Learning to Exhale

This blog has been woefully silent. I have many good excuses but perhaps not as many good reasons. Life, to put it simply, has been nuts. No, not nuts, stressful. Really, truly, dreadfully stressful. 

Health issues, COVID, a flooded basement, more health issues, little league baseball season, did I mention health issues and a flooded basement?  It feels as if I have been holding my breath for months.

And amidst all the weeks and months of stress, I plodded on. Some days barely getting my assignments to my clients and editors on time. Taking care of my kids in a hazy cloud of exhaustion. And my house? Let’s just say it’s a good thing no company hasn’t been over for a while because it is just now getting back on track, minus the flooded basement whose carpet we had to rip up.

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During all this stress and angst, the thing I typically forgot to do was take time for myself. Instead, I became the last priority, which only caused me more stress, deeper depression, and further anger and resentment. 

In those moments, I tried to focus on gratitude. Yes, I had water leaking into my basement, but at least the only thing damaged was the carpet. I still had a home with a soft bed to sleep in at night and a fridge full of healthy food. Yes, my health has been a roller coaster which is still going, but I am still here, working on it, and I’ve managed to lose 33 of the 40 pounds I set as a goal last March. 

33 pounds in 15 months is slow but steady, and I’ve done it, even with all the added stress. I also stopped drinking alcohol, significantly improving my weight loss and mental health. I’ve lost 22 of those 33 pounds in the six months since I stopped. If that’s not an endorsement to stop drinking, I don’t know what else is, mainly since most of my other habits have stayed the same. 

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So I have a home, a job, two healthy children, a supportive partner, and people who love and care for me; my health is crazy, but I am working on it. Reasons to feel grateful. But I still wasn’t taking time for myself, or at least not enough.

Writing is one of the things I enjoy doing and use to do just for me. But, since it’s become my job, like most hobbies turned professions, it became daunting to do even more of it for myself. So, I journaled here and there but couldn’t find anything meaningful to write about except complaining and ranting, and no one wants to read that. So, I didn’t blog.

But in not blogging, I perhaps took something I needed away from myself. Maybe, the exact thing I was too tired or stressed or angry to do was the very thing that would have helped me. So as I sat here working on an article that I am actually ahead of schedule with (wonder of wonders), I started thinking about blogging. 

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I stopped working on the article, and I started this blog. I wasn’t sure where it would go, and I’m still not. It’s very stream of consciousness right now. But I am getting myself on the page. I am taking a few moments out of my hectic day; more doctor appointments, more baseball… and doing something solely for me. 

I don’t expect life to be a piece of cake every day; I know people are dealing with far worse challenges and issues than I am at the moment. However, that doesn’t take away what I was feeling. It doesn’t negate that nearly every stressful thing that could happen to a person seemed to happen to me simultaneously. I felt pulled in so many directions I couldn’t breathe. It felt as if even a feather touched me; I would shatter.

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I don’t often share these moments. Instead, I come off as a perky, positive, happy person, and I am those things.

But I am also

A patient who sat down on the floor and started crying at 8:45 on a Wednesday morning because, after nearly six months, yet another set of blood work and tests gave her no answers.

A woman who looked at her partner several times in recent weeks and felt like she hadn’t had 10-minutes alone with just him that wasn’t discussing something kid, health, or house related. 

A homeowner who sopped up water and washed towels five times a day for nearly a week before discovring where the leak was coming from or could get a contractor out to take a look.

A writer who was stressed one week because she didn’t think she’d have enough work to cover her bills and then the following week had so much work didn’t think she’d make all her deadlines. 

A mother who wanted to cling to her children and not let them out of her sight after the tragedy in Texas. But was so exhausted at bedtime simply wanted to put them to bed and spend 15 minutes alone with a book. 

A Mom and step-mom who grocery shops for six people, works from home, manages the house and pays the bills, tries to keep the house clean, and plays chauffeur to baseball, gymnastics, and drum kits. 

A mom to an 8-year-old with combined presentation ADHD and borderline OCD and his 30-minute bedtime ritual.

A mom to an 11-year-old with anxiety who this week is obsessively worried about needing his wisdom teeth out in eight or nine years. And despite having good grades all year convinced he’s not advancing to 5th grade because of a comment his teacher said to the class, which he can’t remember, so I can’t help explain. 

And I imagine I’m not the only one, so I’m sharing. Because while my story is entirely mine, it’s not unique.

Slowly last week, some of the pieces began to come back together, and I could breathe. I could pause and enjoy the trees rustling in the wind outside my library window. I could breathe and enjoy a board game with my 8-year-old without my mind wandering to ten different things I had to do next. I had time and the ability to see the beauty in the world again.

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I could breathe and enjoy an evening out with my partner and some quiet time on the couch with him. I could look forward to a baseball game my 11-year-old was playing and relax and watch the game. 

I read a book. I took a shower I didn’t need. I ate a bowl of real ice cream; because what’s the point of losing 33 pounds if you can’t have real ice cream once in a while? I wrote this blog. I exhaled. And I took those moments back and made them mine. 

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My Postpartum Never Went Away

Not many people talk about postpartum depression several years after giving birth. However, in some cases it can lasts for years. Postpartum depression usually begins within the first three months after giving birth and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. Roughly 80% of women will suffer the baby blues, a feeling of being overwhelmed, fatigued and sad.  Baby blues are normal, after all, a significant change just occurred in your life. These feelings pass in a few days to a week for most women, but 1 in 7 women or roughly 15% will suffer from postpartum depression.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 23, long before I became a mother which puts a woman at a higer risk of postpartum. That being said, I always wanted to be a mother; I used to say I would adopt a child from every country in the world and you could usually find me playing with my baby dolls or playing some version of “family” with my friends when I was young. Being a mom was an absolute must for me, so when I found out I was pregnant with my first child at the age of 29, I was through the roof excited.

I worried about postpartum since I already suffered from depression, but I hadn’t been on medication for a few years and was doing really well. And miraculously, I didn’t end up with postpartum after he was born. I was tired, moody at times, frustrated sure (also a full-time grad student), but I was delighted with him. I had the usual ups and downs of most new moms. My postpartum didn’t hit until he was about three years old, and I had a second child, but I didn’t understand what it was until several years later.

Having a second child was always what I wanted; I thought I wanted three or four; I can’t even imagine what my life would be like if that were the case now.  My older son was a typical two-year-old in a lot of ways, except he wasn’t. He had a speech delay from having fluid in his ears for almost a year; we had no idea because he had only had one or two ear infections, typical stuff for an infant. It wasn’t until he was missing his speech milestones we knew something was up. He also required OT for sensory processing. He was an extremely bright boy who was becoming increasingly frustrated because he couldn’t communicate properly or make sense of his world. 

These factors brought a lot of stress, combined with having a newborn and teaching full time; I became depressed again. I couldn’t afford treatment at the time, so I tried to work my way through it; I didn’t cope well but I did manage to hide it from most people.  My second son was amazing in his own right, and I loved everything about him, but we lived far away from any friends or family at the time, so I had very little help with a newborn and a three-year-old. 

I cried so many days, and evenings, nights, mornings, you name it. I kept thinking, what have I gotten myself into? That was almost over seven years ago, and it hasn’t gone away. I love my children, and I have and will do anything for them, but the past decade has been nothing like I thought parenting would be, and I’m still sad—a lot. I was ashamed that wasn’t loving every moment of motherhood and didn’t feel like it was something I could talk to anyone about.

Where was the time for me, and what I wanted to do? Everything came with stress, figuring out schedules, finding babysitters, calling off work when they were sick, constantly putting myself on the back burner. Somehow over the years, from time to time, I managed to still do the one thing I loved most in the world, theater, but it came at a steep financial and emotional cost at times between babysitters and schedule juggling. People would often ask how I had time to do theater, and I would always reply because I had to. I had to. It was the one place I still felt like me and not “just a mom.” 

I am sure some are reading this and thinking, well, that’s what happens when you become a mom; you sacrifice yourself for your children. But I disagree. Yes, we make sacrifices for the sake of our children, we put them first more often than not because that’s what parents should do, but we should never feel like we have sacrificed who we are; and that’s how I felt nearly every day.

It was get them up, go to school/work, pick them up, cook them dinner, stop them from arguing, play with them if and when I had the energy, make sure homework was done, give them baths, put them to bed, and then if I had time, read (my other passion) for 15-30 minutes before falling exhausted into bed and doing it all over again.

On the flip side, I was never cut out to be the stay-at-home-mom, and I was grateful I had a job teaching that I loved, but when COVID-19 pandemic occurred it didn’t provide me with much of an option. So I resigned from teaching to take care of my two children, who were too young to stay home alone. It just wasn’t cost-effective to pay for full-time care for them while I worked. Staying home full-time compacted everything. 

Thankfully this time, I was able to return to therapy and was already back on medication, both of which helped, but I constantly would think, “This isn’t what I signed up for.” Now there was absolutely ZERO time for me; they were here all the time. There was no theater to escape to, no karaoke nights with friends every other Saturday, no date nights outside the house. I didn’t even have the twenty-minute commute from my school to their aftercare to pick them to enjoy a moment of quiet.

I also couldn’t do the things I enjoyed doing with my kids; trips to the zoo, museums, playground, and vacations. I hated the mom I was becoming over the pandemic. I had no patience; I felt like I yelled all the time, I cried even more, and my depression was taking over. 

It took some serious soul searching and multiple therapy sessions to realize that all this time, I was still suffering from postpartum depression.  Let that sink in, seven years of postpartum depression. No wonder I often resented being a mom. No wonder I was jealous of all the Facebook-perfect moms out there.

Now, I am not bashing social media, I have a Facebook account, but I realized that my constant comparison to everyone else out there added to my depression; so when I feel a surge hit, I stay off for a day or two. Studies have shown that while social media has some benefits for some, it can also increase feelings of depression in others. And what did I spend a lot of time doing when I was stuck home with two kids? Browse Facebook, of course. I would sit and scroll and look at what I perceived to be everyone’s “perfect life.” There’s a beautiful meme I saw that perfectly describes what social media is genuinely like. I wish I knew who to give credit to, but I don’t, so to whoever created this, thank you.

My children went back to school last week after nearly 17 months of being with them every day, and while anxious about COVID concerns, I trust their school and am happy they are back. I feel relief.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I was able to watch them grow and learn close up, they bonded at a new level, and we all had our creativity and ingenuity stretched to the limits.

But for the first time in seven years, I feel relaxed, as if I can breathe again. I decided to stay with freelance writing instead of going back to teaching, and I’m finally doing what is right for me. 

I’ve been alone in the house for five days now, and it’s incredible, for lack of a better word. I can think, I can run an errand when I want to, I can work out on my schedule, I can watch TV, or work, or write, or clean the house, or take a nap, or practice my singing, or mow the lawn, or take a walk, or go get coffee, I can use the bathroom or take a shower without hearing someone knock as soon as I go in.

I can breathe. 

For the first time in over a decade, I am not at the beck and call of someone else, and it feels phenomenal, and I refuse to feel guilty for feeling this way. 

I never knew how much I needed this space; I didn’t understand. I felt terrible because I didn’t love every second of being a mother, but how could I love being a mother when I couldn’t love myself? I will always battle depression, but understanding it better has given me new strengths and tools to combat it.

When my children walk in the door every afternoon, I am excited to see them; I am calm and restored. I feel like I am finally becoming the mom they deserve. I hope they know how much I love them, and I have always done my best to show them. Yet, I have been far from perfect and made so many mistakes. 

With this newly found space, I finally have the time to find myself again and am discovering I have so much more to give them.

It’s OK to Get Upset

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As long as I have been a part of the early childhood education world, the following phrase has been a part of it: You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. 

I don’t know when parents and educators started using this phrase, but can we please stop?

Not only is it dismissive to the child aka you’re feelings don’t matter but more and more research indicates the importance of teaching children how to express and handle their emotions. When we teach children about their emotions, we give them the power of expression and self, and we start letting them know their mental health and well-being are just as important as their physical well-being.

I understand what the phrase is trying to do; it’s saying, whatever happens, it’s going to be ok, but to blatantly and repeatedly tell children they cannot get upset is ridiculous; it’s also not human.

We get upset. I get upset. One day years ago, when I was teaching four-and-five-year-olds, it was my day to be at the school early and open the classroom. On these days, I made a special stop at Starbucks and bought an expensive splurge drink. A parent who was in a rush asked if they could leave their child with me.  Even though I wasn’t clocked in yet and not even in my classroom, I was in the kitchen of the school enjoying my last moments of quiet before the crazy day began; I said yes. 

While in my hazy, still sleepy, somewhat-annoyed-that-the-parent-had-just-done-this-state, and trying to keep an eye on the kid while I got what I needed for the classroom snack that morning, I set my coffee down on an uneven surface and the entirety of my specialty, splurge coffee spilled on the floor. 

It wasn’t even 7 A.M. My once-a-week splurge lay on the floor (and I now had to clean it up). And I had a 4-year-old standing next to me. I vividly remember telling myself silently, “Don’t cry. Do not let this child see you cry over a spilled coffee.” Honestly I wanted to have a tantrum.

So why didn’t I have a tantrum? Well, I came close, but I didn’t because I had learned how to process and handle strong emotions. We need to teach our children that it is OK to be upset when something negative happens, but how you respond that matters.

When I was teaching and passing things out, I would always shorten it to “You get what you get.” There was always at least one child in the class who would then say, “and you don’t get upset.” When that happened, I would look at them and say, “It’s ok to be upset when you don’t get what you want; what’s important is how you handle it.” Pay attention to that second part – it is OK to get upset when you don’t get what you want.

I have been performing in theater and music nearly my entire life, which means there are countless times I didn’t get the part or the solo I auditioned for and wanted. Do you know how many times I was upset I didn’t get the part I wanted? EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Of course I was upset! But here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go on social media and bash everyone involved with the show. I didn’t scream and throw things. I didn’t swear off doing theater ever again. 

I talked to a friend or my mom. I went and did something I enjoyed like reading a book.  I took a walk and listened to music. I enjoyed a glass (or two) of wine. I took a bubble bath. The point is I found ways to work through my disappointment and move on. These are the skills we need to be teaching our kids. Go ahead and have your disappointment, but let’s figure out the best way to handle it.

There are times I cried and times I didn’t. There are times it took me a few weeks to get over the disappointment and times it only took a few hours, but I was still upset every single time; because I’m human. 

Is it appropriate for a ten-year-old to cry because their sibling got the last green Jolly Rancher?  In most cases, no; but they are allowed to be bummed out about it. Is it appropriate for a five-year-old to have a tantrum because their best friend got the sticker they wanted at circle time? Probably not, but if they do, we can use it as a teaching opportunity to find other ways to express disappointment.

It is rarely a healthy option to tell kids “Don’t cry” because it is another way of telling them their emotions are not valid, but sometimes it can be hard not to roll our adult eyes and think, “Really? He’s crying because Godzilla is no longer on Amazon Prime?” (And yes, my son did this. So what I like to do instead is say, “It is ok to be upset, but Is this situation worth your tears?” Phrasing things in this way makes children slow down and evaluate their responses.

We can help our children process big emotions and disappointments by using phrases like:

  • I see you’re really upset right now. Would you like some space?
  • This seems to be making you sad. Do you want to talk about it?
  • It is ok to be angry, but it is not OK to hurt people or things.
  • You seem worried. Would you like me to sit with you?
  • I am not sure what is bothering you, but I am here if you want to talk.

The more we as adults recognize and discuss emotions, the more our children will understand them. Like language and social interactions, children learn about handling emotions from the adults surrounding them.

If a child grows up in a house where anger is considered “bad,” they may have trouble processing feelings of anger because they believe it makes them bad. We must also avoid assigning emotions to genders. For example, if children hear that crying and whining is what girls do and boys should be strong and fearless, then we are assigning weakness as feminine, but we are telling our boys that they have to be brave all the time. 

Fear is another normal and completely biological response in many situations; fear is what kept our early ancestors alive. They needed to know when to run, when to fight, and when to hide too, survive. 

Emotions need just to be emotions—all normal and all OK.

Children should be learning self-awareness and understanding of their own emotions, regulating and controlling those emotions, learning to understand what is essential and what is not (AKA is this situation worth your tears?), and reading and understanding emotions in others. 

We do this when we allow children to see our emotions and emotional process and demonstrate how to handle disappointing and upsetting situations. Teaching emotional intelligence puts our children in the driver’s seat of their mental well-being and teaches them how to problem-solve and self-soothe. 

So, teach your kids you get what you get, and you CAN get upset. But also teach them that a tantrum over a Jolly Rancher probably isn’t worth the energy spent, and if you take the red one, at least you still got candy! More importantly, you’re helping them process their emotions and how to handle things independently so that when they are thrity they don’t have a melt down over spilled coffee.