Blog #15: Nice VS. Cool

drew and grace

For most of my life, I sneered at the word, “nice.” Nice was boring, subservient, and docile. In the words of Deborah Adele, it required the “packaging of self in a presentable box, imposed by an outer authority.” Yuck. Cool people laughed at authority. They were real and raw. Their hair was dyed purple and shaped like dinosaur scales three feet above their scalps. Cool people didn’t have jobs. They sold paintings of angry faces on sidewalks and played bass in bars at night. They were not afraid to yell at anyone, not their mom, a cop, or a stranger walking a dog across the street.

At forty-five, I am finally recognizing this attitude as naïve and even arrogant. “Nice” is not fake; it is not cowardly; it is not manipulation for control. It is, actually, a sign of great will and big heart. It requires that one rein in one’s impulsive reactions enough to give others a chance to express their own feelings. It values others’ lives as well as well as one’s own.

In seventh grade, I decided to be cool. Actually, I decided to try really hard to be cool. My recipe for success was (1) don’t talk much, (2) sneer often, (3) never smile. The first day I blew it by 7:30 AM when I said a cheery greeting to the school principal, who shook hands with students at the door every morning. The second day I made it to lunch, but then plummeted into non-coolness by joining two younger kids sword fighting with French fries. I couldn’t even be cool around David Stevens, a majestic eighth grader with black hair and blue eyes. During recess when he deigned to say hello, I smiled back like a stewardess and sang, “Hellllloooooo to you, toooooo!!!!!”

By the end of the week, I quit. “I’m happy, I like school, I’m not cool.” I wrote the words in red in my math notebook, defeated. Yet I remained haunted by images of cool people, those tubercular looking, long limbed adolescents who flaunted crappy grades and smoked everything. They hated their parents, their teachers, their country. And they were mean. Cool people loved standing in corners laughing in ways that made everyone else feel like they’d stepped in dog poo – or were dog poo. Sarcasm, exclusion, and derision – these were their hallmark qualities, with wits sharp enough to cut through flesh. I could never be like them, but if I could have had long black hair, tall black boots and an attitude to match, I would have.

Only now can I finally see that not nice is not cool. Sarcasm and arrogance are signs of small hearts and narrow minds. Nice is regal. Smiling at people for no reason is a gesture that promises, “I think the best of you and invite you to say hello.” Chatting kindly with others is a generous way to share one’s life. Giving compliments is a powerful way to help a stranger or friend.

“I really like your pants,” I remember a cool person saying to me during a sixth grade mythology class.

“Thanks,” I said back, smoothing a hand over my new pants’ soft navy ridges.

“Do you own anything other than corduroy?”

I was about to say, No, I just love it so much, when I looked up at the cool person’s face. She wasn’t smiling; she was sneering. Then I looked at her friend, who was sneering, too. I wished right then for words to flare like fire out my mouth to scorch their pretty white noses. I wasn’t blessed with a quick wit, though, so I just dropped my red face towards the books on my desk. I never reached for those pants again with the same sense of dazzle.

How can I as a parent protect my kids from cool kids? How do I inspire them to choose being nice rather than trying to be cool? Our culture is overrun by not-nice people as much as any junior high. Sarcasm and derision are practiced by all media, most celebrities, far too many politicians, and just about every pop singer out there. Why and when did such character traits become synonymous with cool?

Who is brave enough to be earnest in public? Who can use words to portray direct meaning and look you in the eyes while speaking? Who cares about saying please and thank you and waiting for a turn to speak? Who chooses to value others’ feelings as much as one’s own?

These manners matter; they can even save marriages. My partner Eric and I have been together for twelve years. It took us ten to realize we didn’t need to express exactly how we feel exactly when we feel it. Eric is an entrepreneur and has lots of ideas. I have various feelings about some of those ideas, and I have learned not to articulate all of them. Time will choose which of Eric’s ideas we end up discussing on a practical level. “Are you f–ing crazy?” is not cool to say to someone who’s sharing his imagination while looking at the moon through a window. Neither is the sarcastic remark, “Geez, why didn’t I think of that?” Worst of all, when I am mean and dismissive, my kids pick up on it immediately and start winging barbed comments at each other with perfect emulation.

I dare every one of us – young and old – to uphold the values of “nice.” Live these values and speak up for them. Nice is cool. It is also powerful, more so than the rage that has us throwing insults at others like grenades. I’ve grown up from the sixth grade girl who put her head down and can now wield language with a bit of heft. But this skill doesn’t improve my life or anyone else’s. And isn’t that why we humans are here on this spinning globe, to enhance the experience of life for ourselves and others? For my children, for myself, for you, and for your children, I answer YES.

 

#14: Forty-Five is Fierce & Fabulous

Mikah sword blog

 

I would like to interview you! My goal is to interview forty 40+ moms over the next year to include in a new book, Fun & Fabulous: New Moms 40+, which celebrates mature moms around the world. Motherhood is sensual, sexual, playful, spontaneous, and the stories of this book are designed to help moms 40+ parent and play at our best.

In my early forties, I could not grow the way others expected. My son and daughter were out of diapers, I’d earned tenure at a local college, and my partner and I had finished building our family home (almost). What would be my next adventure? Write a book, travel to Europe, buy goats, party like a teenager?

What I wanted was another baby.

“NO!” Friends and family called me crazy. One said, “You’re too poor, too old, and too tired.” I couldn’t argue with his words: my income was essential to my family’s budget, I was past traditional childbearing years, and lack of sleep often left me haggard.

My heart insisted on a baby, though. I had no rational reason – just a deep feeling. At forty-three, I took a year’s leave from work and threw out all my birth control paraphernalia. Christmas Eve 2013, Eric and I took a home pregnancy test, and I can still feel our hands entwining as we watched those two blue lines emerge.

Did I jump with joy? Yes, of course!

I also felt sick with fear. Had I made a choice that jeopardized the happiness and even the survival of my family? The facts of my life hadn’t changed: my family still needed me to earn income, I was now nearing forty-five, and I was super tired.

Just as daunting as my own fear was the reception of the nurse-midwife at the hospital. I was eight weeks pregnant when I arrived for my first appointment. Miscarriage, placenta failure, and stillbirth were the first subjects for discussion; genetic testing and termination were the second.

Books and electronic media regarding AMA (Advanced Maternal Age) were equally doomsday. Not only did they declare me an anomaly: most literature also warned me of how hard my job as a parent would be “at my age.” Parenting books for moms 40+ are depressing! I felt clobbered by litanies of complaints, coloring parenting as the most exhausting, isolating, and relentless of endeavors.

I knew right away I needed support – yet it was hard to find. Even though the number of moms giving birth after age forty has risen fourfold over the last thirty years, mainstream culture portrays moms 40+ as odd, unnatural, and less-than. We need and deserve literature that celebrates mature moms as fun and fabulous!  

Because I can’t find such literature, I am writing it.

The book consists of four sections: Pre-conception & 2 Blue Lines; Pregnancy & Birth, Infants & Toddlers, and Growing up with Children. Recipes for aphrodisiacs and sustained energy blend with personal stories of romance and birth. Voices of children and teens add humor to the chapters on toddler time and children’s education. Mainly, the book is a forum where moms talk to moms, giving each other inspiration, comfort, and a whole lot of laughs.

Maybe a certain section calls out to you: Want to talk about raising a teen at age fifty-five? Want to describe birth at age forty-five? Did you ever seek out childcare? What are your favorite games to play with a toddler? Any aspect of motherhood that delighted you or challenged you is perfect material for Fun & Fabulous.

To contact me, my email address is best: ssilbert@vtc.edu. I look forward to your stories!

Please note: My calendar has filled for interviews until May 1. After that, I would be thrilled to set a date with you.

 

#13: Daring Dream

 

drew and mikah 2

 

The worst mistake I committed as a parent was assuming babies arrived into the world as “new humans” and that my job was to teach my baby how to fit into my world. I was a college professor, writer, and homeowner, and it never occurred to me that my baby wouldn’t fit into my scheme of teaching, writing, and completing chores. I lined up daycare providers. I bought bottles and rented a breast pump. I even accepted a tutoring job to help with the extra expenses of having a child.

As soon as he was born, Drew astounded me with his sharp elfin features and whimsical humor. For three days I held him, utterly raw with love. He lay on my chest, and we breathed together – inhale, exhale – and the sensation of his heart against mine propelled me beyond any experience I’d ever imagined. Who was this boy? Was this boy my boy? Was he here to stay? I felt incredulous, lost to a dream.

Yet I did not choose to live in this dream. One week passed, and I begged for a second week “to be with my baby,” but by week three, I was back to tutoring, co-caring for my four year old stepdaughter, and preparing for an abrupt return to my professorship. Poor Drew! Weeks melted away, and before he was three months old, we were waking every week day at 4 AM to get ready for our pre-dawn journeys to the college. While I taught, he stayed at a friend’s house with her three kids or with neighbors. I am forever grateful to this friend and these neighbors for caring for my son, but the pain of not being with my baby eclipsed all other feelings. After our long days apart, we were both tired, and once home, Drew often slept while I prepared dinner and read library books to my stepdaughter.

It hurts to write these words, even nine years later. I see so clearly that while I was achieving in the material world, emotionally I was bankrupt. I was cheating my son of the best gift human life has to offer – the gift to discover one self and one’s gifts for the world. Drew wasn’t able to explore himself or his surroundings in depth because we were always whisking away somewhere. And I wasn’t able to tune into his emerging selfhood or focus on our relationship. A baby is a whole human being – body, psyche, memory, wishes – and parents need oodles of time to get to know such a unique creature. They need an entire lifetime! When Drew turned one, I remember such sadness blanketing the day. A year had passed? It felt shorter than a season! And my boy, my dear boy, he still seemed more mystery than family to me. How had I let so much time pass in this way?

Looking back, I see that I did try to change the pace of my life. I just didn’t succeed. I remember one moment when Drew was four months old. He hadn’t been feeling well, and his dad had taken the day off from work to be with him. I’d left around 6 AM to teach but simply could not discipline my mind to focus. My brain felt like a swarm of agitated bees. I came home at lunch unexpectedly: I just wanted to see my son.

He and his dad were on our bed. Sunlight shone extravagantly through the bay window, filling the room. Drew was tummy-down over his dad’s legs, rocking forward and back the way babies do before they learn to crawl. He was wearing a short-sleeved, white onesie, and his legs and arms looked so small, supernaturally so. I walked up to these two men – my new family – and reached out to touch Drew. Wordlessly, I trailed a finger along his thigh, marveling that my hand could extend from hip to knee with an inch to spare. His skin was still as soft as it was on his birthday. I remember tears, so many of them, as I sat next to my firstborn child and his dad, still staring in silence, drinking them in. I was always so busy dressing Drew up to go somewhere, or trying to change his diaper as he played with his toes, or bathing him late at night when we were both tired and the house was cold. I hadn’t had a languid moment like this one, where we just touched in the daylight.

Drew’s dad and I talked that day in the sun. We weren’t happy with our relationship or with how we were raising our son. Warmth was missing. Exuberance. Fun. Trust. Our list of loss was long. We knew we needed more time together as a family to experience these qualities, but changing our schedules meant changing our lives.

We began slowly. I requested a different class schedule for the following semester to allow for more time at home; I also resolved to spend the summer devoted to Drew and his dad and not to write or tutor. After a year, Eric resigned from his job 65 miles away and started his own contracting company at home. Baby steps one after the other brought us closer to our child and to each other. Now Drew is nine and has a six year old sister and newborn brother. I have taken two year’s leave from my professorship to live at home and be with all my children more on their terms. I’m as enchanted sitting next to Drew on the couch watching him design on graph paper a new Dungeons and Dragons scenario as I am to see his little brother learn to use his fingers to pick up a rattle. At last I have learned: it is not my job as a parent to teach my babies how to grow into adults like me. Rather, I need to learn how to lay down my goals and even my standards at least long enough to see them discovering their own.

The tragedy is that so many, many parents have no choice. Their jobs are hard and long, and they cannot afford a break. And when they can create a change of schedule, a lot of time will have passed. I will never know Drew as an infant the way I wish I could have; that time is gone. Could I have made different choices? If I had, I don’t know if I would have been able to hold onto my current home or had anymore children. I don’t know where I’d be.

The point of this blog is not to recite the limits of reality. Finances make choices for us, and we can’t deny that. But I am writing to inspire us to think “out of bounds,” if only for a moment, so we may understand more ideal ways of living and parenting. If we cannot achieve these ideals in our lifetime, can we at the very least make them more accessible for the next one, and for our children’s children?

 

#12: Parenting Hardcore

failure revised

 

Almost every force in our culture works against families. Parents do not know how to protect children from crime, media, poverty, alcohol and bad company.  They can no longer give their children childhoods.

Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other           

 

Is our job as parents to protect our children from our inherited culture or to initiate them into it? Sociologists and psychologists argue why both choices are important, and at the moment, I feel straddled between them. I’ve always leaned towards the protection side of parenting: I’m devoted to giving my kids childhoods, which for me requires a sense of safety as well as support for adventure. I even monitor G-rated movies, screening for sharks, sarcasm, and guns. Yet as my kids grow (and grow and grow!), I’m hearing a call to change.

I was thirteen when I first woke up to the raw suffering of those outside my circle of friends and family. Ronald Reagan was President and that year shut down most of the cities’ homeless shelters. I lived in Washington DC, where he also closed a major mental institution with no plan for its handicapped residents. Overnight, it seemed, the sidewalks filled with people who were desperate, destitute, and in many cases insane. I rode the public bus from school and at the station began seeing more and more homeless men and women. Some had no shoes. Some didn’t even have legs. I was beyond horrified: how could our country allow such suffering? How could anyone?

Within a month, I had dedicated myself to the cause of the homelessness and was often either serving food from a van labeled “Martha’s Table” or volunteering at a shelter for 1,400 residents. The physical and emotional suffering I encountered was overpowering: adults and children were sick, cold, hungry, and so, so sad. I cried more that first year than I had my entire life. Most of my existence as girl, student, and daughter felt eclipsed by the anguish and urgency I faced.

At college, I continued my efforts, where I spent nights at a smaller nearby shelter. Nothing I did seemed to matter: despite my long hours, people’s illness and anger and sorrow continued. After my sophomore year, I left college to volunteer for Mother Theresa in Calcutta where I hoped to learn how to be a better helper and how to handle others’ suffering more gracefully. What I learned instead was that homelessness is a ubiquitous and global issue, not a national one.  In Washington D.C. where I might walk by ten homeless in a day, in India I would pass more than a hundred.

I gave up seeking any kind of large scale solace and returned to my own country where I began to focus more on homeless people my own age. “Every heartbeat matters,” a disciple of Mother Theresa had said. I got a job teaching full-time at a home for teenage runaways and felt a kinship with these young people that gave me hope: like them I was disgusted with what our country allowed (and caused!), and I wanted to find a way to change it. Isn’t that the job of youth – to challenge authority and create a better world than the one we inherited? Passionately, I wanted to fulfill this charge and on weekends began to write a novel of a teenage runaway graffiti artist. My plan was to sell the book and use its profits to travel cross-country while offering creative writing workshops at runaway shelters all over America. But my book failed; no agent wanted it. I revised it over and over again, but the book kept getting rejected, and I began to wonder if I could succeed at helping anyone, including myself.

By thirty, I was losing faith – not just in the book and in myself, but also in the mere possibility of change. I was engaged to a man who had leukemia, and caring for him became all I could do. He endured two bone marrow transplants, numerous rounds of chemo, full body irradiation, and several experimental treatments. None of these treatments cured his leukemia, and he died when I was thirty-five.

What did I learn during my first three and a half decades? In my darkest moments, I could summarize my life lessons succinctly:

  1. All property and security can disappear suddenly;
  2. Life is fragile and fleeting;
  3. People will pass you by even when you ask for help.

When I became a mother, my instinct was to protect my children from all the harshness I perceived in the world. I yearned to nestle my babies in blankets, to nurse them, and to kiss them indefinitely. Reality demanded otherwise, and I will never forget packing my first two-week old newborn in a car seat and heading off to work, crying as desperately as he. But ever since that day, I have fought passionately to change my circumstances so I can nurture my babies as I originally wished. I didn’t want them in daycare. I didn’t want cold wind in their faces. I didn’t want unmonitored media playing anywhere near them. I wanted them safe and with me.

Ten years have since passed, and at last, I am finally able to work more at home than out of it. My happiest moments are when I am with all three of my children, my nine year old son Drew, my six year old daughter Grace, and my newborn son Mikah. We live on forestland by a river in Vermont, and many of our days are spent exploring the countryside, then resting inside by the fire. I like our pace to be peaceful, not harried. I like to hold my children close.

And guess what! It’s time to change.

Two of my kids aren’t babies anymore. Drew and Grace don’t always choose kisses over a challenge. They don’t always want to snuggle. They have long and skinny legs, and they are using them to stride into this very wild world. And I am panicking.

I noticed the change last year. Drew, Grace and I were driving to school, and our usual pop station took a break from music to offer news. I wasn’t paying attention until Drew asked, “Why would a navy officer gun down his own soldiers?”

“What?” I tried to tune in. I was newly pregnant and prone to moments of distraction.

“Who shot people?” Grace chimed in.

“I don’t know how many,” Drew said, “but it sounds like a lot.”

When I tried to change the station, both children screamed for me to stop. They wanted to know the story.

Since this moment, I’ve been trying to catch up to their call. They don’t want to be sheltered: at least, they don’t think they do. Meanwhile, I’m still dealing with my sense that the world is really, really scary. Have I lost my courage to take on the world’s suffering even as my children are asking me to lead them into it?

I don’t have a solution yet. I’ve only just been able to identify the problem. But I do know that parenting is about following our dreams, not our excuses. My kids are waking my old dreams up, and I need to do something about them. I also need to share with my kids more of myself – my past, my edges, my passion to help, even my rage. I can’t be mere shelter for them anymore; I am now also their flight pilot, soaring with them into open air.

A hardcore parent is not one who fights hard to keep the world at bay: it is one who gives her children the metal they need to meet that world with ideals and live them, come what may. I have written myself a list of baby steps, so I can follow through on my own ideals and not just think about them. With my whole family, I want to…

  1. Listen to the news and discuss it regularly (weekly, that is, not daily);
  2. Engage in hands-on helping for causes we are especially passionate about;
  3. Travel to a city outside of our country for a service-project we choose together.

Sometimes, I read this list, and I choose to clean the kitchen floor or take my kids outside for a hike rather than to do what it dictates. But they’re out in the world now – my words and my kids – and I’m choosing to follow them, even if at a slow pace. My job is to teach my kids to embrace the light, and also, when necessary, to battle the dark.

 

Blog #11: Zombie Beauty

beauty_zombie

 

It’s like a job now, trying. In my tweens and twenties, I had it easier. Small and blond didn’t require a lot of work. Black jeans, a boyfriend’s t-shirt, and hair left loose was okay back then, maybe even cute. Now I’m a few months away from forty-five and “cute” is another country on the other side of the ocean. My face is as wrinkled and worn as the sheets of my unmade bed, and the lids of my eyes sag down like those ratty roll-down shades used only in cheap dorm rooms. I see hair brittle as a hand-made broom from a set on Little House on the Prairie, and the skin on my neck looks like it belongs on an elephant’s knee, not on me.

There is work to be done, for sure! But with three kids in the house plus a newborn, how do begin?

Shaving my legs, for example, is like trying to tackle Sisyphus’s stone. Monday I might manage to drag a razor up and down my calf six times before the baby – alone with a rattle on the bathmat – begins to whimper. Tuesday, I’ll finish that calf and get to the thigh, but on Wednesday no shower will occur. Thursday, too, because one older kid has a cold and the other has a soccer game, and I have an editing project due at the end of the week. By Sunday, Eric is home and can hold the baby while I shower the other leg, but I need to cook cornbread for a potluck, catch up on laundry, and I’m still struggling to get the editing project in the mail.

Whenever I do manage to finish this shaving expedition, more than a week will have passed, and all the parts I already took care of will be sprouting into goat tufts all over again!

All tasks involving my appearance are now this difficult. Try plucking your eyebrows with your right hand while holding a spunky baby kicking his legs in your left. It’s no easier asking someone else to do it: making appointments involving phone, car, and five family members’ schedules is like planning a sit-down dinner party for fifteen (and three of them have food allergies!).

And what about a wardrobe? In the last decade, I have had three selves to dress three times – the pre-pregnant one (a bit scarecrow shaped), the pregnant one (balloon sized), and the post-pregnant one (partially deflated balloon sized). My closet is full of hand-me-downs in white plastic bags donated by generous friends, and I continually resolve to organize the whole lot of them, but instead, I grab the same well-worn sweatpants and t-shirt off the floor and pull them on while the baby squalls for a diaper change. Hardly elegant. Far from cool. Definitely not head-turning!

As a college student  in my late teens, I found solace from peer pressure and academic anxiety in the public pool. I swam sometimes for hours, diving down deep in water that felt blue and cool and eternally welcoming. I loved showering in the locker room afterwards, too. I was usually the only person my age in there: all other women were retirees over sixty, sometimes even in their eighties. Their skin was mottled with blotches of purple, brown, or red, and everything sagged – breasts, arms, buttocks, everything. The skin on their bodies was as wrinkled as a pug dog’s. Their hair was short, white or gray, with bald patches, and almost everyone’s feet looked red and sore.

I absolutely loved looking at these women. Their limbs were entirely unique in shape and texture, as interesting as stones on a rocky coast shaped by waves and wind. If I’d been an artist, I would have painted them in watercolors, swirling my brush in a thousand varying shades, creating curves and shadows for every feature. Time had erased the homogeneity caused by these women striving in their youth for a singular media ideal. What lay underneath was the truth of how these women had lived, the accumulated treasure of their lives.

My time in the pool and locker room inspired me to strive for health more than glamour. My peers’ reckless dieting and manic exercising seemed silly, and anti-wrinkle cream was unmasked as a scheme of the Emperor’s advisors. What mattered, I realized, was who could walk across the tiles without slipping, and who could bend down to towel off her ankles, and whose fingers were nimble enough to do up her own buttons. I could guess at who’d smiled more and who had swallowed resignation too often. I knew who’d be fun to sit and chat with for an afternoon.

Twenty-five years after attending college, I now teach at one. I still love to swim and do so often in the college pool. I wonder if my students in the locker room see me as I saw those “older” women. Are they enchanted, or horrified? Am I akin to an intriguing nature film, or a zombie movie?

Whatever their take, beauty is no longer something I can aspire to on a superficial level. And why would I? Why aspire to appearing untouched by life? I’ve been walking this planet for forty-five years: that’s almost half a century! Can’t I be proud of that? Any of us still alive should know by now that survival itself is a beautiful triumph. I’ve buried enough friends and family at this point to know my existence is a fragile, glimmering treasure, which is a fine enough definition of beauty for me.

Of course, I’ll still struggle to find time to shave my legs and deep condition my hair. I hope to paint my nails for the holidays. I’ll try to remember to throw a colorful scarf around my neck when Eric and I go out for dinner tomorrow, our first date in a month. But I don’t want to get too serious about this beauty stuff, except for the beauty inside me, the spirit that lasts.

 

 

 

 

Blog #10: Finances

sarah writing


Thank you to all who have written to me about my last blog, both publically and privately. We parents are 100% united in feeling that our busy days and nights eclipse romance. We would love more time to enjoy each other’s souls and bodies, but many of us are working two or more jobs and have three or more children. Bills add up to more than we can earn with family-friendly hours.

I have no answer for this dilemma. But I can offer this unfinished story:
* * *

At forty, I could not grow the way others expected. I was two years away from being reviewed for a Full Professorship, and both my kids were out of diapers, close to entering school. People expected me to be joyful. I could resume my creative writing, teach more workshops, deepen my yoga practice – anything!

But what I wanted was another baby.

Friends and family told me: “NO!” One beloved family member said, “You’re too poor, too old, and too tired.” He meant it lovingly: he wanted my children and me to live well. My income was essential to my family’s budget, I was passed traditional childbearing years, and lack of sleep often left me haggard. Logic inspired his words.

My heart insisted on its yearning, though. I wrestled with it for years, but my heart refused to change. At forty-three, I quit fighting, threw out all my birth control paraphernalia, and Miracle Mikah arrived. On Christmas Eve, Eric and I took a home pregnancy test to confirm what we already knew, and I will forever remember holding his hands while watching those two blue lines emerge.

Did I jump with joy? Sing hymns to the heavens? Yes, of course!

I also felt sick with fear – terror really – that I had made a choice that jeopardized the happiness and even the survival of my family. The facts of my life hadn’t changed – and they still haven’t now that Mikah is born. My family still needs me to earn income every month, I’m half a year away from fort-five, and I’m super tired. Like most parents I know, I confront financial worries at least ten times a day, and these worries often expand into raw panic. My heart beats faster and faster until it’s like a herd of kids galloping down a school hallway when the recess bell rings. Only all this stampeding isn’t taking me outdoors; it’s leading me to a No-Exit classroom where I start crunching numbers compulsively. I add the property taxes, the car insurance, the house insurance and the health insurance; I average costs of meals per week and meals per month; I wonder about braces and birthday parties and summer camps. On and on I calculate: how much will gas prices rise, why does my landline cost so much, what if another flood hits and we have trouble pulling logs out of our woods for winter heat?

My concerns are valid. Since the market collapse of 2008, economic insecurity has marked all but the highest of class levels in the US. Jobs are disappearing, and so are companies and even entire career paths. Meanwhile, the basic materials we need to survive are costing more and more – primarily heating, healthcare, and food. The prices of private education and higher education, which some people also consider essential, are escalating, too.

However, here’s a more important truth: Losing hours a day to fear about finances sabotages life. I don’t want my baby to feel this toxic adrenaline; I don’t want my children to absorb it or emulate it. In my heart, I know a better way of navigating survival for my family exists. I am on a quest to find it and walk it.

I am challenging myself to recognize that faith is a valid choice even when it comes to financial survival. This last year, as Mikah gained size and form within me, I chose to believe that with this new miracle of life would arrive miracles of opportunity. So many people heard the words “pregnant” or “baby” from my mouth and immediately responded: “How are you going to support it? Will you use daycare?” But babies are not just an income drain or objects in need of daily care. Babies are gifts from the grand source of life itself, and along with them come grace and generosity and new beginnings. With concentrated effort, I am choosing to believe in the full cycle of life and its blessings, and I am doing my best to be sensitive and awake to any new opportunities for my family’s welfare that might come along with our new baby.

Two of my most favorite teachers and healers articulate this faith. Gurmukh, a master international teacher for pre and post-natal care, tells her own story. She acknowledges how material fears can grip new moms within seconds of realizing they are pregnant:

I remember the first thoughts that flashed through my head when I knew for sure I was pregnant: The first was, “Thank you dear God! This is a miracle! This is the happiest day of my whole life!” But it was followed by the little gremlins of worry, “How am I going to do this? I’m too old! I’m too nutty! We don’t have enough money! Where will we live? I’m scared! I’m confused! I don’t know anything! Will my baby be healthy?”

Despite such reasonable fears, Gurmukh insists that if one can choose faith instead of panic, blessings will follow. For herself, she chose to live in a tent in a friend’s backyard so she and her husband could save money while searching for a perfect apartment for their new family:

I trusted from the bottom of my heart that God would give us a little home…And that’s what He did – we called it the “bird’s nest,” because it was so snug. By the end of my ninth month, I could barely get in and out of the bathroom, let alone fit in front of the sink, but it was home, and that was where I gave birth…Your babies bring gifts with them – houses, jobs, opportunities, things you never imagined!

I keep this last line, written in my own handwriting, on cards placed throughout my home and in whatever books I am reading. I believe it; I just need reminding very often!

Another midwife and birth educator, Rima Starr, provides a similar message in her book, The Healing Power of Birth:

A child increases my financial, physical, and spiritual abundance. The child brings another loving divine being into life. As this love extends into the physical world, you will manifest more of what you need.

Rima’s quote promises that just as we can manifest new life within our wombs, we can generate support for that life with effort and intention. Why would any of us choose to believe differently about our babies and about our children? In our hearts, I am sure we all do believe this basic tenet, that our children are miracles, and we are lucky to have them, and the divine beings of the world would not have delivered them to us if we were not meant to care for them and could care for them. The challenge is to maintain faith and to stay open to the various opportunities that will come our way while also tending to daily necessities. I have made myself a “chart” to help me maintain such balance:

1st – Establish a daily practice to buoy your faith and stick to it no matter what. It could be a daily walk outside, a special homemade desert with your children, ten minutes of journal writing, or a quiet moment at night to water your house plants. Whatever the ritual, give it to yourself unconditionally. As you perform it, feel your heart soar into a sense of wellness and security. Let yourself repeat a mantra that feels perfect for your situation. I like this one – My baby is a miracle, and more miracles are manifesting in my life here and now. I embrace every one!

2nd – Take care of business as best you can and write a weekly budget, a monthly budget, and an annual budget. Include everything that feels essential to you –taxes, health care bills, your children’s birthday presents, your annual spring trip to visit relatives, everything. Next, mark down your expected income on a weekly, monthly and yearly schedule. The hard part is the third step – balancing the two! My advice is that you do not try to increase income until you have cut every bit of expense that you can. Time with your baby is its own wealth. Don’t be afraid to give up items that feel necessary. Remember, Gurmukh lived in a tent for four months and then chose an apartment that wasn’t much bigger. She was happy, though, and grateful, and she remained debt free. Respect the value of living in the black.

3rd – Create a circle of friends and meet with them regularly, whether that is once a month or once a week. The power of a group can be awesome. Let the theme of this group be prosperity and allow each member at least fifteen minutes to discuss a particular wish, what the member has done to achieve that wish, and ways the member could use assistance in manifesting that wish. Many times the group will have ideas or resources that are the exact answer to one member’s wish! Do not underestimate the power of meeting with kindred spirits on a regular basis. Our economy has become so destabilized that basic safety nets no longer exist: let our clasped hands be our new net.

4th – Write a gratitude list every day. Best-selling author Rhonda Byrne suggests writing a list of ten items, people or experiences that you are most grateful for at the end of each day. After each item, inscribe the words “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and feel gratitude as you do so. The theory behind this practice is that you are filling your heart with a sense of prosperity and appreciation rather than lack. Such kind feelings attract more good fortune, while negativity and complaints tend to repel people and blessings.

I cannot claim to be living up to all four of these passages of advice, but I sure am trying! It would be easy for me to dismiss my ideas regarding faith and finances as flimsy and insubstantial when it comes to dire need, but too many admirable mamas can testify otherwise. I have met many along my journey who support their families under extremely challenging circumstances – and they are doing it, chin-up! My heart insists I follow their inspiring lead…and I am trying, one step at a time.

Blog #9: The Glue, Postpartum

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I am always electrified after birth. Sleep: who needs it? All I crave is to absorb my baby through my pores, touching, smelling, listening, and staring at him all hours of day and night. I am equally infused with passion for my partner, the father and co-creator of this new being. My favorite moments are when Eric and I hold onto each other and our new child together, all of us full of wonder, curiosity, and gratitude, a perfect circle.

This euphoria lasts a month or two.

People often arrange for household help for the week after a baby is born, but I find help is needed much more urgently after a month or more. At this point, all adrenaline has drained away, friends and family have returned their focus on their own lives, and all I’m left with is myself – and that “self” is absurdly under-slept, trying to manage a taxing job, large family and eclectic household with a newborn in my arms or in a front-pack.

What’s tough about infanthood is that it offers no breaks. I can go without a night’s sleep. I can miss meals and work on my feet all day. What undoes me is when these circumstances s-t-r-e-t-c-h out into one month after another. I really like my “me-moments:” a hot bath, a silent walk in the woods, a bowl of popcorn accompanied by a yummy romance novel. Infanthood denies such delights for an indefinitely long period of time, and without replenishment, I succumb to exhaustion. Fatigue becomes the deepest of ravines, and I am at its bottom gazing at sides so sheer and steep I lose hope of ever climbing out.

Parents are survivors, though, and with the rest of us, I keep on keeping on. I get a little “snappy,” though. I laugh less frequently, and the laugh is pretty sorry, more like a sigh than a hearty hoo-haw. My remarks get a little negative, even dark – especially during fussy hour. All too suddenly, I’m feeling neither lovable nor loving. I can’t be tough on my kids, so my partner gets cut by my sharp moods. That’s when trouble hits, an undeniable erosion of the glue between us.

What holds parents together? Eric and I share a dozen responsibilities together – children, a large extended family, our land, an expanding homestead, various artistic projects we’re in the middle of – but none of these are our “glue.” They’re mere practicalities. What holds us together is our passion for each other, and this passion is inexplicable. It’s deep and personal and powerful. It’s a treasure we share with each other exclusively. It lends itself to fantasy, secrecy, enchantment, release, relief, and – of course – delightful pleasures. The problem occurs when the responsibilities crowd out the passion. Without this passion – the glue- Eric and I are just two business partners holding up a growing and demanding enterprise – and we all know enterprises can be disbanded, its members replaced.

Our modern world can be taxing, especially for parents. It makes us tired. Our jobs are stressful and require longer hours than a mere five years ago; schools are underfunded asking for evermore volunteering from us; and kids-kids-kids – can you ever love them enough? In Vermont, we also have a plethora of outdoor have-to’s, from chopping wood to harvesting crops to plowing driveways and fixing cars wrecked by bad roads. Add a baby to the list, and the Tower of Pisa comes falling down!

What I’ve learned with my third child is that we parents have to fight back, fight hard and scrappy. This material world is not allowed to steal away our passion and its pleasures!

When my middle child was born, I gave way to the fatigue. My passion for anything withered like leaves on a tree and fell to the ground leaving me bare and gray. Some nights I avoided Eric and huddled on the dingy couch I called “my cocoon,” eating popcorn or pretzels and reading syrupy novels. My job as a professor exhausted and demoralized me because I could never assist my students or finish all my projects to the standards I held. As a mom, I also felt like a failure because I wasn’t with my kids enough or nurturing them as attentively as I wished. Fatigue morphed into a sense of helplessness that felt like grief, and I withdrew from everyone, especially my partner.

This period was not a good one in my relationship, as you can imagine. Eric and I grew cool too each other, then dismissive, then derisive, and we almost lost our family. I am ashamed to admit that we talked about separating several times, and the conversations were not threatening: they were very, very real.

I look back at this time and cannot believe how entirely stupid we were. To destroy a family is to launch on one of the most serious of wars, inflicting lifelong pain and loss on both sides. Eric and I had loved each other for nine years and created two children together; we had a home and a circle of dreams in common. How could we risk all these blessings and toss them off to a loss in time?

The answer, obviously, is that we weren’t enjoying the passion that had drawn us together originally. Instead, we were letting work and household tasks take up all our time and energy. When we’d first met, our passion for each other had inspired us each to rally to the other’s side whenever a challenge loomed. Now, we sat slumped in our own malaise. We are so very lucky that circumstances changed and helped us change, too.

I remember the night our healing began, Christmas Eve, when we were visiting my parents in Washington DC. We’d enjoyed three days of good food, rest, and long walks to various playgrounds, and that night, my parents had agreed to put the kids to bed, so we could buy a few more knickknacks for stockings. The stars were incredible that night, even in the city. The air was crisp, just so “winter,” and Eric took my bare hand in his as we walked to the car. His hands are rough and strong, and I felt a long-ago thrill. His strength has always inspired me to feel safe, even snug. I was shocked by how much I missed that feeling.

“I miss you,” I confessed in the car, and Eric had nodded gravely. Haltingly, we shared a little of the past few months. We were both hurt, even raw. We talked a little about our individual jobs, our worries about our children, our personal difficulties. The car ride wasn’t fun; we were talking about too much yucky stuff. We had to get it out, though. We had to hear what we’d each been through, and just as importantly, we each had to feel ourselves heard.

The all-night drug store offered comic relief. We played with stuffed animals that sang out-dated rock ‘n roll songs. We bantered over the best lifesaver flavors. We made faces in the mirrors that hung from the ceiling to monitor shoplifters. Back in the car, we held hands again. “I’ve missed you, too,” Eric said. Our ride home was long and lingering, a chance to bring back all we were and all we’d missed, entangled in each other’s arms.

That challenging period is four years behind us now, but I can see in hindsight what Eric and I needed to learn – to take time to peel away all we’ve wound around us, until we are standing side by side purely skin to skin, feeling who we are as “essence” not mood, job, or co-chore-doer. Now, when Eric comes home from work, he will talk about what he did that day – the physical challenges, the materials, and the customers. I’ll listen, then talk about my own work – the students, colleagues and assignments. That’s one layer peeled off. Then there’re the kids to discuss, including school schedules, extra curriculars, special needs – until another layer falls to the ground. There is also the household. For example, right now we need to order a new oven, which we’ve needed to do for half a year at this point, and we need to figure out how we’re going to afford it.

Sometimes this stripping away of layers takes two hours! It’s essential to be thorough, though, if we are to be purely naked and free for later. And that later can feel so sweet when there are no leftover things to say, no unspoken emotions or concerns, just our bodies and our heat and all that happens when both are released!

The challenge, obviously, is to find time for such talk (and all it leads to!) during busy times. My baby is six weeks old today. He’s cute, smiley, loving – and eats and poops every other hour. He doesn’t like to be put down, so he’s either in my arms or in a front-pack all day and all night. Meanwhile, I’m trying to meet the needs of my new editing business and love the other three children in the house with passion and creativity. Of course, I’m tired, but I have learned to reach through the fatigue and its tag along bad moods to touch Eric. That’s all I need to do, with love. I can see how hard he, too, is working. It’s in his face, his posture, his eyes. I touch his rough hands and think of all that those hands lifted and built and sanded and painted that day. I know we both are trying. And no matter how tired we both are after the day’s work is over…and the kids are asleep…and the baby’s fallen into another cat nap…we can still lie by each other’s sides on the outside hammock under stars or in our bed under blankets. Our hands can find each other in the dark, and our bodies can follow. Here is our glue, our moment to live beyond the have to’s. To breathe is necessary to live. So is to love, and to show that love, every day and every night.

Blog #8: Tsunami

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As I flow into my third semester, I find myself living more and more within. My in-utero baby is the most active child I’ve ever met, spinning and kicking and swimming relentlessly, totally indefatigable. Friends have even noticed the baby’s movements from across a small room. My stomach seems to “leap” of its own volition!

Along with attending to the acrobatics of my baby, I also feel a bit frantic with all that needs doing before birth. My to-do list grows longer every day, not shorter, no matter how much I try to accomplish. Caring for children, surviving job responsibilities, getting food on the table (hopefully something other than hotdogs at least once in a while!) – these chores fill the days and evenings, while the list stays on the counter, sometimes ignored, other times read, but not yet done. Busy-ness is defining my days and nights.

Last night changed me, though. Like a baseball bat, it thwacked me hard, and I’m still staggering.

It’s not enough, I realized, to deal with your personal busy-ness.

The next order was even more emphatic: It’s not enough to focus on family.

Of course, family is my first concern. I’m building a new nest, one strong and substantial enough for all of us. Maren Tonder Hansen writes that with each new birth, the old family design dies, and a whole new family emerges. Both sadness and beauty are part of this process, and I am striving in a hundred ways to help grow the beauty. I want my children to adore their new sibling, not resent him or her, and I want Eric to feel dazzled by our new family member, not burdened, and so I busy myself with friends and family trying to prepare in every way I can imagine. I am seeking to earn extra $$$s while I can; I am helping my children deepen their friendships and try out new extra-curriculars, I am interviewing tenants who will barter rent for help with child and house care, and I am continually cleaning and re-organizing our household. But…

Not enough.

This declaration thrummed inside of me last night as Eric and I watched The Impossible, a film about the Tsunami of December 2004 that killed over 230,000 people on the other side of the world. I remember when it happened, that colossal disaster. I was pregnant with my first child, and I could hardly stand to listen to the news stories and refused to see any news clips: they made me nauseous, even faint. My baby’s new and tiny life within me felt so fragile, so small. My body yearned for insulation from the havoc of the world, and the mounting numbers of dead were too horrific to bare.

Ten years later, pregnant now with my third child, I chose to see a little more of what happened December 26. “I won’t last long,” I warned as I sat down on the couch next to Eric, who nodded, used to my pregnant-sensitive ways.

It was much worse than I could ever have expected. The movie spares no experience of destruction or loss or suffering. My heart hammered inside of me, and my body tightened with Braxton Hicks contractions without reprieve. The movie, based on a real story, focuses on a family of five vacationing in Thailand – a mother, father, and three boys age thirteen, eight and five. As they are playing in a pool, a thirty foot wall of water crushes them all, along with the entire resort and beach around them. Ten minutes of swirling, wild waters swallow away the screen – until the mom suddenly appears, battered and bloody, clinging to a tree. She is screaming as one who has lost her mind as well as all she treasured – and then she sees her thirteen year old boy and leaves the tree to reach him.

Over and over again, waves pull them apart, smashing them into floating cars and debris, yet they keep thrashing their way through the water, trying to connect. At last, they both catch onto the same felled tree, and handhold by handhold, move towards each other, until they can finally embrace. Their tears became my tears, as I thought about the universal difference between being the sole survivor of one’s family and having one last loved one to hold onto.

All the film is this riveting, but the transformative moment occurred for me when the waters at last recede, and the mom and son are walking through a flooded landscape of broken houses, bodies, and refuse. They hear a child’s cry, and the mom immediately stops to find the child. The son argues that they can’t stop: the mom has a horrific leg injury and is losing gobs of blood. Most of her left thigh was sliced off in the flood, making her look more like the character in a B-grade zombie movie than a docudrama. The son begs her to keep walking: “We can hardly save ourselves,” he insists.

His mom takes his hands, holds them. “If it’s the last thing we get to do with our lives,” she says firmly, “we must try to help.”

Her words rippled through my whole body, much like my baby’s hands and feet within my womb. Could I do that? Take time out of striving for my survival and my only son’s, for a stranger?

The mother and son find the crying child and dig him out from under a pile of debris. He does not speak their language and is three years old. The son carries him on his back, helps him up a tree, and the three of them share a single can of coke as they await rescue. Later in the film, as I watch the three year old boy run into the arms of his father – both of them the sole survivors of a large Swedish family – I determine that I do, I absolutely do want to be one who helps others, not one who ignores them.

This film helped me form this resolve because it debunks the two rationalizations I hear myself along with so many Americans mouth when choosing to ignore rather than to help others. The first is the exasperated sigh – “Oh, what can I do?” This film shows that a single bottle of water can sustain a family, that five minutes of digging through junk can rescue a child, that a truckload of medical supplies can save an entire village. In other words, every gesture of help has impact: it is up to us to develop strength of character and muscle enough to make the gesture.

The second rationalization is the ever-touted cliché, “People should help themselves.” I don’t know when this tenet was birthed, but it makes no sense: no one lives without help from others. Not children, not sick people, and not the most strong and powerful of us either. If a car hit me and broke both my legs, I would die unless someone stopped and helped me get to a hospital. I would also die unless other people at the hospital treated me and had supplies to do so. This film of the tsunami showed whole countries hit and broken within minutes, and the people within these countries needed help from people outside their borders. The hospital scenes were barbaric: professional doctors and nurses were valiant, creative, enduring – but they needed supplies, healthy volunteers, help with sewage and waste and administration. Whoever participated in global efforts to get such help to the countries in need saved thousands upon thousands of lives. Giving $100 to relief efforts is not a cop out: it is a gesture that saves lives.

This film revealed to me how much I’d slipped into these two lazy rationalizations, and it inspired me to live better. As much as I love my family and crave to be with my kids, I need to keep my heart open to the larger world around me, as well.

I stopped watching the movie at midnight and immediately crept up the stairs to my children’s bedroom. I slid into one bed, then the other. I held each child close to me and whispered: “I love you, I love you, I’m so glad you’re here, I love you so much.” I felt so lucky, so grateful that we were safe, together, healthy. The film showed me all that we’d been spared: we had a home, food, each other. I vowed never to take our blessings for granted again.

This gratitude is a stepping stone, though, not the full path. Now I need to formulate a new list. And this list needs to include tasks and goals for a family larger than the one living within our own home.

Guest Writer: Catherine Keating

Through the magical dynamics of writing and reading, I have connected to a powerful writer and mama, Catherine Keating. I am honored to include her words here and encourage anyone who connects to her story to read her book, which is honest and raw yet lyrical and medicinal at the same time.

Losing a baby is painful. This little book can help you through it.

After a pregnancy no longer carries life, the loneliness can be overwhelming. You may search for answers. You may feel as if you’ll never be whole again. This book is here to help. It’s not a big book because you don’t want a big book. You probably don’t want a book at all. You wanted a baby. But small as it is, this book is here to give you:

– Permission not to ignore your sadness.
– Simple ways to comfort and care for yourself now.
– Wise words from other women who also lost a baby.

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A Passage from There Was Supposed to be a Baby:

Years after my miscarriages, I still find myself grieving sometimes for the babies I have lost. I feel overwhelmed with sadness at certain times, and I often need to remind myself of all I have been through in order to understand more completely where I am now. The pain may not disappear even when the healthy babies come, and it’s all right. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. I have written this book and shared my story with you so that you may find some form of solace during your time of extreme pain. I want you to feel surrounded by support and comfortable enough to let go into whatever form of grief is needed. As my grief continues to cycle and I travel further along my path, I find myself more and more passionate about the Supposed to Be project. The voices of grieving mothers need to be heard.

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Catherine Keating lives in Seattle, WA with her husband Joe, her son Tucker and daughter Grace, and two wild and crazy dogs. She is an early childhood and special education teacher by training, as well as a certified Yoga Instructor. She began writing stories at a young age, always knowing she had a story to tell the world. When she lost her first two babies, she discovered what that story was to be – a story of finding joy again after loss. Catherine’s first book, There Was Supposed To Be a Baby: A Guide to Healing After Pregnancy Loss was published last year. You can get in touch with Catherine at her website: www.therewassupposedtobe.com or on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ThereWasSupposedToBeABaby?ref=hl

Blog #8: Failure Revised

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Failure sucks. Not getting what you want hurts, and if you really want it, then it really hurts. Folio Literary Management’s “pass” on my novel, after so many years of endeavor and hope, sliced right through my being, and I still feel severed.

Other stuff came along with the hurt, though. The most powerful was the astounding outpouring of love from friends and family in response. Even students from as far back as fifteen years ago and peers from high school wrote messages of heartwarming inspiration. Their words felt like arms reaching under my body after I’d slipped on the asphalt, helping me to stand, soothing away the road rash, encouraging me to take another step forward.

From my cousin: “Your words change people, and they inspire love and change in this world.”

From a playdate-mama: “So brave for sharing your story. Perhaps the act of putting it out there will result in the universe sending exactly what you need.”

From a high school friend: “You rock, Sarah! Frickin’ awesome!”

I even got advice from a student of fifteen years ago about how to use new web resources to improve my blog.

I loved reading these messages, and did so over and over again. Writers have all kinds of reasons for doing what they do, but the most prominent of mine is to connect to others. Yes, I write to find clarity and to express the visions and voices that roil around in my heart – but writing has never felt real to me, until it reaches its audience. I’m one of those people who believe the tree makes no sound when it falls unless others can witness, hear, feel, and respond to it. What happened with my blog post proved this point to me all over again: suddenly, thanks to all of these loving messages, I felt how much writing does matter, even when it is about failing as a writer!

So love (always it is love!) was the first reward of my failure. When I do something well or achieve a goal, people’s kindness and praise feel good, but none of it means as much as when I fail. I’m grateful to know my relationships are based on more than what I can do in a material kind of way.

Another reward of failure is humility. It’s always good to get knocked down onto my knees, even onto my face. The shock of the fall slows me down. Instead of racing towards a goal, I am suddenly stuck, lost, looking around and even behind me. I notice more; I listen better. I recognize all these other people who are also trying to manifest one dream or another, and I remember again how much it matters to help others on their journeys. Success can lead to greed, because it feels so darn good, and I get consumed with wanting more and more of it. Failure, though, is a powerful kick to be kind: I know (again!) how badly it feels to be rejected and to feel walled away from what I want. I don’t want anyone else feeling such dark loss, and I am inspired again to re-commit to helping others deal with it.

There’s one other gift of failure, which is appreciation of what I do have. I have family, I have health, I have green land encircling my home. I have friends who I would lie down in the mud for. That is enough. I could spend the rest of my life nurturing my loved ones and tending to those in my circle. That is enough.

I thank everyone for reminding me that love, first and last, is enough. And I offer this post to thank you for reading my words and for responding to them. I hope your hearts feel my appreciation, gratitude, and honest love.

May you have peace, and may your dreams flow forward into form.

Blessings and Love, Sarah

PS. One more blessing: my kids played cards for an entire sixty minutes while I wrote this blog! “Frickin’ awesome,” for sure!