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Becoming a Mother

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.

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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.

 

Mom triumphs over fears about kindergarten

This is the first time I’ve had a quiet house and an alert brain at the same time in nearly 2 months. Our family has plunged into several bold new frontiers. Among them, two parents with new part-time schedules(!!!), Cal starting a playgroup, and Jo (and me) staring wide-eyed at his new public school.

The dust is starting to settle. And I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself, because amid it all, I triumphed over my mounting fear and worry about kindergarten.

My particular fears and worries are these: that public school (and many private schools too) focus too much on academics and not enough on social, emotional and creative development; that this focus on academics seeps into our kids and snuffs out their sparkles of play and wildness and self-direction.

While we’re at it, you should also know that the idea of public school–a place where any and every child can go to learn, be safe, cared for, and nurtured–makes my heart swoon with the chorus of a thousand hyped-up songbirds. Those songbirds know when and why to pipe down though, since they know what I do–the public school system in our country is tragically uneven, rolling weighted dice to determine which kids happen to get more safety, teachers and resources, and which kids get precious little.

With these worries and fears and smart songbirds, I sent Jo to kindergarten every day for the past 6 weeks. He would come home mostly happy and tired and would lose it over the smallest things, and I would sniff him all over to try to find clues about what was happening at school and whether it was fine or terrible.

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My triumph started on the day of our first big Kindergarten tragedy. Jo woke at 6:30 and climbed into bed with me, saying “I don’t like my school. And the only thing that will fix it is home school.” Eek. You know too well the dark corners of my thoughts, little boy.

After a good long bout of listening to his worries “My teacher is too serious, Mom,” we made it to school. Jo burst into tears as we neared the door and buried his face in my neck. I just kept saying “Dad and I know this is a good place for you, and I believe in you,” while trying to hold back tears.

Once I got out of the building, I had a good cry and was already planning the parents I was going to call to launch an elementary homeschool co-op and FAST.

Instead, I ran into an experienced mom who I trust (Thank God for Those), and she reminded me essentially, “Hard doesn’t have to be bad.” Ding ding ding. In other words, this is a hard transition for Jo and me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the school or the teacher is bad. It might just mean that kindergarten is really different than co-op, play-based preschool and getting used to the new system is hard sometimes. My job as a mother isn’t to remove the difficult things from his life, it’s to help him navigate, to help him keep going.*

*Taking on this job assumes that I have sussed out the particular Difficult Thing and decided that it’s ultimately worthwhile. If not, then we don’t give a rip about that Difficult Thing and move on to something else.

After my talk with the Experienced Mom, I knew that my particular crisis of confidence was stemming from the fact that I didn’t know enough about The Difficult Thing. My only experiences of the school day and Jo’s teacher were for a half hour on welcome back to school night and a minute or two at pick up and drop off.

My not-knowing was resulting in wibbly-wobbly confidence, and that was making things even harder for Jo, who is very good at his job: to constantly scan my slightest emotional cue for whether everything is okay. As he read me on that crying dropoff morning, I was ready to run for the hills.

The only way to know if running for those hills was smart or stupid was to get more information.

I set up a meeting with Jo’s teacher the next day.

The results of the meeting:
I think Jo’s teacher is doing his absolute superninjapower best to help our kids feel safe and heard and inspired. He told me the specific times of day that Jo can find him if he needs to talk or get some snuggles (not that he can’t get that throughout the day, but there are particular times when he’s more available).

This small detail was such a eureka for me, since at Jo’s preschool, there was always a grown up available for whatever social or emotional tangle came up, and now Jo is in a classroom with one teacher responsible for a whole swarm of kids. It’s felt so good to explain this to Jo and know that he has a plan for how he can access his safe grownup at school.

My biggest Eureka! of all: When Jonah would occasionally complain about there not being enough “fun time” at school and his “too serious” teacher, he was voicing my exact worries in 6-year-old terms. What I forgot myself is what I’ve been talking with Jo about this week: serious can be awesome.
Remember when you were learning to ride a bike, how serious you would get? And what came out of that? YOU CAN RIDE A BIKE. That serious was awesome! Remember how hard it was at preschool at first, when you didn’t know how to join games? And then what came out of that hard time? YOU GOT ALL YOUR PRESCHOOL FRIENDS. That hard was awesome!

In the end, I found out that the Difficult Thing is okay. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good, and I can work with it.

I can feel my confidence. I found my kindergarten mojo. And I know Jo can feel it too.

Yesterday at dinner when I asked him how school was, he gave me a big, earnest thumbs up and said “My class is awesome.”

Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.

It’s not like this fixed every issue I have with an unfairly distributed school system that emphasizes academics at the expense of emotional and creative and social intelligence. But it has calmed my fears about whether Jo’s teacher was really there to take care of him, and reminded me that my job as a parent (and Jo’s job as a kid) is changing. He’s getting older, more capable, more responsible. And, as he should, he’s being presented with bigger and (gasp!) more serious challenges.

My job is to listen to Jo, address any problems I see that need to be corrected and then shine my confidence about the school we’ve chosen. This is a good place. Your teacher has your back. Some things in your life are getting more serious, because some things about growing up are serious, and that can be totally awesome.

Rewrite: I become a six-year-old mom today

Six years ago today, this happened:

photo by our doula, Candace Palmerlee

The celebration of this day feels more significant than any other in my life. It lurched me awake at 5am this morning with memories of that exact time on this day in retrospect. It moved me to get out of my bed in my sleeping house and re-write this post I wrote 3 years ago today.

The anniversary of my birth of Jo is about returning. Every year, I circle back to the same day from farther away. Every year, I remember the same but different. Today, I remember 5am on 09/09/09. It’s not written down in the birth log that our doula wrote for us, and I can feel it more vividly than the moments we caught on video.

It was the hour we drove to the hospital. The hour that the momentum I had built over 19 hours of labor came crashing down into anger. I pissed off the triage nurse by declining a routine but optional vaginal exam. She shot me glances when I would moan with my contractions that said, “Jesus. This one is an entitled drama queen.” And so began my visit in triage–that bed in an open hallway–that lasted hours instead of minutes.

My blooming anger all but stopped my contractions, and just before we were finally admitted to a labor and delivery room, I literally peed on the floor in protest. Squatting down to the toilet was so painful that I chose to stand. The pee ran down my legs into a pool on the floor, and I barked at AJ not to clean it up. If the women who work in this place where mothers go to have babies were not going to respect me, then I wasn’t going to put myself through ripping pain to respect them.

This is the unsung triumph of my first birth: I pissed on their linoleum floor on purpose, without a lick of shame or regret.

As I set off into my 6th year as Jo’s mother, let me grow that mother stronger. The one who knew the moment when politeness and compliance weren’t useful tools anymore. The one who easily sank into her formidable, animal self.

My experience of labor and birth has expanded my emotional territory in all directions. There are sublime moments of rightness beyond knowing, and despair that can sweep me out to the furthest reaches of myself. I never knew I was so big until I started becoming a mother.

No wonder I wake when I could be sleeping to remember it.

The housewife doldrums

It’s a fuzzy pressure behind my eyes when Cal, Jo and I pad downstairs in the morning. It’s a weight pulling my shoulders forward and down after I sing “Happy Birthday pancake” (long story) and close Cal’s door for naptime.

I go there every Monday, Wednesday and Friday when I’m home with the boys.

Ah, the housewife doldrums. Where many have dangled their feet in the warm, slow waters and pondered the pots and brooms and dustpans that await them.

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Photo by me_maya

The air is thick and sleepy here. It suspends the forward march that keeps clothes folded in their drawers and pots bubbling tappity-tap-tap.

Perhaps you’ve been here too, this sort of relaxing and depressing place, where you start to become Her. The Woman you didn’t want to be.

She lives here, in the sway between doing and un-doing that is my weeks work. Washing clothes and dishes so they can get dirty, buying and growing food so it can get eaten, holding safe boundaries until strong, capable legs trample them down as they’re meant to.

In this hypnotic back and forth and back again, I forget the shape of my desires. I become The Woman who does the work that’s needed. She stares off into the distance, waiting until a small, urgent voice calls for her again.

I hate her.

She was inside that humorless, late-afternoon look my mother used to get, her slender fingers deftly dicing yet another onion for yet another meal.

Back then, I vowed never to be her. But I didn’t give her enough credit. She’s a skillful shape shifter. Why should she keep clearing space for herself when it gets filled with everyone else’s needs and wants? Conserving energy feels safer than trying.

I need to sit her down. Pour her some iced tea and rub her feet for a while. Perhaps then she might remember how to stop waiting. How to move forward with her whole self. Dustpan, desires and all.

Scripting my kids to emotional intelligence

I learned it from Kidpower, this kick ass group that taught our preschool about safety and strangers. (The reason Kidpower kicks ass is because they teach a whole boat-load of potentially freaky stuff in the spirit of personal power and curiosity, not fear.)

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Kick ass cartoon from the cover of Kidpower’s safety comic book that graces Jo’s bookshelf.

Our Kidpower trainer did it first. This very together woman with a very together haircut and strong, easy voice walked us through the classic scenarios. “You’re in a busy shop and you look up and can’t find your grown up anywhere…” Then she’d pluck a proud volunteer kid from the audience and show us all how to practice:

I’m pretending to be the lady at the cash register, and this is a time when interrupting is okay. Now put your hand on my arm right here to get my attention. Yep. Make it a firm pancake hand so I’ll notice you, and then with your strong voice say “I need help.”

The kid flopped out a nervous “i need help.”

Try again with your loud power voice like this, “I Need Help.”

“I NEED HELP!”

Great. That was perfect. Now look in my eyes and say, “I’m lost. I can’t find my grownup.”

And so it went with how to handle angry stranger kids at the playground to the pot boiling over on the stove while mom showers to a stranger delivering flowers at the front door when the babysitter is in the backyard.

That evening training was a long time ago. But something stuck with me about that self-assured gal with her self-assured hair confidently scripting our kids to safety over and over and over.

I revived her genius scripting move one afternoon when, for the 400th time, Jo had knocked Cal down or bonked him or grabbed a car out of his hands. Cal either screamed or cried or hulked out and started throwing his potty at the wall. And Jo just walked on, fiddled with the car and pretended like nothing happened.

Jo, get down low so Cal can see your face and put your arm gently on his shoulder like this and say “I’m sorry Cal. I didn’t see you there. Are you alright?”

And I’ll be damned if my big ol’ too-proud, easily embarrassed 5-year-old didn’t parrot my every little move, from the gentle hand to the kind tone of the question at the end. And Cal listened, said “Yeah.” and picked himself up.

And the band played on.

This discovery really killed me, because it stripped away my own judgement about Jo and how emotionally brutish and stunted he can seem sometimes. Underneath that stonewall is a kid who literally doesn’t know how to respond. A kid worried that he messed up, a kid confused by his little brother’s emotional toddler storm.

The thing that slays me, every time he echoes my script, is how trusting and vulnerable he has to be every time he accepts my instruction. Every time he repeats my words, and bends his wiry knees to get his face down next to Cal’s, he’s basically saying, “I totally trust you not to make me look like an idiot, Mom.” and “I have no idea what to do, so I’ll take the risk of doing something weird and new, Mom.”

It makes my tummy all jiggly just to think about it. My steely, ninja-warrior son. A sweet little wide-eyed baby bird.

So I’ve been scripting him all over the place. And he just keeps parroting me without any resistance in the world. It still shocks me, since Jo shuts down or revolts at the slightest hint of shame or anger. But the scripting has no judgement. It’s just like handing him a wrench in a moment when he needs one and saying, here’s how you fit it to the bolt. Now grab on here, and turn it this way.

Bless his sweet cotton socks.

My kid is letting me teach him.

Coming to terms with preschool graduation

Until just now, I found the thought of pre-school graduation mildly sickening. Something for wealthy kids in uniforms, for overly sentimental, clingy parents who iron their pants.

But here I am. Looking forward to it. Wanting it. Needing a ceremony to help me say goodbye to the school that has been a refuge for me as a parent-in-training.

Jo’s school is a co-op, so I, like all the other parents, have been required to teach there once a week. Monday mornings for the past 2 years have been me, 4 other parents dosing caffeine, 2 teaching professionals and swarm of 26 pre-schoolers.

That first year was about recovering from the shame of having a very phyiscal boy. I just kept showing up every week, peeling Jo’s hot fist out of another kid’s hair, taking a deep breath as I helped the train kids put their track back together after Jo crashed through on his way to the bookshelf. The teachers there kept reminding me of Jo’s goodness. And the other parents didn’t cast me out. Sometimes, their kids acted like neanderthals too, which was always a relief.

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Snack time was also a relief.

This second year has been about slowing down and listening. “I see that you both want to sit in the same chair. What should we do?” And then I just stay there in the silence that follows, crouched down, looking at their open faces. “No. I can’t let you take the chair away. I’m going to hold it right here while we figure out what to do.” Then Voila! after 3 LONG minutes of questions, tears and ideas, it’s over. “Oh, you wanted the chair because it’s red and she wanted it because it’s next to a friend. Let’s get that other chair and move it over here too.”

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These last weeks I’ve been surveying the dreamy landscape we’ve all created. Watching from afar as two kids tugging at the same cape decide to wear hats instead. Looking up from the tire swing to see a trio working out how to let another kid in on the magic ninja freeze tag game. And feeling like we belong. Because sometimes, other parents look just as cracked-out as me when they drop off their older kid with a sweaty, hollering toddler in tow.

What a gift it has been to have this school embrace Jo and me as we are. Unshowered and exhausted, kicking and screaming, easy and playful, nervous and open. Somehow, there’s been enough room for all of it.

Damn it. I’m totally going to be in the front row. Sitting in a chair too small for me. And crying all over myself at effing pre-school graduation.

Learning to feed my hunger

I will never let another pair of pants tell me I’m fat again.

This from the mouth of my friend Rachael, as she speared another piece of perfectly roasted cauliflower off of the plate in front of us. We met for drinks, Rachael and I, and as the fathers of our children readied our kids for bed, we ordered another cocktail.

I eyed that tiny plate of cauliflower with resentment. It was so good. And there was so little. What a tease tapas can be.

R’s declaration convinced me of what I already knew—I must go buy new jeans.

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Familiar, anyone?

Oh, the ever changing expanse of the post partum body. I’ve been rail thin with huge boobs to very squishy and everything in between. The rail-thinness was the product of exhaustion, depression, and breastfeeding in my first four months with Jo. I remember being stunned by the sight of myself in the mirror after a shower–I finally had the body I’d been told to strive for. It was strange and thrilling to see it on me. And I enjoyed it, guiltily, like a $50 bill you find on a busy street. Does this really belong to me? I didn’t work for it. It simply came through suffering over those early months of becoming a mother.

My current squishy reality, were I to guess, is the product of going to dance class less, breastfeeding less, and a little practice I’ll call The Celebration. It starts around 8:30 most nights when the boys are in bed. AJ will make some popcorn. I’ll grab another glass of wine and the cheese puffs. And then we’ll trot out a pint of ice cream while watching some show on the computer. It’s such a miracle to Eat and Watch without having to share or explain to the children. To be left alone to make terrible health choices and then to fall asleep on the couch. Don’t ask about the couple weeks when I worked through a box of 24 Haagen Dazs ice cream bars.

The Celebration also unfurled itself during the first few months of my job. It was just so miraculous to sit, unfettered at a desk—no one needing a snack or crying or hitting. So I would buy a tub of dark chocolate peanut butter cups at Trader Joe’s and polish of half (or more!) in an afternoon. Partytime.

The women’s group I attend every month? It is an oasis. Smart, interesting, engaged women, their beautiful child-free homes, wine and food. Last month, when I walked in, I thought, “Get ready, self. Time to over-eat.” I do it every time. The Rosé and cheese platter and berries with homemade whipped cream are just so damned abundant and miraculous that I have to pack it in so that it will last until next month.

I’ve felt uneasy about The Celebrations, just as I feel uneasy inside my jeans. And it took writing this to really see it:

I’ve gone and confused food with relaxation.

One feeds my body. The other, my soul.

In the confusion, both my body and soul have gotten squishy.

When I’m experiencing a significant break, rest, respite from the relentlessness of motherhood, I pack food into myself. As though the food will tide me over until next time.

It doesn’t.

And then, instead of really sinking into the moment, feeling the rest, the support, the entertainment, I zone out on food.

This week, I’ve been reading Women Food and God, and I tripped over this sentence several times because it was such a zinger.

To discover what you really believe…pay attention to the way you eat. You will quickly discover if you believe the world is a hostile place and that you need to be in control of the immediate universe for things to go smoothly. You will discover if you believe that there is not enough to go around and that taking more than you need is necessary for survival.

Guess which one I am, piling more sesame noodle salad onto my plate at my woman’s group like it’s the last meal I’ll see for days?

So, I’m turning over a new leaf. The concept of mindful or intuitive eating. I learned about it from this insightful TED Talk, and while at first I was left laughing off the possibility of mindful eating, it’s been surprisingly helpful in practise:

I eat what I want when I’m hungry. Eat till I’m full. If I’m not hungry, and I want to eat, pause the food train and be in the moment.

It’s felt like a homecoming to listen to and trust my body.

The new jeans aren’t too bad either.

My wish about my dreams

I’m gonna fly in the face of the wives’ tale and tell you the wish I wished yesterday as Jo and I blew out my birthday candles together. It was this: for my dreams to come back.

Is it motherhood or just good, old fashioned adulthood that clamped a lid down on the dream-spinning version of myself? That 20-something gal who would hatch a plan like working on organic farms in New Zealand and then incubate it till the shell broke open and she found herself standing, dazed, on a South Island beach with a backpack and some mix tapes.

At this very minute, sitting at my dining room table while Cal naps, these are my dreams:

  • To save some money when Jo starts going to public school in the fall
  • That Calvin will start sleeping well enough that we can move him out of our room and into Jo’s
  • A flexible career that will pay me well for my emotional intelligence, creativity and people skills
  • To be at peace with my squishy belly

Ok, so I’ve got some dreams. But I miss the sexy ones. The ones that feel more like an adventure and less like a project.

Growing older feels like a steady process of pruning my dreams back to reality. Consolidating the fruit to where I can reach it–a weekend in the city with AJ, a flexible, part time job, extra money in the bank.

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And if I tug on that thread just a little bit more, I arrive at this: It’s seeming like my life is going to be a little less grand and important and special than I originally thought.

In my adolescence, I genuinely believed I had a strong shot at becoming President of the United States. In high school, I had high-powered business woman fantasies (with images heavily stocked from the movie Baby Boom (!) which greatly impacted my life in other ways). College was all activism–ending hunger and homelessness, liberating sweatshop workers, reforming corporations. I felt reasonably sure I could save the world in a very high-profile way.

At the ripe old age of 36, I’ve scaled back. I don’t expect that greatness and achievement anymore. There’s relief in letting it go. And also defeat.

I try to invest my time, energy and dreaming in smaller, daily things that make me happy: sitting in the sun watching the chickens preen, climbing trees with Jo, a really good strawberry.

But I can’t help but wonder if I’ve pruned back too far.

In the name of realism, have I cut back parts of myself that would have grown into something inspiring and brilliant?

Is it having kids, or risk of failure, pessimism, laziness–what? that keeps me from stretching out into that ambitious dream space again?

The swoon and growl of baby making

I spent the morning with a friend whose 2 boys are the same age as mine–her first is 9 days older, her second is 9 days younger. I love the symmetry there.

She’s rounding out nicely with baby number 3 and told me with a knowing grin that they had the test–it’s another boy and we laughed and joked. She admitted that sure, there’s a pull she feels towards having a girl, but the boy will be just fine, she’d expected it. A couple of times, after running over to distract her middle son from overly smother-hugging another kid, she said, “I must be crazy. I don’t want another baby.” This was the ‘I don’t want another baby’ of the ‘I’ll totally have the baby, but Lord, what was I thinking?’ variety. The anticipation of something you know will be both joyous and hellish. Admitting you might have been overly optimistic before sperm met egg. You can see now that this thing you made will take what you have and then some.

And before that, I stood on the sidewalk listening to another pregnant friend, who also just found out she’s having another boy. I hugged her for a long time and let her have her anguish. I knew how much she wanted a girl. I saw the craving and dream in her eyes as we sat with our boys in the sand one afternoon. Given the teeny-tinyest Godly spark, her energy and intention and manifesting magic would have crafted a fully formed and smartly dressed girl baby right there in the sandbox between us. But instead, she made a baby the heterosexual way, and his penis and scrotum, or whatever comes before those are fully formed, are floating all sea-anenome-like in his watery cocoon. I found a strange comfort in her wrecked grief.

Maybe because it balances out the giddy joy I see in other pregnant ladies that I can’t relate to–rather, could relate to but can’t anymore. Maybe because it carves out ever more emotional territory for all of us in a life that can seem one day magical and fated and the next utterly bereft.

There’s something about that time on the verge of creation when you just open up your arms to the sky in welcome. And then boom. The shift into form–from the hazy fluff of what might be into the sure and solid thud of what is.

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“Tiny Roots” by Todd Moon

There’s such a thrill to the idea that you could make a whole, alive person. And sometimes a terror in realizing you have.

Creation is no joke.

Given the chance to root, it so greedily becomes its own thing. Just like we did once, inside our own mothers.

Why complaining makes me happy

I’m an excellent faker.

Surface, social me is deeply devoted to lots of smiling and genuine, Mid-Western eye-contact. My interactions are all unconsciously coated in a thick glaze of I-exist-to-make-sure-you-feel-fantastic. I exude happy and approachable, regardless of my internal state.

During sophomore year of college, a friend formed the outline of a rectangle with his thumbs and pointer fingers, and he looked at my face through the frame. “You? Depressed?” Then he shook his head in disbelief. Actually, I was horribly depressed that endless, grey winter. I flirted briefly with the thought of suicide and wept in a bathroom stall.

During that time and every time I’ve felt bad since, the thing that makes me feel most crazy, most removed and despondent and numb and afraid is when people think I’m fine.

Thankfully, I don’t feel so misunderstood anymore.

I’ve learned to complain.

I’ve learned to inject some aliveness and truth into the litany of the How Are You’s. Like last week, at my office. “Well, I’m pretty terrible actually. Cal screamed bloody murder about his awful diaper rash most of the night, and I feel like a twitchy Army Vet with PTSD. How are you?” And then I walk on with my coffee cup to my desk. Feeling like a whole, real person.

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Photo by Oakley Originals

I know this whole idea would be a lot more palatable if I called it “truth-telling” or “venting” or “being honest.” But those are Have A Nice Day words for what I’m actually doing. The thing that helps me feel redeemed and engaged and more happy with my life is complaining.

Since before Christmas, I’ve been in and out of some dark days. Feeling trapped by parenthood, bitterly resentful towards AJ, tired and bored. I fell into a conversation with my mom over our holiday, and she said, “Well, it just seems like things are going really well for you.” I refused to take the Faker Bait. “Actually, things aren’t going that well. I’ve been having a really hard time.” And then I cleared out every gripe I could find, and laid them all at her feet, like evidence. It was cathartic to set things straight. With my angry little pile of troubles taking up some space between us, I felt known by my mother. It felt good.

So why does complaining, that life-giving art that I’ve recently discovered, get such a bad rap?

Duh. Everyone hates a complainer. Even I hate a complainer.

But there’s a difference between complaining and being a complainer. Being a complainer is looking at the world through sad, complainer glasses, where everything you see is some degree of sucky. Complaining, rather, is sharing about the sucky things that are happening in your life at that moment. You can choose to engage in complaining or not. And the minute you’re done complaining, you can do some reflecting or celebrating or enjoying. That’s the great thing about verbs. And complaining.

There’s also this:

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You need not look far to find dozens of reasons how and why you should commit to your own happiness through gratitude, not sweating the small stuff and looking on the bright side. If we all took these directives to heart, perhaps ours would be a world of happy, appreciative, stress-free, smiling people. I suspect a significant number of them would be secretly crying in bathroom stalls and thinking about suicide between gratitude sessions.

I think gratitude is incredibly helpful. It can re-frame all sorts of things and breathe life into cold, hard places. In our current cultural moment, it’s offered as a cure-all, and like any tool, sometimes it’s not suited for the job. Gratitude is not my go-to choice when I’m strung out on sleep exhaustion, angry at my husband and a good friend asks how I’m doing. Complaining is. That’s because it helps me feel known. It acknowledges my current reality. It takes the air out of my angry, resentful, pitiful place, which frees up some space that can be filled with other things, even–gasp–gratitude.

Gratitude and complaining are different tools for the same job–both have the ability to connect us with our lived experience and people we care about. Depending on the situation, both tools can have the exact opposite effect. Noticing things I’m grateful for when I’m swimming in pitiful seas might give me some perspective and remind me that there are also nice things within reach. Listing gratitudes can also make me feel angry, invisible, patronized, lonely and misunderstood. Same goes for the complaining–it can be alternately liberating or toxic.

Since I’ve been having a pretty crappy time of it, complaining has been my tool of choice. And it’s done quite a job. Again and again, I’ve found myself basking in a post-complaint glow where I’m lighter, kinder and feel more love and appreciation. Take that, gratitude.

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Photo, once again, by Oakley Originals.  Complaining by me.