Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Martyr Mom

Sure, sometimes a lack of boundaries can be sweet.

I've been really proud of myself lately. Not for the things I've done, but for the things I haven't done.

What haven't I done? I haven't gotten up and fetched a snack for my kids every time they said they were hungry. I haven't run around after every living member of this house, cleaning up their messes for them. I haven't cooked a home-made meal every single day. I haven't let my son sit in my lap at dinner and pick up all the food I'd planned to eat with his fingers. I haven't tried to remedy my daughter's hurt feelings when I tell her it's time to turn off the TV.

Consequently, I also haven't lost my you-know-what on my kids over the smallest things.

It took me a while to realize I'd become a martyr mom. I mean, how could such a fervent feminist be a martyr mom? But I was. I had zero boundaries with my kids. They climbed all over me (literally - I have the bruises to prove it) at the end of a long day of work. They took food off of my plate without asking and demanded second meals when the first one I slaved over didn't meet with their approval. They threw fits when I didn't spend every single moment dedicated to them and their needs.

But much of my martyrdom came directly from me. How I'd rush from work to pick up Sam, even though sometimes I really just wanted to chill out for 20 minutes with a latte. How I hung out with them all weekend, rather than go off on my own, because of the gnawing, persistent guilt I felt for spending so much time at work. How the sound of their whining or crying triggered something deep inside me, a crippling fear that I could lose them at any moment and that I'd never forgive myself for every saying "no" to anything they asked of me.

So, most of the time, I was there. I was present. I played, I picked up small bodies, I got on all fours so I could be a horse, I cooked, I cleaned, I tucked in, I hugged, I answered questions. And then, after days of this, days of saying nothing but "no" to my own demands, days of slaving from the time I woke up (5:30am most days) until the time that the last child when to bed (8:30pm most days), working with my body and mind and soul with barely any time to even pee, I eventually erupted. I screamed and stomped and stormed and sometimes even threw things, all in frustration that NOBODY EVER TAKES CARE OF ME!

Until I finally realized that it would never occur to anyone to take care of me if they never saw me taking care of myself.

So now I say "no" to others a lot more, and "yes" to myself a lot more. On Thursdays, I work as a middle school teacher from 7am to 3:45pm, leave to pick up Stella, take her to her occupational therapist, after which we pick up Sam and come home. The minute we get home, I take our new dog Sweet Pea for a walk, with the two kids in tow. By the time we get back from her walk, it's 6pm and I'm ready to collapse. Can you believe that for the longest time I made a home-cooked meal after all that? Not anymore. Some days, I pick up dinner for the kids at Subway while Stella's in therapy, some days I pop some frozen ravioli in boiling water, other days it's leftovers or pb&j. Not ideal, I know, but my mental health thanks me for it. Today I refused to get up and fetch my 2nd grade daughter a snack moments after she finished breakfast. I told her where the snacks are located and granted her permission to go get one, then I ignored her whining and pouting while I stayed on the couch and pet the dog. I've learned that I can, in fact, endure a two year old's wrath when I refuse to carry him up and down stairs he can easily walk on his own. And right now I'm writing a blog entry on the couch during our snow day while Stella vegges out on episodes of "Strawberry Shortcake" and Sam naps.

I've realized that, just as my love for my kids isn't conditional, neither is their love for me. I'm not going to lose my babies because I didn't play horsey one day after school, and I won't send them into therapy simply because I made a batch of chili for dinner, knowing it's not on my daughter's preapproved list of three things she'll actually eat.

What I might do is teach them that it's important to care for yourself as you love others. It's important for the kindness, respect, and tenderness you show others to first be modeled to yourself.

And I'll show them that it's far preferable to have a mom who sometimes says "no" than one who sometimes explodes.

Besides, I'm sure they'll find other reasons to go to therapy later.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Secret Confessions of a Binge Eater

Mmm...cupcakes. You can't just eat one. Or is that just me?

The Great Blizzard of ’16 is upon us. A soft, pristine blanket of snow surrounds our home, and I’ve spent the past few days at home snuggling with my kids, wondering when I’ll return to school again.

 I’ve also spent this time trying to talk myself out of wanting to binge eat. 

I’m doing a program called the Whole 30. Since eating plans and whatnot are pretty much the most boring and horrible things in the world to read about, I’ll keep the description simple. Basically, for 30 days, I’m avoiding processed foods, alcohol, dairy, grains, sweeteners of any sort, and other assorted items. I did this once before and was amazed at how I felt: totally energetic, 100% devoid of asthma, body-ache-free, mentally calm. It was obvious that a lot of the foods I typically eat are mostly just terrible for my body. This time, because of the ample snow on the ground, I’m also forced to confront how much of my life I’ve used binge-eating to cope with boredom, as well as pretty much any strong emotion you can think of.

I’ve never been the kind of person who binge eats on a consistent basis. In fact, for much of my adult life, I’ve been quite the healthy eater. But there are times when all I want to do is shove my face full of food – usually food with little to no nutritional value. This is one of those times my friends.

And yes, I know this does not make me unique. In fact, I firmly believe that overdoing it from time to time does not have to be this horribly dire lifestyle choice. Stuffing ourselves on Thanksgiving or at a Superbowl party or even to pass the time during a blizzard is part of the American experience. But I’m starting to realize, much to my chagrin, that there’s been a pattern of binge-eating in my own life – a pattern of avoidance and mismanagement of emotions and now, at the age of 40, I should probably consider breaking it.

And, just to make this as horribly politically incorrect as possible, I must admit that I relish those times, I remember them fondly. I’m not supposed to, just like an alcoholic shouldn’t remember his drunken past with love, but I do.
That summer I ate my weight in strawberry shortcakes.

The blizzard when my sister and I chowed on Cadbury mini-eggs while watching midnight movies.

That time I obsessed over powdered donuts while simultaneously obsessing over my first boyfriend.

That summer that I was all about the hot fudge sundae.

When I first moved to NYC and discovered what pizza is supposed to taste like.

That limited edition Haagen Daaz flavor with the brownies and caramel that my local bodega carried specifically for me (ah, I miss New York bodegas).
The containers of Nutella that saw me through my 3rd trimester with Stella.

The large bags of Smart Food cheesy popcorn and Ritter Sport chocolate bars I ate in front of Netflix on nights when Dave had to work late.

Yes, my friends, as I typed that, I longed for each and every flavor – the processed, the sugary, the devoid of nutrition and filled with things that actively harm me. I want it all. 

But more than that, I crave that immediate feeling of numbness and relief that washes over me when I begin automatically eating bite after bite after bite. 

Because for every food I binge ate, there was some emotion that preceded it. An emotion that was too strong for me to handle. An emotion that scared me.

That summer I ate my weight in strawberry shortcakes, I was depressed because my parents went on a vacation without me and my siblings, and left without telling us.

The blizzard when my sister and I chowed on Cadbury mini-eggs, my abusive dad was trapped in an airport in Las Vegas and I was riddled with guilt for hoping he’d never make it home.

That time I obsessed over powdered donuts, I was terrified of actually kissing my 7th grade boyfriend, then later devastated when he broke up with me.

That summer that I was all about the hot fudge sundae, it was years later and I was finally dating again, but still terrified of men - especially a man who was REALLY, REALLY in to me. (Yes, this seems like a weird problem to have, but I was legitimately terrified of men.)

When I first moved to NYC and discovered what pizza is supposed to taste like – it was incredible! So I ordered a large pie with a garlic knots and ate it all on the floor in my unfurnished apartment, drowning in loneliness and fear that I’d make a huge mistake by moving to the country’s most challenging city with no money, no contacts, no job.

That limited edition Haagen Daaz flavor with the brownies and caramel that my local bodega carried specifically for me? It numbed the lingering pain of witnessing September 11th from my front stoop, and it saw me through severely lonely nights as I watched my roommate romp around with her boyfriend. I eventually became so embarrassed that they carried the ice cream specifically for me and were so used to seeing me buy it with such regularity that I walked blocks and blocks away to find another store that carried it.

The containers of Nutella that saw me through my 3rd trimester with Stella, Nutella that I’d put on bananas and whole grain bread and eventually just a spoon while I tried to push the rampant anxiety from my mind about why she hadn’t kicked in an hour or would I be able to survive the pain of childbirth or would she be born with irregularities that I wouldn’t be prepared for because I’d stubbornly refused prenatal testing or would we be the worst parents in the history of the world.

The large bags of Smart Food cheesy popcorn and Ritter Sport chocolate bars I ate in front of Netflix on nights when Dave had to work late - a meager attempt to convince myself that he was actually at a work event and not lying to me. Trying to believe that someone could actually love me and want to be with me, that his absence from me wouldn’t remind him how much better off he was before he met me so then he’d just never return. Trying desperately not to believe that I’d actually end up alone the way I always knew I would, the way I deserved to be.

OK. So now that food doesn’t seem so sweet anymore. And I realize that I’m very nakedly revealing the inner workings of a mind that’s had to do A LOT of work over the years.

So, then, why do I want to binge eat now? Why do I have moments where I would saw off my left arm for batch of no-bake cookies or some chips and salsa or a pint of ice cream? Because I feel guilty for how frustrated I get when Sam is in these very typical 2 year-old moods and throws fits and kicks me during diaper changes and stubbornly refuses to put on his shoes. I feel guilty for how annoyed I get with Stella for only wanting to eat the same 2 foods and still needing so much of my attention at her age and doing things that she knows will cause Sam to scream and cry, like taking his toys. I feel guilty because, on Monday, should school be back in session, I’ll worry like crazy about those two kids, afraid some gun-nutty idiot will decide to murder some children and that he’ll choose one of their schools. I also feel stressed out and pulled in a hundred different directions – from my job that requires a lot of time and mental energy, to my two wonderful kids, to my marriage which – after ten years – is at its best but stays that way only through attention and love, to my spirituality lying abandoned and unfed in the corner, all the way my poor artistic life, suffering like crazy because I always seem to put myself last. I feel downtrodden because I haven’t won the Moth StorySlam in a long time. I know I need to exercise but I struggle to find the time. I know I need to write, but doing so requires preparation and letting at least one kid veg out in front of the TV.

Wow. This has been great. I really feel like I should pay you for this session.

So, anyway, I’m working on this. My goal is not to lose weight or be a certain size. I’m happy with how I look. But I want to not turn to food to cope with tough things, I want to have the peace of mind and strength to know that I can handle it on my own. To actually work on the parts of my life that cause me distress and not just bury them under a sea of donuts and popcorn.

And, someday, I’d like to be the kind of person who can eat too many mini-quiches at your party because it’s fun, not because I’m hiding from something.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Watching My Nervous Breakdown on Timehop

I tried so hard to look happy and normal.

It started out innocently enough. I downloaded Timehop, the app that shows you your social media activity on today's date 1, 2, 3+ years ago. You see baby pictures of your kids, relive first days at new jobs, laugh at your own daily wittiness.

But several months ago, I started to notice a trend. I'd acquired Facebook a little over seven years ago - exactly when my daughter Stella was born. Instantly, I began to use Facebook to annoy everyone with a near-constant stream of cute baby photos.

But in between impossibly adorable pictures of Stella's chubby cheeks, there were status updates that caused a lump in my throat. Updates that, to some, probably seemed mundane.

Randi tired.

Randi girding her loins for a night of no sleep.

Randi Skaggs...needs a buoy.

Randi Skaggs...would pay $3,000,000 for 3 more hours of sleep.

(This was back in the day when you filled in your third person status update after your name, by the way.)

Just another tired new mom, complaining about her lack of sleep. Nothing crazy.

Except there was crazy. So much crazy. It started a couple of months after Stella's birth, when I realized that better sleep wasn't "just around the corner," like everyone promised. When I realized the dark feelings I had weren't just the "baby blues." When I found myself drowning in anxiety and anger and alienation from friends who were trying their best to reach out to me. Leaving messages on my page like,

Hey Randi! Stella sure is a cutey! I'd be happy to come over and watch her so you can sleep.

Hey Randi! How's it going? I know it's hard to talk on the phone right now, but I'm here if you need me.

Hey girl! How's motherhood? Don't forget to take care of yourself, too! Stella needs a happy mommy.

Funny. In my memory, nobody cared about me. Nobody loved me. I just annoyed everyone. Yet here were messages on top of messages from people trying to help me. People I wouldn't let near me.

I couldn't let someone watch Stella because I was certain she'd die if not under my watch. I didn't want people to come around because I was afraid they'd witness one of my many "snaps" - like screaming at my upstairs neighbor when he made too much noise or losing my you know what on the delivery man who accidentally gave my neighbors my package. I didn't want them to see me absolutely failing at motherhood. I was ashamed.

So I spiraled downward, until, 16 months post her birth - I found myself in the psychiatric ER, begging the staff to help me stay alive.

It's hard to watch the spiral of my descent on social media.

Randi resigned.

Randi in Hell today.

Randi drinking as much wine as the breastfeeding manuals will allow.

All I see when I read it is "Randi Skaggs...needs help. Randi Skaggs...needs help. Randi Skaggs...needs help."

So now I'm a little pushy when my friends have babies. I tell them 150 times to get help early if something doesn't feel right. I tell them that post-partum problems don't always mean crying for no reason or feeling listless. It can mean feeling like you can't leave your baby for a moment for fear something bad will happen. It can mean feeling downright homicidal - maybe not toward your baby (although that can happen), but maybe toward your partner or family or neighbors. It can mean feeling like ending your life would be a blessing to those around you, most of all your child who doesn't deserve to be raised by you. It can mean feeling totally alone, even when people keep reaching out to you.

It's hard to see this play out over and over, but my story has a happy ending. I did get help, and I had a strong, incredible spouse who stayed with me through it all. I'm still here to parent Stella and now her baby brother, Sam. I'm still here to help the kids I teach, and love the people in my life. And maybe I'm here to prevent some other new mom from going down that same road that I traveled, the one I'll revisit when I open my Timehop again tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I'm on Kveller!

 Hanukkah has a very special place in my heart these days.

Hey readers!

I'd be delighted if you read my new piece on Kveller! It's about how it was mighty hard to give up Christmas when I converted to Judaism, but how, over time, I've grown to love spending the Christmas season as a Jew.

Happy holidays - all of them - from me to you!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Perils of Being a 20-Something Woman

At my bachelorette party - age 29 - with my gorgeous friend Sara. 
Not feeling particularly pretty myself.

There is one thing I'm grateful for every day of my life: that I'm no longer in my twenties.

While commercials and ads constantly try to remind me that my impending 40th birthday is a cause to panic and spend hundreds of dollars in "anti-aging" products, all I ever really feel is gratitude for this age, and for the wrinkles and gray hairs and jiggly skin that accompany it.

This weekend, Dave and I went to a very popular local music festival. As we jockeyed for any sort of spot that would provide the least amount of cigarette smoke for my poor asthmatic lungs, I noticed a group of young women. There were three of them, each in their twenties, each lovely. Two were very, very thin - their long, tan limbs snaking out of tiny shorts and crop tops, bangly bracelets and long necklaces adding the right punctuation. They sported long, lustrous hair that looked salon-fresh, despite the boiling hot temperature and sadistic humidity.

The third woman was lovely, too. She also had beautiful hair and skin that looked like it didn't contain a single pore. Unlike her friends, she was not teeny tiny. She wasn't a large woman at all - probably a size 8 or so - but her upper arms had a bit of flesh, and her thighs looked muscular and strong. She wore more clothes than her friends, and had a habit of pulling at her shorts, as if willing them to cover up more and more of her. The way her head darted around, it was painfully clear to me that she did not feel wonderful about how she looked, and she couldn't stop comparing herself to her friends.

I desperately wanted to pull her aside and give her a pep talk. I wanted to reassure her of her beauty, and remind her that she's not in a competition with her friends. I wanted to tell her I know how tough it is to be her age, to not know where your life is heading and who - if anyone - you'll share it with.

But I just stood back and watched. Her friends danced wildly and sometimes suggestively. She bounced carefully and self-consciously. When everyone needed a beer, she was the one to run off and get them. When her friends talked to guys, she hung back and pretended to listen to the band.

I used to be her. When I look back at pictures of my younger self, I'm struck by how conventionally pretty I was. I had no clue. I felt big and awkward and cumbersome. I felt like I could never compare to my friends' beauty.

I've always loved to dance and frankly, I'm quite good at it. But I can't tell you how many times I went to concerts or similar events and barely moved. I lived in fear that my breasts would bounce too much, that my stomach might peek out of my shirt, that someone would make fun of me.

And these fears were not unfounded. When you're a woman in your late teens and twenties, your appearance is up for public judgment. As men walk past you, many of them either eye you appreciatively, or make grossed-out faces to show how horrible you are, or - worst of all - laugh and poke fun at someone who looks like you daring to have fun. My weight has fluctuated a lot in my life, so I've been at the tail end of every single one of those reactions. And every single one infuriates me.

Going to this event as an almost-40-year-old woman is a very different experience. It's almost like being invisible. Men's eyes glazed right over me on their way to find young women. When I wanted to dance - I danced. People looked, because people always look at you when you dance, but nobody seemed to care once they realized I was not part of the meat market. I was just a goofy older woman shaking her butt to Houndmouth.

I can forget for a moment about the rampant sexism and objectification and sometimes even misogyny that are still just a huge part of our culture.

Until I remember that Stella will have to deal with it one day. And then I get angry all over again.

I'm so grateful not to have to be in that place anymore. To not feel ugly and awkward and unworthy of love. But I also feel motivated to try to change this place enough so that maybe, possibly, hopefully, my daughter can be able to enjoy her 20's more than I ever did.

Being the kooky middle-aged woman who loves to dance and is annoyed by all the smoke.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Five Minute Snippet

What a good mom! Taking her kids to the zoo on the first sunny day in ages!

If you were to observe me out in public with my kids, you'd think I'm an incredible parent.

Or an indulgent one.

Or an angry one with a terrible attitude.

Or a completely average one.

Because I am all of the above. As well as an emotionally sensitive parent (both in the good and bad way), a tired parent, a hilarious parent, an immature parent (both in the good and bad way), and a frazzled parent.

Today, for example, I had looks from people that gave me the feeling they were summing me up based on whatever five minute snippet they observed.

The woman who smiled kindly at me as I laughed with my kids at the goofy sea lion doing tricks. "What a good mom, taking her kids to the zoo and having so much fun with them."

The other woman who raised an eyebrow a few minutes later as I checked my buggy phone to see if my doula client had called. "Why can't parents today stay off their phones and play with their kids for ten minutes?"

The guy who glared at my kids as they ate ice cream at 10:45am because it was punishingly hot, I was tired of fighting the battle, and I didn't realize the splash park that my kids were dying to enter wouldn't be open to the general public until 11:00am. "Does she WANT her kids to be obese? Ice cream BEFORE lunch?"

The employee who beamed at me as I walked around with Sam, getting drenched with water to make sure that he didn't walk up the water slides or run wildly into the other kids. "Why can't other parents keep an eye on their kids like this woman? Look at those unsupervised brats reeking havoc on everyone else!"

The grandmother who watched me hover over Sam in the water park, picking him up when he cried and pulling him into the shade to get him some water to drink. "All the parents today are helicopter parents! It wouldn't hurt that boy to cry a little bit."

The dad who gave me the side eye as I barked at Sam to stop kicking me as I buckled him in his boiling hot car seat, then later barked at Stella to PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, go ahead and buckle her seat belt so I could get Sam home in time for his much-needed nap. "Geez. Those poor kids. It's the zoo! Why can't she loosen up and have some fun?"

Of course, it's highly possible that some or all of these people thought nothing of me, that they were busy with their own lives and couldn't care less.

But if social media has taught me anything, it's that people are VERY keen to judge parents they see in public based on five minute windows. Friends on Facebook moan about incompetent parents who sit on the subway and do nothing as their kid screams (even though I know it's possible that the parent has tried every trick in the book and is simply hanging on by a thread). Moms on parenting message groups moan about the parents who bark at their kids in public, wondering why those people need to procreate at all (even though I'm fairly certain we all have those moments, though some of us try to contain them behind closed doors). People post pictures of babywearing dads and crafty parents who create intricately staged photographs of their kids during naptimes and moms who take their kids to Comic Con to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ParentingDoneRight (even though we know absolutely nothing else about how those people parent).

What you see in public is but a drop in an enormous Pointillist painting. Of course, if a kid is being hurt physically or emotionally by a parent, we as a tribe should intervene to help. But otherwise, you should take that five minute snippet of parenting you see with a grain of salt. That wonderful/mediocre/terrible parent is probably a little bit of all of the above.

What a terrible mom! Leaving her toddler unsupervised for a moment on that horse so she can fiddle with her phone!