Friday, October 28, 2011

Be Present, Mama!

Tuesday at Disneyland, while whooping it up in the last row of Thunder Mountain with my two daughters (I can do an excellent coyote impression), I couldn't help but notice the mom sitting in front of me. Next to her was her six year old, and in her hand was a phone. Throughout the ride -- uphills, downhills, sharp turns, creepy caverns -- she was playing with her phone! Not once did she look up.

It's not my usual policy to intervene in the parenting of strangers, but I was high on adrenaline. So when we rounded the final turn, I poked my head into her personal space and asked, "Are you texting?!?"

"Uh, yes," she said with a sheepish laugh.

"Be present, Mama!" I replied. "You're at Disneyland!"

More sheepish laughter. "I've been here before, you know. I'm getting too old for this."

"I'm older than you!" I declared. And then we disembarked, and I will never see that mommy again. But did I imagine her daughter giving us a wistful look as we giggled and ran away? Her mom had still not looked up from the phone.

I try not use my blog to judge other moms or analyze other people's faults. I find there are plenty of my own foibles and mistakes to analyze. But this encounter really stuck in my craw.

I like my children (duh) and love to do fun things with them. I feel the struggle to be present/be in the present with them is caused by external factors: the to-do lists, the messes, the laundry, the meal preparation. I purposefully get out of the house when I want to give my daughters long chunks of my undivided attention, as well as making time for them at home. We spent the exorbitant amount of money on our annual passes this fall because Disneyland is the place it is easiest to be most focused on our kids; there we feel like kids ourselves. Even on rides Jeff and I have been on dozens of times, we're still pointing out and enjoying every detail. The last thing we want to do during a roller coaster is surf the Internet or send a text message.

And yet, here I sit on a Saturday morning, looking at the computer screen instead of hanging out with the family. So maybe the factors that distract me aren't all external. So I'll sign off and say to myself, "Be present, Mama!"


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lions at the Door

Yesterday I made a seven year old girl cry. And she wasn't even my seven year old.

Both my girls have become adrenaline junkies (this is new for Livie, formerly The Delicate Chicken). At amusement parks, we run from roller coast to roller coaster screaming our heads off. But as we learned yesterday, this style does not suit dear mother-daughter friends of ours, with whom we went to Disneyland yesterday for the first time. They are, in the mother's words, a couple of wusses. Their speed is more Sleeping Beauty's Carousel and the petting zoo.

Sophia was bummed. She had pictured riding the Matterhorn with her "big girl" friend. "Sweetie," I explained, "we can ride roller coasters any time. Today is just about hanging out with our friends. And not everyone is the same. What makes us feel excited and happy makes your friend feel afraid and anxious." So she let the issue drop. And occasionally, we split up to ride a fast ride while they browsed a boutique.

But at the end of the day, we gently encouraged our 7-year-old friend to ride the Symphony Silly Swings, the traditional twirling carnival attraction, without the sadistic carnival operator. I got the big girls buckled up in their tandem seat and they were mugging for the camera just before we took off. But one round on those swings, I looked back, and Sophia's buddy was clinging to chain with the determined face of someone who really wants to cry but is trying their hardest not to. The second we got off she ran to her mom and sobbed into her stomach.

Soph and I felt terrible. It was a good lesson for my daughter: that we should accept our friends as they are and not try to make them more like us. But I need to learn that lesson -- over and over -- just as much. Because the fact is, even if I might tell my daughter not to force the issue with a friend who is anxious about something, underneath, I am sometimes making a judgment about my own friends' differences, especially when they are afraid of situations that to me are no big deal.

Speaking recently with my wise friend Jenni, we were discussing this very subject. The hazards of offering advice to someone in crisis, fear or pain, is that what seems an obvious solution to us is an insurmountable obstacle to them. The way Jenni put it is, "It seems easy to you, but for them, there may be a lion in front of that door."

I have a couple of doors with lions in front of them myself. From simple and bizarre phobias (I faint when my children throw up) to more deep-seeded issues (numbers and money make me extremely anxious and I can be pretty insecure in my female friendships). Both the big and small fears do, in fact, have causes; they may not be rational, but who says emotions are rational? It is perhaps the irrationality of them that makes them so hard to overcome.

I was confessing one of these small fears on the phone to someone recently and her response was, "Get over it." I wanted to put my hand through the phone and flick her on the forehead. I'm sure my face looked a lot like my poor little friend's as she was clinging to the chain of her Silly Swing: Will someone please get me out of here so I can cry with someone who makes me feel safe?

I really don't want to make anyone else's face look like that. Not my daughters' friends. Not my friends, who are like sisters to me. Not my mom. Not the women I serve with at church. Not the moms at my MOPS table. There's a place for tough love. There's a time for encouraging someone to step out of their comfort zone. It's good to have people around us that challenge us to be better, and to help make them better too. But a lot of the time, the better response is to be people that makes each other feel safe.

I want to love the way I want to be loved: issues and all. The best kind of friend in my opinion, the one I hope to be, is the one that says: "Go ahead and cry. That must hurt. I'm sure that does seem scary. I can see why you feel anxious about that." And then if someday they''re ready to tackle that lion, I'd be happy to pull out my sword and help take the lion down. Or, even, ride the Silly Swings with them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Sound Barrier

"You will not cry, or whine, or laugh, or giggle, or sneeze or burp or fart. So no, no, no annoying sounds." --Mr. Gru, Despicable Me

"That's the one thing he hated: the noise, noise, noise, noise!" --Dr. Suess, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

It's not a good sign for a mother when she relates to the villains in children's media. And yet that's the position I find myself in. I was watching Despicable Me with the kids yesterday, heard the despicable Mr. Gru lay out the ground rules for his adopted daughters (see above), and I saw myself in him.

My husband and closest friends know I have an affliction called my "noise issue." Certain sounds set me on edge. They include but are not limited to:

--electronic musical toys and drums
--the sound of chewing in an otherwise quiet room
--rustling of plastic food packaging (particularly intolerable when followed by the sound of chewing)
-- repetitive tapping or clicking sounds
-- slurping of Popsicles directly behind me while I am reading or typing an e-mail or blogging

Although I know, in my most rational moods that I am pretty good mom, my intolerance for these types of noises makes me question if perhaps I'm not cut out for motherhood after all. This is my personal sound barrier: my inability to tolerate auditory stimuli is barring my path toward inner peace and kind mothering (and wife-ing).

As I said in my last blog, after exposure to enough yelling or crying I can get really frustrated, not so much about the fact that I can't control my daughter, but that I can't control the physical unease the sound creates in myself. But happy noises can set me on edge too, like the girls playing their synthesizer piano or singing into their Fisher-Price microphone (thanks to my two childless brothers for those Christmas gifts).

My friend Tris says I have a Noise Issue because I am a creative person, and the auditory chaos interrupts the creative process which is always going on inside my head. My husband just says I'm an intolerant turd (he says it lovingly, though). I am inclined to think it is genetic because my mom has the same problem.

When we were kids, Mom would often turn the radio on in the car at our request, and then shut it off automatically a couple of minutes later without even realizing it. She said the noise of us talking in combination of the radio just "got to her." In high school psychology I learned about the brain's reticular activating system, which filters out stimuli, deciding what to which to focus on and which to sort into the "background noise" category. Mom and I decided that our RASes were slightly dysfunctional; our filtration system gets easily overloaded. I was speaking at church this summer and actually had to ask a mom with a crying baby to leave the room because I kept losing my train of thought. Intolerant turd indeed.

So, what to do about this? Well, for one thing, having more children are out of the question. But I want to be cast less in the Grinch role with my family and everyone getting quieter doesn't seem to be a reasonable solution. The change must come from me.

Perhaps some exposure therapy would help: like, I'll try to read a recipe and cook dinner while Sophia is singing opera (she truly thinks she can), Livie is playing the toy piano and Hubby is eating potato chips right next to me and see how long I can go without freaking out. Oh wait, I have been doing that already, for about four years. Anybody have any other suggestions?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A City Under Siege

I have a plaque hanging in my laundry room that I bought for a quarter at a garage sale years ago. It reads like this:

I will not have a temper tantrum, nor stomp across the floor
I will not pout, scream or shout, or kick against the door
I will not throw my food around, nor pick upon another
I'll always try to be real good, because I am the Mother.

The first time I read this, I laughed out loud. Over the years it has made me laugh lots of other times when I am hiding from my kids in the laundry room. I have cried over it too. The laundry room is my refuge (bizarely) because it is right off the kitchen (easy access) and becomes almost totally sound proof when I turn the overhead fan on. I used to hide in there when we were making Sophia "cry it out" so I couldn't hear her. I still go there when Livie is having an occasional temper tantrum or an irrational crying jag and I need to get the sound of angry child out of my ears and calm down. I take deep breaths and read my plaque and remind myself that I am the adult in this situation and better act like it.

The comfort of my plaque is the fact that some one else has felt like I often do and actually wrote it down. Kids can make me really angry -- well my kids, anyway. Last week at my MOPS group I was encouraged to hear our speaker, a marriage and family therapist and grandmother of 10, say that you never know how angry you can get until you have children. They frustrate our need for predictability, she said, and though they are very small, they are difficult to control. What makes me angry? Loud noises. Yelling and shrieking and crying that lasts a long time makes me, literally, crazy. And it doesn't matter how much I love my daughters; if there was a car alarm going off in the kitchen that would make me angry, too, probably angry enough to put a rock through its window. Obviously this impulse must be controlled when the source of the sound is a child.

This week I went to a healing prayer night at our church where women could come to be prayed over who needed emotional, physical or relational healing. I was supposed to be one of the prayers, not prayees, and open us in worship. Just before it started, I was flipping through my Bible and stopped on Psalm 31, which David wrote in distress, asking God to come to his rescue. It seemed perfect for the women who had gathered so I read it out loud. When I got to verse 21, though I almost started to giggle:

Praise be to the LORD,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
In my alarm I said, "I am cut off from your sight!"
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

I suddenly had a vision of myself, holed up in my laundry room fortress, my city under siege, with children banging on the door. How alone I feel in those moments! How outnumbered! Who sees me in this moment? Well, God does. And when I stop to listen, I hear him whisper that he still loves me even when I feel like I am failing at being the woman of the house.

I've been home for seven days in a row with a sick child. Livie was docile and loving the first few days, too sick to put up any kind of a fight and grateful for her loving mommy who let her watch DVDs in bed and made her banana sandwiches. But by yesterday, she was cranky and impossible to please. This morning she was downright hysterical. I, exhausted, bummed out at missing my MOPS this morning, lost my temper and yelled like a mental patient in the car on the way to drop Sophia off at school.

Then I looked over on the front seat and saw my plaque, which I had put in the car to read to my MOPS group this morning, to encourage them, if I had somehow been able to attend. "I'll always try to be real good, because I am the Mother." I got out of the car and apologized to my daughters, one who graciously forgave me and one who is too young to understand.

And as soon as I got home, I spent a little time in the back yard with my Father, who doesn't have to try to be real good. He is already. He graciously forgave me too, and directed me to the last verse of Psalm 31: "Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord." Maybe I should hang that in my laundry room too.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lessons from the Campground

As promised in yesterday's post, today I'm finally writing out the small revelations that came to me on a week-long camping trip in Pfieffer Big Sur. With no cell phone and no laptop, I had nothing to do but think, float down the river, eat, and -- as you'll read below -- wash my children's underwear. All turned out to be worthwhile experiences that are resonating with me six weeks later.

Lesson One: Beauty belongs to everyone.
This is in stark contrast to the lesson of the luxury resort, which is that beauty can be mine only for a high cost. Once I have paid that high cost, the staff will treat me well, perhaps even call me a VIP. Nature at the resort is packaged with my tiny lanai situated to maximize the ocean view, the forest view, etc. The sheets are softer. The tub is cleaner. The shampoo smells better. But this is a life I have rented. It is not mine for the long run, and it whispers the whole time, "The life you are going back to is not quite good enough."

When I am tent camping for $45 per night, beauty is all around me. It includes river rocks, pine cones, and the scent of the redwoods. It may also include squirrels, blue jays, and raccoons (who might eat all the tortillas and grapes out of my cooler...but that's another story). This exposure to beauty trains me to tune into nature, not just on vacation, but all the time. I spent a lot more nights outside in my backyard than usual when I first got home. And because my tent is not as comfortable or clean as my condo, even while I'm on vacation I think fondly of my home and feel grateful to return to it.

Lesson Two: I have too much stuff.
Particularly in my kitchen, which I justify because the stuff all has a specific purpose. See, I need six spatulas because they are all used with different kinds of pans to turn different types of foods. Imagine my chagrin when I realized we had not a single spatula of any kind in our kitchen box on the camping trip. I went into three different "general stores" in the Big Sur area looking for a pancake turner that cost less than $10 (since, you know, I have six at home). Finally, on our last day, I made ham and cheese stuffed crepes using nothing but a Tupperware cereal bowl, a 7-inch fry pan from Ikea, and a thrift store fork. So take those silicone tipped tongs (great for frying scallops!) off my wish list for Christmas. I'll make due without them.

Lesson Three: All that work I do to keep my kids clean has an actual benefit.
My daughter Livie, who I will heretofore refer to as Pig Pen, is fond of dirt. Camping is, truly, hog heaven to her and she digs down into her play tent with a family of Barbies and gets compeletely covered in dust. Occassionally, she looks down at her hands and sees that they are brown, and licks them clean. Licks them! I'm pretty sure she also drank from the river. So, by the afternoon of Day Two, I was abruptly jumping from the inner tube as we floated down the river to find a cluster of trees for Pig Pen to poop in. Only to have her, five minutes later, say, "I pooped in my pants again." It was at this point, washing loose stool from my daughter's cargo shorts in a utility sink, that I asked Hubby if this was a vacation or an endurance test.

And yet, validation! It's not true that God made dirt so dirt don't hurt. If you play in the dirt, eat dirt, lick dirt, you get diarrhea. so all my house cleaning is not for naught. (Alternative lesson: stop cleaning so much so Pig Pen's stomach can build up immunities to a wider variety of microbes.)

Lesson Four: Television is a poor substitute for a camp fire.
I've decided that slumping in front of the television the second the kids go to bed is just a substitute for our primal need to gather around a source of light and warmth. TV also satisfies our culture's need to feel we are doing something, specifically something with a start and a finish: I will now be entertained from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. after which I will go to bed.

At night, when I am bone tired, the temptation to veg out in front of the tube is one I succumb to almost every single night. This practice had a threefold negative effect:
1. Conversations with Spouse are limited to commercial breaks.
2. What I watch is basically crap and often either violent, carnal or stress-provoking, and almost always shows people who are impossibly thin and living an unrealistic lifestyle. With these skewed images still swirling in my subconscious, I go to sleep.
3. I don't listen to my body. I don't go to sleep when I'm tired but when a show has wrapped up ("Yay, they caught the serial killer, now I can go to bed.") And I eat sugary foods without really thinking about it.

The campfire is a much more healthy centerpiece. I can relax and sort through thoughts from the day instead of having thoughts planted by NBC. My husband and I talk whenever we want to. My evening embroidery takes on a much more "in the moment" quality. And then, when we either get too cold or too sleepy to sit outside anymore, we go to bed. I've tried to implement some other kind of evening activity since we got home, but six weeks later, I'm becoming one with my leather sofa during prime time again. The desire for something better still smolders in me, however, and perhaps I will find a way to stoke the flames until I actually change the habit (Too much campfire metaphor? Yeah, you're right).

Lesson Five: My days are a breath; I'm a small part of a much bigger picture.
Here's a bizarre thought that struck me in the middle of the night: the river never stops running. I go to sleep, and it doesn't shut off like the fountains at the mall. Well, duh. But I get so locked into a small reality, driving down the street in my air conditioned SUV, that I forget how tiny I am in a great big natural world. And being on the bank of a river that never stops opens my heart to the idea of a huge universe that keeps spinning regardless of the small crises in my life. My brother wrote a brilliant song with a lyric: "the sun don't disappear every time that you blink." The even bigger reality behind my smallness: the Creator of all this vastest "who never sleeps, nor does he slumber" graciously cares about the small things of my life anyway. That revelation is worth seven days in the dirt.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Learn to Be Still

The first time I took a meditation class, I spent the initial five minutes panicking. I was at a resort spa in Arizona (part of my former life as a travel writer), and the goal of this non-religious form of meditation was to become an observer of your own thoughts: try to let your mind go blank, and then note your inner dialogue as your brain fought your attempt at quietness.

My inner dialogue went something like this:

I have to sit here for twenty minutes?
Uh-oh, there's a thought.
What if my butt falls asleep?
Ack! Another thought!
Wouldn't my boss be proud of me for meditating?
Don't think about your boss! Think about nothing!
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
That's better.
Yep, there goes my butt. Definitely some tingling happening.

That first (and last) meditation experience came to mind this summer while on a camping trip with my husband and two daughters. We'd gone to Pfeifer Big Sur last year for three nights, and found it wasn't nearly long enough, so this year we booked six nights. This sounded lovely: sleeping under the redwoods with the music of the river constantly in our ears. In Big Sur we are completely unplugged: no cell service even.

But as the time approached, I began to wonder what I would do with myself for seven days in the dirt. I asked a couple of friends, "Do you think I could bring my lap top?" I didn't want to check e-mail, but when I get down time, I always am flooded with ideas and have an urge to write.

"Why don't you just bring paper and pen?" one friend suggested.

"No can do. I need my keyboard or my fingers can't keep up with my thoughts."

"Can't you just go and be?" the other friend asked. She's a new friend. She doesn't know me that well.

But her thought inspired me, so the laptop stayed home, though some embroidery projects did come along. My hands have to be busy, even if my mind cannot be. And I can still talk to the family and sew at the same time. Though the ideas did in fact flow in, until now, I have not written down a single one of them.

The first day of camping is filled with the business of setting up camp. I love it; it's like playing house as a kid. I imagine I'm Ma from the Little House on the Prairie series, an efficient and adventurous pioneer, sweeping up the dugout, gathering firewood. But about three hours in, when the last chair was set around the fire and the clothesline hung from the trees, a sensation came over me not unlike in meditation class. Camp set up? Check. Sat by the river? Check. Took a walk in the redwoods? Check. Uh oh. Now what? I have to stay here how long?

Sophia felt it too. She ran around frantically exploring all afternoon, but just as we sat down to dinner said, "Mom, I feel weird. What am I going to do for the next six days?" In fact, our family went through two days of busyness detox before we could truly relax. Then it became a wonderful experience, not just a vacation from daily life, but a life lesson. I began to like myself still, and I would chuckle on trips to the camp store when I saw groups of European tourists clustered around computers in the Wi-Fi hot spot next to the laundromat.

While I was trying to just be, I formed in my mind tomorrow's blog, "Lessons from the Campground." I've probably forgotten some of it by now. But return tomorrow, friends, and see if my inner dialogue among the redwoods was a little more productive and interesting than wondering if I was losing sensation in my derriere.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Daughter is Cheating on Me

My beloved is in love with another woman. I’m talking about my four year old and her preschool teacher. Week three of her formal education is not yet completed and Livie’s passion for Miss Jessica is ardent. On the first day of school she marched upstairs and renamed her best doll Jessica.

At the same time, my baby has developed a love-hate relationship with me. Her sassy mouth is alarming (no profanity or anything), and it’s most stinging venom is reserved for me. The other day she said something insubordinate and I asked, “Do you talk like that to your teacher?” Wide-eyed, she answered, “Oh no, Mommy. I would never say anything like that to Miss Jessica.”

I use the language of infidelity to describe this little love triangle and I think its apt. Miss Jessica is the other woman: someone with whom Livie spends a small amount of time, gets affirmed for her uniqueness, and does giddy, fun things that she wouldn’t normally get to do at home (they mostly involve paint and paste). Meanwhile, Mommy is the one with whom she does the daily grind: school pick-ups and drop-offs, housecleaning, errands, teeth brushing, things involving the toilet. And because Livie and I are in a long-term relationship, we see each others’ flaws and have tedious daily conflicts.

I’m tempted to feel like the injured party in this situation. “Go ahead, dear, have fun with Miss Jessica. I’ll just go home wash your underwear and cook your lunch, and then you can be cranky and tired when you come home.”

But then today, I had a little affair of my own.

I spent part of the morning with a friend and her 18-month-old daughter Reese, who is my “adopted" niece, my “Reesey niecey.” I sat on the floor with her in my lap for a long time. We had a tickle fight. She climbed all over me and giggled. Reese played with my necklace, dropping it in and out of my sweater over and over again and exclaiming “Ta-da!” I fed her two mini muffins and she said “thank you.” She made me feel – sniff – like a Fun and Good Mommy again.

But then this afternoon I got a reality check that made me realize maybe I was partly to blame for my daughter seeking affection from another mother-figure. This afternoon, I was putting Livie down for a nap, and she reached up to touch the necklace Reese had played with for at least 20 minutes this morning – and I swatted her hand away! I had been so much more loving and patient with another little girl than I was with my daughter.

In any long-term relationship we are apt to get lazy and less kind. We stop saying “please” and “thank you.” We neglect to affirm our loved ones’ uniqueness and instead start to find their once-endearing quirks a little bit wearing. We let the urgent but mundane tasks of the day suck our energy for the little moments of fun and silliness that infuse our lives with joy. It’s true of my with my spouse, and true with my kids.

It’s easier to be fun with my friends’ kids or my nieces and nephews. When I’m at a friend’s house, the laundry and dirty dishes aren’t calling my name. There’s no e-mail to answer and no school paperwork to read. I’m also not responsible for these kids’ knowing right from wrong, their nutrition (hence the two mini-muffins), or their bodily functions. And so the entire dynamic is different. And so it should be. Moms don’t get to be a constant playmate; that wouldn’t teach our kids much in the long run or equip them for a world that does not revolve around them. This dynamic can make me feel like the long-suffering martyr in my home, but it needn't. If I let the spark go out of my family relationships, it's at least partially my own fault.

No matter how much I may wish I could share Miss Jessica’s pedestal, deep down, I know I’m still first in my daughter’s heart. Didn’t her eyes well up with tears when she saw me coming to class, so complete was her joy at seeing me return for her? Didn’t she insist that I hold her hand in the grocery store and be the one to put her to bed tonight? And isn’t the fact that she shows me her real emotions – even when they result in some developmentally appropriate insolence from that sassy mouth – mean that I am her safe anchor, the one she knows will love her no matter what?

Meantime, in between washing her undies, cutting her apples and putting her in time-out, I’m going to work harder at complimenting her artwork and dance moves, and look her in the eye when she's talking. I’m going to take time for a tickle fight. I’m going to let her play with my jewelry. I’m going to show her that our love – a deep, abiding love – is here to stay.