A friend recently remarked that she was super impressed with how much fun, enriching stuff I do with my kids. She mentioned seeing a group of photos I’d posted on social media of an outing my daughter and I took to a local farm, where we pet a lamb.
It had been an enchanting excursion. I won’t deny it. We were by the ocean and the scenery was lush and pastoral. Emily chased after chickens and we walked up to a fence to look at a bull with gigantic horns that looked like something out of a story book.
Then we got into the car to go home and Emily told me I was the worst mom in the world and she hated me because I wasn’t taking her to a restaurant for lunch.
So, I thanked my friend for her compliment of my pictures. And then I let her know Emily’s five-year-old opinion of me.
Sure I could have taken the compliment and allowed my ego to be stroked. But I happen to believe reality is important.
I also let my friend know that every photo of us doing something energetic and interesting represents a minuscule slice of our actual existence.
For every five minutes we are out doing something exotic, there are about three hours spent lolling around the house watching television, having tantrums, bickering, eye rolling, and sighing. Heavily.
I also do not incorporate photos of my never-ending laundry, toilet scrubbing, and refereeing sibling rivalry on social media. No one does. We all post the highlight reels. We post the pics that say “Look at me winning this impossible quest!”
We perpetuate our own mythology along with the collective mythology of modern day parenting.
It’s what we all do. Sorrynotsorry. No regrets. Because we are all on this seemingly never-ending struggle bus ride fraught with constant motion sickness and punctuated with momentary glimpses of something lovely out the window.
We all do it, but we all forget that we do it. That’s the problem. And that’s what leads us to compare with one another and feel like everyone else is out there having a better time. All the other moms are out there momming better, harder, and faster than we are.
Summertime seems to highlight this dynamic. At least it does for me. There seems to be this unspoken expectation that we are all going to be shiny, happy summer people, and that in addition to all the normal mom duties, we are also going to bring it in the areas of crafts, activities, and day trips to exotic ports of call like we are a deranged cruise director. Oh, and shit, I forgot about incorporating baking and sensory play. Gotta do it all.
I’m here to tell you, you do not have to do it all. I’m here to tell you, it is perfectly okay if this flurry of activity is not a realistic expectation for you. If you are tired, frustrated, or out of good ideas– it is all okay. If you just don’t feel like going outside today, also okay. Stay on the couch. Put in some Disney or Doctor Who. It’s all good. We all eventually get to the same place.
I personally don’t have the time or energy for being super creative mom of the year.
Of course it is important to do things with our children. In no way do I espouse neglect or unlimited screen time. Balance is key. Exercise is important. Hugs count. But…..
We do not need to be in constant motion and contact with our kids.
Kids need a break too. I’ll speak for me and mine. As a children of working parents, my kids have really long days– as long or longer than mine sometimes. Emily can usually be flexible and roll with the flow, but Jack needs a lot more down time. This makes it even trickier to balance their needs with my own. Societal demands, pressures, and expectations have no place in this equation for me.
It’s really hard not to let the social media highlight reels feed into the mythology of what summer and parenting is “supposed to be”. A lot of people I know have gotten off of social media for just that reason.
I’m learning to enjoy the posts of other parents without feeling threatened or pressured to do and be more, more, more. Because really, we are all already doing more than enough.
We are all more than mom enough.
It’s still a little dusky light out, and I’m lying in bed with my daughter, who’s already asleep. Tears slide down my cheeks as they usually do at this time of day. It’s become somewhat of a ritual. My crepuscular cry.
It pisses me the fuck off.
I’ve never cried so much in my life. It’s dumb. It feels shitty. Crying is supposed to make you feel better. It’s science. It releases good chemicals in your brain. I tell my clients all the time about the beautiful and sacred purpose of tears. All. The. Freaking. Time. But it never fails to make me feel like a failure and a fraud and just so fatigued.
It’s been a hard year. Probably the hardest.
I feel I have some sort of obligation to buy space in a newspaper and print a public apology to anyone who has known me over the past year. I’ve been a horrible train wreck of a human. I’ve been messy and loud and weird.
If you all could have known me a couple years ago, I want to say. If you had known me then. Those were the good days. Those were the times I bore some semblance to normal, when I could contain my Self better.
That was when I was at my old job. With E. just two doors down from me every day for years and years.
Those were the days when E. would leave me random clippings from the New York Times Sunday paper on my desk at work. She’d cut out stuff she thought I’d find interesting. I remember one about the healing power of fairy tales.
The memory of these flimsy papers brings a fresh wave of grief crashing down over my head. I’d read them and think of something pithy to say in return, then travel the five paces to her door to chat with her.
Those were the days when I was witty and reformed. If you had only known me then. Sure, I had my rough times, plenty of them. But I wasn’t broken. Not like I am now.
Changing jobs was really difficult in ways I never could have predicted, but I think I could have adapted a hell of a lot better if I hadn’t had the sudden trauma of E. up and dying on me last October.
It’s not just work and death. It’s motherhood and marriage and financial instability. It’s never having enough time or energy to brush my children’s hair and feed them breakfast. It’s all the piles of things that make me want to curl up in bed and daydream for three hours.
All the things. They have broken me.
The thought occurs to me that I might not ever get fixed again.
I blame a lot on E. and maybe that’s not fair. But seriously…
E.’s death changed me. I kept thinking I would trudge through the grief and get to the other side and things would “get back to normal” and I would “feel like myself again.” That doesn’t seem to be the case. I think E.’s death altered me at a molecular level, shifted my DNA in ways I won’t be able to figure out how to switch back.
The light is fading and I’m so tired. I consider falling asleep next to my daughter, but there is still a lot of laundry to do, coffee to set up for the morning, and messages to return to friends.
I think about going to work this week and my heart starts to race. I think about the stack of bills lying in wait on my desk and my stomach lurches. I’m no longer sleepy.
I try to think about how my five year old daughter rode her bike with no training wheels for the first time this weekend, and how my nine year old has his first band concert this week in which he will play the trumpet. What brilliant triumphs!
You see, I’m not a total Debbie Downer. I still get blissed out by these every day miracles. Life still has color and flavor and lots of sound. I take every opportunity I can to indulge in rampant laughter.
But mostly I’m adrift inside myself, lost in the space within me. I’m like an astronaut, untethered from her rocket and running low on oxygen, uncertain what will happen next.
It’s a scary image. I think of calling someone up and telling someone about it, but I can’t reach out because that is even scarier.
I’d like to go and sit in the grass with E. and talk to her. It is one of the only places where I feel at peace these days, and sometimes I feel frustrated when I can’t get there, but the thought occurs to me that you can’t live your life in a cemetery.
I roll onto my back and look up into the darkness of my daughter’s room.
I’ve stopped crying.
I know I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and panic at the brackish taste in my mouth. My mind will race back over all the things I said throughout the previous day and will try to remember if I said anything gravely wrong or damning to anyone.
I’ll get up and brush my teeth. I’ll look at my reflection and think it’s so weird to be up brushing my teeth at three in the morning, but it’ll ground me enough to go back to bed for a couple more hours.
I’m sorry I’m such a mess. I’m sorry I’m so much. I’m sorry I’m so disorganized and self absorbed. I’m sorry.
I think that’s why I tend to drift away. I get big and crazy and too intense and then feel the need to take myself somewhere else.
It’s been a hard year and I’m broken and I might not be fixable as I drift farther and farther away from things I thought I knew.
The Hillary Step is a 40-foot wall of rock and ice at the top of Mt. Everest. It lies in the “death zone,” the altitude above which there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life for more than a day or two. By the time most climbers get to this point on Earth’s tallest mountain, their brains and bodies are starved for oxygen, making every step a burden. Hypoxia can cause climbers to hallucinate, opening the door to danger, disaster, and death.
Or so I have read.
For the record, I have never been to Everest. Nor do I climb mountains. Ice, snow, and heights are so not my thing. But over the past decade, I have become obsessed with stories of mountaineering, and read a dozen books on Himalayan expeditions.
What strength and hubris do climbers possess to scale a 29,000 foot mountain? How do men and women leave their cozy homes and beloved families to put their lives into risk of dismemberment and death? The tales of survival and rescue are grizzly, but also spellbinding and suspenseful.
I am also fascinated by the Sherpa. This Buddhist folk has a rich and mystical culture. Without their hearty endurance for high altitude while carrying huge loads of gear and supplies, ascent of Everest would be impossible.
These stories take me out of my element to an exotic locale where I will most likely never travel.
At least not physically.
Mentally and emotionally, I think of Thursdays as my Hillary Step- my last big push before the summit of Friday, and the descent into the base camp of the weekend, where I can breathe a little easier.
Thursdays are my long day. I kiss the kids good bye and do not see them for 11 hours. By the time I get home, around 7:30 pm, the children are exhausted. Both they and my husband are grumpy. I am hungry and tired myself, but set that aside to help finish homework, nurse, read stories, and kiss good night.
I wonder what David Breashears, acclaimed mountaineer, film maker, and author of some my favorite Everest books, would say about me comparing my life as a working mom to scaling an 8,000 meter mountain? No doubt, he would call me an “Armchair Alpinist,” or something of the like, with a haughty snort. (Mr. Breashears, by the way, if you have googled yourself and hit on my blog, I think you are sexy as all hell and would love to shake your hand, even if you are snorting haughtily at me!)
This much I understand: There is monumental mindfulness in mountaineering.
Climbers are totally in the present moment. A climber puts his or her life, and the lives of anyone else on the mountain, at risk if they are not completely aware of their breath, body, and surrounding at every moment. A misstep could trigger an avalanche or send them plummeting thousands of feet to their death.
My office is plastered with calendar pictures of Hawaii. I have trained my brain to respond to a quick glance of these pictures of surf and palm trees with a little endorphin boost, to help me through stressful times. Hawaii is my “happy place,” without a doubt.
But sometimes, I close my eyes and imagine myself clinging to a blue wall of ice and snow. There is peace, silence but for the sound of my breath, raspy in my oxygen mask. I hold on and calculate where next to plunge my axe, place my crampon. I do so, with great deliberation, and then slide my carabiner up the fixed-rope, open my eyes, and move on to my next task. (Yes, Mr. Breashears, in my imagination, I do climb with bottled oxygen and fixed-ropes. Mock away.)
So, no, people do not die if I happen to screw up at my job or in my home. The only avalanche in social work is of paperwork, and at home the only thing I have resembling a crevasse is my never-ending pile of laundry. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t equally important for me to be mindful of each and every step.
From what I understand, there is euphoria at the top of the mountain, and joy in the art of climbing. But this is not to say that every moment on the mountain is a joy. I’ve never read any climber write that they relished a bivouac at 27,000 feet with 100 mile per hour winds whipping around their tent, sleepless in minus 30 degree temps.
If that isn’t analogous to my journey as a parent, then I don’t know what is.
Originally posted on Momaste 1/21/13. Sharing again at this time as a Throwback Thursday post because it just seems particularly applicable. Thanks for reading, and I always love to hear your thoughts in the comments section! xoxo.
If you’ve been following along over the past months, you may have noticed my once plucky mommy blog has been devoted almost entirely to the death of one of my best friends.
E. died in October. She died suddenly, or at least it seemed sudden to me. Had my eyes been open, I might have seen it really was not so sudden. She’d been ill. I’d been in denial. Part of my grief’s rawness these past months is in acknowledging that, had I not been in denial about her age and health, I might have had prioritized more opportunities to see her, to love her, to speak and share with her.
Sometimes I don’t make the time I should. While juggling the responsibilities of my life as a working mom and wife, I forget to make the call or send the card. I’m not assertive enough about making plans with people. It’s a crappy excuse, and an even crappier feeling to realize you missed a chance because you were stupidly blinded by the day to day.
I take comfort in knowing my last interaction with her was loving, sweet, and happy. And about a week before she died, I left a voice mail for her which ended, as it always ended, in “I love you.”
I’ve also taken comfort in writing about her.
E. was my first major loss. It doesn’t matter that I’m a therapist with training in grief and trauma. When you experience this stuff for the first time, it’s like any other new, uncomfortable experience. I’m bumbling through the dark tunnel, and channeling my frustration, and sorrow into posts and poems.
Grieving as a mom has also been challenging.
When E. first died, a friend said she hoped I could find space to grieve because it’s hard to do when you are a working mom, already stretched translucently thin. I’ve thought a lot about this over the past couple months- how as moms it is so hard to find the space we need to integrate all of our parts into one cohesive package. We can’t sit around and cry in bed when kids need to be brought to school, karate, and dance; need to be fed, washed, and snuggled. We still have to rise and go to work to keep heat on and food stocked.
In some ways, I wonder if my grief is taking me twice as long to “go through” because I pigeon hole it into these tiny chunks. As moms, we keep bits of ourselves in little boxes, high up on shelves. It seems we rarely have time to take them down, open them up and spread the contents all over, let alone pack it all back up in the proper compartments. I tell myself things like, “If I just hold it together for the next seven hours, I can cry in the car on my commute home.”
It’s exhausting, but it is what it is.
Despite the lack of time and energy, I’ve tried staying emotionally open to lessons this time has to teach me. I’ll share what I came up with so far:
1. It sounds like a cliche, but if I learned one thing about bereavement, it is that talking and sharing about the lost loved one helps. A selection of special people have been ready, willing, and able to bear witness to my memories and stories about E., and this blessing has not escaped me as it heals the heart.
2. Part of me knows I will look back on this time and see it as something precious, painful though it has been. E.’s final gift to me was the realization, that in leaving of this earthly plane, love remains stronger and truer than ever. There are ways we still connect and touch one another. It is a time rich in wonder and affection.
The intensity of the emotion paints layers of it’s own complex beauty onto my existence.
I haven’t written much about my kids, family, or life as a working mom. I’m still doing and feeling all the stuff that goes along with being a mother, but in my writing all of that has taken a back seat to my need to process my friend’s death. Anyway, there isn’t really anything new or different I can say about all of that right now. I’ve had mixed feelings about this shift in content, but it has needed to be, so I let it. Which leads me to my next lesson of sorts. . .
3. It is more helpful to hold our pain, sit with it, cradle it and explore its bizarre face than it would be to cover it up and hide it away. In my professional training, I learned, years ago, that trying to suppress trauma is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. It is slippery, unwieldy, and untenable. When I sit with client’s in the crisis of grief, I often share this analogy with them. I’ve been granted an opportunity to practice what I preach.
These lessons seem to be gifts from beyond.
Even as I embrace these things, I feel uncertain. Someone remarked that dealing with grief is almost like having another child to care for. It’s an apt analogy. And as though I am holding a newborn child, I am wondering if I am doing it right, if it will like and respond to my touch, if I will be able to handle it.
My uncertainty lies in the fear people won’t like or understand my current poems; that people will get bored with me and stop reading; that people won’t appreciate how fully my blog has shifted from life of a working mother to dealing with death. I worry people won’t see the connection.
But there’s always a connection, tenuous though it may be.
Being a mom is my most important role in life. I mean, two living and breathing organisms kind of count on me to keep them alive. But other parts of me sometimes do not get the time and attention they truly need. My blog gives me space to process and complete my emotional self so I can tackle the other stuff I need to do. It helps me integrate and consolidate the contents of all the little boxes into the whole me.
I have faith in myself and in the process. Being a mom may have prepared me to patiently nurture and understand grief, even as it has complicated my grieving process. We are always stronger and more flexible than we think or dream. Sooner or later, I’ll get back to writing about all of the other stuff. In the mean time, thank you for bearing with me and for bearing witness. Every like, comment, and share has meant more to me than I can properly explain.
“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I’ll stay there forever.” –Winnie the Pooh
E. was one of the loves of my life.
I say that without any sense of histrionic hyperbole whatsoever.
I was infatuated with her, but not in the typical sense of the word. There was never anything sexual about my attraction to her, although in a weird way that probably only I can understand, there was a romance to our kinship.
My adoration of her was purely psycho spiritual. She was my hero.
And she loved me back.
I have tangible proof of her love in almost every room of my home, in my office, in my yard, things I can touch and see and smell. I have photos of us together and anyone can see in our smiles how happy we are to be together. Physical artifacts and evidence of a well worn relationship.
It was a love and a friendship beyond reason. Unconditional and rare. At least it was to me.
She was 32 years my senior, but our simpatico had an ageless quality. We spoke the same language. When she came into work singing “I feel pithy, oh so pithy!” I totally got the joke. And when I shared with her about the tiny and sweet moments of my life as a mom, she understood.
That’s it, you know? She loved me and she understood me.
And now she’s dead.
In the weeks since her passing, I’ve found myself asking that refrain from the infamous Tegan and Sara song, “where does the good go?”
Where is E.’s love in the wake of her death? Where is her unwavering belief in me? Where is her laughter at my jokes, along with her zany retorts? Where is her tenderness?
You’re probably asking yourself where my mommy blog went. . . It seems my space has become a darkened cemetery of posts. But it is what it needs to be for the moment.
I want to tell you about her. I want to talk about her. I want to repeat all of our conversations and replay all of our banter. I want to show you the cards she wrote me. I want to tell you how I stretched out over her grave, nuzzled my face into the grass and cried huge, fat tears and found it muddy on my skin when I came up for air. I want you to know I’m not crazy; I’m just grieving and I miss her.
I want to tell you how she changed my life.
I want to get all of this out of my system, and then I want to do it all over again.
I want you to sit and listen, with rapt attention that never wavers, even when I’ve told you everything for the hundredth time.
Because that’s what E. would do.
Maybe that’s why I go to her grave so often. Maybe that’s why I talk to her incessantly about my days. Maybe that’s why I play “Younger than Springtime” into the grass above her, wondering if the sound waves make it through the earth to the cherry wood of her casket.
Maybe that’s why I weep and look for signs everywhere that I can weave into the story of her and me so it doesn’t have to be over just yet.
Maybe that’s why I need you to hear me, to believe me.
Maybe that is why I need to believe that E. can still hear me.
Because in hearing me, she made me feel real.
She never seemed to care that I was desperately insecure, anxious, and mercurial as a Siamese cat.
She held all the parts of me I could not tolerate. She stroked them, smoothed them down until they were almost charming. She made me love myself just by sitting there with open ears. She allowed me to look at myself through her eyes until I saw myself the way she saw me. And gosh, I was pretty.
She was a captive audience. And so it seems she is now, even more than ever but it is in such a strange and intangible fashion. It makes me doubt.
The days pass. Most of the time I’m really okay. Most of the time I’m happy and doing what I need to do.
Other days, grief snags me with its sharp and mocking edge. I fall inward and knock around inside myself, searching for answers.
Who am I without you, E.? What would you tell me? How am I supposed to do this without you? When will I learn how to love after death, and will I keep feeling your love for me?
I know the answers, even though I don’t really like them.
There was a time I sat crying with a friend in recent days. I was frustrated and overwhelmed with life and had twisted it all up into an existential tornado. I was blessed by my friend’s empathy and patience with me in that moment. She helped to hold and accept the mess of me, and the nature of that compassion allowed me to connect, not just with her, but with a sense of universal constancy. Trusting her gave me the courage to trust myself, to listen.
E.’s voice came to me, clear as a bell.
We do not find you lacking.
It was what she would say to me to shine a light into my neuroses and set me at ease. Those were the words that answered every question.
They still do. It’s just that now I have to say them for myself, chant them until they are tattooed in my marrow, until my body resonates at their frequency. Then, I can laugh through the tears and know her with my heart, like I always did.