Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Groundhog Day

I woke up this morning and it was Groundhog Day, but not the kind in the movie where one person is subject to the same repeating set of circumstances and trying to change them to escape the monotony, but the kind where I asked for this monotony in the first place. Dreamt about it, in fact. Never believed I would be allowed to have it, fought for it, wished for it with every ounce of my being. I created this monotony. With intention.

Wake up, get teenagers out the door, make smoothies, kiss husband goodbye, engage in a game of twenty questions on the way to middle school, at least half of them generally about my abundant failures as a mother, then the daily conversation with the kid transitioning back to public school about why he's going and why he needs to go every day and why we are doing this and reminding him that he actually likes it, and then finally getting him to get out of the car...and then the real part of groundhog day starts when I attempt to tire the toddler out enough that he will nap so that I can have a moment of time to myself, never knowing if it will be successful or if I will spend three hours this afternoon begging him to sleep because I need him to sleep because I can't take it anymore.

For the love of god, child. Nap.

I'd almost entirely forgotten how isolating being home alone with a toddler all day long is. Almost. I remembered, of course, because I have been here so many times before, but I'd forgotten as a survival technique, one passed down since the beginning of time that allows and encourages us to have more kids when we begin to forget just how bad it was in this stage.

I've forgotten many times. It comes back. It always comes back.

I don't need to be reminded that I'm fortunate to be home. I don't need scolded for complaining about mothering. This isn't some declaration to the world that I resent my child or children or husband or life. I've done away with those who make those accusations because mothers are their own worst enemies. Yes, I'm looking at you. I know with certainty that I will one day miss this age and this time and this smothering and this constant need and I know it because I have been here before time and time again. I know.

And yet, I'd forgotten.

There is tired and there is a soul-leeching kind of tired that goes so far beyond physical exhaustion. There is tired and there is this.

This child, I wonder, is he really more demanding than his siblings were at this age or am I just older now? Did the others push my buttons so constantly and have I just forgotten, or has he discovered novel ways to drain my life force? I can't honestly tell. It's been a while since I have had to endure this isolating constant demand every single day.

There are always people who say things like, "it will be so much easier with just one home", "you'll have so much time with just the baby", "you'll finally have a break". My husband of all people uttered some of those words, and when I looked at him with eyes that could bore a hole through his soul, he immediately understood just how wrong he'd been. Or maybe he did. Maybe he doesn't really understand, but maybe he has learned to trust my judgment better since we are doing this now for the fifth time. Again, I can't really tell.

Briefly for a time there I wasn't "just" a mother. I was a teacher too, but not even just a mother and a teacher. I had a limitless list of goals and standards and resources and materials and I was the administrator and the educator and still the wife and the mother and the chauffeur and the chef and all the other things. And you know what? I was damned good at it almost all of the time.

More than that, it was the first time in my nearly 17 years as a mother when I didn't feel like I was just a mother, and it was the first time when I was treated by everyone around me as just a mother. My husband, my family, my own children. I had some other redeeming societal value beyond serving them.

And then it was gone.

Putting my son back into public school, even with me still working with him on virtually all of the things I had been when he was here full time, has caused a great shift in my identity. Again.

Who am I now? Am I just a mother again? Is that all?

The fact that I actually started working outside the home in this intervening time, by the way, is of no consequence here. I don't even really remember who I used to be anymore, have no idea who I'll one day be, away from all this, and so I go to that job to pretend. To escape from this.

I don't even write very often anymore, though it represents such a huge piece of my identity. The reasons at least as plentiful as the number of children I have. I don't write because I don't have time. I don't write because when I do get a break, literally all I want to do is sleep. I don't write because it frustrates me to live in a world where the work of creators is so arbitrarily rewarded. I don't write because I am not in the best state of mental health and haven't been for a while, and even though I am better than I was doing a few months ago, my absence here is indicative of my overall well-being. I don't write because I am tired of writing about my dead parents, but I know I'm not done writing about my dead parents and will probably never be done writing about my dead parents and maybe that it just part of the shitty reality of having dead parents. I don't write because I don't like to accept these truths. I don't write because I am completely fucking exhausted from arguing with people and having strangers tell me how to live my life and for a long time I tried to keep them around, convincing myself that someday, somehow I could make them understand and gain some empathy, but then I realized that they weren't budging and I was only harming myself, and so I've started to remove them from my life, even if they were only ever part of my virtual life anyway, but also even when they have been real presences in my actual life.

I haven't written about this summer and probably won't write about this summer in detail ever, but suffice to say that it was awful in so many different ways, and I know with absolute certainty that the kids going back to school won't make things better and may create new problems but I'm still relieved sometimes to see them walk out the door for a few hours. And maybe that makes me a horrible mother. I'm sure that some people would categorize me that way, but those people don't know what we've been dealing with, what I've been dealing with either directly or indirectly more than anyone else because it is the mothers who shoulder the bulk of the load for all of this worry. It just is.

I'm not looking for validation or answers or sympathy, either. Instead, I am attempting to demonstrate how motherhood somehow simultaneously came to be the most important responsibility I will ever have and nowhere near enough. For me, for them, for any of us.

How can it be both of those absolutes at the same time? Who did this? Why is our society built this way?

Obviously the answer lies in the patriarchy, but us, the mothers of the past and present, we're complicit in it all. And for what? So that we can feel like successes and failures both constantly?

There has to be a better way. There must. Which direction that path goes, though, and who builds it, I don't know. I'm too fucking busy and exhausted.

Motherhood is exhaustion, love, resentment (yes, it's there in some form) and guilt for all of the above.

Guilt for loving them more than myself, more than my partner, more than my parents; and then living constantly with the consequences of each truth.

Men, fathers, it seems, don't have these choices thrust upon them, or if they do, they're more able, encouraged and expected to compartmentalize everything while we're expected to mesh it all together seamlessly and endlessly in between trips to the gym and healthy dinners until the day our children leave us and we are left here, having forgotten entirely who we are.

I see the effects of this disconnect constantly, as a doula, as a mental health advocate, particularly one working with new mothers, just being introduced to the fresh hell we expect of them.

We don't have a village. We have the people who show up with the pitchforks and tell you how you're doing it wrong, but we don't have a village of people who will ever help you when you need it. We don't. Do it on your own, mom, and do it all perfectly, or we're coming for you. If you haven't learned to question everything you are doing and learned to hate yourself and question why you ever wanted to have children in the first place, give it a few days or weeks or months. It'll come.

It will come and slap you on the face when you're standing in the middle of a grocery store with a screaming toddler, having forgotten why you were there in the first place.

It will come when you are being paged to the daycare room at the gym because that one time you finally managed to combine the self loathing with enough motivation to work out failed epically because your kid won't stop crying.

It will come when you cringe but smile and nod when someone tries to tell you that you'll miss this time someday, makes you feel guilty for not adoring every single second.

It will come the first time your kid shares a class birthday with a mom who has to out-mom you.

It will come when a kid leaves your house with a goody bag full of stuff you didn't want to buy for ungrateful children who ask, "is this all we get?"

It will come when you look around and realize that everything nice you once owned is broken or ruined or sticky or gone.

It will come when someone asks when you're going back to work and you calculate how many years it has been since you worked in that field you were once passionate about but will never get hired into now because you are old and ragged and worn down and have different priorities.

It will come when your last kid goes to school and you stare at the wall wondering what the hell you are supposed to do now.

It will come, because it always does, and sometimes it will come relentlessly and constantly. If you're willing to deal with all of the people shaming you for feeling these feelings and you dare speak it aloud, other mothers will reach out. Quietly. Usually privately.

And they will say, "me too", and you will know that you aren't alone. None of us are, really. We just never managed to construct that village for ourselves and each other until we were already here.

And we will do nothing to fix it because we are too exhausted.

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

To the one always tucked under my wing...

Dear Chicken,

I wrote yesterday about how I almost forgot that we'd changed your nickname here. Someone asked me shortly afterward what it means, "Chicken". Most people probably think it's some reference to you physically somehow, but it isn't that at all. It has to do with the fact that since you were the tiniest little baby, you've been a tucker. A burrower. Fairly often nestled under my arm, up near my ribs. Even now, you still do it. When you're really tired or sick or frustrated with the world, you'll still draw your legs up under both you and me, and get fully tucked in.

Under my wing.

I'm the Chicken Mama. I just might stay that way forever, and I'd be okay with that.

It's your ninth birthday. Nine years since you showed up that stormy August afternoon. The air was heavy and damp, the barometric pressure helping you along in the way that it seems to. You were, at the time, the earliest of my babies. Knowing that you were so early, knowing that you were a boy, knowing all the problems your brother had down at sea level with its abundance of oxygen, I worried. I was afraid that you'd have an even rougher time than he had.

And then you came. Itty bitty with those tiny little legs, but breathing well without any help. I didn't really breathe that sigh of relief for a few hours, always thinking the nurse was going to come and take you away to the NICU. But you stayed. Nestled and tucked.

You were a feisty baby, wanting to crawl and walk and run and jump as soon as you were able. I think you were barely two years old the first time I found you on top of the refrigerator. You haven't ever stopped climbing since...until this summer when you broke your arm. Two places, not one, because you are an overachiever.

For your birthday today, you got to go back to school. Happy birthday? I know it isn't exactly what you had in mind for today, or for any birthday really. Especially this time around.

I thought you'd be home this year. The stacks of curriculum materials remind me of it constantly. I know you thought you'd be home this year too. We all did, until an opportunity arose and we jumped at the chance. And maybe it works and maybe it doesn't, but we know that there are always options if we need them.

I know that you're nervous about going back because that last time went so badly. I know. I'm scared too. I want to swoop in and tuck you under my wing and fly away from all the things that scare us both. But I can't. It's my job to nudge you, to nudge myself right along with you, to do the things that are scary sometimes.

Of course, as I am writing this, you are at lunch recess, probably playing with all the friends you've already made. As I am writing this, your fears and worries are probably fading away into the midday breeze. I am confident that you will be okay. I am.

And I'm confident because you are okay. You're so very different than you were the last time you were in that space. You're not just a few years older, but you're more aware, you're more observant, you're more empathetic to others. You've got a toolbox full of skills you didn't have back then, and only a few of them have anything at all to do with school.

I know you're going to be okay, but I'm going to miss having you around all the time too.

This year I've watched you grow up so much in so many ways. When Dad went to the scout store to pick up your new uniform shirt, he called me and asked how long you were going to stay in. I asked you. Your immediate response, "Eagle". And you just might do it too. Watching your brother finish his, you know what an accomplishment it would be and how much hard work is involved....but hard work is basically your favorite thing anyway.

You're always the one offering to help with projects around the house. With cleaning. With dinner. You even offer to help with the things no one else wants to, the things they all run away from. You aren't afraid to get dirty or sweaty, blisters are badges of honor in your world. While some of your siblings are content to stay inside where the wifi is, you're out in the yard seeing how deep that hole can get before the day's end.

You amaze me sometimes with how your mind works, so different from my own. It seems like any time I'd present you with a new concept in math, you'd sit with it for a few seconds, then come up with some way to solve it I'd never imagined. You don't just think outside of the box, you deconstruct the box and use it for scaffolding to build something more amazing. I can't even explain half of the things your brain can comprehend so just have a way of figuring things out. Solving problems. Seeing it all differently.

It's refreshing. And humbling for me, as both your parent and teacher, because you're constantly making me question what I think I know, making me realize just how little is certain and how much is possible.

In much the same way it has worked for your brother, your love of math has translated to a deep love of music. Never fall out of love with it, never. I know that we'll have to work a little harder to get your hands on all those instruments now that you're back in school full time, but we have our own mini symphony at home. The piano is always open for business here. And you can do choir now too, jazz hands included.

I'm so proud of you that I could burst sometimes, and I was never more proud of you than I was this morning walking into school.

I asked you if you were okay. You said no.

I asked you if you were nervous, your eyes filling with tears you managed to fight back. You said yes.

Then you grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the door.

You did it. 

Like I wrote just yesterday, being brave isn't about not being scared. It's about being afraid and doing the things that scare us anyway.

You're still the bravest person I've ever known.

I love you.

Happy birthday, sweetheart.

Love you more first,
Chicken Mama

Monday, August 14, 2017

Before you go to school this year, 2017

I asked you all yesterday if you still wanted me to write this post. You're getting older, you deeply enjoy your independence and privacy, and yet still demand that I do this thing. Kinda like the birthday letters every year that I'll apparently never stop writing.

It's a little ironic, since this blog started all those years ago as a way to chronicle your childhoods, then morphed into whatever it is today, albeit now complete with nicknames to preserve your identities.

Then again, it isn't like I've been writing much anyway...

Two of you will go back tomorrow, two more on Wednesday, and then it will be me and the toddler staring at each other all day every day. I'm sort of excited about that but also dreading it at the same time because I am your mother and your mother is an emotional minefield when school starts anyway, but this year especially.

Let's just get this over with. Next year, I'll have to write five of these things. Gulp.

To The Oldest...
I cannot believe that you are going to be a Junior this year. Are a Junior. As in only have one more year of high school left after this one and then college will happen. I suspect that you'll end up going to that very-nearby school, and so you won't be GONE gone, but it will still be different. And weird. And the house will feel a little more empty. I'll still worry as much, if not more, though, because that is how I operate. You've changed what you want to be when you grow up a few times in this last year, which is totally fine by me. In fact, I encourage it. I want you to try out new things and decide what you actually like to do and discover that what you thought you might love is indeed something that you loathe. It's waaaaay easier to change your mind now than it ever will be further down the road, so try on some stuff while you can. Besides, I don't even know what I want to be when I grow up yet, so I can't reasonably expect that you should know. 

In the past year, you finished up your Eagle rank in scouting (though we still haven't had your Court of Honor because we're busy people with procrastination issues), you got your license (and FINALLY calmed the hell down about driving after you passed the test, which is a good thing because you were really freaking me out there for a while), you won another state championship with drumline, earned an academic letter and an invitation to National Honor Society, and pulled off damn good grades while doing band and volunteering. You got even taller (which, really, is that going to stop soon because it's going to get hard to find pants eventually...), and it's been surreal to watch your face and your silhouette morph from awkward teenager to young man. It really is the weirdest thing to watch happen. People who don't actually live you with you can see the changes because they are so dramatic, but the reality is that the degree of those changes was enough for your dad and I to witness it from day to day. SO WEIRD. In the best possible way, but still strange. 

I know that you are already worried about your class load this year. 5 AP classes at once is, in a word, RIDICULOUS. I mean, come on. It's a lot and it's going to be a lot, so hang on to those mental happy fun time vacations in band and try not to stress too much, even if that battery time signature is almost impossible. Time management is an important life skill, and you're really going to need it this fall. I will make you take breaks. I will force you to sleep and eat. I will shove you outside to go run off that frustration. I will remind you to go swim laps at the pool because you're the one who promised your sister you'd do the triathlon with her next year. 

Mostly, though, enjoy this time. There isn't much of it left, this adolescence. Laugh, play, do jazz hands, make occasional bad decisions (but not too bad or permanent, please). Squat on all the things. I love you. So does your Dad. He's just messing with you. But you already knew that....

To Freckles....
HIGH SCHOOL ALREADY?!?!?! What happened, kid? When I was filling in the breaks for the school year on the family calendar yesterday, I had to write down that it was going to be your 15th birthday next year, which is not possible. You were just six years old, wearing enormous sunglasses, utterly convinced that you were Sharpay from  High School Musical.

You can't be going to high school. 

But you are. Mostly because you don't listen to me anyway. You do your own thing. March to your own drummer...but never ever in actual drumline because that is your brother's thing and ewwwww. This year has been one full of changes and drama and hard things for you. You've forced yourself to do so many things that I know you didn't actually want to do, or maybe you partly wanted to do them but were afraid, and then you went and did them anyway. You've stood up to adults when you had to, you've fought for what is right more times than I could count. You've helped make an entire school a safer, more welcoming place for kids who might not have a safe welcoming place anywhere. 

You did that. I just showed up occasionally and brought snacks. 

You've spent another year volunteering at the Humane Society, hanging out with all the cats because you are actually a human cat, entirely convinced of your independence, but always wanting to know that I'm not too far away. Not too close either. 

I know that you're a little (okay a lot) nervous about school this year because there are so many changes coming, but it will be okay....and it will be okay because I've known you for your whole entire life, and I know that sometimes I just have to slow down and kick you out of the car, then drive away super fast before you can hop back in. And once you're there, you don't just survive whatever the new and scary thing is, you kick its ass. Because you're amazing. 

Even if you are officially taller than me now. Gosh. 

Bravery isn't about not being afraid. It's about being afraid and doing the right thing anyway. Keep doing the right thing. I'll keep abandoning you in parking lots and dropping off snacks periodically. I love you, and I'm proud of you. Dad basically is you, just an older, balder male version of you, and he thinks he is awesome, so naturally he thinks the same about you. *winky face*

To Mini Me...
This might actually be the calmest year yet for you, with the least amount of changes ever...and just thinking about that has me giddy. GIDDY, I tell you. You don't do change well. You come by that honestly. This year, though, should be smooth sailing. Same school, same teachers, nothing dramatic in the foreseeable future. ALL GOOD THINGS.

I know you are trying to decide between doing swimming and volleyball for the fall, but the gravity of a decision like that one is something I am welcoming in my life right now. Last year, it was the whole reintroduction to public school after being homeschooled thing, and it went way easier than I anticipated it ever would or could, mostly because of your social butterfly-ness. You really do love the people. 

For the first time in maybe ever, you'll also be on your own in a school without a single sibling present. You just get to be you, not so and so's sister, although honestly I don't see how people could ever really confuse you with your older siblings because you are all as different as can possibly be. 

For this year, keep trying new things. If you want to switch instruments, do it. If you want to try a different sport, do it. If you meet new friends and want to spend time with different groups of people, do it. If you fall in love with the art class you are currently convinced you are going to hate but I'm encouraging you to try anyway, do it (okay, this is me being optimistic here...)

Keep cooking and baking and making us watch all those cooking and baking shows. Keep taunting your siblings into joining you in the 5ks and triathlons. It's good for them, and for you. Keep making Dad take you out fishing and backpacking and hiking, and always make sure he stops at the video game place on the way home. Every time. I know you will make sure. 

Stay passionate about fighting for justice and fairness. I'll be the first to tell you that it can get exhausting, seeing things about the world that other people are content to ignore...but never ever ignore them just because you can. Drag out a spotlight instead. As you do.

You come by that part honestly, too. After all, you got that nickname for a reason. I love you. Have an amazing year. 

To Little Boy (a.k.a. Chicken)...
I haven't written much here lately, so I almost forgot that we switched your nickname...since you aren't so little anymore. Chicken still fits though, and I am perfectly content to still be the Chicken Mama. 

This year....oh, this year....big changes for you. Sudden, too. But, as you will learn many times in your life, sometimes you have to seize an opportunity, think happy thoughts and jump in with both feet. Right now, that leap of faith is one where you go back to public school. You're even going back to the same school. But it isn't the same school, not really anyway. The building is the same. It's filled with a lot of the same people. But it's a completely different place now. It just feels right. 

I learned a very long time ago to trust my instincts when it comes to my kids, and this time, my gut told me this was the right time and the right place for you to go back. I know that you are nervous, unsure of what to expect, afraid that what happened last time might happen again. I know. And I will do everything in my power to try and comfort those fears...but I'm nudging you back out there for a reason. A simple one, really.

Because it feels like the right thing to do.

You need it, my child who loves the people the very most. You need the daily friends and the constant interaction. You need a break from dealing with a toddler all day too. I mean, obviously the downside is that you'll have to wear pants. That's unfortunate, but there is a price to pay for everything, right?

You've grown up so much these last two years being home. You've learned so much. You've flourished in ways I didn't even think possible. You aren't the little boy you were back then. 

You aren't. You are this strong and determined and confident kid now. And I'm proud of you. I hope, hope, hope that this year is a good one. I feel like it will be. And if it isn't, there's always other options. We know that now. Some of them don't even require pants. I love you.

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