When the superintendent announced our schools would not open this fall for face-to-face instruction, I wasn’t surprised. We were in the middle of a pandemic. Perhaps it was my intuition; maybe it was my natural tendency to prepare for the worst… most likely it was a little bit of both. For whatever reason, a deep sense of knowing had taken root in my gut for months. No, I was not surprised. In fact, I expected it. But that doesn’t mean I wanted it.
The pandemic changed everything.
I’ve looked forward to August 2020 for years. Literally counting down until the time all three of my children would be in school full time. (I even scheduled a celebration pool party three years in advance). After 10 1/2 years as a stay at home mom of small children, I was ready to finally have some kid-free time.
I daydreamed about going to the bathroom by myself, making a phone call without being interrupted, and actually hearing myself think.
Every morning last year, as my youngest son and I headed home after walking the older two to school, I visualized my future mornings. Maybe I’d leisurely take the long way home before working on my book for hours with out interruption. Finally I would not have to wait until 9:00pm to have a moment of silence.
Then the pandemic hit.
The Fall I ‘ve been looking forward to, planning for, and counting down to is weeks away. And it looks drastically different than the one in my daydreams. And I am one of the lucky ones. My husband is employed and able to support us. I acknowledge my enormous amount of privilege in this situation. If my biggest problem is I won’t get any “me” time, I understand I am extremely fortunate.
Yet the school year looms ahead with more unknowns that I can articulate. And the weight of the responsibility of making sure my three small boys’ educational needs are met on a daily basis feels crushing. I adore our neighborhood elementary school and applaud the teachers who are skilled, experienced, and educated in their field. And even though I worked for a decade in schools, I was not and am not a teacher.
I am not trained to teach my 5-year-old how to read. My almost 8-year-old still refuses to read out loud at home, and my 10-year-old knows more about science and math already than I do. It is all overwhelming.
An Unwanted Plot Twist
The Corona Virus has thrown a plot twist into the lives of everyone I know. If I am not careful, I could easily drown in the hurricane of anxiety and obsessive thoughts that are swirling through the air we are all breathing. Staying in recovery from the eating disorder I battled for more than half my life requires I stretch every recovery muscle I have ever developed while also building new ones. When I lived in an eating disorder, I believed I could control outcomes by controlling my body.
Recovery taught me that was actually an illusion of control. It requires I let go of trying to control, plan out, predict, and prepare for every possible outcome. It requires I connect deep within my own soul to the wise intuition and learn to sit in the discomfort of the unknown and trust.
Recovery has also taught me to embrace the fluidity of life and the cyclical nature of our existence.
Just like my body was never meant to stay the same my entire life or fit a rigid mold, our lives also are constantly changing. Relationships, circumstances, environments, careers… EVERYTHING is always changing. When I resist the changes I only make life harder for myself. When I accept what is, it reduces suffering and frees me to be present and show up. Recovery also demands I recognize and own my power. Simultaneously I have to welcome mistakes as tools for learning and evidence of my humanness, to trust the process, and remember that resilience is born from “failures” and struggle.
Surviving the Changes that Come with a Pandemic
Without recovery, I know this plot twist would crush me. In the past, I would have wanted to crawl under my bed and hide from the world. Today, instead of focusing on how unfair and scary everything is, instead of getting sucked into self-doubt and criticism, and instead of being swept away by the anxiety whirling around me, I feel a knowing deep within me. It is a quiet knowing that it will be ok, that I can handle this, and that I have the wisdom to figure it out as I go. I know that this school year will have ups and downs and that it won’t be perfect. It won’t even be close to perfect. But we will figure it out, together, one day at a time. One moment at a time.
One thing that has made the past 5 months challenging is the lack of an obvious “finish line,” when Corona Virus will be gone. There is no light at the end of the tunnel that we can see right now when life will return to “normal” (whatever that even means). But rather than cower and hide in the dark, I am choosing to use the skills I have learned and the strength I have found in recovery to find my own light. Hopefully, I can share my light with others, and when my light dims, perhaps yours will guide my way. And in the pit of the darkest moments, I will dig deep and use my own light to guide me. And I will find the joy and beautiful moments within the journey. Because that truly is what life is all about.
Something happened with a song today. I have to tell you about it.
At the risk of dating myself, I admit Ally McBeal was one of my favorite TV shows back in the day. Filled with hilarious story lines the show was about a quirky lawyer working with an ex-boyfriend she still had feelings for. While it’s been more than two decades since I watched her, suddenly I’ve been thinking about Ally and her adventures. Maybe because our surreal world today feels more like an episode of TV than actual reality.
One of the most ridiculous storylines centered around Ally’s therapy sessions. Going to therapy is certainly not ridiculous. Personally I’ve been on both sides of the couch. But the therapist played by Tracy Ullman used absurd and outrageous tactics to “help” her client. In one of my all-time favorite episodes, as Ally vented about her latest drama, the therapist matter of factly advised:
And while I would never endorse some of her techniques (like using a remote control to play audio of hysterical laughter mid-session or calling a patient “nuts,”) all of a sudden I realized I HAVE been utilizing THIS piece of advice. Without even meaning to, amidst a world pandemic, I have started using my very own theme song to cope with my difficulties. And I recommend you pick a theme song today too. It can change everything.
How It Happened:
After years of struggling with an eating disorder, I recognize anxiety and depression underlie my battle. And nothing can reignite mental illness like a worldwide pandemic resulting in a shelter in place order and the cancellation of school. Add in fear, an unknown future, nonstop news coverage of the rising numbers of death, a dramatic change in our “normal way of life,” and my own fears about loved ones who are “high risk”… and I easily felt my world spinning out of control.
And so it was time to dust off my toolbox and break out any and every coping skill I could. I have limited my exposure to 24-hour news coverage, I have immersed myself into recovery resources, reached out to friends for support, connected with a therapist, and set some much-needed boundaries. And I turned to another favorite coping tool- music.
After waking up several days in a row with the familiar feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, I decided to find a song to play. As I made my bed, the lyrics from Rise Up by Andra Day filled my room. Somewhere in the back corners of my cobweb filled brain, I noticed a minuscule shift. It was not huge or obvious. More like one tiny rock from the enormous pile of boulders currently crushing my chest had been lifted.
The rest of my day felt insignificant; much like the one that came before it and the one that came after it. But I made a conscious choice to start playing that song every day while making my bed. A few days later, I caught myself humming the song as I buzzed around our chaotic kitchen fixing breakfast for my boys and preparing for another day of involuntary homeschooling.. Again, the ever so tiny shift happened deep within me. And so I continued playing the song while making my bed. Until a week or two later (who knows, my days are all running together now), when I woke up extra grumpy and skipped turning on the song. As I sloppily pulled the comforter over tangled sheets, I was stunned when suddenly, in my head,
I heard the lyrics of the song:
“You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry go round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains”
I laughed at myself (as soon as I ruled out auditory hallucinations) because without realizing it, I had paired making my bed with this song. It is a perfect example of classical conditioning from good old Ivan Pavlov. And it was totally unintentional. And equally magical. As I threw pillows on the bed, I heard more:
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
It was true. I didn’t want to rise out of bed. I wanted to crawl under it. But Andra Day was singing, in my head, reminding me I could get up. I would get up. For my three children. For my husband. For Andra. And for myself.
And I’ll rise up
High like the waves
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousands times again
And so, Rise Up by Andra Day has become my official theme song.
And I strongly suggest you find your own song. You don’t have to play it when you make your bed. You don’t even have to make your bed. The key is to pair it with something you do every day. (Psychologists have known about this little trick for years. Pairing a new habit with something you already do daily increases the chances of the new habit sticking). Most importantly, choose a song that speaks to your soul. One that helps lift one tiny rock from the enormous pile of boulders currently crushing your chest. Because we are all feeling the weight of the world right now. And music is one of the most powerful healing tools we all have.
I recently added a second theme song: Living in the Moment by Jason Mraz for the days when getting out of bed isn’t as much of a challenge. I would LOVE to hear from you. What songs inspire you? And what songs move you to get out of bed and face the day? Consider what songs keep you connected to your purpose? Please comment below!
When I joined the local chapter of MOMS Club almost ten years ago, I had no idea what lay ahead in the next decade. Becoming a mother turned my world completely upside down, as I learned an entirely new way of being. Thankfully connecting with other women in various stages of this journey called motherhood helped tremendously. While the purpose of MOMS Club is to support other moms (it literally stands for Moms Offering Moms Support), sometimes it was easy to forget this intention and focus more on the children than supporting each other.
I had NO IDEA that a worldwide pandemic would remind me, once again, the true purpose of MOMS Club. Because now that we are all ordered to “shelter in place,” we can no longer meet at the park, offer our little ones an assortment of snacks, and enjoy an adult conversation while our children happily play. I miss holding babies for younger members while they run their toddler to the bathroom. I long for the day when my children will squeal with delight as they chase their friends through the grass. I miss it more than I realized I would.
And yet, I feel something familiar happening. With this worldwide crisis- my life has once again been turned upside down. And once more, I am grateful to find comfort through connection with other moms. No longer able to gather for playdates and activities, we have gotten back to the purpose of our group- Moms Offering Moms Support. Our leaders have been creative, setting up new ways for us to connect virtually. On our first call, we asked questions and gained information from two of our own members who currently work on the front lines in the battle against COVID 19. Listening to words of wisdom from a family doctor and a nurse who are also friends was helpful, comforting, and informative. I felt empowered with knowledge and more importantly- connected to the women I am on this motherhood journey with. This week we had our second call and were joined by a counselor who discussed the importance of self-care through this crisis.
One by one, as courageous moms opened up and shared their experiences during this crisis, a theme emerged. The feeling of “mom guilt” was a thread that wove our unique experiences together connecting us all. Without the breaks of school and the connections with other moms at playdates, and the added responsibility of “distance learning” our older children, we all feel the pressure and experience guilt of not being “good enough.” In many ways, adjusting to this new life feels like starting motherhood all over again, only this time with bigger (and more) children.
Every mom I know shares some similarities. We love our children. And at times we fear we are failing our children. It is no surprise we are feeling the strain of doing it all while also putting ourselves last. For decades a “good mom” has been portrayed in our society as one who takes care of everyone else first, who does not complain, and whose needs come last. The problem is- this simply is not realistic or sustainable.
We are all better moms when we value ourselves enough to prioritize our needs alongside the needs of our loved ones.
One of my long time friends told me years ago, “Lisette- you HAVE to learn to take care of yourself. Because as the mom- YOU are the captain of the ship. And if MAMMA goes down, the entire ship goes down.” And boy was she right.
So, how do we combat the feelings of guilt as we hesitate to ask for a half an hour of undisturbed time just so we can cram in some exercise? How do we justify our desire for 15 minutes of silence when we know having healthy kids is one of our biggest blessings. We do the best that we can, in the moment, with what we have. If we are lucky enough to have a partner, we ask him/her to pitch in and help. If television and video games hold the attention of our children, our sanity is worth more than abiding by some screen time rules developed by men in doctor coats. Doing whatever needs to be done to ensure we take some time periodically to put ourselves and our mental health first is a priority. And not just during a world crisis. Our tendency to forget ourselves happens all too often, it is just illuminated during this time of crisis.
When I struggle with putting myself first, a few things help me. I know what happens when the ship goes down because unfortunately in the past I neglected my own needs and ultimately sank below the water. Now I remind myself that my children deserve a mother who is healthy, happy, and present. And this requires taking care of my own needs along with their needs. Also, I think about the values and lessons I hope to teach my boys. I want to raise children who become kind, compassionate, strong, and resilient adults. One of the BEST ways to teach children is by modeling. They don’t do what we say, they do what they see us doing. By asking my husband to help with parenting duties I hope my boys learn to one day become an active partner and parent who steps in to help their partners. When they see their mom asking for her own needs to be met, my boys learn the value and strength in using your voice assertively. My goal is to raise people who view women as equals to men, and I can’t expect to do that if I am constantly putting myself last. I want them to understand that ALL PEOPLE have inherent value and deserve respect, self-care, and to ask for what they need. So I work to live this way, every single day. And that requires I value myself as much as I value others.
And so, the beauty is- our “mom guilt” is not the only thing that connects us. We all also get the chance to teach our own children a new narrative on the roles of women in this world. By stepping out of our own comfort zone and asking for what we want we are able to take care of ourselves while also becoming better moms for our children. Because they are watching what we do and learning every day what it means to be a woman and a mother. We are helping them as much as we are helping ourselves.
So please, fellow moms, connect with other moms on this journey of raising little people. Know that you are not alone. And go ahead and ask for help when you can. Take a break and allow your own needs to be a priority. And let go of the guilt- it does not serve you. If you can’t do it for yourself- do it for the family that loves, depends upon, and needs you. You are worth it-I promise. And putting yourself first at times will only make you a better mother.
Today marks the fifth week since my kids have gone to school. What the teachers cutely call distance learning, I refer to as: “involuntary homeschooling.” Maybe because it reminds me of my years working in Community Mental Health when we involuntarily committed patients against their will during a crisis. Homeschooling my 5, 7, and 10-year-old boys is something I swore I would NEVER do. I doubted I could do it. Yes I adore my children, but I am not trained in teaching. And let’s face it: teaching our own children can be painfully hard. And yet here we are- the governor announced last week that students will not return this school year, and the plan is to continue distance learning until summer. Five weeks in, and five months to go before my kids return to school. And that is IF they return in the Fall.
And I am one of the lucky ones. I acknowledge the large amounts of privilege I have; I am a stay at home mom whose husband has a job. I am not trying to work a full-time job while also navigating new apps, computer programs, choice boards, google meetups, and what feels like 7,000 emails a day from the teachers. My children enjoy schoolwork and do well academically and I am very grateful for all of this. And yet, I still feel like I am in over my head.
As a rule follower and recovering people pleaser, it is not surprising my transition to involuntary homeschooling has been a messy one. My immediate response was to tackle this new challenge head-on. My desire to achieve has roots beginning deep in my core. My mom once demanded a meeting with my 3rd-grade teacher to ask why I was spending 3 hours/day on my homework. To her surprise, the teacher replied, “I don’t know what she is doing for 3 hours a day, but I am not assigning any homework!” Apparently, I was just practicing what I learned because I really wanted to do well in school. Now suddenly responsible for three children’s education during a world pandemic, I felt this need to excel awaken inside me, and without even realizing it, I hyper-focused on doing everything correctly. My already elevated stress level due to the pandemic soared to new heights. The first week of homeschooling I had a panic attack, broke down into tears daily, and cried that I was “messing up my children.” I almost suffocated under the pressure to “do it right.” Thankfully skills I’ve learned through years of therapy along with the support of my husband and some wise friends helped me come to find a new way to approach our new reality.
During this very uncertain time, there is one thing I for sure believe: this is a period in history we will all recall for the rest of our lives.
My children will remember when life as they knew it came to a screeching halt; when the size of their classrooms shrunk to fit within the walls of our home, and their only peers became their two brothers.
This time will be etched in history and moments of it will be etched into the chapters of their childhoods. Painfully aware of my shortcomings as a “teacher,” after my first week in charge of their learning I knew something needed to change.
Rather than obsess over doing distance learning perfectly, I decided to focus on the real lessons I want my children to learn. Because they are much more likely to recall how they felt during the pandemic than actual facts learned. Thankfully, my recovery from an eating disorder has helped me recognize and focus on what I value most in life. I choose to teach my boys by example, some of the values I hold highest in my heart. Children learn more from interacting with and watching us than they ever learn from any choice board or video lesson. And so, I have decided to take what works for us from the teachers and to let the rest go. I have decided to start each day fresh, to work diligently on self-compassion, and to try my best to remain patient. And despite the rigid thinking that comes naturally to me, I am working every single day to remain flexible and open to what the day brings. And in doing so, I hope to teach my children THESE lessons that I value the most:
- There is so much in this world and our lives that we can not control. It is human nature to want to control our destiny. And while I do believe in free will and the power of choice, it can not be denied that much of our world around us is outside of our own control. Nothing brings this lesson to light more than a pandemic that silently spreads up to two weeks before any symptoms appear. I hope my boys learn that even though they can not control what others think of them, when they will die, or what other people choose to do, they CAN put trust into a higher power. Trusting that we are growing as we go through change, that we are resilient, and that we are never truly alone can help even during the ordinary days. It allows us to let go trying to control that which was never meant to be in our hands anyway. Which can then free us up to focus on what we actually DO have power over.
- We can control where we focus our energy and attention. The way we treat other people and ourselves, the words we choose, and the actions we take are in our control. We can work to consciously seek out the beauty around us, even during the toughest times. We can find the moments that ignite our souls amidst the chaos and uncertainty.
- Practicing Gratitude Matters. Finding even the most simple things to be grateful for can mean the difference between sinking vs learning to float among the chaotic waters of life. And no matter how small it may seem-there is always something to be grateful for. I never wanted to homeschool and I will be thrilled the day they finally go back to school. But in the meantime, I am learning more about how my boys’ brains work, I am spending so much additional time with each of them one-on-one, and we are finding many moments of joy in between the tantrums and tears. We have amazing loving teachers who are able to use the incredible technology to stay connected. We are healthy and we are safe. As a family, we are sitting down together for meals multiple times a day.
When I choose to focus on the blessings in the moment, I teach my children, by example, the magic of gratitude.
- We are all connected. This is not only obvious in the way the COVID 19 virus has spread, but also in the way we are learning new ways each day to connect. We are a social species and we need connection, love, and nurturance to thrive. Even though we have differences, we all are experiencing the same human condition and it can feel scary and messy. But we are not alone in it, and our actions and connections also affect each other. When my children are upset because they want to see their friends or grandparents, it is an opportunity to teach them our actions affect others as well as ourselves. Even if we are not likely to become sick from this virus, if we expose others, we may inadvertently spread it to people who could become very sick. Teaching my boys that sometimes the “right” thing to do is also the hard thing to do is one of the biggest lessons I can gift them.
- Everything happens in cycles, which include a beginning, middle, and end. Basically: this too shall pass. None of my boys slept through the night until well after a year. My middle son had silent reflux, and we spent 9 months before he was diagnosed, wondering why he couldn’t sleep. In the middle of those dark nights, it truly felt like the sun would never come up and there was no end in sight. But every single morning, the sun rose and the day began again. Everything in life is part of a cycle. You can look to the moon, to a seed you plant, or pretty much anything in nature to see this truth. And so, as we now find ourselves in a dark time, it is so important to teach them that this is not permanent. And that we can and will get through it. Our quarantine and social distancing will eventually end and until it does we are doing our part now to help everyone stay safe. More struggles, suffering, and challenges are inevitable as a part of life. But so is the rising sun.
- It is ok to make mistakes. In fact, mistakes are how we learn. I CANNOT expect to teach this lesson if I don’t embrace it myself. And I’ll be honest- this one is hard. When I realized I somehow missed part of their assignments the first two weeks of distance learning, my gut reaction was to feel like a failure. Thankfully I have been taking a course in Mindful Self Compassion and was able to practice some of my new skills. By giving myself the same amount of compassion I would give anyone else, I was able to stay calm and use this as an opportunity to show my children that everyone makes mistakes. And what I learned from this one: It helps to read emails completely, especially when they come from school.
- Flexibility is an important life skill. My children, like most, respond really well to a structured schedule. I learned the first day of distance learning that my middle son wants to stick to the schedule down to the very minute. And honestly, so do I. But sometimes the internet cuts out during a pandemic, often little brothers have tantrums, and moms who are overwhelmed with emails may need a few extra moments to find the correct link or choice board. I know from my own experiences in life that when we get stuck in rigid thinking, it can be very difficult to navigate life changes. And so, on the second day of our new schedule, I erased the times beside our afternoon activities. It is not a strict schedule, but more of a guide. Multiple times a day, I now remind my boys (and myself) that sometimes we may get off a bit but that is OK. We are all learning through this.
- Going outside and connecting to nature is both spiritual and vital. One nonnegotiable in our new schedule is recess. Every single day (weather permitting) they will have some unstructured playtime outside. Because they need it. Because I need it. Because nature is a way to connect spiritually, to stay grounded, and to focus on the natural miracles that occur every single day around us. As the world clamors in fear, I notice the new buds on our blueberries, the sounds of the birds singing, and how it feels when the sun shines on my face. Focusing on the present not only brings mindfulness, but also peace. And it is so much easier to do this in nature.
- Science is real and should not be ignored. There seems to be much debate over the seriousness of our current situation but if you look to the scientists who have spent their lives studying and learning, you will see this virus is deadly to many and is a very real threat. I heard one doctor say that in the best-case scenario, we are able to say “nothing horrible happened” meaning safety precautions and social distancing actually worked. While some people are criticizing the medical experts and, we are following their lead. Regardless of what others are doing, my boys understand that we believe in and respect science.
- Laughter is magical. If I chose to focus on making sure my boys were “on task” every moment of the day, it would be difficult for me to embrace a smile, much less laughter. Long before we found ourselves in this involuntary homeschooling situation, I realized that being silly and creative takes me much farther with my boys than trying to force anything. Choosing my battles helps me focus on my nonnegotiables, but in the midst of the day, I do everything I can to work laughter and silliness in. My name during “mommy school” is “Mrs. Noodletoot” and on the Fridays he is off work, my husband becomes my assistant “Professor Winky Wonk.” When my middle refused to read out loud in a phonics game last week, suddenly we had four stuffed animals at the table playing with us. Any time I can work some potty humor into our lessons it goes a long way. Being able to laugh, especially during stressful times, is not only healing but also magical.
- They are blessed to have siblings. And I am blessed to have them. As hard as it is sometimes to wrangle three different personalities of three different ages, I am thankful every single day that my boys have brothers to go through this experience with. They miss their friends, of course, but they have built-in playmates for life right in their own home. I am grateful I can send them out to play together and most of the time they won’t draw blood. I hope this time in their lives will not only help them form a lifelong bond, but it will also remind them of the magic of brotherhood. Because every now and then, when I catch them interacting, I know that there is something beautiful and unique shared between brothers.
- Art and music are important. While I appreciate the time and energy their teachers put into creating choice boards for specials, I have decided we are not strictly following them. It’s not that I don’t value the specials- it’s actually the opposite. I have always loved music and art, and our “special” part of the day is my favorite. But by engaging the boys into activities we love, I am making their learning experiences not only fun, but also a time of bonding. We have learned art from their favorite author Mo Willems, we have had a blast just drawing freestyle, we’ve practiced teamwork as we play games. Our new favorite hour can be classified as a mix between PE and Music. Long after this pandemic is over, my hope is my boys will hold tight the memories of dancing around the living room with their mom, listening to the Top 50 All-Time Best Super Mario Brother songs.
All over the globe, the COVID 19 pandemic has turned life upside down. While we attempt to adjust to our new “normal,” the uncertainty of what the next day or even the next hour may bring looms over us all.
Anxiety and hysteria run wild making it hard not to get swept up in the collective wave of fear crashing over our entire planet.
Already an anxious person, I have coped in the past by focusing on my body and weight using symptoms of an eating disorder I developed decades ago. Now, four years into recovery, I find myself facing old demons in the scary uncharted water we are all suddenly swimming in. I am clinging to my recovery with white knuckles, but feel on the verge of losing it at any moment. And I know that I am not alone. The way I cope may differ from yours, but we are all attempting to cope to the same crisis.
One thing that unites us all is the human condition. The desires to control outcomes, to seek happiness and peace, and to connect with others are natural and normal. And at this moment in time, they are all being challenged. It is hard to ignore just how little control we really have over many outcomes. We will all suffer loss throughout our lives, and we will all die eventually. Nothing brings this universal truth to the forefront like a novel virus that spreads silently and threatens to kill millions. Connecting with others has changed almost overnight as we shelter in place and quarantine. As a collective, we are experiencing very difficult times. They are scary and unknown, and we all cope with it in our unique ways. I recognize fully just how privileged I am during it all. I have a husband and partner to share responsibilities with, and we live in a safe home with our healthy children. My husband has a job, we have food, and in this moment we are all OK. And for this, I am tremendously grateful. And yet, I am still extremely overwhelmed.
One blessing amidst the uncertainty of today’s world is the sudden slowing down of our lives. With schools, trips, and extracurricular activities suspended indefinitely, families around the world are collectively catching a breath, sitting down, and eating meals together regularly. To be honest, the introvert inside of me welcomes this with a sigh of relief. Perhaps something positive can come out of this strange dark time. Maybe we can learn from this experience to slow down, connect with our loved ones, count our blessings (no matter how small) and focus on the present moment. But almost as quickly as I caught my breath, the emails started to pour in. I got solicitations from every website I have ever visited telling me about their new online programs. Social media blew up with free concerts, free classes, free talks, free tours, and free events. And then the avalanche of teacher emails flooded in. For each child I started receiving emails from multiple teachers containing suggested links, videos, choice boards, extra curricular activities, and online meetings. As we watch videos learning about astronauts we can tour the castles in England, learn to doodle with Mo Willems, and have a Spanish story time. My kids can learn Taekwondo through videos, take piano lessons through facetime; there is even a chat room for my five year old to “connect through screen time.” My clogging studio is offering virtual lessons, my friends have scheduled multiple zoom happy hours, and my courses have turned into virtual classes. And I feel a new level of panic rising in my chest. I fear we, as a society, may be missing something big.
Because what if the beauty of what is happening right now lies within the empty moments in between the business of life we have all become accustomed to? What if our opportunity to slow down and look within during this moment in history is completely missed by our mad rush to fill the possibility of silence and solitude? What if instead of researching every possible way to connect our children, we instead allowed them to be bored. To be creative. To sit, in silence, with themselves. If instead we suddenly and completely pack every moment of our open schedules with virtual classes, meetings, chats, and activities, then the only thing that has changed through all of this is: we are now doing the same frantic running around through screens but while wearing yoga pants (or maybe our pjs).
I understand that as human beings we are social creatures and I believe we need connection to thrive. I am not saying we shouldn’t plan video chats with our friends, try to work with our children on learning, set up video chats with our grandparents, and enjoy a netflix binge here or there (or constantly- whatever gets you through). I just wonder what would happen if we all gave ourselves and our children permission to stop, to take a breath, and to slow down during this world crisis? What if instead of fearing solitude, we embraced it? What if we modeled the same for our children? What if we took in the beauty of the silence in the moment between? What if we worked as hard to find small blessings and moments of gratitude as we do at washing our hands? What if we were open to lessons on the importance of staying in the present and allowing ourselves to feel whatever we feel. What if we made space for all of the mixed up feelings we are having right now, with out judging ourselves or others? What if we realized that in every single hardship in life, there is a lesson if we are willing to learn it? We can’t even begin to be open to the lessons if we are on autopilot and don’t slow down enough to even let them in. Because although we have little control over what happens in the outside world, we very much have control over what we choose to do with our time and how we choose to focus our thoughts and energies. What if we recognized the positives that are happening now amidst the tragedies? My boys are playing outside together more than they have their entire lives. I know more about what they are learning, how they learn, and what it looks like when an idea makes sense in their innocent eyes. My husband is pitching in and cooking more meals, and I have actually talked on my phone more the past month than I have in five years. There are blessings here if we look. There are lessons as well. My wish for everyone is that we stay safe, we stay connected, and we stay open to learning the lessons during this very difficult time.
Scrolling through my feed on social media, an article caught my eye. Though I hadn’t clicked on this exact one before, I felt like I’d already read it 100 times. The gist was: “Enjoy every moment with your small children, because they won’t be little for very long.” And I get it. My 3 boys are already growing faster than I imagined possible. There is nothing novel about this message. It has been whispered in my ear from the very moment I became a mom. It comes at my from every direction. From my well-intentioned mother and older sister, from the sanctimonious veteran moms I encounter in person and online, and even from strangers in restaurants and checkout lines. Over and over again I hear, “Enjoy this moment because it won’t last.” And it aggravates me every single time.
The message takes on various shapes and forms. When my oldest was a newborn I heard: “Enjoy it now, it will only get harder when he crawls.” When he crawled I heard: “You think this is bad? Just wait for the terrible twos.” And when I vented about the house rattling tantrums I was told, “When they are little, their problems are little. Wait until they are teenagers and their problems are bigger.” Now as many friends tearfully send their children away to college, I am bombarded with reminders to “be present, take in every moment, and it all goes so fast.” I can barely hear myself think over the chaos and noise in my home, while they complain about the heavy silence filling theirs.
And it is true. All of it. So so so true.
When I read The Power of Now by Eckard Tolle, it changed my life. Learning to be present in this very moment is the antidote to crippling anxiety and suffocating depression. This present moment (or the now) is literally all that we have. Buddhists have long taught that suffering occurs when we reject the present moment. When we live in the past, worry about the future, or resist what is happening right now, we can not be present or peaceful.
Thinking about this, it hit me like a ton of bricks why the message of the article ignites such strong feelings from deep within my gut. Because the very message preached at me- TO LIVE IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT- is something the author, herself, is failing to do. She sits in a warm, safe, and QUIET home, with the time and privilege to type out her message. With the click of a few buttons, she instantly shares advice -that she is unable to follow- with the entire world. Instead of being present in her moment, she is stuck in the past, longing for it once again.
She is not unique. This struggle to stay in the present moment is part of the human condition. Our reptilian brains evolved to protect us from danger and constantly scan the past and future in order to protect us from threats. And every given moment contains potential gifts as well as the potential for suffering. I am not saying we shouldn’t be present and attend to the gifts and miracles surrounding us every single day. I think that joy and peace come from exactly that. But I also am saying that every stage, every phase, every unique life also includes pain and struggle and the minute we try to resist, ignore, or downgrade it, that only increases suffering. Telling someone to enjoy every single moment is ridiculous because frankly- some moments just suck. At. Every. Stage.
THE very moment that a well intentioned mom
tells me to soak up every moment because it goes by
too quickly- she is failing to soak up her current moment.
THE very moment that a well intentioned mom tells me to soak up every moment because it goes by too quickly- she is failing to soak up her current moment. Life is unpredictable, ever changing, and filled with joys and pain. This moment right now, in your quiet house, is JUST AS FLEETING as the moment you held your colicky baby. If I could, I would ask the author: What is happening right now, that you will turn back later and wish you had been present for?
So the next time you see me struggling in motherhood (or life in general), please have empathy and show compassion. Hear me when I explain how desperately I want to sit for 5 minutes without someone screaming, “MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY!” Tell me how sad you are in the quiet moments and I will give you space to share your grief. Because we are all in this crazy life filled with ups and downs. Connecting with others is magical, healing, and energizing. Share your experience and I will share mine. Just please don’t tell me to enjoy every single moment of it.
When I was a brand new mother trying to navigate a world ruled by feedings, diaper changes, and growth spurts, I felt like I was drowning. Deep down I believed there was some secret, some formula, some checklist that I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on. Once found, it would make this mothering thing a bit more magical. And a lot less terrifying.
I was wrong.
I searched for the answers everywhere. I searched for clues from the other mommies, from relatives, and from doctors. I looked for answers in blogs, books, articles, and the other women in my book club who seemed to have seamlessly cracked the code on this parenting gig. I watched in awe as moms all around me seemed to prepare dinners, have clean and well dressed children, and wear lipstick- all without breaking a sweat. I was at a loss.
One day I rejoiced, believing I had found the answer. And it was right here, in my kitchen sink. I was told that if my sink was spotless every morning, the rest of my life would fall into place. I even subscribed to daily email reminders to help get me on track. As if the sole purpose of my existence was to have a clean sink.
It didn’t work.
Turns out I didn’t need reminders to clean my sink daily. What was going on was much further below the surface. I often wonder how those first years of parenthood would have been had I subscribed to another type of email service. If those cheerfully benign emails had looked a little different.
What if instead of reminding me to clean my sink, the emails prompted me to hold onto myself? What if caring for and nurturing my own body took as much significance as caring for my kitchen counters? What if feeling and expressing my own emotions was regarded as important as sweeping my floor daily? What if I stopped viewing my home, my children, my postpartum body, and my dinners as a reflection of my worth as a mother and as a wife. What if, instead, I focused on my worth as a HUMAN.
I subscribed to the popular belief that a “good” mother puts herself last all of the time. I bought the lie that denying myself and my needs somehow made me stronger, better, and more worthy. In reality, it made me tired, resentful, and left me feeling alone.
And we wonder why so many women struggle with postpartum depression.
We need to stop sending out emails about cleaning our sinks daily and start connecting with each other honestly and authentically. Parenting is hard. It is terrifying. It is amazing and beautiful also. There are highs and lows and every single parent experiences both ends of the roller coaster. But the answer never has nor ever will be found in the bottom of a sparkling clean kitchen sink. We have to go deeper. We have to go within.
The moment a tablespoon of peanut butter reduced me to tears is etched permanently into my memory. My heart raced and tears streamed down my face. I stared at that peanut butter and was paralyzed with anxiety. Time stood still while that single serving tub of peanut butter taunted me from the cold sterile table. Across from me sat a clinician with an empathetic but stern expression. “Eat the peanut butter” she prodded gently. Next to the peanut butter sat a single package of saltine crackers. The only thing I could imagine worse than eating this peanut butter would be eating it along WITH crackers. How could she possibly expect me to do either? I tried to will my mouth to open and my throat to swallow, but at that moment, walking straight into a fire seemed easier than eating one tablespoon of peanut butter. With a mixture of emotions storming inside of my head, I went from feeling rage, to shame, to terror within seconds. And then I felt all three at once. It was the first time I acknowledged that maybe… just maybe…. I DID belong right there in the eating disorder treatment center I had been admitted to that morning. But I still wasn’t sure. I was not like the girls I had seen in after-school specials and talk shows. They were emaciated teenagers training for the Olympics and dealing with abuse. I was a 22-year-old graduate student from a happy home, working on a Master’s degree in Psychology (of all things). I felt like a hypocrite; how could I possibly help others with mental illness when I was unable to tackle one of the most basic life skills- simply feeding myself. I was reduced to tears by a tablespoon of peanut butter. And at that moment, nothing seemed more daunting than the task of swallowing it.
Because to me, it was not just peanut butter; it was everything. It was fat, and calories, and weight gain, and it represented me losing control. It could unravel everything I had pushed through so far. In my sick and malnourished brain, eating that tablespoon of peanut butter meant I was giving up. And that I was a failure. It would confirm what I already feared deep in my bones: I was lazy, unlovable, horrible, fat, worthless, and disgusting. And if I let myself have one tablespoon of peanut butter- I was afraid I would eat another, and another, and another. I would eat every tablespoon of peanut butter I could find because I would never be able to stop. I wanted to eat it and yet I never wanted to see peanut butter again. I wanted it and I hated it equally. In a twisted way, the only thing that made me feel better about myself was denying myself. I felt crazy. And I could not open my mouth.
Obviously, I was in a very dark place. And it wasn’t just peanut butter; I had become afraid of all food. One by one, my favorite things were forbidden as I deemed them “unhealthy”. The smaller my body got, the worse my feelings of anxiety, unworthiness, and failure grew. The more I shrunk my body, the less clearly I was able to see myself or the world around me. And the harder it seemed to find my way out of the darkness. I was consumed by the disorder.
“…the biggest travesty was the devastation happening to my soul.”
The day a tablespoon of peanut butter held me hostage was over twenty years ago. I wish I could say that I stepped on the path of recovery that day and never turned back. But my recovery from anorexia and bulimia has been a very long and winding journey with many ups and many more downs. The details and specifics of my path do not matter. The number of pounds I lost or gained over the years and the symptoms and behaviors I vacillated between are not important. What does matter is my life revolved around what I ate, what I didn’t eat, what I was going to eat, what I “shouldn’t” eat, and what I was going to do about what I ate or didn’t eat. I was obsessed with calories and food and exercises and the numbers on a scale and my pants. All the while, as I lost weight, it was never, ever enough. As my body got smaller, so did my world, my perspective, my connections with others, my ability to see clearly, the ability to be present in my life and the ability to feel joy. I was physically damaging my body, but the biggest travesty was the devastation happening to my soul.
For more than two decades and over half my life, I struggled. I saw therapists and nutritionists and returned to partial hospitalization treatment programs two more times. My weight was “restored” and lost again, restored again and lost again. A few times I found what I believed was “recovery” and yet it was never on solid ground. In this “middle” place of “recovery”, I was no longer visibly underweight. Yet I continued living in a prison in my head, engaging in very unhealthy behaviors, and obsessing about my body, size, weight, exercise, and food. I think I fooled those around me into believing I was “ok.” I know I fooled myself. This version of “recovery” was not lasting though, because any time I encountered life stressors (good or bad) I relapsed. Eventually, I wondered if I would ever recover. If I could ever recover. At my best, I was living a very restricted life where I constantly and carefully watched my food and exercise. I focused more on what people thought of me than I did on my own heart. At my worst, I was secretly engaging repeatedly in harmful behaviors feeling unable to stop while ignoring my relationships. I hated myself, dreaded waking up in the morning, and felt hopeless and alone.
One of the worst times came surprisingly after my third son was born. Postpartum depression was the nudge that pushed me off the diving board back into the sea of my eating disorder. I quickly found myself drowning. I had the life I dreamt of- an amazing husband, three healthy children, and the luxury of being a stay at home mom- and yet I wanted to run away. Worse, I wanted to give up on myself and on life. And yet with the darkest time in my life came one of the greatest gifts. Because it was the catalyst I needed to make REAL, lasting and healing changes. On my knees, I was broken and finally painfully honest with myself. At that moment I was able to open myself up to ask for and receive help. And to do it in a new way.
“Recovery was about learning to feed myself again both physically and spiritually.”
Recovery was terrifying, humbling, and challenging in ways I didn’t even know possible. It demanded I let go my old thought patterns and irrational beliefs and stop caring what others thought of me. It meant facing my biggest fears and greatest anxieties every single day, three times a day- plus snacks. It meant surrendering to a treatment team and trusting that for the moment they knew more than I did. It meant understanding I was not seeing clearly while believing I would eventually learn to trust myself. It required me to connect with my higher power and to ask for and accept help. Recovery was about learning to feed myself again both physically and spiritually. It meant going against society and making myself a priority over my children and husband. I had to make myself a priority when I did not even feel worthy of it. I didn’t even feel worthy of a tablespoon of peanut butter.
“Ultimately to be free I had to reject the diet culture…”
Gradually I learned life-changing skills including self-compassion, mindfulness, practicing gratitude, and how to say NO. I practiced sitting with discomfort- both physical and emotional. I learned that life is messy and finding the beauty within the chaos is everything. And I opened my mind and educated myself on the science behind dieting and weight. Learning about Health At Every Size gave me the ammunition I needed to fight diet culture head on. I listened to countless podcasts, read articles and books, and connected with other warriors also fighting this battle. Ultimately to be free I had to reject the diet culture that is so pervasive we all swim unknowingly in it. I had to let go of ever trying to control my body’s shape and size again. No matter how tempted I was.
Because of my shame and the stigma surrounding mental health, I silently forged through my recovery without telling anyone in my life except a few very close friends. In a world where women bond over their latest diets, “cleanses” and exercise routines, learning to accept my changing body was counter culture. I was no longer comfortable joining into the constant conversations my friends had about which body parts they needed to change, how much weight they had gained, or what food was “so bad for you.” And at times it was very lonely. Somewhere along the journey, I found my voice and learned that sharing myself authentically and unabashedly can not only decrease stigma and hopefully helps others, but it also sets me free.
“It reminds me that recovery is worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.”
This week, two of my boys asked for sandwiches for lunch. Among the cacophony of their giggles and clatter, I tried to simultaneously make lunches, answer a text, and avoid tripping over the four-year-old clinging to my leg. While cleaning up, without a second thought, I pulled the knife out of the jar and licked off the excess peanut butter. It was probably a tablespoon worth. Maybe more. And at that moment I knew: I was letting go of my eating disorder. Because finally, peanut butter was once again just that – peanut butter. It held no power over me. It almost seems like a different life when a tablespoon of peanut butter reduced me to tears. And yet it seems like yesterday. It reminds me that recovery is worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears. And that is never too late to choose recovery.
If you or someone you love is struggling please understand eating disorders are complicated, overwhelming, and dangerous. They are about so much more than food and weight and you can NOT tell how someone is doing in their recovery simply by their weight or appearance. Untouched and hidden by shame, eating disorders can fester and grow. However, true real lasting recovery IS possible and one day peanut butter can return to just being peanut butter.
It was five minutes before six and the sun wasn’t even up yet, but all three of my boys were chattering in their rooms. Suddenly the entire house shook and my immediate thought was someone knocked a dresser over. I quickly jumped out of bed and ran to the boys. They were all stunned and asked, “Mommy, what was that?” My oldest peered at me through eyes wide as saucers from the top bunk. As he pointed up at the ceiling only inches above his head and said, “It sounded like something hit right there.” I ran to the front door and when I opened it, the smell of pine overwhelmed me. All I could see out the door were pine needles and branches.
It could have been so much worse. The enormous pine tree in my neighbor’s yard that had been leaning towards our house came crashing down in the early morning on September 11th. The tips of the tree hit our roof, smashing our gutters, some shingles, some blueberry bushes, and part of my favorite dogwood tree before landing in our front yard. But we are so blessed because had it been a few feet longer, the morning would have gone in a tragically different direction.
The night before, as I went to bed, I had been thinking about all of the people whose lives were dramatically changed on September 11 eighteen years ago. They went to bed with their life a certain way, and woke up to a day filled with horror and loss. It can happen that fast. Everything can change in a heartbeat. It got me thinking not just about the victims and families of 9-11 but of all the ways people’s lives are changed suddenly. Instantly. I thought about the babies who are torn away from their parents, I thought about the mothers who lose their sons and daughters to gun violence. To the people devastated by cancer, by mental illnesses, by accidents, and by substance abuse. In Kindergarten, my boys are taught how to hide and be quiet in the event a shooter enters their school. Just thinking about this turns my stomach as I feel knots at the pit of my being. It would be so easy to allow myself to sink into the fear. It would swallow me whole.
And this is how anxiety works. I start to jump ahead into the future and all of the possible ways things could go wrong. And they are infinite really. There are so many things that could happen in any given minute. Too many to even predict. Anxiety tells me: I must try to predict every possible impending crisis so that I can either prevent them, or prepare for them. The catch is- there are so many variables, so many possibilities, so many unknowns, and so many things that are simply out of our control. NO amount of worrying can keep “bad” things from happening.ALL worrying does is rob the present of joy and peace.
If I allow myself, I can easily visualize what could have happened if that tree had been a few feet longer. I could replay the images in my head over and over again. I have to very consciously and repeatedly stop my mind from going there. Because right here, right now, in this very moment, that didn’t happen.
Right now, my boys are all safe. Right now our home is safe. Right now in this moment I am sitting at my computer in my air conditioned home. I have a loving and supportive husband and three beautiful rambunctious and sometimes very aggravating little boys. And I have so much to be grateful for.
All week I had neighbors and friends call and text me to make sure we were ok and to offer help. Some kind firemen came to our house before the sun was even up to make sure the situation was safe. The city sent two extremely hard working men who immediately cleared our driveway first before they began chopping up the enormous tree blocking the road. Later an entire crew of 16 men came to chop up the logs and clean up the area.
We cleaned up the remaining debris as a family. My husband wore a hard hat and used the chainsaw as the boys and I gathered load after load of pine cones and branches. My sons smiled with pride as they helped out, chattering about all of the ways they could use the pine cones. The first night of clean up, my husband and I worked in the yard until the sun went down. And standing outside of our home, the glowing almost-full- moon shone down on us brightly. And I was filled with gratitude for all that I have.
For years I used my eating disorder as a way to cope with anxiety. Fighting for recovery and healing from an eating disorder has taught me so much about myself, about life, and about the kind of strength we all possess inside. I realize now that the eating disorder was a way I coped with (and avoided) anxiety. Rather than focus on all of my fears, rather than sit with anxiety, and rather than admit there is so much out of my control…. instead, I focused on my body. On what I ate. On my exercise. On my pants size. Living with an eating disorder can be awful, painful, lonely, and exhausting. But it can also numb you to the real feelings you are experiencing.
Choosing recovery has meant learning to have faith and trust in a power larger than myself. It has meant letting go of obsessive thinking, letting go of ruminating, and using other ways to cope. Learning to focus on gratitude and using self compassion are the two skills that have helped me change my life.
My eyes popped open and I was instantly filled with anticipation. Still dark outside, I reached for my phone to check the time. 4:55 am. I knew I was awake for the day. It was not any ordinary day. This was the first day of preschool for my youngest son. I have been waiting for this day for a long time. All summer long.
As a stay at home mom with three boys ages 9,7, and 4, I am used to existing within a constant state of chaos. Noise, chatter about farts and Pokemon, and objects thrown through the air often swirl around me. On a good day- nobody draws blood when they fight with their brothers. On a bad day, I lock myself in the bathroom crying after yelling so hard I saw stars. A lot of days I am somewhere in between.
The beginning of preschool means I will have a break, three days a week, for 4 hours a day. Those four hours are precious to me. During that time, I will enjoy the luxuries of hearing myself think, completing a task without being interrupted, and using the bathroom by myself. I will cram as much writing, and as many Color Street tasks, appointments for myself, self-care time, and household chores into those four hours as I can. I will even be able to sit down for an entire meal without anyone else needing anything from me. It sort of feels like I won the lottery during those four hours. Maybe even better.
The beginning of preschool means more than just a break for me though. It means my youngest child is no longer a baby. He is a “big” kid who is learning to become independent. He will have experiences I am no longer a part of and will learn and grow in ways I am not in control of. He is ready and so am I.
I did not expect to feel sad this morning as we brushed teeth, combed hair, and took the first day of school pictures. I was surprised to notice a small knot growing in the pit of my stomach as we drove to school. My 4-year-old grinned from ear to ear as we walked towards his classroom and I noticed my heart beating faster. He marched into his classroom without hesitation, and I felt an assortment of conflicting feelings. My heart swelled with pride and excitement as he found his name above a hook and hung up his backpack (that is almost as big as he is) all by himself. But when his eyes lit up with excitement they looked to his teacher for approval- and not to me. I felt gratitude and excitement knowing he is in the same nurturing and structured environment both of his brothers flourished in.
I walked to my car in silence and noticed the heavy feeling in my chest expanding. My eyes filled with tears as I drove away and it occurred to me: parenting is one long series of simultaneously holding on and letting go. It is one small step on right after another. Some steps are tiny while others feel gigantic. Today it is preschool. One day it may be college. Parenting is acting calm and confident when inside you feel worried and unsure. It is doing the things you know you are ready for but all of the sudden seem scary. It is praying to G-d for a five minute break and then praying to G-d to protect them while they are away from you. Parenting is second guessing yourself every step of the way while also wondering how you got lucky enough to be their mom. Parenting is doing everything you can to help them become independent while also clinging to the hugs, the bedtime stories, and the sweet kisses they save just for you. Parenting is loving someone else more than you ever imagined possible and then sending them out into the world hoping it is kind to them. And knowing it will not always be kind to them. And praying for resilience when this happens. Parenting is holding onto the sweet moments while letting go of the terrifying fears. And it is holding on to the trust in my children, myself as a parent, and G-d while letting go of my child so he can grow into himself. Because isn’t that what parenting is all about anyway? Helping them to learn and grow into their own people?
Now, please excuse me while I go make the most of my next 3 ½ hours!