Respecting My Limits

volunteerism, group activities, life lessons

The hair nets were an extra special bonus!

Swallowing four uncoated Advil without water was a bad idea, but I was desperate. An hour into our family’s volunteer shift at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, I’d already lost my battle with back pain and wasn’t about to admit I couldn’t keep going. Apparently those peeps who wrote the Proverbs verse “Pride goeth before a fall” knew what they were talking about.

Our task at the Food Depository was straightforward:  box up endless husks of corn to be sent to area food pantries and soup kitchens. Along with 50 other volunteers, we scooped up armfuls of corn and carried them over to boxes lining a nearby conveyer belt.

Our efforts would ensure hundreds of local families had fresh corn to eat over the next few days. Two hours of bending and lifting would ensure I’d be in traction for the same.

The assembly line work was fun at first. I started off in my natural “can do” enthusiast mode, chatting up the other volunteers and striving to be a good team player. While my older daughter rolled her eyes at my eagerness, I felt proud of myself – “Look at me in a group, being a people person.” I enjoyed watching how other people approached our joint task and admired the power of a group in action.

An hour later, I’d lost my joy. My team spirit and positive attitude quickly followed. My neurons screamed for me to stop bending and lifting. I felt cranky and old, yet we still had another hour left to our shift.

My patience with teamwork disappeared like the memory of a sexy dream and soon I was picking people apart in my mind, no longer appreciating our varied humanity, instead fantasizing about who I could lose my shizz at first.

Would it be the sweaty man next to me who grunted like a over-muscled gym rat every time he bent into the corn bin? Or the woman who spent all her time straightening the corn instead of boxing it?

I needed an attitude adjustment and the ibuprofen burning my esophagus wasn’t going to cut it.  I was done but didn’t want to admit it.

I hate having limits. In my mind, I’m still as lithe and supple as the twelve year old across the bin from me who bent over at her waist repeatedly like a deranged drinking bird. Doesn’t she know she has a limited lifetime allotment of pain-free hinges, and she used up at least seven years worth that day?

drinking bird via scientificonline

“For the love of god, girl, bend at your knees!”

Looking over at my husband and daughters working diligently, I tried to convince myself that I’d done enough and had nothing to prove. I could stop whenever I wanted. Right?

But where would we be if everyone stopped whenever they wanted? Don’t we need people who push through pain to accomplishment, Annie Warbucks-style?

I had a choice. I could save face by ignoring the signals my mind and body were sending and pay the price later. Or, I could respect my limits and sit my ass down. Hiding in the bathroom was an option too.

Have I mentioned how much I hate limits? After picturing all the starving homeless people who would be denied corn if I stopped and swallowing my pride (it stuck in my throat right next to the Advil), this time I chose to honor my limits and not hurt myself to prove my worth. Instead I spent the rest of my time handing out hair nets and hand sanitizer. My pride took a beating, but my back appreciated the loving choice.

Falling In Love with My Life Again

A friend recently shared her favorite advice for keeping her marriage strong. Her method doesn’t involve sexting or Kegels or kinky sex positions. Instead, whenever she’s feeling disillusioned in her marriage, she literally walks outside of her home and looks in the window at her husband, as if she’s getting a glimpse of a stranger’s life.

While I suspect she’s a wannabe voyeur, she swears this technique helps her fall in love with her husband again.

At first, this exercise sounded like a lot of work to me, what with leaving the house and all, but after a particularly difficult afternoon with my own family, I needed to look at my life with new eyes, so I took her advice.

I stepped out our back door and slammed it as hard as I could, enjoying both the dull thump of door rejoining frame and the brittle rattle of wooden blinds bouncing off the adjacent window.

The incessant hum of the nearby air conditioners provided a cocoon of white noise, the ideal backdrop for my peeping-tom activities. The warm mid-September air still held traces of summer’s musky scent, like the lingering smell of sunscreen on skin after a shower.

I counted to ten, willing myself to forget every pre-existing frustration with my family before looking through the kitchen window.

As the late afternoon sunlight cast stripes on his lean face, I watched a man with a freshly shorn crew cut and soft crinkles around his eyes slicing a cheese pizza into small squares. The man had an easy looseness about him as he moved through the kitchen pouring milk into plastic tumblers and piling grapes in a bowl, abiding by the five-second rule on dropped food.

Two young girls, years apart in age and build, played separately across the room.

The younger child, wild brown curls tumbling across her face, appeared to be playing school. Looking up over the edge of a clipboard, she cocked her head and paused for an answer from imaginary pupils before drawing a red check mark on her notebook.

The older girl sprawled on a couch nearby reading a book, her long legs wrapped around a striped pillow. While she read, she fidgeted her toes to remove the bright pink socks covering her feet, then threw them at the younger girl, hitting her on the head and launching a firestorm of muted screams.

Moments later, when the family gathered around the counter for pizza, I wondered what the man was saying to earn his children’s rapt attention. (Perhaps he was making up a story about a strange woman who skulks around looking into people’s windows?)

The father pulled his fingers back and blew on the tips as he divided the steaming slices onto three plates. (Three? I resisted the urge to knock on the window and remind him to save me some pizza or never see me naked again.)

He helped the younger girl cut her pizza into small bites and gently brushed a sticky curl off her cheek. The older girl tapped the younger one on the shoulder and pointed down the hall, snatching a piece of pizza off her sister’s plate when she wasn’t looking.

The younger girl, bug-eyed with anger, curled her lips into an Edvard Munch-worthy scream. Even enraged, this child with spindly arms and an unusually wide mouth was strangely adorable, reminding me of a hairier version of E.T. And from a detached distance, the older girl’s actions seemed more of an awkward, playful attempt at connection rather than as mean-spirited instigation.

The father walked around the counter to give both girls a hug, stealing pizza off his older daughter’s plate and eliciting a stream of playful screams and giggles.

I glimpsed my smile reflected in the window and felt a surge of gratitude for this spirited bunch. Mission accomplished.

They're trouble but they're all mine.

They’re trouble but they’re all mine.

A Decade of Parenting Lessons

Parenting Tips, Parenting Advice, Free Parenting Advice, Parents

This summer, our oldest daughter, Ava, turned 10. That means I’ve officially been a parent for ten years.

With a decade of parenting lessons under my belt, I now qualify as a parenting expert. At least in my own mind.
Some lessons I’ve learned the hard way, like how it’s not a good idea to give your kid silly putty before she goes to bed.
Others, I’ve learned the very, very hard way, such as there is no way to protect my daughters from experiencing pain or sadness or disappointment, no matter how much I try.
In honor of our daughter’s 10th birthday, here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned about being a parent so far:

1.  Screaming at your kids to get them to stop screaming is counterproductive

Go figure. Every few weeks I test this one just to be sure it’s true. Trust me, it is.

2.  Parenting is like watching your heart walk around outside your body

Watching those four long legs (two per kid) walk into their first day of school last week broke my heart. Thankfully my heart healed quickly and was soon jumping for joy.

3.  Stop trying to be the perfect parent

I tried for too long to be a perfect mom, regularly raising the bar of perfection to keep me on my toes. What did I get in return? A healthy dose of resentment and martyrdom. Brilliant strategy, no?

Now I strive to be authentic with my kids, to show them the real me. Am I too real? We won’t know for a few more years when the therapy bills start pouring in. Our kids’ future therapy appointments will go like this:

Our Kid:  Feelings, feelings, feelings, that’s all my mom cared about when I was growing up. She didn’t hide any of her feelings, and she encouraged me to express all of mine!

Therapist:  How did her obsession with feelings make you feel?

Our Kid:  Torqued and cranked. Why couldn’t she have pretended she didn’t have any feelings? Like normal parents. Would that have been too much to ask?

4.  If you think you’re in control, think again

I want my kids to express all their feelings, needs and wants and feel safe doing so, but I’d prefer it to be on my timeframe.  Preferably when I’m rested, fed and have finished using the bathroom by myself. Is that wrong?

Unfortunately, my kids couldn’t care less about my agenda, preferring to express their beautiful (aka loud) feelings as we’re trying to get to school on time or on the rare occasions my husband and I are both feeling amorous. They are giving that way.

5.  White lies don’t count if they keep your kids safe (or make your life more convenient)*

For years we’ve warned our kids about the imaginary snapping turtles that live in the pond behind my in-law’s home. Our girls never went near the pond without an adult, and we didn’t have to watch them every second they played in the backyard. A twofer – safe and convenient!

*Caveat:  I assumed our ten year old had figured out the truth by now, but this summer, after fishing on the pond with her uncle, she expressed relief at not catching a snapping turtle. Really? I can only imagine that future therapy session.

6.  Make peace with your kids’ disgusting habits (and await the positive power of peer pressure)

I spent months trying to curb my oldest’s nose picking habit when she was four or five years old. I tried to trust she would grow out of it, but mostly I tried to convince her it was a disgusting habit. She kept picking. By age six or seven, she’d stopped on her own, likely because her school friends teased her mercilessly.

I rarely notice when my youngest daughter picks her nose. She prefers to pick at home in the privacy of her bedroom (and to leave her boogers on her bedpost). I may have to wait a little longer for peer pressure to do its magic this time. At least until we start allowing sleepovers.

7.  Accept the things you cannot change (aka put down the whip you use to self flagellate) 

Our daughters are five years apart in age. I’m a different parent now than I was ten or even five years ago. Which one of my kids got the better parent? How badly did I screw up my first kid? Why hadn’t I learned to relax and trust way back when? Why am I even asking these questions? Our daughters “get what they get and they don’t get upset.”  (At least until they have a therapist on their own payroll.)

8.  Make peace with the “H” word

I don’t freak when my kids tell me they hate me. I try to remember that hate and love are kissing cousins. And I hate them too at times. Yet my love for my daughters is more intense and real than any other I’ve had in my life, even the love I had for my husband early on in our relationship. Lucky for him, I’ve also learned to hate him too at times.

9.   Look in the mirror

Our kids reflect our best and worst qualities. Both of our daughters are loving, kind and responsible. They’re creative and dramatic, bright and persistent. They’re also impatient, stubborn, opinionated and dictatorial. From their dad’s side.

10.  Stock up on support & self-care

I get by with a little help from my friends. And when I say “a little” I mean the daily, near constant, sanity-providing support I get from my peeps, spiritual groups and overpriced therapist. I credit them with the rare glimpses of sanity I string together. They remind me to put the oxygen mask on myself first and make time for myself and dates with my husband a priority.

None of this parenting stuff would work without support. And babysitters.

What are some of the best parenting lessons you’ve learned? Although I’m now a certified parenting expert, I’m entering the tween years, so cough up the good stuff in the comments. 

Falling In Love With Boys

I haven’t spent much time with little boys. As one of three sisters with two nieces and two daughters, I’ve never even changed a boy’s diaper. So when I volunteered at my daughter’s preschool for Water Day, and the teachers assigned me to the boys’ group, I had no idea what to expect.

I have never seen so many penises in one place.

As I walked into the classroom, ten naked little boys jumped, whirled and rocketed across the colorful alphabet carpet like firecrackers exploding inside a box of Cracker Jack.

I didn’t know where to put my eyes.

Is it wrong to look at their little penises? I wondered, feeling as uncomfortable as if I’d wandered into a secret fraternity ritual.

I pretended to search for lip balm in my purse, digging like it was an oversized diaper bag instead of an envelope-sized clutch.

“Mary,” the teacher said. “Mary?”

I turned and registered the slight smirk on her face. “Just grab one and help him get his clothes on,” she said. Why was I waiting for her to add “Keep your eyes to yourself, perv?”

So I looked. Nine circumcised, one not.

What the hell is wrong with me? I wondered. First I don’t want to look at their penises, now I’m cataloging them for future reference. Talk about pervy!

But instead of feeling depraved, once I looked, I fell in love. Little boys are freaking adorable! Here were ten exuberant little people, so proud of their nakedness. So unwilling to get dressed. The glee and unfettered energy in that room could have powered the Northern Hemisphere for a week.

As I kneeled on the faded carpet, eye level with the sea of nakedness, a quiet, brown-eyed boy handed me his underwear in a plastic baggie marked “Henry” as two boys nearby danced a jig, their knees and naked bits keeping time with their giggles.

I held Henry’s tiny tightie-whities as he carefully stepped in, one foot then the other, his small hand resting on my head for balance. His and mine.

“I love water day,” one boy shouted, setting off a chorus of “I love” everything from popsicles to lightsabers.

“I love my penis!” a boy yelled, galloping around the room like a cowboy on crack.  The room devolved into happy chaos as I stared in awe, grateful I wasn’t in charge because all I could think to say was “May the force be with you.”

I could have sat there all day soaking up their contagious energy. Instead, I packed up the wet towels and swimsuits, feeling grateful for this glimpse inside a boy’s world.

That night, as I watched my husband undress for bed, I wondered what he must have been like as a little boy and if he ever wishes we could add a boy to our brood. I know I do.

Making Room For Chaos

I’m having one of those days. An agitated, pissy, every shade of bad mood kind of day where each whine from my kids rubs against my insides like a potato over a box grater. A day where every question feels like an intrusion; every request a resentment in the making. My insides feel messy and chaotic, and I’m convinced my skin is sewn on wrong.

For those of you following along at home, these visceral emotions translate into angry, lonely, hurt and sad on a standard feelings chart. I’m also feeling a smidgen of jealousy. Just for fun. Actually, the smidgen is a big win for me. Usually, I like my jealousy in big heaping tablespoons.

Photo courtesy of www.thisnext.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.thisnext.com

We’re big on identifying and expressing feelings in our family. Although my husband and I aren’t aligned on every parenting issue, we both value and are committed to teaching our kids that all feelings are welcome in our home.

But just because we say we value feelings doesn’t mean we know what the f**k to do with them when they show up uninvited and without a hostess gift. Did I mention how much I’m hating being a parent today?

As someone who pushed all my feelings down deep into the dimples of my thighs for much of my life, learning to express my emotions while teaching our kids to express theirs is a big, messy experiment, similar to mixing Pepsi with Mentos. Feelings mean chaos, even and especially the happy ones, and I don’t do chaos easily, even after nine years as a parent. And more than five times that as a human.

I would prefer emotions expressed on my timetable.  When it’s convenient for me and I’m feeling loving and receptive, bring ‘em on. I’ll love myself and my kids through the hardest ones.

Other times, I want to fix and manage and get through those feelings in record time. Ok, kids, double time now, get those pesky emotions under control. Tick tock.

There’s a scene in the fabulous Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, which resonates with me on many levels. The characters sing a tongue-in-cheek song about the value of pushing down unwieldy emotions, pretending they don’t exist and choosing not to feel anything painful. The catchy, upbeat lyrics to the song, “Turn It Off,” go like this:

“When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, don’t feel those feelings, hold them in instead. Turn it off, like a light switch, just go click … What’s so hard about that?”

If only that worked.

Teaching my kids to express their feelings responsibly means looking at and accepting my own. And today may not be a convenient day for me. I don’t want to deal with other people’s emotions today. I don’t want to listen to screaming unless it’s my own. I want to be the only one who gets to be angry and pissy and pouty. Is that too much to ask?

Unfortunately, when I don’t express my own anger, my kids act it out sideways. This morning, as my own pissiness peaked, Rhys (4) hit Ava (9) on the leg with a glittery magic wand.

Although I reminded Rhys that we don’t hit other people and helped her hit pillows instead, I was aware that I wanted to whack someone with that wand too. On the head.

Maybe I should thank Rhys for expressing my frustration for me. Or not.

Instead I need some self-care and some time with the punching bag in our basement. Mostly, I need a hug. When I’m feeling this out of sorts, my instinct is to push everyone away, to prove to myself that my feelings are toxic and hateful. But in reality, I’m human and every cell in my body is screaming for connection and love. And that’s the hardest lesson of all.

Step, Step, Slide

As I wrote about in Life Patterns, our four year old has a new fascination with patterns. Her face routinely breaks into a smile as she spots a series of colors or shapes and gleefully shouts, “I see a pattern, Mom! A pattern!”

Yesterday during one of our afternoon dance breaks, both of us swaying to the “Grease” soundtrack, she said, “Mom, do you know our step, step, slide dance is a pattern? Step, step, slide.” (Better she focus on our dance pattern than the words to “Beauty School Dropout,” one of her favorite songs.)

As I danced with my daughter in my arms, awed by her wonder and joy, I mused on the patterns I pray she develops, ones that will sustain and enrich her life, like the patterns of believing she is beloved and of accepting herself flaws and all.

Step, step, slide.

I found myself wishing I could warn her future self to look out for patterns that will hurt her, like pleasing others instead of herself and attaching to people who don’t treat her with adoration and respect.

I considered making her a video of patterns good and bad. Or perhaps a vision board detailing my hopes for her. No pressure.

Step, step, slide.

I felt a momentary rush of fear, aware that lecturing her on life will be easier than witnessing and supporting her as she grows, develops her own patterns and finds her way.

As I breathed in her just-out-of-the-shower scent, I prayed for guidance on our journeys and acceptance of ourselves along the way.

The best I can do today is show her through my actions how to embrace all the patterns life offers, ask for help around the ones that don’t serve me and trust the process of life, love and joy. I can model reaching out my arms for love, and letting the world unfold its beauty in front of me and inside me. Gifts await. For all of us.

Step, step, slide.

Patterns For Life

Patterns For Life

What patterns do you hope your children embrace and avoid?

What Do You Remember From Your Childhood Vacations?

After spending a lovely, expensive week on Florida’s Gulf Coast, I was surprised to hear my children talk about the vacation memories they’ll cherish.

For a glorious week, we slept in, swam in the pool, played in the ocean waves, fought like the Kardashians, built sandcastles, read great books and spent time with family and friends. We even visited Winter the famous, tailess dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, something we’ve been wanting to do ever since watching the movie Dolphin Tale.

Will my kids remember Winter?

Will my kids remember Winter?

What did my kids say they enjoyed most?

Ava (9 yo):  Playing with my cousins and having a TV in my room.

Rhys (4 yo):  Having a TV in my room and playing with my cousins.

Basically, they would have been happy at home. After a trip to Costco for televisions. Good to know.

TVs are more memorable than this? "Yes, Mom!"

TVs are more memorable than this? “Yes, Mom!”

My strongest memories of family vacations as a kid involve swimming pools and free sweet rolls at a little pancake restaurant called Wolfie’s. No matter where we went, as long as we had a pool (and free mini cinnamon buns to wash down my pancakes) I was happy.

A good friend recalls traveling as a child with her parents to European cities many of us would consider dream destinations. Her most vivid memory?

Frosted Flakes.

She clearly remembers the sugary cereal she wasn’t allowed to eat at home. Apparently, hotels around the world are familiar with Tony the Tiger’s innumerable charms.

Photo courtesty of Kellogg.com

Photo courtesty of Kellogg.com

What memories stand out to you from your childhood vacations?

A highlight of this family vacation for me was unexpectedly running into an old friend on the beach …

I haven’t seen Laura since she moved away to the Chicago suburbs years ago. She has three beautiful children ranging from 11 to 6 years old who I haven’t seen since they were babies. Imagine walking on the beach in Florida and running into a long-lost friend. Serendipity!

Laura and I caught up on our non-spring break lives while our kids built sand castles together. Laura mentioned that her son, the oldest, asks her to hang out with him at night before he falls asleep. She doesn’t always want to, but because she knows he won’t be asking for much longer, she’s says yes. And she’s discovered they have their best conversations as he’s drifting off.

Her words really stuck in my head. I’ve been saying no to Ava a lot lately when she asks me to hold her as she falls asleep. We read together every night and by the time we’re done, I’m usually ready to have my own down time. Reasonable? Of course.

But last night when she asked me, I remembered Laura’s words and said yes. We cuddled and for a few minutes I experienced one of the purest joys of motherhood – cuddles and kisses from my not-so-little girl.

Soon my daughter won’t want me around as much. I already see her wanting to spend more and more time with her friends. I celebrate and support her friendships, yet I’m more aware of the precious, fleeting moments we spend together. At least some of the time.

My kids are so much a part of my life today I can’t imagine a time when they won’t want my undivided attention. But that time is quickly approaching. And I plan to enjoy every moment we have left.

So, move over, kids. Mama needs to cuddle.

From my favorite daily affirmation site:  Notes from The Universe (www.tut.com)

From my favorite daily affirmation site: Notes from The Universe (www.tut.com)