Saturday, May 7, 2016

Thankful for Tea and Motherhood

Last weekend I was invited to an afternoon tea for moms at a friend’s home. I’ll admit that I was a little, or maybe completely, out of my element. I’m a true Texan girl so I drink more tea than water but I drink it the right way: sweet and iced.  I wasn’t really sure how to act at a table full of fancy dishes, kettles and a box full of fancy teas. I didn’t break or spill anything though so I call that a win.  (Looking back I think I have been spending too much time with my children when that counts as a win.)

After tea, everyone moved into the living room for a Bible study.  We settled into Ann’s big couches with ice cold cucumber water and sat quietly while she opened with a prayer. It was a simple prayer but something in it struck me. Of course she thanked God for the chance to spend an afternoon with friends and learning about His word but then she thanked Him for motherhood.
Thanking God for motherhood really struck me.  We are often told to give thanks for our children and our families. Even on the worst days, my kids are a blessing like no other. Each of them is an answer to a desperate prayer.  I think there is a difference between being thankful for my kids and appreciating this amazing identity that is so much a part of me.

Motherhood did not come easy to me. I remember hours spent praying in the rocking chair of the room that would become our nursery for the children I was yet to meet.  I remember bitter tears and living in the story of Hannah. I also remember what it was like to finally be accepted into the global club of women who understand what it means to love a tiny human with more passion than you ever thought possible.

I know many others who have lost babies or waited years for children who never come.  I know women who have chosen to share their homes and hearts with other women’s children and have had their motherhood questioned.  I know others for whom parenting was thrust upon them against their will or ahead of their schedule but they have risen to the occasion.

Mothering has been the most rewarding and the most devastating thing I have ever done. It has been both the easiest thing and the hardest. Motherhood is not simply something I do. It is a part of me. It is a piece of my identity. I am a mother in the same way that I am a woman and a Christian and a Texan. Like every other permanent identity, motherhood shapes the way that I see the world and interact with the people in it.

There are days when I struggle as a mom. There are times when I feel inadequate or I am convinced that someone else is better suited to this brood.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by the daily responsibilities and the constant pressures that come along with parenting.   Some days I think I need to be reminded that motherhood is a gift.  These children, this family, and this entire identity are blessings.  I’m thankful than that. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Plastic Smiles

My friend Brooke recently published a book and I had the chance to review it for her.  I’ll admit that I’m not usually a fan of fiction but I actually enjoyed it.  The book is called the Wizard of god and it follows a girl named Grace on a journey through a spiritual landscape that is both fantastical and eerily familiar.  Like the classic story, our heroine amasses a band of misfits and heads for a far off place to find a person with all the answers.  Along the journey that encounter stereotypes of the church as it exists today, with all extremes being represented. 

As someone who has been wounded by churches and Christians in the past, there were several chapters that really resonated with me but there is one particular scene that I’ve thought about several times over the past several days. When Grace finally reaches her destination, she and her companions are given plastic training smiles which they instructed to wear until their facial muscles adjust to smiling all the time.  The group finds themselves through this giant, fancy compound filled with beautiful people and their fake smiles with all of their pain hidden behind masks.

I thought about that scene as I walked into the elementary school for Muffins with Moms last week with a plastic smile on my face and a bitemark from one of my children on my hand.  I greeted other parents in the hallway like I hadn’t spent the last hour trying stop a meltdown.   I sat at that cafeteria table and tried to overcome the horrible morning to connect with my kids before they ran off to class and thought about how exhausting it was but I kept my smile on anyway.

I continued to think about that scene off and on throughout the week because we’ve had some really hard days at our house lately.  It is always complicated for my kids when they see their biological family but we thought they could handle an extended visit with one of their siblings because of some extenuating circumstances.  Instead we spent about two weeks in absolute crisis mode as attachment issues reared their ugly heads.  I kept my smile on though, at least in public. 

I thought about that scene after church last Sunday too. The girl child screamed for most of the morning and the entire drive to church.  My nerves were frayed and I was tired.  When I walked the boys to class, another mama asked me a question about an issue that we have faced with one of our kids.  Her child is working to overcome similar challenges and she wanted advice.  I took a deep breath and considered putting my smile back on to tell her how it’s done but I left chose to leave it in my pocket instead.  I told her I was empty and that as much as I wanted to help her, we would have to talk strategies another day.  To my surprise, instead of a glaring, judgmental sanctimommy, I found another mother who struggles some days too.

I realized in that moment that the best thing about taking off your mask is that others lay theirs down too.  I have to tell you that felt amazing.   I needed that moment in the church hallway of connecting with another mother who can see me struggle without thinking I’m Medusa.

In light of my newest revelations, I thought about that scene and some of the moments when I took the smile off to let my face and soul relax.  I started a new job that I am really excited about.  The night before, I sent my person a message that basically said “this might be imposter syndrome but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be completely incompetent and fall on my face tomorrow.” Since she’s an amazing human, my friend encouraged me and I felt empowered when I arrived at the office the next morning.  Taking my mask off that night allowed me to connect with someone so I didn’t need to fake it; I could smile for real.

I don’t think it’s realistic to pretend like I could go through life and never fake another smile.  There are situations where we simply have to grin and bear it.  I see benefits to laying our masks down whenever it is safe to though.  I think when we take our fake smiles off, it lets our real ones come out.  They may not be as flashy and gaudy.  They may even be weak but they are authentic.  They may coexist with tears but they exist in the flesh instead of plastic when we are allowed to share our truth with the people around us.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Leave the diagnosis at home this Valentine’s Day

If you are the parent of a child with special needs, you are likely very well aware of the divorce statistics for our cohort.  Our marriages are significantly more likely to end than our peers with healthy children.  It just seems cruel that the disorders that try to steal our children attack our marriages too.  The truth is though we can experience stress levels similar to those of soldiers in combat and that puts strain on even the healthiest relationships. Our marriages aren’t doomed though.  We just need to understand what we are facing and protect our relationships while we weather the storm. 

I think that most couples initially go one of two ways when faced with a crisis like a child’s diagnosis: denial or obsession.  Many people feel so overwhelmed by what they are facing that they avoid it at all costs.  Those couples may fight about trivial things or become overly involved in other activities because facing the threat to their child is just too terrifying.  Others, like my husband and I, become laser focused on the medical situation.  It seems easier to juggle the advice of multiple specialists, a whole new drug regimen and a child with a very uncertain future when you block everything else out.  For a little while that works but in the long run, it just isn’t sustainable.

When my daughter first started having seizures it was all consuming. Everything we did revolved around epilepsy. Every conversation was related to her health.  Every nightmare consisted of her seizing until her little body couldn’t seize any more. Nothing mattered but keeping her alive.  We were in survival mode. I remember a conversation I had with Curt one of the times that we were in the hospital.  I told him how impressed I was that we had been able to fall together instead of apart.  I didn’t mean that we were a super couple who never faltered. We just felt so little support at the time that we were forced to lean on each other while we went through hell always thinking that the storm would pass and we would go back home to our normal lives.

When the dust finally started to settle and we came home to this life that was far from normal, we faced a whole new challenge; our family had to learn to talk to each other again.  It wasn’t that we weren’t speaking at all.  It just felt awkward to talk about anything that wasn’t related to epilepsy.  Suddenly, telling my husband about the woman who was a jerk at school seemed really trivial.  Bragging about our son’s report card at the dinner table felt wrong when his sister might never learn to read.  We used to sit up and talk for hours but every interaction had somehow shifted into a medical conference.  Even though he was always right there with me, I missed the connection to the man that I needed the most.

After weeks and weeks of nights that were spent at the hospital or lying beside our seizing princess, we were finally able to sneak away by ourselves for a few hours.  As we pulled out of my parents’ driveway after dropping of the kids, we made a decision that I think is a large part of why we are still together three years later.  We decided not to take epilepsy on our date.
When we decided not to talk about Alyssa’s health that evening, it freed us up to talk about everything else we had been neglecting.  We went to a steak house and talked like we used to.  All of the day to day conversations that had been deemed too trivial to mention were up for discussion.  The longer we spoke the more the murky medical haze seemed to life and we reconnected in a way that my soul desperately needed.  I don’t remember what he was said that night, but I vividly remember looking across the table and breathing deeply, knowing that we were going to be ok.  When we picked the kids back up, I felt like a weight had been lifted.  We still faced incredible odds with Alyssa but I knew we were facing them together. 

If you and your partner avoid the giant medical elephant in the room, you might consider setting aside a specific time to discuss it.  Sit down together and don’t get back up until you have confronted the fears and made a plan to fight this fight together.  However, if you feel like your partnership has become more about your child’s medical needs than about romance, I highly recommend that you take a date this Valentine’s Day and leave the diagnosis at home.  Give yourselves a chance to reconnect with each other without focusing on the disorder.  It will still be there when you get back but it might not look as overwhelming when you know that you aren’t fighting it alone. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

January Rules

In the decade since I had my first son, I have come to realize that parenting is mostly just winging it. I might look like I have it together at this point but that’s just because I’ve perfected a Donald Trump style comb over to cover the spot where I pull my hair out. One of the things that surprised me most after having kids was how many new rules I would have to make up along the way. I don’t know if it’s just my kids but basics like play nice and clean your room don’t cut it here. January is especially trying because they have so much new crap great stuff to play with that they got last month. So while the rest of the world is busy working on their resolutions, I’m over here making new rules in an attempt to keep the house from imploding. Here’s a few of the newest additions:

Do not fly your new drone in my room while I am sleeping.
I am not responsible for any damage caused when I wake up screaming and bat the flying demon monster away from my face.

Only Elsa dolls get to stand on your new Frozen castle like she did in the movie.
Little girls wearing Elsa dresses are not to climb up there. If you break your face, I will sell your new castle to pay for the hospital bills. Well, I probably won’t but I will definitely dream about it. Save us both the trouble and keep your feet on the floor.

In my defense, I assumed this was covered under the rule about not climbing on the roof even if you're wearing Buzz Lightyear wings.  I realize now that the point of this climbing is to sing dramatically, not to fly like a spaceman.  Those are completely different.  That was my mistake.  The new rule has been officially added. 

Well I guess Hello Kitty and My Little Ponies are OK.  Basically just no humans allowed on the cardboard balcony.

Do not build Lego machines that run on Barbie doll hearts.
If you want your contraption to take over the world, I’m good with that. If you feel the need to feed that thing your sister’s toys, we have a problem. It’s not just about stealing her stuff either. I’ve seen Toy Story. I know what happens to kids like Sid.

Do not put any (more) baby puppies in your stuffed animal net.
Also, little boys are not allowed in the stuffed animal net even if they are pretending to be a teddy bear.

This is Smith Wigglesworth.  His butt wiggles when he walks. 
Your toys are not allowed to play guitar after bedtime.
Obviously I believe you that it was your minion rocking out. You were just laying in bed as innocent as a lamb. Mommy is tired though and even Bob has to obey the rules. If I hear any more music coming out of your room before the sun comes up, he will be spending the entire night in time out.

Of course these are in addition to our normal rules like don’t ride the dog, no farting at the table and we don’t use nail polish on the walls or furniture. I would like to point out that none of these rules were in the What to Expect books. I thought we would need the standard rules to help our little angels grow into respectable adults. Instead, it seems like every new ordinance is just aimed at keeping this circus out of the ER or preventing major property damage. Please tell me I’m not alone in this. What new rules have you had to add in your house this month?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dear Daughter: It’s OK to hurt.

Tonight I sat on the couch with my broken little girl and held her while she cried. Tonight we watched a movie and held a puppy while we waited for the grief to subside.  Tonight, once again, I told her that it’s OK to hurt.

As a mother, my instinct is to kiss boo boos and dry tears.  It hurts me to see my children hurt.  I want to pull them to my chest and keep them far from any one or any place that would ever do them harm.  The problem is that my children came from the place of harm.   My children were born to the family that hurt them.  I can do everything in my power to change their present and future but I can’t erase their history.

Adoptive families often struggle with how much contact to have with their birth families.  Open adoptions are a great option for many people but in cases where children were adopted from foster care there are often safety concerns and painful histories that have to be taken into consideration.  My husband and I have chosen not to force contact with our kids’ biological parents until our kids ask for it.  They know that they are adopted and when the time comes that they want to reach out, assuming that it is safe and healthy, we will support them.  In the meantime, we continue to cultivate a relationship with their biological siblings.  Those kids love my children and did not do anything to deserve their family being torn apart.  We promised them that we would work hard to maintain their relationships with our kids and we have stood by that.  It hasn’t been easy though. 

This weekend we had a visit with some of Bradley and Alyssa’s siblings.  The kids looked forward to it for days and Alyssa literally jumped up and down and started dancing in the middle of the restaurant when she saw them pull up.  She spent an hour and half with her sister, T, taking turns braiding and rebraiding each other’s hair.  They have a special connection and adore each other even though they are not able to connect as often as they would like.  

When it was time to go, Alyssa clung to T like her life depended on it and she sobbed.  Her little heart broke like it did when she first lost her birth family and like it does every time we have to say good bye.  Even though she knows that she will see them again, it hurt.  Even though she was promised a phone call in the next few days, it hurt.  The whole thing just hurts. 

I watched my husband scoop her up in his big, gentle arms to carry her to the car and I wondered for a moment if it was worth it.  It makes no sense to bring your child to a visit knowing that she will leave in tears. The mama bear in me wants to hole up in a cave and never come back so that she won’t hurt again.  Instead, I looked her in the eyes and told her that it was ok to be sad about leaving. 

When we got home we cuddled on the couch and watched a movie while she tried to sort things out.  That night she raged and said she hated me.  In the morning she asked if I remembered the time that she was really sad after seeing her sister.  I told her again that it’s ok to hurt sometimes.

I try not to tell Alyssa that it will be ok because I don’t know that it will.  I don’t attempt to stop the tears because they exist for a reason.  It would not be fair for me to deny that her truth is painful.  Instead, I give her permission to grieve and I sit with her until the storm passes.

I want my kids to grow up knowing that they don’t always have to run from pain.  I want my children to learn to love bravely and that means embracing risk.  We mediate that risk by preparing for visits, planning downtime afterwards and monitoring closely what is said but we know that seeing their siblings may open up old wounds.  If you aren’t intimately acquainted with adoption, that may seem reckless. We understand though that the benefit of love is greater than the cost.

Over the past few years I have had to learn the lesson that Alyssa is learning now.  Sometimes love hurts but it is worth it.  Foster children may leave and take a piece of your heart but it is worth it because what remains is better than the whole you had before.  Friends may walk away but it is still worth it to trust and feel connection with others.  The epilepsy could win but it is worth it to love Alyssa. 

It is better to love and hurt than to never love. Painful goodbyes mean that you had a chance to say hello.  Even if it hurts to leave, an evening spent braiding your sister’s hair is worth it. It would be easier to walk away and hope that she forgets about her birth family but that’s not what is best for my daughter.  I want her to know that even if they can’t grow up together like they should have, loving your siblings is worth it. It’s ok to hurt because that means that you loved.

Let's continue this conversation on Facebook and in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Difference Between Mommy Guilt and Mommy Shame

It seems like every other day another article comes out about mommy guilt. A woman whom we all relate to discusses how overwhelmed she felt by thoughts that she was never doing enough for her kids, partner, house, job, or life. Usually there was a turning point where she realized that she was tilting at windmills and trying to achieve the impossible when what she really needed to do was give herself grace and embrace the cheerios on the floor. Many moms applaud this kind of writing because it tells us that other people are imperfect so it might be ok if we don’t do everything the sanctimommies claim they do.

I’ll admit that as a completely imperfect mom, I am sometimes drawn to these stories. It is nice to read about other women who are just as exhausted as I am at the end of the day and who have to remind themselves to look interested during yet another 30 minute monologue on Minecraft. I like the idea that there are other moms who fantasize about burning the laundry pile and sometimes yell at their kids. In general, I think that women need more grace to be human instead of more pressure to live up to standards that are often contradictory and impossible. 

Typically, these pieces end with a declaration that the mom is completely eschewing all the guilt and refusing to allow it any place in her life. We are supposed to cheer at this new found enlightenment but that is where the professor in me pokes her head up. I teach Introduction to Psychology to first year college students and I work hard to teach them that all of our emotions have a purpose. Our feelings are there to help us understand our world and what people or events mean to us. Anger is a natural response to a violation, sadness tells me that I have suffered a loss and fear says that I am in danger.  Like every other feeling, guilt exist for a reason. Go ahead and clutch your pearls but I’m going to say it, mommy guilt is not always a bad thing. Guilt lets me know when I may have done something wrong.  When I feel guilty for something that I am actually responsible for, and I feel it in an appropriate intensity, I can learn from my mistakes and become a better parent. The problem is sometimes mommy guilt turns into mommy shame and that is harmful.

Brene Brown is a researcher who has spent years studying some of our most difficult emotions. She teaches that there is an important difference between shame and guilt which many people miss. Guilt tells us that we have done something bad while shame tells us that we are bad. That distinction is important because it influences how we respond to our inner dialogue. Guilt encourages me to think about what I did and how I can repair it. Shame often causes us to shut down more and isolate farther.
Imagine that you are making dinner at the end of a horribly long day. You are tired and frustrated and just trying to make it till bedtime so you can crash on the couch with wine, popcorn and Scandal. Sensing this, your kids go into overdrive and push every button until you snap. Then they look at you with those big watery eyes like you just broke their little hearts. What do you then? What are the voices in your head saying for the rest of the night? Do your thoughts sound more like shame or guilt?

Shame says: I am a horrible mother. I ALWAYS yell at them. I mess up everything. I am destroying my kids. I want to put them in bed now and hide. I wish I wasn’t such a bad a mom. I just can’t do anything right. I wish I was more like that other mom who has everything together and never struggles.

Guilt says: I made a mistake. I was tired and upset and I took it out on them. I need to apologize to my kids. Next time I will try taking a few minutes alone to decompress after work before making dinner. I love my kids and also I am human so I mess up sometimes. 

Do you hear the difference there? When shame speaks, it can feel overwhelming. Guilt recognizes that there is a problem but that problem does not define you. You made a mistake but you are not one. Guilt is not something we have to run from because it teaches us to be better parents, partners and people. Shame on the other hand is rarely helpful. Shame makes the problem bigger while tearing you down. It takes time and effort but you may find yourself experiencing more peace as your learn which voice to listen to. 

The next time that mommy guilt or mommy shame are competing for space in your life, try thinking through these questions:   

     Is this something I should feel guilty about?

     Am I remembering to focus on what I DID instead of who I AM?

     Do I feel more guilt than I should about what I did?

     How would I like to address this situation differently in the future or make repairs with the person I hurt?

     How can I make repairs and extend grace with myself?

Most moms struggle with guilt and shame at some point. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be the perfect mom that it can feel overwhelming.  Learning to set realistic standards for ourselves can help us to resist the shame and listen to guilt when it says that there is something we can tweak. Let’s continue this conversation in the comments below or on my facebook page.  

*Note: We all feel guilt and shame from time to time.Often we feel better when we talk with friends or work on changing our thoughts.  If negative emotions start to feel overwhelming or you are afraid you might hurt yourself or someone else, it may be time to speak to a therapist.  You can search for one near you at this website. Remember that there is no shame is getting help.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Disaster Relief in Garland

My husband and I are Jeepers.  We’re not hardcore Jeepers because I have (what he considers to be) an irrational fear of falling off cliffs.  But, he has a really cool Jeep and we look awesome when we drive around with the top off.  Recently, we’ve gotten involved with the North Texas Jeep Club.  I first learned about them last winter when they made the news for pulling stranded motorist out of ditches all over the metroplex during the really bad ice storm. I liked the idea of a group that could be playing in the mud one day and saving people the next. 

Earlier this week, NTJC began discussing how we could help the people affected by the tornados in Garland.  If you don’t know, on December 26th, an EF4 tornado ripped through several Dallas suburbs damaging over 600 buildings and killing 11 people while injuring countless others.  We knew we had to help so this morning about 25 Jeeps, along with their people, rolled into Garland and we got to work.

This trailer park was one of the hardest hit areas.
It’s surreal to be driving along the highway like everything is normal and then suddenly find yourself in a warzone.  I have never been in a place with so much devastation.  We spent the day clearing debris from yards and helping families load up what valuables that they could salvage. 

When we first arrived and parked at the base, a man named Abram from Renova Community Organization drove us to our first work site.  He told me that watching the Jeeps pull up was like seeing the cavalry arrive.  He’s right; we do make quiet an entrance.  It felt like we were cavalry too.  We all worked hard and within a few hours we had completely cleaned up several yards.  It felt like we really made a difference there.  

Then I wandered onto the next street. It turns out that they needed an army too. It’s not that we were the only ones out there.  People from all over the area had turned out to help.  I spent part of the morning working with a great group from Islamic Relief USA.  I saw people from churches, charities, other clubs, and many who came to help without a group.  The need is big though.  

Most of the relief organizations have stopped taking donations at this point.  They have more stuff than they have space to hold or people to sort.  At this point, what is needed is financial donations and boots on the ground.  The cost of the recovery is enormous and there is still much physical labor to be done.  

If you are willing to help, Renova Community Organization has an aid station set up at 5029 Locust Grove Rd. in Garland.  They have all the tools you might need (like rakes and shovels), masks, work gloves, waters and phenomenal BBQ.  All you need to do is show up and they will put you to work. 

There is still so much work to be done.
I would like to encourage every one of you to find some way that you can help.  Don’t simply say a prayer and move about your day.  Our neighbors need a cavalry.  

I am so proud to be married to a guy that works so hard to help others.  He really is amazing.