The Environment

I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do.” – Jana Stanfield

At the end of every day my house is a mess. There is litter (toys on the floor), dangerous spills (popsicle residue on the floor), waste of precious resources (water, electricity and paper), some areas have been taken over by debris (the dining room table) and I think the couch could be a Super Fund clean up site (crumbs, toothpaste and other unidentifiable debris). There is an invasive species in with the dishes (toys in the sink) and measurable climate change (I keep the house is four degrees warmer than I used to at night). Having kids is really messing with my environment.

The environmentalist Wendell Berry is credited with the profound idea that we have not inherited the earth from our parents; we have borrowed it from our children. But he must have been talking about the concept of children and not actual children who seem to naturally tend toward not worrying about limited resources.

Given the numerous stories and approaches that I’ve heard from parents, I’d guess raising an environmentalist is hard, even when the practice is limited to only their room or a play room. My friend told me her daughter once excitedly said to a guest to their house, “Come see my ruin!” A miscommunication so apt that they are still laughing about it 30 years later.

Another family tried teaching by logical consequences so that any toys left on the floor were likely to be trod upon and that must be an effective method because the girls, now in their college years, can still enumerate the toy fatalities (toy-talities?).  Eventually these kids grew up to be good stewards of their environments but not without someone helping them see the big picture and how they can make a difference.

A quote from the Dalai Lama, “Human use, population, and technology have reached that certain stage where Mother Earth no longer accepts our presence with silence,” has spurred me to action because up to this point I’ve been often opting for silence — mostly cleaning it myself rather than teaching them how.

My son goes on garbage walks with his school – the kids identify garbage and the teachers pick it up and put it in bags. My daughter loves to be organized. So I have some raw capabilities to work with and just might be able to make some good stewards of the environment out of them yet!

Going All-In

To lose balance, sometimes, for love, is part of living a balanced life.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I dated a guy when I was in my mid-20’s that told me early on in the relationship, like before we’d even been on a dozen dates, that he would never take me to or pick me up from the airport. That way, he reasoned, it would never look like he loved me less when he stopped picking me up.

Around the same time I had a work colleague who was celebrating his one-year wedding anniversary. He said that the key was to go really small so that he wouldn’t set a precedent that couldn’t be maintained.

What I’ve found interesting is that with taking care of babies, there is no choice but to go all-in. You start out taking care of their every need and then with time have to negotiate new roles, responsibilities and boundaries.

I recently implemented the practice that once I sat down to dinner, I wouldn’t get up until I was done eating. If the kids are excused and they need help getting a toy, I tell them that I’ll get it when I’m finished. If they want something to eat or drink that was included in dinner, I give them choices they can get themselves or that are reachable. If they want me to watch them, I remind them to do it where I can see from the table.

This practice was incredibly hard work for me for about three weeks. I had to resist the temptation to just get up and do it. Or, if they spilled something, I had to let go of muttering under my breath because doing it would be easier than cleaning up when they do it. Setting the boundary meant creating the consistency in me as much as the expectation in them.

But it is the work of maturity – in our relationship as well as ourselves. It made me think about that boyfriend from my 20’s.  It’s no surprise that I broke up with him. Among many things, his practicality limited his openness. There’s a fine line between defining boundaries and not wanting people to breech our walls.

And my colleague – unfortunately the marriage ended in divorce. Life has taught me that hedging our bets almost always limits the full range of feeling. It’s hard to walk the service back, draw better boundaries as relationships mature. But parenthood has taught me that sometimes it’s necessary to start by going all in.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Wounds or Scars

Suffering makes an instrument of each of us, so that standing naked, holes and all, the unseen vitalities can be heard through our simplified lives.” – Mark Nepo

The other day I shook out the blanket that I keep outside for lying on the grass in summer and my son immediately starting looking for the little farmhouse that we usually play with on it. I am fascinated by how quickly my kids make associations. Blanket = Little People farm. A particular cup = hot cocoa. Boots = puddles. Baths = lotion.

But that observation makes me realize how much I do it as well. Fall comes and I think of hot cider. I turn on Grey’s Anatomy and want a glass of wine. When I write I sit in one chair and when I work I sit in another.

It seems to be a way to winnow down our choices so that we don’t have to make as many decisions. But every once in a while a pattern crops up that reminds me of where I stuck. The other day my daughter was carpooling with friends and they asked if there was a particular car she didn’t like. She said BMW’s. And they asked why and she said it was because her mom didn’t like them.

I had to laugh when my carpooling friend told me this story. My daughter and I had been talking about cars and I’d offhandedly said that I didn’t like them because it seemed like the drivers bought them for image. Which is a very unfair broad generalization that I never thought would be repeated. The fact is, my ex-husband bought one to bolster his image and so I created the association. I’ve been over that relationship for some time so I shouldn’t punish BMW drivers forever.

Meditating on this, so many associations came up for me. Many of them are ones that make me smile – places that I walk that remind me of my beloved dog and phrases when I hear them that bring back my dad.

And one that I wasn’t expecting. I miscarried a baby four years ago. When I heard the news, I went to hike a beautiful trail that overlooks Puget Sound. This trail had been my go-to for any time I needed to think. The wind seems to whip whatever is inside me out into the open and the view puts it into perspective.

As I was thinking about associations, I realized that I’ve never been back to that trail since the day I heard the news about my miscarriage. Obviously I went on to have a beautiful son and so I filed the miscarriage away as old news. It isn’t something that I mourn or think of as painful. It just was. But every time I think of hiking that trail, I think “nah” without ever digging deep for the reason.

Life keeps teaching me I can carry around wounds or scars. If I choose wounds, they drain a lot more energy as they try to heal without ever been unpacked. But if I do the work to clean them out and then heal into scars, they just become part of the patchwork quilt that is me.

All of this introspection is a great reminder to me that I can pass things on based on my loves or my losses. And given how easily they clearly stick for my kids, I think it’s time to heal those wounds before any other misguided association gets repeated!

Tears Worth Shedding

Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so you apologize for truth.” – Benjamin Disraeli

My mom was asking if my son still cries when I drop him off at daycare. He switched into a new class about two weeks ago and since the change, he’s had a harder time with that initial separation even though he’s perfectly happy after I leave. At the same time he switched classes, I also started taking him to Starbucks before school so that we could sit, look at cars and dogs and have a touch point for just the two of us after I drop his sister at school. My mom suggested, “Maybe he’s having a hard time at drop off because he likes the time with you at Starbucks so much.”

Which could very well be the case. But it begs the question if we should be distant with others so that they don’t miss us too much. Or we could be downright crappy to them. I know that my mom was not exactly suggesting that but it’s a little bit of a family tradition to be difficult when doing something for someone that you don’t want to have to do again. The unspoken strategy is to make it so painful that they’ll never ask again. Doesn’t that sound more fun that just saying “no”? 😊

I’ve consciously or unconsciously used this ploy for every guy I’ve broken up with. So I can say from experience, it doesn’t make the separation any easier. It just tinges all the memories with gray.

All of this reminds me of something I heard the writer Ashley C. Ford say, “I tried to live a disappointing life in order to not be disappointed.”

I understand the pull to stay very small in order to have a tidy life and never disappoint anyone else or myself. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t work to do anything but limit life experiences and connection to others.

This morning, my son and I went to Starbucks and had fun. We joked about who was going to school and who was going to work. He still cried when I left but I heard it differently. They were the cries of a huge love, the pain of missing each other and a big life. Those are the tears I think are worth shedding!

Big, Scary Dreams

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I got this fortune cookie “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough” when I was waiting on the results of my first ultrasound for my 2nd child. Since I’d undertaken the whole parenting endeavor intentionally as a single person, I could definitely attest that I was scared.

I carried in my purse all through that pregnancy and now it’s taped to my cupboard. I know that I’m not the only parent to wonder now that I have kids, do I still have the right to dreams that scare me?

A Legacy of Love

Legacy is planting trees under whose shade you will never sit.” – Richard Leon

I went to a dinner last night to honor a foundation my dad started 25 years ago. The foundation takes any money bequeathed in wills to the church he was pastor of and gives out grants to deserving organizations. The one they featured last night was a non-profit that helps with refugee settlement and combats the trafficking of children.

Sitting there listening to the work of my dad’s legacy, I pondered what the echo of our lives is when we die. Certainly the love and memories we have made lingered in the hearts and minds of the people we love but beyond that, is there anything else? I’ve helped build a few Habitat for Humanity homes – does that make any difference? What about words? Books? Blog posts?

Thinking about my dad’s quote above, we can plant trees under whose shade we will never sit. Presumably that means that there will be more oxygen to breathe, comfort on the hot days, possibly even food to eat for the people we leave behind and for our communities. We can plant and contribute to organizations and ideas that help ameliorate the pain in the world. And my dad did. But where does that mean my work as his daughter begins?

Someone in the room last night asked for a member of our family to speak. As the youngest child, I assumed it would be my brother or my mom since they’ve always done the talking but it turned out they nominated me. Without any preparation of what to say, I started with the depth, faith and the love that my dad started in me and how that fire still burns. In fact, it feels as if I have come to embody my dad even more in his absence than I ever did when he was alive, in search of God, kindness and love. We do pass a torch to the next generation and I think it’s in the form of the fires we light within other people. It’s not as quantifiable as money left to a foundation but it’s just as powerful.

Happy Families

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

My mom told me that one of her friends from her retirement community keeps asking her about my kids. He’s 98 years-old, never married and has no kids, and he asks repeatedly about how I conceived them as a single mom and what I tell them about their parentage. As she was telling me this, I thought “Given that they didn’t even invent invitro-fertilization until he was in his 60’s, I can’t imagine what he thinks.” But in this most recent conversation they had, he started telling her about the traumatic childhood he had — his father’s abuse of his sisters, his mother’s nervous breakdown when she discovered the abuse and his mother’s instruction to him to make sure he never left his younger sister alone with his dad. At the end of relating the story he simply said to my mom, “I would have been a lot better off without a dad.”

This makes me so sad. First of all because I had a great dad. Nothing about what I’ve done is a commentary on dads in general. It was simply a matter of not having the right one for my kids and running out of time.

Secondly because of the shame he still seems to carry. The answer to his question about what I tell my kids is that I tell them whatever they ask but I don’t complicate it with more than they want to know at the time. The first time my daughter asked she said, “Did I have a dad when I was born?” and I said “no” and then she followed up with “Did I have a dog when I was born?” and I thought “that’s where you’re going with this?” and answered “yes”. We’ve had more in-depth conversations since then about me going to the doctor to become pregnant and a little about sperm donors but she’s not all that interested yet. I have no way of knowing how she or her brother will come to feel about this (and it’ll probably be many things) but whatever it is, I will do my best to make sure it isn’t shame. My primary tool to combat that is not to have any secrets about their origins.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a Tolstoy quote I recently came across, “Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Given that Tolstoy lived long before invitro fertilization and also gay marriage, I’d say maybe in his time happy families were all alike. But they can look pretty different these days.

But I think Tolstoy was right that unhappy families have many possible reasons that can echo for a long time. I hope that we see my mom’s friend again soon and somewhere in the telling of his story and the grace of being interested in my happy children since he never had any of his own, he finds peace for his inner child.

Oh My Dog

There’s no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” – Bernard Williams

I was texting with my friend, Eric, the other night about a dinner party I had that was fun but difficult because I couldn’t listen very well. Listening well, serving food and minding two young kids is hard, or maybe nearly impossible. Eric’s reply was, “I can’t imagine trying to have a conversation with John while trying to make dinner, hold a baby and answer the many questions of a six-year-old. The only way to make it easier would be to get a puppy.”

Eric doesn’t think I should get a puppy and he frequently uses humor to tell me so. And I don’t disagree with a single reason he’s given me. Yep, it’s a lot of work. Definitely true that it’ll disrupt my sleep. And sure, I already have a lot on my hands given that I’m a single-mom of two kids trying to work, parent and live some semblance of an individual life. All true!

But here’s the thing. I don’t think life is supposed to be easy. I’m surprised he hasn’t figured this out about me since we’ve been friends through all my parenthood. I mean after I had the first kid it might not have been obvious how much work it took to sustain young life but when I chose to do it again, I think that might have been a clue that I’m willing to go all in the game for love.

I’m going to get a puppy because I love dogs. But I’m also going to get a puppy because I think for families that want them, they are an incredible companion. All your secrets are safe with a dog. Also, once you’ve established the bond, there is no end to the unconditional love of a dog. And finally, to be in charge of an animal, you have to first learn to be in charge of yourself. In the years of growing up that we have to come, I think a pet will be a great source of comfort and joy. Because yes, I just want to be the person that my dog thinks I am and I want my kids to be that person as well.

What’s so funny about this is that Eric was texting me about the party because he couldn’t come because he was home with HIS DOG! A little surgery and the meds had thrown his dog’s system off and Eric didn’t think the dog could come or be left alone. Ha!

But I’m going to wait about six months until my toddler is potty-trained because dealing with poop from more than one household member at a time seems crazy. I’m committed but not insane!

Substitutes

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” – Rumi

The other day my 6-year-old was uncharacteristically quiet so I asked her what she was thinking about. She said, “I’m counting the number of times I’ve had a substitute.” Given that she only attended in-person Kindergarten for about 10 weeks last year, the number is low (four but it was the same one twice so I count it as three 😊 ) but this is the scares her about school.

It makes me think of all the times when I’ve either expressed my fears to someone else or been the person listening to a loved ones fears. It seems like there are three possible outcomes for me when I communicate what scares me: I can feel better, feel not heard or feel worse. Generally speaking, I feel better when I can tease out what is really bothering me and see it in a bigger context, I feel not heard when my fears are dismissed and I feel worse when the person I’m talking to adds their crap to the pile.

On the other side as a listener, I feel like I’m on the tip of understanding something monumental about how we hold each other. I’m pretty naturally and also by profession a good problem solver. But if I go to that, I often miss the point when someone expresses a fear. Because aren’t our fears often teaching us something about what is coming next for us or what we are presently learning? Like when I fear a bogeyman, it’s because I feel powerless and when I fear failure it’s because I’m taking a meaningful risk.

So when I’m listening these days, I try to imagine being a lake. Big enough so that when someone adds their load, it doesn’t overflow the edges. Clear enough so others can see the bottom. Accepting enough to hold someone when they need to float.

School starts tomorrow for my daughter. Given that COVID it brought added awareness that when we are sick we need to stay home, she’s probably going to have a substitute more than 4 times this year. Knowing that, all I could do was listen to why she doesn’t like having substitutes and tease out what it means. It’s the unexpected, it’s a fear of having to prove herself to someone new, it’s the fear that there might be expectations that she might not know. Put like that, it’s what I fear too, so we made an agreement to hold hands and face our fears together.

Sibling Supportiveness

There’s a sun in every person – the you we call companion.” – Rumi

My kids and I were sitting on my bed reading books before bed and my 6-year-old daughter leaned over and kissed my toddler on the head and said, “Love you, Baby.” He said, “No kiss, La-la.” And so I kissed him on the head and he said, “No kiss, Mama.” But he was smiling so we kept kissing him and he kept saying “no kiss” and laughing.

My kids have such a sweet relationship. When they are in the car and my toddler hears a siren or other noise that scares him, he’ll say, “cared”, my daughter will say, “Want to hold my hand?” and he does.

I work hard to make this happen. I sit with them as they work things out and act as interpreter. I also narrate why he mimics her so much because he thinks she’s the coolest thing ever. I do this because I grew up as the younger sibling of someone who hated me. She was four years older than me which is the same age difference as my two kids. When we’ve talked about it as adults she said, “I don’t know why I was so mean to you.”

My opinion is that my sister has always struggled with feeling like she didn’t belong in our family because she was the one “realist” amongst a pack of optimists. I came along and the easy, happy disposition I was born with challenged her fighter, questioning nature and it is her makeup to push back.

Whatever my sister’s reason was, I find it fascinating to think about the dynamic now. Having kids that are the same age difference has been fear-inducing and healing for me. I was terrified that the same pattern would repeat itself. And now I’m starting to trust that there isn’t any scary truth that four years difference makes siblings not like each other.

There isn’t a more influential factor on my parenting style than the wounds of my childhood. I was scared to live with my sister – scared that anything I professed to love she would destroy. If I had long hair, I was scared she’d cut it off at night, if I liked a particular stuffed animal, I was scared she’d take it or destroy it. To be fair, I don’t think she ever did – but she threatened a lot. And I think I’m still scared of admitting I love something in case that means it’s taken away.

My mom was tired of kid squabbles by the time I came along as the third child. She was ready to move on with her own professional and personal development and given how talented and smart she is, that was only natural. But it meant that telling her my fears or about the conflict was not a fruitful path. She’d call it tattling or say we both caused it, no matter what happened. There was no path to resolution for me as a child – no understanding, no naming it and no way out of fear.

So every day I work at building trust between my kids and making sure they are source of comfort, not anxiety for each other. It heals me alongside helping them. It’s another reminder to me that nothing is wasted in this life – every wound can become a source of knowledge and inspiration. I hope that long after I’m gone, when they are scared, they will still talk to each other about it and hold hands.