Friday, November 22, 2013

Make a List, Check it Twice

A few weeks ago, I asked my co-worker Evan how much time he spent in Wegman’s when he did his food shopping. “30 minutes or so,” he said. I was spending, on average, 60 minutes each time I went there, and not coincidentally, way more money than I planned to. “It’s all about the list,” he said. I told him I usually had a list. "But do you stick to it?" he asked.
What a concept.

Although I have a list when I go to the store, my eye wanders, especially at Wegman's. Maybe I do need that hot wing cheese dip. Or that new brand of granola, or the chipotle hummus. Maybe the blue corn tortilla chips are healthier. With so many choices, my trips there became endless, overwhelming, exhausting.

The next week, I took Evan’s advice. I made a comprehensive list and went into the store, determined to only buy what was on it. It took great discipline with so many temptations: the funky car magnets I’d admired, pita chips for the aforementioned hummus, pepperoni for our pizza – but no, I stood firm, stuck to the list, and got out of there in 30 minutes, on budget. Amazing.

As I resisted each impulse to buy something not on the list I realized those urges came from a scarcity mentality – I have to buy it now, because maybe I won’t have another chance. I’m not sure what that’s about, but once I realized it was driving my buying choices, it was easier to say, no, I food shop at least once a week, if I really need eggs, I can get them. Having a list helped me feel more secure that I wouldn't have to do an extra grocery trip for a forgotten item.

The ultimate triumph of the list came the following week when I took my list, my new discipline and my toddler to Target. Somehow, I found everything that I needed and was back in the car in 30 minutes. With a toddler. This might not be walking on water, but for my world, it was miraculous. 

The list made me realize how susceptible I am to clever marketing, how distracted I am, how tempted to buy things I don't need, and have never considered until they catch my wandering eye in the store.

Could this possibly work for Christmas shopping? If you try it, let me know how it works out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My New York Times Debut

In case you missed the big news, I had my New York Times Debut on October 13 - the Sunday Times, no less.

In response to an essay called A Feminist's Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen, I wrote a response, which they printed in the Style section. I'd love to hear your responses to the essay, a subject near to my heart - how to balance our own needs with our children's.

Thank God my mom gave me great advice, so I could submit it to The New York Times!

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's Okay to Feel Sad

Daniel's face at drop-off is sadder than this

Each morning, when I drop Daniel off at school, as I say goodbye, he clings to me. He says, “I want my mommy to stay,” makes the saddest face anyone has ever seen, and often bursts into tears. I hate this.

But with the help of some friends and some books: (thank you How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk) I realized that I was making it worse by denying his feelings. By saying things like, “You love school,” or “You’re going to have fun today,” or “You’re okay,” I wasn’t permitting him to have his feelings. In point of fact, I didn’t want him to feel sad, because then I felt sad, unsure, guilty, and I hated that.

Once I realized that I’d been trying to gloss over his feelings, I began saying, “This is the hard part, saying goodbye. It’s okay to be sad.” This simple statement, said with sincerity, defuses his sadness pretty quickly. Earlier this week, he actually let go of me, and I didn’t have to peel his little fingers off my hand or leg.

A friend said to me recently that he found in parenting his children, he was really parenting himself. This started me thinking about how I don’t acknowledge my own “bad” feelings. I do have a naturally sunny temperament, but I also have a tendency to stuff or deny feelings like sadness, guilt, anger, fear. Because I don’t like feeling them, I pretend that I don’t. Each time I tell Daniel it’s okay to be sad, I’m telling myself the same thing. I need that message as much as he does, maybe more.

Besides changing my strategy at drop-off, I also try to remember that everyone’s life has good and bad, comfort and discomfort, every day. I cannot prevent Daniel from experiencing discomfort. Of course I hate the idea of him suffering, but knowing that it’s not my job to prevent it allows me to breathe.

So what can I do? I can acknowledge his feelings, listen to him without judgment. And I can give us all some extra leeway during transitions.

It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s okay to be guilty and unsure. The more I accept these feelings, welcome them even, explore them with curiosity, the less scary they are, the less they rule my life, the more I’m free to enjoy the good.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rancho Relaxo No' Mo'

This is what a week on Maui will do for you.
Summer in the Ackerman household is Rancho Relaxo. Carl has about eight weeks when he’s not teaching, and though he works part of the time, he is home more than usual. Daniel stays home with Daddy while I work, we spend long weekends at the shore, we loll in Lake Ontario with the Ackermans. This summer, Carl and I spent 10 glorious days in Hawaii. In a lifetime of great summers, this was one of the best I've had.

And now it’s over.

End of summer is hard every year. We transition from Rancho Relaxo to Rancho Insane-o. Jumping back into the school year routine is a bitch slap. Carl wakes at 5:30, I follow by 6. Must get dog walked, everyone fed, dressed, with daily lunch and necessities in hand and out the door by 7:15. This requires organization during weekends and evenings – food must be bought, lunches packed, laundry done, etc. Which is all fine. I like our school year routine. In fact, by the end of summer, I crave the structure and routine of fall. I need time at home, dates with friends, quiet time to write. But these first few weeks are always an adjustment.

This year, Daniel began preschool. So into the regular transitional mix we added learning how the school works, what Daniel needs during the day, how to help him adjust to being there four full days a week, what drop-off and pickup will be like. When the first day was hard (as everyone said it would be), a torrent of second-guessing and fear overcame me: was I doing the right thing? Was I a selfish mom? Yes, we need my income, but shouldn’t our child’s well-being come first? Is there another situation that would be better, easier?

Day two was a lot better than day one. Daniel’s teacher told me how she had held him until he fell asleep at naptime, which told me everything I needed to know about how kind she was. I ran into an acquaintance who taught preschool for 25 years. She said, “Preschool teachers have a special love for the little ones who have separation trouble. He will feel that love.” I knew she was speaking the truth, and that God had sent her to tell me that. I reminded myself that I had done my due diligence. I hadn’t just willy-nilly signed Daniel up for this program. I had prayed, meditated, researched, visited, discussed. Now I had to give it a chance to work, knowing that usually it takes a week or two to adjust, and even though I’m uncomfortable now, the reward will be great if this new situation works for us.

I’ve intensified my self-care over the past two weeks: made time for a massage, rested more, attended church, fed myself well, bought a new pair of boots (one consolation of fall.)

Share your wisdom with me. What helps you (or your children) adjust to change? How do you take care of yourself when things are hard? I know that most of the country is in transition in these first weeks of September. How can we help each other survive Rancho Insane-o?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Stop Apologizing

“I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as ‘Oh, I don’t know how to cook…,’ or ‘Poor little me…,’ or ‘This may taste awful…,’ it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, ‘Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal!’ Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is.” Julia Child

This passage from My Life in France really stuck with me. Maybe because, like most women, I overapologize. Someone will bump into me in the street, and I automatically say, "I'm sorry." Ironically, when I’ve done something wrong, it’s hard to apologize, but when I’m falling short of the expectation to be the perfect mother, homemaker and woman, I can't keep the explanations in my mouth. “I’m so sorry the house is a mess.” “I’m so sorry dinner isn’t ready yet.” “I’m so sorry I don’t have vegan cupcakes made from raw organic ingredients for your child.”

When I read Julia's above thoughts, I realized it is annoying to have to reassure someone that they are okay, so why should I put guests in that position?

With my antenna up about this issue, I started noticing it in other people. I have shown up at a friend’s house, who said, “Oh my god, there’s cat hair everywhere, I haven’t dusted in weeks, and oh, God, that's my son’s dirty underwear in the corner.” I definitely would not have noticed any of those things had she not pointed them out. Even if I had, I certainly am not inclined to judge anyone else’s housekeeping, and if I am, isn’t that my problem?

So unusual is the unapologetic host that she makes quite an impression when she does appear. A friend reported to me how, twenty years ago, when her son hurt himself on the playground, an acquaintance invited them to her house to bandage him up. The house was disastrous—dishes piled in the sink, toys and clothes strewn everywhere, outrageously messy—and the hostess didn’t apologize or explain. According to my Grandmom, my cousin Adelaide was always happy to host a party, no matter the state of her home. “She would have dustbunnies the size of cats, and they didn’t bother her in the least.” 

Both incidents were reported with admiration, disbelief - like how could you possibly be relaxed and unbothered by other people seeing your mess? I'm working on this skill, and because I have a living tornado, in the form of a toddler, I get plenty of practice. I can straighten up the house five times a day and still have a disaster scene. Why bother?

So, fair warning, if you're coming over for dinner, you might find a messy house and a mediocre meal, but you'll also have a happier, more relaxed hostess. And aren't you coming over to spend time with me, not to judge me? Maybe I can inspire you to worry less about your dustbunnies, and then your mess could inspire someone else. Let's start a chain of unapologetic imperfection.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Juggling Act

A tired cliche, I know, but I really do feel I've been juggling many balls in the air over the past few months. I've been working part-time, writing essays, planning a writing workshop, mothering Daniel, considering a return to my legal career, experimenting with screenwriting, and yes, I recently returned to my second novel.

So I haven't written many blog posts, and I'm trying to not feel guilty about it.

What I have written is posted at 4 Broad Minds - thoughts on Mother's Day and mothers-in-law. I hope you'll come visit me there.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Celebrate Women!

It's International Women's Day, how should we celebrate? How about showing some love for a woman in your life? Send your mom a card, buy your friend a mocha, text your sister a loving thought. Every woman I know works hard, juggling many responsibilities and roles. We could all use some extra kindness.

And for all the ladies out there, here's a radical thought: show yourself some extra love today. Give yourself permission to sit down for thirty minutes to read a book or magazine. Linger over your dinner. Eat dessert. You deserve it.

Hooray for women!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Taking My Time

How I feel when I'm hurrying

“What are you giving up for Lent?” was a question commonly discussed in the St. Bernadette's cafeteria. Usually I would give up chocolate or Doritos, maybe Coke. I hadn’t practiced the Lenten sacrifice in decades, but last year, my friend Claire told me she was driving in the car without any music or news for Lent. She liked the idea of a short window to try out a new behavior, like an experiment.

Claire's take made sense to me, so last year for all of Lent, I drove the speed limit. I felt much calmer in the car, less focused on other drivers’ behavior, more open to noticing hawks soaring or trees budding or clouds drifting. After Easter, I relaxed my restriction – driving 55 on the highway is excruciating – but find that most of the time, because it helps me enjoy my day, I respect driving laws.
How I feel when I'm taking my time
 This year for Lent, I’m slowing down in general. The inspiration came from a speaker who started her talk by saying, “I’m going to take my time. That was something I was never given permission to do as a child.” This idea stuck in my head. My parents are not “take their time” kind of people. If there is one more activity they can squeeze into a day, they do it. And God bless them, it seems to work fine for them. (Except for the occasional missed cruise ship.)

I also fill my days completely. Do I have five minutes before a friend arrives? I’ll put in a load of laundry and wash the dishes. Ten minutes before Daniel will likely wake? I’ll write a draft of an essay, check my email, and call the portrait studio about ordering those wallets. Yes, I’m efficient, but many days I feel harried and stressed. I hoped that by slowing my pace to a jog, I might enjoy life more.

Since Ash Wednesday, I’ve caught myself rushing many times each day: changing my son into his pjs; tugging the dog along on her leash; speed walking to the bathroom at work. My writing teacher observed that maybe if I wrote more slowly I’d be able to read my own handwriting. Wow. I’m in too much of a hurry to write legibly.

The first real test came on Tuesday, when I woke up later than planned, and had a doctor’s appointment.  But when I noticed the stress, I took a few breaths, gave myself permission to take my time, and accepted that I might be late. The frenzy might have saved me a few minutes, but it would have made all of them unpleasant. I let Daniel dawdle a bit over breakfast, drove the speed limit, and breathed through my anxiety. With very little traffic, and a prime parking spot, somehow I arrived at 9:45 on the dot, and much calmer than frantic Julie would have had.

The gift of awareness is realizing I have choices. Oh, I’m hurrying again? Okay, I don’t have to do that. So I guess, in St. Bernadette’s terms, I’m giving up rushing for Lent. I think Sr. Mary Bertha would approve.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Superwoman is Fiction

Last Thursday, as I drove to the car dealership, I sang out loud, “I’m super woman,” to the tune of “I’m Every Woman.” You’d think by now I might recognize the pride before the fall, but no, I didn’t. I congratulated myself on waking up, meditating, feeding everyone, and getting out the door in time. My packed schedule continued all day, without incident until 5 PM, when Carl came in the door.

“Sorry, I just heard your message,” he said.

I noticed he did not have the rolls or horseradish sauce I’d asked him to pick up on his way home. He plopped onto the couch and said he was exhausted, had body aches, and feared he had the flu. Did I feel sympathetic? No. I felt something more like fury. I was tired too. And now what were we going to have for dinner, and how was I going to get to my writing group on time, and who was going to entertain the very energetic toddler?

I huffed and sulked, then took the dog with me to pick up the things for dinner. An hour later, as I took our sandwiches out of the oven, Carl asked if something was wrong.

“I’m irritated,” I said.

When he asked why, I sighed, then thought about it. I wanted to blame my bad mood on someone else, namely him, but really, once again, the problem lied within. I had taken on too much that day, causing me to feel completely overwhelmed at the smallest obstacle. "Why don't you sit down for a few minutes?" he suggested.

Thank God I married someone who can remind me how to stay sane. When I get stressed, everything I know about staying calm flies right out of my head. But I knew he was right. I needed a few quiet minutes to calm down.

After just a few deep breaths I realized it wouldn’t matter all that much if I was a little late for the writing group. I remembered that I could ask Carl to finish the laundry and put Daniel to bed. I remembered one of my mantras, “I have all the time I need.”

Anytime I start thinking I’m superwoman, I’m in trouble. Some days I am quite amazed at what I can accomplish. But that level of energy is unsustainable for me, unless I take time for self-care. I don’t know if superwoman needed to meditate, eat well, exercise and rest, but I do.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cracks are how the Light Gets In

Mi corazon está roto. Roto.” My heart is broken. Broken. These were the only words I could summon, in speaking with my host parents in Mexico, after learning that their son had died, suddenly. On December 26. Of a heart attack. At age 36.

Nine days later, I feel a bit calmer. Somehow, my mind has accepted that Roje is dead. But I also know that my heart has acquired another fissure, one that will scab over, and hurt less, but will leave a lasting scar.

I find comfort in the idea that cracks are how the light gets in. Just today, when I entered the library and heard a screaming infant, I felt compassion for her and for her mom. Before my own struggles with parenting, I probably would have thought, “God, can’t you make her shut up? This is a library. People are working.” But the difficulties of motherhood have cracked me enough to make room for compassion and empathy. Though I wouldn’t have chosen postpartum depression or a colicky infant, I can see that good did come from those struggles.
The idea that God can bring good out of anything is different than the idea that everything happens for a reason. I just re-read an article by Christine Marie Eberly about this distinction and found it very helpful. When someone says “Everything happens for a reason,” the implication is that God chose this suffering for us for some reason we don’t understand. That concept of God doesn’t work for me. I prefer St. Paul’s notion that God can bring good out of whatever happens to us. Anne Lamott says she pictures Jesus saying, “You’re hurting. Me too. You’re angry. Me too. You’re heartbroken. Me too.” That’s a God that I can believe in.

I hate that Rogelio died. And that’s my right. I never would have chosen this for his wife or his parents, or his small children. But there it is. We cannot control when or how our loved ones die. I don’t know how good will come of this, but I have to believe that it will.

Thank you, Roje, for your friendship, your love. Thank you for your beautiful children, your example of kindness and generosity. I am a better person because I knew you. You will always be my brother. Te extrano mucho mi hermano.