Introverted Enlightenment

I never should have read this article.

Surviving-as-an-Introverted-Mother_SOURCE_stocksy

Surviving as an Introverted Mother by Kristen Howerton

Sure, it convinced me that I wasn’t a terrible mother.  That it was okay not to desire constant physical contact.  To crave down-time, alone time.  To require it.  For my mental and emotional well-being.

Wow.

What a refreshing and liberating concept.  And validating.

It told me what my soul already knew.  But that my conscience(?) told me was a fault, a failing.  A roadblock to caring for my children in the best way possible or giving them full affection.

All bull$h!t – except that the needs of modern motherhood don’t care about the stirrings of the soul.

Shortly after reading that resonant article, my children started summer vacation.

It’s all-kid, all-the-time.  My three little darlings with me and each other 24/7.

It’s an adjustment for all of us.  A change in schedule, company, routine. And no opportunity for down-time.

Ironically, the article that liberated me only a few weeks ago has imprisoned me in a summer cell now.

Maybe I wouldn’t be feeling such ennui at the equinox if I hadn’t received that introverted enlightenment.

If I thought that running roughshod with constant company, arts and crafts extravaganzas, beach days and late nights was status quo, maybe I wouldn’t be feeling so full – and not in a fulfilled way, but in an I-ate-a-little-of-everything-on-the-buffet-table-at-the-cookout-and-then-went-back-for-seconds sort of way.

But that enlightened author, in touch with her inner introvert, showed me a glimpse of eternal bliss and I can’t unsee it.  If only I could see some quiet time in the future.

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

 

Image

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

How Did They (Do We) Do It?

I often wonder how mothers of our mothers did it. In the age of keeping up appearances and, in the generation before that, of simply surviving.

There were no therapists, no LICSWs, no yoga retreats and meditation circles. There was no opportunity for a facial and hot stone massage. There was no medication to make the pain go away – except for those self-prescribed.

There was alcohol sipped in secret. There was valium – and laudanum in the early days. There might be lashing out at the children when the husband or society did the same to them.  Catholics might find solace in confession – if the guilt of their perceived shortcomings and ungrateful attitude didn’t keep them away.

I wonder how many women thought they were flawed because they didn’t love the life handed to them.  That they were failures because they didn’t find rearing children and keeping house easy.

But that’s not even the point.

Mothers today still flounder with the many resources available to them.

How the hell did women of previous generations keep it together?

Was it the lack of a pervasive media that kept us from hearing about children murdered by their own mother’s hand? Did bubbling anger dissipate through more readily accepted floggings? Were extended family and neighbors more readily available and willing to step in and pick up slack?

Did women suffer in silence?

I wonder how many women devolved into mental illness from the stress of responsibility, relentless duty, stifled desires. I wonder how many Academy Award worthy actresses were forged in the face of an uninterested audience.

And what do we do for them now? How do we celebrate the uncelebrated?

By feeling guilty as hell that we don’t like this comparatively golden portion we’ve been dealt?

Or by saturating the dry earth of hopelessness with resources for women struggling with themselves, with motherhood, with life?

Part of me yearns for the ironclad persona of the women and mothers of my thrice-removed family. But another more unwilling part realizes that armor came at a merciless price. Not only are these women I cannot question because of space and time, but because they would never answer. Perhaps one small admittance would open the chink that would crumble the entire suit. They would never take that chance. Nor would society let them. They did what they had to because there was no other choice. Their own mothers had it hard and so, then, would they.

I wonder if in this age of modern convenience we have too much time on our hands to ponder our existence. However, I’d like to think, even amidst the stirring of lye and slaying of chickens, our female forebears wondered the same things. They probably wouldn’t have lived so fiercely if they hadn’t.

How do we live fiercely in their honor while fighting for what we all need?

Back to Nightmares

I taught for seven years seven years ago.

I still have back-to-school nightmares.

It’s the first day of school.  My new charges have entered the room, sitting wherever they want, class begins and they won’t stop talking.  I try all the little tricks in my arsenal.  Waiting silently in the front of the room, a glaring sentinel.  Looking at the clock.  Greeting them in my let’s-get-to-business tone.  Finally resorting to screaming at the top of my lungs while the party continues and I go red in the face.

What kind of year will this be if I can’t make them quiet down in the first minutes?

Now, I have this dream randomly whenever I’m experiencing a stressful time or approaching any event or new beginning with anxiety.  Seven years out and this is still my psyche’s go-to when it needs an exemplar of anxiety.

Last night, though, it changed.  I’m sure I had some flavor of the back-to-school dream because I’m anticipating my daughters’ return to school next week (any nerves they might have with the unknown of a new year and my own worries about the onslaught of morning rushes, homework duty, adhering to schedules).  And the start of my baby’s preschool, which I suddenly was wracked with guilt for last night (i.e. Shouldn’t I just keep her home with me?).  But it was different.  Decidedly so.

I’d gone to a school event with a colleague with whom I still keep in touch regularly.  Groups of kids ranged around a large space, seated at tables with staff interspersed.  They seemed to be grouped by their team designations.  The main event was food.  It was some sort of eating contest, as in who could eat the fastest or the most or something like that.  I bounced from table to table with no real spot to land.  At one point, I found myself in front of a turkey dinner, but quickly abandoned that when I found not one, but four consecutive strands of hair in it.  I asked if I got extra points for eating the hair.  Yes, this is the point at which I got increasingly snarky.

My former colleagues kibitzed together or mixed with their students in a way I could not as I no longer belonged to that club.  I didn’t know the students; I didn’t know the ins and outs of their day or of the school building at large.  I was no longer privy to the culture of the school and tenor of its staff.

I ended up extremely cranky and ornery, off to the side by myself under a tree.  Yes, the setting had morphed outside.  And the game had changed.  Apparently now it was some sort of role-playing game.  And I got to watch as my husband mock-proposed to another woman.

My psyche just threw me under the bus!  It went for the insecure jugular of losing connections, people I care for and who care for me.  My close ties.  My sense of belonging and acceptance.

It was no mistake that my subconscious served up this dream on the eve of another school year.  As my career and profession, teaching was (and still is) a large part of my identity.  At a time when structure is supposed to ramp up, I float listless.  Yes, mothering is a vocation.  But my charges are headed off to something other than them and me while I sit at home.

I need to find something new on the menu – other than hairy turkey dinner.

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Retreat

When the world got to be too much, including my little corner of it, I used to retreat to the bathroom.  It was usually just as supper was about to start, food laid out on the table, cups of milk poured, husband home from work – Mom sitting on the toilet sobbing soundlessly with an unnamed sadness and inability to cope.

My husband would give me a few minutes, then call softly through the door to see if I was all right.

You would think that would be the easiest part of the day, having made it through ten or more hours of sole care giving, dressing, feeding, getting out the door-ing.  A time to sit with my family and enjoy the shared responsibility of parenting with my spouse.  But just like a toddler who does not do well with a change in caregivers, so I was not transitioning well.  We were all getting hungry and tired and my head couldn’t take one more shrill scream or pop of sound.

At first, a friend didn’t recognize this scenario as one resulting from my postpartum depression.  She got angry, she said, irritable, wanting to lash out when she couldn’t abide the situation at hand.  She wanted to fight vs. my flight.  Both natural responses to elevated levels of stress; to the wooly mammoth of parenting postpartum.

The word retreat itself is an interesting choice.  It has wartime connotations, as in run away from the enemy, give up the fight, fall back to a place of safety, behind that line that should not have been crossed.

When the bathroom won’t do anymore; when they’ve figured out your hiding spot; when you can’t while away your tortured existence on a germ-infested throne anymore – what then?

throne

At first, I turned to my midwife, then a licensed social worker, then lifestyle and diet changes, then medication.  I don’t want to lock myself in the bathroom as much any more, but I still need a respite to get my wits about me.

As a teenager, it was a requirement to attend a retreat as preparation for Confirmation.  In college, I attended many enriching weekend retreats as part of peer ministry.  In preparation for marriage, my husband and I went on an “Engaged Encounter”.

Where are the programs for mothers who love their children but want to retreat?  Who have lost themselves and their faith amidst the everyday beat-down of the job?  Who know what a blessing their children are but just can’t feel it for the pressure pushing down on them?  Who found their depression only now because they must function, they have no choice to go sit in a corner and listen to The Cure until life seems better.

Children bring us out of ourselves.  As they say, it’s the only way you can feel your heart beat outside yourself.  They teach us selflessness and caring for others.  They give us a view of the future, of possibility.  But in giving our all to them, it sometimes feels as if it’s the end of our possibility.  It doesn’t seem like there’s room for anything else.  A feeling that often makes me want to retreat.

Iron Age

Last weekend, my husband and I watched The Iron Lady.  We’d seen previews for it and were intrigued.  We wanted to see Meryl Streep taking names and kicking butts, which ironically I’d never thought Margaret Thatcher had done.  While she was in office, I was too young to know more about her role in history than her name and position.  It never occurred to me the struggles she’d encounter not only as prime minister, but also as a woman fulfilling that role.  Now, as a grown woman watching this cinematic portrayal of her rise to power and its aftermath, I was angry and heartbroken.

It starts off optimistically enough.  I thrilled in her preemptive speech to her future husband before she accepted his proposal.  She would not bow to society’s ideas of what a woman, wife, and mother should be.  And he agreed!  She would be free to do as she desired with his freely and happily given support.

Then we see Ms. Thatcher as a hard-faced deserter as her children cry at the window as she heads to Parliament, shoving toy cars in the glove compartment on the way.  We see her daughter jealous of her own spotlight being stolen.  We see her husband questioning her devotion to her family in favor of ambition.

 

Why must a woman be vilified if she desires success outside the realm of motherhood?  Even more so if she harbors such desires in the midst of motherhood.  Yes, there are only twenty-four hours in a day.  Yes, there is always the threat of feeling as if she’s failed on both fronts.  Yes, children demand an inordinate amount of growing, coaxing, and coddling.  She needs to prepare a person ready to face the challenges of the next generation.  But what about the challenges of her own?  Why does motherhood take her out of the equation in facing and solving those? 

 

Why is there a prevailing thought that a woman must subvert her own self in order to grow the ones that came out of her?

 

Even with all her success, Margaret Thatcher couldn’t completely change the direction of that stiff wind – at least in this film.

In the speech to her future husband, the young Margaret Thatcher said she did not want to be trapped in the kitchen, hands in the dishwater.  The film ends with her doing just that.  I couldn’t help but think that plunging her hands into that water washed away all merit attached to her ambitious acts.  It called them all into question.  Had she made the wrong decisions?  Set the wrong priorities as a woman, wife, mother?  All joy that she’d excelled in at least the public half of her life was stolen by my doubt that she felt she should have chosen the private half instead.

It shouldn’t be a choice.  Or at least not a mutually exclusive one.

Iron is malleable – especially when it’s heated inordinately – which is a good thing because it looks like society will continue to rake women over the coals for the unforeseeable future.

Losing Suction

It’s been a rough few days (weeks?).  I wish there was a good reason why – that might make it better, or understandable anyway – but there’s not.  I’m just miserable for no good reason.  Irritable because I have angst.  Angst-ridden because I have hormones and a crippling sense of self-awareness? (Thank you, Virgo)

There have been days I have camped out with my laptop for hours.  Stared out the window waiting for the light to change.  Held myself because it was the only thing to do.

And then the strains of PBS children’s programming came to me.

The minutes and hours marked by Arthur and Thomas, Maya and Miguel rather than numbers.

And I knew I should move.  I knew I should engage.  I should scoop up that little wonder of a child and take her out into the world.

One day, we did.  We traipsed around the yard, trekked to the mailbox, tried to imagine the garden in full bloom.  But the mailbox was empty and spring was still a ways off.

Yesterday, we shut off all electronic devices and ate lunch together.  We sat side by side, but I buried my nose in some manner of printed matter.

Today, we compared notes on the types of yogurt we ate; she turning her nose up at my Greek with honey, me trying to convince her she ate blue banana.  green guava.  purple passion.

The silly word games I remember playing with my first baby when I was a first time mama.

Learning colors through the culinary.

Exploring math while masticating.

And for the first time in a long time, my sense memory elicited a positive response. Bubbles of laughter reminding  me that I know how to do this.  I know how to make it fun.  I know how to enjoy it.

All it takes to make it enjoyable is a little more effort.  An invitation to join me as I move about my day.  A question here, a comment there.  Inclusion.  When all I’ve been is insular.

 

I’ve so needed space for me, I’ve been pulling back.  But all I’ve done is created a vacuum, a void they notice and try all the more vehemently to cross.  Perhaps if I reach across the void, giving them what they need, I will get what I want.

Joy and peace of mind.

Being able to lay my head on the pillow at night knowing I’ve done my best and not feeling guilty at the time I set aside for myself.

There’s no sense doing a job you hate.  And there’s no reason to make mothering more onerous than it is.  That wouldn’t just create a vacuum; that would suck.

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