The last weeks of school feel like limbo. My kids are so ready to be done. I’m ready for them to be done. All that remains is a few final tests at the high school. Three more days. Technically there are some days of school next week, but we’ve already been told that attendance will not be taken on those days. In fact classes aren’t really held. Students just carry their yearbooks and leave campus at their leisure. Oh, and for the seniors there are graduation related events. My kids already know they aren’t going to bother with next week. Which means, three days.
At this point we know which classes are going to be failed. All the scrambling to rescue grades is completed. They’re either rescued or not. We’ll be doing some classes over the summer, making up credit for the failed classes. I’ll also be stepping back and trying to shift. When I weigh my kids school experiences these past few years, the parts that I can see are heavily weighted toward stress and depression. They simply don’t have the positive peer interactions, friendships, or activities that would provide a counter balance and make the stress worthwhile. This must change. My kids need to know how to live balanced lives. They need to have activities that take them out of the house.
If we want our lives to be different, be have to be willing to change. Sometimes that means changing things we don’t want to let go of. This summer (between all the business tasks, shipping, and conventions) I’ll be stepping back and getting a bigger picture so my kids and I can make decisions about what needs to change. Because I’m tired of ending the school year feeling beaten and exhausted.
Good discovery: happening across a food truck round up when I’m out with a kid having an important conversation. The kind of important conversation that often can only happen after there was an exceedingly unfortunate and unpleasant conversation the day before. But then the important conversation goes well and you happen across a food truck round up, and then the world feels brighter and better even though the sky is pouring and you get wet waiting for your yummy food.
Less good discovery: Finding ants in the breakfast cereal. In quantity. Then realizing that the ants probably got into the cereal out in the garage this morning before it was brought inside, and that at least two kids have eaten cereal since it was brought into the house. So there is that.
My relationship with motherhood is tangled and complicated. Most of the time that isn’t a problem, but Mother’s Day brings the snarl out into the center of my attention and I spend some time, once again, pulling on various threads to see where they come from and where they lead. I suppose that someday I hope to make sense of this mess that used to be clear.
Motherhood took a long time to sit easily in my brain. The actions of it, the nurturing, the teaching, the loving, those came easy, but self-identifying as Mom felt uncomfortable. Like wearing clothes that were the wrong size. When I wrote notes to my kids I signed them “mom” because that was the correct designation. I think it began to feel not-strange when my oldest headed off to college and we did a lot of communicating via email. I signed things Mom, and she reverted to calling me Mommy, which she hadn’t done since she was very little. She was off and being an adult in new ways, and she needed me to be the Mommmy she fled back to when adulting got too hard. The moment I knew when I had fully integrated my mother identity was when I said something to a writer peer, and he joked back at me “yes mom” which was when I realized I’d totally Mommed at him. My statement had been a quintessential Mom thing to say and it fell out of my mouth by pure habit.
And even as I write that paragraph, I think maybe it isn’t the full truth. I remember the very early days of my motherhood. I cuddled my baby, trailed after my toddler. I remember sitting in a rocking chair, one child asleep on my chest and another on a bed three feet away. Neither could fall asleep without me there. I remember thinking how I’d reached the best part of my life, that everything prior had been foundational for this. I dove into motherhood, turned all my hobbies to its service. And I was happy. Tired, overwhelmed, frustrated, but even those emotions lay on top of a bed of happiness. This is also truth about my motherhood.
Later, the kids were older, I was older, I no longer dealt with hourly hands-on care of little ones. The toys stayed tucked away in the cupboards instead of exploding across the floor on a daily basis. I was so glad to not have to manage little ones anymore. So glad to have hours at a time to myself. There was joy in children who could join me in adult conversations. They could make jokes that actually surprised me with full laughter rather than the polite laughter that was required during the ages of Knock Knock jokes. My calendar no longer had cute sayings scribbled in the margins, but I no longer did their laundry nor spent hours trying to convince them to go to bed.
And yet, somewhere as we began this older kid stage, we left the map. The young years were exactly as I’d expected. Exhausting and joyful in ways that made me cry and laugh. Looking back, the kids’ atypicalities were always there, but they blended better. Then one day, they didn’t. The parenting-a-teenager experiences that I expected did not happen. No waiting up for dates. No watching my kids abandon home to spend hours with friends. Few teams or clubs. Instead I had endless meetings with teachers. Far too much diagnostic testing. Hours of listening sympathetically while my kids told me all their thoughts. Or alternately staring at a closed door because I’m shut out. Coaxing kids out from under furniture. Having my suggestions rejected.
It sounds like whining to say “this isn’t what I expected.” But the grief of that experience is very real. It feels like terrible ingratitude to be sad and grieving when I have four healthy children who’ve all grown tall. They have so much potential and here I am crying because they haven’t bloomed at the same rate as others. On days when I have good perspective, I can see that the bloom is coming. On the days when I’m down, the current state seems unending.
On Mother’s day I feel grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a mother and grieved for other opportunities I’ll never get. I feel bad that I can’t just remember the gratitude. I know I’ve done a good job, and I have a long list of all the ways I could have been better. I think about how I should step up and do more. I also wonder if they’d be better off if I stepped back and did less. I think of my friends who wanted to be mothers and never had the chance. I think of others who had motherhood taken away from them. I think of women who decided not to become mothers. I think of my mother and feel guilty that more of my thoughts are not centered on her instead of on my own tangle of things. I think of other women who mothered me and who are due thanks. All of these thoughts swirl and tangle around each other until I can barely see where one thought ends and the next one begins.
Some mother’s days feel beautiful and full. This one, I wanted to hide from. And all of these words only cover a small portion of the mother-related things I thought about and cried over today. Fortunately the day is almost complete, a mere 15 minutes remain. Then I can get back to living motherhood instead of contemplating it.
I’m living an emotional tug-of-war.
We’ve just received the bulk shipment of RAM books and I’ve been organizing to place the bulk order for Schlock t-shirts. The shirts are likely to arrive before all of the RAM shipping is complete. Also, I’m nearing the very end of set up on our new storefront. Today I sent some test shoppers through to make sure that every step of the purchasing and delivery process is working smoothly. All of these things are invigorating and engage my brain in ways that, while making me physically tired, are sort of fun. My brain likes organizing.
Across the same days I’ve had multiple communications with school personnel, discussions with my two kids and made decisions about which classes they’re going to go ahead and fail because trying to pull out a last-minute grades rescue is not going to happen this time. If I were willing to devote a pile of energy to it, maybe we could un-fail the classes. But I have all those shipping and organization things that need my attention. Also, we’ve done the last-minute-crunch-to-un-fail-classes three times now. And we still end up in the same place. It is time to do something different. And in this case, that means home school will be continuing into June until all the requisite credits are made up. There are few things more wearying than sitting with one of my kids while we are both frustrated that the kid can’t seem to do the things that the educational system believes all kids can handle.
Interested and anticipatory vs weary and discouraged. Both states exist in my head these days.
On top of that, I look at the society and communities around me, church, city, neighborhood, state, national. Everywhere I look, I’m seeing shifts. Things (both good and bad) are normal now that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. I keep thinking about the saying that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can affect the weather half a year and half a world away. That feels true to me. Small changes in trajectory can change a destination entirely. And everywhere I look, there are butterflies flapping away. In just the past two months my church has made some changes that will have significant cultural impact. The community I depend on as a safety net and security is going to change. No one is quite sure how yet. The visions for what intended are lovely, but intention meets human nature and sometimes twists around. I’m optimistic, because I know the good hearts of the people around me. We’ll band together and make it work.
I try to hold the same optimism for political and legislative changes. I’m quite afraid of the consequences of decisions being made at every level. There is a sales tax decision pending in the supreme court which could have huge financial implications for me personally. My healthcare premium is crushingly huge and I don’t see any legislators taking steps to fix the broken system. Net neutrality may vanish in just a month. Headlines are full of posturing politicians, racism, massive investigations, and violence. Decisions are being made that could lead to war or could tank the economy. It all feels chaotic and fraught, so much so that I’ve pulled back from engaging with it. I’m not communicating with legislators as I was six or eight months ago.
All of these swirl in my head.
And on the same days as all of that, our kitten is cute. A pair of quail visit our bird feeder. I spend and evening out walking with my daughter. We collaborate with a neighbor to repair a broken fence. The weather has warmed and lilacs are in bloom.
Life does not sort itself neatly. Yet when I really look at all I wrote I realize most of the bad stuff is expressed as anxieties for what might happen. Today has more goodness in it than bad. People have more goodness in them than bad.
I’m not truly certain what I’m trying to say here. I don’t have a conclusion, just a record of all the things happening at once. And butterflies everywhere.
This evening I read a social media post from a friend whose family has had a really rough year. They’ve got the trifecta of health issues, emotional issues, and financial issues. They are a family seriously stretched to their very limits. And today a teacher scolded them for their “bad parenting” because an elementary school kid wasn’t getting homework done.
I was so angry on their behalf. What they’re dealing with is bigger than what I deal with, but I know how awful it feels when a teacher implies that “bad parenting” is why my kid struggles in their class. It pokes me in all my anxious places because I’m always convinced I could/should do something more. Yet it also makes me think of a larger principle that I think is worth examining.
What if we as teachers, neighbors, community members began recognizing the “bad parenting” that we witness as a symptom of an ailment instead of as something to be judged. Because I truly believe that most parents want to be good at parenting. When they fail it is because they are stressed, or overwhelmed, or don’t have resources, or have never been taught. When we identify “bad parenting” that is a moment to step in and help, not stand back and judge.
Shipping season will begin soon. I thought it would begin in a couple of weeks, but yesterday I got word that the bulk shipment of RAM will be arriving sometime this week. Fortunately I’ve been working to prepare the warehouse, because we never fully cleaned up after Planet Mercenary shipping and then holiday shipping. In fact, my warehouse space looked like this just a month ago.
This state of affairs was a problem since “shipment of books” means 4-6 pallets and there was zero floor space for pallets of books to be dropped off. We hauled off fifteen big black bags of garbage, two carloads of cardboard, a dozen wooden pallets, and two more carloads of assorted other waste items. As much as possible I recycle and re-use, but it still ends up being a lot of work to remove things that are in the way so that we can make space. The good news is that as of this morning my warehouse looks like this:
Four pallets of books will fit easily into that space. As will the shipment of shirts which I’m expecting not too long afterward. Also the shipments of boxes that I will use to mail the shirts and the books. The physical spaces are ready for work. Now I’m preparing shipping lists, combining orders, and generally organizing so that when the books (and shirts) do arrive we can send them on their merry way to homes where they’ll be loved.
This morning I was alone in my house for thirty minutes. I thought it was going to be quite a bit longer since Howard and Kiki had gone out to see Infinity War. But before I really had a chance to stretch out into the aloneness, I got a text from 17 asking to be picked up early from school. I suppose there are some people for home “alone at home” is a common experience. It is certainly the source of significant emotional adjustment for those who become empty nesters at about my age. Between a spouse who works at home, a daughter who works at home, and two partially homeschooled teenagers, I don’t get to be alone very often.
It is strange to note the ways that I expand internally when I know there isn’t anyone else in the house. I know that I won’t be interrupted. I don’t have to track anyone else or predict when they’ll need my attention. I don’t have to reserve a portion of my brain so I’m prepared to respond. The thing is, I’m not even aware that I’ve got attention on reserve. It is something my mind does automatically and I only notice it was a thing when my brain stops.
Going to a retreat has an added layer of expansion in that I’m outside my usual context. At a retreat my first question is always “what do I need?” While at home the prevailing question is “what needs to be done next?” Retreats give me a chance to live inside my mind in different ways. Unfortunately stepping outside my context can also trigger anxiety precisely because I’ve stepped away from my usual tasks. Some retreats I’ve spent far more energy on battling panic than I have on thinking writing thoughts.
As I drove to pick up my daughter from school, I tried to figure out how I felt about having alone time taken away from me. The feelings were subtle, a faint sadness perhaps. A slight shouldering of responsibility, because with her in the house I am reminded of the work she needs to do in order to not fail some of her classes. It is her work, not mine. I shouldn’t have to track it, but the overdue work exists because she’s been off kilter for months. She’s overwhelmed even though I’ve already adjusted her workload downward as many times as I can. She’s not functioning at capacity, so when she is home, I track where she’s at and whether she’s been able to work. With those tracking circuits re-engaged, I proceeded onward with my day. I have things that need to be done. Those things don’t change much whether my house is co-occupied or empty.
However it is important to note that arranging for time alone is probably something that would be beneficial to me.
It was one of our morning business meetings where Howard and I discuss the day and decisions we need to make. I explained to him an opportunity that was related to an event. He stared at me blankly. I re-explained twice before what I was trying to express became clear to him. No idea whether I was being unclear, or whether his brain was not parsing what I’d said. No way to determine which without a third party or a recording of the conversation.
I looked away from that frustration to glance at my email, where I saw that the business opportunity I’d just explained had sold out and was no longer available to us. It reminded me vividly about a much more important task associated to this event that I’d also been late in taking and for which I was still awaiting a satisfactory resolution. Cue feelings of failure.
I stepped away from the computer and into the kitchen, trying to recalibrate my day. I stood looking out the window and thought about the other things which currently feel like failures: the laundry (while clean) has been heaped in baskets for weeks, forcing both Howard and I to play “mining for socks” every morning. I was supposed to have a conversation with my son this morning about a thing he’s been doing that frustrates his sister. The conversation may or may not trigger an anxiety meltdown. And then there are the tasks that have lingered on my To Do list weeks past the original date when I assigned myself to have them done.
I decided to squelch all of that and go take a shower. Perhaps I’d be better able to do things once I didn’t feel gross.
This was the moment when Howard walked up the stairs, and I heard the shower turn on.
I stood by the sink, listening to the water of the shower. Howard had no way of knowing I’d been about to go shower. I hadn’t said an of my thoughts out loud. Recalibrate again. Maybe I could go fold the laundry while he was showering. That would be a nice surprise for him when he got out and I would have reversed at least one failure.
I walked up the stairs just as Howard stepped out of the bedroom door and placed the empty laundry basket outside.
Here we need some back-and-fill info. Howard and I have had previous conversations about the laundry. Processing and folding laundry is one of the household tasks that stresses Howard and breaks his brain. As near as we can tell it has to do with sorting a jumble of like items. We haven’t been able to train his brain to react differently, so laundry is my job and he takes on different household tasks that don’t break his brain. Having to mine for socks is exactly the sort of brain breaking activity that we try to avoid for him. Thus the laundry piles are very guilt inducing for me because my failure to fold laundry puts Howard in a brain-breaking position every single morning until the problem is resolved. Howard does not get angry about the laundry pile, but sometimes the only way for him to find socks is to dump the contents of the laundry basket on the bed so he can spread out the mass and better find socks. Howard has apologized for this basket dumping behavior, worried that it seems like a passive aggressive attempt to tell me that I should really fold the laundry now. I told him that I understood why he did it and it was okay.
But there he was deliberately placing the empty basket outside the door with an air of frustration. Dumping to find socks was one thing. This was something else. In that moment it felt like being slapped in the face with my laundry failures just when I’d planned to come and fix them.
Howard turned and went to shower. I began folding the laundry angrily. It turns out that laundry is not an activity that lends itself to angry venting, not like hammering or clattering dishes. There are not satisfying noises or solid motions. It is all softness and precision. I stewed the whole time Howard showered. Angry. Feeling like a failure.
This is the part that young Howard and young Sandra got wrong so very often. Young me would have not recognized how much of my anger was at my own perceived failures and she would have chosen more accusatory language. I did better this time. When Howard exited the shower I said
“So it turns out that dumping the basket on the bed is fine, but when you place the basket outside the door it feels like you’re scolding me.”
Howard said, “Yeah. Sorry about that. When I went to dump the basket, one of the speakers (from our music system) fell into the basket and I tripped over the basket, so I was mad at the basket and put it outside the door. I didn’t realize the action had a subtext until I’d already done it.”
I then cried a bit about all the things that were really upsetting me and Howard listened. He apologized that he couldn’t fix any of it. I told him I didn’t need anything fixed, I just needed to be told I wasn’t terrible.
Then I showered, and as expected, it helped me feel better about all the things.
Yesterday anxiety and depression were eating me alive. It is strange how they seep in and take over all my reactions without me noticing what is happening. It’s like being busy with a project and suddenly noticing I’m hip deep in flood water. That has alligators in it. I haven’t been an effective worker most of the week. I’ve been wading through sadness and foggy thinking. Then last night I got hit with a series of micro panic attacks triggered by the tiniest of things.
Laundry needs to be switched = jolt of adrenaline and huge spike of crushing guilt because obviously I am failing at adulting in that spells doom for my entire future.
Daughter shows me piece of art = jolt of adrenaline and surge of worry because what if the client (who is my friend) doesn’t like it, and what if they get so angry that it destroys the friendship, and then that leads to a huge rift in the social circle which spells doom for my entire future.
You get the idea. Small event = my entire future is doomed. After half dozen or more of these, I finally paused long enough to think “hey, maybe this isn’t normal.” And then I remember that this is exactly what one of my medicines is for. It is a short-acting “rescue” medicine whose job is to cut through anxiety and help my brain re-set so it can remember that we don’t have to react to everything as if it is a life threatening emergency which potentially leads to permanent doom. So I took my medicine, and I slept it off. Then today was, by far, the most effective day I’ve had all week.
I know exactly why the anxiety and depression showed up this week. Kids have stuff going on that is legitimate cause for grief and emotional processing on my part. My job in both cases has been to let go and get out of the way so that the kids can handle their own things. I have to let go of things I pictured for their future because their futures need to be what they imagine.
Sadly, knowing the causes of the anxiety doesn’t actually prevent it. But I can re-set, recalibrate, and not let the anxiety win.
A Comedy of Errors Which Has Me Contemplating Security, Safety Nets, and Preparedness While Sitting in a Train Station Parking Lot With a Dead Car Battery.
(If you take comedy in the Shakespearean sense that events become amusing because everything turns out okay in the end, but the whole thing could have been a tragedy if the end were different.)
Fact 1: I lost my coat two weeks ago. Through process of elimination, I’ve determined that it is not anywhere in the house and I probably left it behind at a doctor’s appointment. I currently only have the one coat. However it’s spring and I’ve been able to make do with some sweaters, so I haven’t gone to the doctor’s office to ask.
Fact 2: I needed to drop my oldest off to catch a shuttle bus in the early hours of the morning. I looked at the weather and it was only a little bit chilly, but I was going to be in my car the whole time, and the car interior can be heated up, so I didn’t bother to find a sweater or to do anything other than shove my feet into some sandals.
Fact 3: We’ve been trying to teach our kitten to not be afraid of the car. This process involves kids sitting in the car with the kitten while she explores and gets comfortable. During one of these sessions, a child became chilly. He put on the spare jacket I usually keep in the car. Then wore it into the house. So the jacket was no longer in my car.
Fact 4: Last Monday I was driving the family home from an event. Part way home we discovered that my headlights weren’t on. I flipped the headlight switch back to “auto” so the lights would turn themselves on as needed. We wondered how they got moved off of that setting and made a joke about how I will always forget to have the lights on unless the switch is set to auto.
Fact that made things turn out much better than they could have been: We got Howard’s car fixed yesterday after it had spent almost two weeks undrivable because it had a “check engine” light on. We didn’t want to drive it until we had the mechanic check the engine (per the indicator light’s instructions.) Mechanic gave the car a green light yesterday. This meant Howard had a car available this morning.
Fact that makes all the difference in this story: We live in a world where most people have cell phones. Including me.
My daughter and I arrived at the parking lot twenty minutes early for the shuttle. I parked so we could see where the shuttle would arrive. I turned the engine off. Only then I couldn’t see the dashboard clock to track the time. So I turned the key so that the clock lit up again. This also turned on the headlights. I considered turning the headlights off so that they wouldn’t annoy others, but I worried that I’d forget to switch them back to auto. I reasoned that the sky was bright enough that the headlights wouldn’t be too annoying. It didn’t occur to me that having headlights run off of battery for twenty minutes might have an effect on the battery.
Flashback which outlines why I really should have known better: In January of this year I accidentally drained my car battery dead by using the battery to run a tablet watching videos while I and this same daughter were waiting for access to her college apartment. We ended up getting a jump start from an employee of the restaurant we were parked outside. One would think this experience would teach me to recognize the limitations of vehicular batteries rather than treating a car as a magic box that can dispense electricity at will. Apparently I didn’t learn.
Just before the shuttle arrived, I noticed a change in the dashboard lights. I suddenly remembered that car batteries run dry. With a sinking lurch, I turned the key…nothing. So I calmly waited three minutes until my daughter got onto her shuttle, then called Howard to alert him that he’d need to handle the remaining school drop offs and that he’d need to bring some jumper cables to me.
Then I sat for another forty minutes while Howard went through tasks as quickly as he possibly could in order to rescue me. During those forty minutes, the chill seeped into the car. I contemplated how I would have to rescue myself if I hadn’t had a cell phone. There were houses within a five minute walk, including my sister’s house. The walk would have been unpleasantly cold, especially with the windchill, but it was completely survivable. In fact, I could have walked home in an hour had I really needed to. Though I would have gotten very cold. I thought that the day would warm up as the sun rose. Instead a storm began to blow in and the temperature dropped further. There were other people in the lot, but since it was a commuter lot, most of the people I saw were rushing to catch a train.
I thought about how comfortable my life is on a daily basis. So comfortable, that I have the luxury of forgetting that the charge on a car battery is an expendable resource. I can go from warm house to warm car and back again without needing to dress for the weather outdoors. I can have things go wrong and know that I have multiple people I can call who will gladly rescue me from my troubles. I can ask strangers for help and they will be kind and non-suspicious of me because I don’t look like a threat to them.
Not everyone has these comforts. For some people a dead car battery becomes a tragedy rather than a comedy.
I thought about all of that as I wrapped my arms around myself and jiggled my legs to stay warm. I wasn’t too terribly cold, but over time a slight chill seeps in.
Howard arrived with a warm car, heated seats, a jacket, and a hot fast food breakfast. I got to sit in his car with all of these things while he braved the windy chill to link our cars together. Inside five minutes, my car was running again. But Howard had me stay with him in the warm to finish eating. He ate too. “This way it’s like a date.” He smiled.
“We need to plan better dates.” I answered.
Then he responded with words I can’t remember specifically, but the words meant that while maybe this wasn’t a flashy date, it didn’t matter because being together was date enough. Dates are about shared experiences and togetherness rather than about the itinerary.
I’m back home. Surrounded by warmth and light, both of which are generated by electricity that I’m actively grateful to have right now. My car is parked in the garage and is restored to full functionality. In a few minutes I’ll go take a hot shower to chase away the last of the chill. All’s well that ends well.
But I’m going to put that spare jacket back in the car. And go see if my coat is still at the doctor’s office. And be better about dressing for the weather even if I’m only expecting a short trip. And remember that I should never use the car as a source of electricity unless I’m also running the engine to generate that electricity.
Lessons learned. (I hope.)