Empty Cup: When Motherhood Runneth Over

I’m tired. Burnt out if you will. I almost followed that up with a list of disclaimers about how I know there are a zillion people in this world that are way more exhausted than I am and have every reason to be burnt out and who would probably (understandably) label me as whiny and privileged. But I  honestly don’t have it in me right now to appropriately excuse myself of my whiny and privileged tone, so please bear with me as I get this off my chest.

147261My twins are 16 months old. They are my only children. They have been sleeping through the night for eight months. They nap every day. My parents live in the next town over and give me a generous amount of help. Technically, I should not be tired.  I should be full of life and energy. But for whatever reason, I am not. I am a stay at home mom and I love my job. Truly. Deep down I love it. But my God it is a lot of work.

Before I had kids, I was dancing professionally and working as a freelance visual artist as well. I was an avid gym-goer, a consistent maker of healthy meals, a keeper of the house and a doer of fun things with my husband, sisters, or friends.  I was a reader of books and a follower of news. A lover of the outdoors and an appreciator of the arts.

And then baby fever hit hard. My husband and I put it off for a little while, but when the time came, we were both ready and there was no denying it any longer. One baby was the immediate plan. We eventually maybe wanted a second, but we’d decide about that later. I told myself it wouldn’t be unrealistic to be a stay at home mom of one baby and still be able to consistently fit in some of my own art or dancing, or at least something of my own.

Of course it was not one baby, but two (surprise!), and now I can’t imagine it being just one. But wow. Since the day they were born, I have been slipping away from myself. Not in a way that I think I’ll never come back. I will. But right now – who I am today – is almost unrecognizable to me. I’m still “me” of course, but I’m temporarily (I hope) wilted. My entire existence is spent loving my babies and I don’t know how to leave some for myself.

I do get breaks during the week from my parents, and my load is lightened by my husband on the weekends. But even time “off” is spent catching up on daily tasks I’ve fallen behind on. And even when I find myself with free time – or choose to ignore the chores for a bit – I’m too bone-tired to muster up any creativity or stamina to even want to do anything I used to do.  

Who is this person? This can’t possibly be me…but it is and I sometimes get so discouraged by my own lack of energy that I send myself into a downward spiral of negativity and self-criticism that leads to an even deeper slump.

During the full throes of the day – when I’m in full mom-mode, I’m rarely faded and droopy.  I love these kids and I love raising them and I love doing all the fun mom things. We play and dance and read and go outside. I feed them healthy foods and keep them on a good nap schedule and bring them to playgroups. I often find myself blissfully lost in the moment, laughing so hard at their adorable silliness that tears roll down my face, or dancing so enthusiastically to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” that I end up winded. I of course have plenty of parenting-fails and plenty of days when I just don’t live up to my expectations as a mother. But when the good and the bad days are averaged out, I’d say I’m a pretty darn good mom.

As for taking care of myself, I do have some days that I make myself a nice healthy lunch, or use my girls’ naptime to exercise in my living room, or work on a long-forgotten art project after they go to bed. But overall – when averaged out – I do a pretty crappy job of taking care of myself. I like the idea of self-care. I want to feel good. But when the day is over and my beloved little monsters are in bed and I finally have a moment to myself, I have nothing left. I give myself away day after day and I just don’t have anything left over.

This lack of leftover gusto could be due to the physical stamina it takes to get through a day with twins; the double-carry, the double chase in public places, the double diaper changes, double meltdowns, double sicknesses, double doctor appointments, double…everything. Or it could be that I am an introvert in every sense of the word and after a day full of interaction – be it only with two tiny humans – I am simply drained.  Or it could that I need eight hours of sleep in order to feel rested and I don’t always get that because sometimes sick or teething toddlers = night wakings. Or it could be that I’m worrying myself into exhaustion. I worry a fair amount, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a normal mom thing to do.

Whatever the underlying cause may be, I am – in a word – tired.  I hurt. I’m dragging. I’m not fully myself. I also recognize the fact that my girls won’t be this little forever and this feeling will most likely pass. In the meantime, I would love to start bringing back small pieces of my old self. I don’t think that can mean daily trips to the gym or big blocks of time spent working on my art just yet. But maybe trying to make myself a yummy healthy lunch more days than not would be a good start. I have unwittingly set my self-care bar quite low over the past 16 months, so almost anything would be a good start. And burnt out as I may be, these babies are worth every bit of exhaustion.

~ Brittni

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.

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.

 

I Want My Mother: An Overwhelmed Preschooler’s Perspective

 

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.

From Joy to Preschool: Selective Mutism

 

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.