The Heart of a Sensitive Child

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Daughter:  One of my biggest fears going into motherhood is that I might find myself helpless against the world’s determination to shape and reshape my daughters’ views of themselves. That I might have to stand by and watch as they are told who they are and who they should be, and that it won’t line up with their own truths.

I know this is largely unavoidable. Doesn’t it happen to all of us? Life seems to be a process of knowing, forgetting, and then relearning what sits at our cores. Perhaps that process of forgetting and then remembering ourselves is all part of the game. But it’s a relentless game and some, I think, are especially prone to getting caught up in its depths. I hope that my girls can be a little hardier a little less yielding – than I was. I hope that somehow I can help them dig their heels in and stand their ground against the confusing whirlwind of molds to fit and cast descriptions to fill.

I was never inauthentic per say, but I certainly paid attention and what I saw and heard taught me that perhaps I was wrong about a few things. The funny thing is though, I think the earliest version of me – the four and five and six year old version – knew much more than I gave her credit for.

I knew back then that free time was my favorite thing and that home was my favorite place. I knew that loose comfy leggings were the obvious clothing choice because dresses and skirts and constrictive jeans did not lend themselves to free, spontaneous cartwheels. I knew that my body was perfect because it let me run and play and dance and climb trees.

I knew that daydreaming was not only acceptable, but a wonderful creative escape that fully deserved my time and attention. I knew that there was nothing more beautiful than a well-illustrated children’s book. I knew that I loved to make art and that someday I would be an artist. I knew I didn’t like to sit still unless I was reading or making art.

I knew that I didn’t like church because I had to sit still…and listen to stories I did not understand and because it made me angry that women could not be priests. I knew that girls were just as strong and smart and worthy as boys and I knew that it was okay for boys to wear pink or play with dolls or cry.

I knew that being myself was more important than being accepted; despite hating to attract attention to myself, I flat out refused to follow the trends of my peers for fear that this would make me “fake”. I knew that bottling up my frustration, excitement, anger, sadness, joy, and fear was not worth it.  Well to be clear, I did not consciously “know” this, but rather I did not yet know how to not wear my heart on my sleeve.

I knew that it was wrong when an adult at school yelled at a student who was just confused and distracted and scared. I knew that it was wrong when a teacher exasperatedly took a book away from a little boy who was “not ready for that level of reading”. I knew that it was wrong when another teacher grabbed me by the hood of my jacket and yanked me backward when I was rushing down the hall at the end of the school day in my eagerness to get home where I could feel safe and free. I knew a lot of things that happened at school were wrong. And I think those early school years were when I started to forget some of the important things I had known.

I started to let the world around me teach me new lessons. I learned that it wasn’t okay to be shy and reserved. I learned that comfortable clothes were not always the right clothes and that daydreaming was not a wonderful creative pastime, but rather a recipe for getting in trouble at school.

I learned that, after kindergarten, art was only worthy of forty minutes out of the seven-hour school day one day per week. I learned that sitting still was a very good thing that teachers praised. I learned that boys and girls were separate and that if I was friends with a boy I would be teased by my classmates.

As I got a little older, I learned that my body was supposed to look a certain way and I learned how to hide what I was feeling. I learned that being accepted was at least as important as being myself, if not more so.

I had gathered a whole new body of knowledge that I found rather difficult to live with. If only I’d had thicker skin, had been more oblivious to the subtleties around me… Had I been somehow immune to the new and peculiar life lessons I was learning, I surely could have saved my unsuspecting family – and myself – the strain of endless meltdowns, physical illnesses, anxiety disorders, and other futile embodiments of a child caught off guard by a world she didn’t easily fit into.

As I’m sure many a like-minded, soul-searcher can attest to, it is no small task to sift through the layers upon layers of oneself in order to find what is real and worth keeping and what is not. As I sift, I am seeing more and more that the la

yers worth keeping – the real layers – are the ones that have been here all along. And I want more than anything to watch my daughters grow and dream and thrive with a level of trust in themselves that will allow them to hold onto what they know.   I want their own truths to be so solid, so illuminating, that the rest just falls away.

Summer: It isn’t over ’til it’s over

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!

The Sweet Spot of Less

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Continue reading “The Sweet Spot of Less”

Holy Unfiltered Truth

“We have to fight harder to safeguard our time and our dreams and our souls.”

Brendon Burchard, The Motivation Manifesto

 

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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.

 

Two Peas in the Pod: Pregnancy Update

Peas in the pod update picWell I’m 33 weeks along in my twin pregnancy and, with two healthy buns in the oven and no complications thus far, I’m feeling like a pretty lucky mama. Each baby is almost 4.5 pounds – right on track! This is fabulous, but also means I am lugging around almost 9 pounds of baby and oh boy am I feeling it. With about a month left to go though, I know gravity’s pull is only going to get stronger, so I have been sticking fairly diligently to my daily walks or swims in the hopes that I might remain somewhat mobile for these remaining few weeks.

I’ve also been nesting up a storm, which keeps me pretty busy. I have suddenly gone from someone who is downright repelled by the mundane task of organizing to someone who cannot get enough of it. Motherhood is a strange thing indeed. I have a “pregnancy to-do list”, which includes everything from installing car seats, to decorating the nursery, to organizing my mountain of papers and binders that has been my “filing system” for the past three years. The thing is though, I made this pregnancy to-do list months ago – back when my baby bump was cute and manageable and time was aplenty. Well my nesting instincts just finally kicked in a week or so ago, my bump is most definitely not cute and manageable anymore, and time is running out.  Thank goodness I’m feeling reasonably well physically (as long as I allot time for frequent naps) because all of this last-minute nesting is a lot of work!

Speaking of a lot of work, these hormones have self-admittedly made me a lot of work – to live with that is. My husband deserves a quick shout-out here because I know that my emotional ups and downs and all-arounds can be a bit much at times (for both of us), and yet he handles them like a champ and never fails to be the loving supportive man he so naturally is. My mom is another one I couldn’t make it through this pregnancy without. My dad too for that matter. Call me needy, but I have never been so grateful to live a mere eight minutes my parents’ house. And my sisters are the just best, cutest aunts-to-be ever. These babies have a whole lot of loving arms ready and waiting to welcome them into the world, and for that I am so very grateful.

I found out at my ultrasound today that baby A (the twin who will be delivered first) is still bum-down (or breech). She’s been breech for several weeks now despite all of my well-meaning inversion exercises and underwater handstands. Whatever will be will be, but I’m still hoping she decides to flip sometime very soon.  And on that note, upside-down I go. Thanks for checking in!

~ Brittni

School Fever

Daughter:  Some of my most potent memories of  kindergarten are of seemingly insignificant moments that, to me, felt larger than life, such as when my teacher would have to say my name who- knows -how- many times before she got my attention. That was always so embarrassing.

I remember one morning at circle time, I was fixated on the material of the sneakers I was wearing. They were new & white and I was tracing designs over the smooth leather with my finger when I heard my name.  I knew as soon as I looked up that the teacher had been saying my name for a while because my entire class was staring at me, some of them stifling giggles.

“Are those new sneakers?”, the teacher asked me. I turned every shade of red
and fought back tears as I nodded my head. “It’s your turn”, she said, looking
both concerned and a little amused. I don’t remember what it was that we were
taking turns doing, probably because my distress over being the subject of
everyone’s mild amusement in that moment made me too numb to fully register
whatever followed.

That was not the first or the last time something like that happened in school. It was bad enough each time it happened though that I started to figure out in my later years of elementary school how to avoid such clumsy calamities. If I focused hard enough, I usually didn’t miss anything important. The thing is though, this took a huge amount of effort, as my instincts were to drift into my own world, which I found to be much more interesting than most things we were doing in school.

Nevertheless, I got better at making myself pay attention. I used everything I had to focus and I started to be praised for it. I became the “good listener”. I could tell that the teachers liked me because I didn’t cause trouble or noise or extra work for them. So I kept using all of my energy to pay attention. I kept being quiet and still and “good” because the praise felt nice. I could see and hear how the teachers got angry with the kids who were not quiet and still and good and I did not want that to be me.

Soon enough I started acting out at home. I was like an erupting volcano who had spent all her energy pretending to be a stoic mountain all day. I would cry and yell and lash out at my family.  And I felt incredibly guilty about this. I did not understand how I could be so well-praised at school and so monstrous at home. How could I be labeled as “sweet” and “respectful” and “quiet” at school while at home I was becoming entirely the opposite?

I didn’t know that the school version of myself was sucking me dry. I simply did not have it in me to be a stoic mountain for more than seven hours each day – seven hours of desks, text books, rules, lines, people, and generally way more structure than is natural for a free-spirited child who craves space, creativity, nature, and movement.

In second grade I discovered the beauty of staying home sick. I really was sick a few times and I swear the joy of not getting on that bus and going to school was worth any fever, sinus infection, or sore throat I had to pay for it. So some days, when I woke up and knew I couldn’t possibly manage to be the perfect school-version of myself that day, I would put on a semi-believable sick act; I’d do the classic holding the thermometer under the lamp; I’d fake-shiver as if I had the chills; I’d sneakily plug in my mom’s heating pad and hold it to my forehead for a few minutes so when my mom checked my head with her hand, she would say, “Oh…I guess you do feel a little clammy”.

I used every trick I could think of and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. On days that it did, I was the happiest girl alive – delving into art projects and books while simultaneously trying to act sick. I could sense that my parents were leery on those days. They weren’t sure what to think and that certainly added a pang of shame to my joy. But the bliss of not having to be who I felt like I had to be at school was just too good to give up. On those days, I was not monstrous at home. I was just me. I was happy and pleasant and not like an erupting volcano. And it was easy to just be me. It was a relief – for both me and my family – which is probably why my parents let it happen sometimes even if they suspected I wasn’t truly sick. We all needed a break now and then from volcano-Brittni and this is how we got it I suppose.

Then one day in school we were color-coding our multiplication tables. I had just finished sharpening all of my colored pencils when the boy at the desk next to me grabbed them from me and broke all the tips off with his hand. He gave them back to me laughing and, as I started to ask him why he did that, my teacher walked up to my desk and said in his deep stern voice, “Brittni, you’ve missed too much school to be fooling around. You need to focus on catching up on your work.”

It took all my strength not to cry as I crouched over my worksheet and started filling in my multiplication table with my now flat-tipped colored pencils. I was angry at the boy who broke my pencils and I was angry at my teacher for blaming me for the commotion, but mostly I was angry at myself for not focusing harder. For letting it happen. For not standing up for myself. And I felt trapped because I knew there would be no more “sick days” for me that year.

 

 

The Path of Most Resistance

Mother: Despite my being ignorant to the fact that it was the school bus that my daughter  was afraid of, even 20160516_175414more 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.

Kindergarten and the Big Bad Bus

bus-878697_1920Daughter: 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.

 

Little Girl, Big Emotions

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.