The search for self-compassion

Toren has been crying non-stop all morning and insists that he be allowed to watch me cook from the top of a stool where he will surely burn himself. Avery, for some reason, has been eating a craft stick and her hands and mouth are covered in blue dye. Eirik must have procured my car key the last time he was on the countertop because the car has auto-started and all the lights are flashing. 

Every object we own is on the floor. I sling breakfast as quickly as I can; using my hip to check Toren out of the way while I flip pancakes. We are all tired today, which means that the kids are hurting each other, and I am emotionally thin.

Pancakes are served. I wait to see if a hush will befall the room as kids shovel food into their mouths; or if the food will be rejected and thrown on the floor. Reception is not exactly arbitrary – some pancakes are better than others – but I can’t always predict what will happen.

They eat. Briefly. Then Avery starts kicking the cabinet. I ask her to stop. Nothing. I tell her that she needs to stop if she wants to continue eating breakfast. Kick. Kick. Kick. I remove her from the table – roughly and by the arm. I return just in time to see Toren hauling Eirik away from the table – roughly and by the arm. Ugh.

The gift I most want to give my children is that of my own varsity-level self-regulation. I want this for their benefit but also for the sanity of our family. My kids do what I do far more often than they do what I say.

Knowing how to self-regulate means that you can deliberately get yourself out of fight-flight-freeze and bring higher-order brain functions, like language and empathy, back online when you need them. It means that even when you are flooded with emotion, you can re-center and respond to the situation from a place that aligns with your values, rather than freaking the f%*$ out.

Self-regulation doesn’t come easily to me. As a seven-year-old I received the grade N in “demonstrates self control,” which is basically an F for first-graders. What were my crimes, exactly? I don’t know. At school I mostly talked too much; but at home I definitely yelled, hit, and threw occasional tantrums. It was all normal kid stuff, I think. Never did an adult suggest a healthier way of working through my anger, anxiety, or fear. We didn’t talk about emotions back then. It was the 1980s. A kid out of line could shape up or ship out.

Thirty years later, I brought twin baby boys home and my husband went back to work in a different town. Avery, age 3, suddenly had to share me with not one but two babies and she was jealous. She bit them, and would sometimes finger-pop the corner of Eirik’s mouth to make him bleed. If one baby needed a diaper change, I took both of them to the bathroom. I had no idea what to do with my big kid or her impulses.

I talked to friends. I did some reading and podcasting. Everyone said the same thing: Your big kid needs love. Once she knows she hasn’t lost you, she’ll come around.

Having one of your kids hurt another one of your kids is the worst. For three months, I took a course in Peaceful Parenting, and earned a star on the calendar every day that I managed not to react to Avery in anger. I reframed my perspective to see what a hard time she was having. I found that the vacuum breathing I did for the separated muscles of my core also helped me to calm down. I breathed like that all of the time. The best apology is to change one’s behavior.

For a while, things got better. I became more skillful, and Avery outgrew the wilderness of toddlerhood. But then the babies turned into toddlers and it all became too much again. At present I feel all of my effort at peaceful parenting being swept away.

The calendar fell off the wall today and I looked back through the months. In May, when Avery was in school half-time and the twins were epic nappers, I had 15-hours a week to myself. There were notes in those margins – grocery lists, meal plans, and ideas for writing projects. As long as I kept moving everything got done, and I had a fairly good time doing it.

Nothing has been written on the calendar since June. Even if I had a thought, I wouldn’t be able to find a pen.

My poor body is pumped so full of cortisol that I don’t sleep and I rarely feel hungry. I can’t poop unless all of the children are sleeping. I forget when I last showered; so I shave my armpits each time as a sort of timer. Whenever I see that I’ve grown a full chia pet, I get in.

According to doctors’ recommendations, I should reduce my stress, sleep more, eat better, exercise (at all), re-claim my creative outlets, and meditate; but I don’t have time for any of that. As another twin mom told me, “I have to find a way to take care of myself so I can keep doing this.”

Let’s be clear: In most moments of most days, my kids are lucky to have me as a mother. They come to me when they are hurt, scared, proud, sad, tired, or hungry. They see my shining eyes. They feel loved.

My anger is never about one thing. It is forged out of a steady accumulation of incidents – small and large – all day, every day. Tantrums eventually end, and that knowledge is enough to get me through. What wears me down is the perpetual chaos, and knowing that it’s up to me to move our family through the mess, without ever giving in to my own pain and frustration. Nine tantrums this morning; that’s what I’m up against.

Parenting isn’t the hardest job you’ll ever love; it’s the hardest job, period. Do your best to love it.

In the not-so-distant past, I didn’t understand ‘mom guilt’. I patted myself on the back, thinking myself immune to this all-consuming maternal emotion. But then I learned that guilt is inversely proportional to shame. When shit goes wrong, a person either thinks “I did something bad,” which is guilt, or “I am bad” which is shame. You either have one or the other. Ugh.

I am grateful for people who speak openly about how frequently (constantly) parenting is hard; rather than implying that hard times come as isolated incidents, involving one child, and wrap up with a big red bow. Overwhelm is a perpetual, impossible dance. I am forever trying my best, falling short, noticing I’m still the only adult around, and getting back up to dance some more. I would much prefer to lock myself in a dark room and make love to my phone.

Research shows that shaming ourselves when we miss the mark is a good way to ensure more poor behavior in the future. This makes sense: When I flog myself internally, shame tenses my neck and worries my mind. I am all the more coiled; all the more tired and burned-out; all the more likely to snap.

Shame hisses: Are you sssssure you want to talk about thissss?

Yes. The more personal a story, the more universal it is. Shame only exists in secrecy. Casting stories into the light transmutes their power from isolation into connection.

If you want to love children in their worst moments, then you must first extend that warmth to yourself. I did some reading and podcasting, and learned that without self-compassion, a person cannot be fully compassionate with others. You can’t give what you don’t have.

When I am unkind and impatient, I feel anxious. Regrets cycle around, and I have a hard time clearing them from my mind. How am I supposed to move from this into a place of self-compassion?

It’s hard to accept others in their mistakes when you haven’t experienced that way of being for yourself. I took a quiz and learned that self-compassion does not come easily to me. It seemed the closer I got to an antidote, the farther it moved out of reach.

What I need, is an imaginary, ideal mother. I render a Mother Earth figure in flowing white clothing. When I mess up or the cyclic thoughts spring up, she opens her arms wide. Come to me, my child, she says. You’ve treated someone poorly. I will help you feel better so that you can do better.

One of the best tools I have found when my kids get out of control is the pause. I don’t always know what to do from there. I am still looking for the right magic words to convince my body that there is no threat – only the children who grew inside of me and whom I love with every fiber of my being – but the pause is the right place to start. If I can stop myself from reacting for even a moment, the situation becomes far less important. This is not an emergency.

It’s very hard on me that I don’t always get this right. The ideal mother touches me on the shoulder. It’s okay, she says. You messed up, but we all mess up. You’re learning, and I know you will do better next time. I love you, just as you are.

When I succeed in getting grounded, I teach my children that mama is someone to trust; rather than someone to fear. You feel mixed up and scared but you’re safe, I say. I am here. You don’t have to be calm; because I am calm. Let me take care of you.

I may never figure out how to prevent myself from being tipped off-balance, but when I pause, I can sometimes regain my center quickly enough that my children never need know that I left it.

My kids are fast and curious. If a mess can be made, they will make it. If an object can be broken, they will break it. Still, each of them deserves a childhood of exquisite tenderness.

I invented the ideal mother as someone to call on in difficult moments. I am surprised to find that she also comes in wonderful moments. When I am cuddled up with my kids and reading; when we are riding bikes in the driveway, when I hold their hands for a dinner breath before a meal, when I get them out of the bath and find a way to gently brush their teeth even though they don’t want me to. She’s there, smiling upon me. Great job, she says.

Something else happens that initial morning after breakfast. I think Eirik dumped something out of the spice cabinet. As I run to him, Avery yells, “Mom! Don’t get angry!”

I pause.

I’m not proud that my five-year-old feels the need to help with my self-regulation, but it was super helpful. I pick Eirik up and start into my arsenal of mantras; You’re safe, I tell him.

But something strange happens when I say those words out loud — it is as if I am saying them to myself. I feel instantly better. Of course. You’re safe. These are the magic words.

Pushing myself to unearth unconditional love for children pushes me to love and care for myself. You are worthy of love and belonging, I say. Nothing you could ever do would make me stop loving you. Through self-compassion, I am becoming my own ideal mother.

***

When joy comes

Happy New Year! This is a reverse resolution: a celebration of the human spirit and my proudest accomplishments from 2021. Let joy fill the page!

Joy comes when we least expect it. Based on popular myth, a life with children includes joy – a lot of joy. And mine does. I see it in photographs where light radiates from my babies. But often, I missed it. I was there: I took that picture. But I forgot to catch those rays on my skin. I failed to pause until the last drops faded.

I want to recognize moments of my children humming happily along in real time and not just in retrospect. I want to relax into those moments; to drop my shoulders and smile despite the madness.

I always wanted to be a mom, still this motley crew is full of surprises. I never saw myself with two sons or a daughter so unlike me. I never anticipated the way her wild heart and mind would undo me.

All of my kids are beautiful, happy, whole, unpredictable. Something about the surprise of their existence brings me a kind of joy every day.

Life is what it is, and it is good.

Joy comes when we cultivate it. A year ago I had a panic attack and wanted to yell at everyone at 4 PM every day. I cooked dinner while the kids freaked out and made each other cry.

After a year of hard work, my children rarely trigger emotional outbursts from me anymore. I phased out punishment and Avery’s behavior is singing. My relationship with the brothers is better for it too; they have only ever known their mama in love.

To help my calm, I learned to cook beyond browning ground beef in a skillet. I play music (may dance parties flow freely through this kitchen!) and I do the deep breathing that heals the separated muscles of my core while I cook.

What was once mayhem now passes for well-organized play. Toren and Avery sprint back-and-forth manically through the longest stretch of the house. Eiriky stands in the middle of the game laughing with all the light in his eyes until they knock him down. Sometimes I realize that I am breathing deeply and that tells me I must be stressed. I cook and breathe and I am okay.

Usually. When I make mistakes, Avery catches me like an emergency parachute. The other day I lacked a dinner plan but was throwing something into a bowl. Avery was stirring and making a mess. It was 4 PM and I got stressed. She turned to me and said, “Mama? Are you blaming me? I feel calm.”

IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou.

Joy comes when things are easy. Avery is sleeping like a rockstar. That is, she sleeps like a rock and I would pay a lot of money to attend this show. Sometimes she gets lonely and sleeps in a cot in our room but she stays asleep despite what the brothers dish out. Yay.

Last night Armageddon struck in my bedroom. All of the kids were crying and my husband and I had a helluva time getting everyone to sleep. But a year ago this happened every night. I had hesitated to say this out loud; but after a bit of schadenfreude for my former self, I’ll shout it from the rooftops: Bedtime is going well!

Joy lives in the big picture. Avery is four and growing into a beautiful kid; inside and out. I realized the other day she is not going to be small much longer. It made me want to gobble up this time with her.

She loves to play doctor. Her stuffed animals are forever injured or recently born. The coffee table, turned up on its side to prevent the brothers from climbing, is our x-ray machine. She makes beds out of cardboard boxes. The empty plastic spinach container is an incubator for the premature. Mismatched socks provide an endless supply of casts and bandages.

Avery is starting to read and loves chapter books. We read the Magic Tree House series out loud together and are now working on the stories of Zooey and Sassafras.

Avery loves words. Not yet five, she is the envy of any second language learner. New vocabulary this week includes confused, bored, captivated, scurry, and paradise. As in, “Grandma and grandpa’s house is my paradise.” Just for kicks, I look up these words in Spanish. Confundifo. Aburrido. Cautivado. Escabullen. El paraíso.

Raising kids offers the only direct correlation I’ve ever found between hard work and payoff. I’ve said before that the reward of parenting is an endless opportunity for personal growth; but it is also relationship you get to have with your kids. There is no substitute. They take everything you have but give you everything they are.

Joy comes when we ask for it; so I address the universe most mornings. Please, bring joy. A twin mom commented recently that parenting is just one big process of letting go. I couldn’t agree more. Let go of what other people think. Let go of control. Let go of resistance. There is loss, and loss is always painful but we are better people for it (mostly because there is no going back). I don’t imagine any caterpillar ever enjoyed becoming a butterfly.

I am present for my children. I make eye contact. I listen when Avery speaks and I know enough about her inner life to ask meaningful questions. I prioritize calm, fun, adventure, and delicious food. The rest I can let go. This messy house reflects all the things I am doing right.

I sneak away for an hour over the New Year to catch up with a friend, T. (I called from my idling car where the brothers were falling asleep and later moved into a locked bathroom. Avery stood outside the door chanting, gula gula gula gula, which means together, together, together in baby language.)

T: “I feel like I was born to live a quiet, ascetic life meditating on mountain tops,” she says, “and then someone was like, Here are the keys to the minivan! This morning, I opened the door and french fries fell out.”

Me: “Maybe the keys to the minivan are the keys to enlightenment?”

T: “I’d wear that on a T-shirt.”

Joy comes from finding humor in times of sadness. Avery broke my favorite mug today. The one with blackbirds carved from salt-fired clay that I found in a gallery in Asheville, North Carolina. I rented a car there and drove the Blueride Parkway; even though I don’t do that sort of thing. It was a lifetime ago. I knew my children would break it.

I kept it high on the counter, and used it anyway, because I needed one sane, beautiful focal-point in my day. When it broke I went outside to find my husband digging a sand-point well through three-feet of snow because, after eight years of near-misses and two months of freezing temperatures, the cistern finally ran out of water. I told him. He hugged me and let me cry a little even though we have had trouble connecting lately and he hates it when I cry. It was almost worth losing the mug.

I rarely cry anymore. Emotional processing lags too far behind my pluck for tears. I am needed and busy and interested. I live in the space of action without thought, like a mother swallow who hunts and returns to the nest with one bug after the next. She sees only that her babies are fed, clean, and well. My children look up to me, love me, and trust me to care for them. Who could ask for more? I don’t think, and I am happy.

When joy comes, it can be hard to recognize it for what it is. We wait for our kid to outgrows tantrums, sleep through the night, or arrive at the scissors-and-glue phase of life. But joy comes anyway; a flash of excellence in the middle of an every-day sort of day.

Joy remembers our hopes and dreams; even as we try to forget. It reminds us of the fragility of our tender hearts; of what we thought parenting would be before the baby arrived. So little of life is like this.

The pause makes us vulnerable. We have wrapped our hearts in gauze to protect them from all of the other moments. Feeling joy is a recognition that we still care. Rip those layers away, and right this instant! Jettison self preservation to let a few seconds tingle up your spine.

Much re-wrapping will have to be done afterwards but of course it’s worth it. A moment of joy can be everything. Every parent knows that.

****

The Big Love

Avery drank from a nasty puddle and spent three days and four nights in the fetal position. Her poop rode two airplanes to Seattle for testing and we waited a week for a diagnosis and medication while giardia parasites partied in her belly.

That week, she slept in my bed so I could help her get to the toilet. Including the brothers’ wakings, I was up ten times a night for multiple nights in a row. It’s no wonder that on third night I lay there, holding my dehydrated daughter, and teaching her to pray.

Avery knows I am a Buddhist woman. She also knows about God and Jesus. It’s not important to me that Avery subscribe to any particular religion but I will teach her to access the spiritual part of her nature. We talk about this combined information as the Big Love.

“The Big Love is always there for you,” I say. “If you feel lonely or scared you can talk to it. Did you know that?” She’s falling asleep; but no matter. It’s I who need the Big Love tonight.

“Please, protect my child,” I say. The words feel good so I repeat them over and over. “Please, protect my child and deliver her safely unto the morning.” My plea carries the intonation of a childhood prayer or a Bob Dylan song. Eventually worry lifts, and I sleep.

In the morning, it does not surprise me at all when Avery wakes up and says, “Mama? Can we get M&M’s sometime?” She eats. She runs. She spins. She tapes her brother’s head. She is back.

Buddhists don’t necessarily pray but sometimes I do. I’ve been vulnerable to anxiety and overwhelm lately. I function very well in a normal-level day, but when extra things happen I can’t always keep my feet on the ground. Prayer helps.

I am surprised to have become a worried mother. In the past I never found any particular usefulness in worrying; but danger presents itself to children in an unnerving number of ways. It is my job to prevent head injuries, stranger danger, poisoning, and any number of accidents. I must also vigilantly protect warmth of hands, fullness of belly, and cleanliness of fingernails. My responsibility to safety as a constant preoccupation is my least favorite part of parenting.

Sometimes, when the children are snug in their beds, I lie down and I wonder if it is only by the skin of my teeth that they are safe and warm. There are mornings when a child sleeps late and I fear they are dead. Mostly, this is normal parenting stuff. I know they are fine. I don’t want to check on them and ruin their sleep.

But worry doesn’t totally melt until I hear the baby cry, Come get me!, or Avery’s little voice call, “Coo-ee! Mama! Wake me up!” The scary thoughts melt and are forgotten. It was all just a dream.

*

Avery recovered before her medication arrived; but in that window of illness, toilet-obsessed Toren managed to reach in and grab hold of a piece of her poop. Avery yelled for me. I washed his hands and changed his clothes; but I worried about his exposure. Just out of the fire with one kid, I had another reaching for the flames.

Nothing manifested. For every threat, Is this real?, is a relevant question. It’s hard to know. Circumstances where a kid ends up just fine differ only slightly from times when a kid is damaged forever.

My daughter is the most beautiful thing I have ever known. I must protect her life, limbs, and precious face even though she is a maniac. She can’t even be trusted with markers and here she is walking around all over the place. She can’t be held responsible for what happens. This is why kids have parents.

What I have failed to mention, is that Avery drank from that puddle because I prioritized a grown-up conversation over managing my kid. We, including an adult friend and the brothers in their stroller, went to make mud pies at that giant puddle because I knew it would hold Avery’s attention awhile. The scene deteriorated into swimming, and I kept right on semi-ignoring her; even though attention-seeking behaviors happen when mama is distracted.

When she looked over at me with her chin dripping, I was not surprised. Theoretically, a mom should be allowed a pleasant diversion now and then. In reality, these are the moments when disaster strikes.

*

Before Buddhism I was a Christian and then atheist. During the atheist portion of my life, I studied science and suffered a wicked depression. Though I didn’t think about it this way at the time, my spirit atrophied because it drew from a well parched by my limited imagination. I thought only about the tangible, measurable world; and had nowhere to go with questions that refused to be answered. When the life I had been leading outgrew its form, faith and intuition were the tools I needed to carry on.

Unhappiness is an invitation to look for something better. It is a journey into yourself; so that you may learn to know and love your inner landscape. At first, the discomfort of stillness is too much to bear; you fidget and resist. Every distracting thought, every task, every idea for an errand seems very important; like it must be done now. But finding no alternate route, you finally sit.

Inside, you look around wildly, hoping to bump into something comforting or something to lash out at. The pain is extreme; but sitting with what is already there will cause no further damage. Notice everything. Your being does not have to feel this way.

The mind spins the same old thoughts. You watch for a long time and eventually become bored with their thin defenses. Curiosity shifts toward the loneliness.

The pain is less foreboding than it used to be. Ignoring it didn’t make it go away; so say hello. Nice to meet you. I’ve been noticing you. There will be tears of recognition.

Even small relief feels monumental because, after all of these desperate months or years, it is wonderful to find anything that helps at all. Excited by the possibility of resolution, you open to the experience. You sit taller; breathe more deeply. You start to understand what it means to let go. Space opens, and the Big Love moves in.

Buddhism, in it’s godlessness, requires no leap of faith up-front. Only after years of emotional excavation, did this place open inside of me that feels very much like God. This is the space I send prayers into, like messages set adrift in bottles.

*

Parents need radical forgiveness. Things happen and sometimes the children are not okay and will never be okay again until we change our definition of what okay looks like. I reckon with this knowledge and try to make sense of why life includes so much pain. For me and for my children. For you and your children.

I am not a perfect parent. Yet, for today, everyone I love is held safely within my arms. Even in my godlessness, I feel this as grace. Days when the babies are not okay are also filled with grace. We are good enough when our children escaped unscathed and good enough in the face of tragedy. Every one of us is irreplaceable in the lives of our children.

I am grateful for my spiritual life, that hardship implicates an opportunity for a richer human experience. I am grateful for the concept of karma, that circumstances beyond our control are pre-determined and timely for the development of our souls. I am grateful for difficult experiences, that they drive me toward greater compassion, open-heartedness, and desire for connection. I am grateful for my faith, the knowing that this hard work of feeling and breathing is worth doing.

In moments when your child is hurting, or worse, the Big Love is there for you. Be strong. Grieve this loss, refocus on what remains, and keep going. At the very toughest crossroads, may you find the courage to feel everything.

And when the pain inside is as deep and wide as any that could be held within a body; then let your skin crack open and let the waters pour forth.

***

Lord Protect My Child

By Bob Dylan

For his age, he’s wise

He’s got his mother’s eyes

There’s gladness in his heart

He’s young and he’s wild

And my only prayer

Is if I can’t be there

Lord, protect my child

As his youth now unfolds

He is centuries old

To see him at play

Makes me smile

No matter what happens to me

No matter what my destiny

Lord, protect my child

While the earth is asleep

You can look at it and weep

Few things you find

Are worthwhile

And though I don’t ask for much

No material things to touch

Lord, protect my child

He’s young and on fire

Full of hope and desire

In a world that’s been raped

Raped and defiled

If I fall along the way

And can’t see another day

Lord, protect my child

There’ll be a time, I here tell

When all will be well

When God and man

Will be reconciled

But until men lose their chains

And righteousness reigns

Lord, protect my child

***

Still snowing

April now. Fat, white flakes swirl, cluster, and gather on the window pane. They coat the car, the driveway, every surface. I’m less than happy about it. I’m less than happy about a lot of things right now.

Forgive me this post. Emotion demands that we go in before we can get through. Feel it; don’t think it. When depression knocks I hate to open that door. Like a homeless cousin, I’m afraid that if I invite depression in it will stay for a long time… but I don’t want it hanging around outside of my door either. I want to be a person who talks about hard things. I am trying to get unstuck.

I’ve been asking people why we feel so down. No end in sight. Boredom. Isolation. Loneliness. Nothing to look forward to. We’ve been living with COVID-19 for a year. You’d think we’d be used to it. Vaccinations are happening; we might start to feel a measure of safety and normalcy. Yet all I have is questions. Can I go inside of stores and restaurants now? Are you going? Will all this new activity come down on my kids? Have you been vaccinated? Can I ask that?

So much has happened since the new year and also so little. Avery is going to bed more easily. The brothers have ten teeth between them. Sleep is precious. I have gone from regretfully ignoring my old dog to unabashedly ignoring my old dog.

Over spring break I traveled out of Alaska; it was my first trip in a long while. For two weeks I enjoyed sunshine, flowers, and family. Avery’s behavior was awesome and it was a nice little vacation from my problems. But now, I’m back.

Back to the stress of waiting. For Avery to outgrow tantrums. For our family to figure out peaceable conflict resolution. Back to another friend long-hauling with Covid. Another friend with cancer and a go-fund-me site. (Why is this the way we fund healthcare in this country?!) No produce in this town. I put some alfalfa seeds in water to sprout on the window ledge. How long will that take?

One of the things I have learned on this becoming-a-better-person journey called parenthood is that chaos is short-lived. When the house blows up with voices, crying, agitation, food on every surface, etc. I don’t panic. Fifteen minutes, I think. It will all be over in 15 minutes. I can buy myself a little time without freaking out but that is my limit. My boundary. My max. If chaos exceeds the time allowed, I crash.

When Covid started, I gave it a year.

March was a marker, but of what? We can no longer look over our shoulder and see where we came from, but visibility ahead is also poor. The horizon holds no promise of resolution.

Even when the threat of this illness has past there will be the social reckoning. So many difficult conversations are left unresolved. Mask-wearing and social distancing added visible fuel to an already mile high fire. We can’t take back what we know.

So, we wait. Even as everything has changed, and with evidence to the contrary, we trust that spring still follows winter.

***