stretch

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I am a working mom.

Most of the time I have made peace with this reality. But tonight it feels like I’m being asked to walk the plank. I’m an anxious, weepy mess. Which causes me to cling to my tiny baby while snapping at my ornery toddler at the same time. As Daniel Tiger would say – I have “mixed up feelings.” (I also have mixed up feelings about only being able to quote Daniel Tiger these days…who am I?)

I know there are many ways to experience humanity on this planet and many many ways to be a mother. And sometimes that means calling on the service of another nurturer to help care for your child. But my heart hurts tonight. It never quite feels right. I just don’t know how to make peace with handing my three month old baby over to a perfect stranger. And if you look at pure numbers, my children will be cared for by someone other than me for 54% of their waking hours. That doesn’t include the date night I may want to go on or the errands I might need to run without children in tow. The mom guilt is so deep right now it feels like I might drown in it.

I can’t say that I’ve been a particularly stellar stay at home mom for the past four months. The first month was filled with so many hormonal roller coasters and toddler tantrums that I think I may have blocked it from my memory. Months two and three had some rhythms – with trips to our library story time, playdates, and walks to the park. But by month four I found myself ancy to do adult things and never watch another episode of Doc McStuffins again. If I were able and chose to stay home with my kids I’d definitely need an attitude adjustment.

But that is not my story. My story is one of a woman who is the insurance provider and the steady paycheck for my family. And I also love to teach, a job that seems to bring out the best in me. So it’s not like I hate my lot in life. I’ve heard the juggling metaphor. And the many hats. And the feminist in me says “lean in”. But I know that, for me, being a working mom means I am going to have to stretch. And when you are stretched, there are no additional resources added to account for the increase in demand. It’s the same pot of time, energy, and positivity that will have to cover all parts of your life. This leads to a general shitty feeling about all parts of your life.

I guess I’m not looking for the perfect anecdote or anyone to attempt to silver-lining my situation. I know my children will be fine. I know it’s good for them to be social. And I know eventually they will have a great immune system (tell that to my daughter who ended up with hand foot and mouth disease TWICE in a year). I just kind of want to say “this sucks” out loud and maybe hear a few “amens” in response.  

Tomorrow I will stretch. I will pour myself into my work because it’s important and world changing. And then I will try to save a little positivity for my sweet children who are sure to test me when we enter the witching hours. Because who I am to them is also world changing. And when the house dips below sanitary levels of clean and my toddler has watched the lemonade stand episode of Henry Hugglemonster for the third time that day, I’ll lower my bar and try to cover myself with as much grace I would a dear friend.

Please send wine. And Oreos.

man in a picture

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Lately, my two and half year old (actually two and eleven-twelfths year old) has been talking about my dad.

“You miss your dad, huh mom?” she says as she softly places her hand on my shoulder at the dinner table.

In fact, she’s been talking about him nonstop…

In the car: “Your dad died, huh mom?”

On the toilet: “Your dad went to the hospital. That’s why he’s not here, huh mom?”

Before bed: “Your dad’s body doesn’t work any more, huh mom?”

In the Story Time room at the library: “Your dad’s in a picture, huh mom?”

And, once last week, while she twirled around in her “pink” dress (which is actually yellow) with the tulle “baller-nina” skirt, she sang with joyful exuberance: “Your dad is dead!”

Each time she brings it up, I wince a little, its randomness and slight insensitivity like being pelted by tiny bits of gravel. I haven’t thought about my dad this much in a long time. It all started when I showed her a picture of my father which I have pinned to a bulletin board in the dining room. He stands there next to a boat, holding up two salmon. His hair in a curly fro and wearing jean overalls. A small child is tucked behind him, perhaps my brother. It must have been the late 70s.

I told my daughter that this was my dad, just like she has a daddy. I imperfectly explained that he’s not alive. That he got really sick and the doctors couldn’t fix him. That his body doesn’t work anymore. Each time I say a little more, attempting to explain death to a two and eleven-twelfths year old. Once I tried to say that he was in heaven but when she asked what that meant, I settled on “he’s only in pictures now.”

I was so young when I lost my father. Many of my memories are acute: the minty smell of the gum he always chewed, the sound of him clearing his throat, the pain I felt when I saw him in the casket for the first time. Then there are the faded ones: the way he crossed his tree trunk legs and an outline of a wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. And some memories are completely lost: the sound of his voice, every word he ever said to me. These days, he’s becoming more and more just a man in a picture, static and enigmatic. I have a hard time articulating why I miss him. But I’m still overwhelmed by emotion on the anniversary of his death, twenty-two years later.

We gave our son the middle name Archer as a nod to my dad. He was a bow hunter, spending his late fall weekends in the Michigan woods, hoping to fill our freezer with enough venison to last the winter. In the summers, my father would set up a target in the backyard to practice. My siblings and I would take turns standing at one end of the clothesline and shooting the child-sized bow and arrow we had. Occasionally my dad coached us but mostly we played with these weapons by ourselves, two missteps away from an After School Special.

We also picked the name Archer because of something I read once in a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

“For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and he bends you with his might that his arrows may go swift and far.”

At the time, I had recently experienced a miscarriage, so I mainly breathed in the passages about grief and pain like air from an oxygen tank. But I tucked away the notion about children as arrows in the back of my mind as reinforcement for why I wanted to have a child.

Tonight as my daughter sat on her bed, actively avoiding bedtime, I said to her (or maybe more to myself), “This is the day that my daddy died.”

And she simply replied, “Mmm hmmm. And he can’t have any tea parties.”

Exactly, little lamb. I laughed a little as my eyes filled with tears. There would be no tea parties or any other memory shared with her Grandpa Daniel.

But then I began to think about the passage from Gibran and a deep comfort began to spread in my ever-anxious belly. Even though my children will never actually meet my father, they will know him through me. I am a “living arrow” that he sent out into the world. When I work hard, they will know him. When I laugh heartily, they will know him. When I offer a hand without hesitation, they will know him. He will be more than just a man in a picture.

jar half full – revised edition

 

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I spent over four years officially writing my first book. After I self-published it, I proceeded to spend the next four years hating it. I read and reread my words a million times, recognizing sections that needed editing, holes that needed tending, and over-analyzing every word that I put on the page. It was mostly insecurity that caused me to question my work but there was also personal growth both as a writer and as a woman. And while I believed in the importance of sharing my truth, I struggled with the fact that my truth wasn’t exactly my truth any more. I wanted to rewrite it in a way that was more poetic and maybe updated with some new perspectives. But the thought of this overwhelmed me. So I took the book out of circulation and gave myself space from the project for a while.

Sometime around then I attended an equity conference for my job. It was oddly reminiscent of my Christian retreat days. There were heart-wrenching testimonies and self-reflection activities, leaving us all emotionally ransacked after a few short days. The only things missing were a guitar and some Bible thumpers. Despite its tent revival qualities, one message that I took away from that experience was the idea that you must speak your truth. And also, you must accept that a person’s truth can change, even from the moment it passes their lips. (This concept is not to be confused with its terrifying cousin called “alternative facts”.) To be allowed to speak your truth without fear of it becoming a tattoo across your forehead was liberating. It gave me a bit more bravery to speak something I was formulating but not completely sure about, prefacing it with, “Now I’m going to speak in draft form here…”

This got me thinking about my book. My words, written at twenty-six years old, then twenty-seven, and so on, are what made my memoir speak truth. You can taste bitterness in them around chapter eighteen as I searched for someone to blame for my depression. And a layer of sweet frosting covers my conclusions – signs of a honeymoon heart and hope for my future. I realized that I shouldn’t rewrite my history because then those truths about myself would never be exposed. So instead, I did some light editing, rearranged some parts, added in where I felt there was more to say. And then I stood back and said, “You did good, girlfriend” like I was speaking to my bestie.

If you have already Jar Half Full, thank you! Feel free to read this one too. It’s the same, but better, and I’ve added an Afterword that’ll change your life! (Ok, not really. Just figured I’d try to sell it). If you haven’t read it, please consider getting a copy. I’d love to share my stories with you and hope that some part of it will help you feel a little less alone in whatever you are working through right now. And thank you in advance for choosing to listen to my truth.

thrive

20170507_193704.jpgJust one year ago this week, I was daydreaming about a career change. On a whim, I checked some HR pages of different school districts “just to see” what was out there. I had been commuting over an hour a day, some days even two hours, to and from work. I was working a job that I was good at and loved the family that I had formed amongst my coworkers and bosses, but I resented it too. And my nine month old daughter was growing tired of the long drives. She had taken to screaming her head off for at least half of the drive and then falling asleep in exhaustion, making a 7pm bedtime nearly impossible to swing.

I was stretched so very thin. I was freaking exhausted (my darling baby girl also would not sleep for longer than two hours at a time). I was ready for a change.

I decided to apply to a few positions that were nearby my house. When I noticed the application closing date was the very next day, I frantically put my resume together and requested letters of recommendation from people who wouldn’t say anything if it didn’t work out. And then I hit send, like throwing a paper airplane off a cliff.

Within a few days of applying, I had three interview requests. Shit was getting real.

For one of the interviews, I had to write an essay about my teaching philosophy and how it meshed with one of the programs that the school had going on. As I opened a word document, with the blinking cursor staring at me, I felt stuck. The past few years I had gotten a bit jaded by politics. There was drama and pride and all kinds of silly things that I wore on my shoulders like two ton bricks. I had a hard time picturing the faces of my students because they were lost in data reports due to the state department and board presentations. I wondered what I could possibly say to make these new people want me to teach with them. I’m not normally at a loss for words, being a writer and all.

Then I saw my African Violet plant sitting on my desk, a teacher appreciation gift from our office staff. It was dry and shriveled and looked to be on its last leg. I remembered something someone had said at one of the countless education conferences that I had attended. African violets are apparently super resilient. They will survive in almost any environment. Yet there are also certain conditions in which they thrive. The speaker then compared this plant to children, suggesting that children are perhaps some of the most resilient creatures on the planet. But are we satisfied with survival? Or are we working to give them the very conditions they need to actually thrive?

So I wrote about it. I remember feeling a bit like a bull shitter. The metaphor seemed more about me than children. I was the shriveled little violet who needed water. The children didn’t need me. I needed them.

Nevertheless, I got the job.

It’s been nearly one school year at Hazeldale Elementary. And I am SO glad I made the change. I have a six minute commute, twelve minutes round trip (in case you needed help with the math). Mila and I are home by five, most days. I see my students at the neighborhood grocery store. And it has been refreshing to rediscover the “me” who works with children. Not the “me” who got bogged down in bureaucracy and my insecurities as a leader and my tendency towards neurosis and worry.

It hasn’t been all roses and sunshine. It’s been hard work and letting go. It’s been so much self-reflection I could drown in it. Here I go again, trying to control this or prove I’m smart or make so-and-so like me. And lately it’s been 31 out of the last 44 days with a God damned cold. But I really, truly am happy to be back in a school and working with those little carrier monkeys.

I took a huge leap of faith last year. I made a decision that was certainly risky (going from a contracted job to probationary status during an election year and in a state whose education budget is as rocky as an old canoe, yeah not that smart). But I had to do it. My conditions weren’t right. I was barely surviving, let alone thriving.

You guys, let’s be real. I’m not exactly the poster child for “thriving vs surviving” these days either. I’m still freaking tired. Maybe that’s just a constant from here on out. Our kid shit on the rug this month, my husband is overworked and sometimes has to sleep on his office floor, and I seem to be addicted to eating cookies by the sleeve-full. I can’t even eat them bite by bite. I instinctively shove the entire thing into my mouth and then chew very quietly for fear that our small child will hear or see it and then need to eat one too. And then it feels like I should eat more, since I technically only had one bite.

The conditions for me to thrive aren’t right yet. I’m still in that deep parabolic trench of life that researchers say is inevitable when you have kids that are under five. But they are closer because I listened to my heart and not my head last spring. And today, while (finally) watering the plants around my house, I noticed something. My African violet is blooming! I thought I had effectively killed off that capacity through my extreme neglect. See…told you they are resilient! And I had this hopeful feeling that I too will be thriving again soon.

fault lines

My husband and I don’t agree on everything politically or socially. On most issues, we are like-minded and we cheer each other on. But on some, we argue about things (or if you ask him, we discuss them) on a regular basis. And you know what? It sucks to disagree. It would feel so much better to have the person you are committing to love and cherish all the days of your life saying, “Yes, honey, I completely agree!” all the time. But we don’t…and that leaves some conversations a little unfinished and uncomfortable.

One thing we can agree on is that something this time around with our new presidential administration is different. And that different is more bad than it is good – which leaves a spectrum of possibility for our future ranging from “just a little fucked” to “royally fucked”. And within that space, I am unsure how to navigate my world. I do not have the political knowledge that I probably should. I have vague recollections of my high school Government class but it’s spotty at best. (It didn’t help that the answers to the questions on the matching section of the test spelled out a word when you finished. They were more like a crossword puzzle than proof of my solid political understanding.)

And so every day I am searching my phone like an addict – scrolling through articles that predict the fall of our great empire and liking posts (but not necessarily sharing posts) that tell me I’m not alone. All to find some solace in a very anxiety-filled and unpredictable time. Most of this happens in a fake little digital social-world that I wake to in the morning and say goodnight to at night. On Facebook, I seem to have created a cushiony community of like-minded friends who make me feel good about my beliefs. It makes me feel like the majority of the world thinks like me! Though I know this is not true because, scrolling on his phone next to me, is my husband with a very different newsfeed and headlines.

Aside from the very obvious issue I have with social-media addiction, (Are therapists starting to see people about this yet? Would I be the first to admit I have a problem?), there is another one I realize I need to address. I really don’t like it when people have different beliefs than me. The other day I hid someone’s posts from my newsfeed because they disparaged Beyonce. So you can imagine what this means for friends who I disagree with politically. When it comes to disagreement, I am very much flight and not an ounce of fight and Facebook has offered a very handy tool to aid me in my avoidance of discomfort.

More and more since January, when I watch politicians talk on the news or hear family members say things that feel offensive, I find myself searching for a “hide” button. How can they believe that? I think, in exasperation. But if I am being honest, I usually add the word still to the end. Because, once upon a time, before Facebook and Twitter and whatever the kids are doing these days, I thought very differently than I do now. I voted differently, I discussed differently, and I fought differently. If the now-me and the then-me ever met, we probably would not be friends.

It’s hard to pinpoint the actual impetus of my changing beliefs. There are the vague generalities of growing up and some distinct memories of the first tinglings of metamorphosis. I guess you could say it began with the start of college, in which I emerged from a very small, sheltered community and joined a very large, secular world. I found myself surrounded by people who thought very differently than me. Change didn’t come immediately. In fact, I rooted into my belief system more deeply than I ever had before. It was a stubborn and passionate time in which I clung to my past and the friends who thought the same as me. I did a lot of arguing and judging then, which led to a lot of crying from guilt and loneliness.

A year and a half later, I spent some time in South Africa on a study abroad. Along with the obvious cultural differences of the South African people that I met, among the other Americans I traveled with, there was not a single like-minded person in the group. Perhaps because I viewed this as an inevitable part of travel or maybe because I was alone on the other side of the world, I opened myself up to the discomfort of befriending people who think differently than me. It was prickly and anxiety-inducing but, mostly because I am very non-confrontational, I spent a lot of time listening to others and taking it all in.

I distinctly remember a moment of the trip, where I was all by myself, walking to the college campus we attended. A noise coming from the hill caught my attention and I looked up to see a man standing on the rooftop of the mosque and another on the roof of the Hindu temple right beside it. They both wore loose, white pants and a long, tunic-like top and their heads were covered in different variations of a white scarf. The two men, in an unrehearsed harmony, were calling prayers out over the hills. And the sound of their calls made my heart lurch.

When I returned home to my like-minded community, it felt like I was standing on fault lines and I feared the inevitable tremors that threatened my worldview. I isolated myself, wrote a lot of things in private while I said a lot of things out loud that didn’t really match my real thoughts. A heavy-footed question lurked in my mind,

What if I am wrong?

Fast forward ten years to a workshop I attended on Culturally Responsive Teaching at an education conference. When discussing how to change people’s belief systems, the presenters shared a theory by Chris Argyris, a professor of business at Harvard University. During his study of human thought and decision making in the 70s and 80s, Argyris developed an idea called the “Ladder of Inference”. And while only nerds might say something like this, that theory on human thought rocked my world.

Basically, it suggests that humans tend to hold on to the belief system that they have very tightly and self-select data to further reinforce that belief system. This is why two people can read the same exact thing and walk away with two totally different conclusions. And because this is, I’m sure, inadequately paraphrased by me, this illustration explains it better:

ladder-of-inference

The presenters suggested that the only way to change a person’s belief, or to change your own beliefs, is to get out of the “reflexive loop” of ignoring data that doesn’t reinforce our worldview. In the context of education, this meant I needed to stop “throwing more data” at people in hopes that they would see it differently. Instead, I needed to create a space for people where they could safely ask themselves, “What if I’m wrong?” or “Why might someone think that?” Personally, I thought about the events that led to my changing beliefs. Through listening to and learning about people who thought differently than me, I was forced to pay attention to data I had been ignoring before.

I am not writing this to suggest that you need to change your beliefs. I keenly recognize that my privilege allows me to say “listen” because I have not been scarred by the system. And I want to be clear that the bigotry and hate that is being embraced right now is horrifying and decidedly wrong, with some people just not deserving of a listening ear. But there are people in our real lives (family, neighbors, friends) who we are isolating ourselves from because it feels uncomfortable right now. I don’t see any solutions coming from dividing ourselves any further. When faced with disagreement, instead of sticking my head in the proverbial sand, I am challenging myself to ask that scary, ugly question, what if I’m wrong and to ask others why do you believe that? It’s in this discomfort, we may actually see more and grow stronger in our beliefs.

I count myself lucky to have a partner in life that I don’t completely agree with all the time. Especially in a time where I am constantly bombarded with conflicting beliefs and actions by our governmental officials and leaders. I feel like this allows me to grow – not only because I have to consider the fact that someone I love and respect isn’t a complete heathen and, gasp, has another opinion. But it also helps us really check ourselves – where are we getting our information and can we recognize the details we are purposely ignoring in order to feel comfortable in our already established conclusions? I hope you have someone like this in your life too, who challenges you to think and question.

I know some people will read this and say, man that girl needs help. Yes, I know I do, thanks. You are much too well-adjusted to need my advice. But if you are having heart palpitations just like me and find yourself asking the universe, “what the actual fuck is happening?” on a daily basis then maybe you’d like to join me in my game plan to survive these trying times:

  1. Check my bias and privilege at the door (try my best anyway…) when I read things. Ask myself “What if I’m wrong?” to allow myself to select more data.
  2. Stop searching the interwebs for the next piece of drama like an addict. This is real life, not the Bachelor. Try to stay level-headed and not get emotionally involved with the actors.
  3. Embrace discomfort. (Go un-hide the Beyonce hater and my Aunt Rhoda.)
  4. Get off social media and get connected to real people, including those who may disagree with me. Then, listen.

P.S. I recognize the irony in sharing a social-media warning via social media. That same irony was not lost on me when a man came to my door with a homemade “No Soliciting” sign and then proceeded to ask for a donation once he affixed it to my house. But, as a writer, I don’t know how else to process this conundrum. I write it out so I can really chew on it, then I share it in case my words might help someone else.


© 2017 D. Willson