“Write down these rules, Mama.”

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So I did. And then I hung them up on the refrigerator. Because what better way is there to encourage a child to do something, than to remind them that it was their idea in the first place? Numbers 2 and 3 are all Esper. She came into the world, it seemed, ready to give to everyone. She’s never hesitated to give a toy to a friend or sibling. She always wants me to give money to people holding signs that say they need some. She takes pride in how she hugs me and comforts me when I am sad. She is truly amazing.

Numbers 4 & 5 have been a huge undertaking for us. I say “us” because raising a child involves both the child and the parent. I have had to learn how to parent as much as Esper has had to learn how to function as a human being. You think we would all come prepared with a nice set of tools and a clear understanding of our own emotions and thoughts. Unfortunately, we are all on our own. Sometimes we have parents and teachers to guide us, but more often than not, adults aren’t quite clear on how to deal with their own emotions and thoughts. That’s where parenting books, meditation, personal therapy, and child & family therapy come into play.

Last year Esper told me something that devastated me. My sweet five-year-old told me that she didn’t want to exist. I panicked. My mind was flooded with overwhelming guilt and a need to analyze every interaction we had ever had to determine just how and when I had failed as a parent. I received some interesting feedback from those I opened up to about this experience. One person suggested that her thoughts were a result of my boyfriend dying last year. They pointed out I shouldn’t have introduced her to him in the first place (um, what?), or let her see me sad. Others suggested that it was simply part of growing up. Since she’s not with me 100% of the time, it’s hard to know exactly what she’s struggling with if she won’t tell me. And at this age, it’s hard for kids to even put those concepts into words sometimes.

I needed answers, so the two of us headed off to weekly therapy. Answers weren’t necessarily what I received. I still don’t know why Esper felt so sad and overwhelmed that made non-existence a thought in her mind, but I do feel like I know her better now. She is a girl that thrives on order and predictability, much like most kids her age. She is also extremely self-aware and hard on herself. (I wonder where she gets that from.) Our therapist has given us some great tools (that I plan on talking about in more detail in a future post) that work very well for my daughter. Raising a young child to be self-aware is the goal, but it means that she is learning now what many people don’t learn until adolescence, sometimes even adulthood. So she gets an emotion and we use our tools and we try to remember to be mindful and allow it.

Yet I’m still a parent that finds myself feeling like a failure unless I can keep her “negative” emotions away permanently. These emotions aren’t negative, though. Anger, fear, sadness, frustration–they are essential parts of being human. And yet as I experienced some of these emotions myself this weekend I found myself wishing that they would just go away. I also recognized the little Monster that sometimes pops up in my mind- the Being-Hard-On-Myself monster. He just waits for something to happen to try and convince me that I’m the biggest loser that’s ever existed. I sink into the emotions. I begin to believe that they are me and I am them. I let the Monster run the show. I cower, I hide, I reach out for something to hold onto.

But then… I walk past the fridge and see Esper’s rules. The rules that provide her with order and predictability, a set of guidelines that comfort her and that she knows are the secret to a good life. “Be proud of yourself. Be nice to yourself.” A year ago she wasn’t nice to herself. She now knows just how important it is. I see the list and just like that, the Monster is gone. Because I decided to follow the rules, and being nice to myself means the monster can’t come around. I’m proud of myself for following the rules.

Just don’t tell Esper about the leftovers I threw out yesterday.

Leaf Jumping

A year or so ago, my therapist told me to write a letter to myself to tell myself what I loved about me. I couldn’t do it. I kept trying, but I was full of such disdain for myself that nothing was coming out. So my therapist told me to write the letter to my daughter, Esper, about what I love about her. Only I’d have to change her name at the top to mine when I read it back to myself. What a beautiful exercise this was. And a year later, I feel it completely. I suggest you give this exercise a try. It’s amazing what happens when you change the way you treat yourself to be more like how you treat your child, with gentle and pure love. Not judging, not controlling, just true acceptance. Love like that can make you fly.

 

Dear Erica,

You glow completely. Not because you have certain personality traits or that you’ve made good decisions, but because you simply exist. You have parts of you that never had to be taught to you–love, compassion, a hunger to learn, but most importantly, an appreciation of life and the moments in it. I know you think that making it in this world means being able to achieve but really all that I would ever hope for you is to exist in each moment and not be in such a hurry to move to the next. I don’t need to teach you how to be a responsible human being. I feel like everything you could ever need is built into you. Even the fear. It serves you, though I know it doesn’t seem that way. When life gets complicated, look to the reality of simplicity. Because it’s there, hiding behind what you think is important. I can’t fix everything for you, but I will always be here to support you. Love is why I’m here, and loving you causes me to serve my purpose.

Love, Erica

12116040_10153522186091201_304383126_oLast week I got a dog. For someone that’s as much of a control freak as I am, this was a fairly big deal. The first night after bringing her home, I was seriously contemplating what I had gotten myself into. After pushing her off of me onto another part of the bed for the tenth time that night, I realized that I had basically adopted a heavy child. For the following week, I had to make room in my head for worrying about sweet Lola (named by my daughter) in addition to all the things I was already worrying about. I had to worry about being home in time every day to feed her and let her out. I had to start fitting in time for walks so she could get exercise. My whole schedule was thrown out the window in exchange for a new one. My personal space was getting invaded, and  between the cat, the kid, and the dog, everyone seemed to need my affection, whether I wanted to give it or not.

I dog-sit for my friends occasionally, but that was always fairly easy. Those were well trained, happy dogs. And then there is Lola. Being a rescue pup from New Mexico, her history is unknown except that she had puppies and was going to be put down. When you adopt a dog from a shelter, it’s extremely hard to see their real personality and differentiate it from the anxiety of the environment. But I started to take it personally when Lola wasn’t behaving how I expected her to. I believed that I wasn’t a good dog owner, and even considered taking her back to where I got her. There has always been a voice inside me telling me “if you can’t do it right, you shouldn’t even try.”

I’m a big fan of The Dog Whisperer and so I was aware that my feelings of panic and uncertainty were affecting Lola. Much of her adapting to her new environment has been about me calming down and adapting to my new situation. It’s a beautiful flow of energy–this give and take of peace. A dog poses questions to you, and it is up to you to answer. “Should I feel safe in this situation?” “Of course you should, because I am safe and I am here for you.” She’s very anxious about being on a leash and walking near cars. She will only get in the car if I lift her up and put her there. But each day I get out there and make her try. I hold out the dog treat. I tell her she’s a good girl fifty times and finally thirty minutes later we’ve made it a few houses down the street. And each time she tries a little bit harder and lets go a little bit more.

I’m learning how important consistency, confidence, and leadership are for dogs. But more importantly, I’m seeing how much I need those things myself. Sometimes I want someone to tell me where to go and that everything’s going to be ok, and surprisingly, doing that for myself works. I can be that strength and comfort for myself. I learned this a few years ago, but sometimes I forget. If I were to make one wish, it would be that everyone could feel the comfort of that knowledge.

This week my daughter, Esper, told me about a difficult time she had had at school. They were practicing writing their names and one of the parents doing co-op was helping her. She was trying to correct the way Esper writes her S’s backwards. The parent erased Esper’s attempt and showed her the correct way to do it. Esper was crying very hard when she related this story to me. “She thinks I’m not gooooood at writing my naaaame,” she cried. After I tried to convince her that that couldn’t possibly be true, I told her, “Honey, we all need practice with certain things. You can’t be perfect at everything!” Her response was so typically her. “I DO want to be perfect at everything!” I held her and let her cry. I know I’ve felt the same way for a large majority of my life, so who am I to tell her that feeling that way is just silly?

Yes, honey… many of us would like to be perfect at everything. And admitting to ourselves that we have imperfections is a big weight to bear. We are so quick to label someone smart or dumb and categorize their skills based on what they have or haven’t done. Yet we are slow to applaud people’s attempts. How beautiful it is that a depressed person can get themselves out of bed and face the world when everything causes pain. How wonderful it is that Lola takes one more step, that she gets out and goes for that walk. How triumphant are humans that we can carry trauma with us and not let it overtake us. We are resilient, we are brave, we are trying.

As a parent and a dog owner, I can see clearly that my job is to encourage the attempts. I can help lift Lola’s back legs into the car and give her a congratulatory hug. I can hug Esper and help her try new things by not putting her down if there are mistakes. I can find this good in myself. I can encourage myself for making it through midterm exams, anxiety and all. I can reward myself for spending five minutes cleaning, rather than the negative self-talk I usually employ.

I am proud of myself. I’m proud of Lola. I’m proud of Esper. And I’m proud of you. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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We went to a Thai restaurant for dinner the other night. It’s always hilarious when we go out for Thai because I tell them I can’t have gluten, he tells them he can’t have fish sauce, and the waiter looks at us like we’re nuts as he indicates which entrees we can eat. (Never the same ones.)

We made our way home after dinner, avoiding any kissing of course. As he neared my house, he slowed down his car and suddenly got disinterested in our conversation. As I glanced at him, I noticed he was waiting for me to look at something. I followed his glance to my front door and saw blinking Christmas lights and a blow-up Santa on the front porch.

You see, a few weeks ago I wrapped a strand of lights around the post on my front porch only to realize later that half of the strand did not even work. I gave up and didn’t replace them with a new strand. And yet I wanted the glow of the holidays in the form of blinking electricity.

As we drove around to the back of the house, I saw more lights, draped between the trees and the roof, creating what could have been the outdoor seating at a cute restaurant. Then it hits me. He snuck over to my house and did this all day while I was gone, dropping off my daughter, whom I would be saying goodbye to for the following eight days. This man knew I was going to have a very hard day, and wanted me to come home to a sparkling winter wonderland. I teared up as I realized what a selfless act of love this was. You see, he does not enjoy Christmas. I could even call him The Grinch. And yet, he did this for me. I am so grateful for this person in my life who continuously shows me what it means to love. The love he gives me is the best Christmas present a girl could ask for.

I’m also grateful that many others are experiencing love this season in Utah and all over.

“It came without ribbons!… it came without tags!… it came without packages, boxes, or bags! And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

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Being a single parent during the holidays

“I’m understanding that the grief I am feeling right now is not only about Christmas. It’s for all the times I need to share my child with her other family.”

It’s been hard for me to find the true spirit of Christmas this year. I do so despise that finals always fall on the weeks leading up to Christmas. I have been frantically trying to get everything done (studying, assignments, tests), which leaves little room for thinking about the holidays. Unfortunately this year I will finish my school work just in time to send Esper off to her dad’s house for eight days. (Though I will get to see her for five hours on Christmas day.) I am trying so hard to not get discouraged at the fact that I will have little time to spend with her this holiday, but it’s hard. For me, Christmas has always been about the days and weeks leading up to it. With treats to bake, music to listen to, shopping to do, and just that warm glow that comes from being with the ones you love. I want to do all of it with her. I want to be able to focus on her completely rather than being stressed about school. I want to help her put cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve and then see the look on her face when she sees that Santa came on Christmas morning. This is the first year she really understands who Santa is and she is very much anticipating his visit. This is also the first year I will not be with her on Christmas Eve and morning. Of course I want her father to be able to experience these things with her too. Of course I want her to be able to make traditions that she can look forward to at her dad’s house. And it still hurts. I have my parents, siblings, a niece and nephew, and boyfriend to spend the holidays with. Yet it still feels like I am missing the main ingredients of my family. I was walking around in the Christmas section at Target and it was all a little too much for me. I found myself getting emotional over cupcake kits and stockings. Yes, I will be ok. I will get to sleep in, relax, and focus on other people in my life for a week (including myself.) I’m understanding that the grief I am feeling right now is not only about Christmas. It’s for all the times I need to share my child with her other family. For all the beautiful moments I will miss , for all the boo-boos I won’t be there to kiss. For Easters, birthday parties, Thanksgivings, and Halloweens.

There is a part of me that feels like I will be blessed with a gift when she is eighteen years old and goes away to college that other parents might not have. The gift of practice, the gift of confidence, the gift of being used to her absence. A little band-aid pulling away from the cut slowly leaves us ready to one day know we can tear the whole thing off. I may not want these gifts, and yet they are here. I put them in a stocking along with the other gifts divorce has given me. Oh look, there’s Sitting with Fear. I got that one last year. Oh and Communication Skills. That’s only a partial present. It still needs work. What about this one? Love. And there’s Forgiveness in the toe. And Perspective. The beautiful, beautiful Perspective that always teaches me how my view is not the only correct one. I need to pull that one out this year and put it on the mantle. And the final gift? The one I received from writing this. The fact that having a child is not about fulfilling my needs and wants. That’s a hard one to carry because it means that what might be best for her are things that cause me unhappiness. Yes. Hold that. Sit with it. I’m doing what’s best for my child by putting my needs behind hers. Parenting. Unconditional Love. I’m learning as I go.

For all the moms and dads out there who also have moments to miss, I see you. Your gifts are there too. And it still hurts.

 

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I want you to know that this was something I chose. I knew the moment I walked out of the house on that warm, breezy fall day, that I was choosing a different life for me and Esper. I knew it would be hard, and I knew we would struggle. In that moment I felt like I was making the best choice for us. I have since doubted, regretted, felt peace with, regretted again, and come to terms with the choice I made. I wouldn’t change what I did, but it’s hard to completely remove the guilt you feel when making a choice that so deeply affects your child and the rest of her life.

I want you to know that while I knew it would be hard, my idea of what I thought being a single mom would be was pretty different than what it’s really like. While some of the hardest moments are the ones in which I am overwhelmed with the stresses of life (like trying to write a paper for school late at night while Esper decides she’s going to wake up every 30 minutes and cry), sometimes the hardest moments have been watching my child accomplish something or experience joy and not having someone there to share it with. The first Christmas away from her father I cried as I watched the pure joy coming from our sweet daughter, wishing he could be there to see it too. There were other hard moments. The first family photos we had taken in which he wasn’t there. Being at restaurants and seeing all the couples with their children. It hurt that “family” meant something different now. It hurt that she would never have memories of the way it used to be. That being said, those are things I mourn for. She does not, because so far she doesn’t know any different. Yes, one day she will realize that some kids get both parents at home, and that will be something she will mourn on her own time in a completely different way. As far as she’s concerned, she’s got a pretty cool life with step parents, siblings, and lots of family.

I want you to know that while I may have been able to do it all on my own, I feel like I did a much better job being her mother with the support and help of friends and family. We lived with my parents for the first year and a half after we moved out. It was amazing having four generations of family all living in one house. My daughter got love and attention from her mother, grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother on a daily basis. If her family situation had changed, she certainly didn’t feel it. There were (and are still) so many times in which my mother and father dropped what they were doing to help take care of their granddaughter. When she was sick, when I was sick, when I desperately needed to go on a drive to clear my head, etc. My friends that have joined us on lunch dates or even just offered advice on Facebook have provided me with some much needed social interaction and support. Now that we live on our own, our downstairs neighbor is someone we both look forward to seeing daily. Speaking of which…

I want you to know that sometimes Esper and I get really sick of each other. Especially in the summer when we’re out of school. Time away from each other is a really good thing for any relationship. Time to miss each other is something I value. Though I find that as soon as I’m out at an event, I inevitably start thinking about her and wondering what she might be doing. So our life is a constant balancing act of trying to spend a lot of time together, and getting a break from each other. Time for me to be independent and pursue interests and have a social life are necessary for me to be the best mom I can be to her. I’ve learned through the years that guilt is something that will come around every now and then, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean that I have to listen to everything it is saying, though.

I want you to know that when you’re a single mom, people feel the need to judge you even harsher. I hear all of these things: You shouldn’t be going to school right now. You should be working full time. You shouldn’t be taking government handouts. You’re not doing what’s best for her. You need to try… You should be doing… 
Parents are going to get unsolicited advice no matter what. That just goes with the territory. But when someone who has never been a single mom judges you for the choices you’re making, that is just ridiculous. I won’t try to convince you that what I’m doing is right for me and therefore right for her. The only person I need to answer to is myself and her. Please, keep your judgements to yourself.

I want you to know that while being a single mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, it’s also the most fulfilling. I’m not a person that carries a lot of confidence with myself, and yet being Esper’s mommy is giving me some. A lot, actually. Everything that has taught me or challenged me up to now has paled in comparison to the quest of raising this child and keeping my sanity. When faced with challenges, it’s a simple math problem. I have solved the equation of raising a single child. Solved = managed to make it work. Therefore, yes, I think I can handle this new challenge. A new relationship that brings with it new trials? Let’s do it. A disease that changes the way I look at food and completely alters my diet? Bring it on. Spend my life loving and teaching this amazing person? As Barney Stinson would say, “Challenge accepted!”

Oh, and also? I get to experience hundreds of kisses, thousands of “I love you”s and millions of moments of pride and joy. Doesn’t sound like a terrible gig, does it?

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Dear Esper,
It’s two months after your 3rd birthday and I’m finally sitting down to write your birthday letter. Two was quite a roller coaster of a year! Mostly because of what I’ve had to go through. Starting school, Celiac Disease, moving, etc. I’ve shaken up your world a bit this year and I hope it’s ok. Yes, there is guilt about all the times I felt sick. Seeing your mom laying on the floor was hard for you when you wanted me to play with you. I’m sorry. I’ll probably say that a lot in our years together. (And after you’ve moved out and started your own family.) I’m a very imperfect parent and you’ll learn that one day.

I recently heard about a study where kids are given a cracker box and asked what is inside. They say crackers, of course, even though the box is filled with rocks. But when asked what the kids think their mom would say was in the box, the 3-year-olds say “rocks.” The older ones know that their mom would think it was crackers too. But no, not the 3-year-olds. You are still at this developmental age where you think Mommy is Queen of the World. I must admit, sometimes it is nice. You ask me regularly, “Mommy, do you know evee-thing?” I say no, but you seem like you don’t believe me.

You have taken to following me around our entire tiny little duplex apartment saying that you want me in the same room as you. I’d like to point out, dear, that the entire apartment is like one single room. It’s been really hard for me to have you attached to my side every time I look down, like a new puppy learning to heel. I frequently turn around and bump into you. I don’t know what it means except that for whatever reason, you want me around a lot. I’ll take it as another phase in your development and try and embrace it, because one day you will most certainly not want me to rock you in my rocking chair and sing you songs. We could do that all day if it were up to you.

You’re very hilarious and what’s great is you understand humor and know what will get a laugh out of me. (“Mommy, smell my butt.” *giggle, giggle, giggle.) It’s hard for me to understand how you are so intellectually mature yet have a hard time getting to the potty to pee in time. You love to dance and will make me put music on a few times a day so you can shake it. You come up with some great dance moves and look so free when you’re prancing around the room. It feels like pure joy captured in a 3-year-old.

We all grow and mature in different ways and it has been so fun to see your brain mature in (what a proud mom thinks is) a very quick way. You have begun coming up with elaborate stories to tell your stuffed animals about girls who live in the woods and have adventures. You come up with thought-provoking questions that I can’t answer like: “Mommy, where does God live?” You tell me you wish your daddy lived here with us so you could see him all the time and my heart flip-flops and then falls over exhausted.

You challenge me in so many ways. You force me to be patient when I don’t want to be, assertive and consistent when I feel I lack the skills, and loving and nurturing when I sometimes just want to be alone. You hug me when I’m sick or sad and insist on that making me “feel all detter now.” You get “so ‘cited” to go to the park or see a friend or go to the lake that I can’t help but feel that maybe I should be getting more ‘cited about the simple things in life. Thank you for giving me all this and more every day. I love you more than you could ever know.

Love forever,
Your Mommy

I see her luggage sitting on the kitchen chair and slowly tiptoe into her room. There she lies on her bed, her knees curled up under her afghan. She was gone for a while, and now she is home. When she wakes her footsteps will sound even and premeditated from where I sit in my room under the kitchen. The steadiness is soothing. She just keeps going–one more dish to wash, one more shirt to fold. She never questions it, never leaves it for another day. Just continuous, dependable, repeating. Her ways confuse my scattered brain and bring it comfort. I owe so much to this woman who gave me everything. My love of art, music, and dance. My sense of humor, my love of learning, and my intense hunger to read. Her hand brushes through my hair. Her little frame hugs me tightly and she whispers she loves me. I wait for her to wake up so I can tell her I love her too.

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