A  Meme That Changed My Life?

Scrolling through Instagram, to escape my kids and my brain (both of which were driving me crazy), I saw a meme that changed my life.

Hold up. Say whaaaat? Yep, I’m for real. I might be exaggerating a wee bit, but it was still important. A friend had posted a meme that was a quote by Mooji, a “spiritual teacher” from Jamaica. It said:

“Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.”

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My own version of that meme

Those words just happened to hit me at the right moment. I could use any cliché here to describe what happened: it clicked, lightbulb moment, “aha” moment. What happened was a profound and real paradigm shift in my thinking.

I am not my thoughts. I am not my feelings. I am not my guilt.

These things are actually separate from me. And they are temporary. If they are visitors (maybe not the more favorable word choice of “guests”), that means they will leave. Eventually.

It’s not as if I’d never done my homework before. I know about retraining your brain by changing your thoughts. I know about cognitive distortions. I know about cognitive behavioral therapy. I have a Bachelors’ degree in Psychology (granted, it’s old); I have listened to professionals; I have read books. I have even read books on this very topic. I have probably even seen almost identical doofy self-help quotes on social media every day for years. I had thought I understood what my brain was doing and how to change it. But somehow, somehow, despite all of that, my brain didn’t actually accept that “feelings are just visitors” until this one stupid (or amazing) meme.

A mom with depression, anxiety, or simply a guilt-prone personality, might see a children’s book lying on the floor at night after the children are in bed. This kind of self-deprecating mom will have some or all of the following thoughts:

“I promised my child I would read that book to him, and I didn’t. He will never trust me if I don’t mean what I say.”

“I don’t read to my children enough. I’m a former teacher; I KNOW how important reading is. What is wrong with me?”

“I can’t keep this house clean to save my life. My husband will think I’m lazy.”

“Why are there always books on the floor? Haven’t I taught my children to respect books? Maybe they never actually see me reading books myself. I’m on my phone too much. Have they even seen me pick up a novel?”

“My husband will be stressed by this mess when he comes home. Why can’t I get it together?”

A mom with a healthier line of thinking – or (let’s be honest) A DAD – will look at that same book and think:

“There is a book on the floor.”

And that’s it. A fact with no blame. Maybe that person would go so far as to put the book away, or make plans to read it to his child tomorrow, but there would be no judgment attached to the thought.

Mr. Okayest is so very good at simply seeing that there is a dang book on the floor. I say that with awe and respect. It’s one of the things I love best about him. He’s factual (so he adds no blame to anything), but simultaneously so loving (because he can factually see where I differ from him, and he can see it without blame). He’s a good example to me, and a huge help to me.

I’m fairly certain I’m a non-judgy person. The older I get, the more gray area I see. The more wiggle room. I am pretty sure I follow “live and let live” and “love your neighbor” and “meet people where they are.” I think I almost always remember that everyone is fighting invisible battles and will do things differently than I will. (I even consulted with my husband to be sure that I really am that kind of person.)

So WHY OH WHY do I judge myself so harshly? I’m realizing that every single thought and feeling about myself comes with 1) judgment, and 2) directing it inward. Making it a part of my personality.

Instead of saying “I’m so anxious”, I’m now going to say, “I have a temporary feeling of anxiety.” It is not me, and it is not permanent. Instead of telling myself “I am a bad mother”, I will try to reframe it and think, “I have a feeling of inadequacy that will pass.” It is not me, and it is not permanent.

Now that my brain had finally assimilated all that, I began my research anew. With new lenses on. I went back to the books, information from professionals, journals, articles, and read many of them again, with a new understanding of how to really apply it to my own self. While reading an article about how to help children with their anxiety, I learned that you can teach your children that thoughts are like a train. Each thought or feeling or emotion is a train car. They are not actually YOU. They are passing by. You can watch them pass, and you can do so without putting any blame on those train cars.

I have actually been applying this simplistic children’s advice to myself. I had to start practicing when the children were in bed, or in preschool. I was not able to retain the self-control, or time, to practice it when they were around and demanding things in triplicate – and I didn’t want to set myself up for failure. I am not a visual person (I like words – duh), so imagining a train passing by whenever I recognized a negative or anxious feeling is not natural for me. It takes a lot of effort. But, to my surprise, it was actually working. I found that often I had to picture my stupid negative train slowing to a stop at my station, because the feelings wouldn’t budge for a while. But remembering that those feelings were separate from me, no matter how long they parked there, was a revelation.

I practiced this visualization and thought retraining (oh, semi-nice pun!) for about two weeks before I was actually able to stop a full-blown anxiety attack in its tracks. (Ohhh, super nice pun!) I left the kids to their Legos and went to my room and shut the door. (I could not have done this two years ago. I am able to steal moments away now that the twins are four and not constantly in mortal danger.) I sat in my happy papasan chair and stared out my window. I slowed my breathing and pictured my stupid train. I repeated my stupid meme quote. “Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.” I did it. I de-escalated myself. I waited until I was really sure of that fact, and then I went back to my children.

At a recent adoption conference, I heard an adult adoptee (who is also a rapper) say that if we are caring for foster children, traumatized children, adopted children, special needs children, then we have a responsibility to get it together mentally in order to help them. He, of course, mentioned the ubiquitous oxygen mask analogy, which I have often heard and thought I had understood. But, for some reason, the way he phrased it changed everything. He said something like, “If you are the kind of person who is willing to care for children of trauma, then you are probably the kind of person who doesn’t think about herself. Who doesn’t put herself first. So I’m going to frame this from that perspective. Taking care of yourself and your own mental health IS being selfless, because it enables you to care for the needs of your child. You have to get it together yourself in order to BE SELFLESS enough to care for that kid.”

Straight into my heart and leaking out my eyes.

The oxygen mask analogy never really sat well with me, because, seriously, I don’t know if I can even FIND my oxygen mask. (Also, I am wary of the “saviorism” mentality that many white adoptive parents have without knowing it. I do not believe I am “selfless” for having adopted. Nor do I assume that my child is “better off with me.” I benefited from this man’s words because he was helping me figure out how to best help my child.) But this adult Black male adoptee who had been to prison and to college was telling me that taking the time to work out my own sh!t was for the good of my child. … And somehow it sunk in this time. Somehow, even though I may have heard it a hundred different times in a hundred different ways, and even though I had thought I had understood it, my brain and heart were actually finally ready to assimilate it.

Why am I ready now? Why is years of already-gathered information suddenly resonating? Maybe it’s because the kids are older, and I am actually able to take those five minutes to myself in my bedroom while they play Legos. Maybe it’s because my anxiety is already more controlled with professional help. Maybe it’s because I’m not in emergency mode anymore. Maybe it’s because I am being blessed by a higher power. Maybe because I can see, as my kids get older, how my mental health does – and will – affect them. Maybe it’s because I’m freaking sick of living like that.

***

The man who spoke to us was SaulPaul (who has given TED talks before). When he was done making me cry, he got out his guitar and sang all of us adoptive parents a song he wrote about his grandmother who adopted him. It’s called “Mama” and you can hear it here. 

 

 

And a heartfelt thank you to the friend who originally posted that meme… you know who you are and I love you.

Why Is “Postpartum Anxiety” A Thing Now? And What Do We Do?

Ah, okay, there’s a name for that now. I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology (granted, it’s old) and I had never heard the term “postpartum anxiety” before recently. Where did this come from? Everyone knows about postpartum depression, but why was no one talking about the postpartum anxiety? When I type the word “postpartum”, the suggested next words are “depression” or “hemorrhage”. Not anxiety.

I was at a baby shower recently and the words “postpartum anxiety” passed through the room like a hot potato. From mom to mom to mom. These are my friends, and we had no idea that each other was suffering.

What is going on?!

I didn’t feel any of these feelings during high school or college. I managed to graduate cum laude without getting too overwhelmed or ever hearing this kind of negative self-talk. I managed five years of a teaching career without hearing this crap. I could handle 25 five-year-olds every day for ten months out of a year, and only feel normal amounts of tiredness and frustration. Yes, those things were incredibly challenging and a huge amount of work, but I didn’t shut down.

This anxiety is all new to me, since motherhood began.

How many of you mothers out there are rocking in this same unsteady boat? Is it new for you too? Why now? Are we poisoning ourselves and our brain chemistry? What is to blame? Ourselves? Pregnancy? Regular daily situational stress? Environmental toxins? Pesticides? Food dyes? An overabundance of information?  The fact that modern parents are not able to let their ten-year-old walk home from the playground without getting Child Protective Services called? Pinterest? (Just kidding. You know Okayest Mom is not a Pinterest mom.)

No one told me before I started infertility treatments that women with successful IVF  have higher rates of depression and anxiety. No one told me before my twins were born that mothers of multiples have higher rates of depression and anxiety. Some studies even show that new adoptive mothers have higher rates of depression. We all know that people who cheat death like I did have some mental repercussions later. And it’s probably obvious that almost all mothers of special needs children have higher rates of “psychological distress.”

Despite the fact that I was not quite cognizant of all of this crap, I figured it all out on my own as I bowed under the pressures. I wrote about being haunted by successful IVF a while ago. And I have never subscribed to the belief that “adoption is rainbows and unicorns.” (The truth is that adoption is extremely complex – and involves walking with your child through his grief.)

With all of these complicated family dynamics under my roof and inside my head and on my shoulders, it’s really no surprise that I have some really really bad days. Days when I can’t handle my life. Days when I feel like a bad person. A wrong person. And, yes, days when I feel like a bad mother. I am really bad at a lot of things. Potty training twins. Growing blueberries. Unpacking anything ever. Turning down the minivan radio.

And then I have some normal days, like today. Today I reread a hopeless and detailed (unpublished) post that I had written during a bad day. It made me feel so sad. Not sorry for myself – just plain old sad. Since my brain seems to be thinking clearly today as I look back on that post, I started making a mental list of all the things that I actually do right. My list was kind of beautiful. Everything on it was something I do as a mother, just naturally, without comparison to others and without force. My list made me smile, and I realized I needed to write it down.

I needed to write that list down and read it on every single bad day. I wanted to be able to read my own words and believe myself on a bad day. Here is my list.

Motherhood things I do well (and need to reread on a bad day):

  • Having Beastie Boys dance parties with my kids
  • Saying “no” when needed
  • Saying “yes” as often as possible
  • Going outside with my kids in all types of weather
  • Making exercise a priority for all of us
  • Baking homemade organic bread often (for fun!)
  • Making homemade organic wheat pancakes from scratch every Saturday and a homemade pumpkin pie every Sunday
  • Loving their father
  • Checking the pollen count every day for my seriously allergic son, and making him change his clothes and wiping him down all over when he comes inside
  • Running a food-dye-free kitchen when I realized one of my sons reacts to dyes
  • Driving to another state to see a specialist on a regular basis for one son
  • Fighting tooth and nail to get services for one son (and then listening to this ridiculous 80s Journey song on the way home while pumping my fist in the air)
  • Snuggling and kissing and hugging my children as often as they allow
  • Teaching my children that they are the bosses of their bodies and can say no to my hugs (sigh)
  • Taking them to church every Sunday (okay, most Sundays)
  • Letting them see me preparing my Sunday School lesson, and then teaching them a 3 minute shortened version of it every Monday for Family Night
  • Teaching them to respect their father
  • Making them kale smoothies (they don’t eat their vegetables, but they sure drink them, and I’m okay with that)
  • Keeping my kids away from electronics
  • Getting my own exercise so I can be healthy for them (and keep up with them – almost)
  • Almost always controlling the volume of my voice
  • Seeing the grandparents and great-grandparents a lot
  • Learning about my own white privilege, and trying to change that for my son
  • Taking classes about race and transracial adoption to try to do better
  • Making sure my kids know what a record player is
  • Living by my favorite parenting quote: “Give them time to explore and learn about the feel of grass, and the wiggliness of worms.” (by Marjorie Hinckley)

Again, this list is not here to compare to your good things. I am writing it to remind myself what *I* do right, and hope that it can outweigh my shortcomings. If you suffer from the same crap I do, make a list for yourself of your good things – the things you do effortlessly and for which you forget to take credit.

Make a list for yourself. Give yourself credit. Reread it. Reach out to other moms on your bad days. Remind your friends what things they do right. Let’s do this together.

Pioneer Women Probably Didn’t Wonder About That: A Hierarchy of Needs

Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna cry because I didn’t do that homemade play-doh project I was going to do. Or because my kid doesn’t know how to play hide-and-seek or climb a tree. Or because I haven’t played any classical music for them in a long time. Or because I haven’t made sure they know who Bambi is. Or because I haven’t made that blueberry smoothie in the blender yet.

You know what? All those sentences have “I” in them. If I were a pioneer woman, like my ancestors, I think I would be so consumed with hard work all day long that there would be no “I” in any of my sentences about my children. I would be working to make sure they were fed, clothed, and (sometimes) clean. Well, guess what? That IS what I do all day long.

Despite the fact that this modern life provides so much mothering help –like washing machines, dishwashers, DVD players, and baby swings (wow, how did they survive without those?) – my mothering life is still about the fulfilling the basic needs: feeding, clothing, and cleaning my children. I spend as much time preparing a meal as I do feeding it to them as I do cleaning it up. Three (four) small children make an enormous mess as they are learning to eat. I have to clean every surface of the dining room after they eat. Then I have to clean the kitchen.

Do you think this leaves much time for me to worry about whether or not they are being mentally stimulated? I practice “benign neglect”, partially out of necessity and partially out of choice. My pioneer ancestors, and every other kind of ancestor, probably practiced benign neglect because they were busy surviving. If that pioneer mother had to knit every sock by hand, do you think she had time to worry if her kid mispronounced his “f’s”? If that pioneer mother had to haul water from a stream, do you think she had time to worry if her kid ate enough vegetables that day? If that pioneer mother had to keep a fire burning all day, do you think she had time to worry if her kid doesn’t know what sound an elephant makes? (What does it make?)

Do you think that pioneer mother loved her children any less?

My psychology degree comes in handy sometimes. I often think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that physiological needs have to be met first – before any higher needs can be met. If our needs are a pyramid, then bodily needs are the base. Water, food, and sleep are basic human functions that have to happen. Next up the pyramid comes “safety”, where a person feels secure and safe in his body, home, and family. In the middle of the pyramid, there are “love/belonging” and “esteem”. Not until the very top of the pyramid do we see “self-actualization”, which covers creativity, learning, and even acceptance of facts. In my education classes, we were taught that our students could not learn if they were hungry. I have fed children in the back of my classroom from my own pocket.

As for my own children, I often think about how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applies. I am busy all day long, just meeting the base of the pyramid for the kids: basic human needs like food, water, sleep, and oh, poop. (No kidding: “excretion” is on there.) And between those chores and emergencies and necessities, I squeeze in as much of the “love/belonging” and “esteem” as I can. We are hugging and kissing and touching. I make time at every diaper change to poke their bellies, kiss their lips, look into their eyes, see how much their eyelashes grew that day. It is shamefully easy never even to make eye contact with a baby (two babies) during a diaper change. I can be up to my elbows in poop and forget that there is someone attached to that bum. Mothers of multiples – or maybe all mothers – have to work hard to slip in those moments that make a child feel special as often as possible. I put my hand under their shirts and stroke their backs whenever I can, just so they can feel my skin, if only for a second. I am constantly trying to find ways to meet their “love/belonging” needs and their “esteem” needs.

But what about their higher needs? What about the self-actualization? What about that project I never got to start with them? What about that game I never played with them? Well, unless it’s reading a book or going outside (I almost never say “no” to those two things), they’re going to have to figure it out themselves.

I trust that by leaving my children alone while I tend to basic needs, that they will naturally gain the higher thinking processes on the Hierarchy of Needs. They are learning about give-and-take while they negotiate toys with each other. They are learning about space and time and pain and risk as they scale and descend from the couch. They are learning fine motor skills and sharing as each twin slides one rainboot on his foot.

I provide the base. They’re going to climb to the top. Maybe literally.