Thursday, November 28, 2019

For All You Young Moms Out There This Holiday Season

I was going through holiday decorations yesterday and came upon a battered, blue bin of holiday books, VHS tapes, CDs, and yes, even a couple of cassettes. As I looked through the home-recorded copies of "Olive, The Other Reindeer" and "The Tangerine Bear," an ear-marked hardcover of "The Polar Express" and a probably-scratched CD of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer", I was overwhelmed by one thought that I actually said aloud:

You did good, Mom.

It wasn't just the box. Earlier in the day, I asked my oldest, who is coming home for the first time in a year and a half, if he wanted Christmas cookies. This former junk food-loving kid, who is now all about vegetarian, organic and all-natural, said, "Well, maybe just Grandma's cut-out cookies. We can decorate them when we're home, Mom."

The cut-out cookies. The ones my mom made with us as kids that we spent hours decorating, then sneaking from the big freezer out in the garage (found out later she did it too!) The cut-outs she decorated with my kids when I was working and needed her to watch them over Christmas break. The cut-outs we baked and took to the nursing home so we could decorate them with her one last time. The cut-outs my kids insisted we make in the years following, even though I wasn't sure I wanted to.

You did good, Mom.

The holidays look a lot different now - they haven't been the same since 2014, which was a year of many changes, including the death of my mother. I feel like we tried to keep up pretenses and do the same things, but it felt so forced, and not very enjoyable. It was no one's fault - it's just hard to try to keep things the same when they are clearly not.

I really started dreading the holiday season. There was so much pressure yet so much change. I was struggling to find some semblance of tradition when there was certainly nothing traditional about my family. I was tired of feeling as though I HAD to go through the motions just to appease other people. My family was changing, my kids were changing, and I had to change, too.

The past few years have been weird. Last year was the first time I was missing a boy at home, and Facetiming was awkward and just made me feel more wistful. This year we'll be missing one again and it's going to be even harder.

But that box. Man, that box. So many memories are contained in that battered blue bin. Flashes of my oldest at three, standing on a chair in a Santa hat singing along with "Jingle Bell Rock." Two sweet faces licking dough off the beaters and mugging for the camera. Twenty-five straight days of reading "Polar Express" to my youngest before bedtime. A Christmas Story marathon playing in the background on the TV all day long. And those cut-out cookies slowly disappearing from the freezer.

You did good, Mom.

It doesn't really matter what the holiday dynamic is anymore. I laid the groundwork, and I did a good job. I gave the kids that memory bank that they're never going to lose and, as we make this transition to them having their own lives, they have a good foundation to begin traditions of their own.

So for all you young parents out there baking the cookies and staying up late to put together the toys and dragging them to the Festival of Lights and making the same Jell-O mold every year because it's literally the only thing they'll eat, keep it up. You only have a few years to do this before you're going to be opening that battered blue bin and wondering where the time went. And hopefully when you do, you'll say the same thing to yourself: "You did good."

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The First Day of Lasts

August 17, 2011. First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life.

August 17, 2016. First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life, Take Two.

August 14, 2019. This is it. The last one. Senior year of high school.

Everything I have known as a mother for the past 19 years has revolved around school.

The tears (from them) at preschool drop off. The tears (from me) on the first day of kindergarten. The first time I became "one of those parents" with my camcorder at (insert any school production here) frantically trying to get my kid's attention so he'd smile and wave at me (then mouthing at him to SING THE WORDS.) The first time as a "room parent" watching my kid beam when I walked in the room with cookies and juice. The first middle school project that had us at the dollar store at 8:30 at night to buy poster board because "someone" didn't remember. The first homework assignment forgotten and subsequently dropped off by an overprotective mom. The first homework assignment forgotten and subsequently NOT dropped off by a mom who was finally learning.

The first missed bus. The first time dropping off my kid at o-dark thirty for track practice. The first time picking up my kid after school hours for detention. The first girlfriend. The first heartbreak. The first aced test. The first failed class.

The first, "I need these shoes because they're cool." The first, "Just drop me off here, Mom." The first, "Can I borrow the car?" The first, "You don't understand, Mom!" The first, "I got the job!" The first, "Can I stay out a little later?"

The first "first day of school." The last "first day of school."

I'm a mere nine months away from my 20-year anniversary of being the mom of a school-aged kid, and I don't know if I'll ever be ready to celebrate.

It's not like their high school years were a scene out of Glee. Neither of my kids particularly loved high school the way I did back in the mid-80's. Part of that I believe is because I picked the wrong damn high school, and part of that was, well, I don't really know. Social media. Drugs. Pressure. Economics. Privilege. In fact, this is the first time I've had a senior at home - my oldest finished high school in another state, so my apple cart of firsts and lasts with him was a bit upset. Suffice to say I don't think either of them will attend any high school reunions.

Still, it will be the end of an era for me. My oldest has entered the big, bad world of life and is attending the School of Hard Knocks. My youngest … I'm not sure where his path will lead right now. We're not exactly the kind of people who adhere to that classic perfect family Facebook post about how we're so proud of little Johnny for being one of 47 valedictorians and headed off on a full scholarship to Hahhhvahhhd. But lemme tell you, I'm just as proud of my kids for forging their own path, whatever that might be.

Me? I guess I'll soak it all in and roll with the changes as best I can. We've had some pretty major life changes over the past 20 years. Divorce. A move. Another move. Addiction. Mental health issues. Death. A life-changing accident. Cancer. We survived. I survived. So I can survive this - my baby in his last year of high school.

I once got a great piece of advice from an unlikely source. Back in 1997, I was pregnant with my first son and setting up for an event at a trade show in Dallas. I had hired a photographer who was a big, burly Texas man, complete with the cowboy boots and hat. We were talking before the event and the conversation turned to kids - his grown and mine still in the oven. What he said to me I'll never forget: "I always just enjoyed each stage; I never looked back and wished I could go back. I always looked forward to the next one. That's the key - just enjoy each stage."

That's hard to do. Though I don't know that I would want to go back and do EVERYTHING over again, I do get a tug at my heartstrings when I think about walking up to the school and having my kid run out to see me with his "smiley face of the day" paper clenched in his little fist. Or being home when my middle schooler bursts through the door asking for a snack and running back outside to play with his friends. Or when my high schooler sits down with me to watch Stranger Things even though I have no idea what he did during the day anymore.

The school "firsts" are almost over, but there are so many more firsts to come in these boys' lives. I won't be there for many of them - heck probably most of them - but I guess I'm not supposed to be. It's time to have some "firsts" of my own. What those are I'm not sure - I have a few ideas - and I'm looking forward to them, whatever they may be.

Here's to a year of "lasts" for my senior and me, and a lifetime of "firsts" ahead for us all.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Joy of OK-ness (and How You Can Achieve It Too)

We - as the human species - are not always OK.

Some of us are OK most of the time, some of us just some of the time; a few of us are really rarely OK.

For a long time, it seemed as though I fell into this latter category, and I really couldn't understand why. I didn't WANT to be "rarely OK." It's been my life's quest to move up a notch to the "OK some of the time" category. At the risk of jinxing it, and I'm knocking on wood, tugging on my little rabbit's foot and trying not to break any mirrors here … not only do I think I'm OK some of the time, but I've leaped over that rung on the ladder and am barely teetering on "OK most of the time."

I'm now OK most of the time.

Wow. Me. I have so many questions … like how did this happen? What did I do to deserve this good fortune? How long is this going to last? What can I do to make it last? How can I keep from making it slip away? Why can't I stop asking myself questions and just ENJOY BEING OK????

Fine. I'm enjoying it - kind of incredulously - like when you finally take that beach vacation and walk out to the ocean for the first time and smell the fresh air and feel the sand between your toes and hear the waves crashing on the beach … yeah, that's me feeling OK.

So I kind of took an internal inventory to see what I may have done to help my OK meter move from the red to the black, and came up with a few suggestions for those of you out there who are missing out on the joy of OK-ness.


Stop comparing yourself to everybody.
OMG this is the bane of my existence. I apparently have so little self-confidence that the only way to measure my self-worth is to compare myself to others. So-n-so ran a marathon - why don't I have the discipline to train like her? So-n-so got promoted - am I ever going to get ahead in my job and make any more money? So-n-so has such a great social life - I wish I had more friends! So-n-so is in such an awesome relationship - why am I not in one?

Good piece of advice here - don't judge someone only by what you see on the outside. Maybe there's somebody out there who is thinking I'm badass at something with no clue what a train wreck I can be on the inside. And just because someone does something amazing doesn't mean I want to do the same thing - aka I hate running and have absolutely no desire to run a marathon. A part of me wants to be in a relationship but honestly I'm really, truly doing OK NOT being in one right now. In fact, it's much easier. If I come upon someone someday - organically - that turns into a love connection, then great - but for now I am perfectly content abandoning the search.

Join a group - but only one you really WANT to join. 
I have always struggled to meet people but knew I needed to. I have tried so many means of connecting with people but it always felt so forced. I tried church - but I think I'm too much of a foul-mouthed Christian and didn't really feel like I could be myself. I tried Meetup groups, but I'm just not that comfortable in those settings and even after a couple of tries felt myself forcing myself to go.

Recently I've started bike riding a lot more and just happened upon a 10-week training program with a group here in town. I was excited to challenge myself and nervous to meet new people, but so far it's been really, really fun - in fact, it's the highlight of my week!

Then I decided I really missed playing tennis. I don't know of anyone who plays, so figured why not take lessons again? So once a week I get to meet up with a great group of people, get better at my game and hopefully connect with a tennis partner or two.

This is something else that I always thought about doing but could never really find my niche. I wanted to do something that was of interest to me, where I could make a difference and meet some people. So I just finished the process of becoming a community-based Big with Big Brothers Big Sisters and am excited to meet my Little in about a week! I can't tell you how excited I am - the one-on-one is a better fit for me but I will still get to be a part of the BBBS community and meet others through there. So just look around  and find what's out for you - it may take some time, but it's out there.

Stop doing what you think you should be doing and do what feels right. 
I have lived my whole life doing what I thought I should be doing - I guess I credit my upbringing for that and the fact that I'm kind of a rule-follower. It has served me well in some cases but I have always suspected - and have now confirmed - that I don't usually do things the way others do them. I seem to be on my own timeline and apparently have to do things several times before I get them right. As soon as I accepted that I could not use others as a benchmark for life events, I gained a little peace with the fact that I'm just a little "unique" in that respect.

Cultivate your friendships.
I learned this the hard way by letting friendships go by the wayside and taking people for granted. It could have been because I was in a relationship and just "didn't have time." It could have been a distance issue. Most of the time it was because I was in a "not OK" place and didn't want to let anyone know or bring anyone down - or didn't feel like being around people at all. What I know now is the good ones will get you through the shit. The good ones won't roll their eyes when you tell them once again you are not OK. The good ones will stick with you. Luckily I still have a few good ones.

Quit complaining and do something about it. 
It is SO easy to fall into the well of complaints. It's so easy to put on the "poor me" hat - especially when you really feel like you have a reason to. Over the past five or six years, I've had some pretty major shit happen in my life, and I think because of that I've become a rock star at managing crisis. But it's the everyday stuff that I can't seem to deal with sometimes, and it gets me in a rut of whining about it. What I need to do is treat these little things like the big things - I don't mean make mountains out of molehills - but when I'm having a big crisis I go into Full On Tiger Mom Mode and MAKE SHIT HAPPEN. Why can't I do that with the little stuff? I can make more of an effort to get in better shape. I can figure out what to do to make more money in my profession. I can go to the doctor and get some things taken care of that are hindering me living a more active life. I can change my thought process or tactics if my way of doing things isn't working.

Look to the future, but live in the present. 
For a long time, I felt trapped. Trapped in my life. Trapped in my job. Trapped in this city. So I decided that the best way to feel untrapped would be to plan how to escape. Every time I felt trapped I'd just daydream and plan how I was going to get the hell out of here.

But here's the thing. In doing that, I realized I'm living in this future that has yet to be determined and missing out on some really great stuff in my present. Like enjoying the fact that my kid still likes to hang out with me. And how lucky I am to live right by the Rock Island Trail. And how nice it is to have a pretty good work/life balance. And how great it is that my dad is in my life. And how I never get tired of coming home to my little house at the end of the day and doing whatever the hell I want. That's gold, there, people.

Be thankful for what you have. 
Kind of along the same lines as what I said above. Plus I have two great kids who I adore and have a good relationship with. And I have a few really good friends. And I live five minutes from work. And I don't have a car payment. And I'm healthy again. And my dog loves me.

Forgive yourself. 
Hardest one for me. But I think this is truly the key to stepping into the "feeling OK" category. For YEARS and YEARS, I have beat myself up over mistakes made. I can switch from "feeling OK" to "sucking really really bad" in NO time by ruminating over regrets I have about my past. And I'm still working on that. But what I AM doing is when these thoughts come into my head, I'm trying not to entertain them anymore. I'm really trying to just push them out of my mind and move on to something more present and more positive. I know that's not forgiving myself per se, but it's a start. Now what I need to do - someday - is make peace with myself about these mistakes and give myself a break. But I'm not there yet.

What's not on the list - and what I do know to be true in my case - is that part of me becoming OK also very much has to do with a good therapist and the right meds. There, I said it. For all of you out there who do life without those two things, well good for you, but I'm not one of them and I'm tired of pretending I am. I would not be where I am today without therapy and meds - in fact, I am certain I would not be here at all. So if you're in a place where you don't know where to turn, seek professional help. If you don't know where to go to get it, contact me and I'll help you. Seriously. Your mental health is no joke and if it's out of balance, your life can really go to shit. So take care of it.

I'm really celebrating being OK - it's a big, big deal to be here. I don't know how long it's going to last but I know I'm going to do everything in my power to stay on this rung of the ladder, and I hope you all are, too. If you're not, I'm here.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

If There's a Map to Happiness, Send Me Directions, Please.

So I've started listening to podcasts lately.

I don't know why it never occurred to me to listen to them; I guess I thought they'd be boring, just like I thought NPR was boring only because of my preconceived notion about it. (I still don't know if NPR is boring or not - I'm just proud I've started listening to podcasts.)

After sifting through a number of show titles, I landed on a podcast entitled The Overwhelmed Brain, hosted by a guy named Paul Colaianni, whose title says he is a personal empowerment coach; however, he stresses that his advice is just his opinion and will always defer to professionals - so he's not pretending to be something he's not. Anyway, the title captured my attention, because, well, Overwhelmed Brain = ME. But what really intrigued me was Paul's introduction:

"Life presents the toughest challenges. Every day you are faced with decisions that test your ability to express who you really want to be in this world. We're told to keep saying affirmations and keep thinking positively, but what do you do when that stuff doesn't work? Welcome to The Overwhelmed Brain, where you'll learn to make decisions that are right for you so that you can create the life you want, now."

What? I don't have to tell myself I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me? I can stop telling myself to "look on the bright side" then get all depressed when I can't find one? I can quit exhausting myself by wondering if there is anything else I can do other than "think positively"?

He had me at hello.

Obviously I know that one podcast isn't going to change my life, just like one self-help book or TED talk won't. But as I've said before in my writings, "Take what you want and leave the rest." If I gathered just one nugget of wisdom on how to create my best life, I'm willing to give up my music on my walks for this guy.

I sifted through the episodes and was pretty amazed at all the topics that stood out to me: "Purging negative emotions as soon as they happen"; "The regrets and upsets from the past that you just can't seem to get over"; "Making decisions that are right for you and tackling obsession and overthinking" … omg is this guy IN MY BRAIN?

I settled on one that really intrigued me: "When you just can't figure out why you're unhappy." The synopsis read, "What do you do when you've done a lot of work on yourself and feel like you've addressed the toughest issues in your life but still feel as if there is something missing? What's the secret to figuring out what's keeping you from feeling fulfilled? By asking yourself the right questions, you'll get the answers you need."

I'm not sure that I've ever been truly happy, and I really don't know why. I didn't have a bad childhood and I don't have a bad life. I have lived with depression all my life, and sometimes it can be debilitating, but even when it's managed, like now, I still feel a void that I can't quite put my finger on. Paul realizes that it's easy to feel overwhelmed and think, "I'm just not a happy person!" when in fact maybe you just need to drill down a bit and get to the source.

Instead of necessarily giving advice, Paul gives you tools - asks questions. I like that, because it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. He says that affirmations work great WHEN THEY WORK but when they don't you feel like you're lying to yourself, and if you feel that you create resistance - so eventually they work against you. You can tell yourself, "I'm beautiful." But what if you don't FEEL beautiful? What if you just can't program your brain to agree with your affirmation? That's me.

I've done a lot of work on myself on this front and at 52, I'm kind of at a crossroads. But Paul offers an exercise that I have been working on that's actually helped me figure out where some of the sources of unhappiness may lie in my life, why they're a source of unhappiness and ultimately what I can do about it.

He calls it mind mapping, but in looking up the term, his example is on a very basic, general scale. First, consider everything that's in your life right now - people, where you live, where you work, everything that makes up your life. On a piece of paper, draw a circle in the center with your name. Now, draw lines out to other circles which contain all the components in your life: your spouse or significant other, children, parents, siblings, friends, where you live, where you work - everything you can think of. Now erase a single line to any component and check in with yourself to see what your immediate reaction is now that it hypothetically doesn't exist. How do you feel with that component out of your life? Then draw the line back in and check in again.

For example, if you're in a relationship that you're not quite sure about and you erase the line, what do you feel? Relief? Loss? What about your job? Excitement? Sadness? What about family? Of course erasing the line to my kids doesn't make me feel good at all, but for some it may make them realize that the source of their unhappiness is something connected to their kids - maybe their child has been tough to raise, maybe you harbor guilt about how you raised them … all of this is simply to help you IDENTIFY what areas may be contributing to you not living your best life.

You can take this so much further - I see mind maps that go into goals, challenges, skills, dreams, etc. but I'm just starting with the basics. I'd love to share it with you, but it's a little too personal even for this blog. Suffice it to say, it's allowed me to really compartmentalize the areas of my life that may be contributing to my unhappiness, whether that's what they are or my approach to them. It gives me something tangible to focus on, rather than just wondering why the hell I can't just be happy.

For some of you, this is unnecessary - and that's fine. If you have it together and wake up every morning blessed to be alive, I envy you. Some of us just aren't wired that way, and no matter how many affirmations we say in the mirror, it just doesn't seem to click for us. For people like me, this exercise may help.

I invite you to check out The Overwhelmed Brain podcast or visit the website. I don't get any money for this so it's no skin off my back if you don't. And if you have a podcast that really speaks to you, feel free to share it in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Find Your Tribe; Love Them Hard

I've never been one to have a "tribe." 

I used to - and still do, honestly - envy those people who seemingly have this large circle of friends upon which they can give to and take from on a regular basis. I just assumed I've never been a tribe kind of person, I guess.

Growing up I had my close couple of friends - my BEST FRIENDS IN THE WHOLE WORLD FOREVER, you know? Though things didn't necessarily work out that way, I at least still know where they are today (thanks, Facebook).

In high school, I had a group - I guess that's the closest thing I had to a tribe, but it helped that I was dating someone within the circle, as was my bestie at the time. That's probably how a lot of young people find their tribes - intertwined relationships become long-term commitments/marriages and voila - instant tribe! 

Attending four colleges in four years didn't really allow me the time to find a tribe, nor did I have any interest in one - I was just trying to get through an agonizing four years of school. I figured (probably wrongly) that any tribe I became a part of would be short-lived anyway.

Motherhood did allow for a tribe of sorts - wonderful people you may not otherwise have anything in common with other than you all have kids the same age. We bonded over kids' ages and stages, birthday parties and the PTO. But middle and high school brought changes in the kids' friends, different interests, and moms like me who returned to the workforce. 

Though I didn't realize I may have had a tribe per se at the time, looking back, I wish I would have nurtured it better. I wish I would have appreciated how precious it was to have at least a handful of people you could call for advice, comfort or to share the latest awesome (or awful) thing your kid just did. A tribe who knew where you were in life and could relate. Once your kids are grown, I find, unless you've established your tribe, it's pretty hard to find one. We're older now, and our routines and patterns - including friends - seems a lot more set. It's hard to find a group of people who have common interests. I'm not married. I don't have kids in college. In fact, I still have a kid at home as opposed to many people my age who are becoming empty nesters. 

Though I was always envious of those who had a tribe, I realized that I never considered myself the tribe type. As much as I love being around people I enjoy, I crave my alone time. I'm old enough to also know that when my mood takes a dive, which it sometimes does, it's best I remove myself from any sort of potential tribal interaction. In fact, I'm very likely to push people away who may attempt to even invite me in, which I figured was best for all involved. 

But I'm starting to realize it kind of isn't. 

I've figured out I need a tribe. It doesn't have to be a big one, like you think of when you think of the word "tribe." It's going to be small. And it's going to be diverse - my friend circle consists of people from a bunch of different tribes; in fact, I'm not sure I could ever get every member in the same room at the same time. 

And that's OK. 

This realization hasn't happened suddenly, obviously, since I'm 52 years old and just figuring this out. Last year, I lost a lot, it seems. One of my good friends (who had a HUGE tribe) died of breast cancer at the young age of 42. My son was in a devastating skiing accident that as a result has changed him physically and mentally - it's been a journey I didn't anticipate it's a lonely, exhausting one at that. I was in a relationship that I wish I could have continued but I just couldn't get my shit together - plus he already had a tribe (that I loved, by the way) and he just didn't need me - and I have found that I need to be needed. (Fun fact: Even if you love a tribe, when you end a relationship, you lose the tribe, too. Don't believe it when he says you'll still be friends. He doesn't mean it.)

All this, along with a couple of personal crises early this year, made me realize that I needed to try to piece together some sort of tribe. I had backed away from so many people because I didn't want to burden them with my shit (thinking: we ALL have our shit - who wants mine?) but in a moment of desperation, reached out to a good friend I had kind of lost touch with. I told her what was going on with me and my reasons for not reaching out like I should have and it was like no time had passed. She told me she had missed me, she was there for me and hopped on board the tribe train. I reconnected with a friend who I hadn't talked to much due to us both being in a relationship (word of advice: don't dis your friends when you're in a relationship - what a stupid move.) I found that she and I were going through similar situations and we were able to commiserate and help each other through. I made more of an effort to talk to and get together with a very dear friend who is quite a bit younger than me - realizing that WHATEVER is going on in her life or mine, she never stopped reaching out. I was introduced to a couple of new friends due to some similarities in our lives right now and they have been my lifeline. And I'm slowly trying to let more people in - people I trust and people who I can try to help in return. Hell, most of my tribe doesn't even live in this town. 

It's a slow process, but I need a tribe - and I need to be needed as part of one. My tribe may not get together for weekly happy hours, and we may not all be on a huge group text, but I guess not all tribes are cut from the same mold. I've found people who may have their own tribes that maybe they consider me a part of, maybe they don't, but they're a part of my motley crew and I'm fine with that. I hope they know I'm here for them and I know they're here for me. And according to this definition, it looks like I got me a tribe after all. 

I'm finding my tribe, and I'm loving them hard. Thanks to all of you who are in my corner.