Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Finding our breaths

When the girls were young toddlers, grappling to make sense of the confusing world around them, their frustrations were easily identified: A tantrum when told, "no," a red-faced outburst when they couldn't find the words to express themselves, an overtired meltdown when we strayed from our routines. From the beginning, I tried to cultivate empathy, and see things from their perspective before I rushed in with a reaction based on unrealistic expectations or adult concerns. We started working together on really basic mindfulness practices in moments of calm so we could employ them in moments of frustration. We did this as much for my own sake as theirs.

Hailey's picture: "God's creation," she said.
These mindful moments looked like holding hands and counting to ten or shaking up our calm-down jars (mason jars filled with glitter water), watching the sparkles fall as they/we slowed our own breathing. We would remind each other to pay attention to our breathing first: Is it fast? Caught up in sobs? Running away from us? Then we could begin to slow it down, breath by breath. The simple language and easily remembered practices were usually enough to help them/me calm down after an upset. We still return to these tenets, but as they grow as people, so too do their sources of frustration. They are caught up in increasingly complex worries, fears and anger.

Portrait of Mama, by Summer
So, I try to understand what helps them. I find myself less able to fix or address the things that cause great hurt and frustration. Like a sister who cries for attention, pushing the others away rather than inviting empathy. Or making mistakes in front of others and feeling embarrassed. Or feeling shame and guilt when they make amoral decisions that come with consequences. I can help them return to that familiar place of calm before they try tackling the issue. We sit and breathe. We count to ten. We sometimes break out the calm down jar to watch the glitter fall. Older, growing minds mean we can also add deeper mindfulness practices. We take a walk in the woods when everyone is bickering. I recite a guided body scan meditation when minds are racing too quickly to let bodies fall asleep. I help them find mantras to repeat to themselves when self-doubt creeps in after a rough day.


Sometimes, it's not enough, I can't figure it out, and a bad mood carries through an entire day into night. Or repeating patterns of blame and misguided anger need to be met with gentle coaxing and reminders that this, too, shall pass. Or the crying, stomping, and door slamming continue unabated in spite of my pleas to find a quiet place and breathe. Sometimes I am the one who needs all these reminders and practices. Sometimes it is one of them. Patience with each other is hard; compassion towards one's self is harder. I hope my invitations to sit and breathe will become instructions that pop up in their minds automatically as they grow. There will be so many heartbreaking reasons for them to crumple up in a ball and sob, or want to put their fists through a wall, or lash out and yell obscenities. Before embarking on the work of figuring out how to navigate such complicated terrain, they will have their breaths, and I hope they will remember how to return to the quiet hideaway inside each of them.



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The energy of warmer days

Ask me how I am doing the last weeks of May, and there is really only one way for me to answer. With hands stretched out, face tilted to the sky, eyes closed and a deep breath, inhaling the wafting scent of lilacs in bloom as a soft breeze cools my exposed, sun-warmed skin. What a welcome respite from a long, cold winter that only weeks ago had me wrapped up in wool, my head angled down against bitter whipping winds as I walked to the store along a street lined with leafless trees.

It's here! The pool is open, the garden has been planted, the barbecue has been lit, the mama has been lit, and my sandals have replaced my mukluks by the front door. 

Homemade strawberry ice cream is best served to dirty children outside, picnic style!
I am a better version of myself as summer rolls out. I wake early to run under a sun already climbing high in the sky, I read prolifically, I let evenings meander slowly at the park with the girls instead of hurriedly towards bedtime. I am writing, remembering to reach out to friends who are also emerging from hibernation, making snack recipes to fuel our outdoor adventures. I even allowed a six-year-old to convince me she should shave half her head, because of course you can darling, summer is coming!


I used to concern myself with cultivating a joie de vivre in warmer months that could continue into winter. If only I could translate this energy into my winter life, I would be happy all the time, I figured. But no. I have come to accept that summer is summer and winter is winter, and seasons have their own energies to be lived. Summer is for swimming, being outside, staying up later than the sun, rising with the sun, eating fresh produce, inviting everyone over and bringing adventures to life. Winter is for fireplaces, wool, board games, movie nights, comfort food and introspection. 

Makin' potions
The girls feel it, too. They show me who they are, in their walks and dances. I look into their eyes and hold the look as we sing the lines we remember from our favourite songs. I use my nails to lightly scratch their backs, their chests pressed against mine, horizontal in a bunk bed at the end of a long day spent outside. I bend over their shoulders to see what they are colouring and am frequently amused by their creativity, always moved by their individuality. Four girls in one family and all the many ways to interpret the same things. I show them what wondrous potential lies in the invitation of warm weather days, and they accept my offer with their own ideas of how to make them better.

Raspberries, rhubarb, garlic, strawberries, blueberries, chives, lavender and a narcissus photographer

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Right Words

There are popular sayings I don't relate to on the topic of motherhood. I've never felt it is an experience of my heart walking outside of my body; the girls are their own people, with their own hearts. I cringed when my therapist reminded me that motherhood is about remembering to put my own oxygen mask on first. I am not obsessed with wine or coffee. It has always felt too foreign to me to describe motherhood in terms used by everyone else. How could anyone else understand my motherhood? Those first few months as a mother in Ross River, Yukon, were isolating, frightening, overwhelming and not at all what I had been promised. I was 23 (23!), far away from my own mother, with a colicky baby, and heaps of well-meaning advice that proved useless within the first weeks.


My entrance to motherhood was framed in isolation in a place where resources were quite limited. I had little choice but to figure it out on my own. I learned to love baby Abby and my new role slowly, but surely. Soon after I settled into the acceptance of what I had undertaken, the rug was pulled out from under me. I started walking the long journey of infertility and multiple losses. No longer were baby showers fun excuses for cupcakes and gushing over impossibly small sleepers. Nobody could undo my pain, so I learned to be a grieving mother. 

When my belly grew with Hailey and Robin, I felt high, like I could inhale after holding my breath so long I grew delirious. People had their comments and cliches about twins, but I had secrets inside me. Secrets like how it felt to be so desperate for a baby I would gladly tear off my skin so my heart could be exposed as raw as it felt. Secrets like no matter what anybody else had read or said to me, motherhood was a coiled serpent, beautiful but ready to bite me with poison if I dared ask for it with an outstretched hand.



They were born, and so was I. I was set free from expectations, from holding my breath. They were beautiful babies. I felt like a Divine Mary kind of mother, like I lived in a painting from the 1700s, with a busy, layered background, a well-lit mother who gazed adoringly at her babe, awash with a serenity known only by those touched by God.

I was terrified to become pregnant again so soon, unplanned. Buddhists say we are challenged with lessons over and over until we learn them. There was chaos, and I felt cheated. I felt I had earned what I had and nothing, not even divine forces, should be allowed to interfere. I was humbled, tested, and became unrecognizable to myself for a time. I shed that skin and came out evolved. No cute T-shirt slogans for that hot mess.


Today, I still feel like motherhood is my secret hideaway. I may wear children on my arms and hands as we cross the street en masse, but there is so much more to it than anyone else could possibly know. No one outside the walls of my heart's four chambers can put the right words to what it means to me. I will take great joy in receiving handmade gifts from my girls on Sunday, knowing full well that we are unequipped with the language to express our heartsong. Long is the hallway I have walked, crawled, limped to this place, this priceless secret.



Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Missing Them

I walked the girls to school yesterday morning under a rising sun. The forecast promised to be warm again, 18 degrees. I kissed them all and said, "I'll see you at the end of the day," watching their oversized backpacks bounce into the schoolyard. Skylar was leashed to my hand, and she pulled, asking for a walk with a wagging tail and fixed stare. I happily obliged. As we rounded the corner on the path that goes by the play structure, I was heartbroken to suddenly feel the absence of a fat-fisted hand in mine. No little girl walked with me. I strolled past the park a little forlorn, for no one was asking me to stop and watch her on the swings.


I have moments like these, wherein I am reminded how impermanent it is to have small children. All my kids are in school, and have been for months. I suppose the changing season is what feels new; this is the first spring I walk through the park after dropping the girls off at school where I don't have a little one in tow. I have a friend with a toddler at home who tells me how much she craves a few hours to herself, untouched by grabbing hands, not answering to cries for "mama" when it has only been two minutes since the last request for attention. I am reminded of the desperation I felt when the girls were at home, Rich was at work, and the days were long.


This new stage brings small heartaches for the passage of time, for the stinging reminders of stages that will not return. A new development is that I find myself missing them. When I am away at work, out of the house for bedtime, or can't be there to pick them up from school, I miss it. When they are having adventures at school, I am having my own, working, writing, researching, going and doing, and when we reunite, we have stories to tell each other. I have the chance to look forward to seeing them. I miss some bedtimes and then delight in making up for it the next night by reading their stories, rubbing their backs, listening to them tell me about their day. We hug and I soak in what used to drown me. 


I am really enjoying loving them this way. I anticipate the joy of our Friday evening tradition of watching a movie while eating pizza in our pyjamas. I break away from what I am doing when I see one feeling left out before school in the morning, and we pick up a book to read together, slowly. They don't need me to dress them, to get out the colouring, or empty their lunchboxes when they come home. They can get themselves up in the morning, and when I have tucked them into bed, they can be left to fall asleep on their own. They are growing into such amazing, self-assured people, which leaves space to fill in my own life again.


I am glad to be going back to school in the fall, and I am thankful for the transitory lead time. I am glad for the chance to miss them, a little bit, so when we are together again, I whole-heartedly enjoy it. I am not needed as frequently, and this is the natural order of things. Abby needs me to answer her questions about navigating life with a full, sensitive heart. Hailey needs to snuggle into my chest while I remind her of her unique qualities when she needs assurance about her identity. Robin needs me to validate her when she notices something beautiful about a song, or a picture. Summer needs me to laugh at her jokes and listen when she reads. I know how to do all of that.




Thursday, April 5, 2018

California

I admit I relish in the daily comfort of routine. I am most pleased when I know what my day, week and month ahead look like. Perhaps this is a side effect of having four young kids and a husband while maintaining a couple of side jobs, but time management has always been my forte. The thing is, this level of predictability becomes bland and leaves little room for the fun kind of spontaneity. Last week, I travelled to California to embark on a week of no schedule. I brought along books, bathing suits, going out outfits, hiking stuff, overpacking to ensure I had whatever I might need for whatever we might do. 


I thoroughly enjoyed surrendering the reigns to others as our days were planned, or not. As we embarked on adventures, I was so pleased to see things anew, unhindered by time constraints or children! (This was a solo venture and Rich was a megastar at home with sick kids and dog.) I enjoyed spending time with my big, crazy family, and all the inlaws and friends and partners our complicated faction brings. I am so proud of this family because as it has grown, we have all, I think, learned to redefine what it is to be a family. I have always felt a measure of choice, and while I definitely put up boundaries and barriers when I was younger, I have chosen to be part of this family in my adulthood, and I am grateful for the continuing welcome I am afforded. These people see me for who I am, love my kids like their own, and challenge me to be better.


I learned a lot about myself, and I think that's one of the points of travel, n'est pas? To be in another setting but as the same person. My ideas and values were challenged, and against new backdrops, hidden truths appeared. Happily, this trip made it clear that it is high time for me to go forth in life with more clarity about what I want and like. Not others, not my kids, me. I am encouraged to be more deliberate in my choices and to frame them with intention. I learned my musical tastes are sadly out of date, so I was happily educated by our hosts, and can now gladly boast an awareness of what the cool kids are listening to. I mean, if one is to be educated on what is trending, on the cusp, in the now, the kids in southern California are the ones to do the teaching.





One of the things I have learned and read about in my meditation practice is that the point is not to stop thinking about things, because that's nearly impossible (at least for me). It's to slow down the flow enough to give those thoughts some space. Sometimes they pass as unimportant musings. Sometimes patterns emerge. In the big quiet space my mind cultivates, deeper thoughts are given room to grow and I am given the room to step back and see them. This trip did that for me. 



I am home with my girls now, unpacked and right back into our life of school days, meals, exercise, work, dates and the millions of things a mama has to remember. I am back having practiced slowing down, being quiet, listening and reflecting and there are some changes I am making, post-California adventure trip. There's a balance to be stricken between schedules and going with the flow. I like the flow. The flow is where some really intuitive, transformative stuff can happen. But also, dinners need to be made with groceries I have bought, you know? So, balance.

Also, I saw Adam Brody on the plane ride home, and it was a glorious end to the trip to see Seth Cohen and sing The OC theme song to myself as I was lifted above the earth and flown across the skies back home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Rebel Yell

I've always enjoyed the feeling of rebelliousness. I painted right on my bedroom wall as a teenager after my mother forbade it. I snuck out and ran away. I body surfed at rock shows when I was supposed to be sleeping over at a friend's house. I pierced and tattooed myself at questionable parlours that didn't require an ID.  

As I grew older (and, arguably, more mature), I desperately clung to rebellion as a sign that I was successfully resisting being indoctrinated as a status quo normal adult. The no-fun kind. I reasoned if I kept checking myself for signs of acquiescence, I could avoid the regret I heard middle-aged adults whine about. There is no way I will arrive at age 45 wondering where the time has gone, (as Ferris Bueller cautioned). 



Full disclosure: I drive a minivan to and from my suburban home, use social media, comment on the weather with people I don't know well and love a good run down to my local Tim Horton's for some caffeine. I can appear to be veering down a basic path, I know. The rebellion is different now. It is subversive, which makes it feel all the more juicy to me. I buy ethical clothing when possible, and go out of my way to purchase local, humanely-produced food, so as to vote with my dollars. I buy and refurbish used furniture almost exclusively from buying new. I refuse to wear clothing or makeup that doesn't appeal to my personal sensibilities, regardless of what the social situation may call for. I run by myself, without technology, because that is my chosen means of religious worship. 


This rebellious inclination permeates my whole life. I relish in it. When nothing else seems to be working, it motivates me to keep doing things my way. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "Be yourself; everybody else is already taken." The path less travelled and all that. Rich is not a rebel. He likes following well-worn paths. He even follows the instruction on the box of Kraft Dinner to a T. We share the responsibility of parenting, and so I humbly accept that I am unable to raise these four girls on a foundation of rebellion against...normalcy? The mundane? Whatever it is, I know it will be part of the formula we're using. I admit, when he's not around, I infiltrate their minds with stories of warrior women and I remind them of the importance to always ask questions before accepting something as a given. I try and subterfuge Rich's influence insofar as status quo is concerned. I believe they will benefit from both of our perspectives.



My personal version of the rebel yell is more Beyonce than Billy Idol. I do not buy into the whole "mamas need wine and coffee to survive" marketing. I am confident I am parenting "good enough" and trust in my inner wisdom to guide me, as opposed to what other people are doing or what Huffpost articles tell me to worry about. It's exciting and liberating to continually, subversively, passively even give a big 'eff you' to the way things are supposed to be, the majority rule, the expectations all around me. There is always room for more, if you'd care to join in the fun!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Whine O'Clock

The faith I grew up in comes with many teachings and tenets; the one with which I most closely relate is the annual call to purge ourselves of that which does not serve us. Lent lasts the 40 days before Easter and is a time of slowing down with an element of sacrifice and the end goal of spiritual improvement. As a kid, this meant things like giving up candy, likely because it made me super hyper, which was not a reflection of a spiritually mature self, ha! I embrace the tradition now as a chance to deliberately choose to rid myself of a substance or habit that does not serve me well. In the past, I have given up gossip websites, alcohol, whole sedentary days, and complaining. This year, I am revisiting complaining, because Lord knows no one wants to hear that and it certainly does not serve me well.


I noticed a few things, in the quiet space otherwise occupied with my complaints. Reflection happens. I have to be more careful what I say. I think it out before I say it, lest a complaint slip in there. It is really easy to get caught up in a conversation about banal complaints: the weather, gas prices, making kid lunches. I don't have strong feelings about any of those things, but when someone else complains about them and looks to me for agreement, it's tough not to give them an "Amen" and high five. So, I'm working on it. I wear a beaded prayer bracelet, and every time I catch myself in a complaint, I switch arms, hoping a physical action tied to an effort to break a habit will prove fruitful. (See this book, which gives a lot of support and impetus to the no-complaining movement. Yes, it's a movement!)
 

I debate what the difference is between venting and complaining. Or between identifying a wrong and complaining. I can't just live in blissful ignorance pretending nothing is bad. For myself, I have decided a complaint is only a complaint if it is whiney, if I am saying it just to air it, and have no plans of doing anything about it. It is not a complaint to identify that there is a lot of laundry to do this weekend if I follow that up with a plan to involve the children in it, without my requests dripping in a complain-y tone. 


That addresses a lot of my first-world problems. And that is at the heart of my mission. I am truly blessed, privileged, and I live a comfortable life with all my necessities met. I have very little reason to complain because I am not fleeing my country with my children living in a refugee camp. Perspective and gratitude are my main tools. When I feel myself wanting to complain, and it is a real want sometimes, I take a few minutes to establish some gratitude inside. I list off a few things in my head and really dive into the thankfulness I feel for, say, my kids' health, my pets, Rich's willingness to bring the garbage to the curb on a night of freezing rain. I curate perspective in reading the news, in thinking of those who fight for the same privileges I have been afforded. When I can check myself with these, the complaints become immediately whiney when I repeat them in my head, and so they do not leave my lips and my bracelet goes unmoved.

I have not had a complaint-free day yet, but I'll keep trying. 


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