When life gets twisty…

I am almost failing my post-a-day goal! But today was a crazy one. It went something like this:

Child mentions physical concern.sick kid

Parent schedules doctor’s appointment for later in the day.

Doctor confirms concern, sends parent and child to hospital for further testing.

Parent and child go to hospital and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And get awaited-for test.

Results are positive, less extreme than feared. Medicine and follow-ups prescribed.

Parent and child return home after six hours at various medical facilities, for a quick dinner, hefty doses of intense medicine, and bed.

Waiting parent consumes wine and gives thanks for positive diagnosis, which didn’t included the very much feared surgery, or worse, the unspoken but consuming fear of a suspicion of malignancy.

Child is sleeping. Parents are fed and relaxing. Thanks are being raised for this moment, when all is well and the future is hopeful.

And an extra prayer is being sent that the doctors are right.

Sending.

Prayers.

Please, that they got it right this time.

Please.

Take a shower — you’ll feel better

We parents are a bossy lot.  It’s not our fault — we have to be, from the time these tiny beings accompany us home from the hospital.  In the beginning, our bossiness is all about safety and telling our kids what not to do so they don’t get hurt.  Do NOT touch the stove top.  Do NOT eat lawn fertilizer.  Do NOT hit your sister over the head with that plastic race car.

Later, we add in some positives, words that intend to be encouraging but are in fact equally as bossy.  DO clean up your toys.  DO  say please and thank you.  DO flush and wash your hands.

Around the time kids start school, we throw in advice to the mix.  It’s a more subtle form of bossiness, but we’re really still telling them what to do.  Try working on one subject first, take a break, then tackle the next assignment.  Tell your brother how you feel instead of yelling at him.  I always feel better after going to bed on time, really, why not give it a try?

This is the time that kids start ignoring parents, whose voices have suddenly turned into the wordless drone captured so aptly in the Peanuts movies: wah wah, wah wah, wah wah.

Come on, you know it’s true.  How much can you remember of what your parents told you before you grew up and, as Mark Twain famously put it, your parents got a whole lot smarter?

Yeah, me neither.

But I do remember one thing my dad used to say all the time.  “Take a shower.  You’ll feel better.”  

He said it when I was in middle school and feeling uninspired to go to school that day (maybe some of those times I was actually, really sick, too).  He said it when I was in high school, feeling sad over something that had happened.  He said it so much over the years, it became more hilarious than irritating.

The thing is, he was right.  There is something about taking a shower that revives you — getting clean, washing away the dirt (both real and metaphorical), starting fresh.

Getting time in the shower can be tough for at-home parents. Obviously, when you are a parent who works elsewhere, it’s in everybody’s best interest that when you arrive at the office your teeth are brushed and your body clean. But for those of us who don’t *have* to make ourselves presentable first thing in the morning, getting bathroom time quickly falls on the morning to-do list. Plus, especially if you have a baby or toddler, chances are your efforts will be rendered meaningless after a bout of spit-up or a scrambled-egg food fight.

When the kids got older, I chose sleep over showering in the wee hours of the morning. But, lately, I’m getting tired of mucking around in yoga pants, which are, honestly, a half-stitch away from my pajama pants. In fact, the kids seem to think they’re one and the same — “Geez, Mom, are you gonna get dressed today?”  Me: “Why should I? I never see anyone but you people!” Har-dee-har-har.

The past year has been a tough one. Lots has been out of my control. There has been frustration and anxiety and depression. And somehow my laissez-faire approach to my appearance hasn’t done much for my state of mind. And so I remember my father’s words, and even though snuggling with my husband for a few more minutes seems much more appealing than waking up in the darkness, I get out of bed, have a cup of coffee, and take a shower.

If nothing else, I am clean and smell good, and if, god forbid, if someone happens to drop by unannounced, I won’t scare them away. But it’s more than that. When I was young, lazing about in sweatpants was the supreme act of comfort. Now that I am old(er), it’s just the opposite. The comfort now comes from taking care of myself, showing my best self to the world, even when things feel like they’re falling apart. Somehow that single act of taking a shower becomes one of hope, of optimism.

Dad, you were right. But don’t let it go to your head.

Taking time

I’m not sure if it’s just me, or if all moms have the same problem, but I don’t know how to relax.  For whatever reason, I have a hard time doing things for myself when there’s so much to be done for everyone else.  This undoubtedly contributes to my struggle with anxiety.

So on Thursday, when the kids went to camp for the day,  I snuggled up on the couch with a book and read for a few hours.  I dozed a little after that.  I had a nice little lunch and a phone chat with my mom.  Things I did not do — fold laundry, wash dishes, straighten the slipcovers, make the beds or put out the recycling.

It felt so good that on Saturday afternoon I did the same thing (though after a morning of chores and play).

The kids are getting older and don’t need me for constant amusement or care.  And yet I am always “on”, never really turning off until Ray comes home and the kids are asleep and I know he will take over in the night hours as he has ever since they were babies.  

So, away with the guilt!  What’s wrong with spending an hour with a good book on a scorching summer day?  Why should moms have to wait until the kids are out or sleeping to take a little time for themselves?  They shouldn’t, of course. 

So from now on, in the daylight hours, I will try to relax and do something not Mommy-related, something just for me — like tackle the enormous pile of waiting-to-be-read books on my nightstand.

Waiting for the rain

One of the reasons I haven’t been blogging lately is I feel as though were I to say half of the things on my mind, you’d think I was nuts.

But here’s the truth:  some days I’m too much in my own head to write.  Some days, anxiety chokes me until I can’t breathe, until I want to throw up.  It makes my skin hot and crawly, and steals my voice.  On those days all I can do is power through, be the best parent I can under the circumstances, and hope to ride it out.

And yes, I take medication, but some days it’s not enough.

To stop the shakiness and nausea I clean.  I can’t sit still.  I wander from room to room, picking up toys and shoes and balls of lint, things that on normal days would be invisible to me.  I scrub the floorboards in the kitchen and scan the ceilings for cobwebs.  I let the kids watch too much TV and help themselves to snacks.

I first began to suffer this debilitating anxiety when I discovered the lump in my breast.  Getting a clean bill of health, getting a prescription, starting a new routine of exercise and yoga and meditation all helped.  But as life went on, those things went by the wayside.   Slowly, old habits and fears crept back in — I started smoking again.  I worried that a chest pain was a heart attack, a hemorrhoid was cancer.  Since Mitzi’s diagnosis I’ve been too focused on what to do for her to think about how I felt about it all.

So here I am today.  Hands shaking, heart thumping.  Phantom worries swirl around me and I have to remind myself to breathe.  The only thing that keeps me from crawling into a dark closet is my children.  For them, I’ll stand up and breathe and help them make play dough and splash them in pool and do the best I can, all the while hoping that tomorrow will bring rain, and peace.

Anxiety

Over a month since my last post.  I don’t know what’s up with that.  Well, I sort of do. Thank god no one but my parents and sister read this blog!  After vacation there was a rush to prepare for the new school year.  Mitzi in first grade, Cooper in kindergarten, Ellie in preschool.  A lot to focus on.  Writing?   What’s that?

So, the enormity of what to write on this blog about being a Mom.  Shall I discuss the loss I feel and the simultaneous pride in Mitzi’s fearless venture into full-time, big kid days of first grade?  Or the confusion with Cooper’s sullen and silent kindergarten experience, full of both friends and success and secrecy?   Of Ellie’s ease into preschool, with complete sentences, printing letters and words, and this-is-who-she-is-on-her-own indpendence? The new mornings of Joanna and I, alone in the house or on errands, strange to each other, shy and awkward, like new lab partners in tenth grade biology?

Or do I wax poetic on the smothering anxiety I try to swallow every day, floored by my reality — how did I get here?  The feeling that I am an imposter, that at any moment I will be asked for ID, a high school student in a downtown bar, with nothing but a poorly crafted laminated license in my pocket.  Yes, I am not who I say I am.  I have no right to be here.   That soon I will be found out – you are no grownup!  You are no Mommy!  How dare you purport to guide and prepare these children for FUTURE?  The choking anxiety watching other parents who seem so at ease and confident and mature, not only ready but willing to adorn the mantel of parenthood that weighs so heavily on my shoulders.  Am I like them?  Are they like me?

I am thisclose to buying a pack of cigarettes, certain that smoking will ground me, remind me of who I am, what I can do. Inhaling, I will remember:  I am a writer, a poet, certainly a poor role model full of insecurities, doubts and demons that never really leave me, no matter how many lunches I pack, no matter how many orange slices I ready for sunny soccer games (How dare I parent these babies?)

This new Me, a mommy of four, scares me.  I don’t really know who she is, what she can do, where her flaws are.  And is this all I can be, should be, want to be?

Questions so large I haven’t been able to blog since summer vacation, when at least the sun and sand and low expectations allowed me the freedom to shirk my responsibilities, to return to a simpler world where I didn’t have to be the grownup, and didn’t have to know what “being the grownup” means.  We lounged and ate and slept, we played games and enjoyed, and didn’t worry about calendars and homework, lunches and playdates, conferences and committee meetings.

Do you know what it means to be the grownup?  Can you tell me?

So I avoid the writing, the questions, lose myself in reruns of CSI and a glass of wine (or two or three), and envy those who jump, who risk.

I try to breathe deeply, to relinquish a desire for control over my spinning world.  My dad, in his daily recovery as an alcoholic, reminds me of the brevity of life.  He sends in emails quotes from Buddha and daily meditations.  His anxiety is not unlike my own, I think.   I try to learn from his pain, to benefit from his road, all the while wondering if I will succumb to the same fears, temptations, regardless of what I have witnessed.  Regardless of the genetics, the hand-me-down addictions.

Then Ray comes home, late from an evening of work and professional experience.   Ray, who helps me ground myself as much as smoking or drinking, jagged edges notwithstanding.  I am not perfect; he is not perfect; I breathe and let the imperfections be.  Ray does not tell me about myself or my current condition; Ray allows me to be, wherever, whenever however I am.   A dialogue begun, certain to continue.  So I rise from my computer-facing folding chair, save this entry, and return to the things I need to do.

And pray that tomorrow the sun will rise clear and sure.

Nightmares

I had a terrible dream last night, the kind of dream that scares parents more than any other, and the dream that most of us have at one time or another. The dream came in the last sleep cycle of the morning, after my alarm had rung twice and I ignored it twice, settling back into the warmth of my husband for a few minutes before the day really began.

Four hours later I am still unsettled, the scratches of the nightmare’s fingers still hot on my skin.

I tend to have very dramatic, vivid and strange Dali-esque dreams. I always have. I usually do not have the gentle kind, the sort where kind ghosts of long-gone family and friends visit to chat, or where hopeful images of future play out over green fields and under blue skies. Perhaps I am too much a pessimist, a worrier for those. I also do not usually remember my dreams. Given their nature, that’s probably a good thing.

I am of the school who believes that dreams are our mind’s way of unraveling the mysteries of our days, the worries, fears and hopes that tangle in our thoughts without attention during our busy waking lives. I’m not sure how much I believe in the symbolism of dreams — if I’m swimming in a dream, does it have to be a metaphor for my personal struggles or fears?

I’m told that you can control your dreams, to use them to your advantage. If you have a problem you can’t figure out, focus on it before sleep and an answer will come in your relaxed mind. Or focus on those happy positive thoughts and that will be the substance of your sleeping images. I’m usually too sleepy to attempt this, most nights falling asleep with my glasses still on, a book open on my chest. But maybe I’ll try it again sometimes, anything to never have last night’s terror again.

About last night, using the dream interpretation approach. My primary job, as I see it, is to keep my family safe and healthy and whole as each one grows more into who he or she will become. I think I felt a bit of a failure yesterday in the safety department. In the hustle and fun of our early-start holiday, I forgot to put sunscreen on my fair-skinned family until just before lunch, after we’d already been outside for a few hours. Most of us got a bit sunburned, which I didn’t notice until after baths late that evening. Perhaps my dream had to do with that. My family got hurt. I failed to keep my family safe.

I woke up crying because of the awful images in that early morning nightmare. All morning I have been touching my family, rubbing a back, smoothing hair, kissing sleep-warmed cheeks, reassuring myself of their solidity. As I finish typing, the smallest arms in our house are cradling my neck from behind, their owner raining my ears with kisses, in her effort to draw me away from the computer. Who could resist this reality? I will wrap up.

A dream is just a dream. Today, even as the forecast calls for thundershowers, we are all slathered in sunscreen. Just to be safe.

Enlightenment

We seem to be living in a greener, more enlightened world. Or at least, in a world that wants to be greener and more enlightened.

I used to be earthy, crunchy. I did yoga daily, hiked, and took long walks. I held memberships in the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Federation. Sadly, as my life unfolded, these passions got lost in a small-city shuffle after I moved to Boston. Getting married and having kids somehow overshadowed my guitar-strumming, mantra-muttering self. I guess I wasn’t someone who could readily reconcile those identities, though plenty of fine women do. All right, I was also a little bit lazy.

But this past year taught me a little bit about staying true to who you are, as well as spending some time on enlightenment. Well, if not enlightenment, then spending some time on clearing a little mind clutter, stepping outside of yourself to the bigger world. Doing this may mitigate some of the daily stresses we all feel, or so I’m told.

Lately I’ve revisited yoga and meditation and some old, familiar writers like Natalie Goldberg, who in her search for her writing self stumbled across her true self — through writing practice and Zen Buddhism, Natalie embarked on a lifelong journey we all must face at one time or another. Or something like that. “Be here now,” wrote Ram Dass in his book of the same title. (My cousin Marcello gave me this book about 15 years ago, when we were both exploring the same world. Alas, it was lost in a basement flood a few years ago.) The message is, of course, to be mindful of the moment, do what you’re doing. Make a peanut butter sandwich without focusing on the bills to be paid or what you need at the pharmacy.

I’ve been trying. It flies against every modern thought of multi-tasking, the fuel on which we contemporary moms thrive. Once upon a time, moms were applauded for their ability to talk on the phone, help with math homework, cook dinner, fold laundry, and look beautiful, all at once. These days, while multi-tasking is a necessary evil of parenting, I have been striving for a more peaceful, Zen approach to my daily duties.

For instance, today, while changing Joanna’s diaper, I think only of the tush, the rash, the cream. I actively ignore the sound from the living room, the smack of hand slapping on arm, as Ellie defends her toy from her brother’s grasp.

I sigh, apply cream. The cream is white on red rash, I think. Yelling erupts from adjacent room. Be here now, I whisper, aligning diaper with rear end. Something heavy lands with a thump nearby; lack of cries indicate object is inanimate, not human. I fasten diaper, put legs in pants. The sound of sobs, soft and sniffly, waft to my ears, hallmark of a fight ebbing. I stand Joanna up and give her a kiss, send her on her way.

Natalie Goldberg’s teacher Katagiri Roshi, in response to her description of an overwhelming emotion she was having, told her, “Pay no attention to that. Continue to feel your breath, bow, drink tea.”

Having finished the task before me, I pay no attention to the noise from the other room, which has resolved itself quite well without me. With an almost undetectable bow, I head to the kitchen and turn on the stove to boil water for a cup of tea.

Of course, as students we often fail. Not all days am I able to watch my breath, meditate, and allow the chaos of parenting to flow around me. On many days, I sit on the couch after tucking the children in their beds, a glass of red wine by my side. Recently, I stood by the counter and mindfully swallow bite after delicious bite of the chocolate birthday cake we had for Cooper last Saturday.

I haven’t decided which way is better. But whatever way, I hope that I can be present in my life, the moments that flow too quickly. Breathe, drink tea. Be grateful and bow.