Blessings

I had a gratitude journal once. It was a great way to end my day on a positive note. Before bed each night, I would write down three or five things that happened during the day for which I was grateful. At first, it was a tedious exercise because I found myself writing silly things that, in truth, highlighted just how unhappy I was. But, once the habit took hold, I began to search for those moments that deserved gratitude, and then I quickly discovered the abundance of blessings that each day offered.

Slowing down isn’t something I do well. My husband and I  are life hackers, people who employ techniques that allow them to accomplish more in less time with the ultimate goal to live life more efficiently. We actively seek tools and gadgets to help us manage our lives– both at home and at work–so that we have more “downtime”.  Before we had kids, it was to organize our life so we had more time for traveling and gaming. (I mean, who hasn’t missed a few days from work because they were up until the wee hours of the morning raiding with their guild?) But now, it’s about maximizing those two precious hours after the kids have gone to bed. In that time, I write a scene or two in my novel, my husband works on his virtual world, then we catch-up and attempt to binge watch the latest TV show, of which we may (or may not) complete a full episode. We lie on our bed fighting sleep like children, never admitting that maybe we’d be less tired if we stopped trying to be so efficient all the time.

When I force myself to slow down, I’m able to fully appreciate all that I take for granted. I allow myself to be present in the moment and stop my thoughts from drifting to the next activity. This slower pace broadens my perspective, which impacts my reaction to things. I become able to see my husband’s nagging comments that I do too much as concerns from a loving partner. A text from a friend is a reminder that even though I am not always present, I am still loved. An impromptu visit isn’t an interruption, but an opportunity to help someone through a difficult time in their lives.

Slowing down allows me to be… better at being me.

My husband and I have decided to give this “slowing down” thing a try. I mean, I still write (that’s as natural to me as walking) and my husband is now tinkering with his Oculus Rift, but we’re having fun with it. I’m writing for the first time without a deadline and he’s playing with new technology instead of expanding it. Saturday afternoons are for dating–without the kids! And Sundays are our lazy days where we give ourselves the freedom to do nothing but watch TV, read, play with the iPads, and eat pizza if we want.

Aging is a lot like gaming. Getting from levels 1-40 doesn’t take a lot of time and is largely about learning the strengths and weaknesses of your character. But as you progress to the higher levels, each quest requires more care and attention, and so it becomes more about how you play (the specs you give your character and the armor you invest in) as this will have a significant impact on your gaming experience. And equally important are the members of your guild–your community. Regardless of the frequency of your comments in the various streams of conversations that perpetually go on, your guild is always there, willing to offer advice, listen, and help when they can.

My children have forced me to slow down and for a long while I didn’t like this slower pace. But the more “filled” my life becomes, the more important it is for me to pause and spend time reflecting at the end of each day. It’s easier to count your blessings when you’re not rushing or constantly focusing on what’s next. There is so much for which to be grateful. I just need to remember to look up every now and again.

 

Overwhelmed

The other day I was out with a good friend and we were chatting about something as we watched our daughters play when she said, “Are you okay? You seem overwhelmed recently.”

Now, if you know me, you know I’ve got a lot of pride and so I replied, without even thinking, that I was most assuredly not overwhelmed, but instead simply busy at the moment.

But her question stuck with me and sent me on a journey inside myself to really uncover if I was overwhelmed. And the answer is yes, by the sheer amount of things I want to and attempt to accomplish in 24 hours. The length of my to-do list requires that I have to put things (and let’s face it, friends as well) further down than I want to. I micromanage my time down to the minute, which means I rush my kids from one activity to the next so that I can fit it all in before bedtime.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know everyone feels like there is never enough time. Everyone is busy. Whether you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom or you’re something in between, there just aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes.

I’ve been meaning to have lunch with a newly-made friend for about 3 weeks now, but this project at work just won’t end and continues to drag on and creep into my personal life negating any chance of a meet-up. Every night I put my little one to bed I think of all the moments I spent doing something else instead of helping her write the alphabet. I think of the friends who are carrying on without me because I never seem to have enough time.

In those moments when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to remind myself that these are opportunities to exercise grace and patience. But grace and patience are hard to execute when you’re moving at the speed of light, when your mind is never settled because things are being added to your list faster than you can tick them off.

But then I read an article written by someone who was complaining about people who complain about never having enough time. (Clearly the author was a 20-something-year-old childless person who, like all 20-somethings, believed they had stumbled upon the key to one of life’s greatest mysteries simply by surviving their teens.) In the article, the author said a lot of stuff that was obvious and trite, but perhaps the most important piece, the piece that made the article worth remembering was this: the key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

A key priority had fallen so far down on my list of things to-do that I had forgotten it was there. And that was taking care of me. Of setting heathy boundaries for my mental wellbeing so that I could function happily (dare I say with peace and grace?). I can say no to that project meeting scheduled after my working hours and my eldest can help my youngest with her alphabet one evening.

I understand that there are some aspects of my schedule that are fixed and at this juncture in my life, planning works better than “impromptu”. But when things begin to feel overwhelming, it’s probably a good time for me to stop and assess my priorities. All of our lists of things to-do are too long to ever complete because each day brings about new endeavors, new responsibilities, and new tasks.

Maybe, just maybe, that 20-something-year-old was on to something.

Resilience

When I was seven-years-old, I moved from South Carolina to “the north”. It was a scary time for me. All I had known were open fields and country living. Roads were called lanes and a lot of the times they weren’t even paved. Seat belts were optional as not every car had them and neighbors were extended family members with the authority to discipline.

Days were meant to be spent outside, in the fresh air. I remember getting lost in the wood, but not being worried. I spotted a fox one summer–the same summer I realized that the painful part about a cactus isn’t when you pick it up, but when you put it down.

Rain didn’t bother me because those were the best days for making mud pies. Even thunderstorms were an adventure. We went around the house pulling the curtains to and unplugging everything electrical. To this day my mom still won’t talk to me on the phone if it’s storming outside. (The advent of circuit breakers has been lost on her.)

Summer evenings were meant for catching fireflies.

But then we moved north to a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Just me, my mom, and my dad. No more cousins, aunts, and grandparents.

My memories of those days were that it rained a lot. In an apartment on the 5th floor, mud pies were a no-no, if not an impossibility with the scarcity of greenery. I had lost the freedom of waking up, throwing on clothes, and shouting to whomever was within earshot that I was going outside–just disappearing until hunger grabbed me.

In the city, up north, I quickly learned that children had to be accompanied outside. And parents had to work all day. The weekends were for resting up so that it could be done all over again.

Breakfast was fast. Cereal or toast. And outside became a dangerous place where neighbors kept to themselves. My wood had been whittled down to a small patch covered in mulch and enclosed by a gate. And so I made the transition from climbing trees to swinging, and my days of exploring were contained to the ups and downs of the seesaw.

Shortly after moving up north, my parents separated, and eventually divorced. I don’t remember being too affected by it. (I was fortunate: I had a dad who stuck around.)

My mom and I started to move a lot after that. Friends I had made one year became distant memories the next. After the South, I had learned not to become too attached to anything.

But change can be a good thing if you let it. There’s a lot of learning that can happen if you don’t resist change. New friends can be made, different experiences to be had, new information to be catalogued. And then there’s always the chance to reinvent yourself.

I spent one summer after we had just moved to a new state watching soap operas. There was this one female character whom I really enjoyed. She was new to town and didn’t come from money like the other show’s characters. She had grit about her. She was a private investigator trying to do the right thing in some unrealistically dramatic circumstances. And her name was Frankie.

Well, on the first day of school, I told everyone my name was Natasha, but they could call me Frankie.

I have friends on Facebook who still call me that.

My husband recently talked about the possibility of moving countries, and I was surprised at how excited I became. We are pretty committed to where we are now. We purchased property, bought a car (which is like buying a house in most countries), and our kids are learning a second language–something that is very important to us.

But that small part of me that loves a new scene and different experiences was reawakened. I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to wear a coat again. (I didn’t like it.)

What was most interesting was that I stopped and thought about my girls and the changes it would mean for them. Right now they have stability and the security of a routine. But how would they feel if we changed all of that and took them to a new culture and showed them that all they know isn’t all that there is.

Staying here has a lot of pluses for my family, but the trade-off is that my girls don’t develop the ability to adapt to different environments and circumstances early on. Yes, I miss the south like an expat misses her roots, but it was those years of constant change that has allowed me to gain perspective and to adopt cultures that I was not born into.

Living through change gifted me with resilience. It’s one of those skills I’ve come to rely on more and more as I’ve grown.

But the good news is that life has a way of teaching the same lesson in different ways to different people at the right time.

And so they’ll learn it. Be it here or somewhere else.

 

Balance

The very first thing I remember writing was a short story (well, a scene more than a complete story) about this kick-ass female FBI Agent who did some pretty unrealistic, but totally cool things like save the President from a dozen trained ninjas, only to have the private ceremony where she would receive a Presidential Medal interrupted because CASE (Community of Advanced Space Exploration)–look, I was only 12-yrs-old–needed her special services to help capture a renegade shipper (think trucker) who had escaped into Sector 9 (deep space).

A lot has changed about my writing since then, but the one consistent theme that I’ve been reluctant to shake is the strong female protagonist. I grew up after the first glass ceilings had been shattered. We had already won the right to vote before I was born and so this was a given for me. I was a latch-key kid to a single mom who was an Accountant working in a building so tall she had to take an elevator up to her office. She rode the metro to work, went on business trips, and earned enough to support us quite comfortably on her own. Grace Jones, Madeline Albright, and my mom were my heroes back then.

I’ve only just realized it, and I have never told my mom this, but by bringing me to her office (probably because school was out and she couldn’t find a sitter), she gifted me the ability to dream big. Seeing her attend meetings and answer questions with confidence showed me it was possible–and perhaps normal.

Ever since I began working part-time, I’ve not been able to pick up my girls from school. I was quite sad at first, but I tried to find comfort in the fact that at least I was working part-time. What about those moms who worked full-time or had jobs that required travel?

But then the most interesting thing happened. They adjusted. Sure, they can be a bit more clingy at times than they used to be, but you know what, they appreciate me more. When I come home they run to the door to greet me, and for about 30 seconds my heart fills with so much love I get choked up. Then their perpetual battle to reclaim discarded toys from one another resumes.

But you want to know the truth? The real truth that was so shocking I cried when it hit me? I’m so much happier working. Ha-ha. No, seriously! Re-engaging that part of my brain that had brought me so much joy was like finally breaking out from a tunnel into the light of day again. Sure I am fundamentally changed and my priority will always be my family, but those career traits and skills that I spent so much time developing aren’t dead, they were simply waiting until the right time to reassert themselves.

I’m learning it’s a balancing act. While I love my job and the people I work with are genuinely amazing (or their closet serial killers because it is hard to believe a group of people can be this supportive–I’ve worked in investment banking so I’ll admit I’m a bit cynical), being able to switch off and not let the work creep into my home life is a skill that I’m now having to acquire.

I’ve let my blog grow stale. I’ve gotten side-tracked and won’t finish my novel by the end of this year like I had planned. And I’ve been meaning to take the girls to the zoo, but keep allowing “other things” to get in the way.

It’s an amazing problem to have: the need to learn to balance a job you enjoy with your personal goals and the family you love. But it requires work. And discipline.

I’ve decided to set an alarm 15 minutes before my work day ends so that I can organize myself for the next. I’m going to spend that hour after work reconnecting with my novel. I owe it to myself. And I feel more happy and am a better mom when I’ve accomplished other things besides getting my children’s shoes on, and keeping them on, in under 10 minutes. (Trust me, that’s another acquired skill.)

This new chapter of my journey has been a pleasant surprise. For a while there I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but instead, I think I’m just going to relax and trust the process.

Emerge

When my eldest was born she had a foot deformity.  The top of her foot pressed back against her shin. I immediately fast-forwarded to five years later when she was trying to keep up with her friends only to be laughed at and teased because she would run with a limp, if she were able to run at all. My heart felt like it might burst with the pain and hurt feelings she would have to experience.

Like any new parent would, we told our pediatrician to send in the best Pediatric Orthopedist this tiny island state had to offer. Silence filled the room as my husband googled the specialist she recommended while I held my daughter and cried, promising her that we would get through this. I would be strong enough for us both. I would instill in her a sense of self-worth that went beyond her physical appearance.

The specialist arrived at 8pm and looked at her foot and said, “Oh, she’ll be fine. She just needs a splint for a couple of weeks. You can do some light stretching twice a day. I’ll send someone tomorrow to show you how to stretch and wrap her foot. Ok?”

I remember feeling stunned. Were we looking at the same foot? The top of her foot was pressed back against her shin! Sure I could pull it down, but once I let go it would flap back up. How could that be fixed with a simple splint?

Sure enough, day by day we began to see improvement and by the end of the second week her foot was fine. Despite the Pediatric Ortho’s assurances, I went back to visit him twice more. He finally laughed and said, “Look, I don’t want to just take your money. So why don’t you come back once she’s started walking if it’ll make you feel better.”

I can look back at that time and smile now, but if I think about it too much, my eyes fill with tears. My husband and I emerged from those two weeks realizing that as parents all we can do is our best and hope we get lucky along the way.

So much of my parenting journey has been about emerging. It’s been about riding the current and sometimes letting the undertow take me where it wants to go. For the past four and half years my life has been dictated by the needs and constant growth changes of my children, but now, as they get older and more independent, I am once again emerging.

Recently, I spoke with my husband about a growing unease I was having. I was beginning to feel unsatisfied and becoming more frustrated over the small things. He listened and suggested to me that now was the right time to pick up more clients or perhaps look at getting a regular full-time job with set hours.

He was right. It definitely made more sense to have a double income household with two college tuitions we wanted to pay for and the hopes of one day retiring. The cost of living is constantly rising, but salaries typically trail at a much slower pace.

But I was reluctant if I’m honest. I had placed my novel on hold for the last four years and instead focused on caring for our girls as a full-time stay-at-home-mom. This was a tough discussion for me because I wondered when would I be able to put my goals back at the front and center? These last four years have been great being able to stay with my girls and watch them change and grow each day. So many mothers don’t have that opportunity. I was in a very fortunate situation.

Intellectually I understood this, but emotionally it felt like time was finally emerging for me to achieve some of my goals (like finishing my novel). As a stay-at-home-mom it can sometimes feel very isolating and that your existence only matters to the extent that your children are happy and are meeting their milestones. You cling to the memories of the once-successful you while at the same time feel paralyzed by the guilt at the mere thought of wanting more than motherhood.

My girls were now in school and finally sleeping through the night, which meant I had a solid 3.5 hours Monday – Friday to write and a full 8 hours of sleep at night. The universe was finally coming together in my favor and I was finally emerging into the sunlight of… of well, me! And this new me finally had time to write!

A full-time job would mean a lot less time with the girls (was I ready for this?) and putting my novel on hold yet again. Luckily, a friend more valuable than any of the accolades I could bestow on her sat down with me one Friday morning and helped me outline my ideal job. Her youngest was the age of my eldest and therefore she had been through what I was going through: another emergence.

The last time I had a corporate job was 2008, and so I wasn’t hopeful that it would be an easy job search. Most recruiters are transactional and only work with the easy-to-place job seekers. But I stayed active with my own small business, writing and editing articles, and working with clients to help them with their communications needs. So my friend and I created a job description for a position which would combine my HR background, project management experience, and my communications work.

A few days later that ideal job became a reality as I was approached by a former colleague to work on a contract basis doing exactly what I wanted: engaging, intellectual work that utilizes my past and current experiences, still spend time with my girls in the afternoons, and dedicate an hour a day to my novel.

I’m surprised at how much my self-confidence has increased and the impact that has had on my attitude as a mother and wife. I have reconnected with the independent woman who started down this path all those years ago. It feels like breaking through to the surface, inhaling once again after a long-held breath, like a butterfly emerging from her cocoon.

Acceptance

Mom told me that you will always worry over one of your children more than the other. It’s not a difficult thing to understand–that one of your children will require more nurturing or perhaps more encouragement than the other. But like so many things, that comment means more to me now I’m a mom.

My eldest is sensitive in a way that is beautiful and smile-inducing, and bless her I can finally say she understands the importance of sharing. (Having a younger sibling greatly helped to reinforce this!) But the playground can be a hard place for someone with feelings like hers. The times after school and after ballet class are stressful for me because her friends go to the playground… and of course she wants to go too.

Most of my anxiety stems from the fact that I see so much of me in her: the innate desire to please and the struggle to assert herself without being overbearing. Assertion is a learned trait to someone like us. It’s an art form that takes years of practice. Some people do it effortlessly while others like me and my eldest first over- then undershoot until we learn the right balance.

I’ve learned that I can’t protect her from the truly hurtful things: I’ve taught her to hold onto the railing when going down the stairs and to keep looking as she crosses the street, but a friend’s comment about her favorite dress or an overexcited kid at the playground are things she has to figure out. All kids must learn how to cope with this, but some seem to do it with more ease than others.

My youngest is the kid I was always afraid my oldest would run into: feisty and confrontational. She’s frightened by little and has loads of personality that leaves us laughing. I spend almost no time worrying about whether her feelings will get hurt at school and most of my time hoping she doesn’t clobber anyone for invading her personal space.

They require two different approaches to parenting. I find myself explaining to my eldest why it’s okay that her friend doesn’t want to give her a hug right now and then in the next breath struggling to get my youngest to understand why we don’t hit. Or pinch or bite or snatch or kick or shout and scream.

My eldest likes to cuddle on the sofa. My youngest needs a dog.

Despite their differences, or maybe because of their differences, I’m learning about acceptance. As someone who very much likes to be in control, I’m slowly accepting just how little I actually have.

Accepting my eldest’s sensitivity is awkward because I see that as a weakness in myself. Therefore, I try to save her from the hard knocks it takes to build thicker skin. I want to spare her the hurt feelings that I had to experience. But in doing so I realized that I’m not accepting her for who she is, which begs the question how can I provide the safe haven she needs if I’m busy correcting her, coaching her… trying to change her.

Perhaps all she needs from me is acceptance. My eldest will learn how to manage playground dynamics and my youngest will grow out of the grabby-snatchy-everything-is-mine phase. Their feelings will get hurt from time-to-time, but more important than shielding them from these events is providing the support they need to get through them.

 

Seasons

Your ability to recognize the changing of seasons in life sharpens with age. It’s not that you’re inattentive when you’re younger, it’s just you haven’t witnessed enough of this phenomenon yet to discern its lessons of impermanence.

I can tell that I’m approaching autumn. I’m not sure what it will bring, but I’ve stopped worrying about that. I’m learning to be more present, to plan without becoming obsessive, and that in all things change persists.

My youngest will start school in the new year. I’m excited, but I’m also sad. It marks the end of a certain degree of reliance on me and the start of her burgeoning independence. I’m turning 40 in a couple of weeks, and while with age comes a new set of “realities”, there’s also this blossoming peace I had not anticipated. I hesitate to describe it as contented because in my 20’s and 30’s contentment was such a negative word. But now, as the season cycles through its next change, contented is exactly what I feel.

Gone is the cocky yet insecure woman-child of my 20’s and the stressed-out overachiever of my 30’s. The value I place on friendship and family has doubled and I find myself gravitating toward smaller, more tight-knit groups of women who are in the midst of their seasonal change.

I try to understand more and judge less.

This is the Age of Reevaluation. Marriages grow moldy, careers seem boring, and we yearn for the freedom and bliss of our youth. This is also when some of us finally muster the courage to make the changes we’ve been putting off. My husband recently accepted an early retirement package, then turned down a job to pursue the one he really wanted. I’m exceedingly proud to say that after a few uncomfortable months, taking the risk paid off. He’s now doing exactly what he wants in the industry he wants with a company that gets him excited.

For me, it has been starting my own business, Mosaic Writing. I yearn for the flexibility that only comes with being my own boss. But it can be scary. I question if it makes sense to leave 12+ years of experience and achievements in one industry to start again in another. But in those 12+ years I’ve learned that a key ingredient to life is happiness, and so the decision was easier than I had anticipated.

Surprisingly, it was my kids that gave me the courage to change. I want them to believe in themselves and to be brave despite their apprehensions. Having them at this age is great because it keeps me agile. They prevent me from becoming trapped in a mindset that fossilizes with age. Like why can’t you wear your favorite dress to bed? Why must you avoid the puddles or go down the slide the “proper” way? And why can’t I start my own business at 40?

Autumn feels nice.