Thursday, November 8, 2018

Where Am I? How Did I Get Here? Where the Heck Am I Going?

Well, I can't afford a therapist, so you all get to play that role today. 
I will pour out my thoughts, worries, wonders, and struggles for you. 
Why would I choose to do this in a public space? Well, maybe one of you will offer up some profound wisdom for me, or maybe you are struggling to and feel alone in your struggles so my sharing might help you in some way.  I hope that some good comes of this making myself vulnerable for the world to see... if not, well, it was still cheaper than therapy so perhaps it's worth the risk.

Where Am I?
Well, I'm 32 years old.  I live in a small town in the Thumb of Michigan, a town a grew up in and left when I turned 18, swearing I'd never return.  I'm married to a man I went to high school with- another thing my 18 year old self swore I'd never do.  I'm a stay at home mom (yes, you guess it, I swore I'd never...).  I have two boys, who are currently ages 3 and 5.  Each of my sons was adopted from China at age 3.  And just for fun, I also share my home with my 11 year old Beagle named Chester and my two 10 year old cats, Griffin and Cosmo (whose sole purpose in life lately seems to be making my house stink, destroying furniture, and racking up expensive vet bills >:-(  ).

I'm tired, stressed, lonely, confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, wore out, and a little lost.

My husband is an incredible spouse and father. My boys are amazing, smart, and hilarious (and loud, disobedient, strong-willed, and wild).  A few months ago, we  moved into an absolutely beautiful home  nestled on a wooded 3 acre lot with a creek running through the backyard, a big garden, grape vines, apple trees and some pretty stunning views.  I finally got the hot tub I've been BEGGING for the past 10 years.  I finally got the chance to be a stay at home mom, not having to feel the constant pressure of managing both a career and a family.  We have reliable vehicles, food to eat, a warm home, a comfy place to lay our heads at night- WHAT ON EARTH DO I HAVE THE RIGHT TO WHINE ABOUT?  WHY CAN'T THIS BE ENOUGH?  DON'T I REALIZE THAT MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING IN PAIN, ARE HUNGRY, HOMELESS AND ALONE?! HOW CAN I BE SUCH A SPOILED BRAT?!  Rest assured, these thoughts go through my head quite regularly, along with the "pull your chin up, lady.  Put a smile on, buck up buttercup, life's not really so bad, be thankful for this stage before it's gone, you don't know how good you have it, etc etc"

Maybe I'm not praying enough, maybe I'm low on Vitamin D, maybe I need a cold hard dose of reality to make me appreciate what I have, maybe, just maybe, I'm just tired and lost and in need of respite.  But how do you find respite when you can't afford a babysitter, your mom is battling cancer, your boys are a total handful, and your family depends on you to run everyone to and from school and manage the appointments, chores, and finances of the home?

How Did I Get Here?
How did my 18 year old self, who planned on going to college, running off with the Peace Corps, starting an orphanage in Africa, and later settling down in the South while managing a successful career as a guidance counselor end up married to her 9th grade best friend, and living in her hometown as a stay at home mom?
I'll spare you my entire life story, but here's a snapshot:
 I spent a college semester abroad living in a 3rd World country-an experience I totally loved but one that also opened my eyes to a level of loneliness I'd never felt before.  I lost a close family member to cancer while I was there, and felt helpless being so far away and not getting to come home and say goodbye. I found true companionship and understanding through a long-distance relationship that sparked up during my time away with my now-Husband.  It became aware to me that most important things in life aren't the accomplishments we tally up, but the relationships we build and feeling loved, understood, and accepted for who we are.  I knew that James was meant to be my partner in life, and that meant giving up my dream of living in the South- a compromise I was willing to make (but of course, still slightly bitter about).  We married young, the economy was turbulent and our student loan debt was out of control so I put off that Grad School degree for the sake of instant income.  I spent a year doing Americorps working with Refugees in a social work setting.  Although I LOVED the work, I immediately recognized that my personality sets me up for complete burn out in that field- I'm a worker, a problem solver, a "don't stop until the job's done" type of gal.  In social work, the job is never done.  I worked myself into the ground for a year and realized that if I wanted that career, I was destined to end up alone.  I chose the family route instead. (Now that I'm a little older and seasoned I think I could figure out a way to do it the right way, but... that opportunity has passed me by). 
 I spent the next 7 years building a career in banking, paying off debt and enjoying a job with a lot of structure, tasks, relationships, and learning.  3 years ago, we felt the call to adopt from China, and began that process.  We brought our first son home a year later and I continued working in banking full time the first year he was home.  In May of 2017 his daycare provider passed away unexpectedly, and I decided to quit my job in order to stay home with him and also care for the friends he had grown so close to.  He was thriving and I was trying to minimize disruptions to his life after he had gone through such massive loss the year before when he moved from China into our lives. It was summer and I was longing to spend it outdoors with children instead of stuck inside, pouring over loan documents in a cubicle.
 We had gone back and forth for a while about adopting a 2nd, but had firmly decided to hold off for another year or so.  The very same day I quit my job in order to pursue the daycare dream (aka financial ruin),  our adoption agency called and said they had a file for us.  I couldn't bear not to look, and the minute I laid eyes on that little boy, I knew he was our son- and that this level of "sink or swim" was surely another call from God to trust his plan and surrender control. 
I mean really, who says know to THAT face?!

And so, from May to February I ran an in-home daycare, started a side-business selling children's books, managed a bunch of household repair/improvement projects, prepared to adopt our 2nd child, and learned what it meant to merely survive. My beloved 6 year old hound dog was diagnosed with cancer in November and passed away in January. I spent the coldest winter in years cooped up inside a small house with 5 boys under age 5. I felt like I was losing my mind.
 I loved the kids I cared for intensely, and loved feeling like a blessing to their families.  But I didn't enjoy the work of juggling screaming infants with hungry toddlers, bus pick ups and drop offs, preschool runs, messes, dirty diapers, bottles, naps, and ear infections.  I was looking forward to our China trip and adoption as a temporary escape from the insanity of daycare.  Enter our new son Isaac, who I had dreamed up as a quiet, shy, tender little boy (he was indeed tiny- wearing 12-18 month clothes at age 3).  HA!  He entered our life screaming, and we immediately learned that instead of the quiet little lamb we planned for, he was a fiesty, intense, opinionated, aggressive, vocal strong willed little guy who was used to using his voice to make up for his small size and who was NOT afraid to let you know when he didn't like something. 

Yep, this about sums things up for those first few days...

Those first few weeks were traumatic for all of us- our 5 year old son had to learn that rules he was just learning to follow suddenly didn't apply to his new brother- mom and dad didn't have the patience or energy they used to, and we all struggled through the loud screaming fits that seemed to occupy most of our day (even if they were only a few hours combined).  I threw my firmly held-to beliefs about parenting and structure and never letting kids be in control... anything to quiet the screaming boss baby.  ANYTHING.
We returned home from China and I felt torn between wanting to get back into my role of helping my daycare families out (I did miss those sweet faces dearly, and served a few single moms who really relied on my care) and needing to focus solely on helping our new son adjust. We needed the income and they needed care so I started working again before any of us were ready for it.   We all suffered.  (well not my older son, he was just happy to have his playmates back in his life, and so proud to show off his new little brother).

My first few weeks back to work, someone was cry-screaming for about 10 hours a day- be it my new son, or one of the two infants I cared for, or one of the toddlers crying out in search of my attention.  I felt alone, my husband was gone from 7am to 6pm and by the time he walked through that door at night I both hated him and saw him as my hero.  Isaac was still going through major food anxiety after living in an underfed orphanage for 3 years, and I would lock myself in the bathroom just to escape and screams and sneak a snack.  Life felt hopeless, I needed help and knew I couldn't keep going on with the status quo.  I was trying to hold out for summer, when my school-aged kids would be there to help with the little ones, and we'd be able to get outside and play and do the things I loved most about running a daycare (trips to the park, playing in the yard, picnic lunches, crafts, and board games with my big kids during naptime).   I also knew it wasn't fair to any of us to keep going like this.  I couldn't be the provider I wanted to be for so many little people when I was running on fumes. 
I wanted my mom, my aunts, my cousins, grandma, ANYONE who might be able to step in occasionally and offer company, advice, respite.  My friends weren't showing up for me in the way  that I needed them to (they were all overwhelmed with new babies, careers, and young families of their own), so I saw moving back home near family as the answer to all of life's problems. 
My husband was offered the chance to work from home (which meant being away 9-5 with a break for lunch instead of 7-6- MUCH BETTER!).  I found a house for sale that I loved, and felt it was time to give my husband the life he had longed for after 10 years of him chasing my dreams. the housing market where we were was HOT and we were able to sell our house for a big profit, paying off the rest of our college debt and getting us ahead a little bit.
 And so, 4 months home from China we packed up everything, said some extremely hard goodbyes, left a church we loved and felt so cared for in, left a city I had lived in for 15 years, and headed home. We threw another big curveball into poor Isaac's world, when he was already struggling to handle the changes he was dealing with. We left a huge subdivision just miles from every convenience known to man for a dirt road with more tractor traffic than cars.  A trip to Target is now a half-day affair instead of a quick run around the corner.  I left so many amazing friends who had had been my rock during hard times but gained the proximity of both sides of our family.  We left an award-winning, diverse school district for a struggling, all-white school filled with teachers and staff who already knew and loved my kids. We don't have a park to visit, but our backyard resembles one.  We gained SO MUCH in moving here.  But I wasn't prepared for the losses.  Telling my daycare parents about my decision was one of the hardest things I've ever done, along with saying goodbye to the kiddos who I loved like my own.
I wasn't prepared for "back home" to feel so lonely- I had been gone so long that most of the people and places I knew and loved at age 18 were gone.  I wasn't prepared for my mom to be re-diagnosed with cancer the month we moved, for my mother-in-law to land the job opportunity of her life (which also meant working full time 3rd shift), my sister-in-law to start working full time (in a job she loves and I'm so very happy she found for herself), and for the reality that having two kids in two different school districts (and counties) meant that I'd be spending about 2 hours of my day playing taxi driver. 
I wasn't prepared for being a stay-at-home mom of a 3 year old with rage issues to be more exhausting than running a whole daycare by myself.  I wasn't prepared for how tight finances are trying to raise a family of 4 on a single income.  I wasn't prepared for the constant internal pressure to keep a perfectly tidy house and cook 3 healthy meals a day simply because I'm not working (I hate cleaning and despise cooking... you can imagine how great I am at staying on top of those tasks living with three hungry males who don't pick up after themselves-ok, my husband does, but not the kids). I wasn't prepared to feel the constant pressure to host and entertain family even though I'm falling apart at the seams internally. I need company, but I'm too anxious to handle it.

So here I am: I'm tired, stressed, lonely, confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, wore out, and a little lost.

Where the Heck Am I Going?

How do I move from the place I am in now to a place where I feel like more than just a mom, drive, cook, and maid?  How do I know which move to make next?  Going back to work full time doesn't feel like the right answer, because it would mean pulling Isaac out of preschool and he's thriving here.  I felt like my older son went from toddler to Kindergarten in the blink of an eye and I missed most of it.  I don't want to miss my time with Isaac.  But I'm also aware that I'm not even enjoying it right now, and I want that to change. I want to savor this time together, to spend it playing and laughing and learning together.  Instead our days are filled with arguments, tantrums and time outs.  I need to lower my standards, I'm becoming more and more aware of this. I need to learn not to resent myself for all the things I DON'T get done in a day, and learn to praise myself when I pour into my kids instead of my Iphone, or when I manage to keep my calm in the midst of a meltdown, or when I find the time to spend one-on-one time giving my kids attention, affection and eye contact each day.
I'm holding out hope for February, when Isaac turns the corner from age 3 to 4 (my least favorite age to my favorite), and we cross that magic "one year home" mark that for so many adoptive families, is associated with a turn from darkness into light.

But where am I really going, long-term? 
I'm often resentful of the simplicity of my husband's heart, focus and drive.  He's fascinated by technology and computer programming, so he has made a career as a programmer.  He enjoys his work, feels confident about his career path, and works hard and successfully. 

I on the other hand, have ZERO idea about what direction I should be going.  I attended a liberal arts college with a huge focus on finding your vocation in life.  For a long time, I felt that if I wasn't out creating sustainable water systems in Uganda, or teaching children in Guatemala, or using my clear God Given talent as a nurse or engineer I wasn't measuring up.  Surely God never calls someone to be an assistant manager of a bank branch, or a mortgage processor.  I liked the jobs I had, and found them rewarding in their own ways, but never felt like it was enough. I always worried I had settled.
So I've got a voice in the back of my head lying to me and telling me I need an "impressive" job, and I also am faced with the reality of the fact that I love secretarial jobs. I love retail. I love team management. I love counting money and sorting coins and counting things. I love taking inventory and working in a stock room. You see, I've never really had a job I hated, unless I was working with personalities I found unbearable.  I've worked as a daycare assistant, store clerk, grocery bagger, stockroom associate, babysitter, bank teller, customer service rep, assistant manager, mortgage processor, daycare owner, animal shelter volunteer, and salesperson. I've enjoyed each job for different reasons. Should I return to the workforce, any of them seem like viable options.  I'd also love to work in a post office, vet clinic, school, as a case aide for a social worker, or a flight attendant. I could see myself doing so many different jobs and being happy, but how do I know which path to follow?  I LOVE being able to drive my kids to school, attend their field trips and class parties, but I also long for a career and a feeling that I'm contributing financially to our family. I cannot fathom adding another child into the mix right now, but I also have a strong desire to continue adopting- so why even think about work when I'd just want to quit again as soon as child #3 enters our family?

Do I reach out and try to make new friends with others who are possibly in this same stage of life, or try to invest my energy into the countless relationships I already have, that I miss and are in need of attention?  Do I give into every social invitation on the weekend to ensure we don't miss out on quality time with loved ones, or say no in order to get the rest and relaxation we need as an immediate family?  What will people think if I keep saying no?  I moved over here with the intention of constantly hosting friends and family into our home, but at the moment I'm just too tired to take on anything else.

Part of me also longs to go back to school, obtain my Masters in Social Work, and finish the path I abandoned for sake of income and debt repayment.  But why take steps backward at this stage in life? what if I rack up a bunch of student loans and end up hating it?  Perhaps I'm too risk-averse to go that route. I could probably just volunteer in a social work role and end up financially better off.
How about the kids; how do I know what's best for them?  Do I put them into the school district where I think they'd feel a sense of belonging and acceptance for who they are, or the one that's closer, has better academic and athletic programs, but they won't get busing or free lunch and will be feeling more pressure to "keep up with the Jones'?"  Do I spend our free time chasing down specialists and therapies to ensure they're getting the best possible medical care for their conditions and staying at the front of issues before they show up, or just let them be kids, and handle problems as they arise?  Do we enroll them in as many extracurricular activities as possible to ensure maximum exposure and chances to find their niche, or let them just rest, play and go to bed early? HOW DO PEOPLE FIGURE THIS STUFF OUT?!  HOW DO YOU EVER KNOW IF YOU'RE DOING THE RIGHT THING, AND IF YOU DON'T EVER KNOW, HOW DO YOU KEEP THE CONSTANT WORRIES AND WONDERING OUT OF YOUR MIND?!

Well, I'm sure I've lost you all by now, but if you have any insight to share, by all means, please do!
It did feel really good to write this all out.  I can't explain it, but somehow seeing your thoughts before you helps to make sense of them.  I still don't know where I'm going, but maybe the answer is just to stop worrying about it.
I understand now where I am, and how I got here.  Maybe the answer is simply to just BE HERE.  Quit worrying about everything else.  Just BE HERE.  I'll have to get back to ya'll on that one.

As always, thanks for reading, and please leave input.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Mom Guilt and Halloween

MOM GUILT.  I'm usually drowning in it, how about you?

But have you ever stopped and asked yourself why?  Why do we all feel that we're not measuring up to some invisible standard of parenting? Why, even though our kids are happy and loved and safe we somehow feel like we're never doing enough for them?  Why, even when our parents, spouses, community and friends tell us that we're wonderful mothers, we still convince ourselves that we're utter failures? Is it because of social media? Pinterest? A deeper issue of low self-esteem, anxiety, or feelings of inadequacy?

Recently I made the shift from working full-time to becoming a stay-at-home mom.  Before doing so, I imagined that not having to split myself between work and family duties would mean that I'd feel like such a great mom, a better wife, and more productive person.  Then why is it, that in this season of life, where I have the option to devote 100% of my time and energy into my household, without the distractions of work, social obligations, or other outside commitments, I am finding myself feeling more anxious about my role as a mother than ever before? Why do I let myself believe that if I don't prepare 3 nutritious meals a day (from scratch), do an afternoon craft with my toddler, and have healthy after school snacks ready for my kindergartner I'm a terrible excuse for a housewife?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this lately, and trying to really understand why we as parents put so much guilt, blame, pressure and negative self-talk on ourselves.

Let's use Halloween as a case study.

When I was growing up, Halloween was one day of the year.  Sometime the week of Halloween you spent about 10 minutes carving a face into a pumpkin.  Said pumpkin came out of a big cardboard box at the grocery store. Then you woke up that morning, put on a costume, went to a school party, and trick-or-treated after school that night.  Our costumes were usually some terrible flexible plastic mask with a thin elastic string that was sure to break before the night was over.  The rest of the costume was the equivalent of a garbage bag with printing on it.  It would also surely rip during all of those trips in and out of the conversion van while you trick or treated.  But did anyone care? NOPE! It was all about the candy!  We didn't have cute coordinated trick or treat pails... you had a free plastic bag from the telephone company, a pillow case, or a brown paper sack from the grocery store.  If you were real lucky, you had a McDonalds happy meal pail... yep, that was the DREAM.  But if you didn't have one, you surely didn't question your parents love and devotion for you.  Some kids had homemade costumes-  but let me tell you, they weren't masterpieces- they were cobbled together, had less than perfect seams, and were usually comprised of items found around the house.  There were no pinterest-perfect face paint jobs walking around on Halloween night. You never really cared what your friends were even wearing- you just wanted the candy!  Of course there were a few students whose mothers just loved sewing and crafting and they looked perfect... but no one really cared. 

We never went to a pumpkin patch or apple orchard unless it was a school field trip.  Trunk or treat was unheard of. Halloween camping? Nope.  Spending the three weekends before Halloween trick or treating at 5 or 6 different events?  Definitely not.  Once in a great while we visited Crossroads Village, a local amusement park with the girl scout troop for a haunted train ride and trick or treating... but it was by no means an expectation.

How did we get to where we are today then? Why is it that I feel like a bad mom because it's October 29th and we haven't been trick or treating yet?  On one hand, I'd be a terrible mom if I allowed my boys to live on candy for the next 4 months, but at the same time I'm failing them for not taking them trick or treating 5 times?  WHY?  Do we honestly think our toddlers will care if they miss all these events they don't even know about?  Of course not! One hour of trick or treating on Halloween night is more than enough for them! So why can't I convince myself of that?

We were just at DISNEY WORLD for last weekend for crying out loud!  Disney World! And yet I still wallowed in mom guilt this weekend because I didn't take my boys to ride the haunted train at Crossroads.  Did I even stop to think about how many trains, trams, and trolleys we rode at Disney and airports last week?!

Mom Guilt. Is it because we're all competing for the award of busiest family? Have we come to pride ourselves on the number of family outings we do with our children?  Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why can't we just savor the holidays through our kids' eyes?  They surely don't care about the fact that we spent 20 hours shopping for and preparing that perfect homemade costume.  In fact, it probably resulted in numerous tantrums because they wanted our attention and we were too busy. 
They don't care about the incredible jack-o-lantern we spent 3 hours carving.  They got bored 20 minutes into it and ran around the house while we sat yelling at them, and poured a mixed drink just to get ourselves through it all.  For WHAT?!

Why is it considered "lazy" if we just go to the store, let them pick out a costume (that THEY are excited about), carve a simple pumpkin, and then take them through our community getting candy on Halloween night?  They surely aren't holding us to the standard of perfection- they'd honestly probably have more fun this way.  So why do we silently compete with each other for the best Instagram photo? Why do we tell ourselves that we're not good enough?

And of course this isn't just true for Halloween;  this stuff pours over into everything we do as parents:  every holiday, every family vacation, weekend, camping trip, etc.  We convince ourselves that we need coordinated outfits, themed snacks, homemade crafts, and those picture perfect moments for everything we do! But do any of us really even care what the others are doing?  Do we value people more who have cuter snacks, matching outfits, or best holiday decor? No, in fact, we secretly resent those friends- because they are reminders to us that someone else has it more together than we do.  What a silly game we play.

This morning I attended my son's preschool Halloween party and I noticed another parent snapping pictures her child (as we all were... gotta blast those onto Facebook or we didn't really do it, right?!- Yes, I am making fun of myself). She kept saying to her daughter "look like you're having fun!"  Now let me say this, I'm not shaming her.  I'm sure we've all done this at one time or another.  However when you're removed from the situation, you realize how silly it is.  Shouldn't we focus more on making sure she IS having fun than if she appears to be for a photo op? Why can't we resist the urge to capture it all, share it all, show it all off?  (Yes, I've already posted my own pictures of said party to social media- I'm not above any of this behavior- I'm just realizing how silly it all is). 

I don't have the answers to this dilemma, but I am working hard to become more self-aware of my actions, to focus more on my kids' actual happiness and enjoyment than on what I THINK might make them happy.

We all have moments were we could do better- of course, we're human. But the fact is, there are millions of kids in this world who don't even have parents.  And even more who have them, but aren't loved or cared for by them.  We need to stop the guilt game.  If your children are loved, clothed, fed, and have a safe home to live in- YOU'RE WINNING!  Maybe you don't even have all of those boxes checked off, but you're working your hardest to get there-  you're winning too!

At the end of the day, our kids aren't going to remember whether they had the best homemade costume, coolest pumpkin, most trick or treat events, or best porch decor-  they're going to remember having fun, and whether their parents were joining in on the fun with them or standing on the sidelines yelling at them.  I'm ashamed yet honest enough to admit there is typically more grouchy mom moments around here than the moments where I put my phone down, lower my expectations, and just have fun with my kids.  It's hard. But there's just got to be a better way.  Let me know if you've already found it.