Monday, November 5, 2012

Learning Not to Spit on Myself

The title of this post is not a metaphor for us not "shoulding" all over ourselves, which many of us recovering perfectionists are prone to doing at times, if not all the time.  Rather, I was e-mailing a colleague recently who was joking about working out because his abs are all he has to counteract his frightening looks, and I found myself reminded of my life at this time last year, when Noah had been in school just a few months into Kindergarten, and for the first time in years I had time to exercise as long as my energy would last, rather than rushing through a 40-minute workout so I could shower and pick up Noah in the babysitting room at the Y before my time expired or his patience did. 

Last winter I was the most happy with my body than I'd ever been in my life that I can remember.  I was not thin from stress, a broken heart, or being too broke to buy food.  I was really not thin at all, actually, by today's frightening definitions.  But I was fit, fitter than I've ever been.  Even using the word "fit"  to describe myself would never have passed my own snort test before.  Back in college although I swam every morning in the Bates College pool, walked everywhere, and dabbled in aerobics, yoga, and other classes, my exposure to campus-wide grain alcohol punch parties, my stress at being in school and away from home, and the unlimited bowls of Fruit Loops available in the cafeteria did a lot to counteract true health.

So it was about a year ago, I was online looking at Land's End's online sales and found some of their $90 bikinis on sale for $5-$10.  I went for it.  My family was planning our first ever family vacation to the Gulf Coast of Florida, and I had a first ever feeling that I could rock a two-piece.  I can still hear and picture myself in my early 20s complaining to my best friend as we swam in the ocean somewhere in Southern Maine how much I loathed my body.  Whether it is age, exercise, the experience of childbirth and the gratefulness I now feel for my body for creating Noah and blessing me with another baby soon to come, or all of the above, I no longer see myself taking the critical survey when I look in the mirror.  Instead, it's more like an interesting examination of how things change and how they stay the same, as I age into my 40s.

But the inspiration for this post is less about that acceptance, and more about the ridiculousness I am feeling at times, being 43 years old and 7 months pregnant.  Blessed for sure, but at times also ridiculous.  Like I have a clown stomach strapped onto me.  I keep thinking I need to create a tee shirt that has one word printed on it:  Oof.  Because even if I'm not saying it, I'm thinking it to myself.  Clown waddling.  Oof.  Oof.  Oof. 

So as I brushed my teeth over the sink last week and dropped a long line of toothpaste down the front of my shirt over my big belly for the fifth time in as many days, I sighed an exaggerated clown sigh, and changed my shirt.  I have apparently learned not to s*it on myself but am unable to keep from spitting on myself.  And when I work this out, which will likely be when I go into labor, it will be just in time for our new baby boy to join us on the outside, when I'll be back to having someone else spitting (up) on me instead!    

Monday, October 1, 2012

Clean Toilets and Silver Linings

A morning like this is the perfect time to sit down and write.  I did not sleep much last night.  Between Noah sniffling all night with the newest wave of his six-week virus/cold or whatever it is, the cat vomiting up a furball on the rug at the bottom of the staircase, my growing pregnant belly causing me to need to turn over like a pig on a spit every half hour, or finally, literally, the pack of coyotes howling and yipping at the back of our property at 4 a.m., there was no rest to be had.

I, too, have had this cold/virus for four weeks, only Noah's has really been more like a cold, with sniffles and a cough, while mine has run some other alien gamut of symptoms.  I remember the exact day after Noah had it for two weeks, that I, after being totally vigilant all that time prior, inadvertently finished off his strawberry smoothie.  As I set the cup down I thought, "I can't believe I just did that.  I'm done for."  Sure enough, three days later, I began a 7-day stint of a burning sore throat and laryngitis.  Followed by a week of congestion so solid that I could not budge it and I could feel my heartbeat in my eyes because of the sinus headache.  Followed by a week of my sinuses draining, my ears making noises like crumpling up paper every time I blew my nose, and a racking cough.  Which takes me to last week, and today, when I still sound all nasally and have a nagging throat clearing and utter exhaustion with the Whole Thing.

Ah September, the start of school for my husband and son, and also my busiest consulting month of the year.  I am not quite clear how I made it through all of my commitments this month.

I do not see myself as a complainer.  But the last five months the whiner in me has been waving her flag to beat the band.  Did I mention that when Noah was first sick with this thing back in August after attending summer camp for a week, Matthew injured his neck and couldn't move for a week?  With me still dry heaving daily as I had throughout the Summer of Pregnancy Sickness, that was when I first started referring to my family as the Bad News Bears.  To think that I could be the one taking care of everyone else at that time, when I'd spent so many days lying on my back and asking myself if this pregnancy would ever, ever feel worth it, it didn't seem possible.  On my better days, I would ruefully say to friends, "I think my family is spread a little thin at the moment."  On the other days, well, whiner flag-waving.

I used to have a jean jacket when I was a teenager, with saying buttons all over it.  Another way I emulated my big sister, who had the same but maybe it was a vest, and was definitely way cooler, as was she.  Anyway, when I graduated college and began working, I transferred several of the buttons to the ceiling of my car just above the visor, to cheer me up when I'd had a rough day at work.  My favorite one remains "It's been lovely, but I have to scream now."  This so perfectly sums up my flight response when things are going against the grain of my desires.  About 4:30 this morning I was trying to think of where I could possibly go if I just got in the car and drove away.

I had a day two weeks ago in the midst of this flu thing, when I realized the pregnancy sickness was gone.  I came downstairs with the dawning joy that I was not going to be throwing up any more.  I was also getting over the shock and frustration of being totally sick with the flu at the end of months of the other sickness, so had a bit more of a sense of humor than had recently been the case.  I threw my arms up in the air and said to Matthew, "We're habbing a baby and it's godda be so great!" 

I was in the bathroom that morning, not being sick, and suddenly noticed how sparkling the toilet was - it was a twisted revelation.  All of the time I'd spent that close to the three toilets in my house all summer had resulted in them being the cleanest they've probably ever been, and likely will ever be again.  I flashed to late July, when I was at my sickest, vomiting and dry heaving at points all day long, and the moment when I saw a line of dust on the top edge of the wood trim at the bottom of the wall behind the toilet tank.  I thought, "Well, that's not staying there."  That's probably the most tasteful to mention of the things I noticed and cleaned in my bathrooms this summer. 

Perhaps it was just me finding control when so much of the rest of my summer days were completely out of my control, but at this moment it feels like something more than that.  And I can't say that I know exactly how it adds up to helping me get through today.  Having such clean toilets definitely does not put me alongside the cheerfully satisfied women in commercials.  However, it does remind me somehow that there must be a silver lining to this exhausting virus, and to Noah being sick so long, and to me wanting so much to create a space for our new little bundle and having no energy to do it...  Something I will notice, later today or someday, that will make last night and the past weeks less bitter, more funny, and more able to take as just one sip of this wonderful life. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Top Ten Birthday Blessings

Today I turn 43!  I have not blogged for a while now, mostly because I have been waiting until the day I felt comfortable disclosing to the ether that I am pregnant, and nothing else has risen to the top of my experiences in the past many weeks to write about.  Largely this is true because I have been sick, sick, sick-as-a-dog-sick, daily, all-day, dry-heaving, gagging, vomiting, tasting-hormones-all-day-in-the-back-of-my-throat-instead-of-food, sick.  In addition, having a child over 40 is not something I would say the medical model exactly approaches with joy and optimism - so there has been a heck of a lot more information and testing to uneasily consider than there was when I had Noah. 

The awesome part is that I have made it to 4 1/2 months along, and am carrying a baby boy who is beginning to wholeheartedly squirm and practice judo on my insides on a daily basis.  I am hopeful that the sickness will end in a few weeks, around the end of the 5th month when I previously started to feel better as the mom-to-be of Noah.  Although many days I am emotionally sagging by 9 a.m., today is not one of the worst days, and despite not having the energy to drive myself to a spa, or plan a special evening with my husband and son who are in work and camp all day, respectively, my birthday has had a glow and I feel lit from within.  It's something about wanting exactly what I have, and knowing that right now, there is absolutely nothing wrong and so many things right.

Here's my Top Ten:

1.  Waking briefly at 5:15 a.m. this morning to the smell of a chocolate cake baking.  Whaaa...?  Matthew left for work before Noah and I were even out of bed.  I'm grateful to Matthew for many other things, especially on the days when I tell him with a completely straight face that I cannot live one more day with this demon child inside me and that if I dry heave one more time I am going to start screaming and never stop, but I think the baking before sunrise gets at the essence of what he does for me, on a daily basis.

2.  Holding off my son Noah, who wanted to give me his gift yesterday afternoon, and last night, and first thing this morning.  Over breakfast, he finally called Matthew at work to ask if it was okay to give it to me without Matthew home with us.  The gift, opened with his help of course, a sterling silver pair of star post earrings with pink sparkles in the middle.  The gift was almost as sweet as his giggling, jumping-around excitement to present it to me.  And the hug as he rushed into my arms after I put them on.

3.  My family - my Dad brought me lunch at home a few hours ago, and my mom, sisters, brother-in-law, niece, aunt, bioDad, all connected with me in different ways...  Like everyone, these people are busy, and it's summer, and let's be real, sometimes there is just stuff going on that makes reaching out to anyone else next to impossible.  But there it is.  There they all are.

4.  Kevin.  You know who you are. 

5.  I am grateful to Facebook.  Crazy?  True.  As a woman who has been home parenting for the past several years, and as a consultant who largely works independently and alone, and as a resident of a small, quiet town in Maine that is easy to blink and miss as you drive through, life can be a tad isolating at times.  When I opened Facebook to see the multitude of people spanning decades of my life who signed on and wished me well today, I felt loved many times over.

6.  Somewhat connected to number 5, I work in a field that over the past 15 years has connected me with people who became not only colleagues, but friends.  People I respect and admire.  I know some amazing people, who know how to work hard and laugh hard, and that the two should not be mutually exclusive.

7.  I know I'm hormonal and everything is just so beautiful - please just go with me on this.  I may vomit again in seconds so I have to take the good moments when they happen.

8.  I was able to spend some time shooting baskets in the Y gym this morning after dropping Noah off at camp.  It has been many weeks since I've had the energy to do little more than groan or muster an articulate complaint about how lousy I feel.  Even after 8 weeks of no practice, I'm still at least at a .75 field goal percentage.  I've still got it! 

9.  Did I mention that I'm pregnant?  Despite feeling occasional waves of hostility toward the cause of my ongoing misery, I also anticipate that this baby will have nice chubby cheeks and a big smile.  I mean, a baby, how amazing will that be?  Light into darkness.  There's no way he won't be the best thing about January in Maine.

10.  A birthday package just arrived for me in the mail.  I believe that anyone who grows up in a graveyard-quiet, rural town like Addison, Maine, as I did, loves mail more than the average bear, and I am that girl.  The outside world reminds me it is there.  I've got to go open it.

11.  Did I say Top Ten?  Well, I am also grateful that today brought me back to the computer to write.  Thank you for stopping by to read and spend a few minutes of my birthday with me! 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Reconsidering Father

In the past few days I have been reading the book beautiful boy by David Sheff.  I plucked this 2008 paperback off the shelves at Goodwill upon seeing that Anne Lamott wrote the first blurb on the back cover.  As she is perhaps my favorite author, I knew instantly that this one was coming home with me.  So far Sheff has also quoted Lamott twice in the book, and I am only about a third of the way into it, but my devotion to Lamott's work is not actually the point of this post. 

The book is a memoir about Sheff's experience of raising his son Nic, who in very young adulthood becomes a meth addict.  While I have not yet arrived at what I perceive will be the more harrowing parts of the story, one of the first pieces of the book to slap me in the face was a passage about the negative impacts of joint custody on children.  Nic for years went back and forth between parents, flying great distances to be with his father during the school year and his mother during the summer and holidays.  Sheff quotes a well-known researcher on the impacts of joint custody:  "You'd like to think that these kids could simply integrate their lives between their two homes, have two sets of peers, and easily adjust to being with each parent, but most children do not have the flexibility.  They begin to feel as if it's a flaw in their character when it is simply impossible for many people to conduct parallel lives."  (p.69) 

The author reads as a very available and invested father.  He cares, and he wants to be close to his son, to help him, to see him through.  From the rest of the blurbs on the back cover, I glean that this story will come to involve a great deal of loss, but I am not there yet.

This morning Noah crawled in bed with me holding a hardcover book that includes Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow, and other Virginia Lee Burton classics all bound together.  We read Katy and the Big Snow and The Little House, my voice becoming choked with tears at the point when the house is abandoned and sad in the big city, and I am full of the beauty and tragedy.  I wonder how Noah will come to see it, for it is all there in the world. 

The second thing that leaped off the pages of beautiful boy is that the author, beginning to have serious concerns about his teenaged son's drug use, went ahead and smoked a joint with him on a walk when Nic asked him point blank if he wanted some pot (p. 90).  He does not sugar coat this in the book, and surely, I read it as he must have come to see it - permission asked and granted.  I hope and pray that rather than what Matthew and I say in our future crucial conversations with Noah about drugs, smoking, drinking, pornography, violence, and on and on and on, that it will matter what he knows us to do.  While in years past I agonized about every television program Noah ever saw, now I trust that he has gotten more from watching us savor life more than media, and has learned that occasionally including t.v. or movies to take a break from our full lives will not harm us indelibly.  May it be so with these harsher realities.
What resonates for me so far about this book, is of course about my own life - more specifically, my surging and recurring question about the absence of a close relationship with my biological father.  My parents divorced before I was 5 years old, and I subsequently grew up with a loving and present stepfather.  However, a therapist once told me that present or not, "replaced" by a stepparent or not, there are no two more important people in a child's life than her two biological parents.  And from there (and from some other things as well) I suspect that a pattern stemmed, a deep abiding love for unavailable people, one that for a long time did not serve me well in my intimate relationships.  From my early life in Bar Harbor, Maine, where my father remained for some time, to all the years since, when I have lived all over the state and he has been in New York City, I now trust the reverberations of his absence:  A partner who began working the night shift a few months after we got together, so we never saw each other; another partner who was emotionally abusive, telling me everything I feared about myself that might have caused a parent and therefore any other loved one not to want a relationship with me; a close friend who stopped reaching out to me once I was no longer a conveniently available neighbor; another partner who said he wanted to "keep 'no' in reserve" even while our relationship became more committed and we decided to live together.  It is a profound thing to me, how loyal I could be to people I fiercely loved, despite what little they sometimes offered in return.  In the original case, how loyal I might be to someone who had so little involvement in the clothing, feeding, housing, and raising of me in my younger life. 

And yet, given the differences between my parents, and the realities of the negative effects of navigating two homes, would any alternative arrangement with my father have been better?  While I've sometimes wondered if things might have been easier for me if my biological father had offered me more of himself through the years, supposing my father had faught for me, had something he wanted to offer me, wanted me to be with him more, and shared his hopes and dreams with me, how might that have fractured me instead, given that I already had a home base?  Or supposing my parents had not divorced?  Impossible to say now, but I think these are provocative questions, largely because I am coming to believe that the healing answer to any of the alternatives may be strangely the same - I believe Sheff may speak to this later in his book, about the seduction of being close to another person, as a young person or an adult, and the need to eventually save yourself and let go, or else be forever lost somewhere in the middle.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mother Issues

In a few days it will be Mother's Day.  Lest my mind wander and I forget that this special day is approaching, every night before bed and every morning when I awake Noah asks me, "Can you wait for me to give you your Mother's Day present?"  Another time he said,  "Are your fingers tingling to open it?" 

Early in the week Noah brought home the pottery that he made at school - 3 packages carefully wrapped in newspaper.  One he gave me right away, and I was so excited to open this:

Look at this beautiful cup!  Every surface gently prodded and smoothed and painted and glazed.  He was so excited to present it to me, watch me unwrap it, and when I drank out of it, which I did immediately after he gave it to me as we were just sitting at the counter for his after-school snack fest, he asked, "Does your drink taste better in that cup?"  And of course, it did.

Another of the three packages he gave to Matthew at dinner that night.  Amid the bilious sheets of newspaper, Matthew unwrapped this sliver of pottery:

Thank goodness Noah said immediately, "It's a boat!"  Matthew suggested that he might use it as a butter spreader, but I am not sure Noah heard this remark, and at least somewhat hope he didn't.

Someone said to me once when I was pregnant with Noah, and we did not know if I was having a boy or a girl, "One thing about boys, boys love their mothers."  And bearing Noah has shown that to be true.  While he seeks to emulate my husband in more ways than either of them might notice or say, Noah and I have do a very strong connection.

As Mother's Day approaches I wonder, as I often have, what Noah's Mother Issues will be when he grows up.  What they already are, really, because I know when children turn two that in some areas, things are set and what damage may occur, is done.  I think Noah is having a pretty great young life, and yet, I've already shared on this blog my intolerant perfectionist tendencies, and I have other equally unsavory shortcomings that no doubt have deeply embedded themselves into his innocent little framework.

I'm also more than willing to hope and plan on him being a happy, well-adjusted person in his life, but perhaps violence prevention work keeps me at times in the mindset of preparing quietly for the worse things in life to happen.

Thinking about myself as a mother inevitably leads to me thinking about my own mother.  And for shorthand, the things I was given in childhood that supported me and the things I was given that I must overcome.  It gets complicated here, and yet over the past few months I have came to better understand that this is how it is - the love and the thorns can be right up next to each other, even aside from how any one of us mothers does it our own way with our own skills and intentions...and to be sure, our limitations. 

So I have Mother Issues, yes, perhaps a whole subscription, but the longer I am a parent I know that this truth is widely read.  Tiredness, tension, or tirades look different, but whether it is a mother who loves or harms, supports or ignores, struggles or parents with a smile and flourish, there is no mother who is only one or the other of those things.  I wrote a poem for my mother some years ago and the last two lines ring even more true for me now that I am a mom:

Nurturing is too small, too constrictive a word
for the day-to-day mudpie life you’ve chosen with me.

Mothering is a mudpie life.  Should we choose to accept our mission, we mothers get into a lot of slop - some of it in play, some that splashes up, some that is slung.  In my family, both mothers and children can get some pretty good flailing in as we have tried to live with and without each other.  But it remains true that I love my mother.  So I bank on the hope that the divine love I feel from my little son now will remain.  I see it in my husband, who along with his three brothers and sister, still travel a wide orbit around their mother.  And I find my own ways back again and again, to that source.  So it is with more compassion than ever this year that I look ahead to Sunday, to spending the day with Noah, and to unwrapping his third precious piece of pottery.

I bought my mother a card yesterday and put a recent photograph of me in it, which Noah took.  

Because this is a picture in which I look (and felt at the time) happy and healthy, I wanted to write, "See what a good job you did?" but that felt too much like I was saying how good I look, so I ended up just writing that I love her.  That's what it comes down to anyway. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

"I can't imagine it, Kate."

It has been a thread throughout my almost 6-year parenting life that girlfriends, who are usually also mothers, have told me that they cannot imagine me ever getting frustrated with my son to the point of raising my voice at him.  A good friend just said this to me again this week, and when I heard it this time something in my heart took note and also said quietly inside me, "Oh no, I am you, we are both mothers here.  We can be honest with one another."

I also can't imagine myself yelling at my son.  Even five minutes before I do it, it remains unthinkable as a strategy for effecting compliance, creating peace and calmness in chaos or confusion, or merely releasing frustration or stress.  I love my sweet, 5-year-old Noah with the moon face and freckles and the sweetest love for both football and flower gardens, all together in his little 3-foot-something body.  His little heifer calves, muscles round and tight, his running back thighs and backside.  His soft and chubby little fingers on my forehead checking if I have a fever on days I don't feel well.  I can honestly say I have not had a day when I was not grateful to be his mother.  Having him at 38 years old, when just a year prior I'd been fairly close to believing that a long-term partnership and parenting were not in the cards for me, changed my life into something amazing.

Bringing Noah into the world did everything everyone said it would.  It exhausted me.  It revealed a fundamental love for another person that superceded the love for anyone else I've ever known, save for my parents, and showed me just what kind of deep love is really possible in the wold.  And again, it exhausted me.  As a caregiver of children for a lot of my young life, much of the actual taking care of Noah came easily, but the relentlessness and all-encompassing nature of parenting is inarguable. 

And we mothers are not saints or martyrs.  Even on our best and worst days.  We are mothers.  Human mothers.  In the many nature shows we have been watching with Noah in the past year, I have been riveted by how animal mothers protect their children, what they sacrifice to keep their children alive, and how sometimes they teach them hard lessons, physically step on them, or growl at them, turn away and leave them when necessary.  It's heartbreaking.  But it is real.

The culture does not always make it easy to be a mother, because of the saint/martyr ideal we've been saddled with.  There were times when Noah was under 2 years old when I would try to make deals with myself, to get through a whole day without experiencing frustration and/or raising my voice when speaking with him.  Anyone who has tried a quit-something-cold-turkey diet knows that will power in one direction is usually met by surging will in the exact opposite direction when exhaustion sets in.  And did I mention that parenting is exhausting?  So I had many days when my perfectionist mindset about parenting really did me in emotionally.

So yes, I have yelled at Noah.  Just yesterday, when he was home sick, deserving of every gentle touch and kind word, after his bath he got water in his ears and was stricken with pain for two hours that made him cry, yell, and whine in intervals.  And he was heartily resisting any of my suggestions to get the water out of his ears - by hopping on one foot with his head to the side, plugging his nose and closing his mouth and blowing, etc., etc., all the things that I would do if I had water in my ears.  But he would have none of it, and instead chose to cry, yell, and whine in intervals.  By hour two my brain was string cheese, especially since our furnace had also gone out yesterday so I was on the phone with the manufacturer as well as the local service folks, trying to get some heat going.  This is what real mothering looks like.  So with Noah, I was bouncing between "poor baby" mode and an increasing urgency to get him out of pain by getting the water out of his ears.  Finally, I did yell.  He refused another suggestion, and the nurse I'd left a message for wasn't calling back with any ideas, and when he told me he didn't believe any of my ideas would work, before he'd even tried them, that was the proverbial straw breaking my back.  With self-righteousness in my voice, I loudly told him that I actually wanted him to feel better, that I was not trying to just force him to do something for the sake of being the boss of him, I actually hated seeing him hurting and I wanted to help him do something about it.  I very loudly told him this.  I may also have stamped my foot or waved my arms around or something too.  And then I went into the kitchen to make him a snack.

He stomped across the living room, up the stairs to his bedroom, and was there no more than 30 seconds before quietly coming down the stairs, peeking at me from around a wall, and going into the living room where I could then hear him hopping on one foot.  It didn't help, of course, more proof that we mothers are beautifully imperfect in solving things for everyone, but he carefully did not advise me of this in any detail.  He instead came in and had a snack with me.  Then he lay down on the couch with his head on a soft pillow in my lap, and two hours later his ear felt better on its own.  C'est la vie, I try to say now, rather than feeling as I have in the past that I was reaffirmed to be a total failure as a parent because I showed my temper to him.  Even the lioness mothers are stern or unforgiving at times, but you don't see the cubs going off and saying to their friends what terrible mothers they have.  They are also getting the goods that life has to offer them.

Already this little boy has a life of his own brewing, and he is also still young enough to have great needs.  His humanity is palpable to me every day.  My own humanity, in creating a container for him to learn about himself and assert who he is, is also palpable, more and more all the time I'd say.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

In Sickness and In Health

I am recovering from the flu.  I've been recovering since Wednesday.  And I'd already had this particular plague for seven days at that point.  I know I'm on the back side of it, because I no longer have the fever that created dark black circles under my eyes and a headache behind them, for days.  I woke up on that first Thursday at about 2 a.m., literally soaked through with sweat and freezing from the chills, and remember thinking, "I wonder if this is what sleeping in the rainforest is like.  At least here there are no snakes." 

I feel sure I have written about being sick before, but I know it has not been for a few years.  The winters when Noah was three and four years old I was sick more days than I was healthy.  He would get a cold for three days and I would get it for eight.  I think that the sleeplessness that comes with having a new baby is not nearly as crazy and surreal as the long-term exhaustion that sets in after a couple of years of parenting your heart out.  "Run down" doesn't quite cut it.  I refer to it now as having the marrow sucked out of my bones.  And for me, that exhaustion was eventually commonly accompanied by sickness.  Not a death virus like this one every time, but repeated colds, sinus infections, and occasionally a wandering knock-me-down flu. 

I've been exercising diligently at the Y for the past three years now, with occasional two week gaps due to aforementioned illnesses.  At least some of this diligence stemmed from someone saying to me, "Our bodies heal seven times faster when we are exercising regularly."  So for at least two years I both exercised and got sick a lot, surely losing more bone marrow all the while.  I never quite felt the healing thing she talked about.  

And now I know, without a doubt, why.  It was the other thing I've already talked about.  My parenting and work "balance" for those couple of years involved being with Noah all day until he went to bed at 7:30 p.m., and then often sitting down to a graveyard shift at the computer, sometimes working until 3:00 a.m. to get everything done.  Aside from being tiring, I can personally now attest to how demoralizing it is to be up working late when every other living creature in the house is sleeping peacefully.  I couldn't even get a cat to stay downstairs with me to keep me company.  My big cat Sid would just glare at me with a black look in his eyes and disappear upstairs, his tread heavy with disapproval.  

It is not exercise that makes the difference for me, but sleep.  Deep, uninterrupted, innocent sleep.  I've always been a good sleeper, and love to sleep.  It used to be a joke with my young friends that at sleepovers I could fall asleep anywhere, and within ten minutes.  I like to sleep long and often.  Many mornings my waking thought is, "I can't wait to go to sleep tonight."  And this was true long before I had a child. 

And so this winter, after coming out of an extremely busy couple of years of consulting and parenting, I began to sleep again.  Noah began Kindergarten in September, I finished two large and overlapping consulting projects, and despite my initial thoughts of immediately taking on some personal creative projects, I neglected all that and instead, slept.  I've now had six months in a row when on many nights I am asleep at or before 8:00 p.m.  I complete work during the daytime instead of retreating to my nocturnal work cave with a shawl and cup of tea to make believe it's really fine that I'm working until all hours.  I no longer dwell in darkness.  

And as I finally come out of the only real sickness I've had since October, and feel my energy returning enough to write this, I look at the clock and am so happy to see that it's way past my usual bedtime. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dethroning Perfectionism

Disclaimer:  This post contains material possibly best left for a therapy appointment.  Still, it's what's going on.

Several weeks ago I was shopping in Goodwill and took a close look at their books, which I've only recently started doing.  The book selection is often quite incredible, and yet, when in that Goodwill mentality, paying $3.99 for a hardcover and $.99 for a paperback somehow suddenly becomes a process of prioritizing the Really Good Ones above the ones that are good but feel not worth even that price.  Never mind the hardcover children's book I purchased over the winter holidays which had about six pages in it and cost twenty dollars.  When searching among deals, it becomes a discriminating exhumation of the True Deal.

So I was walking along with my head angled down to the right, reading every title.  In the non-fiction section, I saw everything from the hilarious Cat Haiku to the blaming 100 Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives.  Or is it 10?  Googling the author right now I see it is 10, but by those ridiculous standards, I'm clearly guilty of more than that.  Anyway, I took a few more steps and a paperback practically jumped off the shelf into my hands.  It was the book Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life by psychologist Monica Ramirez Basco.

In the past six months I have begun considering myself a recovering perfectionist, as I get a handle for the first time on the underlying reasons why I periodically overwork myself, so enjoy (most of the time) crossing every t and dotting every i, and can at times be quite hard on myself for not doing so.  No small part of my motivation to look at this in myself is my noticing that my five-year-old has been known to adjust the angle of a throw rug on the floor before leaving the room.  Ack.

So while standing in the book aisle, I quickly flipped through some of the early chapters.  The first thing I noticed was that the book contained some self assessments that had been filled in by a previous owner.  Ouch.  I considered writing down the title and going somewhere to buy the book new.  I said "recovering," remember.  But I pressed on, read the introduction and after the phrases "unreasonable expectations" and "extremely high goals" flashed by, I knew this book was coming with me.  For .99.

My reading style tends to involve having a few books going at once, usually a novel and some kind of non-fiction, optimal-for-personal-reflection kind of book.  Recently, for example, I just finished the third book in the Outlander series, a racy, action-adventure historical time travel set of novels, as well as Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup, a memoir about the death of the author's husband and her personal journey into the ministry.  I enjoy flights of fancy balanced with serious, introverted focus.

So I began reading the perfectionism book the next day on the bike machine at the Y.  The first amazing thought I read involved how perfectionists often try to make things perfect as an attempt to ward off or lower anxiety.  Whoa.  Anxiety?  What anxiety?  OHHHH...right, the anxiety of being seen as a total fraud, not good enough, and all the other things that may have actually been slung in my direction in years long gone past, but now were things I just perpetually remind myself of, quietly but surely. 

This was a new idea, that perfectionist behavior has a purpose, other than just being reflective of the Right Way to Live.  I had been at points in the past despairing about whether I might ever dethrone the set of standards that are entrenched in my everyday life.  I had long since stopped expecting others to live by the same standards (most of the time), but I was thinking I would be forever bound by the rules, had no choice about them.  No dishes may be left in the sink.  The bed will be made every morning.  Things must happen on time, and in a certain order, and by the way, find a way to actually like this ALL THE TIME so you can be perceived as cheerful, for God's sake.  This is the Right Way to Live, and people are paying attention. 

The thing about perfectionism, and its dear friend multitasking, is that people do pay attention.  Others sometimes envy the productivity, the clarity, the sureness, the deafening relentlessness of needing to get things right, that results.  It has a lot of benefits and I get a lot of at-a-girls from working so hard at everything I do.  However, it's companion reaction by others is that we perfectionists can also be intolerant, controlling, and unable to relax while that picture is hanging slightly unevenly on the wall.  It implies a Right Way.  So we are not always fun to be around.  "Too intense," is a phrase I recall someone using to describe me when she didn't want to insult me outright. 

So surely it remains a tall order, to keep the good and negotiate the bad in all of this.  But, suddenly knowing that comparing the relative stress of giving a reasonable timeline for a job and hoping it is acceptable to the client, to the stress of being judged by the invisible queen who breaks into my soul and metaphorically runs her gloved fingers over the tops of my doors looking for dust, snarling and cackling about how I am "Nothing, nothing!" is a no-brainer.  I now perceive the choice.  

For me, having been chased by this royal pain for decades, this beacon of light feels like...hmmm...what?  Power.  Freedom from the queen's dungeon.  A considerably lighter load.  Despite that fact that I still value high achievement, examining and dismantling my perfectionist thought is increasing both my joy quotient, and the amount of actual credit I give myself for what I do well.  If the goal of working hard has been to reduce my ever-present anxiety, this explains why no amount of good work over the years seems to have quelled my undercurrents of self-doubt.  I remember in college telling myself I somehow convinced professors to like me so they would feel guilty if they didn't give me As.  Anyone else have wild self-talk like that? 

Finally, one of the tyrannies of being a perfectionist is that there is no rest.  Even resting can involve waking up in the early hours to jot down lists that magically come to your attention even while asleep.  And does anyone else only rest when sick?  I remember a former supervisor telling me after several years of big projects, "Kate, you may be the most productive employee I've ever had.  My fear is that one day you will wake up and not get out of bed."  On the one hand, no one can argue about you not doing enough when you're sick, unless on the other hand your curse is that your family thinks getting sick results from you not doing a good enough job of taking care of your self.  Just sayin', perfectionism is all about no escape.  It's no-win.

So here's to rethinking our own quiet and self-damaging thoughts, and to the idea posted on my blog to the right of my blog posts, for the month of March:  Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good.  Paraphrased from Voltaire, and "perfect" for any occasion. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"What do you do?"

I spoke on a panel this week at my alma mater, the University of Maine School of Law, about "alternate" uses for a J.D. degree, specifically in the field of policy.  J.D. means Juris Doctor, or, Doctor of Laws - a law degree. 

I graduated from law school in 1997 and have never practiced law.  It was no small thrill to be invited back in the context of being seen as successful in my professional life, when for fifteen years, and as recently as last week, I have been asked, "Are you sure you don't want to be a lawyer?"  Clearly, I am still not meeting some cultural expectations even after all these years.

I went to the panel, which turned out to be a panel of two people including me.  I had spent some days thinking quite seriously about profession and personal identity.  I am a self-employed consultant engaged in various avenues of work including violence prevention, organizational development and capacity building.  That mouthful said, my current largest contract involves writing lesson plans for law enforcement officers-in-training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which doesn't fit neatly in any of those aforementioned categories. 

In the past, I spent eight years working as a trainer and educator at a domestic violence resource center, worked as a researcher looking at gender equity issues relating to girls in the juvenile justice system, staffed the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel out of the Attorney General's Office, was a Crime Analyst and Reserve Officer at the Augusta Police Department, worked on a team of professional writers to create scripts for a proposed children's television series in the style of Broadway for kids, and on it has gone.  Who does that make me?  I have felt very connected to, and passionate about, all of these jobs.  I'm pretty driven.  I have worked at many of them as if my life depended on them, as if I was them.
I remember when I was in my early twenties and met a man who was perhaps fifteen to twenty years older than me.  We'll call him Scott because that was in fact his name, and when we started talking I asked him "What do you do?"  He answered, "What I do for money is work at the post office.  I'm really an artist, a painter."  And I'll admit after all these years, I had to struggle for a moment just now to recall that his money job was at the post office.  I saw his paintings, and own two of them, and that is how I remember him. 

Another incident about profession and self-identity that stands out in my mind is a day I was in my office at the domestic violence resource center and a co-worker came in and exclaimed, "You have a doctorate degree, we should be calling you Dr. Faragher!"  I laughed and said thanks but no thanks.  While I am proud of and grateful for my education, I have never led with it.  My own humble approach to having a J.D. is not something I wanted to recommend to current law students over other approaches, but I did encourage them to think about how they view their law degree.  Is it a ticket?  To wealth, credibility, security?  Is it a death sentence?  Does it create obligations due to student loans or the expectations of others?  Is it a tool?

I see my J.D. now, and really all of my jobs since graduating college and law school, as things I have done, not who I am professionally.  While I certainly wore the mantle of "domestic violence lady" for some years, and continue to feel passionate about creating culture change regarding gender violence, this work has not somehow marked me for life.  Speaking to a group of questioning law students on Tuesday reminded me that the longer I retain my "free radical" status, even in relation to a high-powered education, or work I love, the more likely I am to do my best work and to receive the next exciting opportunities I may desperately want or need.  Working at interesting jobs is only ever a part of weaving an interesting life.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Getting Connected by Breaking Up with E-Mail

I do not carry a smart phone, and my flip phone is not conducive to texting. I do know how to text and occasionally do it, but I don't like it. If it is still around when Noah is older, I will surely change my feelings about it at that point.

I understand from talking with mothers of older kids that the culture of e-mail has changed. The younger generation finds it cumbersome and outdated and prefer messages to be instant and abbreviated, texted or Tweeted. I remember a friend telling me a great story about how the best way to reach her son was to call his cell phone but not leave a message. He would almost immediately call back, whereas voice mails and e-mails would elicit no response at all, and even texts were touch and go. The rules of the game are constantly in flux.

I continue to use the Hotmail e-mail address that I have had since at least the early 1990s. I have a gmail account that I use for some things as well, but Hotmail is still my main gig after all these years. My consulting work and personal contacts happen through that address. I read articles at the gym sometimes about how using Yahoo or Hotmail accounts scream out that I am a technological idiot and unable to function in today's communication landscape. Not true, but I don't care. In some ways, image is not at all what I am about. And since I've not yet in six years had to advertise that I am looking for more consulting work, it obviously isn't making people run screaming to the hills.

And yet, e-mail has meant a lot to me over the past couple of decades. While I don't hear people bragging, exactly, about how many e-mails they receive on a regular basis, I certainly have gained satisfaction from how successfully I have used e-mail to cultivate and maintain work relationships, to stay in touch with friends, and to engage in political activism and consumerism. Somehow, the number of e-mails I receive and am able to deal with became a Measure of My Worth. Has anyone else felt this, even while slaving away for a fourth hour at messages that took someone one minute to write and generated hours if not days of work or thought? Having a full inbox is a great way to feel important. Never mind that at least some percentage of e-mails include notices from the Gap telling you about their newest 30% off online sale. Somehow this too becomes, "How special I am, to be included in the select millions who get to shop this exclusive sale online."

And yet, e-mail is also is a burden. Those attachments. The endless threads when people choose "reply all" and make you see every single RSVP. The things that never would be said to you if you were face-to-face with the person instead. The viagra ads. My husband comes home at 9:00 p.m. with a wild look in his eyes, after having been at his job since 6:30 in the morning, driving back and forth between the two elementary schools at which he is the Principal, responding to crises with students, parents and staff all day long, skipping dinner and working straight through to the evening School Board Meeting two towns away, but none of this was enough, because he didn't get to check his e-mail and surely has 85 messages from the day that require immediate response. It's a burden.

I don't know what, exactly, changed my relationship with e-mail, but four weeks ago, we broke up. I had not been frustrated with it, had not felt it had treated me unfairly, but one day, I woke up and had had enough. I knew it owned me, and I got mad at it. I responded thoroughly to every personal message. I "unsubscribed" relentlessly. I deleted. I got my inbox down to zero by the end of the day. That night I slept the sleep of a happy child. Peace and freedom.

And I have gone to bed every night since then with my inbox empty. Not empty as in, e-mails stuck in dozens of folders to respond to later, but Empty. Emp-Ty. As in, no one loves me as much as I love myself, Empty. And the funny thing is, in the years before now I sometimes would have gone weeks without e-mailing my best friend, or sending that great photograph to my Dad, but I've had four wonderful weeks of e-mailing regularly with the people who matter the most. And despite the fact that I still receive advertisements, online petitions, and newsletters, I am not overwhelmed by them. Rather, I actually feel connected again, to myself and others. Now, wasn't the point of e-mail in the first place to have the possibility of instant connection?

In my life, at least, e-mail has been lovingly shown the door, appropriately resized and qualified. Now that I've got a bigger stake in my life and time than it does, hmm, I think we might actually be friends again.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pizza and a Movie

Two weeks ago I instituted Friday night pizza and movie night at home. That night I made pizza crust in the afternoon, and we ate pizza and watched "Dolphin Tale" about a dolphin that gets her tail wrapped in a crab trap line, has her tail amputated, and receives a prosthetic tail. Noah loved it all, food and film. Then we discovered that the dolphin featured in the movie, "Winter," actually lives in a marine aquarium about 20 minutes from where we'll be staying on our Florida vacation in April, so Noah is ecstatic. The best part of the film was being able to watch Noah across the room, every emotion showing on his face as he experienced moments of tragedy, joy, and peaceful fulfillment. Even when he hid his face with his hands I saw he was riveted.

After watching "Dolphin Tale" I became pretty concerned about this new tradition. While I adore movies, finding ones we deem appropriate and harmless for Noah is not easy, and I was not confident I would find anything else that did not involve talking dogs or modern adult male comedians trying unsuccessfully to become the newest Stooge. The breakneck pace and violent or sexualized humor in most animated movies is also not what I want Noah watching at 5-years-old ("Ponyo" was a great recent exception that we saw a year ago or so). "Bambi" was hard enough with his mom dying, but at least it happened off camera. I was horrified when we stumbled into an evening last year that involved the movie "Up" in which there was more hand-to-hand combat fighting than a lot of war films I've seen. Yes, the balloons were a stunning effect, but I thought "Die Hard" was more relaxing an action film.

So last week I scoured the family videos in our local store, wholly unsure of what else I might find. Because Noah loves nature, I gratefully scooped up Disney's "African Cats" and "Arctic Tale," two documentary-style, narrated films focusing on animal families and their wild lives. They too were emotional for us to watch, as animal mothers struggled to help their babies survive the perils of predators and changes in habitat. And animal fathers were ousted, did battle with each other for dominance, and generally either stood aside or attacked their children. I cringed across the room as Noah calmly and lovingly accepted the lessons about the cycle of life, the food chain and the rules of survival in the natural world.

And it's Friday again. This morning I asked Noah what kind of movie he would like to watch tonight, thinking I would have to start getting the classic musicals like "Mary Poppins" and feeling once again like this whole parenting thing is fraught, fraught! "Non-fiction," he said without hesitation. "I want more non-fiction about animals. Ocean animals, this time."

Even in these small ways, this little creating of a joyful and fun weekly tradition, parenting takes me into the deep of my own fears every day. How much information about the culture and world is enough? What is too much? At 5, what can Noah handle? A colleague and friend used to ask me about Noah by saying, "How's the man-cub?" It's all right there all the time, the boy and the future man. Like the cheetah and polar bear mothers, I want Noah to understand about the world, while also being safe to develop what it will take to thrive in it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pausing to Consider the Next Bite

It does seem as if I have read a lot of apologetic blogs and Facebook posts lately, from people who have not been keeping up on the their blog posts as they feel they Should. I have no apology for my hiatus, partly because I assume no one could possibly be checking this blog since it has been almost two years since my last post. True to form, my favorite way to achieve and succeed is with low expectations up front.

My last post indicated the start of a new consulting project. I think of it now as the start of a very long two year race to the finish line, which I finished last September. It was a time full of working late nights and weekends, trying to work around parenting and partnering. Moments when I felt like I could do it all, and moments of deep exhaustion and nothing but will power getting me through the time. But I finished the project. And remain glad I did it, although it was a compromise of other things I hold dear.

I thought in September I might immediately jump into some creative writing projects, with the new free time. I quickly understood I would be decompressing and enjoying the space around me instead. A drive to lighten my workload has also caused me to seek the deeper freedom and peace that can only come from examining the root causes of my years of overwork. So I have taken that personal investigation on as well, in the past months.

And the big change, Noah began Kindergarten in September. I anticipated this with a mix of feelings, which included joy and nervousness, mostly. I did not feel deep fear of him Leaving Home, because his experience with a two-day Pre-School the previous year had been so positive. At each new step, he seems to be reading and wanting it. I wish as a younger person I had felt so ready to bite into life like it was my own crisp waiting apple.

He loves school, he is like a fish in water. He goes 5 days a week, from approximately 8-4 - a long day. The "academics" of Kindergarten are coming easily to him and as it is a blended K-1 classroom, he is doing some 1st Grade work. The social part of school, along with the art, music, phys. ed., he enjoys immensely. When I struggle with my worth as a parent I look at him owning and enjoying his life and know that he is thriving.

And at 5, he still loves to snuggle, to read books together under a blanket. I remember once when I was pregnant with Noah and we didn't know if I was having a boy or a girl, someone said, "Well, the great thing about boys is that Boys Love Their Mothers." I feel that every day, even this morning when he was mad at me because I asked him not to wear 5 shirts to school at the same time.

The past few weeks, emerging from a winter that for Maine was not much of a winter, weather-wise, I am at a crossroads myself. I have shed a lot of psychic weight this winter, by looking so far back into my history. I have had two weeks in a row of getting my e-mail inbox to zero by the time I go to bed each night. I have worked out at the Y almost every day. My consulting work is at a great level and I am enjoying the work. So what is next for me? I feel myself reaching for the fruit, looking for that perfect apple.