Stranger than Fiction

 

You just can’t make this stuff up.

 

We’ve all heard people say this. We may have even heard some pretty good instances of the phenomenon. Read Kelly Kittel’s Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, however, and you’ll find perhaps the best exemplar of it ever.

Kittel’s story starts much like many other love stories: with the birth of a precious baby boy. We learn to know and love Noah, Kittel’s fourth child, right along with her. Amidst the love and adoration, though, there is an undercurrent of tension. Relations with extended family increasingly interfere with the Kittels’ close knit circle of immediate family, creating conditions ripe for catastrophe.

A tragic accident involving Noah is unfortunately and unbelievably only the first tragedy to befall Kelly and her family. In her quest for “an oversized house and a plastic car overflowing with round-headed pink and blue babies while [she] navigated [her] way through the Game of Life,” Kittel experienced miscarriages and an unnecessary stillbirth, unsupportive and argumentative family members.

Through personal anguish and legal battles, spiritual searches and encounters with nature, Kittel somehow arrives victorious on the other end, relishing each and every moment with her family of five living children and the spirit of those in heaven. Even with all its loss, Breathe is always – on every page, in every word – a life-affirming story.

I was fortunate enough to have read Breathe in its entirety before publication. Shortly after Kelly joined our writers’ group, she began sharing excerpts of her story, until we’d read, critiqued, and discussed the whole thing. We stroked the cover of her first proof when she passed it around the circle one night (it really is velvety soft!). We cheered her on upon its release on May 14, the birthday of her dear son, Jonah, his one and only day upon the earth.

Kelly Kittel wrote this story for those precious sons robbed of the oft-neglected privilege of breathing. But she also offers a poignant story of survival – her own. And in doing so, she most certainly will help countless mothers and women do the same.

Breathe-Cover

 

 

 

Wavelength

There comes a time when you see your mother as a being separate from yourself.  It’s not as an infant when you realize you exist outside her body.  It’s not when, as a toddler, you assert your independence.  The tumultuous teenaged years don’t do it.  Even becoming a full-fledged adult doesn’t do it.

She will always be your number one fan, miracle-worker, therapist, and helpmate.  She will always allow you to be self-centered when you come calling because you are her world.  She is your MOM.  (No Pressure 😉 )

But there are moments when she does something on an even more amazing level of awesome – perhaps even sublime – in which you see in crystalline form what a perfectly human and beautiful individual she is.

The first time this happened was when I was an early teen.  My parents, consummate do-it-yourself-ers, were in the middle of some household project that necessitated the transit of a long ladder through our tiny kitchen.  One inadvertent swing of the ladder swept the decorative items off one of the display shelves surrounding the window.  A crystal-clear unicorn, whose knobs and nodules captured and refracted the sun’s rays into rainbows, shattered against the stainless steel of the sink below.  I heard my mother scream like I never had before: a desperate, anguished wail.  She cried as she gathered the pieces.  This was another thing I rarely – if ever – had experienced with my mother.  These were not the welled-tears of sentimentality; these were big fat gobs of grief.

Being a young person, with no framework within which to place this, I asked my mother what was wrong.  She explained that the unicorn had been a gift from her sister when she had lost a baby.  Four years prior to my birth, my mother had delivered my would-be sister, stillborn.  This was my first encounter with this information, with this grief.  While I now had a framework, it was shaky.  I knew it was tragic.  I knew my mother hurt.  But I had no idea to what extent.

Years later, as a mother myself, now accustomed to grief, but still not of that magnitude, I sat with my mother in the parking lot of a botanical garden.  We stared out the windshield at the glass squares of the greenhouse.  ‘A woman in my writers’ group has written a memoir about her family, Ma,’ I said.  ‘About her journey through love and loss.  She had a stillborn, too.  Much the same circumstances as yours.’  There were some eerily similar details in their stories, though my mother never got the legal vindication that this woman did.  ‘Would you read it?’

I didn’t know if I was overstepping my bounds, if I was being too forward, pushy.  Was I dredging up feelings that my mother had gladly put to rest years ago?

‘I suppose it might be good for me,’ she said.  ‘Therapeutic.’

Months later, I took my mother to the launch party for that book: Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict by Kelly Kittel.  The day before Mother’s Day, we spent the afternoon of the launch together.  Ironically, though we were celebrating the ubiquitous holiday, I saw my mother as ‘other than mother’.  Hearing her speak to Kelly and share her story, I saw the profoundly deep wellspring of strength my mother’s been drawing from all these years.  I saw her as a woman, fighting a soul-crushing battle and winning.  I saw her as someone – like myself – who has been curled up on the floor crying, but she got up!  She went on.  And gave me the best, most important parts of herself.  All while, unbeknownst to me, she was suffering a tremendous loss.

It was hard for me to not insert comments or explanations as she spoke.  I felt the intermediary between these two women and wanted to help forge the link.  But the link between these two women had nothing to do with me.  It was in their tragedies and victories, their similar experiences with death and inextinguishable life.

I saw my mother as a distinct individual, a woman with her own suitcase of memories and maladies, a human being with a suit of armor and the soft underbelly of a mother.

Image

Photo by John Butler

Only YOU can prevent Burnouts

 

refill-your-cup-300x300

Read this article for tips on how to do just that . . . Peace to you.

 

No Pressure

Coffee mugs saying, “You probably don’t recognize me without my cape.” T-shirts with a shield standing for Supermom rather than Superman. Photos of gorgeous women receiving hair and beauty treatments while breastfeeding a baby below a smooth decolletage.

These images can be taken one of two ways. We can see the strength of mothers, their uncanny ability to make seeming miracles happen for the little ones who look up to them, the beauty inherent in their life-giving and nurturing ways. We can feel the immense pressure of an ideal to achieve that leaves us primped to within an inch of our skin’s elasticity, our patience pulled out like a piece of taffy, and pissed.

It’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed and fall into the second category. I don’t care about being perfectly coiffed, as my crazy, silver-tinged curls would attest, but I allow the unseen hands of unrealistic expectation to tighten their choke-hold around my neck. I feel I have – and often, try – to be all and do all for everyone. The reason it’s so easy for images like these to inform our mothering decisions is because they appeal to the deep-seated love we have for our families. Naturally, we want to do our best for them, so it’s a seemingly natural progression for that slight tweak toward perfection.

The unconditional love of our children unwittingly feeds into this phenomenon. Take this on-line post, for instance:

hope

 

Unswerving devotion. Disciple-like adoration. Unadulterated trust.

The keeper of socks. Seeker of single ones. Holder of pebbles, lost teeth, lucky pennies.

“Mom, where is my [insert any pertinent object here]!?”

It’s not a God complex. So much happens throughout the day where we are the be all, end all.

Which is fine – if you’re a well-adjusted, level-headed, simpatico kind of person.

Horrific if you overthink things, catatrophize things, can’t cope with things, can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning.

If the thing Mom can’t find is hope, all really is lost.


If you or someone you love falls into this category, please help them get the professional help they need.  Contact an organization or individual like the ones below:

 

 

 

The Mom’s Peter Principle

 

I don’t know who the hell Peter is, but I know his principle.

Apparently, some Peter at some time did such a darn good job at whatever he was doing, his superior decided to promote him. Peter received more responsibility for more tasks that required a skill set beyond his ability. Rather than lauding Peter and allowing him to excel in his obviously optimal conditions, the powers that be pushed Peter to the point of inefficiency.

In short, doing a good job is almost always rewarded with more work.

Enter Moms.

Watch down any aisle in any greeting card store and you will see the pronouncements. Mother is kind, thoughtful, dutiful, caring, patient, loving, fun, reliable, and can solve any problem, fix any hurt, make magic with her motherly hands. Aside from magical powers – at least in my realm – nearly all of these are true. Mothers are nurturers. They do thoughtful things for their brood. They seek out ways to make them smile and feel loved.

Mothers don’t do these things to guarantee reciprocity; often the reaction of their loved ones is reward enough.

However, it is nice when we are rewarded with a special surprise, an unexpected little something, a thoughtful deed, which is why, for the last several years, I’ve hated Mother’s Day. I didn’t ask for much, but what I did want was a surprise; a day – or even part of it – not orchestrated by me. I guess I didn’t ask for enough – or specify enough – because quite often, I got nothing. The day inevitably ended with an argument between me and my husband. He was frustrated that I didn’t seem happy with anything; I felt totally misunderstood and miserable.

As the years passed, my babies grew into adorable preschoolers toting crafts. They brought me breakfast in bed, prepared by my husband. I also tried to focus on simple presents, rather than towering expectations.

This year’s Mother’s Day was perhaps the most enjoyable yet. We had visited with our own mothers throughout the weekend, leaving Sunday open. I received the traditional breakfast in bed, followed by free reign in the yard, planting flowers, putting around. My husband afforded me free reign for pretty much any activity. We explored a new hiking trail near our house. I read a book on the porch and fell asleep for a few minutes in a sun-soaked arm chair. We ate a grilled dinner – not prepared by me (thank you, dear) – al fresco. It was slow, meandering, unfolding much like a newly blossoming flower.

In the quiet moments scattered throughout the day, I realized why it had taken me so long to enjoy this quasi-holiday. Just as Peter performed so well he was pushed too far, mothers are so good at performing thoughtful acts for their family, they negate the need for any others to do such acts. Each member of the family has her role to play, her strengths and/or weaknesses; naturally, some of these abilities overlap, but those with the strongest muscles flex those more often. So I kind of ‘Petered’ myself right out of a surprise!

nest egg

Trudy James

But, I also learned that, while mothers are so attuned to the needs of others, this doesn’t mean others are aware of theirs. And while we should all embrace our strengths and respect, support each others’ shortcomings, that doesn’t mean mothers should wait forever for their needs to be filled. For instance, I’ve been eyeing all those necklaces with stamps, stones, etchings to represent all the children in a family. I’ve sent links, dropped hints – to no avail. This year I placed the ripped-out page of a catalog in my husband’s hand when he asked if I wanted anything. I picked it out, requested it, and happened to see the padded envelope emblazoned with the catalog’s name on it in the recycling bin a few days prior, but I got the necklace I wanted to symbolize our little nest of family.

So, to have an enjoyable Mother’s Day next year, you could either stop being so darned thoughtful so your family will pick up the slack or you could try to have no expectations so you’ll be pleasantly surprised no matter what happens. No matter what, clearly communicating your needs is a good way to ensure everyone’s happiness. And to make sure you don’t get Petered again!

 

M

Luke Stettner, Other, 2012.

Luke Stettner, Other, 2012.

The Question

Who am I

but a mother

a purveyor of school lunches

and snacks and dinners

a laundry-washing, clothes-sorting, stain-sticking fiend

a tear-stopper, an instigator

laying down the law, but finding no joy in being in charge.

For being the boss should have its benefits, no?

 

I’m paralyzed by free time.

When I hit the kill switch on motherhood for the night,

the juice still flows.

Like cell phone minutes that carry over, my to-do runs ad infinitum and I think how I can get a jump start on tomorrow.

 

Then my psyche calls.

Hello, it’s me.

Who is me?

 

Someone who needs nurturing.

Who needs slowing down,

sleep.

Something.

 

Something to make her heart sing.

Something to take it all away

so she can decide what to build on.

 

But what?

How

do I get past this feeling of unrest that is the only thing about me that sits

Still

in my heart

my being

my soul

 

To whom do I report?

To whom do I direct complaints?

To whom can I go,

when I know not what I need,

know not what I ask.

 

But there is the question

 

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Luke Stettner, Can’t See the Forest for the Trees, 2009.

Waiting for the Bus

 

Don’t climb that tree

Come over here

Zipper your jacket

Put your jacket back on

You won’t need it later, but you need it now

Look both ways

Get out of the middle of the street

Did you comb your hair?

Let me comb your hair

“She called me a nerd”

I’m sorry.

Give me a hug.

I love you.

Have a good day.

 

 

Would you change a thing?

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Just as I bowed my head today at mass, to honor and reflect upon the bread becoming Jesus’ body, my three year-old, who was gathered up in my arms and perched on my knee, looked up and kissed me.  My first reaction was that she was distracted at a solemn time.  Then I realized, remembered that she’s all about love.  Jesus became the bread, a sacrifice, gave His life, out of love for us.  Or at the very least, for His father, God.

Did I receive that kiss upon my nose at that very moment to teach me that I, as a mother, must lose myself to them out of love or in love?  That is my sacrifice since Jesus gave his life for us, I must give mine for them?

But, though I am a stay-at-home mom and mothering is a vocation, is not my husband called to the vocation of fathering?  He is not asked to give up his life.  Or is not having the struggles I am.

Or is the kiss a reminder to surrender myself to a life of love?

To serve others and fulfill God’s will by helping them – and through helping God, receiving all I need through Him?

Happiness?  Fulfillment?  Peace?  Well-being?

Am I being selfish balking at the idea of giving my life over to my children?  Or does God want me to preserve some parts of it for me?  Why would he have made me how I am if not for me to find some pleasure in it?  Parts of me must have been made with successful mothering in mind, but there are other parts I get to develop for me, right?  But then, it’s still for others, right?  Which then, isn’t it all for God?

I do need to stop thinking of my children as burdens, though.  I can be of service to them just as I can to others.  I need to see the needs right under my  nose and not take them for granted.


 

The above reflection is taken from a piece I wrote in February 2013.  Maybe it’s because I was/am an only child that I find it hard to relinquish my individual needs for the collective.  For me, the jury is still out as to whether self-care is a right or a privilege.  Where does self-care end and selfishness begin?  Are modern societal mores at odds with Christian teachings?  And I was worried about breastfeeding!  I always feel a certain sense of guilt when I see memes like the one at the top of this post.  But should mothering negate personal desire?

Hide and Seek

 

Tip: Always be the seeker in Hide & Seek. It’s gives you 30 seconds of peace.

 

Come, now. We’ve all done it. Or at least wanted to. We’ve all paused for a moment before seeking, enjoying that glorious moment of silence, relishing the fact that we are free to roam about the house with no shadow in our steps.

And then we hear the giggle, the irrepressible bubble that cannot be held by hands, cannot be stayed. The insistent pssst, or even the outright, “In here, Mama.” They cannot stand to stay hidden, cannot bear to be apart from us. After they give us a turn at hiding, they will crawl right back into the spot we just vacated, so dear is their desire to be like us, learn from us, stay close to us.

Other than the tempting tricks we can play during this child’s game, there are serious questions and consequences it can raise for adults. In our role as parents, will we choose to hide our mental illnesses? Will we seek to be completely open and honest with our families, including our children? At the very least, we must seek solutions to live a healthy, fulfilled life. But will we pop the pill in secret and stuff the rest of our struggle down our throats with it instead of voicing it, breathing it?

There is the great possibility of two sides to a person with mental illness. Stigma makes me not want to write that because I fear untrained minds will go straight to schizophrenia, but that’s not what I mean. Light and dark. Public and private. Hidden and sussed out. The very same reason I didn’t want to allude to two sides is what may keep sufferers suffering in silence. It may be to keep a modicum of positivity in their lives – rather than dwelling on the difficulties. This and a fierce sense of protection for their children, I think, drive the decisions that most mentally-ill parents make. While I don’t consider myself the best at looking on the bright side, I know I do not want my children to know I suffer from depression and anxiety.

Yet, I resent the times I must plaster on a smile. I regret that I must function in spite of my foul mood. I revile the perfect, perky person I must be at all times for my children when I’m hurting.

There must be a sweet spot, somewhere between ‘Ready or not, here I come’ and ‘A-ha’, in that glorious moment of silence, where mom can hear herself think and child is about to unleash a cascade of laughter. Where child and mother are happy and true to themselves. Where hiding is only temporary in certain situations. And seeking is rewarded with sharing love and validation.

 

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