These are my daughters. They are 12 and 10, more young women now than little girls. They are far and away the best thing I’ve ever done.
Being their mom is a dream job. It hasn’t always been an easy one (those early years, especially the newborn and toddler phase, nearly took me down), and I know I can’t coast forever (teenager-dom looms), but right now it feels like we’re in a sweet spot.
They are interesting and interested. They are smart and beautiful and confident and adjusted, and it makes me proud to know I had something to do with that.
They like to hang out with me and listen to music — what I love as well as what they’re finding and appreciating on their own now. They like to share books and talk about them. They’re hilarious and clever. They tell me how they feel and what’s happening in their lives. They hug and kiss me at random times, just because they feel like it, and they let me do that too. The younger one, Sara, still climbs into my bed to snuggle every morning.
And even when Kate, the older one, acts like the brooding preteen she is, I don’t get that bothered. I remember it well, and she deserves her time wallowing in it too. (It’s kind of beautiful to watch.)
As aware as I am of this being a time of suspended sweetness, it’s also clear that a shift is happening — not for them, but for me.
My role is changing. They don’t need me as much as they used to. We are not in literal physical contact all day, and we truthfully once were, a decade ago. Now, they spend more time away from me than with me. They can do a lot of things for themselves (almost everything, really) that I used to have to do for them.
There is some sadness in this, yes, but it’s that bittersweet kind that actually feels really good.
I’m starting to find swaths of time and space for myself again. Not just stolen hours.
And the poise I see in the two of them feels like a thank-you from the universe: You did a good job. You are released.
I realize I’m not, not really — not by a long shot. They are only halfway through the time it takes to become an adult. Middle school, high school, and college await. And even after they are grown up, they will be mine and I will be theirs.
But there’s an easefulness in our relationship right now that I appreciate and savor. And I feel things starting to open in a new way.
This month used to just be the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don’t know how much I ever really noticed it. Gone are the warm, vivid days of early fall; the leaves are almost all off the trees, and the wind turns colder. Before, I guess, I didn’t think there was much to see or feel about it. It was a trudge toward my favorite holiday, that day of gratitude and good food, after which it would just get cold and dark and miserable for at least three months.
Perhaps it was growing up in Chicago that made me hate the cold so much. Of course I enjoyed being out in the snow as a kid; I can remember making huge forts during some of the blizzards of my childhood. But as I got older I mostly just hurried myself from inside to inside, getting through the bitter, icy outdoors as quickly as I could. Huddling under a layer of blankets so heavy in my cold, dark bedroom that I almost couldn’t breathe. Biding my time until it got warm again and I could emerge.
Then, in November of 2003, I had a baby. It was November 5, to be exact. The day before she was born, it was warm enough that I could walk to the nail salon in my Brooklyn neighborhood in flip-flops for my last pedicure before motherhood, the leaves on the sidewalk crunching around my bare toes. A few days later, when we took her home, it was cold enough to see your breath, and I worried that the heaters in our apartment building had not yet kicked on, that she’d freeze to death.
Two years later I had another baby, this time in late November, on the 23rd — the day before Thanksgiving. She was born in Hawaii (you can read about that here), where it was, of course, hot and sunny; her first beach day was when she was only a few days old. Then we swaddled her in blankets and got back on the plane, went home to the cold, where I could see the skeletal branches of the tree outside my bedroom window while I nursed my new daughter.
Becoming a mother made me notice the passage of time in a new way. Those early days were measured in minutes and hours, and going outside into the fresh, brisk air was a relief after being cocooned inside with a newborn, or — worse — a newborn and a toddler.
The month of things curling into themselves, moving back toward the earth to sleep, became for me the time when new life began. I took my first daughter out for long walks in her stroller, in Prospect Park; no longer did I barricade myself inside for the duration. I not only went outside; I stayed outside, for hours. I looked around me. The bare branches of the trees were sharp and angular against the sky; the leaves still clinging to them were lovely in their starkness. I noticed how the sunlight was whiter and clearer — purer — and how the breath moved more easily through my lungs. In late afternoon, the early twilight felt thrilling and heartbreaking. It often brought tears to my eyes (sometimes it still does).
November became a sacred space for me.
This year my older daughter turned 10; my younger one is almost 8. Each year I honor this month as the time I came alive to the cold seasons and saw them for what they are — a beautiful, contemplative time when the earth takes its rest.
I also honor this month as the time I became a mother, which taught me to see everything differently.
I am nothing if not sentimental. I love photographs, letters and yearbooks, old school awards and report cards, ticket stubs from national monuments and museums and programs from theater productions. A huge cardboard box of Duran Duran posters, pins, books, magazine pictures, and even stories I wrote about the members of the band (never mind) is still tucked away in the closet of my bedroom in the house where I grew up.
When it comes to my children — I still have certain tiny outfits they wore as babies that I won’t get rid of. Scraps of paper upon which they scrawled their first drawings, then letters and words. Video clips of them singing together where I hardly recognize them, they’re so little. Art projects from preschool and kindergarten.
As they move through elementary school, I keep fewer of the papers that pile up. But I still treat some of the things that pass through their hands (and backpacks) as relics. And I put my phone in their faces to snap pictures every chance I get.
It’s important to me to document life in these ways.
All that said, I can also be ruthless about getting rid of things. Clothes that no longer fit? Bye. I’d say the same about clothes I just haven’t worn in decades, but I never keep them long enough. When I finally got around to going through a cabinet of old bills and other files a few years ago, I relished the task of getting rid of all that paper. Even books, items I thoroughly love — if it’s something I didn’t like, or just thought was okay, I am happy to let it go, to make room for future tomes I might treasure and keep forever.
So. Sentimental, yes, most definitely. But a clean slate also appeals.
I am a homebody — I inhabit a space thoroughly when I’m in it. But as it turns out, I am also able to move to the next place fairly easily. Each time we’ve moved since we came to the East Coast — from our Hoboken apartment to one in Brooklyn, then to two other places in Brooklyn and finally to the little South Orange house where we’ve thus far raised our daughters — I have made a point to take one last walk through the empty space and acknowledge that I loved it there before closing the front door for the last time. It doesn’t feel painful to do that; it feels wonderful, a beautiful ritual. I actually look forward to doing it when we move from here, whenever that might be.
Somehow along the way I’ve understood that the buildings where so much of our lives happen aren’t really dependent on brick and mortar for their significance. I can truly say I’ve loved all of my homes, from the very first one on North Bernard Street in Chicago to my college dorm rooms (okay, maybe not the freshman year one so much, though I did love my roommate) and apartments, to all the places I’ve lived as an adult. But despite being someone who cherishes symbols in a lot of ways, I have been able to locate myself where I am, and not necessarily in the places I’ve been.
Yet, there is a learning curve. And I’m still very much on that curve. As much as I’m confident, even exhilarated, about moving from one physical space to another, moving away from circumstances, situations, feelings and people can be a different story.
Still, the example of moving house helps me to navigate those more complicated leavetakings.
If you imagine yourself as a tortoise, with your home on your back, it becomes a little easier — or at least less scary — to think about moving on. Everything you need, you take with you. The things you don’t — they can go.
I like to think about the neighborhoods and towns where I’ve lived the way I think of my college town — even though I’m not there anymore, it’s still there, and it’s still mine.
Everything is like that, I think. Everything you cherish, everything you find significant, the things you want to remember: You carry them with you. Whether or not you’ve got hard evidence — photographs or letters, the people who shared those things with you still in your life — it’s all there.
Well, it’s April, and I’ve finally come up with my word/concept/idea for 2013: gratitude.
It seems like such a simple little thing, practically a cliché. Why exactly did it take me so long to come to it? I sat with a few other things: softness, stillness, here-ness. I’ll come back to those again in the coming months.
But something about the spring sun and some purple crocuses I saw blooming in an ordinary suburban strip-mall parking lot this morning made me think: I’m grateful.
I’m grateful for the health and happiness of my loved ones–especially my daughters, who are smart and funny and thriving and simply glorious creatures. I’m grateful that I get to have something to do with their lives and their upbringing.
I’m grateful that my husband likes his new job, enjoys being a part of community theater, and just seems more content lately than he has in quite a while.
I’m grateful for the amazing community I live in, full of some of the smartest, coolest, most interesting, talented, engaged and committed people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’m especially grateful for the network of fellow parents–if ever there was a village, SOMA is it.
I’m grateful for friends who let me be myself, who truly get me, and allow me to give the same gift back to them.
I’m grateful for my self-awareness, which I’ve cultivated with a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the past five years or so. I’m especially grateful for the realization that physical awareness and wellness makes a huge impact on psychological, emotional and spiritual awareness and wellness.
I’m grateful that I have a beautiful, natural place where I go to run and enjoy the weather (good or bad) and the quiet and the light and the stillness and the familiar faces I pass regularly each time I’m there.
I’m grateful for yoga and all the ways it’s helped me to fall into place.
I’m grateful for words to read and write and for music to hear and sing and dance to.
I’m grateful to be more clear than I’ve ever been about what’s important.
When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. — John Ruskin
I’ve been thinking about how we are each responsible for our own care.
So often, so many other things and people come first: boss, kids, spouse, parents, friends. We beat ourselves up for not hitting the mark, for not being everything we can to them, not realizing that we can’t even come near that (unrealistic) goal if our focus veers so very far away from ourselves.
We pay lip service to the “Take some me time” concept. But in general we put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list. “Me” is the line item we let slide, the one that can wait.
We treat hearts, our minds, our bodies like a tin can or a paper bag: disposable, temporary, unimportant. We should treat ourselves like a masterpiece — fragile, rare, special — and care for ourselves in kind.
This takes two things: love and skill.
The first step is being kind to yourself.
Most people are used to being hard on themselves, noticing every flaw and every slip-up and then punishing themselves for it, over and over and over. They’re so willing to let other people pile on with their actions and comments — so willing to let other people’s issues cut to their quick. They eschew boundaries completely and leave themselves open to any hurt that might float their way, or they build a wall so tall and strong that nothing is getting in or out. They dismiss their feelings and opinions as worthless, not valuable. They work so hard to make others happy that there’s nothing left for them.
Being kind to yourself is a choice. You can decide to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to know yourself better. There are lots of ways to do it. Eating better. Exercise. Therapy. Meditation. Books. Music. Friends with a ready shoulder and ear. Taking real, quality time away from work and other responsibilities. Considering what you love and what makes you happy, and making it a priority to get more of that into your life. Making all of these things a priority — scheduling them in like you do everything else, all the meetings and errands and things that don’t matter nearly as much.
Then you need skill. Tools for creating the proper boundaries — ones that leave space around your protected center, your heart, but that are also porous, allowing you be open to other people, to life. Tools for identifying your emotions and learning how to engage with them and move through them instead of letting them control and hurt you. Tools for learning how to let go and believe that the universe has your back. Tools for learning to engage with yourself, the people around you, and the world, so that you can feel real joy and freedom.
The most important part? Engaging with yourself. That’s what we let ourselves look at the least, what we’re least practiced at.
It’s a huge responsibility, but we need to take it on if we want our experience here on earth to be as full and deep as it can be. And truth be told, shouldering it is not nearly as exhausting as avoiding it.
You don’t have to do it alone. There are people around you who love you and will be happy to remind you of it, who will tell you in minute detail exactly what’s amazing about you, whenever you need them to. (To that end, I highly recommend a regular Dharma Dinner.) All you need to do is reach out and ask.
All the work will be worth it. Feeling yourself transformed into a masterpiece is true bliss.
The words at left were written by my younger daughter, Sara, on her dry erase board. I’m not sure what moved her to write them; it wasn’t me telling her to clean her room or brush her teeth. Here’s what it says (it kind of reminds me of an e.e. cummings poem): I do my best mama/Mama I’m not trying to be mean but when you say to clen my room I try my best to clen my room and when you say to brash my teth I try my best to brash my teth and that is all I want to say
Maybe she’d just been carrying these thoughts around since the last time I asked her to do such things. At any rate, it touched me, and it made me think.
One thing it made think is that I’m completely fascinated by this little girl. She’s the daughter I look at and wonder, “Where did you come from, and how can I be more like you?”
It also made me think, appropriately, of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Because agreement number four is Always do your best.
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
I find it interesting that he leads with the fact that your best is going to vary day to day, depending on how you’re feeling physically, and, I think it’s understood, emotionally. He offers an invitation off the bat to not be hard on yourself about doing your best. (This is such a service to those perfectionists among us.) If you always aspire to do your best, in the parameters within which you find yourself, you will have no regrets.
Of course, it’s not always easy to be okay with the fact that your “best” on a given day doesn’t even feel like what you’d consider “good.”
For all the love I profess for this book and for these ideas, as much as I strive to use them in my life, and as much as I’ve seen and felt them working for me, I often fall short.
As a Cancer I have a tendency, when I perceive that I’ve been hurt, to hide in my hard little shell and snap with my claws at anyone who might come near to discuss it, or just to chat because they don’t even have a clue that they’ve hurt me.
I know this doesn’t serve me. It involves taking things personally, making assumptions, and not being impeccable with my word (because the only word I’m thinking at that point probably starts with an “f” and goes along with “you”). And then I might fall back on the self-judging thought that “I’m being too sensitive” or the self-abusing decision that my feelings aren’t legitimate, don’t matter: I’m overreacting. I don’t have a right to be hurt and mad. It’s not their fault, it’s mine.
Well, at least I’m aware that I’m doing it.
On days when you feel good, and things seem pretty effortless, it’s easy to speak up for yourself, to ask for what you need, to let people’s comments and issues roll off of you without getting in any digs of your own. It’s easier to embrace and own your feelings, because they feel good. It’s harder to do this on days when you feel bad, or when you’re going along feeling good and then suddenly something stops you up and makes you feel bad. Instead of letting yourself have your feelings and making an informed decision about what to do with them, you might just lash out at whoever caused them even while you deny to yourself that they matter.
In yoga, we talk about the fact that you feel different in your body each day. Some days you’re clear, alert and strong; your warrior poses feel rock-steady, and you can push up easily into a backbend. Other days you’re muddy, and everything just feels yucky. You just want to crumple to the ground and crawl out of class.
All you can ask of yourself on either kind of day is to make your best effort and try not to get frustrated. Because whatever efforts you make toward the poses, you’re going to feel better in the end.
So when tears of anger or hurt brim in my eyes and I feel myself pulling into that shell and hissing mean words under my breath, I try to breathe more deeply and maybe just sit with it. Take my time deciding how I should react, and what I can do to feel better. Try not to do or say anything rash.
Do my best, like Sara.
It’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.
The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.
I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.
This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:
Say how I feel.
Ask for what I need.
Make eye contact.
Stand on both feet.
Use a firm, clear tone of voice.
Ask a question.
Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.
Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.
Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.
Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.
It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.