On parenting in the dark.

For the next four days I am alone. I am completely alone in my house for the next four days. 

Ok well, there is a dog and a cat here but for the next 96 hours there are no other beings in this household that require my attention.  I haven’t been alone in my house for this length of time in over four years. My son’s father came and picked him up this morning, headed to see family 400 miles away. For all my initial anxiety about the upcoming trip, by the time the moment arrived to see them off I was awash with a mixture of unexpected feelings. This week has been one of the darkest and most intense weeks of parenting that I can remember.

The world at large right now feels heavy, hurting and angry.

My heart is heavy, hurting and angry.

And my son, three and a half, seems to have tapped into the collective wellspring or is otherwise coming up against his own pain and rage over the current state of things on the micro-level of his family and immediate environment.

And I am his target for all of this, of course. And target in every sense of the word. I am bruised, battered and raw from the battles of this week. Where has my sweet little companion, full of smiles and affection gone? And what phenomenon is he currently processing to cause such a disturbance in our normal balance of daily life??

I know all the “things”: It will pass, it’s normal. It’s not about me. All I can do is give him a safe place to feel and process. Stay connected. Stay neutral. Stay present. Don’t take things personally. The caregiver he’s closest to gets the worst of it. Practice self-care. Model healthy boundaries. Model healthy ways to work through strong feelings. Give him words and tools to identify what he is feeling and what he needs. Remember the relationship comes first. 

But all of these truisms don’t help me right now. Because even with trying to do my best to remember all of these things, deep in the moment parenting just feels shitty and terrible and awful and unfair. And because I am just empty. That’s it. I’ve just got nothing left to give this kid right now.

And so suddenly this trip feels like grace for both of us.

He is ecstatic to see his papa. He runs screeching and laughing into his arms. He waves goodbye and doesn’t look back. And I am grateful. For their bond and the relationship they have cultivated, which is much closer and more loving than either of us had with our own fathers. Grateful he is not fearful about leaving me. And grateful because honestly – I just don’t think I could have stood another hour of being beat up, being bullied, and of battling it out.  Grateful because honestly – I don’t even like my child right now. And I don’t feel capable of being his mother.

And closing the door behind them, this truth makes me cry and cry.

Last night I heard him tossing around in his bed, calling out softly in sleep. It woke me and I lay there for a moment, waiting to see if the he would settle himself and drift off on his own. He probably would have after another moment or so but I got up anyway and opened the door to his room and crossed the carpet to kneel at his bed. He mumbled incoherently in a half-wakened state. Tentatively, I reached out to stroke his forehead and he allowed me to comfort him. Then slowly, inch by inch, I moved onto the bed next to him and curled my body around his. For the first time in weeks he didn’t resist but relaxed and nestled against me.  I held him close and rubbed his back. In the darkness he reached out his little hand to press it against my face and I saw his brief, small sleepy smile in the glow of the nightlight. I lay there for an hour or more relishing this rare moment of closeness, not daring to move a muscle lest the spell be broken and the feral animal awake. My arm fell asleep and my back started to ache but I couldn’t bear to move. For a short time I felt again our sweet bond. I needed to remember.

nightlight1

 

I know it will pass. I know we each have to process in our own ways what it means to not be an intact family living under one roof anymore, and who we each are as we grow into the people we are becoming.  And as we test the limits of what we think we know and are capable of and explore our own spectrum of experience, we come to understand the safety and strength of the container of this relationship. We trust that it can hold our process, that it can honor both the darkness and the light. But it is only in the darkness where true resilience is revealed, when we find it is stronger and more spacious than we thought, that it can allow and recover, heal and adapt. That it can both nurture and even be strengthened in times when the light is scarce. That it is both steadfast and constant and that it is also ready to change as we change.

Tiptoeing back to my room and back to my own bed, I feel thankful for this tiny bit of reprieve. In the morning I ask him and he doesn’t remember anything. But I know it wasn’t for him. It was for me.

As I watch the car pull out of the driveway this morning it occurs to me that there may come a day when he wants to go and live with his dad full time. The thought hits me a little like a sock to the stomach. As I stand in the middle of the empty living room I am gutted by the realization that ultimately all of this effort, the intense marathon of parenthood, the unwavering commitment to every small teachable moment, the anguish over whether or not we are doing things right, whether we are giving them the right tools, laying the right foundation for healthy relationship with themselves, with others and the world — all of it — every single worry that keeps us up or on the phone for advice or nose deep in books, all of the ceaseless energy we put into giving our children the best possible start guarantees absolutely nothing.

We do all of this with the acceptance that all possibilities exist and one being that there could come a day when our child says goodbye and walks away without looking back. We have great hopes. We cultivate hope against odds at every turn that our kids will emerge from childhood undamaged, happy, vital and devoted to us. But in the end we are all forced to relinquish every expectation and investment in the outcome. We do this parenting thing in every moment out of some mysterious compelling place of unadulterated selflessness. Its the biggest most profound lifelong investment we ever make and yet there are no guarantees of anything. And still, as a species we have decided it worth doing over and over and over again.  It makes no sense.

They won’t remember all of the tiny moments you sweated and grasped for answers, fumbling for the right tools, the right words, the right thing to do. They will just be left with this broad, colorful landscape, full of feelings they felt. And they get to interpret it however they choose. The only certain thing is that we won’t see it the same way.

bed1

I read somewhere that parenting is the a lifelong exercise in unfailing optimism. That sounds about right.

And I have the next four days to find my bootstraps.

 

The in between place: Sometimes things are just shitty.

I’m in the hard holding space.

The painful, restless, unknowing place of trying to hold more than a human heart is capable of holding without knowing how anything is going to turn out.

The in between space, waiting for each next breath, each next step, having faith that healing can happen, that peace is possible. The world feels so heavy and full of darkness right now. I grieve over the war and violence in the world, I grieve with my fellow countrymen over the unfathomable corruption and devastating policy-makings of our government, over the unthinkable and compounding acts of violence and what it means for the future of our children and our planet.

Violence. Oppression. Suffering. Helplessness. Rage. Grief.

My partnership has been in its own stage of painful metamorphosis. Kind of like how the caterpillar in the cocoon has to completely dissolve before it can change form… you really want to believe its going to be reborn into a beautiful butterfly, but for awhile its such indistinguishable mush. Sometimes your faith can’t help but waver somewhat. I mean, it just looks like mush. It feels like a mess. From your limited human perspective, it doesn’t look promising. From the outside, things look impossible. Except that something tells you “Hold on. You don’t have all the information.” And you have lived long enough now and seen enough miracles to know that they are always happening.

It’s been a hard waiting. It’s been a good while now. Breathing, believing. Praying. And waiting.

There should be a meme out there that just says “Sometimes things are just shitty for awhile.” Because ain’t that the truth of life? It isn’t being negative. Actually it feels quite liberating when you remember that its normal for things to suck for awhile. But then they get better. Then suck again. And then its wonderful. And not everything hard is necessarily something that has to be (or can be) fixed at the moment. Like the world right now.

I’m going to make that meme.

Speaking with a few different friends this past week, it seems a lot of us are cycling through a pattern of feeling totally overwhelmed and checking out. I know that’s been true for me. Because it’s just. too. much.

Last week, I had to log off social media and the news feed for several days. When I came back on, I read first about Colorado and then about San Bernadino. What is happening? And what, oh what, are we to do about it?

To be awake, to be alive is to feel the darkness of the world, the heaviness when it comes, but to be of service to the world is not let ourselves be swallowed up by it. So I teeter back and forth, trying to find my balance when one after another these blows keep coming. We can choose gratitude – and can I tell you how my heart is swelled in gratitude these past weeks?? – We can focus on the positive, we can seek beauty for I have learned that there is always, always something beautiful happening

But we can also learn to sit with sorrow when sorrow is warranted, rage when rage is due, grief where heartbreak is demanded. This is what it means to be fully awake, we can’t choose to be selectively conscious. It is the juxtaposition of feeling these simultaneous polarities. We don’t turn our backs on one or the other, we don’t go back to sleep. It is the seemingly impossible task of learning to hold them both, the light and the dark. To find stillness in the churning sea. In the face of a tidal wave that threatens to wash away everything we know and to still believe that whatever the storm takes or leaves in it’s wake we will go on. We will still look for love.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist (that’s really a thing), author and stroke survivor (listen to her TED talk here) has said that it actually takes less than 90 seconds for an emotion to get triggered within the body, peak, dissipate and disappear. So anything more than 90 seconds it caused by our thoughts about the emotion. We feel fear, we instantly create a story about why we are afraid and what ifs and how the world is unsafe and we feel out of control, which creates more fearful emotions.

Feelings create thoughts, thoughts create feelings. These become the constructs of our reality.

This simple concept feel especially empowering to me right now. I can breathe through 90 seconds. Hell, I breathed through 22 hours of labor contractions and I learned you don’t waste that sweet spot in between, you take any tiny respite you can.

Breath by breath.

space between

Glennon Melton, of Momastery (whom I adore and if by any possible circumstance you are not familiar with her, her blog or her work, please give yourself the huge gift of introducing yourself) gives these instructions on how to respond to global trauma:

“1. BE STILL. Feel it. Listen. Pray. There is a word in my holy text: Selah. Selah means holy pause. The Selah is the space between what happens to us and how we respond to what happens to us. When we don’t take a Selah—we tend to respond from fear. Fear is never a powerful or transformational launching pad.

2. HERE I AM. This is the action after the stillness. This is when we feel centered enough in love to be fairly certain that our reaction will bring light instead of more darkness. We are ready. Love is our launching pad.

Stillness without action is not compassion. It’s more like pity. Compassion means your pain into my heart and back out through my hands.  Action without stillness can’t be trusted. It has no wisdom, no steadiness, no plan. It’s reckless. It’s oil on a fire.”

Let’s look for beauty.  Let’s find a little patch of the natural world and sit in it; by a rock or a stream, beneath a tree or prostate on the Earth. She is very absorbent, She can hold all of it.

Let’s tune out when we need to. Let’s do the things we love with people we love. Let’s do the things we love by ourselves. Let’s look around for someone who needs help and offer what we can for service to others is a great healing balm for the human heart. Let’s stay awake.

And let’s pray, pray, pray. (Or dance, or sing, make art or do what you do.)

Ask ourselves, “what is the next right thing?” and do it.

xo

Here ya go 🙂

shitty final

(For more good stuff read here: “What would happen if we let people be broken sometimes?” by renegademama.)

Carry on soldier.

Fruit.

And this is how it happens.

I stand in the kitchen while my child violently shakes the bars of the safety gate 4 feet away, letting loose the death scream that would at the very least cause the neighbors question our parenting if not draw in a hungry mountain lion from hills.

It’s too early for the death scream. For the love of all that is sacred, its 5:15 am.

This has become routine, though. I scramble to put breakfast together, bleary-eyed and stiff in the joints, while listening to alternating outbursts of “EAT!!! Mama hold YOOOOOOOOUUU!!! EAT!! MAMA HOLD  YOOOOOOOOUUU!!!!” Looking for something quick to satiate him while the oatmeal pancakes brown in the skillet, my eyes alight upon the last of the beautiful organic peaches sitting on the counter. I glance in the fridge at the last remaining luscious strawberries in the carton we splurged on at the farmer’s market. I think about how much I was looking forward to enjoying a bowl of cut up peaches and strawberries for my own breakfast. I think about how my son will most likely refuse them as he does most everything except the four basic menu items he has narrowed down over the past four months. I cut them up anyway. He’s hungry and I am supposed to keep offering him different foods, right??

I set them on his tray along with a fork and see my opportunity to make a much-needed mad dash to the bathroom. Amidst a necessary uh,… multi-step process of changing and freshening and emptying I become aware of three things simultaneously:

1) there is no toilet paper

2) the smell of pancakes beginning to burn

3) the clunk of the fork as it hits the floor and the ensuing wail

Fooooooork!!!!! MAMA!! Fork! Fork! Foooooork!!!

Seriously, fork my life sometimes.

My pants around my ankles I shuffle to the closet where we keep the toilet paper and finish up my personal hygienic duties, “Just a minute!” I chirp hopelessly, the desperate and feeble attempt at cheerfulness in my voice sounds ridiculous. He can’t hear me. He doesn’t care. But it is too late. With the first unmistakable “plop, plop” sound I realize I’ve lost.

Plop. plop. plop…

(click to cue music)

By the time I emerge defeated, 10 seconds later, every last piece of that precious fruit has landed onto the dirty, pet-hair covered floor. The highchair tray is empty. The dog is furtively sniffing and licking each piece of dropped food, evaluating each morsel. There is the smell of smoke from breakfast now blackened on the stove. My son is shrieking that he wants a “SNACK” with increasing hysteria. But for a moment I just stand and stare at the floor unmoving. And I feel my throat tighten with a choking kind of cry.

And this is how it happens. This is all it takes. To break me.

Fruit.

It’s 5:25am.

~

I have tried to break down what exactly makes up this highly combustible mix of elements that lands me back in the place of feeling like the the joke is on me … again, and that the only reasonable solution is to stick my baby in front of some cartoons and light up a cigarette and maybe start morning drinking. The scenario always involves some version of 1) not enough sleep.  2) an overwrought toddler 3) unrelenting pain in my body 4) the need to take care of myself but not feeling that I have permission to do so and 5) a striving, even in the impossible moment, to do what I think the “good mother” would do: put her needs last, make breakfast from scratch, feed the kid organic fruit I know he doesn’t want (but that I actually want!), and on top of it all, mask my frustration with a kind of strained cheerfulness.

It’s a set up. Once I’ve pitted my needs against his,  I will always lose.

So I did what I should have done in the first place when I first felt the twinge of the battle lines being drawn:  Hold the homemade organic breakfast, give him a handful of cheerios. Turn on “Little Bear”,  pour myself a cup of coffee, walk outside and breathe.

Every day doing your best looks a little different. Compassion for others begins with compassion toward myself.