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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I See You

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I had a number of meaningful conversations during the Jewish New Year festivities, but my favorite was at a break-the-fast gathering, where I met a lovely woman who had spent the last year working with traumatized female veterans. Trauma- one of my favorite subjects to learn about! Of course I cornered her and asked her all about what she knew. One story in particular stuck with me. She told me about a woman everyone else had given up on, with whom she just sat in silence.

I thought about how, when Tariku is having a total freak-out and hides under the bed with his hands over his ears, I will sometimes just go and lie down on the floor next to him and not say anything. I remember when he was little and having one of his alarming tantrums, at first I would instinctively try to hug him or comfort him and he would panic and lash out. So I started sitting outside the door and waiting with him until it passed. And then little by little I began sitting in the doorway. Then I made it into the room. Sometimes he still needs to go be by himself for a while and work it out, but I’ve learned to see if there’s a little window open through which I can hold out an olive branch. If there is, I will go and sit silently with him.

My talk with the woman at the party caused me to reflect on how important it is to feel witnessed. Not just to be able to call a good friend on the phone and unload, although that’s great too! But to have your trauma and pain recognized and supported on a larger cultural level. We need simply to know: I am seen and there is a place for me here on this planet. All of me. All of my suffering and flaws and hope and humanity.

Because I am fortunate enough to have brilliant friends from different faith traditions, the week before the Jewish New Year, I found myself at a Christian Women of Faith event to hear the awesome Jen Hatmaker speak.  I heard her saying hetmessentially the same thing, with a different set of operating metaphors. Forgive my reductive paraphrasing of such a compassionate, eloquent and funny speaker, but what I heard from her was: You are seen and you are loved. Not for your accomplishments or your good behavior or your willingness to tow the line or your terrific souffles. You are seen, in all your imperfect and frightened humanity, and you are worthy of love. Period. End story.

I think a big part of all holiday rituals is simply to say to each other: I see you and we’re here together. We are all sinners; we are all in pain; we are all hungry for love and connection; we are all going to pass back into the unknown from which we came too soon. In light of all that mishigas (yiddish for “craziness”), we sit here beside one another in the presence of the divine mystery.

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Invisible Hurts

You could hear a cracking sound last week, as if the world’s largest tree had just been split down the middle by lightning. The sound of collective heartbreak.

There are far smarter and more knowledgeable people than I talking about gun control and mental health care issues right now. I think it’s obvious where I stand on both. Yes. Yes, gun control. Yes, health care. Yes. Please.

My two favorite parenting-related posts on the tragedy are Kristen Howerton’s Five Things to Consider Before Talking to Your Kids About Today’s Tragedy and Claire Bidwell Smith’s Holding Them To My Bones.

I do feel compelled to comment in greater depth on the issue of trauma. How do we respond to trauma and the resultant fear, both as individuals and as a collective? Do we build a higher fence around our homes and our hearts? Do we vow to be the one with the biggest stick next time, so that no one will ever make us feel this afraid again?

This is a literal question in terms of gun control, but it is also a spiritual dilemma that I believe is becoming more and more urgent for us as a society. Every day our soldiers return from war, PTSD sending shock waves through their lives and relationships. Children flood the social service system, manifesting the emotional scars of abuse and neglect. And, as is on all of our minds, the children who survived that Sandy Hook bloodbath will have to eventually learn how to wake up again in the morning and live- hopefully lives in which they can love and trust and feel safe. We are faced with the frustrating and elusive task of healing wounds you can’t see.

I have had many people look at me skeptically when I discuss the impact of early childhood trauma or the devastating effects of PTSD. I think people have a hard time considering a slippery, invisible emotional problem, with very few black and white answers. It is hard to sit with the pain of others. It is hard to be a witness to the suffering of our fellow humans, especially children, and not know how to address it. But denying the existence of the wounds won’t make them go away, won’t absolve us of the responsibility to heal them.

Trauma treatment is a more complicated subject than I can get into in this internet-attention-span-friendly post, but I can tell you that none of the treatments, none, involve arming people with a bigger stick. Trauma victims are deeply afraid in places to which the conscious mind doesn’t even have access. You can’t treat fear with more fear. You have to go at it with love. With conscious, patient, and fearless love.

If you’re interested in healing modalities for early childhood trauma, Heather T. Forbes and Bryan Post are two of my touchstones. And for my money, Christine Moers at Welcome to My Brain is the sanest, coolest trauma mama around. I also love Pets for Vets.

I wish healing for all your invisible hurts. I wish light for you, in these dark winter days.

I Broke The Baby

In the past four months or so, we’ve seen a dramatic change in T’s trauma-related behaviors. I think some of the transformation has to do with language acquisition. It helps that he’s often able to name the big feelings and to identify when he’s gone off the rails. There have been a few times lately that I had to contain him in public and he was able to say, I’m having a hard time.

For those of you not dealing with violent behaviors, when I say contain him, I mean I sit behind him holding his arms and his head (so he can’t bite) and I wrap my legs around his. I’ll tell you this about containing him- It’s horrible. It feels horrible; it looks horrible; people stare at you like you’re a monster. Purely for safety reasons, we used to have to contain him up to ten times a day. I regularly had bite marks on my chest and up and down my arms.

This is no longer the case (I say, doing a jig of glee). We now go days without a crazy violent tantrum. We can take him to the park, to the museum, to birthday parties. I don’t have to hover a foot away when he’s playing with other kids.

It’s a huge effort for him to control his aggressive impulses. Things that are a given for many kids are a true achievement for him. I see in his face how hard he’s trying and it can bring tears to my eyes. Both because I’m amazed at his resilience and because I still sometimes feel so helpless and sad in the face of all the pain he’s weathered in his short life.

In fact, his behavior is so much better that I can easily forget everything I know about his sensitivity to sensory input. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s easy to do when you’re having fun. There have been a couple of times in the past few weeks that I have seen the signs of dysregulation and let it slide. Last Sunday, Scott was out of town and T and I were having a big adventure day: museum, party, carousel. We ate about twelve gluten-free cupcakes. It was awesome. And it was WAY too much. He actually wound up so dysregulated at the end of the day that he was literally shaking and his eyes were rolling back in his head. I imagined I could see the smoke coming out of his ears from the short circuiting. I called Scott and said, I broke the baby. Luckily, the baby reset. But, man, did I feel like a jerk.

When his dysregulation gets that profound, I can clearly see its physiological component. The neurological aspect of T’s challenges is obviously an important thing to remember in our difficult moments, but I’m learning that it’s equally important to remember when things are going well. I’m not a person who’s generally known for my wonderfully balanced emotional life, so parenting T is a constant opportunity to exercise some underutilized muscles. Yet again, my kid is giving me every lesson I need.

The Hottest Spot in Hollywood

All those clubs in Hollywood with lines down the block and car service Hummers loitering nearby in clouds of pot smoke? Skanks and wannabes. I’m going to tip you off to the hottest spot in tinseltown, so pay attention, starfuckers…

Yo Gabba Gabba Live is the place to go if you want to, “Hop in a circle, hop in a circle now…” while rubbing elbows with Milla Jovovich and Ione Skye and a pregnant porn star with a kid on her hip and an NFL linebacker and Biz Markie’s entourage and someone you’re totally sure is in a band you like but you can’t figure out which one. Even DJ Lance’s handler looks like she’s in Sly and the Family Stone.

And all of these folks are getting in the populist spirit of the thing and sucking down beers at intermission with the rest of the rabble in the lobby. Because no one would be so gauche as to watch a kid’s show from the side of the stage.

For those of you parents who don’t expose your kids to media (bless your stalwart hearts), Yo Gabba Gabba is basically the kid’s show you thought you invented one night Freshman year when you and some friends dropped acid and got out the crafting supplies and rock albums. It’s awesome.

But seriously, it was a cute night and a great show. I’m pretty sure. If you have a kid who isn’t completely overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. Which would mean, if you aren’t us.

Wow, it’s hard to take your kid to something that he’s so excited about and you’re therefore so excited about and then have him absolutely freeze. T got both of our necks in a tandem death-grip and sat there terrified but refusing to leave while everybody jumped, shook and shimmied their wiggles out all around us.

The night was salvaged by a visit with T’s Gabbaland friends after the show. And after the massive dysregulation started to calm down a bit (like three days later) we still had the pictures for T to enjoy.

But dealing with T’s sensitivity and hyper-arousal is a learning process. I’m starting to get that even though something seems like it’s going to be a fantastic time, I have to take into account all the factors before buying tickets. As much as we love Gabba, the flashing lights, crowds and crazy noise were not exactly the best idea. So next time I’ll know.

But can we still please go to see The Muppet Movie? Come on…please?