Just don’t say ‘if you just…’

Ever had a problem; been frustrated, angry or a little depressed; felt stuck? Ever had someone tell you, “Well, if you just did this ______, you’d be fine?”

I’ve had people say that to me. And it shuts me up. It doesn’t help me, but it stops me from talking to those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it to someone else; I hope I haven’t. I know I’ve thought it. But at least for a long while now, I’ve known better than to say it out loud. And I’ve tried to remind myself of the truth:

Any one of us can have problems and challenges that, compared with someone else, somewhere, can look tiny, easily surmountable. Sometimes it’s helpful to realize others have it worse. If we look at our lives with appreciation and gratitude for the good things we have, it can help. But usually, trying to tell ourselves logically (or have someone else “helpfully” do so) that our problems shouldn’t be such a big deal does squat for our feelings.

Here’s why: we are allowed to feel how we feel. We’re meant to feel. We’re meant to have feelings in response to life situations, whether they’re kind of everyday things or unusual things. We’re meant to have all kinds of feelings all over the spectrum of emotion. And those feelings include “bad” ones. We’re meant to just feel those feelings. And what usually happens is once we allow ourselves to feel them, really feel them, we can move on to other feelings about other life events.

The problem is when we stunt that natural process by telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling “so bad” or by having someone else tell us so. It stops us from moving through the feelings, talking or thinking through the ideas and emotions.

Same applies to things we could or should be doing or doing better, not just what we’re feeling. Likely we’re comparing something we’re just naturally not so good at with something that really is easy for someone else, so we feel inadequate. Or we could compare something that’s easy for us with something someone else finds more challenging. And we say those dreaded words: “Just do ___.”

We all not only have a complex mix of weaknesses, strengths, natural talents and acquired skills, but we are at different stages in life. Something that was hard for us 20 years ago might be much easier now. Ditto for those around us. And something that was easy for us a year ago might be harder now because our circumstances are more challenging in other areas or we’re struggling with events that are zapping our emotional strength.

For me, I’m finding that I am feeling a general sadness in one layer of myself/my life because my oldest daughter got married a few weeks ago and moved out. But I hate to say anything to anyone because it just “seems silly.” She lives only an hour’s drive away and we can talk and visit. Every other parent my age has already had children go off to college or serve as missionaries for our church, during which time they’re gone for a solid 18 or 24 months and only generally in contact via email or letter once a week. So I feel ridiculous saying out loud that I’m grieving a little over the “loss” in a way of my first, amazing child. But it does make me sad she’s not around all the time anymore. I miss the daily interaction and talks and jokes and hugs and smiles and everything that was our relationship while I was raising her. Things are changing, have changed. It’s real to me. But I don’t want to say anything to anyone else for fear of being compared, of essentially having my feelings belittled because their “loss” is bigger. Their child is across the country or across the world … or something “bigger.”

I also find that I feel down on myself because I have generally been doing well with eating healthy, cutting out sugar and a lot of carbs, this past 10 months or so. But the past month, since right before my daughter’s wedding and since, I just haven’t had it in me to “diet” properly. I’ve been eating junk, and lots of it, and I feel physically yucky. I feel bad because I had done so well. But I also realize that circumstances are different: I’m “recovering” from all the work and stress of preparing for my daughter’s wedding; my kids are now out of school for the summer and my “alone time” is a lot less; I’m adjusting to the change of our family dynamics, and I’m trying to “play catch-up” for some work and things that got put on hold with all I did for the wedding (because I am not just an awesome mom but very capable in planning things and organizing, and the wedding was awesome too). In short, it takes a lot of work for ME to eat well. And even though I feel yucky physically and would really like to feel better, I have to have the emotional and mental energy to focus on taking care of myself, truly properly. Others might say (and heaven knows plenty of “professionals” and bloggers say) “just do it.” Just stop eating sweets. Just stop emotional eating. Right now, for me, it’s akin to saying, “Just stop smoking. It’s so easy.” I’ve never smoked, but I have certainly heard how hard it is to stop.

I’m trying to allow myself to feel, to validate my own feelings. I’m talking to a few trusted friends who are kind enough to listen and validate as well. I’m also trying to allow myself not to take it too hard that I’ve gained a few pounds and am having a hard time with the junk food. Because I also know that I’ll be fine soon enough and will get back to where I should be. If I’m not there at this very moment, today, it’s OK. I will be soon. And that’ll be OK.

In short, I’m giving myself permission to feel, to not be “my best.” And I strive to do that for others. When they talk about feelings or issues they’re struggling with, I know that even if they sound “easy” for me, they’re not easy for them. I nod, I listen, I hug. I say, to them and to myself, “That is hard. I’m sorry you’re going through that. I love you and care about you.” And it’s true, and that’s really all it takes.

Partnering with and struggling against at the same time

The Gilbert Arizona Temple, photo courtesy of lds.org
The Gilbert Arizona Temple, photo courtesy of lds.org

I just came across this brief article about a Jewish rabbi visiting a newly built temple of my faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “What I learned from visiting the new Mormon temple.” I am always interested to hear what others think about visiting our sacred sites, and I enjoy discussion and interaction with other people of faith, regardless of their doctrines or denominations. I heartily agree that we can all learn from each other, which is hardly a revelation, but a simple but important reminder. What struck me tonight was this sentence from his article: “My Jewish beliefs are strongly built on the Jewish idea of covenant (humans as partners with God) and Israel (humans wrestling with God).”

This really encapsulates what I’ve been experiencing myself, today alone, and the past weeks. I’ve been going back and forth, sometimes within minutes or hours, between the partnering with God and the wrestling with God. I have moments of clarity, of Spirit, of confidence that I can keep moving forward, of just-enough-hope, and then moments of frustration, anger, sadness, fear, and not-enough-hope. I’m seesawing.

I am all too aware of my firm belief that we lived as spirit beings with God before coming to this life. We knew we were coming here, and it was part of a plan for us to grow from spiritual toddlers to at least spiritual adolescents (that last bit is my little twist). I believe that I accepted and understood, at least in some measure, that life would be challenging, most of the time. But for some reason, right now, with whatever mixture of things that are working on me (a series of particularly challenging events, my particular chemical balances or imbalances, my background, my expectations, my hopes for my own future and those of my children …), I’m finding it difficult to feel consistently optimistic about my ability to just keep up, to keep pushing forward, “enduring to the end,” as scripture puts it. I’m wondering just how much faith I had in myself back in that time I can’t remember right now, when I was eager to come to this life, even knowing some degree of how difficult it would be. The question always is: how much did I really know then? How could I really know without having experienced it yet?

I’m really digging down deep to try to change some ingrained mental habits, and they’re fighting back hard. I know that my faith is both getting me through/should be getting me through. I’m trying to figure out how to truly rely on God at a level I most surely have not yet attained. I am all too aware that I’m trying to do too much on my own without being yoked with the Savior. But getting from point A, where I am, to point B, where I know I could/should be, is a bit of a mystery to me at this very moment.

My spirit soars when I experience those moments of covenant, of successfully partnering with God to do something good, to serve and uplift someone else, to create, to make something or someone better. But I’m still struggling mightily. I’m coming to appreciate more fully the concept of wrestling.

So this evening, I thank this good rabbi for his simple words. He probably had no idea what sharing a brief blurb about his beliefs would do for my thinking. I’m still going to be wrestling for a while, but it’s a mitzvah to have new insights.

Beyond compare

The past months have just seemed nonstop stressful (well, to be completely honest and accurate, they’ve been nearly-nonstop stressful; I’ve had a few days here and there that weren’t). With the holidays and some big projects wrapped up, I now stand at the beginning of a new year.

While I’m not striving for a “new year, new me” (I cringe every time I see that in any media source the first few weeks of any January), I really have been searching within to figure out what I can do a bit better for myself, so I can feel less stressed even as life is most definitely going to continue to be hectic. After all, I’m launching an adult into the world in mere months, to provide just one example of the life experiences I’m going through. (Giving birth is a big job and one that launches a new person into the world after nine months of gestation; at this stage, I’ve been actively parenting for 18 years to make sure this person can be a full-fledged independent being. It’s exhilarating and all of a sudden terrifying.)

I’ve noted, not for the first time, that I compare myself, my strengths, weaknesses, abilities, energies, visible-to-others “products” (children, writing and editing projects, volunteering efforts), etc., to those of others all the time. Social media is a blessing in many ways, connecting me at least in small part with far-flung friends who bring various gifts into my life, but it can also be a nasty tool for comparison. Day in and day out, I see photos of friends my age who still have the same figure (at least what I can see) they had 20 years ago; I see perfect family portraits; I see kids of these friends who are doing unbelievably impressive things in music or sports. It’s easy to look askance at my own figure, which is now no longer the one I had even a decade ago; to briefly (and, honestly, selfishly) wish I’d put my kids in more activities and lessons so they could do more with their own talents; to wonder why I cannot get just four kids to smile normally all at the same time.

Even worse, I compare my current self, at age 43 years and 8 months, to the self I was (or at least imagined I was, which might be more accurate) a decade or two ago. This body is 50 pounds heavier than it was at those times, when I wore a size-6 dress and had a great figure and pretty, shapely calves. To be honest, my habits aren’t much different. I have exercised an hour every day for 20 years. I have generally eaten healthy. But I now struggle mightily with my weight. (I emotionally eat and always have, and at times it’s worse than others, but it hits me harder now.)

In examining myself, I feel weak, impatient, tired, not nearly as capable as I used to be. I almost felt I had the parenting thing down somewhere in the middle of this 18-year mothering journey I’ve been on so far: I had fewer worries for my girls and felt I’d hit my stride. Now that they’re older and the stakes feel higher somehow, it’s a whole new world and I once again feel inadequate more than I’d like.

I mostly pinpointed maybe 10 years ago the kinds of mental challenges that are my particular “cross to bear” and have been on medication pretty much ever since, have consistently gone to counseling, have tried to stay aware of where I am so I can stay or get balanced. But even with the awareness, the knowing, I am honestly terrible at balancing out my capacity to give and do with what I think I need to do and be. My mental mouth is always bigger than my emotional stomach: I put so much on my plate and live to regret it. (I either metaphorically stuff myself or throw the plate against the wall…)

I guess I feel frustrated with myself because I still somehow don’t get it yet. I don’t feel a whole heck of a lot different, stronger, wiser, than I did when I was younger. I’m just older and tireder and flabbier.

I see people around me who have double the number of kids I do. I see peers who have experienced the death of a child or a spouse, who have gone through cancer, who have what I’d term other real crises or catastrophic events. One part of me thinks when considering those things, “I should feel more appreciative of what I have” (and I really am appreciative and grateful), and another part speaks up: “I can barely handle the challenges I have, and they don’t seem nearly as ‘big’ or ‘bad’ as those others’ challenges. Man, I’m a mess if I fall apart at stupid little things.” I compare my trials to others’ trials and come up feeling inadequate! Now that’s pretty ridiculous.

So that’s where I’m at. At least part of me is an optimist, someone who’s very grateful and happy for all I have and get to experience in life. I readily smile; it truly is the natural and comfortable way for my facial muscles to arrange themselves. Even so, I can easily feel disappointed in myself for just not “getting it,” even after what should be plenty of opportunities to do so.

I guess the truth is that I really have grown stronger and more resilient as life has thrown me the same kinds of trials, just constantly tweaked, over and over. I just can’t tell. It’s not obvious. Maybe if I were able to put my current self back into what I thought was a difficult time 15 or 20 years ago, I’d sail right through without batting an eyelash. But life doesn’t usually give us that kind of opportunity. It keeps upping the ante, tightening the screws, adding on five pounds of weight to the stack as we lift.

Meantime, I keep lifting. I will also keep working on rewording my thoughts and inner instantaneous reactions so I don’t compare my right-now self to my earlier self or anyone else. I suspect I won’t be completely successful in this life, but I’ll edge ever so closer.

I’m that kind of mom

As I pulled the peanut butter muffins from the oven the other night at 9 p.m., I thought, “Now, this is the kind of mom I am.”

Yes, I am that mom who bakes. I’m also the mom who cooks dinner every night. I “spoil” my family a bit by making them breakfast, too. Sometimes.

Yes, I bake. A lot. Muffins are a breakfast favorite.

But I don’t make breakfast every day, at least on school days. And I do NOT get up early so it can be fresh. No, if I feel like making breakfast on a school day for my husband and kids, I make it the night before so I can sleep in. Muffins will still be tasty but not hot from the oven, guys. Either you eat them cold, or you can have them warm if you give ’em 12 seconds in the microwave.

I’m the kind of mom who does things on my own schedule, at least when it’s possible.

I’m not the kind of mom who does everything I find on Pinterest. It’s fun to browse and get ideas for cool projects or decoration or holidays or … whatever. But I’m not fool enough to think I need to actually DO all that stuff. Honestly, I think Pinterest has just upped the ante yet another 10 notches on what seems to have become competitive parenting.

I am the kind of mom who reads to my kids, or has read to them for much of their young lives. I can’t help it; I love books. I have shelves and shelves of them. There are bookshelves in all the bedrooms, as well as the living room and office.

I’m not the kind who schleps my kids to all kinds of activities and lessons. Two of my girls take piano lessons. And that’s it on the scheduled stuff. My philosophy is the old-school one that holds that kids need plenty of free time to find their own way, be creative, play, figure things out on their own. Plus, I just don’t have the money to pay for gymnastics, dance, etc., and I don’t have time and energy to taxi them around nonstop after 3 p.m. They don’t play organized sports, either. I love to exercise, and I want them to be active, but I admit I’m personally not very good at sports. So, yeah, that’s kind of influenced my parenting. But my girls have plenty of opportunity to play and be active. We have a pool in the back yard, a swingset and slide, a basketball hoop, and other outdoor play stuff.

I’m a mama bear when I need to be. Some things that happen to my kids (at school, primarily) make me instantaneously morph into werebear. But the rest of the time, I try to let them figure things out themselves. I am not going to step in and take care of little details. I don’t have time and energy for that, and they need to learn. Simple as that.

I’m the kind of mom who still spends plenty of time reading. If dinner’s half an hour later than our “usual” time sometimes, so be it. If I’m sitting at the computer writing or doing my freelance editing, they know they will not get a welcoming response if they ask me something that isn’t truly urgent. And it almost never is, believe me.

It’s difficult to have a “life of my own” (which is still a fluid concept, open for definition and tricky to pin down) with four daughters, from a high school senior down to a first-grader. But I certainly do try. If I don’t get some free time, some quiet time, some space to myself to regenerate and let my mind wander and my body rest, I am a prickly, mean mom. So for the happiness of everyone, I need that time to myself. Balancing the right amounts of that is, again, tricky. But they know that I need it and I know they feel the difference in the atmosphere when I haven’t had “me” time.

I’m that kind of mom. I nearly wear myself out for my family much of the time. I’d do whatever is necessary to do what’s best for them. I absolutely ADORE my girls. I am in awe of them. They are beautiful inside and out and amazing and talented and funny and sweet.

But I’m the kind of mom who will never say “my children are my life.”

Right now, of necessity for their well being, their needs take up much of my time and energy, but I am still ME and have a SELF that’s not defined by being their mom. I have a life, and my children are a big part of it. I love that. I chose that. It’s seriously hard work. But I’m the kind of mom who values my individuality and still has goals that don’t directly involve my kids.

Yep, I’m all kinds of things. On some fronts, I’m the kind of mom who “does it all.” On others, I might seem to do too little. But I’m a great kind of mom.

Running too fast makes you … tired.

The older I get, the more I realize there are certain lessons I’m just not learning, despite life’s intentions otherwise. One big one is this: I fall victim to one of the classic blunders—the most famous of which is, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”—

Oh, whoops. I mean, I fall victim to one of my own classic blunders: trying to race through a marathon when I should be walking steadily, turtle-like. A scripture I find quite true but somehow manage to keep ignoring says to serve others, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. But very wisely it goes on to say, “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.”

Lately, all in the name of doing good for others, I have been running mental and emotional marathons, at the rate of probably 50 miles a day, and stopping only very briefly for breaks. A little water and food here and there, maybe a quick bathroom stop. I’ve almost managed to keep running at this crazy and unwise pace. I’ve powered through walls, I’ve kept going in hopes of second winds, I’ve told myself that I’m “almost there” a hundred times, only to find that the race is far from over. And sure enough, I’ve now managed to spectacularly flame out. I’ve collapsed in the middle of the road, nearly getting trampled by other runners, and I’m just getting myself over to the sidelines, where I can continue to heave and pant and moan.

empty track
The road’s looking a little fuzzy from where I am right now…

Yes, I have four daughters — plus an exchange student — living at home. One is a senior in high school and is in the middle of applying to colleges. The second has Down syndrome and certainly causes some excitement (see my previous post if you don’t know what I mean). The third is a precocious sixth-grader, the fourth a six-year-old who has very definite ideas about how she wants to live her life, which tend to run contrary to how the rest of us see things. My responsibilities toward these growing people are certainly demanding enough, so when you add in my own interests (editing for pay, writing for fun, running a book-review website for the benefit of other like-minded readers, reading, exercising, spending time with my husband of 20 years) PLUS the commitments that I’ve perhaps foolishly made (the past couple of years it’s been a hefty investment of time and energy to the band boosters, to just name one), it’s more than this one woman can carry.

People who don’t know me well (maybe) keep telling me they “don’t know how I do it.” Others who do know me well keep telling me I need to start saying “no.” The answers: I’m not doing it: I’m coming apart at the seams. To those who tell me to say no, I’ve only been able to reply (wail?), “But how???” Because that has been the question of the year. I’ve had no idea how to stop what I’ve already started.

So what’s happened now is I’ve fallen apart and found myself unable to continue. So instead of even walking slowly along the race route, I’m splayed out on the ground. I’m hoping that soon I can regain my wits and strength and start limping again, slowly making some progress.

I’ve had to quit the band boosters mid-year because I simply can’t function anymore; someone else will have to step in. Today, I went to see my therapist a week and a half earlier than I had scheduled because I had to have someone to talk to, to think aloud with, to vent to; to tell about my frustration, my disappointment, my exhaustion. I have an appointment in two days with my psychiatrist, who monitors the medication that keeps me (mostly) “normal” or what I would call on a baseline with others who don’t have the mental-health challenges I have. Perhaps I’ll find some ways to really recuperate and regain my strength so I can once again take up the baton and jog a little down the race course.

I’d like to think I’ll learn something from this latest flame-out. I know I’m trying. Balancing all the responsibilities in life and my desires to do good and make a difference with my own body’s mental and physical needs is a very, very delicate job, and it’s one I’m far from mastering. The problem is when I have some spare energy, I immediately want to use it to do something good for someone else, when perhaps I should be keeping some in reserve. I have to remember the rainy days and save for them in my mental-health bank even when the skies are perfectly clear and blue right now. That’s hard.

I’m likely going to need the rest of my life to learn how to balance, to keep energy in reserve, to really carefully exercise wisdom to gauge when to say yes and when to say no, to keep running or kick in a burst of speed or slow down to a trot or a walk. But I’m going to keep trying.

My resolution? Not to make any resolutions

I triumphantly announced a couple of days ago that I’d managed to check a couple of major items off my to-do list. Rather than being excited for me, my husband countered, “Well, are you going to add any more things onto the list?” Sadly, he knows me all too well.

2013I am a type-A personality, capital A. I have always been goal-oriented, planning and working for the future. That personality served me well in school, leading me to be valedictorian of my high school class and earn a full-tuition scholarship to my desired university. Since then, it’s not been quite as useful, at least in day-to-day life. In fact, it’s probably downright detrimental when raising children. ‘Cause honestly, it’s pretty difficult to get things done efficiently when the house is full of children. They do not care that I have a list of things to do. Their raison d’etre is to prevent me from doing anything for myself, having any quiet time, or reaching goals.

Even so, I don’t know any different way of doing things, so I forge through every day with kids, taking care of them and squeezing in my goals and to-do’s and trying to think straight in the moments they’re not asking me for something. It’s like swimming upstream in molasses. But since I am so programmed to check things off a list, I just keep swimming, regardless of how thick the water is.

So making resolutions at the beginning of a calendar year is completely pointless. One, I make goals (aka resolutions) every single day. I simply CAN’T HELP MYSELF! Two, I’m already so busy with the goals I’ve already set for myself that coming up with new ones simply because it’s January means I don’t have time to work on the new ones; I barely have time for the old ones.

Therefore, I am resolving to not make any more goals, at least until I’m caught up on the lists that are scribbled on scratch paper on my desk, on the yellow sticky-note program on my computer desktop, and the ones that just crowd my head. Perhaps I can demote myself from a capital-A type-A personality to a lowercase-a. We’ll see. That’s the most grandiose resolution I’ve ever considered.

Building bridges to others’ islands

bridgeStill thinking about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Not just for itself, but for all the implications of the tragedy and what our society should take away from it to improve. I’ve also had some family issues that have played into this topic that have weighed on my mind quite heavily. Again, as I wrote about the other day, I am not going to go into issues of gun control versus unfettered gun availability. It’s an incredibly divisive topic and one that both can’t be solved (most likely) and can’t solve all the problems we’ve been seeing in our society.

Individuals’ mental health and happiness is what either makes our society better for everyone or, conversely, makes it more difficult for everyone, if it’s not tended carefully enough. I firmly believe that families are the central unit of society, and I don’t think that there would be too much argument with me when I say that the family is breaking down. We have many single-parent families and many children who simply are not getting the nurturing they need for a LOT of reasons. Families provide an automatic place of refuge and help when any member has a need of any kind. So what happens when families throughout society are broken? Many individuals have no one to go to for help. Fortunately, some have friends and other caring people in their lives who can be a second line of “defense,” but many others do not have that. What’s left is either no one or the government. Neither is an adequate source of complete help. As much as we try to shore up and improve government programs, they simply cannot replace or do as good a job as families, in most cases.

Yeah, yeah, I’m being an idealist here. But what’s wrong with trying to reach for the best, with trying to get our society back to a place where it truly could make people better and happier? Why can’t we improve those lines of defense and help, and shore up families? It would help so much more than anything stopgap we could create through government (and no, I am NOT saying there should be no government programs; I am saying they cannot replace the ideal).

The truth of the matter is that each of us needs a group of people who care for us and about us and who can be depended on in times of need. Sadly (and please, if you are my friends or family, do not take this as an indictment or rebuke but maybe just a little hint of encouragement), there have been times I’ve felt alone and misunderstood, particularly when I’ve been in my worst places mental-health-wise. I know that it can be difficult to understand and really help me at those times, but it’s still worth a try. (I think I’m worth it! 🙂 ) I so appreciate family members and close friends who have reached out at those times to just talk, listen, or do something encouraging and supportive. Every little gesture means a lot.

I suppose that’s why I feel so sensitive to those around me. I can just feel their pain and loneliness and helplessness sometimes, and I want to be able to help. Sometimes I can do something useful; other times I can’t. But I try and I pray.

Each of us needs help, and those in our circles need help, at one time or another. The people who have done the most heinous crimes in society (particularly who have histories of mental illness that’s unchecked/untreated) have needed someone to pay attention and do something. As I wrote before, sometimes even with our best help, because of society’s lack of understanding of mental illness and the current regulations and laws that are in place, the family members and friends of those who are struggling simply have their hands tied and can’t do a darn thing. But in other cases, something could change if a few more people just listened and saw a few signs.

No man is an island. No child, no woman. We’re all connected, and while we can’t possibly help everyone out there (I’ve written about that too!), we can each do a little better to pay attention and be sensitive. We can’t solve others’ problems, but we can provide an idea or two if appropriate or we can simply listen or say something kind or encouraging. We can reach out. Build a bridge to someone else’s island.

That can begin in our families. No doubt that if we are related somehow, we should be there for a family member in need, if at all possible. And those in our other circles can benefit from our improved “radar.”

Just do a little better. Keep your eyes open and your ears listening a bit more. Say something, do something. It’ll benefit our whole society.

The best moms … know their limits

Much talk has been made over the years and even recently about “good moms” or moms who “do everything for their kids” and so on. The Time piece titled “Are You Mom Enough?” stirred quite a bit of controversy and buzz. But there are clearly as many ways to parent out there as there are parents. I would venture to say that a number of those methods employed by some parents are probably not so great, but in general, most parents get the job done passably well. But I think what bugs me the most is when people make judgments about parents whose kids are doing just fine and start saying that their parenting style is lacking. About a month ago, right around the time I was in dire need of a little me time, a Facebook “friend” posted that she was so disappointed in all the mothers who were complaining that their kids were driving them crazy. She ended by saying, “It’s about attitude!” I gently responded with a couple of kindly worded comments to the effect that just because some of us mothers were rightfully saying our kids were making us nuts (this is summertime, people!), it doesn’t make us bad parents. Just normal. A few hours later, my comments (which were completely appropriate) had been deleted. What the heck, man?! But that’s a whole other story.

Let’s just say that I consider myself in many ways a pretty normal, typical mom. For years, women have dreaded the summer months in which a passel of kids would be constantly underfoot and looked forward to school starting again (even a popular Christmas song refers to the relatively short winter break: “And mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”). So feeling nutty here at the end of the summer does not make me an unusual mom, let alone a bad one.

I will say that what makes a good mom, I think, is knowing your limits. I figured out long ago that, given my personality and my mental health issues, having consistent and dependable time alone, preferably weekly, can keep me going at my best. I’m a gas-guzzling, large-capacity van, let’s just say, at this stage of my life, and I need frequent infusions of gas, oil, and water to keep me running effectively and continually transporting my load of children through their lives. I also need good quarterly maintenance.

Unfortunately, the summer months disrupt my fairly well-planned and nicely balanced routine that keeps me at my mothering best. I know this going in and start feeling a little nervous come May. But I do the best I can to plan and make allowances. And then I still end up running low on gas and oil and burning out at least once, sometimes twice, usually in the middle and at the end of the summer. A month ago, I felt myself snapping, stretched to my utter capacity for patience and sacrifice, and I scheduled a Saturday for myself. I hadn’t had more than an hour to myself in about two months. I hired a niece to babysit for the day and I went for a lovely bike ride and then had lunch and manicures and facials at the beauty school with a friend. It was wonderful. And not nearly long enough. I was not ready after merely seven hours to get back into the grind. The timing the next day of that Facebook post of my friend (unnamed here) was very unfortunate. I thought it was insensitive and judgmental. After having my comments deleted, I deleted the friend (this was not this person’s first “offense” at overreacting to innocuous comments, either). At the time, I felt it was the simplest and quickest solution to help reduce the negative influences in my life. Again, I suppose that’s a whole other story.

Mama’s stretched to snapping: it’s not a pretty picture.

A month later, I am back at snapping point. Having four children with all their demands (and whining and fussing amongst themselves, which can just grate on one’s nerves) around nonstop; then having to make sure the two older ones get to a girls’ camp; then the oldest, who can actually babysit, be gone for an entire week at band camp; then breaking my FOOT and being unable to do the things I need and want to do; then not having any time or brain-space for thinking clearly in order to work on the writing projects that mean a lot to me personally; having other big responsibilities on my plate that still need to be taken care of, broken foot or not (band boosters [the band director needs us to raise $150,000 for new instruments over the next three years?], being in charge of my university’s local alumni chapter, other volunteer things); then throw in PMS, and it’s a recipe for burnout. (Not to mention having all kinds of large and small expenses pop up until the point of ridiculousness this past four or five months, and the astonishing number of things that have kept breaking down on me the past few months till where I’m begging the financial universe for mercy…) It’s the rubber band being stretched entirely too far. It SNAPS.

I wish I could be the kind of mom who enjoys every single moment with her children. I wish I could savor every moment during the summer with them. I have done some fun things with them here and there. I just haven’t been their everything for every moment. (Nor do I think that is good for them, anyway.) I am still absolutely ASTONISHED at the amazing journey a dear friend took this summer with her seven children. They drove in a pop-up camper all the way from the western United States to Alaska and spent two months making the trip. I would have gone nuts probably on the second week, the third at the latest. How she did it is beyond me. But I am in awe and I tip my hat to her. What an amazing experience for them all. But me, I’m just getting my kids through the summer at home, barely gripping on to my sanity.

I am still trying to figure out right now how to just survive the next eight days until my children start school. It sounds silly now that I’ve managed to get through a whole summer, but the last days are seeming like an eternity because I’ve already snapped. I have no spring left. I pretty much want to curl into a ball in my bedroom, take some kind of sleeping pills so I can coast through the next days mostly unconscious, and lock the door.

I would probably be a slightly more “normal” mom if I didn’t have my mental health issues. But I do the best I can to stay on top of them. I take medication, check in with my psychiatrist, and have regular visits with a therapist. I try to be reasonable in my expectations. I’ve been trying to repeat all kinds of useful and inspirational mantras the past weeks to keep myself positive enough to survive until I have some time alone to just regroup in pretty much every way. I just don’t know who or how to ask for help. And unfortunately, when I mention my feelings and am aware that I am being stretched too far, I end up with mostly unwanted advice (one-sentence cliches that too often start with “just”… if you’d just do X, Y or Z, you’d be fine. Or just “let go and let God.” Yeah, I know all that. Doing it is really the battle, isn’t it?) I don’t want advice. I want support and practical help. Someone want to take my girls on a vacation for a few days? That would be most welcome. No mantras, no judgment. Just support and caring.

As you can see from this long post, my manic side is coming out a bit. Sorry ’bout that. But it’s my reality. I am who I am, and I’m daily trying to improve the parts of me that can be improved, and manage the things I can’t change (genetics, brain chemistry: I’m talking ’bout you). But I’m still working on it. I’m going to fall down a lot and fall short a whole lot. I just wish I were better able to figure out ways to practically deal with the snapping of the rubber band before it stretches too far. My aspirations for being a great mom are simply in knowing my limits and not pushing past them. I’ve given my children so much and taught them so much and love them a great deal. Yeah, I need some time alone, away from them, sometimes in order to be able to continue to be a good mom to them. I just want to be able to stave off the snapping.

Giving my old life the boot … temporarily

So a couple of days ago I wrote about my new normal, which is living life with a broken foot. It’s thrown me for a loop emotionally in a number of ways. The first evening after it happened and then most of my day the next day involved a lot of wondering and what-ifs and trying to plan for what was still somewhat unknown. It made for a stressful day, all run from the confines of my couch.

Yesterday was much nicer. I got my two oldest girls off to camp, and my husband took me to a specialist who could really tell me what would need to happen to get my foot back to its unbroken self. In short, the breaks are simple enough that I only need to wear a boot, rather than a cast (hallelujah for that removable piece of hardware!!), and I can put a little weight on it as I hobble about on crutches or the lovely walker my husband dug out of storage (he likes to collect these old things because someday they might come in handy). Partial weight-bearing actually helps my bone heal properly rather than resting it completely and letting it find its own sloppy way. Amazing. At any rate, my dear husband, who is a physical therapist, reminded me several times that this was the best news possible. I agree, with the addendum “in this situation.” The best news possible for me right now would be to travel back in time three days and tell myself to stop hurrying around so much, especially on uneven pavement. (Smack upside the head) But given that the deed is done and the bone truly is broken, knowing that at least I can just wear a boot that I can take off sometimes is great news.

So my new normal for the next week or so is pretty much what I’ve been doing for about the past 24 hours: sitting on the couch with my leg up and reading or using my laptop computer. That’s the nice part. The tricky part involves when I must move around. Yes, I still need to get up and go to the bathroom. I pull myself up onto the very stylin’ walker, grab hold and walk very lopsidedly, putting the smallest amount of pressure on my left foot, preferably the heel or toes.  I try not to crash into the furniture that lurks all around me. I lurch down the hallway and … well, I won’t go into too many details about that. I lurch back down the hall and collapse back onto the couch.

End of the day is entertaining. The first night, my husband suggested I go up the stairs backwards, which worked but was also a workout. Man, it exhausted me. (He suggested before that that I just sleep downstairs, but I just wanted the comfort and semblance of normalcy that was my own bed.) The next night, after a comical but also nerve-racking shower experience during which my husband manhandled me in and out of the big shower downstairs and held onto me while I washed my greasy hair and stale body, I decided to heft myself up the stairs frontways, just kind of crawling. That was much easier. So I repeated that last night. At the top of the stairs, though, I still have to get myself back up from a crawling position into standing using the crutches. Not as easy as it seems, frankly. And last night, I went up without any help, so I had to crawl through my bedroom into the bathroom, which now has tile on the floor rather than carpet (thanks to our work of a couple of months ago, and which I generally prefer to the old carpet, but let me tell you in this case, it’s hard on the knees). By the time I’d made my way, pilgrim-like, into the bathroom area, my husband had come up with the crutches, and I pulled myself up rather like Gollum, via the chair he had also brought into the bathroom the other night, into a half-standing position.

One big problem is that I cannot carry anything. Both of my hands are completely kept busy just keeping myself semi-upright and not too much in pain. So if I need to take one or two or three items from point A to point B, I must order around one of my minions. It’s astonishing how much we take for granted when all is working fine. It’s such a nice thing to be able to stand up, walk across the room, and grab a Kleenex. Or hop over to the kitchen for a glass of water (or some chocolate…). Or just GO TO THE BATHROOM, for pity’s sake.

Yep, it’s a brave new world.

‘Having it all’ as a parent: ha!

Just read an excellent piece about another set of articles that have continued to stir the public conversation about parents in the workplace, specifically mothers, and the idea of “having it all.” I’ve long thought and said that just seemed laughable. What is “it all”? Usually when the subject is brought up, somehow it’s assumed implicitly that phrase means that women can raise children and work in the career they have been educated for, and progress exactly as they’d like in both facets of their lives. But as a mostly stay-at-home parent who has worked part time and full time at different periods of my life, I have long known it is impossible to have that kind of “all.” Let me clarify: “all” essentially combines the concepts of being an “attached parent,” as one might put it today, and doing everything for one’s children, and going the distance in a career, all the way to “the top” of whatever field has been chosen. (And may I also now add in that our society today is including as bonus points that a mother who has it all can also look 25 when she’s 45, wear a size 2, run half-marathons by training at 4 a.m., and always be beautifully pulled together, displaying her family in a house that’s decorated by all the best ideas on Pinterest.)

Nope, not possible to do both. Not at the same time. Something is going to give. You won’t be at every single event your child is involved in, or you won’t end up at the top of the food chain in your job. But what IS possible is to take the best of both facets and focus on those parts that mean the most to you and make those count. And that balance, that particular combination of elements, is going to vary person to person, and be utterly unique. Then, knowing that you achieved at least fairly close to the combination of things you chose to do (and were flexible to go with the flow as you rethought things and reworked along the way), you could say at the “end” that it was satisfying.

I think in the article I read one thing that bothered me the most was this observation from one female writer: “But my other thought about Slaughter’s beautifully written piece is what a missed opportunity it was. Yet again, a powerful, influential woman had a platform to talk about the issue of choice when it comes to women, parenthood and power and chose not to discuss one of the most undervalued choices of all: the choice not to become a parent.” For one, that means nothing to this current argument of “having it all” as a parent. If you’re not a parent, all those choices become irrelevant, and there is nothing to “balance.” Simple as that. For another, I guess it struck me because I can’t imagine someone giving up the opportunity to raise children. Sure, it’s a messy, frustrating, difficult and time- and energy-consuming job, but it is absolutely the most joyous and satisfying in the long run. Nothing beats having reared a whole separate, unique HUMAN BEING from infancy to capable, independent adulthood. Nothing. (But I know even as I say this that a few people really just aren’t cut out to be parents. And if they absolutely know that, then I respect that choice. Absolutely. I just don’t want people who are on the line to give up on the possibility and never know the joys they could have known.)

What I found was a great observation was actually from a reader. This person commented, in part, “Even though it is difficult to live in our current economy without both parents working, we are expected to spend more time catering to our children than any other generation. Sacrificing your life for your children, however, does not make them strong, responsible adults.” Hurrah, commenter. Great observation. We as parents today are doing much more for our children than they truly need. I took this evening to remind my four progeny that as much as I love them and enjoy time with them, I do not need to nor should I spend all my time with them nor do too much for them. For one, I do have responsibilities to take care of our home and keep meeting their basic needs, whether that is shopping for food, earning some money, cooking, cleaning (the work they are not quite capable of), and so on. Second, it is not good for them for me to be with them all the time. They need the space and time to decide for themselves how to use their time, how to work and play within their own sphere. Choosing and keeping themselves busy allows them to become independent and allows their brains to develop in the best way. If I provided answers for all their questions and wants, they would not be able to stretch their brain muscles and grow as separate individuals. So no, I do not cater to my children. And they are better off for it. They actually do step in and wash dishes or clean up without me asking them to (not all the time; this isn’t a dream world!). But they show initiative and can make decisions for themselves. They work and contribute to our household in the ways they are capable of. We all work together as a team. Nope, it’s not seamless, but we’re working on that. And that’s my job as a parent: to allow them opportunities to function as a viable member of this family team.

So I’m throwing in, again, my two cents’ worth on this topic that will be dissected over and over throughout all levels of our culture. I hope that the parts that should change for the better do. I hope that all parents will feel more comfortable and accepted as they say at work, “Nope, I can’t stay late for yet another night; I need to be with my children.” I hope that more businesses can find ways to allow all workers to have flexibility in when and how they do their work. I also hope that parents can feel comfortable in allowing their children some room to be themselves, to make their own decisions, to not “helicopter” them. I hope that we all can give ourselves some breathing room as we live the only lives we have, one messy step at a time. Life will never be exactly what we envisioned, either in the realm of career or family. It won’t be perfect. It won’t align with a rigid plan. But in the end, I hope that each of us can feel satisfied that we did the best we could with every decision we made and feel our lives were full and good, despite not “having it all.”