I think I may have PTSD when it comes to self-help books, books on migraines, or generally any written device intended to explain to me how to make my current state in life better.
I have been trying to unwrap why I loathe self-help lately and I have hit upon a theory. It’s a relatively new theory so bear with me but here we go.
Ours is a society of the quick fix. If we have a cold and can’t sleep we take NyQuil. If we have a cold and need to go to work we take DayQuil. What we don’t do is rest long enough for our bodies to battle the cold on their own.
Due to our quick fix mentality we have a tendency to offer solutions to the people in our lives who express problems. We rarely actually commiserate. It’s not because we don’t feel sympathy or even empathy for them, but our language of caring has morphed over time from listening and empathizing to offering solutions.
As a migraine sufferer I have had a lot of experience on the receiving end of solutions. It doesn’t bother me from friends or family but it’s the complete strangers that make me crazy. Usually when I meet someone and they find out I have migraines I get asked my entire medical history by someone without a medical degree because their fourth cousin once removed has migraines and maybe they can mention something my nationally recognized neurologist hasn’t thought of yet. It is exhausting and not a way I want to spend one of the rare times I actually leave my house to go out into the world.
I think this is why I hate self-help mechanisms. Rather than listening to each other, talking about our feelings, and creating deep, strong bonds of friendship we are offering other people’s takes on our interpretations of someone else’s problem.
Meet someone at a party going through a divorce? Offer them this book. Got a brother with MS? Here’s a book on how one person worked through their experience with it. Children being… children? Here’s a book on how to parent in a way the person who wrote the book likes most.
Now I am not saying seeking self-help is a bad thing. Personally, if you want to read books on parenting, relationships, investing, whatever medical diseases you may have, and that helps you handle life, go for it with my blessing! There is nothing wrong in my mind about seeking out information.
What upsets me is offering these unsolicited solutions to others in lieu of care.
I get it, caring is hard. It’s time consuming, it takes real listening and empathizing to truly succeed at it and none of us have the time or the energy.
Is that last part true though? Would we find consoling someone less tiring if we did it more often? Could it be we are out of practice and therefore it seems more tiring and time consuming then it truly is?
Here’s my truth: My best memories are from times when I opened up my mind and heart and joined someone in their hardships. Really joined them. Crawled down into the hole they were stuck in and sat with them for a while. I have been blessed enough to build truly amazing relationships with people because I was simply sitting with them and listening when they were having a hard day.
Sometimes the way to be the most helpful is to offer no help whatsoever.
He used to play by himself quite well. If fact he would spend hours imagining entire worlds with his stuffies or even rotting his brain playing video games. He used to be self-reliant. Then he lost his favorite playmate.
She didn’t die or anything horrible like that, she simply grew up. The 5/12 year old who was there at his birth and grew to be his favorite person in the world became a freshman in high school and stopped wanting to play games with her now 8 year old brother. It’s a normal transition for her even if it is horrible for him.
He has never lived a life without a playmate – until now.
Which is why he now spends every waking moment of his time with me at my side demanding my complete and total attention to everything he does from changing the name of his character on the ROKU game we play to watching how much juice he has already drunk from his glass since the last time he asked me to look three seconds ago.
He is a velcro child, a snuggly burr, stuck to my side and refusing to let go without pain and discomfort.
He honestly feels he isn’t getting enough attention from me and his father because he used to get this huge additional attention from his sister who would now rather listen to music and read than pay much attention to anyone. Those rare moments when she calls him to her and asks him to join in an activity are like sunshine in England. He rushes to her side and soaks up the time and attention like a dry sponge dropped into a lake. The he dries back out in tearful spurts as she inevitably moves onto something he is welcome to participate in. He returns resignedly to me and I resignedly welcome him, setting aside my work/play/whatever to spend some time on only him.
I keep waiting for it to pass. I encourage solo play and even parallel play with me so I can get stuff done but all the self reliance in the world won’t replace what he’s missing. He is missing his sister’s childhood. His fellow adventurer and play pal. His best friend. His very favorite person in the whole wide world.
It’s hard to be a child. School is challenging, scary, and often filled with awkward and unpleasant social encounters that eat away at the enjoyment of your day. If you think about how tiny the wee people we send to school are, how thin the shielding around their easily wounded hearts can be, and the plethora of peer induced traumatic events awaiting them each day it’s no wonder they often fake illness to stay home.
When I was a little girl my mother, who has always considered herself a bear, would tell me there was a little bear on my shoulder, sitting next to me and giving me love and strength. It worked wonders knowing that no matter what the more popular kid said to me or the angry kid did to me or who “accidentally” pushed me at recess my mother bear was there with me to help me stand up, brush myself off, and move on with the day.
Now my wee offspring are navigating the tumultuous waters of school, and while I tell them they have a little cat on their shoulder, which is the animal I identify with, it doesn’t work the same way it did with me. (Perhaps because cats are capricious and don’t always want to do what you need them to do.)
So my mother gave them each a little glass heart:
They carry her little heart along with them in their pocket during the day. Oliver told me proudly that Nama was with him all day at school because her heart was in his pocket. Marlena found herself comforted by gripping the tiny expression of unquestioning love when she was having a sad day. Each day before they go to school, they make sure they have their little glass heart with them, just in case. Each day they feel, tangibly, that someone who loves them with the unconditional fierceness of a grandmother is walking by their side as they deal with the myriad of problems that arise in their day.
I am not sure mom realizes what a huge difference her tiny glass hearts have made in the hearts of her grandchildren, but I know the benefit these small people get from her thoughtful gesture will be remembered forever.
My beautiful amazing young woman. You are perfect, just as you are. You are brave, smart, loving, fun, spontaneous, beautiful, and kind. I am proud of you. I love you.
I am terrified for you.
You are turning into a woman. You will soon have more and more freedom in your life, and while I know you are smart and thoughtful and will do your best to make good choices, I also know you are kind and generous, and may be mislead by the people in your life.
I know that the world holds opportunities and pitfalls, heroes and villians, teddy bears and monsters.
I can no longer protect you from life. I cannot wrap you in my arms and make it go away with a kiss and a chocolate. Now you begin to face the real world. You will begin to see the harshness in addition to the beauty, the pain in addition to the joy.
Now the growing pains begin in earnest.
There is no way for me to stop you from embracing life and all the bruises that follow. All I can do is promise you this:
I will speak openly and honestly with you about topics that embarrass us both so I may better fit you with appropriate weapons for your future battles. I will not let discomfort prevent me from sharing with you the knowledge I gained from my own encounters. I will hand down my armor in the clearest way possible.
I will keep the lines of communication open. I will let you know that nothing you share with me will ever make me stop loving you, and I will reinforce the fact that there is nothing you can’t tell me. Tell me anything, tell me everything. I would rather know it all and be in a position to help you through it, than blindly fumble in the dark while you suffer.
I will not judge you. I will worry about you. I will work hard to make you understand the difference. I will listen to your troubles and talk with you to help you make the decision that is best for who you are, not who I am. If I get angry or sad about what you tell me, I will let you know the source of that anger or sorrow, and I will not let it get in the way of helping you. I will continue to love you and to listen.
The world is full of sharp and dangerous places. I can’t stop you from wandering into them. My parents couldn’t stop me. All they could do was listen. All anyone can do is provide you with a soft place to land when the sharpness cuts too deeply.
Let me be your soft landing place. Let me be the place you run to heal.
I try very hard not to go overboard on the whole motherhood thing. Most of the time I do an excellent job. I let the children watch too much t.v., play too many video games, eat too much candy, send them off to do their own thing without playing with them all the time. I do my own stuff, yell at them, make them do chores for their allowance. I don’t always make them bathe before it becomes perfectly clear they really need to.
There are a few areas where I have a tendency to take things too far. Lunches would be one of those areas.
It started simply enough. Back in the day when Marlena started school she hated crusts on her sandwich. I hated cutting the crusts off. I discovered large cookie cutters are fabulous for cutting bread slices uniformly. So I began sending her to school with sandwiches shaped like the largest cookie cutter I had, a turtle.
Then things spiraled quickly downhill. I began to get more cookie cutters. Holiday themed, heart shaped, dinosaur shaped, you name it. Then I had to cut the fruit with smaller matching shapes. Then I turned into that crazy mom who sent her kids to school with incredibly detailed shaped lunches.
In order to regain my sanity I stopped sending lunches all together. The kid got a school lunch account and that was that. Until Oliver began going to school, this year.
He struggles with school and with mornings. He would much rather be doing his own independent little thing at home than being in a big noisy building with too many kids. He needs a soft personal touch. I started sending him to school with notes. Just cute little love notes on plain paper.
Then when he had come home complaining of a particularly bad day of bullying and teasing I thought perhaps he would make it through the next day more easily if his lunch contained a note from his favorite video game character, Luigi. So I printed a color picture of Luigi and stuck it in his lunch with a little blurb about being an amazing kid.
He loved it.
He loved it so much that he wanted another the next day, and the next, and the next.
Soon I was printing the notes on two sides of the paper using a template I designed on my mac in order to turn the notes into top folding cards. I had coloring pages on the inside and a full color picture and message on the outside. I began sending crayons tucked into his napkin. I looked up coloring printables for Sonic, Mario, TMNT, and anything else he liked. I began rotating the subject of the notes.
Tonight, I spent an hour creating a maze for Sonic the Hedgehog to go through.
Now I am officially that crazy mother who sends her kid to school with hand designed activity packets and crayons in his lunch.
Oh and best of all, he hates having crusts on his sandwiches too.
One Lawyer and two children drove off to Kansas to camp in Lake Scott State Park and shore up standing in an environmental suit I am filing later in the summer. We packed a tent, a king sized air mattress, a queen sized sleeping bag, a pile of camping food, dishes, camp stove, and other necessary gear.
We forgot the bug spray.
We remembered the hammock and the travel DVD player.
We drove 5 and a half hours, with over 7 stops, through the wilds of eastern Colorado. We stopped at fast food places and gas stations. We stared in wonder at Kanarado, and signs for the largest prairie dog ever. We ate snacks, and I listened to Shrek, over and over again, and the kids paused and rewound favorite parts to get themselves through almost six hours in the car with nothing to look at but highway and wheat fields.
“Look kids, look at the lovely colors of the native prairie grasses! See all the pinks and purples! The silver sagebrushes and deep greens!”
“Look kids, cows!”
“Look kids! A baby cow!”
“Look kids! Horses!”
“Look kids! I see more cows!”
“Look kids! — “We know mom! Cows.”
There are only so many times you can look at cows before you are bored of them I suppose.
Finally after way too many hours in the car, and one wrong turn into some poor farmer’s wheat field courtesy of the GPS, We ended up at Lake Scott State Park. A beautiful, spring fed oasis on the western plains containing more species of grasses, birds, and reptiles than nearly any other place in North America. Oh yeah, and it’s hotter than a frying pan on a camp stove in July.
Once we got to the camp ground, things got a little, more interesting. My mentor and his lady love joined us at the camp site, and we chose a spot that prevented the children from launching themselves into the 100 acre lake without first running around a blockade of bushes, giving us adults a chance to prevent consistent attempts at drowning.
Jay and Nicole assisted in child watching while I set the tent up in the shade of a tree. Otter and Monkey ran around, investigating the surroundings, picking up Canadian goose feathers, and assisting me in finding tent parts.
Otter attempted to drive the car climbing up in the front seat each time the door was opened.
Once we were all settled in and the tent was set up I unpacked the car and Nicole noticed our bush enclosure was riddled with large clumps of poison ivy.
Crap, so much for letting the kids run free within the enclosure. Camping became a lot more preventative from that point forward, with shouts of “Otter! Don’t touch that please!” resounding throughout the camp. It only got worse once we lit the fire and added potential burning to the list of imminent harm.
It was hot. Blazing hot. We were in a little valley in Kansas, so there seemed to be no wind (until later that night during the wind storm of death) and the sun beat down on us mercilessly. We ended up swimming in the lake far sooner than we expected to simply to get some relief from the heat.
The kids and I enjoyed swimming a lot after I convinced Monkey the lake water was not full of Crocodiles and was indeed shallow enough for her. Soon she was paddling around like a duck. Otter stayed glued to my hip the whole time, but was generally pleased to be cooling down in the water instead of red-faced and miserable out on the sand. Nicole kindly took Monkey out further into the lake, and Jay swam out to the other side to investigate a nested cormorant.
We swam for ages and then dried off on the ancient playground by the swimming area. The playground reminded me of the many my brother and I enthusiastically visited during our youth while on the way to my grandparents farm in Eastern Colorado. There were creaky swings, a round-a-bout, and about three million tumbleweeds. Somehow, these rundown playgrounds are always more enticing to me than the fancier gadget filled ones we see all over the city today. Maybe it’s because seeing them meant freedom from restraint and a break from the car when I was younger, or maybe it’s because their memory comes with the sense of hot weather, dry earth, warm wind, and the awareness of a quiet deeper than any you can find in the city. The memory of the sun beating down on my back comes to me from years past, haunting me with the sound of rusty chains attached to tire swings, and the constant squeak of the un-oiled hinges deep inside the round-a-bout, as my brother and I traded off the burden of running along in the well worn path, with the joy of being made sick to our stomachs in its center.
Monkey screamed in glee while Jay pushed the round-a-bout, and Nicole tried valiantly to hold onto Otter so he wouldn’t fly out and break an arm. Sadly, all she got for her consideration was an upset stomach and a screaming Otter.
Once we had satisfied the playing needs of our small charges we headed back into the camp to settle into dinner by camp stove and a night of marshmallow roasting, wine, and mead. While dinner was cooking, Monkey and Jay rescued a Monarch butterfly floating out on the lake, and Monkey held it aloft while Otter yelled “Me! Me!” and tried to get it out of her reach. Jay took over the cooking while Nicole took the kids over to some Queen Anne’s Lace and instructed Monkey in the proper way to safely place the butterfly on the flower so its wings would dry.
Once dinner was eaten and the dishes cleaned up we settled around the fire for marshmallow cooking. After painstakingly picking out sticks and sharpening their points, the kids decided they preferred the marshmallows un-roasted and proceeded to devour them at will. Having filled up on more of those than they did anything else I finally got them into the tent and to sleep. Of course, it took about an hour to do that, and Otter clinging desperately to me because our air mattress hadn’t filled up very well and every time we moved we careened into each other. The poor kid was terrified. However, exhaustion won over terror eventually and the late night hours found Jay, Nicole, and I trading life stories and future environmental plans over a dying fire, a fleet of bugs, and the remainder of the wine.
We dove for cover when the stars disappeared and the winds began to whip into our tents in a rather epic manner. Reminded of the thunderstorms experienced back home of late, I gathered all the remaining belongs at the front of the tent, tucked them inside, and dashed into the tent to ready myself for a horrible rainstorm.
It never came.
Instead, I was jerked awake all night by intense and violent winds whipping at my rain flap. The tent shuddered and shook, and Otter woke randomly, to sit up, bleat like an angry baby dragon, and crash into my lap. Monkey would kick Otter and I throughout the night as the noisy wind woke her enough to make her toss and turn. I woke up again and again prepared to batten down the rain-flaps, left open to cool the tent in the still oppressive heat, only to discover each time that there was still no rain, only wind. Finally, around five in the morning, it cooled enough to close the flaps and the wind died enough to calm the babies. We slept.
We awoke bundled in a heap, roasting like bacon, and blinking blearily at each other. We scrambled out of our jammies, tossed on clothes, changed diapers, and began the morning routine. For me, that included breaking down a tent that would not continue to stay put in the wind without us in it.
Then, breakfasted and packed up, we wandered off in search of beetle habitat, the purpose of the trip in the first place. We drove to the spring wherein our endangered species was supposed to lie, and, avoiding the poison ivy lacing the trial, hiked along its habitat enjoying the view and the morning.
First we came upon the bridge under which the beetle lives, and snapped photos of it (the bridge, not the beetle) We didn’t walk along it, as we did not wish to imperil either the beetle, or ourselves, by carelessly wandering through the rocky, and aged, habitat.
We hiked above the bridge on the neighboring nature trail, which was cool and lovely, though quite overgrown with spiny nettle and poison ivy. Monkey was wearing pants, but Otter had to hitch a ride on Jay’s shoulders, as his fat baby legs and arms were exposed to the plethora of poisonous plants growing in abundance around us.
At the end of the hike, we looked around the pond and Monkey inspected some rocks. The habitat, at the other end of the spring, was in no danger from her scientific inquiry here, so Jay and Nicole helped her apply her magnifying glass to a few slimy rocks and river bed critters.
Otter, less interested in viewing slimy insects and more interested in being down and free, watched the inquiry from a few feet away, occasionally investigating the butterflies alighting about.
After our habitat adventure was completed, we drove back to the lake for another swim, and then ended our camping adventure with peanut butter and honey sandwiches and fresh water. Then, we took the long drive back into Denver, this time with me listening to Aladdin the whole way home.
Oddly, despite the bone weary exhaustion that struck me upon returning, the tick that attached itself to my right hip somewhere between the last swim and home, and the constant vigilance required by camping with small children, I would actually do this again.
Two years (and a day) ago Otter entered the world after a glorious, and screamy, natural birth. I will never forget waking up that morning, about 5:30 a.m. with the feeling that this time the contractions were different. I sat on the bed watching the light begin to filter through the little wholes left by the lace pattern in my curtains and listening to my husband snore as they got stronger and stronger. Finally, around 6:30 a.m., I woke Lee up and told him it was time. He, very sensibly, suggested we go back to sleep for a while, but really, there was no way that was happening.
We got up, called the doctor, and went in to see him before I even got a solid breakfast under my lack of a belt. He checked me out and encouraged me to go to the hospital. I calmly explained that we were going to go home and walk around for a while first, because I wanted to be home as long as possible, per my doula’s instructions. He encouraged me to go to the hospital. I told him I would begin to head over there after I had a nice leisurely breakfast with my family, so I had the energy to sustain my labor. He told to me go the the hospital right away.We left his office around 8 a.m.
We began to head over, and halfway there my contractions had sped up to five minutes apart. By the time Lee got the birthing tub set up, they were under four. The hot water felt so good and relaxed me considerably. Over the next nine or so hours I spent most of my time listening to music, soaking in the tub, and dancing in the hallways with hubby as we waited for Otter to come. I stole some of his chinese beef sticks, drank some water, and got increasingly interested in what was happening “downstairs”.
Finally, I was sick of the tub, sick of the music, and generally sick of everyone, a clear indication it was time. I got up on the bed, and after a very long, to me anyway, period of time I managed to deliver an 11 pound, 6 ounce Otter. There was screaming and cursing and breathing, requests to turn on/up/off the music, and one awful moment when the urge to push stopped just as he was crowning, making me completely aware of exactly how much my body was going through. There was also this absolute certainty that every woman who had birthed a child before me was lined up behind me, stretching back to the first mother, urging me on. All my ancestors, all my sisters, all the women in time. I let go in that moment, felt lifted beyond my stressed out body and pain, and out he came. He was born a little after 5:30 p.m., twelve hours after I began to suspect his imminent arrival.
When they put him on my stomach I “oof’d” just a little at his weight. I remember thinking what a solid little guy he was. He didn’t have piles of babyfat, like he would develop later, but seemed to be all strength and muscle. A little man on my tummy, purple and wrinkly, waiting for his blood flow to pink him up. We got to cuddle for over an hour while they cleaned us up, then he was wheeled away for baby testing stuff and I was wheeled away for a shower, a meal, and recovery. Lee, bless his heart, was left to clean up the birthing tub.
Another memory of that day, clear as glass, is our first night together. Lee had taken Marlena home and Otter and I were in the hospital room, each in our little bed, side by side. I could look between the handles on my bed and see into his cradle. We lay there for hours, staring at each other through the glass, hand in hand, simply gazing. I fell in love.
Now, this little man is two years old. He can sign in full sentences, having decided that speaking, though possible, isn’t nearly as cute and effective as sign. He can eat perfectly with a fork and spoon, knows how to work the remotes on the Apple TV, and loves anything with buttons. He is a vendor of kisses, and will sweetly pat me on the head when he hugs me, just to tell me how much he cares. We celebrated his birth with a few family and friends, a strawberry vanilla layer cake, a balloon forest, and a ball pit. (Oh yeah, and I spiked the grown up’s punch.)
There were so many wonderful people there, and I have about 200 pictures of the blessed event, but as time and interest are in short supply, you get the above! It was a successful party for my little man, so much bigger than he was two years ago. I am so pleased to have him here with me, as his innate sweetness brightens up even my hardest hours. Before I had him, I couldn’t imaging sharing my life with any child other than Monkey, now that he is here, I feel as though our family has been made complete.
Happy Birthday baby boy, and many, many, more.
Managing life with chronic illness requires savvy spoons