Self-Portaiting 

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So, I’ve set out on a journey I didn’t really intend to take, and it all started with a picture. I was lucky enough to be selected as part of a group of real-women journalists to write for The Village Magazine, and the first assignment was to be an exploration of what makes us unique. I was confident about what I would focus on in the essay, but I also needed to include images to accompany the writing. This was a challenge. I felt, in the very heels of my soul, that the images needed to be self-portraits. And there was a surprising amount of weight in the responsibility. So, naturally, I dragged my feet around the task. I made endless lists of preparations. I’d need a haircut, maybe highlights to cover those new greys. I’d curl, contour, blush, rouge, smudge, and conceal this face. I’d wear black, ‘cause, well, duh, it’s who I am and it’s the most flattering shade of all the shades. All black everything, all the time.  The whole outfit would have to be new so the blacks were not faded and they all match. And, thus, the list of tasks grew and grew and grew. And the deadline crept closer and closer. Instead of actually doing any of the items on my list, I took a cue from my toddler and peacefully resisted by throwing myself face-down on the ground. I really was dreading every bit of this self-portraiting.

When faced with a looming deadline, I’d normally buckle down and procrastinate until the night before and then sheer adrenaline and fear of failure would take me through a productive night into a sleepy-eyed, draggy morning. Since I’m not a photographer, I knew this normal level of super procrastination wouldn’t work because I just didn’t know what in the heck I was doing; surely the process of editing (learning Photoshop was on the list of tasks to accomplish) would take longer than a night. So I set up a test run three days before the deadline. I wanted to make sure I could use the camera, that the light was decent, that I could run from the camera to my place in front of the lens before the shutter clicked at me, and that I had some idea of flattering poses. After rigging up my Canon camera on a mini tripod balanced on a laundry basket stacked on top of a toy box, I pushed the shutter button and started the timer. I ran to the bed, where I had determined we had the best natural light, and jumped up there with the baby. The camera ticked down and click, click, clicked my first ever portrait. It was a test portrait, so my bare face, my leggings, mom bun, and flannel shirt didn’t matter.

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I dragged my feet back to the camera and hit the review button. I was sure everything about the picture would be awful. The ten images that came up were a little blurry, but I didn’t hate them. I like them, a lot. They were life; they were easy and real and a fair representation of the authentic me. So, I re-balanced the camera on its wobbly perch, hit the button again and sprinted to the bed. My 21 month old squealed at my antics and we tickled each other. The laughter was real, the smiles were real, our wild hair and stupid outfits were real. This was healing and revealing and addicting.

I took over two hundred pictures. Each burst of images was a new experiment in expressing who I am through action, not posing. It was liberating and explorative and the most glorious unconscious act of feminism. The images are precious in their imperfection. And I was surprised that I didn’t disdain my body like I do when I look in the mirror or try to button fresh-out-of-the-drier jeans. I wasn’t critical, AT ALL, of my crooked face and uneven eyes. I didn’t see the extra bumps and valleys of my midsection or my overly-full thighs. I saw ME and, for the first time, I saw me as mama. I saw the way my daughter looks at me when I don’t see and the way I look at her when she’s talking. I saw how my hands, so strong, clutch her little bottom while she’s on my hip. I saw strength and pride, too, in the corners of my eyes. I saw contentment and happiness in my lips and the crease at the sides of my nose. I saw what my baby’s fingers look like when they’re tracing my jawline so I will turn and look at her. I saw her eyes light up as I read to her. I saw all the hard nights and fun days we’ve spent together and the energy, energy, energy and focus and attention we’ve lavished onto each other. I saw the miracle of my body and its ability to create this little morsel of sparky life and fire and love. Finally. I saw a verification of my position as a mother that I didn’t know I needed. This is the mama that others see. This is the mama that my daughter sees. She’s real and she’s living it. It’s a strange relief to finally meet her, to meet me. I feel powerful and righteous and so much more self-assured. How did I not know that this was me? What else am I missing? I’ve taken several more self-portraits since then and each is as revealing as the first.


blpg-2I’d like to advocate, gently but insistently, that you find a moment to take your own self-portrait. Go beyond the selfie. Separate yourself from the camera, use a timer so you can become the subject. Don’t worry about the quality. Capture yourself in the midst of life. I’m certainly not a photographer, but I managed. You can, too. Sure, you could have someone take it for you, but I think we can’t help but act in front of others, even our partners and friends. Take your own portrait and then look at it with a liberated heart. Who do you see that you didn’t know was there? You owe it to yourself to savor your being and appreciate all the nuances that make you spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Selflessness, Anyway? 


I’m not very good at being selfless, it’s a struggle that I face everyday as a parent. Sometimes it feels like a fight to give up what I need in exchange for what the baby needs. It’s getting easier, but I still struggle. Then, there’s part of me that wonders, how selfless should I really be in order to be an effective parent? To be a good parent? To be an excellent parent? What is the real ratio of selflessness to effectiveness? On days when I feel that I’ve failed because I was selfish I think of the days when I felt depleted because I gave it my all and I feel guilt either way. Why must it all end in guilt? 


But it doesn’t, really, always end in guilty feelings. Most days, I make it through without worrying about being selfless or even a good parent. Most days, I just AM. I don’t think about the metaphysical battle of parenting. I don’t worry about being a good parent. I don’t concern myself with analyzing the level of selflessness I’m exhibiting to my daughter. I just live and play and work and focus on things outside of my struggle to parent. And magically, by being myself, I become better. I’m more present and more happy. 


This realization helped me discover that forcing myself to be a selfless caregiver is ridiculous and actually shifts my focus away from the act of mothering. The paradigm of self analysis, especially in terms of selflessness, causes me to focus more on myself than on my baby, making things worse. Worrying about the quality of my focus on the baby, was, in fact, taking my focus further from the baby and placing it back on me. That’s not what I want. The solution to break the paradigm is to damn it all and become more selfish. 


I was feeling that I was losing myself, trying to recreate my whole being in the idealized image of a selfless, domestic, mothering goddess and the struggle to do so was injuring my actual self confidence and confusing my parenting. In order to reconnect with my authentic self, I turned to my pre-baby, pre-adult stress,  passions – reading, writing, music. These are things that I was fanatic about in college, before the realities of adult life set in. I wanted to be an English professor. I wanted to travel abroad reading, researching, teaching. I wanted that romanticized, academic life. The realities of the dwindling field of education crushed my dreams when it came to graduate and make life decisions. I chose a different path, like so many do, based on realities. I am glad I made these choices, although the passion for books has never left my heart. Now, faced with this crisis of self, I am embarking on the ultimate adventure of wild self-care. Returning to graduate academic work will be challenging, mentally and organizationally, but I hope by committing to something with which I  so firmly self identify, I will be able to become a more authentic parent. I want to be more confident in my self and less concerned with how well I am performing based on some socially mandated behavior. This month I start by taking a class, then the PhD applications are due in December and hopefully in the spring I will have a more permanent plan for future studies. Just applying is a rush and a reingagement of mental faculties I thought I had lost many years ago. 


What is selflessness, anyway? Is it the same as vanity? Either way, I’m discovering that it’s powerful to have a little of both. I want my daughter see me hold power, look into the light of difficult and endless possibilities, and embrace the faceted woman I am and the one I can become tomorrow. Besides all that, I’m pretty sure the sleepless nights, limitless kisses, thousands of diaper changes, and unending loads of laundry and sinks full of dishes add up to a pretty damn effective, good, excellent and selfless mama. Classes start Wednesday, but I’ve already felt a change. 

Keep your expectations out of our bedroom

Baby Bee has been sleeping. She sleeps at night, for naps, in the car. It’s a mini miracle. She’s never been a good sleeper, and some magic struck at 18 months old. Suddenly she’s not as restless, she’ll fall asleep in my arms without nursing, and she stays asleep when I move her. What is this witchcraft? Now that I am getting a solid uninterrupted slice of sleep at night, I feel like I have overcome the most daunting parenting challenge I’ve yet faced. Looking back, I know that I’ve been tired and overwhelmed, but I didn’t realize until now, when I’ve had a chance to reflect, that I was also feeling like a failure. Somehow, deep in the recesses of my subconscious, I thought that successful parenting was equivalent to a baby who slept through the night. I read too much, believed too much, and ignored too much of my own intuition.  When I was pregnant, a respectable parent with whom I worked suggested that I read Baby Wise. He bragged that their ten week old had been sleeping through the night for weeks. And I wanted that, too. The perfect baby, hitting milestones, sleeping obediently, eating veggies, learning multiple languages, getting a full ride scholarship to an Ivy League, attending medical school and earning a Nobel Prize for a cancer treatment, becoming US President, and then taking care of me in my old age as I fade into the most glorious sunset. Without a hitch. So I read the book and, despite my gut instincts, after several glitches, rolled merrily into parenthood. 

And my baby didn’t sleep. At all. Ever. For months and months we were up all night and catnapped all day. I tried to let her cry, and, after hours and hours, it was a no go. I was a mess. She was a mess. So I let her sleep with me. And we slept, a little. Then the next night, she snuggled close and we got three hours of sleep before she woke up. Soon, I realized this was the way for us and snuggled into a strong cosleeping situation. My beloved approved and he loved that we were so close. So we all snuggled in and held on.

I grew accustomed to nights made up of hours broken by her demand to nurse and it became second nature to fall back asleep with her firmly latched. I grew accustomed to the hazy mindset of continual sleep deprivation which haunts many, many, parents. Sleeping was no longer a fight, but it still wasn’t quality or quantity. Then, one night, 18 months into our cosleeping arrangement, I decided to make the ultimate self care decision to start night weaning. There was so much I wanted to accomplish, but I couldn’t because I was always so exhausted. Reading, my favorite pastime and my profession, had become impossible because of my fatigue. So, with much self-conflict, I cut her off, and, after three nights of fights and fits, she settled herself to sleep, restlessly. I have since slept hours at a time, only waking once or twice a night to pat her back or hum her to sleep. 


And since then, things have only improved. I’ve slowly returned to myself and she’s blossomed into a smart, energetic, hungry toddler. And I don’t regret the time we spent fitfully sleeping am nursing together in our family bed. I don’t regret the time I spent waiting for her to sleep and the energy I spent bouncing her endlessly to sleep. I don’t regret giving myself to her, at all hours, and I don’t regret having a baby who didn’t sleep. I do regret worrying that we weren’t doing it right, that we didn’t fit the mold, that cry-it-out didn’t work for us. I do regret letting peoples’ expectations secretly guide my expectations of her and that I felt that the baby was even a little bit of a failure. No one was judging us outright, it was all deeply embedded in me, influenced by what I read and what I heard. I promise to parent with my gut and my heart and to ignore those voices, those slighly insinuated expectations, and to raise you up in response to your needs according to our faith and our love. 

To all those parents who are struggling with sleep issues, I stand with you. You’re doing it right, however you choose. All the cliches apply: follow your instincts, embrace the challenge and know that it will get easier at some point. In the meantime, it is HARD and sometimes it downright STINKS and it’s OK to say that you’re struggling. I was struggling and I still struggle some nights. There is solidarity in choosing you’re own right way. 

Small and Fierce and Knocking


Today we took the puppy to the vet and we had to wait outside in the humid summer morning air. I didn’t bring the stroller so you had to stand with me outside until they opened. There were other dogs on leashes, big and small, and cats in crates. You were so excited for a few minutes, especially about the cats. You meowed at the cats and tried to pet the dogs. Then you discovered the glass door to the clinic. Knock, knock, knock. The people inside smiled, but left it locked. You stood there, your breath on the glass, watching the people inside. Knock knocking to have them let you in. Small and fierce. And eventually they did let you in, and then you asked me to pick you up so you could see the world from up high. Close to my heart. 


Small and fierce. You love to knock on doors and some you’re tall enough to open for yourself and some you’re not. Those doors that are out of reach sometimes open for you and you carefully step over the threshold with a hand out for support. Never lose the courage to knock. Never lose the courage to reach up for that door knob on your tippy toes with your dimples and fingers stretched and stretched, even if you’re not sure you can reach that knob. When you can’t reach, I hope you knock again. Knock and ask for help, reach out for support, stretch toward someone taller. You are brave and loud and determined. I will always open the doors when you knock, knock, knock. The world is made of doors, some tall, some small, some glass and some not, some locked, some wide open, some hanging off the hinges, some false. I want to see you knock on any door that beckons, don’t hesitate to press your face against the glass. When you know where you want to go, go. When you’re not sure, lean forward, pick a door, knock, and just go. Have faith in yourself, faith in me, and faith that your prayers will be answered. That knock knocking is music to my ears. 

Heirloom Shoes for My Toddler


This is about more than shoes. Clothes, jewelry, shoes, bags are all just trimmings that can help a woman say something. Hats off to women (and men) who are good at communicating this way; I’ve never really gotten the hang of it, although I’ve been caught up in the heated rush of a new handbag launch from Marc Jacobs. I would have killed for a Classic Q. I have middle high-end dreams, not luxury high-end dreams. I’m practical, after all. Now, looking back ten years, I am so glad that I didn’t waste the money, and I’m sad I wasted the energy pining. That bag would have made me FEEL like a million bucks. Hell, it would still make me feel like rockstar. That handbag meant a lot because I thought that it spoke to who I was trying to portray. The way that bag made me feel and how I thought it would change people’s perception of me is fascinating. How can an inanimate object illicit such emotion and be embibed with so much cultural and personal significance? Now, I’ve passed my emotional investment into my daughter’s clothing. But I feel differently about them. Her clothes and shoes are infused with memories, precious, precious, golden memories. And her clothes and shoes are precious, now, too. And knowing this makes me feel a deep, historical connection with these smaller inanimate objects. 


These shoes are full of memories and age and tippy tapping, spinning magic. Heirlooms are hand-me-downs transformed by love for the ones who wore them first and the one who wears them now from the one who packed them away, protected them and remembered to bring them out again. Thank you, Nana. Your love is unstoppable and we lived it today by running all around Home Depot. My brother wore these shoes when he was a baby, almost 30 years ago. My mom wrapped them up and put them away, thinking about her children’s children. I can’t even stand the amount of love that it takes to perform little acts of motherhood like this.  Now that I’m a parent, all of these things my own mom did out of love for me and my sibling fill me with belly warmth. I’m excited to pass along this tradition to my own children. 


My husband didn’t have parents who memorialized his childhood. He told me the other day that he was happy I was keeping a scrapbook and journaling for our baby. He said he thinks it’s really special. And it IS really special. It’s a sneaky tradition that isn’t really a tradition until you’re a parent, until you want to create that warm, golden heirloom feeling for your own babies. Now, I’m looking forward to thirty years down the road when I can pull out all of the sweet memories I’ve packed away and share them with my grown up babies. Heirlooms are a connection to our future and an index to the past. 

And my siblings and I get to share in these traditions, together, weaving our futures and our families together through this special sort of communication. My brother and my sisters and me, raising a little village, passing our memory-laden baby items back and forth, creating a special kind of communication and triggering the sharing of stories and memories. A village, strengthened by the traditions of our parents. Across miles and miles of physical distance, we are creating a meta-family that will raise up our children with love and history rooted in joyful memories. All this because of a pair of scuffed up, well-loved, timeless-because-we-say, tippy tappy shoes. 

Pepper in the Oatmeal Cookies

Mix, mix, mix. Simple ingredients. Perfect ingredients for what we need. Your need to be independent is perfect, just the right amount for who you are today. Each day, more independent. Some day, fully grown, my heart will swell and break. Today, thank God, is simply baking and tasting, together. 

Baking with you is one of my favorite things; one more parenting thing that is  three quarters thrilling, silly excitement and one quarter stressful project management, frazzled juggling and counter top wiping. And you insist on your own bowl and cups and flour to stir and mix and dust and spill. I insist on having you help with the big bowl mixing and stirring and tasting. 

When you want to bake with Mama, you run to the pantry with your patter patter feet and swinging arms and reach up and up to open the door. It kills me that you are tippy toe tall enough to reach the handle. Then you grab the string of the ruffled apron, the one we tie around you, and say,  “dis, dis.” When I say yes to the sparkles in your eyes, you pull the string of the plain apron, mine, and tell me “dis, mama, dis, on.” You’re so proud. I’m so proud. We’re so happy that I understand you and it’s such a golden high. Our conversations are almost two sided.  I want to have you help, not with everything and not all the time because that’s madness, but as often as I can. I feel like having you involved will make you more engaged and curious and your personality asks for it. I’m sure some parenting book or parenting club out there would agree, but I’m not into branding. And I don’t have time to read all of that propaganda. I know you learn from my example and that is scary and hard to swallow. There’s a lot I still need to change about me so you won’t have to make the same changes for yourself when your old and have a first child, too. These thoughts send me into a spiral of panic and fear and doubt and feelings of unworthiness. Overwhelmed, but also still bored. More guilt for being bored. Although I know my mantra, “you are enough, you are everything this moment needs,” I am scared that it’s a lie. What if it’s not enough? What if it’s not enough? Thank goodness you can’t read these thoughts, although I am sure my body language scream “anxiety” and “disappointment.”


And despite the screeching thoughts of guilty boredom and poor role model syndrome and despite the weight of oppressive expectations to raise a well adjusted child despite poorly adjusted parents, I hear a little glowing whisper, somewhere deep in my stomach and knees, to calm. “It’s never too much to carry. You really are enough, and thinking you’re not is incredibly self-indulgent. You’ve got shit to do. Figure it out and use those strong shoulders and hands to move this crap out of the way and truck on.” That little whisper is badass and gentle and wholly self love. The breath of Roman faith and strength and mystic, ancient female wisdom. And I know that you hear it too, but it must be more of a roar, because, you’re not afraid of anything. As we mix, mix, mix and I feel anxious and depleted about not being the example you need, I look at you and see those fearless hands mix pepper into the oatmeal cookies and I pray that you always hear that whooshing and rushing and roaring Amazonian  war cry to go on and be amazing.

Fickle Rainbow Things

   This memory of you from not to long ago, has me thinking of how you’ve grown. Again. And always. Five days ago, when we were playing with bubbles, you were focused on the chase. You ran and tumbled to catch a bubble and laughs and squealed as it disappeared. Now, the wand and the bubble bottle hold all th fascination that the bubbles once did. The wand comes out, dropping and shining and you shake it, hoping for the wind to catch hold and blow for you. Your concern is for production, your interest in the source. And I am proud. Bubbles are fickle, silly, rainbow things, always going, going, going until they’re not. It’s no wonder you let them go so easily. You’re wise, little one. Wiser than me.