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My week as a starfish or living at home without children

Alternate realities are helpful for the sake of comparison.

I know, because I’m currently living one. My house feels twice as big, my brain half as full. I slept till nine effing thirty this morning and ate pizza and jellybeans for dinner last night.

This is my life without children. For one week, both boys are in Colorado, swimming and fishing and eating popsicles (even chocolate ones!!) and watching TV with their grandparents.

Way back in winter, the concept felt thrilling and pragmatic, a way to cope with the predicament of summer vacation with two working parents. Yet laying in the bed of my childhood home at 4:30am, the night before we left them, I was certain this would be the largest catastrophe our family had ever seen. The boys would be paralyzed with homesickness, they would sit, wide-eyed, in front of scary movies from which their subconscious selves would never recover, my parents would slip into a catatonic haze of exhaustion, the boys would be happily splashing in the river, then swept into its roiling icy waters to die.

My dark, pre-dawn thoughts know no bounds.

Suffice it to say, I felt some anxiety about leaving them, even though the concept of leaving them filled me with the giddy joy of a convict imagining escape.

The morning we left, no one cried at goodbye, and my jangle of nerves was sure this was some terrible omen, a sign of ruptured attachment, when really, they were probably just super into their new water guns, and a whole grassy backyard lawn, its thick, green hose filling up a neon orange swimming pool.

I cried a little at the airport, but that did nothing to match the anxiety soothing properties of a single pint of beer I drank while waiting to board the plane for home.

I sat with my partner, like those couples I often see, reading and staring and drinking. Simply passing the time.

I’ve watched them hungrily, and fantasized about their freedom, while slung down with bags, AJ and I tag-teaming little boys with sweaty hands.

As the fizzy beer drone spread down my arms and legs, I became the woman in that couple. Waiting for my flight, borderline bored, literally nothing to do.

That’s when the giddiness set in.

I kept feeling the impulse to stretch my arms and legs out at a diagonal, as far as they would go, just to physically demonstrate my internal sensation. A huge spreading out. Extending into space that I forgot was there.

Starfish
Starfish by Elena Kalis

You can’t know how compressed you are until there’s space again. And let me tell you, I’ve been bound in pretty tight. Mothering is the sum total of thousands of minutes spent tracking people other than myself, anticipating needs, contorting my body and energy to try to ease the way. I ignore my aching back and elbow because the baby happened to fall asleep on me this way. Leftover salad goes uneaten while I mindlessly scarf down the remains of an abandoned lunch box sandwich. My energetic nodes are tuned to them and their needs.

And suddenly. I’m in my very own house without them. All those nodes are free. To rest, to roam, to notice other things. To stretch out like an goddamn starfish because there’s so much space to spare.

I have not been to the grocery store since we got home 4 days ago. I casually put our laptop on the floor after watching a late night show, unconcerned about prying 3 year old fingers at 6:30 a.m. I can leave work early or go out for a drink after because it doesn’t matter when I get home, and no matter when I get home, the house will be empty and quiet and just how I left it.

The other thing: I like AJ so much more.

This has been the most stark comparison of all.

On the airplane home, I was snuggling with him like a 20-year-old version of myself, and it felt natural as hell.

For years, I’ve puzzled over the shift in my relationship with him. Wasn’t there a time when I could hardly keep my hands off him? And even long after the whole honeymoon period wore off, didn’t I still dote on small affections?

So why has last several years of our relationship been afflicted with broken and worried conversations. Do I even like him anymore? Does he like me? Where oh where has my sex drive gone?

I was worried about myself.

But now I know what happened to myself.

Two little boys happened to myself.

And our mostly relaxed, dialed-in-to-eachother, touch a lot relationship was ever so slowly and hypnotically hemmed in by laundry and dishes and grocery lists and coordinating the logistics for how and when I’ll go get my semi-annual haircut.

We all know this concept. Raising small children with someone puts stress on that relationship. It makes sense that between the relentless care-taking, cleaning up and mammary glanding, my body craves mostly one thing when the children are away or asleep: separation.

But knowing a concept does not erase the fear. Even though I thought that my relationship with AJ would most certainly, probably feel closer in those mythical years of the future when the boys need us less, I still worried. Have we lost it entirely?

Do I even like him anymore?

Well, hot damn, the answer is yes. In the spacious delight of these days at home to ourselves, we’ve fallen right back into the way it was. I cannot tell you the relief of this: it’s largely effortless to love my partner again the way I used to.

Also, I totally have a sex drive.

I had no idea it would be so easy to get right back into it.

Turns out it’s not so much me, or him, but The Situation that has changed.

Delightfully, The Situation will continue to change, in the direction of more freedom, not less.

I’ve got my eye on the horizon. It’s looking pretty starfishy.

On Mamalode! Cherish: the agony and ecstasy

My very first blog post here was about an experience shared by mothers of small children everywhere: being told to enjoy every minute by various ogling passers-by. Each time it happened to me, I suppressed the impulse to grab said stranger by the collar and scream “Why don’t you effing enjoy it while I go take a nap!??!”

There is a presumptuous and powerful nostalgia that strangers will shove right in your face as a mother of little kids–a command to cherish, and do so obsessively. It’s sort of sweet. But it’s mostly obnoxious as hell, because remembering life with small kids is light-years away from actually living it. And telling someone to enjoy every minute is clearly delusional, since they certainly didn’t, and since there are many Many things about raising children that are not by any means enjoyable.

My essay, Cherish: the agony and the ecstasy is up on Mamalode. I’m delighted to share my straight-talk over there.

Cherish: The Agony And Ecstasy

Mom revives after reproductive coma

I just got back from a run.

This is a strange fact since Not Running is a story I routinely tell. Once, I actually ran a marathon. When all was said and done, I felt like a badass with really bad knees. As the story goes, if I calculate generously, I’ve run about 5 miles since then. That was in 2000.

I have no idea how far I ran today (it was probably not very far). But you know what? That’s not the effing point.

As houses and gardens and crosswalks slipped by this morning, I felt like an animal coming out of hibernation. Or rather, like a 37 year old woman coming out of a reproductive coma.

My youngest kid turns 3 in a few weeks. Do you know what that means?! It means that I don’t have to constantly track him every minute because he might run into oncoming traffic. It means I’m only hyper aware of his movements every 15th second or so. And that leaves 56 other seconds of every minute for other things

This is huge.

Imagine a tipping point, the top of a roller coaster, a slow, tedious lean that becomes a rushing tumble.

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Photo by Jay Reed

With every foot fall and raspy breath, I completed a circuit back to my former self. I was her, and she is me. I’m new now.

I used to run when I was 20. I did it because I needed a project. It was a performance. Now I get to run like this. On a whim. I have nothing to prove.

I was her. She is me.

I’m new now.

Boredom is my muse

I’ve been drowning in a birdbath*, you guys.

For three years, I’ve been in and out of triage: bought a house, had another kid, got a job. Whether it was up till 3 a.m. painting the rental in my third trimester or up at 11, 12, 2, and 4:30 with a puking baby, my default mode has been On. And not that nice bright, incandescent on. More of a twitchy, anxious flicker.

lightbulb of creativity hangs from ceiling of boredom
“Bulb” by Jon Callow

So I haven’t quite known how to handle the space that has come with, well, stability.
I’ve been having lulls that last longer than 5 minutes, and I’m not feeling routinely on the verge of cracked out. Bonus!
Trouble is, I’ve built up a life based on a bunch of cracked out habits like nightly TV binges, drinking too much and staring at the wall anytime the kids are occupied or sleeping.
It’s left me bored and sometimes depressed inside a life that’s pretty darn ok. Death by birdbath.

I’ve been in a small-child-induced coma.
But not today! Because see? I’m sitting here on a bench at the Y after my dance class and writing this instead of staring into space for the 10 minutes before I have to go pick up Cal.

Turns out there’s more space in my life. And what requires empty space in order to exist? Ideas. Creative Impulses.

What if the boredom and even depression whose butts I’m all proud of kicking are actually a source of aliveness?

A sign of creativity yet to come.

What if the crumbs that collected on my sweatshirt as I binge watched 6 episodes of Transparent actually incubated the creative burst I’m having right now?

Well, kids, if that’s the case, I think we have a game-changer on our hands.

When in their midst, it is near impossible to feel the value of boredom or depression. But here I am, close on their heels, with ideas and vitality bursting out of my ears.

Every living thing has a dormant phase before it blossoms.

And apparently, so do I.

*This simile (and occult inspiration) brought to you by Jessa Crispin in her new, kick ass book, The Creative Tarot.  It’s brought tarot cards to life for me, and I’m not looking back. Jessa Crispin The Creative Tarot

The board book: friend or enemy?

If you’ve ever read a board book to a toddler, you may have encountered this one:

The overly wordy board bookAfter 5 pages, or maybe the the thirteenth time it’s toddled up to your lap, you start omitting large swaths of story. Why would anyone in their right mind put this damn many words in a board book? It’s like performing an interpretive dance for a telephone pole. When it’s over, you’re exhausted and quite certain it missed the point.

Or maybe you’ve read this one:The embarassing sing-along board bookIt cajoles you into making embarrassing sounds or singing strange little songs and when all is said and done, you feel like an idiot.

And of course, there’s this old classic:The terribly written board book

It may not make you sing, quack or read until you’re blue in the face, but this damn book is misery in disguise. It insults, it bores. It can turn a warm, soft, snuggle fest into Dissociation-ville USA.

Fear not, you listless, embarrassed board book reader. There is hope.

Between you and me, books don’t even matter yet.

For the first couple years, most humans tend to be into things like light and faces and fresh air and anything that happens to be on the ground. So if you just hang out near your kid and go outside once in a while, you’re probably good.

If you want to get all fancy by throwing a board book into the mix, then it might as well be something you find highly amusing. Or something that will entertain your kid while you go have a cocktail.

For the later, behold, the wimmelbilderbuchs of Ali Mitgutsch!

Ali Mitgutsch's board books
My awesome neighbor Slowmamma loaned me these!

These are “teeming picture books,” meaning that they have full-spread detailed pictures on every page. And a few characters who continue their story from page to page. Delightfully, unlike their Richard Scary counterparts, they have No Words.

Ali-Mitgutsch's board book inside page

That means you can create a whole elaborate narrative if you feel like it (?!) or you can do absolutely nothing while your small, pudgy friend “does some reading.”

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then my favorite board book will come as no surprise.Baby Mix Me A Drink board book

We have Lisa Brown to thank for this breath of fresh air and good ol’ renegade McSweeney’s for publishing it.

Inside, you’ll find visual recipes for those toddlers who tend to forget that mama likes two olives in her gin martini.

Most importantly, it aces the most important board book requirement of all:

It’s amusing as hell for the people who know how to read.

Giveaway! Writing and movement workshop!

Ever find yourself fantasizing about what you might write someday, if you just had the space or time?

If you answered a remote yes to this question, and you happen to live in the Bay Area, then I have a gift to give you.

My friend Susie Meserve, who also happens to be a riveting writer, is co-teaching a writing and movement workshop in Oakland on March 19th.

In this three-hour workshop, through movement, meditation, writing prompts, and group discussion, we’ll explore how creativity gets trapped in the body–and learn how to release it.

If you happen to feel like I did when I read that, (“Ummm. Yes, please.”) then you should sign the eff up!

Here’s more details to whet your appetite in flyer form:

FlyerFinalREDUXAnd if you really wanna go, but just can’t swing the $75 right now, keep reading.

A very kind and very anonymous benefactor has offered to sponsor one writer who would like to attend, but can’t afford it.

How are we going to find this lucky writer?

I’m so glad you asked. All you have to do is write a brief comment below explaining what really gets you revved up about going to this workshop. We’ll choose one winner who will get to attend for free, and two others who will get $15 off.

Ba Boom.

It’s that simple.

So get on the horn, start making plans, stacking the particular house of cards required for you to get away on a Saturday afternoon, and share this with your friends!

And if money is an issue, than comment it up! We’ll sift through your comments and pick 3 winners on Monday night.

Gratitude: the friend who just doesn’t get it

If one more effing person apologizes after sharing a sad, difficult, upsetting part of their lives with me, I’m going to scream. And my shriek will leave a tiny crack in the shell of robotic positive thinking that our happiness-obsessed culture shrouds us with.

I’ve written about this before, and it’s no surprise that I’m feeling it again a year later.

It’s winter. Trees are bare, skies are cold and dark, the world around us is not bursting forth. And yet.

And yet. We expect the eternal fruits of summer from ourselves. Regardless of season or circumstance, we should keep our chins up, find inspiration and, my personal favorite, be grateful.

Gratitude can blow me.

Here’s why: it’s become the well-meaning friend who just doesn’t get it. She’s trying to help, for sure, but here’s how good old Gratitude misses the mark: She’s only makes it worse if you use her to avoid difficult feelings.

Dark side of Gratitude Mask

Which is how A LOT of people like to use her these days.

It’s the polite and sunny way to end a particular kind of conversation.

I’m so sorry about your favorite grandmother who is dying. At least you can be grateful for the time she had.

Yeah. Thanks. Sorry for bringing up the whole dying grandmother thing. I don’t mean to be such a downer.

Why are sadness, grief, anger, fear, or disappointment so disturbing to us that we literally apologize for sharing them? We wish we hadn’t done it. Sullied the moment, spoiled the conversation.

It’s hard to hang out with pain that we can’t instantly fix.

And yet. And yet.

Hanging out with it, with a person in grief, with a bitter sadness, can actually be sublime. There’s a deep sense of wholeness that comes from letting the dark winter simply exist, without trying to jack it up on silver-linings of gratitude.

That’s why I feel–wait for it–grateful when a neighbor admits in a casual conversation over the fence that her cancer came back. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I know this is really heavy.”

Quite the contrary. Sharing your heavy reality creates more room for my particular mess.

So please. Bring on the downers. What stray puppydog facts and feelings of yours get smothered by the eternally sunny, productive and happy waters we’re all swimming in?

Make my comments box your own personal repository for whatever downer you’re sitting on.

I’d be most grateful.

A band of angels

The song “Swing Low” is currently on the nap and bedtime rotation for me and Cal. Every time I get to the second verse — you know, “…looked over Jordan and what did I see?” — Cal pulls back from our snuggle and looks at me earnestly and says, “Angels?”

It’s happened a good handful of times now, so when he did the exact same thing during my encore breakfast performance today, I had to indulge myself.

You see, angels don’t come up too much in our everyday conversation, so I was intrigued about his connection with the word.

“Do you know about angels?” I asked him.

He replied with a definitive nod.

“What are angels like?”
“They’re loud,” he said, with professorial certainty.

“What else do you know about angels?”

“They fly into the trees.”

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“The Angel” by Vaidotas Mišeikis

I was starting to get a little breathless at this point. I had been pitched into one of those moments that people talk about, when their child tells them about their own birth, or a past life or some otherworldly, spiritual vision.

He swooped his finger up and down, “They fly like this, Momma.” I just sat, quite stunned, watching Cal demonstrate for me the swooshy sound effects and flight patterns of angels.

“They’re loud and they go fffffaaaaaaast.”

And thud.

I fell right down off of my cloud of dreams with my magical, spiritual oracle baby.

The Blue Angels.

That, of all things, was the reference. When I sing “Swing Low” to my son before bed, he pictures the fighter jets that screamed over his head when he was with his dad and brother at Fleet Week.

Angels indeed.

I may have been particularly open to the existence of angels since one had recently appeared to my mind’s eye as I was meditating on a dear friend. She was facing a particularly pivotal and much sought after job interview, so I was trying to empty my busy brain of everything but my love and hope for her and blammo. I saw an angel.

I was surprised with the vision, since she’s been after this damn job for years. Y E A R S. I’ve supported her through the whole tumultuous pursuit, littered with false hopes, and crushing rejections. I was ready for this interview to wind up like all the rest. A curt “Thanks but no thanks.”

Well, wouldn’t you know it. This time–The Angel Time–she got it. The long sought after job is hers. She effing did it.

We went on a hike this very morning, right after the conversation that wound up Blue Angels.

As we circled the glassy, golden lake, she confessed that she was up half the night with crushing anxiety. Does she really want it after all? After all this time and toil, is this really the job for her?

One of the scariest thoughts she had on her sleepless night was whether the anxiety is a sign. That there’s something wrong. That her gut is issuing a warning: it’s going to end up one big disaster, and she traded her perfectly good and stable life for a catastrophe. She should have kept her ambition in check and appreciated the good life while she had it.

Before I could even speak, I was laughing it off. Of course it’s not a sign. Just the typical feeling you’d have, being a thinking, breathing, sensitive woman sitting on the verge of huge life change.

But wasn’t I right there with her in spirit, envisioning the routine unions that my 2 year old had with angels, waving bye bye with his doughy hands as they flew off into the trees, loudly, as angels are wont to do?

I find myself desperate at times to find the magical thread tying things together. Ye olde “everything happens for a reason” or “sign from the universe.”

But what if it’s equally comforting, even more so, that regular, old, normal life has its own strange magic:

That a squadron of jets weave their power and might into a timeless, spiritual ballad. (I mean, who wouldn’t want a band of Blue Angels commin’ for to carry them home?)

That anxiety and fear are the body’s way of reminding us that birth is also a kind of death–any transition into a new phase of life means the loss of the way it once was.

That we all get to decide for ourselves if we think angels exist. And how loud, or not, they might be.

There’s always space

There’s a price I pay for ignoring myself.

A million tiny times a day.

I’m bored at the park but I go anyway, because the boys want to. And I sit there on the bench and feel a little less alive.

I want to read my book, but I wash the dishes instead, because it’ll be that much sweeter to crack the book open  with the clean dishes steaming in the rack. But then Cal wakes up and the book sits still. And I feel a little less satisfied.

Reading this, I was reminded of how compressed life gets, under the routine requirements, obligations, appointments, demands.

It may just be the path of least resistance to turn our aliveness down under such circumstances, under the weight of many tasks that we wouldn’t willingly choose, but that relentlessly nudge for our attention.

And yet,

And yet!

There is always space to be found.

Like in the atoms I was explaining to Jo before bed.

There’s more space inside an atom than stuff. And we’re made up of atoms. So that means we’re made up of more space than stuff. Our bodies, this table, my shoes, that lamp, they’re all mostly space. Isn’t that crazy?!

Atom
This from “Our Friend The Atom,” written in 1956 by Disney to captivate the nerdy brains and hearts of children everywhere.

It’s the smallest choice to read instead of wash. To pause and let the sun breeze over my cheeks before buckling a boy into his car seat. To ignore the robotic pull of dinner prep at 6 on a Tuesday and instead sip on champagne and watch the boys whiz by on their scooters.

It’s the smallest choice.

And a portal into the biggest space.

Energetic Boundaries 101

Some pretty mind blowing stuff went down for me in September that I’m only just beginning to articulate. I went to this rad women and kids communing with nature power weekend with Jo. We ate and sang and played and learned and gathered around the fire together. And once Jo got his bearings, and he and a friend were absorbed in scratching at the dirt with sticks, I took a class about energetic boundaries. Which is to say that for a couple of hours one morning, I sat in a circle of women on the ground near a big fallen tree I wish I knew the name of, and listened to this woman share her wisdom about the ways we habitually do and ideally can choose to create boundaries that protect or reveal ourselves.

I still don’t understand exactly what it was about that class that changed things for me, but it did.

Here’s the best I’ve got:

It helped me understand the fundamental way I align myself with other people. In short, I’ve got some pretty loosey goosey boundaries. And I always track the people around me. I take in what I think their needs and feelings are. I’m like an octopus with hyper extended tentacles, constantly scanning in all directions for what my people are feeling, thinking, wanting.

TentaclesOut

It. Is. Exhausting.

And obliterating. Cause where do my thoughts and needs and feelings come in, given the OCD tentacles? Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you. My needs and feelings are stifled at the bottom of the heap. They play second (or third or fourth) fiddle. Those suckers languish deep inside the proverbial haystack.

But somehow, in a circle of women sitting on the ground of a crisp fall morning, I gathered my tentacles in. I chose to create some boundaries. Now I look more like this.TentaclesIn

I deliberately chose to disengage with the endless stream of

Jo is happy and absorbed (sigh of relief) . Cal wants water and needs to put his pants on. Where are his pants? . That guy on the sidewalk seems really desperate . AJ is still mad at me after last night, but I don’t want to say I’m sorry . Jamie wishes I visited her more . Cybil called me three days ago and I haven’t gotten back to her . Ryan seems pissed, is it something I did? . This person wants . This person needs . This . Person . Feels . . .

Reeling in the tentacles made me lighter, buoyant even.

I started to float.

I could see and hear and feel things that hadn’t gotten in for a long time because there was so much noise and obstruction, and so little of my attention left over.

Here’s what I saw:

Everything is a game.

Every relationship, project, chore, obligation.

Some games have higher stakes than others, but at the core, there is a lightness, a playfulness in the atmosphere around all the heavy stuff.

The playfulness is this: in every game, you get to choose your move. Every time. And you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then the other people get to choose their moves. Now it’s back to you. And the game plays on.

For years and years, I’ve gotten stuck trying to play other people’s moves for them, while my piece languishes in one damn square not very far from START.

That hyper focus outwards, on other people, has been crippling. It’s been deafening.

It has weighed me down, drowned me out, and left me listless on the couch because I’ve quite literally forgotten myself.

It was part of the reason for my post-partum depression with both kids–in that first year, rarely was I able to see and act on my own feelings and needs in the snow-storm of everyone else’s.

Well, I found my way out of that bullshit.

I have a new sense for where I end and everyone else begins.

And I wanna play.

For now, while I’m still learning these new moves, and how to keep my own needs and feelings at the core, I try to keep the tentacles for me. I use that super scanning empathetic power on myself first, because then I know the most key intelligence about the game: where I’m starting from. If I don’t know that, I can’t really play.

It’s game on, people.