Monday, February 23, 2015

All the Things

I find myself in bed, debilitated and immobile. I've just returned from my fourth trip in almost as many weeks and instead of being refreshed and restored, I feel worn and worse for the wear.

I can feel my ugliness and the weight of my own body on the sheets. I looked passable yesterday, but today I am hideous.

My internal dialogue does nothing to ease my exhaustion. I am disappointed in myself, angry that I don't feel better - annoyed that I'm not living every second of my life to the thousandth degree like I promised myself when the year dawned anew. 

Get up and do something with yourself. Be a better mom. Spend more quality time with Patrick. Go to the gym. Fix your wrinkles. Write on your blog. Play My Little Pony with Elle. Return those phone calls. Raise more money for St. Jude. Start that Down Syndrome Association. Teach Reid his colors. Book those doctor's appointments. Start eating healthier. Go to sleep earlier. Feel better. Just do something, you lazy piece of shit. 

I get out of bed, but barely. I am congested and have a headache. Maybe I'm sick. I would feel better about my indolence if I were sick. 

I am scrambling eggs and there is too much noise. 

My self-loathing turns to anger. It's a deep, guttural rage and I don't know where it's coming from. I am tired and disconnected and there is too much noise. It is pounding in my head like a high school marching band at halftime. I can't think for the tumult of barking and fussing and little girl questions. It takes me a moment to realize that it's my voice rising above the din - I am making the most ruckus of all.

I find myself screaming. 


The screaming gives way to pleading. Tell me what you want, Reid. Use your words. I cannot live like this anymore! I can't take it - all day, everyday. The screaming and the yelling. Everyone has got to be QUIET!!!!

I shouldn't be screaming and yelling. And I most certainly shouldn't be screaming at my kids to stop yelling. 

I can't help it.

Somewhere deep inside, a faint voice fights through. This is just today. This is not your life. Slow down. Breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

I snap my mouth closed. I grab Reid under his armpits and carry him at arm's length - like stinky garbage that I'm taking to the curb. I put him in his crib and lock myself in the guest bathroom - the blue rug a minuscule oasis, the tile wall a mother's cool rag on my forehead.

Reid's yelling is muffled in here and I will myself to temporarily ignore the image of Elle's eyeballs widening in horror at the sound of my apocalyptic scream.

All you have to do is breathe, Brooke. 


I catch my breath and in an instant it's all over. My rage is replaced by a flood of regret and and the primal urge to hold my babies and never let them go. I miss them and they are only in the other room. 

I leave the bathroom and find Elle where I left her. Probably only two minutes have elapsed but it feels like a lifetime.

I'm sorry, baby, I say.

Mama. That was NOT good. I have never heard you yell like dat. Reid was being so bad and got in trou-uu-uu-ble and I was just being so good and eating my breakfast and you were so loud.

No, baby. Mama was the one being bad. Reid is only two and mama knows better. I made a mistake by yelling but I want you to know that everyone gets frustrated and angry from time to time. We all get tired and we all yell. No one is perfect except for one person. Do you know who that is?

She does. She smiles and points her finger and slowly and proudly turns it toward herself.

Nice try.

Uh, no. You're pretty wonderful but you aren't perfect. And mama isn't either. I was talking about God, I say. 

She puts my face in between her two little hands and tells me it's okay. She calls me her "honey"  and orders me to look into my heart and find my love and kindness and says that when I find it, I'll know just what to do.

I know just what to do. I kiss her and I head off toward brother. He has calmed down and his earlier frustration has given way to annoyance. He is skeptical of me and doesn't want to be held. I hurt his feelings.

I pick him up and hold him tight. I rock him and sing him his favorite song and let him fill in all of his favorite words.

You'll never know…


How much I…

luuu ooooo.

So please don't take my sunshine…


His soft body relaxes into mine and I whisper all the Things in his ear. Our own version of The Help

You are smart, you are special, you are kind. I love you and support you and I will always be here for you. Even when I yell, I love you. I am sorry… 

…you were kinda being a jerk, though.

We kiss, we make up, we move on.

And so today - exactly one week later - I find that I have given that morning much more thought than is probably reasonable. Sure, I yelled at the kids - louder than I ever have, to be sure - but was it all really that big of a deal? 

I should clarify. I yelled louder than I ever have at them - not ever in life. I'll be honest - I went all Brooke Alexander for a minute, but that's the glory of having kids. They don't have the displeasure of knowing the old you, so it works to the parent's advantage. Unfortunately for them, they also don't know when your old habits emerge, so they can't relish in the satisfaction of giving you that very particular "Aaaand there it is" smirk that every family member in the history of families has perfected over the years.

So why do we get so confused? Why do we take one bad day or one bad week or month or year and let it define us? Why do we mull it over it for days like it was some cataclysmic historical event?

It's not the yelling that has me thrown off. I took care of that immediately and I stand by my words to Elle - we all make mistakes, we all yell, no one is perfect. (Reid was totally being a jerk.)

No, it's the moments before and during that have my wheels turning. The minutes in bed where I berated myself rapid-fire and said things that I wouldn't say to a mortal enemy. It's the realization that on that day - and the few that followed - I wasn't practicing what I preach.

I (like many people I know) make it a habit to surround myself with positive, inspiring, supportive people and create specific personal boundaries for those who leave me feeling depleted. I teach my children about love and kindness and compassion. I remind them that accolades and milestones and labels don't mean anything and that at the end of the day all that matters is being happy. 

So why is it our innate human instinct to bash ourselves whenever things aren't perfect? And since life is never perfect, does that mean we are doomed to self-hate until we die?

For me, knowing is half the battle. Even when I'm in the thick of it, I typically know what is happening and don't necessarily take my ego's opinion as truth. But the mind is a frenemy of the worst sort and if we aren't constantly on guard, it can get the best of us at times. 

Last week my mind certainly won. 

The other half of the battle is understanding this baffling societal urge to know it all, be it all, expect it all, and simultaneously let everyone in on our amazing ability to DO it all by editing out the bad parts, prettying up the good parts, slapping on a filter, and documenting every step for the world to see. 

We live in this world where everyone is constantly trying to out-busy each other, one-up each other and out-do each other. Everyone is always searching for the next "like." I love social media and I use it often - even to get people to read this post! - but I want my children to understand that seeking affirmation and acceptance from other people is absolutely futile. That it's fine to put yourself out there, but never for the purpose of gaining self worth.

Likewise, as they get older I want them to be aware of that creeping "less-than" feeling that sneaks in when we see other people showing off all of the things while we're just lounging on the couch eating chocolate and watching Real Housewives.

I want them to recognize that feeling for what it is - fabricated and fleeting - and tell them that sometimes - oftentimes - lounging on the couch eating chocolate IS THE THING. It's the only thing. I want them to know that being true to ourselves is all that matters. That it's okay to slow down and rest and stay put. I ask people all the time if they've read any good books lately, and the go-to answer is often that they haven't read a book in years because they haven't had time. 

I mean, we're all busy, but who doesn't have time to read a book? And if we don't, perhaps we should re-prioritize or create the time.

Whenever I get caught up like I did last week, I make a concerted effort to understand that my desire to constantly go and be and do has nothing to do with the true nature of ME. That going and being and doing is wonderful and good and might sometimes make a difference, but it can also exhaust and deplete me. I remember that what ultimately matters to me lies within this body and these four walls and only involves these four people. I understand that my feelings about myself come from my ability to do the right thing for me and my family, not from doing the seemingly right thing for someone else. And when I feel down and unattractive and tired, I make sure that I take the time to do the little things that heal and soothe, so that I can go out into the world and do all the other bigger Things. I remind myself that the noise in my head is just that - NOISE. And I don't have to listen to it.

We have this misunderstanding - women especially - that we are to constantly define ourselves and prove our worth. Because of the reasons mentioned above, we mistakenly believe that we must show up all of the time and look good doing it. We tell ourselves that when we feel like shutting down, it must reflect on us and our inability to "do it all." But that's such a crock. It's a made up ideal that comes from the outside in. The truth is that if we want to stay open to the world and go and see and do and be, we must first nurture ourselves from the inside out. Which means that we must treat ourselves with love and respect and understanding. We absolutely cannot give those things to others if we can't first give them to ourselves.

It means that we must pat ourselves on the back for even getting out of bed on the days when it seems impossible. We must comfort ourselves when we've lost a close friend and rest after we've traveled to three time zones in two weeks. When we have a child with special needs who is going through the very difficult time of not being able to verbalize all of his needs and wants, we must remind ourselves that the best way forward is often two steps back.

When we catch ourselves acting like an past version of ourselves, we must remember that past version of us IS us. 

I know the old me paved the way for the new me and it is vital to love both parts equally and carefully. When I return to old habits and patterns or I do too much or too little, I know that I must stop, readjust, and simply move on. 

One day is not a lifetime. And it won't matter what I said or did or accomplished if I beat myself up or spent my time striving for some unachievable goal of perfection and acceptance. 

When I am tired, I must rest and when I am weak, I must let others be strong on my behalf. When I fall, I must get up and when I make a mistake, I must forgive myself.

Self-love is hard sometimes, but I know there's too much at stake to not love myself unconditionally. As a mother, I have to lead by example and take my own advice:

You are smart, you are special, you are kind. I love you and support you and I will always be here for you. 

And whether or not the voice in my head agrees, I know it's not about how Much or how Fast or how Big I did life. It's not what I look like or what I do or don't do for a living. It's not how often I write or what school my kids go to or how much money I've made or raised. 

It's not how many times or how loud I yelled.

It's about simply trying my best and enjoying the parts of life that are too often taken for granted or pushed aside - hugging little bodies, listening to their tiny laughs, seeing my husband's big-toothed smile and snuggling with an old dog. It's taking a warm bath, resting in a soft bed, diving into a good book, watching trashy TV, and savoring a delicious piece of chocolate. 

It's about the grace of unconditional love, trying our best, and starting over when we don't get it exactly right. 

And mustaches. It's always about mustaches.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Poet and Didn't Know It

I spent the weekend at a writer's retreat with 25 brave and inspiring women. It was an incredible experience - one I am continuing to process - and I will post in detail once I return from California. 

In the meantime, I'll share some of my writing from the weekend.

Every woman in attendance had an incredible narrative and I found a connection with each of them. One had a story that particularly resonated because it mirrored all of the things I felt and learned while caring for Reid at St. Jude - specifically the reality of parenting from a hospital chair. 
It's a subject I've written about before - all of the brave mamas and daddies who lovingly save locks of hair lost from chemo, inject healing medicine into microscopic veins, and smooth cotton-soft mops before anesthesia - all while singing soothing songs through the hurt and pain of agonizing symptoms and side effects.

And some who are ultimately - like this woman I met over the weekend - forced to say goodbye way too early. 
A nursery but no sleeping baby. Toys but no hands to guide them.
And so, when Annie Flavin - one of the retreat leaders known for her brevity and ability to reach a profound point with minimal words - asked us to work on an assignment that sounded kind of like (gasp!) poetry, I cringed a little. As a fan of overly long, descriptive prose, I didn't initially connect to the idea of putting a cork in it. 
She assuaged my fear of concision when she asked us to focus our words outward rather than in. We were to write about another retreat participant - one whose story had made an impact on us over the weekend. All of the sudden, it seemed like a gift rather than an assignment. And the words just came.
For my new friend Georgia:
Mamas in chairs
Nobody cares
Hospital beds all that they've seen.
Coming home outfits don't mean a thing
As long as she's healthy 
Seems a cruel joke
A diagnosis in exchange for just one more poke
Please let me hold her
Tell her she's loved
Her hours spent here a gift from above
Never forgotten, tears always spilled
My heart was cracked open but at once truly filled
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