Massive Mom Fail

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Does that look like a photo of a terrible mother to you?

Friends, I yelled at my kids so badly yesterday. I was a monster.

Oh, come on, you say. You’re exaggerating. Everyone yells. You were probably just like, Stop sticking pins in the dog! Or, Stop dangling your brother over the edge of that cliff!

Or some other totally justifiable yelling thing.

Nope. What I said was something along the lines of: OH YEAH? WELL I CAN HAVE A TANTRUM TOO!

It was horrible. Afterward I did all the things- I apologized and repaired, I breathed, I prayed (that kind of sick-of-it-all prayer that starts, “Even though there’s no God and I’m just an idiot talking to the wall right now…”). During naptime, I wrote in my journal. I watched a few minutes of bad TV. I went back in vaguely refreshed.

I called my best friend to come over and support me because Scott was going out after dinner and I didn’t trust myself to be calm and collected.

How do I know to do all this stuff? Because I WROTE A BOOK about it.

After all this, do you know what your charming friend who writes about parenting did after dinner?

I yelled at them again, and it was equally weird and appalling. My husband and friend both stared at me with their mouths agape.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: I’m good at writing about being a mother but I suck at mothering.

Which may be a little bit true some days.

Not by way of defense, but to contextualize, here’s the perfect storm that led up to it…

I had some wacky hormones that resulted in a migraine for 5 straight days, and I was pretty much functioning with the use of only one eye because the other one had a weird shadow floating in front of it- a shadow that was intermittently stabbing said eye with tiny knives. Also- everyone in this house has been sick for two months, including multiple bouts of pneumonia and stomach flu. Even without the constant sickness, we are in the middle of a massive transition, with the addition of Bright Eyes. Everyone is struggling to find our footing.

That said, stressy life or not, yelling at kids with trauma histories is extra crappy, for a few reasons.

First, it doesn’t work. It just models and more of the exact behavior you’re attempting to address. Usually, they scream right back in my face.

It also erodes your child’s trust in you. Trust is the key ingredient to healing trauma. Yelling just reinforces their idea that the world is an unsafe and unpredictable place, where the people who are supposed to love them will only hurt them and as a result they need to be in control of absolutely everything.

It can cause a big setback. Knowing all of this, I stood there and totally lost my shit at them.

I share this with you not as some self-flagellating confession, but because in spite of all my shame and regret, I still had to wake up today and face my family. And while not all of us scream like some deranged Joan Crawford clone, I know I’m not the only one making terrible mistakes and having to brush myself off and attempt to do better next time. And then having to forgive myself when I don’t. Not because my missteps aren’t egregious, but because I am their mother for better or for worse, and they need me to keep trying. I have breakfast to make. I don’t have the option of twisting myself up into an origami of shame and staying there for days.

I also share this with you because I think we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to each others internet personas- the beautifully filtered IG photos, the beach days and birthday parties. The heart-stopping adorableness of everyone else’s kids and living rooms and table settings and fluffy puppies and Christmas mornings. Mine included. My kids are darn cute and my dogs are pretty fluffy.

Of course we share the pretty, polished stuff. I enjoy looking at that version of our family. I imagine a life I don’t quite have into being, by catching just the right moment and filtering it and framing it and waiting for all the likes to roll in. I like like like like like it, too!  It’s just not the truth. It’s a truth. But it wasn’t my truth yesterday and it’s not my truth this morning.

This is what I wrote in my journal last night, in the aftermath of yell-a-geddon:

Please let me be closer to the mother I pretend to be. This good, patient, creative, humorous, warm mother I dream into being in the clouds, while somewhere down on earth I am small and selfish and frightened and still an angry adolescent, railing at all I’ve traded and all I’ve lost and sure that truly in my heart of hearts I’m poison. I watch them sleeping, their tiny forms under the covers, and wonder how it is I’ve been entrusted with these two precious souls. This I know- I can’t hate myself into being worthy of them. It’s a law of physics or something. You can’t hate yourself into being better at anything. I will have to believe in myself the way I believe in them. Not because I’m deserving but because it’s the only way.

If I know anything, I know that you can’t believe in yourself because you’ve earned it. Paradoxically, you have to start with that belief, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. I’m worthy of my children because they’re my children and here we are. And I believe that today I will do better.

If I fight to accumulate enough of those days, I know from my experience with Tariku that I will turn around and find that years have passed and somehow, in spite of all my faults, there is a delightful, strong, joyful, confident child standing in front of me.

 

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A Letter to my Son on his Seventh Gotcha Day

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To Tariku on his Gotcha Day-

I always love your Gotcha Day (remember when you used to call it your Cha Cha Day?), because it’s a chance for me to reflect on that pivotal trip to Africa daddy and I took seven years ago, when we first held you in our arms. I can still smell that unique combination of coffee and frankincense and popcorn that permeates the dwellings in Ethiopia. I can hear the cries of children echoing down the marble staircase of the care center. I remember climbing that staircase and walking into a nursery with a whole gang of babies cooing and playing on blankets strewn in the middle of the floor. You sat in the very center of the room in your little blue chair and I recognized your sweet face immediately. I remember the strong, caring arms of the woman who first handed you to me and called me, “Mama.” I can still feel how feather-light you were in your orange jumper, with your precious, soft arms and your skinny spaghetti legs.

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If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never know that moment’s equal.

You made me a mother. You came to us and our hearts grew and grew, as our entire carefully planned life exploded and then reassembled itself in the most astounding way.

Your third tooth fell out this morning- one of the big ones in the front. You woke and it finally landed in your hand. Most of your friends have lost more teeth than you by now. That tooth hung on by a thread sideways for weeks, making you look like you were wearing novelty store hillbilly teeth. It made me think of how things don’t often come easily for you. You have worked hard to become the kind, polite, caring, delightful kid you are today. Things like behaving in a restaurant, sharing, calming your body down, and re-setting when you have big feelings have all been hard-won achievements for you.

I have watched you try and try. I have watched you fail and get up and ask for a do-over and try yet again. Over the years, I have seen the toddler who couldn’t stop pulling the dog’s tail grow into a boy who confidently grooms and rides a thousand pound horse. I have seen the toddler who threw crayons in frustration become a passionate artist, spending hours creating a whole world of crazy characters you made up all on your own.

You helped your dad and me tremendously when Big Baby J. came to stay with us for a short time. When he woke up frightened and disoriented, you lay next to him and made faces until he laughed. You were often the only one who could get a smile out of him. It was surprising to you how annoying babies can be, but you just rolled your eyes and smiled and through it all you never stopped being gentle and patient.

So much of this last year was about preparing to grow our little family. You have been begging for a brother for years, but I don’t think you expected how long and rocky a road it would be. I worried about how you would face the uncertainty involved in adopting through the foster care system. When Bright Eves finally did show up, I worried you’d be disappointed, because he struggled with the transition to our home and rejected your affection at first. I worried that his dysregulated behavior, including the dreaded car screaming, would set back your own progress. I worried we’d have less special time to spend together. As you know, mommy worries a lot. I should know better by now. You are all the evidence I need to have faith.

One of the greatest gifts of Bright Eyes joining our family is that I’ve gotten to know you in new ways, and the more I get to know you the more I’m impressed by your wonderful tenacity and your enormous heart. You got upset at first when Bright Eyes wasn’t being all that fun, but you never stopped figuring out ways to connect with him. If one interaction didn’t work, you tried another. At first, he screamed in protest when you hugged him, so now you’ve started asking him first if it’s okay. Little by little, he’s beginning to say yes. Yes, it’s okay to hug me. Yes, I trust you, big brother. Because you’ve showed him that he’s safe. That is a really special and important thing to do for someone.

When he got pneumonia and we had to take him to the hospital, you wouldn’t leave his side. You didn’t utter one complaint, even though we were there for hours on Christmas.

Our family has become closer than ever, as together we face the hard times as well as the fun ones. When your little brother screams now, you simply stick earplugs in your ears and go on with your day.

Whenever you do a trick on the trampoline, or jump off a diving board, or do a cool dance, you say, “Did you see me? Did you see me, mama?” You’re always eager for an audience. I have never met a person you couldn’t make laugh.

I see you, my son. I am looking and I see you. I learn from your strength and joy and kindness every day. I am so proud of you. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.

Love,

Mama

meandT

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10 Ways I Take Care of Myself While Parenting Wild Pirates

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A friend stopped by the other night and as I was busy burning some chicken for us all, I caught her looking at me with a combination of horror and pity. It turned out my bright lipstick (the shade I chose to cheer myself up) had migrated across my face, leaving me looking like some demented David Lynch character. I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t looked in the mirror in roughly 12 hours.

“What are you doing to take care of yourself?” she asked.

People ask you this a lot when you’re parenting young children. They often follow it up with a suggestion that is either time-consuming or expensive, or both. I agree that self care is essential, but those suggestions can leave me feeling like there’s yet one more thing I should be doing but I’m not.

Are you doing yoga?

Nope. Not currently finding 2.5 hours a day, including transportation time, to stretch.

Are you meditating?

Nope. Never. Hate it. Yup- I said it.  I have tried and tried and have now finally given myself a lifetime pass to never do it again. You can smile at me with that odd blend of compassion/smugness all day long and I still won’t Nam Myoho with you. I will, however, watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer and drink wine with you whenever the opportunity arises.

Are you taking enough time for you?

Does bingeing on popcorn while answering emails at midnight count? Then YES I most certainly am!

There have been times in my life that I have written for hours every day, had a regular exercise schedule, and even had extra time to get my nails done and to go out to lunch with a girlfriend once in a while. Before Bright Eyes showed up, life was pretty much like that. Tariku was settled in school, and had become less of a wild destructive pirate and more of a totally delightful pirate. Things were feeling pretty manageable.

But self-care is a moving target. All of us here at Casa Shriner are experiencing growing pains, as our family makes that huge leap from 3 humans to 4. Bright Eyes is a wonder and we’re crazy about him, but the attachment process with a 3.5 year old who has experienced severe neglect is also a real challenge and requires near-constant engagement. Not to mention the fact that our days are jam-packed with social workers, adoption counselors, lawyers, therapists, behaviorists… So the manicures and lunches have gone out the window, and I’m still puzzling through what exactly self-care is going to look like during this transition phase. It’s okay, for a moment, to have gruesome cuticles. But I do still need to find ways to care for myself.

I’m redefining daily what it’s going to take for me to stay sane. It’s often about shifting perspective rather than adding another item to the to-do list. Here are ten things I do to care for myself:

  1. I adjust my expectations. Before Bright Eyes showed up, I was going to boot camp at my friend’s house two mornings a week and going to barre classe on Saturday mornings. It was social and I felt great about myself and my abs were rad! Now, I walk with the stroller around the lake. The end. If I wait until I can do everything to the degree that I’d like, I’ll wind up doing nothing. And a walk in the fresh air is infinitely better than nothing.
  2. I slow down my transitions. That sounds so boring, I know. When I have a ton to do, I can get into a sloppy, rushed mode that’s not only un-fun but also dangerous, particularly when it comes to cooking or driving or anything with sharp edges and moving parts. One thing I’ve learned from having 2 kids who struggle with transitions, is to slow way down and talk them through it. So I’ve started to do the same for myself. After I drop T off at school, I have a spot around the corner, where I pull the car over and just breathe and reconfigure my brain. I answer my texts. I pick out a podcast for the way home. I decide if I’m going to grab a latte or not. I take a breath. If Bright Eyes is with me, I still do an abbreviated version of this.
  3. I give myself small treats. If Bright Eyes is napping and I have a million emails to answer, I make sure I find a sunny spot on the couch. I drink a bottle of cream soda. If it’s chilly, I throw my favorite orange cashmere blanket over my legs. Sure, I’d prefer to do all of the above AND be reading a good book, but sometimes you gotta get shit done. You can sweeten the deal a bit if you allow yourself to enjoy the little things while you’re doing it.
  4. I listen to my own music, sometimes. If they don’t want to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, they can bite me. I mean, they’ll probably bite me anyway, and at least this way I’ll have listened to “My Shot” eight times, and I won’t care as much.
  5. I read. This has always been my salvation and I’m not stopping now.
  6. I pay attention to my self-talk. This one is closely related to adjusting my expectations. It’s not my habit to speak kindly to myself. I’m stupid and lazy and sloppy and fat and old and mediocre and talentless and a failure and a lousy mother and a basket case and and and…. If anyone talked to my children like that, I’d sock ‘em in the nose. If I imagine when I’m talking to myself that I’m practicing talking to my kids, I’m way more likely to say, “You’re doing great, sweetheart. I love how hard you’re trying. I’m here for you. It’s going to be okay.”
  7. I wear bright lipstick. Or fun shoes. Or a locket I love that belonged to my Aunt May. Maybe this is shallow and maybe it isn’t, but I know that it helps me an awful lot to sport something that gives me a lift.
  8. I cook dinner. This sometimes feels like drudgery and is sometimes the best part of my day. Even when it starts out the former, it often turns into the latter once the olive oil and onions are in the pan and things start to smell good. This is a way of nurturing my family and myself. It grounds me in the present and gives me the happy illusion of control.
  9. I pray. A lot. Nothing formal, mostly a lot of “thanks” and “help.” Prayer reminds me that I don’t need to have every answer. That I don’t have to feel capable of what’s in front of me in order to just do it anyway. That I am not in charge of anyone’s future. And that I am not alone.
  10. I write. I write early in the morning or late at night, for a stolen hour here and there. I write poorly, in jumbled, half-baked prose. Half the time lately, I feel barely literate. But I do it. Regardless of the quality of the product, the process reframes the world for me in surprising ways, as it has always done. In fact, this post came from a journal prompt I gave myself yesterday morning: What does self care mean to you?

Please feel free to take that prompt and run with it! I’d love to hear your suggestions for self-care when under duress.

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Happy Enough New Year 2016!

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On Christmas day we rushed Bright Eyes to the emergency room with pneumonia. He seems to be pulling out of it now, but it was deeply nerve wracking. It feels like it’s been weeks and weeks of nothing but of sickness and worry around here.

At 11pm on New Year’s Eve, I was on my hands and knees cleaning vomit off the bedroom floor after a stomach flu raged through the house for 2 days, thinking, hey, at least they missed the rug this time. Scott lay on the couch in his checked pajamas and stared at the ceiling in shock. On the other side of our fence, the bass pounded from our neighbor’s black tie party. When I was done cleaning the last of the barf remnants, from my voyeuristic vantage point at the kitchen window I could see flashes of glittery dresses and crisp bow ties twirling next to the pool, where burlesque dancers lounged on enormous rafts shaped like swans. Yup- swans.

Then I shuffled papers from pile to pile for a while on our annoying dining room table that has crumbs and glitter and lord knows what else ground into every crack of the reclaimed barnwood rustic bullshit I’d never buy again in a million years because I have to clean it with a toothbrush. The whole house looked like a giant to-do list.

I set the bar low and wrote down some pathetic resolutions. Like- take walks. That kind of thing.

I thought- Oh, my poor life, my self, my soul, where have you gone? I’m a shell of a human in green socks and Birkenstocks on New Years eve, pretending I need more filtered water so I can spy on my neighbor’s swanky party.

I peeked in to the bedroom, where the two kids were through the worst of all the illness and finally asleep in our bed, snuggled in soft blankets and snoring gently, curled beside each other like two commas in different point font. I sat on the edge of the bed for a moment and just breathed with them, watching the deep calm of their sleeping faces and the sweetness of it all was nearly painful.

There was everything, right there. The parties we weren’t at. This crazy family we somehow lucked into. All of our choices and blessings and regrets. All the years, passing faster and faster. Everything we still long for and everything we have and everything we traded and fact that we don’t get to keep it. Any of it.

I did a little exercise I sometimes like to do when I am faced with choices or doubts. I ask myself- on my deathbed, what will I wish I had done with this day?

I thought, I didn’t do so badly. Today, I took care of the people I love. Today, that’s enough. I’ve earned my night’s rest. I wouldn’t rather be on a swan, or anywhere else, really.

When we woke up, everyone felt better and we took Bright Eyes for his first time bowling and we laughed and laughed and ate gross chicken fingers and it was pretty awesome. There will be other parties.

Wishing you all bright and beautiful things in 2016!

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Holiday Huddle

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Please forgive my month-long absence from writing anything more complex than a grocery list. My brains are scrambled eggs. I’m not even sure I just spelled eggs right.

After months of hand-wringing and waiting, we finally transitioned a new three-year-old son into our home!

About a year ago, Scott and I decided things had gotten too easy. We were doing things like exercising regularly, meeting deadlines, having dinner parties, and keeping our hair relatively clean. We decided to go ahead and screw all that up and have another kid!

Our nickname for him is Bright Eyes One-Sock. He’s a ridiculously adorable peanut with sparkling eyes that could kill you dead with cuteness. And he can’t manage to keep both socks on for ten minutes at a time.

This time, we’re fostering-to-adopt through LA County, which means that our family is living with a certain degree of uncertainty. Part of the reason I’ve been abstaining from my usual over-sharing is that there are both safety and legal considerations. Also, the adoption is not yet finalized, nor will it be for months, and that’s if we’re lucky.

For that reason, I haven’t known how to write about Bright Eyes. But I also don’t know how to NOT tell you about him. I’ve been writing about our family’s journey for seven years now, and have always made it a point to get as real as possible about the glorious mess of it all.

And wow- has it been messy. And beautiful. And scary. And tender. And exhausting. Our whole family is struggling to accommodate an enormous change. Once again, we’re all doing the trauma dance: the tantrums and the tenderness, the breakdowns and breakthroughs. Late at night (by which I mean 9:15), when I tally up the day’s triumphs and failures and find myself wanting, I think, “You wrote a WHOLE BOOK about this. Why can’t you remember what you’re supposed to do?!” And then I try to fill out an insurance form and I realize I can’t even remember my own home address. That really happened.

Trauma is a baffling beast. I have been dealing with our first son’s PTSD for years and it still bests me often. Trauma has been my most terrifying opponent in this life and also my greatest teacher. When I think about the trauma we’re experiencing as a society right now, and our fearful, primal, and often-illogical reaction, it’s pretty much the macro version of what my children go through daily. I believe there is nothing more important than facing down trauma with love. It is so essential right now to locate the love that is there, always, somewhere deep beneath the fear- in our homes, in our communities, in our world. Love wins. Ultimately, it does.

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There have been big, bright, boisterous holidays in our past and I’m sure there will be again. This holiday season has instead been an intimate and fragile time- a season for huddling together.

Rain in Los Angeles is akin to Armageddon. A cloud wrung out nine drops of moisture two days ago and our power went out for six hours. Sirens wailed in the distance. Both my boys woke at 5am.

There was no heat or light and only the sound of the rain on the windows. I put hats and sweaters on everyone and bundled us off to the living room, where I lit candles and we snuggled under ten blankets. To stave off fear of the dark, I staged a filibuster and told an hour long story that was pretty much Star Wars meets King Arthur, but with fairies and talking flowers and an evil dragon that melts robots to make jewelry. Wonder of wonders- they actually listened! And as the sky finally brightened and I wrapped it up (the robot was saved, the dragon defeated, of course), I thought- I will always remember this. This small, sweet moment. This pinpoint of light in the darkness. Even when I can’t remember my own home address, I will remember this.

Wishing love and peace and moments of light, big and small, to all of you. From our huddle to yours.

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