My youngest child turns 17 this week. I only have one more year of legal responsibility over a human I helped make. Three of my children are legal adults and until a month ago when the oldest got married, they were all living in my house and financially dependent on me. I’ve spent a significant amount of anxious time wondering whether their continuing dependence is just the natural result of their neuroatypicalities creating a non-standard timeline for development, or if I failed at parenting in some fundamental way. This set of thoughts was churned up once again by reading an article about lawn mower parenting and recognizing myself in it.
I want to pause right here and state that I know beating myself up over past decisions is neither emotionally healthy nor useful. Looking back, I honestly made the best decisions I could based on the knowledge I had at the time and the resources/energy that were available to me. Especially considering that I had four kids who fell outside the norm in ways that even school personnel (who are highly attuned to helicopter and lawnmower parenting) recognized as needing extra attention. This post isn’t about regret over failure. It is me analyzing the ways that my anxiety played into my parenting. It is me being fascinated by how parental faults can have a cascade effect on children lasting for years into adulthood. Put more succinctly: we all screw up our children in one way or another because we’re human. Part of the work of young adulthood is learning to form an identity separate from the framework our parents made and, in stepping out of that framework, to grow in the directions that the framework previously prevented. I want to see clearly how the structures I built both enabled and inhibited growth because many of those structures now need to be dismantled for my children to step free into independent adulthood.
A couple of weeks ago I had a confrontation with my 17yo. Confrontation does not quite feel the right word, because it was more a venting of pent up emotions rather than an argument. We were all upset, but no one was angry. In the after discussions, it became clear to me that I have some habits to change. I have to stop protecting him from my emotions, putting how I feel on hold because there is a crisis to manage. He is old enough to know I must be feeling something, and absent emotional information from me, his anxiety fills in disappointment and anger. I also have to stop speaking for him, labeling his emotions, and positing reasons for why his anxiety is acting the way that it is. We’ve reached the point where me explaining his reactions is far less useful than him struggling with his reactions and figuring them out for himself. All of these behaviors from me were healthily adaptive for the challenges we faced when this kid was younger and less self-aware. Now they are scaffolding that needs to be removed so he can develop strength to stand on his own.
Several times in the past few weeks I’ve run across a quote that feels very pertinent:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
I love the self forgiveness that is inherent in this quote. None of us are perfect. Even at this moment when I’m consciously trying to adapt my parenting to the new set of needs, I’m probably causing some new problem which I’ll be able to see clearly in the future. That’s okay. Once I see clearly, I can do better. For now, I’ll do the best I can.
I sat down in the church class and the chalkboard had the question “Where do you feel you belong?” This began a discussion which included how God loves everyone and how we can help each other feel welcome in our communities. The thing is, I don’t fully belong anywhere. When I’m in my science fiction writerly communities, the part of me that thrives on religious communion rests. When I’m at home being mom, the part of me that is a young girl who likes to go dancing isn’t being given expression. When I’m at church there are portions of my thoughts which would only bewilder some of the people I’m sharing that community with. I (like most people) am exceedingly complex and can’t be fully expressed in one context or relationship. At times in my life this has caused me to feel that I don’t belong anywhere. Then I realized that the not-belonging-anywhere feeling happened when I focused on the parts of me that didn’t fit in. When I instead focus on the things that connect me to my current context or to the person I’m next to, I find belonging everywhere.
I’m much happier now that I realize belonging is mine to create rather than something bestowed by others.
Courage isn’t measured by the size of the obstacle, it is measured by the size of the fear that is overcome.
Today one of my kids walked into a new school with all new students and teachers he’s never met before. We’re giving high school one last try at the alternative school.
Later today I’ll be dropping off a different kid for their first volunteer shift at the local aquarium.
Over and over again I watch my anxious kids do things that most people consider easy, but which are huge triumphs for them. Every time I admire how brave they are. They don’t feel brave. All they can see is that they are struggling with something that comes easily to others. They berate themselves for being weak, when I see exactly the opposite.
Of late my days feel long and spacious, almost empty. I sat with that empty feeling yesterday, trying to figure out where it came from, because when I compare today’s To Do list with one from a month or two ago, I have just as many tasks to do, if not more. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, something that used to fill up the spaces around the tasks and make the days run faster. The missing thing is dozens of small urgent deadlines stacked on top of each other. Particularly order-dependent deadlines: must do item A today because I have to start item B tomorrow and both must be complete before C happens next week. I’ve had urgent deadlines filling my brain since last June. I was running fast, working hard, getting things done. The urgency kept me stewing in adrenaline so I could move despite fatigue.
Then mid January, I ran out of small order-dependent tasks. The big event was complete, leaving only large, long-term goals and small daily chores. I spent nearly a week with my executive function almost completely shut down. I couldn’t hold on to thoughts or plan anything. Slowly that came back online, but I’m still not back up to speed. And I shouldn’t be. The pace I was maintaining was a killing pace. It was draining emotional and physiological resources, as evidenced by the week-long collapse. The part of my brain complaining about how everything now feels slow and unexciting needs to learn how to be comfortable with slowness.
One of the big life shifts in the past year was Howard switching medications for his mental health issues. The one he was on shortened his sleep (which he liked) but also drove up his blood pressure (which was scary.) He too is having to come to terms with the fact that he has to slow down. The breakneck pace he maintained for years keeping up with both the daily comic and side projects as well was exhilarating even while being exhausting. There is a high associated with pushing your mind and body to their limits, there is also a cost. And that cost often arrives in a sudden and overwhelming collapse. I could see him pushing himself toward collapse, so we changed the medicines, which forced a (very frustrating) slow down. We believe that, over time, the slow down will result in better health. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
This week I am focusing on the slowness. I am learning to befriend both slowness and a feeling of spaciousness. It is a strange sensation to not have my head filled with anxious planning and deadline tracking. I miss it. I feel alive and capable when adrenaline surges and I can crisis manage lots of organizational details. Just because I miss something, doesn’t mean I should put it back into my life. I’m certain that in the future I will have more moments of adrenaline-driven competence. I will be better at them if I embrace the current period of peace. I’m learning to quiet my anxious thoughts. I’m learning to sit and let my mind wander without media distractions. I’m doing more reading of books rather than websites. I’m recognizing the ways that internet sites and politics thrive on creating urgency and anxiety in people. I’m noticing that despite my days feeling slower and emptier, my house is more in order. I’m finally doing all the non-urgent tasks which were pushed aside and which contribute to happiness and well being. I’m pondering how I can reject imposed urgency when it isn’t necessary. I’m recognizing that frantic urgency didn’t do as much to make my life and home better as this slower care-taking. I’m pondering how these realizations might apply to my citizenship in the larger world and what actions I should be taking to make that world better.
There are a lot of thoughts to sort through, and I intend to take the time to do that sorting carefully and thoughtfully. Because when life inevitably begins throwing urgent deadlines at me again, I want to be prepared to respond to them in a calmer and less anxious way.
As a child I was very interested in birth stones, birth flowers, and any other things which were assigned to people by month. However I sometimes lamented that the stone and flower assigned to me were not as pretty as I wanted. My flower was the carnation, and carnations were boring. They were everywhere. Added to many bouquets as filler flowers between the flashier blooms. In my 40s I’ve come to appreciate carnations for almost exactly the reasons I thought they were boring as a child. Carnations are used as filler flowers because they come in a vast array of colors naturally and are easily dyed to be all sorts of non-natural colors. This means that carnations are versatile and adaptable. They make themselves useful no matter where they are. Carnations are also sturdy. They can be grown with long stems, cut, shipped, and still arrive a the sales point ready to be beautiful for almost two weeks. When I buy cut carnations, they continue to be beautiful for far longer than the flashier blooms they’re packaged beside. I’ve also discovered that many of the flashier blooms have little to no fragrance (or have far too much fragrance) while many carnations have a gentle fragrance that is detectable up close, but doesn’t fill the whole room.
I supposed I could draw these thoughts into larger considerations about how our tastes change from youth to middle age, or perhaps that I’ve become pedestrian enough to finally match my birth flower. But mostly, I just wanted to appreciate carnations out loud, because sometimes the basic, versatile, reliable things in our lives don’t get as much appreciation as they should.
My mind is a noisy place. It processes, analyzes, and tracks things all day long. This has lead to frequent problems with sleeping. Sometime last year I found the perfect image to illustrate the problem:
Image courtesy of https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/aht9e8/thats_how_anxiety_works/ Not certain who the original artist is.
Of course I’ve had the problem for more than the past year. Several years ago I found a way to short circuit the problem. I was laying on the couch with Howard watching a familiar show and I drifted off to sleep. Then when the show was over and we moved upstairs to bed, I found myself wide awake thinking about All The Things. So I grabbed ear buds and a small device capable of streaming the show. I listened to the show while falling asleep. It worked beautifully. I could listen to the voices of familiar characters going through a familiar adventure. It was just interesting enough to keep my mind from wandering into fretting territory, but because I already knew the end of the show I felt no need to stay awake and find out what happened.
This became my nightly habit for several years. I made some changes like downloading episodes onto my device rather than streaming, I pick shows with lots of episodes so that I could work through them slowly. If I listened to a single episode too often, it became so familiar that it was no longer effective at keeping my mind occupied while sleep arrived. There were challenges with earbuds and laying on my side, but I figured those troubles were worth it to simplify sleep. I also kept the volume really low, just on the edge of audibility.
Yet in the past six months the number of inconveniences with my sleep system had increased. Streaming apps got much more rigid about allowing downloads, thus forcing me to stream episodes in order to listen. This meant that instead of playing a single episode and then stopping, the device would play three or four episodes, chewing up bandwidth while I was already asleep. Also even when a show has fifteen seasons, I would eventually reach the end of them. And as my device aged, there were more and more nights where I would lay down to sleep only to discover I had to spend thirty minutes or more troubleshooting the device. Late night tech support when all I want to do is sleep, is the worst.
On top of the logistical concerns, I began to be aware that perhaps drowning out the noise in my head with more noise might be treating a symptom without solving the problem. That perhaps I needed to be addressing and facing the noise in my head rather than trying to keep it at bay. So in the space after the wedding was over, when my executive function was burned out, I began to re-learn sleeping.
My basic practice right now is that when I’m trying to fall asleep, I use the meditation technique of focusing on my breathing. I pay attention to my breath, to relaxing my muscles, and to feeling the fatigue in my body. When my mind begins to wander into plans for tomorrow or anxieties about the day just past (and it always does) the minute I realize my mind has wandered, I gently pull it back and refocus on breathing again.
It can take me an hour or more to fall asleep using this method, where as listening to a show frequently had me asleep in less than ten minutes. Yet in the few weeks I’ve been practicing, I’m getting better at it. My time-until-asleep has shortened. The key is to be patient with myself and with my body. I have to recognize that practice is required to teach my mind to let go of being in charge long enough to fall asleep. Yet learning this skill doesn’t only help me with sleeping. Every night I am practicing being calm. I am practicing accepting my body and breath as they are. I am practicing letting go. All of these things are skills that are also applicable in my waking life. Remembering I’m practicing skills helps me to be patient with the process.
I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know when life will hit me with an overwhelming quantity of things to track that lead to insomnia. But I do know that the work I’m putting into re-learning sleep will help me be more centered and focused in facing whatever comes next.
I have a one notebook approach to journaling. My long form journal entries are in the same book as To Do lists, jotted down phone numbers, and random notes. I began this notebook on June 2, 2019. Today I close it and call it done. That means this book exactly brackets all the chaos of the past 8 months. All of the insurance claims, construction, financial fears, putting kids into college, pulling kids out of college, child becoming engaged and married, acquisition of a new family member, holiday planning, and wedding planning. All of that happened while I was filling these pages. The book is battered and worn. The art I did on the cover has mostly worn away. It will now go on a shelf next to a dozen other notebooks. I am grateful for every single thing that is recorded on the pages of this book.
And I am grateful to move on to the next book.
I’m on an email chain with a group of writers. Once per week one of us will send out an email with writing tips, inspiration, or encouragement. The email for this week invited all of us to recognize how often we limit ourselves to only imagining what we feel is realistic instead of dreaming big. We were all invited to respond with the writing dreams we have that feel really big, the ones which are unrealistic, the ones which we know aren’t actually in our control, but we want anyway. It took me some time to even find mine, because the email was correct. I do really tend to focus on making sure that my goals are concrete and within my control. And that is as it should be for goals. They should be measurable and attainable. But dreams are different. Dreams are how we know where to aim our goals. The are the lodestone which helps us pick a direction, even when we know that the terrain ahead is going to force us to change that direction dozens of times.
So I sat with myself and waited for the dreams to surface. These are the ones I found:
To be invited to give a keynote at a writer’s conference
To end up in the acknowledgements of other people’s books because I put in the time to help other writers develop their craft and survive this crazy ride of writing/publishing.
To revise my middle grade novel so I can start submitting it to agents by the end of this year.
To pay off my debts so that I have more head space to focus on creating the things which feel important with less concern about the things that make money.
In comparison with some of the other dreams in the thread, (be a best seller, have a book made into a movie, travel the world on book money) my dreams seem small. Perhaps they are. Perhaps I need to find the courage to dream even bigger. Yet for right now, these are the writing dreams that ring true to me. These are the ones that ring like true crystal when it is struck.
Interestingly, every single one of these dreams is served by the same goal: make time to write every day. I was working on a 500 word per day habit in November until holiday brain fry followed by wedding made focusing on anything else quite difficult. This past week I’ve cleared away the brain fog and have begun to make inroads on the physical mess. That means it is time for me to put 500 words per day back onto the calendar. Because, paths to big dreams are made out of small goals and it is time for me to get to work again.
I’m still wandering around in a bit of a brain fog today. My brain can only hold onto one thought at a time. Fortunately I know this simply means I need to rest and before long my usual capacities will return. However, I did have time (when I was looking at photos from the wedding again) to realize that we had zero mental health meltdowns on the wedding day. I can’t tell you how many photos I have of happy events where I also have a clear memory of the hard things which also went on during that day. This time, everyone was happy. We all reached points of mental and physical exhaustion, but no one was clobbered by depression, anxiety, imposter syndrome, or panic. We were just… happy. For once I can look at the pictures and only think about the events in the picture. That is a huge gift for which I am exceedingly grateful.
So very tired today. But happy. I slept poorly after the reception because my brain was too full of unprocessed things, but mostly I was able to keep my anxiety from latching onto anything and making up terrible stories. It was a lovely day. All the bits that were boring, or hurried, or stressful mostly fall away and I’m left with memories and photographs of the best bits.
Obviously I love the beautiful professional art shots, but there are also the moments I caught with my own camera.
The moment with them smiling and the bride’s ratty slippers peeking from under the gorgeous dress.
Descending the staircase while carrying a snuggly blanket to stay warm.
And in a huge labor of love, which was kind and sensitive to our desire that the newlywed’s car be left alone, a large group of extended family rented a truck and decorated the interior as a honeymoon suite to greet the couple as they exited the reception.
All these moments and hundreds more. So many treasures to process, but through the fatigue, I’m just happy. It was all so beautiful. Everyone who came to the temple or came to the party, or sent kind thoughts via message, they were all beautiful too. I can’t think of a better start for a young pair than to be able to see how very surrounded they are by all the people who wish them well.