10 Ways to Teach Your Kids About the World Without Traveling the World

10 Ways to Teach Your Kids About the World Without Traveling the World

Respect.  Empathy. Kindness.  Honesty. Integrity. Courage.  Compassion. Adaptability. Resilience.

We desperately want our babies to grow into the above, and into happy, healthy adults that find joy in whatever it is they choose to do in this life.  We want them to love and be loved and to be well-adjusted to the world around them.  A lot of this development happens naturally over time, but we can strengthen these values in our kids by showing them that in a world full of differences, in the end we’re all humans on the same team and we all love just the same.  

Teaching our kids about the world isn’t an easy task.  It’s uncomfortable, it’s heavy, and sometimes it’s downright heartbreaking work.  But it’s so, so necessary because if we don’t teach them…it’s a guarantee that someone else will.  The good news is that it doesn’t actually require traveling anywhere, nor any other fancy grand gesture for that matter.  All you need is commitment, intentionality, and a little bit of adventure and creativity.  Oh, and maybe a library card.

You have your reasons.  Maybe you want to broaden your child’s horizons.  Maybe you want to encourage your child’s curiosity.  Maybe you want to do differently and you don’t even know where to start.  

Here are ten easy, effective ways to teach your child about the world without traveling the world:

  1.  Read books.  LOTS AND LOTS OF BOOKS.  The importance of reading cannot be emphasized enough in children.  Study after study has shown all of the advantages reading can provide, like increased vocabulary and language skills, stronger problem solving skills, and better school (and life) performance, to name a few.  Books can also be used as powerful tools to expose children to a wide range of cultural topics they might not encounter otherwise in their normal environment.  There are children’s books about different countries, ethnicities, lifestyles, and family structures.  There are books about literally Anything.  And.  Everything you could ever dream of.  Books about friendship and inclusion, books about marriage and divorce and having a new baby, books about poop and different kinds of turds and books about sperm swimming through the fallopian tubes…with goggles on.  Books are your child’s windows to the world.  If this sounds like the makings of another upcoming blog post…you’re right.  Stay tuned!

  2.  Attend cultural festivals and events happening in your community.  Most cities have organizations that sponsor festivals or events to showcase and celebrate different cultures: Greek festival, Italian festival, Oktoberfest, French festival, Irish fest, African Dance festival.  Many events put extra effort into planning special areas and activities just for kids and families.  Keep an eye on the calendar for upcoming holidays celebrated in non-Western cultures, like Day of the Dead, Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, or Kwanzaa.  Chances are there’s a corresponding event or celebration happening somewhere in your community.  Many museums and community centers also host family diversity days or international festivals.  Go to these!  They are SO much fun and are an excellent way for your littles to learn about religions, traditions, celebrations, and even foods from around the world.  Pay special attention to any cultural music or dance performances because your littles will be TRANSFIXED, no matter how tired or crabby they are.  A great way to find these events is to follow museums, organizations, community centers, and churches on Facebook.  Oftentimes this is where event details are posted, and there’s also a handy “Events” feature that allows you to search for upcoming cultural events happening in your community.  God bless social media.

  3.  Visit other places of worship.  This does not mean you have to worship here.  This does not mean your kids have to worship here.  This does not mean you need to convert or start practicing another religion, or that you even need agree with it.  Regardless of your personal beliefs, other places of worship will always exist in this world and the people who attend them are humans just like you and your babies.  Many churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples offer (and welcome with open arms) certain services or tours for visitors to come and learn more about their culture and religious practices and all of the awesome stuff they’re doing to help the community and others in need.  This will give you and your family the unique perspective and opportunity to learn firsthand about cultures that are sometimes only learned about through the grapevine.  What you’ll likely find is that you guys aren’t so different after all.

  4.  Provide dolls with diversity.  While it’s important for kids to see themselves reflected and represented in the toys they play with, it’s also important for them to see their brothers and sisters of the world represented, too.  Provide your kids with learning materials that don’t look like them.  The marketplace still has some work to do, but it’s come a long way in providing a bigger selection of dolls, action heroes, and other pretend play materials that represent different cultures, ethnicities, and diversities.  Mattel is launching a new Barbie line in the fall of 2019 that will include a doll who uses a wheelchair and a doll with a prosthetic leg.  Even the baby dolls at the Dollar Store come in two different skin tones.  We can help our littles learn to include those who don’t look like them by including toys that don’t look like them.  This is a small change we can make that doesn’t require tons of extra time or energy; it’s just a matter of looking to the right or the left on a shelf.  I’m all for simplicity!

  5.  Help those who are less fortunate.  This might seem cliche but there’s so much value in showing our kids how to take care of the people of the world.  Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Sign up for a slot as a holiday bell ringer.  Donate to a food pantry.  Participate in the canned food drive at school.  Pick up blankets and supplies from the Dollar Store to assemble goody bags for the homeless.  Show your children that there are less fortunate people in this world not to create guilt or pity, but to teach that these less fortunate people are humans too, and humans need to take care of each other because sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down and someday you’re gonna need some help, too.  We all belong to each other.  AMEN.

  6.  Learn about other lands with travel activity kits.  The world can now be at your child’s fingertips…thanks to online shopping.  Even if you’re not physically traveling around the world, your child can still learn about life beyond their borders with activity kits and busy books.  A monthly subscription box like Little Passports comes with hands-on activities about a new world theme or country each month, including souvenirs, mini-passports, and access to additional country-themed online content.  If you’re looking for an option that requires less commitment and money, check out these Around the World Busy Books from Amazon.  At $7-$20 a pop, you can learn about London, Rome, Paris, or NYC with an engaging storybook that includes full-page illustrations, a city map play mat, and replicas of notable landmarks and figurines from that city.  This is an excellent way for your littles to learn about different city landscapes and lifestyles from around the world….delivered right to your doorstep!

  7.  Watch movies and TV shows.  It’s great to finally see increased technology use as an actual tip, amirite?  There’s definitely something to be said for using the media to help your kids learn about other cultures – with caution.  Recent movies like Moana and Coco have made great strides to improve the cultural sensitivity of popular children’s movies since the 90’s and before, but no movie or television show is going to be a completely accurate representation of what it’s supposed to be representing.  Use the viewing of these as a springboard into larger discussions and not as stand-alone pieces of education.  Aside from popular movies or those about specific cultures, movies with general themes and messages of kindness, inclusion, empathy, and friendship can also be powerful tools in teaching your littles how to appreciate and respect diversity.

  8.  Visit community parks or museums with a more diverse population.  There’s only so much you can do when your kids live or go to school in a homogeneous area where most people look the same.  You can move, or you can make the extra effort to visit neighborhood parks, playgrounds, or other community gathering spots that offer more diversity.  This will give your brood the chance to interact with other kids and learn that skin color, hair type, and clothing are only surface-level characteristics of the precious, unique human underneath.  Plus it’s super confusing and stressful to police a playground full of your child’s dopplegangers.

  9.  Send your child to summer camps outside of their norm.  Another way to help diversify your child’s world is to send them to summer camps that provide opportunities to interact with others who are “different.”  We all know there are 3,892,475 different camps to choose from.  Maybe this will help you narrow your search down a bit.

  10.  Find teachable moments in everyday conversation.  This is always my favorite because it’s the simplest.  Teachable moments are all around you and your family every day, as long as you’re watching and listening.  At home.  In the car.  At a restaurant.  At grandma’s house.  In line at the grocery store.  It only takes a little bit of intentionality and a couple of sentences to teach your kids a little something extra about the world they live in.  Ooooooh, mommy what are the workers building over there?  Hmmmm…well, I think that’s an apartment building.  What’s an apartment building?  Well it’s kind of different than the house we live in.  It’s like a lot of houses and rooms put together.  Lots of people live in apartments and their homes are pretty awesome, too.  Oh, okay.  LOOK AT THAT SQUIRREL!  Even if you don’t think they’re listening, they are.  They always are.    

When we raise well-adjusted children, we’re grooming well-adjusted adults.  Adults who won’t go into shock when they inevitably learn that most of the real world doesn’t look like them or believe what they believe.  Raising culturally sensitive kids who respect and celebrate diversity will help them develop the confidence they need to stay true to their own convictions and beliefs when they’re tested, and how to stay true while respecting those who beg to differ.  Which also means less heart attacks for you.

Our steps to take are seemingly small, like looking to the right or the left on a shelf for a doll with another skin color, but our kids are sponges, and they’ll soak up every bit of our effort.  It’s kind of powerful and overwhelming to basically be an ambassador to the entire world, but we are mamas, and we can do amazing, hard things.

For My Daughter Who Can Do Hard Things

For My Daughter Who Can Do Hard Things

When I look at you I’m reminded of everything pure and perfect in this world.

I marvel at your beautiful, flawless face and your wild curly hair, with a spirit and heart on the inside just as beautiful and wild.  Your heart, oh your little heart. It’s still so whole and protected and pure. Your big, brown eyes have always been a window into your soul and one of my favorite things in the world is to watch them sparkle.  With joy, mischief, inquisition, kindness, laughter, adventure, promise…and even at three years old, with dreams.

My heart breaks knowing the world will get to you someday.

The world is slowly getting better but it’s funny with little girls and it will probably be funny with you too.  The world will tell you to dream, to reach for the stars, to never give up, to become anybody you want to be, an astronaut, a doctor, the President.  Maybe you’ll dream of traveling the world to see different places, of owning your own business, or of writing a book, of becoming a mommy or a teacher or a pilot.  The sky will be the limit when you’re small.

Then, you’ll get bigger.  

And somewhere along the line that same funny world that told you it’s okay to dream and dream big when you’re little will tell you now that you’re older, you need to quit daydreaming and grow up and settle down.  The world will try to quiet you. The world will try to sell you on the idea that you must choose because you “just can’t have it all”, and that this is just how it IS for women.

I want you to know that the world is wrong, wrong about it all, wrong about growing up and wrong about you.  

There are many, many roads to happiness.  All are bumpy. All are hard. Maybe you won’t like any of the roads in front of you and will forge your own path entirely, that’s okay too.  Finding your OWN way in this life can be confusing and hard, but in finding your own way you’ll find your own place. THIS is where real happiness comes from my love, and nowhere else, no matter what the world whispers to you.

Your path may not be easy but many strong, bold, brave people have gone before you to help calm some of the world’s rough waters.  I can’t walk this walk for you, nor would I be doing my job as a mama if I did, but I can promise I’ll be the first one holding a lantern to light your way.

Never lose that dreamy sparkle in your eyes and remember, your worth as a person and as a woman is measured by the life in your years and not by the script you follow.  Your mama is here to tell you the same thing the world tells everyone else, that your road will be full of choices and decisions but you can be whatever and whoever you want to be, that you’ll have to work hard but you can GET IT DONE   because you can do hard things.  

If anyone tries to box you in and water down your dreams and tell you that you “just can’t have it all”…tell them to watch and learn.         

Love is the Tie that Binds Us

Love is the Tie that Binds Us

There are 7.5 billion humans on this earth.  2.2 billion of those humans are children, which means at least another 2.2 billion are parents.

That’s a whole lot of parents.  

I can’t possibly think of a more diverse group of people.  Different countries, languages, religions, cultures, childhood histories, sexual orientations, family structures, and beliefs and lifestyles in general so diverse they can’t even be quantified, all directly influencing the way we raise our babies.   

That’s a whole lot of different.

Or is it?  

One of my favorite experiences about traveling is learning how other people live, learning what they believe, what they value, and what they love.  I’m a people-watcher by nature and my eyes always wander to the families, first to the kids and then to the parents.  I watch as parents keep their babies safe and cared for, like a instinctual reflex that guides every action.  I watch as parents shield their babies when crossing the street, feed them always before themselves, and put the needs of their babies first to give them the best.  Every time.  I watch how parents care, how they protect, how they love.   

I watch how this happens all over the world.

Long before I became a mama myself, I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower next to another mama and her young son.  He was probably three or four years old.  I didn’t understand the language they were speaking but I understood that mama’s eyes.  I watched as even in front of the sparkling Eiffel Tower itself, she stared at her son and not at the landmark.  She watched his expressions, his smile, his reactions, his eyes light up.  And she lit up too.  She was there for him.     

Man, I thought to myself.  That mama sure does love her baby.  

“I watch how parents care, how they protect, how they love.  I watch how this happens all over the world.”

I actually saw the same love throughout the rest of that long trip overseas.  I saw it everywhere I looked. I saw it in airports, museums, bathrooms, restaurants, train stations, and hotels.  Back home, I saw it from my own family.  I saw it at all my familiar spots.  I saw it at work, at school, in the grocery store, at the doctor’s office.

Man, I thought to myself.  Parents sure do love their babies.

Years later, I was the mama at the children’s museum playing with my toddler, consumed by the responsibility of making sure she didn’t destroy the place.  Once I became a mama I didn’t people-watch as much anymore.  I had other things to watch now.  I watched my daughter with encouragement and excitement, squealing with pride and delight when her wobbly little hands managed to stack the blocks on her own for the first time.  As my daughter tried again, my eyes met the mama sitting across from me who was speaking Chinese to her daughter.  That mama was watching her own daughter with encouragement and excitement, squealing with pride and delight when her wobbly little hands managed to stack the blocks on her own for the first time.  

In that moment I realized something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.  That mama and I, we were the same.  I knew absolutely nothing about her except that I was her and she was me.  No matter our differences, our love was the same.  We loved our babies.  Everybody just loves their babies.  

Our differences always seem to overshadow the commonalities of the human heart.  

It’s no secret that on some level, maybe even on a subconscious one, most humans are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown.  We’re just not sure about things (and people) who are different.  We don’t know where we fit in.  We don’t know what to say.  We don’t know what to ask.  Sometimes things seems so different that they’re kind of scary, so we build walls around each other.  We assume and we think we know.  We compare, and sometimes we even judge.  The bridge between discomfort and fear is short and quick and unless we do the work of stepping outside of our comfort zones, we cross the bridge every time.  

And we learn to fear each other.  

We fear that we’ll no longer belong, that our babies will no longer belong.  We fear the loss of our own self-bestowed superiority and validation.  We fear that the convictions, beliefs, and parenting practices of others will somehow invalidate what’s going on in our own households.  We fear so much that we learn to hate inside the walls we’ve built, and let me tell you, hatred breeds ugliness in a New York minute.  It has since the beginning of time.  All you have to do is pick up a history book to see the never-ending cycle of how uncertainty led to fear, how fear led to hatred, how hatred led to dehumanization, and how dehumanization led to events so dark and ugly they’re almost beyond my human comprehension.   

As I step back and look at what’s going on around us, I can’t help but feel like we’re repeating the cycle again.  I don’t want that for my baby, and I don’t want it for yours either.  We must do better.

And when I saw we, I include myself.  We are all in this together.  I’m not here to debate whether or not hatred is still alive and well in this world because unless you’re turning the other cheek, you see the ugliness happening around us that thrives off of our steadfast refusal to acknowledge it and deal with it head on.  It’s deeper than culture.  It’s deeper than religion.  It’s deeper than politics.

Mamas, it starts with us.

Our babies learn to see the world through us.  They learn from every move we make, every word we speak, every eye roll, every comment under our breath, every conversation on the phone, every interaction at the grocery store, and every text message we send.  By digging in our heels and drawing the curtains around our own lives, we miss out on all the good stuff about each other…which means our babies miss out too.  And they always will until the cycle is broken, or at least disrupted.  

This can be scary work.

It’s safe and comfortable to do what we’ve always known and change, even good change, can be scary.  How we’ve been raised, what we’ve been taught, what we’ve believed all this time, that’s what makes us US.  And that’s okay.  Somehow though, we’ve got to find a way to get comfortable with being uncomfortable so that we can grow and learn about others instead of fearing them.      

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers but what I do know is that change starts in our own hearts and around our own tables because whether we want the responsibility or not, our homes are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

We don’t need to see the full staircase to take the first step.  We don’t need to know exactly what to do, or how, or when.  We just need to try.

Let’s try to listen each other more, and I mean really listen to each others’ stories and feelings and experiences and let the journeys of others sink deep into our souls.

Let’s try to understand each other more.  Let’s try to walk in each others’ shoes and think of how others’ circumstances and experiences must have felt.  That little thing is called empathy and we’re living in a world of hurt right now because so many have seemingly lost the ability to walk the walk of another fellow human on this earth.  

Let’s try to wrap our arms around each other more.  Let’s root each other on and build each other up to fight the good fight, all for the same team.  All for the love of our babies.

Let’s step out with the vulnerable willingness to take off our glasses colored with the religious beliefs, political arguments, and cultural assumptions that trick us into thinking others aren’t deserving of the same grace, forgiveness, and empathy we want for ourselves and our own families.

If you are a human, you are deserving.  Period.

Let’s show our babies what we want them to learn.  It’s not enough to talk to them about the importance of kindness and empathy especially for those who are different when our babies know no different.  Let’s actually show them different, what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it smells like, what it feels like.  Let’s show them different skin colors, languages, cultures, family structures, even different foods.  

Let’s surround our babies with the differences of the world so they learn to become comfortable with different.  So they don’t fear.  So they don’t hate.  So they don’t dehumanize.  So they see we’re all actually so much more alike than we are different.  So they see we all bleed the same and love the same and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Let’s aim for kindest over smartest and empathy over popularity.  Our kids will learn their numbers and ABC’s. They’ll learn to add and subtract and they’ll learn to create their own real, meaningful friendships on their own terms.  But they won’t learn kindness unless we show them.  They won’t learn respect unless we teach them.  And they won’t learn to love the world around them until we love the world around them first.

Let’s have those awkward and uncomfortable conversations.  Whatever we believe to be right or wrong about this world will always be in this world, so we cannot shy away from that dialogue.  We must talk to our babies about what’s going on around them with open minds and open hearts.  Words can be difficult when we’re reconciling our own beliefs and values and all we’ve ever known, but the stakes are high.  This will be their world when we’re gone.

We don’t have to travel the world.  There are books, there are movies, there are simple conversations in everyday life and things in our own homes and communities we can use to teach our babies that it really doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree.  It doesn’t matter if we believe different things.  It’s doesn’t matter if we would have chosen differently.  What matters is that we listen and understand.  

Only then will our babies learn how they’re so unbelievably special, but not more special than everyone else.  How they may be the center of our world, but not THE world.  How the world is full of billions of people that don’t look like them, live like them, work like them, or eat like them, but full of billions of people who love like them.  

How the world is full of boys and girls who are light, dark, and everywhere in between, who all love their mommies and daddies.  How the world is full of mommies and daddies who are light, dark, and everywhere in between, who all love their babies.

How we all belong to each other.

Understanding each other is our only hope, and love is our only way out.  No matter who we are or where we are, the love we have for our babies transcends everything we do.  

It’s the tie that binds us all.

2019 Travel Update

2019 Travel Update

2019 is ON, my friends.

We leave for Europe in almost three months.  THREE MONTHS.  I remember well over a year ago when this trip was just a baby idea, a dream, something I never actually thought would happen.  And here we are.

Planning this trip has at times felt like a full time job in and of itself.  A wonderful, grateful problem I’m certainly not complaining about, but one that’s resulted in hours and HOURS spent pouring over the flight grids, analyzing every pattern, every connection, every combination, every layover.  Hours spent planning every transfer, how to get from point A to point B, then from point B to C at what time and by what means and everything else in between.  We won’t be able to avoid the unexpected this trip, so I’ve tried to control and arrange as much as I can in advance to (hopefully) eliminate any added stress once we’re overseas.

Three weeks of airplanes, trains, cars, subways, ferries, taxis…it’s going to be quite the adventure indeed.

Planning for this trip has been much different than any other trip I’ve planned before.  This is our first trip overseas with my daughter (who I call Birdie).  She’ll be just a few weeks short of her fourth birthday when we hop the pond.  I’ve put much more thought and intention into our travel arrangements to make sure we don’t spend three weeks in meltdown misery.

The last time my husband and I traveled abroad we were childless and went 48 hours without sleep, delirious from adrenaline and loving every minute.  Kids can’t hang with that and I wouldn’t even expect them to.  For some reason I thought three weeks sounded like a nice, short amount of time to be away from home with a toddler but the toddler was actually the reason for extending the trip.  Grown ups can take red-eye flights and tough through jet lag the next morning to hit the city.  Toddlers cannot.  Grown ups can hop from one place to the next, catching a short power nap on the train to refuel for the rest of the day.  Toddlers. Cannot.  Not gracefully, at least.      

My husband and I both agreed if we were going to do this with Birdie, we were going to do it longer to build in time for us to adjust and rest.  I don’t think we’ll survive any other way.  I’ve done my best to pick flight times that aren’t totally brutal and I’ve tried to follow the heavy travel days with lots of down time and rest.  I’m leaving our itinerary as open as possible so we’re not forced to constantly watch the clock, since we all know how well that works with children.

I don’t want to feel pressured to hustle all around the city to cram in as much as we possibly can just because we paid to come all this way and have a limited amount of time so darn it WE WILL SEE EVERYTHING.  That’s not a vacation, that’s an obligation.  I’ll gladly adjust the budget to add on a few extra nights at the Airbnb for the luxury of going slower and salvaging what little sanity I’ll have left on this trip.        

Now for the fun part.

We’ll be in London for just short of a week and a half.  My main goal for our time here is to either a) see one of the Spice Girls or b) see one of the royals.  We have a cute little Airbnb just across the Thames River from Big Ben and a block away from the Waterloo underground station (subway).  We paid a little more in London to stay within walking distance to as much as possible.  Our itinerary will stay mostly flexible to account for the weather, but at some point will include the London Zoo, lots of time at Hyde Park, a river cruise on the Thames, and a puppet show barge.  For mom and dad, THE Abbey Road Studios and THE Sherlock Holmes Museum on THE one and only Baker Street.  Toddler will just have to deal.

Toddler will also have to deal with the day trip to Paris, another brainchild of mine.  We can’t be thisclose and not come back to Paris.  This is the ONE thing I planned knowing full well it’s going to be a long day and probably miserable at the end, but PARIS.  The Eurostar gets us from London to Paris in just under two hours and then we have to come two hours all the way back that night, but PARIS.  Toddler will melt down and probably so will husband, but the train serves wine and meltdown in PARIS > meltdown at home any day, any time.  Bonjour to me.

After our time in London is up we head to Greece for the next week and a half.  I’m most excited about this leg of the trip because this is when we’ll connect with the rest of my family traveling to Greece and the rest of my family already living in Greece.  My cousin is getting married on an absolutely gorgeous Greek island named Sifnos, so my family is traveling from all over to be there.  We’ll get to spend time with my mom, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family in Greece I haven’t seen in five years.  And most importantly to me, Birdie will get to see and feel firsthand the love shared in a family that can’t be broken no matter how far apart we are.

She’ll also get to party pretty hard.  I’m not sure it gets any better than having a big fat Greek wedding…in Greece.   

We split the week and a half in Greece between Athens and Sifnos.  I’m still unsure of our itinerary in Athens.  I’m a little more anxious about this leg of the trip since there will be a more significant language barrier than in London, but we’ll be traveling with family members who speak Greek so I think we’ll manage.  I know we’ll definitely go to the Acropolis and Parthenon and spend time visiting with family.  In Sifnos our Airbnb is right on the beach, and so that’s where we’ll be.  The whole time.  I can’t wait for Birdie to feel the Mediterranean for the first time and I can’t wait to spend time exploring the island with her.

Then, we head HOME.  As amazing as I know this trip will be, we’ll definitely be ready to come home.

My excitement has been building as the trip nears and starts to feel more real.  I’ve been dreaming of going overseas again since the day we landed back in the states five years ago.  I think of my life back then and how much has changed and I feel tingly all over knowing I get to go back with my own baby girl.  I can’t wait to see more of this big, beautiful world outside of my comfort zone and I can’t wait to take Birdie outside of her comfort zone, too.  She’s as excited as a three-year-old can be, but I don’t think she has any idea what’s really about to hit her or the sheer terror I know awaits her when the plane accelerates to take off.  She’s gonna scream for Jesus.

On the flip side, as my excitement increases so does my anxiety.    

I’ve started having weird dreams/nightmares and my mind races at night.  What will my picky toddler eat?  WILL she eat?  Can I buy applesauce pouches and goldfish crackers overseas?  IS THERE A CHIK-FIL-A? Will there be enough for her to do?  Will our Airbnb’s be noisy?  Dear God…WILL WE SLEEP?  Will we be safe?  What will go wrong?  Many times I’ve asked my husband why he agreed to this because this is by far the worst idea I’ve ever had.  But then he lovingly reminds me that people do, indeed, raise children in other parts of the world, and those children eat and have plenty to do.  God love that man.

This whole thing is SO outside of every single norm, routine, and comfort we have here at home, but my anxiety pushes me to do this even more.  Life outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens.  I try to maintain perspective in everything I do so at the end of the day, I’m eternally grateful and flat out lucky that these questions and “worries” are the most stressful things in my life right now.  I’ll keep calm and carry on. 

I’ve been prepping little by little.  We found a travel stroller that’s lightweight and built for larger toddlers.  We’ve got voltage adapters, an airplane sleep hammock for Birdie, and a safety harness for the car since we won’t be traveling with a standard car seat.  The packing situation will be interesting.  I’ll be pushing Birdie in the stroller through airports and train stations so my husband will basically be the only one able to pull luggage around.  We have to pack very, very light…for a three week trip…with a mama who notoriously over packs even for an overnighter.  Lawd help us.

Needless to say, Europe is our focus in 2019.  And I’m quite happy with that.

The timing of this trip is bittersweet, as it’ll be our last longer trip with a flexible schedule.  Starting in July, Birdie switches schools and her new Pre-K will be on the standard school year calendar.  Once that happens, our longer adventures will be restricted to breaks from school.  I’m not quite ready to wrap my mind around Birdie starting school.  Let me get past the packing thing first.

We’ll take some time to rest after we get home from Europe but we’ll get antsy after a while.  I’m sure 2019 will also bring a few weekend trips, lots of time with family, and a mommy daddy trip too.  Husband and I haven’t decided exactly where we’re going yet but we’re considering renting a hotel room here in town and sleeping for a week.  

2019 will be one for the books.  

But you know me.  My wheels are already spinning for 2020 and beyond.  Once a WanderMama, always a Wondermama.

The Ugly Monster

The Ugly Monster

It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it?  

A new mama, glowing and happy, nuzzling her little bundle’s cheeks and breathing in that unmistakably sweet newborn smell you wish you could bottle up and keep forever.  A new mama, tired but so smitten and in love with her baby, grateful and blessed to be given the chance to even mother her in the first place.

If only a picture could speak to what was really going on in my heart.  

It’s taken me almost four years to say out loud that I didn’t like my own baby.  

This picture was taken a few weeks after my daughter was born, and in this picture I actually didn’t even want to be around her.  I had to force myself to hold her.  I was exhausted beyond human comprehension, couldn’t stand the sound of her cries, and felt no bond or attachment towards this little stranger I was holding.  I cancelled this photo session twice before and almost made it a third because I wasn’t sure I had it in me to get out of bed and get myself ready and quite frankly, I was too hollow to even care.  That smirk on my face?  Well, it’s the best I could muster up.

I went through the motions and took a beautiful picture  I knew how I was supposed to act.

In this picture, I was facing the hardest battle of my life.  I had just arrived at the bottom of an abyss so dark and scary that I wasn’t sure I’d survive the ugly monster waiting for me at the bottom, the monster who wrapped itself around me so tight I couldn’t breathe, the monster who hijacked my brain, turned my own heart against me and tried to steal my motherhood.  The monster I’ve come to know as postpartum depression.

Let me rewind and tell you a little about before this picture was taken.

I struggled with anxiety since childhood, although it wasn’t until adulthood that I learned its name.  I constantly worried people were going to die.  I feared I had diabetes or that I was pregnant…even though I had no idea what sex was or how you even got pregnant in the first place.  I had awful separation anxiety and would lie awake late at night with the covers over my head because I was constantly afraid people were going to break into my house or stand outside my window while I slept.

I told no one.  I’m still not quite sure why.  My parents were (and still are) so loving and supportive and would have done anything to help me.  I think I was just so little I didn’t fully understand what was happening and didn’t have the words to talk about it.  I was so young that I didn’t know any better; I grew used to the thoughts and normalized them as a part of me.  For those unsure of their position in the nature vs. nurture debate, let me lay your uncertainty to rest.  Both are to blame.  My age was in the single digits when the anxiety started.  It was the hand nature dealt me.

The panic attacks came along with adulthood.  I was sitting in a meeting at work when the first one came out of nowhere.  I ran to the bathroom and called my mom, crying hysterically that I needed to go to the ER because I was dying.  I had no idea what was happening to me.  My dear sweet mama, she talked me through it.  I don’t know what I would have done without her.

I tried to manage the panic attacks with changes in my lifestyle.  I exercised, practiced yoga, went to counseling regularly, and tried my best to minimize exposure to what I knew would trigger stress and anxiety.  Still, the attacks became more frequent and intense until finally I lost control over them altogether and had to take time off work to figure things out.  I stood firm in my resistance to medication.  I felt like needing it was unnatural and would signal my own weakness and failure.  I also felt deep down that what I was doing wasn’t working, and when that happens…welp, you try something else.  At that point I had nothing to lose.

It took some time to unpack the tremendous amount of baggage I had around what mental illness actually was and the idea of how I thought it should be treated.  I reached a point where I just couldn’t live life like that anymore.  I deserved better.  With the support of my village, I found a medication that worked and I never looked back.  It wasn’t a magic fix but my head cleared enough that I was able to learn new ways to manage my anxiety and still live a happy life.

Thank God for therapy.

This is where I first learned about anxiety and how it manifested itself in me as a young child.  Those thoughts weren’t normal, but they also weren’t my fault.  That hit me like a lightning bolt.  An enormous weight lifted off my shoulders when I let go of the lie that I should have been able to heal myself.  Lady Gaga would be proud to know that I was just born this way.  I accepted the anxiety as a part of me, learned to use it to my advantage, and worked with it instead of against it.  

And it worked.  I was happy and fulfilled.  I married a wonderful man and after five years of traveling and gallivanting around, we decided we were ready to start a family.

Actually, I was never ready to start a family.  Not 100%, at least.  People with anxiety are NEVER 100% ready for ANYTHING, EVER.  We overthink and overanalyze so much that at best we’re 75% in.  I knew I wanted kids, or at least I thought I did…maybe…so with my doctor’s help I weaned off the anxiety medication.  I was on the kind you can’t take while pregnant.  I braced myself for non-medicated life but it actually wasn’t half bad.  And so, at 75% in, I threw the birth control out the window and tried to get pregnant.  We were eager to start a family so I figured it would happen pretty quickly.

It didn’t.    

Someday I’ll write about our years-long fertility journey but in a nutshell, my ovaries are stubborn and had to be roughed up by a cocktail of needles and hormones to get with the program.  This one time when they finally did, I held that positive pregnancy test two weeks later.  Because of my hormonal issues I only had a 50/50 chance of hanging on to the pregnancy and thankfully, I did.  Once I recovered from the anxiety of the first trimester I was able to enjoy the anticipation and excitement of preparing for the arrival of our beautiful baby girl, our sweet snuggly newborn.

She flew into the world with both middle fingers blazing.

I wasn’t looking forward to childbirth.  I don’t like hospitals and I don’t like pain but there was no way around either one this time.  The epidural brought me sweet, sweet relief and with some extra oxygen I fell into a deep sleep.  That’s the last thing I remember before the nurses and my husband were shaking me awake, telling me the baby was coming NOW and I needed to push NOW.  Disoriented and still half asleep, I pushed twice and my healthy baby girl was born.

They laid her on my chest and I looked at her in total shock.  It happened so quickly that my mind couldn’t process what just happened.  This is when I first met the ugly monster.

Something felt off the instant I delivered.  I struggle to find the words for how I felt the first time I held my daughter, but the best word I can find is nothing.  I knew I loved her in an instinctual, protective kind of way but beyond that, I felt nothing.  Nothing negative, but nothing positive either.  No connection.  No bond.  No joy.  It was like this hazy out-of-body experience that happened in slow motion.  In connecting with other mamas who experienced postpartum mood disorders, I found that many others also felt something off while still in the hospital.  It’s just so hard to explain.

The ugly monster whispered to me for the first time as I held my daughter.  This isn’t your baby.  This a mistake.  Give her back to the nurses now.  The nurses took her to get cleaned up and my husband followed close behind.  He was head over heels for her from the moment she was born.  You see?  He loves her, just like you should.  What’s wrong with YOU?   

Me.  And then there was me.

My body physically went into shock after I delivered.  Having grown a human for the past nine months, my body didn’t know what to do after in a matter of seconds that human was no longer there.  My blood pressure dropped, I spiked a fever and was so cold I was shaking uncontrollably.  The nurses worked to stabilize me while the OB stitched me up.  My daughter came out so quickly and forcefully that there wasn’t time to cut, so I tore and I tore GOOD.  To make matters worse, I started throwing up mid-procedure with such intensity that I popped the stitches already in place, worsening the tear and the recovery time afterwards.  I ended up with a 3rd degree perineal tear with stitches from you-know-where to you-know-where.  It was lovely.

My daughter needed to be fed and I barely cared.  I felt like I’d just been in a car accident and the last thing I wanted to do was take care of someone else.  I was so weak that the nurse had to help me hold my daughter up to breastfeed.  The monster whispered to me again.  What’s wrong with you?  You can’t even feed your own baby.  You’re not a mother.  You’re broken.  This was a mistake, give her back.  Memories from post-delivery are still foggy but I remember family and friends coming in and out to see the new mommy and the beautiful new baby who, I guess, was mine.

That beautiful new baby also had a beautiful set of lungs.  Her colic started in the hospital.  

Most babies are sleepy and drowsy in the beginning.  I think it’s God’s way of giving mom time to recover from childbirth before the real fun starts.  Boy did we miss the the boat on that one.  My daughter’s eyes were wide open right out of the womb.  Even the nurses and doctors commented on how alert she was.  She catnapped here and there but mostly…she was crying.  I thought something might be wrong with her or she that was hungry or in pain, but the nurses and doctors assured me her crying was normal.

NORMAL?  Nothing felt normal.  I was completely lost.  I sent my daughter away to the nursery both nights in the hospital.  It was the monster’s idea. You can’t take care of her.  You have no idea what you’re doing.  She’s not safe with you.  Give her back.    

I dreaded the moment it was time to leave the hospital.  I took comfort being there because I knew my daughter was safe and cared for, and it felt nice to have someone caring for me too.  I didn’t want to go home with this strange, fussy little human I didn’t know.  I sobbed as they wheeled me out to the car and when I hugged my mom goodbye I wouldn’t let go.  I was a total mess.  Please don’t send me home.  I have no idea what I’m doing.  Can I just come with you so you can take care of ME?  There was the monster again.  Your baby needs you right now.  You are so selfish.  You don’t deserve to be her mother.      

Our first night at home was brutal, as were the next six weeks.  We were in and out of the doctor’s office trying to figure out why she was crying so much and making sure she was okay.  It turns out my little one was just a sensitive baby who had a hard time adjusting to life outside of the womb.  She cried for hours on end and my rockstar of a husband walked her back and forth while I laid helplessly on the couch.  It took me two weeks to walk without leaning on someone and a month to comfortably walk on my own.  You’re already a failure, the monster said.  You can’t even comfort or rock your own baby.  

The days and nights blurred together.  The sleep deprivation was so awful I started to break with reality, imagining that movies were real life.  I stopped eating and dropped my baby weight in just under two weeks.  I picked my lips until they were swollen and bleeding.  Our villagers were amazing, though.  They brought us food, helped us rest, and offered support whenever they could, but still…the monster grew stronger.  I sobbed when it was time for my husband to go back to work because I was terrified to be alone with my daughter.  You don’t know how to take care of her.  She’s not safe with you.  Something will happen to her and it will be all your fault.  You don’t know what she needs.  You’re an awful mother.  

Maternity leave was very isolating for me.  I missed adult interaction and I developed this weird claustrophobia.  I felt trapped in my own home and had to have the curtains, blinds, and front windows open at all times, even if it was 95 degrees outside.  It drove my husband crazy but I needed the air.  I needed the light.  I feared any darkness in my environment.  It reminded me too much of the darkness lurking inside of me.  

There are no words to describe the severity of the guilt I felt.  Guilty I wasn’t more grateful to be a mom, especially after struggling to get pregnant.  Guilty that my baby was so wanted and now I didn’t want her.  Guilty at how much I was looking forward to going back to work.  Guilty my daughter was stuck with me as her mom.  At my lowest point the guilt was so bad I considered leaving my daughter with my husband while I went to stay with my parents for a while.  I felt so guilty I could hardly look at the beautiful baby right in front of me.  You don’t even deserve to be around her.  Do her a favor and just leave.

Out of sheer stubbornness and a burning desire to stick it to the man, I stayed.  I was scared and confused but there was just something that always kept me with my daughter.  We made it through those early days together and I interacted with her as best I could.  We took walks, did tummy time and played with rattles and toys that played music.  I smiled and laughed and cooed, even if I was faking it.  She always just stared at me with her big, beautiful eyes.  I don’t think she was quite sure about me either.

I muddled through a quicksand of darkness for six weeks.  Six weeks of pitch black.

And then…the light.  

My husband and mom knew I was struggling and were as supportive as possible, but the monster kept me quiet about how deep the darkness really was.  Don’t tell anyone.  No one else will understand.  They’re going to think you’re an awful person.  I know my own mama felt protective of me.  It broke her heart to see me struggle so badly.  She sat me down one day and told me how much she loved me, but that from someone standing outside of the darkness it looked like I was experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety (PPA) and that I should think about talking to my doctor about it, and that it was OKAY.

The crazy thing is I knew all about PPD and PPA.  Professionally, I worked with postpartum moms every day and even screened them for symptoms.  I knew I was at a higher risk for developing perinatal mood disorders because of my pre-existing mental illness yet still, I hadn’t seen it in myself.  I thought it was the kind of thing that happened to everyone else, just not me.  The denial is just what the monster wanted.  A light in the darkness would expose its ugliness, so it never ever wants to be found. 

I didn’t have all the answers but I knew I’d do anything to make this go away.  I very reluctantly spoke with my doctor and made the decision to go back on medication.  I took the decision pretty hard.  It brought up all my old feelings of failure and dysfunction and I was too exhausted to process anything else emotionally.  I was just trying to survive.    

The day of my doctor’s appointment was rough.  My daughter had been crying all day with no nap and my husband had to work late.  The darkness was making my chest heavy so I wrapped my daughter in the Moby and walked up and down the sidewalk outside my house, sobbing and shushing and patting and praying to God I had to the strength to make it until my husband or mom could relieve me.

I didn’t realize my neighborhood’s community garage sale was going on around me until I was almost back home.  Baby clothes and toys in the garage right across the street caught my eye and I was always up for a good bargain, so I popped in before I went back inside.  That’s when I met one of my angels.  I met a nice couple around my age who had a daughter about a year older than my own and they offered me some of her old stuff for free.  The mama was so warm and kind and said if I ever needed anything to let her know.  I think she saw the exhaustion and desperation in my red, puffy eyes.  I was floored I’d never met her before when I could literally see her front window from my front window.      

Everything in its own time, I guess.

A couple hours after I got home my daughter had finally fallen asleep in the wrap.  SILENCE.  I tried to stay away from social media because it just made me feel worse but that day I needed a distraction from my own head.  As I scrolled along with my daughter sleeping on my chest, I saw a message in my inbox from someone I’d never met before, so I thought.  I studied her picture closely.  It was the mama from across the street.  She sent me a message saying that I might be feeling totally fine, but that if I wasn’t, it was okay and I wasn’t alone and she was there to talk any time.  I couldn’t believe she reached out that day, of all days, because I was actually feeling the furthest thing from fine.

We messaged back and forth and she shared how she too struggled immensely with PPD after her daughter was born and made it her mission to reach out and support other struggling mamas, mamas like me.  Our friendship sparked immediately.  I still don’t think she fully understands what she really did for me that day.  She threw me a lifeline when I was drowning.  There was a certain level of comfort and connection I gained from someone who walked my walk, my deep, dark walk, someone I knew would understand free of judgment because they’ve been there.  She gave me light in a sea of darkness.  The ugly monster still lingered but now…now it was scared.

A couple days later I was sitting with my daughter in our front window seat.  This had grown into one of our favorite pastimes together.  I needed the light and the air and she loved to watch the cars and the birds.  I propped my daughter up on my legs so we were face to face, and that’s when it happened.  She smiled for the first time…AT ME.  She smiled at her mama.  She cooed and squealed and drooled and smiled at me all day long.  She didn’t cry at all that night, nor did she cry any day or night after that.  She came out of her darkness that morning, and she was loving me right through mine.  My heart grew a thousand sizes that day.

Day by day I grew stronger and more sure of myself.  My confidence grew in caring for my daughter and I started to smile and laugh more often but this time, from the heart.  The good moments started to outweigh the bad.  I started to eat regular meals.  The medication kicked in and I was able to catch my breath.  I started seeing my counselor again and learned how to silence the ugly monster enough until one day it grew bored and left me altogether.

There’s no way I could have done it alone.  

I don’t know how I got lucky enough to have such an amazing village.  From my parents to my siblings, to my boss and my co-workers, to my friends and neighbors and extended family to my husband…MY HUSBAND…heck, even my dog.  They had every opportunity to dismiss me, minimize my feelings, or say any of the other clever, well-intentioned things people say when they don’t really understand mental illness, but they didn’t.  Not a single one of them.  They knew my heart well and knew I was feeling so awful that if I could have possibly controlled what was happening, I would have long ago.  They refused to give up on me and fought hard to pull me out of the darkness.  They lifted me up when I couldn’t stand and helped me put the broken pieces back together again.

And there were definitely broken pieces.  

The ugly monster left me with a lot of aftermath to clean up.  I worked through a lot of anger and bitterness to accept the ways my brain was forever changed just because the monster chose me.  Almost four years later, I still take medication and the claustrophobia lingers.  I still have to have the blinds and curtains open, though I’ve settled on keeping the windows closed on yucky days.  I developed a mild case of misophonia, where certain sounds trigger some pretty intense responses, like trying to hulk smash the ceiling fan when it wouldn’t stop clicking.  Certain frequencies, baselines, rhythms, or clicking noises still make me grit my teeth.  

I’ve grown to love my little quirks now, though.  They make me me.  My daughter’s mama.    

Healing the wounds of postpartum depression has been the hardest battle of my life.  I still have bad days where I feel the sting of resentment towards the monster for stealing those early days away from my baby and I.  Good ol’ father time always brings perspective, though, one that I definitely wasn’t expecting.

I’m actually SO grateful for that ugly monster.  That’s right.  I’m glad it chose me and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  Once it left, I had a whole new outlook and gratefulness for motherhood, and for life in general.  I was able to fall in love with my daughter in a way only a rough start like ours could bring.  Had I not experienced the darkness on the other side, I wouldn’t know how bright the love between a mother and her baby really feels.  Once I crossed over, my daughter and I were like honeymooners.  We made up for lost time and spent every waking moment together.  I never took a single moment for granted.  I developed a resilience and fierce inner strength I never knew I had.  Any problem life threw my way was nothing compared to the hell on earth I’d already been through.

I was on top of the world because in all the ways I was changed by the monster, I was changed by her love even more.  And for that I’d go through it all over again in a heartbeat.

Now my daughter is literally the air I breathe, the life in my lungs and the blood in my veins.  She is my beating heart walking outside of my body.  The smell of her head still makes me weak in the knees.  I daydream about her, play hookie from work to spend time with her, travel with her, plan special days with her, and race to pick her up at the end of every single day.  We take mommy and me photos together every year not just because it’s cute, but because it’s my ultimate middle finger to the monster.  I fought the good fight and I won the greatest prize of all.  I don’t have to fake it in pictures now.  I’m head over heels for her.

If you’re struggling with PPD, PPA, or any other perinatal mood disorder, there’s a few things I want you to know., from someone who’s been there.

I want you to know that you’re not alone.  There are so many of us out there.  If you’re guilt-ridden by your thoughts please know there is literally nothing you could think that we haven’t already.  Don’t do this alone.  Lean on your village and lean on them HARD.  If you don’t have one, we need to find you one.  If you don’t feel safe enough to talk to anyone you’re already close to, find a support group, a counselor, a doctor, an online community, find ME.  It takes a village to raise a child but it takes a village to raise a mama, too.  Let others lift you up.

I also want you to know from the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry the monster chose you but something else I want you to know about the monster is that IT LIES.  

She’s better off without you.
They’re ALL better off without you.
You’re an awful mother.
You don’t deserve him.
You’re not doing it right.
You’ll NEVER do it right.
Everyone hates you.
You’re broken.
You can’t do this.
You’ll never make it.  

They’re all lies.  I know they’re awful and you can’t help but believe them, but none of them are true.  I know you can’t just toughen up and be grateful and happy.  I know it’s not that simple.  I know you’re fighting and I want you to know your baby will love you through it.  You are amazing.  You’ll grow stronger than you ever thought possible and you WILL smile and laugh again.

From someone who has come through the other side, I promise that the victory is worth fighting for.  Forge ahead.  If you feel like you don’t have anything left and you feel like giving up, I want you to remember one thing, the most important thing of all…

You’re a goddamn warrior mama.  Don’t ever forget it.

For more information on the signs, symptoms, and treatment of mental health conditions, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness HERE

For more information on postpartum depression, visit the National Institute of Mental Health HERE.

For more information on postpartum anxiety, visit Postpartum Support International HERE.

To connect with other mamas who will understand, find the private Facebook group for Postpartum Support International HERE.

If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or access their 24/7 online chat HERE.

*Sidenote: Just to be careful, I want to clarify that I personified my own feelings and thoughts as the ugly monster.  At no point was I actually hearing voices in my head.