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My inner voice is the worst

Yesterday marks the beginning of the 2016/17 family routine. Hallelujah. We made it through the ever-changing matrix of summer. The here-there-everywhere pickups and dropoffs and scrambling for childcare.

Behold. The summer matrix.
Behold. The summer matrix. Photo by Gamaliel E. M.

This was our first go at a public school summer. This next one, we vow, will be different. We’ve got some sweet plans afoot–coordinating with friends and neighbors on childcare, so we can approximate that shining jewel, the timeless summer of our youth which was held together by so many moms who stayed home. We’ll see how that all goes. I’m hopeful, as I often am about things that are 9 months down the line.

As for now, I’m just waiting for the soothing balm of routine to sink in. That way that you can start to anticipate pockets of time. That way you can have an idea for something to write or plant or make and know, without a doubt, that there is a time coming soon when you can have at it.

Oh, how I love you, soothing routine balm.
Oh, how I love you, soothing routine balm. Photo by Steven Depolo

This summer and all of its twists and turns has laid waste to my creativity. So much so that yesterday, when I finally tasted that first uninterrupted time for myself, I mostly avoided writing even though I’ve been dreaming of it for weeks. I shopped online, scheduled my semi-annual haircut, looked for a desk on craigslist so that I can have a small corner of my own in the bedroom. I did all of these things while the option to write was looming. And just like some cliché romance, when I could finally have the object of my longing, I got all sweaty palmed and nervous, and looked the other way.

Too much anticipation perhaps?

A back-log of ideas, rendering my creative mind sluggish?

Possible.

Hypercritical internal voice, with a lack of empathy for the demands of raising small children over a chaotic summer?

Bullseye.

My Inner Voice is A Total Jerk
Here’s what my inner voice looks like. She’s got a good haircut and carries a purse. Also, she’s a total jerk. Photo by Tom Edgington

If any other woman on earth told my story to me, I would douse her with buckets of compassion and kindness.

Of course you spent that time doing small, frivolous, self-care type things because you’ve had no time for that. Of course the writing feels intimidating now because you’re out of practice. Of course. But never fear. You can’t escape your own creativity. Just keep showing up when you have some time and listen. And in the meantime, go get your effing hair cut and prepare to receive some packages in the mail from that sweet online shopping binge.

If only my inner voice thought I was someone else. Then I would bask in soft comforts, drink tea and take naps. Instead, I walk away from the first break I’ve had in weeks feeling anxious and humiliated.

WTF self?!?

In much the same manner that I script my kids into emotional intelligence on a daily basis, I will now script my nasty little inner voice.

Hey there, Self. I know you’re used to being a total asshole to me, but I’d like you to try something different. Something like this:
It’s more than okay that you’re not bursting with creativity right now. There are seasons for everything because nothing, I repeat, nothing bears fruit all the time. Fallow periods are for tending the soil. So tend away. Inspiration knows what she’s doing. Just tend the soil. And keep listening. You’re doing just fine. Really. Here’s a hug. And a snack. And some slippers.

Yesterday, I lost it. Today was better.

You know what’s crazy about living? That in a single 24 hour period you can go from feeling utterly broken and ashamed to being completely at ease and in your own skin, eating with your family on a golden evening.

This time yesterday I could feel it coming. My frayed edges flaring out like the fuse of a cartoon bomb, my energy and patience dwindling. With every whine issuing from Jo’s annoying little mouth, I felt closer to breakdown. I knew it was coming, and still, I went there.

I screamed so loud that my throat hurt. And then Jo and Cal and I all dissolved into tears.

Here’s a lemur screaming in much the same way that I did yesterday. Photo by Tom Ciriello.

This, apparently, is my Achilles heel: watching my older son hurt my youngest. It doesn’t really matter that they were fighting over a caboose. Or that Jo asked for it the first time really nicely. Or that Cal head-butted Jo after he had the caboose ripped out of his hand. What matters, apparently, to my brain chemistry, is watching my 6-year-old bang on my 3-year-old’s back with his fist really hard 3 or 4 times.

That is the thing that floods me with so much feeling that the only choice is to scream at the top of my lungs and scare the shit out of my two kids. After that, I push Jo further away. As if to prove a point: you are not here with us. You did a really bad thing.

In our teary aftermath, I apologized while staring at a gritty crack in our tile floor. “I’m not going to yell again. I know it’s not okay. And I’m not going to do it anymore.”

I told Jo that I needed his help, that he needed to come up with some ideas for what to do when he feels like hitting his brother. His answer cut deep:

“That’s a really hard thing to think of, Mom. Because it all happens so fast. Just like it happens to you when you yell.”

Touché, you smart little creature. If you could just use that sort of reasoning in the midst of a fight over a caboose, we’d all be sitting pretty. But that’s just it. You literally can’t reason when you’re in a rage. And neither can I.

So last night, after my boys fell asleep, I did all I could think of: I cried, and I texted a friend, and I read a book in the bathtub about how our children are our spiritual gifts. (The book is effing fascinating by the way, so much so that I dreamed all night that I was communing with the woman who wrote it).

Today, thanks to my part time job, I got a much needed break from parenting. I also got to Google chat AJ about the whole yelling incident, since it felt too shameful to talk to his actual living, breathing self about it last night.

In the safety of a computer window, I confessed it all. And he was kind. And told me how he tends to deal with those moments with Jo.

AJ’s natural patience and skill in parenting our strange, alien children is continually infuriating and inspiring to me. He simply gets our boys in a way I don’t; he has a composure and deliberateness in his parenting that I don’t. As he mentioned once, in critique of my style, “You get too mad too fast.” A truer word was never spoke.
AJ does not do that. Ever. I have no effing idea how he pulls it off.

So he gave me some tips: If Jo’s not listening, go stand in front of him and say it again, if he’s still not, get down low and look him in the eye, then get really close and raise your voice, then grab his ear or his shoulder a little bit hard. If all that fails, physically remove him.

Done and done.

Perhaps to some, this step by step escalation is not revelatory. But to me–the one who toggles between (1) an endless sea of patience and calm and (2) a blind rage–it represents a huge chasm of options in the middle that I typically leap over in less than a moment.

I got another chance tonight at dinner. It doesn’t really matter that it was about a purple car with white flames painted on it. It doesn’t really matter that Jo asked nicely for a turn and that then Cal said MINE and taunted Jo with the car. Here’s what does matter:

I slowly escalated. I sat up from my chair and walked between the boys. I told Jo again to stop growling at Cal. Then I grabbed his ear a little bit hard. And put a hand on Cal’s back and told him that he could finish his turn with the car. Cal made car engine noises that I’ve never learned how to make. Jo stopped growling. And then I went back to my chair and we all started talking about something else. I think we even laughed.

We don’t make summer like they used to

Mid-conversation, a friend of mine recently confessed, “SUMMER. IS. KILLING. ME.”

I had a sense of what she meant, but hadn’t quite gotten there yet. My week of starfishing had me all relaxed, full-tanked, ready to rumble.

Well, it’s been two weeks. My tank is no longer full. Ready to rumble, I am not.

SUMMER. IS. DISORIENTING. ME.

I hardly know which end is up. Where does Jo go today? Tomorrow? How will he get there and home again? And then what about Cal? It’s like some nasty little Rubik’s Cube that you think you’ve almost got solved and then all the colors change and scramble and you’re right back where you started and want to huck the damn thing at the wall.

Back in those retrospectively perfect, happy days of pre-summer, I knew what Monday meant. It meant dance class and then Trader Joes with Cal and picking up Jo at the same damn place I always pick him up. I also knew all the other days. The dishes got washed, the laundry done, the groceries bought and AJ and I each got a few of our own blessed hours to saw and hammer boards and click away at the computer, respectively.

Now I spend most of my time trying to solve the puzzle for next week’s pile of pick ups and drop offs and by the time I do, the next next week is looming and the house undone.

Then there’s the emotional fallout from the boys’ week with the grandparents. They had a great time. But a week away is a week away and apparently, when you’re 3 and 6, you come home from Colorado with the emotional resilience of something with Precious Little emotional resilience and the etiquette of a rabid beast.

How did I fall so far behind in the parenting game? I keep trying to remind myself about times I’ve  totally rocked it. These days, I feel lost and behind. Underwater. How do I respond to this perpetual whining? This refusal to get back on the bike? This screaming and kicking the fence? I cling to the hope that parenting mastery ebbs and flows. I buy parenting books online. I dissociate with TV.

How did this happen to summer?

Summer pool photo by razee.
Photo by razee

Summer is supposed to be The Best. But you know who made summer the best? Stay at home moms did that. At least mine did. When the school year wrapped down, there she was. Ready and waiting. The house in order, plastic pool on the lawn, her lovely almond fingernails clicking away at the buttons on our phone, inviting friends to come over and play.

Because of her, I spent summer at my house and because of my friends’ mothers, I spent summer at theirs. It was a boundless field of time and play and popsicles. It was not like the school year at all.

The summer I’m living now is a shadow of that one. But I am not my mother. And this is not then. The truth is that I’m unable and unwilling to give the summer I once had to my kids.

Unwilling because I like my job. I want my job. It’s a part-time gift from the heavens. And it allows AJ to work part time himself.

Unable because the vast majority of families we know are in the same boat. There is not a sea of other mothers waiting to help me create summer bliss. They’re working too. And scrambling from place to place looking just as wacked out as me. Holding on till the reliability of the school year descends and smooths everything back into place again.

 

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.

208475715_cbfb51f204_o
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.