Eleven years ago yesterday, my uncle took his own life. Dates hit me hard because number patterns interest and excite me. After a stressful previous night I woke up with self care on my mind. I've come to the distinct realization that when my mental state is poor, life for my family is worse. People ask me often how I handle five kids. I used to shrug it off. Not anymore. I try really damn hard to be a good mama, and part of my ability to be a good mama means doing the things that keep my soul alive. In an effort to buffer from my stressful night I woke early, showered and shaved, and had some time with my husband. I buckled everyone half dressed and barefoot into the van, we dropped J off, and we headed to the beach. We watched the surfers, found some seashells, and then made our way to the playground. Seated at a picnic table and half reading Brene Brown I watched my eldest daughter swing higher and higher, listening to her raucous giggles. "She's so joyful." I thought to myself. "She really knows how to be in the present moment. She's fearless. I wish I could be more like her."
As for the rest of the day, I'd planned to drink just enough chai tea, watch Lilo and Stitch, and ask Will for a foot massage . That all changed when "Hey Mom, watch this!" turned into a broken elbow and a hospital stay. This darn day, I thought. The stupid 26th. Another bad thing on this day. I know suicide is taboo. We don't like to talk about it. We don't note in the obituary that people decided to die. It's not easy to talk about. For many there is a lot of anger surrounding it. I've heard everything from "How could they?" to "That's so selfish to hurt others instead of working on being happier." Suicide isn't malicious, though. Suicide is driven by fear. Fear that life will never improve. Fear that temporary problems will be permanent. Fear that we are burdens on our friends and families. Fear that we can't handle the hardship coming around the corner. I'm no stranger to fear myself. I deal with anxiety and have from my earliest memories. It isn't difficult or an imaginative stretch for me to understand how people can fear so deeply. Life can be really hard. Especially when we spend the majority of our time wondering what difficult thing will happen next. Up until the last six months I spent more time worrying about events that never came to fruition than I did processing the way I felt about experiences that actually happened. Dealing with our natural human emotions can feel far from natural. In the course of daily life with five kids we experience a multitude of feelings every single day. Many are so, so pleasant. We truly have the best time together. Growing up is terse though. Two, four, five, seven. Big ages. Big brain changes. We're busy moving from one part of the routine to the other and sometimes emotional displays feel like a drag. "I don't have time for this dramatic upset about popsicles" runs through my head multiple times a week. The thing is, it's never actually about popsicles. Kids don't know how to say, "I'm feeling frightened about school today." or "I'm having a hard day and I need extra connection." Most adults I know would have a hard time saying it, too. And perhaps that's because we're so used to stuffing down our emotions. We don't want to feel the bad ones so we don't express and deal with them and then we become unable to feel the great ones, too. We don't get to have it both ways.
We have joked in the past that Cianna is our drama queen. She feels everything very deeply and she shows it. Joy, pain, adoration, the whole nine yards. You never have to worry where you stand with this girl, she'll let you know. Sometimes that results in a lot of messy emotions. At home. At school. In the middle of Aldi. And yes, as patient as I attempt to be there are times I'd really like to fit her emotions in a neat little box and keep them put away until it's more convenient. But I know that she, like me, like us all, needs an outlet for that emotion.. Shortly after her fall she said, "I know I got hurt. But I'm probably going to do that again." Its not that she was fearless. She felt fear. She walked through it and jumped anyway. Show me the kid who can share the big emotions and I'll show you the person who has life figured out better than the rest of us.
No matter our thoughts about what happens when this life ends- and it will end for all of us, some way, some how- this is the life we have on this Earth. How sad it would be to live forever in fear. Sad for us. Sad for our friends and our family. Sad for the world. I’m here to listen to how people are feeling and tell them how I’m feeling. Life is messy. Let’s be there for each other. Maybe we can convince everyone one by one that the joy is worth the tough stuff and no one has to go through what our family did eleven years ago.
Not quite a month ago my Grandma called and said she thought I should head home. I could tell she hated saying it. Not just because the news was sad but also because it meant a cross country trip with five kids. I acted like I wasn't sure if I could while beginning to throw snacks and diapers and clothes on the kitchen table. I threw a load of dirty diapers in the washer and when they were dry we hit the road. I told her we were on the way when we reached New Mexico because she worries.
About two years ago I sat eating lunch at one of my favorite restaurants with one of my favorite people following the funeral of a well loved older woman from our church. She said, "You're about to go through the hardest thing in your life." I knew she was talking about losing my grandparents but I couldn't even go there. I couldn't get into the head space to even fathom it. My grandparents raised me from fifteen until I sort of kind of got out of their hair and married at 22. The teenage years are interesting. They are even more interesting when you move in with 70 year old people. They loved watching me excel in school and I loved doing it. They came to every school play, every awards assembly, on more church trips than I can count. They paid for prom dresses and for braces. They watched me fall in love, get a broken heart, and stood by me when I got pregnant the year after high school in a relationship that should have stayed in high school. I brought my first baby home to their house and my sweet Papa was so worried about me getting anemic after birth that he made me steak every single day for a month. He taught me to drive and to balance a checkbook and how to talk on the phone. He was mostly retired by the time I moved in so we had more time together than the usual parent/child relationship. I was a typical teen. My head so self absorbed I didn't think nearly often enough to ask about his life. When he knew he was dying he began talking deeply about life; about mistakes he had made as a young person and I was sort of shocked. It sounds silly. We all make mistakes. My Papa was the kind of person people listened to. He didn't talk just to hear himself talk. He was wise and full of the common sense that seems to have skipped my generation. The idea of him making mistakes was laughable. He was the rock of our family.
We drove and barely made it out of California the first night. My mind raced with thoughts and I'd packed funeral clothes. But I never really believed he'd actually die. He was too strong. Too steady. It wasn't time. Except that it was.
When I got to his hospital room he immediately held his arms out and said, "Give me Jane." Isla Jane is our newest baby. 8 weeks old at the time. He evidently wasn't fond of the name Isla and had decided to just call her Jane. He held her. Said how perfect she was. Then he asked me to take her because he couldn't think of anything worse than dropping her. He asked about the plumbing disaster at our rent house and when I told him it was all fixed up he winked at me and gave me his hand sign for "good deal." Within a few hours his pain was unmanageable without Morphine and we gave him his wish of being placed in the care of Hospice. We weren't going to have him poked and prodded anymore but allow him to leave this life as comfortably as possible. In my mind this was an "easy" decision because he so firmly wanted it. Looking back it was "easy" because I still didn't believe he'd actually die. As I type this I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that he isn't up eating ice cream in the middle of the night or putting on a pot of coffee for Grandma when he knows she's on her way home.
The thing about life is that there are only two things we all get to experience. Birth and death. They are so commonplace no one is surprised or in awe when our friends welcome a new baby or lose a loved one. The newspaper and our social media feeds show us that it happens every minute of every day. But God, when it happens to us, it's earth shattering. Life will never be the same. We will never be the same.
In his last days I watched my Grandma love on this man she has loved for 63 and a half years. The man she grew up with. Had babies with. Lost a son with. Caring for dying loved ones is not new to my Grandma. Her calm and strength got the rest of us through those difficult last days. She held his hands and his arms. Sat at his feet. Spoke calmly to him. We watched her heart break as one more time she was able to give him exactly what he wanted. Permission to let go. The reassurance that no matter how much we relied on him it was okay if he was tired. We would continue on and be okay. What a gift to give someone.
I wasn't there when my Papa died. Helene had been having a rough morning and after three days of mostly being at the hospital I wasn't comfortable leaving the kids again. The previous night I left around 11. I ran my fingers through his hair, kissed his forehead, and told him that I was going home to take care of my babies. I don't regret it. That's exactly where he would have wanted me to be.
And now we do go on. As strange and wrong as it feels, we go on. We're thankful for the years and the memories and the wisdom and the love. We're so grateful that he was surrounded by his family and friends in his last days. That his mind stayed sharp up until the very end. That we had the opportunity to tell him exactly how much he meant to us. We know not everyone gets that.
And today I hope he's some place beyond where we can see building something.
I always swear that I won't cry at send off. It's not helpful for me or the kids, I tell myself. We will play and laugh and hug. There will be no tears from me.
There were tears. When he pulled J in close to tell him to snuggle the baby he won't meet for months, there they were. When they called for five more minutes and suddenly it's real and you wonder how in the world to fit in half a year's worth of togetherness in five minutes, there were tears. Maybe the worst part is seeing the other families. Knowing this heart breaking feeling is far from your own, but is collective. There are newborns in the crowd. Some say they are "lucky." Dad got to see them being born. Spend a few days, maybe weeks with these new lives before they take off around the world. We all know that it isn't lucky though. That their Dads will come back and they'll have no earthly idea who they are. That they will learn about each other and bond then, not now. There are several very pregnant women in the crowd, including myself. Some of us have done this before. It doesn't really make it better. We know for sure what we're getting into. We know what it feels like 5 years later when your daughter recounts the story of her birth and reminds everyone that her Daddy wasn't there.
Have you heard of a postpartum doula? The idea is pretty much genius. In most other cultures around the world, new moms are doted on for several weeks following birth. In some cultures mom will leave her bed only to shower and use the restroom. How different it is from the United States. Fathers are given a very short paternity leave (if any) to bond with baby and protect and love on their spouse following birth. We see women up and back to their normal routine in record time. I'm not interested in being one of those women. Birth is a monumental thing for a body to process. It happens every single day of course, but not every single day for each of us. I will have very few of these special times in my life and I want to spend it breathing in my new baby. Learning about her. Welcoming her to our family and integrating her siblings into her care. Mopping is not on the list of things. Actually, mopping isn't even allowed by my midwives, they are that awesome. Bending over five thousand times a day to pick up Legos and train tracks and dolls after I've recently expelled a child from my uterus isn't either. So what's a girl to do? Three older kids who are accustomed to being fed and a house that does usually see a light cleaning on a regular basis. A postpartum doula of course! I'm not interested in having a baby nanny. And a postpartum doula is not a nanny. What I do want is someone to help with the things that keep me from nursing and napping and changing diapers and reading books with my olders. Light housework, meal prep, small errands. Holding baby while I shower. She does all that. Some are even trained in lactation and most have lots of knowledge about babies in general. Someone to ask, "Is this normal?" to.
You might be thinking that you already have someone who can and will come do all these things. Your mom, a close friend, your mother in law maybe. If you do, that is amazing. Soak it up. Enjoy it. Ask anyone who stops by to throw in a load of laundry or boil a pot of water for spaghetti. People love having something to do. This is the way that communities have worked for a long time; the "it takes a village" mentality and I love seeing when a mama has people around her to do this. For many of us though, this is no longer reality. My ties to the military community alone have shown me just how many of us are thousands of miles away from family. How many of us who haven't plugged into a tribe yet to have this kind of support.
My family and I are strict budgeters. There is quite a difference between needs and wants in our household. Postpartum doulas are not free. They aren't even cheap. This is not a need for us. I could resume my usual chaos after my husband's ten days of paternity leave are up. I've certainly done it before. The result was not pretty. I was exhausted. My body didn't heal quickly. My mental health absolutely suffered. Or, I can scrimp and save and put some money that I might've used towards a cute diaper bag or outfits that aren't hand me downs, and hire someone who can help me to make the most of this short newborn time with our new daughter. I won't remember the diaper bag fifteen years from now. I certainly won't remember most of the outfits she will have had on. But I will remember whether I was a stressed, frazzled mama trying to do too much with too little help, or a calm, peaceful mama who had what I needed, too.
It feels a little wrong to say this, but I get nostalgic for my days of single momdom. Totally just made that word up. Heaven knows it isn't easy. It can be lonely. And tiring. Feeling like everybody else has this picture perfect family and you got left behind. Here come the bills and its your check paying them, every time. A child has surgery and you're the only parent there to hand them into the arms of the doctor who you pray will bring them safely back to you. The parent there nearly crying tears of joy when they come back just fine. Locking the door at night, just you and your little person. Hoping at the beginning you don't hear any weird noises and then eventually not worrying anymore.
With all those hard things though came a feeling of confidence for me. I was doing it. Not totally on my own. We all have a support system. But at the end of the day it was my little guy and I. I didn't have to discuss parenting decisions with anyone. I made the money. I paid the rent and for the food and the clothes and the toys. It forced me out of my comfort zone on a nearly daily basis. There is something freeing about that. I worked, went to school, raised a sweet little boy and certainly felt like I was accomplishing more than I do these days. These days my contribution to my family doesn't involve dollars. That feels "off" for me. It always has and it always will. The opportunity to stay home with my children has been the absolute highlight of my life so far. I wouldn't trade the beautiful, amazing family I have now for the world. But I won't pretend there aren't aspects of that life I don't miss too. I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to experience both. Wherever you are in life, you might be surprised to look back on it fondly. Even in those days of feeling rejected and alone I recognize now that I was working on learning how to be by myself. Because I had the opportunity to do that I know that I'll always be able to. It's all a lesson, that's for sure.
I'm sure there are people losing their money left and right for betting we'd be divorced by now. In the last two and a half years we've moved across the country, moved homes, had another baby, broken addictions, been promoted at work, and dealt with a serious health scare with our toddler. Life has happened, to say the least. While being married for two years doesn't exactly make me a marriage expert, there are a few things I've learned.
I get annoyed with my husband a lot. A lot. Did I say a lot? He has gas. A lot. He can completely zone out in front of a screen and he manages to "sleep" through screaming children with impeccable ease. He walks into a room and completely misses the mess that ruins my whole day. Guess what? He also has a mile long list of the things I do to annoy him, too. I jump to conclusions. Lose my temper too easily. Talk about things completely uninteresting to him. A lot.
I'd say the first thing I learned about marriage is that life is much more enjoyable when you let little things roll off your back. I know now that my husband is never going to walk into a room and just start picking it up. He will however, do just about anything I TELL him that I need help with. I'm a dreamer. I come up with crazy ideas on a whim and insist we do them NOW. He's my logistics guy. He figures out how the idea can become a reality, and every one in a while he just says no. Our dreams about life are the same but oftentimes the way we see fit to get there is very different. We challenge each other. A lot.
It's corny to say, but you get out what you put in. You cannot build a good marriage without time and sacrifice. When recruiting duty was at its worst and Will was working from 6am to 10pm six nights a week, there were days I thought, "why in the world does anyone get married?" I was doing all this taking care of my kids on my own before anyhow and I didn't have another person to worry about before. There was no time for us to pour love into our marriage. To spend time together to remind us why we loved each other so much. Relationships don't work like that. People make it work, sure. But find me a couple who says their marriage is in a great place without putting time into it, and, well, you won't.
The weekend before last we took a kid free getaway. Our first in two years. I don't love leaving my babies. It isn't the most comfortable thing in the world for me. They were in wonderful, loving hands though and we needed that time. Two days was perfect. Reconnecting. Laughing. Not talking about a child's bowel habits or latest meltdown. Needed for sure.
At the end of the day, I always have someone on my team. Through this craziness we're on the same side. I'm beyond blessed. I'm sure 5 or 10 years from now I will look back on this post and laugh about how I thought I knew anything about marriage. For now though, I'm enjoying having figured at least something out.
I feel like I need scary movie music to begin this post. Dun. Dun. Dun. That's the best I can do.
I've posted before about my general loathing of all things bedtime. My children basically come out of the womb hating sleep. About the time they start sleeping through the night the nap has been ditched for each one. I used to just think it was likely crappy parenting on my part. The more I read about "normal" infant and toddler sleep though the more I realize I've got pretty normal kids. We believe in meeting our kids' nighttime needs and that includes helping them to fall asleep, usually. Which is sometimes a pain. By the time 8 p.m. rolls around I'm feeling like Cruella Deville and ready to shut the world off. I dread it before it even begins. The bath, the teeth, the books all leading up the to power struggle of the day. We've tried lots of things. Earlier bedtimes, later bedtimes, strict routines, lax routines, everything short of Benadryl. We've had a lot of good nights lately. I lay in bed with the olders and tell stories and they drift off while Will snuggles with the baby and she goes to sleep. Some nights, like tonight though, go more like this:
"Mama, I'm not tired."
"Mama, remember when we went to Disney World and we rode those tea cup rides and I was scared of that rabbit? But I'm not scared of him now cause I love rabbits. What color were those tea cups?"
"Mama, is it time for sliced cheese? That's my bed time snack. It must be time for my bed time snack."
"Mama, I'm gonna play with your hair. It's so soft. Except, here's a tangle. Why do you get your hair tangled?"
"Mama, at the beach, I want to see a whirlpool. But I don't want to get in the whirlpool. And I don't want you to tell that story about whirlpools because then I go to sleep."
And I'm staring at her with wide eyes. Mentally pleading with her to go the eff to sleep. But I remember being that little girl too. The little girl whose brain didn't just shut off and allow her to fall asleep. So sometimes we get up, do some chores and try again in 20 minutes. Sometimes we talk about all the Disney World things I just knew she'd never remember. And sometimes I have to leave for five minutes and get my composure back because I'm angry that it isn't finally my turn to go to sleep or snuggle my husband on the couch. Bedtime and overnight parenting is something I've really had to work on. It isn't easy. I've said that once I start sleeping through the night again I'm never going back. Lord, please let that be true.
We work on it together. She learns little by little ways to help herself fall asleep and I learn by little ways to help her fall asleep too. I know from experience this ends at some point. Her older brother is happy to get a hug and a kiss and climb into bed. It will end. And maybe I'll be sad.
Probably not, but it's a nice thought anyway.