The labels we give ourselves

I have been called a lot of things, and those labels have changed over time. I have always been “daughter,” “granddaughter,” and “sister,” and one of my fondest labels is “friend.” Don’t get me started on the labels that were placed on me in high school, though thankfully I didn’t hang my identity on “band geek.” 

I was “journalist” for many years, which was a label I loved and have yet to remove completely; and of course, I have been “mom” for the past 11 years, which is label that has threaded itself into my DNA. 

For 14 years I was “wife”. It was a label I wore nearly as proudly as “mother.”

But today I am an ex. The prefix is one I actively resisted. This is not a label I longed for, in fact, it is one I actively dodged for more than two years.  

I had no interest in being single, separated, divorced. And yet here I am — two of those things, and probably months away from being the third. 

Today, I am somebody’s “ex”, whereas moments ago I was the same person’s partner. Ex is a label I’ve used a hundred times to refer to other people and their former partners, but when attached to me it feels wrong. I wanted to brush it off like a cobweb that I walked through on my way to take out the garbage; I wanted to cut it off carefully so as not to tear the fabric of my favourite shirt.

In pirate adventures, an x marks the spot where an amazing treasure is hidden, but put an e in front of that x and all you’ve got is a person with baggage and several sad stories to tell. Now that’s me: Teller of sad stories; carrier of baggage.

I’d much prefer being treasure. 

Today, I am an ex, and instead of being “parent”, I am (legally-speaking) a co-parent, which is another label that will no doubt give me a rash. As I get used to wearing these scratchy tags, I busy myself by unpacking in my new home, setting up my new space, and ensuring my children have two of everything so they never feel like guests, or have to live out of suitcases. 

And when I look up from my busyness, I realize that it is now dark outside and so quiet in this house. I’m spending my first nights alone. I miss the taken-for-granted moments. I miss the every-day silliness at the dinner table, and the serious talks before bed. I have heard from other moms — other exes and co-parents — that I will come to appreciate these quiet moments. That when I wash these labels enough they’ll become soft and comfortable. That when I watch my children thrive, I will relax, and I will be grateful for those tags.

But I’m not there yet. In the quiet moments, these first ones, the labels chafe and are unbearable.

Yes, children are resilient creatures, and I take comfort in this. But when it comes to the resiliency of this mother, this co-parent, and this ex, we will just have to wait and see.   

Building a fantasy quarantine team

I’ve been thinking about my massage therapist a lot these days.

I wonder how he’s doing, and how he’s keeping busy, and I’ll be honest, I’m a little envious of his wife who had the forethought to marry an RMT. Was he an RMT when they met, or did she direct him toward his career path? Either way, I consider her an absolute genius.

I did not pick my partner based on the skills he could bring to a pandemic. I mean, his sense of humour has been a blessing, and he is wicked good at making Excel spreadsheets, but he is not an RMT, or a chiropractor. Neither of us are particularly good teachers, either, as it turns out.

Who makes the team?spreadsheet

Determining my fantasy quarantine team has taken up quite a bit of my imagination over the past several weeks as I itemize specific skills and discount others. Until recently I didn’t realize how handy it would be to be socially isolated with a hair stylist, or an esthetician.

And I would trade all the Excel spreadsheets in the world in order to add a fitness trainer and a nutrition coach to my roster, as all this self-isolated snacking is getting decidedly out of hand.

I also wouldn’t mind adding a bartender and a barista to my team, either.

There is room on my team for a pet groomer. I was eyeing up my husband’s electric moustache trimmer recently and noted that it was the PERFECT size for trimming the fluff around my doodle’s backside, but after a few moments of reflection I opted against it (because I’m a good person, and that would be a mean thing to do).

Mostly, though, I just miss my massage therapist. Being socially isolated with someone of his talents would be wicked handy. My home office is not ergonomic, and this momma has a neck kink like nobody’s business.

Open to trades

What do I have to trade? I’ve got a couple of budding comedians and fashion critics on the block. One of them can tell you just about everything you will ever need to know about Pokemon, and can also relate any aspect of your life to a Garfield comic. The other one will regale you with ego-boosting observations like: “What are you even wearing? Your shirt is super wrinkled and looks weird, but your hair is the worst part.” When he’s not offering up unsolicited comments on your attire, he will just jump out at you with a surprise high kick, or tackle you into a mid-afternoon wrestle-hug, which is another reason I’m on the lookout for an RMT.

Who is on your fantasy quarantine team?

Cleaning with a vengeance

I had just completed my weekly rage-clean when I paused to admire my hard work and also to reflect upon whether this style of cleaning is typical.

Am I the only one who uses anger as detergent?

Certainly, my husband and I both rage clean to different extents. I rage clean the parts of the house that people see. He rage cleans places that are used so infrequently that you forgot they were even part of the house. Like the closet under the stairs that contains our stash of gift bags, loose tissue paper, buckets of unused paint and one red hummingbird feeder. Or he’ll clean the furnace room, or the shed. I’ve even seen him rage clean a fish tank.images

During pandemic season when we’re all cooped up inside, shedding our hair and skin cells, and dirty socks in the same square footage 24-hours a day, seven days a week, I have more opportunity to observe the personal hygiene of my family, and I am frankly appalled, which means there is more rage with which to clean than ever before.

The cycle of rage cleaning

It starts with a clean house; the floors are vacuumed and mopped, the kitchen sparkles, the bathroom mirrors are free of toothpaste and fingerprints. And then little by little it starts to happen.

First, maybe there are just a few crumbs under the kitchen table, which you sweep up because at the beginning you think you’ll be able to stay on top of it. Then there’s the single sock in the middle of the family room; beside it on the table is a partially empty water glass, and before you know it a plastic cup joins it. And then you turn your head and there’s a hoodie just lying in the middle of the floor with a granola wrapper beside it. You shout. Things get picked up, but never everything, and never in a timely fashion.

Then you walk into the bathroom, and what was clean yesterday is now covered in beard trimmings and when you look down all you see are pieces of your own long brown hair on the floor; look up, and you’ll likely even find it up there attached to the ceiling. What is the hair sticking to? Nobody knows.

You Lysol wipe the counter, but those wipes are hard to come by in a pandemic. And you think about vacuuming but to vacuum you have to pick up the 700 Nerf darts and 35 dog toys that are currently scattered around the house. It all seems impossible, so you just pour yourself a glass of wine because it’s 3 pm on a Wednesday, and you head outside because at least it’s clean out there, or sort of clean, because that’s where the dirt lives, and you’re basically just visiting the dirt at its own house, which is calming.

Eventually, however, you have to come back inside because that’s where the food is. Then you decide to make dinner, but to make dinner you have to find some counter space.

They break you

And that’s when it happens. You snap. It’s taken days to get here, but your family has finally broken you, and if you don’t rage you’ll cry, and dammit, you are NOT going to be bested by these little jerks that you birthed, so you slam the cupboard doors, toss plates into the dishwasher (thanking Jesus that you bought the ugly Corelle because it’s the only thing that stands up to a rage clean), and these sounds give notice: Everybody better pitch in or get the hell outta the way, because you have lost your ever loving mind, and the rage clean has begun.

16681986_601420956729865_4856545844268361857_nThe music is loud, but the house that was filled with animals, people and noise moments ago is now empty. Children who wouldn’t leave you alone long enough to take a 20-minute teleconference have all but disappeared into the mist. They have read the mood and scattered to the winds, giving you free reign to curse them loudly while they’re out of earshot. “They are SO GROSS! How are they so DISGUSTING! They are worse than ANIMALS! GAH!”

The heart rate monitor on your smart watch is pumping, because your rage burns calories; your rage gets shit done. Your rage is ALIVE!

But it’s for the greater good

Eventually it fizzles though, and you look around and realize that your house is clean again. You’ve ordered take out. The sound of the washing machine going through its final spin cycle is a lullaby. The vacuum hose gets wound up and tucked away in the closet, the floors are now dry, so the chairs come down from on top of the kitchen table. The gangsta rap that Alexa had pumped moments ago is suddenly Jack Johnson. You can hear the birds sing outside, and when your family returns from their sudden field trip to the driveway to play basketball you greet them with a smile and a “please hang up your hoodie.”

And that’s how it begins, for me, anyway.

The guilt of pandemic parenting

The guilt of parenting during a pandemic is heavier than any weighted blanket available on Amazon, and unlike a weighted blanket which is designed to reduce anxiety and improve sleep, it ratchets it up, and gives your brain more to consider as you lay awake, completely aware of how badly you’re failing at just about everything you’re doing right now.

Where I live, we’re in Week 3 of pandemic parenting, meaning while mom and dad work full time from home, we’re also providing full-time care to our children, which includes some educational instruction.

(I’d like to pause here and acknowledge that our pandemic situation is privileged. Privilege, in this case, looks like general good health, two parents, two pay cheques (for now), food in the fridge, an ample (but not excessive) amount of toilet paper, a bit of a backyard, and more sunny days than rainy ones. There’s even an uncertified therapy dog who is happy to absorb all of the angst and fear that comes from being locked up with your loved ones for days on end.)

I always wanted children, but I also knew that stay-at-home parenting was not my jam. I love grown-ups, and swearing, and solving grown-up problems. I love leaving behind my dirty laundry and mismatched socks in favour of a quiet office that I share with a five-year old orchid that blooms semi-annually. I love the sound of the office HVAC system, and I love my other office mate, a tiny blue space heater that only sees use in summer because the HVAC system lives in Opposite Land. I love going to work, I love being at work, and I love coming home from work to see faces I would die for — faces that I’ve missed so much and thought about so many times during the day. I love the car ride home from daycare because I get to hear all of their ridiculous stories. I love sharing adventures and kid gossip at the dinner table. I love weekends because it means I can stay home with my people because I miss them so much.

I always wanted children, but I also knew that teaching was not my jam. My mother is a teacher, my sister, too. I watch both and shake my head. Where they excel, I would flounder. Judging by my parenting style, if you put me in charge of a class full of 7-year-olds I would take turns bribing them with Dino-Sours and threatening to cancel Christmas. Adults, with their manners and passive-aggressive side-eyes, don’t scare me, but children are wise and cunning. Eventually they’d figure out that my threats are as empty as the bag of Dino-Sours that I inhaled in the cloak room. At which point I’d probably just run behind a plant and hide because 1. children are terrifying, 2. I have zero teaching tools and no desire to acquire them, and 3. unlike my sister and my mother, I lack the ultimate secret weapon: A teacher voice.

I always loved the routine provided by school, daycare and work, and the thrill I got from stacking all those perfect little glass jars so they balanced so perfectly and shone so beautifully that even the stiffest wind couldn’t knock them over. And yet here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, my glass jars of routine and sanity shattered on the driveway, and I am stuck in my house, working full time, parenting full time, and teaching, too.

I’ve got to say, I’m not a huge fan.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 7.39.19 AMPandemic parenting means that I never get to miss my children, and they never get to miss each other. They are always here, always in my business and in each other’s. They wrestle constantly, stopping only when someone gets a bloody nose or a knee to the nuts, and when I suggest a directed drawing, some Reflex Math, or a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo (online, obviously), I’m met with a deep sigh and a “no thanks, I already know about hippos.”

Knees to the nuts it is, then.

And despite how much I joke about my lack of parenting skills, I always secretly thought I was pretty good at it. Until yesterday.

During my oldest child’s first Zoom videoconference with his class he opened up: “I miss everyone so much. I only ever get to talk to my little brother who argues all the time, or my mom and dad, and they’re always working.”

I overheard his comment while up in my office. Working.

And that, dear friends, is what parenting in a pandemic feels like — a heavy, weighted blanket of guilt — guilt that is bottomless and causes breathlessness even as I write it down.

 

Resolving to be a bit lazier

I could resolve to learn a new language and to play the piano, and when those two things are well in hand, I could take a stab at calligraphy and finally start to take meditating seriously.

And of course, there is all the blogging that I want to do and haven’t. And let’s not forget the parts of parenting that I should probably invest my time in. I’m pretty decent at being a mom. I think if my kids had to grade my parenting the way I am asked to evaluate my professors after each course I complete, I’d probably come out with a solid B. Maybe a B-minus.

I should spend more time reading with them, especially with my littlest, who at only seven is convinced that he’s “not a good reader,” and is “better at other things,” which breaks my heart because I know that criticisms are like concrete, whereas compliments float away like puffs of air.

I need to get back into meal planning and grocery shopping with intention! Now that I think of it, it would be responsible of me to cut down on the frequency of my visits to the liquor store, also.

I want to read more books that move me, and watch television that I get excited about. I want to phone more people more often and actually hear their voices. I want to visit my grandfather at least twice. I want to take more and better photos, and acquire more stamps for my passport.

I want to do more things and have fewer of them.

But more than all this, more than any of this, I want to just be kinder with myself, and give myself permission to do none of these things occasionally. Over the past three days without coursework or real work, I’ve had moments of absolute laziness. I’ve read books that do nothing but pass time, and consumed coffee while it’s still hot. I’ve scrolled through social media, liking and chiming in. I’ve let the laundry sit in the washing machine and rest for ages in the dryer. I’ve slopped Mr. Noodles into bowls for my children, and they’ve gobbled it up without complaint. I’ve cocooned myself in sweatpants, slippers and an oversized t-shirt with a hilariously ironic “Bodybuilding.com” emblazoned across the front.

There has been fresh air, but no frenzy. There has been activity, but no impatience. But it takes practice, this laziness. There have been moments in the quiet shuffle that I’ve looked up and felt guilty. Guilty for not doing more, better, constantly. I’ve glanced at the washing machine and felt a pang, and have reached for the vacuum only to remind myself that sometimes we need days filled with nothing. Like a factory reset.

Tomorrow, the tree comes down and the vacuum cleaner gets picked up. Tomorrow the clothes come out of the dryer, and soon after we head back to work, to school and to schedules.

Rather than resolve to get better at everything this year, I’ll resolve to become kinder to myself, and to give myself permission to do less more often. We don’t have to get smarter, cook better, learn Spanish, have an exciting social life and a rich marriage all at the same time, each and every day.

So here is to 2020. May it be full of exciting adventures, stunning sunsets, laughter and a little bit of laziness.

 

 

High anxiety parenting

The therapist leaned in, looked me in the eyes and asked:

“Who can you trust completely?”

“Myself,” I answered without thinking.

“And what can you trust yourself to do?”

“Anything,” I said. “Anything I have to.”

“So relax, Danna,” she said, leaning back into her chair. “Relax into life.”

As if it’s just that easy.

While never clinically diagnosed with anxiety, I feel it humming through my veins. As a kid I was in and out of doctors offices complaining of constant tummy aches, and I terrified my parents by refusing to eat. Who can eat when there’s so much to worry about?

Come to think of it, maybe I’m not anxious. Maybe I’m just a melodramatic worrier with an overactive imagination.

I developed little tricks that seemed to help. There were mantras I’d repeat to myself nightly before falling asleep: “Everything is going to be OK tomorrow; you are not going to die,” I’d whisper into my pillow. I had a bear that slept with me every night. His name was Bear and he had a red bowtie. I don’t know why I speak of him in past tense, because he is currently in my room.

There was a cherry tree in the front yard and when I climbed it the tummy aches would go away. It quickly became known as the Magic Tree, and a place of escape when nothing else worked.

In my 20s there were a few trips to the ER for what felt like heart attacks. A couple of Ativan later, and I was able to get through planning a wedding.

Now I’m a grown up, and a worst-case scenario parent who can no longer just run outside and climb a tree. In need of more mature solutions, I sought out professional advice.

So I go to therapy. I also exercise a lot. I’ve tried to meditate, but I usually just end up making a grocery list in my head.

For me, anxiety is like a toxic security blanket. It’s killing me, but also makes me feel normal, comfortable, and super productive. When I’m not anxious, I get anxious, as if there’s something lurking around the corner that I haven’t wised up to yet. I’ll wander the house, randomly feeling my children’s foreheads for fever, checking the calendar to make sure I’m not missing a dentist appointment. I’ll call my parents and ask after their health.

But anxiety, I’ve learned, is about perfection and control. If I’m in control of a situation, then I don’t have to worry about it. And if I can see it coming (or imagine it in advance) then I can prepare for it, making me a worst-case scenario parent.

Anxiety is helping me get ready so that I can be really GREAT when disaster strikes.

However, according to my therapist, we can control about five to 10 per cent of the events that take place in our lives. As much as we’d like to, we can’t control other people, or the choices they make. I can’t even control the temperature in my office at work. And worry isn’t magical — if I can think of a terrible situation and speak it out loud, that doesn’t prevent it from happening. Jinxing, as it turns out, isn’t a weapon against chaos.

“Who can you trust?”

It was such a simple question, with such a profound internal response.

I can trust myself. And that’s enough. That’s pretty great, actually.

I’ve watched people I love handed their own worst-case-scenarios; death or diagnosis dropped into their laps out of nowhere. They didn’t see it coming, and if they had, would it have made bearing the weight of it any easier?

It was terrible. But they handled it. They are still handling it. And while they’ll never be the same, they will be OK.

Life has shit in it, and despite how active my imagination, I won’t see it coming. There’s no bracing for it.

But when it does hit — and it will — I’ll handle it, because that’s what I do.

When we have children, our worries shift from internal to external and there seems no end to them. What if something happens to my kids? What if they’re hurt, or worse? What if they become ill, or worse? What if they’re struggling and I don’t notice?

There’s no number of miles I can run, no tree high enough to climb my way out of these anxiety-producing thoughts that keep me awake, steal my life, and make me look fucking old.

And so I’m working my way to trusting myself — trusting that when the worst of the garbage arrives to stink up my sweet life, I’ll handle it. It will suck, but I’ll be OK.

And I’ll finally be able to relax into life.

A bottomless pit of parenting guilt

If you asked my kids what they did this summer (as I’m sure their teachers did today), they’d respond with the classic, “nothing,” and further elucidate that it was “fine.”

But let me tell you, their summer has been amazing. Stupendous. Chock full of memories galore.

Funny thing, though, just as we all begin flossing two days before our semi-annual dentist visit, I busted out the home reading books and sight words four days before the start of school.

And I groaned, and mentally chastised myself for letting the book-learning slip. My littlest child, for whom reading has never come easy, struggled through words that had stars behind them when he left his classroom on that final day in June. He grew frustrated and annoyed with my choice of books, and flatly refused to sit still, insisting that he’d read with me, “tomorrow” (which coincides with the day that my diet always starts).

What have my kids done this summer?

They’ve gone swimming more times that I can count. They’ve sailed down water slides, and turned over rocks looking for crabs. They’ve scooped up fistfuls of sand in a quest for clams, and took turns announcing theirs as the biggest, or most beautiful.

They’ve trapped jellyfish in travel mugs just to watch them pulse, and named them before setting them free. They strapped on lifejackets and paddled out into the surf in a kayak, one of them spotting a family of otters along the beach.

They’ve visited with grandmas and grandpas and aunties and uncles and cousins and even a great grandpa who refused to turn up his hearing aid so he couldn’t hear about great adventures, but warned us loudly (as he always does) to visit more, because he won’t last much longer.

They stayed up way past their bedtimes, and rode bikes and scooters in the neighbourhood with friends. They’ve bobbed around on lakes, and learned how to do backflips into pools. They’ve gone camping; they’ve eaten in restaurants and around fires.

I’ve ensured that they’ve experienced summer, its sunsets, its weird bugs and its skinned knees. They still smell of sunscreen even after they’ve bathed, or maybe they just smell of sunshine?

They’ve been healthy. There have been zero trips to the doctor, or late nights with big bowls. There have been no fevers, coughs, or stuffed noses.

But as the new school dawns I have so much guilt — not for the things we did do, but for the things we didn’t.

When our routine went out the window, so did the homework. Teachers ask us every year to keep up the great work, and to practice over the summer, but we didn’t, and that’s on me.

As is the case with so much of parenting, it’s easier to dwell on the activities that you didn’t do than it is to congratulate yourself for all of the things that you did. Contriving such amazing experiences requires boatloads of effort, and quite a bit of cash. Nightly reading and flossing is cheap by comparison.

But what does dental hygiene have to do with literacy? Guilt.

The guilt kicked in during a visit to the dentist last week where several cavities were detected. It was in this moment of handwringing that I began tallying up all the other ways I’ve failed my sweet children. Flossing. Reading. Probably not enough vegetables. They went to Sunday school with their grandma twice though, so that had to count for something.

How did I let this happen? Was it too many campfire marshmallows, and not enough gargling around the fire? Probably.

While looking into my child’s mouth the dentist saw the thing I didn’t do well enough, not the 999 incredible things I did. When my children head back to school this week, their teachers will sigh and see where I cut corners. They may even imagine my nightly refrain: “That’s OK. You’re tired. We’ll read tomorrow.”

And the guilt makes my tummy hurt.

So, here’s to the start of the new school year, the start of a routine that includes fewer campfires and jellyfish, and more vowels and fractions. Let’s give a cheer to those food groups we’ll welcome back into our lives again, and for the oral health that will once again take centre stage.

Mind you, if you were to ask my children what they did this summer, and they answered, “brush, floss, and practice sight words,” I’d probably get a failing grade also.

There’s no climbing out of this bottomless pit of parenting guilt.