I sat in my counselor’s office for the first time a few years ago. I was there because I was struggling with motherhood, bottoming out really. My husband and I have two teenagers and I often harken back to the days when they were little and all our collective problems seemed little too. For the life of me, as I look back all I can recall are the snuggles not the struggles. So hindsight is either a dirty mo-fo trickster or a benevolent and loving friend. As our kids got bigger, so did our issues and I was on her couch because my depth perception wasn’t working.
When they were little, everything seemed like a phase. Some lasted longer than others, but none lasted forever. The kids always outgrew whatever it was that was proving difficult to bear, and I usually didn’t worry too much that they wouldn’t. I explained to my counselor that each one of the new big kid trials we encountered looked like a view of forever instead of a soon-to-pass phase. I was also there talking to her because it felt like the circle of friends and family I shared the kids’ downs with (not ups, those are easy to share) had shrunk considerably. About babies and toddlers us mamas will wax on and confide until we’re blue in the face and we feel cleansed, understood and supported. With teenagers, we can feel tongue-tied because of their right to privacy and confidentiality; a right that didn’t glare like a neon sign when they were small. In addition, we don’t want our teenagers to be judged or have their trials shared with others beyond our supportive circle lest it affect their reputations and connections and thus their futures. Just another example of how shit gets real with teenagers.
Our teenagers were fast approaching the adult versions of themselves and so when they would falter, I would feel like they would never get past that circumstance. It felt like this was a glimpse of who they were going to be. I had lost the ability to recognize the phases as phases and to take them in stride. I began to lose hope as well. The trouble did not lay with my teenagers, who were just busy working out the business of being teenagers, but with me. I was busy working out the business of being a mom, but I had some malware to deal with.
I told my counselor that I could no longer separate myself from my kids’ trials. I felt like whatever they went through, I went through too. And I had already been a teenager and didn’t enjoy it the first time, so I didn’t want to go through all that angst again. If they did something wrong, I felt like I was guilty as well. If they were mistreated, I felt like I had been rejected or shunned or declared not good enough too. I had some acute sympathetic adolescence going on. I felt like I was on their roller coaster ride; one I did not buy a ticket for, the ride was lasting way too long and I didn’t know how to get off. I wanted her to help me get off their roller coaster and onto a magic carpet ride instead. In short, I did not understand ahead of time that parenting big kids through their inevitable ups and downs would bring up ALL my own childhood fears, heartaches, battles, tangles and hassles and serve them up to me for dinner on a daily basis.
It wasn’t just that I felt like I was a bad mom. I’ve pretty much always felt that way over the years. I don’t think many of us moms ever actually think we’re killin’ it in this role; performing with ease, grace and talent day in and day out, including matinees on Sundays, to sold-out crowds, year after year. Hamilton the musical is not our modus operandi metaphor of choice. My husband has a way of talking me off the ledge when I think like this though. He told me once that feeling like a bad mom is one of the very things that makes me a good mom. He said bad moms don’t agonize over a missed opportunity for a teachable moment or a few poorly chosen words. Bad moms don’t worry that their imperfection is causing irreparable damage or perceived memories of a terrible childhood for their kids. They don’t worry their kids will fly the coop and never come back to crazy town for knowing how well we are stocked up here. It’s good moms that think like this. This made good sense to me and I summon this calming thought process frequently.
It was more that I was grappling with never fully grasping just how difficult the process of raising kids from start to finish would be. When we started, with the littles, it felt like we signed up for a fun run. We had friends who signed up too, friends that pinned their own numbers on and stood at the starting line with us. We had energy and hope and we felt up to the 5 or 10k. We chose to do it, knowing it was going to be hard, especially if we wanted to do well. But we were ready for it and felt prepared enough to feel confident enough.
Somewhere along the way, we begin to realize we’re actually running a marathon and then some of us panic because we are not distance runners and we are not equipped with the right gear. We don’t have our GU or our water belts and Map My Run isn’t on whispering our split times in our ears to help pace us and keep us on track to finish. Our playlists aren’t long enough to get us where we’re going. The music stops half way through and we feel our energy levels drop and our spirits plummet. Prepared and confident enough no longer feels like enough. We’re not sure we’re going to make it.
It didn’t help me that around this time so many of my older and wiser friends had begun to tell me that as a parent you never stop worrying or fretting, even over your grown and gone kids. Say wuh? Yep, that’s what they say. Lots of them, not just one or two. This knowledge really knocked me for a loop, it felt like a left hook I never saw coming when I was already against the ropes.
I was in my counselor’s office for the first time because part of my brain kept hollering, “well, I ain’t down with that!” And not in a fun way like my brain was belting out the lyrics from Baby Got Back. But in a scary way as in it was insisting, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Those thoughts stopped me cold and propelled me straight into counseling because opting out of motherhood is not an option. I am always going to do this mom thing. Even when they’re gone, apparently. So I needed to learn how to deal. So that I could feel the joy again. Because I believe Trace Adkins 1000% when he tells us, “you’re gonna miss this, you’re gonna want this back.”
I uttered the word “crisis” a couple of times in that first session with my counselor and she stopped me and explained that perhaps my situation did not qualify as an actual crisis. She then had me describe something that would actually be a full-blown crisis in the event it happened. And I started picking up what she was laying down. If I could change the way I viewed the situation, I could change my reaction to it and thus deal with it more effectively too. It made good sense to me, at that time. But I’ve begun to think about crises in different way.
I read recently that the Latin (via the Greek) root of the word crisis is to sift or to decide. Further research enlightened me that the English use of the word was first used to reference the turning point in a disease, the point at which the patient would either begin to recover or succumb to death. I’ve been reading and learning a lot about minimalism lately too, and soaking the concept up like a California drought. I think the two things, crises and minimalism, have a lot in common. Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, a.k.a The Minimalists, wrote that minimalism is simply about stripping away the unnecessary things in your life so that you can focus on what’s important. I think that a crisis works the same way and so I’m going back to using the word crisis in the way it makes the most sense to me. A crisis to me is an acute awareness that it’s time to focus up on an important matter at hand and that everything else will have to wait, or better yet, get sifted and just fall away.
I just don’t want any of us to get stuck on the semantics of shit in our lives. Your crisis and my crisis can be different. In meaning, in scope, in brevity or longevity, in depth, in cause and remedy, in just about everything. They can be different but they can feel the same. They can feel the same and be different. Our crises can behave like palindromes because everyone’s hard is hard. We all have different levels of what we can take and still keep going. The dosage of what knocks us down and keeps us there for a little too long is different for each one of us. That’s where I was that day on my counselor’s couch, down and out and I had been there for too long. I knew I needed help to get back up.
Lest my kids think these scary thoughts I was having were a reflection of them and the magnificent people they are, it’s important to say there were other contributing factors. At that time I was working as a traffic manager at a branding agency; a job that messed with my head. It was a difficult position to become proficient in and I know that because when I finally left, many of my co-workers said something to the effect of “hey, your job sucks, we can’t believe you lasted this long!” It was the only job I’ve ever had in which I didn’t feel like I was doing well or could learn to do well in an acceptable amount of time. I felt like I was constantly behind the eight ball with no clue how to get it in the corner pocket. If I performed my duties with skill and ease once, it felt like a happy accident and a huge relief. Not like something I had mastered and could easily summon the skill to do again.
Towards the latter half of my stint doing that job, my husband and I decided to build a house. Something he’d always wanted to do and something I had always wanted to NEVER do. This came to be because we had decided to downsize and reap all the benefits of that kind of move and we were having trouble finding the kind of property we had in mind. We had sold our too-big house and had squeezed our family into a too-tiny rental house like a bunch of sardines so that we could save money and put it towards our new home and the short fuse was lit on that situation. So we bit the bullet and bought an affordable lot and dove head first into a build and I got stuck in that bastard of a rabbit hole.
I got stuck because the combination of tussling with motherhood, wrestling with a job that pinned me to the ground and sat on my chest and tiki-tommed me most days and playing my part in the Three Stooges-like shit show of a production that building a new house was all pig-piled on me and worked together to tip my scales. The result was an out of balance feeling of epic proportion that mimicked hopelessness and things got all dark and scary in my head. Looking back, I can see that none of these things would have seemed nearly as hard as they did if they hadn’t all occurred at the same time. But occur all at once they did.
I was in the midst of a crisis. I needed to shift my focus, to sift my life in order to hone in on what mattered most and I needed to let everything else fall away. I summoned big courage and asked for help because beginning to turn that crank or squeeze that handle can be too hard on our own, in our weakened state of crisis. Everyone’s hard is hard, no matter how different and everyone’s help looks different too. I got help by becoming brave enough to talk about it, all of it. With people I trusted, with my tribe. I know for sure that without the talking and the opening up in vulnerability, there would have been little to no healing. Because our dark and scary thoughts need to be alone with us. They know that when we feel lonely, like we are the only one going through something so hard and that no one else will get it, we will listen and pay good attention to them. The scary thoughts know that as soon as we start to talk, the talking works like a magic wand and they are diminished. Once we’re talking, if we keep it up, the volume on the dark and scary is turned downed so low, we can hardly hear their unwelcome noise anymore.
In my tribe was my husband, who gave me loving support and understanding. In my tribe was my counselor and my doctor, who gave me understanding, an outlet and antidepressants. In my tribe was my boss at work and because the antidepressants gave me extreme nausea and dizziness and even less stamina for my hectic job, my boss gave me compassion and a flexible schedule. That flexible schedule gave me time to attend more closely to my kids, time to enjoy them in a less stressed state and to feel like a better mom. Feeling like a better mom made me feel better able to withstand building a house. I was able to detach from the chaos and frustration of new home construction and help see the project through to completion while looking at it through new, “this will soon be over and I will never do this again” colored lenses. In my tribe was my mom and a few close friends that I thought would understand all of this and love me, support me and not judge me, or my kids.
But I didn’t let my tribe get very big. I thought that my stories weren’t for everyone back then. I feel differently today.
Today I feel like the best way to heal and get back up is to lean in and head straight down the hill when we feel ourselves falling. To travel like a giant snowball, picking up everyone and everything useful that sticks and gives us momentum along the way. Sufficient momentum to gather enough speed to not stall out in the valley but to keep going and going until we’re all the way up on a hilltop again. A bigger, taller mesa this time. One with a wider plateau where our now big tribe can hang out together and rest and appreciate the amazing view we helped each other to find. And where while catching our breath we can begin to realize that during our fall and subsequent ascent, some of the others we picked up were falling too and they might have ascended quicker with us than if we had not come along and gathered them into our tribe.
There is strength to be found in sharing our struggles. When we’re made strong and can do the heavy sifting, everything unimportant can fall away, the crisis can abate and we can begin again.
P.S. Is there something in this post that spoke to you, something that caused your shoulders to relax and helped you feel more understood or a little less lonely in the world? If so, please share it with someone you think might do a big exhale after reading it too. I think the best thing we can do once we get where we’re going is to turn back around and help the next one in line. Pay it forward, yo?!
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Featured image: Pascal (25/365) On the couch (Explored), is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
Bottom image: jacqueline: “sifting”, is licensed under (CC BY-NC 2.0)