How to Spring Spring

How to Spring Spring

Spring has sprung, my friends!

I love this time of year.  The flowers, the thunderstorms, the cool breeze, the weather.

I am NOT a summer person.  At all.  I crank up the AC as soon as the temperature hits 70 outside.  Heat makes me cranky, sleepless, sweaty, and resentful towards the time and energy I have to put into shaving my legs.  For four months out of the year I don’t belong in Indiana, where the humidity of the agonizing Midwestern summers are enough to drive anyone to the North Pole.

The beauty of spring and autumn are enough to keep me here, though, and they make June through September a little more somewhat-kind-of tolerable for me.  

Needless to say, I revel in the beautiful gift of spring, and here are some ways you can do that too.

Wipe everything down with Clorox wipes.  Or Thieves or Lysol or whatever else you want to use.  Even if you did it yesterday, you know it’s dirty again and if it’s not dirty again, wipe it down anyways.  The clean smell alone will remind you that sick season is over (for the most part) and that the kids can finally venture outside without spending twenty minutes to layer up first.  Hallelujah!

Kondo your heart out.  The KonMari method, created by organizing consultant Marie Kondo, is a system of simplifying and organizing your home (and life) by getting rid of physical items that don’t bring you joy.  Instead of focusing on what doesn’t fit, what you can’t stand, or what you think you might use or wear someday, invite more positivity into your life by focusing on what brings you joy instead.  Pick it up, touch it, and if it brings you joy, keep it.  It’s that simple, and I love it. I felt so renewed and energized after removing the weight of the physical stuff from my home, especially the stuff that wasn’t making me happy.  Kondo takes spring cleaning to a whole new level!

Relax in the lounge.  And I don’t mean the 21-and-over kind.  I’m talking about the one in your yard, your very own private oasis of comfort and luxury: a baby pool.  That’s right.  Pick up a $10 inflatable baby pool and instead of filling it with water, fill it with old blankets and pillows.  Make yourself comfortable with the littles, read books, look at the clouds, and wonder where all of the airplanes waaaay up there are going.  Your options are endless, and are endless without the summer bug season terrorizing y’alls chill time in the lounge.

Do any yardwork or landscaping NOW.  Before it’s 500 degrees outside.  Before the mosquitoes are out for blood.  Before it’s so hot and humid outside that paint won’t even dry.  Have someone take the children.  Or take a day off work.  I learned this the hard way.  It doesn’t matter if there’s more daylight in the summer and the nights last longer.  It’s a trick.  DO IT NOW.

Get family pictures taken NOW.  I also learned this the hard way.  If there’s anything more stressful than getting yourself and everyone else ready for family pictures, it’s sweating your arse off in front of the camera and hoping the pit stains and moisture on your upper lip can be photo-shopped out.  And if there’s anything more stressful than all of THAT…it’s wrangling a toddler who’s melting down right underneath the blazing sun.  And in your beautiful family pictures.

Pay attention to your toes.  They’ve likely been hibernating all winter.  Flip-flop weather is upon us and we need to be prepared.  Give those piggies a little extra TLC and if they’re beyond repair, splurge on the $25 to have a professional tackle the job.  You deserve it.

Stay away from geese.  I’m not even joking.  Here in Indy it was just in the news that two people were attacked AND injured (though mildly) in a Walmart parking lot.  Geese lay their eggs March-May and can be exceptionally aggressive when protecting the nest.  If you see geese loitering around in one spot, standing their ground, or staring you down like they’re ready to start something, it’s best to stay away.  In all seriousness, for as much as I dislike geese, they’re still living creatures and are mama bears just like we are.  I don’t blame them for protecting their babies.  Just be respectful and careful out there in the wild, and talk to your kids about being the same, too.  Head on swivel in the parking lot!

Take some time to BREATHE.  Before your mind starts running amok with the spring cleaning to-do list or upcoming summer plans, take some time to slow down and breathe in the renewal and refreshment that this season can provide.  Literally stop and smell the flowers.  Turn off the music or the TV and listen to the rain while you fold laundry.  Buy yourself a new candle.  Enjoy the nice, cool breeze.  Spring only rolls around once a year.  Be sure to take some of it in!

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.

Where Are You Christmas?

Where Are You, Christmas?

Why Can’t I Find You

Why have you gone away
Where is the laughter
You used to bring me
Why can’t I hear music play

I cry every time I hear that song even after the hundredth time.

As a meager attempt at self-preservation I try to avoid it altogether.  I turn off the radio when it comes on, fast-forward through The Grinch and give it a thumbs down on Pandora so it doesn’t play.  It’s a beautiful song but it hits a nerve in my heart in a way that only the raw, honest truth can. It’s just too real.

The holidays have always been such a special time for my family and I.  Christmastime has been in my blood since the moment I came out of the womb, when Christmas carols lulled me to sleep and paper chains decorated the entire house as soon as my fingers learned to use scissors.  I hung lights around my room, designed elaborate countdown calendars and slept in my Santa hat. I was the original Buddy the Elf.

My childhood was filled with love and support and warm memories I carry with me every day.  Family values were instilled in me at a very young age, and a true extrovert (and Greek) at heart, these values came naturally to me.  Family and tradition have been two of the most important things in my life since as long as I can remember and at Christmastime…those cups runneth over.  My family will never truly know how the impact of my upbringing has shaped me into the person I am today, but as an adult I’ve tried to do a decent job of letting them know how everything I am today I am because of them.  They taught me about everything truly important in life.

I’m beyond grateful I had a childhood that allowed me to feel safe and carefree enough to deck the halls with all of my might.  My biggest worries back then were whether or not I’d have enough construction paper or if the lights on the tree were going to burn out again.  I was free to take in the world through my innocent and hopeful eyes, full of dreams and promises of things to come.

Things came, as they always do, and like it or not one of them was adulthood.  As I learned and understood more about the world, I saw how protected I really was as a child, how there were indeed very real adult issues taking place all around me that I was either blissfully shielded from or didn’t fully comprehend.  Addiction.  Financial struggle.  Marital strife.  Heartbreak.  Mental Illness. Unemployment.  Health issues.  Infertility.  Lost friendships.  Loss of a loved one.  Confusion.  Anger. Stress.  Loneliness.  While there was still joy and happiness in my life, I saw everything in the world that makes this time of year so goddamn heavy for so many people…and it became heavy for me too.

My world is changing
I’m rearranging
Does that mean Christmas changes too?  

Now I’m the shield.  I’m the mama. I’m the protector.  I have a job and a marriage and a mortgage and the weight of another human’s proper survival on my shoulders.  Now I’m the one who puts on a brave face to shield my daughter from the realities of life and in the process of becoming a shield…you lose your own.

I grieve the loss of my shield.

I grieve the loss of my innocence.  I grieve the loss of my family under one roof, playing the Nintendo 64 for hours on end because it was the most marvelous piece of technology we’d ever seen.  I grieve the loss not just of my own youth, but of my daughter’s youth as well, because I know that every Christmas season that comes will pass and leave me one season closer to the loss of my innocent, protected baby who still believes in Santa.  I grieve the loss of paper chains and my merry and light heart, because although it’s now full of more love than I could ever imagine, it is not light. I can’t go back. I know too much that I can’t un-know.  Growing up comes with some heavy stuff.

Where are you Christmas
Do you remember
The one you used to know
I’m not the same one
See what the time’s done
Is that why you’ve let me go

I don’t think we talk about grief enough.  When most people think of “grief” they think of grieving a death, which is obviously appropriate, but grief is SO much bigger than that.  You can grieve the loss of anything that meant something to you.  A loved one. A job. A relationship.  Family. Time. Health. Your tiny little babies.  A dream. The life you thought you’d have…the life you used to have.

Grief is all around us and it’s not always a bad thing, but I think it’s what makes this time of year heavy for so many.  The Hallmark movies and carols all around reminding us to feel merry and bright only amplify the fact that sometimes we DO NOT feel that way anymore, and we’re reminded of what no longer have instead.  Then we feel guilty because this only comes around once a year and we’re wasting it away with heaviness, feeling like now we can’t even do Christmas right. The contrast between what the season “should” be and what’s going on in our hearts can be enormous.

And it’s OKAY.  

It’s okay to feel heavy this holiday season.  It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to feel lonely but please know…you are not alone.  The rest of us are trying to figure out what the heck Christmas means now, too, and I think there’s hope.  It may look different, seem different, feel different, BE different, but the spirit of Christmas is still there.  While the entire weeks and years of merry simplicity have faded, I think Christmas hides in the little moments, waiting to be found by a weary grown-up who needs to rest their heart for a while.  

Christmas is on your couch, watching a cheesy and unbelievably predictable Hallmark movie.

Christmas is in the smell of your child’s head, and the gentle curve of their nose.

Christmas is in baking cookies, even the break and bakes and ESPECIALLY the break and bakes.

Christmas is in your partner’s arms.  

Christmas is in drinking hot cocoa, even if you never finish a full mug.  It’s just a merry thing to do.

Christmas is in saying no to over-commitment that will leave you sad and exhausted.

Christmas is listening to Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays by N’SYNC on blast.

Christmas is in taking time off work.

Christmas is in snuggling with your pet and buying them a holidays sweater just BECAUSE.

Christmas is in the smell of your holiday candles.

Christmas is in spending time with your loved ones because tomorrow is not promised for anyone.

Christmas is in making a paper chain every year because it’s still who you are deep down.

I feel you Christmas
I know I’ve found you
You never fade away
The joy of Christmas
Stays here inside us
Fills every heart with love

Do one thing for me this Christmas.

Watch The Polar Express…by yourself.  Just one time, curl up on the couch and let yourself be totally immersed in an hour and half of Christmas magic.  I’ve seen it a billion times and I’ve never walked away without feeling a little lighter than I did before. You’ll know exactly what I mean when you watch it.   

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you joy this holiday season, however that may look for you.  And if I could give you one gift, it would be the gift of BELIEF. Belief in the good of humanity.  Belief in brighter days. Belief in love and in being enough. Belief that there are hidden moments of holiday joy waiting for you in the nooks and crannies of adult life.  Believe that maybe, just maybe you can have yourself a merry little Christmas after all.

“Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”
-The Polar Express

4 Weeks of Wonder Week Four: Taking Care of Yourself – PART TWO

4 Weeks of Wonder

Week Four: Taking Care of Yourself – PART TWO

Self-care took me a lot longer to write about than I thought it would.  

The further I explored, the quicker I ended up elbow deep in a cluster of hard questions and even harder answers.  I felt like I’d opened Pandora’s box. In Part One (conveniently located here) I shared all about how a little wooden sign from Target was the catalyst for realizing I was a serial pyromaniac who needed to take better care of herself, and that I committed to at least trying to do so.  What I didn’t share was that the commitment was only half the battle.  Figuring out what exactly that meant was the other.

All I knew was how I felt.  Exhausted. Burnt out. Lonely.  Hollow. Overwhelmed. Hungry. Impatient.  Irritable. Taken for granted. Sleep-deprived.  Indeed, I was a jolly woman. I knew I reached a breaking point.  I knew I felt like something had to change.  I knew I finally decided I mattered enough to not settle for a life of constant all of the above.  I knew I deserved better.

I also knew I had grown totally unfamiliar with my own needs.  I knew I needed to take better care of myself but was often so resistant to the idea because I didn’t know how and I was too tired of thinking to figure it out.

Can someone please tell me what “self-care” actually is?  Whatever it is, I’ll do it. 

 It took a lot of reflection and heartwork to unpack the baggage I had around the idea of supermom and the guilt of falling short of that illusion.  Somewhere in that Samsonite 5-piece nested set I found the curiosity to get to know myself again. I read books. I googled A LOT. I talked with my girlfriends, my husband, my mom, my sisters.  I reawakened old hobbies and remembered what I was like before I became a mom. I tried new things, ate new things, watched new things, and eventually ended up with a patchwork of new and old that reflects who I am today.  Mama got her groove back…

And without my biggest deal breaker, lots of extra time away from my family.  We already spent enough time away from each other during the week and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice much more, at least on a regular basis.  That ended up being totally okay. What I learned about self-care is that while time, money, and grandeur are lovely to have, they’re not absolutely necessary to the process.  I found just as many small, daily, seemingly insignificant ways to take care of myself that were just as effective as the vacations, girls nights, and time at the spa. I made it work for me, my lifestyle, and my schedule.

What I learned along the way still helps to douse the flames of my old habits.  The good thing (or the bad thing) is that none of it’s concrete and a lot of it is contrary to each other…because people aren’t concrete and are often contrary to each other.  Everyone is wired differently. What works for one person might totally deplete another.

It’s okay to be egocentric and find what works for YOU.  Whether it’s big leaps or baby steps, what matters is the forward motion. 

Do what you did before you were a mom.
Think back to life before you had babies.  Who were you and what did you like to do? Try some of that stuff again.  Maybe you’ll reignite a passion you forgot you had or maybe you’ll find it’s just not your thing anymore.  That’s okay too. It’s all part of the journey. Getting in touch with who you were will help you figure out who you are.
Me:  Crafts and art projects.  Ever since I was a little girl nothing jazzes me more than a trip to Hobby Lobby and uninterrupted project time.  While I still aim for this whenever possible I just don’t have the time for it to be a regular occurrence anymore. What I do have is a toddler who loves hands-on projects just like her mama, so I found a way to take care of myself through her.  It may be a popsicle stick house instead of a Pinterest-perfect holiday wreath, but it still fills up my craft cup in a way that works for my lifestyle. The quality time together is an added bonus!

Do what brings you energy.
What gets your heart thumping?  What brings you to life? What’s your release?  Exercising. Working on a project. Playing with your kids.  Gardening. Girls night out. Planning a trip. Eating a good meal.  Dancing. Singing. Sex. Coffee. Sleeping. Resting. Time alone. Taking a walk outside.  Traveling. The more energy you release into something you enjoy, the more energy you’ll feel in return.  Funny how the body works.
Me:  Bringin’ SexyBack.  I could have been a backup dancer for JT.  Sometimes after wrestling my toddler to sleep I go straight to my bedroom and audition in front of the mirror for a few minutes.  My husband wonders why I come downstairs all sweaty. Sometimes I drive the long way around my neighborhood with the volume on max even though I know they’re waiting for me at home.  They can wait for a few. My inner diva CANNOT.  

Do what brings you peace.
What brings you stillness?  What slows your breathing? What relaxes you?  Reading a book. Writing in a journal. Writing anything.  Coloring. Watching your babies sleep. Snuggling. Napping.  Netflix and chill. Painting. Creating. Animals. Grocery shopping alone.  Spending time outside. Yoga. Starbucks. A bubble bath. Listening to music.  Meditation. Prayer. Parenthood is wonderful but it’s not slow and serene. Slowing down is hard to do but it’s the only way to take in the beauty of the stillness.  Moments of silence and calm are the only way to survive…the rest of the moments.
Me:  Watching HGTV.  One of the few things that brings me peace is sitting in front of the TV like a vegetable while watching a plotless show that I don’t really have to pay attention to.  I can’t watch TV shows that involve energy or emotional stimulation. I have enough emotions all on my own. I also fall asleep halfway through then get pissed next week when I’m lost and behind.  Then I just quit and turn on HGTV.

Do what makes you happy.
What brings you laughter?  What makes you smile? What do you enjoy?  Getting a pedicure. Buying something new…for yourself.  Your favorite dessert. Any dessert. Youtube videos of people wiping out.  Sassy lipstick. A haircut. A good fart joke. A new outfit for your dog. Favorite song on repeat.  Spending time with people. Spending time alone. Having cake for dinner. Fresh, clean blankets. Haters gonna hate.  You do YOU.
Me:  Christmastime.  Everything is happier for me during the holidays.  Last year, for the first time in 31 years I broke my hard and fast rule of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING CHRISTMAS BEFORE THANKSGIVING.  Screw it, says who? For the past two years my Santa hat came out and Christmas music came on right after Halloween and I’m not sorry.  It makes me happy. We still celebrate Thanksgiving…just as a part of Christmastime.

Do what makes you feel guilty.
Can we talk about mom guilt for a minute?  What a killjoy. That little snake weaves its way into every thought we have and action we take.  We can’t just have pleasure, noooooo, we have to have guilty pleasure.  Want to know the dictionary definition of guilt?  “…the fact of having committed a specified or implied crime or offense.”  CRIME OR OFFENSE. For feeling pleasure.  Lawd, take me to jail.

I’ve come to accept mom guilt as a permanent part of me.  I think motherhood just wired me that way. I spent so much energy reasoning with myself, talking myself up about how I need to take care of myself and how this is good for all of us and blah blah blah and you know what?  I still felt guilty as sin in the end, every single time.  So I stopped trying to fight it and learned to carry on with it instead of wasting energy fighting a losing battle.  I always remind myself, I’m worth it, and end up thanking myself in the end.

Faking a bathroom break.  Real Housewives. Social Media.  Early bedtime for the kids. Going bra free.  Chocolate baking chips right out of the bag. Trashy magazines.  Swearing like a sailor. All leggins all the time. Eating all the fruit snacks.  The expensive makeup. Getting off work early for some time to yourself. Listening to the Jonas Brothers…in the car alone.  Catching a few extra minutes of sleep when you see quiet, wide eyes on the monitor.
Mine:  Celebrity gossip magazines.  I check US Weekly at least three times a day.  It’s blocked on my bloody work computer so I take my phone with me into the bathroom stall to stay up to date with Hollywood’s latest.  Added gullty pleasure…sometimes I also lean my head up against the stall for a micro power nap…sometimes this is why I go to the bathroom in the first place…  

Learn your limits.
I was an expert at blowing past the point of no return, leaving me so overwhelmed and wound tight that a panic attack was unavoidable.  I don’t think I’ll ever totally rid myself of the monster I call anxiety, but I’ve learned to stay one step ahead of him. When I started listening and paying closer attention to myself, I learned to read the warning signs that I was headed down the wrong path.  Can’t sleep. Skipping meals. Eyes hurting. Chest tightening. Learn your body, your signals, and your red flags and listen to them closely. It’s much easier to snuff out a small flame than a raging inferno. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Accept help…or ask for it.
I really mean it.  You have not failed.  You are not less of a mom.  You are human, and humans are meant to live in villages.  Western culture doesn’t support this instinct; the more independent and self-reliant you are, the better you’re doing.  In many other parts of the world the second you give birth your mom or grandma or both move into your house whether you like it or not because parenting is hard and people need help.  This is just the norm there.

I used to have an awful burden complex.  I was afraid to ask for help because I didn’t want to stress anyone out or make them feel obligated to help.  A while back I went through a really rough patch of worry and sleep-deprivation when my daughter was sick with the flu.  Even though I felt awful for doing it, I was desperate and finally took my friend up on her year-long offer to bring me (us) dinner.  It was the greatest thing ever. A good meal that I didn’t have to pick up or prepare. Should’ve done it a year ago. I was so happy to eat and she was SO happy to help.  

Even though you may feel like it, you are NOT a burden to those around you who are offering to help.  They care about you and it makes them feel good to take care of you. LET THEM. It’s a win-win.

No offers on the table?  

In a perfect world the people around you would notice how tired and overwhelmed you are and offer to help, but this isn’t a perfect world.  Sometimes people get caught up with their own stuff and it’s not personal towards you. It’s okay to ask for help. Chances are your villagers would be glad to help.  If you don’t have any villagers, reach out to a local parenting program or social support agency to get some more people in your corner. They would be glad to help too.  I know this for a fact because I work for one of them.

Have a meltdown.
It’s okay to have days where you’re not okay and everything feels totally overwhelming and exhausting. It’s okay to have days that you just get through.  You’re allowed to have human emotions other than happiness and gratitude. Some days are just going to be BAD and the best way to get through them is to just let yourself feel it and try again tomorrow.  Not to get all mathematical here but thus far your survival rate of bad days is 100% and you’re promised a re-do every 24 hours.

Don’t set yourself on fire.
Learn to protect yourself.  When you feel yourself nearing your limits, learn to set boundaries and know it’s not mean to do so.  It’s okay to do what you need to do in order to maintain your wellness and sanity. Saying no to someone taking advantage of you.  Canceling a playdate. Passing on a family gathering. If you can’t manage to drive around like a crazy person just to see everyone on Thanksgiving, exhausting the kids and eventually losing your shit…life will go on.  There may be some initial disappointment but I’m pretty sure they’re still going to love you. You are not required to exhaust yourself to keep others happy. You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.       

Raising tiny humans should qualify for sainthood.  Being a mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  It’s challenged me on every level and stretched me way past any breaking point I thought I had.  Another human’s livelihood, health, and survival resting on our shoulders is a heavy load to carry but we can handle it because are MAMAS.  We are nurturers and we are caregivers. I still have to remind myself that part of taking care of my child means taking care of ME, too.

Being a mom means operating on all cylinders, all the time, all the days, making self-care not just important but necessary.  I don’t know what that means or looks like for you, but I know you’re worth finding out.    

4 Weeks of Wonder Week Four: Taking Care of Yourself – PART ONE

4 Weeks of Wonder

Week Four: Taking Care of Yourself – PART ONE

This past month my 4 Weeks of Wonder Challenge has been just the catalyst I needed to make the lifestyle change to simplify life, slow down, wonder, and find adventure in the mundane.  This past month has also reminded me that motherhood requires an incredible amount of presence and energy…and all of the other junk in between that usually doesn’t include much leftover for ourselves.

You need to slow down.
You’re doing too much.
You need to get some rest.
Go to bed early.
The dishes can wait.

Great idea.  Your to-do list will be waiting for you on the counter.  Don’t you dare fall asleep before moving the wet clothes to the dryer or else the whole load will be ruined and the dishes legit need to be washed because they’ve “waited” for days and now they smell and there’s ants.       

Sound familiar?  Don’t I know it.

I work full-time outside of the home as a supervisor in a child prevention program.  I don’t like the phrase “working mom” because in my book you’re always a “working mom” whether you’re inside the home or outside the home, but it’s the best phrase I can think of to help describe the madness I call my life so I’m just gonna go with it.  I’m a working mom.

I work in social services and you know what that means.  Families in crisis mode. Financial struggles. Domestic violence.  Substandard housing. Substance abuse. Addiction. Mental illness. Child abuse and neglect.  I staff the most challenging cases and I’m the one who makes the really tough calls, sometimes resulting in the involvement of law enforcement and/or children being removed from the home. 

You know, super light fluffy stuff.

It truly is my life’s calling but after nine years I’ve grown numb to the insanely stressful demands of my career.  Usually I compartmentalize it and don’t talk about what I do unless asked, but when the subject comes up the wide-eyed “holy crap you do WHAT” look from an outsider always reminds me of how much I’ve adjusted to working under a constant level of stress that’s inherent and unavoidable in my field.  It’s just normal to me.

Self-care is especially important in maintaining sanity in my line of work and no matter what your job is or isn’t it’s critical when you’re a mama.  I knew this. I learned about it in school. I read books about it. I researched it on my own. I went to workshops about it, conferences about it, talked to friends about it, did trainings with my own staff about it.  And yet…

I used to dismiss it for myself entirely.  

Smart huh?  Looking back I can see how it happened.  Life’s grind had exhausted and overwhelmed me so much that I didn’t have the energy to problem solve how to fit in ONE MORE THING, even a good thing like self-care.  I heard the phrase thrown at me so often that I grew tired of hearing about how much I needed to care of myself without any substance behind the suggestion.  It sounded lovely to drop whatever I was doing to rest and take it easy but I often felt like this wasn’t realistic or possible without dropping the ball in another court.  So like any good stubborn person would I learned to tune out the idea right along with my toddler’s meltdowns and I juggled away every day, doing anything and everything needed to take care of everyone else.   

I thought I was doing the right thing.  I was mama bear.  Unbridled selflessness was always a part of my personality so the lifestyle change was seamless when I became a parent.  My entire existence shifted towards putting my baby and her needs first, above all else. The shift happened naturally and instinctively and it should have, it’s how we bond and keep our babies alive.  What’s tricky about the shift is that there’s no end.  You never shift back.  Motherhood is amazingly, joyously, thankfully….forever.

I think that’s when I started to lose myself.

What began as an innocent, beautiful instinct eventually morphed into a vicious cycle of justified self-neglect.  I learned to push my needs so far behind everything else that eventually they disappeared altogether and in my mind, I had successfully adjusted to what I thought life was supposed to be like as an adult and as a parent.  

It really was the perfect Category 5 storm headed straight for my soul.  It took a solid year of tears, panic attacks, late nights, skipping meals, physical pain, and chronic exhaustion to realize how burnt out I really was.

About eight months ago I was having a really rough day at work.  I hadn’t slept well the night before (like usual) and I’d skipped eating lunch again (like usual) and my patience and energy were non-existent…(like usual).  I needed some space so I drove up the street to Target, my favorite spot to grab a Starbucks and unwind for a few minutes while mindlessly binging at the Dollar Spot. 

That’s when I saw it.  

Right next to the holiday decor and adorable office supplies I didn’t really need but put in my basket anyways, I saw this little wooden sign:

“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.”

It stopped me dead in my tracks.  Right then I felt the weight of exhaustion hurt deep in my bones, my white-hot, charcoal bones.  This is my life, I thought to myself.  I pulled out my phone and looked at a picture of my beautiful daughter as my eyes welled with tears thinking of how desperately I was trying to keep her and everyone else around me safe and warm.  

No wonder I’m so burnt out.  I’M ON FIRE.

I cried right there in the store.  God love Target. That little wooden sign hit my soul in a way the “you can’t pour from an empty cup” metaphor never did.  It released something in me and for the first time, whether it was from God, my conscious, or the manufacturers in China I finally felt like I had permission to stop drop and roll.  I looked at my daughter’s picture again.  She was beautiful, always beautiful.  And smart, and strong, and brave, and healthy.  All I ever wanted was to be a good mom, and I was…to her and to everyone else.  Just not to myself.

I trudged out of Target knowing nothing else except that something had to change.   

That night I sat on the shower floor, putting my head between my knees so the hot water could run over my back.  How are you here?  You SO knew better than this.  I took a deep breath in and thought of my daughter again.  I always think of her when I’m sad.  She was tired that night and went to bed early so I was missing her more than usual.      

I spend a lot of time away from her and I carry guilt about that every single day.  I’m a glutton for punishment so one time I calculated how many waking hours I spend away from her in a week and I cried for an hour straight afterwards.  Mom guilt is one of the most awful emotions in existence.  It’s an ugly, vicious monster that plants seeds of doubt in every corner of your soul and wreaks total havoc on your heart.  And on that shower floor, for the hundredth time that day I felt like an awful mom.  I work full-time by choice.  Which meant I was choosing to be away from my daughter by choice.  Which meant I was missing out on her by choice, letting others shape her and raise her by choice, missing smiles and laughs and milestones by choice.  And only an awful mom would do that.

You don’t deserve to take care of yourself.   

Exhaustion was my punishment.  I leaned on the excuse of not having time for myself for so long when what it came down to was that I didn’t even feel worthy of having time for myself.  Pretty deep for a little wooden sign from Target.  It’s funny because as much as I loved that sign I didn’t buy it.  I bought an outfit for my daughter instead.  I never, ever bought things for myself.

There’s something about shining a light on a monster that scares it away, or at least shuts it up long enough to catch your breath.  I didn’t know how I’d do it or what it would look like or when, but on that shower floor I gave myself permission to just try stepping out of the fire.  I was worried.  Worried about dropping the ball, worried I’d miss out on more time with my daughter, worried things would fall apart if I stepped back.  I thought of what I’d tell my daughter if she were on the shower floor.  If you change nothing, nothing will change.  You can do hard things.  

And so, I stepped out.  And my village stepped up.  We adjusted and set new boundaries and when I stepped back from certain projects or commitments you know what happened?  They figured it out.  Because people will always figure it out. The world turned without me and it was beautiful. Turns out I was pretty egocentric for someone supposedly so selfless.  I had to find other ways to validate my purpose besides putting the world on my shoulders.  

Eight months later and I’m still a work in progress but I’ve taken responsibility for my own health and well-being.  I’ve found what self-care really means for me and I’ve found creative ways of pulling it off.  I’ve found my limits and I ask for help when I know I’m on the edge.  I’ve made it a habit to eat lunch every single day and I gained 10 pounds.  While I still have plenty of exhausting, overwhelming days, the panic attacks are gone.  It would take me a whole other post to talk about what self-care actually IS and how I’ve made it work for me.  That’s why there will be a Part Two.  

Most importantly I’ve learned that when you stand outside the fire instead of standing in it, you stay a nice toasty warm.  And when you’re toasty warm, it’s so much easier and HAPPIER to keep the others around you toasty warm, too.  And you deserve to be happy.  You deserve to be toasty.  

You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.