Where it all started

I wrote this piece a few years ago for an essay contest. I didn't win the prize, but I discovered that I had a lot of compacted rage. I haven't stopped writing since.

As a mother of three children under the age of nine, I am just crawling out from beneath the mountain of self-doubt, pre-packaged snack food, and society- imposed “shoulds” that can heave themselves upon uninitiated parents. Since I have never appreciated clich├ęs, when I hear “Everything happens for a reason,” it causes involuntary eye-rolling. “Live, laugh, love” and “It is what it is” fall into the same category for me: people putting on a happy face instead of examining what hurts and changing their understanding in a meaningful way. 

When you collapse into deep, senseless depression and you are desperate to be present in your kids’ lives despite it, those hackneyed expressions are a waste of your precious breath and mental space. Instead of turning to generic phrases to smooth over raw emotions, I prefer to tell myself mini-stories. In each one I am the same character in a different setting. When I imagined sharing this experience with others to light their paths and amuse them, I couldn’t settle on just one perspective. In reality, it depends on the moment. That’s what mothers do. They must find either the humor or the lesson in every situation.

Quick, Jaded Version of the Last 13 Years of my Life
I was driving along and crashed head-on into a pile of marriage, babies, confusion, headaches, mortgages, joy-sucking illnesses, dashed expectations, and rare glimpses of what I thought life was supposed to be.

Hillbilly Version
I crapped out three kids. They hauled out my busted uterus. I ain’t done nothin’ outside this house since 2005…”  Joe Jr! Shut Up!  Momma’s recordin’ her innermost thoughts!”  I told seven different bosses to start runnin’ and I’d give ‘em ten seconds before I got my gun.

Flowery Elizabethan Version
Loving a man more profusely than the sun shines through the rosettes at the most wondrous cathedrals in France, I joined myself to him for eternity. We met on the shores of passion and risk, dove headlong into the sea of uncertainty, bringing forth three magnificent babes. 

As any committed mother aiding in the formation of the future generations, I gave myself fully to their nurturing, education, and happiness. In this work, I too found my purpose, my nurturing, education, and happiness. But, man, this corset is a little tight sometimes.

Practical Midwestern Version
Well, we were married after an adequate engagement. We then discussed the possibility of children for a time. After our baby girl was born, we struggled to reshape our lives as parents, but that’s just what you do. We had two more sons, buckled down, and got to the hard work of teaching children and being good examples. Now we’re tired and we need to rest.

Denial Version
Being a mother is 100% fulfilling all the time. It’s made my marriage stronger and I don’t regret taking a backseat to Tae Kwon Do and second grade Christmas pageants. Kids need those things to learn about life and get a good job as adults. I don’t need any thanks and I don’t miss having too many choices and so many friends. Seeing the kids enjoy online games and new apps on the tablet is enough thanks. I love having other children over too. It just adds to the fun. It’s not a happy home unless there are muddy boots in the living room and marker on the walls.

Sweaty, Panicked, Downward Spiral Version
They got candy again for doing their homework?  I forgot to plan dinner for tonight!  We have chicken nuggets. They had those for lunch. I have canned salmon. Joe hates fish. I can make salmon cakes and cheese quesadillas. The lettuce is wilted, so they’ll have to have frozen peas. What a crappy dinner. I’ll make some cookies so I have something to bribe them to eat their peas with. I am already so bloated. But seriously, candy in schools!  Too many weeknight obligations. A Native-American Dwelling Project due for my third-grader. Quesadillas for dinner five nights in a row. My fat pants don’t fit. I’m freaking out!  I’m going to eat some of the candy my kids brought home from school. I feel guilty about eating their candy!. I’m such a terrible mom. 

Self-defeatist Victim Living in Fear Version
I am so tired all the time. If I didn’t have to work so hard to protect my family from the commercialism and gluten running rampant, I could have more time to myself. There is no way for a woman to have a good job and be a decent mom in this society. No one is there for me and I just need a break. If I look for a job outside the home, chances are it won’t pay enough and it won’t be worth leaving my kids for anyway. Somehow we’ll make it through the rest of this day. Only six hours until bedtime. 

Vignette Version
After a spontaneous decision to pick up and move across the country from the desert, we landed in a beautiful small town in Missouri. As I start to unpack the relics of our old life, I open the kitchen window and feel the freshest breeze on my face. My kids running around in the grass and laughing late in the afternoon on their first cool autumn day brings tears to my eyes. They are safe and silly and I am content to build a new story for our family.

Kooky Poet Version
            Wine trickles into the glass    
            Foreman Grill, my savior again

            Round ‘em up
            Fill all the seats
            Cajole, Nag, Threaten

            Let’s talk about our day!
            Confused silence permeates
            Laughable moments & strange coincidences emerge
            Just a few more vegetables, please

            A little too full
            Content in the cleaning
            Hugging my partner in this controlled chaos

            Breathing in the slow comfort of the evening
            Letting contentedness fill the empty spaces
New Age Version
These tiny celestial beings constantly test my mettle. They are doing the jobs they were sent to do. Instructive, rather than judgmental, they insist that I learn how to care for them. In doing so, I will find the humility and the divinity that comes from loving someone else so completely that you couldn’t imagine it any other way. 

My body, surrounded by an indigo flame, tells me that I’m making progress. If I continue seeking lightness, I will more easily pull myself out of the muck when I stumble, slowly tipping the balance in favor of serenity.

Surreal / Fear & Loathing Version
            The beast is real, snarling and foaming at the mouth.
            “Back off!” I say
            Wielding my stern voice, homeschooling, cooking, and discipline.
            These are a mother’s only weapons, after all.
When I have the courage to look it in the face,
I see society’s expectations hiding in its eyes.
            When it roars, the children look to me.
            I leap to the front and shield us all from its fiery breath
            Seductive promises and traditions.
            It disappears in a puff of smoke to morph and rally
            And return another dark day.

Normal Version I Normally Give Other Normal People
Oh, me?  I have three kids, aged 8, 6 and 4. We homeschool and love to cook and read and take walks. I am a writer. Sometimes I like to run. We eat a Primal diet, which means no grains, very little sugar, and whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. It’s great.

Version I Tell When I’m Drunk
I am from Illinois, not originally, but it is where I had my first and last shot of Wild Turkey, where I lost my virginity, where I read and appreciated my first great novel, and where I met and married my husband. Essentially, I grew up there. After a while we just needed to break away from everything we knew and start over in a new place. We couldn’t take the traffic, potholes, commuting, shoveling snow, commercialism, etc. So we moved to Arizona. I was six months pregnant at the time and it all started out great. Blah, blah, blah…three kids later, no job, unhappy, very few like-minded friends, desperate need to get out of the there, moved back to the Midwest and now we are waiting expectantly for our lives to be fabulous. 

Epic Tale Version
Once there was a young woman who went to give birth in the desert. The only tools she had were a Master’s Degree in French and unrealistic expectations. Despite this, she battled C-sections, post-partum depression, breastfeeding, body changes, a cooled-off marriage, and a bleak period of self-doubt to come out on top. What adventure will she face next?

Hero’s Journey Version
I knew a woman once, a neighbor who didn’t overthink things. She hosted friends for game nights, outdoor ladies’ retreats, wild let-loose parties, and relaxed back patio conversations on a regular basis. For a while she was my hero. I thought about all the things she was doing that I wished I could do. It took me a few years to understand that while this neighbor was pretty fun and had a great family, I was actually my own hero. 

I am one of those heroes who starts out down on his luck and pushed around by life, like Peter Parker. Then I face an unimaginable difficulty and instead of a radioactive spider, I am bitten by the insatiable desire to do the best I possibly can for my family. It makes me a little mysterious, a little crazy, and very bold. It gives me the strength to transform into a fearsome, mostly benevolent being.

I’ve pulled out of a major emotional tailspin. Becoming a mother for the first time was not what I pictured. It was traumatic, heartbreaking, illusion-shattering, ego-slashing. I felt like less of a person. Why was I struggling so much to pull it together when my baby was healthy?  Isn’t this what women have done since the beginning of…well…humanity?  Why did I feel like my life was over?  I listened to the advice my friends and neighbors offered. I latched onto a blessed few hobbies to keep me afloat and give me activities to look forward to. Slowly, I became light enough in spirit to see that my life wasn’t over. I was one of millions of people who indulged in various cover-ups, masks, and self-defeating cycles until a soul-saving, painful awakening. Depression can be treated, but only if it is acknowledged.

During my darkest days, one of my favorite distractions was learning about my ancestry, filling in gaps in the family tree. Running themes in my family include overcoming enormous obstacles, work, sacrifice, and austerity. The belief that to suffer is to be closer to the divine is common in many family stories. My own grandmother gave birth to one of her sons by herself in a small cabin in Northern Ontario while her husband was away working in the mines. She read a book on how to deliver a baby. The plug to the only heater was broken, so she straight-wired the heater and put it under the blanket to deliver her own baby. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure she got up from the bed and went back to the housework after that. This kind of incredible perseverance made my people amazingly stubborn survivors. 

This trait, passed down to me, however, looks like insanity.
I am a fully digital, convenience-loving consumer, with a Masters degree in French and a weakness for 90s hip-hop. I don’t need to spend my days patching the house with cow pies (which apparently make fantastic plaster for mud houses on the plains) or mending my family’s clothes. This also leaves me feeling utterly ridiculous if I measure my worth in comparison to how hard the people in my family before me have worked for everything.

To divert my brain from the neurotic cycle it tends to produce and to prove that I worked hard and was therefore worthy, I too immersed myself in homemaking. It connected me to the women in my family and all women. Tasks like beating out rugs in the back of the house, washing pans in the sink, or planning a week of dinners after taking stock of the cupboards were comforting and reliable. Some things haven't changed for women in generations. I thought, “Maybe we need these things. We can control these tasks completely.” 

The sense of impending doom that accompanied the birth of our first child was not nearly as heavy after we had our next baby. I allowed myself to enjoy the process the second time around and cared for myself in ways that didn’t occur to me the first time. Responsibility and a lack of fun and excitement still flattened me some days, but overall it was not the end of the world. When our son turned one, we threw him a small party and celebrated the end of breastfeeding with a bottle of wine…Nine months later our third child was born.

The recovery period after giving birth to our third child was hectic and confusing. I knew I loved all my kids just like any parent does, but I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t be happy. I was better at masking my crazy at this point, but inside the turmoil was destroying me. Another year later at a regular gynecological exam, my doctor asked me if I had thoughts of hurting myself. (Thank goodness for that caring doctor.) Things became painfully clear. In one huge rush, I shed many tears along with the image that I was anything but crushed by depression.

I came slightly unhinged and all the crazy spilled out. I saw a therapist, started medication, and realized that maybe there was something more and possibly very ugly that needed to be purged and reframed from the mess that had collected in my psyche. I tried a few medications and finally found one that made me feel like I could leave the house for groceries and not cry in the cereal aisle. I also noticed that my daughter, then six, stopped asking me all the time if I was okay.

This break in the clouds gave me the chance to look at myself. My ugly truth was the heap of choices I’d made throughout my life that I was spinning in my mind as the reason that no one should care about me or treat me well. I didn’t feel like I should treat myself well. I let other people’s opinions of me define me, and few of those people understood what depression looked like.

So after years of scoffing at trite expressions that get reprinted on antiqued wooden planks to hang on your wall, I found one that I needed. “Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.”  Within a short period of time, our lives took a dramatic turn. Suddenly, the idea that I needed to sacrifice everything for the sake of motherhood seemed dangerous and stupid. It was not the path to salvation and goodness that I assumed it would be.

Putting on my oxygen mask meant radically changing the way I ate, throwing out conventional wisdom that is not based in good science. After a few months my husband and I had successfully eliminated foods from our diet that were making us sick. The sense of accomplishment I felt carried over very quickly into other areas of my life. 

I completely removed my kids from the school system that caused much unneeded stress for our family. The personal power that I regained by guiding my kids’ education through homeschooling was enormous. The time we gained together was ultimately the most healing thing we could have done for our family. 
To me, my kids were already the smart, fun-loving planetary bodies around which I orbited. After we started to homeschool we were able to see each other at our best and worst, not just during the morning or evening rush. We had time to learn and play and rest and fight and forgive together every day.

Don’t get me wrong. Family, friends, and neighbors were armed and ready with any number of concerns about our eating habits and our choice to homeschool. The part I liked the best about these radical changes was feeling like I didn’t need to justify these decisions to anyone. When something is that good for your family you don’t question it. How sweet it is when you are so sure of your happiness that other people’s opinions cannot sway you. Reclaiming my family’s life from being on autopilot was exhilarating. I was much more grateful for every interaction with my kids because it was on our terms.

The next step to living more authentically came when I realized that living in the Southwest wasn’t right for us anymore. We knew that we really belonged back in the Midwest within driving distance of our families. We put our house up for sale, found a new one not far from where my husband grew up and drove across the country with our Chihuahua and three kids to our new home within two months. 

Finally, I began writing again for pleasure. Positive change is truly contagious. I’ve learned very recently, or remembered rather, that I’m worthy of love no matter what mistakes I’ve made. I’ve decided that I’m going to continue doing the best job I can as a mother and put my own happiness much more in the forefront than ever before. I discovered that we are not on Earth to live out the story of struggle and survival. We are not meant to simply toil and suffer and reproduce and die, as is sometimes implied by our history and our genetics. 

We are meant to write our own, individual stories. We are here to come to know the meaning of loving others, even when they poop their pants for the third time in a day just before their sister’s gymnastics lesson. We are here to love people who disappoint us and leave us hanging, perhaps not understanding why, but accepting it with compassion. We are especially here to love ourselves, even in our fat pants, unemployed, lonely, and imperfect. 

When I struggle now, I take stock of the qualities that make me the hero of my own story:
-I always look for new ways to add value to my life and our family.
-I give myself time to be cranky when necessary and then reset and move on.
-I forgive myself for the times I haven’t.
-I shrug off criticism from others that is not constructive.
-I listen to criticism that is constructive with an open heart, knowing that a person who shares it has the courage to love me even when it’s hard.
-I think before I speak.
-I face things even when they are incredibly uncomfortable, knowing that letting negative feelings fester will make me sick.
-I celebrate my progress.
-I treat my body like a temple most days and a playground on others.
-I remember that we have value just because we are born and that my purpose is to share that truth with others.
-And because I’m awesome. That’s why.

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