I am not good at everything. I am not even good at all of the things that make up something that I am deemed to be good at or that I believe I am good at. ... Someone’s else’s best may be better than my own best, but it doesn’t mean I am less ... People are malleable and suited for learning, and we don’t age out of that ... That’s not to say that I intend to learn and better every area where I fall short. Oh no. I’ve learned to live without frisbee, calculus, and parallel parking, among other things. I merely point out that there’s still hope for mastery of something that I do wish to conquer, and perhaps someone to tell me about the square root of cosine when I’m in need.
Before my son was born, like most parents, I had more time to (and for) myself. My husband worked long hours in certain seasons, and at those times, after I got home from work I would have a substantial chunk of an evening to do with what I wished. Sometimes I’d make after-work plans, but more often, I would hoard that time to myself and use it for everything from reading to trying new recipes to working in the garden to watching Dance Moms ad nauseam. Even when my husband wasn’t working late, I often arrived home first, and had a few moments to pour a glass of wine and enjoy it while I prepared dinner.
I truly enjoy the company of others, and I miss it when I am without it for too long. I feel energized when I’m around other people. However, as an emotionally sensitive person, I need time to disengage and recharge my system. (That sentence sounds rather self-aware, and I can’t take full credit for it. It was more of a light-bulb moment for me while reading a list of characteristics common in those who are highly sensitive that was shared in a social media group I participate in.) Putting words to what I was feeling and experiencing was somehow cathartic; like I could let go of worrying about whether I should feel overstimulated or exhausted after a busy social schedule or a long few days with my little one, and instead recognize it as my body’s way of telling me, “Okay. Enough now. Let’s pull back and circle the wagons.” Before, when I had a comparative abundance of time available to accomplish things for myself or just “be,” I don’t think I realized that I actually needed that time. I knew I enjoyed it, most of the time. But like so many things, in the absence of it, I felt the loss. Initially, in that absence, I would try to overcome my mounting feelings of anxiety, stuff away my agitation, and put a stopper in feeling drained so that I could rise above the situation. Reality demands that we must at times, after all. But the more I carried on, the more I realized that it wasn’t helpful as a general practice, because the anxiety/agitation/drained feeling wouldn’t go away. In my “Feeling Good and Drained? Revel in It,” blog post a few months ago, I mentioned a feeling that was opposite to the accomplished, fulfilled, well-spent, exhausted, contentment that was the focal point of the piece – a spent feeling borne more of restlessness and frustration and agitation. That is the feeling that arises when I don’t heed my body’s signals about “enough.”
We all reach the point of “enough,” and we certainly don’t all reach it at the same time or after the same series of events or following the same stimuli. But that doesn’t mean one “enough” is more valid or less valid than another. I’ve come to realize that the important part is recognizing my own “enough” and when my body is trying to tell me that I’ve reached that point. It’s not something I’ve previously spent much time thinking about, but after wandering through the changes I’ve experienced and the allocations I’ve come to make for that recharge time, I’ve realized that it’s a basic tenant of self-care.
And just a note on self-care. There seems to be some criticism about “millennials” and their purportedly egocentric lifestyles and infatuation with everyone doing what’s best for them. As an older millennial (by both age and tech savvy-ness), I barely qualify to speak for the group, but I’m going to go ahead and say that we “millennials” shouldn’t feel ashamed for recognizing our own needs and the needs of others. Nor should any generation! It’s vital to the care of ourselves AND the care of others. Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary for our mental and physical health, and quality of life. So let me be cliché for my generation and say, “You do you.” Because it’s important to know when it’s “enough.”
“It takes a village to raise a child.” No doubt; it certainly does. I’m very thankful for the one I rely on, and my son benefits from it immensely. I might be the one caring for him most of the day on most days, but there’s a whole host of people who pass in and out, physically and remotely, seen and unseen by him. Each one playing a part, whether they know it or not.
But you know what? I think it ALL takes a village. Not just raising a child. This big journey we're all on, on the path from A to B, it takes a crew. The new colloquialism should be, “Life, it takes a village.” The coworker who picks up a task when you’re drowning in a sea of to-do-lists; the barista who knows your morning latte order; the dog you take running; the friend who supports your business; the spouse who lets you vent; the person who brings you wine, opens you up to your happy place, lets you be silent, lends an idea in a void, spots your dropped debit card and hails you down before you drive away without it to curse yourself later when you stop for gas on an empty tank. Whoever composes your village depends on what your life is about. Maybe you only come in contact with them fleetingly each morning or each month or each decade, but their presence is a gear – however big or small – in the machine that makes your world turn. These are the interactions, the puzzle pieces, the links that knit a life together.
There’s nothing quite like a village of people, of all different kinds, to offer advice, talk you off a ledge, straighten you out, wholeheartedly commiserate with you, or give it to you without the sugar coating. But those people offering smaller, more transitory interactions are also a part of that village, and can add just as much as longtime residents. Someone you don’t know all that well complimenting your hair or the person in front of you letting you pass them at the grocery store. Seemingly insignificant, tiny interactions can lift you up or make an errand a bit easier, adding something to how you go about the rest of your day and smoothing a little wrinkle in doing whatever it is that you do. I think that’s the village at work, too.
Now, I enjoy social media and text messaging and facetiming (or whatever the equivalent is correctly called on a Droid phone). I utilize the self-checkout line at the grocery store and I go to the ATM. I make online purchases and order my pizza via the web. It’s all great stuff, and I’m not trashing it, because it all has purpose. I do want to be mindful of striking a balance, where and when I can, because I like the idea of that village, and I don’t want it to become a ghost town.
My village, like yours, is composed of people from different eras and areas of my life. In reflecting, the eras with the smallest censuses represented in that town are those in which I felt unsure of or self-conscious about myself. (And I had more than ones of those.) It’s hard to connect with others when you’re worried about the self you’re presenting and how it’s being received. But I found that as I sloughed off more layers of insecurity, I suddenly felt more comfortable asking for help or accepting it, reaching out or responding. That’s not to say that I don’t break out in a sweat in certain social situations, or that I feel at ease admitting mistake, or that some conversations aren’t easier with a glass of red in my hand. But the little village that weaves in and out of my life makes it richer, smooths over some of the bumps, and makes the good times better. For all of those reasons, I’m glad to have the help of a village in life in general, not just in raising my son, and I hope you have one, too.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a Tolkien fan, and perhaps even that fantasy and escapist literature are my favorite genres. So it would come as little to no surprise that I believe in the possibility of things being more than they seem, or existing in a way that we may not be able to see with our own eyes. Sometimes there’s a little bit of something otherworldly in everyday life. I’m sure I don’t pick up on half of the glimpses of magic that life has to offer, but I try to occasionally bring to mind this line from Kurt Vonnegut, because I want to make an effort to pick up on them and soak them in: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’.” That feeling of unadulterated happiness is the common thread in the moments or happenings that I find magical.
We live surrounded by a state park. The park is young as far as state parks are concerned, and here and there you can see remnants of past houses or springhouses, the bases of chimneys or the foundations of walls, existing as cut limestone among the trees and moss and fallen leaves. Scattered near some of these stones, daffodils sprout in early spring. They raise their cheerful heads on vibrant green stems, in rows and bunches, while the woodland floor remains covered in various shades of brown and grey, before even the earliest of leaves sprout from the barren trees. Sure, they’re there because of science and history and human intervention, but combined result is just a little bit of real life magic. I go on daffodil watch as winter ends, and I do admit to picking them (not all of them), and watching my son do the same.
A few days ago, he and I were outside playing. He had a tiny blue tractor with him, and as we moved from garden to sandbox to grass to gravel drive, we came to a maple tree beside our walkway. He settled in at the trunk of it, and I asked if he was going to do some work. “Mm hm, right here,” he said, gesturing to the roots. I followed his finger and saw a tiny playground of moss-covered stones, root-hills, pebbles and dirt patches, all in perfect scale with the tractor in his hand, as though it was just waiting for him to come along and play. Surely it would have gone on existing as an adorable microcosm if neither of us had ever laid eyes on it. It wasn’t created just for him. But the fact that it seemed like it had been, and that he had noticed it, was just a little touch of that everyday magic.
Western Pennsylvania spring seems to be abundant in glimpses of this buoying otherworldliness. With so much rebirth, renewal, growth, and change, perhaps it is no wonder. The magnificent thing is that the scale is so small with such a great impact: tiny buds on bushes making them blush pink; deep green leaves journeying from bulbs to push through blankets of late snow; tiny new animals skittering and fluttering about; the lightest of green leaves brushing the sky, striking to see after the starkness of winter.
I see everyday magic in more than nature. I find it in my husband knowing just what’s keeping me awake at an ungodly hour of the morning and telling me not to worry about it; in my precious boy teaching me all that I never knew about him with the new knowledge he gains each new day; in a surprise package from a thoughtful friend at what was, unbeknownst to her, the perfect moment; in an unexpected holiday appearance from a beloved family member; knowing you're in someone's prayers; in discovering a discount book that marries two of my favorite worlds; even in finding out that we have another year free of admission charges at the local animal park when I was all set to purchase an additional pass for our little guy – these things may be the result of planning or happenstance, but they are little moments that show just how sweet life is, how fortunate we are to live it, and how cherished are the people in it.
“I believe it is the everyday acts of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit). Such a simple concept, put into plain words that speak so much truth. The darkness doesn’t have to be a deep, unforgiving hardship for it to be lacking in light. It can be redundancy or monotony. The chink left by even a small occurrence or act of kindness can let shine a burst of beauty or happiness. Or magic. To notice the impact of those acts, and to perform them, has become a constant goal of mine.
I have a rather layered relationship with food. I love to eat. I’m definitely more a person that lives to eat rather than eats to live. I look forward to each mealtime, and am happiest about them when they can be hot, or at least a little involved. I’m no great fan of a sandwich each day, or a bowl of cereal on almost any morning. And while I’ll gladly eat lasagna for breakfast, the thought of something like a bowl of fruit and yogurt for dinner is dismal to me.
With as much as I like to eat food, it is good that I enjoy preparing it. (Particularly since the other adult in our household will be the first to admit he’s no avid cook.) The meal doesn’t have to be fancy; I appreciate fishsticks and a nice white wine risotto equally. But there’s something about a meal that makes me feel not just nourished, but nurtured. When I’m making a meal, I want the consumers of it to feel the same way. Nourished, nurtured and, ultimately, loved.
I also enjoy the bonus round to any meal: dessert. In fact, dessert is my favorite component to make. It’s by definition a treat, which seems in its essence guaranteed to make someone else feel a little more than ordinary. My fondness for baking started very young, and in an environment of encouraging affection. My mother would sit us on the counter to bake and cook with her. I remember being extremely proud of a tiny pear pie that I had made for my father. I’m anxiously anticipating his return from work in a photo of me sitting on the counter holding that pie with a look of gleeful pride on my face.
Now it’s my own who son sits on the counter, helping me mix and whisk and unwrap butter. His favorite tool is a pastry blender. He smells things baking in the oven or simmering on the stove, inhales deeply, and says, “Mmmm!!” It sets my heart soaring. So does his love of seasoning savory dishes, and the miming of sprinkling he does as he looks at me with an upturned face if he happens to be left on the floor, out of the action. He tastes ingredients – from pecans to onions, thyme to dried cherries – and I await his reaction and ask him how it tastes, usually receiving a “good!” in reply.
One of my favorite memories of us cooking together spanned a few days before Thanksgiving, when he played countertop sous chef as I made cranberry sauce and pies for my family’s holiday celebration with my parents and siblings. There was such ardor and delight in his rolling and sampling, juicing and pouring. Seeing him be such a willful and enthusiastic participant in something that makes my heart glad is an indescribable joy.
I don’t know if I showed that same spark as a child, or if my mother and grandmothers felt the same way, but I am grateful for their countertop tutelage. They were patient and permissive, not just with me, but my siblings as well. My preschool-aged brother used to make the most atrocious omelets for my notoriously picky paternal grandfather. On a chair, with my grandmother at his side, he would toss everything from salami to pickles and jam into the pan, and present the finished product with a satisfied air of accomplishment. My grandfather would manage a mouthful in return for a smile, before my brother bounded away and he disposed of the remnants. So much love surrounded these scenes. My grandmother, in carefully assisting my brother; my brother, in creating something extra-special for his grandfather; my grandfather, in playing along no matter how much it assaulted his palate.
One of the best tangible representations of my feelings for cooking, baking, and food consumption was provided by my sister. My Irish maternal grandmother never knew spaghetti sauce to be anything other than ketchup and water during her childhood in the Bronx. You would never know it, because she made the most delicious red sauce, beloved by all but the pickiest of her sixteen grandchildren. For my sister’s wedding, we decided it would be nice for everyone to include a favorite recipe, since she enjoyed to cook. My grandmother included her sauce recipe, which included instructions like “let it plup away on the stove” for three or so hours.
I remember sitting with my grandmother in the hospital some time later as she told my grandfather how to make that sauce over the phone. It didn’t matter that those of us who were there wanted to take care of her; she still wanted to take care of us, and making sure my grandfather fed us something that was known to comfort our souls was her way to do it. He still knows how to make that sauce.
After my grandmother was no longer here with us, my sister had that handwritten recipe from her bridal shower printed on a plate, and she gave it to my mother as a gift. It’s one that she displays proudly, and that I know meant much, much more to her than any handed-down recipe secret ever could.
The feelings evoked by all of these memories reach out to me in the present as I spend time in my own kitchen, both when I am alone and surrounded by others. Because of those feelings, baking and cooking indulges my soul and my spirit. It gives me a medium to attempt to give my love a tangible form, one that I hope lets it come through in both preparation and consumption.
As I mentioned at the outset of my blogging venture, I’ve been able to occasionally bake to order since having my son. At first, my mother and I thought we’d try preparing Christmas trays, and since then, there has been a trickle of family, friends, and acquaintances that have called upon us to prepare something delightful for various occasions. I recently made a canine cake for a friend, Megan McDowell, who’s an extremely talented equine, pet, and human photographer, and one of the biggest animal lovers I know. Her cherished family dog turned fifteen. When I was asked to prepare a cake and cupcakes for the celebration, I was delighted. I hoped to create something that would help them communicate their love to her. Looking at Megan’s beautiful pictures capturing the celebration, it gave me such joy to see her pup relishing her cake.
Everyone has their own way of showing their love, affection, and care. Many of us have many ways. Although I am a hugger, and my son would probably tell you I shower him with far too many kisses, by and large, when looking at my relationships across the board, I would say food is the root of my love language. It nourishes, it nurtures, it delights. Just like the best of loves.
Everyone has heard the phrase, “to listen without hearing.” I tend to do that as I drive. Today as I listened to the radio, one host was interviewing another (Amy) about her struggle with infertility. My interest was stirred, and I wanted to hear what she had to say. Amy spoke of her long road to adopting two children from Haiti. The interviewing host asked if people had ever told her that once she had her adopted children, she would likely be so content that she’d get pregnant right away. Her response spoke right to my heart. She said, “Yes, I have heard that…and you know…I think we all just need to stop saying things like that,” a suggestion to everyone including herself. She explained that after 4 years in the adoption process, she IS a mom, she has her children; they just haven’t arrived in this country yet. “But,” she said, “I’m still not able to get pregnant.”
The interviewer’s statement was lighthearted, meant to address an oft-repeated cliché, and by no means intended to wound. Perhaps he even thought it was hopefully suggestive. But it was clear that his seemingly-innocuous question cut straight to the quick. Although not extensive or defensive, although no soap-box was taken and no anger crept into her voice, Amy’s response spoke volumes to the social, emotional and psychological obstacles of infertility.
When your heart’s desire is to have a child, or children, and your body doesn’t respond, it is heartbreaking. Knowing that there’s a common physiological function of which you, as a female, are presumed to be capable, and knowing that your defining anatomical framework is more like a brand-new car that you discover to be a lemon – well, “frustration” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Self-loathing, regret, desperation, anger, anguish, hopelessness, envy, despair, guilt: all of these emotions tumble through your mind and body on a daily basis. With such intense emotions at a constant high, and such a personal issue at stake, comments like the one above wound deeply regardless of intention. Although directed to Amy in a purely conversational manner, as someone who has struggled and continues to struggle with infertility, I heard her feelings in that response. I heard her say that her reaction to her condition, and whatever inability she might have to master the emotions caught up therein, aren’t her own undoing. I heard her say that all of the doctors’ visits, medication, and blood tests she has undergone for years were not unnecessary. I heard her say that there was no guarantee she would all of a sudden be with child if she could “just relax.”
Was I projecting my own reaction onto hers in hearing those things? Yes, to an extent, I’m sure that I was. But the tone of her voice, the fall of her words, and her hesitation in trying to find the right response signaled to me that what I heard wasn’t all my own fabrication.
I always felt that I was meant to be a mother. Yet I never even contemplated infertility as a hurdle I’d encounter. Certainly, I was naïve. I’ve read that 1 in 8 couples struggle with infertility. 1 in 8! That’s a ratio so low that every other group night out is potentially plagued by this particular silent sorrow, this repressed hope. I started out plodding along in silence, but as someone who processes and heals by sharing (and, likely, oversharing), it became more than I could bear. Every day began a new struggle to bury hope, stay calm, and save face for the rest of the world while my inner dialogue was screaming. I sobbed in private and fervently pleaded with God and my body. I fought to keep my head above water and to banish the apathy for all other things that threatened to creep in.
So after a time, I wasn’t silent. I shared with a number of people in whom I hoped to find comfort and solace, as well as a literal shoulder to cry on. I received so much loving support and quiet care that it sustained me from day to day, and allowed me to become unashamed of being even less silent. But I still did all of those things I just mentioned. Because you know what? It is HARD. So damn hard. More difficult than I could have imagined if I had somehow known.
Through the magic of modern medicine, the grace of God, and a mutually supportive marriage, I achieved a healthy pregnancy. I worried every day that it would be stripped away, but graciously, miraculously, our glorious son arrived healthy and perfect. No greater gift have we ever received. To us, our little boy is more than miracle, and I know we are not the only parents to feel that way about our little one, infertility issues or no.
Our path to the family that we had hoped for is uncertain, but has already been blessed beyond measure. There are still difficult emotions that come to bear when the topic of our family size is touched upon in public or in private, and I recognize them even though they come unbidden and unintentionally provoked. The derisiveness I feel present in the inquiry of when we “plan” to have another; my acute defensiveness when it’s implied that we should feel our family is complete under the circumstances; the girding against hope I undertake to avoid a painful fall. All of these perceptions and feelings arise from my infertility, but many wonderful things have, also. I am far braver than I was before. I am much more in tune with my body than I ever was. Ordering my priorities has become easier. I feel I am more articulate when it comes to expressing my emotions, and I have become more cautious and sensitive about offering conversational comments or inquiries about parenthood.
It’s true that everyone is fighting some battle in their lives, and I believe that is why we truly should err on the side of kindness in our encounters with others, even in areas that do not seem fraught with tension or anything but optimistic joy. We’ve all got something that ties our tongues, heightens our reactions and renders us, in our own position of vulnerability, a bit more likely to offend in responding. It’s that thing in our lives that tries us, tests us, brings us to our knees, and keeps us striving to overcome. If infertility is yours, as it is mine, I hear you, and I understand why you can’t “just relax.” No matter what stage of the road you’re on, and whether your journey is a matter of months or years or decades, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Valentine’s Day is upon us, which means that much of our usual errand-running has been festooned with seas of red and pink chocolate boxes, plush bears holding hearts, roses of all shades, cards sporting everything from glitter to music, and heart-shaped jewelry cropping up everywhere. A racket; a “Hallmark holiday,” at least to some. But in the midst of the barrage of hearts and pink hues, I’ve been contemplating this particular day.
See, not only has Valentine’s Day never been, to my mind, merely a Hallmark holiday, but I have actually enjoyed it. Do stores of all kinds cash in on the commercial side of showing each other our affections? Oh, absolutely. But being that the widely-accepted foundation is the feast of St. Valentine, who risked life and limb to perform otherwise unsanctioned, criminal marriages in secret underground, I think love actually has EVERYTHING to do with it. That is why those chocolates that we (read: had better!) receive from significant others, parents, pals and -hey, why not? – ourselves have more than just aesthetic or gustatory significance. Just like the crafty Valentines, card boxes, and treats we put together for and with our children and their friends; and those candlelit dinners or horror movie binge-watch fests or Galentine’s Day wine outings or skating rink dates. All of it has absolutely everything to do with love, for in whatever way those events occur, they are in celebration of it.
Love should be celebrated. It is vital to our very existence. None of us, not one single one among us, can thrive without it. Self-love is an incontrovertible must in terms of giving ourselves and our souls the balance, peace, and confidence to accept an engage in the relationships and tasks with which life presents us. That love should be celebrated. Familial love is strong and fierce, comforting and nurturing. That love should be celebrated. Love between two partners is invigorating and nourishing, steadfast and filled with promise. That love should be celebrated. The love bound up in true friendship is yielding and reliable, joyful and uplifting. That love should be celebrated.
All of it can be fraught with trials and tested beyond measure. All of it can be shaken and torn asunder, which is precisely why I think having a day set aside to celebrate love’s beautiful, necessary presence in our lives, and in all its forms, is a pretty sound practice.
I’ve known more than one person to shun the trappings of Valentine’s Day out of disdain for its extravagance or frivolity, believing instead that everyday should be about recognizing and honoring love. I certainly see the wisdom in that, and I agree that everyday should be appreciated in such a way. Yet in my own life there are days that I know, well and fully, I have taken love in all of its capacities for granted, even while subconsciously relying on it with each move I make. There are times when I have let tides of emotion wash over me and tried to put a hold on love until the waters ebbed. And those are just the instances of which I am consciously aware. Who knows what I’ve done to love without realizing it? Because it is the most precious intangible I have, a day to celebrate it and those that I share it with is welcome. Plus, I will be completely honest – I very much look forward to that box of chocolates that it tends to bring with it for my own enjoyment.
That’s how I celebrate Valentine’s Day with my partner. Chocolates and cards. The rest has been filled in differently in different years. This year it’ll involve a homemade dinner a little more festive than our norm, with my son’s pudgy hands to help in the preparation. We’ve ice skated and watched werewolf films and consumed pretzels with beer cheese. It doesn’t matter what it IS that we do, so long as it’s something that we do together and with each other in mind. The devising of something the Valentine recipient will enjoy is itself an act of love. Which is why my pint-sized chocolate appreciator will get a big chocolate bar in a red wrapper, heart-shaped macaroni and a sweet book about bears, one of his favorite animals.
So in our house, on the 14th, we’ll delight in our chocolates and celebrate our most wondrous treasure: love.
Today, as I come upstairs after reading bedtime stories, I feel spent. I feel like my physical, emotional and cerebral wells have been tapped and drained. And you know what? It’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling because I’ve poured my own resources out into the day; into my job; into my son. I don’t succeed in doing that every day, so today, as I reflect on this feeling, I’m going to embrace it. And maybe even revel in it.
Today, I didn’t let the nearly ceaseless rain get in our way. I didn’t let an unexpected car nap jam up our plans. Together, we made pancakes for breakfast and got a pot roast ready for dinner. We drew, we played tractors, we played trains. He identified two new colors. We studied the first four letters of the alphabet. We ran around, we laughed, we hid from each other as we read a new tickle monster book. We counted M&M’s and splashed in puddles and walked the dog and scribbled in thank you notes. He ran around the kitchen like a madman after dinner as my husband fixed the shower and I finished up some dishes while being subjected to blown raspberries and the handing over of beloved stuffed animals for kisses.
Then, in the midst of this reflection, that oh-so-familiar little voice calls to me from the monitor to come and rock him. I tell my husband no when he offers to go instead, and I do it out of pure selfishness. Out of the desire to prolong this day just a little bit, and to feel his sweet head fold into my chest as he drifts off, then sleeps with abandon.
Even though I try, mightily, for all of our days to be what this day was, they just aren’t. There are days I feel spent, but not blissfully. There are days I feel spent because of frustration, sadness, worry, or fatigue. There are days I don’t feel spent at all and instead wrestle with not having given or not having been able to give all that I wanted or could have given.
I’m talking right now about my life as a parent, but I know the same holds true in other areas of life, because I’ve experience it there, too. Even when try to pour all of ourselves into our kids, our work, our cause, or whatever labor of love ours might be, the flow can get stoppered or weakened or interrupted by any number of daily happenings. The day isn’t always ready to receive what we’d like to give, and sometimes we aren’t ready to give the day all that we have, or even much of it. So when the stars align and we’re able to give of our own gifts in a way that satisfies our souls, we should relish the feeling of fulfillment; savor the state of serenity that it brings. It’s not a matter of patting yourself on the back. It’s a matter of giving yourself some affirmation about what you were able to accomplish, for an accomplishment it most certainly was. It’s about living in that moment so that we can better store it in our memory banks for the days when you need to pull it out, dust it off, and relive it. Because yes, ohhhh yes, those days will come. And sometimes they will come to stay for far longer than we’d like.
Those days when we can’t get out of our own heads; when everything seems to be weighing us down; when no matter what we do at work we’re stonewalled by clients or bosses or simply the job at hand; when we put our heart into something only to have it rebuffed; when despite our best efforts we screamed as our children screamed; when the world feels for all intents and purposes as though it’s spiraling out of control and we’re hurtling right along with it. In those moments, we need to grasp that vividly-remembered feeling of affirmation, so that it can bolster us, if not propel us forward to reenact it.
So, go ahead and revel in that joyful exhaustion that accompanies your accomplishment. You earned it, and you will need it – body, mind, and soul. Should we become puffed up about a job well done? Absolutely not. The best readers (or, even likely, skimmers) of MacBeth know the dangers of too much pride. But I daresay there’s no conceit in simply riding out the blissful feeling of emptiness that comes from giving of yourself in all the right ways.
I am a chronic worrier, a control freak, and an overanalyzer. These things I accept. Among the many other things that I am is an excessive apologizer. This is the habit (behavior?) that I have resolved to tackle for New Year’s Resolution: 2017 Edition.
I don’t really get on board with resolutions about diet or exercise. I know I'm setting myself up for failure, and self-admonishment as a result. Last year I resolved to be slower to anger. That has surprisingly come to pass in various situations, so maybe that one stuck. The bad news is, I’m already failing this year, and we’re not even two weeks in. But why toss out a year-long promise to yourself just because you misstepped at the outset? Instead, I’ll treat it as a transformative process, and try to remind myself to, “just be patient; I’m a work in progress,” (a la Alan Jackson). In truth, that is just what we all are: works in progress, going about our daily lives.
Now, knowing that I’ve already started on shaky footing, I did a bit of thinking as to why I’m failing so that I can forge ahead rather than loop back around. I needed to examine why it is that I apologize. Without a shadow of a doubt, apologies are warranted – required – when and if we harm someone, physically, emotionally, or otherwise, whether the harm is intended or not. Those aren't the type of apologies I'm talking about. These overactive apologies are generated by something else.
I apologized for each and every thing when I was in law school, and it didn’t stop as I navigated my first legal career. Then, something happened somewhere along the line that quelled my apologetic nature to a degree, and in retrospect I believe it was the regaining of confidence that had been stripped away by my legal education experience. A resurgence in my apologetic nature took hold after deciding to stay home with my son.
Realizing that there were similar feelings surrounding these very different events was a light bulb moment: Vulnerability. Vulnerability is the catalyst to my apologizing. My husband has chidingly recited that, “Apologizing is a sign of weakness." Even though repeated in jest, those words ring true, for vulnerability makes us feel weak. That's why it can eat away confidence and breed self-doubt. What I'm saying when I apologize for a soupy lasagna, a cranky child, an anticipated long drive, a crowded room, a different color of construction paper, is essentially, “I did my best, and I still couldn’t make this live up to my own expectations, but I hope this doesn’t upset you.” Apologizing for these things is SILLY, my friends; it is silly and unnecessary and unhealthy. Why? Because people that care about us don’t care if the lasagna is soupy and they understand babies get cranky and they knew the drive was going to be lengthy but they wanted to take it and they don’t think the room is too small and they didn’t even have a color of construction paper in mind. Don’t apologize.
What I’m saying when I say, “It may not be for everyone, but…” or “Well, we just thought it was best if,” is “This is what I like to do and/or what I think but I’m sorry if you don’t feel that way and please don’t judge me.” Don’t apologize. The person I'm talking to is also unique and entitled to their own opinions, beliefs, values and choices, and probably understands that I am, too. Don't apologize. Instead, I should remember to unearth the confidence that existed when that opinion was formed or that decision was made.
During a visit at the end of last year, a friend said, “You’re basically apologizing for breathing right now.” I laughed, and then realized I very nearly was. In that moment, I needed to think “This is silly. These people care about you. Don’t apologize. Unearth the confidence.” But telling yourself something and acting it out are two very, very different things. Some situations make us feel scrutinized, even when we aren’t. Some interactions make us feel like an outside force is trying to determine whether we measure up, even when it doesn’t exist. The truth is, our own vulnerability is responsible for these feelings.
Now that I’ve identified vulnerability as the source of my unnecessary apologies, I can get somewhere. Not that I can just stop experiencing vulnerability; but perhaps I can recognize its face more easily in the present, so that I don’t look inward at my own self-consciousness and instead keep my focus on the situation at hand and what it truly requires of me, which might actually be to just BE. Unapologetically.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! (Insert appropriate musical pauses for emphasis and cue jingling bells and warm images of loved ones gathering.)
Burned in my brain, and refreshed when I catch a glimpse of the photo that captured it, is an image of my little brother on Christmas morning, probably not quite two, sitting next to the small wooden chest where we left Santa’s treats each Christmas Eve, clutching a half-eaten cookie while the rest of us ogle the tree and exclaim over what our nighttime visitor had left. A silent glee on his face that has nothing to do with presents. Or perhaps it does, because scoring a cookie for breakfast could be quite a present to a toddler.
When November and December come upon us, most of us notice and feel a general increase in good cheer or positive energy; the air is rife with anticipation for holidays to come, gatherings to attend, traditions to be shared, and special foods to be eaten. Often that merriment spills into our dealings with one another, buoying each other in a way that is foreign to the months of February or September.
Yet in some hearts, November and December bring with them sadness, grief or longing, mingled inextricably with joy and mirth and wrestling them into a tangled web that can’t be expressed. The surrounding buoyancy seems burdensome, or guilt-inspiring, or pose a too-near reminder of better feelings left in an unreachable past or hoped for in an unforeseen future. Being unable to convey those feelings, whether for purposes of guarding one’s own heart or an inability to verbalize them, leaves behind a sullen countenance or perceivable disquiet that might bring itself to bear at the most festive of times. The uptick in joy, by contrast, deepens feelings of loss, emptiness, and hollowness.
Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas captures this so well that I feel it's just as much a child’s tale as a commiseration with adult experience. The Grinch used to revel in the spirit of the holidays, until he was rebuffed and ridiculed by his peers over a gift he had poured his heart into for someone very special to him. From that time on, he despises Christmastime and the joy surrounding it. Not because of the actual wishes or traditions involved, but because of the feelings they conjure up inside him, reminding him both of his zeal for the season and the event that stamped it out.
Now, enter Cindy Lou. The little girl who reached out to that disquieted soul in all her childhood innocence and brought him glaringly into the light of the season he used to hold so dear. Perhaps that was a harsh way for the Grinch to make a re-entry. We all know how events unfolded, but in the end, that restless soul found peace once again. Without the reaching out, from someone even so unassuming, perhaps he would have just stayed on Mount Crumpit, drowning in an endless sea of self-loathing.
At times, various occurrences make me wonder if perhaps we all need to wear stickers on our shirts that say PERSON: HANDLE WITH CARE. Why shouldn’t we give each other and ourselves the same thought we would a fine china teapot or a floor length mirror? I think during the holidays, which can become extremely busy and hectic and overwhelming, this is particularly true. As part of our merrymaking, we need to remember to reach, to reach beyond and within ourselves. Whether it’s sharing a quiet moment or taking a quiet moment to ourselves; making a new tradition or shining a new light on the old; simply asking how someone is doing or reflecting on our own feelings; giving someone space and permission to just be, or taking that space for ourselves. A small act can blossom into a warmth that loosens the strangling grasp of so many feelings in competition. With so many to-do lists, events, visits and people to manage, we can lose sight of each other and ourselves at a time when we all need more particularized attention.
The best magic of the holiday season is intangible: it is composed of the feelings we create in the hearts of our family, our friends, and our loved ones. That wonder is the spirit of the holidays. In our household, it is driving force behind the miraculous story of the Christ child and Santa Claus’s enchanted visit on Christmas Eve, but you need celebrate neither to experience the awe of feeling that someone cares about YOU. Someone that isn’t your parent or sibling or some other such person “obligated” to care about you; someone who takes an interest in your well-being and wishes a way that makes you truly feel you have value merely for being you. Unsought, un-asked-for, and unexpected, but so necessary you could swear you feel an internal void dissolve (or your heart growing two sizes). To be that for another person is to give them hope, bring them peace, show them love, and offer them joy. I cannot think of gifts that better exemplify wonder. To receive them is to feel a new wholeness.
It is my dearly held belief that faith in something beyond ourselves is good for the soul. It is freeing and uplifting and stabilizing. Whether it is faith in a God that you know, in magic beyond the edge of sight, in the powers of nature, in the good of one another, or all of the above, let it work through you to bring a little wonder home to those in your life – and remember to keep some for yourself. All it might take is a kind word, or a well-placed, half-eaten cookie.
Each and every birthday, Christmas, and gift-giving occasion, my siblings and I knew that after the festivities there would be a litany of thank you notes for us to complete. We were supplied with addresses and notecards (having our own wide selection of pens already at our disposal due to our father’s indulgence of our shared love of office products), and we’d set up camp at a coffee table to take care of business. Of course, we appreciated the gifts that we had received, but when we were young elementary schoolers, with self-centeredness in our natures, we felt our task tedious and couldn’t wait to be finished.
It was a good thing – a great thing, really – that my parents did in teaching us the importance of writing down our gratitude. As I got older, I understood how much more a handwritten note meant, even if there was already a verbal thank you expressed. But I also started to have difficulty expressing my gratitude, often feeling that my words were trite or lacking in the face of the kindness done or time spent or gift given.
Processing gratitude and attempting to articulate it is, to my mind, extremely similar to the process of gift giving. Both involve time, thought, and expression, outpoured in the spirit of nurturing someone you care about. It is gratifying to give a gift to someone and have the recipient recognize the effort you put into selecting it and wrapping it just so, even delivering it in person if possible. In much the same fashion, adequately and satisfactorily expressing my gratitude, in a way that lets the giver of kindness, time, or gift truly know my feelings, gives me a whole different feeling of appreciation.
I’m not implying that offering thanks is self-serving. I believe it’s all part of a beautiful, circular method to giving and receiving. The two concepts are inseparably linked by gratitude, for when we give, we show gratitude for the recipient; and when we receive, we feel gratitude for the giver.
But gratitude is difficult, at least for me, and I don’t find that aforementioned feeling of appreciation for having truly conveyed my thanks very often. I find it hard to effectively express what I am feeling in a way that the intended listener would best receive it, regardless of what words are at my disposal. How do you find appropriate words of gratitude for someone that sets aside one Saturday after another to help take your mind off the emotional rollercoaster of fertility struggles? How do you express your thanks to someone for flying across the country for your only baby’s first birthday after having made the same trip a month earlier? What are the right words to acknowledge how your heart could burst over someone’s belief in you? How can you tell a toddler you’re grateful for every cell of his being? How do you thank someone for opening your eyes to one of your life’s passions; for doing what you needed before you knew you needed it; for letting you be you – in all your messy jumbledness – and loving you, supporting you, anyway?
I have a fetish for cards, and I don’t think I’ve ever really found one that hit the mark in any of those instances.
This, I think, is why: Words fall short. Even though there is a wealth of them to choose from, sometimes, they are not enough. Ironically, it’s often when we need them most that they seem to fail us.
Thinking of those grateful missives, something occurred to me: even if the note wasn’t the most eloquent, or didn’t convey my deepest feelings effectively, there was the notion that it stood for something more than the words it contained. It was a symbol of time given out of gratitude.
That is when I realized that time is my gratitude language. Time spent with or in pursuit of the happiness of those that I hold close to my heart. Time spent talking, time spent holding, time spent celebrating, time spent teaching, time spent cooking, time spent baking, time spent creating, time spent shopping, time spent wrapping, time spent giving someone else their own time to accomplish what is on their mind, time spent sharing life.
Does everyone in my life speak in the same gratitude language? No, they do not. And that’s another difficulty – knowing what the receiver is most likely to accept or recognize as an offering of thanks, and not something superfluous or unrelated or even insufficient. But it’s my job, as someone who shows up in their life, to find out what their gratitude language might be – so that I can modify mine and try not to miss theirs. For some, I’ve found their mode of expression is no more than a twinkly-eyed smirk, or a bone-crushing hug. For another, it’s making sure my freezer is stocked. For others, stunningly expressed spoken words or beautifully composed sentences seem to come easily. It might even be a familiar phrase repeated, or merely showing their enjoyment in the use of something provided.
Reflecting on the instances that make me want to express my thanks, I have found a common thread: recognition. Recognition of who I am and what I need in a certain instant. Having people show up and see you, is a tremendous thing.
So that is now my goal, in showing gratitude – to reflect back to others what makes my heart feel full, through the medium of time. Thank you notes are still my go-to, but I also want to show up in the lives of those that I care about. Not just in response to something that they did, not just on that glorious third Thursday of each November, or in response to a nicety done or a present received, but as an everyday goal. Do I know for sure whether I’m fulfilling my objective? No, I do not. But I do know it’s important to keep trying, to keep making an effort for those in each of our corners of this world that fill our lives and our hearts in ways big and small. In thanks for giving.
I am fortunate enough to say that right now, this place where I am in life, it is exactly where I want to be. That’s not to say some moments aren’t fit to send me running for the hills – the whims of toddlers do not bend easily, after all. But being a mother is something I always wanted for myself; dearly so. It is with great appreciation that I get to have my sweet whirlwind of a son call me “Momma.” That also happens to be my job title, and for that, I am also immensely grateful. Although I always dreamed of being a mother, I didn’t dare plan that I would be one that cared for my child throughout the day. Yet it was the sincerest desire of my heart.
My hesitation to let that desire bear any fruit had many facets. I wanted to always provide for myself, and the idea of not being financially independent made me feel inadequate. Starting a career and pressing pause seemed frighteningly uncertain. How would my exit be received? What would my re-entry look like? Having completed law school, the crippling reality of student debt and an adamant wish for no one else but myself to pay it off reinforced my belief that being a child’s at-home caretaker would be impossible – particularly if I wanted to avoid horribly guilty feelings and fear of resentment. Since many of my friends were made through workplace meetings, I had no idea how relevant I would stay or how involved I would remain. What’s more, I felt as though it would be socially unacceptable to walk away from something I was “supposed” to do in order to do something I “wanted” to do.
Once our son was here and my husband and I realized that it would be possible for me to stay home, those reservations didn’t evaporate. Something just trumped them – or someone; a very small someone. But as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
My exit was far more graciously received than I could have imagined. I was petrified, but met with understanding. I have very fortunately been able to maintain many of the friendships I feared to lose, and the financial tradeoffs made and corners cut have been well worth it.
Yet I have much remaining guilt over my student debt payments, and I initially asked my husband quite often about that aforementioned resentment issue. I still do not know what my re-entry to the workforce will be like, and I think about my lack of financial contribution each time I reach for my wallet. My husband has reminded me that “support” comes in forms other than money. I have come to realize and recognize that the balancing act of support that is marriage can be a beautiful thing – even with potholes along the road, and the occasional wayward turn.
Still, I have felt uncomfortable with some reactions about my decision. It is difficult to have something dear to you be a subject of perceived side-taking, especially when whatever the decision may be has been a subject of personal introspection and required the mustering of more courage than you could have considered.
On one occasion, soon after deciding to stay home, someone who knew of my decision stated conversationally that it serves the parent’s own self interest to be their child's daytime caretaker, as the child would still thrive under other conditions. At first I felt ashamed. Was I self-serving? Then I felt angry, indignant that someone would make such a judgment about the way we have decided to parent our child and run our household; offended at the suggestion that I would for some reason think children would not thrive under other circumstances. Long afterward, I realized something: perhaps that person was not commenting on my personal decision. Perhaps it was simply a statement on the topic of parenting. Perhaps it was an observation. Perhaps it was a statement of the reason for the decision made in their own household. It had nothing to do with me personally, and it wasn’t made in judgment of me. But I had gotten defensive, and in that instance, I became guarded.
Avoidance of parent shaming has been an item of social awareness in recent years. It is good to remember that we all have the freedom to raise our children in the way we feel they would best flourish. We also have the freedom to decide in what manner that raising takes place. To me, that particular item seems to be set apart from the individual active parenting decisions like letting a toddler play on a smartphone or letting a preschooler throw a tantrum in the toy aisle without reprimand. We are reminded not to direct our ire at those individual acts because we do not know the circumstances surrounding them. A void seemed to exist in the area of support for parenting household decisions, and that is now changing too, for the better. Each family is surrounded with a unique set of circumstances, beliefs, and values. Whether a child is raised in a family with two working parents, with one stay-at-home parent, or a single parent; whether a child goes to daycare, grandma’s house, or stays at home - all of these choices are made by untangling a complex bundle of emotion, desires, finances and practicality. As parents, given all that goes into that decision, we can become guarded and defensive at the merest suggestion of criticism. It’s only one of the reasons that the parenting arena is a formidable one to occupy. By realizing all that has gone into our own decision, and recognizing all that has gone into someone else’s, we can begin to understand our own reactions and be more aware of how our comments may be perceived and received.
I’ve been told never to apologize for doing a job that you love, and we really shouldn’t, for that is what leads to fulfillment. Fulfillment comes in all different styles, but no matter what job or mixture of jobs it is that makes you feel fulfilled, the end product is bound to bring about your best self. I believe that when we bring our best selves to the table, any parenting decision is destined to be better. So, whatever your household composition or operation, have confidence in your decision, because it was made with respect to a unique microcosm, the success of which only its members can truly determine.
If I had one shot at borrowing the DeLorean, I’d take it back to late 2008. With the Roman Empire and Victorian Era England out there, not to mention the age of the dinosaurs (although that would require a lot of plutonium), it doesn’t seem like that thrilling of a choice, I know. But here’s why: my then-self was in dire need of a message from my present self, and here it is: You have options.
That’s it. Just three words; but when realized and taken to heart, the combination of those three words is more powerful than many sentences or soliloquies I could dream up. Think of what those words might mean to a patient receiving dire news, a partner in an abusive relationship, an elderly person facing diminished independence, an adult braving the everyday with a quiet burden. Now think of what those words might mean to a five-year-old at an ice cream shop, a preteen who loves three different sports, a hopeful high school junior, a college student. Each situation renders a different set of options, but to the chooser, the freedom of choice can make a world of difference.
One opportunity to realize the meaning of those three words usually presents itself to us at a young age. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This open-ended question creates a veritable goldmine of large-scale daydreams, teeming with images of carrying out any variety of occupations we can imagine. For some, it unlocked one single dream; one fervent hope of becoming a certain something that they sought to “become” from the time they were very small. Some people truly have “always wanted to be,” a baseball player, a doctor, a florist, a teacher, a soldier, or a scientist. Some people have an innate knowledge of the one single job/profession/career that seamlessly combines their unique skill set and their heart’s passion.
For me, the answer to that familiar question was a bit harder to find in terms of a job, profession or career. I ran through a serious gamut of careers when pondering what I wanted to “be” – everything from ballerina to astronaut, marine biologist to bakery owner, longshore fisher(wo)man to archaeologist to pharmaceutical drug researcher to veterinarian to presidential speech writer – the list went on. College brought contemplation of being an elementary and special education teacher, a biology teacher, an English professor, a librarian, an anthropologist, a museum curator, a National Geographic columnist, and a lawyer. Throughout all this indecision and exploration, I had the gift of a wonderful support system of family members, educators, and mentors that made me feel as though any one of these ideas was a viable option. Some options garnered more support than others, of course. Still, I was fortunate enough to believe that I was only limited by my choice. Yes, fortunate, not foolish or naïve; it’s a blessing to be made to feel that you could quite literally do anything.
Let’s fast forward from that self, mind brimming with options, to late 2008. I had graduated college the previous spring and begun law school that fall. I was feeling all the textbook anxiety, low self-esteem and out-and-out panic of a first-year law student. I had been dating my now-husband for roughly seven months. I was in my studio apartment in the city, telling him over the phone of my fears and doubts about law school. I uttered the phrase, “I just don’t know if I can even do this,” or something very near to it. He asked me, “Then why don’t you do something else?” “There is NOTHING ELSE!” I responded with great indignation and many tears, sobbing in a fit of feeling misunderstood and unsupported.
Really? There is nothing else? A touch dramatic. That is the point in time when I needed to hear “You have options.” The voice on the other end of the phone was trying to tell me that, but not in so many words. What I heard was confirmation of my fear that I couldn’t do what I had set out to do; that I couldn’t be what I had decided to “be.” If that was the case, and I wasn’t in the process of “being” anything, then where did that put me? I refused to think about it.
What I believe I was intended to hear from the other end of the line was “You have options.” Not that I couldn’t do what I was trying to do – which was become an attorney – but that I could do something else. What I did do was finish law school, pass the bar and become an attorney. Turns out I could do it, and I did. But could I have done something else? Yes, I see now that I most certainly could have. There is always something else. Perhaps if I had thought about my options, which were burgeoning a mere year before that late 2008 conversation, I would have chosen to do something else. Perhaps I wouldn’t have. But it would have been good of me to give myself the freedom to consider both choices.
There’s a quote credited to John Lennon that goes like this: “…When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Of course, John was wise beyond his years, whatever his years numbered at that point, because he hit on the crux of many a career-oriented conundrum. In deciding what we want to be, or what we want to continue to be, from a career perspective, we first need to know and understand what makes us happy to do. I am always going to be me, regardless of what it is that I happen to do. I don’t have to cram all of who I am into an occupational title or category in order to solidify my existence. Making a career choice is better framed in terms of what we want to do to achieve that happiness as opposed to what we want to be. What that ends up being may not be what we anticipated before we ventured to do it, or it may change over time. We can all fill many different roles; each person has many different talents. It is what we choose to do in order to be our most fulfilled selves that should guide our career paths and goals in life. Changing course doesn’t have to change who you are. A change can actually be borne of greater understanding of who you are at the moment when you decide to make it. It may be propelled by an increased confidence in a set of skills that you have.
I’ve learned that there is a difference between not being able to do something, and choosing not to do something, and neither of those occurrences need to be surrounded by shame when accompanied by thoughtfulness and effort. Even if you’ve never considered turning aside from your chosen career, if you no longer feel fulfilled or happy, or if you think you might be really great at something else, you owe yourself the freedom to ponder another path. Remember: you have options.
Someone once advised me to live in the present. I thought, “What, am I supposed to eschew all planning, banish all worrying (a lifelong habit), abandon my goals, and fly by the seat of my pants on absolutely everything?” Answer: No. That wasn’t actually what the phrase suggested. Nor do I think I could possibly achieve any of those things.
It took some time, and the perspective of an infant, to bring home the meaning of that advice.
My son loves being outside, something my husband and I had hoped for and, admittedly, tried to instill in him. So, on a particularly lovely October day last year, we headed to a nearby state park. Now, autumn has always been my favorite season. I believe that affinity may be hardwired into every fall-born child. Growing up on a farm, I had free rein to observe the crimsons, oranges and golds as they appeared. Crashing through fallen leaves down the bank of a cold stream was immensely satisfying. Autumn houses Thanksgiving, that most delightful of holidays, and who can resist a cheerful thought at the sight of a bright, plump pumpkin? But I digress. In short, I thought I was a grand appreciator and soaker-upper of all things autumnal. That is, until my then eight-month-old son made me see I had room for improvement.
His favorite Mickey CD played merrily as I pulled into the gravel parking lot by the lakeshore that day. The area was dotted with trees and picnic tables. A beautiful maple tree stood right before of us, golden leaves shining in the sun. The perfect spot to spread a blanket. I laid him down while I retrieved snacks and toys from the overpacked baby bag beside him. Of course, I also made ready my camera (i.e. cell phone) for the adorable “picnic and playtime under the leaves” photos I anticipated.
What I saw when I turned to look at him was never captured in a photo, but I think I remember it more vividly than if it had been.
My son was lying on his back, directly beneath that golden maple, gazing up at it with a grin of awestruck delight that lit up his entire face. He waved his arms in the air. He kicked his little feet. “Isn’t it so pretty?!” I exclaimed, a grin taking over my own face. I laid down beside him. “Pretty” all of a sudden seemed shamefully inadequate. I’d never seen a more stunning display of color. The dark branches stretched out in such contrast to the dandelion-yellow leaves – leaves that practically shimmered as they moved in the light breeze. The sun peeked through the roving gaps, making shadows play below.
I took a picture of that view of the tree; the view through my son’s eyes. I’d admired changing leaves for as long as I could remember. I’d been grateful for them ever since I had enough sense to be. But never, to my memory, was my breath taken away quite like it was in that moment. I was grateful to my tiny boy for creating that moment, and for sharing it with me. I felt like I had done that maple a grave injustice by seeing it as “another beautiful yellow tree.”
How very different that moment would have been if I had simply begun trying to fit my baby’s smile and the pretty yellow leaves above him into the same frame on my smartphone. The difference between that moment, and the moment it had almost been, solidified for me the meaning (and benefit) of living in the present. I wondered if I had experienced life as my son does at some point; if I had let myself wander into a moment, rather than anticipate it and plan my reaction to it. I thought, “of course I must have,” which led me to question whether I had lost that ability or simply lost the method as I got older. I hoped it was the method.
Adult life demands a lot. With schedules to keep and responsibilities on our shoulders, we plan and do and worry seemingly just to keep pace. We can’t always slow down. We can’t always banish the thoughts running through our heads at will. We can’t lay on our backs and gaze up at every tree. But we can change our perspective by becoming more conscious of how we approach an experience. Instead of anticipating what I am going to behold when I turn around, and what my reaction will be, I can let a bit of surprise in and let a bit of planned response fall away. It lends positivity to more than beholding trees.
Keeping myself in the present is one of the greatest gifts I can give my son as his caretaker, and one of the best I can receive as his mother. I can almost see the gears turning as he works to master a new task. I feel an inexpressible joy when he lifts his head from the book or toy between us, and our eyes meet with a smile I can see reflected there. I better understand his frustrations, even if quelling them escapes me.
Making an effort to keep myself in the present brings richness to relationships. It’s made me more perceptive in my interactions with new people, or with familiar people in uncharted conversational or situational territory. Emotions and meanings become clearer, and connections become stronger.
It doesn’t sound like something that should be difficult to do. After all, we technically do live in the present. But somewhere between eight months and thirty years, we learn to keep the present at a distance so we can assure ourselves that we are prepared for what is coming up ahead. Having plans and goals is something I believe in. But in working to live at least some of my moments in the present, I’ve come to find that plans and goals don’t need to come at the cost of recognizing what or where you are right now.
Bridget Sereday is an attorney-turned-stay-at-home parent with a passion for baking, on a quest to experience the moments that make up a life.
Accomplishment. From middle school through my twenties, that word defined my view of life's trajectory. High school then college; law school then career. I envisioned the age I would be when I was married, and when I would have children. I saw life as a linear journey, marked by the achievement of milestones and always progressing toward the next. It wasn't until I was a practicing attorney, married to the love of my life, and wading through a struggle with infertility that I began to realize that life isn't all that neatly packaged. I was no longer "progressing;" I was stuck, still, stagnant - and floundering. My set of circumstances confounded my, "if I want this, I will do that, and it will happen," mode of operating. The seed for a different life-view was planted, but I had yet to realize it.
Eventually, a light did shine through that bitterly dark time in my life; a glorious, blazing light: our son. That seed that was planted? You bet it sprouted. It took root.
I had planned what to do: stay home with our precious new baby for a certain number of weeks, then go back to work. The daycare deposit was made. The weeks were counted out. That was the next step. But my heart ached, and my nights were restless even when the baby wasn't. I reminded myself it was what I wanted, it was the next step. Successfully balancing being a working mom was the next accomplishment to pursue. That I WANTED to pursue. Right?
I realized I wasn't at all sure anymore that that was what I wanted, and that realization frightened me. I also felt I was supposed to want that. I had decided I wanted it, and I had spent a lot of money and hours pursuing a legal education and licensure. Wouldn't it be a mistake to turn off the planned path? In my mind, I would no longer be moving forward. I would be circling; wandering without the next "accomplishment."
"Not all those who wander are lost." A J.R.R. Tolkien line that has long been a favorite of mine. I was about to realize what it meant to me.
I talked with my husband about my feelings, and about my uncertainty over them. We crunched numbers. We each took a week to think on it. At the end of the week, we had reached the same conclusion: I should be our son's daytime caretaker. It was one of the very bravest choices of my life, even if it may not seem that way to all. It is also a choice that I don't believe I'd have had the courage to make had it not taken so much to get our son here. It has changed me in ways I am still discovering. My view of accomplishment is altogether different now. Polishing off his yogurt with a successfully-clutched spoon or hitching his toy wagon to his toy tractor by himself are our accomplishments: his in the doing; mine in the teaching. They don't come with degrees or pay raises, but there is no shortage of pride and fulfillment. Experiencing the wonder, the joy, the frustration in the moments that lead up to and encompass those accomplishments is where our lives are lived.
Of course, being a stay-at-home parent has led to thoughts about what to do when it comes time to return to the workforce. The timing and capacity in which I make that re-entry is still amorphous. Yet I have found that I am now more aware of myself - my desires rather than what I believe my desires SHOULD be - after reevaluating my initial thoughts on my career trajectory and deciding to turn aside from that path. As I wandered through my feelings on that initial career path during a conversation with my husband, I found that perhaps it is not one to which I will choose to return. I sincerely enjoy baking and creating consumables that feed the stomachs, souls, and even whimsy of those around me. I've repeatedly discounted that passtime as a potential way for me to earn income. Relatively recently, through a network of supportive family and friends, I have been able to occasionally bake to order for people that I know. Teaching myself to treat those opportunities as a cumulative beginning, I have begun to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, something more substantial may come in time.
Certainly, life is linear in the sense that there is a starting and an ending point to it here on Earth. But I have found that the path isn't solely comprised of a series of efforts and planned accomplishments. Rather than merely completing the present in order to reach a goal, I have found that experiencing it, however dark or sunlit it may be, has allowed me become much more aware of who I am and what I want to get out of this great journey from A to B.
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