Full Circle

motherhoodIt doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago (It was) that I sat across the counter from my mother, her elbows propped up on the blue Formica of her kitchen while I laid bare the troubles and worries of my pubescent heart. I can’t remember any one specific conversation, (I’m sure they were all riveting and incredibly important) but I do remember that she was there whenever I needed someone to listen, willing to give me her eyes and her focus and most of all, her time.

I never thought about what that time meant to her. I didn’t think about what she might be sacrificing, what dreams or pursuits she might not be pursuing. I didn’t think about the sleep she wasn’t getting or the books she wasn’t reading or the conversations she wasn’t having.

Of course I didn’t think of those things. My head was too full of teenage boyfriends and friendships and swim meets and SAT scores and all the general injustices that accompany adolescence. My head was too full of my own future to spare anyone else a thought.

But now my future has landed me here. In my own mother’s shoes with a house full of children, the oldest starting high school in just a few months, the next two on the brink of those critical teenage years. Suddenly, I am on the other side of the counter at 11:47 PM when my eyes are screaming for sleep and my husband is drifting off and I haven’t had a conversation with him since 1963 and if I could just say hello . . . But there are still bills to pay and emails to answer and laundry to fold and there’s my daughter on the stairs, still awake because she just needs to talk. (SHE. JUST. NEEDS. TO. TALK. At Midnight. When everyone else is sleeping. And there is an early appointment that means everyone even the three year old needs to be out of bed in six hours. Wearing something besides pajamas.)

So we talk. For however long it takes (FOREVER) and with whatever words are necessary. (Have you tried…? Have you thought about…? Those feelings are real… I understand… I hear you… I hear you… I hear you…)

I channel my mother in those moments. My mother, and God, because heaven knows I don’t have enough patience to handle them on my own. The brutal honest truth is that sometimes I have dig deep – DEEEEEEP – inside myself to find those “Let’s talk about it” words. Because I don’t want to talk about anything. Really I just want to take a shower by myself without anybody knocking on the door and telling me they need their blue jeans dry before the morning and also did I write them that check they asked for because the field trip is tomorrow and they will not be allowed on the bus if they don’t have the check IN THEIR HAND and can I just bring the checkbook to you right now and you can write it for me real quick? Here’s a pen. And a towel so you can dry your hand.

How didn’t I see? How didn’t I realize how tired my mother was?

I didn’t sit down to write a tribute to my mother, though she most certainly deserves one. I didn’t even really sit down to complain, though I’ve managed to do a fair bit of that. I suppose I’m just reflecting on the funny way life brings us full circle, turning us around so we see things from one side, and then the other.

Because, now I see both sides. I know how much my mother’s listening meant to me because I lived it. And I’ve got that knowledge to go on when it absolutely isn’t humanly possible for me to listen/help/comfort one more time. Maybe ever again if I don’t just get some sleep. When I am JUST DONE, I recognize that surely my mother had those moments too. And she survived.

There’s a phrase my mother used to say that never held a shred of meaning for me in the moment.

“If there’s a war in the middle east,” she would say, “you children would find a way to make it my fault.” When that sentiment is echoing around in my brain, (because yes, Mom, my kids do the same thing to me) I wish I could pull my children clean through to my side, fast forward them into adulthood so they could SEE the injustice of being blamed for so many things. (My shoe is lost. My homework is ruined. I don’t like this dinner. My uniform is dirty.) Somehow though, I don’t think the lesson would be quite the same if the learning happened that way– All look, and no live. I don’t really think it would stick.

Instead, we’re left to push through our own experiences, collecting wisdom like tiny grains of sand, hoping one day they might add up to something big enough to hold in our hands. I realize now I shouldn’t be all that surprised if, in a few more years, I recognize that whatever wisdom I’m holding in my hands looks an awful lot like what my mother is holding in hers.

Writing and Mother Guilt. Where’s the Balance?

balanceSo  I can’t promise this isn’t going to get a little ugly, guys. I’m feeling the need for some good old fashioned truth telling. Some full disclosure, laying it on the line. Are you ready?

A few weeks back I wrote a post about balancing motherhood and writing. I still stand behind everything I wrote in that post. But that day, I was feeling optimistic and happy and in control. Today? Not so much. This might be what they call, the other side of the coin…

Here’s the thing. Being a Mom and a writer at the same time is really hard. Okay, maybe scratch that. Being a Mom and only a Mom is really hard. It is busy, and exhausting, and mentally trying. It is bone weary, patience wearing, heart wrenching work. It is HARD. Last night I told my kids that sometimes being a Mom is like running on a hamster wheel, doing the same things over and over. You wash the same dishes, you fold the same clothes, you pick up the same messes over and over only so they can be undone all over again. The thing is, there’s no way to get off that stupid hamster wheel because your running is what’s generating the energy to keep everything else in the house going. (A note: My kids help, okay? They work like crazy and fold laundry and do lots and lots of chores. I’m not their slave. They earn their keep. But I’m still in charge. They’re little still. They need supervision. I still have to help them help. Know what I mean?)

And it isn’t just the menial work of maintaining a house that feels hard. The mental pressures of being a Mom are tough too. When things don’t go right, everyone looks to Mom. When someone is unhappy, they look to Mom. When someone needs to finish a project or needs a new Sunday shirt or needs help practicing an instrument/learning a new skill/perfecting a cartwheel, they look to Mom. The need never stops. There is always someone who needs something or wants to tell you something or needs you to fix just one more thing.

I get it. I know that I will blink and they will all be grown. I know that there will come a time when I miss having so many happy children around me, that I will miss the noise and the chaos. (I don’t know… I kinda doubt that last one.) I GET IT. But sometimes, right now, for example, I just need to say out loud that it’s hard. I’m not wishing the time I have with my children away. I’m not counting down the days until they are grown. Really, truly, I love what I do. But I’m tired, guys. So much of the time, my brain is tired.

And here’s where the conversation gets dicey. See, I have this thing that I love to do. Writing makes my brain NOT tired. It makes my brain happy. If I had the time, I could sit and write all day. Grow roots out of my bum, forget to eat, sleep. Obviously, I have six very good reasons why this shouldn’t happen. (And also, food is good. I don’t really want to forget to eat.) But writing makes me HAPPY–genuinely, full smiles happy.

Which is tricky. Because mothering makes me happy too. Mothering makes me happy because it’s what brings me closest to God. It humbles me, it strengthens me, it teaches me to rely on God when I feel used up and drained out. In many ways, it sanctifies me, because I know that through serving and loving and caring for my children, I am becoming a better person. It is a happiness that comes from outside myself–a happiness that is rich and full because, well, these kids are pretty amazing.

Writing, on the other hand, is a very me-focused happiness. I get lost in the worlds of my novels. I feel real and strong emotion for my characters. I feel smart, and useful and validated. Sometimes it’s just writing related activities–working on a conference planning committee, or networking with other authors, or working as a critique partner. Doing these things, I feel like I am challenging the brain inside my head to do wonderful things, things that are far more stimulating than, say, unloading the dishwasher for the 300th time.

I guess the million dollar question is where’s the balance? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that every second I spend writing doesn’t affect my role as a mother. Because mothering is FULL TIME PLUS OVERTIME ALL THE TIME work. It doesn’t stop. With six kids in the house, homeschooling half of them, music lessons, church service, sports, general household maintenance, and just ALL THE THINGS, I could stay busy from sun up to sun down and still have work left for the following day. When I’m writing, (or doing writerly things) there is always something on hold. And that’s hard. It’s hard not to feel guilty. It’s hard not to feel like there’s something I could be doing with my time that might benefit my children a little more. Except, if I never wrote, I would be losing a part of myself that brings me a great deal of joy and satisfaction.

I want my life to be about my kids. I want to be a good Mom. But also, I need my life to be a little about me too. I’ve heard people say that by taking care of my own needs, I’ll be doing more for my kids in the long run. And in theory, I totally get it. It’s only in application that it still feels hard.

Balance is an elusive thing. I wonder, sometimes, if I will ever figure it out. I do know I won’t stop trying. I will keep mothering and (even if it’s only at 2 am) I will keep writing.

What challenges your sense of balance in life? How do you stay focused on the good things?

Do You Have a Strong-Willed Child?

I do. Oh my, do I ever.

I often say that Ivy rewrote the book on parenting. She’s number five, so I should pretty much know what I’m doing, right? Ha. Ha ha! Ha ha ha!!

Ivy is 3 years old. 3 has a reputation anyway, doesn’t it? Preschoolers can be tough. TOUGH I tell you! But Ivy has managed to take the requirements of parenting preschoolers to a level I’ve never experienced, in 12 years of parenting preschoolers. what worked with my first four children doesn’t work with Ivy. She doesn’t sleep like her siblings. She doesn’t react to punishment like her siblings. She very frequently cannot be coaxed, cajoled, persuaded or distracted. If she makes a decision to do something, (like, say, NOT go to sleep, or put her shoes on by herself or buckle her own car seat buckles) she is unrelenting, fiercely determined and completely affronted if you get anywhere near her with an alternative. Sometimes compromise works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Screaming is often involved. She has an iron will, a firm, unrelenting spirit and (lets be real) she is utterly and completely exhausting. Now, she is also out of this world fun, always entertaining and so very funny.

My favorite Ivy story lately is a perfect representation of her strong will working in her favor. Her baby dolls were upstairs in her bedroom. The lights were off, and as she looked up the stairs, she told me she was scared. She didn’t want to go upstairs by herself. Well, I was right in the middle of cooking dinner, had a baby on my hip and couldn’t walk upstairs with her. “Ivy,” I said, “You can do it. Just turn the light on in the hallway. You’ll be fine.” She walked back to the stairs, took a deep breath, and started up the stairs. The whole way, she sang: “I-veee, you can do it. I-veee, you can do it.” And she did. It only took  her a moment to muster up the courage to do something that was frightening. Similar scenarios are pretty common. She’s one tough cookie, and I LOVE her for it. But I’ve had to realize some important things about her personality in my quest to recognize those good qualities. I’ve had to accept that parenting strong-willed children is DIFFERENT. She is DIFFERENT.

I like to give my kids choices. I like to empower them to have control when it’s appropriate for them to have control. I like to teach them what is expected, what is good and right and true and then seek opportunities for them to make choices on their own, to learn and grow by their own experience. (All age appropriately, of course.) But my strong-willed daughter has little care for age appropriateness. Every day, every moment, she fights to be in control. Power struggles? Yeah. We’ve been around the block a few times with those. In my weakest mothering moments, I’ve felt tempted to break Ivy into submission. I will be in control. You will do what I say. You will answer/comply/stop right NOW. But over and over again, this sort of authoritative “Because I said so” approach just doesn’t work with Ivy. I’ve watched her eyes change as she’s made a decision, her little arms crossing across her chest. “Go ahead and make me,” her little attitude seems to say.

Now I’m not saying I think it’s okay for Ivy to stomp all over my authority as her Mama. But I am saying, because of her personality type, the getting there — to that place where we get along and make it through the day still smiling and loving each other at the end — has to be a different process.

ImageI’ve just read this book: You can’t Make me (But I Can Be Persuaded): Strategies for Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child, by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. I nodded through the first few pages. Yes, that’s my kid. Oh, yep. That’s my kid too. OH MY WORD the author has been in my house watching my daughter because THAT. IS. MY. KID. My favorite section of the book talks about how strong-willed children are wired. Tobias shares these three points:

1. Strong-willed children don’t have trouble with authority, but with how authority is communicated.

2. Strong-willed children don’t need to control you; they just can’t let you take all control away from them.

3. The quality of the relationships you have with strong-willed children determines the effectiveness of your parenting strategies.

These points gave me much to think about, particularly number 2. It was a process for me to realize that inherent in Ivy’s little personality is a desire to do things on her own, to feel in control. Funny, I really hate feeling out of control myself. If I recognize that, can I also recognize Ivy’s defiance not as a personal affront to ME and my requests as her Mom, but as an expression of herself, her desire to do things in her own way? It’s hard! I’m the Mom! I’m in charge! Well, yeah. But this little girl has a spirit in her that cannot be broken and if I can’t work with that, I have a feeling we will fight through her entire childhood.

Tobias goes on to outline suggestions for making it easier to communicate with strong-willed children, from toddler years, all the way through to teenagers, and adult children. Much of what she shared felt pretty intuitive to me, but I had many “ah-hah” moments where I thought, “Okay, I can do better with this one.”

I think the most important lesson of the book, with preschoolers in particular, is that we cannot take their defiance or misbehavior personally. We might say, “WHY are you doing this to me? Why are you making things so difficult? You’re going to make me late.” And on, and on. We make it about us. We think only about how their behavior affects US. This book reminded me to take a step back and recognize that Ivy, though in miniature form at the moment, has a personality and spirit that might very well be different than me. She has her own way of seeing things, her own way of experiencing the world. It’s up to me whether or not I make that a good thing or a bad thing.

I won’t lie. It is HARD WORK being her Mom. But I’m of the mind that every kid deserves to be championed, celebrated and encouraged. So I’ll take the hard. She’s totally worth it.