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Lessons From Hawaii: Fear(less)

April 19, 2016

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When my oldest was a toddler, he loved the water.

At every opportunity, he’d run full-tilt toward any available body of water – pool, puddle or lake. He didn’t care that he’d sink like a stone, unable yet to swim, shoving me away with a “No, Mama! Let go!” Fearless and unafraid. I, on the other hand, lived in mortal terror until he learned to swim around the age of 5. Waterproof, finally, for the most part.

My youngest, however, was not born of the same bent. He was not the daredevil his brother had been. He tried new things carefully, often reluctantly.

Many times I questioned whether I was empowering him by forcing him into the new, or scarring him for life.

He was happiest to play on the steps of the pool, bundled into floating devices, ever unwilling to move into deeper water. Swim lessons were a chore, often ending with my cherub-cheeked toddler stubbornly sitting on the sidelines, refusing to get his feet wet.

Eventually, the boy did swim, but it was a slow process. As we booked our first trip to Hawaii, I prepped him that he’d have to work hard all summer to be ready for the water adventures awaiting us in the islands over winter break.

Deep inside, I was worried.

I booked our family on a snorkeling boat out of Maalaea Harbor, but anxiously questioned the crew should he be too fearful to spend much time in the water. In front of the boys, I was all bravado and excitement about our trip, but in my heart, I was worried.

The ocean is a big and scary place. Jumping off a boat into open water, the bottom of the sea visible, yet still 40 feet away, was daunting for me the first time. How would he respond? My baby, the fearful one…

As we suited up for our first plunge, we laughed and joked and prepared ourselves with fins and gear. But deep inside, I was worried. He, arms and legs poking from his wet suit, the snug fabric a counterpoint for scrawny limbs, goggles large upon his little face.

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Upon our turn to enter the water, he took his giant step  without hesitation. But then, turning back toward me on the ladder, huffing in panic through his snorkel, refusing to look down.

I slipped into the morning-chilly waters and pulled him away from the boat. His eyes were wide, his breathing rapid, white-knuckles gripping my hands as I tread water in front of him.

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It is impossible not to feel small in this vast blue expanse. Just tiny creatures ourselves, bobbing like corks, unmoored, untethered to anything but each other.

I drew him close to my face, blocking his view of the enormous crater rising from the sea behind us, and spoke quietly: “Just look down, baby. Just look down.”

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One’s first look at a coral reef through the clarity of a mask is an astonishing thing. Finding Nemo, just below the surface, glorious color and fish everywhere.

He shook his head, gasping through the tube, eyes frantic behind his mask.

I pulled him to my face, nose to mask:

“Put your face in the water, baby. Just look down.”

He hesitated a moment more, and then…

He plunged his face into the water.

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A split second later, he looked back up at me, pulling aside snorkel so he could speak, shouting one word before returning his face to the water.

“WOW!”

His delight lit him from within like a Christmas tree. He immediately fitted his snorkel back into his mouth, and kicked away from me, swimming horizontally above the coral, a yellow floaty belt all that differentiated him from the other swimmers around us.

That was the end of it. I chased him around awhile, grabbing the strap of his belt, just to hold him near me in the great blue sea around us.

At that point, the only fear left between us was my own.  My youngest child grew older in an instant, falling in love with the ocean and all that is within it, as I had done in the same blue waters many years ago.

The rest of the day we spent in the reef. We swam in Maui’s chilly spring water until we were blue in the lips, going down for a 20’ dive on regulators and air tanks suspended on the surface. He darted among the coral crags like a fish, still small, but fearless and splendid.

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I followed along behind, astonished at the experience of this blue sea and my entire family among amazing and wondrous sights hidden below the waves.

From time to time, we swam hand in hand, not because he needed me to, but because I needed him to.

His fears dissolved into the beauty surrounding us.

And mine? Well, I swallowed it along with a bit of saltwater. I could have kept him on the boat. I could have kept us all safely on the sand. But that extraordinary experience we shared together under the sea would never have been.

As usual, what scared me the most was the most worth doing.

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Lessons From Hawaii: Just Stop The Car

March 10, 2016

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Last month our family embarked on what was really, our first vacation ever.

There have been trips, of course, over the last 12 years. Trips back east, in winter and summer, that counted as vacations with fun times and family. But, ever since a misguided cruise to Alaska with a two-year-old….we’ve never really done the winter break/spring break/summer vacation thing. Every trip, every holiday, has been to see family, with side trips in between.

Thus, finally, we bit the bullet this year and bought tickets to Hawaii. In hindsight, now that we are moving east in June, it might have been the kids’ only chance to see Hawaii. It’s a long flight from California as it is. Ten hours of air travel from New Hampshire – not so much.

It was, as you might expect, paradise. Blissful. We loved every moment, and even the occasional bickering of our minions didn’t seem quite as obnoxious when there are palm trees in the background and fish tacos with mango on the plate.

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One evening after dinner, we returned to our condo to see a remarkably fine sunset in the making. Instead of going inside, we turned and walked across the road to sit on the sand and watch awhile.

As the sun approached the horizon, others trickled over the sand dunes, joining us along the beach. The kids played in the lava rocks at the water’s edge. Strangers asking strangers for a photo, our faces lit up by the fading, rose-colored light.

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I watched as a young guy in a rusted, open-topped Jeep stopped in the road. He was quintessentially Hawaiian. Pretty sure his name was probably Kimo. Huge, muscular, deeply tanned. He pulled off to the side, climbed on to the seats, a sat cross-legged on the roll bars, his chin in his hands. Just watching.

The sun finally settled into the horizon. Strangers around us, bonded over the beauty of the moment, said goodnight and drifted away. We gathered our sandy flip-flops to walk back across the street. Jeep Guy Kimo climbed down off his roll bars and into the driver’s seat, pulling away from the sand and went on his way.

On his way to somewhere, but not in such a hurry that he didn’t have time to stop and watch the sun set.

The image has stuck with me.

I want to live the kind of life where I always have time to pull off the road and watch the sun set.

I don’t think I’ve lived that way very often. I’m a hurried person, and I forget to stop and watch, most times. Focused on the next thing, the next task, the next check box, I don’t often…ever?…stop to simply watch.

Vacations are great that way….by removing ourselves form our workaday environment, we have the time to breathe and discover that perhaps what we’ve been settling for isn’t really good enough.

There are sunsets at home, of course. Through the window over the kitchen sink as I’m cleaning up the kitchen. From the rear view mirror as I’m driving to and fro.

Watching the sunset from my kitchen windows…not good enough. Next time, I will go outside and watch until it’s over, not while I’m washing up the kitchen, or driving home.

I’ll be like Kimo and stop the car.

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The Motherless Mother: A Series, Part V, The End

February 11, 2016

The following series are excerpted form a chapter I wrote about the experience of having children without my own mom by my side, where I had always envisioned she’d be. Huntington’s Disease didn’t allow that, and it affected me profoundly as I navigated the muddy waters of parenthood alone, bereft, and vulnerable. 

To those of you new to this blog, thank you for stopping by, for commenting and sharing your stories. There is hope to be found in community, and together we’ll continue the fight for a cure, continuing to choose hope over despair.

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Mom’s illness progressed to the point of required incarceration in a convalescent home when Colin was three years old. She lived there another year, barely lucid, physically incapacitated. We tried to visit, we tried to find normalcy as we wheeled her chair one Mother’s Day into the sunshine so she could watch her grandchildren playing on the steps outside. But, she wasn’t there. Long gone, robbed of life and capability by her illness.

A few months after that last visit, Mom died suddenly of a heart attack, and it became official. I no longer had to explain away the absence of a parent who was still alive but not.

When someone loses their spouse, they become a widow or widower. What is an adult who loses a parent? There is no word for that. Perhaps because it is simply too big, too massive, to contain in a single word.

Years have passed; our second son, Michael, was born, and I have had time to find my own balance as a mother. I’ve discovered that while I cannot simply call Mom for answers, there are many women in my life that I can call upon. Friends and mentors. Women who are happy to help, happy to jump in, happy to help fill the void my mother left behind.

I have learned to trust myself, not the impossible standards I manufactured in my head. I’ve learned to stop comparing my choices with those of other mothers.

Mother does know best–and that mother is me. When it comes to my boys, I know what they need.

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I know that Colin’s eyelids turn a pale shade of violet when he’s getting sick, and that Michael’s asthma always peaks during the first two days of a cold. I know that breastfeeding does not define my worth, nor do their grades in school. I am more than my children’s successes or failures. I have stumbled through the last 12 years of parenthood, a motherless mother, finding my way and discovering that we, none of us, are required to do this alone.

It is not perfect, but life never is. It is enough, and more importantly, I am enough without her.

 

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Come back next week for the next post in this series. Thanks for reading! 

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The conversation continues!  See the boymom life in full Technicolor.  Join me over on Instagram.

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The Motherless Mother: A Series, Part IV

February 8, 2016

The following series are excerpted form a chapter I wrote about the experience of having children without my own mom by my side, where I had always envisioned she’d be. Huntington’s Disease didn’t allow that, and it affected me profoundly as I navigated the muddy waters of parenthood alone, bereft, and vulnerable. 

To those of you new to this blog, thank you for stopping by, for commenting and sharing your stories. There is hope to be found in community, and together we’ll continue the fight for a cure, continuing to choose hope over despair.

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A wise friend has a theory on friendship—you can be a salmon, swimming upstream, forging your way, seeking out friendship and connection, or you can be like the day laborers who stand at the entrance of the hardware store parking lot, waiting to be wanted, needed, or chosen.

Me, I was another breed altogether, running from friendship and connection because it burned where I was already raw. If darkness is merely the absence of light, then the person I was then was the absence of Mom. I didn’t know how or who to be without her. Forging new friendships and filling the voids felt like betrayal—an acknowledgement that she was really and truly gone. Living up to her memory, or at least the memory I manufactured of her, was all I knew to do: trying to find my perfect, glossing over cracks and wounds that would not heal with time, hiding the mother orphan inside who still was missing her mommy.

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“We should get the boys together to play sometime!” She smiled so easily, as one does who is used to smiling at everyone, and often.

I managed to pull up one side of my face in response before I let it drop, alongside a non-committal “uh huh!”

Yeah, right.

She was so pretty and sweet and pure. She had the kind of gentle motherhood that you see in print ads.

Rochelle was the living embodiment of the mom I thought I was supposed to be.

She was my mom. Perfect.

Her blonde hair was always blown out and neatly straightened. She carried a Coach bag, but it didn’t seem pretentious on her. She was composed and generous with her friendship.

So I snubbed her.

I evaded her attempt at friendship. What could we possibly have in common? I worked. She did not. I was a terrible mother. She was perfect.

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I knew with such certainty that we could never, never be friends. Without one, single, solitary bit of fact in my fiction, I wrote the story of her life, and it did not mesh with my own.

She gave up, after a time, had another baby, and moved away.

But now, I wonder. Was she lonely? Was her poise just a front? Was she as bewildered and scared by motherhood as much as I was? Was she tired of being alone at home all the time, desperate for friendship, longing for connection?

Did she see in me a soul mate, someone with whom to relate her boy-mom worries, hopes, and fears?

I’ll never know. I was too busy making up her mind for her about whether or not she and I could be friends.

How many friendships have I lost? How many kindred spirits have I missed? My working-mother shame was blinding and pervasive, solidly planted on the foundation of bitterness that had brewed since my mother left us.

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Come back later this  week for the next post in this series. Thanks for reading! 

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The conversation continues!  See the boymom life in full Technicolor.  Join me over on Instagram.

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The Motherless Mother: A Series, Part III

February 4, 2016

The following series are excerpted form a chapter I wrote about the experience of having children without my own mom by my side, where I had always envisioned she’d be. Huntington’s Disease didn’t allow that, and it affected me profoundly as I navigated the muddy waters of parenthood alone, bereft, and vulnerable. 

To those of you new to this blog, thank you for stopping by, for commenting and sharing your stories. There is hope to be found in community, and together we’ll continue the fight for a cure, continuing to choose hope over despair.

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When Colin was three months old, I joined the ranks of Working Mothers and returned on a limited schedule as Director of Client Services for a Silicon Valley advertising firm. I juggled the guilt of leaving my newborn in daycare with the heady rush of wearing makeup and heels again. I loved the dichotomy of both roles. Whatever the day brought, the next day would be different. If clients were demanding and critical, the next day would be spent in yoga pants nuzzling the sweet-smelling neck of my boy. If he was fussy and colicky all day, the next day would bring silence and solitude as I drove to work and played with grown-ups instead of Baby Einstein.

In those early days I was unable to ask for help. I did not know that I had permission to do so. I thought I was supposed to have all the answers delivered unto me the day I delivered my son. I had no mother of my own to tell me otherwise. Somehow I never was able to find the manual the stork should have brought, and I began to falter. Lack of sleep, rocking a feverish baby at midnight, tap-dancing through client meetings and calls from daycare … no one else was struggling with this … were they? Colin, fair skinned and rosy, with pale blue eyes, began developing strange rashes on his face and legs. They would bloom rapidly, from nothing into a scaly, angry rash that covered his face within hours. The daycare would call, certain he had developed some horrifying communicable disease; I would drop my work and race to pick him up. The doctor assured us these rashes were benign and harmless—eczema. “He has sensitive skin” we were told and had to be content with that. Except that our cherub was walking around with a frightening scaly rash covering half his face. It looked awful, and I somehow felt responsible for being unable to stop this from happening. We began limiting his diet and pursued allergy testing. I sat in sterile waiting rooms while he, wearing nothing but a diaper, sat on my lap watching cartoons after two dozen tiny needles full of allergens were pressed into the petal-soft skin of his little back. All negative. No allergies, just rashy, sensitive skin.

Deep down, in the dark place bitterness dwells, I squirmed with conviction—if Mom were here, none of this would have ever happened.

Bereft, abandoned, and motherless, I slipped deeper into the dark of my own disappointment.

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Come back next week for the next post in this series. Thanks for reading! 

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The conversation continues!  See the boymom life in full Technicolor.  Join me over on Instagram.

Like this post? Subscribe to receive future posts via email or a quarterly newsletter that positively glimmers with good stuff. 

The Motherless Mother: A Series, Part II

February 1, 2016

The following series are excerpted form a chapter I wrote about the experience of having children without my own mom by my side, where I had always envisioned she’d be. Huntington’s Disease didn’t allow that, and it affected me profoundly as I navigated the muddy waters of parenthood alone, bereft, and vulnerable. 

To those of you new to this blog, thank you for stopping by, for commenting and sharing your stories. There is hope to be found in community, and together we’ll continue the fight for a cure, continuing to choose hope over despair.

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As we set about being a family of two adults and one child, I realized quickly that two plus one does not actually equal three.

Two plus one equals six-hundred and forty-seven. I couldn’t stop to think about how different this was from the way I envisioned it long ago. Noticeably absent was my mother by my side. She wasn’t there to show me tips and tricks she had learned as a mother herself. Me, teaching her about all the new gadgets and baby gear, marveling that she was able to survive motherhood without a video baby monitor and a Boppy.

The reality was very different.

Within a week of his birth we were alone, figuring it all out for ourselves. We named him Colin. He was downy and precious, but like every infant, the boy had lungs and used them. Post-partum insomnia, something the books failed to mention but a very real and not so terribly uncommon manifestation of PPD, set in. “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” the old ladies at church would tell me cheerfully, patting my cheek. I wanted to punch somebody. The baby slept fine. He was a dream, really. He quickly adapted to a schedule and woke with sunshine on his face. But for me, sleeping became a demon I dreaded. Trying to sleep and failing was an exhausting, humiliating battle.

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It took me a month to call my doctor, so disillusioned with myself that I felt a complete failure.

Failure at breastfeeding—that didn’t work out well either—and failure at sleep. She prescribed sleeping medication, told my husband that he was now on duty for the 11 p.m. feeling, and sent me to bed at eight o’clock.

I woke the next day at 6 a.m. and immediately began to cry with relief. If you had told me when Colin was just two weeks old that I would, someday, sleep eight straight hours, I would have told you that you were lying, and I might have kicked you in the shins.

I could not stop to think about my mom. Remembering was too painful, the scab of her loss too fresh. Memories plucked at the wound, and before long it bled; I simply did not have time between diapers and laundry and breastfeeding to be able to process that kind of pain. She was not here. What was evident was her absence, the void she should have filled, a gaping black hole that took everything with it including the light. My loss became a veil through which I saw the world, tinged and tainted by my grief.

As I carefully tried to adapt to the new role of motherhood without a mother of my own to call upon. I convinced myself that I had been raised by the perfect mom, and therefore, I had to be the perfect mom. Never yell. Never cry. Never fight. Never make mistakes. I focused only on her serenity, the ease with which she mothered us.

Motherhood, to my surprise, was not easy, and I wasn’t adapting well. Frantic to live up to the ideal I remembered, I found myself alone and shivering, in the shadow of the pedestal I placed her on.

Nothing was easy, nothing came naturally to me, except perhaps anxiety, fear, and worry.

I was exceptionally good at those.

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Come back next week for the next post in this series. Thanks for reading! 

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The conversation continues!  See the boymom life in full Technicolor.  Join me over on Instagram.

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The Motherless Mother: A Series, Part I

January 29, 2016

The following series are excerpted form a chapter I wrote about the experience of having children without my own mom by my side, where I had always envisioned she’d be. Huntington’s Disease didn’t allow that, and it affected me profoundly as I navigated the muddy waters of parenthood alone, bereft, and vulnerable. 

To those of you new to this blog, thank you for stopping by, for commenting and sharing your stories. There is hope to be found in community, and together we’ll continue the fight for a cure, continuing to choose hope over despair.

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The day Colin, our first child, was born, my husband Gabe was at my side. My father and mother-in-law were in the waiting room. My mom, suffering from a neurodegenerative illness called Huntington’s disease, was living on Catalina Island. Apart from us all, in the contrived contentedness she had manufactured for herself there, she was happy. She didn’t want to leave the island. That was the best we could get, and so we left it at that.

The spot I had always imagined she would take, by my side throughout my pregnancy, at every baby shower, sat empty. We spoke on the phone from time to time. We’d talk of Catalina and the weather. She’d tell me of the people she would meet and the friends she would make. But we would never talk about why she was there and we were here and all that was so wrong, so broken. She would merrily say goodbye as if a loving wife and mother who moved to an island to escape the reality of her illness and family were a perfectly natural thing. I trudged through my pregnancy, elated and exhausted, and every day missing my mommy.

Huntington’s has been called the most devastating disease known to man. Imagine being in your 40’s and having Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS at the same time.  Some patients are fortunate to endure primarily physical degeneration and some dementia. Others, like my mother, suffer cruelly from mental illness—paranoia, schizophrenia—while also enduring the spasmodic muscle contractions called chorea that twisted her face, her hands, and constantly affected her balance and ability to walk.

As I lay in recovery after a c-section, attended only by a disinterested nurse, I slipped under the surface of grief and drowned in it for a while. Why isn’t she here? My husband stood vigil with our baby as they checked him over from stem to stern, head, shoulders, knees, and toes. And here was I, completely alone on the biggest day of my life, gasping for what I had lost. The void of her presence yawning and draining the room of light and life. I wept violently, the pain excruciating.

The nurse never even raised her head.

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Come back next week for the next post in this series. Thanks for reading! 

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The conversation continues!  See the boymom life in full Technicolor.  Join me over on Instagram.

Like this post? Subscribe to receive future posts via email or a quarterly newsletter that positively glimmers with good stuff. 

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