We All Crave the Mystery Box

Lets-Make-a-Deal_Wayne-Brady_deal-logo

At 2:30 in the morning a few months ago, I woke up in vomit. My husband had brought our crying baby into our room sometime around 1:00 (unbeknownst to me), and at 2:30 we figured out why she was so unhappy.  When, after cleaned and placed fast asleep back in her own bed, she woke up around 6:30 doused in sour pasta, it was time for Mama to call in sick.

After the anxiety of planning for a substitute subsided, I happily cozied up on the couch with my girl, who was so miserable, and yet, so sweet.  It felt like the best part of maternity leave all over again, and I fell right back in the swing of wearing my husband’s sweatpants and eating gluten free biscuits over a sleeping baby in my lap.  I clicked around the tv and settled on an old standby–“Let’s Make a Deal”.

Wayne Brady just makes me feel so at peace with the world.

But I soon found myself with building anxiety again. Oh, the drama of daytime television! These people always go for the empty box or the closed curtain or the unopened envelope.  Just take the two grand and make a clean getaway, people!

But they don’t. And in so many ways, we don’t either. We all pretend to want the safe landing, the guarantee that we’ll walk away with a crisp hundred dollar bill, but deep down we crave the gamble that behind door number one is a brand new car.

We do this not because we want the money or because we’re greedy. We do it because we want an adventure.

We all come screaming into this world not knowing anything about the arms that will catch us. Doesn’t it seem by design then for human beings to naturally want to leap into the darkness, only to be caught by something unknown–and wonderful–in the end?

Wayne Brady wrapped it up. Some contestants lost, some won. But I looked down at my rosy-cheeked, sweat-crowned baby who kept me up all night, who kept me home from work, who surprises me all the time, and recognized that when we have the courage to go for door number one–for the uncertainty and mystery and adventure–what we find behind it will drive us to more opened doors and more great adventures in the end.

 

 

Mama Guilt is Not What You Think

I’ve read quite a bit about “Mommy Guilt”, primarily because I’ve Googled it each time I let my daughters play on the floor while I spend hours on the computer creating lesson plans, or when I leave them right at the time they want me to read them a bedtime story to go out with friends or my husband, or even when I zone out for a minute and stare at a spot on the wall just thinking or just not thinking at all.  It plagues me every time I take time from them for something else.  It plagues me when I take time for them and ignore all that “something else”.  I can’t escape it, and apparently, I’m not the only one.

But ever since I read Tina Fey’s beautiful piece, “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter”, I find that when I think about my relationship with my own daughters, I’m often actually thinking about my relationship with my parents.  I tear up nearly every time I read it, and I can’t shake the expertly crafted image she creates when she writes–

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back. “My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

I don’t read that and think about my daughters with their possible future babies–at least not yet, not while they’re still babies.  Instead, I think about my past.  I think about my own helpless little body lying on the puke green shag carpet that covered the floor of the house I grew up in, looking into the eyes of my mom and dad who made silly faces at me and wiped the poop off my leg.  I think about those moments when my toddler reaches out her hand as she walks down steps, and when my infant lays her head against my shoulder because nothing brings on sleep more than the comfy pillow of someone you love.

I think about those moments when, while conducting her experiment in independence, my three-year-old tells me (true story), “No! I don’t like you. You stink!”  And I think about those moments when I get frustrated with my adult parents–when mom won’t respond to my texts or dad wants to argue politics.  Because, I try to remind myself, once upon a time they felt the way I do about my babies, about me.  And I feel guilty that I break their heart a little bit more every time I recognize that we are separate people.  Even at thirty-two years old, I still have a hard time accepting that I don’t belong to them anymore.

When I get a guilty pang after daycare drop off, or during a plea for attention that I just can’t give, or in the midst of an elaborate scheme to eek out just one more bedtime story, I empathize with my future self by empathizing with my parents.  I feel guilty because I know I’m on borrowed time.  I will one day watch my children choose a partner and choose a lifestyle possibly different from the one I wanted for them.  I will watch them raise their own kids and get pissed at me because I try to give them advice.  Or get pissed because I didn’t raise them the way they think kids should be raised.  I will watch them make decisions that I wouldn’t choose for them, and feel the tiny heartbreak that they didn’t ask for my advice.

Ultimately, my mother would tell me, as she has many times before, Guilt is a wasted emotion.  And I know she’s right, but for right now at least, it forces me to understand that I only get this moment.  Because it won’t be long until my daughters are the ones with “Mommy Guilt” when they find themselves feeling guilty about how much they never knew they really loved me.

Hey Mama!

Today I walked into the teacher’s lounge, and delighted to find a table full of freebie snacks, exclaimed, “Mama loves some snacks!”

My colleague in the room looked around a little awkwardly, smiled oddly at me, and slunk out, clearly hoping to avoid me for a while.  The weirdest part was that I didn’t even realize what was so weird about it until about an hour later because I have been referring to myself in the third person as “mama” for so long now that I do it as a part of my inner (and outer, apparently) dialogue.

Here are some examples of thoughts I’ve had in the past twenty-four hours:

  • Ooh, belly’s growling.  Mama forgot her breakfast biscuits.
  • Hey, what’s that noise?  Is Mama’s phone ringing?  Nope, Mama’s got some chocolate in her ear.
  • After being asked a question by a student, Hmm, let Mama think about that for a minute…
  • When the afternoon blood sugar drop hits it’s, Mama tired…
  • And finally, after putting the girls to bed, Mama’s wine time!

I have been a mother now for three years, and I have just now realized that this has happened.  I have no idea how long it’s been going on, but I guess it’s weird.  It will be especially weird when I start referring to myself as “mama” out loud and not realizing it…which has apparently already begun.

What’s really interesting as I think about this now, is that somehow even in my own head, I have morphed from one whole person who eats, naps, and has the occasional conversation and glass of wine, into simply a “mama” who does those things.  When did this happen?

My daughter has recently taken to calling my husband and I by our first names because she thinks it’s funny.  We laughed at first and corrected her jovially.  Then (as toddlers tend to do) it became a funny game, and we had to start correcting her a little more sternly.  Now we shut it down right away without any kind of pretense of a joke.  This is for real–it’s a matter of respect, after all.

But is it really?  Or would my daughter have more respect for me if I let her think of me as more than “mama” and as a woman named Ashley?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not likely to seriously let her do that, but I wonder if I did, would it change the way she thinks of me?  Or the way I think of myself?  Maybe if we let our children view us as whole people instead of just their moms and dads, we might build little humans who learn to see other people, especially those who take care of them, as more than, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it, a “single story”.  And maybe we might view ourselves in a new light too because, after all, “mama” really deserves that kind of love.

Why single mothers make great dads

257IMG_5404

We all complain about our spouses.  It’s just a fact of marriage.  And God knows, I’m as guilty as the next person of focusing on my husband’s flaws rather than the millions of gifts he possesses.

But lately, I just can’t help but explode with gratitude for this man with whom I’ve chosen to spend my life.  I watch him right now, pushing the lawnmower on a crisp, fall morning wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie pulled up over his head, while my daughter sits in a chair by the dining room window waving to him and singing, Daddy, Daddy to herself.  I smile each time he charges back up toward the house, making a grid in the grass, as she says, Daddy hold you, Daddy hold you, and waits patiently for him to come in and do just that.  Because he will.

I think about Friday night, when I thought (thank God!) that I was finally going into labor with my second child and we went out for our own version of The Last Supper (PS, I’m still pregnant a day past my due date as of this writing–ugh!).  I pinch myself when I picture my daughter eating his sushi tempura while he ate her cheese quesadilla instead, and the two of them danced together by the front door of the restaurant as I took twenty minutes to lift my pregnant self from the chair.

This man is an awesome dad.  And I say this not because my brain is a soup of pregnancy hormones right now, but because it is the honest truth.  And to top it off, he’s a pretty damn good husband too.

It occurred to me last night while I tossed and turned in the bed that there could very well be some sociological explanation for how well suited he is for these jobs.  I’ve heard a lot lately about “the millennial man” and I do think there is something in the air that has pushed modern men to play more domesticated roles, but I think in my husband’s case, he is such an amazing husband and father because he was raised by a single mother.Father's Day 2013 (23)

His father died when he was an infant and his image of what a man was supposed to be was a single woman raising three children alone, while dealing with the sudden and tragic death of her husband.  He has no illusions that “men aren’t supposed to cry” or “such and such is women’s work, not men’s” because his male role model cried often and would at once mow the lawn and have dinner ready by six.

I know my husband, his siblings, and his mother wish more than anything that they didn’t grow up without a father and husband, and I know they miss him still.  But I think about many (many) of my students who are raised by single parents and the supposed negative psychological and sociological impacts of this experience, and I have to respectfully disagree.  I think that strong people who are missing someone so pivotal in their lives often fill that void by becoming more of a whole person than others.  I never pushed myself to be both yin and yang, masculine and feminine, because I grew up with clearly defined boundaries about what that entailed.  I never needed to be both.  But his mother did and what she produced is children who don’t define themselves by those roles.

My husband cooks dinner every night (and he’s a hell of a better cook than me).  He cleans most of the time.  He cuddles, hugs, and kisses our daughter ceaselessly.  Every day between 9 and 10 am, I get a text telling me he loves me.  And he also always takes out the trash, mows the lawn, and kills the occasional spider.  He is everything to and for us.  I wish every woman in the world should be so lucky, and I thank my lucky stars day after day that I am.IMG_4254

Hopefully I will have this baby and not be pregnant for the rest of my life, and when our new baby girl enters this world, God-willing, she and her sister will grow up with a male role model who is both protective and nurturing.  A mother could not ask more for her children.

 

 

What happens when your toddler asks awkward questions

IMG_2204Last week my daughter and I went to TJ Maxx and I, being extremely pregnant, had to pee upon arrival.  We went into a two stall women’s restroom and I could smell immediately that it was occupied.  Nina, being a typical two year old, didn’t seem to notice or care.

I took her into the stall and suddenly, from the next stall over, came the sounds of a person who has clearly eaten the wrong kind of lunch.  Nina, yet again a typical two year old, shouts with surprise, “What is that?”  I shush her, but the noises continue and Nina keeps inquiring.  The lady from the stall over, with serious strain in her voice, answers her, “Honey, I’m taking a sh*t.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  And I’ve wondered lately why I didn’t.

There is much about the world that Nina doesn’t understand right now, and I think overall my husband and I are pretty good about explaining what we can to her in a no-nonsense way.  But the incident in the public bathroom made me realize that there is still quite a bit that we sugarcoat or avoid or just plain lie about.  But if she is honest enough to be curious (as all toddlers tend to be), then why are we not brave enough to quench her curiosity?

She knows what pooping is; she tells me within minutes when she’s done it herself.  So in this case, I don’t think I was hiding anything from her.  I was trying to avoid embarrassment for myself and for the lady in the stall over, which I guess was the polite thing to do.  But why are we more concerned with etiquette than we are with truth–especially when it comes to our children?

I’m not implying that we should sacrifice the feelings of others in order to be blunt with our kids, but what harm would it have done for me to say something like, “It’s the lady in the other stall.  She’s not feeling well.”  Would that have crossed a line?  Considering how the lady herself answered Nina, I’d say she probably would have been okay with it.  In fact, I think that I might have embarrassed her more by ignoring Nina’s questions and prolonging the awkwardness.

The bottom line is this:  I think it might be better to face the truth together with children, than to ignore their inquiries and leave them feeling yet again like the world is one big unanswerable question that they’re too small to navigate.  Being able to ask a question derived from authentic curiosity and receive an honest answer from those she loves will surely mold my daughter into a more confident woman than having to run out of a bathroom with our heads down because we’re afraid to address the reality of smells and sounds right in front of our faces.

 

 

 

Life lessons learned from a 2nd birthday party

My girl is two!

My girl is two!

My beautiful little baby morphed overnight into a two year old.  Don’t ask me how it happened; I don’t even know.  Apparently I live in a Kafka novel because that is how absurd it feels to me.

Yet the celebration of this surreal event brought with it life lessons that taught me a bit about living.  I’ll share them here…

1.  Mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Well, not money exactly, but junk.  Specifically junk in the form of toys and sweets and all of life’s other tempting treats.  We don’t give Nina a lot of sweets, and we certainly don’t give her mountains of toys, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the junk hangover she woke up and wrestled with all day the next day.  My sweet little girl had somehow been snatched up by a frenzied wild beast who razed our house to the ground.  After sleeping it off that night and waking up normal again, our decision to refrain from too much junk and stuff and crap felt validated.  Bottom line:  The more junk you have, the crazier you act.

Rough morning.

Rough morning.

2.  We all need a retreat.

At one point during the party, after Nina had been passed around from guest to guest for a while, I looked around and said, “Where’s my child?”  Only to discover that she was sitting outside on the screened in porch by herself.  I went out there and found her sitting in the swivel chair peacefully snacking on her ham sandwich.  Apparently even at your own party, sometimes you just gotta get away from it all.

3.  When you know what you want, just roll with it.

Before any birthday party, the traditional phone chain begins, guided by one main question:  What should I get the birthday girl?  Our response was hands-down, “baby dolls.”  But we didn’t really pay attention to how many people to whom we gave this answer.  A few gifts in, we realized the trend and I got a little nervous.  Nina seemed unfazed and pretty happy about it.  But what really jerked her jolly was the opening of a coveted baby stroller.  It seemed for a brief second that the party was over as she jumped up from the pile and rolled it to her bedroom, seemingly to never return, until she victoriously marched back out with her favorite baby doll strapped in safely, proud as a peacock.  Everyone clapped and cheered.  After come coercing, we were able to talk Nina into opening the rest of the presents, but she never took her eye off her stroller sitting to the side.  As soon as all the presents were opened, the other kids pounced and made their claims, while Nina happily strolled off with her baby.  In hindsight, I should have just let her go to town with that stroller.  It might have been rude to the guests, but hey, it’s her party and she’ll stroll if she wants to.

Oh yeah, baby dolls!

Oh yeah, baby dolls!

4.  Sometimes it’s really not about you.

An hour or so before the party began, one of my best friends, a disgruntled mother of three, called and timidly told me that she and her husband had miraculously scored football tickets and an affordable babysitter all in one day, so they would not be coming to the party.  She was really concerned that I’d be mad, and (surprisingly) I really wasn’t.  I knew how badly she needed a day out, and I genuinely wanted her to have it.  Over the past few years, I have been known to get frustrated when people don’t show up or when (gasp!) people fail to recognize how much it really is about me.  But something about seeing your baby sprout like a weed overnight puts it all in perspective:  When you love someone, you just want to watch them grow.  And it’s really not about you when you’re thinking about the growth and happiness of others.

5.  What you think you want is often the last thing you want.

For the past two weeks, Nina has been obsessed with the birthday song.  She wants me to sing it several times before bed, when she wakes up, and on the way to and from school.  I explained to her in detail what would happen at her party and how everyone would sing before she blew out her candles and ate cake.  Although she’s a two year old, she seemed to get it.  But the moment arrived and Nina shut down.  All of those eyes staring at her, people hovering around her and clamoring for her to “blow out your candles, Nina!” was all too much.  She clung to me, gripping my skin, muttering “no, no, no.”  I blew out her candles for her and she eventually made peace with the ordeal once she got her hands on the cake, but she seemed truly disturbed for a minute.  As much as she thought she wanted the birthday song, when the time came, it was too much–just like that craving for Cheetos I get at 4pm on a Monday.

Please don't sing.

Please don’t sing.

6.  When it’s all over, there’s always something positive to remember.

Throughout the day, Nina had her ups and downs.  It even took her a while to figure out whether or not she liked the cake and ice cream (crazy girl).  But the next morning, between meltdowns over the baby doll’s clothes, which book to read, and how to put the new puzzles together, Nina cuddled on the couch with her daddy, looked up at him, and out of the blue said, “Cake is good.  I like cake.”

Now there’s a girl who gets it.

Life is sweet.

Life is sweet.

I Am Not My Neuroses

This is supposed to be a sad face...can you tell? Call it hormones.  Call it summer boredom.  Call it whatever you like, but the bottom line is that I have had a shit storm brewing in my brain since June.

Allow me to explain.

Really it’s longer than that.  Over the last few years (if I’m being honest, since I started teaching) I’ve come to believe that I am a neurotic person, and that’s just who I’ve always been.  Anxiety disorder and Ashley are synonymous in my mind.  I said this to my best friend who’s known me since freshman year of college and she corrected me.  I was not always like this.

So why is it that I cannot have an idea without doubting it?  Why can I not have a polite exchange with a colleague without wondering what she thinks of me afterwards?  Why do I feel good about myself one minute, and then completely worthless the next?  The answer is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I have become my anxiety.

The good thing is that I am self-aware.  In fact, maybe a little too self-aware.  I’ve recognized this issue for a while, and since summer began, it’s gotten progressively worse even though I’ve done all the right things.  I’ve walked, traveled, spent time with friends and family, found creative outlets, and eaten (mostly) healthy foods.  But I just can’t kick it.  So I found myself a few days ago in a therapist’s office vomiting the nonsense that has been swirling in my brain.  She cut me off mid sentence at one point and said, “Listen, Ashley, you’re thirty-one now.  You’ve got to stop relying on other people to provide your confidence.  You will never get over this anxiety until you do.”

Easy for her to say.

The truth is I don’t know where the border between me and other people begins, and I’ve spent years (maybe a lifetime) expecting that praise and approval will eventually make me whole.  Last night I was relaying all of this to another of my best friends and she said, “Ashley, you might have an anxiety disorder, but you are not an anxious person.”  For the first time, I’m realizing that there is a difference between the two.

There’s been much talk lately about mental illness with the tragic death of Robin Williams, and I know many are asking the same question I am:  If I’m not blank [an addict, anxious, depressed], then who am I?

I grew up with a mother who hated having her picture taken.  I have few pictures of her, and I’m pretty sure past a certain age, I could probably count how many there are.  Somewhere along the way, I developed the same phobia.  To my credit though, I can take some pretty awful pictures.  My husband, who loves to take photos, calls what happens to me when a camera comes around as “turning into a gremlin.”  Exhibit A is the photo above.  My friend and I were on a girl’s trip to Jamaica and on our last day, she said, “Make a sad face for the camera.”  What you see is apparently what happens to my face when I’m sad.  For others, it’s a frown or a slight grimace, but I literally turn into a golem.  Such mutation has become the reason why I avoid having my picture taken, and if I must do it, from ever looking at the picture to avoid the self-criticism that will come with it.  But I wasn’t always this way.  There are countless pictures of me as a teenager and young adult being silly and clearly loving the camera.  Somewhere along the way worrying about how I look in a photo changed the way I think about myself.  Now I just accept it as fact that I take bad pictures most of the time, when that is not really the case.

But I don’t want my daughters to worry about how they look in pictures or to run when someone pulls out a camera.  There’s more at stake for me now that I’m a mom.  Thinking of myself as an anxious person, constantly thinking and expressing negativity, and ruminating on nonsense that doesn’t really matter will not only impact me (and my relationships with others), but how my daughters see me and themselves.  It’s just not a risk worth taking.

The shit storm will still be a-brewing, but I would rather acknowledge that I happen to have a disorder that I can control instead of believe that the disease is who I am and I just have to live with it.  It’s not easy, but it will be worth it.  And maybe I’ll learn how to take a better picture along the way.

 

What went well…

Matthieu Ricard

A while ago I heard Matthieu Ricard, “the happiest man in the world”, speak.  I sat beside a woman who made it her personal mission to help me.  She saved my seat for me with her beach tote, gave me the names of at least four books I now must read, and shoved her tickets for the rest of the weekend’s events into my hand before I could refuse her.  I felt so comfortable with her that I left my purse sitting on the chair beside her when I went to the bathroom.  How is it that some people can do that for us?

And then there are others who seem hell-bent on making it difficult ( I won’t mention the large haired woman who sat in front of me and blocked my view the whole time).  As an anxiety sufferer, I find that I am often the person who makes it most difficult for me.  For example, when the possibility of a friend being angry with me warps my whole mind to the point that I cannot sleep, even as the clock ticks toward midnight.

Why are we our own worst enemies when strangers work hard to be our best friends?

As this lovely woman chatted with me about books on happiness and well-being I found my thoughts drifting (extremely rude, given her considerate nature) to my future, as they often do.  I worried about my daughter at daycare, my husband at work, my colleagues at school, my friends.  When her voice cut through my anxiety with the phrase, “What went well,” I drifted back into the present.  She told me about recent research on how ending your day by listing the positive experiences, no matter how small, can significantly decrease anxiety and depression.

I’ve spent my whole day, my whole life really, plagued with thoughts about what went wrong.  It seems so simple, yet so hard, to turn those thoughts around.

So, here goes…

What Went Well Today:

1.  I spent time with myself, writing, painting, and reading.

2.  I got to watch my daughter laugh and play and live really hard.

3.  I laughed so hard my nostrils flared and I made weird noises because of something my husband said.

4.  Again, I wrote and read and painted.  And my mind has been spinning with words and ideas today.  That is a feat, especially since I’ve been in a year and half creative funk.

5.  I made a new friend who was kind to me.

That does feel good.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.