Give Yourself Grace

Lately I’ve been following the lovely Kate Northrup, exploring what she has to say through her blog, her podcast, and her best selling book Money: A Love Story. Kate is a vibrant, authentic, successful, and smart entrepreneur, born and raised in Maine. Mother to a toddler of her own, she dedicates her work to helping women in business–and now moms in business–live the lives they dream of. In spite of our disparate backgrounds, much of what she has to say applies beautifully to my life now, and I have been inspired by her over the past few months. Oh, and I also have a huge girl crush on her.

One concept that Kate discusses as a path to “financial freedom” is that of passive income. I have to admit, this idea is totally new to me. I never even thought of it as a possibility in my life. Growing up in a household where all available funds were used for living expenses, investing was not something we did. Nor I am in a position to do much of it now. However, Kate focuses less on investing money and more on investing time and energy on projects that allow you to earn money outside of the traditional hours-worked-equals-dollars-earned mode; projects that earn income even when you aren’t working your butt off on them.

For example, many people create passive income by writing a book. Hmmmm… writing a book. This is something that has crossed my mind before. I mean, obviously I have LOADS of free time to write. And, of course, my book–a memoir, to be exact–would immediately skyrocket to a best seller and provide my family with a modest but comfortable passive income, eliminating any shadow of financial stress as I continue to raise my children, work as a doula, practice yoga, drink coffee with friends, self-reflect, eat chocolate, and otherwise live the live I am meant to lead. Obviously.

Sarcasm aside, I am sitting with the idea. Trying it on for size. There are aspects of my story that I feel compelled to share. My journey as a new mom, as a young breast cancer survivor, as a high-school-teacher-turned-doula. My journey carrying, birthing, and parenting twins. My overarching journey as a recovering perfectionist: learning that I am not perfect (nor meant to be perfect) and learning to love myself passionately and unconditionally just as I am. (This last piece is a work-in-progress.)

And so at 5:30 this morning, coffee in hand and toddler by my side, I opened my chromebook and googled, “How to write a book.” (Hey, you have to start somewhere, right?)

After scrolling briefly through this and that, I settled on “10 Ridiculously Simple Steps for Writing a Book” by Jeff Goins. The list includes practical, tangible tidbits of advice that made me feel like I was ready to write, like, NOW. Decide what the book is about, set a daily word count goal, set a total word count goal, write every day… I can totally do this! And then… number nine:

Embrace failure. As you approach the end of this project, know that this will be hard and you will most certainly mess up. Just be okay with failing, and give yourself grace. That’s what will sustain you — the determination to continue, not your elusive standards of perfection.”

Good one, Universe. In one little bullet point about writing a book, Groins captures my major life learning of the past decade: “You will most certainly mess up.”  Let go of “your elusive standards of perfection,” and “just be okay with failing.” But, most importantly, “GIVE YOURSELF GRACE.”

Maybe I am a masochist. Life gets a little comfortable and I think, “Gee, what other project can I take on that is totally new that will inevitably lead to failures, forcing me to come head to head with my own imperfection?” I don’t know though… Maybe Groins’ little piece of advice is a sign–an arrow pointing me towards the next opportunity to exercise resilience and to chase that ever-allusive practice of giving myself some grace.

Sharing the Love

This piece was origninaly posted on the BirthME doula blog in September 2016. I wanted to share it again here so it can be part of my personal archives. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

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I’m fairly certain I ruined my son’s life when I decided to give him a sibling. Of course, being the overachiever that I am, I gave him not one sibling, but two. At once. TWIN. SISTERS.

Just like his daddy and I, the poor kid was blindsided. Back in the day, he was a pretty big deal. On his daddy’s side, he is the firstborn of a firstborn of a firstborn. The first grandchild on both sides of the family; the first great grandchild to several living great grandparents. He made me a mom and transformed my life. He was my world and my one pure love.

And then there were three. At 4 years, 4 months, he became Big Brother. Not the baby anymore, but the big boy, the helper, the one I can rely on, the one who has to just suck it up and let his sister play with his toy for a minute because do you really want to listen to her scream and I know it’s not fair but she’s a baby and doesn’t know any better and I need your help because it’s just really hard for me right now because there are two of them. That one.

And for me, the eternal guilt of never again being mother to only him.

The other day I read this blogpost, a letter from a mom of two to her firstborn, telling him how much she misses him, misses being just the two of them. The piece was heartfelt and genuine. She conveyed the special memories she had with her firstborn, and the bittersweetness of adding another child to the family, the inner conflict that many moms have felt as they figure out how to love more than one child with their whole heart.

While I’m sure it was not the author’s intent, the piece left me feeling incredibly sad. I too miss when it was just the two of us, mostly because I never really appreciated how freakin’ easy it can be to care for one baby, rather than a 4-year-old and two babies, or a 6-year-old and two TWO-YEAR-OLDS. I used to think it was so hard, when it was just him. And it was. He was a challenging baby, and the learning curve is so steep when you are thrown into this big crazy jungle called parenthood, and venture forth to cut your own path for the first time. But I’m sad because, although I remember how much I’ve always loved him, I don’t really have fond memories of “just us.” I was always distracted by something else, mostly just by making it through each day. The first year felt like an exhausted blur, as I struggled to recalibrate my life and sense of self while learning to be a mom and teaching full-time. As he turned two, I was planning my wedding with his dad and took a financial blow as my job was cut back; when he turned three, I was battling breast cancer; by his fourth birthday, I was pregnant with his sisters, and the rest is history. I’m sad because I wish I could go back, oh-so-briefly, to when it was just us, and appreciate it a little more.

I’m sad because my baby, my boy wonder, my firstborn, turns seven next week. His childhood is slipping away and, as I struggle to keep my head above water, to keep his little sisters alive and happy, to make some small dent in the housework, to grow my business, to manage our household logistics and finances, to maybe exchange some meaningful words with my husband, and to nurture my own body or soul in some small way, I end each day feeling like I have mostly failed him. I have not made him the center of my universe enough that day. I have not looked him in the eyes enough and given him my undivided attention. My voice became impatient; my nagging was too much. Or maybe I was too lenient, letting him slip away to watch TV, when I should have sat down and read with him, or known how to ask the questions about his day in a way that would solicit more than monosyllabic answers. Does he know, I mean really KNOW, how much I love him?

 

YES. The answer is yes, he does.

He is not the center of my universe. I am the center of his. He is my World and I am his Sun: the constant in his life, his light. I know this when he still asks me, nearly every night, if I will lie down with him while he falls asleep. I know this when I walk upstairs with him to turn on a light because he is scared to do it alone. When I leave for yoga class and he balks and asks, “Why do you have to leave all the time?!?!?,” even if I haven’t actually been away from my children for more than two hours that week. When I pull myself into the moment, look into his eyes, and laugh at a silly joke he has made, because then he knows that we share a funny, grownup secret that his sisters don’t understand. When we find time to snuggle in bed and read about Star Wars, and Minecraft, and monsters, and Battle Bunny, even though it makes my mind numb and I would rather read Charlotte’s Web.

Even when I feel spread so thin that there cannot possibly be enough of me to go around, he knows. In those moments, I remember that, despite my many shortcomings as a mother, I am, indeed, his Sun. And just knowing that gives me the strength to shine a little brighter.

All in the Jeans

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The weirdest thing happened the other day.

So there I was in my favorite clothing store, trying on a modest pile of lovely garments, when I realized I had accidently grabbed the wrong size pants, a size down from where I had comfortably settled since the birth of my twins in 2014. Too lazy to go for another pair, I decided to try them anyway and… they fit. Weird.

That night, curiosity piqued, I cautiously ventured into the back of my closet, digging into a pile of clothes I figured I would never wear again, but could not quite bring myself to get rid of because they were my wardrobe staples “back then,” part of who I was before these lovely creatures grew inside my belly and came into my life. I found a pair of jeans, familiar like an old friend, but long-forgotten. I put one leg in, then the next, pulled them up, zipped and buttoned, and… they fit. Weird. I was definitely rocking the muffin top, a soft bulge of pudge around the midsection gifted to me by my children and countless pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but nothing a loose-fitting shirt couldn’t fix. I looked in my bedroom mirror and… DAMN! “Honey, your ass looks FINE!!!”, I thought. Or something to that effect.

Excitement swelled within me. I wanted to tell my husband! Tell my friends! Tell Facebook and the WORLD! I’ve gone down a pants size! WOOT!

But a gut feeling told me, NO. Aside from the obvious–a desire to avoid pointless over-sharing on social media–something deeper stopped me.

I firmly believe in changing the language and expectations that a woman should get “back” to what she was before becoming a mother. Back to her pre-baby weight, back to her skinny jeans, back to her sex life and work life as though nothing has changed. As Beth Berry writes in a beautiful, powerful blog post on the topic, “We’re not meant to ‘bounce back’ after babies. Not physically, not emotionally, and definitely not spiritually. We’re meant to step forward into more awakened, more attuned, and more powerful versions of ourselves. Motherhood is a sacred, beautiful, honorable evolution, not the shameful shift into a lesser-than state of being that our society makes it seem.” What if, by publicly celebrating the fit of my pre-twins jeans, I somehow made any mother out there feel as though she was less than beautiful, less than perfect, just as she is? Or implied that the ultimate goal is to get “back” into our pre-baby clothes? Not an option.

Through my teens and into my twenties, I battled disordered eating: anorexia in the early years and binge eating later, accompanied by the distorted body image, shame, self-loathing, and despair that seem inevitable when your sense of worth is linked to a number on a scale, or to what you did or didn’t eat in a day. While I worked hard over the years at healing, at shaking old patterns and psychological demons, a turning point for me was my first pregnancy. Maybe, in the face of the total lack of control over what was going on in my body, I finally let go. Maybe it was because my tummy could get as round as it damn well pleased, and people would still call it “cute.” Maybe it was the wholesome support of my midwives, and their wise advice to trust that my body knew exactly what to do. Maybe I started to see my body as a friend, not a foe; a temple that would house and nourish and CREATE this child of mine for months to come. Or maybe I was just too uncomfortable and PREGNANT to care. Whatever the reason, something clicked, and I was free.

After the birth of my son, any weight I had gained during pregnancy melted off (not my experience the second time around!), but I still felt like I was living inside a body that I didn’t know, that was not my own. My boobs were big, my butt was flat, I could barely run a fraction of the distance I used to, and I was slave to the horrible sleep habits of my infant. It was not until years later, when my son was two, that I ran my first post-baby half marathon, and I finally felt strong again.

Within a year of the race, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost my right breast. A year and a half after that, I gave birth to twins. Three babies in four years, with breast cancer thrown in for good measure is a crash course in Making Peace With What Is. A solid lesson in Appreciating Your Body for its Beauty and Strength. In Being Gentle and Self-Forgiving. And for the most part, I’ve done a darn good job of it.

Which is why this blue jeans thing threw me for such a loop. I do not even feel like the same person that I was eight years ago, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, nor would I want to give up any of the growth or wisdom I have gained with time and life experience. I work hard to live in the present, to embrace the NOW, and to appreciate who I am, muffin top and all.

But looking in the mirror, taking a spin in those jeans gave me a little thrill. It made me feel for a second like the single, childless, 26-year-old woman who used to wear them. While for the most part I have evolved gracefully into my present phase of life, I realized that I am still mourning.

I mourn the woman who used to drink vodka and dance until sunrise at Spanish discotecas. I mourn the woman who kept her apartment spotless and showed up for things on time. The woman who read voraciously and who wrote brilliant analytical essays in two languages. The woman who exercised daily and wrote in a journal. I mourn the freedom to sleep in on a Sunday morning, and to shower without rushing. I mourn the woman who was not quite so jaded by how hard marriage can actually be. I mourn my two humble but symmetrical and scar-free breasts.

Evolving, moving forward, not back. How do I honor these feelings of mourning “who I was,” but also fully embrace who I am now? Especially when the NOW seems so crowded with grocery lists, poopy diapers, night wakings, legos underfoot, and the 24 hour response to other people’s needs?

Slipping into those jeans reminded me, life is not as static as I think. Those aspects of myself and my life that I mourn are not lost in the past; they are still in me somewhere, making me who I am now. And even this present phase, which seems like a new reality that will last forever, is a mere speck in what, as my dear friend once put it, will hopefully be a long life of many fulfilling and varied experiences.

Sometimes, the old pants fit. Sometimes, amidst the chaos, I find a quiet moment to read, or to care for myself, or to engage in meaningful adult conversation. And one day, I am sure, I will even sleep in on a Sunday.

In pursuit of [im]perfection

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

–Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems 1956-1968

When I was a senior in college, one of my favorite professors paired me with a freshman to work on some sort of collaborative paper. “You’ll like working with him,” she said. “He’s a perfectionist. Like you.”

“What?!” I thought, “I’m not a perfectionist!” Detail oriented, sure. Self-motivated, disciplined, with a strong desire to excel… obviously. But a perfectionist? What does that even mean? Isn’t a perfectionist, like, PERFECT? That, I knew I was not.

A couple years later, at the wise young age of 23, I was pushing my way through my second year of graduate school. I was working my ass off, earning good grades, and sharing an apartment with my dear friend and fellow student. I studied, I taught, I read, I wrote, I went to class, I read some more, and I ran a marathon. By all appearances, I was killing it. But privately, I was hurting, still haunted by the ghosts of an eating disorder from my teens. At this stage in my life, it mostly involved copious quantities of cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, and self-loathing, in place of healthier mechanisms to cope with the stress and the work load. On January 1st that year, I tearfully made a list of resolutions–goals for self-improvement–and hung it next to my bedroom mirror. I resisted the urge to enumerate various dietary and exercise goals that I knew I would fall short of anyway and wrote, at the top of the list: FORGIVE YOUR IMPERFECTIONS.

Four years later, a Master’s Degree, another year abroad, and a couple of years of teaching high school under my belt, I sat in the midwives’ office, weepy, nauseated, and bone tired from the first trimester of an unexpected pregnancy. I was going to be a mom. In the meantime, a foreign entity no bigger than a blueberry had completely hijacked my body and I felt like total crap. Most of the time, night or day, I just wanted to curl into fetal position on the floor and fall asleep. I told my midwife that I was just so frustrated because I hadn’t even been able to exercise in weeks. She basically said, “Honey, get over it!” Ok, not exactly. But she did say that pregnancy is an exercise in letting go of our control… in surrendering to WHAT IS… “And if pregnancy doesn’t teach you that, then childbirth will. And,” with a chuckle, “if childbirth doesn’t teach you that, then parenting definitely will!”

At the time, her response felt condescending. It made me feel like some sort of selfish, anal, Type A bitch who was sitting there whining because she missed her workout. What I really meant is that I was scared. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Confused. My life was being turned over so entirely to this other person that I could not do the things I was accustomed to doing. I could not do the things that made me feel like… ME. Over the years, though, I have recalled her words often, and recognized the truth–even wisdom–in them.

I have come to understand that I am, indeed, a perfectionist. (Mea culpa.) I like to do things well. I don’t like it when I do not do something well. I am slow to recognize the things I AM doing well, and I am quick to find the areas where I fall short. Also, I feel best when my surroundings are aesthetically pleasing, orderly, and organized. When the house is clean, the dishes are washed, when everything has a place and is in its place, and when all the laundry is folded. (HA. This is a funny joke, by the way, because I’m pretty certain that none of this has happened since that year in my 20’s that I lived in a one bedroom apartment… ALONE.) That’s just me.

But my midwife was right. Pregnancy, childbirth, PARENTING, (marriage, cancer, TWINS, career changes…) all soften our edges. They humble us. Try, just try, to feel like a REALLY GREAT parent. Yeah, right. A perfectionist’s nightmare. Read five different books on any one topic from sleep training to introducing solid foods to dealing with tantrums, and you will get five different well-researched takes on “the right” way to do it. And how do we know if we ARE doing it right? If the kids turn out OK? Newsflash: Those little buggers are mostly born just the way they are; It is our honor as parents not to mold them, but to do OUR best to bring out THEIR best. Sometimes, it works out. Other times, despite our most valiant efforts, they are just kind of a$$holes.

I am not perfect. My house is not perfect. My children, my husband, and my life are not perfect. Despite the good intentions of therapists, friends, and Queen Elsa, the common advice to “let it go” just doesn’t do it for me. Sitting here in my son’s messy room, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, staring at three loads of clean laundry that have been strewn about the floor for days, waiting to be folded, writing away while my children start their third episode of Octonauts, I really don’t think I can “let go” much further.

Instead, my task is to ACCEPT. This is my life right now. To FORGIVE. It is ok if they watch a little too much TV; I am not a horrible parent. To LAUGH. Because, let’s face it: When my toddler has an epic meltdown because I did something horrible like break her banana or throw away her poop-filled diaper… That shit is funny. And finally, beyond just accepting, to EMBRACE. To embrace the chaos, the mess, the constant demands, the wondering if I’m doing what I should be doing, because, at the end of the day, this life of mine is not perfect… but it is pretty damn good.