Marking The Year That Changed My Life

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I’ve been mulling this post over for at least a week. How do I address the year that changed everything? What can I say to even begin to do it justice? I probably won’t, but I will try. There are some things in life that are so earth-shattering, so groundbreaking, that you mark them by before the thing and after the thing. You can remember your life before them. You can even look back with fondness, but you can never, never go back to the way it was. This year was that year in my life. 2018 will forever mark that before and after.

I have been called brave for standing up to someone who took advantage of me. I have had women open up and share their own “me too” stories that they do not feel able to expose publicly. I don’t know how I feel about that honor. The truth is that I didn’t feel brave; I felt desperate. My life had become riddled with minefields that were no longer avoidable, and they were tripping in our marriage and home life every time we turned around. I needed out of the almost constant adrenaline fest of fear and insecurity. Going public was the only way I saw, and we took it.

There have been many times over this year that I have wondered if it was worth it. I vividly remember falling apart in the arms of my daughter’s future other-mother-in-law when she came to look at my girl’s foot that was hurting yet again. See, she had chronic sprains, and we were afraid that she had maybe broken it this time. Except, my life had been utter chaos for six months at that point, and things like renewing our insurance had fallen through the cracks. Which meant that I didn’t even have the resources that particular day to take my girl to the doctor. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I did take her, I did sort out the insurance, and she did get the care she needed, but I was so deeply aware in that moment how much of a price we had all paid, and I felt completely and utterly broken by that fact.

I have seven kids, and I truly hope that they either do look up to me or will come to as they become adults. But, having other people see me as representative of something bigger than myself is new, different, humbling. The truth is that my life is largely quite boring. I’m a homebody – a private person, even. I sew. I make soap. I raise my kids. I try to be a good neighbor and friend and not put my foot in my mouth too terribly often. (I don’t always succeed – ask my friends and family.) I write because it’s good therapy and people seem to think I have words worth reading.

I am not a perfect person. I yell at my kids way too often. (The other day my 5-year-old told my 7-year-old that she better do what I asked before I was “tired of this sh*t.” Yep, that happened. Oy. For the record, I don’t speak that way to young children, but I have teen boys and adults that push my buttons like you can only understand if you have them as well. :/ ) I have stolen zippers and laundry soap before (on accident) and been too frazzled to run back in and pay like a proper citizen should. I can be ridiculously self centered and me-focused. We all have a baser nature – inner selves that aren’t pretty or polished. But, I really and truly try to live by a set of values that lead me to be better. All this was true before January 2018, and it will be just as true as the calendar turns again.

Things are different for me. My relationship with religion is different – everything has shifted and adjusted. It’s quieter. There’s less expectations and more uncertainty. It’s more honest. I don’t know how it will look going forward, but I do know that it will be mine. My marriage is different. There’s less fear and insecurity. There’s more mutual respect and room for our own individual expressions.We’ve both had to face the prospect of losing our relationship and found reasons to remain and thrive.

It’s the end of this year. It’s almost officially the after the thing mark. This makes me understandably introspective. How do you process what could arguably be considered the biggest event in your life? What is the debriefing process? I don’t even know. I’ve dealt with it like I think anyone else does: you take it one day at a time and do your very best to cope and learn and grow and survive. It feels more like learning and growing as the year wraps up and less like coping and surviving. And, I guess that is the most important thing to communicate about this year – I made it THROUGH. I’m not really special – truly. My journey may be different than yours, but I would put good money on the table that you have what it takes to get through hard things, too. It may be that you haven’t walked through a year that changed your life. It may be that you have. Either way, when you find yourself faced with your own giant, take it one day at a time. Do your very best to cope and learn and grow and survive. You will. You have what it takes to fight the battles put in front of you. I promise.

 

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Lick Up Those Life Lessons!

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Have kids, they said! It will be fun, they said!

I have to preface this by explaining that I am NOT a helicopter mom by any stretch of the imagination. I’m what you could call, I guess, a free-range mom? My kids are VERY independent. They pretty much never bother us when we’re out on a date, and they are free to wander within the parameters of our rules. I don’t have to know where they are exactly at any given moment. I’m what you might consider an under-reactor. Once when our older kids were on a homeschool field trip with an eccentric older teacher, they were WAY past their return time, and she wasn’t answering her cell phone. The other moms were beside themselves with worry and my alarm meter was barely starting to register. (They were fine, by the way.) Still, kids get you, don’t they?!

I have my sister’s kids every Tuesday, and they all happily run in and out and play with mine for hours. This week, the oldest niece in the batch came in the house calling for my daughter. They had been playing together outside until about ten minutes before when she thought my 7-year-old had come inside. Except, she hadn’t. I hadn’t seen her, and she didn’t pop out anywhere when we called and looked. After looking thoroughly inside and out, my alarm went off. I called and searched to no avail. In the cars. In our outside greenhouse. Under beds. I texted all my neighbors asking if they had seen her. I finally sent my 11-year-old out on his bike and my adult daughter in her car to sweep the neighborhood. Nope. Nada. In the meantime, my older niece had to leave for an activity.

At this point, I was legitimately worried. I don’t worry. I started thinking of all the horrible possibilities for a little girl that just disappeared out of her own yard in a matter of minutes. Those are not happy thoughts to be thinking a week before Christmas. Almost distraught, I opened the bathroom door that had been ajar just a moment before, and there was my little girl scrunched up on the potty all teary-eyed. When she emerged, she admitted that she had been hiding in a little cubby in our garage. I had walked by there a half-dozen times and even stepped inside and sat for a minute very quietly listening for sneaky breathing. She said she didn’t answer because she thought she was in trouble. Which didn’t make sense, really. I mean, we were concerned, but hiding isn’t like her. Why would she think she was in trouble? But, then my niece came back from her activity and added the little bit of information that made everything fall into place.

I assist at a co-op class once a week – just taking notes and keeping order, mostly, in our very large class of 16 students. My youngest daughter doesn’t have consistent childcare available for her for that hour, so she just comes with me. But, she doesn’t really have a textbook or anything because it’s really a bit above her grade level, so she just gleans what she can and occasionally answers questions whose answers are largely fed to her by said niece who is several years older than her. At the end of every month, our students cash in their tickets for toys and treats and prizes. One of the most coveted cash-in items are those very large, multi-colored lollipops. We sell them for 40 tickets. My daughter usually has somewhere between 10 and 20 tickets while our actual students can earn 50 to 100 during a month. She never gets a lollipop. I’ve never heard her complain or even say anything about it. But, when my niece came home on Tuesday, she mentioned that my little girl had her lollipop in her hand when she “wandered off.” My 7-year-old took that lollipop, hid in the corner in the dark and ate the entire thing.

As a parent, there are some times that I have to make a point to teach my kids lessons. There are plenty of lectures around here, to be sure. However, this day, there was none of that. I hugged her tightly and told her how scared I was when I thought she was lost and to please never, ever do that again! My daughter was so riddled with guilt that when we called her and acted frantic and upset, she believed that she was going to be handily and harshly punished for eating that lollipop. Without any real intervention by me, she licked up that life lesson, and it sat heavy on her heart and her stomach, I’m sure. I would be surprised (especially since that sort of envy and greediness isn’t really like her) if she ever does anything like that again. As adults, we tend to have a level of life experience that muddies this sort of pure consequence, and while I suspect she’ll remember it always, I know that I will. And, that is truly worth the cost of a hundred lollipops.

P.S. I will be taking a blogging vacation Christmas week. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday season! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate each and every one of you who reads my blog. It humbles me that people are touched by my words and my perspective. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

The Gift of Identity

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Sometimes when I’m preparing my blog posts, I have a lot on my mind or have had a recent experience that I’ve really been ruminating on. Other times, however, the deadline is looming, and I’m chugging along in my daily life trying to figure out what in the heck I should write about. What is this blog about? What do I have to say? And, then it hits me, isn’t that just life? Who am I? What do I have to say? Who do I want to be? How does the world see me?

Even though I have an independent streak a mile wide, I’ve spent a good part of my life picking identities off the shelf. While it’s said the youth brings with it all possibilities, the fact is that it is tempered by the pressures to be the vision that others have for you. There is a lot of fear around making the “wrong choices” or letting people down. I think this carries quite a ways into adulthood, and most people push and pull against it well into their 20s and 30s – sometimes their entire life.

While I don’t want to draw lines on the basis of gender or anything (heaven forbid!), I tend to notice this being more of a thing for women. We give so much to our husbands, to our kids, to our communities. I am my husband’s wife. For decades, I’ve basically introduced myself to people as his wife, and people say, “Ah!” and there is a place for me in their head. This year has changed that dynamic a bit because I have a reputation of my own (for better or worse), and my husband has found himself, for the first time ever, introducing himself as, well, my husband.

I am my kids’ mom. I have spent 22 years largely focused on the health, growth and progress of the seven humans that I grew in my uterus. I homeschool them and don’t work outside our home, and most of my daily energy goes into their lives. In my headspace, though, my life does not revolve around my children. I don’t think I’ve ever said that I’m “just a mom.” Because I’m not.

When women (again, more our thing) lament aging and getting older, I kind of don’t understand it. Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer to still have the flat stomach of my 20s, but I take it pretty much as the tradeoff for the better gift of life experience. I turned 40 in 2017 and posted this on my Facebook page:

“Turning 40 last month has made me super thoughtful. This has been a year of huge changes for me. I’ve struggled in my personal space over the last five years, and this has been a year of resolution and finding peace, but not necessarily in the way I was “supposed to.” There have been really hard parts and days I just wasn’t sure it was going to work out. But, it mostly is, and I feel more comfortable and confident in my own skin every day. Mostly, I just love my life so much. I have a strong and resilient relationship and healthy and thriving kids whom I just adore. I’m embracing and feeling confident in building a career that I fully believe will eventually be a huge boon to our family. I know who I am deep down where all the layers are stripped away, and I’ve really come to love that strong, beautiful and passionate woman. Life is good!”

So, if this blog seems to go in a bunch of different directions, it’s because it’s a reflection of my real life. I don’t always know what direction I’m going. I don’t always know what it is that I want to say. I’m at a point where I feel like I can be and do and say what is actually a reflection of who I am. I AM my husband’s wife. I AM my kids’ mom. I’m also a woman, a friend, a writer, an advocate. I’m less afraid to say things as I see them. I’m more comfortable taking up space in the world. I don’t always know exactly what my identity is, but I do know that it is mine to determine. This, more than anything, has been the gift of this year.

 

 

Integrity in Institutions

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There’s a common narrative when somebody renegotiates their relationship with religion that says that they were offended or weak or just couldn’t hack the expectations. I think it’s an easy way for people to organize their environment. The truth, however, is much, much more complicated than that. I think people side-eye me thinking I’m super sensitive and bothered by how things have changed for us, but I’m actually quite philosophical about the whole thing.

Institutions are living things, and they have their own priorities, politics and ways of being. While people breathe life into them, they also take on a life of their own. Recognizing this has made what we have experienced much less personal. I was talking to someone the other day and explaining to them how I’ve come to understand the people that we’ve dealt with in our church and some of the things they did. They’re not “bad men.” They would prefer to be nice and will if they can. However, their number one job is always to perpetuate the needs, priorities and politics of the institution. When people come into conflict with that, they have no choice but to choose the institution. It’s a very, very simple equation, and they believe wholeheartedly that it’s for the best to do it this way. This isn’t at all unique to churches, though I think there’s dynamics there that make it particularly hard for people to identify honestly.

Many, many people I know quietly move within this construct with absolutely no adverse effects. There are benefits to actively engaging in religion and things about it that I distinctly miss. However, when you identify institutional priorities and realize that they aren’t in line with your own values and priorities, it is virtually impossible to unsee that. I have mad respect for the people around me that I interact with on a daily basis. I have zero regard for the integrity of the institution.

According to Wikipedia, “Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is a personal choice to hold one’s self to consistent standards. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.” The thing is that integrity to an institution is different than personal integrity. People interact with religious communities with expectations based upon their own means of measuring integrity. For many people, these never come into conflict. For me and many others, they have. And, once they do, you never look at it the same again.

I kind of raised my eyebrows a bit when my husband came home from church this week and said that he’d been called on to speak. He said that he didn’t think he had offended anyone or said anything too out there. (I think he just talked about getting the neighborhood round robin Santa sock – please don’t gift it to us again! It cost a million and four dollars to fill two of those. Ha ha!) He hasn’t been for a few months, you see. I would guess that a lot of people think that has something to do with me, but the truth is that we’re both navigating our relationship with church in our own way with pretty much zero interference or influence from the other. We’re getting better at differentiating and acknowledging that we’re both adults that can make our own decisions. He’s dealing with his own issues and working through his own feelings, some of which have to do with me and some of which don’t. He’s most definitively not weak.

I like to think, in theory, that it’s possible to have institutions where organizational integrity is in harmony with personal integrity and firm morals and values. I hope there are still spaces in this world where a people and community can come first over politics. I don’t know anymore, but I’ve made peace with my own relationship with the reality that I see, and my husband will, too. In his own way, and in his own time.

Trying to Build a Better Boat

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Sometimes the one thing that it takes to become healthy is to acknowledge what isn’t. I consider myself to be pretty proactive about being aware and keeping things balanced, but healing takes time.  We are horrible travelers. It’s always been a weak spot in our marriage. When we travel just as a couple, it’s great, but we’ve had some of our worst arguments when we were traveling as a family. It’s not pretty to have a family conflict in a closed car which is all I’m going to say about that. We had a really, really bad blowup a few years ago on the way to my niece’s wedding (we were good company that day. Ha!), and both my husband and myself made a decision that we were done with this bad, toxic habit, and it hasn’t happened since.

The funny thing is that you can fix the issue, but there is still baggage and emotional reactions there. I still have anticipatory anxiety when we’re getting ready to travel. It’s softening over time and fading as I get used to what has become a new normal for me, but it’s taken several years. This concept is really hitting home for me right now. We get used to things, don’t we? And, they aren’t always healthy or things that you want to keep around, but we crave the familiar.

The fall and winter have been very quiet for our family. Very peaceful after the turmoil that carried us well into 2019. The peace is nice. The quiet is good. But, it’s also seeps into my psyche as boring. See, our marriage has been marked by tension for about seven years now. I have friends that have never seen our relationship in a season of quiet. My husband has been my hero as we’ve plowed through this year, but he didn’t come to that overnight. There was arguing, ugly-cry tears, very real fears that divorce was imminent, pushing, pulling and just general angst that was a very real presence in our lives. It wasn’t healthy. Our kids saw it and lived through it and have their own baggage from that experience. But, it was what I’ve come to know. It became normal to me to take the temperature of my husband’s mood every day when he came home. If it was less than chipper, it became my self-appointed job to cheer him up and make him happy/grateful. Please understand that he didn’t give me this job. He was dealing with things in ways that prompted me to feel like it was, but the truth is that I took it on myself.

I’ve spent a good part of the latter part of this year working on this issue. There is less angst there. Less tension. More quiet. But, I still find myself doing this. It’s softening over time and fading, but I have to be very mindful that I’m not responsible for my husband’s emotions. I’ve heard it said before that we only do things that work for us in some way, and I’m really trying to untangle this part of our healing and sort it out. The truth is that high tension creates a bounce-back that feeds strong connection. (This is why makeup sex is great. Just saying.) The logical part of my brain does not miss the arguing or the tension or the angst, but my emotional brain is so used to it that it feels empty and lacking and just not there.

Before you get the idea that we’re a total mess that is imploding as we speak, we’re very, very normal. We have a very normal, net-healthy marriage, a very normal home life and very normal, great and well-behaved (for the most part) kids. This is just our baggage – we all have it. Our Achilles heel. Our mountain that we’re climbing. We’re getting there.

This year has been cathartic and revealing. It doesn’t make me comfortable to realize that I’m missing things that I’ve been begging to be without for years. It’s a bit embarrassing, frankly. But, realizing that there is an emotional hole from an extraction site, so to speak, is a good thing, I think. We’ve cut a cancer out, and it’s empty there. Healthy things are growing in its place, but it takes time. The missing it will soften over time and fade as it’s replaced by healthier patterns and habits. It hasn’t all been pretty, but I’m determined to use every lesson for good. Ultimately, that, I think, will be the secret to our success. Not that we haven’t waded through some really crappy stuff but that we didn’t tap out too early to see what there was to learn in it. When you see an old couple sitting on a park bench holding hands, it’s not years of Pinterest-worthy moments that you’re seeing, it’s the aftermath of just this hurricane.

I heard this song for the first time when we were driving home from Thanksgiving. (A trip that was quiet and calm and altogether unremarkable. I barely remember feeling anxious at all.) It really struck me, and it felt like an anthem for my journey. I immediately had my almost 20-year-old daughter look it up and send it to my husband who had been home for a few days already. Building makes a mess, and it can sometimes be hard to see the results in the middle of sawdust and streaked faces. At the end of the day, however, what we’re really trying to do is just build a better boat.

 

An Eye For an Eye, Bro!

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I really think I should have just been a girl mom. Except, then I would be completely insufferable to everyone around me. I mean, what’s your problem?? Kids are EASY! Just kidding. I couldn’t pass up the photo for today because that’s seriously what parenting boys feels like. You have to just laugh, or you’ll cry.

I took my daughter in for dental surgery yesterday morning. She got the short end of the gene pool with her teeth, and this is the at least the third time she’s had sedated dental work. (I always love trying to convince dentists that she actually does brush and that we aren’t completely negligent in her oral care. I’m never sure that they actually believe it though she’s honestly my best brusher.) Yesterday, it was a root canal on a permanent but immature tooth, so we had to go to a specialist and spend more than twice our entire Christmas budget for a family of nine so that she wasn’t down a permanent molar at age seven. Whee!

I got home in the early afternoon and tucked her in bed to sleep it off. After a bit, there was a scuffle with my 11-year-old and 15-year-old. Apparently, when I was gone, my older son was hogging the computer so that my younger son couldn’t use it to complete his math lesson. Said younger son got angry, went up to their room and threw all his brother’s stuff all over which was an undeniably jerk move. When I sent my younger son upstairs to make amends and help clean up the mess, he was instead upset because my older son decided to break all his brothers things as well. So, the 11-year-old slammed the bathroom door and, in the process, broke the light cover in the adjoining hallway. Yay.

Luckily, that was the end of the altercation. I sent my older son to the bedroom to clean up the room on his own while my younger son had to get a broom and sweep up all the glass from his angry outburst. The 15-year-old then got a lecture about taking things into this own hands and not allowing me to take care of my own kids with an emphasis on how disrespecting other people’s things doesn’t teach them to be more respectful of yours. Instead, it just teaches them that you can break people’s crap as long as you’re bigger than them. Bad life lesson.

So, fun day, all around. I counted it as a success, though, because 1. I effectively worked through it without escalating everything, 2. I threw a life lesson in there that sunk in, and 3. I didn’t lose my shit in the process. Win – win – win! See, when you’ve been momming for a long time, that’s pretty much all it takes to count it a good day. Maybe they won’t hate me when they grow up after all.

Differentiation With a Side of Turkey

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Spending time with family always makes me introspective. We had a fantastic Thanksgiving. We stayed with my dad and had dinner with my husband’s family. I had several conversations that got me thinking about a concept that I first heard discussed in the Facebook marriage group I participate in. “Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.” In the most simple terms, differentiation is becoming comfortable with people being different than yourself, especially people that are close to you. It is human nature, a survival mechanism really, to want to be similar to your community.

People have varying tolerances for differentiation, and I have apparently lucked out in this category. I sat with my husband and his brothers on Thanksgiving and had a conversation about this. My husband is one of the most religious people in his family. He has siblings that range the full spectrum all the way to atheists that have left-leaning politics. My brother-in-law said that when he first brought his now ex-wife to a family function, she was amazed that we could all sit in a room and get along peacefully without making a scene. This is, I suppose, unique in such a diverse crowd. (And, maybe why she’s the ex-wife. Ha!)

We almost didn’t go to Thanksgiving this year. There is a lot of junk floating around in our family right now, and I was worried that there would be drama at our gathering that we really didn’t want to be in the middle of. (It doesn’t involve us directly.) There wasn’t. It was fine. Nobody aired the dirty laundry publicly, and we had a nice meal and visit. Because the truth is, you don’t have to be just like someone to love them or respect them or just associate with them generally. You can even have hard feelings and not make a scene about it.

My dad is what you might call a “true believing Mormon,” though his path there was a bit, ahem, unconventional. He only has one child out of his dozen that is active in the church. I know that this makes him a bit sad because he posted about it on Facebook after we went home. This is the most I have ever heard him say about it. (I’m going to struggle with wording this because I have such deep feelings for my dad.) What he did say was how much he enjoys my visits because my kids are well behaved, and I never bring drama. He is one of the best men I know. He would literally give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. Case in point – We had a bit of a transportation conflict during our weekend. My daughter and my husband needed to bug out early to work, but the rest of us wanted to stay. The problem was that we had only brought two vehicles, and the one I was bringing home only seated five people, and seven of us wanted to stay. While we were discussing how we might be able to make it work so that my two middle sons wouldn’t have to leave early, my dad offered to drive home with us. We live 3 hours away. He literally spent his Saturday driving home my sons so that they could spend a few more days with their grandparents. Goodness, I love that man.

I have heard dozens of stories as I’ve navigated this year that are less happy than my own. People who share about how afraid they are talk to their family about renegotiating their relationship with religion. People who are uninvited to family events, shamed, talked about in less than flattering ways, lose lifelong friends and just generally are pretty devastated with the inability of others to differentiate. This not only hurts my heart but makes me realize how unbelievably lucky I am in this department.

I spent a bit of time talking to my aunt (step-mom? aunty-mom? My aunt – as in my mother’s sister – it’s complicated – is my dad’s current wife.) this weekend about what I’ve experienced this year and how I feel about life and religion. I think she was surprised about my strong reactions to some things. However, when it comes down to the brass tacks of it, I’m still her daughter. She loves me and she understands that I’ve been through a lot and, more than anything, she and my dad just want to offer me love and support. They are not inherently dogmatic people, and they live their religion quietly and in a way that works for them. I wish this was true in all Mormon (Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic…) families. I wish that I didn’t know so many people who struggle to differentiate, who take it so personally when someone experiences a shift. I wish that there was a cultural narrative that allowed for someone to step up and say, “Hey, I love you and I value our relationship, but this thing, this part over here, just doesn’t work for me right now.” I wish there was a standard reply that said, “Oh. Okay. Thanks for the information. We’re still family/friends, so don’t worry about it. You’re always welcome here.”

In the end, the truth is that we aren’t really all the same. People in the same family, the same church, the same community are incredibly different, and people change over time as they move through life. Even when we don’t feel at liberty to express our differences of opinion or belief, they are there – the sameness is an assumption. We are all unique. Our experiences are unique. We have unique histories and needs. The truth is that I haven’t changed all that much and certainly not overnight. What has happened is that I’ve found the freedom to say things out loud that many people don’t have. I imagine that is one the draws of this blog.

I’m lucky that I have friends and family who are good at respecting boundaries and offering support in my unorthodox situation. I’m glad that I’ve learned about differentiation this year. I’m even more glad that I didn’t have to learn about it the hard way. One of the kindest, most Christian things that any believer can do is offer this gift to the people in your life. I like to think that it’s what Jesus would do.