life lessons, motherhood

TO MOTHERS DAY

I was raised with lots of expectations leading me to a lifetime of feelings of not good enough over my lifetime. Expectations are a double edged sword. We set them and expect. We expect certain behaviors, we expect performance, we even expect people to show up and act like they should act based on our own set of standards and values. In a work environment, this is standard practice and is a necessary piece of the puzzle we call careers. In our families, though, at times, expectations can also have layers of guilt attached and this is when they can turn into something other than what was originally intended.

In my family, when I was a kid, there was always an expectation of being good. What does this even mean? We use this one liner well into our adult lives when we say things like, “I’ve been good,” as it relates to avoiding the enjoyment of a nice big bowl of ice cream when we rationalize the stop on a warm summer day. “I’ve been good,” we say when we have decided to stop doing something that could interrupt us mentally or physically like going to the gym, abstaining from the nightly routine of a big glass of red after a long hard day at the office or making a big purchase when trying to say on a strict budget.

I’ve been good is a phrase so easily tossed around when our brains need to change some behavior that may have otherwise been helpful to our beings and we need a rationale for the change. At least this is me and my patterns. It is all too easy to blame this belief system on how I was raised, but the truth of the matter is, expectations are set so we have something to reach. At times they may seem unobtainable but we keep trying to climb anyway. We fall off the horse and we either walk away or we get back on and try again. Sometimes the very expectations that are set are subtle. In my memory much of our experiences are subjective when we look back. Two siblings can live under the same roof and have two completely opposing memories of one experience. I linked an interesting podcast below on the subject of memory from Malcolm Gladwell that will surely question your own memories.

When it came to birthdays and Mother’s Day, I was expected, as many of us were, to give at least a card and as I got older send one in a timely manner. This seems reasonable on paper, but for me, because there was an unwritten code that this was something I was supposed to do, often I would forget or be late in getting the card in the mail. This would cause hurt feelings, causing me to feel like a failure as a daughter, guilty as charged for missing the boat, lacking thoughtfulness and consideration for the person who gave birth to me.

I could never seem to get it right. Mother’s Day is always on a Sunday and if I mailed the card on a Monday, it would surely arrive in time. But Monday seemed to early, so Tuesday or Wednesday would be my target date so the card would arrive in perfect timing for Sunday. But I wanted the card to arrive on Saturday because for some reason earlier than that seemed contrived. At least in my monkey brain of aiming for perfection and then finding myself forgetting to mail the card completely until it was too late thus arriving after Mother’s Day defeating the whole holiday all together.

Clearly there was more to the simple act of sending a card here, years of expectations all fully present in all of this thinking. As easy as it sounds to get birthdays and Mother’s Day right, one slip up and you get it wrong and two people end up feeling bad defeating the purpose. Perhaps if my relationship with my mother hadn’t been so tumultuous over the years, these issues would be non existent. I never forget my son’s birthday or anyone I am deeply connected with. Ironically, this entire problem was solved when my mother stopped talking to me and in some ways it was freedom from the pressure of not getting it right.

The true irony though is not sending my mother a Mother’s Day card when she wasn’t speaking to me became almost painful. So at year two, I sent her a blank one that I had hand written simply, “You are still my mother,” and sent it on its way. In all of the years of those silent thunderous expectations, this card was probably the best Mother’s Day card I had sent. Because it was my own thoughts and heart that sent it, not Hallmark’s, and not my mother’s. Mine. My decision, my kindness.

When I had my own child, I made a decision to not set the barre for any of this nonsense. If my son made me a card, sent me a card, wrote a few lines with a stubby pencil on a piece of scrap paper, simply said Happy Mother’s Day or none of the above, this one day did not summarize his lack of love and adoration for me. I would not allow one day of the year to dictate the other three hundred and sixty four. The feelings of guilt in not getting it right and my own mother’s hurt expressions over the years would not be something I would put on my son. Ever. And I think because of this deliberate act, I have been the recipient of lovely handwritten stubby penciled notes over the years that have more meaning than any five dollar sappy card. As a result I have had lots of lovely Mother’s Days and I enjoy them so much because I know that when if time comes when my son could get married and have children, these Mother’s Days will have a shift for sure. So they are precious and appreciated.

I write this today so that we can remember that days like Mother’s Days are not about professing a years worth of maternal adorations for all of our hard work. If your child forgets to do something special, or not as special as you would have liked, could it be possible to just allow this and use the day to remember how lucky we are that we actually have children? Maybe we could choose to not say anything, not show hurt or disappointment but to just show gratitude for the day.

Every single day is special and as my own son gets older, I am more in tune with the privilege of having a healthy child who is still alive and well, who has made it this far so far. This is the best Mother’s Day gift I could ask for. Keeping this in perspective is the lesson from my mother over the years that I have learned the hard way, but my son gets to reap the rewards from.

one of the many lovely Mother’s Days out for a walk with my boy.

Happiest of Mother’s Day to all of you who get to wake up to your child tomorrow. There are so many moms who don’t. Lets try to remember this as we lie hoping for the breakfast in bed or the call that may not come at exactly the time you wanted or at all. As my grandmother used to quote frequently, “Those who hath no expectations shan’t be disappointed.” Easier said than done, but perhaps just relishing in the day and using it as an excuse for breaking your own rules, going out for your own ice cream sundae or a walk alone in the park listening to the birds and celebrating your own goodness as a mother. Enjoy the glorious day and cherish the little people we have raised. This is something to celebrate for sure.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/free-brian-williams/id1119389968?i=1000413184954
motherhood

LETTING HIM GO

In therapy there is a term used to describe the healthy separation between people, especially a parent and a child. Differentiation is the word that says you did a good job, you have a healthy separation from each other and basically the nest can be disassembled and rebuilt differently. Like that hilarious commercial when the son goes off to college and the parents tearfully bid goodbye then run into the house to turn the kid’s bedroom into a Jacuzzi bathroom. Differentiation allows the natural separation to be normal, tearful yes, but a healthy one.

There are lots of little steps leading up to the true and finite land of differentiation and all of them lay the groundwork, (hands in prayer position here) for the final move out to their own apartment or house at some later time. But differentiation is more than a physical change of scenery, it is psychological and human too. It is the proverbial disconnect of needing to parent, to mother and allow your child to parent himself. Leaving him for the first time at day care, putting him on the school bus to kindergarten, teaching him to swim and letting him go into the ocean for his first time while you watch from the shoreline, the first day of middle school and high school, hugging them after their first broken heart, being there at their first strike out at a playoff game. The list goes on and on and they all build off of each other each time gaining momentum and strength for later. Later. When the emotional bond between you shifts and though you love each other immensely, you don’t need each other for survival, physical or emotional. You can still have the most open and connected heart, but you are ok with yourself enough to separate and fly, free and healthy. Free from issues of abandonment or over parenting that may find you in therapy later on struggling with your own relationships. Differentiation says I love you, you love me but we are not so intertwined in each other’s lives that we either can’t separate or we can’t wait to separate. It is the more neutral in the middle of it, the sweet spot of the hard worked results of parenting well, or as well as you thought at the time.

I understood this concept only recently as both a daughter and a partner. It has taken me all of these years to truly comprehend the true definition of its power and once I recognized the true sense of differentiation, I welcomed it into the life of my son and me wholeheartedly. He has actually taught me differentiation by his own sense of self. Another unexpected gift of being a mother and a parent for the last twenty one years. Differentiation is also the ability to be able to disagree without that volcanic surge causing a behavior that in retrospect certainly serves no one. I would also call this choosing not to take the bait. The bait being when a family member says something to get a response out of you, usually one that causes that previous mentioned surge. My son and I haven’t had that experience and I don’t anticipate it; I would say we have a pretty healthy mother son relationship, but I won’t really know this until he navigates his own relationship in the future. Relationships are the unique viewfinders we get to look through to see what our parent child relationships were really made of.

In anticipation of my son’s trip to Israel last week, he had to get to NYC the day before as he was going to meet a friend. He is a mature twenty-one and this was as simple as getting on a train and heading south where his friend agreed to meet him and escort him back to his house in Queens. As I write this from the position of After, it is a no brainer. For some reason though, I was filled with anxiety, stress, worry and no matter how much meditation and self talk I did, my heart would not stop racing and the anxious thoughts would not settle. Where was this coming from? I finally realized that I had two very definitive travel experiences involving NYC and when I traced back to the exact moments of those, I was able to at least give some credence to my angst. This had nothing to do with his own experience, it was my stuff from my past that was informing this present moment. Wild.

When I was twenty three I went to Paris by myself for a month, flying over with someone I worked with where we would stay together for three days and then part ways. I had a blast and learned so much about myself in this experience. This was before credit cards for twenty year olds, before cell phones, before Google maps. Just me and Rick Steves’ book on Paris for 10.00 a day or something like that. When I came home I had a hundred dollars in my pocket and the flight was late. I took a bus from JFK to Penn station and realized there were no trains that late and I had no way to get back to Rhode Island. Penn Station in 1989 was frightening and there was no way I should have been near the place at 11:30 pm looking like a vulnerable young woman. Some man came up to me and offered to help me with my bags and in my stupor, I agreed as I made my way to the taxi stand to fortunately go to a friend’s house who when I called on the payphone answered and told me to come there immediately. When the taxi driver saw this man with my bag, he began yelling at him that he was ruining tourism and that he was trying to take advantage of me which promptly forced me back into a quick wake up. What an idiot I was. But at the same time, I felt like there was some higher force looking out for me. I safely got to my friend’s apartment and all was well.

The second experience was much later. I was headed to NYC on the train from Providence to attend a training seminar and I was to arrive for a 10:00 am class on a Tuesday on Park Avenue. Excited to be in New York I vowed to myself that I would visit more often as it was such a short train ride. I remember the day and date well. It was September 4, 2001 exactly one week before September 11th at exactly the same time I arrived at Penn Station. I was struck by the random dates and times we land someplace or don’t. I hadn’t been to New York for at least five years and there I was exactly one week by pure chance earlier then the worst terrorist event of my lifetime. All of this showed up to the table unannounced, long tucked away with cobwebs in the attic as I helped my son get ready for his trip. This is amazing to me as it proves to me that traumatic events never leave us and make their reappearances like a well planned surprise party.

My son and I made it to the train station with him not rolling his eyes even. I kept telling him that my nervousness had nothing to do with my trust in his ability to navigate and he reminded me that he has lots of outside US travel experience. The irony was that I was not even the least anxious about him going to Israel. An area the size of New Jersey surrounded by countries that hate them, it was that New York thing. This is why I knew my worry was not about Michael. It was my stuff and I had to go deep in the vault to be able to say a normal goodbye to him as I brought him to the train station last Sunday. I hugged him and kissed him more than he would have liked but he allowed it. No I didn’t go into the train station with him and wait, this was as much about him leaving as it was about me letting him leave, more differentiation steps for the likely final one of him really leaving at some point in time. All normal. All healthy. All the way it is supposed to be between a parent and a child when you get it right. I got in my car after saying my final goodbye and sobbed my eyes out like I had just put him on the kindergarten bus for the first time. I know now that the tears were the final release of the grief I must have felt in those unique experiences. He made it safely to his friend’s and is in Israel now having what I suspect is the time of his life. Just how it should be. AMEN.

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