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How I Became a Mother

Mira, 3 months

At the moment when my daughter entered the world, when her cries brought to a halt my groans, in the seconds between when  my husband cut her cord and then handed her to me, there was one other sound in the room. Me saying, in a panicked and shaky voice, “Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God” on a loop.

Mira’s warm body now lay on the opposite side of the belly which had been hers for nine months. The idea of motherhood had, in one long push, turned into the reality. And oh my God, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, feel, be, act like. I was not ready and yet, that didn’t really matter, did it?

When the nurses returned Mira to me in my hospital room, sweet-smelling and swaddled, still in that sleepy newborn daze, I was able to stare at her for the first time. As Sid slept in a chair beside me I gently unwrapped the blanket. Ten fingers and toes — wasn’t that the gauge of baby perfection, and wasn’t it my job to at least do that level of quality control? I slid her clenched fist out from the blanket and felt my breath catch in my throat. Her fingers were exact, miniature replicas of my husband’s. This was real. We, together, made a baby. And now she was here, with her long perfect fingernails and rosy red cheeks, beauty and potential bundled in a hospital-issue receiving blanket.

I shuddered. Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby? She cried that first night and I had no idea what to do. She cried for the next three months and I still had no idea what to do. After my umpteenth sleepless night, after it was yet again obvious that I wasn’t making enough breast milk, after she had thrown up yet again from the formula we tried to give her, I asked myself and asked God, “Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby?”

I spent my 20s convinced I was too selfish to be a parent, and I’m sure I was right. But then 30 hits, and you see how wonderful your husband is with little babies, and you know that deep down, it is an experience you want to have. But the truth is that you are scared to death: The brand-new adult life you just a few years stepped into is still precariously delicate. You’re still trying to figure out your way in the world — professionally, maritally, financially. And in the midst of all that unsurety, six pregnancy tests confirm what you really only needed one to tell you.

I was the mom whose baby wailed during the afternoon walks in the stroller that, pre-baby, I had fantasized would be our special time together enjoying nature. We were the ones driving in circles around the neighborhood praying for that moment that the wailing turned into a whimper and turned into silence. I was an over-achiever. A perfectionist. If I got a 95 on a test, I berated myself over the last five points. At motherhood, I was failing miserably and failure was not my thing.

One night, when she was about 6 weeks old, I remember staring down at that full head of brown hair, stroking her forehead as Sid taught me to do as a way to calm her down, and thinking, “Okay kid. I’ve had it. It’s time for me to be the mommy. And to do that,  I’m going to have to figure you out.”

And one night at at time, I did. We found a formula she could tolerate. I figured out that if I got her a bottle before she went into full-on tantrum, she’d drink and fall into a deep sleep. I learned how to swaddle. We created nighttime routines that signaled to all three of us that the day was coming to an end, a sanity-saver for adults and baby alike. And slowly I came to accept: Maybe I wasn’t an utter failure at motherhood. Maybe it was a good idea to give me a baby.

As that baby who perplexed me and humbled me grew, so did the amount of space she took up in my heart. A smile made me melt. When her eyes fixed on my face as I talked to her, I realized I’d never felt that special to anyone, ever. Her arms started to reach for me. Once I figured out how to get her to sleep, nap time became my favorite time of the day — the rocking, the reading, watching her eyes grow heavy, a dribble of milk moving down those wonderfully round cheeks. Oh my God, oh my God — I was in love.

It shocks me now to think that, when she was first laid on my belly, I was not overwhelmed with love for my daughter. Instead, over time I fell madly, deeply and obsessively in love with her. And somehow, for me, that is better. My love of her was a choice and then an undeniable urge, instead of the other way around. She quickly became my sidekick and my favorite companion, moving Cheerios into her mouth as she focused intently on watching me make dinner; her arms wrapping around my legs when I picked her up from day care and then pre-school and then kindergarten. Her smile still makes my heart melt, as if all the goodness in the world is being filtered through her to me — how did I get that lucky?

Today that precious gift I was given, that good idea that wasn’t my own, is growing up and growing away. Mira is 10 years old. This weekend I told her we’d bake cookies together, as baking is one of her favorite pursuits. Instead, she baked and I watched, my sole role being removing the hot cookie sheets from the oven. She confidently asks store clerks and restaurant waiters “Do you have this?” and “Can I have that?” She wakes up on her own at 5:30 am to shower and is often downstairs for breakfast before I am. She is applying to middle schools and has her sights set on the best one in New York City.

My baby, that rosy-cheeked bundle that rooted me and taught me more about myself than anyone ever has, is becoming her own person. Now what I’m left to wonder is — Do I remember how to be me?

Next year Mira will start middle school, a wild west of adolescence and hormones and cliques and first crushes. I try not to think about all the emotional education she has yet to receive — all the slights and heartbreaks in her future, all the joy and excitement she’ll have that I won’t be party to and likely will know nothing about. I try not to think about how much I miss those chubby little arms wrapped around my neck, or the way she would sing “Jingle Bells” every morning when she woke up in her crib, no matter what the season. But then I do think about it, as I am now, and I fight back tears but also marvel at how lucky I am to have had those moments.

It’s easy to dwell on the past, to wonder how time could have passed by so quickly and to regret the haste. But I try to focus on what a friend, years ago, told me when I asked her, “What is your favorite stage with your children?” She had three teen-agers at the time. She thought for a moment and said, “You know, every stage was fun in its own way. I really loved them all.”

And so as my daughter grows from little girl to almost teen, as the way she needs me changes, I try to focus on that. Children change, but every stage is a new adventure. Middle school, while it scares me, excites me also because I know there is so much yet for her to discover in this world, and so much of it is so good.

I can say the same for myself, both as a woman and as a mother: there is so much yet to discover in this world. Only I get an added benefit: I get to experience it myself, and to see it through my children’s eyes. And Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God, how wonderful that really does sound.

 

 

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Lessons Learned from a Decade of Motherhood

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My happy girl.

Last week my daughter, Mira, turned 10 years old. “I’m double digits now, Mom,” she told me numerous times, a beaming smile of pride spreading across her face. She is no longer my baby. But equally as transformative, I am no longer the clueless, scared and overwhelmed young mother that first counted her fingers and toes a decade ago.

When Mira was born and the doctor placed her on my lap, I didn’t cry. I wasn’t overcome with joy. I just remember repeating, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God.” The enormity of the moment, the vastness of the change that had just happened in my life, left me flummoxed. This was my child. I was now a mother. I shook from the newness of it all.

Later, when the nurse brought her to me in my hospital room, her presence felt ghost-like. What just an hour before did not exist in this world now lay beside me in a bassinet, her cheeks and lips red with life, her dark hair like a waft of downy feathers on her head. She started to wheeze. Because she had been born so quickly, she still had mucus in her lungs. It was my job to help her get it up. “Hold her on your lap and pat her back,” the broad-shouldered, patience-worn nurse told me. “Then suction out the mucus.” She turned on her heel and left. My husband Sid was in the room with me but I’d never felt so alone, as if the entire world outside the window didn’t even exist. It was just me and this child and I had to figure out how, in the most basic terms, to keep her alive.

I patted; I suctioned. She kept wheezing. I panicked. Sid called for the nurse. She returned, a look of disappointment on her face. I was patting Mira’s back as if it were a tambourine. “No, no,” the nurse said. “This is how you do it.” She scooped Mira up and with one hand on her chest and the other on her back started whacking her. Firm, rhythmic thumps. Mira coughed and spattered. My pulse quickened; all the blood surely left my face. Was she hurting my baby? Should I stop her? I was helpless in my cluelessness.

“Let me take her to the nursery,” the nurse said, saving me from bearing witness. “I’ll be right back.”

I was simultaneously scared and relieved. What was she doing to my baby? and Thank God she was doing it and not me. When they returned, Mira’s breathing was clear. The coughing and wheezing were gone. The nurse taught me the football hold and Mira started nursing. All seemed to be going well. But when Mira cried in the middle of the night, Sid slept through it. No nurses came. No one was going to swoop in this time. It was all me.

In all my years of schooling, I don’t think I ever learned as much as I did in those first three months with Mira. She was extremely colicky. Breastfeeding was more intense than any triathlon, the challenge of getting her to latch and stay awake to nurse combined with my lackluster “I pumped for 40 minutes and only got 1 ounce?!” output.  She was allergic to nearly every formula we tried. She’d only sleep when Sid rocked her so vigorously that sweat ran down his temples. And then as soon as we dared to give in to our exhaustion and put her down in her crib, she’d startle awake.

There were many moments in those first few months when I thought, “I am failing at this.” My baby wasn’t eating. She wasn’t gaining weight. The crying started at about 4 p.m. and continued until we could finally settle her down around 10. So many times I fell into a deep sleep only to hear her cries, look at the clock, and see only 10 minutes had passed.

How was I ever going to survive this? And couldn’t I just go back to work because that was a heck of a lot easier than this.

But slowly, something started to happen. The baby who shocked me with her newness started to respond to my voice. I sang to her and she smiled. I read aloud the books I was reading and she settled down. We found a formula she could tolerate and she started sleeping better at night.

I learned that the stack of parenting books I pored over looking for answers were a guide, not a Bible. I learned that parenting is trial and error. And when my second child was born, I learned that what works for one child isn’t guaranteed to work for the other. “You have to figure out for yourself what works and what doesn’t,” my mother told me time and again. And while I wanted more concrete direction, I now realize her answer was the most accurate one.

As Mira started trying new foods, exploring her world, learning to talk and learning to push limits and press my buttons, I learned that motherhood is a state of constant “on” mode. You can’t ease back on the discipline, the routines, the expectations, because while they are exhausting they are what maintains my sanity and keep my children in check.

This past week marked my 10-year anniversary as a mother. As many warned me, the next decade will make the first one seem like a summer picnic. I panic at that thought — hormones and dating and temptations — but then I look at what we’ve already been able to accomplish in these first 10 years.

Today, the top of Mira’s head reaches nearly to my shoulder. She wakes up on her own at 5:30 to shower before school and completes all her homework without any guidance or input from me. Gone are the days when she always had to be in the same room as I am, or at least check in on me every few minutes. Instead, she can often be found behind her closed bedroom door, talking with a friend on the phone, painting her nails or reading a book. She is funny and a great story teller. She has deep well of patience and a giving heart; she understands empathy and how to use it to bring joy to others. She loves to bake and read cookbooks and Sid and I wonder where these passions will take her.

I look at what we’ve help shape over 10 years and realize we didn’t do a perfect job. We’ve definitely overindulged her and maybe our high expectations put too much pressure on her. Or maybe not. Maybe she is exactly who she is supposed to be, and we’re just guardians for the journey. I like that idea and so that’s what I’m going with. And while the next 10 years might be filled with drama, the first 10 have taught me that no matter what the challenge, I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. And hopefully, as with the first 10 years, that will be enough.

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My Heroes are Pint-Sized

Mira didn't get a lot of chance to dirty her uniform, but she sure was proud to wear it.

Mira didn’t get many chances to dirty her uniform, but she sure was proud to wear it.

When my son Miles was 5 he failed the vision test at his annual check-up. A trip to the pediatric ophthalmologist confirmed he had a lazy eye and 20/70 vision. This means what most people could see from 70 feet away, he needed to be 20 feet away from to be able to decipher. When we got home from the doctor that day, I explained he’d have to wear a patch over his right eye so that his left eye would get stronger.

“That’s because my left eye is my bad eye,” he said. “My right eye can see real good.”

My heart sank and swelled. My poor boy knew all along. Mom was playing catch-up.

He started wearing the eye patch shortly before the first day of kindergarten. For five hours a day he submitted to some level of torture. He couldn’t see the TV. He couldn’t play a video game or build with his beloved Legos without being overwhelmed with frustration. Every day when I picked him up from school, as soon as he got in his carseat I pulled out a new patch.  He would start to cry. “No, I don’t want to. Please. Don’t make me.” And then we’d talk, he’d take a deep breath, and with courage that moved and inspired me he’d let me gently place the patch on his eye. His head often hung low. His lip sometimes quivered. But he acquiesced. After a while, I’d come with the patch and he’d groan but ask, “Can I put it on myself?” He did this every night through the madness that was rebuilding our lives after Hurricane Sandy. Considering how worn I was emotionally, he could have fought me on it and won. But I somehow found the strength to keep insisting, and he found the strength to keep doing.

This spring, my 9-year-old daughter Mira decided she wanted to start playing softball. I panicked. I knew that most girls around here start playing t-ball when they are barely out of diapers. She would be years behind her teammates. But she was only 9, and she should be able to try new things. And she shouldn’t have her mother’s anxiety, borne from my years of being the last person picked in gym class, of never playing a team sport myself, stop her. So I took her to practice and watched as she struggled with anxiety, shame and the frustration that she just couldn’t figure out how to hit that damn ball. I held her as she cried because the other girls were so much better than she was and they all knew each other so well. “I just feel so different,” she’d say. I always expected her to add, “I don’t want to play anymore.” She never did. Instead, she became more determined than ever to learn to field, to catch, to throw and, hopefully soon, to send that ball soaring into the outfield.

Today, nearly two years after first hearing of my son’s poor vision, his ophthalmologist delivered great news: His vision is now 20/25. And since it’s been a year since he’s had to wear a patch, that means his risk of regression is practically zero.

“Did you hear that?” I told Miles, translating for him what the doctor had just said. “It means all your hard work to make your eye stronger worked. All those days you wore that eye patch, every time you put it on when you didn’t want to, it helped your eyes get better.”

He smiled that bashful smirk that holds the pride that a 7-year-old boy now feels he needs to keep under wraps. I hugged him anyway and he hugged me back, tightly, his strong clutch the emotional substitute for the unbridled joy I know he felt.

Tonight my daughter’s team heads to the division softball playoffs. Her coach gently let me know that Mira will not be on the roster. As the weakest member of the team, she’ll be sitting on the bench during this important game. I asked Mira how she felt about that. She was sad about the prospect of being the only girl not on the field. But then I showed her this part of her coach’s message:

She has come so far from day one so I don’t want her to think I’m not proud of her determination! Love that kid!

Mira read that and started bouncing on her toes. Her eyes became misty and she hugged me. You’d think she’d just scored a winning run. But no — what she discovered might have been better. She learned that her hard work has been noticed. That sticking with something is worthwhile. She’s heading to the game tonight knowing she has one very important job: To cheer her team on.

“I have to yell and cheer as loud as I can Mom,” she said. And I couldn’t help but want to burst with joy and pride.

You read books about courageous people who have done amazing things, role models and icons who give you much to aspire to. But I’ve discovered, time and time again, that my real inspiration comes from the courage my kids summon in their journey toward adulthood. Every milestone comes with its own level of risk, from taking those first steps to stepping up to the mound and hoping, please, that this will be the time she hits that ball. Every achievement comes from putting in the effort, from learning to read to training a lazy eye to see clearly.

I’ve learned that my kids are my true heroes. As they continue their journey, I know the inspiration will only grow. That makes me so excited for the future — theirs as adults and mine as the parent who gets to watch it happen.

Epilogue: Mira did get to play two innings. At her first at-bat, she headed to the mound with bases loaded. My heart moved into my throat. Her stance was perfect. She was waiting for her pitch. It never came. Ball, ball, strike, ball, strike, ball… And she walked. In doing so, she brought a runner in. It was the only run scored by her team. When the game was over and the team was reeling from a devastating loss, I explained to her what she did. Her eyes brightened. “I can’t wait until next year,” she said. “I want to play the infield. I want to learn to pitch. I think I could be good at that.” I have no doubt she could. My lesson here? Grab onto that small thread of success and use it to propel you to the next challenge. Confidence is a muscle; it only grows with practice.

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Parents Just Want to Have Fun. So Why are We So Boring?

Look at us -- out alone, at night, in  Manhattan!

Look at us — out alone, at night, in Manhattan!

We sat at the small Italian restaurant in Bay Ridge. It was just the two of us. No kids. No husbands. We flirted with the waiter and when we realized we were running late, connived getting wine in to-go cups.

We giggled over this, like two teen-agers who just stole beer from their parents fridge. I know I reminded Tracy several times that I am a genius, because what other 40-year-old mom would think of smuggling booze out of a restaurant in a plastic-covered coffee cup? It felt scandalous. It felt ridiculous. It felt wildly… what was this feeling I was having? What was this gurgling of excitement in my chest that had nothing to do with the fear a child will fall off the monkey bars or that I won’t make it to softball practice on time?

Could it be that I was having fun?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to a family wedding. The invitation read “adult reception” and I whooped, hooted and hollered. A night out with my husband! With dancing! Great food! Cocktails! And dancing! And noooooo kids to remind to eat their dinner, take to the bathroom or listen whine about being tired.

We walked into the cocktail hour, both looking fabulous I will say without apology, and began to work the room. My husband Sid and I really know  how to own a cocktail hour. We weaved among the revelers, feeling like the ultimate power couple, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing as we told stories of our ridiculous lives. We brought drinks to people before they asked for them. I introduced my sister-in-law to the cosmopolitan.

I love cocktail hour. It’s one of the best parts of the wedding. I told my husband. And then I felt it again: Fun!

Later that night we were pretty much irrepressible. I had warned people in advance that Sid and I don’t get out much and so when we do, we’re like convicts on weekend furlough. On the dance floor, Sid and I have moves that are all our own. When he wasn’t around, I danced with whoever else was on the dance floor. Who cared?! I was having fun! And so was everyone around me.

The next day (and for many days after) Sid and I kept hearing from others at the wedding how “it looked like you guys really had a good time.” Uh-oh. What did we do? Even the bride called us “the couple of the night.” Um, no. The open bar definitely left some holes in our memory banks but neither of us could remember doing anything terribly embarrassing or offensive. But that’s not what people were saying anyway — everyone was commenting about how we looked like we were having the time of our lives.

Recently someone told me that she worried that because her kids never see her having fun, they’ll grow up into adults who don’t know how to have fun. This made me realize that one of the gifts my parents gave me was the glimpse into the world of grown-ups having fun. They drank too much, laughed, danced, did many wild things, and I witnessed much of it. They taught me that no one is responsible for your good time — if you want to have fun, you make your own fun. But somewhere between diaper changes and school science projects, I forgot about that.

Why is the concept of parents embracing reckless abandon unique enough that people noticed it so intently? I woke up the morning after that wedding suspecting to be swearing off all fermented beverages forever, for good. But instead, I felt fabulous. The happiness from the night before seeped into the next day. All that stress that I’d been holding in had dissolved in one night of just letting myself go. It felt remarkably freeing, this license I gave myself to just let go and have fun.

Which got me thinking: When did we stop having fun? The answer was obvious.

Exactly 10 years ago, I was pregnant with my first child. And that’s when it began — this wave of exhaustion that dictates most recreational decisions I’ve made since. If we get a babysitter, we have her come at around 5 so that we can be home by 9 the latest. When the kids were babies, you never knew whether you’d have a good night or a bad night so why risk staying out late? Sleep was our priority. Nowadays, I feel like we’re still catching up on all the sleep we’ve lost over the last decade. We dine at the geriatric hour and when the sun goes down, we reach for our blankets.

So going out on a Saturday night with Tracy, seeing the city alive at an hour when I’m usually drooling on the pillow; dancing at a wedding until my feet begged for mercy — I realized I needed to embrace fun as much as I needed to cure my constant exhaustion. Those brief reminders of what it was to be young, stretch-mark free and slightly devilish help me shed stress in ways that sleep, yoga, exercise, eating right — all the things you’re told to do to keep your body healthy — could not accomplish. I needed to truly let go.

I’m now on a “fun” kick. I’ve made going to the gym a priority, and that has vastly improved my physical body. Now I want to make having fun a priority as a way to reward my overworked soul.

Problem is, it’s been so long that I don’t really know how to do this. So friends of mine, let’s make plans to have fun. Not just “let’s meet for dinner” and talk about the 40s malaise. Let’s go experience life — theater, art, music — and do things — hike, bike, dance, sing. Getting to fun isn’t a logical default for me anymore so I could use some help. What ideas do you have for having fun?

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Overwhelmed? Yes, Brigid Schulte, of Course I Am

My husband came home early from work today to find me in bed, under the covers, and crazy enough to think these two kids would let me shut my eyes for just a few minutes. Daylight savings must have caught up with me, and combine that with bad news from a client this week (read: income = gutted) and anxiety over my husband’s upcoming business trip (I hate it when he travels) I was ready to check out. Just a few minutes, I swear. That was all I needed.

It was 1 in the afternoon.

Now, I know there are people out there that think this is exactly how the freelance life works. You nap when you want to. You have kids performing circus acts while you’re doing phone interviews. And truth be told, sometimes that is what happens. But most of the time I sit myself down at 9:30 and don’t get up again until 3 p.m. when the kids come home and I leave my second job for my more demanding primary one, the one filled with kids quizzing me on their homework questions, my corralling them into the car, the words “Can we please try not to be late this time?” having long ago taken on a rhetorical tone.

Most days I power through but today, the world just descended upon my shoulders. My husband crawled into bed next to me and made the kids scatter. “Did you hear this segment on NPR today about being overwhelmed?” he asked. “I heard it and thought of you.”

He then proceeded to play it for me from his iPhone. It was an interview with Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, whose book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time was published today. If you had been with me as I was listening, you’d have thought I was in church listening to a sermon.

One of the main differences is women are still doing so much of the housework and the child care. … There’s physical labor that goes along with that, but there’s also mental labor. You’re keeping track of everything, you know? You’ve got all this stuff going on in your mind: the to-do lists, and “Did I remember the carpool?” and “Oh, my goodness, I gotta fill out the Girl Scout forms,” … all this stuff that kind of gets crowded in there along with all the stuff you’ve got to do at work. Men generally don’t have that. They have one sphere, which is work.

“Mmm hmm” I muttered. “Mental overload.”

“We had started off, I think like most people in our generation, wanting to have a true partnership, wanting to be equal partners,” she says. ” … We had a very low moment where I thought, ‘Wow, we have really gotten off track. What happened?’ “

“Yeah? What happened?” (I’m not sure that I said that aloud.)

Schulte proceeded to tell a story about a day when her work life and mom life collided, when she had to meet a deadline at work but also had to get her daughter to ballet on time, and she ditched work in order to do what a good Mom is expected to do. In the process, she realized that she was giving her daughter an inflated sense of her importance and in doing so, was not being the proper working mom role model. (Something many women of our generation never had, which is why we struggle so much with the equal partnership idea.) Sometimes the kids can’t come first, and sometimes that has to be okay. Because mommy’s work is just as important as daddy’s, and should be equally respected. And plus, bosses don’t care about ballet lessons.

I listened to the seven-minute segment and sighed. Here we are again, talking about the same subject, but no closer to a solution. Instead, I’m laying in bed at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, hoping to shut the world out and finding that nearly impossible to do.

“Let’s take a 20-minute break,” my husband said.

My mind reeled. No. I had work emails to answer. The kids needed to pack their bags for swim. Had my son eaten lunch? And 20 minutes would barely give us enough time to get to parent-teacher conferences on time. My instinct was to throw off the covers, get up and get working. But then I looked at my husband. He was seconds away from snoring. He was not thinking the things I was thinking. So what if, as Schulte proposes, women started acting more like men? Would the world come to a crashing halt?

I closed my eyes. Twenty minutes later the alarm went off. I grabbed swim supplies while my husband made Miles a cheese sandwich. We were late getting out the door but arrived at our appointment on time. Teachers were effusive in their praise of our children. It all worked out… even though I took that 20 minutes.

Later in the afternoon, I had an errand to run. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get dinner made and get the errand done. And then — Eureka! — I remembered. Sid is home. He can make the meatballs. I asked; he complied gladly, almost happy to know what it was he could DO to make things easier for me. I relaxed. And when he augmented my mother’s recipe to include horseradish and sundried tomatoes, I said nothing except, “Wow, this is really good.” (It was, but don’t tell my mom.)

Now it’s after 5 p.m. The smell of meatballs I did not make fill the house. The kids have finished their homework. I have some interviews to do tonight but after that, I’m going to let it all go again. I’ll brew some tea or drink some wine. I’ll try not to let my worries control my mind. And I’ll find confidence that no matter what challenge I have, if I just let them go maybe the solutions will begin to present themselves in the most organic ways.

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Lent: How Technology Became the New Alcohol

For years, Lent was about depriving myself of gastronomic pleasure.

I’ve given up sugar and chocolate and fried foods. I’ve given up wine and beer and all alcohol For years, a poll of anyone I know would have revealed the same top picks. For 40 days (plus Sundays) let’s give up our comfort foods, the ones that we turn to at the end of a long day or when the kids have pretty much But Mom‘ed you out of your last ounce of sanity.

But the tide is shifting. Whereas food used to be my generation’s most oft-selected vice, now technology has become the serpent we require a religious proclamation to ignore. On Fat Tuesday, my Facebook feed was filled with people signing off for the Lenten season. In 2012, Twitter was the No. 1 habit to be scorned (according to a list based on Lent-related tweets), followed by Facebook at No. 6. In 2013, “social networking” came in fourth on the list (following soda, swearing and at No. 1, “being pope.” Oh, those witty tweeters.) So far this year (as of 10 a.m. March 5), social networking is No. 3, followed by Twitter at No. 4, beating out swearing, sweets and soda.

Staring at our social media feeds has become the equivalent of that third glass of wine — you know you shouldn’t but wow, that was fun.

Maybe what people are giving up for Lent is changing because where we seek pleasure is changing. At the gym I see people tapping away at their phones while working an exercise bike. How many times have I told my kids “give me a minute” while I am so immersed in a text conversation that I can’t help my son spell “treasure” or watch my daughter’s latest dance move?

So this year, I’m joining the masses and giving up my work email and my phone outside of work hours. I’ve pledged not to check my work email before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. And when my kids need my attention, Facebook will be shut down.

I’m one day into this and see already that it will be hard. I am used to turning on my phone as soon as I wake up to check my work email. I’m also used to Facebook’ing whatever cute, interesting or strange event I just experienced or noticed. And I’ve realized that the urge to post isn’t about getting information out — it’s about seeking feedback. How clever can I be? Can I make someone laugh? Can I elicit “oh, your kids are so cute!” validation? I’m taking myself out of the moment and have become a voyeur on my own life. It’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when I realize my kids have called my name three times before I come out of the zone — yeah, maybe I’ve taken it too far.

Social media is to 40-year-old me as alcohol or sweets were to 30-year-old me. I used to give those up with the hopes that I’d lose a few pounds. Now I’ll be putting my cell phone in solitary with the hopes that I’ll gain some more insight into the world and people around me.

 

 

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Who’s the Mommy? I’m the Mommy

“But Mom!”

It’s become a chorus in my house. “Do your homework” is met with, “But Mom, I can do it later.” “Clean your room” elicits “But Mom, I’m tired. Can’t I do it tomorrow?” “Eat your dinner” is followed by “But mom, I don’t like it.”

My kids are 6 and 9 and this week it became apparent to me that I am slowly losing my dominion over them. I had been blaming this on their march towards tween-dom but I realized today that the problem isn’t gurgling hormones or natural rebellion. It’s me. I’ve gone soft.

There was a time when if I made a threat, the kids knew that I’d make good on it. When I said I’d end a playdate if they didn’t behave, and then proceeded to drag a mischievous and screaming child out of the house, my authority was secure. When toddlers threw tantrums and I simply walked away, they knew that their theatrics had no power over me.

Then Superstorm Sandy hit. And my resolve withered.

At first we were living with family and then we were living in disarray, and I myself had no desire to deal with the kids’ homework let alone force them to do it accurately and neatly. Each of our bedrooms was festooned with leaning towers of clutter, the saved remnants from our destroyed first floor. How could I require that the kids clean their rooms when I had a 4-foot-tall pile of unfolded clothing, books and assorted holiday decorations perched on my armchair? I let them live on the foods they ate without complaint: hot dogs and chicken nuggets; pasta and bagels.

I got lazy, and the kids got lazy. Trouble is, the laziness didn’t go away once the house was rebuilt.

I’m going to cut myself some slack here. The reason might come as a surprise to someone who has only witnessed a natural disaster from afar. The neglected truth is that life doesn’t instantly return to normal once your house is rebuilt.

For months, people would ask me: “How is the rebuild going? When will it be done? Why isn’t it done yet?” Once it was finished, and I had a couch to sit on again and stove to cook with, those around me breathed a collective sigh of completion. Phew! Now we can all be done with that! But the truth is that the structural rebuild is only one part of restoring the whole of what was lost during Sandy. We all need to rebuild ourselves from the inside out, and that takes time.

I’m still on that journey, and reclaiming the take-no-excuses Mom I used to be is part of that journey. So last night, my daughter stayed up past her bedtime so she could finish cleaning her room . When my son decided he didn’t like what I served him for dinner, I told him he could either eat what was in front of him or get ready for bed. He chose the latter and I, for the first time in a long time, was okay with that. I’m remembering that my kids aren’t as fragile as I feared they were during Sandy. I’m remembering that while they’ve been through a lot, I can’t give them a pass for all they have yet to have to go through. Losing some sleep or going to bed hungry isn’t torturous; it’s a reminder that there are rules to be followed.

I still have a lot to work on in this rebuilding process. Part of it is reclaiming my own mojo, my own inspiration to do more, be more and ask for more both personally and professionally. For the last 16 months I’ve been stuck, working so hard to get the external life together that the internal went neglected. Survival mode was necessary for a while but its time has passed. It’s time to remember that I’m not just protecting children for the now; I’m trying to teach them the responsibility they need to be productive adults.

So don’t “But Mom” me. Why? Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why.

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Artistry, Addiction and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_articleAnother incredibly talented artist dies before his time, and at his own hand. It’s all so tragic and sad, and most of us will read the obits and the tributes and let our hearts ache for his partner and parents and children, and then go back to our own normal, our individual and personal struggle to maintain sanity in the midst of internal chaos.

Hoffman, according to news reports, used heroin to quiet that chaos, a fact that is so desperate it makes me angry and sad all at once.

But it also makes me wonder: Why? And it scares me because at the same time, I think I might know why.

Whenever one of these talented souls implodes, it seems to be due to the weight of his own celebrity or the burden of his art. As a writer with an artistic temperament who is often too sensitive to criticism and too pressured toward perfection, I feel a kinship with Hoffman. But I also see this tragedy through the lens of having witnessed the lives of so many I know and love destroyed by drugs and alcohol. I share DNA with most of them, so it makes the spectator aspect more mirror-gazing than theater-watching.

I’ve wallowed in self-pity and insecurity over my career — Am I good enough? Am I advancing fast enough? I’ve soaked in the praise that comes with getting it really, really right. And I’ve felt that euphoria transform into a paralyzing fear that the next time, I’ll get it equally wrong. I’ve drank too much, too often as a way to ease the pressure that no one puts on me but myself. But there’s a line, rigid and barbed and haunted by the souls of lives I’ve watched go to waste. I’ve never crossed it because I know to do so would put me in a place where, like Hoffman, I might not be able to find my way back. But what separates me from those who cross that line? I believe it’s several things.

I’ve seen the scars that addiction leaves upon a family. I’ve felt its lashes myself. I’m never very excited about the holidays, and I wonder if it’s because as a child you never knew when a fist would crash into glass, your grandmother would spill silent tears or words would become weaponized. I remember being 16 years old, my uncle in a drunken Thanksgiving rage, my 12-year-old sister collapsing in tears in my arms and my response being to chase that man out of the house myself, screaming my own angry, tear-filled rant with no care of what the neighbors could see or hear. I remember arguing with that same uncle, 15 years later, after he walked out of rehab and showed up at my grandfather’s nursing home room, angry because we made good on the threat of: Either you go into rehab or we change the locks. A few days later we got the call: My grandfather, sick of this life and done with fighting a hopeless battle, was gone. A coincidence? Absolutely not.

I have parents who went hungry because their fathers drank away their paychecks. I have grandparents who suffered the exact same fate, and have often wondered if seeing it repeated in their generation wasn’t as shockingly sad to them as it is to me, because they didn’t know to expect any better.

I’ve had enough run-ins with addiction that I am confident I will never go down that road. But I’m also aware that the minute I rely on that confidence I put myself at risk.

My greatest fear now is that the family disease will repeat itself in the next generation. And so when my daughter snaps in anger because a project isn’t coming out “just perfect,” when we bake a cake and it doesn’t look exactly like the one in the magazine, when she is disappointed at getting a 92 on a test instead of a 100, my warning siren goes off. Don’t aim for perfect, I tell her. It’s unattainable. It’s not fair to yourself or to the people around you. And then there are the words I don’t say: It’s what I do to myself, and it’s crippling. So please, please don’t.

Was Hoffman aiming for perfect? Was he trying to mask a deep hurt? Was he powerless against some genetic predisposition to addiction? Maybe one, maybe all. But regardless, I think there’s a lesson to be learned, especially for us creative types.

Go easy on yourself. Don’t expect greatness but revel in it when it arrives. Never lose faith in your ability to create. And know that the future always has the promise of offering more than the past.

These are words I live by, words I will raise my children on. I can only pray that they are enough.

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How to Survive the Pre-Christmas Rush

This is Miles' stocking, about 50 percent done. I need to mail it to my mother by Monday so she can sew it together. Will I make it? It'll be a nail biter.

This is Miles’ stocking, about 50 percent done. I need to mail it to my mother by Monday so she can sew it together. Will I make it? It’ll be a nail biter.

I write that headline as if I am going to give you any advice on how to do this. Ha! Truth is, it’s a cry for help from someone who needs to figure out how to make that happen. Here’s my evidence:

Christmas is in less than two weeks and I, mother, wife, business owner, writing peon and editorial slave, I have yet to do any of the following things:

– Grocery shop for all the cookie baskets I dreamed I’d be making.

– Bake said cookies.

– Buy a single present for anyone I gave birth to.

– Source or write four articles that are due next week.

– Clean my house in advance of a visit from my mother- and father-in-law. (Did I say clean? I meant disinfect to a white-glove sparkle.)

– Finish the Christmas stocking I promised my son I would make for him, oh, two years ago.

– Mail out Christmas cards.

– Many other things but I will stop now in hopes of heading off a full-blown panic attack.

Why do I do this to myself every stinking year? My sister, God bless her annoyingly organized soul, had her kids’ wish lists done around Halloween, did most all of her shopping by Black Friday and has the foresight to order adorable treats and crafts that Elf on the Shelf can surprise her blessed children with. My kids get leftover M&Ms scavenged from their Halloween baskets and a fistful of coins. I can tell Mira, my 9-year-old who is still clinging on to the world of magical thinking, is not impressed.

Sigh. This lack of forward thinking is a chronic problem for me. I remember as a child coming home from school on Fridays, overjoyed by the idea of an afternoon free of homework and full of TV binging. My sister, however, dutifully opened her schoolbooks. As I stuffed Skittles in my mouth and caught up on General Hospital, she kept her nose in her books until she was done. I scoffed at her. Until, of course, Sunday night, when I was scrambling to get everything done while she was able to laze around, hang out with my parents and be, what is the word? Relaxed.

Crisis, scrambling… I seem addicted to the adrenaline. When my daughter asks, “When are we going to (bake cookies, buy a gift, finish a project)” I tell her reassuredly, “Don’t worry! Mommy is Queen of the Last Minute!”

And admittedly, I do have an amazing aptitude for pulling stuff out of my tuckus at the very last minute. I generally am placing the last hors d’oeuvre on the tray seconds before our first party guest arrives, my home version of “Cupcake Wars.” I pull up to dance class with 30 seconds to go before ballet starts. I lounge in bed until the very last possible moment, sucking up what few moments of repose I can get before playing drillmaster to a troop of sleepy, hungry, whiny recruits.

It’s exhausting, but at the same time I don’t see this old dog learning new tricks. Having a deadline and racing to meet it brings excitement to the mundane. My husband and I will likely Christmas shop on Friday. I’ll bake cookies all day Saturday. We’ll wrap gifts on Christmas Eve while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a family tradition for my husband and I.

And while it stinks having so many items on my to-do list, there is a wonderful feeling that comes from age and experience: Yes, it’s a lot to do. But I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. And when it’s all done, I will collapse into a heap of “I did it!-ness.” And my sojourn will be well-deserved and feel more so than if I had my act together on a daily basis.

Am I warped? Probably. But we all are in our own ways, right? I’ve just figured out how to work my warpedness into a usable skill.

 


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