Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Poor Kids

"We were poor, but we had love." - Loretta Lynn

"Poor kids just learn differently, you know?"

No, I did not know. Not at all.

The educator speaking to me was a nice person. We'd talked all through dinner at this event where talented, dedicated, obsessive teachers gathered to talk about pedagogical practices. I knew she was a good person. I knew her intentions were benevolent. I knew she was perplexed by how to reach a certain population of kids. But I was not happy with her choice of words.

I grew up a poor kid. OK, maybe not consistently. Because Dad was a professional gambler, we had years where he made decent bank. Those were the years we went to Disney World and Dad drove a Cadillac. We also had years where he was in jail or losing every wager. Those were the years we ate government cheese and paid for the beans and cornbread we always seemed to eat with the pretty, colorful paper that Mom didn't want anybody to see.

Even when we had money, we were poor. Both my parents grew up poor themselves. When we got some money, my father especially felt compelled to spend it instantly, a trait that is often associated with poverty, because you're worried you'll never have money again, might never get to know the luxury of eating at that fancy restaurant or staying in a hotel suite again, so you might as well live it up now and not worry about the future.

Neither of my parents went to college; my siblings and I were the first in our family to get there. We didn't have nice china. We didn't use top sheets underneath the handmaid quilts on our bed. We poured the leftover lard from frying potatoes into a plastic container to reuse another day.

I'm not going to pretend like I was terribly disadvantaged, though. My mother was dedicated to our education. She enforced homework strictly, monitored grades like a hawk, and spoke of college as an absolute certainty, albeit one we'd have to pay for ourselves through scholarships earned by making the highest of grades. Research shows that having a parent who is devoted to education absolutely helps set kids up for success.

And success is what we achieved. Speaking only for myself (although my siblings' accomplishments are equally impressive), I made straight A's all through school. I was the Salutatorian at my High School. I received a great scholarship to Centre College, an elite liberal arts school in Kentucky. I went on to earn a master's degree in education and am now a National Board Certified Teacher.

That's why now, when people look at me, they don't assume I grew up poor. I don't fit their stereotype. I seem like a middle class woman.

And I guess I am.

But in my heart, I still feel compelled to spend money when I get it, fearful that I'll never again know what it's like to drink the expensive wine. I still feel like the other shoe will drop, anxiety constantly knocking at my door, a reminder of days when things were constantly going wrong. I still feel inferior to people who grew up with money, convinced they know something I don't.

But I did NOT learn differently. It's just that when I went home, I had to do my homework on my bed while my dad screamed and threw things in the other room. It's just that when it was time to do my final paper, I didn't have my own personal computer from which to type. It's just that when Science Fair time came around, we couldn't afford $30 in supplies to make my board the fanciest at the entire event.

And the poor kids I teach do not learn differently, either. They are bright and curious. They are passionate about the world, about social change, about the ideas that stir in their heads when they read Langston Hughes or Shirley Jackson.

Yes, when they go home, they may find out that they need to pack all their stuff up to go to their aunt's house for a few weeks because they've been evicted. They may have to move from their current homeless shelter into another. They may need to make dinner for their little brother because Dad's shift doesn't end until 2am and Mom is sick. They may endure screaming in the other room because their parents are stressed out and unhappy and juggling medical bills they can't afford. They may have a parent who died (I can't tell you how many of my impoverished students have lost their parents way too soon) and they are drowning in sorrow. They may desperately want the new shoes everyone else seems to have, but their parents can't even afford to reliably feed them dinner.

No, they don't learn differently, but they do need different things. They need teachers like me who share our experiences, who speak of our own poverty openly and without shame. They need to see that being poor does not make you inferior or stupid. They need to see how much we love and value our families, value the lessons poverty can teach you, even if we're relieved to no longer have to struggle the same way we once did.

They need after-school programs to support them. They need homework help and clubs that give them time away from home and sports that help them channel their energy into something healthy.

They need a school that gives them pencil and paper - no questions asked - so they can learn without being shamed. They need a school that doesn't punish them for their tardies or absences, but rather asks their parents what support they need to get their kids to school on time and on a regular basis. They need healthy school lunches and breakfasts that don't just shove cheap carbs down their throats, but nourish them with fruits and vegetables and proteins so they can concentrate in class.

But most of all they need teachers who believe in them. Teachers who expect incredible work, and support them every step of the way until they achieve it. Teachers who do not view them as "different" from other kids, but as unique, each in his or her own way. Teachers who find materials that motivate them, that inspire them. Teachers that create tasks that are so exciting that kids WANT to learn, rather than having to complete something to get a good grade.

Poor kids have challenges that kids with money will never understand. But they can achieve great things. And maybe if we start treating them with respect and give them the resources they need to achieve their potential, they'll actually create a world where poverty no longer exists.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pep Talk to Myself

One last stroll with Mom before I become a mom myself.

Oh, hey there Randi from 8 years ago. I was hoping I'd catch you now - 8:30pm, April 13th. You just had your first contraction, right? Right there in the middle of the fantastic pizza restaurant down the street from your Brooklyn apartment, slouched in the booth while your mom and husband chatted, absolutely oblivious to your terror.

It's OK - sneak a sip of that wine. Ignore the woman shooting you daggers; she doesn't know your midwife suggested a half a glass of wine here and there, ever since you called her on your due date and all ten days since then, convinced you were in labor.

But you weren't in labor, were you?

Nope. Now that you know what it really feels like, that all seems so silly now.

But listen. I'm not here to scare you. In fact, I'm here for the opposite reason.

There are going to come some low moments in the next 11 hours. Times when you experience actual tunnel vision, the pain tearing through your soul, making you question what the hell you're doing. There will be times you swear you are dying. Times you can't even breathe - even though everyone is begging you to. Times you can't look anyone in the eye because of the loathing you feel for them, the jealousy of their bodies' comfort.

During those moments, you will be afraid. Afraid that you can't survive the pain getting any worse, even though you know the pain is supposed to get worse and worse and worse. But also fear of this baby. Who is he or she? Is this baby going to be healthy? Will it survive?

But more than that - will you be worthy of this baby? Will you be a terrible mother? Will you have no idea what you're doing? Will you worry that bringing a baby into this world as a flawed and messed up human being was a terrible mistake?

Take a sip of that wine. Take a bite of that delicious pizza. No really. For me. I miss that pizza.

It's going to be OK. It's going to be more than OK.

I hate to ruin the surprise, but that baby is a girl. You're going to name her Stella, and she will rip open your heart and multiply its capacity by infinity. She is going to teach you things about this world - about how wonderful it is, about how lovable all its creatures - yes all of them - are. She's going to create art that is simultaneously sophisticated and innocent. She's going to need your support and encouragement and so much love, and then she's going to give it back triple fold. She's going to be just like you one minute and your polar opposite the next.

Tomorrow morning, she'll burst forth and you'll hold her in your arms.

And tomorrow morning, I'll sneak in on my way out to work and tell my 8 year old daughter "happy birthday."

This age - right now - is a miracle. She's so tall, people often assume she's 9 or 10. And then she opens her mouth and the most child-like, sweet words come out - devoid of sarcasm or any jadedness.

The other night, she said, "Mommy, I love my legs so much! They are strong and they take me lots of places and they let me jump and dance!" She has received not even one message from the world that she's supposed to hate her legs - not one! She doesn't look at herself to find flaws, she marvels at herself - as well she should.

She wants us to come to her school, she shows us off to her friends. She sits on our laps and hugs us unabashedly. She writes books about characters she created - The Friskies - part cat, part girl, a band of friends who fight to make the world a better place. She plays with her two year old brother with great care and affection, never complaining that he's too little or that the play is boring. She sits and reads for hours in her room, absorbed in other worlds, her little legs criss-cross applesauce.

She wears her slippers every single night in the 5 minutes after she gets into her PJ's and before she gets tucked in.

She still wants a story before bed. She likes a little honey in her cereal. She giggles fanatically if the cat or dog decides to sit in her lap.

She can talk for hours on topics as little as paint colors and as huge as God. Sometimes, before bed, she'll cradle my head into her arm, as if she is the mother and I am the child.

She is magical.

Oops. I guess I ruined the surprise. But I figured a glimpse into a peaceful, calm, pain-free, wonderful future might help you out a bit.

Take one more sip of wine. You're going to love motherhood.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Pregnant with Anxiety

Late March/Early April: Everyone assured me my baby would be here any moment, due to the size of this belly. But it got bigger, my friends. Much, much bigger.

Eight years ago today, I was two days past my estimated due date. I'd done my research; I knew that due dates were guesses at best, and I knew better than to pin too many hopes and dreams on mine.

But that's exactly what I had done. It didn't help that, for the past month or so, everyone around me assured me I would "pop at any moment," and kept asking me if they were planning to induce. Working as a teacher has its perks; the enormous number of well-meaning busybodies surrounding you is not one of them.

It also didn't help that I had no clue how rough the discomfort of the last 6 weeks could be. All the books and my midwives spoke of increased "pressure" as the day of labor approached. Pressure is not how I would describe the constant, stabbing pain that made me feel like baby could fall out at any moment.

But what helped least of all was my mounting anxiety, making each moment leading up to the birth exponentially more excruciating.

I didn't know I had anxiety. I had no clue that was the word to describe the constant, intrusive thoughts that took my breath away and woke me up at night. Nightmare visions of a stillbirth or a baby with life-threatening abnormalities (we'd declined genetic testing) or a perfectly healthy baby that died in a horrible car wreck during the 5 minute drive from the hospital to the apartment, all due to an improperly-installed car seat.

I didn't know anxiety could cause me to snap at everyone around me - from the clerk at the store who dared comment on my Nutella consumption to Dave's family when they inquired about my health or poor Dave himself, when he so much as breathed funny.

I didn't know my anxiety and perfectionism were first cousins, encouraging each other to torture me in new and unusual ways. I desperately wanted a perfect, unmedicated birth - just like the ones I'd seen in the countless birth videos I'd watched. But it went beyond making a birth plan and taking the proper classes and finding good music and meditations and coping mechanisms to see me through; I was terrified that I'd mess it up. That I'd grimace, rather than appear calm. That I'd forget to shift positions and the baby wouldn't descend and that I'd have to have an emergency c-section. That this baby would stay comfortably put so long that my midwives would schedule my induction - an induction that would cause a lot more pain than unmedicated contractions - leading to a cascade of interventions. Not to mention the overwhelming fear that I just would not be able to withstand the pain at all - a valid fear considering I'm an absolute wimp about any kind of physical pain. And don't get me started on the crushing fear that I wouldn't be able to breastfeed. That would take its own, very long, entry.

This anxiety got worse and worse, and I can honestly say that the time leading up to Stella's birth was miserable. I walked and walked and walked the streets of Park Slope Brooklyn, waddling so desperately that passers-by often commented along the lines of "poor woman!" I ate dishes guaranteed to induce labor - pounds of pineapple and homemade eggplant parmigiana - that managed only to induce my raging heartburn. I woke up every night at 3am, starving for a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with whole milk, despite the fact that all those well-meaning busybodies kept telling me to "sleep now while you can." I danced aggressively at night, imagining my baby's head descending further into my pelvis. And I tried so hard to calm my racing heart, to stifle those terrifying images, to reassure myself that I'd do my best to get the birth I wanted, but that I'd accept reality, come what may.

I wish I could go back and tell myself to get help - stat. I wish I could warn past Randi that this anxiety - this condition that I didn't know was my condition - was only going to get worse after the baby arrived, climaxing in a terrifying mental health crisis that nearly took me from this planet. I wish I could say, "Stop worrying about how well you're going to give birth, stop obsessing over breastfeeding, and take care of yourself, woman! You're going to be this baby's mother, and you can't do this if you're not healthy!"

But I can't. I can only read my Timehop updates helplessly: increasingly desperate words stating how hard I was working to get this baby here, irritably warning people to stop asking about her arrival, moaning about how little sleep I was getting during my final, baby-free days.

Stella arrived 11 days past her due date. I was scheduled for an induction that morning, but the night before, not long after my mom arrived from Kentucky, the labor began on its own. It was fast and healthy - around 10 hours - and I got everything I wanted. On paper. No interventions, no medication, breastfeeding that lasted well over a year, with just a few text-book issues peppered here and there.

But that birth shook me to my core - the earth-shattering, poorly managed pain opening a Pandora's box of repressed memories and terrifying symptoms that lasted for about 16 more months, and have taken these past 8 years and many more to come, I'm sure, to remedy.

Stella is my incredible daughter. While the end of the pregnancy and the birth were hard, and while my anxiety and postpartum mood disorder remain a dark period of my life, her entry into my world was profound and beautiful. As her 8th birthday approaches, I'll celebrate the wonderful young lady she has become, the beautiful soul she has that makes this world better day by day. But for now, I mourn for the woman who suffered so badly, so unnecessarily, and I remain dedicated to spreading the world to make sure no other women suffer the way I did.

If something doesn't feel right while pregnant or after giving birth, it isn't right. Don't listen to people when they say pregnant women are "moody" or that it's normal for a new mother to have "baby blues." You know  yourself. If it's intrusive, if it's scary, then it's abnormal, and it can be helped. Postpartum Progress is a wonderful website with tons of resources, but if it's serious, calling 911 or the suicide hotline - 1 (800) 273-8255 - is the best bet.

I'm lucky that I had an incredible partner in Dave. He continually urged me to get help, even when I actively pushed him away. I'm so grateful for that. Please do that for yourself if your partner isn't as supportive or informed.

And one more thing - if you want to hear me talk about this candidly, with some dark humor, you should watch my Moth performance. But be warned, it contains some triggering and even vulgar language. Mental health disorders aren't pretty.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Center of Attention

 6 year old me, not terribly pleased with the new arrangement.

40 year old me, surrounded by people who want to hang out with me as often as 
I want to hang out with them.

I was extremely lonely growing up. Which is strange because I grew up in a house full of people: mom, dad, little sister, two older brothers, various pets. But I felt lonely a large chunk of the time.

Part of it may have been the age difference between me and my siblings. We're all 5 - 6 years apart. As a parent, I'm a fan of this age gap in my own kids. It gave me time to catch my breath and get a bit of sleep before cycling through the infant and toddler phases again. But for the kid, it can be problematic.

My oldest brother left home for college when I was only 5 - 6 years old. My second older brother went through his angsty adolescent phase at that same time, meaning instead of playing with me he started hanging out behind the closed door of his bedroom with his friends and his Commodore 64. At that same exact time my baby sister was born, a baby so damned cute that the whole family lost their collective minds (not that I still harbor any jealousy or anything). So, yeah, there was little 6 year old me, feeling like I'd lost my brothers and that my place as the cute little girl was completely usurped.

As I grew older, my sister and I began to play together. Quite well, actually, if you overlook the knock-down, drag-out fights that peppered our interactions. But Nora has always had more of an introverted side than I have, so after playing with me, she would need some time alone to catch her breath. Time that I, a chronic extrovert, did not like to honor. Time that I often interrupted, much to her chagrin and sometimes furious anger.

Even when I went through my own angsty, adolescent phase, I craved interaction. It was frustrating, because Nora had a lot of friends in our little town that she could play with, but my best friends lived at least a 10 minute car ride away, and I couldn't drive yet. So I spent my time either on the phone with my friends or listening to show tunes on the carpeted floor of my room.

It didn't help that I was certainly a square peg in my round hole family. We've come to terms as adults that our politics and views of the world do not really align, but as a kid I kept a lot of my opinions to myself for fear my family would disown or be horrified by me if they found out that I kind of thought Dukakis would make a good president. And beyond politics, I've just always been the kind of person that craves constant stimulation. I like to go to museums and see movies and eat out and try something new all the time, and the other members of my family were just much happier to be home bodies.

My parents were in no shape to hang out with me. They were constantly in some state of arguing or violence or financial turmoil or legal trouble. And unlike today's overachieving parents, the parents of Gen-X kids didn't feel obligated to plan and schedule all our time for us. And living far away from any sort of metropolitan area and not having a lot of expendable income meant I didn't sign up for camps or extracurricular activities all that often.

So, yeah, I was alone a lot. Even our pets - the adorable dogs and cats that came into and fell out of our lives - preferred the company of my mom, the woman who fed them and kept them clean and loved. Go figure.

When I got old enough to wander the neighborhood on my own - which was pretty darn young back in those days - I would ride my bike all over the place, stopping to stare at the daffodils pushing through the soil in March or admiring the way the sun shone through the slats of a dilapidated barn at sunset. I found this ancient, walled cemetery next to Big Springs, Upton's main body of water. So, especially in my early teen years, I'd walk to the tiny (despite the name) spring, soak in the sound of the flowing water, then hike through some guy's farm - cows and all - to the cemetery. Sometimes, the gate was locked, so I'd climb over the wall. At certain angles in the cemetery, you couldn't see anything above that wall but sky. I'd pretend I was Anne of Green Gables or a medieval princess who'd run away from her tower. Yes, I said I was a teenager; I didn't say I was a very mature teenager.

I'd pack a lunch, some water, my big book of tear-jerking poetry, my diary, and my sketch book. I'd engage in every form of creativity I could think of, and sometimes I'd spread out on one of my mamaw's quilts and take a nap, right there among the dead.

I'd wander around and study the tombstones, the ones that weren't crumbled or vandalized. The infants, the young children, the couples that died within days of each other. Most of them from the 1800's.

And all the while I'd wish that I had someone to talk to. Someone who understood me. Someone who wanted to be around me, only me, all the time.

When I'd wander back to the house, I'd be dismayed to see that it was still early in the afternoon. Everyone was doing their own thing, dealing with the dysfunction of our family in their own way. Especially in the summer, hours stretched ahead ominously, time upon time to sit by myself, watching TV or studying my map of Paris in the hopes that I'd make it there one day or eat whatever processed crap I could find to try to stifle the sadness.

I try to conjure up this time of extreme loneliness a lot these days. Because now, I have the opposite issue.

Students who want to hang out with me before school starts and after it ends. Students who crave my approval over the work they did or who sweetly think I have all the answers to any questions that pop into their heads. My 2 year old who no longer needs me to provide his sustenance, but who needs my attention and affection as often as I can give it (along with all the patience I'll ever have to cope with his frequent boundary-testing). My 7 year old, incredible daughter who craves human interaction and conversation just as much as I did when I was a little girl. My wonderful husband who values me, loves me, treats me as an equal, and wants to spend time with me (the manifestation of that young girl's fantasy on that cow-ridden farm 25 years ago). A couple of cats who sometimes act like I don't exist, but other times need me to pet them like crazy (and who always demand that I feed them, no matter how aloof they are). Our new, sweet dog who loves to snuggle so much that she'll actually bark at me if I spend too much time doing housework and not enough sitting on my rear end and petting her.

I get a lot of attention. A lot of people think I'm pretty cool and want to be around me. A lot of people want my kisses and hugs and advice and imagination. I'm loved beyond measure, in a way that I craved like crazy growing up.

But there are many days when I'm simply touched-out. Afternoons like this one where Dave takes the kids to the park and I sit in a quiet house by myself and write. Nights when I count down the minutes until everyone's in bed and I can crawl into a scalding hot bath with a Southern Living Magazine. Days when I'm an irritable, immature mess, begging the people around me to "just be nice to me" and "stop asking me to do stuff." Yep. My exact (very mature) words.

But really, I'm grateful. So grateful. I wish I could travel back in time and find that maniacally extroverted teenager, standing alone in a cemetery and tell her just to hang on a bit longer. I could have used that back then.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

My Insides Clash with My Outsides

My memories from junior and senior year of high school are cloudy. We had so much family turmoil that my brain basically ran on fumes, in survival mode, and consequently, I don't remember too much.

But I remember this one day, senior year. My grandfather was in the hospital, dying. My parents were in the midst of the worst period of their marriage - the one when Dad nearly killed mom and screaming and crashing and threats were a daily occurrence. One night, we got back very late from the hospital, where I'd spent time watching Beavis and Butthead rather than looking too much at my gaunt, withering, incredibly-beloved grandfather. The minute we got home, a nasty fight erupted, and I ran to my room to listen to showtunes and cry.

But then I remembered something. My poetry project was due tomorrow. The big final grade for the semester. The "please, class, I beg of you, don't put this off until the last minute" project that I hadn't even started yet.

I felt the world crash around me. I had trouble breathing. My chest hurt so badly I thought I was having a heart attack.

This was one of the very first panic attacks of my life.

I dried my tears and scoured the home for construction paper and markers and Elmer's glue. I sneaked down into the basement - my dad's evil lair/apartment - where the only computer we had was located. I lugged the library books I'd checked out a few days ago with me (because this was 1993 - pre-internet - and I had to do things the old-fashioned way). I forced myself to put oxygen in my lungs and expel it. Over and over again.

And I did that whole project while the family slept.

The Four Seasons Poetry Term Project. Directions: copy at least 12 poems that illustrate each season by various poets. Then write one poem of your own, per season. Finally, put it all into a nice, neat book, complete with illustrations. This is worth 1/4 of your final grade.

Emily Dickinson. Robert Frost. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Randi Skaggs. I typed and typed and typed. I pulled poems out of thin air and tried to make them rhyme. I corrected mistakes before pressing print, because the printer was SO LOUD. I cut and pasted and drew sketches of falling leaves and blooming buds and snowy hills and a bright, beaming sun. I tried to let the pages dry fully before binding them together (with a hole punch and yarn), but I didn't succeed. I had to rip apart the pages that had dried together and try to scrape off the parts that stuck together before I turned it in the next morning.

I got maybe one hour of sleep that night. I got up, got dressed, ate my breakfast bar, and drove my Ford Taurus at break-neck-I-can't-believe-I-didn't-crash speeds to get to school on time. I turned it in, certain it would destroy my grade. My grade that mattered so much because I was right at the top of my graduating class. But I ended up getting an A, and nobody ever knew what a spectacularly horrible night I'd had.

I tell you this story to illustrate a point. That 23 years later, I haven't changed all that much.

Anxiety is a part of my life. Through therapy, I've tamed it and contained it to a point where it rarely intrudes on my life. But when it does, it's horrible.

Last Tuesday night, I had a horrible, horrible nightmare. It's so bad, I won't share the details, because it might give you nightmares. But it involved Stella and a terrifying, despicable man who was doing untold things to young girls - and Stella was next on his list.

In the midst of my failed attempt to protect my daughter, I was awakened by none other than... my daughter. Stella stood by my bed, pale in the pitch black.

"Mommy, I had a nightmare," she said, crawling into bed with me.

And I felt it happen. I felt anxiety actually creep up from my toes and settle into my chest. And that's where it's been ever since.

For almost a week, I've pretended to be normal. That's the only way I can put it. I feel like I'm a terrified, skittish actress who finds herself winging it, playing the role of a competent, confident teacher, wife, mom, and storyteller. I've fulfilled all my obligations - picking up kids, taking kids to appointments, making dinner, kissing booboos, joking with adolescents, keeping adolescents on task, smiling at coworkers in the hall, even performing at an open mic at my school's family night. But all the while, I've been crumbling inside.

When I was in high school, I realize now, I could have gone to my teacher and asked for a moment to talk to her. She was a really nice person. I could have confided to her about how rough things were for me. I could have asked for an extension. I was a straight-A student who'd never so much as seen the inside of the principal's office, a kid that teachers were constantly begging other kids to emulate. If I'd been a bit vulnerable around her, not only could I have avoided pulling an all-nighter and stressing myself out, I might have actually received some much-needed help and support for all the crap I was trying to deal with.

I'm trying to ask for help now, but it's hard. I've set up my life in such a way that I'm a caregiver for many. 120 amazing adolescents who are a joy to teach. A seven-year old girl and a two-year old boy who are the apples of my eye. A new dog who showers me with unconditional love. Two cats who try to act aloof but rarely succeed. A husband I love with all my heart but who has trouble with scheduling and organization. All blessings, but all creatures who need my support daily.

My email inbox and Facebook private message box and text message log are filled with people asking for my advice or input or feedback. People who respect my opinion and whom I'd love to help - if I were normal. People who - unless they read this entry - have no idea I'm struggling.

And I realize that I might still not seem like I'm struggling. I've written a coherent blog post, after all. I took Stella to Panera and ran errands at Target. I chatted with a sales rep at a local parenting store. I haven't missed a beat at work, and the laundry and weekly menu/grocery list were completed right on time.

But just like high school, my insides don't match my outsides. My most recent therapist hit the nail on the head. "You present well," she said, meaning that I seem totally with it, together, normal. But don't let me fool you, kids. I could really use some kindness. Some support. Someone to pick me up and take me to the couch and wrap me in a blanket and get me a cup of tea and take over that poetry project du jour, whether it's taking a kid to the pediatrician after work or cooking dinner.

Dave is trying, but he also has a job and kids and pets to manage. And I realize that, ultimately, it's I who must swoop down and save myself. It is I who must set up boundaries to protect my time and put myself so high on my priority list that I can no longer get lost in the shuffle.

And I need to stop worrying about seeming fine on the outside long enough to show people what's going on on the inside.

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.