Tethered

It’s been months since I last wrote a post; an entire season has zipped by in a blur. I had hopes of veranda dreaming–getting lost in afternoons reading on the back deck or lying in the grass, long hikes and morning yoga. Somehow I thought I’d finally arrive at a place of control when, even now, that’s so far from where I’m at. My mother and my husband continually remind me this toddler-raising lifestyle is temporary, but it doesn’t feel temporary. It feels excruciatingly long, each day more about biding my time than enjoying the present. 

I’m tethered to obligations, endless responsibilities and chores, to work stress, to two children who depend on me, to the rest of my family, and all of the other things constantly calling my name, pushing down on my shoulders with such heaviness. I strain under the weight of it. Some days I contemplate driving in the opposite direction of home– foreign lands or a quiet cabin in the woods. But I know the fantasy is a lie because I would be missing the people who anchor me, support me, and give me a sense of belonging. Without them, I would never find true Home.

And so, the conundrum continues…How to reconcile my wish for a life that feels more my own with the reality that I have an 18-month-old and an 11-year-old who count on me? A husband who adores and needs me? How do I make more time for what brings me joy? How do I shake the guilt when I do carve out time for myself? I know I am a better mother and wife when I take the time for solitude and pleasure, but it always feels like an uphill battle to do so. 

The same questions, same desires arise again and again, still unanswered. Is it like this for everyone? Is anyone with children really feeling balanced and fully cared for as an individual person? How can we make peace with the weeks, the years, of slogging through and hoping we don’t collapse in a heap of sheets that need to be washed?

Today I am sitting at a coffee shop with my laptop. I made an intentional effort to write even though many other things are fighting for space in my mind. I am making an intentional effort to ignore the pangs of guilt that arise over work to-dos waiting on me and my husband watching our kiddo today while I’m flying solo. These intentional choices are seemingly small and insignificant, but they matter nonetheless. They will accumulate. I have to hope they will be frequent enough and meaningful enough to carry me through the much longer and more frequent stretches of humdrum living and obligations. It’s a form of flying my kite in this chilly fall wind, knowing I have fleeting moments of freedom while still connected to the family that grounds me. There can be joy in that, even if it’s battered by some unpredictable weather.

Sunlit Reflections

Days like this, as I sit and peer out the window, the Emily Dickinson line I read in my youth returns to me, “There’s a certain slant of light…” It’s the soft, warm yellow sun of spring and how it glints off surrounding objects, shimmering in shifting patterns of light that is heartbreakingly lovely. It’s so delightful as to make me feel nostalgic and a little melancholic because I remember how fleeting these moments are. 

I am overcome with Proustian remembrances of times past–the first warm days of spring at the park, swinging with my best friend; the sweetest day of exploration through sprawling daffodils when studying abroad in London; lemon pound cake and coffee at an outdoor cafe table in the weeks after leaving my ex-husband; strolls with my new husband around the pond by our former apartment; the cool breeze on my face when riding my bike for the first time each season. The memories commingle with transient fragments that have gone unnamed but remain lodged in my mind more as an overall feeling than anything else, much like the way deja vu hits you in the solar plexus, some ancient part of our being both foreign and familiar at the same time. The collision of joy and longing, of heavy grounding and lightness of being. 

Pushing through long, dark days of Wisconsin winters, holding out for the return of the birds and green buds on trees, tulip shoots, rabbits munching grass, means the start of spring is both the literal and figurative light at the end of the tunnel. It’s so beautiful I could cry. It’s so simple but balloons each sunlit moment with hope, a hope so desperately needed in a world that’s been gradually tearing itself to bits in uglier, crueler, and more shocking ways each year. 

We need to let the sunshine and hope surround us, let our skin absorb it into the core of our being where we can keep believing better days really are yet to come. On quiet April afternoons such as this, it’s not too hard to do, but knowing the light flickers, fades any minute, means I can’t cling too tightly. I must hold the joy delicately and for the shapeshifting and ephemeral gift it is. It reminds me: Be here now. Be present, bittersweet as it is.

Micro Changes

The past couple months have been a deep dive into what continued remote work can look like in my life. The past two years working from home mostly took place in the living room, dining room, even in the kitchen. I always felt scattered and pulled in too many directions. If I emptied the dishwasher between meetings, emails piled up. If I edited a communication at the end of meeting time, I felt guilty for not spending more time with my family. Most of my multi-tasking or quickly swapping between to-dos left me with overall internal chaos. Chats, meetings, nurse my baby, meetings, wolf down lunch and nurse again, tidy kitchen, meetings, couple work tasks, and repeat weekday after weekday. My stress levels felt consistently high.

Coming into 2022 and my 37th year, acknowledging this is likely to be the future of my job life, I determined it was time to figure out how to make this working at home work for me. I set out to make little tweaks that would hopefully snowball into bigger change. I relocated my “office” to a space in our basement near the treadmill and yoga mat I’ve started leaving permanently unrolled. I now hop on the treadmill for walking meetings, lift weights and do squats when listening to a webinar, and flow through sun salutations when I need a pick-me-up between lengthy sedentary intervals. I started lighting a candle on my desk as part of my morning routine in addition to taking 10-15 minutes to have a cup of coffee and read a few pages or an article or a professional or personal development.

I have been working in goal setting for each month and breaking them down for each week, along with daily to-do review to keep on track with achieving my objectives. I mix in some occasional jigsaw and crossword puzzles, chores or other personal tasks, and periodic coffee chats with colleagues now that life is trending back to something more “normal.” It’s still a daily combination of work and personal life activities, but I’m much more intentional about it. It’s a focused integration more than a balancing or juggling act. 

It’s not a perfect arrangement, of course, but I’m getting better at choosing and sticking with it. If I need to focus on work, I do. When I want to exercise while listening in on a meeting, I’m making the conscious decision that serves me rather than letting the demands of the day run right over me. I’m also making more of an effort to have more fun at work. Hence, the puzzles, reading, and coffee breaks, but I’m also giving myself permission to take time to chat in the team chats, send funny GIFs to my coworkers, organize virtual water cooler times for my team, and continue to work longer hours Monday-Thursday to have Friday afternoons off. 

Days can still feel a bit too full and work occasionally still too stressful, but I feel more in control and more productive. Simple tweaks are indeed making impactful differences–micro changes yield macro results. When we’re all so busy, a total overhaul can feel overwhelming and unfeasible to implement, but small changes feel possible. So let’s all make micro changes to make big improvements in our days.

Before Social Media

I’m at a coffee shop next to a table of teenage girls who have done nothing for the past half hour but take pictures together, solo, and in varying sub-groups. They pose for pictures to post to their Instagram stories. I hear them critiquing and complimenting themselves and each other, self-scrutinizing to a degree I wouldn’t have thought possible until witnessing it now. They act like sixteen-year-old models on a shoot, obsessed with how the photos will turn out and which ones will be worthy of a cover photo in their Instagrams rather than enjoying each other’s company.

It’s so sad to see, so heartbreaking to think of all the struggles adolescent girls already go through in relation to family, friends, love interests, and their own bodies but that they also now have to consider their virtual image. It isn’t only the physical but now an online facade to present to strangers, acquaintances, and peers that could be met with a barrage of praise as often as criticism. 

All of this focus on their photos comes at the expense of savoring time with their friends in an authentic way. Rather than creating meaningful memories together, they will have photos that represent the “great time” they had together when, ironically, the great time was forfeited as a means to their end. I’m appalled at how social media has brought us to this point–beyond celebrity screen and magazine comparisons, beyond peer comparisons even. They’re creating and comparing to a fiction, a false sense of self and reality, carefully curated to present only what one wants to present. The photos will serve to convince them of something true when it was a sham. 

I feel so sad for these girls, especially as I think about them in relation to how I used to spend time with my friends in high school, gabbing about cute boys and crushes, driving around in the country, going to get ice cream, watching movies with pizza, laughing late into the night for fourth meals. All these incredible moments and memories are reduced to how they can appear in photographs. I want to tell them not to waste this precious time of their youth, but when we’re young, we think we know everything. We think we know and understand the world and ourselves in ways older people can’t. Generations before mine probably feel the same about my generation and how much at 37 I have left to learn. 

Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat…we’re losing our humanity in favor of personas. We’re less real with each other, which means less true connection when true connection is what all of us really need. We need more time in nature, moving our bodies rather than sedentary time in front of screens, more focus on what’s happening in the present rather than how it will appear in the future. I want to move forward, not in a Luddite reversal or rejection of technology and virtual spaces, with a balance between what is virtual and what is tangible and concrete. We need to prioritize reality over image. The reality, even without filters and attempts at curated perfection, is pretty incredible and worthy of attention.

Nostalgia & New Beginnings

I am on the verge of turning 37. While it’s not a milestone birthday like 40, it holds weight in my mind as an undeniably adult age. It’s an age where I feel I should be in full stride adulthood with a wisdom and confidence I assumed my own parents possessed at this age, not having any real clue what they talked about after we kids were in bed. Of course, I know more now than at 7, 17, or even 27, but am I more confident, self-assured, or happier than I was at 17? Have the past 20 years built me up the way I’d hoped and predicted? I know over the last two decades that very few things, if any, went according to my plan.

I didn’t anticipate quitting my top college after only 4 days on site, having my lifelong best friend drop me for no obvious reason, or move out west for my master’s degree. I didn’t anticipate having a baby right after marrying (or settling for the wrong guy, for that matter) or that I’d divorce at 31 only to remarry at 33. I didn’t anticipate having a second child or being the primary earner while my husband works freelance and cares for our son.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect adulthood to be so laden with exhausting responsibilities, obligations, and basic operations to keep our household humming. When most days are packed with work stress, how to pay all the bills, a whining baby, floors to sweep, and more loads of laundry to do, it’s clear why I don’t feel happier or more certain I’ve done “it” right. All the fun and independence I’d hoped for adulthood gets buried in the mundane to-do’s. It leaves me questioning why, is it worth it, how did I get here?

I don’t want to let 36 turn to 37 turn to 40 to 50 only to have a middling middle-aged existence that feels like a sweeping letdown to my child and adolescent dreams. I am determined to rekindle the confidence, enthusiasm, and curiosity I had at 17. I plan to glean as much joy as I can from each day, whether it’s a crossword puzzle at lunch, a round of Boggle after dinner, or squeezing in a TED talk video during work. I received a lovely new pair of ice skates for Christmas to pair with the roller skates I got last Mother’s Day. I’m planning to dedicate time to old-fashioned fun activities that bring a smile to my face just thinking about them. I will hold more walking meetings, sneak sun salutations into work breaks, sip more tea, play more scrabble, and read more books and interesting articles. I will practice kindness, not criticism and remind myself that the worrying will get me nowhere. I will light more candles, soak in more baths, snuggle more, and laugh more. I will continue to learn and to listen, challenging my set thinking, biases, and habits to grow into a better human. 

Some people might glaze right over age 37. Not me. I’m going to own this year as 365 opportunities for more goodness and abundance, as the bridge between nostalgia and joyful new beginnings.

Are We Friends?

This morning I have a work/friend date. Is it a long work meeting preferable face-to-face or are we finally transitioning into actual friends outside of work? The fact that I don’t know speaks volumes about how complex it is to navigate forging adult friendships. I know some people are social butterflies who start up a conversation at school drop-off or luck out clicking with the neighbors. I’m not one of those. My introverted nature means I’m highly unlikely to approach a stranger, even a seemingly friendly parent of another student. My lingering adolescent insecurities give me pause, urge me to ask myself if anyone would even want to be friends with me. 

While friendship is a reciprocal relationship, over the years I’ve had too many friends become former friends, drift off into the oblivion of I-wonder-what-happened-to-so-and-so. Enough of those and one begins to question self. What’s wrong with me that I’m so forgettable, so unnecessary? Then it’s the struggle between settling for a version of friendship-loneliness or fumbling awkwardly toward friendship. It’s trying to identify who might be interested in a new friendship, who seems more willing to chat a little extra, who laughs a little easier, perhaps throws out a tentative idea to meet up sometime. 

And here I am now, wondering and hoping with a similar nervousness to a first date even though I’ve talked to this woman nearly every day of the past few years. Will we bridge the chasm between professional and personal? I can sense my own anxiety in this waiting period. My instinct is to draw inward, the cliche don’t try so you can’t be hurt, can’t be made to feel foolish. But that’s the lonely, cowardly move. I need to practice bravery and vulnerability. If I’m open, hopefully she’ll be open. We can be two women trusting the human process and the way we’re all looking for connection, and then perhaps there’s a chance at something real.

Champagne & Confetti

*Actually written July 23 but finally getting around to posting*

Nursing in the wee hours of the morning, my mind batted thoughts around like a paddle ping ponging ideas, worries, to-dos, and momentary feelings of elation. Today we close on a lovely new house, and despite residual worries that the loan or sale of our current home would fall through, it’s really happening. I’m excited for the fresh start.

Every fresh start reminds me it’s the perfect time to reflect on the past events that have gotten me to this point, to bask in the sweetness of the moment, and to swirl with giddiness for the future. 

Closing on the house will mean more space and a quieter neighborhood for our family, but it also represents a personal triumph. When I noted the market craze and low interest rates, I decided we should move earlier than we originally planned. I cleaned, packed, and jumped through all the hoops of the loan process. While my husband has been supportive throughout and very helpful this past week, I did the majority of it all myself after returning to work full time with a three-month-old.

The whirlwind of preparing our house, submitting paperwork, and packing while feeding every couple hours, changing diapers and onesies from blowouts, and focusing in back-to-back meetings has been overwhelming. But I made this happen. I worked my way into a job that I not only enjoy but also earns enough to afford the bigger mortgage. For all my flaws and failings, I need to give myself credit for getting here. I need to savor the success because it doesn’t come around often in notable doses like this. 

Little wins feel great, too, but in the swirl of responsibilities and bills, it’s too easy to bypass them without fanfare. Don’t we owe ourselves a bit of celebration? Most days are too much slog compared to the laughter. We forget to step back, forget to slow down and revel in our strengths and achievements. In a culture of more-more-more, do-do-do, it’s no wonder we skip over the glorious moments of victory. Something more to accomplish weighs on us, but the pause is necessary. We won’t feel satisfied with ourselves and our lives if we don’t take time to see how our hard work pays off and how it’s gotten us to the yellow brick road before us (or at least a glimmer of light at the end of our tunnels). 

We can remind ourselves that we are beautiful, capable beings with much to offer the world, our families, friends, and communities. No more playing small. No more unnecessary apologies. No more punting compliments. No more self-disparagement. We must pause at the natural breaks–the fresh starts or even the ordinary daily wins–to congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Maybe it’s something big like securing the mortgage (or the Chesterfield sofa of my dreams) or maybe it’s not collapsing in fatigue at the sink. We are amazing and worthy of a big pat on the back. So today, any day, every day, or, at the very least, your next notable success, let the champagne and confetti fly.

Fighting for Attention

My days over the past three months have been consumed with nursing, diapering, holding, and rocking my baby. Even now after returning to work, the majority of my efforts and mental energy are devoted to him. Assuming we were blessed to be raised in stable households, when we’re babies, we receive the pampering and love essential to us; the affection of smitten, doting parents; and the abundance of attention any infant demands. As we then mature, year after year growing rightfully independent, an inverse correlation to the level of attention forms. The sheen of feeling like a prized gem deteriorates little by little, and we’re left seeking that degree of adoration and attention forever after. 

We look for it in grade school friendships, hoping to be in on the inside jokes rather than the last one chosen for the kickball team. We look for it in teenage boyfriends and girlfriends, craving the validation that we’re wanted and worthy of a fancy dinner date. We still look for it in college, hoping we’ll find a group of friends to finally provide the sense of belonging for which we yearn. We even continue to seek it in adulthood–perhaps even more so, as we’re the most distanced from our parents’ time and attention. 

I have settled for friendships, boyfriends (or almost-boyfriends), and an ex-husband, trying to fill the void once filled by my parents in their care of my infant self. I sought slivers of the love, attention, and loyalty I felt I deserved. Too often I stood in a mired hurt, let down by the guy who wasn’t willing to give me what I needed, by my family who didn’t prioritize spending time with me, by my friends who didn’t include me in their bridal parties. 

For three decades I asked myself what it is about me that makes me less deserving of affection, time, and attention, why I don’t seem to be worth the effort. Repeatedly, I landed on something lacking in me–some level of interest or degree of fun I don’t possess. But now at 36 and still asking the same questions in my muddled disappointment, at least I don’t believe it’s my fault or attributed to any kind of lack in me. I think it’s that all the people I’ve hoped would fill my need for attention and worth are, like me, wrapped up in struggling to find the same for themselves. 

Everyone’s too busy seeking to fill a void and juggling adulthood responsibilities to sit still, look around, and truly see how many people in our circle are reaching out for us–actively or subtly–but reaching out all the same. We are humans always on a mission for connection whether we know it or not, will admit it or not. If the past year of pandemic isolation has taught us anything, it’s that we need each other. We need to feel loved deeply, sincerely, and unconditionally. While it’s immensely important to give as much self-love and care to ourselves as we can (and I’m working on that), we still need to feel it from others, to know we aren’t alone in our journey. 

We need to feel as prized and adored as when we came into this world with our parents’ glowing smiles and dazzled eye contact hovering above our wriggling, giggling bodies. Perhaps we’re older, a little wiser, and much more self-reliant now, but we never really grow out of needing love, attention, and connection.

Scientific Confessions

When reflecting on what to write, I continue to circle around the unchanged state of things. It’s been more than two weeks since my last post, and while I wanted to state I was out of the muck, wanted to report a newfound contentment, it wouldn’t be true. It would be a mask to cover over the sharp-edged parts of myself I’d rather not acknowledge. But where does a forced smile and cheery “I’m fine” get me? What does it say about me if I’m afraid to bare my flaws and own my shortcomings? Hiding and tamping down will neither resolve my issues nor enable growth. 

Perhaps to grow as a person, I must peer inside the shadowy caverns within me, shed light on the troubled bits, and flay them open on the lab table. Dissect them–my anger, disappointment, impatience, melancholia, harshness cut open under the microscope in hopes of making sense of where the problems originate and how I might shrink or harvest the ailing cells before they spread.

Confessions:

When I don’t get enough time to myself, everyone, including my most beloved, appears an imposition, people to tolerate rather than adore and enjoy. They don’t deserve that, but when I’m sleep-deprived my patience goes out the window. A fussy baby or an overflowing recycling bin can be the last straw…

If I’m unhappy, I snap at people, most often my husband because he’s there, no matter that he’s done nothing but strive to help and please me. Then in my angry state, I don’t want to be touched or assuaged, just left alone, which further alienates and hurts their feelings. When it’s restlessness or sadness instead, I bake, bake and eat. Cookies and ice cream offer the serotonin spike I haven’t mastered obtaining naturally yet. 

I dwell routinely on the status of my body and my finances, despite both being relatively okay and on the upswing. I take myself so seriously and struggle to lighten up, haven’t been able to play, even as a child. I’m melancholy by nature and worry I’ll never be fully content. I’m ever critical of others but rarely myself, speaking brutal honesty even when unsolicited. I need to be right or I feel like I’ve failed, like I don’t measure up. Yet I don’t speak up when asked for my preference only to harbor resentment for going along with things I don’t want to do, eat, or watch. I make the wrong things known. 

I repeat these same mistakes over and over, knowing how it plays out. So much splayed open– cancerous pieces of myself that I’ve identified, voiced, and need desperately to carve out of myself. If only it were that quick to be rid of the ugliness I carry.

I’m sure we all carry our own brittle truths, the ways we fall short of our ideal selves. Why wouldn’t we want to be instantly rid of it all if we could? We learn to be ashamed of these pieces of ourselves. Most of the time we bury them or allow them to overtake us. 

We need to claim them, investigate the root causes, symptoms, and triggers. We must play scientist to our internal workings and examine the darkness. We must challenge ourselves to an uncomfortable baring of our own rotten cells in order to heal. It’s only in healing ourselves and resolving to be kind and true to who we are that we can be wholly kind and true to others.

Sacrificed

We’re going to put you up for adoption to find someone who wants a baby…because that someone is not me. The words felt ugly and untrue as soon as I’d uttered them. But it approached midnight after I’d woken at 3:30 a.m. to a five hour stretch of Finn not falling back to sleep and then closing out the day with an eight hour stretch of him awake and desperately overtired. I could feel myself losing it, all the patience and maternal grace I try to maintain each day. I plopped Finn on the bed next to Stephen, slammed the door, and sat in the darkness, too exhausted to cry. 

While I’ve made it through the hormonal crash of the baby blues, I realized last night I’m not finished mourning my former life, the one without a newborn. Finn is one month old today, but it hasn’t really sunk in. Futile as it might be, I’m still clinging to a life that no longer exists. When I imagine next month or a year from now, it’s not this. Each time I nurse or sit glued to the couch holding Finn while he naps, I feel like I’m losing myself, my future, my freedom, my simple pleasures. 

With rare exceptions (like last night), I’m a really good mom, but it’s effortful and hard. I’m not one of those who adore motherhood, who enjoy being around children, who naturally feel called to raise kids. Despite my deep love for my sons, each day requires a conscientious striving to be a model mother. It’s an uncomfortable trade-off– their well-being and loving attachment in exchange for my coffee hours journaling, leisurely Sundays reading books, date nights, uninterrupted sleep, and hours perusing books at the bookstore. 

I rail against the gradual loss, the unfairness of acute awareness of it happening but feeling powerless to change it. Why does it seem like motherhood means a forsaking of self for the child? Why can’t we find more time, more balance, more support from others to retain a semblance of our independent selves? Why must it be non-stop devotion or guilt?

It’s no wonder we have so many women who struggle with depression, anxiety, and quiet addictions. It’s no wonder we sip wine and eat pints of ice cream to self-soothe. It’s no wonder we die young, our health deteriorating because we’re too busy worrying about everyone else to take enough time to care for ourselves. In our pursuit of others’ happiness, we sacrifice our own. We leave ourselves little to no time to remember what brings us joy and what makes us feel like our whole, best selves.

I want my sons to know an unconditional and unwavering love from me, but I also want them to know the authentic, complicated, and tangled bits of me. They’ll never see that and understand if I’ve sacrificed it all away.