A Thank You Letter to my Toughest Kid

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I never thought I’d write you, of all people, a thank you note. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? After all, for what on earth do I have to thank you? If there’s a debt of gratitude here, isn’t it from you to me?

But I’m reading “Field Notes on the Compassionate Life- A Search for the Soul of Kindness,” by Marc Ian Barasch, and like any book worth the paper it’s printed on, with every page I am propelled into an emotional tug of war.

“Soren Kierkegaard said we think a person who is loved owes a debt of gratitude to the one who loves them. There is an expectation that it should be repaid in kind, on installment, “reminiscent,” he says sarcastically, “of an actual bookkeeping arrangement.” Instead, he turns the whole thing on its head: “No, the one who loves runs into debt; in feeling himself gripped by love, he feels this as being in an infinite debt. Amazing!”

Was Kierkegaard onto something? Is it I who owes you for the privilege it has been to love you? For the way that love has transformed me? Shaped me? Whittled me down to the core of my personhood? Dared me to look in the mirror and see myself for who I really am– flaws and imperfections included– so that I could fully understand who YOU really are and all the ways we are more or less the same? So I could see how similar our struggles really are? So I could humbly take note of all the things I want to change about you- that I pray you outgrow- and clearly see they are the very things I hope and pray for myself?

Like a hurricane, you have torn through my life at times, upsetting all that was so meticulously thought out and designed for my comfort and enjoyment. My ease. You force me to regroup. Re-think. Re-configure. Your selfishness forces my hand to be more generous in word and in deed. Your frequent lack of concern for my feelings forces me to see all the ways I, too, am selfish and self-centered and want the universe to revolve around me.

Your strong-willed spirit requires so much more from me than I knew I had.  Your absolute insistence to do things your way instead of mine constantly reminds me that I do not own you. You belong to yourself and you need to live in a way that makes sense to you, even when I don’t understand, even when it would never work for me.

You would not let me be a lazy mom (if such a thing exists). You’ve demanded I be present. Involved. Aware. Creative. Much more thoughtful. Smarter. Clever. Strategizing and learning to cope with what I, in my piety, have deemed a difficult person.

For all the circumstances you dragged me into involuntarily that required me to get over myself; That obligated me to learn how to circle the wagons in loyalty even when my heart was breaking in humility, thank you. For compelling me to dig deeper and become the best version of myself as a mom, a woman, person, just by being who you are, thank you.  Because of you, I’ve seen the very worst and very best of what I’m able to be. Do. Overcome. Persevere through in order to give you more. More. More. More. Thank you.

You see, the other children are easy. Rule followers. Quick to listen. Quick to act. Wanting to please. They require so little of me, really. I can relax around them.  But not you. Your struggles. Your needs. Your unwillingness to just do things my way, dammit will not let me rest. They have driven me crazy with anger and frustration and grief and made me search. Search, search, search.

You have kept me awake at night, gripped with fear. Whispering prayers in desperation. Prayers for you, prayers for me. Holy utterings that one of us will somehow get this right. This growing. This learning. This becoming. And somehow, even though I am the parent and you are the child, it’s happening together. It’s happening to both of us at once. While I am trying to teach you, you are teaching me. And though I would not have chosen it to be like this– while I would have rather taken the easy road, it’s the difficulties here that are refining both of us.

And I have finally accepted that the toughest chapters of my life have always. Always. Always been followed by the best chapters of my life.  And that includes the pages with your name on them. And your name is on all of them.

I’ve always believed each child should secretly suspect they are their mother’s favorite; That I’ve done such a thorough job favoring each one of you, NONE of you would believe this is about you.

So if you’re reading this and do imagine it to be you? Thanks, kid. I owe you.

 

{Looking for another Mother’s Day read? Check out The Mosaic of Motherhood from a few years back.}

 

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Suck it up, Buttercup

 

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Photo Cred: HAIR, by John Barrett

She was crying as we pulled up to the school and she didn’t want to get out of the car. My daughter was having an “off” morning and I was trying to decide on the best course of action. Is there a worse way for a mom or dad to start the day than with a crying kid who doesn’t want to go to school? I was stuck in the frustrating in-between of wanting to push her out the door so I could get on with my day and wanting to crawl back in bed and snuggle her close, rub her back and shelter her from whatever was making her upset.

“Are you going? What are we doing here?”

“Do you think you can you suck it up and make it through your day? If I’m going to get a call from the nurse in 5 minutes, please just save me the trip back to school and we’ll turn around right now.”

” I know you don’t feel 100%– but you don’t have to feel 100% to make it through the day.” (Hell, I make it through all kinds of days hovering around 35% or so.)

Yeah. These are things I said. But if you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure you’ve said them too.

We circled the Drop-Off loop one more time while she was wiping the tears and checking her mascara in the visor mirror, all the while my heart complexly interwoven with impatience and heartbreak. I knew it was not her best day. I knew she was upset. And I knew she was upset with me, too. She thought I was being hard on her and that was making everything worse.

As we pulled up to the doors, my eyes were watching the clock. I knew in one more minute she’d be late and I’d have to cop a lame excuse note, but the tears were still coming.

Ticking clock. Cars behind me. Buses lined up to move. What do I do? Do I make my normally cheerful little freshman walk into school crying? Do I drive us back home? On any given day, I’ve done both.

Today? I made her get out.

“I love you. Take a deep breath. You can do this. I know it’s not your favorite thing right now. It’s not mine either. But in just a little bit, you’ll be distracted and moving on with your day. Go. So you’re not late. Hop out.”

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Many a day I’ve allowed less than sick kids stay home. Many a day I’ve coddled kids who didn’t feel up to doing whatever the day required of them. And the more time goes by, I’m not sure it was the right decision. In the moment, it was the easiest decision, but the easiest decision and the right decision are unfortunately not usually the same thing.

When you’re trying to raise up kids into strong-minded and responsible adults, it becomes more clear on the daily that you’re not doing them any favors when you allow them to lie down under the weight of their little world. It’s not reality. It’s not how life works. And it’s a mentality that won’t serve them well– or at all– in the Grown Up world.

A friend recently introduced me to the famous acronym, MTXE, coined and embraced by former Wichita State head coach Gene Smithson during his tenure from 1978-86, which stands for “Mental Toughness Extra Effort,” a mindset that helped the Shockers compile a 155-81 record with two Missouri Valley Conference titles and a trip to the Elite Eight over a span of eight years. I’ve started using it with my kids and there are days I want to write it on my own hand as a reminder.

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I think of my own life experiences, of things that have required Mental Toughness and Extra Effort in my own life (widowed at 26 with 2 small children, a tough marriage, a tough divorce, an accident resulting in a few broken bones and surgeries, to name a few);  Of the endless days I’ve lived through compartmentalizing personal pain, anxiety or fear so that I could fulfill obligations and responsibilities and be a dependable mother, employee, daughter, friend. I want to know I’m raising my kids with the mental toughness and fortitude that difficult life- or even just DAILY life- experiences require; That there is a way to be both aware of your feelings and in control enough of them as well, so you can face the day regardless.

I’ll be thinking of my daughter all day, aware that she’s struggling. And if the school calls and I need to pick her up, of course that’s okay. But I still won’t be sorry I made her get out of the car. And someday, even if it’s not today, neither will she.

 

 

Your Kids are Watching You. Man Up.

Yesterday was a bad day. It didn’t start out that way, but at some point in the afternoon, it slid sideways.  Kid issues, pain from a jacked up back, the death of someone we know- by dinner time, I was done. DONE. I felt irritable and sad and just off.

And boy did my kids feel it.

I was short. Impatient. Annoyed. Quiet. They’re not used to that version of me- at least not anymore- and it was awful. By the time we sat down to eat, there was silence. And so on top of everything else, Mom Guilt over the atmosphere I had created was washing over me heavily. After dinner, I laid down with a heating pad on my back and texted each kid an apology.

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jaznajalil.com Things Mums Do…

That might sound lame, but that is definitely how we handle some things around here and it works for us. Sometimes it’s a little easier to say exactly how we feel when it’s not face to face. Plus, everyone scattered after dinner, no doubt, to escape me.

My kids were forgiving and gracious and understanding and I’m grateful. And as I went to bed early to put us all out of our misery, I promised myself, “I’ll do better tomorrow.”

Here’s the thing: It’s not that there’s no room for us as parents to be human; of course there is. Actually, it’s important that our kids see us feeling and see us working through some of our stuff  (when it’s appropriate), but it was impressed upon me for the millionth time: My mood and attitude sets the tone for everyone- and it’s not a job I take lightly.

If I’m happy, they feel it and they’re happy, too. If I’m sad, they feel it and they’re concerned.  If I’m mad, they feel it and they don’t like it. If I’m worried, they feel it and it makes them anxious. If I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, they see it and they take note. When I’m proud of them, they stand a little taller, work a little harder.

You get the point. And I know you see it in your own house.

Man, that’s a lot of power. And a LOT of responsibility.

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And so when I woke up this morning, I knew I needed to regroup before the day got underway.  I made coffee, wrote in my gratitude journal, prayed for myself, for them, for all of us on this journey together. I looked over some meditations to strengthen and encourage myself and basically re-center myself in goodness and positivity. And it worked. I woke the youngest and as we sat at the table while she ate breakfast, we talked and laughed the way we always do and I knew she was relieved I was feeling better today.

So I want to tell all the other Mamas and Daddies out there today: Regroup. Do whatever it takes. Make whatever changes you need to, big or little. Get counseling. Get medication. Get time away. Get a hobby.

Your kids need the best and brightest version of yourself.

They need you to man up. They need you to find a way to push through the bullshit of life like a champ. They’re watching you and taking their cues from you. And they’re modeling much of their own behavior after YOU.

There is no excuse. There is honestly no excuse. My back still hurts. Today will bring the usual crap any day brings. But the sun is shining and today’s a new day. I’m here and I’m ready and so are they. Let’s do this.

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Taking the Long View

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One of my kids recently had to do something really hard. They had to go make something right that they had kind of screwed up. This is no easy feat, no matter how old you are. Making a mistake is so much easier than making amends. But making amends is so powerful. So much better. So freeing.

And so as my kid was going out the door to go do this thing– and just DREADING it, I looked them in the eye and said, “You are GOOD. YOU. Are. A good, good soul. You’ve got this.”

And then I cried at my desk. Tears of gratitude. Tears of compassion and humility and overwhelming love. Motherhood, personhood, is so raw and exhausting at times.

And what I’m learning right now is that it takes decades to build a person. Decades.

We expect so very much from ourselves and from our kids. And yes, it’s good to have standards and expectations; of course we should. But our character, our true selves, our best selves, our real selves…those things are built over a lifetime. An entire lifetime. And yet we expect things from each other that we just haven’t had the time and life experience to develop.

 

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Rialto’s Drift (USA) by Patrick Marson Ong

As a mom, this moves me deeply and challenges me to see my children in a different light. I expect so much of them. Self awareness and emotional intelligence are a high priority for me personally, but at 43, I’m just barely there. And it’s hard, conscious work all the time. I’m not sure how I can possibly expect the people in my house who have the distinct disadvantage of less time and less life experience (and let’s be honest- less therapy) to be even close to that.

So I’m learning to take the long view. Nobody needs to be perfect right now. Or tomorrow. Or next week. (Or quite frankly, next month or next year. Mercy.) Nobody needs to get it all right, right now. We need to keep stumbling forward. Making tiny strides and picking each other up with lots of empathy towards how hard it is to grow up and adult. Lots of forgiveness. Lots of grace. Lots of Love. Lots of acceptance. Lots of quiet conversations about who we are and who we want to be and if our actions today are helping us get there.  Lots of laughter at ourselves and with each other as we’re  trying to figure it all out. Over decades. Over a lifetime.

Because here’s the thing about the short view: It’s incomplete. It’s underdeveloped. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s unfair. It’s unforgiving. It’s unrealistic. It’s impossible. It’s an exercise in frustration– with ourselves and with each other. It’s harsh and uninformed.

It’s true the longview takes a long time– a lifetime– But since that’s all we’ve got, I’m going to stick around for it because I can see in the distance it’s going to be beautiful.

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A Reminder to All the Mamas Everywhere: You Gotta Keep Doing You.

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Lipstick and Mustache

Recently when my youngest daughter had a day off from school, I asked her what she wanted to do and gave her some options~

Me: “We could go to a pumpkin patch or cider mill. Go shopping? To lunch? Is there a movie you want to see?”

Her: “Maybe I’ll go to a movie with a friend.”

Me: Blank stare. Long pause. Hard swallow. Fake smile. “Great! Yes! Great! What a fun idea!”

Me, internally: WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT? Oh? Why, you ask? BECAUSE I THOUGHT MAYBE IT WOULD BE FUN TO DO SOMETHING TOGETHER. Jerk.

Man. I’m not gonna lie. My feelings were hurt big time. But she’s 13. And as much fun as we have together, (although apparently I’m having more fun than she is ) it’s totally normal and appropriate for her to want to spend time with her friends instead of her mom.

Whatever.

But it was a sharp reminder:

Mama needs to keep cultivating her own life.

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I’ve got 3 kiddos, two of them technically legal adults already, and Little Miss Smarty Pants.

The nest is getting dangerously close to empty which inspires a guttural, emotional cry of~

They don’t really need me anymore!

(FIST PUMP!)

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  They don’t really need me anymore…

             (TOTAL DESPAIR…)


Nothing is more thrilling than watching your kids grow and develop into these amazing, separate human beings, complete with their own lives and friends and interests.

But nothing is also more desperate and wrenching than realizing your days as Full-Time Mama are dwindling.

{For single moms, I think this can be an even greater challenge. We’re not rekindling a marriage or reconnecting with a partner. It’s us. We’ve got ourselves.And it’s equally exciting and terrifying.}

So Mamas everywhere–this is not new information–But here’s your reminder:

You gotta keep doing you.

There is more to life than the kids. There is more to you than motherhood. And if motherhood has swallowed up the entirety of who you are and completely suffocated who you used to be, please go back and find the girl you were before you had kids.

What did she love? What lit her up?

What made her eyes and heart glow with life and enthusiasm?

What will bring her sexy back??

If you can’t remember, find new things. Join or start a book club. Get back to the gym or find a walking buddy. Take a class. Learn something brand new. Follow any little spark of curiosity burning inside you.

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Pink Lemonade Design

But do these things NOW, while the birds are still in the nest.

 So when they DO leave (or you know, want to go to the movies with friends instead of you), you already have your jam. You know what you like. You have things to do. You have options.

But doing all of this isn’t just about you. It’s about your kids learning to see you as a whole person, with a whole personality— not as just a one-dimensional Mom character.

Kids should not grow up thinking they are the center of the universe.

Kids should grow up thinking there is a universe that pre-dates them and they are joining in and becoming a part of it.

When my girls watch me follow my own passions and do activities that have nothing to do with them, it frees them to keep pursuing their own interests and hobbies. It silently gives them permission to be themselves and do their own thing.

I never want my kids to feel responsible for my happiness. Their hearts cannot bear the burden of trying to fill something in me that was never meant to be filled by them (or any other person for that matter).

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I remind myself on the daily: Happiness is an inside job. 

My happiness is MY job.

And for now, their happiness is part of my job, too.

But it’s never too early for them to learn how to make THEIR own happiness

THEIR job, as well.


As it turned out, my daughter ended up spending her day off with me. We saw a movie, did a little shopping and a good time was had by all.

In my heart, my first choice will always be to spend time with my kids. But my second choice will always be me. So that when they come to me and say, “I’ve already got plans. Do you mind?”

I’ll smile and say from the bottom of my heart, “So do I.”

Cupcakes and Dance Parties Just for Showing Up

I recently caught up with one of my oldest and dearest friends and not surprisingly, we spent a good deal of time talking about our kids. She is an amazing mom, and it’s no surprise that her kids are all doing super amazing things. No. Seriously. SUPER amazing.  As the conversation continued, I could feel myself starting to get an icky feeling inside. I was starting to compare myself to her. And as soon as we wrapped things up and I got in my car, the tears were caught in my throat.

Right away, Logic told me, “This is ridiculous. You are ridiculous. You have had COMPLETELY different lives and paths. There is NO WAY you can possibly start doing this to yourself.”

Logic is an insensitive A-hole. Logic clearly did not just hear everything I heard.

Because my heart wasn’t having it. My heart was having a teeny tiny meltdown. If there’s one thing a mom really wants to know, it’s that she’s doing a good job. And in that moment, I was starting to doubt myself.

If you’ve been around here any length of time then you already know some of my blog topics repeat themselves. And you also know they repeat themselves because apparently it takes me a long time to learn some of life’s lessons. Possibly longer than the Average Bear. We don’t know why this is. And we don’t exactly know who the hell this Average Bear is, except that my dad has been comparing he and I my entire life and it would seem that I always come out ahead.

And so I am still learning about my worth. As a woman and as a mom. And how I measure that worth. And who else I allow to measure that worth. Because not everybody should be allowed to.

Fast forward a few weeks to today…

It’s been a really positive, really satisfying Mama Week here. One kid has an article in today’s Buffalo News. Again. She went to a Buffalo Bandit’s game and made all of the arrangements ahead of time to get behind-the-scenes access to players and personnel. She rocked it.

Another kid has been going to school softball tryouts all week and just found out she made the team. We LOVE all things baseball in this family– and now softball, too– so it’s a big deal.

College kid is alive and well. And I know this because when I texted him and asked if he is Alive and Well (also known as the A & W Text),  he responded “YES”. He’s going to class and playing baseball and working and paying his bills. And happy. Bless his heart. Seriously.

Huge happy mama sigh of relief and satisfaction.

But the thought occurred to me, as I was lying awake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, what if none of these things were true?

What if there WASN’T an article in today’s paper? Either because it didn’t meet the publication standards, or because my kid never followed through on what she needed to do to make it happen? What would that mean?

What if my other kid didn’t make the team? What if she just wasn’t good enough? What then?

And what if College kid WASN’T going to class and taking care of business?

What would all of that mean for me as a mom? For my self-worth? For my Motherhood Job Review?

Sometimes people in our world can be pretty harsh critics of our parenting choices, but I’m not sure anyone is harder on us than ourselves. And I think almost DAILY, we’re tempted to compare ourselves and/or our kids to other parents and kids, just to see if we’re doing this whole thing semi-decently.

And so as I lay there this morning, I knew I needed to remind myself: If none of these things had happened, I am still doing a good job. If none of these things EVER happen again, I am still showing up and doing a good job. And so are my kids.

As exciting as these accomplishments are. As proud as they make me, I want to keep emphasizing who we are becoming over what we are doing and achieving. I want to keep learning and teaching and modeling healthy relationships. Kindness. Love. Acceptance. Tolerance. Generosity of spirit. Goodness and grace.

If all we ever do is keep showing up and being brave, even when it’s hard and scary and we’re not sure how the whole thing is going to turn out, you better believe we will still keep celebrating with cupcakes and dance parties.

And if it turns out somebody gets their name in the paper or we hit a few home runs along the way, that will be pretty cool, too.

Making Space for Love

FullSizeRender (2)Today’s blog is a re-post from earlier this year, in honor of the baby who inspired it. She’s 13 today. A gorgeously fresh 13.  She was a baby I wasn’t sure I was ready for after so much loss. Baby Number 3. And then when she finally got here, I am overheard on the video–my voice hoarse and strained from labor–in total disbelief: “It’s a GIRL? A GIRL??” What? All along I had thought her to be a boy. I sort of thought I wanted a boy. But instead, she turned out to be everything I didn’t know I wanted. My joy baby. She is all the best parts of me, only better. Her wit, her style, her humor, her sarcasm. She makes me laugh hard, every single day. I can’t believe she’s 13 today, but it’s hard to be sad because she just keeps becoming more magical…right before my eyes.

And as I’m typing this, said child literally just came in my room, looked at herself in the mirror, declared, “I am a mini you.” Smiled, and walked out. I should be so lucky.

Happy Birthday, Smush. Thanks for making life so fun.


I should’ve been resting, but everyone knows a hospital is no place for rest. My brand new pink tiny bundle of joy lay tightly swaddled beside me in the clear acrylic nursery crib. And even though I most certainly did feel all of the sweet and tender feelings a new mom is supposed to, there was something else roiling inside I wasn’t expecting:

Fear.

Fear of not having enough love for 3 kids.

Fear of there not being enough of me to go around.

Fear of my two older kids being cheated out of getting their needs met.

Fear of just not enough.

And that was it. Between the exhaustion and post-pregnancy hormones, the tears started falling and wouldn’t stop. I lie there in the dark with my hours-old baby girl and sobbed, knowing sleep wouldn’t come until I understood how it was all going to work.

And in the middle of the night, in my WAY overly emotional state, I remember thinking I had discovered the keys to the kingdom: We’re created with an infinite capacity to love. And when new people — babies we birth and babies we adopt, step-children and new family members, new friends and lovers and neighbors and co-workers, fellow travelers who were previous strangers — somehow make their way into our lives,

Our hearts expand and we make space for more love.

That’s it.

There’s no competition.

It’s not a tight squeeze or an ill fit or a just barely made it.

There’s no shortage or rationing.

We’re all in.

There’s room for everybody.

Our hearts expand and love makes space.

How small-minded and silly to think maybe my heart wouldn’t be big enough and strong enough and soft enough to love all three of my babies at once; To think there was a limit to my heart’s capacity.

But to be honest, I didn’t just think this way about babies.  I thought this about the rest of my love life, too. At one time or another, we’ve all experienced a love that made us feel as though this were it– we never would or could feel love like this again. And maybe we didn’t want to. (Widowed and divorced over here…remember?)

But wouldn’t that be so sad? To think love was so limited and exclusive? (A year ago, I would’ve said no. That’s not sad. That’s awesome. Love can go fly a kite or play in traffic.) Yet I realize everyday now that over the course of a lifetime filled with hundreds and thousands of people and experiences on our journey’s way, our hearts expand and love makes space. We have the ability to love an infinite number of people with infinite types of love. We never run out. The well never runs dry. Somehow, there is an indeclinable source.

I know, I know, I know. This from the same girl who, a year ago, wasn’t sure she still believed in love. This from the same girl who, last Valentine’s Day, declared herself her OWN Valentine. But as life (and love) would have it, this past year the people around me, both old and new, poured more love into my life than I ever would’ve imagined. And in spite of my weathered and worn out rose-colored glasses and snarky commentaries on love, my heart expanded and love made space.

And so Happy Valentine’s Day to you. I hope you can look back on this past year of your life too, and see just how much love is all around you–just how much space there is for love. And the good news is, there’s still room for more.