Why You Need a Theme Song in Today’s Surreal World

image of a child at an old fashioned microphone with mouth open wide for article on why you need a theme song today

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.

image from TV show Ally McBeal with Calista Flockhard (playing Ally) sitting next to her therapist played by Tracy Ullman

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:

“What you need is a theme song.”

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.

a shift….

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
For you

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.

PS.

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!

Mom Guilt

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.   

  

 

 

Involuntary Homeschooling

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. When I choose to focus on the blessings in the moment, I teach my children, by example, the magic of gratitude.

  5.  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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

Pandemic Life

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.