Wednesday, February 27, 2013

this mother's words

In recent months I've had a number of friends reveal that they are expecting their first child.  I used to teach prenatal yoga and I never tired of the sharing between soon-to-be moms and those with some experience under their belts.  Which any mom will tell you, never feels like enough!

I usually send my friends this essay by the writer Anne Lamott who is my favorite writer when it comes to expressing the wonder, the insanity, the highs and the poopy, ranting-like-an-insane-person lows of parenting.  She is the first stop for any mother-to-be not so much for advice, but for reassurance that you are not an awful person if you snap at your child. Lesson number one: we are all flawed (didn't you get that memo?) but it's a place to start. There's only up!

So I've decided I need to write my own "letter to a friend who is expecting" as I have 6 1/2 years under my belt and some stories from the road to share that may be helpful. Here goes:

Of course, my heartfelt and immediate first response is to say what everyone with kids will say: "Congratulations ... your life will never be the same!"

Ominous, I know.  The meaning of that statement depends upon the tone of voice in which it is uttered and I'm sure by now you've heard the entire range.  I can tell you - they are all correct.

Here's how I would sum things up:  You've heard about the Cyclone rollercoaster (or maybe the Beast or Titan or MegaForce) and you wait in line for your turn.  Time seems leisurely, you sip a lemonade and chat up your neighbors in what appears to be an endless queue. You are nervously excited.  Sooner than you expec, you are next to go.  You are hustled into your seat and the roll bar snaps down across your lap in a startling and unsettling manner and then cars lurches forward towards the first massive dip and you realize: There's no going back.  

You have two options: scream your head off out of fear and lack of control; or scream your head off in total surrender to the moment.  

My advice is the latter, but you will all-too-soon have a chance to decide.

What I wasn't expecting when I became a mother was just how incompetent I would feel. Like, all that time waiting and I should have been studying pediatric medicine, child psychology and early education principles.  But I did what most of us do - get lost in the wonder of children's books, toys, clothes and room decor. (I went with the jungle animal theme; never underestimate the power of that first interior to mold personality! My girl loves the zoo - so there's the proof!) 

You will believe for a time that everyone else has this parenting thing figured out.  Many  will try to impress upon you that they do know it all and know best. (Not to make general assumptions, but often they are the vocal and demonstrative breast feeding moms; not that all moms who embrace breast feeding are this way, but many of the more assertive advice-dispensing mothers happen to be passionate about the subject.)    

Don't be deceived!  Everyone fumbles their way through those early months (did I say months?  How about years?) and I maintain it is the truly secure among us who freely admit we are pretty much winging it.  It's a lot like sitting in a meditation group: while you sit there in agony from the effort to sit still and quiet the mind, you will look out and see all these other serenely meditating people.  The thing is, they are probably in just as much mental and/or physical distress as you and are wondering how you are able to pull this off!

Okay, so we've established there is no manual, no real preparation possible, and that others may try to assuage their feelings of incompetence by questioning the way you are raising your child.  Family may do this as well.  The thing is, the only one you need to worry about is your child ... and he/she won't know about Super Mom down the block. They will only know you.

Here's the diamond among all this mess: your child will love you.  Nothing can prepare you for the power and immensity of that love and the trust.  They will lift up their chubby little hand and they just know you will reach down to clasp it.  They will look at you with such love and wonderment in their eyes and you will be blown away to realize you are the object of such adoration.

There is a tangible moment when you realize you and your child are falling in love with each other.  Not that you don't already love your child before they are placed in your arms; but as your relationship grows, there is this sense of dropping down into a sea of love that is vaster and more powerful than anything you can imagine.  You fall into each other. Words cannot capture the magnitude of this experience.  But once you experience it, you will want to return to that memory again and again.  It is like a talismans that will protect and guide you through some of the thornier experiences that await you.

Speaking of which ... Anne Lamott does a great job in describing all manner of poop so I'll let you read her.  I will say this: I promise you, your child will be toilet trained at least by the time of their 16th birthday.  You laugh now, but trust me ... when the time comes you will question how anyone survives the experience. (Best advice I received: toilet train in the warmer months outside with a wadding pool, portable potty and naked child.  Give them lots to drink - lemonade was a forbidden fruit that was sucked down in great quantity - and let them play.  The elmo sprinkler was a nice added touch.  All that bubbling water ...)

Children are constantly growing and in ways we can't always see.  Much of the crazy behavior (those moments when we wondered if we broke her) I think is due to a delicate nervous system constantly re-wiring itself. (Here's where I could have benefited from prior pediatric studies.) Some of the best information a friend passed on to me was that when there is no discernible problem and your child is still crying (usually at the end of the day), it may be their way of releasing pent up energy, stimulating endorphin production or even releasing toxins.  If you are proficient at meditating, now is the time to practice it! Or just breathe. Or sing. (Which is breathing with sound ... having a song that was our soothing song was a powerful tool for calming us all quickly. It actually was pretty miraculous!)  You being calm will carry you through many rough patches.

The other really useful information is to know that before every breakthrough, there is a total breakdown.  When your child is moving towards some new developmental stage, like walking, they will have a sense of what they can do,  but need to develop the skills to do it.  So frustration levels are huge.  And it seems the entire family feeds upon this energy. So when you find yourself in a state of utter chaos, rest easy knowing soon ... soon ... something new and wonderful will happen.  Until then, return to your happy place recalling those moments of blissful love and adoration.  (I believe this model - breakdown before breakthrough - applies for all changes even subtle emotional and intellectual developments.  When Cowgirl was learning to read, there were some massive melt-downs the likes we hadn't seen since those terrible twos ... and threes ... I bet we will have them in the teen years when the brain does a massive remodel!)

Okay, some of the random bits that I want to get off my chest share:

Your child will be like a fun house mirror.  You will see yourself magnified and distorted in ways both comical and unsettling. One day while trying to get Cowgirl ready for the swimming pool, I had to put her into a 4 minute time-out.  Naked and seething, she put her face just inches from mine and snarled "You're wasting my time!"

This is actually one of the great services our children provide for us.  We are given the opportunity to polish our rough edges, re-visit and resolve those problem areas ignored for much of our life.  (Apparently, we all need to work on the tone of voice we use - its a family affair!) We can choose to fix ourselves and even though it can be daunting work, our children inspire us to take on that challenge.

Our children inspire us to be braver than we previously might have held possible. I have found myself dancing and singing in public and my friend Diana will testify that I went down the water slide multiple times (and almost drown!) Going out regularly in a bathing suit in public is pretty high up on my list of brave.  More daunting, I have had to initiate difficult conversations and confront people I would normally avoid.  We are their advocates and as such must use our voice when they cannot.

You will also do some wonderful and crazy things.  Yes, one day you will find yourself sitting the crowd of Sesame Street Live wondering how did I get here? But you will look over and see your child be-bopping in the aisle to Elmo and that hour of an inane storyline  will be worth it. (Pray Dan Zanes and his band come to town while your child is young.)

There will be times your child does something and your head will nearly explodes or you will want to punt kick them across a parking lot.  Ask my husband about the time Cowgirl decorated his car with an engraved star.  Remind me to tell you about my new (and only) burnished leather bag and the pen mark.  A whole new twist to "tag - you're it!"

My favorite part of being a mother is I get to relive being a child from the vantage point of having survived it.  I can indulge in the play, the games, the stories, and the magic of the world revealing its mysteries all over again, only this time I'm sucking the marrow from the bone and savoring every delightful morsel.  You also tap into your past in ways that are unexpected if not informative. (Oh, the first time you play Monopoly as a family ... like Proust's bite of madeleine ... all childhood issues come rushing back to you)  


Now is a opportunity to process some of that material, if you choose.  The challenge is always questioning whether you are making choices based upon who your child is, or whether you are being haunted by the specter of your childhood self.  The universe having no small sense of humor, often takes care of this by providing us with the child exactly opposite of what we know and understand.  Hence shy, uncoordinated, introverted me (I know ... hard to reconcile ... but that's who I was) has an active, outgoing social butterfly for a daughter.

One delight no one told me about (so here is something to look forward to!) is how amazingly toasty warm and cuddly children can be.  If happiness is a warm puppy, well, children are just like puppies (read: squirmy with sharp nails) in that you will want to constantly hug, squeeze, kiss, and nuzzle them.  Imagine the most delightfully warm and fragrant homemade roll coming out of the oven and now imagine being able to wrap your entire body around it.  Our family manifesto includes this vital point: begin and end every day with cuddles.

You can expect many such treats as compensation for the worry, anxiety, frustration and confusion that are part of the package deal. (There are only package deals,  much like cable television.) Record those moments  - the strawberry scented kisses, the tummy raspberries, the handmade presents, snowball fights, nonsensical knock-knock jokes, the first lost tooth, crazy songs and wilder dances, the full body "I love you!" hugs - and treasure them.  

Parenting presents us with the opportunity to clarify our values and beliefs and can serve as incentive for us to make our life - our actions, our words, our contributions - rich and meaningful. We are given the chance to remember dreams and to see possibilities continue to abound and our children remind us that there's never a better time than right now to begin anew. We have this little person who understands the magical ways the world works and we are given the privilege to learn from them. In exchange, we must  honor the responsibility to care for, guide, and love them. 

It's a wonderful dance, squashed toes and all. The beauty is you will be the expert on your child.  No one else is qualified to do the job.  It truly is the toughest job you'll ever love.  And at the end of the day, your reward is all that warm, wiggly, cuddly love. It's oh so sweet!

For K - I'm holding you three in my heart.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

unfamiliar feeling ...

I've been feeling odd lately ... strangely contented, my days more or less puttering along at a comfort pace with a blanket of ease warming all that I do.  Recognizing there have been projects long on hold - stacks of paintings started and now marinating; files in blurb and shutterfly accounts awaiting my attention; art journals in progress (one for Cowgirl that has languished for over a year now) - all that sits piled around the edges of my awareness and still I feel relaxed and at peace with the status quo.

Shifting gears doesn't feel likely at the moment.  I've been enjoying what are for me the leisurely arts - knitting, sewing, slapping bits torn from magazines and catalogs into my Smash journal. Perhaps I am connecting with a previous life as an educated lady awaiting my turn for the grand tour? (oh, how I wish!) 

one sleeve still to go ...


The continued cold weather actually excites me because I keep bookmarking new knitting projects while busily finishing up current ones.  There is only so much wool one person can wear, but I am determined to push the envelope on that front.  Possibilities ... ah yes, my word for 2013 ... possibilities and enticements keep popping up in front of me.  

In the spirit of encouraging more cultured practices, Cowgirl has been keeping up some penpal activities and so I made her this pouch to store the mail bounty that comes her way.  


I made a second one for her buddy and have fabric awaiting a third creation (spoiler alert for one reader - shhhh ... don't spill the beans!) 

the directions for these "satchels" came from the book Handmade Home

 Meanwhile, we've (well, okay, me) have begun what I hope will become a regular practice: a family journal.  

In years past Cowgirl and I would spend long drives home discussing our top 5 or 10 moments from our days.  Low or challenging moments where also shared and it was a lovely way to capture the moments that might otherwise slip away.  Now Cowgirl's school is a mile away and the habit vanished.  Hence a journal which I intend to pull out after dinner and in it record the stories of our days.  The Husband has already predicted this will last a few weeks (he's seen all my journals scattered about) but he forgets my stubborn streak (I know, me?!) and determination to prove him wrong (hey, I will admit when I'm wrong ... when it happens ...)

Perhaps I will soon record in our journal a leisurely and luxurious painting session?  So far the only thing I've worked on in recent months is this piece attempting to capture the moment when our cat, Frida, left her body and flew (yes, I felt it!) into her next adventure.  

That was almost 4 years ago (her passing, not the painting), but the memory is vivid and I want to honor the teachings she shared with all of us about life, determination (no is not a possibility) and -  ah, yes! - contentment.  (Our previous dog, Bandit, has been nosing his way into my consciousness and perhaps his will be the next memorial?)

So that is where I am ... for the moment.  I know from experience that this place is the top of the wheel (much like reaching the top of a hill on a bike) and I am enjoying the coasting feeling which I know all too soon will hit a bottom and require mad pedaling for the hill up climb.

But by then, perhaps I will have a newly knitted shawl to comfort me as I go ...

I think the difference is maybe I'm busy doing and not indulging in excessive thinking or worrying.  Taking the compulsive navel-gazing out and leaving the fun in.  I am getting wiser in my old age? Or just tired and better able to let things go?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

my valentine ...

or ... Don't hate me because I'm crafty ...


I'll be honest: years ago I would have been filled with envy and irritation for those seemingly "together" moms who turn every holiday into a crafting lovefest.  I could never seem to plan far enough ahead to facilitate a homemade holiday celebration.  As I shelled out the bucks for ridiculously overpriced and flimsy Valentines (is it me or do I remember there being more variety and substance to the Valentine's of my childhood?) I would grit my teeth in exasperation for my caving into the demands of Hallmark and their artificial holidays. (do you buy St. Patrick's Day cards?  What about Easter? National Potato Day?) 

But I could not completely abandon these holidays because I do remember them as a child and how my mother infused into the tissue paper, cardboard and glitter so much sparkle and fun.  Holidays as a child were not store-bought; they were loving crafted by my mother who I believe really enjoyed making decorations, baking heart-shaped cakes or green icing cookies.  Now my mother worked out of the home (okay, I have to say I never saw her doing all that much "work"; my memories of my mother are her sitting in the big wingback chair, a book on her lap and a box of Cheese-It crackers by her side.  I can say I've learned the most important skills from my mother: always have a good book at hand; going to movies by yourself is not only acceptable, it is preferable; travel often; left-overs can be an art) My mother had time, the crafting genes and the ability to read and follow directions so she was always making something for me.  Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries were merely excuses to indulge in celebrating, preferably with gooey sweets and decorations.  

So I have felt guilt in the past when unable to live up to this standard.  Yet I am here to say persistence and optimism will pay off.  After years of slowly adding more crafting time into our day (as a means of quality mother/daughter time) it has become enough of a habit that this year I actually remember well enough in advance to gather the simple supplies we would need to make our own Valentine's Day cards and decorations!

Oh, so easy and affordable!  Blank cards and envelopes on sale at Michael's for $3, some crayons, foil and glue and you have the fixings for a melted crayon craft. 


(Take a baking tray, add a sheet of foil and heat at 350 degrees; when nice and hot carefully place on hot pads with pads under your wrists and carefully draw on the hot foil with a crayon.  


The heat will melt the wax making a lovely, juicy drawing.  When cool, cut out and glue to card and voilá! a unique and one-of-a-kind Valentine! This craft idea came from The Artful Winter ebook available here.)


I made a heart banner out of newspaper, craft paints, my own melted crayon letters, a string of packing thread and a hot glue gun to slap it all together. 


(Inspired by the banner made by Maya Donenfeld here; I may even attempt Maya's chocolate cupcakes although I guarantee, mine won't look as lovely!) Now the last task (and the one I do resent) is the obligatory decorated box for school Valentine's (which Cowgirl only brought up the morning before as she darted off to school) which always seems to be a last-minute affair.

For whatever reason, I've been heart crazy which has made this Valentine's Day extra fun and joy-filled for me. Don't get me wrong: the minute I feel I ought to do anything is when I will rebel and resist.  But for now, the pleasure is in making time to create, celebrate and play with my girl.  I think that will be my new mantra. For those three things - create, celebrate, and play - lighten my spirits, generate sunshine even in the gloomiest of Winter days and revive me body and soul.  I'm here to say - it cannot be purchased in a store but must be made by two, loving hands.

 Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

when surrender is the only option ...

I have no idea whether the Groundhog saw his shadow, but I am certain that should I be standing in full sunlight I would not cast one myself.  I'm not sure if I am living this or dreaming ... I have been in bed for a week and reality is  a rather tenuous thing at the moment.  Cowgirl has been by my side so either we're dreaming together or warped Doublemint twins with  hacking coughs, runny noses and insulated steins of Powerade moving to our lips in unison.  

(remember those ads?  I digress ... but I feel I need to explain: my father was an Ad Man ... yes, a Mad Man on Madison Avenue, NYC ... and my childhood was consumed by commercials and jingles.  We didn't watch t.v. shows, we watched the ads.  So lurking deep within this gray matter is a vast vault of 1960s and 70s catch phrases, songs and slogans. Oddly enough, Cowgirl seems to have inherited this trait and at an early age was recounting the wonders of Kaboom Cleaner products to our amazed and disbelieving ears.)

Four days of fevers and gut twisting coughs, cocooned in one family bed with tissues between us and an endless drone of the television with a few highlight moments of Wallace and Gromit movies and coloring book sessions.  Then back to Spongebob or cooking shows.  (Ask Cowgirl who she wants to win Chopped Champions or Top Chef  ... although she is more of an Iron Chef kind of gal.) 

Oddly enough, I could watch cooking shows even though I had absolutely no appetite for 7 days?

I will say, if you're going to be ill (we had some respiratory virus that is powering through our city like a ravenous swarm of locusts) it helps to have a buddy.  But as a mom, there is nothing harder than wanting to care for your cub and feeling so ill you can barely stagger over with bucket and washcloth (yes, one of those moments.)  I remembered the year I was 10 and my mother was in bed with a flu bug and she moaned that she was too ill to prepare Christmas dinner.  Our family did what I'm sure others would have  done in the same situation: stepped back, gasped in horror and disbelief, proclaiming "NO Christmas dinner?!"  Yes, my mother dragged herself from her sickbed, and in her pink quilted robe made the usual holiday feast and no, none of us felt the least bit of guilt or remorse for it.

Until now.  

I'm sorry mom.  I understand now how we played the worst card possible: the mommy guilt card. 

I think that karmic debt has been paid.  I think.  But in the worst moments - when my exhaustion and Cowgirl's fever seemed to never end, I turned to the only source of comfort I had left: my goddess in-box.

 It's something I've adapted from the writer Anne Lamott (she uses a God in-box).  When things seem overwhelming and are beyond my control, the only thing left for me to do is to surrender those worries and concerns to a force greater than myself.  I surrender myself and the messy, tangled yarn ball situation over to the more capable (and multiple)  hands of my goddesses.

I mean, if I'm calling for help, I want some fierce mama-love devouring-everything-in-her-way kind of help.  I write my pleas on a slip of paper and offer it into the box and to a force greater than thee and me. 

Then I breathe and settle back into the pillows, turning my attention to matters I can control: how many paper hearts does one need for a suitably festive Valentine's Day?


Cowgirl's fever broke and we both are emerging slowly slowly back into the world of the living, albeit one lacking the excitement and sparkle of kitchen stadium or the underwater charm of Bikini Bottom.  Wow ... I think I could eat a crabby patty about now. If only my goddess in-box could handle dinner orders.