Gratitude and Regret

This is actually an apology note, but it’s also a thank you card of sorts. I want to apologize for yesterday’s post – for its dismissive, disrepectful tone and its divisive content. I also want to thank you for not only engaging in what I felt was a very interesting and constructive but dialogue, but also for calling me out on the inherent negativity of my post. I really, really appreciate the fact that instead of telling me off, as you had every right to do, you provided me with constructive criticism that allowed me to learn more myself and my thoughts and feelings.

In St. Louis I spent a week with my cousin and her baby. This is the cousin who got pregnant the first month she was “not trying but not not trying”. This is the cousin who just bought a house. This is the cousin who left her teaching job and is staying home indefinitely with her daughter. This is the cousin that I love dearly but that also awakens the green monster in me.

And I realize I feel a lot of jealousy towards other SAHMs too. I want to be a SAHM. I don’t think I realized, until this week, who worn down my WOHM schedule was making me. I don’t think I realized how little I was seeing my daughter until I started seeing her all the time. I don’t think I knew how great it would felt to be home with her again until I was home with her again.

I was so lucky to have almost six months off when Isa was born. I had my summer break and then my three months of FMLA leave. It was truly amazing to spend those months with her and I am forever grateful for them. And then I went back and it was hard. Harder than I thought it would be. But I sucked it up because I didn’t have a choice. I took comfort in the fact that my very capable and loving SIL was taking care of Isa and soldiered on. I even convinced myself I didn’t mind working so much, that it wasn’t that bad. I tried hard to adopt a Buddhist attitude of acceptance and mindfulness, getting through each day and being grateful for the good in those 24 hours. I cherished the time that I had with my daughter, but I was also, deep down, always wishing for more.

Lately the financial realities of our situation have become increasingly clear. We can barely afford the life we are living. Having another child, if we’re lucky enough to do so, will bring even more financial hardship. My big dream of staying at home for one year, with two children, looks less and less likely. Unless Mi.Vida finds a new job, I will never be able to stay home. I will have to say goodbye to what feels like a modest dream and I’m resentful of that.

Of course this is assuming we can get pregnant and have another healthy baby. I know I’m already asking for too much. I know I’m already asking for everything, and then I want even more.

But other people get to have it. Why not me? Why can’t I have two healthy children and my own year at home with them?

I think I’m mourning what I will probably never have. I’m mourning the chance to be a SAHM. My heart keeps saying that maybe we can make it happen, perhaps we can swing it, but my head sees that writing on the wall. We can’t afford it. We just can’t.

I’m trying to focus on what I do have, my healthy daughter, my loving husband, a FIL who is willing to watch Isa for us next year and a job that is allowing me a part time schedule… and of course the next six weeks of summer. I have so much. I am truly fortunate. I know this is in my head and in my heart and yet I still feel this emptiness, the place where “what I can’t have” lives.

It’s that empty place that drove me to write yesterday’s post. It’s “what I can’t have” that makes me feel those things. I love being home with Isa and I want it so much. Does it make it easier for me when I lash out at those that have what I want? No. In fact it makes me feel worse but I still seem to do it. Self-destructive behavior is so strange that way.

I apologize again to everyone who was rubbed the wrong way by Friday’s post, to all the SAHM and WOHM who don’t want to further fuel the war between two kinds of mothers that really aren’t all that different to be being with. I’m sorry for sinking to that level of antagonism and I thank you for helping me find my way back to the surface of understanding and acceptance.

I hope we can all remain friends.

Working Mama Mondays: Do we want too much?

Recently I read a very interesting article from the Atlantic (thank you Jirraffe!). The article is called How to Land Your Kid in Therapy and it asserts that the nurture-you’re-child’s-self-esteem-and-happiness-at-the-expense-of-everything-else culture of the past generation might actually have backfired. The author talks about a surprising number of adults, in therapy, “who reported that they, too, suffered from depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.”

Now this article was interesting to me as a parent, who hopes to veer her own daughter away from a similar fate but by the end it was clear to me that I identified more with the adults in therapy affected by their own upbringing than the current parents concerned for their children. I saw myself in the author’s clients, sitting on her couch, battling depression and anxiety and struggling with a general state of “just not happy.” This article was about me.

Now my parents were not of the variety that sheltered me from the disappointments in life. Still, I will admit to expecting more happiness from my life, more fulfillment from my job, more general enjoyment from my days. I do assume that my life should make me happy. That it’s not only completely possible but that I absolutely and unequivocally  deserve it.

And you know why I believe that? Because I was I was told that, by everyone, all the time. I still am.

Except that the older I get and the more I learn about the world, the less I believe it. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect it’s all a load of crap. Where do we get off teaching our children that they can be whatever they want to be? Does it benefit them to believe that they can, and will, find a job that both fulfills them and affords them the quality of life they desire? Honestly, I don’t think many of those jobs exist and the people who are fortunate enough to have them are the exception, not the rule.

The reality seems to be – from what I have gleaned from my short three decades in this world – that most people trudge through 40-50 hours a week at a job they might like (if they’re lucky) but more likely tolerate, just to have a smidgen of free time on the weekends and the opportunity for a week away twice a year. Most of the time they are struggling to feed their family, provide healthcare coverage and keep a roof over their head. Having a job they love that also affords them a decent living is at best a luxury, at worst a dream-never-come-true.

I’m not blaming our parents for this discrepancy. Maybe they truly believed that we could have it all. They likely had so much more than their parents, if the trend continued their children could have their cake and eat it too. They didn’t foresee the economic crash and the continuing downturn. They weren’t told that their children’s generation would be the first to have less than they did. I don’t think they meant to lie to us, but in the end, I believe they did.

Recently Mel asked “what’s the best and worst thing about being an adult.” Mi.Vida and I promptly agreed that financial responsibilities and stresses were the worst but when it came to the best, our opinions diverged drastically. Mi.Vida believes that the best part about being an adult is you can do or be, whatever you want. I couldn’t disagree with that more.

If that were true I could quit my job and become a writer. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow or next year, but some day, if I worked hard enough, I could do it. That is what I was taught and that is what my partner still believes. I used to believe that, I honestly did. Now, frankly, I don’t. My new goal is maybe, if I’m very lucky, I can make enough writing that I can teach part time and write part time. But be a writer? Have my writing pay my rent and insurance and childcare? That is anything but a given, no matter how hard I work. The idea that someone might assume so strikes me as absurd.

In more ways than not, I have lived a charmed life. I was given everything I needed and infinitely more. I set goals and worked hard to achieved them. I went to the university of my dreams. I became a teacher in a good district. I thought I was building the life I wanted. Now I’m not so sure that teaching is for me. I want to stay home with my daughter, I want to write. I want to take pictures and travel to Spanish-speaking countries. I want to do so many things but the reality is I can’t. I also can’t leave my job. And even though teaching is probably not what I want to do, deep down in my heart, the reality is it has to be enough. In all likelihood I am going to be teaching for the rest of my life and I will have to find a way for that to make me happy.

And why shouldn’t it? I enjoy my job as much as I don’t. It’s difficult and stressful and monotonous but it can also be fun and inspiring and challenging. And of course I have breaks during the year and the coveted two months of summer. I chose this profession because it was compatible with a family and when my kids are in school, it will be. And while I’ll never earn much, I can make choices that would ensure job security and the ability to pay my bills. That is more than a lot of people can say. Heck, that is more than 99% of the world can say, who am I to be disappointed?

I’m also fortunate enough to have the choice to write, in my free time, if I’m inspired to do so. Why don’t I focus on that luxury instead of wallowing in the fact that it can’t be my job? Why do I always want more? Was I taught seek unattainable fulfillment? I certainly wasn’t taught not to expect it.

I believe we are encouraged to want too much. Our consumer culture is driven by desire and as parents we haven’t and don’t do enough to counteract that. We need to teach qualities like “perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing” which the Atlantic article asserts actually lead to success and fulfillment. We need to teach our children, and ourselves, to weather disappointment, to go without. We need to teach gratitude, appreciation, generosity and selflessness. These are skills that will benefit them and us, that might some day provide contentment.

The reality is, we might not get to be what we want to be, or we might have to sacrifice greatly to get there, and the same can befall our children. If certain lessons are learned; that frequently life brings disappointment, that sometimes their is no just reward for our efforts, that we must be grateful for what we have and stop continuously looking for more, that sometimes we won’t be happy, maybe, just maybe, we will wake up one day knowing how to be satisfied with our life.

And maybe some day, if we’re very lucky, we can learn to be truly happy with what we have.

Mindful Mondays: The Heaven of the Moment

It’s no secret that Mi.Vida and I have been experiencing a rough time of it lately. The first year of parenthood is a difficult transition for many couples and we are not an exception. Yesterday my therapist and I put together an action plan to address some of the issues Mi.Vida and I have been struggling with. When I got home we implemented the plan with considerable success. (I hope to write more about this tomorrow). We still have a long way to go but I am confident that we will get there.

Recently I found a book that was given to us after our commitment ceremony. It’s called The Couple’s Tao Te Ching by William Martin. This morning I turned to this page and was stuck by how relevant it was to us.

The Heaven of the Moment

Always thinking of what you like / and what you don’t like / exhausts the energy that could be used / to fuel your passion.

Events of life are always changing. / Everything is made new in your life / between the time you read this line … / and this one. / Difficult times and joyous times / can follow each other as swiftly. / When good times arrive welcome them. / When they seem to pass, let them go. / When pain arrives do not despair. / It will pass as well. / You will sometimes feel strong and whole, / and sometimes weak and partial. / This is not a problem. / Do not let these things distract you.

 

It is important to remember that this difficult time will pass, as have passed the difficult (and joyous) times before it. Just as one should not get attached to the good times, we also must not become so entangled in the bad. Hopefully this simple reminder will help us navigate through this challenge and those that are sure to follow it.

Mindful Mondays: Touché Monday, Touché

When I first went back to work after my maternity leave I was living for the weekends. Every work day I counted down to the weekend, when I spend uninterrupted days with my daughter. Every weekend I felt the precious minutes with Isa slipping away, I could see Monday rushing towards me – inevitable, unstoppable. Eventually I realized I was miserable all the time, even when I was with her. Then I took a step back, revisiting some of the most basic Buddhist teachings.

Be present. Be mindful.

I decided that I would no longer spend my weekdays longing for the family time of Saturday and Sunday. And I would not spend those precious weekends dreading their eventual end. I decided that I would live in the present moment feeling acceptance and avoiding judgment. And since I knew I couldn’t actually live in the present moment, I vowed to at least live in the present day and not count down to circumstances I deemed necessary for the manifestation of happiness.

I did this for several months and I was content, genuinely so. The weeks at work were more pleasant and the weekends at home were wonderful. The Sunday blues stopped descending upon me and Mondays ceased to seem insurmountably awful.

Today I woke up with that feeling again; that feeling of, Curse you Monday, my old nemesis! And all day today I’ve been stumbling, crushed under the weight of the week looming ahead. Touché Monday, Touché.

Why is Monday getting the better of me again? Why am I struggling to stay in this day, this moment and not peer anxiously into an unknown future? It’s difficult to be present. I struggle to be mindful. It’s more challenging to do both when I’m tired and run down. I always feel tired on Mondays because it’s so hard to get to sleep on Sunday nights. And of course there’s the business of my impending summer vacation.

I only have five weeks until school is out. Five weeks. I’m trying so hard not to count down until the break. I’m attempting to live each of the next 33 days for itself and not solely as a stepping stone to summer. The next few weeks are precious. They are the last weeks of my daughter’s first year. Isa will turn one in less than a month and I don’t want to squander this time with her wishing it were another time. Just typing that out seems so ludicrous to me.

I know if I wait desperately for summer to come it will go by faster and be less satisfying when it’s finally here. If I live each day free of any preoccupation about summer break I will enjoy that vacation more. And I know I can accept each of these coming days for what it is. I know I this. I just need to do it.

Thank you Monday. Thank you for being a faithful teacher; one who always returns to review the lesson, lest my complacency allow me to forget.

Mindful Mondays: Wanting too much?

“Want little and know how to be satisfied.”

When I was first trying to curb my conspicuous consumption I made a bracelet with that line printed on it. I hoped the words encompassing my wrist would be a constant reminder, willing me to be satisfied with what I had. At the time I was thinking only of things, material possessions. Of course now, entrenched in motherhood, I’m realizing that there are so many other things I want… uninterrupted sleep, quiet personal time, someone to clean my house, to go out with friends or my husband, more quality time with my daughter. Sometimes I feel like all I do is want. And the land of wanting is not a satisfying world to inhabit.

Buddhism teaches that your expectation govern your sense of fulfillment. The greater your expectations, the greater the probability that they will not be met. When expectations are not realized, you are unhappy. This makes sense. If you want to experience certain things while on vacation (like warm, sunny weather or quiet, relaxing evenings), and they don’t materialize, you will be disappointed. You may be so upset that you don’t get appreciate the things you are enjoying, like good food or the company of friends or family.

As a mother who works out of the home, I’m constantly wanting things that I probably am not going to get. I can maintain these expectations and continue suffering, or I can change them. It’s as simple as that. I’ve noticed that a general theme of parenthood is feeling out of control. It’s easy to feel like your basic expectations are not being met. It can be overwhelming. Realizing that your own expectations are actually holding you hostage and creating your unhappy state can set you free.

Of course, we will always have wants and needs. No one would recommend attempting to abolishing all expectations without proper guidance and years of training (although if you were able to do this, genuinely, you would achieve enlightenment). The reality is, it wouldn’t be possible for 99.99% of people. And of course some expectations are necessary, like the expectation of being treated with respect for one’s emotional and physical well being. But most of our unmet expectations are more about what we want than what we physically need. Human beings have desires, and they always will. Luckily, just being aware of them can help us alleviate their grasp on us and our happiness.

I wrote recently about how hard parenthood has been on our relationship. Mi.Vida and I have really struggled recently. This week he is going to Austin for the SXSW music festival. I’m very excited for him to get this time with his friends doing his absolute favorite thing, listening to live music. When we discussed having children going to concerts was the one thing he was terrified to lose and I’m truly thankful that he gets this opportunity. I know it will make him genuinely happy.

I’m also a little jealous he gets five days away from responsibilities both at home and at work. It should also be noted that I’m going to miss the living shit out of him.

With all of this on my mind,  I suddenly found myself overwhelmed this weekend by the desire to go out on a date with my man. I wanted to reconnect with him away from home, sans the constant distractions.

I also really wanted to see a movie, in a theater, with popcorn and a huge well of Diet Coke. I wanted that really, really badly.

We went round and round trying to figure it out but it just wasn’t going to work. Seeing a movie takes too much time and would have us out too late for either set of parents to watch Isa. So I had to give up my expectations of a movie date. And I decided I’d only be willing to do that with much petulant fan fare and a general attitude of depravity. Let’s just say I was moping around the house being a right pouty little biotch.

Then I found my bracelet under the table (where Isa had casually discarded it during a meal) and I read those words for what felt like the first time.

Want little and know how to be satisfied.

Picking my sullen frown off the floor along with my bracelet, I stopped for a minute to figure out what I really wanted. Did I really want to go to the movies? Well yes, but that wasn’t a good idea for this date for a number of reasons. I could easily see a movie with a friend some other time, when Mi.Vida could watch Isa and I wouldn’t have to feel rushed (he doesn’t really like seeing movies anyway). What I wanted, what I really needed was to just be with Mi.Vida. And we could pull that off at home. We could put away our smart phones and computers and order in (or even cook) and clean off the table and light some candles and open a bottle of wine and have the experience I really wanted, while at home.

Of course Isa might wake up and we’d have to deal with that, but it wouldn’t be so bad. We could have what I felt like I needed without it being a big deal. And I certainly didn’t need to mourn not going to the movies of ruminate on how I never get to do what I want. Because that is not true, I get to do what I want all the time, and I’ll always get to do what I want if I have realistic expectations.

In the end, Mi.Vida and I did get to go out for dinner. My folks were able to come by and see Isa and stay for an extra hour and a half so we could go out. We had a lovely dinner and spend the entire time talking about non-parenthood related things (well almost the entire time) and we shared a bottle of wine and scooped tastes of each others meals into our mouths and had a really. nice. date.

The whole time I kept thinking, this is so nice, this is so much better than I expected. I simply reveled in it, savoring each and every minute.

And the next time I want to do something that motherhood seems to render impossible, I hope I can remember to want little and learn how to be satisfied, and make the best out of whatever presents itself.

In what area of your life do you feel your expectations are not being met? Do you think you could change your expectations in any way? If you did, do you think you’d be happier?

Mindful Mondays: Equanimity

I’m a dabbler but I dabble in a unique way. My dabbling does not look like tinkering with something here and there. I don’t dip my toes in, making little circles in the shallow end. Instead I usually dive into the deep end, submerging myself completely in my new passion, taking all the expensive accouterments with me. So when I say I’ve dabbled in rock climbing, surfing, photography, yoga, meditation, running, cycling and Buddhism, what I mean is I’ve dedicated huge parts of my life to these things, but for a limited amount of time. Some of these interests (surfing) have been more fleeting than others (rock climbing, cycling, yoga). And some are still a part of my life (running, photography, Buddhism) though I wish I could dedicate more time to them.

It might seem strange to dabble in one’s own spirituality, but my experiences with Buddhims seem best described that way. Not shockingly, I started exploring Buddhism after my ectopic, when I was trying to find meaning in a world suddenly defined by loss. I began reading books and attempting meditation. I started attending talks at the Zen Center near my house. I enrolled in a class there and took a weekend retreat on approaching depression and anxiety with mindfulness. I realized quickly that I did not know how to quiet my thoughts or experience the present moment and that if I could, I’d be a happier person. I also found a lot of wisdom in Buddha’s teachings and felt that incorporating them into my everyday life would bring me peace and fulfillment.

Now that much of the wound of my ectopic has scabbed over and the anxious turmoil of my pregnancy is past me, I’ve found less and less desperate need for spirituality in my daily life. I know that I would benefit from it, but it’s not necessary just to get me through the days.

I have managed to incorporate some Buddhist teachings into my daily life. And one has really been a very positive presence. That teaching is equanimity.

As I understand it, equanimity is the practice of approaching all things without judgment, accepting the present moment in any incarnation. This means accepting emotional or physical pain in the same way that we accept happiness and joy. It’s a very difficult idea to wrap one’s head around.

When I began working on equanimity I started small. At the time I was tutoring after work which meant I was hitting the end of my commute at the worst traffic time. Some days I could fly through and others I spent 30 minutes sitting in what resembled a parking lot. Rounding a certain curve I would hold my breath, bracing myself for my immediate future. If it were smooth sailing I’d be ecstatic, if it were a sea of illuminated tail lights I would be despondent. I decided that I wanted to approach this moment with equanimity. No matter the traffic situation, I would accept it without judgment.

After a week of my equanimity-towards-traffic-jams-practice I realized something interesting. While I was quite good at accepting the traffic without anger, it was difficult to accept the absence of traffic without elation. I found it harder to not be overly excited by positive things than upset by negative things.

You might think, why would you want to be less happy about something? Aren’t there few enough things to be happy about in this life? I would have said that two years ago. But now I feel differently.

I now realize that intense highs and lows do not cancel each other out. Intense highs can be as destructive as intense lows. If one can approach both the good and bad without judgment, over all they will be more content.

After I mastered the zen approach to my daily commute, I kind of forgot about equanimity. Until I went back to work and found that I was miserable during the week days and over joyed during the weekends. I spent all week counting down until Friday afternoon and spent Saturday and Sunday watching the precious weekend minutes slipping away. Every work day was just a stepping stone to the weekend. And every week was just a tally mark on the way to my next week off. It was a horrible way to live.

So I took what I knew about equanimity and applied it to my daily life. Now I approach every day with acceptance. I even find things to be thankful for in a given day. I’m thankful that I have a job that pays my bills. I’m thankful that I get to see my daughter when I get home. I’m thankful that my students make me laugh. I’m happy to see my colleagues during lunch. On the weekends I enjoy the time with Mi.Vida and with my daughter. I enjoy seeing friends and family. I enjoy spending the morning reading blogs while my daughter bangs toys into her sides.

This seems like a small thing, but it has fundamentally changed the way I live life. I’m no longer waiting for some distant day in the future when everything aligns to promote my happiness and well being. Now I feel content despite what day it is or what I have to do. It’s a new kind of freedom I’ve never felt before. And while I do sometimes miss the elation of a day off, I know I’m much more fulfilled by the quiet gratitude I now experience each and every day of my life.

Mindful Mondays: Practice

In Buddhism, people speak a lot about “your practice”. Your practice is, at it’s most basic, your life and how you incorporate Buddhist teachings into each and every moment. But “your practice” is more specifically meditation. Meditation, or sitting silently and experiencing the present moment, is the key to Buddhist practice.

There are entire books on how best to meditate. I have not done much meditation. It’s incredibly difficult for me, which is okay, because a “Beginner’s Mind” as it is called by one teacher, is what we should all strive for.

My point is, I don’t feel qualified to speak much about meditation (and there are so many people who are – if you want some references please ask). What I can say is that meditation generally takes place in a sitting position (though there are practices in walking meditation). The imagine of a serene figure smiling subtly in the lotus position is probably what comes to mind. And while you are welcome to sit in the lotus position, many people are physically unable to achieve that posture. Instead, they sit cross legged, or kneel or even sit on a chair. As long as you can sit quietly in the position without excessive discomfort, you’re okay.

Now the hard part begins. The purpose of meditation is to focus on the present moment. Most beginner meditators are encouraged to use the breath as a tool to return to the present moment. The breath is always with us and yet we rarely notice it, let alone accompany it on it’s journey. I’ve read instructions to count the breath to five and then start again (I frequently find myself on 46 before returning to the breath). I’ve also read about helpful sayings. A simple one I use frequently is, “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out I know I’m breathing out.” Or simply, “Breathing in. Breathing out.” Another mantra I like is “Breathing in, I know this is the perfect moment. Breathing out, I know this is the only moment.” Or, “perfect moment, only moment.” These mantras help us return to the breathe easily and without excessive effort. More accomplished meditators can bring only 25% of their attention to the breath, leaving the rest to just relish in the present moment. I can’t write much about that, because I’ve never been able to do it.

As you meditate, thoughts will bombard you, ricocheting around your head. Sometimes it’s just small things, like, Wow, this is hard, or I have to itch my nose, should I itch it? But small thoughts snowball into other, more involved ramblings. I can’t imagine how people who are being held captive deal with itches they can’t scratch. It would drive me insane! I’ve had moments during meditation were I would suddenly find myself in a very involved drama that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t recognize the characters, I didn’t understand what was taking place. It was extremely disorienting and sometimes I wondered if I were having a psychotic break.

So yeah, thoughts will arise (see how that little thought quickly became a paragraph-long rant) but when you realize that you’re thinking you just label it thinking and return to the breath. There is no judgement, there is no discerning whether things are as good or bad, just labeling your thought “thinking” and returning to the breath. This is the core of any mindfulness practice.

I’m reading about Buddhism again, trying to incorporate it’s teachings into my life. In doing this, I’ve come to understand that I MUST meditate if I want to practice mindfulness. Only in meditating can I cultivate the ability to remain present and aware. Only in meditating can I encourage loving-kindness and an open heart in all things.

But how do I find the time? I need to carve 20-30 minutes out of every (most) days to foster any real change in my life. That seems easy but I’m sure it will be exceedingly difficult. Still, I need to find a way.

I plan on doing Yin Yoga, which involves practicing mindfulness while holding yoga poses that open the different chakras and encourage energy to flow more freely through the body. I love Yin Yoga. I love how it makes me feel. I want to do it three times a week for about 30-60 minutes a time. On the other days I want to meditated for 20-30 minutes a day. We shall see if I can do this.

There are few things I know improve my mindset on a day to day basis. Exercise does, making Mi.Vida a priority can as well. And being mindful. Being mindful makes me feel less anxious and more accepting, even of the immense uncertainty of life. I know it will be hard to make this time for myself, but if I do, it will improve pieces of every single day, maybe even every single moment. I need to make this time for myself, for my daughter, for Mi.Vida. If I do, I will reap the rewards. If I do, I might just find peace. But only if I do.