What Kind of Mother is She?

taken at the dane county fair

It occurs to me that I don’t write much about being a mother.  The reasons are simple.  I have no idea what I’m doing.  I use my instincts.  But I have no exact answers.  It took me years to accept that my mom and dad “did their best.”  They didn’t purposefully f*ck with me.  And now, I take all that and do the same. I do my best.  And I think that has to be enough. I will look back, when my children are gone, and know that I did my best with what I had.  No matter the outcome.

interruptions & change

My daughter just woke up, her face is red and puffy from sleep.  She’s regaling me with a play-by-play of a book she finished late last night.  She is going on, and on, and on! Step-by-integral-step of the harrowing story of a boy who escapes an earthquake.  I don’t care, but — it’ is important that I listen.  All I want to do in this moment is sip my first cup of coffee of the day and write.  But I listen.  Nodding and “Um humming” at what I hope are the right moments.  I am listening.  Sort of.  I am also distracted and hoping she doesn’t notice.  Ironically, in this moment being her mom means listening to her.

That pull of my desires against the desires of my children is one of the most complicated things about being a mother.  The choices we make, day by day, hour by hour.  We’ve all felt that tension.

Children are always “interrupting” all the other things I’m doing.  But when one comes running up the stairs in tears because they got walloped in the eye playing Wii they still run for the comforting kiss right on the spot, my ‘magic’ kiss still has power to heal.   (Mothers have magic kisses if you didn’t know.)   The day they stop wanting those kisses will mean they have moved on to the next stage of their development.  I have four very different kids so that day will be different for each of them.  I cannot prescribe it.  But I won’t stop until they push me away.

They grow.  I grow.  We keep adapting, all of us.  The whole family continues to change.

Tom declared on Wednesday that he thinks the kids are too old to sleep in our bed.  This has been a  long time in coming.  It’s really the nine-year old that likes to go to sleep in my bed.  Being a musician Tom is often up late in his studio, perhaps five nights a week.  I get up at 5 am so I go to bed when the kids do.  I savor those few minutes of reading myself to sleep.  J just likes to be with me and so we’ve developed a habit (some might say an unhealthy one, to which I say rubbish!)  of letting him “warm up” Tom’s spot by falling asleep there.  I like the companionship.

Is this a bad habit?  I don’t know whether I’ve let it go on for so long for myself or for J.  Is he too old?  Parenting is full of lots of conflicting ideas.  And when Tom says J is too old to do it anymore, I really think Tom feels too old to do the required transporting back to the boy’s room, up the ladder and back into his own bed.  And then we also have to deal with the other two who are jealous of this time.  It then becomes something “special” for which they are compelled to compete for Mom.  I’m sure plenty of expert mothers would want to tell me all the ways this is harmful.  I don’t know. Mostly, I don’t care.  But I respect Tom’s wish to fall into bed at one in the morning and not have to move a near comatose child.  So we changed.  And I must learn to go to bed alone.  And so does J.  It’s hard to grow up no matter your age.

unconditional love

I have had moments over the last seventeen years of asking myself what were you thinking becoming a parent?  I write about how I was raised and what that did to me knowing that based on what I experienced I am not qualified. I realized the other day that I don’t know what it feels like to believe you are loved unconditionally by your parents.  If that’s true, and it is, then how do I possibly convey unconditional love to my kids?  Can I?  I believe in it intellectually and even on a spiritual level.  But I don’t get it.  Tom shows it to me – for sure.  So I wrestle with what he does that helps me believe him?  And to this day, my internal voice is pure disbelief.  You surely cannot love without conditions, without criticism, without expectation, without a grumpy disapproval, without your own insecurity pushing you to love  … If you haven’t experienced it.  Then how do I know my kids are feeling it from me?

I think unconditional love is the most important quality a parent should have.  Then you can push, and you can encourage, and even disapprove.  They will know they are okay. Somehow Tom’s parents managed to show him that kind of love.  These are the things that I think make me unqualified to be a parent.

learn from others & trust your gut

Some days I think I’m just a reactionary.  I react to how I was parented.  I react to things my kids are doing.  I react to books.  I react to teachers.  I react to the culture.  I am not very good at deciding a good way of doing something and sticking with it — mostly because I don’t think there is a right way.  I really needed about five years of study on parenting before I even got started.  And that’s an absurd impossibility.  Who has the time?   So we learn as we go.

I became a mother the day we married in 1993, a year before I was a footloose single woman planning on heading to the mission field.  I didn’t think about kids.  They simply weren’t.  They didn’t exist in my worldview.   Falling in love with Tom, hard and fast meant learning to love his four and a half year old daughter.  And when we married I became an instant mother – the “extra” mom to a five-year old daughter.  Extra or Other — whatever you get called, being a step-mom was a crash course in parenting.  And like nothing I had experienced before in my life, it brought out my insecurities and need for control!  Wow!   Perhaps some day, perhaps, I will write about the years that I worked in full-time ministry while parenting a step child and having three biological kids.  I’ll call it “How I was an Ugly, Paranoid, Controlling Step-Monster.” My daughter M graciously loves me still and has forgiven me for those years.  When she moved back in recently, at 22, I realized God is gracious and gave  me a do-over.

Here’s the thing.  I believe kids just want to be loved and kids are the most forgiving of all people.  All they know is you. You are their parent.  Okay, later they will figure some things out.  Like perhaps you didn’t know anything.  That’s the risk.  That’s the fun!  And then when they become a parent, well, perhaps you won’t look quite so crazy.

Luckily we have twenty years with our kids and have time to make adjustments.

I have learned is that there are no rules.  Rules in parenting is crap. The best guide for me has been my gut.  My gut has never failed me.  My gut disagrees or sometimes agrees with parenting books.  My gut disagrees or sometimes agrees with other parents giving advice.  My gut disagrees or agrees with pediatricians, teachers, supposed experts.  If you follow your gut, your intuition, I believe you’ll be okay, eventually.

For many years I doubted my gut and my voice because I doubted myself.  My own insecurities played into who I listened to and what I believed.  I’d boomerang from one theory to another intellectually.  But in practice usually my inner voice said do this or don’t do that.  We make mistakes.  We are unusually lax in response to having strict parents or vice versa.

asian vs. any other parenting

I have not read Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother mostly because there’s a lot about the stereotypical Asian parenting style that I respect, but I know I don’t have the will power to follow through on.  So it would just make me feel bad and I am really not in to feeling bad about myself right now.  So I’ve ignored the articles, reactions and furor.

Frankly many modern parents are far too lax with their children, but I have seen this with every kind of parent  from many different cultures. I know that I could and perhaps should push my children harder.  I mean, now I wish I had been pushed academically.  In hind sight, I was a slacker, intelligent but insecure and I would have benefited from my parents lovingly pushing me just a bit more (or a lot more!)  On the other hand, I felt I never measured up to what my dad expected of me.  I lived in that limbo of that craziness.   His insecurities drove him and we were a reflection of him.  We were a mirror of his success or not.  This is a very Asian characteristic I have been told by one of my friends who is also Asian.

And so I push my intelligent but lazy daughter, but not too much I hope.  I consistently fight the internal shame that says I don’t expect enough of her and I am the thing standing between her and Harvard or Yale Law school.  Me.  And then the countering voice reminds me what I really believe.  That she needs to find the balance herself.  Know that she’s loved no matter what she chooses but also know that more opportunities will be open to her if she applies herself academically and learns to work hard.   I want each of my children to be able to ask the question what they want?  Then help them to see what they have to be willing to do, in order to get it.  By empowering my daughters especially in those moments they learn their own power.  It is a choice.  I hope I am right.  My gut tells me I am.  In the end that’s all I have.  My boys are different, completely and my approach is also different but instilling in them a sense that they control their future is important.

I have a Japanese friend and I love how she parents.  She is an incredible mother and I learn from her every time we get together.  “When I am cleaning my children are cleaning“, she tells me.  Wha?  I am so not there! To be honest my kids emulate Tom and I who hate to clean. Do I want to be more like my friend?  Hell yes!  I guess what I am saying is that there is something to be learned from a culture that promotes hard work, excellence, pride and discipline. I admire it.  I want those to be things my children learn from me.  But no, my ten year old does not know how to clean the toilet.   I find that reflexively parent like I was parented — growing up cleaning is a pain!  To be avoided or to be endured, …  If I want to change this little legacy in my family it will take effort and discipline. I don’t know if I want to make the effort.  I don’t know if I have the discipline.  Which is where I started above.  I find a lot of things are great ideas but practically speaking I am unable to maintain them.  We all have to know ourselves.

what’s your highest calling?

This morning I read something that startled me but I agree with it:

“… parenting is not our highest calling! Faithfully serving & following after Christ is our highest calling!  —  SortaCrunchy

We are going to make mistakes, perhaps even a lot of them.  You’ll compare yourself to others and wonder if perhaps their way is better.  But in the end you have to look at your kids, unique individuals that they are as well as look at yourself and your partner/spouse who are also unique people, and do your best.

Parenting is its own religion, and engenders its own faith. Debating it serves no purpose other than inciting holy war.  –@kmaezenmiller

Our calling is to follow Christ.  Behave as he did.  Emulate him.  Do our best.  And if I can let go of all of the above and relax, well then there’s hope for us all.  It’s not simple nor would I ever want to imply that.  But there is a level of trust you must have in yourself, in the person you partner with to parent and in God.

MH

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This is what got me thinking this morning.  http://rachelheldevans.com/moms-scare-me

What’s a Woman of Leisure? (Not that you asked)

“I just want to be happy.”

As I spoke those words to my father on the telephone, I meant them.  I could not remember the last time I felt genuine joy.  I was coming off of three pregnancies in rapid succession and being a person that worked 60+ hour weeks in a rewarding but stressful job.

Tom and I had decided together that I would stay-home with our three kids who were all still in diapers for two reasons.  One, because I wanted “out” of my job.  And secondly, it made sense financially to not put three kids in daycare.  But I hadn’t found it to be a positive change for me and after a year at-home I was suffering from major depression — although I did not yet know  what to call.

I was expressing a desire for something that I could not have defined exactly.

Happiness.

This was one of the last real conversations I remember having with my father.  It was the summer of 2002, and I recall my father saying, “Do you need me to come?  I will come if you need me.” and I deflected, thinking as usual that my need was not important.  I said, “No, I’ll be okay.”  Which was the farthest from the truth.

I wasn’t okay and wouldn’t be okay for a very long time.  But that day, sitting on my back stoop looking out at my yard with unseeing eyes, I couldn’t imagine what he could do to make things any better.

You see the idea of him coming was better than the actuality.  My parents did visit in October, and my father was preoccupied with work —  on his laptop and cell phone the entire visit.  He was critical of our choices — We took them out to a Thai restaurant for dinner instead of cooking.  That was wasteful or indulgent, which he did not approve of, never mind that we were buying.

But I was depressed still five months later.  And when you are, things like grocery shopping and cooking are impossible to do.  I didn’t stick up for myself at the time.   And I knew Tom felt no criticism of me for not cooking.  So we went out.

It turns out Dad was suffering from brain tumors (though no one knew at that time) which would be diagnosed a few weeks later.  He had brain surgery in early December.  He died five months later, in May of 2003.)

Recently we were dining (at home, if you must know) with some new friends.

Tom and I are both making an effort to make some new relationships, as this has been a theme at church lately. We were gathered in the kitchen — as often happens in the minutes before enjoying a home cooked meal together — and Tim asked if I needed any help?  I usually do leave some things for when guests have arrived, because it gives me something to do with my hands.  (I’m a nervous, socially introverted tongue-tied  person, especially with new people.)  And a task sometimes makes a guest feel good.

I flippantly and off the top of my head said “No, I’m a woman of leisure,  so I finished everything ahead of time.”  Where in the hell did that come from, I thought immediately? 

I’d never described myself that way before.  Haven’t even put those words together in a sentence before. And I haven’t felt bad about being a stay-at-home for a good long while.

Oh, it creeps in now and then, as people ask the “good ol’ American get to know ya questions” like “What do you do?”  Awkward when you have all your kids in school and you’re not “working” outside the home.  My self-esteem would definitely be enhanced by a salary and some hours working at tasks that have a higher purpose or a more obvious result.  But no, for now this is working for us.  I am at-home.  I am a full-time MOM, two-hour a day max home-keeper, and working on my health.

It all leads back to that desire to be happy.

Am I a woman of leisure?  God help me, no!  But I guess I joked about it because I don’t know how to tell people what my life really involves.  It’s not typical for someone to admit ,

“My #1 job is staying healthy mentally. What do you do?”

Yup, I have a mental illness (there I said it) and it’s chronic (meaning it comes back, all too frequently) and I am learning through trial and error, research, and lots of effort and hard work what it takes to get healthy, stay healthy, and be healthy. 

I know that I could do a 9-5 job and sort these things out on the weekends.  But I am grateful that I don’t have to and so I’m working on my health every day (or most days. Many are too full to think about me. I am a mother of four, active in my church, and writing…)

Major depressive disorder was the diagnosis and it has led me to a half-dozen different therapists, psychologists as well as psychiatrists. A near fatal suicide attempt.  Medication.  Hospitalization.   Alcoholism.  And …the depression comes back.  I start all over again.  Well, the truth is …

I work, work, work  …

on my sanity.  And on the good days I think why the hell does it take so much time just to be healthy?  On the bad ones, well, I just can’t think. I struggle to be functional.  But it’s not quite like that.   A depressive episode builds, like a few rolling waves at first sliding into a tsunami.

If you’ve never been in therapy, you’ve no idea how much work it is.  It’s hard when you are not depressed.  Hellishly difficult if you are.  If you are committed to getting better and growing and changing, you have to do it.  There is no other choice.  No one wants a  relapses, of which I’ve had more than a half dozen over six years.

It feels like two to three months of going through life like The Undead.  Your body is heavy all the time — It feels like you are filled with sand.  And your head, your mind, your soul, your psyche is a Black Hole.  Everything swirls around into it and nothing worthwhile comes out.)

If your commitment is to health you have work on it EVERY DAY:

  • On your spirituality, because I’d hate to give you the impression that “healing” only comes from doctors.
  • On your physical health, I have learned that exercise and diet are probably most important, after Psychotherapy.
  • On your friendships.  Isolation is a big danger and a signal that you’re slipping backwards.
  • On your relationships with family, which must stay positive and healthy.
  • You have get off drugs or alcohol, because at least alcohol is a depressant.  [The story of alcoholism well, it will have to be another day for that.  I am two years and two months into sobriety as of this writing.]
  • You have to do the therapy, which only works if you do the work.

So what does a woman of leisure do?

This one works on her stuff.  And sometimes keeps house and cares for four kids — nine, 11, 12 and 22.  Our youngest has learning difficulties which have involved years and years of advocacy and therapies and doctors appointment.  Being an advocate for him meant getting an education on many things including how the public school system works to help children with disabilities, pushing the insurance company and doctors and teachers, learning about hearing, and speech and attention-deficits.  Learning about nutrition and medication and side effects.  Just regular stuff mom’s do if they have the time.  Most women have much less time for this than I do, so I feel fortunate.  But managing all that, during the same years that I’ve been ill has been hard.  Rewarding but difficult.

I volunteer my photography skills and writing when I can or when asked. I ventured into a photography business for about three years, but decided that I didn’t really want it that badly.  I serve in various places with a variety of things — as I hear of needs at church and school.  I study further on things will help me do all this in an intelligent way.  When they were little I was in the kid’s classrooms volunteering every week and was going on field trips.

I do love being at home when my children come home from school — world-weary, and kind of beat up from their day — offering a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen or a word of advice.  It just happened last night with my 22-year-old and it is awesome.

We only have a few years with our children and so I have concluded – selfishly perhaps – that if I can take these years then I will.  Gladly.  Joyfully.  And try to best of my ability and with all the strength I have in me to live well. 

For them.  For myself.  For the pure sake of being happy to be alive. 

Who knew, as a child, that just being happy would be so much work.  What does this woman of leisure do all day?  Some days I wonder that myself if I’m truthful.  But I hope I will look back, in the years to come, and have no doubt it was time well spent.

MHH September 15, 2010

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