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.}

 

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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madamesouffle.blogspot.com

 

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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Where I End and You Begin

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Not long ago I was on a first date with a nice guy. (We’ve already had our last date, but I’ll get to that later.And if it seems as though I’ve become the Taylor Swift of dating and then writing about it, I feel that. And you’re welcome.)

My date and I were chatting over a few drinks and having a very typical getting-to-know-you type of conversation when he started to describe a sticky situation in his life. It was a little weird and after he finished describing it and how he got into it, etc… He looked at me and smiled and said, “But if I were in a relationship with someone who didn’t approve and asked me to get out of it, I would.”

You could tell he thought that was a pretty smooth, impressive thing to say. And a few years ago, I would’ve thought it was too. Except now I have better boundaries. (Thank you, therapy. I love you. You are the one for me.)

And so instead, I thought, wait what?

Side Note: If the dating scene isn’t a freakin’ messy and bizarre melting pot of bad boundaries and crazy boundaries and no boundaries, I don’t know what is. And admittedly, I have not perfected the art of boundaries, so I’m not throwing stones as much as I’m making observations. But even I knew we had a boundary situation on our hands here.

A Boundary is a definite place where your responsibility ends and another person’s responsibility begins. Boundaries stop you from doing things for others that they should be doing for themselves.

A Boundary prevents you from rescuing someone from the consequences of their destructive behavior that they need to experience in order to grow.

Boundaries help other people understand how you will and will not be treated.

A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect.

I smiled sweetly at my date and said, “You are a grown man. And I’m a grown woman. I would never tell you what to do and you will never tell me what to do. You’ve chosen to be in that situation and that’s cool. But it will never be my job to tell you to get out of it. What I would end up telling you is that it’s not for me, but I wish you well.” (That’s some fine boundary-setting. Well done, Jules!)

Good luck! Godspeed!

Next.

He seemed to be a little confused that I wasn’t swooning over this generous offer to let me dictate his behavior.  But now the idea of that makes me want to run. I have a hard enough time figuring out my own stuff- I don’t want to figure out yours too, buddy.  And why on earth would you want me to?

Fast forward a few weeks and this same nice guy cancelled plans at the last minute twice and stood me up once.

And I’m not the kind of girl who gets stood up twice.

So that was the end of that.

But funny thing, he started calling and texting again recently. And I very nicely told him that the way he operates and communicates is not for me. I like him. He’s a nice guy. But I won’t be treated that way. (More good boundaries. Rock. On.)

Boundaries make it so simple, don’t they? They aren’t meant to be mean or inflexible. They’re meant to keep us safe and keep expectations clear. We teach people how to treat us. And when we’re clear about what we’ll tolerate and what we won’t, it helps both people decide if the relationship will work for them. If it won’t, we can both move on.

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It’s much harder to set boundaries with people we love deeply–Our children. Our partner. Our parents or sibs. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or see people we love suffer. But the truth is, we’re the ones who end up suffering when we fail to put healthy boundaries in place.

I’m getting better at boundaries all the time. And now that I’ve prioritized self-respect in my life, it’s easy to recognize situations that compromise my boundaries.

So how about you? Do you know where you end and someone else begins? If you don’t, there’s no better time to figure it out than now. But I’m not telling you what to do. Because that’s your job, not mine.

BOOM.

 

 

How Does a Widowed and Divorced Single Mom Teach Her Kids About Love?

I always wondered how my kids would feel about their own love lives as they got older. Without a happy, healthy marriage model to watch and learn from, what would  be their takeaway? Will they want to get married some day? Are they jaded about love and relationships? Will they recognize and value real love when they see it and feel it?

And Valentine’s Day has always been a little bit like a litmus test in my own love life. After being widowed and divorced, I haven’t always loved love. And for a while, I kind of hated love. And then after I hated it, I felt cynical about it. I felt snarky and sarcastic. I felt just OVER the whole love thing. Been there. Done that. No thank you.

And then I felt nothing.

But this past year, I did it.

I opened the door.

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I let myself feel something.

And it turns out, feeling something was so much better than feeling  nothing.

And so this what my kids and I are learning, side by side:

Love is a good thing.

Love is good. Real love is good. It’s sweet and tender and kind and fun. It’s taken me a long time to feel this way again. To really believe it. To look at love, to think of love, to hear about love– and feel loving towards it. To want it. To accept it. To embrace it. To smile about it. To stop being afraid of it and pushing it away. Real, true love is a good thing. Love doesn’t stink. Love doesn’t suck. I had to consciously stop playing that record in my head. Relationships that feel like that are not love– they’re something– but they’re not love. Real love is a good thing.

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You know what love is by the way it feels.

Love feels good. When my kids see that I’m peaceful. That I’m happy. That I laugh and smile a lot in my own love relationship, they understand: Love feels good.

And that’s  important.

But they also learn what real love feels like through my relationship with them.

When we have deep conversations about important life stuff and they feel heard and understood, they’re learning what love feels like. When they’re having a rough day and I take time to comfort them and be “in it” with them, they’re learning what love feels like. When I’m   one of us is crabby and short and tired, and we backtrack to apologize and make things right between us, this is what love feels like.

When their feelings are validated and there’s space for them to be who they are and feel what they feel. When we share goofy stories and inside jokes and text funny things to each other. When they get “just because” gifts. When we have dinner together and everyone shares the “Happy and Crappy” from their day.  When they catch my eye during a school concert or sporting event and know I am cheering them on. When we sit in my bed together and quietly read, side by side. When everything goes right or wrong or both, and we are with each other through it all, they’re learning what love feels like.

This is what love feels like. All of it.

I’m no longer going to underestimate my ability to teach my kids about love. I’m no longer going to feel shame that somehow a widowed, divorced single mom can’t successfully teach her kids to fully know and recognize healthy love. I’m not going to feel insecure about it. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it.

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But I do believe in love.

I do.

And if a widowed and divorced single mom can believe in love, her kids can too.

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone Wants to Be Seen and Heard

Last week I read a great article called  The One Question You Should Ask Your Child Tonight   .  And so naturally that night during dinner, I posed it to my girls:

How can I help you feel loved?

 

I had to smile at the certain predictability of my kids– I knew one would think this was a super meaningful discussion and she was happy to be having it while the other would start to act a little goofy and feel uncomfortable at the vulnerability of it all. I gave them a couple options to break the ice and from there it was smooth sailing.

The best part of asking a question like this?

The answers are deliciously surprising and simple.

I feel loved when you call me love names. When you rub my back. When you randomly text me. When you tell stories from when I was a baby. When we go to Starbucks together. When we laugh and joke around. When we get in your bed and read or talk. When you help me decide what to wear.

It turns out the things kids want most are the easiest, most inexpensive luxuries we already possess: Time and attention.

To be seen and heard.

And if you’re a parent, you’ve surely witnessed the acting out that comes from a child who hasn’t been seen or heard deeply enough. They find unhealthy ways to make it happen and force your attention on them.

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It’s a few day later now and in the wake of the tragedy in France, I’ve been dialoguing and debating the refugee crisis online with strangers. During one such conversation, there was one man in particular who was extremely insulting, aggressive and downright mean to everyone. He was so blatantly condescending it almost became comical.

But you begin to wonder about a person who acts so openly hostile to others. And though I was frustrated, it actually made me feel a little sad. Here we were, the lot of us, feeling a little raw and thoughtful and desperately trying to make sense of how to approach such tenuous world affairs–with so much at stake– and this man was being so childish.

And somehow, I thought of the article I had read and I started to wonder…What would make this man feel loved?

I sat wondering if perhaps his entire life he had not felt seen or heard and behaving this way was the only time people paid attention to him. (Because as is common in these situations, the attention unfortunately drifts from the matter at hand to the jackass attacking everyone.)

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Photo Cred: Ed Uthman, “Yes Music in the Amphitheater, 1970

It was a clear illustration to me of what happens when unheard, unseen little people grow up into unseen, unheard big people.

It’s ugly. And harsh. And destructive.

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And so I’m going to ask my kids from time to time what they need to feel loved. And I’m going to ask the older one too, even though he’s out of the house now. Because over the years, things didn’t always go so well around here and I’m not so sure everyone always felt seen and heard.

I’m telling you this because I believe it’s never too late. When you know better, you do better.  It takes courage and vulnerability to ask, but I’m betting the rewards are going to be worth the risk.

And I’m going to believe that it’s healing for parents of any age,

to ask children of any age

how to love them better.  

And I’m sending hope and light and goodness to the mean guy on the Internet.  I hope someone sees you and hears you today, sir. And that it softens your heart and changes your life.