We are all in this together: Finding Your Tribe

I mom-stalked my friend Natalie and made her be my friend. Later on I joked about this to her but I don’t think she knows the full extent of my stalwart and sneaky determination to hang out with her. I was about 9 months into new motherhood. I was working from home, without childcare and my partner working for long hours. I was alone trying to balance work and a high-needs baby and my own ongoing health challenges and it was dark and lonely times.

I felt like my entire social circle had dwindled to just the beings that lived in my 800 sq. foot cabin. I had several mom friends who lived in neighboring towns but whose days hinged on nap schedules and like mine, were completely wrapped up in full time infant care. It also seemed to me that I was having a different experience than that of other moms. I wasn’t in love with being a mom. The moments of joy were mostly overshadowed with the fact that it was just so hard.

During those days we tried to get out and walk often. I would stick my son in the stroller and leash the sorely neglected dog and walk down to the river or around our small neighborhood. It was on one of these walks that I saw Natalie for the first time. It had been a really rough day. I hardly ever knew why my son cried, just that he cried so much for the first year. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. Not knowing what else to do, I loaded him in the stroller and we headed out. I pushed the stroller with my throat tight and tears brimming. At the river’s edge, I saw a mom with her three kids feeding ducks. From a distance I guessed that the two oldest were under five and the youngest still snuggled in his infant seat. I had not seen them in our neighborhood before.

As the woman laughed and smiled with her kids I thought desperately,”How is she doing this? How does she have three kids and looks so happy when I feel like just this one is going to kill me? She must know something I didn’t know. I wanted to say “Please tell me how to do this. Please.” But I felt like if I opened my mouth I would just start crying. So I swallowed, gave a small wave and walked on.

I saw her a week or so later from a distance out walking with her kids and again we exchanged a smile and a wave. As I passed by houses, I tried to look for evidence: toys left in the front yard, a bike or sounds of children’s voices drifting from the backyard. There were very few families with young kids in our small neighborhood, I was determined to figure it out. I told my partner there was this mom in the neighborhood and I was going to make her be my friend! It’s a funny thing, this making new friends as a parent. Without circumstances that organically bring you together, like a workplace, place of worship or school function, it’s hard to know how to connect with other moms. Early motherhood can be isolating and even more so in a rural area where there aren’t shops or parks in walking distance where you can meet other people. After days of only a baby to talk to there is an urge to call out when you see any other mom with a baby across the Safeway parking lot: “hey, you are doing this thing too, we should get together and talk about all the things no one else in our lives can really understand!”

So I started noticing what time of day my friend-to-be was out walking and I timed my walks with hers. Eventually I was brave and approached and introduced myself. I gave her my number and said we should walk together sometime. And we did. It turns out she is an amazing mom to three awesome kids and she truly has become the great friend I needed. We’ve watched each other’s kids. We’ve traded apples, homemade bread, jam and fresh eggs. I have called her when I had a feverish baby plastered to my chest and she’s run over to drop off Tylenol on my front porch. Even when life gets crazy and we go a month or longer without seeing one another, it feels comforting to know she is just a couple streets over, doing life just like I am (except with three times as many kids.) And it turns out, she hasn’t any secret formula. Except that we are all kind of hanging on for the ride. But somehow it makes all the difference to know that we are not alone.

come

My son is now three years old. Earlier this year, one of my close mom friends Shannon Rogge and I launched a weekly support group for moms in Guerneville, “River Mamas Connect”. Shannon is a licensed MFT and mom to a four year old son. The mission of the group is to create a supportive space for moms in the West Sonoma county area to connect with one another and with resources within the community and to provide a safe platform for authentic discussion about the experience of new motherhood with emphasis on empowerment, compassion, humor and peer support. 

Sometimes just a few people show up, other times its crowded and noisy with little ones running around and moms chatting above the din. Weekly topics have ranged from Traveling with Kids to Postpartum Depression. We share stories from our week, our “genius” mom moments and laugh and commiserate with our less shining ones. Sometimes we vent. We trade tips for sleep and teething and constantly remind each other to make self-care a priority. Shannon and I try and point moms in the direction of community resources and services such as a bi-weekly food give-away for families, counseling services, and free family events. But most of all we simply hold space for one another and our own unique experience of motherhood and are reminded that we are not alone.

As newly expecting parents, we all want to be prepared. We do the research, we get advice, we stock up on supplies and books. But even the most prepared mother can get completely blindsided by the isolation that can come with early motherhood. First time mamas-to-be often want to know, what are the most important items necessities for a new baby?  My answer is: find your tribe. Start identifying your support people, find a mom group in your area, start connecting with other moms who are a little further ahead of you. The kind you can text when you’re in the throes. The kind that will come over and hang out with your kid while you take the first shower you’ve had in a week. The kind you can laugh with over your fumbles and bring levity to long days and send courage to see you through long nights. The kind you can talk about the hard stuff. Everything else you’ll gather along the way. Motherhood is an experience as unique as each of our babies. But we are stronger when we remember that there are other moms out there too, elbow-deep in the work of mothering and that we have each other’s back. For better or worse, we are moms. And we are all in this together.

women-support-women

River Mamas Connect meets weekly on Thursday from 10-11am in the Community Room at Fife Creek Commons in Guerneville. We have weekly discussion topics, tea and snacks. Little ones welcome!
Find us on Facebook: River Mamas Connect

rivermamas-flier-5-1

On parenting in the dark.

For the next four days I am alone. I am completely alone in my house for the next four days. 

Ok well, there is a dog and a cat here but for the next 96 hours there are no other beings in this household that require my attention.  I haven’t been alone in my house for this length of time in over four years. My son’s father came and picked him up this morning, headed to see family 400 miles away. For all my initial anxiety about the upcoming trip, by the time the moment arrived to see them off I was awash with a mixture of unexpected feelings. This week has been one of the darkest and most intense weeks of parenting that I can remember.

The world at large right now feels heavy, hurting and angry.

My heart is heavy, hurting and angry.

And my son, three and a half, seems to have tapped into the collective wellspring or is otherwise coming up against his own pain and rage over the current state of things on the micro-level of his family and immediate environment.

And I am his target for all of this, of course. And target in every sense of the word. I am bruised, battered and raw from the battles of this week. Where has my sweet little companion, full of smiles and affection gone? And what phenomenon is he currently processing to cause such a disturbance in our normal balance of daily life??

I know all the “things”: It will pass, it’s normal. It’s not about me. All I can do is give him a safe place to feel and process. Stay connected. Stay neutral. Stay present. Don’t take things personally. The caregiver he’s closest to gets the worst of it. Practice self-care. Model healthy boundaries. Model healthy ways to work through strong feelings. Give him words and tools to identify what he is feeling and what he needs. Remember the relationship comes first. 

But all of these truisms don’t help me right now. Because even with trying to do my best to remember all of these things, deep in the moment parenting just feels shitty and terrible and awful and unfair. And because I am just empty. That’s it. I’ve just got nothing left to give this kid right now.

And so suddenly this trip feels like grace for both of us.

He is ecstatic to see his papa. He runs screeching and laughing into his arms. He waves goodbye and doesn’t look back. And I am grateful. For their bond and the relationship they have cultivated, which is much closer and more loving than either of us had with our own fathers. Grateful he is not fearful about leaving me. And grateful because honestly – I just don’t think I could have stood another hour of being beat up, being bullied, and of battling it out.  Grateful because honestly – I don’t even like my child right now. And I don’t feel capable of being his mother.

And closing the door behind them, this truth makes me cry and cry.

Last night I heard him tossing around in his bed, calling out softly in sleep. It woke me and I lay there for a moment, waiting to see if the he would settle himself and drift off on his own. He probably would have after another moment or so but I got up anyway and opened the door to his room and crossed the carpet to kneel at his bed. He mumbled incoherently in a half-wakened state. Tentatively, I reached out to stroke his forehead and he allowed me to comfort him. Then slowly, inch by inch, I moved onto the bed next to him and curled my body around his. For the first time in weeks he didn’t resist but relaxed and nestled against me.  I held him close and rubbed his back. In the darkness he reached out his little hand to press it against my face and I saw his brief, small sleepy smile in the glow of the nightlight. I lay there for an hour or more relishing this rare moment of closeness, not daring to move a muscle lest the spell be broken and the feral animal awake. My arm fell asleep and my back started to ache but I couldn’t bear to move. For a short time I felt again our sweet bond. I needed to remember.

nightlight1

 

I know it will pass. I know we each have to process in our own ways what it means to not be an intact family living under one roof anymore, and who we each are as we grow into the people we are becoming.  And as we test the limits of what we think we know and are capable of and explore our own spectrum of experience, we come to understand the safety and strength of the container of this relationship. We trust that it can hold our process, that it can honor both the darkness and the light. But it is only in the darkness where true resilience is revealed, when we find it is stronger and more spacious than we thought, that it can allow and recover, heal and adapt. That it can both nurture and even be strengthened in times when the light is scarce. That it is both steadfast and constant and that it is also ready to change as we change.

Tiptoeing back to my room and back to my own bed, I feel thankful for this tiny bit of reprieve. In the morning I ask him and he doesn’t remember anything. But I know it wasn’t for him. It was for me.

As I watch the car pull out of the driveway this morning it occurs to me that there may come a day when he wants to go and live with his dad full time. The thought hits me a little like a sock to the stomach. As I stand in the middle of the empty living room I am gutted by the realization that ultimately all of this effort, the intense marathon of parenthood, the unwavering commitment to every small teachable moment, the anguish over whether or not we are doing things right, whether we are giving them the right tools, laying the right foundation for healthy relationship with themselves, with others and the world — all of it — every single worry that keeps us up or on the phone for advice or nose deep in books, all of the ceaseless energy we put into giving our children the best possible start guarantees absolutely nothing.

We do all of this with the acceptance that all possibilities exist and one being that there could come a day when our child says goodbye and walks away without looking back. We have great hopes. We cultivate hope against odds at every turn that our kids will emerge from childhood undamaged, happy, vital and devoted to us. But in the end we are all forced to relinquish every expectation and investment in the outcome. We do this parenting thing in every moment out of some mysterious compelling place of unadulterated selflessness. Its the biggest most profound lifelong investment we ever make and yet there are no guarantees of anything. And still, as a species we have decided it worth doing over and over and over again.  It makes no sense.

They won’t remember all of the tiny moments you sweated and grasped for answers, fumbling for the right tools, the right words, the right thing to do. They will just be left with this broad, colorful landscape, full of feelings they felt. And they get to interpret it however they choose. The only certain thing is that we won’t see it the same way.

bed1

I read somewhere that parenting is the a lifelong exercise in unfailing optimism. That sounds about right.

And I have the next four days to find my bootstraps.

 

Five Ways to Fill Your Well

I am re-blogging this fabulous post from The Practical Mystic because it resonates so much with me right now. Summer days are a time of high energy and activity, days are often full of social activities, events and trips. For me, the clear evidence that I have been letting self-care fall by the wayside is when I begin ruining those otherwise lovely, fun-filled times with friends and family by suddenly becoming a miserable grump and resenting everyone around me, including the dog and the cat (omg, especially the cat).

Part of the commitment to self, as the Practical Mystic points out, is carefully observing what your needs are today, in your body and spirit, and knowing that they will shift from day to day, season to season. My usual strong vinyasa practice is not serving me well right now and in the mornings my body is wanting to move more than be still for seated meditation. As the temperature warms and my life is in the midst of major transition, I am being drawn to more restorative or yin yoga practices, exploring tantric breath work and learning more subtle techniques for moving energy in the body.

I am thankful for the great resources offered in this post and re-commit to exploring new ways of nurturing myself in this season, paying closer attention to keeping my “well” from running dry (and I become a heinous bitch version of myself.)

And if it’s already too late and the train has derailed, don’t worry – here is some emergency first aid. I already used it this morning. (:

The Practical Mystic

78ce7d7a-53b3-4823-9351-5f4e4620bc1e-simbolo_de_om_en_la_mandala_de_paisley_de_la_pegatina-rde1da107af4a4645a16a0aaab0ced1f5_v9wth_8byvr_512

One of the things that has been turning over in my head recently harks back to a recent post, where I wondered how it was that my personal practice could be tweaked so that I could avoid burnout and illness during and after a busy period. On a walking talk with my mother the other day, she suggested that now I am in my 40s, my daily routine may need to be tweaked to reflect my changing life. After all, she said, your 40s are a time of hard work out in the world, and these busy times are likely to become the norm. Your practice needs to incorporate filling your well so that you can embrace this time, a time that you have been preparing for over the last decade and longer, without burning out, getting sick or both.

Aha! The missing piece of understanding clicked into…

View original post 1,206 more words

1 in 7

1 in 7 mothers in the US today report experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety. Among lower socio-economic groups, the numbers jump to 1 in 4 women. It takes many forms. It may not look what a woman or her family thinks depression or anxiety look like.  You cannot always tell a mom has postpartum depression just by looking at her. She may think it’s just her, that there is something intrinsically wrong with her. She may need medication or counseling or both or neither. She may get the help she needs or she may suffer alone. She may very well believe that it is because of something she did or didn’t do. And she may think of a million things that if only could change, she would feel like herself again.

But often the truth is that if you are that mom, yourself is a foreign concept. You might not know where to find her if you even had the chance to go looking between feedings and diaper changes. That is because she is gone.

Forever gone.

There is a new you emerging but you haven’t met her yet. And then there is this strange, precious tiny bundle of constant need snuggled in your arms. You, but not you. Your body yet not your body, an extension of your heart and yet also alien.

1 in 7 is what the stats are. But we know it is probably much higher. (Read: “How Many Women Really Get PPD?”)

It was me too.

The month of May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness month.  In the last few decades the US has made great strides in recognizing the millions of Americans living with chronic and often debilitating mental health conditions and reducing the stigma around seeking treatment. While we still have a ways to go in creating accessible and affordable programs for all who need them, the ongoing conversation in mainstream media has begun to shift in a positive direction.  And recently a few celebrity moms have spoken out recently about their own struggle with postpartum depression (PPD). But maternal mental health still seems to carry a particular charge.

“How much crying is normal?” I asked the doctor over the sound of my son’s screams, while I bounced and patted and rocked and walked and sweated, bleary-eyed and my throat raw with the pain of swallowing my own scream. “Some babies just cry a lot,” she said gently, reassuringly.

But secretly, I was kind of wondering about me.

Because the truth was, we spent whole days crying, he and I. Here I had this beautiful, perfect little boy who in all respects was deemed healthy but who howled like his insides were twisted, with an intensity meant to drown all other sound, all other need or thought except the sheer urgency of alleviating suffering. But there was no soothing. Colic, they said.

“The most important thing is that you get yourself some support,” the doctor went on.  You don’t understand, lady. The only thing I need is for my baby to stop crying. Then everything will be fine, I thought.

Depression and I have a history. But had I even allowed myself to think about seeking help, I was well acquainted with the out of pocket expenses were for therapy and medication.  At the time I had no medical coverage and my family was barely getting by. In the past few years I had worked hard and developed a strong set of tools to help me navigate and see myself through the low times.  However, blindsided by traumatic a delivery and the unprecedented level of demand on the physical, mental and emotional levels, my tools were simply too far out of reach. Deep down I really believed that it was just me. What was wrong with me that I felt like I couldn’t do what women had been doing for millions of years, what seemed to come naturally to every mother around me?

A year and half or so after that day in the Dr.’s office, I had a conversation with a mom friend about her postpartum experience. She says she wished there were some kind of hotel or care center that new moms could check themselves into for a few days and compassionate staff would care for the baby, offer moms a hot shower, uninterrupted sleep and nutritious meals until she re-cooped her strength to feel like she could keep going. Kind of like triage for moms and babies. A place where you a mother could go and say “I need help” without fear of being judged.

And I just thought, why is this such a crazy idea? Why does this not exist?  
We know that having this kind of support changes outcomes for moms and babies, we know about the importance of healthy bonding and attachment for mothers and infants in the earliest stages And yet I talk to so many mothers who felt utterly overwhelmed and alone during the early months of motherhood, who live in a state of constant adrenal-fatigue, who can’t remember the last time they showered or ate a full healthy meal uninterrupted. Yet the concept of what new motherhood really looks like still seems to be mostly lost on larger society.

 

Newborn needs, post pregnancy hormones, physical trauma, lack of adequate rest and nutrition and then add major identity shift, relationship stress, pressure to go back to work, financial strain, plus whatever-specific-challenge-you-got and it’s a straight up malatov cocktail. That’s not to mention the the pressure to get back “in shape”, lose the pregnancy weight, reconnect with your partner, etc.  It is a wonder that the stats aren’t much higher.

Our culture is among the least supportive of their needs and yet there seems no other demographic we judge more harshly than mothers. Right now, thousands of mothers feel alone and scared to speak up out of intense fear that to confess the need for help equals admitting incompetence. The heartbreaking reality is that thousands of women will believe the lie that they are actually are failing at motherhood when

the truth is we were never meant to do it all alone. We were meant to be having babies and raising children in a community, surrounded by our village, our people, our fellow women.

the Birth of aphrodite

Ludovisi Throne Birth of Aphrodite

Birth was meant to be treated as sacred initiation, a rite of passage, marking a major life transition in a woman’s life.  Historically, the very vulnerable time following birth held much more significance in the past than it does today. Customs vary across cultures but often for a period of 30-40 days mothers were were attended to on physical, emotional and spiritual levels with ritual, special food preparations and healing herbs.  Women were allowed to process and heal and step into her new role as mother in a space that revered birth as the powerful and transformational event that it is.

Unless we are really fortunate, most of us do not have this postpartum experience. Most of us don’t have our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters down the road sharing food and childcare and tending to each other post birth. And even if and when we do have all the support and time and space to heal and process and still feel the weight or sadness, grief, rage or crippling fear can we give ourselves permission to let that be part of the mysterious process that marks a woman’s sacred journey into motherhood? Could we honor it for what it is, speak openly and seek the help that we need without shame but instead acknowledging as a valid part of our story? Why do we insist that motherhood is all light when in reality it is a human drama of the most epic proportions played out in the most common, mundane moments of daily life. It is all of it.

 

 I have talked to so many women with such different stories about labor, delivery and recovery, it is high time that we expanded our notion of what a “normal” postpartum period looks like to include every woman’s experience. 

I wonder now if I had given myself permission to have my own authentic experience without all the judgment and shame, how that first year would have been different. Because what my depression what telling me was the truth. I was very fortunate to become a mother to a beautiful little boy. But what is also true was that he screamed almost continuously for 5 months. There was no sleeping through the night until he was over two years old. The simple act of feeding my child was heart wrenching, complicated and tremendously stressful. The truth was there were days I was in so much pain I sobbed just leaning over the bassinet to lift him. The truth is I went back to work too soon and worked two jobs nearly full time while caring for my infant at the same time which is only possible if you give up eating and sleeping, basically. I was completely numb.  And yet when people asked me how I was doing I said, “We’re good!” and forced a smile while on the inside I wondered how I was going to survive the next 24 hours. But somehow I still didn’t feel like there was room for my real experience within the socially misconstrued idea of what motherhood should feel like. (When someone asks, “how do you like being a mother?” they aren’t really looking to hear that you feel like you are in a nightmare you can’t wake up from.)

mommy1

this is not me. I stole it from the internet.

The truth was that I felt let down and betrayed by the reality of giving birth, left alone to flail and grapple with deep fear, inadequacy, loneliness and pain, robbed of the experience of becoming a mom that I had dreamed of my whole life and silenced by a prevailing myth that I should be this happy, glowing, grateful image of a new mom. I was angry but there was no one to be angry with. So I swallowed it and smiled. I was deep in grief but grieving is not something typically associated with the first year of motherhood, aka: the happiest time of your life.

16715519-Mother-breastfeeding-her-baby-in-a-field-of-purple-flowers--Stock-Photo

also definitely not me.

 

I didn’t want the label of PPD, I wanted someone to validate that what I was experiencing was legitimately difficult. That under these circumstances any normal person would have a hard time feeling blissed out. I wanted someone to say that it wasn’t just hormones, it wasn’t just sleep deprivation, it wasn’t just the colic.
I wanted permission to feel like this was the hardest thing I had ever endured and that I didn’t have to do any more than to endure it.

And this is the truth: we deserve more and we deserve better. No mother should suffer in silence. No woman should be forced to go back to work until she feels healthy and capable. Every single birth and postpartum period should be recognized as a process as unique and sacred as each mother and each child. And every single mother has the right to her experience and to the support that she needs. This is why I choose to tell my story.

 

There are many factors that go into maternal mental health. I am not suggesting that all we need to “cure” maternal mental illness is a community of herb-wielding wise women and extended paid parental leave. But as a culture we could begin by recognizing birth and motherhood for what they are. Not just a marker point on the timeline of a life, but the most momentous and vulnerable time in the life of any woman who chooses to mother a child and a pivotal and irreplaceable period of bonding with a new baby.

silenced

image taken from reductress.com

Most of us would find the practice of forcing a woman to labor and deliver in silence barbaric and utterly cruel.  Would we then silence her call for help after the fact? Would be tell her she should be stronger, that she should be able to handle it on her own, that this is what motherhood is, to swallow to her own screams, her tears and her truth while she nurses that baby through another long, lonely night? Would we relegate her again to quiet indentured servitude to an outmoded and incendiary archetype?

Would we perpetuate the myth that to be a woman is to suffer in silence?

Women of a society steeped in patriarchy, we are fooling ourselves if we think we haven’t played a part in the gruesome history of whitewashing the shadows out of what has previously been the most sacred feminine rite, of wiping away the afterbirth as quickly as possible, in essence, of sanitizing the story of motherhood. 
The poetess Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) wrote in 1968, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
It is time we told the truth and allowed it to set us free.

 

 

My journey back to health took time. I eventually got health insurance, put myself in therapy and got diagnosis and treatment for my physical symptoms. I recommitted to yoga and my meditation practice, and reached out and asked for help from my community. Three years later, I love being a mom. My son is thriving and our bond is stronger than ever. I am in awe of him every day and amazed that I helped to create this little person. I love watching him grow and become more of himself. After all of that crying he turned out to be a pretty well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky kid. And I get why people do it more than once. Still when I’ve gotten some version of the inevitable question, “So do you think you’ll have another?” I glance over my shoulder at the still-fresh trail of sweat, tears and bloodied fingernails I left as I clawed my way inch by inch back into the land of the living. And I shudder. I know there are no guarantees. And while finding myself recently a single parent and the possibility less likely than ever, I know that life is unexpected.  So I just say, “We’ll see.”

 

 …

 

“Isn’t it just the best thing in the whole world??” A friend gazes her fresh newborn nuzzling at her breast. And I have to admit that there is nothing in the world like feeling that sweet weight resting in your arms or asleep against your chest. I have craved that feeling since I was a girl. And I looked with happiness at my friend who had the unmistakable look of a new mother: bleary-eyed, love-drunk and just beginning to realize that she had no idea what she’s in for. I pause, feeling my heart ache with the intensity of love for my son who was once just as tiny, back when we were just learning who each other was.
“Yes,” I say, “It is.”
And for once I know it’s true.

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
(Ol’ Mr. Dickens)

 

It is all of it.

 

bathtime1

Us, post bath, somewhere around the 6 month mark.

PLEASE SHARE THIS POST. If you are a mom, if you know a mom, if this post meant something to you or even if it didn’t – please share it for someone to whom it may matter. 
If you are currently suffering with depression or anxiety please know that you are not alone. Speak out. Let someone know. If you know someone who may be struggling, talk to them and let them know you are worried and you care. If you have a story about your own struggle and recovery from postpartum depression or anxiety, speak up. TELL YOUR TRUTH. It is so important. 

Toll free hotline: 1-800-PPD-MOMS

Other resources:

Read this: Frequently Asked Questions about Postpartum Depression

Visit here: PostpartumProgress.com

Read this: American Individualism is Destroying our Families

Get involved: National Maternal Mental Health Coalition

Climb out of Darkness 2016

More moms being raw and honest:

Read writer Beth Morey’s post: In Which I Stop Silencing Myself and Tell You the Truth

You are amazing, Mom.

Today at our weekly mom support group we made Mother’s Day cards for ourselves. I decorated mine but I could not think of what I wanted to write as I was sitting there.

It has been a tough couple of months. My son’s father and I have decided to split up. For the moment I am parenting predominantly alone and struggling with the implications of what it means to be a single parent and trying to mitigate the loss of what I believed to be a permanent family unit and who I am apart from the definition of this primary relationship.  But partnered or not, in my experience waiting around for someone else to acknowledge all of the great things that you are, that you do and are capable of at best breeds a annual sense of vague disappointment (come on, ONE DAY a year for moms? Guess what else happens one day each year? National Burrito Day. ) and at worst, deep abiding resentment toward every single family member in your household. It’s really time we stopped.

More important than if and how we and by whom are acknowledged by on Mother’s Day is how we choose to honor ourselves for the every day things we do… all the little things that make up the biggest most important things. Because let’s be real, every day is frickin’ Mother’s Day.

So I brought my card home to finish during nap. Here is how it turned out.

 

Happy Mother’s day to all the mamas. You are all truly amazing. But you already knew that. (And you deserve 100 burritos. And like, 1-3 margaritas if you want them.)

xo

The education of a lifetime: Karen Maezen Miller on Motherhood, Meditation and Anger

Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen priest and author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, Hand Wash Cold and Paradise in Plain Sight. I have written before about her profound book, Momma Zen, and how it inspired me more than any other parenting text I have ever come across. momma zen

And this interview by Shawn Fink of the Abundant Mama project is no different. Brimming with deep wisdom, humor and humility, Karen Maezen Miller penetrates to the heart of parenting as a spiritual path and delivers in a way that is both digestible and wholly compassionate. Listen to the full episode: AMPlify Your Life, Episode 7: Karen Maezen Miller on Meditation, Motherhood and Anger

There is just so much in this interview, I note some highlights here.

Karen speaks about raising her now teen daughter, how much has changed since writing “Momma Zen” and the essential process of staying with what is. She compares her work in Momma Zen as “premature self-congratulation”.

I am in trouble if I start to think that I know what the heck I’m doing or where I am going. We are consistently set adrift, washed up shore and we need one another.

Karen and Shawn chat a bit about how in this digital age we are more connected in some ways and much more disconnected in other ways which speaks to me in a big way. While on the one hand, many moms find community in online forums, groups and on Facebook which are great ways to find and share information they can never be a replacement for real human contact. In some ways, not living as close to family or having good friends nearby can make finding your “tribe”, your support system as a new mother can be challenging. Often online images of motherhood or fear of judgement makes it harder to ask, reach out and receive help.

Karen Maezen Miller on the biggest surprise in parenthood: “The real shake up for me has been the degree to which I encumber my daughter with the job of feeding my ego or emotional needs… [realizing how] “emotionally dependent upon my daughter being happy, doing things that I liked, liking the things that I do”.

Aaaahh, this one was a zinger. As a mother to an outspoken three year old, who feels at least as entitled as any teen to delivering every opinion and performance review uncensored according to his changing mood, whim and unspoken preschooler expectations. Still, I with no other rubric to go by, I sometimes find myself relying heavily on the irrational grading system of a little person still learning how to manage his emotional weather patterns and express his needs in healthy ways. After getting frustrated with him for not wanting to put on his clothes, I walk away to take a break. He finds me a few moments later, the storm between us has passed. He climbs into my lap and I see that he has put on his shirt and socks.

“Mama, are you happy now? Do I make you happy?” he asks earnestly, his face searching mine for signs that my earlier frown has faded. I am aware of his constant gauging of me, of this dance we do of reacting to one another, pulling away and drawing together – and what I may or may not unconsciously make him responsible for.

He falls and bumps his elbow. I hold him while he cries. I offer ice, kisses, a drink of water. What would make you feel better? What do you need?  I ask, wanting to find the solution, the cure, the fix to end the discomfort. It catches me off-guard every time he answers me, annoyed with my well-meant but impertinent offerings , “No, I am cry-ing!” he says, as if it were obvious. He is already doing exactly what he needs to do. And I, in my discomfort with his discomfort, really seek to reassure my tender ego that I am the competent mother, the one who can comfort her child and ensure that moments of unhappiness are brief and remediable.

The common parental desire to control and make things easy for our kids, to keep them from struggle is something (even) Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller is not immune to. And as her daughter, at 16, begins pointing out often with alarming clarity: “It’s not always going to be easy for me, Mom.” Karen grapples with the implications of stumbling along indeed the crooked path of mothering a child-turning-adult, who without mincing words, continues to hold up a mirror for us to see even more places we have yet to let go. “If the only thing [your children] can share with you is the good news, the good times or the happy… well, that’s dishonest.”

KMM on dealing with anger as a parent:

Own your feelings. Approaching our immediate response with compassion instead of suppression (which perpetuates the feeling) or judgment is the way to extend first compassion to ourselves and all compassion begins with compassion toward ourselves. Identifying and stating our feelings out loud gives others a warning about our emotional state and gives us the chance to address what is happening in our physical/emotional body before we escalate to a place of reacting in self-defensive or aggressive ways. Taking the internal temperature without judgment, as if processing data, is how we take responsibility for our feelings without blame and recrimination for whatever we feel is the particular trigger. It gives us the chance to take space, acknowledge our unmet needs or expectations in tenderness and without attachment to a story around a particular emotional response (“If I was a more better mother, I would not feel so impatient/annoyed/angry.”)

Take what you need first in order to be able to respond in kindness. Take a breath, take time, take space. I often tell my son but less often myself: “You are allowed to have your feelings. You are not allowed to be mean or hurt yourself or other people.”

As much of motherhood goes, we don’t get accolades for those tiny moments of triumph when we chose to take three deep breaths instead of lose our temper. As KMM points out “no own is keeping score of the times I didn’t have an outburst.” Or in the words of Biz Ellis host of one of my favorite podcasts about parenting,  One Bad Mother“Parenting is hard and no one gives a shit.” Mostly, that’s true. Thankfully it also the most rewarding thing we ever do. Especially when we get to see our own growth alongside our child’s.

KMM’s offers a refreshing reminder to parents of tantruming toddlers: you’re in it too. Most parenting advice I read offers an imagine of the calm and unruffled parent patiently holding space for the outrageous emotional displays of a possibly foaming at the mouth, destructive and aggressive small child hell bent on getting you to react (my son went through a period of purposefully soiling himself in a desperate act of retaliation) but does not often acknowledge the very intense internal storm raging inside yourself. It would be great if tantrums happened only when we (the parents) were well-fed, showered, had recently slept 8 hours, didn’t have any pressing tasks or places to be or outside responsibilities, were not distracted by any other sort of physical discomfort or pain, had recently had great sex, a good workout or a fantastic date with a good friend or a good book — basically, if we felt our emotional tanks were always “full”. But we all know that toddlers and preschoolers are first are predatory creatures with a recently developed capacity for premeditated action. They have an uncanny sense of knowing when to flip their shit, bless them.

Another thing I love about Karen Maezen Miller is her lack of apology about needing space and alone time from her family. As someone who desperately needs alone time to recalibrate, I  relate to this so much. I am such a better mom when I get the chance to miss my kid, to fill up, to take care of myself, to feed my soul and care for my spirit, body honor yourselfand mind.  KMM talks about getting away and finding retreat as a way of taking full responsibility for her own life and her own ongoing process of refinement. We simply cannot skip the part of parenting where we parent ourselves.

KMM on meditation practice as a parent:

Karen Maezen Miller’s work was one of my great catalysts to my recommitment to a daily sitting meditation after becoming a mom. KMM says, “If you say you don’t have time to meditate then the truth is you don’t.”

Here is her realistic advice on developing a meditation practice: “Don’t make it hard,” she says. “Don’t make it another thing that you can’t do, you don’t have time to do or you aren’t good at. Because that is the way you [probably] talk to yourself about a lot of things and it is self-fulfilling.”

“You have 5 minutes at the beginning of the day and you have 5 minutes at the end of the day to practice being present and aware. If you can’t sit for 5 minutes, sit for 4, if you can’t sit for 4, sit for 3.

 …You can’t be attached to somehow doing it the “right” way, or getting the maximum benefit or being “good” at it or trying to turn yourself into a saint or even a better mom. Do it because you have to do it for own wellbeing and so that you will hurt people less.”

self care

(For more about self-care practice, watch: 5 Steps for Better Self Care for Moms). You can learn more about Karen Maezen Miller’s work, online teachings and upcoming retreats and events at karenmaezenmiller.comAlso check out all the podcast episodes from AMPlify Your Life: Podcast for Busy Moms.

And then suddenly, he was a boy.

I have been pretty unsentimental, I guess, about  a lot of the milestones so far in my son’s almost-three years of life.  I don’t necessarily feel the pang of being needed less as time goes on, certainly not in the way that maybe the mother of three does watching her last baby graduate from infancy to the front steps of her kindergarten classroom –  in what feels like the space of overnight. I’m three years in. I basically still don’t really have a clear reference for time. I know that there was life before my son, but it’s kind of hard to believe that it actually existed – since what could I have possibly done with all of that free time ?? I am fairly certain I wouldn’t recognize that 31 year old girl if she showed up on my doorstep much less relate to her (what does she DO with all of that free time?) I’ll be honest, its all a little fuzzy and not totally unlike the feeling of having been on a bender for the last three years of my life. Except that, unlike the consequences of unrestrained drinking, some really great things have happened.

The bittersweetness of common landmarks have bypassed me: walking, talking, sleeping in his own bed, going to daycare, potty training, etc.  Babyhood was hard for us, this stage feels lighter – maybe that is a big part of it. Or maybe that he is my first and only kid. I know its a precious and fleeting time. And if ever I forget,  there is someone to remind me everywhere I go and at every chance, how fast it all goes and how much I will miss it when its gone. Thank you, stranger in the check-out line, for letting me know essentially, that I am guaranteed to feel shitty later thinking about how I should be happier right now in this moment which will invariably get gold-plated in my memory…… that I will um, revisit when I am older and sipping my tea in my quiet house with piles of books around and art supplies and projects that I don’t ever have to clean up because no one’s going to touch my stuff and I have the whole weekend ahead of me to putter and dally and not cook for anyone and stay up as late as I want??? Just kidding. Sort of. I know my kid is going to grow up and we always feel wistful for what is behind. The past is like an Instagram account with flattering filters to highlight all of the high moments and none of the bad days. Oh wait, no that is actual Instagram.

At every stage of his increasing autonomy I cheer him on, marvel unflinchingly at the passage of months gone, feeling  a sense of satisfaction that he is finding his footing in this world, as they do kind of with, without, or in spite of me at all.  Often my partner and I will look at each other with some variation of, “Can you believe …?” But I’m still the one without a lot of nostalgia about it. I guess kindergarten will be a big one, we’ll see though.

Anyway, we decided it was time to cut his hair. It’s wild, unruly, a battle to wash and comb through and people have been mistaking him for a girl, (which he’s always gotten to some extent, but now he is starting to notice). We’d been getting comments for awhile from his grandpa and others (seriously, what the hell makes you SO uncomfortable with my kid’s hair?) which was frankly really irritating mostly because it starting making my son self-conscious about it. I was a little scared though, because I had also been told his curls won’t last. The ringlets he inherited from neither his father or myself, I had been warned, would disappear with the first cut. Literally, EVERYBODY has told me that. But he was excited. His first haircut! We promised ice cream afterward.

She didn’t even take off that much. Just a trim. He looked so big sitting up in the chair.

And as soon as I watched those first strands fall to the floor, I wanted to cry.

He sat very still and when she was finished he saw himself in the mirror and smiled with pride. We went to ice cream.

And I just could not look at him without tears spilling over. Just like that, everything had changed. The baby had disappeared. He was a boy.

My heart was gripped with the realization that we’d crossed over a threshold. There was no going back. I tried hard not to let my son pick up on my feelings. “It will grow again,” my partner reassures me when we are alone.

“No,” I say, “everything’s different.”

I was unprepared for the level of emotional reaction. Of course I know, it’s just hair. It will grow. It will be whatever it will be, curls or not. But is these such landmarks, the ones that don’t just naturally happen on their own but require the diligent, careful eye; the sense to know when it’s time to gently remove the scaffolding, the lovey, the comfort habit that has outgrown its service, the training wheels that have lingered past their usefulness. And no matter how much you might want to hold on to it for what it represents –  it is these moments of stepping in to move forward the hand of time when only you can and must, that cause the heart to waver. It is these pivotal moments, some without as much fanfare as a haircut, that come and go in the most ordinary way and yet leave behind a profound imprint of what parenthood is again and again, the letting go. It is the thoughts that buzz around like a mosquito in your darkened bedroom as you lie awake and  throw up a prayer for the twenty-seventh time that you did the right thing . Because even though you might know it was, it still pangs.

Like knowing it was the last time I would breastfeed my son.  The moment I decided I was through pumping. Breastfeeding was complicated, arduous and emotionally wrought for us. Weening was something I had to accept long before I had wanted to. Though it was clear it was best choice for both of us, I still remember that quiet moment, in the dark, with my baby beside me, when I decided to let my body be done. It’s the Instagram reel without the filters, full of the raw emotion of what it really means to be a mother.  In yogic philosophy there is a name for this letting go again and again: aparigraha, the principle of non attachment.  Over and over again, we watch for the signs for when its time to let go a little bit more, when its time to release our attachment to the current story and let the next chapter begin.

“Motherhood is at once an exercise in unwavering fortitude and complete surrender.”  (Read: Suspended in a State of Mommyhood. I’m serious, if you are  a mother or a young parent, you’ve really got to read it. Go, right now.)

curls1 logo