hurt each other at times, of course, but thankfully we also call out to each other for support in our dark moments. It could easily go the other way. Blame, shame, anger, and guilt could do us in if we didn’t bring our more upsetting thoughts into the light.

IMG_5324I am raw. I cry often. Much to my embarrassment, this seems to include every time I walk through one of Seattle’s beautiful parks filled with gigantic, blooming trees. I depend on spring’s flowers. I am also, on occasion, acting like a caffeinated dog stuck outside during a lightning storm. No shelter in sight, I chase my tail until I collapse. This is not a particularly helpful strategy.

After, oh, round seven or so of time between jobs, I am finally realizing that this is one of my coping patterns. In my unhealthiest moments, I detour around my productive strategies for dealing with anxiety to a manic search for something tangible and “stable.”

I spent a ridiculous number of hours looking at homes on Zillow this week. Questions about the Seattle market? I’m your gal! Want a home on San Juan Island? I can hook you up! I’ve been sick and weak from a lovely GI episode (FeBRUTALary!), laying in bed drooling over gorgeous homes with views of the waters the orcas visit. Even if we could buy a house right now, it would be an idiotic move. Yet I chase that dream like it would bring reprieve. How can you weigh the importance of a dad choosing work that doesn’t demand relentless hours or suck his soul dry just to receive a higher income? How do you know whether it’s better to choose home ownership and a more affordable town than the city and community you love?

Yesterday, I spent hours fighting way too many regretful feelings that staying at home for over five years was a poor choice for our family given the ups and downs of a contract-based business. I went to that extremely unhelpful Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda place. If I had worked, we would have more money. I should’ve trusted that the wee boys would be fine with someone else and we could’ve bought a house. If only, if only, if only. The standard privileged modern mom’s dilemma. I’ve faced it before, just not as deeply. Was not working worth it? How much do I value on staying home with kids? Would greater financial stability, nice vacations and a home of our own be better for our family? How do I weigh these factors?

My questions about those things remain, for sure. I wish someone could tell me with certainty all the ways my boys are better off, but ultimately it’s a moot point. Mostly, though, I think I’m deflecting fear that our next income might not allow us to live as we have in the past, as well as anger that returning to work as a Speech-Language Pathologist requires jumping ridiculous, expensive hurdles. I didn’t anticipate a cake walk, but thus far the Washington State Department of Health is giving the DMV a run for their money.

This season has been painful for me, but I am beginning to value the questioning process that is birthed from the anxiety. We are in a refinement period, redefining what is important to us, reminding ourselves of our core values, savoring the laughter, passions, and love we share as a family. We’re going to come out of this with a clearer vision. This is a tiny but important step in accepting that I can not fight the storm. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to stop chasing my tail, too.

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Surrender

IMG_9050IMG_9029Despite Harry having just recovered from the flu, we pulled off a stellar 8th birthday party for Charlie last weekend. Our house was covered with squares and cubes to honor his Minecraft obsession. It was nice to have his party to prepare for on the heels of our news. It kept me focused on celebrating. I served Smitten Kitchen’s so-crazy-addictive-they-must-be-cocaine-infused rice crispy treats with a hint of green as “slime balls”, and her amazingly fudgy brownies as “coal” and “redstone”, along with savory bites like bell pepper “TNT.”

I thought we’d spend this week pushing through a few of the woes of unemployment, like finding health insurance, but it has been a doozy. I threw out my back Monday morning while lifting weights, Friday I got word that my SLP license is going to be held up for at least a month unless I can convince someone that their red tape makes absolutely zero sense, and last night Harry began a round of GI eruptions. This time food poisoning has him prostrate.

I wish we would raise white flags during times of need and our neighbors would take turns dropping off meals, watching the children, leaving good books on our doorstep or pulling a few weeds. While overwhelmed by a three year old and a newborn, I remember dreaming of a service that hooked up grandparents missing their grandbabies with moms of young children desperate for help. Maybe there should be a similar set-up for families dealing with illness, unemployment, death and other major life events. (What’s that you say? Move to Sweden or Holland? Ok!)

My jerry-rigged white flag system involves texts and emails. I’m getting better at this, quicker to fill people in. It still feels scary because I have voices in my head that tell me people won’t show up, are too busy, or really don’t want to hear about this Yet Again. But, here’s the deal. Just like I don’t care if someone’s sick repeatedly or needs a break from their crying baby, they understand our situation. They show up because they love us.

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Friends have been my rays of light. They have been the bright notes to counter the gray. One arrived at our door holding enormous bottles of beer and a bottle of wine. (She knows we stop buying alcohol when future income is unclear, so she became our party Jesus, turning our water into wine.) Another friend’s thrift store birthday party provided some serious belly laughs. I realized that even though I wasn’t buying clothes, I could still try them on. I found the most horrifically ugly outfits to model, an activity I can’t recommend enough. My BFF Anne Lamott retweeted one of my tweets. (!!!) Another friend sent a link to a blog post she “knew” I needed to read and, indeed, it contained words that powered me through the week.

I also savored an evening with my graduate school girlfriends. The plans were made long before Harry lost his job and I re-injured my back, but I kept them because I knew time with them would be therapeutic. We can laugh, be sarcastic, cry and be ridiculously silly within a ten minute window. I’ve known these women over a decade and we’ve walked each other through major piles. We know how to show up for each other, in celebration or consolation. I feed them chocolate, they bring wine. An additional bonus is that they don’t mind the obstacle course of Legos, crumbs, nerf darts and discarded crafts covering my floor.

There is an abundance of beauty in my life. I feel deeply loved. I feel cared for. I am excited about what opportunities may arise from this shift. I’m just equally scared they may not happen soon enough. That we might have to let go of a few dreams that made my heart flutter. My little control problem turns me into an unpredictable geyser during these periods, erupting in tears at the wrong look from a dog. Stability and predictability are my game. However, I don’t wave my white flag when I’m in control. And I receive the most amazingly rich food for my soul whenever it waves. So, I’ll keep surrendering. Again and again.

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The lone remaining slice when I decided I would blog this. Isn’t she pretty? Imagine an entire loaf!

Dressy Chocolate Loaf Cake

Yet another from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking. Yields 12 servings.

Cake batter

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup sour cream

Filling

  • 1/3 cup raspberry or cherry jam
  • 1 teaspoon water

Frosting

  • 5 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350℉.  Butter a 9 1/2 x 5-inch loaf pan, dust the inside with flour and tap out the excess.  Place the pan on two stacked regular baking sheets or on one insulated baking sheet.

Whisk or sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Using a mixer, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs individually, beating each for about a minute. Reduce the mixer speed to low to add the sour cream. Still working on a low speed, add the dry ingredients but mix only until they have just disappeared into the batter. Stir one last time with a sturdy rubber spatula and scrape the very thick batter into the pan. Even it out using a spatula.

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. After about 45 minutes if the cake looks as if it’s browning too quickly, loosely cover it with a foil tent. Let the cake cool on a rack for about 5 minutes before turning it out. Cool to room temperature upside down.

Bring the jam and water to a boil over low heat. (Or make your own and just don’t let it get too thick. No need for water. This step was fun for me because I had some raspberries in the freezer begging to be used up.)  Stir to smooth it.

If the loaf cake is extremely uneven on top, slice off the very top using a serrated knife so it will lay flat on a plate. It will serve as the base of the cake. Slice the loaf twice more, creating three layers. Put the first layer (originally the top of the cake) cut side up on a serving plate and spread half of the jam on it. Top this with the middle layer and the rest of the jam. Place the top layer cut side down. Use a small pastry brush or a gentle hand to remove any crumbs on the top or sides of the cake.

To make the frosting, use a double boiler or fit a heatproof bowl into a pan of gently simmering water. Add the chocolate and stir it occasionally until it has melted. Continue working over the hot water and stir in the sour cream. The cream may tighten up, but just continue to stir gently and the frosting will become smooth enough to spread. Once it’s ready, remove the frosting from the heat and cover the sides and top of the cake with the warm frosting.

You may serve immediately or wait a bit. It will last covered and at room temperature overnight, otherwise it is best to refrigerate it. Just bring it to room temperature prior to serving. Serve with pretty much any sort of cream and you won’t regret it.

Onward

Lately I’ve had several friends inquire about the current state of challenges with our youngest’s behavior. While I wrote in brevity about our fall preschool drop-off challenges and how we dealt with them, I didn’t communicate the extent to which difficulties continued.

While I am often open here, I rarely divulge the deep struggles while I’m in the midst of them with anyone beyond my husband and a few trusted friends. I generally like there to be at least hints of forward momentum before sharing that we’re tripping on a daily basis, sliding back down to the bottom of a mountain that we’re not sure we’re going to summit.

For at least six months, Little Monkey’s most common immediate response to upsetting stimuli was physical aggression. The range of triggers was wide. If he tripped and fell, SMACK! If I gave him too much verbal praise, WHACK! If big brother moved towards him and he felt threatened, POW! If I moved a toy from the place it was apparently intended to remain for eternity, BOOM! I was getting hit or kicked daily, often more than once. Frequently I steadied myself in pain, anticipating a black eye or bloody nose. Our oldest was also the recipient of many crushing blows.

We were scared.

This kid didn’t cry when he received his first shot as a newborn. His pain tolerance is unbelievably high. For his first few years of life he rarely shed a tear unless the injury involved blood. If he cried after a fall, I prepared for a trip to Urgent Care. After he dished it out, his hands and feet seemed to just experience a slight irritation. Like he’d been rubbed wrong. When he was hurt enough to cry, he often immediately lashed out at others. He would refuse comfort and hugs. He was Mini-Hulk, Super Sensitive Version.

For months his behavior seemed to only deteriorate and we questioned all our parenting methods. Worn out and desperate for change, we started to revert to ways we’d previously written off as disrespectful or humiliating, like isolating him in his room (in essence, a lonely time-out) or taking away toys unrelated to the incidents. We rarely acknowledged the emotions behind his behavior or talked through his motivation. We were caught in a downward spiral of stress, fear, anger and fatigue. We kept trying to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off to continue upward, not considering that we might need a completely new route.

I really couldn’t see straight. I told a group of friends over Christmas dinner that we were considering professional help (family counseling or child therapy). One friend asked, “What’s his currency?” and it hit me. As we talked through motivating factors for children, I realized we’d turned everything we believe to be true onto it’s back. I didn’t want toys, money or screen time to be my child’s primary “currency.” I wanted him to know himself well enough to manage his emotions without an external motivator or threats and punishment. I longed for him to inherently know that his opinions would be valued. His voice would be heard. I didn’t want him to feel alone with his sadness or anger. He needed to know that no matter how enormous his emotions felt, we would stay by his side.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I recommitted to using emotion coaching as our primary way of handling Little Monkey’s outbursts. We tried to intercept him prior to his hits and kicks. Initially, we restrained him in our arms to prevent injuries to ourselves or our oldest. We would say, “I’m holding you until we’re safe.” He quickly learned that these restraints were actually comforting, and his anger would melt into our arms as his tears took over. We don’t have to do that anymore because he now willingly runs to our arms. If we’re at our best, we speak slowly and calmly, with pauses for all the inevitable crying. “You’re so angry. You really wanted this to happen and it didn’t. You are so frustrated. It’s not ok to hit and kick, but it’s ok to feel mad. I understand. I feel mad, too, sometimes. Just don’t hurt people.” (We don’t always do our best. I’ve yelled more in the past six months than I probably have my entire time as a mom. So, plenty of apologies and restarts, too.)

If he’s still on edge and posturing aggressively after the initial talks and tears, our next step is usually, “You are welcome to stay here as long as you can play respectfully and nicely. If you need to take a break, I can come with you.” If a toy was involved in the altercation we might say, “You may play with that as long as you can use it safely. Otherwise I will take it until you’re ready to be safe.”

Thankfully, once we changed course it got noticeably better. Not overnight, but within a few weeks there was significant weight lifted off all our shoulders. Add normal developmental maturation to improved emotional regulation and his current behavior feels almost miraculous. (I had my doubts this would improve much because of how big his temper seemed.) One of the changes I didn’t anticipate was that he cries more easily now after injuries. He’s seeking us out for comfort instead of acting out physically. He’s also exhibiting much more self-control during disagreements. Like all four year olds, he has plenty of communication skills to learn, but he’s quicker to take turns or share his toys. He’s not feeling as easily threatened. In general, he just seems more stable and secure.

There is residual trauma and it’s remains a careful trek. Some of his worst behaviors reappeared at a friend’s birthday party last month, when he was exhausted after a week of spring break activities and his own birthday festivities. Leave it to the gymnastics party people to put a stamp on his feet without asking so we can all watch the house come tumbling down! Wailing, hitting, screaming. Even a piece of cake couldn’t pull him out of his misery, because it was served with a SPORK, for the love! The kid wasn’t going to deal with alternative utensils on top of all the other atrocities from the past fifteen minutes. (He tried to throw the plate with cake on it.) Nothing could get him back. We had to leave the party early, at which point my oldest (understandably) freaked out, too. Two sobbing boys for the car ride home.

(Little tangent here- Why do people put stamps or stickers on children without asking? Does this ever turn out well? Several months ago a grocery store checker asked if he wanted a sticker. After he answered affirmatively, she took it off the paper and put it ON HIS FOREHEAD. Again, without asking. He loudly yelled, “YOU STUPID!”, hit me a lot and wailed. Goodness, people. Have some respect.)

We have not hit the summit yet, but I can finally see it. All of us still brace ourselves when the road is bumpy. We trip and fall, reminded yet again that the new path requires much more careful footing and plenty of breaks for deep breathing. Once we’re standing on the peak we’ll take in the view and pat ourselves on the back for all the boulders we climbed (sometimes twice!). Then, we’ll head down the other side, inevitably beginning the next mountain.

In which I summon Matt Foley

I feel more and more certain that if parents all had, oh, three to five children, at least one would humble us to our knees. Increase our perspective and compassion towards other parents. Help us realize we just might fall short of the badass parents we thought we were going to be.

I have met my match. We’ve been having preschool drop-off challenges. Actually drop-off anywhere, challenges. He just doesn’t want to be separated from us. And he shows it with gusto. Hitting, kicking, screaming. The pattern has been that he calms after a few minutes and then enjoys himself, always exiting enthusiastically with lots of stories to tell. But the entrance. Oh, the entrance.

On the walk to preschool today, he was giggling like crazy as I made the stroller do crazy turns, wheelies and spins (“Oh, I just can’t help it. Whoa! It’s craaaaazy!”). We were both having a lot of fun. Then, a block or two ahead he spotted a tiny little boy wearing an adorable equally tiny backpack. I’m pretty sure that was his wake-up call. He had known where we were going, but might have conveniently forgotten during our walk.

Little Walking Reminder prompted a strong, “I don’t want to go! I want to go home!” I tried my best to be an empathetic listener. “I know you feel sad and nervous. It’s only been a few days and it’s still new to you. When I pick you up we’ll have lots of fun together at home.” “I WILL NOT GO!” He tried to hit me from the stroller. I kept walking, knowing if he got out it was going to be an epic chase. He’d run away, screaming that he’s not going to go to preschool. I’d have to catch him, hold him while he hits and kicks me, and then try to wrangle him and the stroller the next few blocks to school.

Thankfully, we made it to the landing in front of preschool despite his protests growing in volume. I tried to do more reassuring and echoing of his emotions, but he wasn’t having it. I walked a few feet away to sign him in (which is outside, so he’s stayed by the stroller). He started yelling, “I’m stuck!” I looked back to see that he had crawled part-way under the stroller. I tried to help him out but he only forced himself further in. “I’m not going!” he yelled, while in the BOTTOM OF THE STROLLER. He crawled all the way under the stroller seat, into the basket, as an attempt to hide. Quite a tactic. He’s smart, this one.  The preschool teacher came over and nicely told him all the fun things they’re going to do. He didn’t budge. “I WON’T GO!”

I simultaneously saw the hilarity of this moment and was completely tortured by it. If I didn’t hold myself together, I knew I would be laughing hysterically and a blubbering fool. I looked at the teacher, “So, I guess we should just get him out?” She helped release his hands, I pulled him out and she carried him inside while he repeatedly hit her head and screamed, “NOOOO! I don’t want to leave my mommy!”

Out of his sight, I stood outside a minute to catch my breath, tears in my eyes. He kept wailing. I walked away still hearing his cries.

There I was, alone and teary-eyed, leaving a preschool that we’re brand new to as of the past week and don’t yet know anybody attending. I needed a hug. I needed someone to tell me he’ll be fine. I needed someone to tell me he’s going to get used to it and do better. I needed someone to tell me that we didn’t create this hitting, kicking monster who surfaces out of my equally intensely wonderful child.

I quickly pushed the empty stroller past my one of my favorite coffee shops with tears still in my eyes, not wanting to see my friend who owns it, knowing that a look of compassion would open the floodgates. Once past the business section of the neighborhood, I pulled out my phone and called a lifeline. Thank goodness for friends who understand. Thank goodness I’m learning to immediately reach out when I’m sad. This boy is going to teach me a lot. Hopefully a preschool teacher or I won’t get a black eye in the meantime.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge that a hitting, kicking, screaming young child probably doesn’t come from a hitting, kicking, screaming parent. We both raise our voices on occasion, but it is rare. We’ve never hit or kicked our kids. Nor does our oldest do this to our youngest. This is just his current skill set for fear. He is scared about change, new to an environment, and dealing with it in full fighting mode. He is intense in all ways- the good and the bad.

I’ve been reading parenting books with hopes of understanding him better and finding ideas to help us all through this transition. One passage in a very popular book really upset me. The author answered “How do you handle a child who feels that violence is the only way to solve a problem?” with,

“This question raises several more: What is going on in this child’s life? Where is this child learning violence? Too much television? Too many video games? Too much punishment? A child’s environment and the role models he encounters provide many clues about that child’s violent behavior.

As a wise person once said, if you want to understand the fruit, look at the tree. Children do indeed learn what they live, and changing angry, aggressive behavior is best accomplished through kind, firm teaching about respect, nonviolent ways of solving problems, and watching adults practice what they preach.”

I find this response fascinating and horrifying. I do believe there are children acting out physically because that’s what they’re experiencing, but I am certain that it is not usually that black and white. Isn’t it ironic that such outright parental shaming resides in a book meant to guide parents how to teach children through positive methods? The purpose of this book is to give parents alternatives to shaming kids, yet it’s shaming parents. The parents should be addressed with the same compassion.

So, that’s what I’m going to do here. I’m just going to take a moment to address myself in the way that I need. Stick with me. It’s cheesy, but I’m desperate for encouragement and laughter this morning. I’m guessing at least a few of you are, too. At the moment, I need a motivational speaker so desperately that I might not even care if he lives in a van down by the river.

“Self, this is a really rough period of development. Three and half is notoriously difficult. Plus, he has had a lot of change. He misses having his big brother around. He misses having his dad work from home. He misses being with you all the time. He feels scared about his new experiences, even though he also enjoys them. He doesn’t know how to express all these emotions yet, and for him, they are big. Huge. So, he’s expressing himself how he knows best, with his body.”

“Well, la dee frickin’ da!”

“Thanks, Matt. Anyways. Self, keep at it. Shower him with love and fun. Keep letting him know it’s alright to feel scared. Keep dropping him off. Tune in to whether he’s staying enthusiastic about his experiences because if he’s not, maybe it really isn’t a good fit.  But it’s probably just fine and this is a stage for him. A really awful one, but a period of development that will end. He is a very intense child and his current passion to not go will probably switch to a passionate desire to attend. Let’s hope for the best.”

“Otherwise, he’s going to live in a van down by the river.”

“Yes, Matt. He just might. Thank you. Anyways, it is hard to trust that he’s fine. It’s hard to not feel judged and like you’ve failed when your child is making the biggest scene and hurting people. Trust yourself. Keep calling your friends. Get support.”

(If any of my friends are worried about me after reading that very odd conversation with Matt Foley, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. I’m not so sure about myself either. But, this write-up has allowed me to funnel some of my nervous energy, while also accomplishing the goal of resting while recovering from a cold, icing my injured hip, and getting to write. Aaaah, it’s been forever- so glad to be here again. Now I return to my previously scheduled program- showering, eating and anxiously walking to pick him up and hear about how great his morning was. Or, get hit and kicked.)

Cultivating gratitude

Up until last night, all the job stuff looked very murky again. It has been such a ridiculous and complicated set of events that I’m not even going to try to share it here. Just know, we’ve been on a ride. Most days for the past week I have been shouting “uncle!” every hour. I’m sparing that as my title for the post because I really, really think this is almost over. We will know 100% tomorrow, once paperwork is signed.

One undesirable trait I’ve seen in myself this summer, again, is that I’ve pretty much sucked at looking on the bright side. Harry can weather these times between contracts with a really great attitude. Don’t get me wrong, he struggles with it, too, but he ultimately keeps his head in a place of seeing all the positive that comes from these periods. And he’s right. I know he’s right. We come out with a clearer vision for our family. We become tighter knit and receive clarity with relationships and goals. He works diligently to build his skills during these “breaks” and often ends up getting better jobs. Yet, somehow, I go to this place of doom. Every time.

My doom is luxurious doom. It’s “We’re never going to buy a house or replace our car” doom. We aren’t worried about rent or food. Yet I still go to this “woe is me” place and feel sorry for myself that we’re not going to be able to buy a house a soon as I’d hoped. Especially the million dollar one on San Juan Island, with a view of the orcas. Or get a Tesla. Ok, at least something more environmentally friendly than our current enormous gas guzzling beast.

The unexpected extra thorns this summer also included my phone starting to die, our car breaking down, my surprise by an unwavering policy at Miles’ preschool and subsequent pulling him from the program, hip pain that keeps getting worse and is now keeping me from running and walking, blah, blah, blah, blah. These things are annoying and hard, but they’re weatherable. They don’t need to cloud my vision.

I feel like I have very thin skin these days. Thinner than it should be. Thinner than it used to be. I know it’s not our circumstances improving that will change my resilience. That would be a band-aid. The excitement of a house fades quickly, new cars lose their luster, different jobs provide increased demands. I try to frequently remind myself of the psychology around buying houses and cars. I know, rationally, that the increased happiness in temporary. But that doesn’t keep me from wanting it. Especially during stressful times when I crave a greater sense of stability. Even if it’s false. See the challenge?

I need a stronger anchor. I know Master Brené (if I met her in person I might just call her this) shares the importance of a daily practice of gratitude as a key difference between optimists and pessimists. (Oh no, I’ve even touched on it here before. Just six months ago!) It’s not inherent in personality. It’s a practice. Hmmmm….this might be part of my problem. I’m having a once a week, or even once a month, “Oh shit, I’m focusing on all the negative stuff going on here” moment and trying to combat it with a random pile of gratitude thoughts. No wonder I’m not getting anywhere. Except feeling that I’m bad at this. Like there’s a gratefulness contest about to happen and there’s no point in me even entering because I will be coming in last. As if God is sitting in the stands with a big BOO! sign.

Besides not practicing, my other problem is that I am tired of sweeping things under the rug. Sometimes practicing gratitude feels fake to me. I did that everything-is-all-smiles my teenage years and most of my twenties and I’m over it. Grief is important. Anger is important. I am generally anxious about change and denying that doesn’t help anyone. Buuuuut, maybe there’s a healthier place in between?

The past few weeks, despite myself, I have been continuously reminded of my treasures. I have felt deep love and deeply loved. I have felt more keenly aware of who my community is than I have in a long time. I have been hit with awe knowing that I have people in my life who stick by me through thick and thin. Times when I’m upbeat and fun or when I’m drab and sad. Showered or smelly. People who can handle me where I’m at. No masks. Or at least trying to peel them off when I notice them. And I feel that way about them. Is there a greater gift? I feel one step closer to heaven.

Yesterday, after squeezing hundreds of grapes off their stems in the morning, and pulling hundreds of coriander seeds off their stems in the evening, I realized that I am finding repetitive tasks soothing. (This has not been the case pre-motherhood.) There is now peace in the monotony. It wasn’t quiet or uninterrupted. Miles was narrating every single thing he did while I worked on the grapes, and I frequently left the grapes to play along with his game, sticky hands and all. Yet it was still calming. Bunch by bunch by bunch. Grape by grape by grape. Somehow, my mind relaxed as the colander filled.

I think this is a key for me to further growth. My gratitude practice needs to be linked to something tangible. The working of my hands allows my mind to be more relaxed and often better focused. Maybe my body has to be a part of this somehow. Yoga, dancing, cooking, gardening. Heck, maybe even puzzles! Let’s get crazy here.

If you do them, would you share your gratitude practices with me – what challenges you face and what helps you most? I would love to look around, even if it’s just with virtual vision, and see others on this journey with me. (Also, this feels like a good time to say thanks. I am really thankful you read my posts. It has been a huge gift to me.)

Deep waters

I’m pretty sure that within 15-minutes of posting last week’s cake recipe, in which I shared how nicely our summer was going, I had a complete meltdown, needing to leave Harry with the boys and take a walk. I had written a paragraph for that post about the part of summer that’s been hard to swallow, but I removed it. It wasn’t so tough at the moment and I thought it was ending that day anyway. Therefore, it felt superfluous and got the ax. Well, apparently it really wanted to be published because now I’m sharing. For my own sake, of course.

Harry works contract jobs as a web developer. He also creates his own stuff on the side, like Jetrecord and SleepSleep. (He’s an amazingly brilliant guy, constantly bubbling with new ideas.) We deliberately chose the risks of this job, with a safety net in place, because we thought it best suited who he is and we treasured the flexibility it gave our family. However, the stability of contract life leaves something to be desired. If this feels like deja-vu, you’re right. I’ve written about my mental fallout during life between contracts before.

Yes. Here we are again. His job completed the end of June, another was verbally agreed to start ten days ago. Then the start date moved back a week, then a month. Another one was verbally agreed to. That pay dropped dramatically, as did the contract length. Now it’s all up in the air.

Every time we go through this I weather the in-between a little longer, a little stronger. I try really hard to remain optimistic at the beginning. This time, I felt fine(ish) until the first start date came and went. I started to get more stressed at that point, and honestly, completely lost it by the end of a few rounds of the back and forth. These uncertain periods are never easy for my anxious mind. I rarely just go with the flow.

The Demands and Capacities Model for mental health rings true yet again for me. I think I held on as long as I did because I had a deeper reservoir this summer. Everything else was feeling really great- I liked the summer rhythm with the boys, I felt intense freedom without homeschooling to think about, I was regularly getting up early to exercise (something I’ve battled mentally and been unsuccessful with for months), we had some babysitting freedom, and I was often able to work in the garden and kitchen without feeling frantic. I can shred zucchini and cut basil like a madwoman, I tell you! But I’d rather linger. There’s been more play. For all of us. For me, with food. For the boys, with waterguns and slip n’ slides.

Apparently over a week’s time, my reservoir turned into a boiling cauldron. I wasn’t even aware that I was so on the brink. I picked Charlie up from camp (Lego Camp! Jedi Engineering Lego Camp! My boy has been gone 9-4 all week with strangers and LOVES it. Yay for Ewok villages and Death Star destruction!). I was proud of myself because we were stopping at a friend’s before going home and I thought ahead enough to make him a favorite snack of homemade granola, yogurt and berries for the car. I knew he’d be thrilled. Within minutes of being back in his presence, I made him feel horrible for an accident. Instead of it being a nurturing moment for us to reconnect, I basically shamed him. I didn’t call him a bad kid or stupid, but I made it seem like I thought his behavior was purposeful, which I know it wasn’t. I hate even writing that, but it’s true. I’m embarrassed by it. While he gobbled down that damn delicious granola, I was mean. It certainly wasn’t what I envisioned for that time.

We got home and I felt like shit. I wanted to disappear. I hadn’t apologized to Charlie yet. In our bedroom Harry told me more bad news on the job front while the boys watched Dora in the family room. (“So, this would only last six weeks instead of three months.” “¡RÁPIDO! ¡MÁS RÁPIDO!” “And they don’t want to pay [anything close to my normal wage].” “SWIPER, NO SWIPING!”). I asked to be alone in our bedroom. My dear man closed the door and returned with a beer for me, took care of dinner for the boys and made them giggle like crazy with his silly stories. All while I escaped with a beer, a book and the book of faces.

After this little breathing time I gathered up enough courage to speak my shame to Harry, telling him how I treated Charlie, and then even more to apologize to Charlie. He was so brave. He told me I hurt his feelings, but quickly entered my arms and lap, accepting my prolific explanation of why it wasn’t ok for me to treat him that way and that I was very sorry. We read two chapters of Willy Wonka together, snuggling the whole time. I am deeply grateful for the forgiveness and love of my little boy.

At the end of last night, a dear friend kindly reminded me that it’s alright to check out every once in awhile. I needed that so much. I can easily give grace to others for those moments while still struggling to give it to myself. It’s a shift in thinking for me that being upset and anxious by this process isn’t about my reservoir being too shallow, or some other deep character flaw that I need to beat into submission. I hit a wall. And that’s alright. Apparently, I still need to get better at accepting this whole being human thing. Having limits and all, sharing my needs. It’s a time to walk into what I already know to be true. I need to immediately gather my circle, speak my fears, ask for help. Of course, I still must keep filling my reservoir, avoiding drought if possible. It’s just that sometimes even that doesn’t prevent those very waters from erupting like geysers.

Our car started to break down this morning on the way to camp. Thankfully, we got Charlie there and the car to the shop without a tow truck. I was upset and almost cried, but after a few calls, I think I’m doing alright. I just might even be getting to a place of finding this all somewhat funny. At least for an hour or two. It’s probably because Miles has a babysitter today.

The Never-Ending Sex Talk

During lunch this week Miles threw out, “Mama, how did you made me?” This question came after a morning of typical activities three year olds and six year olds do while inside. They played in boxes, battled with light sabers, hurt each other with them, cried and screamed, listened to books, and made a million silly noises. Nothing super serious. Even the books were Dr. Seuss. The question felt very out of the blue. For goodness sake, he just turned three.

As you might already know, we are very open about bodies in our household. I was able to tell Miles, without hesitation, “Mama and Papa made you.” I greatly prefer this response to “God made you” for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I’m not trying to dodge the knitty-gritty of it all. This isn’t an existential conversation. Those will come later. Then, get this. In the sweetest voice ever he said, “Thank you for making me.” (He does this. He thanks people all the time for things they did for him, often for events that occurred weeks prior. It is an amazingly charming quality.) Someday he’ll probably know that we debated long and hard about a second child. His comment felt more touching to me because of that bit of our history.

Next Miles asked how we were able to keep his head on. Then how we put his skin on. I adore him so much I could eat him up. His curiosity is going to serve him very well. Anyways, I gave him a brief, “Oh, we didn’t do that, it all happened inside my belly.” I didn’t even dawn on me in the moment that he was probably thinking we put him together like Legos.

Charlie quickly piped in, “Miles, you were as small as a tadpole! And you had a tail. But the tail popped off! And you had these funny eyes. But maybe that was just the book. And then you got bigger and bigger and bigger! And then mama was pregnant and she had to go to the hospital to have you. Then you were born!” We might have a little reviewing to do to fill in some gaps for Charlie. But he definitely knows about sperm! Clearly, this education is a long-term commitment. Hopefully the continued discussions will help minimize shame and stigma.

Not too long ago Miles went through a phase of asking me repeatedly if I had a penis. I’d go through the routine: “Nope. I don’t have a penis. Boys and men have penises. Girls and women have vaginas.” He’s asked his grandparents. He’s asked some of my friends. And I’m pretty sure every time he sees me naked he’s looking to see if I have grown one overnight. Once after asking me, he beat me to the response and said, “You have a fonus!” Then he totally giggled.

Most of this open labeling of bodies and bodily functions has led to really hilarious, wonderful interactions, winning me over despite my initial hesitations. I wasn’t thrilled the first time I had to explain menstruation because they walked in on me in the bathroom and saw blood. That’s an awkward situation, especially when your pants are down. The openness can be embarrassing in public, too. Like when I was in a busy, downtown bathroom and Miles was loudly asking “What’s that? What’s in your underwear? But why? Why is there blood? Do you have an owie?” But, I swallowed my pride a bit and we got over that hurdle. I’m so glad we’re opening the lines of communication with them this young. I can’t imagine how heightened the embarrassment must get when kids are older. FOR US! Probably them, too.