Growing Pains

They're growing up.  It's inevitable.

They’re growing up. It’s inevitable.

When you’re pregnant, people say, “Enjoy your sleep while you can!”  When they’re babies, people say, “Enjoy it before they’re mobile!”  When they’re toddlers, people say, “Enjoy it before they start talking back!”  When they’re in preschool, people say, “Enjoy it before the friend problems start!”  When they’re in elementary school, people say, “Enjoy it before they’re teenagers!”  But when they’re in middle school, well all that “enjoy it” shit comes to a screeching halt.

Why do people say these things anyway?  Is it to give you pause, make you think?  Is it to make themselves feel better?  Or is it so you can look back and say how fucking brilliant they were?   By the way, it’s not really a loving little tidbit meant to engage you in the present.  It’s a reminder that they have laid the groundwork, you are the novice and your happy little life is about to get a kick in the ass.   In any event, you won’t find many middle school parents telling you to enjoy it.  Sure, it’s the last rodeo before teenager-hood sets in.  But it is a road paved with tricky twists and turns. It was formed from the anxiety that you experienced not so long ago.  After walking this road for about a week now, I’ve decided that I need to pull over.  I need to regroup.

In my house, we’ve had our share of nervous excitement, first day jitters and existential preteen drama.  What I was unprepared for, what I am still unprepared for as a parent to this day, is how completely and fully I inhabit their experience.  After my first heartbreak, I remember my mom telling me, “As a mom, when you hurt, I hurt.  When you’re sad, I’m sad.”  As a fully realized teenager, I of course shrugged it off.  How could she possibly know how I feel?  She is old.  She is married.  She is boring.  But as the years pass, it becomes clearer and clearer.  She was right.

In a 2013 article published in the journal Neuroscience, saliva samples were obtained from middle schoolers who were making the tough transition from elementary school.  As it happens, their saliva is chock full of cortisol-meaning they are in a state of stress where their brain is having to intervene to try and achieve some calm.  In addition, a preteen’s brain is way more focused on emotional processing than logical reasoning.  Uh-huh.  I see you all nodding.  This is referring to the moment when your preteen’s head literally explodes in front of you and you are left wondering, “who the hell is this person?”  All of a sudden, when everything seemed to be going along swimmingly, you are having to set boundaries, delineate rules and establish order.  And guess what?  Despite the fact that chaos is ruling your home, it’s all perfectly normal.

There’s nothing like novelty to get your brain supercharged.  Some people thrive on newness.  They get bored when things are all routine and predictable.  They need intrigue and new ideas to explore.  I am not one of those people.  And guessing from the talk of the suburbanites around me, we are all feeling a bit challenged.  Yesterday at a mom gathering at a friend’s house, some of the moms were wondering where their child had gone and who was that stranger now occupying their body?  (Here is where I apologize to parents of younger children.  I won’t be that bitch who says, “Enjoy it!  Before your kid gets to middle school!”) Last night, my husband astutely told me I was in supermom mode right now, but that it was temporary and everything will normalize soon.  It’s all gonna be fine.  I tried to believe him.

But it wasn’t until today while talking to my wise friend Tami that it all came together.  She was talking about how she had left a note on her daughter’s bed before she left for work.  Without knowing the exact wording, essentially it said the following:  I’m sorry.  I love you.  This is a transition for me, too.  She acknowledged that she was going through this as well.  We are in this together.  I’m not perfect, but you can count on me.  Isn’t that cool?

There are no easy answers, I suppose, although I wish there were.  There is great advice to read and be gained from your friends who have been there.  But, there is heartache ahead for your child, no matter who you are.  My daughter, who is too big for my lap, cuddled up in my lap last night.  She said, “When I was little and I had a nightmare, you told me it was okay and I wasn’t scared anymore.  Now I guess I have to do that myself.”  Sniffle, yes.  We can help.  We can listen (not to be confused with that other “L” word:  lecture).  Spend time with them without their siblings. Keep our shit together when she is losing hers.  Remind ourselves that their brains aren’t finished growing yet; that emotions often control their behavior.

And let her know, your lap is always there if she needs it.

Give her the goods, then let her go.

Give her the goods, then let her go.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen, for the beautiful photos.  She has a high schooler and a middle schooler.  You should talk to her about it.  She’s a great mom.

I confess. I didn’t work out today.

I'm thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I’m thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I didn’t go to the gym today.  My gym shoes lie dormant in the shoe closet, festering in dark silence.  My yoga mat sits neatly rolled up in the corner.  The pad of my index finger did not sit on a screen to check me into the gym.  My dog did not pant gratefully, then flop onto the cool tile after a run.  My speedy green road bike hangs on it’s hook, its odometer stuck on the same number from my last ride a few days ago.  Still and peaceful in my drawer, my heart rate monitor awaits it’s next challenge.  But my brain?  Ah, my brain.  That’s been going a thousand miles an hour.

The clock now reads 7:47 pm, and I am still thinking about where I could have squeezed in a workout.  (Okay, dammit!  Not “thinking.”  Obsessing.)  In the 45 minutes I had before I picked up the kids?  Could I have gotten up early?  I should have gotten up early.  The mental space taken up negotiating, fact checking, brow beating and ass kicking has been a workout in and of itself.  I mean, seriously.  What a waste of time.

Now, I grew up Catholic and my husband is Jewish so we are no strangers to guilt around here.  But my fellow suburbanites also carry around a fair bit of guilt themselves.  They work too much.  They don’t exercise enough.  They don’t make enough money.  They should be more crafty, more creative.  More interesting.  Less critical.  More kind.  More productive.   They should take more classes, go back to work.  (I swear to you all overheard in one happy hour).  There are multiple structures in your brain which are responsible for how you perceive and process guilt.  What motivates one person is different than what motivates another, but we are all profoundly and universally influenced by community.  This means that if your friends and community didn’t exercise, it would be a hell of a lot easier to hit the snooze button rather than get up and go to the gym.  Conversely, this is often why groups like Crossfit and for me, my yoga community, are intrinsic motivators.  You think about who you will see and who will miss you if you don’t show up.

In suburbia, if you see other people making good money, working out/looking fit, having good marriages and managing their time wisely, you want to do it too.  It’s a testament to my social network and neighborhood that there are some pretty hot 40 somethings (with great lives to boot).  So that’s probably why I feel bad when I miss a workout.

Personal blame, like when you are a lazy ass and don’t work out and beat yourself up for it, is mitigated in the subgenual cingulate cortex by the limbic (primitive and emotional) region of the brain.  These layers of emotion, blame and guilt make for some very busy collaborations.  It also makes sense to me, given all the stuff your cranium is processing, that you would be exhausted.  At this point, you should do yourself a favor.  You should, as my grandma used to say, shit or get off the pot.  For me, I should either not work out and chalk it up as a rest day or I should just go work out and be done with it.  Today, I am choosing to call it a night.   And I’ll tell you why.

First of all, it was a great day.  Beginning with a fun field trip with my 8 year old daughter, followed by getting some errands done, doing some writing, talking with a friend and ending with some real magic, it’s okay that my day didn’t include breaking a sweat.  Also, rest days help the following day to be stronger and better.  Maybe it will help that nagging knee pain I’ve been experiencing.  Maybe I’ll tackle an 8 or 10 miler tomorrow with my pup.  And you know what else?  There is SO MUCH more time in the day when you don’t work out!   I got my paperwork organized for work tomorrow, got my daughter to swim lessons on time, grudgingly mailed the taxes my hubby thoughtfully prepared, wrote a note to my sister-in-law and did some yard work.

As for the magic, the picture below was a rainbow we saw right out my front window tonight.  We would never have even known it was there if my neighbor hadn’t called to tell us to look out our window.  Thank you, neighbor.

Thank you, community.

No more guilt for me.

Now that's a little suburban magic right there.

Now that’s a little suburban magic right there.

Thanks again to Barbara Paulsen for the image at the top of this post.   She continues to inspire me with her creativity.

A Suburban Soliloquy

School should be a safe place to learn and grow.

School should be a safe place to learn and grow.  Photo courtesy of Mt. Hood Mama photos.

I feel so lucky that my kids had runny noses, that they almost forgot their lunches and whined about the weather.  There are 20 families in Connecticut this morning that didn’t get so lucky.  Two of them had funerals instead.  Today I was fortunate enough to have the day off and go to my favorite yoga class.  As tears and sweat mingled in salty reverie, I was inspired to write even though most of my weekend was spent in a state of autopilot, despair and hibernation.

Like so many of you, I watched the coverage of the shootings with disbelief.  And like many of you, I resisted the urge to run to the school to pick up my kids.  Dropping off my kids at school today, I felt more than fear.  I felt dread.  You see, dread is what you feel when something happens suddenly without warning and when that same thing is something you have absolutely no control over.  Our brains tend to overestimate danger from such causes (think plane crashes, mass murderers etc.)  The threat is bigger than our comprehension, so our fears multiply.  Breathe, friends.  It’s rare.

And then I am reminded of my recent brush with guns and am suddenly aware of how close to home this type of tragedy can be.  When we feel out of control, we want to fix the problem, rage against the NRA and demand better mental health care for our citizens.  I hear you.  But can we slow down?  Can we let these families grieve first?  Can we first just be uncomfortable?  It doesn’t feel good to be uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s necessary.

There are other things I can do to help my community.  Nothing radical, nothing controversial.  They might include:

  • do some bell ringing for the Salvation Army.
  • hug a kid with Asperger’s (asking permission first of course, they tend not to like it.  On second thought, play a computer game with them)
  • adopt a family for Christmas.
  • put one of the toys you bought for your kid in a donation box.
  • pray, breathe, dedicate, devote, sing, offer, create
  • make a gingerbread house with your kid
  • write a note to someone you love
  • etc etc etc…………..

This kind of loving energy is as essential as air to all of us as we go about the business of preparing for the holidays, all the while knowing that other families are not as privileged.  While I am dedicating these small actions to the families who have survived immeasurable loss, I am not wishing them “comfort”.  I am wishing them the time to reflect and grieve, space from nosy reporters, the ability to treat themselves to loving kindness, a hope that one day the holidays won’t be synonymous with sadness and the strength to be there for the living.

But mostly I wish them a purpose, a divine strength that guides them into action.  Not now, one day, when agony gives way to ache, may they have the will to tell a story.  One whose ending is not yet written.

In the meantime, the suburbs witnessed an evil act.  But the suburbs are not the problem.  We, in fact, are the solution.

What will you do?

Thank you, Suburbia

Taken on my morning run, Thanksgiving Day 2012, suburbs.

Dear Suburbia,

I get down on you sometimes.  You can be impossibly difficult and isolating.  You can be boring.  You can be judgmental.  You can be soul crushing.  But, still, you have your good points.  Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend, I wanted to show you a little love.

Thank you for all your strip malls.  Ugh, I hate how you look, but you are maybe, just maybe, a little bit convenient.

Thank you for my yard.  Though it is filled with dog shit, it’s our own little private landscape.

Thank you for my neighbors.  They look out for us, they supervise my children, they take care of their yards, they hang pretty decorations, they take in our trash cans.   And they mind their own business.

Thank you for the Joneses.  We have to try to keep up with someone.  Don’t we?

Thank you for the mini-vans.  Last week, I had 5 kids, their sleepover and soccer supplies, my dog, 5 bags of food donations, a large lamp and a frozen turkey in mine.   All at once.  Take that, sedan.

Thank you for the grocery stores.  We live where there is easy access to wonderful, quality grocery stores.  That is a good thing.

Thank you for the farmer’s market.  I can still get locally grown produce and gifts there.  And run into a hundred people I know!  And take the dog for a walk!  And get the kids out of the house!  And get a last minute birthday gift!  What a treasure.

Thank you for my multiple running and bike routes.  While they each possess their own unique challenges, their familiarity provides comfort.

Thank you for my mailman.  And my dog groomer.  And the nice lady at the bread shop.  And my yoga instructor.  Do you ever thank your mailman?  My dad was a mailman.  They’re all good people.  They deserve for us to be nice to them.

Thank you for my washer and dryer, the ability to let my dog out when she has to wee, grass instead of a single wall between neighbors, a playroom for the kids, a place to park my car without paying, a window in every room, my own mailbox, more than one bathroom,  a dishwasher and the absence of cockroaches and mice.   I didn’t have any of those things when I lived in the city.

Thank you for the coffee shop which I literally cannot enter without knowing someone.

Thank you for the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon-feel.  You can always have a connection to a person you just met, whether it’s the school your kids go to, where you grew up or common friends.

Thank you for your lack of horns, drunken bums lurking on my steps and homeless people asking me for money.  Wait, I take the last one back.  That does happen.

Thank you for surprising me with human warmth and substance.  You really sneak up on me with that one sometimes.

Thank you for being close to the vibrancy of the city, but not actually being a big city yourself.  Also thank you for not having giant fields I have to plow, or livestock I need to raise.

Thank you for being a symbol of hope for so many who want to grab a piece of the American dream.

Thank you, in spite of everything, for being our beloved home.

Love,

Me

 

“Terror in the Suburbs!” OR “Letting Go of Control”

My pumpkin patch, or apparently the place to leave discarded weaponry

On the way up my driveway last Monday, I was checking my pumpkin patch.  My daughter’s pumpkin was ready and I was admiring it as I halfheartedly looked forward to the chaos of Halloween.  I had just dropped the kids off at school, and I was turning over writing ideas.  Then, I caught sight of something metallic and shiny.  As I approached, my brain tried to make sense of what I was seeing.  It was a gun.  And, although I didn’t know it at the time,  it was loaded.

I ran inside to tell my husband, my heart racing and my mind attempting to formulate some sort of explanation.  He walked outside with me.  While I yelled at him not to touch it, he gently used a pumpkin leaf to check it’s weight.  Apparently this is what you do when it is a couple days before Halloween and you are unsure if the supposed gun is real or a toy.  It wasn’t a toy.  So,  I called the police.  I stood in the window watching it.  As if it might get up on it’s own and commit a crime.  Or in case someone walked into my yard.  I was prepared to yell “Gun! Gun!” to anyone who entered.

The police showed up like 10 minutes after I called.  Seriously fast.  Get this, one officer picked it up with his bare hand.  Hasn’t this guy ever seen CSI?  Doesn’t he know about fingerprints?  DNA for fucksake?  He made a couple jokes to try and make light of the situation, given that I was in my pajamas, my husband was ready to go for a bike ride and the four of us were looking at an instrument of death.   We made guesses as  to how it got there.  They checked the barrel.  One bullet missing, but otherwise loaded.  No safety.  They took down my name.  They told me it was  a 32 magnum (which I had to google). With a shrug and a “well that’s one less gun out there,” they left.

As much as I tried to get on with my day, and then my week, as much as I rationalized, I was left with one agonizing and recurring thought.  What if my kids had found that instead of me?  They were out there playing the day before with friends.  I played a tape in my head that ran all week of a child pulling a trigger.  Nothing could be so scary.  Not the fact that my family was staring down a major storm.  Not that my husband’s mom is in hospice and we are left to watch a strong spirit wither away.  Not an election that seems to have no end.  No, nothing is as scary as a cold, icy gun in the hand of a child.  Nothing.

For those of you who have experience with guns, this may all seem a bit over the top to you.  After all, you may be used to the power of a bullet propelling itself out of a metal barrel.  But I am not.  I remember all the movies I have seen and all the headlines I have read and I am terrified.  I can’t get myself out of the running tape.  That night, I confess to my husband that I am scared.  We decide, for now, not to tell the kids.  What kind of damage had that gun already done?  Obviously someone wanted to get rid of it.  Then, suddenly, I felt ashamed.  Like I had done something wrong or that this was a reflection of the downward spiral of my neighborhood.  I don’t want anyone to know.  I wish I could take back the friends I have told, I panic.

So, I call the police department.  I want to know what happened to the gun.  What it was used for? And what has happened to it?  If you have ever called the police department,  you already know what a head-banging experience in frustration this is.  There are multiple numbers on the website and I got directed to another two.  At last, there is a nice person who knows a thing or two and she helps me stay calm.  As my de-facto therapist, she explains that I don’t need to feel ashamed and that I have done nothing wrong.  She said I was the “victim” here.   And then it hits me.  That’s exactly how I feel, that I have been violated.  There was a person or persons who saw so little value in my life or the lives of my children (we very clearly have children based on how our home is decorated for Halloween) that they tossed a loaded gun onto my property.  There you have it.

My friend Tami soothes my nerves as well by telling me that the reason others may be uncomfortable with the situation is because they worry it could happen to them.  I remember comforting myself with iterations of  that neighborhood or those people when something happens that is scary or unforeseen.  It can even happen with things like divorce or job loss.  We tell ourselves it won’t happen to us for whatever reason.  But as the officer told me, people do desperate things.  I sigh.  I want to be in control, I want to be able to protect my children.  In my mind, I don’t call the police.  I keep the gun in my bedside table and feel it’s cold comfort in my hand as I aim it in the direction of those who would hurt my family.

But wait.

That’s not me!  I remind myself of who I am and who my neighbors are.  We are all really just doing the best we can.  So I will continue to do the things within my control while I giving myself some room to breathe when they are not.  And often, so often, they are not.    My pumpkin patch and my yard have given me much joy, and facing the truth always feel better than hiding.  Suburbs, we are all in this together.

 George Harris sticks carnations in gun barrels during an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967.

Photo by Bernie Boston of the Washington Evening Star.  George Harris was sticking flowers in gun barrels at an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967.  Guns freak me out too, George.  But I sure as hell wouldn’t choose to get that close to one.

Happy Birthday to Suburbo-types! And me!

We’re all in this together.

Okay it’s not my birthday until mid-November, but this week marks a year since suburbo-types was up and running.   (Suburbo-types is only 1, but as my daughter pointed out, I am going to be 44, not 43 as my brain had originally thought.  Nice.)  It’s a natural time to think about this project, what I’ve learned and where it’s heading.  Originally, suburbo-types was meant as a platform for my understanding of the truth of our relationships in suburbia, how and why we stereotype each other and to gain a fuller understanding of my fellow suburbanites.  Alas, a year later, I have no solid answers, but the questions are evolving.  And the truth as to why I began is starting to make more sense to my often hard-headed skull.

It’s a biologically human and rational inclination to desire contact and connection with others.  In the months before I began the blog, my best friend Tracy moved away and I found myself wanting to get to know people more.  Tracy was my lifeline as we raised our babies together (our kids are the same ages). We talked on the phone sometimes 3 times a day.  My baby projectile barfed! Her baby sprout a tooth!  I’m worried, I’m scared, I feel incompetent, I’m lonely!  I was able to say whatever I wanted and I knew she understood.   It is an intense time for all new moms, but it was made easier by Tracy who juggled making me laugh, listening to my incessant chatter and hearing every word I uttered without judgment.   She is still there for me, but she lives 2 hours away, works and has a life of her own.  So do I.  But when she left, I wondered how I would ever feel as connected again.  Not to mention the pain of living so far away from my family, especially my new niece.

Shameless promotion of adorable new niece.

In the wake of going back to work part-time, raising young children and navigating the suburban landscape, I found myself being incredibly judgmental and critical of my suburb-dwelling peers.  I was constantly sizing people up, and in the end, I was really only judging myself.  I realize I was making other people seem scarier than they were to protect myself from, what, getting attached and having THEM move away too?  Maybe it was easier to keep everyone at arm’s distance.  But as I came out of my shell,  and as I met new friends and let myself (and them) off the hook a little more,  I came to see that all of us hide a little and we certainly protect ourselves.  Maybe we criticize others for how they parent, how they dress or what they say.  I am guilty of doing these things too, but I am willing to let go of it bit by bit to make the suburbs feel less strip-mall and more Main street.  In Dave Goetz’s book Death by Suburb:Keeping the Suburbs from Killing your Soul, he states that cultivating deep friendships (note: not the get your mail for you, wave from your car-kind), those that bring deep joy and satisfaction, is the antidote for social climbing,  people pleasing, ass-kissing and perpetuating your mask.  I know, deep, right?!

In the compelling book Incognito by neuroscientist David Engleman,  he lays out a complex interplay between two parts of your brain.  The first, the prefrontal cortex,  does it’s best work by stretegizing and analyzing.  It plans and thinks.  It tells you that you have exactly 24 waking hours on the weekend in which to do laundry, finish that report by Monday, help with homework, make meals, prepare for the coming week etc.  Then, the more primitive limbic system, or emotional control center, begins to feel the freak coming on at about 4 o’clock on Sunday when all that shit has no chance of getting done.  It works the same way when you are building relationships .  The prefrontal cortex examines what you will say or wear, then the limbic system causes you to worry about that joke you told or the red shirt that you wore that may have been just a little too low-cut.  All of us have these two characters battling it out in our heads.  For me,  genuinely connecting to others and putting myself out there makes my inner soldiers a little less likely to get into full-blown war.

The suburbs have always felt a little lonely to me.  They with their picket fences and closed doors.  Unknown neighbors.  Long driveways.  Pruned bushes.  What’s really going on in there?  (okay, not everything: private is private) This writing, although making me incredibly vulnerable and fearful at times, has freed me to explore uncharted waters.  Who is beneath the facade.  Where the truth lies.  All the topics for suburbo-types come from conversations I have had or overhead somehere in the ‘burbs.   And the interviews are attempts to understand there is a lot to know about each of us.  Really, it’s just so we all know that those we surround ourselves with are more than who we see.  Of course, you don’t want to be too vulnerable.  You don’t want to tell someone that you are living a shame-based existence the first time you meet them.  The fact that you slept with the entire football team your sophomore year of high school?  Probably TMI.  You have to have a strong base to hold up the weight of the relationship.  Thanks to you,  I hope is what the community of suburbo-types is starting to do.

So, for the coming year, the blog will be focusing on more interviews, more subjects that maybe we all think about a little bit but don’t talk about very much and just being here for a safe 5 minute read during your busy lives.  Please let me know what you’d like to see, any polite criticism (I am human, after all) and insights into your suburban life.  I value your feedback and don’t publish it if requested.

Mt. Hood Mama Photos is responsible for the lovely image at the top of this post.  My sister is responsible for the cute baby photo.  And the cute baby.