Even with all the lights and the holiday fun- the Argosy Christmas Ship, the Bellevue Botanical Garden d’Lights, and the 1st graders holiday concert that had me tearing up every two minutes, it wasn’t enough to keep the Grinch at bay. I’m still a horrible Grinch- or at least I have one lurking inside my imperfect heart.
Maybe it’s just inevitable at this time of year, but he poked his ugly green head out and made himself at home at our dinner table yesterday. Let me explain.
As I have shared before, we do a “gratitude practice” at dinner, where each person says one thing they are grateful for from the day. So last evening, Sofia started us off. “Trees.” she said. Okay, not a great answer and kind of generic, but okay. Now, it was my turn. I was feeling worn out from a day of holiday cheer (see aforementioned Christmas Ships), and feeling somewhat bitter and grouchy about the general lack of gratitude and appreciation that seems to be rampant among our children at the moment, and so I said, “I’m grateful you kids have camp tomorrow.” Yes, I said that. DURING our gratitude practice.
Well, kids aren’t stupid. They knew that my “gratitude” was actually a thinly veiled dig at them. Sofia looked at me with big eyes and said, “Why are you grateful for that?” I’d been caught. Ugh. Bad mommy. BAD. MOMMY. I mumbled something lame about how I had to work the next day, so I was glad they’d have something fun to do. But that wasn’t really why I said it. I’d said it because I was tired of the whining, the grousing, the total lack (at least to my Grinchy-self) of appreciation from the kids. My husband’s look from across the table was one of grave disappointment. I stared back defiantly. What, this massive hole that I’m in? I like it here, in my dark, grinchy place. Thank you very much.
Audrey was next. Whether because she has truly the sweetest soul or because she is a guilt-trip mastermind (I suspect the former but wouldn’t put the latter past her- she’s wicked smart), she said, “I’m glad it’s winter break, so that I get to spend more time with you, Mommy.”
Yes- she went there. I felt about one inch tall and shrinking fast. I think I may have actually transformed into a heel, like you see in cartoons, for a moment. Here I am saying snarky things about shipping the kids off to camp for Winter Break (To be clear: this was NOT the intent when I booked Drama camp as a special treat months ago.), and here is my lovely daughter talking about how all she wants to do is spend time with me. It wasn’t like a knife to the heart, it was like a chainsaw.
I wish I could tell you that my mood immediately lifted and that for the rest of the evening we snuggled, and read Christmas stories, and ate Christmas cookies, but that’s not real life. I did have enough grace to at least look further ashamed of my comment and I thanked her softly.
After dinner, I needed to run to the store quickly, so I popped my head in their bedroom to say bye before heading out. The girls were all tangled in heap on the floor, like a couple of sour tomcats, hissing and kicking over whatever inconsequential thing they could come up with to fight over. This fighting has taken a significant uptick in the last couple weeks. I shook my head and went to the store. We all are infected by the Grinch.
My takeaway from my complete failure during our gratitude practice and from the month of December is that the holidays are hard and stress everyone out. Parents have high expectations, kids have high expectations, and those expectations are just plain unrealistic.
When we strive for that ideal of sailing through the holidays without tears or complaint or well-laid plans gone awry- we set ourselves up for disappointment. Disappointment may be the present not received, the smile not gotten in the Santa photo, the special holiday dress that doesn’t get worn, the relative that can’t come or does come home for Christmas. It can take a million forms, and inevitably you find your emotions and expectations tossed around like a tiny ship in a hurricane.
This morning when my husband got up, I said, “I’m sorry for being such a grouch with you and the kids.” He said, “Me too. Good thing today is a new day.” The hurricane had passed, at least for the moment. We hugged and promised to try again today to keep the Grinches away. Then I went and did the same with the kids.
Even over the holidays, we are still human and flawed and messy. In fact, we’re worse. The highs can be higher, but the lows are lower. Even with the Christmas lights, and carols, and all the effort we put into smothering that Grinch.
So, be kind to yourself and your family, and when you aren’t- forgive quickly. Forgive yourself. Forgive your spouse. Forgive your relatives and friends. And most of all, forgive your kids. They are just learning how to navigate the high seas of the holidays and if we don’t have it right yet, how can they?
Today is the sixth anniversary of my husband Tony’s sudden cardiac arrest. It was six years ago that he nearly died (well, technically did die) and was saved by the incredible work of Seattle’s firefighters and Medic One trained paramedics, along with the doctors and staff at the University of Washington Medical Center who valiantly continued the work begun in the field, including putting him in a medically induced coma, chilling his body (aka Therapeutic Hypothermia) to preserve brain function, and finally after 4 days that seemed to last forever, bring him out of that coma and back to me. If you’d like to read about (or re-live) some of that time, I recently rediscovered the blog that I had created at the time to share Tony’s progress. (side note: I LOVE the Internet because I had actually totally forgotten I had created it!)
As time goes by, I grow more grateful. The magnitude and impact of what these paramedics (and all involved) did increases over time. Each day that goes by makes the gift greater- a slow ripple growing ever outward across a lake of time. I am so thankful for our dear friends & neighbors who stood bravely with me in our kitchen as the paramedics worked for nearly an hour before getting a pulse. I am so grateful to our friends, his fraternity brothers, our co-workers, and family- all of whom provided a steady stream of support while Tony was in the hospital, including meals, child-care, and most of all- love and emotional support for all of us.
This year, my gratitude took on a new dimension as a high school classmate of mine, a charming, warm, vibrant mother of two, suffered a similar event- but with a heartbreaking outcome. I was so hopeful for her recovery when I first learned that she had suffered a cardiac arrest, but it soon become clear that she was not as fortunate as Tony. My heart aches for her and her beautiful family, and makes me more aware than ever of the importance and power of world-class emergency response and pre-hospital care.
Which brings me to another thought, as someone who works now in Global Health- the importance of strong health systems. Today, the Ebola crisis is highlighting and bringing attention, not only to the need for rapid, comprehensive emergency response to crisis, but perhaps more important over the long-run, this crisis will renew the focus on the importance of a strong health systems across the board.
In developing countries, fragile health systems can quickly crumble and buckle under the shock of a crisis- whether precipitated by a natural disaster, disease outbreak, famine, or war- but even in developed countries (I am looking at you- US of A), systems that do not receive the investment in infrastructure, maintenance, and growth will stagnate and deteriorate to a dangerous degree. I do not see what is happening in the US with Ebola as a symptom of that- yet. Rather, I’d point to the recent issues with the VA system for Veterans as a more concrete example of the slow degradation in care and process that does not often generate headlines but does contribute to poor outcomes and even death for those dependent on the system.
The WHO defines a Health System as: A health system consists of all organizations, people and actions whose primary intent is to promote, restore or maintain health. This includes efforts to influence determinants of health as well as more direct health-improving activities. A health system is therefore more than the pyramid of publicly owned facilities that deliver personal health services. It includes, for example, a mother caring for a sick child at home; private providers; behaviour change programmes; vector-control campaigns; health insurance organizations; occupational health and safety legislation. It includes inter-sectoral action by health staff, for example, encouraging the ministry of education to promote female education, a well-known determinant of better health.
It is a fact, that the strong front-end to the health system that has been built here in Seattle, through both public and private support- saved Tony’s life. I have no doubt that in nearly any other city in the world, Tony would have died. So, hooray for us- but that standard of care should be more widely available. We have the technology, the systems, the proof that it works- it needs to be available to every person, not just us lucky Pacific Northwesterners.
I feel like I am in a unique position having been the beneficiary of the world’s leading emergency response care, now working for an organization dedicated to improving Global Health (in large part through the systematic strengthening of Health Systems), and because of the time that Tony and I spent as public health volunteers in Kenya 10 years ago- to truly understand how crucial a robust, comprehensive, accessible system is.
Whether thinking about it from the micro view of one single, solitary life saved to the macro view of saving millions of lives through the development and distribution of life-saving, disease-preventing vaccines around the world, the current Ebola crisis presents the public with the opportunity to recognize the absolutely vital value of a strong health system- from the local paramedic, to the community health worker, to the importance of childhood vaccination, to mental health care, to the funding needed across the board.
We must support our communities, our state, and most importantly our national government, in the incredibly important work of strengthening and modernizing our existing health care system. It is a huge and costly undertaking, but the benefits over the long-run are immeasurable and incredibly worthwhile. At some point, it will be your life or the life of a loved-one that will be saved or improved.
In the meantime and on a more personal level, I encourage you to do what I am going to do tonight- go home and hug your loved ones. Take a moment to really look at them with an eye to what your life would be like without them. It only takes a few moments for that feeling to settle in your heart. Then give them the kind of hug that will make them laugh with delight and surprise, make them say, “What’s gotten into you?!”
You can just reply and say, “Oh, I’m just so glad you are here.”
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Tonight I became completely unglued at my kids. I mean completely. COMPLETELY. I yelled, I stomped my foot. I slammed the bedroom door. I told them I couldn’t believe they could be so ungrateful. Ask for one more thing tonight, I taunted them. Go for it, I said. So yeah, I was all the things I never want to be and all the things I don’t want them to be. I was a jerk and I was mean. But you know, it was legitimate- there was laundry. On. The Floor. Two days worth. So it makes sense, right? No.
No, of course it doesn’t. Whatever it might have been, it wasn’t justified. After I was done with my audition for Mommy Dearest, I went and sat in the backyard for ten minutes, just staring off. What the hell was that? Who the hell am I? I could still hear one of my daughter’s crying upstairs. Yeah, I’d be crying too- how did she get stuck with this fuck-up as a parent?
So, I texted a friend- Do you have a minute to talk? Thank goodness she did. She listened and commiserated and made me feel just a tiny bit less shitty and alone and that was enough. I took a few deep breaths and went up and apologized- to the one that was still crying and to the one that had fallen asleep. I apologized and totally owned my anger (rage, really)- I said it was wrong of me to take it out on them. I said I was mean and unfair and that I was sorry.
I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know if putting this confession up on a blog helps. Does it help to “own” it or does it just mean that I can quickly justify my behavior? I get scared that I am not normal- that my moments of fury are different or more frequent than others. I *think* they are infrequent but don’t really know. I don’t know because it’s one of those things we rarely discuss as a community of parents. At least amongst my friends.
Sometimes, a mom or dad will refer to getting angry, but it’s always vague- I guess because it’s so shameful and ugly, and it shows how horrible we can be at times.
The joy of being a parent often takes my breath away for all the right reasons, and I am often filled with so much gratitude for this gift that I have been given. But other times, I am reminded that I am human and human beings can be ugly and cruel, even to those who are the most dear and precious to us.
I know that a lot, probably even the vast majority of the time, I am a good parent. Truly good at it. I can’t bring myself to say great, because in moments like this, I don’t know what that means. I think I just got my “great” revoked for awhile. But I am good- I think about building confidence, being kind, being forgiving, providing structure and opportunity, providing security and comfort. I really work hard, consistently to be a thoughtful, good parent. But every once in a while, this horrible part of me shows up with a rocket launcher and I look around at all the neat little things I’ve made- these carefully constructed, fragile towers of good moments, good intentions, good experiences, moments of tenderness and love- and I just blow those fuckers up like they are tissue paper. I guess that’s why we call it coming unglued- because you are going to need a lot of glue.
So, I asked my daughters to forgive me and they nodded mutely. I don’t think they know what that means exactly, but they reached out to me and hugged me. Hugged me hard, like I deserved it, which I did not. I couldn’t have felt more low and undeserving. Asking for forgiveness from your children feels like a coward’s request, but I don’t know how else to move forward. I suppose you do it by picking up all those shattered bits of glass- the good intentions and experiences, and start building again.
Then you ask yourself, how long will I build this next time? Will I be smarter and slower to anger? Will I be able to sidestep the twister of rage that out-of-nowhere picks me up like a rag doll? I don’t think so- not every time, anyway. I fervently hope that in the long run it’s enough- that I am a better builder than wrecking ball, that the ultimate balance tips in the right direction. I hope that I can be worthy of the fierce and loving hugs they gave me.
It feels like a long, long walk but I guess I am already on my way.
Tomorrow is the last day of Kindergarten and I suddenly find myself not ready for it to end. The kids are ready- they are excited for summer and the intellectual challenge of Kindergarten faded months ago, but I think they also have a tremor of trepidation at moving up. Kindergarten is safe and familiar to them- the friends and simple routines that move them through the days. But again, summer is gleaming just out of reach, like a much craved treat- so I know they will shed any fears as easily as dropping their backpacks when getting home from school.
I, on the other hand, was just getting into the swing of things. I was finally starting to recognize the moms and know which kid went with which parent (next year in the student directory- how about pictures of the kids AND parents, please?!). I was reveling in their growing independence and confidence. Now, seemingly suddenly, everyone is ready to close the chapter on this year. I keep thinking of a high school friend of mine who’s twin sons are just graduating from high school. High school! And I am sure she feels like it went by in a blink. I have this unreasonable feeling that I am going to wake up tomorrow to fully formed teenagers donning caps & gowns and heading off to college too.
As a parent of twins, I have the incredible gift of two children to watch through each stage, however, like a singleton parent, I also get only one “shot” at each milestone. We will not pass this way again. Kindergarten is in the books and there is no second chance to do the year “better” or differently. Not that I would change anything- it’s just the finality of it.
In our upstairs hallway, like many families, we have picture frames with dozens of pictures nestled together, chronicling our adventures and the growth of the girls to this point. I am finding myself slowing to stare at their faces, the younger versions of them forever receding from the present as if carried backwards on a conveyor belt into my memory. If I pause, I can sort of “zoom in” and rekindle the moment- whether it’s the touch of baby-soft skin, the smell of infant hair, or the squirmy hugs of toddler. But then it’s gone- that connection with memory is fleeting.
This morning, when I gathered my daughters, by turns, into my lap for a cuddle- they spilled out of my lap, all long arms and legs. They would settle into stillness for a moment, their heads just resting under my chin (if I raised mine a little), and I tried to breathe in this moment- to imprint in my memory.
So, I am left with this feeling that I have just arrived at a party, in time to see everyone filling out the back door- headed on to the next adventure, their laughter drifting back into the house, echoing for a moment before fading away. I don’t want to call them back, at least not in my head (my heart may tell you a different tale), but I yearn for the chance to pause time, so that I could linger among the sights, sounds, and feelings of the moment- the way you would take in the wares in a beloved antique store.
Maybe that is what we do as parents- collect and catalog memories (along with a myriad of physical reminders) like the owner of an antiques shop, presiding over them- dusting, repairing, treasuring them, so that when our children return as customers, eager to relive or try them out, we are ready with just the right piece for their collection.
I invite you to share your thoughts on these milestones or share this post, if it resonated with you! Thanks, as always, for reading.