Mother: Although the start of September signals fall, we’ve still got over two weeks of summer left! I love the contrast and variety of September- summer and fall, apples and flowers, warm days and cool nights, cold smoothies and hot coffee. I appreciate the uncrowded beaches, and writing both indoors and out. Everything about this month, especially the weather, feels “just right” to me. I’m hanging on gently while anticipating fall, with plenty of space between right now and the hectic holidays. Happy end of summer- but it isn’t over ’til it’s over!
This piece was originally published in Literary Mama: The Sweet Spot of Less
I detest clutter. It feels bad, almost suffocating. Tangible or intangible, it’s all the same to me, space clutter and mind clutter. One leads to the other and a fog sets in that traps precious energy, stalling progress, making forward motion feel like walking through quicksand.
In order to write freely, I need to clear away distractions as much as possible. It takes conscious effort to maintain clarity of space and freedom of mind, and it’s a quest I feel is worthy of writing about. I especially notice how simplifying my environment improves my writing, as if the space in my home invites the muse to come in and move my pen across the page with ease. My mind is open to inspiration, words sweeping through me, uninhibited by too much stuff.
Creativity comes through the empty spaces, the open heart, the uncluttered mind and room. It is in this space that we can get creatively messy.
My three daughters grew up going through their clothing every season, passing down whatever no longer fit. They did it all together and it was a fun time for them, a chore that felt like play. We also made a game out of going through toys, handing them a bag for goodwill and asking them to “find ten things they don’t play with anymore.” Simplifying was a way of life, a joyful way to make room for something new, not necessarily in the material realm.
I get excited for anyone who tells me they’re cleaning out their garage or a closet. I know what it will do to their mind, how the clearing out will invite the flow of something good, something nourishing that finds the opening and begins to trickle in. Call it an obsession or a passion, but I’m harnessing it and letting it manifest into these words, from me to you.
To dive into the stillness, the emptiness, and poke around, is to invite the extraordinary. In the void, we stand a chance of churning out something new. Maybe it won’t happen that moment or that day, but eventually it will burst through as an idea, a creative urge, or the solution to a problem, fresh and stunning.
“We have to fight harder to safeguard our time and our dreams and our souls.”
– Brendon Burchard, The Motivation Manifesto
Mother: In my earliest memory of church, I am standing next to my grandmother, reciting a prayer by rote memory: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you….”
Why am I not worthy? my five- year- old self wondered. What have I done? The prayer was coming through my lips. My thoughts about it were coming from my head. My heart was sort of disconnected from the whole experience.
“…only say the word and I shall be healed.”
All around me people were broken. I would come to believe that it takes more -so much more-to be healed than only saying the word in church – things like courage, desire, truth, reflection, and yes, faith. My faith would come much later though, and have very little to do with a Catholic mass, or so it seemed. It would have much more to do with sitting with my self than with a congregation; more to do with uncovering worthiness than denying it.
When my three children were of the age to attend church, I did what every lapsed Catholic was doing. I dressed them up a bit and with my husband, who somehow thought I was equipped to make this all-important choice, took them there. I felt like a bit of an impostor, because I just never really liked going to church. Besides, I’d taken up meditation and yoga, one hour of which seemed to put me in alignment with Best Self more than any church service ever had. I loved devoting time to strengthening my connection to the divine, and to my own soul, but for me it was a private endeavor.
I guess I’m just a bit more hippy than churchy; More personal freedom worshiper than authoritarian follower. You could say it’s a personal preference. There are many paths to God, right? So how do you go about choosing for an entire family?
Anyhow, I dutifully signed our oldest up for the First Communion classes, because in the moving sidewalk that is Catholicism, when it’s time, it’s time. This meant that she had to attend a class before the church service each Sunday, and then also attend mass after the class. She was six years old. By the time mass rolled around, she was hungry and bored and feeling about as Christlike as a famished banshee.
And just to add to my cognitive dissonance, one of our daughters asked, “Why is the priest always a man?”
I think something like, “Um..no good reason?” was my brilliant response. I thought she was a bit young to have a discussion on patriarchy or the history of Christianity or the merits and pitfalls of organized religion.
So that’s how we spent our Sunday mornings- for a short time- making everyone stop whatever activity they were engaged in to get ready for a round of church. Gather the snacks and the nursing baby and take the playing children out of the moment where God resides because it’s the Lord’s day and who needs peace anyway?
The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself. – R.M. Brown
On one such Sunday morning, which is etched in my memory, my husband tried to gently and quietly carry our daughter out of church as she had grown increasingly agitated. When they got halfway down the aisle, toward the exit, I heard my darling, free-spirited daughter’s explosive cry:
“I HATE CHURCH!”
And now let us pray. Jesus take the wheel.
Sometimes parenting is a lesson in humiliation.
Mother: Despite my being ignorant to the fact that it was the school bus that my daughter was afraid of, even more than school itself, she did eventually adjust enough to make it through her Kindergarten year. In all honesty though, I think that she did not adjust to riding the bus as much as she accepted her miserable fate..oh the guilt. It breaks my heart even now, two decades later, to think of putting her little tear-stained face on the bus. And for what? All in all, Kindergarten sucked more life out of her than it gave.
Summer flew by, filled with free play and fun, reading and swimming, family and cookouts. The jaws of the school bus came around again, this time gobbling up my little girl for the an entire seven hour day. I would come to detest those back-to-school commercials that portrayed the gleeful mom, happily shopping for her kids, knowing they would be “out of her hair” soon. For some of us, back-to-school was something to dread. And in those early years I could not shake the nagging feeling that our current setup was just a matter of inertia. My kids were reading, learning, and exploring the world outside of school, with joy. What in would they gain by joining the masses in a building that seemed to drain the joy from them? Could anything be less natural a way to learn and grow than what our society deems mandatory? What about freedom? What about play and creativity? And peace and authenticity? What about their brief childhood ?
But school is the norm. School is what we do to kids. School is what kids do. And therefore I was scared to face how wrong it felt to me for us. I was almost scared to think it, let alone speak it.
What if I became a dissident?
What if I didn’t?
I taught Kindergarten long ago, before I became a parent. It was hard. I recall being under significant pressure to get all the kids “up to speed” and ready for first grade. There were twenty-five of them. Part of me just wanted to set them free. I wanted to let them stay outside, or play indoors all day if they wanted, or go home, or take more than twenty minutes to eat their lunches. I wanted to let them climb in my lap at circle time and skip nap time – or extend nap time if they were tired. But I was a professional with an assigned agenda, not their mother. I felt conflicted and overwhelmed.
At that time, I worked with some fabulous people who made teaching their career and have family members and friends who did as well. Getting done what must get done in a school year while simultaneously nurturing a child’s sense is a tall order. I feel strongly that we should value the teachers who do this well. They spend over a thousand hours with our children in a given year! This is important. If a child feels safe -safe to learn, safe to be curious, safe to be herself- at a school, in a classroom, with a teacher, then wow, this is the season for open heavens, rejoice! If your child loves and embraces being at school? Thank your lucky stars.
To “celebrate” Brittni’s first day of first grade, (I was trying very hard to put a positive spin on this, and to focus on the success! She went! She arrived back home!) I had the bad idea that our family would go out to dinner. What was I thinking? Oh to be able to go back in time and let the older, wiser me make some past decisions. I think this is why I don’t often get nostalgic- In so many instances, I want a redo. This day is one of them.
We all piled into the car and drove the fifteen minutes to the restaurant. The next scene involves Brittni hugging a telephone pole outside the car, screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, wanting to go back home.
Why someone did not call the cops at this obvious sign of a kidnapping, I have no idea. But at that point I really thought we could not allow her to dictate the family’s evening plans, and so we waited it out, doing our best to soothe her tantrum, and assure her that dinner really could be pleasant and peaceful.
All of us a little less hungry at this point, but no longer making a scene on Main Street, we got through that meal quietly, deflated.
And here is what I now know, and what Brittni articulated many years later: School took every single ounce of her energy and then some- to pay attention, to follow the rules, to tune out the noise and focus on the teacher, to be around many people, all day long as an introvert, to squelch the desire for quiet, for art, for more movement- to be a good girl.
And she was being a good girl at school! The teachers were happy with how diligent she was doing her work. She was easy, quiet, smart.
Then she came home and lost it. And I wondered what had happened to my child. What was school doing to her? And why couldn’t I fix it?
And when she calmed down, she would sit at the kitchen table doing her homework, glancing out the window and asking aloud one day, “Is anyone really free?”
School may have been sucking the life out of her, but it was giving her some very big questions.
Daughter: I was in my bedroom listening to the clinking of spoons downstairs as my family finished breakfast. I was the only one getting ready for school because my sisters were still young enough to stay home. I longed to stay home with them and make up fun games to play together. Or at the very least, I longed to bring them with me. But they were not old enough for kindergarten. They did not have to ride the bus.
The bus was by far the worst part of kindergarten. There were some parts of kindergarten that I kind of liked, such as my friend Emily who sat next to me for circle time and who played with me at recess. But I did not like any part of kindergarten nearly enough to make up for how much I hated the bus. I was deathly afraid of it. It was always filled to the brim with first and second and third and fourth grade kids who pushed and yelled and stood up in the back and made the bus driver mad. It was so so SO very loud. And getting off the bus when we arrived at school was downright terrifying. I was sure every single day that I would be flattened like a piece of play-dough into the aisle floor by the stampede of students rushing to the door. And getting back onto the bus to go home at the end of the day was just as scary with the added fear (be it irrational) that I might forget to get off at my house and be stuck on the bus alone all night.
Today I really did not want to ride the bus. Even more so than the day before and the day before and the day before. I stepped into my closet and shut the door. In the closet was an old wooden hope chest where my sisters and I kept our dress-up clothes. Desperate and without thinking, I opened it and climbed inside, lowering the heavy lid over myself as I curled into a ball. It was quiet and pitch black in my hiding place and I relished in the comfort of this. This was definitely my best hiding spot yet. I had tried hiding from the bus before, but only once the bus arrived and the panic set in, and then it was more like a chase than a hide – me running around to the back yard and one of my parents running after me. They hated putting me on the bus, I could tell. Sometimes one of them would drive me to school, but most of the time that was not an option.
I waited in my cozy hiding place feeling both nervous and hopeful. After a few minutes, I heard my dad’s footsteps coming upstairs. He opened my bedroom door and when he didn’t see me, he tried the bathroom. His footsteps started to speed up as he called down to my mom. She hurried upstairs and joined him in the search. Their footsteps were getting faster and faster, their voices more frantic. They even checked my closet, but not the hope chest. So far so good, I thought. Maybe I wouldn’t have to ride the bus today after all.
Then I heard my dad say something about calling the police and my heart started pounding. I knew I couldn’t stay in my safe little cave for much longer. I heard the terror rise in my mom’s voice as she called my name over and over again and it was too much to bear, so I crawled out. I chose to relieve their panic instead of my own. I chose to be put onto the bus crying that day. I chose my worst fear over theirs.
Daughter: The best part about growing up with sisters was having two built-in best friends. Home was always my favorite place to be and my sisters were always my favorite people to be with. We were perfectly spaced apart with a little over two years between each of us. By the time Bethany, the youngest, arrived I was a little over four years old and already the best of friends with my two-year-old sister, Jill. But Jill and I were ready to welcome another member into our circle. I adored them both. They were perfect and the three of us were perfect for each other.
But, although I never showed any major signs of jealousy, I think it was there a little bit from time to time after Bethany arrived. Or maybe jealousy isn’t the right word, but I could definitely sense a slight shift in my mother – probably due to the tiredness and overwhelm that comes with bringing a newborn home to two small children and a working husband – and it bothered me. I was so in tune with her mood that any hints of uncertainty or stress in her voice or body language immediately became uncertainty and stress of my own.
She was just as gentle, calm, and attentive as always, but nevertheless I could see and hear that she was a little extra tired and that her hands were a little extra full. I could see the tiny hesitation in her body as she pondered over how to free up her hands to fold the laundry, make a phone call, help me zipper my jacket. I could hear the occasional “um” in her voice as responding to a two and four year olds’ endless questions and requests was surely a little more complicated with a crying infant in her arms who had needs that were a bit more immediate than shoe-tying, story-reading, and fruit-peeling. There was just a small pause about her now as she adjusted to the art of mothering three – an art that she took to naturally and gracefully. But within that small pause was space enough for my ever-sensitive awareness to take note that Bethany, my precious youngest sister, must be the cause for this subtle but necessary adjustment period.
So I hit her one day when our mom left the room to use the bathroom. There she was, sweet as could be laying in her car seat looking at me. I could have been like my mother; I could have been patient and kind and calm. But I have never been very good at pausing. So I bent over and I slapped my beautiful baby sister on the top of her head. She started crying and the guilt immediately planted itself like a heavy jagged rock deep within my sternum and there it stayed.
Mother: After my third daughter was born, the realization began to seep in that I would have three sets of eyes, watching me, learning what it means to move through this world as a female. As overjoyed as I was with being a mother of girls, and I truly was, I also wondered if mothers of boys had it easier simply because their offspring was the other.
It was not as if the enormity of the responsibility as role model hit me all at once, exactly. It was more like a slow drip drip into my gut.
While in the thick of caring for a young family, it becomes alarmingly easy to begin to forget oneself, one’s potential, ambitions or dreams, outside of family life. Family can become synonymous with Self.
And although I was blissfully focused on raising my daughters, (okay, it wasn’t always bliss- it was damn hard sometimes too) years turned into decades, and I would later wonder if I might have robbed them of the chance to see a mother with a career, pursuing goals outside the home, making money, earning a living.
Sure I would eventually pursue my creative goals while they were still young, but until they were nearly grown, it never took up more than a very small space in my life.
What if it wasn’t enough to be a female role model who was happy, had a healthy body image, a solid and loving relationship with their father? What if I was suppressing a deeper longing for fulfillment and leaving something very critical out of the equation?
Those were questions I would ask later – and I know it is a privilege to be able to ponder this.
At the time though, with a new baby girl added to our family, I just kept loving them all, and occasionally slipping away, for a few hours, a day or a weekend, to write down my thoughts. These thoughts would eventually, over the course of many years and words, lead to the birth of a creative vocation.
Did being such a later bloomer in this way deprive my daughters of something? (because this is what mothers always ask, right? How did I do for them? Was it enough? And don’t mothers of daughters demand an answer of themselves more so than mothers of sons? Or maybe not, I don’t know. I will never know.)
And would I have done it differently for myself?
Maybe? I don’t know.
Everything seems as it should be today, so probably not.
Does it really matter?
Daughter: I thought maybe if I cried loud and long enough my mother would come running back in, scoop me up, and realize this was not where I belonged. I needed her and I needed her to know that I needed her. I needed the teachers to bring my mother back in here because I felt alone and scared and did not want anything else in the world but her.
I don’t remember when or how the teachers finally succeeded in coaxing me out from under the table that first day of preschool. I don’t remember anything else about that day. But being under the table crying for my mother is something I remember vividly and I think it’s because my need for her as a highly sensitive 2.9 year-old was so primal and strong that being separated from her left a stamp in my memory.
The preschool days following my dramatic first day are mostly a blur now. I remember some things, such as the finger painting station that I liked, and circle time which made me feel squished and crowded and itchy. Mostly though, I remember the feeling of preschool. It felt big. Not always scary, but never calm and always confusing.
Among what felt like a sea of children and teachers and noise and movement, it was all I could do to keep up with what was going on. I could not make out single voices or clear instructions above the sounds of chairs being pushed in, children laughing, teachers directing, toys dropping, hands clapping, feet stomping, jackets being zippered, children being counted, faucets running, toilets flushing, doors opening, doors closing, the teacher speaking quietly – finally quietly – in my ear.
Right in my ear and I could hear her now. She asked me a question and I nodded my head because I didn’t talk in preschool. Not much anyway. My senses were too busy processing everything around me and who would even hear me anyway? My voice was soft and low and worked just fine at home, but not here. Here, everyone’s voices seemed to be loud and high-pitched and easily audible. So I saved my voice for at home, and at preschool I used my eyes and my ears. I used them so much that by the time I got home, they were all used up. I was all used up.
Mother: When Brittni was two years old, her baby sister Jill was born. I remember the first time Brittni saw Jill, at the hospital. She was immediately fascinated by her and seemingly full of instant sisterly love. Jill quickly grew to adore her “big sister”. We were all happy to be a family of four. Trips to the playground or grocery store took a bit more effort now with two little ones in tow, but everything was still quite manageable.
Often when we were out and about, strangers would comment on Brittni’s mane of deep red hair. She would grimace if they approached her to stroke her head. Sometimes I was able to intervene in time, and other times not. Having a sensitive child makes one well aware of the boundaries many adults will cross with children that they wouldn’t consider with adults. It was an early sign of a subtle attitude of non acceptance for the child who doesn’t go along. Some adults seemed put out if Brittni rejected their advances. They viewed her as unfriendly or too fussy, but how would they have liked strangers patting them on the head?
Brittni greatly enjoyed outdoor play, so long as the temperature wasn’t too hot which would cause her porcelain white skin to break out into an itchy rash. Indoors, she colored and drew, played with playdough, cut and taped and glued. She loved anything arts- and -crafty. She also got pleasure out of making Jill laugh, and of finding ways to let Jill in on her fun.
These very early years bring back memories of contentment and joy. Later years do too, but these first precious years are void of the anxiety that would begin to plague Brittni when her world began to expand. For now, she was happy, confident and secure, the buffer of babyhood keeping the amplified world from closing in on her.
Brittni was just shy of three years old when she began preschool. She was my firstborn and like many new mothers, I thought this was an exciting time. I accepted without question the typical path of school for children, and preschool was the proverbial starting line. Looking back, I think my instincts told me she may not have been ready for this; why the rush in starting preschool? I could have simply waited another year, or even two. But I didn’t want to hold her back, or deprive her of whatever it was that preschool had to offer. Or was it simply that I was eager for the starting line- to delight in her new experiences and to have the world reflect back what I already knew- that my child was precious, worthy and good? Wow, if I’d known then what I know now…
After her first day, Brittni’s teacher called to inform me that she had hidden under the table for the first half hour and after being coaxed out, did not utter a word the rest of the morning. This refusal to speak at school went on for weeks, maybe longer. One evening my mother-in-law called to tell me to turn on the television. Dateline was doing a segment on a little girl with Selective Mutism. (Selective Mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.) When is a three or four year old’s temporary defense mechanism considered a disorder? And if it’s considered a disorder, then does this mean that I caused it by thrusting my child into a new and overstimulating-to-her environment too soon? This beautiful child on the Dateline show, like Brittni, was an otherwise healthy child, but easily overwhelmed in new situations. Her parents brought her to a psychiatrist who treated her with Prozac. A four year old on Prozac for using a defense mechanism when overwhelmed? Not my child, I thought. I would deal with this on my own, thank you.
Life went on normally at home. Brittni turned three years old that October of 1993. We had the usual family birthday party, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. By afternoon, our house became a sea of activity, of eating and playing and gift giving. I stood close enough to Brittni during cake time for her to bury her face in my shoulder while the crowd sang happy birthday to her.
In early December, baby Jill, turned one. Brittni delighted in having Jill following her around, walking now, laughing and babbling. I loved being a mother more than I had ever loved anything. Their father and I took great satisfaction in giving our little girls a happy home.
But every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I would experience cognitive dissonance as I brought Brittni to preschool. She no longer cried, and even seemed to go pretty willingly, though she was never excited to go. Her refusal to speak, though it perplexed her teachers and filled me with concern, seemed to be the mechanism that made school tolerable for her. I kept in touch with the school’s director, who did not give off the warmest vibes. I knew my sensitive little girl was detecting any disapproval or annoyance that might be emanating from her.
I was continuously wondering if I should take her out of school and try again when she was a bit older, but because she was going willingly, I kept thinking that perhaps she would become more comfortable there as time went on, and begin speaking. I also wondered though, if the longer she went without talking at school, the more she might fear “making a scene” when she did finally utter a word. One thing I knew was that Brittni hated drawing attention to herself in a crowd. Ironically, this defense mechanism she had adopted for school is exactly what did bring her attention, and not the positive kind.
Daughter: A year or so ago, I was reminiscing over some childhood memories with my family; the good ones, which revolve around being at home, playing outside with my sisters, our cabbage patch dolls, the old art closet, quiet library visits, free time… and the not so good ones, most of which were the simple, though often dramatic, result of my sensitive, emotionally intense, and easily overwhelmed nature. In short, I was no piece of cake daughter to raise. “Wow, I certainly didn’t make your job easy, did I?”, I said to my mom after recounting one particularly dramatic after-school meltdown. She laughed it off, but then said “You know, if you have kids, they very well may be like you”. And that was perhaps one of the most terrifying things I had ever heard.
Of course my child might be like me; I didn’t need to hear someone say it to know that my offspring might inherit more than a few of my personality traits. But until that day I had not fully and honestly entertained this possibility. I had not truly considered that I might bring into this world a child whose very temperament makes their world feel too big, too loud, too intense, too harsh…. I think I had been hoping that, instead of having a child whose empathy is through the roof and whose list of fears is longer than the Amazon River, I might have one more like my husband, who is, in many regards, my polar opposite. My subconscious was holding onto the possibility that our child might conveniently inherit his resilient, extroverted, and adaptable nature over my thin-skinned, introverted, and easily overwhelmed one.
I realize now how selfish this is – to have a preference for specific personality traits in my child. Sure, my preferences had been partly for the child’s sake, but also for my own sake as a parent. But highly sensitive children are born every day and wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing for them to all have parents who can truly understand their unique needs and struggles and gifts? I was raised by two incredibly nurturing parents who tactfully took each curve ball I threw at them during every stage of my childhood. They navigated the rough waters of bringing up a child to whom the parenting books did not apply and they did it with love and grit and open-mindedness. I want nothing less for my own children.
I am eagerly expecting twins in a couple short months and, needless to say, I am feeling all of the feels. I am happy beyond words. I am also completely overwhelmed, as is not unusual for me, and anxious and excited, and scared and hugely grateful. And I want these two precious humans to be whoever they will be, whether that is “like me” or not. But if either or both of them are “like me”, so help me God I am as prepared as I’ll ever be with first-hand experience to help them navigate this big, loud, crazy, wonderful world.