Taming the Wild Thoughts

This past weekend I was solo-parenting from Friday until Tuesday because my husband went to a destination bachelor party. I didn’t dread this. Nor did I mind. But come Thursday of this week – after the solo pool trips, the solo grocery trips, the solo bedtimes and the work, work, WORK… I was D.O.N.E. I reached some imaginary limit of excessive labor and I just wanted to sit down and read something or write something because I wanted to, not because I had to. And I wanted to do it without hearing one single “MOMMY!”

When my husband came home from the gym on Thursday I promptly locked myself in my office after giving him that look that said, “You better give me a wide berth or this shit’s gonna get real,” with an extra eyebrow lift that said, “and I ain’t even playin’ because you owe me.” I had a wine glass in one hand and my other arm was curled around a half bottle of sparkling wine like a favorite blankie.

Then I got into my office, alone, with my wine, and what did I do? … I worked. Because, of course. What is wrong with me?

By the time I had to go to bed I hadn’t had a chance to calm my thoughts. My mind was still reeling with all the work, all the chores, the what if’s and all the things that still needed to be done.  There was a bushel of unfinished thoughts in my brain that were now rolling around like thorned tumble weeds headed for trouble. I was restless. Even after the wine I was jittery which is why I could never be an alcoholic because my thoughts are too powerful for fermented grapes.

When my thoughts circle the bowl like this it takes herculean efforts to get back to a calm place. A place that doesn’t feel like my world is lit match laying next to a growing pool of gasoline. And if it’s bedtime, forget about it. I’ll be listening to my husband snore for an hour before my body even begins to think about sleep.

I am lucky to have six best friends. Six amazing women who have my back, love me, accept me, know me better than I know myself. I count these ladies among the greatest blessings and when I start feeling anxious and restless like this, I try to count my blessings to fall asleep instead of sheep.

One of those dear friends, my oldest friend, sent me a handmade booklet she photo-copied and bound. It’s a simple little flip book made of paper, tape and a plastic bind. It fits in the palm of my hand. On one side of the page is one of these errant tumble weed thoughts.  A circle the bowl, light the match, pour the gasoline thought.  Things like, “I’m so tired. I can’t do anything right. Why can’t I figure this out? I’m never going to be good enough.” On the other side, is a corresponding verse of scripture to counteract that thought. Genius, right?

This dear, wonderful friend who knows me so well, sent this to me in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I set it aside as I wasn’t feeling particularly in need of such a rudimentary tool to get me through the day.

But that night, I was there. That place where only something homemade will do. Something rudimentary and simple and easy to understand. Something given to me by someone I love, who loves me, to remind me that I am always loved.. Have you ever just needed something like that?

So I pulled out the little homemade book and I read it front to back. Page by page I picked up those tumble weeds and I put them back in the barrel. Page by page I gently blew out the match and poured kitty litter on the gasoline because that’s how you soak up gasoline right?

I fell asleep with it in the palm of my hand which amazes me even now. But I guess I shouldn’t be amazed. Because that’s where we all are — right?

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He looks pretty discontent,

Because he looks pretty discontent.

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10 Ways To Be A Happier Parent

I wrote this for Mamapedia. 

1. Stop measuring your successes and failures through your children.If your little Joe Jr. or Suzy Q. melts to the ground screaming like a maimed hyena because he/she refuses to take turns on the swing while all the Moms in your Tuesday playgroup cross their arms and wrinkle their foreheads at you: Then stop. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your kid is being a jerk and don’t draw the imaginary connection in your head where you think everyone believes you’rea jerk too. Conversely, when little Joe Jr. or Suzy Q. scores the highest grade in math class, or wins 1st place in their dance competition, this does not mean you have won at parenting. You’re allowed to be proud… of them, not yourself.

2. Stop measuring other Moms’ successes and failures through their children. Number one will become a whole lot easier when you stop doing this to other Moms, too. Promise.

3. Make a list of five priorities and make sure you’re one of them. In the busiest phase of life — raising a family — you must learn to prioritize. You simply cannot do everything you want to do. Priorities should be things that when they are missing from your life, the quality of your life goes down. And at least one of the things on the list has to be something for you. Whether it’s a career, cooking, crafting or drinking wine with friends, you must be on the list. If exercise isn’t a priority, stop beating yourself up for not doing it. If it is, then stop making excuses. Relax into the idea that no one can do it all and everyone must pick and choose what’s important and dump the rest. Particularly in this phase of life. My five (in order of importance) are: God, husband, kids, writing and exercise. Now, doesn’t this give you an idea what my toilets looks like?

4. Make your partner one of those priorities. I’m not good at this one. I’m not. I’m a little selfish and I am physically drained each day from taking care of small children, my job and just plain life. I want to put me first. But the wisest parts of my brain tell me that my marriage is part of the foundation for all those other things I want, and therefore, it is near the top of my list. Forever. Because I’ve learned that this list is base for everything else in my life – My faith holds it up, makes it all worth doing, while my partner puts the shine on it.

5. Learn to use “bad” words. If you’re being asked to do something that will take away from something on your list of priorities, you must learn to say that little dirty word. The one that’s so hard to say in the face of a pleading co-worker, neighbor or parent – it’s particularly hard for women. That word is… no. Yes, people will be upset with you. They may yell and scream and make your life uncomfortable for a little while; but not as uncomfortable as if you drop one of your priorities. Sayyes to yourself, by saying no to them. It’s not selfish, it’s survival.

6. Stop thinking about what your kids aren’t, and start focusing on what they are. Maybe your kid has a happy demeanor most days, but is hopeless at school. Maybe she is tender and kind with animals, but can’t remember to brush her hair. Maybe all your kid can do is tie his shoelaces by himself. Focus on the shoelaces, forget the rest. Your kid will thank you someday. This is a conscious, mental exercise. One that can have either devastating consequences, or abundant rewards because the plain truth about life is that what you focus on expands. If you’re always making a mental list of all the things your kids is NOT, then the list will become endless. If you make a conscious effort to praise and feed all the things your kid already is, (and this list is probably small and harder to define), then that too, will get larger and your child’s sense of self-worth will too. Same goes for you.

7. Take notes from your toddlers and develop amnesia. Small children are amazing in their abilities to live in the moment. Watching them play and dance and sing with wild abandon makes even the coldest of hearts, thaw. Young children do not lament over the milk they spilled on the kitchen floor an hour ago. They do not care what the world thinks about their mismatched socks. They’re over it before it even began. So in other words, stop letting the past control your life. If you’re living in a state of regret over yesterday, you’re stunting your future growth. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone fails. Everyone is paying a price for poor decisions they made decades ago. (I’ll show you my ridiculous tramp stamp if you show me yours?) The fact is that many of us re-live the past in our heads trying to rewrite history. It’s impossible and a waste of precious time you could be playing or dancing or singing with wild abandon. As long as you’re living in the past, you’re not moving forward. You’re not growing as a person and you’re certainly not happy. So act like a toddler and follow their rules: if it happened more than an hour ago and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, then forget it. Replace it with another thought or action. Preferably dancing.

8. Learn to say I’m sorry and mean it. Everyone has bad days when they snap at their kids for getting out of bed for the 14th time. We’re human. We make mistakes. So we must learn to say we’re sorry. This is not just to model good behavior or repair hurt feelings. (Although apologies can do that too.) But learning how to give a heartfelt apology is also an acknowledgement to ourselvesthat what we said or did, hurt someone. It’s a reminder that your words have consequences. Saying I’m sorry teaches us to be more thoughtful of feelings and less selfish with our venting of frustrations and self-awareness is always a good thing. So tell your kids you’re sorry. Tell your spouse you’re sorry. And mean it. It will not only help repair the damage and model kind behavior, it will also teach you to pull back the dragon next time before you spit fire.

9. Learn to Forgive. Forgive your children for their ungratefulness. Forgive your spouse for their carelessness. Forgive your in-laws and the teenager next door for running over your flower bed… again. Oh, this isn’t easy and you may be MORE than justified in your anger and resentment. I often am. But it doesn’t make you or me happier people. Quite the opposite really. Anger is a poison that kills from the inside. Learning to forgive takes practice, diligence and patience. But learning to forgive others is the practice you need to know how to forgive yourself. And that is where the true healing begins.

10. Practice Gratitude. Not be grateful. Practice it. We are not born knowing how to do this and yet there is no real joy without it. Gratitude is not an attitude, it is a skill, and like any other skill, you must practice it faithfully if you’re going to be any good at it. If it’s raining today, the cat puked on your bed last night and your two-year-old just drew shapes on your couch with permanent maker – then be grateful that your garden is getting watered, your cat is no longer struggling with a hairball and our child has the inklings for creativity. Because when you practice seeing the good, you will start to see mostly good. When you see mostly good, life becomes mostly good. When life becomes mostly good, then you no longer need a list of things to make you happy. You just are.Image

Sibling Civil War: Why Some Families Never Learn to Get Along

Why Some Siblings Never Learn to Get AlongI was 23 the last time we got in a physical fight.

I lived with my parent’s all through my college years while I attended a local University. I was 21 before I moved out and paid my own rent. After nine months of that, I changed my plans and decided I needed to save some money. I moved back into the only place I’d ever known.

My two older siblings (a brother, 7 years my senior, and a sister two years older) had already moved on with their lives an out into the world. Or so everyone thought–and in a few days, I’d be doing the same. By then, I was 23. My money had been saved and I wasn’t just moving out. I was moving to another part of the country, with a boy. I was excited. I was also anxious and scared and nervous.

Life hadn’t turned out the way my sister planned and as I was moving away, she was coming back. My parent’s front door has always been a revolving one. In more than 40 years, they have yet to live without one of their children, but that’s an entirely different story. For one short month before my final departure, my sister and I would live together again, as young adults, for the last time, and under my parent’s roof. The culmination of this month, and a summation of our entire relationship, really, would end in an epic brawl and a trip to the ER.

I’ve always been particularly interested in birth order theory. The clinical description of a last-born, third child seems to fit me to a tee. Risk-taker, crafty, social butterfly, black sheep. This theory also seems to describe my siblings and their respective positions.

Recently, I read a very thoughtful article on siblings in Brain, Child Magazine by Katherine Ozment. In an effort to understand her children’s relentless arguments and promote healthy relationships among them, she researched the topic extensively. I read the article with the same hopes; to understand my own children’s (boy, 2 and girl, 4) budding sibling relationship and get a sense of what I can do as their mother to help promote a healthy one.

I learned a bit about that, but more importantly, I learned about myself.

Ozment asserts that perhaps our sibling relationships are greater predictors of who we are as adults, than any other relationship; even our parental one. My first thought was–I’m in serious trouble.

My childhood is not filled with happy memories of me and my siblings. There were a few tender moments with my older brother– throwing the football in the front yard or him carrying me on his back jumping up and down in excitement just after passing his driver’s test. But as he was moving off to college, I was entering adolescence and the differences between us were insurmountable.

There are no pleasant memories with my sister. My mother claims that we got along when I was very young, but I do not remember those times. What I remember is sharing a bed until I was 11 and middle of the night, violent, kicking wars, waking up with bruises the size of softballs on my legs. I remember pulling out hair in fistfuls, bite marks and incessant tattle telling. As I am writing this, in the fleshy part between my thumb and my pointer fingers on my right hand, I can see a thick, quarter-inch scar. A forever reminder of those times.

I will not attempt to place blame anywhere for these things, just to state it as fact. It’s true. It happened. It’s the way it was.

I know this type of sibling civil war happens in other families, but as adults, most grow into healthier relationships. But in my case, time and maturity healed nothing. To this day I do not really know, nor do I speak often to either of my siblings. In fact, as I write this, I have been estranged from my sister for more than two years and have recently become estranged from my brother for loudly calling me a bitch at a family function. I say “estranged” to mean that we are not on speaking terms, but that is a mere technicality because prior to being “estranged” we didn’t really speak anyway.

Ozment writes about birth order and rivalries and the sociological and historical research involving siblings. She discusses the competition for resources, (i.e. parental attention), the instinct to differentiate ourselves from the pack, and the roles that parents play in all of this. Much of our behavior can be deduced to human nature and our needs for self-preservation.

As parents, out of good intentions, we often add fuel to this self-preservation fire. We treat our children differently according to their age and abilities which makes sense, but in a child’s eyes, it’s viewed as favoritism. Children start competing for whatever it seems they are lacking or to keep whatever perceived advantage they may have. In an effort to squelch the competitiveness of our human nature, we encourage sibling differentiation. We project alternate strengths onto our children thinking this will eliminate their needs to argue over whose better or is getting more of the resources.

To this day, whenever I try to explain to someone the relationship I have with my sister, the first thing I say is how different we are. And we are. I can point out every large and slight dis-similarity from how we look, act, dress, believe and choose to run our lives. In every discussion between us, there is not  single instance where we have taken the same side. No matter the issue. We grew into oil and water. The only thing we have in common today is our parents.

One of the experts Ozment interviews says that as parents, the promotion of sibling differences, while well intentioned, is ultimately destructive.

We grow these freakishly dissimilar people so they won’t end up eating one another, then wonder why they don’t get along. ~Susan McHale, Professor of Family Studies at Pennsylvania University.

That makes a lot of sense to me.

Ozment concludes that the best thing we can do as parents is to foster a healthy sense of empathy between siblings when they are young. To inspire them to see each other as a person who has the same feelings and hurts and emotions and needs as we all do. That we should not accentuate the differences too greatly, but emphasize the similarities of our human-ness.

Ironically, the very thing that makes us rivals, is what also makes us the same. Our humanity.

The day my sister and I got into our last physical brawl I was feeling anxious. I was neurotically burning a CD off the computer of my favorite, most soothing, happy songs to play on the road trip across country with this boy. The songs kept messing up and I had been at this project for hours. I was getting more and more frustrated by the minute. My sister came into the room where I was working on this project and she was visibly angry. I can imagine that she was struggling with feelings of failure for not landing a job in Florida after completing a very expensive film school and having to move back home at the age of 25. She was in debt, unemployed, unsure of her future, probably lonely and a little depressed. I was anxious, scared, unsure of my own future as I was steadying myself to embark on a new adventure with a long list of unknowns.

Just as my CD was in its final stages she came in demanding that I turn off my music. She pressed power on the computer and erased my whole CD, again. I flew into a rage. I punched her in the face with as much force as I could muster behind my fist. Then I ran. She chased me upstairs and caught me at the door. She threw her whole body weight against the door and smashed me  between the door and its frame until I could not breathe. One of my acrylic nails ripped off and took my real fingernail with it.

A few days later, the day before I was to leave on my trip, I was in a horrific car accident. The passenger of the other car was drunk and hit me head on at high-speed. At 2am that night, as I lay in the ER my whole family was there. My brother took over the first-born authoritarian position as my acting attorney, and my parents stood by as I was poked and x-rayed–concerned as ever. Then there was my sister. Sitting in the corner; the forever brooding, disengaged middle child with a bright, shining black-eye. Not saying a word. Nothing at all. Ever.