Monday, June 1, 2009

Zen Mama, Zen Baby

This weekend, the Papa and I watched How to Cook Your Life, an endearing documentary about a zen monk chef in the Bay Area. It’s a slow, entertaining and totally inspiring little film – no frills or action – and it’s exactly what I’ve been craving.

The pack-a-punch bit of wisdom I took away from the film was this advice: when you chop carrots, chop carrots. When you peel the potatoes, peel the potatoes…. And so on. Be. Here. Now. Simple, right? Obvious, right?

Not really.

So I took this zen tidbit to heart since I've been thinking about being in the moment a lot lately. I’ve also been reading Everyday Blessings which is proving to be a great philosophical read about the value we place on mindful parenting and how to be a more conscious and present parent to an ever-changing and dynamic little bean. And let's face it, this world we live in can be pretty stinkin' crazed at times. So yeah, the zen message of being present in every moment, even the mundane moments that can seem so numbingly tedious after a long day, is appealing to my often frenetic self.

After mulling over the whole “Peel the carrots” mode, I was able to pull off a pretty darn zen meal prep yesterday morning. Stella and I enjoyed a lovely and peaceful breakfast of yogurt and blueberries. She sat on the counter as I thoughtfully and quietly prepared our meal, and I focused on the now, repeating silly words like “yogurt for my babe, yogurt for my babe.” It felt a bit goofy, but it also felt kinda good.

The Papa handled lunch while I took a much needed break, so I was actually quite eager to try again for dinner. Again, Stella happily took her spot on the counter and munched on a bowl of grapes. Good stuff. I made it through the garlic – “Chopping garlic. Chopping garlic.” – and then was started the veggie sauté – “Gorgeous greens. Gorgeous greens.”

And then, suddenly and harshly, the reality of everyone else’s now took over. Stella suddenly became ravenous and surly, a small army of ants descended upon our kitchen (right below my feet) and the phone rang clamorously.

Hmmm. So much for zen.

I know this sounds silly, but I felt kind of defeated. I really wanted this to work. But, as always, I’d applied my perfectionist focus and determination on even the most zen of tasks. The Papa could tell I was bummed and helped me chuckle about it, and we teamed up to simply deliver calories to hungry bellies.

And then we really started chuckling because Stella stole the show (once again) by essentially becoming a little zen Buddha incarnate. Like countless other 22 month olds, she felt the need to repeat everything she said and felt about five zillion times as we sat around the dinner table. “Beans. Beans. Beans. Beans. Beans. Beans. Beans.” “Cool down.” “Cool down.” “Cool down.” “Cool down.” “Cool down.” “Cool down.” “Cool down.” “Yummy.” “Yummy.” “Yummy.” “Yummy.” “Yummy.” “Yummy.”

In the moment indeed.

I suppose the lesson here is that being in the now means allowing for our previous notions of now to explode into a million little disorganized pieces of chaos. And it means that any notion we may have of controlling the moment is utterly and ridiculously laughable. And, of course, I’m now very aware of the teaching Stella has to offer me as she is most definitely the most centered and live-in-the-moment person I’ve ever encountered. So I still think this practice of being more present as I tackle the seemingly tedious tasks of motherhood is a good one. Because as I’ve heard nearly every parent say, this whole kid gig moves way too fast. And I would hate to miss out on some of the joys just because I failed to see the beauty of what it means to steam carrots for Stella or fold her unimaginably cute pants atop a massive pile of laundry.

All this reminds me of an interview I once saw with a mom who said she nearly lost her mind with the mundane tasks of running a house – laundry, dishes, cooking, grocery shopping, etc. She was educated and worldly and found herself totally perplexed as to how she ended up living as an unpaid scullery maid in her own home. But she found salvation one day realizing the very simple but powerful truth that sometimes folding your child’s laundry or shopping for fresh veggies for the week is really just another way of saying “I love you.” Sure, reading to your kid, playing make-believe or literally cuddling in the wee hours of the morning are all more glamorous forms of adoration and affection. But it all adds up to a bigger picture. And whether we like it or not, sweeping up those endless messes or chopping up veggies that might end up on the floor of the car contributes to a family’s sense of well-being and stability.

So I’m going to keep at it, this Zen Mama thing. I think I’ll dial it back a bit to loosen the reigns on my acutely honed I-have-to-do-it-well-to-make-it-worthwhile instinct. But I feel like I’m actually at a place in my life where I’m ready to feel the now. Maybe it’s because I’m not willing to chug along this motherhood path with a bad attitude. Or maybe it’s because I’m more open than I've ever been to the notion of a spiritual life. Or maybe – and I have a hunch this is the key – it’s because my now is more sweet and delicious than it’s ever been.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Having It All

A few days ago I had a lovely chat with my dear friend, Alex, from Ransacked Goods. Over the course of an hour, we covered everything from pre-school dilemmas to family challenges to creative fulfillment. And while we actually live somewhat different lives – she’s an amazing mama who works full time and I’m an amazing mama who stays at home – we’re able to come together on so many issues as far as our kids go. And I like to think we help inform one another of the many different ways of navigating this whole motherhood gig. In any case, Alex helps me understand and empathize with the struggles specific to working moms. And putting myself in someone else’s shoes, at least imaginatively, is honestly one of my favorite pastimes.

But I digress. One of our conversation veins got me thinking. As graduates of the same intensely rigorous and prestigious all-girls high school, we were frequently told as bright and bold teenagers that we could achieve anything and everything we pursued. We could cure cancer and promote world peace, all while exuding confidence, poise and intelligence. And I think this message rocks. Actually, I think it rocks most of the time. I think a caveat is in order, one that informs young women – or anyone really – that we can, in fact, achieve anything we pursue as long as we understand the value of patience. I think we can have it all – I really do believe this – but I’m not sure it can happen all at once. Or rather, I’m not sure it can happen all at once for everyone.

I think I find this original message inspiring yet problematic because families were sort of left out of this equation of Having It All. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t ever really hear “you can raise a conscious and loving family” amidst all the cheering for careers and cultural do-goodery. In fact, the notion of raising a family as a career wasn’t really acknowledged at all. But that’s just the reality of modern day feminism and I get that. Before we can accept all modes of being, we often have to reject the modes of being that previously felt confining or obligatory. Fair enough.

But this conversation, like all my conversations with Alex, helped me hone in on the bigger issue. I actually love my job as a stay-at-home mom. And yes, I very earnestly consider it a job. While helping an almost-two year old figure out how to express her emotions clearly and healthily or basically acting as a house manager for my little family unit may not seem creative or glamorous to others, I find it to be quite fulfilling and inspiring. And I know that there are incredible moms out there, much like Alex, who do this and work outside the home. And my hat will forever and ever and ever be off to them. I admire and celebrate their tenacity amidst the most challenging balancing acts I’ve ever seen. But I think my own little juggling act is impressive too.

I think my core frustration stems from the fact that at least two to three times a week I’m asked when I’m heading back to work. I know people don’t intend to be rude at all, but the underlying implication to this question is quite troublesome to me. Because I actually feel like I am doing good work right now. And just like the wonderful moms I know who choose to work to fulfill their creative needs (or have to work to fulfill their family’s financial needs), I have chosen to stay at home with my peanut because I find this work to be incredibly creative and fulfilling.

I do plan on returning to my work as a teacher. And I look forward to that. But not just yet. And yes, my main gripe here is with myself. I don't want to crumble into a defensive position here. It's not other people's fault that our culture pits women against other women over issues that could actually help unify us if given the chance. So why do I let this kind of thing bother me? Why do I care what other people think? Personally, I don’t really care. I know I’m doing the right thing for me and my family. And I recognize that when people slam or belittle me, it often has more to do with their hang-ups than with me. My discomfort is a more theoretical sense of disappointment with the tension that often occurs between working and stay-at-home moms. Alex told me that she frequently feels judged by stay-at-home moms and I know I’ve felt judged by working moms. And ladies, who wins with that equation? I’m sorry to pull a Pollyanna, but I genuinely have no judgment about what other families choose (or have to choose) as far as work and parenting goes because A) we’re all doing our best, B) I’ve seen plenty of good and bad parenting on both sides of the fence, and C) it’s usually none of my darn business. I suppose it’s part of my job to keep on spreading the good vibes when it comes to all kinds of mamas. I think we all rock. And I think that as long as we’re doing what’s right for us as individuals and as members of our individual families, we’re showing our children what it means to be self-aware and deliberate in our lives. Isn’t that a good thing?

As for having it all, I know I will have it all. I actually sort of feel like I already have it all. I am reminded nearly every hour of every day of how fortunate I am and, more importantly, of what a fabulous life I’ve created for myself with my career, my friends and my little family. I suppose I’ve been able to come to this spot in my life – a spot where I’m not stressed by what comes next or what I should be doing – because I’ve shifted my idea of Having It All into bite size chunks. And while some may peek into my life and think I’m merely nibbling on the big piece of pie that is my life, I know in my heart of hearts that I’m actually gorging myself on the best part – for me – so far.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Life Lines

I’ve never been one for strong female friendships. Since I was a small kid, I always had a lot of friends but really only one or two close girlfriends I could count on. And this tendency has followed me into adulthood. I like spending time with just little ol’ me (and now the wee peanut) and have been burned by gal pals a few too many times to readily dive into female friendships. And at the end of the day, I always prefer to spend time with the Papa over anyone else on this lovely planet. So I’m open but cautious as a friend, patiently taking my time getting to know other women and find a balance between opening and protecting my heart.

But things have shifted a bit now that I’m a mama. While I still only have a small handful of female friends, I find those bonds and connections invaluable now that I’m navigating motherhood and, frankly, just life in general as a thirty-something. This small group of women have become my support system, my sounding board and my reality check. They are, in short, my lifelines. And oh how I am thankful for this new phase of life.

There’s Alex, of course, my dearest and oldest friend. Alex has stood by me through bad bangs and addiction as well as every joyous milestone in my life since seventh grade. And I can’t imagine going through this mama gig without her. There ain’t nothing like the shorthand of emotional reality checks an old friend provides. One word or a subtle reference to the past, and we have each other pegged and realigned. ‘Cause there’s no fooling an old friend. And hallelujah for that.

And then there’s Lena – dear Lena – my daily reminder that I’m not alone in this crazy ride. We keep each other sane when sanity seems beyond distant. She’s the one I call when I need someone to tell me I’m not a bad mom. And she’s the one who reassures me I’m not alone when I have days when I’m shamefully not bewitched by my peanut who I normally find so bewitching. We take turns feeling vulnerable and fried, buoying up the other so that at least one of us is afloat at any given moment and helping one another laugh through the bliss and the crud. And I literally have days when I live for that little dose of laughter.

Oh, and Kami. Kami kills me. She kills me because she’s a lot like me. And sometimes we all need a mirror to see how funny and smart and right-on we really are. Here’s an example: Kami called me frantically at seven months pregnant and hysterically left the following message: “Oh my god, Katherine, I just ate a hot dog. Oh my god. Do you think I’ve hurt the baby? I think I’ve hurt the baby. What do you think? Call me back.” Yup, this is a mama who shares my level of panic about putting sunscreen on Stella or eating a stinkin’ hot dog. She’s honest and genuine and one of the most loyal friends I’ve ever had in my life.

Goodness. I haven’t even touched upon the inspiration and comfort I glean from family members. Of course, if I start writing about my own mom or my sister, I’ll most like degenerate into a teary mess of sappy nostalgia. And I think I’ll save that for later. I also have countless neighbors and friends with older children who serve as beacons for the future, providing glimpses of the fun (and not-so-fun) to come and modeling some pretty spectacular parenting overall. But really, looking at this “list” of dear friends – women who tell me the truth as they see it and do so with a compassionate humor Mother Theresa would whole-heartedly endorse – makes me feel utterly overwhelmed with gratitude.

And what's funny is that we don't all necessarily agree on all things mama. But I sort of like that. The fact that we share the core parenting values of nurturing love but sometimes approach or manifest those values from different angles means we negate the opportunity for competition or judgment. And since I think we all hold ridiculously unattainable standards for ourselves as it is, I'm thankful that my ladies stand by with a healthy dose of judgement-free compassion.

Mostly, I’m simply grateful for the opportunity to finally reach the stage in my life where I feel comfortable and safe enough to share my strengths and weaknesses with these fabulous mamas and to know that I, in turn, also offer them comfort and solace as well. I revel in how strong and capable we all are, even in our most broken-down mama moments, and this brings me immense relief. For in the reflection these friendships provide, I see that I will, in fact, be able to show Stella the powerful connection between women in this life. And that means so much to my previously burned heart. So thank you, friends, for being sound and hilarious women who help me let go of the shrew cattiness and immobilizing insecurity of the past and gently and lovingly nudge me toward my better self as a friend, as a mama, as a wife and as a woman.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Watching Fear

I love this photo. It could be a throwaway from a long weekend getaway, but it means something to me. Seeing Stella compare her bear paw stamp with Mama and Papa, checking carefully to see that we are, in fact, a family of strong and powerful bears, demonstrates that while Stella is an intensely bright, verbal and sassy little sprite, she is still a tiny little peanut who is just starting to process what it means to live in this crazy big world.

And the world is bigger now that Stella is approaching two. People are bigger. Experiences feel bigger. And emotions are most definitely bigger.

And my goodness, it’s so devastatingly heartbreaking to watch Stella experience fear. Actually, I should be more explicit. It’s tough to watch her feel fear about things like strangers or new environments or the dark. But I sort of get all that intuitively. In fact, I expect those fears to some degree. She’s a tiny peanut, and strangers and new places can feel overwhelming. I get it. But watching her experience fear about things that are not classically scary – namely her own body – is excruciating. Out of respect for Stella and her future self, I’ll remain vague. But I will share – because I frankly need to as Stella’s mama in the now – that Stella is going through a pretty normal stage where her own strong and beautiful body doesn’t feel super safe. Yeah, it’s all normal and developmentally acceptable, but it’s unsettling nonetheless.

I don’t know. Perhaps we’re starting to hone in on a potty training window (or whatever newfangled name they have for it now) or maybe this wee one just has a really modest sense of self. Whatever the reason, she’s struggling and her struggles have taken the form of fear.

And it’s breaking my heart.

The good thing is that I now know enough as a parent that this phase will pass. When I step back a bit, I see that Stella is a confident and courageous kid who readily dives into a world she already recognizes as beautiful and fascinating. I suppose that’s partly why this has been so tough for me and the Papa; it’s tough to watch someone with such natural bravado crumble with anxiety. It’s not like we expect her to rationally tackle fear before she’s even two. I guess… well, I guess it just sucks to watch as the bad of the world's good-and-bad slips into her consciousness.

Lately, I’ve been reading and talking about toddlers and fear. And I have to admit that it’s been totally frustrating. While everyone has been perfectly lovely and genuine with their suggestions and support, nothing seems to be helping much. Of course, that’s when I realize that my sole job right now is to love Stella fiercely and obviously so that she sees, hears, feels and just simply knows my presence as her guardian is unwaveringly constant, even when – or especially when – she feels unlovable or scary herself. From petulant tantrums to sweet cuddles, my role is to love her passionately and show her how capable and strong she truly is amidst the stable and uncertain.

I’m gathering that fear is a natural and innate part of parenting. I’m happy to say that I’m not often gripped by fear myself. Sure, I have moments like any other parent when I find myself imagining the unimaginable. But I always force my way out of those, because what purpose do they serve? But I honestly think I’d rather be riddled with fear myself than watch Stella run her tiny self through the gauntlet. Mamas love their kids endlessly. And even in our most fatigued and weary meltdown moments, we want them to be safe, and we want them to feel safe. It’s really quite simple.

And if stamping our hands with a bear paw print for the next six hundred and fifty three days means Stella will feel strong and capable, then this mama is buying a barrel of ink pads.

I still have no real answers other than these: breathing deeply really does help diffuse my tension in those cruddy, crappy moments, our fabulous moments far outweigh the crummy moments, this tough phase will pass like all other tough phases, countless other hurdles stand before us as parents and, yet again, all I can do is love my daughter with unabashed and gentle openness. And while these answers don’t really do much for “solving” the tedious details of our little but significant-to-us problems, they do nudge me back from the eye of the storm and remind me of the grander schemes of love and patience that serve as guiding beacons on this ridiculously intense ride as a parent. And that, in and of itself, genuinely helps.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Riled Up

As I was taking some time for myself this morning, checking in on some of my favorite blogs, I found that my dear friend and fellow Über Thoughtful Mama had written a delightfully helpful and super right-on post about kids’ books, specifically books that capture the strength, intelligence and ingenuity of girls. Okay, maybe it as more about how this world seriously lacks good stories told from female perspectives. (Yes, it's an old story that unfortunately still rings true.) But in typical fashion, my pal vented appropriately and then got her hands dirty, providing an insightful and productive critique and - and this is the part I love - a direction forward. Don't you love that? Yes, indeedy. Rather than essentially repeat exactly what she wrote – since she nailed it dead-on – I urge y’all to hop over to her fabulous site and read for yourself.

Needless to say, I revel in this kind of banter. Yup, I’m riled up and ready for a good hunt. My brilliant friend included a list of books she’s found recently that give strong girls a voice; it’s a fabulous list. And it’s motivated me to A) run to my library this afternoon to check these out for my book-hungry Stella, B) do some more serious research on my own to find more books like these and C) pick through our growing catalogue of rockin’ girls books and share what we’ve found. The funny thing is that I can actually think of a ton of empowering and engaging stories about girls and young women for when Stella is a bit older, but it’s not so easy during this toddler stage. So I’m truly thankful for my friend’s list and am adding to it with yet another list of fabulous books that specifically focus on how and why girls are rad and, as my friend eloquently articulated, simply showcase a story from a girl’s perspective.

We love these Stella books. They totally remind me of old Peanuts cartoons but are told from a girl’s perspective. Stella and her little brother Sam are not only sweet, clever and ridiculously creative, they’re always hanging out in the woods and exploring nature. My sister-in-law gave three of these to us for Stella’s first birthday, and we LOVE them.

I am usually a bit wary of celebrity-driven books. Honestly, I dig Madonna on the dance floor but her children’s books are a bit lacking for my taste. That said, I love this book. Jamie Lee Curtis captures the quirkiness of kids and why they should, in fact, feel good about themselves at ALL times. And she splits the book between a girl and a boy with total fairness.

The Papa and I love this book because the child could be either a girl or boy. And it’s just so sweet. It’s a quiet story about learning to be comfortable with nature, and I love that the child is spending time outside, at night, with her or his Papa. It’s really lovely.

This one is super popular, and we love it. Sure, it delves into how petty and cruel girls can be, but it also shows how being unique trumps conformity. I can tell Stella doesn’t really get all of that yet, but I figure it can’t hurt to start a bit early, right.

Stella and I really love this book. It’s a Native American tale that focuses on how a little girl in her tribe basically saves her community from ruin by communicating with and listening to the spirits of nature. She not only embarks on an exciting adventure, but she single-handedly heals deep wounds with her compassion and intelligence.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Now That I'm a Mom I Can...

...Put a child’s hair in a ponytail while walking around the entire house and setting up a play date on the phone.

...Allow myself to feel compassionate toward everyone… even the putz who flicks me the bird because I drive the speed limit.

...Temper my judgments of others. As long as you’re not hitting or hurting anyone, I give ya a wide berth.

...Embrace the supposed imperfections of my body with a different attitude. If this body can carry and birth a beautiful child, this body can do anything.

...Deliver an Oscar-worthy performance of attentive happiness and domestic bliss on those days when I really feel like my life is stuck on an endless cycle of laundry, dishes, laundry, dishes, laundry, dishes...

...Fix three dinners for the same child in one night, all within the course of fifteen minutes.

...Ignore the mess and chaos of my house. Laundry can wait. Dishes can wait. Sharing tea with Stella, a toy elephant and a naked baby doll can't.

...Understand that there are always many sides to one story and that everyone, including those psycho parents I see screaming at their kids for no good reason at all, is simply doing their best.

...Gaze for hours on end at another human being, our gorgeous girl.

...Cut to the chase and communicate more honestly. There ain’t a whole lot of time for bull anymore. And hallelujah for that.

...Talk about bodies with total candor. The moment I realized I was walking around the birth center buck naked and didn’t care one hugely pregnant bit, I realized that a shell is just that, a shell. And a body is really just a body.

...Pee on the toilet while reading a story to a toddler curled up on my lap.

...Keep a straight face when my one year old moves from topic to topic, mentioning in one breath how “La la mountain big hike Grandpa” and then gracefully and seamlessly sliding into the next breath where Papa has a “penis” and is “naked” in the “bathtub.”

...Discuss the most serious of topics – marital strife, world politics, war, depression – while chasing a toddler through a maze of slides, climbing walls and swings.

...Absolutely and fairly justify not hanging out with friends who don’t make me or my family feel good. (See no bull comment above.)

Oh, I’m afraid this list would be endless if I continue. As I type, I recognize that much of these new abilities are really just skills I used to carry latently but have now honed. Of course, I’m incredibly aware that you don’t have to be a parent to experience or master the things on this list. (Well, maybe the in-motion ponytail and the three dinners in fifteen minutes…. Who knows?) Being a mama or papa isn’t the only experience in life that necessitates or prompts growth. But it sure is a biggie. And it’s the ride I’m on at the moment, so recording all this affords me a well-deserved chuckle.

I’m eager to hear from others about the humorous and maybe not-so-humorous things that you can do or feel or understand now that you’re a parent or now that you’ve shifted gears or, simply, now that you’ve opened your eyes or heart in a new fashion. A co-worker once told me that before having a child, he felt like he was living in a two dimensional world. Having a son catapulted him into a three (and sometimes four) dimensional mode seeing the world. And as I skim this list, I marvel at the gifts these small but momentous shifts allow and how the shift from two to three dimensional thinking is simply a slow and gentle widening of my heart.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Genuine Bunny

My sister is amazing.

She's not flashy and she ain't got bling. But she's one of the most gentle, genuine hearts I've ever encountered in my life.

And yes, she strikes a mean Easter Bunny pose.

There are so many things I could say about my sister - like how she doesn't have a mean bone in her body or how she's genuine and authentic at all times or how she possesses the patience and gentle demeanor of a Nepali monk.

But right now, as I'm steeped in (fairly) new motherhood, attempting to define myself (and redefine and redefine and redefine...) within that constantly evolving role, I must say she's by far one of the most gifted and loving mamas I know.

Sure, she's my sister. I have to say that, right? Actually, no. I don't. Not everyone we love or know is great at what they do. I know plenty of folks who frankly should have thought twice about taking that job or having a kid. That's harsh but true. But that doesn't apply to my sister.

Like everything she's pursued, her choice to be a mother, and a stellar one at that, has been both thoughtful and deliberate.

I know she's had tough days with her two beautiful teenage daughters, and I know it's been ages since she dealt with the ins and outs of toddlers. But I've been studying, you see. And I've seen my sister evolve from an exuberant and gentle mama of crawlers to an engaging mama of tree climbers to a loving and firm mama of teenagers. And she does it all with a gentle calm that is often so foreign to me that I must summon her awesome mama aura in order to help remind me of how to be the mama I want to be.

And the proof is often in the pudding, right? My sister's daughters are two of the most grounded and confident girls I know. They're navigating the often wonky seas of adolescence with such finesse and poise that I can't help but want to shout my sister's name from the rooftops (and take some serious notes, right?).

Oh, and she's done all this while also pursuing her own education and career as an educator. She flat out amazes me.

At this point, I can actually feel my sister's blush from hundreds of miles away. And I can hear her balking at the idea of taking credit for just being present and conscious in the presence of two wonderful girls. Because, of course, she's humble to boot. And I can't mention her grand and impressive talent as a mama without acknowledging that she had the foresight and wherewithal to pick a partner in life who is not only a stunning father but who supports and encourages her in her dreams.

So I'll stop. Okay? I'll stop. But I had to gush. She's my big sister, after all, and I couldn't imagine my life - as both a woman and now as a mama - without her loving and wise guidance.

And if she wears that bunny suit for the rest of our Easters, I will die a happy woman. Yes, I will.