My Daughter’s Favorite Tree

My seven year old has a favorite tree in our backyard. It is an expansive tree with full branches of lush waxy, dark green leaves, providing the best shade on sunny, cloudless days. When every other mature tree was cut down to build our new neighborhood, it was somehow spared, and left to thrive in our backyard. My daughter lies in the hammock under that tree on hot, summer days and reads or swings and sings songs (loudly). The strong breeze on this hill we live on whips the leaves and makes a melodic swishing noise on days when it is fiercely windy. It’s expansive power and the way it takes up space is mesmerizing. It seems this majestic tree is sturdier than most things when the storms come through.

But last week, a storm crashed through unannounced, uprooting rows of the most beautiful old, pine trees that lined familiar worn streets and lay flat large trees on the roads. We awoke in the morning and saw that my daughter’s favorite tree had lost some of its fullest branches while other branches were left sagging and nearly splintering off the trunk. The leaves still remain green and lush on the branches that survived, but this amazing, steadfast tree full of shade has taken a hit. It is slightly sparser and slightly weaker than before. Maybe if you didn’t know the tree like we do, you wouldn’t notice. You wouldn’t notice these branches that once lifted up towards the sky are heaving low and nearly touching the ground. My seven-year-old hopes that it heals and returns to the way it used to be. I hope so too, but I’m not so sure.

It is the day after an evening shift and I am so tired. I am spent. I think about my over-a-decade of practice in Emergency Medicine. It has never been like this. I have always felt pride for the steadfast rhythm of our emergency departments; we have always provided shade for every patient we see. We have had extensive branches, full of leaves and life and have been unwavering. We have weathered winds and storms and bounced right back without blinking. But this storm is really taking its toll. Every shift leaves us slightly more weathered. 

I cannot pinpoint or describe to you in one concise sentence what we are experiencing on a daily basis. It is a litany of factors that beat down on us like the cold, sharp, pelting raindrops in a torrential storm. It is the patients that have had to delay their surgeries or medical care that are now desperately and emergently in need. It is the extra weight thrown on those that show up of being short-staffed and lacking essential resources. It is every single hospital being well over capacity, with no place to admit patients that are suffering from the delays in care. It is the ambulance crews that work tirelessly to reach every patient in crisis in the community and bring them to hospitals already overstretched and struggling to manage the load. It is the backlog of patients piling up in the waiting room that are in distress. The waiting. The anxiety. The emergencies that are stacking. The limitless time stuck in a holding pattern.

We all make our own choices about vaccines. We all have strong opinions and will unlikely be changing our minds based on the information we have interpreted as truth. But in the ER, we have no choice but to absorb all the repercussions of opinions and choices that present as shortness of breath that feels like suffocating, fatigue that leaves people devoid of energy to perform daily tasks, body aches that grip patients’ every joint, vomiting that leave people craving for a sip of water to stay down, the unbearable internal heat of uncontrolled fevers, weight loss and muscle loss from not being able to eat, unrelenting intolerable headaches, severe chest pain that causes insomnia, coughs that won’t abate and leave lungs burning and permanently scarred. In the most devastating of cases, we internalize the heartbreak of death, loss, and loneliness. We treat absolutely everyone no matter how their beliefs and adamant choices have affected the condition in which they present. But it is undeniable that what our patients choose has greater than a simple ripple effect—it is tidal wave after tidal wave that is crashing on our shores. They grab hold of us and pull us down with them in this steep downward spiral they have inadvertently chosen. We continue to show up and are unquestionably here to support and temper this downhill slide, but only time will tell if it is too late or if they will make it up from this downward side of the coaster.

We are doing this all while we are navigating our own steep hills. All of this is wearing on us. We are leaning on our own communities and family that carry our weight through this heaviness. We have spirits and stamina of steel. But much like my daughter’s favorite tree, our branches are heavy and sagging. We will show up daily, provide our shade, and stand upright and tall and do what we methodically know we are trained to do with everything we have behind masks, eye shields, facemasks, gowns and gloves. But even the sturdiest of trees will meet its storm.

Our roots are deeply secured and extensive. We hope this storm will pass and not leave us uprooted.

Mama Heart

A sticky blue flurry with tangled, blonde hair attack-hugs my leg as I open the garage door, home from work after an exhausting day. It’s my 6-year-old daughter. It’s as if she’s been waiting by the edge of the mudroom all day, ready to pounce at the first sound of our mudroom door alarm open.

The force of her weight on me is the human embrace I need to let me know I am home.

I am home.

I am home. 

It is the deep, long sigh I need to start to wash the heaviness away.

I gently peel her off my leg, promising real hugs and snuggles once I am clean. I obsessively wash my cracked, dry hands one more time. Shower. Put on clean clothes. I am so tired, but now I feel safe, and now I feel I can pick her up, smoosh her face against mine, and tickle her neck with my nose.

My mind starts to quiet, my adrenaline starts to still, and my heart transitions through its rollercoaster of emotions. My 6-year-old sits curled up in my lap. She holds my cheeks with her sticky, sweaty hands. Half holding my attention, half distracted by the fun of squishing my cheeks. “Mommy, when I’m a doctor, can I come to work with you?” she tilts her head and looks up at me.

My heart soars and sinks. I don’t know how this is possible, but the way a mom’s heart can stretch and bend, isn’t something science can explain. I am so proud of this little girl that has ambition, and knows she can do anything her mind and motivation set forth to do, but I cannot help but wonder what challenges she will face in adulthood that parallels that of a global pandemic. 

I think about my own mama’s heart. How her heart burst with the greatest pride to see me give a speech in front of my medical school class on graduation day. How her heart soared with me when I matched at the residency program of my dreams. How her heart felt full the first time she saw me in a white coat with stethoscope slung around my neck. How her heart felt joy seeing me walk down the aisle in a white dress. How her heart expanded to make room for more the first time she held her grandkids in her arms. 

Then I think about what this pandemic has meant for her heart. How her heart has pounded so fast on sleepless nights worrying about if I have the PPE I need to keep me safe. How her heart has brimmed with crippling anxiety waiting for my call on my way home from work, because that is the reassurance she needs to know that I am okay. How her heart has ached with hollowness over the last 10 months of missing me and not being able to see me in person and hug me. How her heart has sunk down low alongside mine when she has caught me in a drained, helpless, or defeated place, weighed down by the patients that have affected me that day.

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen my mom. It goes without saying, I have never gone over a year without seeing my parents. And it breaks my heart, but I love them too much to suggest putting them at risk. My mom is 76-years-old. I have seen 76-years-olds struggle in ways I will never forget. I’ve seen them struggle to breathe, struggle to keep food down, struggle to live. 

My mom, who is not on social media, sees my face only on Facetime, and I see half her forehead and one eyebrow as she tries to figure out where this mysterious hidden camera is in her phone. She inspects my face and tells me how I need to pat my face after each face wash so the skin around my mouth isn’t so dry and flaky. She dismisses my protests that I can’t help what my mask does to my face. She rapid fire gives me instructions for recipes of “quick easy meals” I can make so I can have something at the ready to eat at work, thinking quick easy recipes will combat the fact that I need to keep my N95 mask on and physically and logistically simply cannot eat for the duration of my work shifts regardless of what recipes I make. 

Every time I call her—she doesn’t dare call me, she is convinced I must always be working or sleeping, and both would be terrible to disturb—she asks me if I am still seeing “the COVID-19 patients” and if I ate yet today. “Yes Mom. From when you asked me yesterday, I am still seeing them today. And yes Mom. I eat everyday.” She tells me she knows, she knows, but she just has to ask. This is her way of telling me about her mama heart, that it loves me, misses me, worries about me, and is proud of me, with every single beat. 

I think about how my mom’s heart stretches and bends to hold all her emotions right now. I think about its immeasurable strength. I think back to my flushed-cheeked 6-year-old sitting in my lap with her baby teeth still all intact. I think how her ambition makes me so proud of who I will watch her become, and for the first time, with the rollercoaster of this pandemic, fill me with a new trepidation. 

There will come a time, when all of this will be part of our world history. Standing on this side, where ahead of us is a blindingly bright star, coming into focus in the silhouette of a vaccine, I am full of hope. I am comforted by this residual soreness in my left arm where the Band-Aid over where I got my first dose of vaccine still sticks. 

I am full of hope because it is true and because I need to be full of hope to keep moving forward. 

This will be a part of our history, our greatest teacher. I hope when my mama heart is alongside that of my own mom, I’ll be able to feel more pride than fear for my little girl, out to change the world. 

My Son’s Hair

Today was a day I don’t want to forget.

It’s been a summer of navigating a new way of living. What is our new social normal. What is within our comfort zone.

My son’s baseball practices and games being one of the things that has given us an excuse to be outside for long summer days and electric summer nights under the lights. I watch as my son plays this sport he loves so intensely, and my husband puts his heart into coaching our son’s team. I’m not sure who is having more fun. He is his dad’s son, and their passion for baseball falls into step like one heart beating.

As my son grows older, I notice how his passions pull him more in line with my husband. I notice how our common interests start to gain the slightest distance. He is still my sweet boy that asks me every morning how I slept or asks me how my work shift was. He is still my sweet boy who wants to help me at dinner time or play board games. But that deep childhood dependency—that need to be right within arms reach and a glance away from me—have fallen loosely to the margins. Long gone are the days when he needed constant holding, when he sat on my right hip, or when he cried when I put him in his play space behind a gate in direct view of the kitchen, frantically searching for a hot minute to make dinner. And yes, I am more relieved than not that those hard, hard days of raising toddlers are past us. And yes, this is as it should be. I am so proud of this confident boy that searches the neighborhood for a ball game of any sort to join or buries himself in the latest MLB baseball statistics or Cubs game. He is independent, he is self-assured, he is responsible, and I trust him.

But there are days when the bittersweet thoughts that tomorrow he will need me less than he needs me today creep shadows over my heart and weave my breaths with this tinge of sorrow. I don’t know if this is true, but I am fearful I am right.

But today. Today our family huddled up in a cabin up north. We watched a movie inside on a wind-whipping day as the lake side white caps crashed along the shore outside our windows.

The movie was full of suspense and sometimes scenes that made the kids shudder. And halfway through, I found my son squatting next to my seat. Then fully laying his head against my arm. I peeled off his baseball cap which is normally cemented to his head, and I ran my fingers through his hair. It felt gritty, dry, full and thick. Like the hair of a boy that has lived a summer on the baseball field, sliding and kicking up sand, sweaty, and free.

Today, my son needed me to be his security blanket through this movie. I remind myself that perhaps it’s not that he will need me less tomorrow, but he will lean on me differently as our mother-son relationship evolves.

What I’ll remember about today is what his hair felt like, because when the movie ended, his cap was back on, and he was back running outside in the brisk cold, swinging his bat at imaginary 96 mph pitches and daydreaming about that ball soaring past the fence.

In this ever changing climate we are currently living in, there is one constant that will always hold true. This is him now at this stage, and as this stage grows into the next, I simply could not be more thankful to be his mom.

Revolving Worlds

My twins were two years old. My husband and I were leaving for the first time for an extended trip. I can’t remember the details of where we were going or why. What I do remember is the deep ache that ballooned in my chest as we rolled our luggage to the garage door. Their little faces with red-rimmed eyes and Rudolph the reindeer noses, tears smeared across flushed cheeks as they wiped them on our pant legs. Sticky hands grabbing at our hips begging to be clutched tight and not let go. My heart pounding and willing the rest of me to protect them from their heartbreak.

Since then, I’ve realized that those instincts to shield them from hurt and that unraveling that starts in my chest and billows through to my toes as I see them in pain will always be a part of how I mother, but even back then, I knew that leaving them to honor other commitments was part of parenting. A good part of parenting.

As parents, our greatest desire is to ensure our kids know we love them. That we are here for them. That we are present and we support them. In this world that goes a mile a minute, it is hard to feel as if we are giving them our undivided selves, because that is simply not reality. We are divided. We are divided with our professional careers, with upkeep of our homes, upkeep of our daily lives with groceries and meal-planning, with upkeep of our relationships with extended family and friends. Like an elastic toy, we are stretched to extremes, each corner pulling us hard in every direction. Our hearts tethered in the middle like the mid-section of a well-worn tug-a-war rope. 

But this is okay. This is truly okay. This is better than okay. This is what we should be showing our kids. I remind myself to let go of the guilt of being a mom with multiple shoes to fill. I’ve allowed myself to invite my kids into my world rather than living in their world.

I allow them to see how dedicated I am to the things that color my life and make it full. I show them that I am one hundred percent committed to my profession. I tell them about my patients, about what I did during the day. About what was hard, about what broke my heart, about what was exciting or astonishing, and what made me proud of what I did at work. I tell them when I am excited to take a trip with their dad or go on a date night. I tell them when I am having a girls night with friends and how girls nights with my friends are just as fun as when they have play dates with their friends. I bring them along when we drop off things for someone in need and tell them how important it is for us to not only show up for each other but also for our community. I let them know when I am going to exercise and remind them that this is time when I need my complete space to just help my body stay strong and healthy.

In each and every one of these moments, I am taking time away from my kids and giving it to another part of my life. What I want them to see is that I love them and despite them being my greatest priority, my life does not revolve solely around them. That this world does not revolve around them. There is a world outside of them, starting with the world their very own mom lives. And outside of that, there is a greater community thriving and breathing. I want them to see the importance of independence, self-sufficiency, and working hard. I want them to realize I will always be here for them. I will be their safety, their net. That I am their greatest support, but I am also so many other things to so much else in this world. They are the most enriching part of my life, but there is so much more that fills it up and makes it whole.

And this is okay. This is better than okay. 

Now, more than ever, the mom-guilt can be crippling. So many of us are working from home and having to divide ourselves without the help of physical space to have our kids in school and us in our work buildings. Now more than ever, we are aware that our kids are in need of our attention with home-schooling and being all ever present at home. We are having to tell them to wait their turn as we focus on other obligations. The glare of our inability to provide them with undivided attention is fierce. The shadow that this guilt casts on us inevitably grows taller and more pervasive. I definitely have found myself more irritable, brisk, and wild-eyed at my kids on a more frequent basis, but I try to remind myself that it’s okay to ask my kids to be patient and to let them see that there are other priorities that matter.

They will always be my number one, but that doesn’t mean I can drop everything to cater to them with their every desire. You are here. You will always be here for them. But let them see you in all your color and life. They are watching, and they will learn from this. They will see that you are strong, self-sufficient, and upholding your value as your own self, your value in your family, and your community. As their mom, they see you as one of the strongest presence in their life. What a beautiful thing for them to see you as the whole person you are.

I know there is guilt. I am right along you with the daily ugly mom-moments that we criticize ourselves harshly for. But your kids know you are the foundation of love that underlies all of this daily noise. They know you are theirs and them yours. Even on your lowest days and hardest moments. Give yourself grace to work through this day by day, and know that there is tremendous strength and beauty in letting them into your world and not just revolving around theirs.

This New Path

The alarm pierces our slumber. We step into our starting blocks, leaning into the fire that is about to burn in our muscles as we sprint into the day. Round and round the track we’ll go. Get kids ready for school. Breakfast. Homework. Lunches. Gloves, boots, snowpants. Backpacks. And did you brush your teeth??? Out the door to the bus stop.

During the day, we continue around the track, whether it be at work or at home. The kids get home and it’s a snack, our cackling voices rushing them along, hurrying and getting them ready for this activity and that activity,out the door, picking up this neighbor for carpool, remembering your daughter’s water bottle and favorite stuffed panda, your son’s baseball glove, bat and helmet, your other daughter’s dance shoes or choir book.

On Friday night, maybe there is an occasional date night. Maybe a family grill out with close friends. Maybe your daughter’s hockey game to sit in the stands and hoot and holler for your team with all the other fellow parents. Sunday brunch at your favorite bustling spot. Sunday night, you ready for another push through the week. Pack bags, homework done, and then all over again.

We heave and we push, and around the track we sprint. It seems the pace never slows, and it is seemingly never ending, doesn’t it?

It seemed never ending, didn’t?

Now. Now we settle. We scramble to figure out this new homebound life. We blink hard, take a deep breath, and adjust.

School is cancelled. Activities are cancelled. Commuting to work in an office building is cancelled. Social events are cancelled. Sporting events are cancelled. Choir concerts are cancelled. Our sense of physical social togetherness and community is cancelled.

Our anxiety heightens as we watch daily reports of illness rise. The death tolls rise. We worry about grandparents. We worry about are loved ones far away. We worry about those that are less equipped for illness, for this financial crisis.

As if in a dream-like state. Is this real? Are we truly on this ledge, scampering for resources to prop ourselves up? Desperately trying to keep ourselves protected and from losing our balance and tipping over?

We count the days, the hours, the minutes. They change as quickly as they arrive.

I feel undeniably thankful for the role I have been given in all of this. To love and protect my family and friends. To extend support to my community. To care for people in need. At times, these exact privileges overwhelm me with great anxiety and exhaustion. At times, I am beyond grateful for this life my husband and I are so lucky to live. At times, I count down the minutes to the end of the day and break down in tears because I don’t know how else to process my emotions. At times, I feel ashamed and guilty about my own reactions, feeling what I am doing is largely not enough. That there are people struggling with so much greater than my anxiety, like where their next meal will come from or how they will continue to provide a sustainable life for their families.

I share all of this with you to let you know that you are not alone. It is okay if we all have moments big and small. High and low. It is okay if you suddenly have tears in your eyes and feel like you don’t have it all together. We have all been there. It is also okay if you are secretly happy to slow down with no one to rush, to enjoy your family at home, and stay in your pajamas all day.

None of us have ever done this before and there is no wrong way. Give when you can, support your community as you can, reach out for all those exact things when you need them too.

Most of all, be gentle with yourself and allow yourself grace.

As my family and I step off the track and put the starting blocks aside to walk down this much slower, open path that is yet to be paved, I am overcome with all the emotions. The joy, the peace, the anxiety, the wearing of my patience, the exhaustion, all of it. Some days are better than others and some days are a revolving kaleidoscope of all the feelings.

Let’s support one another. Does your friend mama have a color-coded home school schedule complete with solar system diorama and clay ceramic-making art class? Like what. That’s freaking amazing. Did your other friend mama splurge and subscribe to Disney plus and three new video games to occupy her kids? Awesome! How much fun for them.

Let’s allow one another to do what we can as we try to find our new footing. Let’s acknowledge that we will feel how we feel and let it be okay and enough. Let’s meet each other where we are and gently, steadily, with so much love, we will get through this.

Dance Moms

Dance Moms. Just that simple two-word title triggers guttural reactions in most.  It stirs up connotations of a middle-aged woman with frumpy hair and stretchy pants.  A coffee in one hand and an extra-large can of extreme-hold hairspray in the other.  It stirs up connotations of a once-was, or even worse, a never-was dancer way past her prime beaming on stage left, clapping emphatically and slightly maniacally for her daughter. It stirs up images of this shiny, bedazzled daughter of hers in a starch-stiff tutu adorned with silver sequins, hair in a high bun matted concretely to her head with an entire squeeze bottle of gel and bright pink lipstick outlining bright white teeth.

I know what you think. I know what you see.  It makes me laugh, because at times, when I’m not paying attention, I could mistakenly see what you see.  Those Dance Moms!  But fortunately, I’ve realized what Dance Moms really are.

My daughter was five when she announced she was ready to join her friends in their rhinestone leotards accessorized with large, bobbing, sparkling hair bow headpieces on that dance stage.  I shrugged my shoulders.  It wasn’t different than anything else we had tried.  A summer camp of basketball here.  A community T-ball season there.  A high school led soccer class there.  Dance?  Sure.  Let’s do it.  I went into it with no idea.  I imagined it would be a class once a week, and an adorable recital at the end of the year.  What’s the harm in that?

I imagine this is how most Dance Moms are created.  Eager moms and dads in this helicopter-parenting era, ready to encourage their sons and daughters in yet another endeavor.  Was I crazy to consider this?  No.  Ha.  I was just a sucker like the rest.

And so it began as I expected.  We signed up for a recreational dance class.  One class once a week.  A recital on the horizon.  My son joined too.  Why not?  But it wasn’t long before my daughter was invited to join the competition world, and my son, wise beyond his years, sniffed that there was something not for him about this place we had been bringing him every Thursday, and graciously bowed out.

Competition dance? Most definitely!  Why not?  My daughter smiled from ear to ear.  It sounded like a fantastic idea.  Slightly more rigorous classes with a couple competition weekends thrown in here or there?  Yes.  She was on board.  I was on board. This sounded like a great idea.

Ha.  Sucker.

I’m not quite sure where to start without diving right in.  Competition dance is not for the faint of heart.  It is for the diligent, the passionate, the committed. Because there isn’t anything that I have done on behalf of my children in these early years as a parent that has defined commitment as much as dance has.  It is a pure labor of love the things I have found myself doing that I never, in a million lives, would have imagined myself doing.

Putting 186 rhinestones on one dance outfit?  Been there.  Sewing appliqués onto sequined tiny tops?  Done that.  Wrangling my seven-year-old daughter’s long, straight hair into two perfectly tight buns on top of her head at 4 in the morning? Yep.  I’m raising my hand.

But here’s the truth. The real truth.  Underneath all those superfluous, flashy distractions you see on the surface is hard work.  So much hard work.  I’ve never seen girls this age work like this.  These girls that commit after school evenings to dance class then practice at home on their days off.  These girls that show up at 6:30 in the morning on a competition day and do not go home until 11:30 at night, only to get up at 6 am the next day, and do it all over again.

I remember one moment last year—my daughter was 7 years old.  She had literally been at a competition going on hour 14.  And there she was, doing cartwheel after cartwheel after cartwheel across the gymnasium practice floor.  Why?  Because she was loving every single minute of it. The early mornings, the late nights, the long days, the dance after dance with costume changes and intricate hair changes, she did it all because she was exactly where she wanted to be.

This past weekend, my daughter, now eight, had a full day of competition, snuck in a six-hour night of sleep, and at 6 am the next day, was up and ready for the next day of competition.  There was no complaint in any of her still-waking-up muscles.  She sat straight as I pulled her hair into a tight high bun.  She proceeded to go on to stretch, practice, and compete, giving it her all.  And every time I witness her in one of these moments, I just know.

This girl.  This girl of mine has grit.  All these dancers have grit.  They have passion. They have so much love for what they are doing. They are determined and strong and have so much bravery to go on that stage with those blinding stage lights and perform.  There is no doubt in my mind, that I am that mom standing on the sidelines, clapping emphatically, and yes, yelling slightly maniacally for my daughter.  For my friends’ daughters.  For my daughters’ friends.  I do this not because I was never a dancer and I am living vicariously through the powerful grace of this gorgeous girl of mine, but because I know what it took for her to get here.  The hours, the commitment, the practice, the right attitude.

I beam and can’t help bubbling over not because I see my life through her, but because I see the life this brings to her. I follow her around with extreme-hold hairspray, because that is the very small part of the competition that I contribute to in this bigger lesson I hope she is learning.  Work hard.  Work so hard.  Don’t forget the details.  Know that effort pays off.  Acknowledge that you are exhausted, but continue to carry yourself with grace and do what needs to get done.  And if your emotions get the best of you, let them come, and then let them go, and then pick yourself up and find your strength again.

This is what it means to be a Dance Mom.  To be the grit behind the grit.  Make no mistake—my daughter and her dance life do not define me, but part of who I am is most certainly Dance Mom. I am the support beam behind a very brave girl that feels empowered to live her passion and most importantly, is learning the importance of work ethic, a good attitude, and where it can get her on that stage and beyond.

To all my Dance Moms. I’ll happily and proudly be called a Dance Mom right alongside you.

And. Make no mistake. I am wearing stretchy pants.

 

 

Bring Your Daughter to Work

It was one of those slippery moments of working mom-hood, when childcare slipped through, back-up childcare slipped through, and I was left at a crossroads.  How do I get myself from point A to point B and what do I do with my four-year-old in need of supervision?  Thankfully, my day of commitments was a day of meetings.  A day of meetings was far more flexible for me than a shift at work seeing patients.  That would have been more of a figure-it-out, you-must-show-up-to-work no-nonsense scenario.  At least with these meetings, I could call-in, though it wasn’t as meaningful to just call-in.  But what other choice did I have?

I sat there, my morning coffee already heading towards its lukewarm destiny.  My four-year-old in her shimmery batman dress and cape, crawling in my lap, the crayon in her hand daring to leave marks on my sierra sand colored couch.  And as I sat there in a silent tantrum, not wanting to miss my department meetings, but feeling as if I had little choice, it dawned on me that there was an alternative.  I could just bring her with me.  I compiled a list of ways to approach this.  I could shoot my boss an email and apologize and let him know I was bringing my daughter.  I could show up with her and apologize and explain how childcare fell through.  Or, I could just show up with my sidekick.

I watched as my four-year-old mimicked my every move.  Sipping her milk and declaring how her coffee was hotter than mine. Drawing a panda version of me, picking my favorite blue color for the panda’s belly.  And at that moment, I decided there was truly no other way to show up than with her at my side.  Unapologetic and with assertion.  Because there was no denying that this is my life: I am a mom and a physician, and I care about both and I will show up for both the best way I can.  And more importantly, this is what I want my four-year-old to see with her little eyes.  I want her to know the unique privilege of being a woman. I want her to see that we can be parents and also contribute to the workforce. It may be a balance to strive for, but we do it the best we can.

The best way I can today means a purple backpack with daffodils stuffed with my iPAD with downloaded Disney movies, pink kid headphones, my daughter’s Leap Pad, a pencil bag of crayons, coloring books, snacks, a rainbow unicorn water bottle, and a stuffed animal.  And my hospital work badge.

So, that’s what I did.  It was a meeting I prioritized and if it meant bringing my daughter, then that is exactly what I would do.  No apologies.  This is how it is.

My little spunky four year-old, sat at my feet, because laying on the ground watching a movie was more fun than sitting at the rectangular shaped tables in stiff conference room chairs.  She watched episodes of Doc McStuffins, part of Sing, she played some preschool app games, she colored, she drew, she ate cereal, she only needed a potty break twice.  And all the time, she knew I was right there part of her world and part of my work world.

It felt like a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.  I chose to bring my daughter to the meeting because the alternative was missing out on important decisions, updates, and discussions.  I brought my daughter to the meeting because daycare is unpredictable.  But mostly I brought my daughter to the meeting because I wanted her to know that this is unapologetically who I am.  A working mom that certainly doesn’t have it all figured out, but is managing the best I know how.  I want my daughter—and all sons and daughters for that matter—to grow up tearing down the judgment and stigma that follows that of a working mom.  We can work, we can raise a family, and we can do it with no less confidence and competence than the next person.

 

Finding Margins

This weekend was like any other.  Kids’ activities, work, home improvement projects, social gatherings to allow ourselves the joy of connecting with other adult human beings.  It was a fluid mix of “I’ll drop off here and meet you there and so-and-so will pick up there.”  All the pieces like well worn, slightly beaten up and bent puzzle pieces. That subtle mix of knowing all the pieces should fit exactly as coordinated with that undercurrent of anxiety that we may get to the end and one piece will have gone missing from the tattered, but structurally sound box of collected pieces.

It seems astounding that every fifteen minutes, ten minutes, five minutes, three minutes counts in this interweaving of a family’s schedules.  There was the moment when I was getting ready for work; my husband was corralling our son and youngest daughter out the door to pick up our other daughter from a birthday party on the way to bring our son to baseball practice.  With thirteen minutes on the clock until the end of the birthday party and twenty-eight minutes until the start of baseball, he pulled out all the ingredients for beef stew to throw into the pressure cooker.  Beef, potatoes, carrots, soup mix.  I looked at him wild-eyed.  “What are you doing??”  “Making dinner” . . . with the kids climbing in the car and thirteen minutes until pick-up.

No. Just no. Go.

So. There are countless moments like that.  The wind tunnel that funnels us mercilessly in forward motion as time lapses quickly and impatiently.

These are not the moments that keep me fueled and running.  No, not these harried punctuated moments of start times and end times.  But instead, all the hidden, quiet in between moments.  The Margins.

It’s peeling myself out of bed twenty minutes before the slumbering haze of morning lifts to make coffee, shaking off the dizziness of sleep and orienting myself towards the day ahead, and maybe even catching a glimpse of the sunrise.  It’s the pain of getting my four-year-old to hockey early on a Saturday morning, only to find myself sitting solo, in silence, with nowhere I’d rather be than on those chilly bleachers, hugging my thermos of caffeine while watching with fireworks of pride as my daughter’s tiny four-year-old body glides across the ice with fierce determination.  It’s the forty-five minutes after lunch and before baseball on Sunday that I chose to sit and read and not scramble and trip over household chores while my two eight-year-olds built Legos.

It’s intentionally clearing space on these tightly organized, highly chaotic days with a myriad of demands.  It’s finding these margins and allowing myself this time to be present.  It was in that brief forty-five minute margin when my eight-year-old son asked me to help him find that one specific blue Lego piece in the sea of Legos.  I was startled by my own reaction.  My usual irritable, impatient, don’t-you-see-I’m-busy self was cast aside, and to my own shock and astonishment, I put down my book and helped him scour all the piles of tiny Legos.  With not even one iota of a mumbling nag of how he needs to keep track of his own things. We searched for a solid handful of minutes.  When we came up empty pile after pile, he finally conceded and said, “That’s okay.  I’ll just use something else.”  He paused pensively, and with sincerity added, “I love you mommy.”

That moment hit me. It confirmed to me that margins matter.  By choosing to create space to allow the impossible finding of a Lego to be my way of seeing my son—that moment mattered as much as, if not more than any other moment.

Margins—the clearing of space and time to allow and acknowledge your presence and the presence of others.  The time to be thankful that when we strip away all the orchestrated to-do’s, must-do’s, should-do’s, scheduled-do’s, that we see each other. That we see ourselves.  That we see our kids.  That we see our friends.  That we see our partners.  That we see those we love.  That we appreciate ourselves not for our busyness, our achievements, our productiveness, but for just being me.  Being you.  Being us.

I’ll keep finding margins because they matter.  They help preserve my stability, my sanity, my fuel for the rest of it all.

Lessons at the Stadium

Last night we took our son to the big football game between our beloved Minnesota Vikings and our most love-to-hate team, the Green Bay Packers. It was a big night for our son. He is a walking Vikings statistic generator obsessed fan. His love of football is around the clock. It starts in the morning with him putting on yet another Vikings jersey, throwing his football in our foyer, continues at school where he brings his football and football gloves to play a game with his friends at recess, and continues after school with more football playing, and ends at night reading statistics and talking about Sunday football, Monday night football, and Thursday night football with my husband.

He was on cloud nine when we stepped into that Vikings stadium last night. His wide-eyed stare, his toothy smile, his body tingling with excitement. I don’t think he stopped showing his left-sided dimple all night long. He loved every second of those over three hours of heated, edge-of-our-seats game play. He screamed loudly with complete elation with each touchdown. He SKOL-chanted in rhythm with his fellow Vikings fans. “This is the best night ever!” he screamed into my ear.

With every stadium game comes the adult jeerers and nasty comments about the rival team. Multiple times, the Vikings fan behind us made cracks about the opposing team’s quarterback, calling him a homosexual or gay. He yelled, “Why don’t you love your family! They will accept you for who you are!” While sometimes humorous, he crossed the line time and time again. He was so crass and loud, that it was unavoidable. My son turned and stared at him multiple times. There was no judgment in his eyes, only curiosity. As he had never heard those words strewn together and thrown aloud with such force. I heard the fan’s girlfriend lean over and quiet him trying to get him to show consideration for all the kids in the stands. “What?? Hey, don’t bring your kids to a Vikings game if you don’t want to hear the truth!” he drunkenly yelled. I did not see a productive conversation moving forward if we confronted him about this. So, I took note of his words so we could talk about it later. At one point, my always inquisitive and thoughtful son leaned over and asked me why the opposing team’s quarterback didn’t love his family. This was all news to him.

After the game on the drive home, as we came down from the high and exhilaration of a Vikings win; I turned to my son and asked him if he knew what it meant to be a homosexual or gay. He said he did not. We talked about kids that have two dads or two moms. We talked about how people can love whomever they would like, but that there are people that don’t agree with that. That though we know that you can love whomever it is you want, others who are close minded and close hearted will loudly make fun and judge people for decisions they don’t agree with. I told him that everyone is entitled to their opinions but there is a way to be kind and there is a way to open your heart to all kinds of people. I explained that that fan behind us was not one of those people that choose an open heart and kindness, and that there were many people just like him. I told him it was our job to support and show love for all kinds of people and stand up for people and their choices when they cannot themselves.

At the end of the day, I am thankful we were there to hear the truth. The truth is that we cannot shield our kids from other people’s close-minded, hateful rants. What we surely can do, is not brush these experiences under the rug. When the homophobia, racism, sexism, bigotry is loud around us, we need to be louder. I don’t mean yell back and be obnoxious in the stadium louder. I mean address these truths head on. Talk to them about these hard things and equip them with the right tools to process and react to this ever evolving, dynamic world.

We cannot just think that our kids are innocent and will find their way to the best conclusions. They are listening and learning every step of the way from everyone around them–for better or worse. Make this an active process, not a passive process.

The Vikings won. My son opened his eyes to another face of humankind, and because of it, he grew a little bit more into the man he is becoming.

The MIA Parent

Also published: https://www.scarymommy.com/want-people-know-about-absent-parents/

In hushed voices, I heard them. The seven-year-old boy stood, still in full practice hockey gear, hockey helmet pressed against the window of the double doors, waiting for an adult to arrive. “His mom is never here, poor thing.” came one hushed whisper. “If I knew which bag was his, I’d help him change myself!” came the hushed response back.

This parent thing is a hustle, isn’t it? Making it on time to this hockey practice, to this football game, to gymnastics practice. Remembering to pack a cardboard cereal box for the next school project, remembering to buy Valentine’s cards for the school Valentine’s party. Remembering to sign permission slips and pay for the school party. RSVP’ing to your son’s school friend’s birthday party, then hurrying to the store the day before to buy a birthday gift. Not forgetting to pack the mid-morning school snack when packing the lunch you made last night. Buying the right dance shoes for your daughter’s dance competitions. Getting new skates for your son’s growing feet. New snow pants for your seven-year-old daughter that has been squeezing into too tight pants for an embarrassingly long amount of time. Having dinner ready. Making sure your kids have their shoes and boots for school. And a hat. And gloves. Lining up all drop-offs and pick-ups so your kids are never the late ones or the last ones to get picked up.

Maybe your hustle looks different than my hustle, but it is all in the wizadry of scheduling and mental notes floating in our minds when it all falls into place day after day after day.

Listening to those moms at that hockey practice, I felt a pang in my heart. I felt a pang in my heart for the multitude of times I was that MIA mom. When I am that mom that cannot drop off and pick up my daughter at dance practice. When I cannot stay and watch my son play football. When I cannot be the one to pick them up or drop them off at school. When I could not be there at their 1st grade winter party. That time I almost missed my 3-year-old’s first daycare program and nearly broke my back figuring out a way to make it there.

That MIA mom has been me time and time again. But I do want to make one thing clear. I am not always there, but I am always there. I packed the snack in my daughter’s dance bag, I counted her shoes to make sure she had her jazz, ballet, tap shoes. I laid out those dance clothes you see her wearing. I made sure my son had his mouth guard, full water bottle, and flag football jersey and all flags accounted for and laid out on his bed before I left for work. I pre-prepare dinner for my kids, even when I cannot be there to eat with them. I laid out their boots, coats, hats, gloves in front of the garage door, I fastened their snowpants to their backpacks. I packed my daughter’s daycare pillow and blanket for naptime and hung it on the door. I hunted down the school library books in the darkness and jammed it into my son’s bookbag all before I hurried out the door for work at 6 am. You may not always see me, but I am always there.

My physical absence has no correlation with how much I care about my children. No matter where I am, my presence and heart are always with my family. All of our families look different. But the bottom line is that we cannot compare or judge one another by our outer appearances. We all have different capacities and priorities come in all different forms. They come in the form of work, in the form of aging parents, in the form of friends, in the form of spouses or single parenting, or other siblings. Everyone’s circus is made differently.

Two weeks ago, I was in Whistler, Canada with my husband. He was the chair of a conference, and I, along with friends, were along for the ski adventures that laid on those gorgeous mountains. I ran into a friend who asked me if this was the first time I had left my children behind for an extended period of time. It was not. I explained to her that while it was not without its flurry of emotions of guilt, anxiety, sadness to leave my children at home, it was also with excitement, happiness, and anticipation that I looked forward to dedicating undivided attention to my husband and friends. I explained that I felt it was healthy for my kids to realize that the world did not revolve around them. That I loved them intensely and loved spending as much time with them as possible, but I am also committed to tending to the other parts of my life that make my life full and make me a whole person. She tilted her head, mind blown, and said, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Sometimes it is out of our control. I have to go to work when I have to go to work. But sometimes, a night out or a weekend away is something worth prioritizing. The bottom line is my life revolves around my kids, but it also revolves around showing them the strength of who I am as an individual and reminding them that they are one part of a greater world around them.

I believe that we all want to be there for our kids, the best we can. The best we can sometimes means we are late to pick them up from hockey practice because their younger sibling has gymnastics practice across town that consistently runs late. The best we can might mean we have a baby-sitter take them to dance practice when I work predominately evenings. The best we can might mean we spend a weekend away with our spouse to care for our marriage. The best we can might mean clearing our day to volunteer at their 1st grade Valentine’s Day party. The best we can might mean saying no to a work meeting to be there for our daughter’s first dance competition.

Being the MIA mom does not mean you are not doing the best you can. I know that better than anyone. So, to that MIA hockey mom or dad. I see you and your presence in your son’s well-fitting hockey helmet, jersey, and skates. I know you are present and the best you can do with your circus is absolute perfection to me.

Grandpa by Claire

Grandpa hasn’t picked us up in a long time. When he gets done in the hospital I’m going to show him something. I wish it hasn’t been a long time.

These are the words my three-year-old said out of the blue tonight when I was tucking her in. A wave came over me; I sunk my face farther into her Lightning McQueen pillow and let my tears disappear into the red fabric underneath my cheek. I was thankful we were snuggling in the dark, crammed together in her toddler bed.

11 months ago when my father-in-law died, one of the things that brought me the greatest grief was the thought that my children’s memories of him would fade with time. Especially my youngest that adored her grandpa so much. My heart ached thinking that these memories of what Grandpa looked like, how Grandpa laughed, how Grandpa hugged would become blurrier and blurrier with time. As if with each year, we would lose more of him as the memories became more faint.

Out of the blue tonight, my youngest reminded me that Grandpa is still alive through her. The grief resurfaced from the undercurrents of the daily bustle. The waves stopped crashing and the wind settled, and the hollow that he left burned like fire.

I listened to her musings. The shadow of her face cast against the column of light that spilled through her cracked bedroom door. She looked so thoughtful as she pondered how long it had been since she had seen Grandpa. I wondered for a second if I should ask her what she was going to show Grandpa. But it was too beautiful and too heartbreaking of a moment; I decided to let my big-hearted three-year-old have that special moment with her grandpa to herself.

The holidays are nearing, and by nearing, I mean that we will be smacking face-first into them here as we turn the corner. It is a time when everything about the people you love is heightened. You are thrust together in a haphazardly coordinated fashion. You have idealistic expectations while simultaneously bracing yourself for the worst. You are excited to celebrate the best time of year with those that mean the most to you all the while knowing that they will likely get under your skin in 7 seconds flat. You have an idea which of your inadequacies will be immediately brought to your attention under the guise of “we’re just worried about you.” You will try to dart behind the children for distraction. Unless parenting is one of the points of criticism you are trying to deflect.

All cynicism and family dynamics aside, the holidays are a time of magic. Of festive lights brightening common, everyday fixtures. Of holiday stories, decorative cookies, and yearly traditions. It is a time to come together and celebrate and show with our own touch how we love those that we love most.

Unless someone we love most is no longer here. Then holidays become harder. Especially that first holiday without them. A void we never anticipated being part of the holidays sits loudly in the center of the room and throbs in our hearts. We see the joy of the holidays through a lens of aching—part of us remaining idly empty.   We move through the motions and we daydream about rewinding time to last holiday when the greatest stressor was what your inappropriate uncle was going to say in front of your kids. You crave being able to fret about the petty things that had occupied your thoughts, because that meant there were no waves of hollowness widely sweeping over you and making you gasp for air like there are now.

It is hard to feel festive when loneliness so definitively puts its arm around your shoulder. It is hard to let the excitement and joy win.

Tonight, I learned from my three-year-old. The best way to keep my father-in-law a part of our lives is to flood these holidays with his memories. To make him an integral part of our celebrations. To make sure he doesn’t fade in the eyes of our kids. To create new memories with the memories of him. This holiday, we won’t let the loneliness sidle up to us. We’ll inch it out with his presence in our hearts and in our traditions. Grandpa will be with us. And we will show him something over the holidays so it will not have been so long since we last saw him.

Dear Byron

What I’ll remember most is this uncanny relationship you built with your two-year-old granddaughter. I’ll remember how she would run to you, her full head of flouncy blonde hair, whipping behind her and collapse across your legs, burying her flushed, chubby cheeks in her hands and head into your lap. You were her safety. You were her rock.  
That two-year-old. She is a smart one. Because that’s how we all felt. You were our safety. You were our rock. We all buried our heads in your lap in our own ways. For me, it was knowing every time we had a crisis with the kids–this kid had a fever and needed to be picked up from school when both Joe and I were working, that kid was vomiting and couldn’t go to school today, or someone needed to stay at our house because Joe was suddenly going out of town and I was working overnight, or we simply needed a night out–you were there. Drop everything. No questions asked. I would look at you with desperate appreciation, and you would look back at me firmly, “that’s why we’re here. Stay out longer. You guys need the time.” And I would sigh and breathe and want to cry, knowing you were there to lean on, time and time again, letting me know that being there for us was all you wanted in return.  
What I loved most of all, was that there was no questioning that your number one priority was always family. And most of all, your wife–the love of your life. At the core of it all, you lived your life to love your wife and family and to protect and take care of us all. Every ounce of everything you were went into taking care of us. I remember how when you became too weak to walk across a soccer field, you would drive your wife to her grandkids’ soccer practice and wait for her in the car. I’ll remember how you would rather be out of breath carrying bags than consider having someone else carry the burden. I’ll remember how you shooed me away from washing the dishes every time you saw my shoulders slump in exhaustion after a long day. I’ll remember how you acknowledged what an amazing dad my husband is for stopping what he was doing to help our son build a lego set he was struggling with. I’ll remember how every time without fail, you would put down your fork, and say, “My Doctor told me to stop eating when I was full”, with a wink and a nudge in my direction. I’ll remember how nothing lit you up the way talking about your kids coming to visit did, and how you were looking forward to walking around the hardware store with your son, checking out new gadgets, just like you two used to do. I’ll remember the afternoons we spent on the lake with you–always the driver of the boat–while the rest of us enjoyed a carefree summer day of sun, water balloon fights, and stops at the ice cream shop.  I’ll remember those pork chops you slow cooked over a bed of hot coals–your famous hot chops.  Oh, we’ll all remember your hot chops.  I’m so sorry if you never had Byron’s hot chops.  

You were never one to want a lot. Just your family. Just to feel useful and needed. Just to be able to provide. Just to see your family happy and comfortable. You spoke loudly with your actions what you seldom said with words: I am here for you. Always, no matter what, because this is how I love you–with everything I can offer.  
You have been the ultimate fixture in our lives. Always steady, always there, never wavering. We all leaned on you.  
Our two-year-old continues to ask, “Where is Abba-abba?” And I will continue to tell her, that you are right here in our hearts. Our permanent fixture.  
Byron, you are truly one-of-a-kind. We all miss you greatly. But you have emblazoned your love into each of our hearts.  
Thank you for being here for us, even in these days when you have gone.  
We will continue to love you the way you loved us–with everything we’ve got.  

Broken Oven, Glory to You

Also published at:  http://www.scarymommy.com/being-busy-not-badge-honor/

Four weeks ago, in the midst of a baking/cooking frenzy, my oven took its final breath and puttered out. With zucchini bread batter mixed and poured, I stared at it, wild eyed with that blood vessel menacingly popping out of my right temple. With flour highlights in my hair and batter splatters on my shirt and yoga pants, I had a few words with my oven.

The next day, the repair guys were out, and let us know that it was the central circuit board that needed repair. As luck always has it, they no longer made the parts to repair it; however, they said they could certainly send it to the manufacturer for a “small” gob of money to have it repaired. Or, we could spend the large gobs of money to replace the entire oven. Yep, I’d love to send it in to the manufacturer, I replied, as if there was much of a decision to be made. So they removed it, and on their way out the door, explained it would take two weeks and I would be without an oven, oh, and without my stove as well. Huh? What the what??? The nice repair guy grinned sheepishly, “well, there have got to be a lot of great take out options around here, right?” He zipped up his jacket, grabbed the signed paperwork and scrambled to his van, keeping one eye on that crazed vein in my right temple that was slowly starting to declare itself.

No stove or oven for two weeks???? Oh boy. I checked the freezer. Emergency corn dogs and dinosaur nuggets and microwaveable-bagged veggies to save the day. I wish I had some inspirational MacGyver-meets-Martha-Stewart story of how I used chicken wire to make a stove top with flint and kindle or how I made adorable tea party finger foods or how I did the sensible thing and went out and bought a temporary, portable stove-top, but God no. That never happened. The repair guy was right. There has been a lot of take out, and a lot of microwaved, processed foods these last few weeks. And you know what? I liked it. No, no. I didn’t like it, I loved it. I love my microwave. I am one with my microwave. There. I said it.

Since having children, I have felt this great responsibility to feed them healthy, well-balanced meals. Foods that make me feel good about what I am putting in their little, rapidly growing and developing little bodies. They have been hearty-vegetable-eaters, fruit-devouring-monsters, home-cooked-meal-lovers. They have a sweet tooth for home-made healthy baked goods. All this feels so good to be able to provide this for my family, some weeks I am better than others, but in these last two weeks . . . turned three weeks without a stove, I have come to a realization that I was too busy to notice before.

In trying to keep up with my career-family balance, I have constantly felt over-stretched, over-tired, and overwhelmed. I remember leaving a late shift at work, and one of my beloved nurses telling me, as she realized that with my husband out of town, I still had to go home and pack lunches for my kids and had to get up early the next morning to take them to school, “You have to let it go.   Just let it go.” And I looked at her with that same bewildered“HOW DID MY OVEN JUST BREAK” look, but too tired to ask further, just nodded, smiled and kept on walking out the door.

But now. Now I get it. See, the breaking of my beloved, necessary stove and oven has shown me something I’m not quite sure I could have seen myself. That in taking this break from the often insurmountable task of meal preparation and everything that goes into it for my family, I have allowed something to go and it has allowed me to breathe. Those extra hours a day that have fallen into my lap are glorious. They are hours I can spend on something productive or spend on nothing at all but my couch, a cup of coffee and HGTV. They are hours I can call a friend and ask, “How are you?” Those extra hours have lifted a weight, a responsibility, a stress, that gifts me energy and leaves me less tired, less cranky, less irritable. I had no idea that something as simple or as tough as preparing meals was doing this to me. Because, if I think about it, I tell myself, “Come on, how hard is it to make meals?” I don’t have to explain it to you if you are this person in your family. It is hard.

So, now I am thinking what else do I feel this way about? Every task, every responsibility we pile onto our shoulders is just one more “simple” thing, and we say to ourselves, come on, how hard could this be to add this one tiny thing? Well, one thing adds time, time adds energy, energy adds stress, stress leads to irritability . . . ahh, it is all making sense!!! What a simple concept. Where have I been???

I think I’ve been where all of you have been. We have been feeling that we are working mothers and fathers taking care of our family, of our home, of our communities. Sometimes, we lose sight of the value of our own limits and really, our own self. Boundaries blur until there are no boundaries, and we keep on keeping on. We estimate our capabilities, and like the old saying, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, our undertakings underestimate what is needed from us to accomplish every minutiae of every day—and soon we are stretched too thin doing everything, but unable to do anything with the best version of ourselves.

So, let’s give ourselves a break. What we do is enough. What we don’t do is acceptable. Give what you have to the things that matter the most, and when there is not enough of you to go around, be okay with it. There is no glory in “I am so busy!” There is value to doing things with time, with your full attention and ability, choosing wisely what is important to you and having the energy to enjoy rest, relaxation, and time for calm. Let’s chisel away at this society of “busy”, and let the glory be with broken ovens and microwaves once in awhile.

These American Dreams

Whichever side you fall, you cannot deny that half of the country is hurting. That half of the country is in pain. In disbelief. In fear. Whichever side you fall on, you can acknowledge that there are people excited about this new era. About a leader like no other we have ever known. Whichever side you fall, there are two perspectives that deserve acknowledgement and respect. For after all is said and done, we are all in this together. Please.

My parents came to the United States of America with two suitcases of belongings as their entire inventory of wealth. My mother came to a country where she did not speak the language. My father came to a country and dove into a post-graduate program to receive his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in a language he had just learned to speak. My mother–from a wealthy family–that wept and begrudgingly allowed her to come to America, but made it clear that this would be a journey she must make on her own.  She wrote home about seeing snow for the first time, about American grocery stores, but never spoke a word about the poorly insulated one room makeshift shed being the only place they could afford to live. She never wrote about the times when their landlord turned off their electricity because they were late on rent. My father, from a farming family in rural Taiwan that made ends meet by eating the over-supply of sweet potatoes generally reserved to feed their livestock. My father, who found his passion in the math and sciences, and dragged his desk out to the sole street light on the dirt road they lived on when it became dark to continue studying.

My father studied hard when he came into his graduate program. My brother was born within their first year of them being in America. To make ends meet, my mom took on odd jobs that she could do from home while taking care of my brother. She gratefully accepted any hand-me-downs to provide for my brother from other foreign graduate students as their kids outgrew clothes. To make ends meet, my mom kept a tight budget, allotting money for food and bare essentials.

My mom tells the story, with a calm and steady voice of when my brother was preschool age. She went to the store to buy milk, and she came short of the 19 cents it cost for his milk. She rummaged through her purse, in her pockets, and ultimately felt as if there was nowhere to hide, but to swallow that lump in her throat and nonchalantly say she would come back for it later.

She tells the story of when she was so excited that my brother had a friend come over for a play date that in the weeks following, she encouraged my brother to invite his friend back. After being met with silence on numerous urgings, my brother ultimately replied, “He said he couldn’t, because his mom said our house was not a real house.” She turned that heartbreak into strength, and vowed at that moment, that she and my father would put every ounce of their energy into providing for my brother and his siblings to come, so we would never feel less than or have the opportunity to feel humiliated in this way.

Slowly, but with unwavering strength, my parents did just that. They carved out a life for themselves. A 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom life in the suburbs of West Des Moines, Iowa. They became American citizens. They raised three children that fully identify as Americans with families of their own, fully entrenched in the communities that they serve.

My parents’ story is the story of one American dream. Immigrants that paved their own way through hard work and heart ache. That made an amazingly better life for their family and fought to provide the wealth of American opportunities within finger’s reach for their children.

But my parents’ story is only one story of one American dream. There is also the American dream of the little boy that grew up knowing he should like girls, but instead fell in love with the man of his dreams as an adult. There is also the American dream of the little girl who grew up with a single mother working three jobs who never got a free ride and wondered if her daydream to pursue college was just a far away fantasy. There is also the American dream of the African American boy who grew up in a middle class family, whose mom is on the PTO, and yet he is still being convicted of a crime he did not commit because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color. There is also the American dream of the boy who came from three generations of law enforcement who puts on that blue uniform for the first time knowing that he is carrying the great responsibility upheld by his family to serve and protect with pride and dignity. There is also the American dream of the boy who picks education over the violence on the streets he walks every day, who never feels the encouragement that his choices are the right choices. These are American dreams. These are the dreams we need to protect.

Whichever side you fall on, remember that our country is about heart, about hope, about fostering these American dreams. As we all breathe our next breath, let’s breathe together knowing we share this air, we share the land we live on, and we share this country.  Let’s respect and embrace one another with open minds with the ultimate goal to carry one another forward.  Let’s leave no one feeling marginalized or left behind. While some of our hearts are breaking and some of our hearts are feeling empowered, let’s fight hard to unite  when we need it most.

What This Win Means to Us

There is something about this Cubs win that is about so much more than sports.

When I met my father-in-law some 14 years ago, there were three things I quickly learned about him.  I learned that he has the best, hearty, deep-from-the-belly laugh. I learned that his greatest pride is his kids. I learned that he was a die-hard Cubs baseball fan.

The minute I stepped into his house, I felt I was home. He squeezed me by the shoulders, and he looked me in the eyes, and he yelled over to my then boyfriend, now husband, “Well, aren’t you lucky?” And the rest is history. I remember spending summer weekends at the lake with his teasing and affable banter. I remember big family holiday gatherings where he would always sneak time to sit right next to me, with his plate piled high with turkey, gravy, and Grandma’s famous potato salad, and he would say, “you having fun yet?” with that wink in his eye.

He didn’t have an easy life. There were obstacles that got in the way of life and family. He was a workaholic to a fault. But as life moved along, he woke up. He redefined his priorities, and he set out to be who deep down, he had always been, buried under those things that had led him astray. By the time I met him, all I knew was a man that loved his children and his family and a man that was wholeheartedly loved by my husband.

My husband gave the eulogy at his dad’s funeral. During the eulogy, he talked about his respect for his father. He was proud of what his father had overcome and who he had become. He was proud of how his father made amends and embraced loving his family as his greatest priority. His death left a hole in my husband’s heart that would take time to heal, but that would never completely mend. I am so thankful I met this great man in my husband’s life. I am so thankful we will always have memories of him infused in this family map we are weaving.

There have been so many times that we have felt his great void. My husband’s graduations from college and law school, our wedding day, the birth of his grandchildren, holidays, birthdays, family gatherings. In all the chaos of these wonderful celebrations, there has always been a moment’s pause, to recognize how much sweeter it would be to have him by our sides, laughing his deep-belly-laugh, and teasing his son about changing dirty diapers. I know if he saw who his children had become today, he would be bursting at the seams with pride.  We miss him.

One of my favorite stories is that of my father-in-law piling his dad and three young kids, including my husband, into the car one early Saturday morning, driving the three hours to Chicago to bring his family to their first Cubs babeball game at Wrigleyfield.  Then driving right back home after the game. When time is tight and money is tighter, you do what you can to create memories for your family and share the things you love. That is exactly what my father-in-law did.  He did it right. To this day, my husband cherishes that trip they took to the great Wrigleyfield and it remains one of the most magical places for us to visit. This summer when we took our own kids to Wrigleyfield for the first time, it was as if we were sharing a part of Grandpa Mark’s legacy with them.  It was as if he was there with us, sharing those Chicago dogs in a poppy seed bun, piled high with onions, mustard, green relish, tomatoes and a pickle spear.

My father-in-law was passionate about Cubs baseball, to say the least. To him, like so many, Cubs baseball is not just a sport. It is an undeniable, slightly crazed passion we high-five and howl over. It is putting all your life’s heaviness aside to cheer for America’s favorite pastime. It is a shared hope that brings us closer together. It is a place to belong. It is the heartbeat that unites us.

Cubs baseball is infused into the identity of my father-in-law and the family that gathered around him. His love for the Cubs has sparked and cultivated our love for the team, which we are now passing along to our kids. During this roller coaster of a history-making series, my father-in-law undoubtedly took a seat on the couch along side each of his children. He has brought us together, to celebrate the Cubs, because in celebrating the Cubs, we are celebrating his passion, his heart, and remembering his constant presence.  Every text that was fired between his kids as the Cubs scored a homerun, made a sick defensive play, won a game, was sent with the unspoken message, “wouldn’t Dad love this?”

We wish he could be here to experience this epic Win. Oh, you would love to hear his deep-belly-laugh in all its glory. You would feel his hands slap you on the back and love to watch him sweep his grandchildren off the ground with his big bear hugs.

This is more than a won baseball series. This is about the history and families of fans that have united behind their love for their team. Fans that remember their fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers that passed on this tradition to root, root, root for the Cubbies–win or lose. But this time, they won it all. And for all of us that are carrying on, generation after generation, this die-hard love for the Cubs, we are celebrating big, for us and those that we wished were right here along side of us.

Fly the W

Grandpa

Making plans with other moms these days is somewhat of an exercise similar to that three-mile run I force myself to do after a two week . . . or six month . . . hiatus from running. It is sweaty, it is a brutal uphill challenge, but when you come out the other end and finish that run–or find that one perfect day where your schedules match up–it feels like the best, inconsequential accomplishment ever. There are nap schedules, there are doctors’ appointments, there is gymnastics and T-ball, there are work schedules, that day your friend is watching her sister’s kids, your child’s preschool friend’s birthday party . . . I’m not even sure how it all piles up, but there are piles, and piles of commitments to navigate. But that is life, and it is rich, and it is wonderful, and it was worth all the hectic mayhem. We are so lucky to have the ability to participate in all these amazing things. This is what makes a family full and alive.

But as we age, there is something else presenting itself and glaring us in the face. It is the aging of our parents. It is their doctor’s appointments, their unexpected emergency department visits. It may be a fall. It may be weakness. It may be feeling dizzy. It may be feeling short of breath. We find ourselves sitting in hospital rooms with our lifelong caretakers. In our visions for our futures, with our homes, with our careers, with our families, we never envisioned this. This is all very unexpected.

I met my father-in-law 14 Thanksgivings ago. I was so nervous to meet my boyfriend’s parents. I had no idea what to expect and even less of a clue how to act. I battled my nerves the whole three-hour drive from our little bubble of a world on our college campus to my boyfriend’s little hometown in Michigan. He told me not to be nervous, “there is nothing to be nervous about! They will love you!” Ah yes. What mother doesn’t love the girl her son brings home? Of course she will think I am good enough . . .

I remember pulling up to their home. I remember finding my now father-in-law in the midst of making lunch for us. I remember that big, hearty hug he gave me, and that gentle pat on the back with those kind eyes. I remember feeling welcome.

I learned in the years to come more and more about my father-in-law. I learned that he worked hard hours, never complained, and put his head and hands to his work to provide for his family. He was always a do-it-yourself, fix-it-yourself man. He worked with his hands. He built the kitchen in their home. He built their deck. He fixed the plumbing. He fixed the car. He built an extra bathroom. Sometimes by trial and error, but he got it done. He was a man of not too many words, but he showed his love and affection through his work. He was the builder, the fixer, the caretaker for his family, for his neighbors, for his friends. When we moved into our new home and the basement flooded, we waited patiently for my father-in-law to visit so he could teach my husband how to replace the base molding that was now water-logged and rotted. After I gave birth to the twins and was in a complete state of sleep deprivation and disarray, it was my father-in-law that, night after night, cooked us dinner without which, I am at a loss to know how we would have eaten or if we would even have remembered. This is how he provided. He was the strength, producing for his family.

As the years have passed, I know it has been a struggle for him. It has been a struggle for him because often times, the walk up those 8 steps leading from our garage to our home is a daunting challenge. It sometimes takes all he has to make it up those steps, feeling winded, feeling light-headed, feeling bewildered, trying to remember when his physical strength had been hijacked. It breaks my heart to imagine what this must be like. To be the strength, and now to find your body unable to keep up with your will and desires to provide as you have lived your lifetime doing.

I can’t imagine, but I want him to imagine what it is like for us. For us, it has never been about what he built, it has never been what he could fix, it has always been about his intentions, the vast amount of love and steadfast committment that went into every project. It has been his effort, it has been his heart.

It is his heart. Oh, it has always, always been his heart that is his greatest strength. It is those words he says when I’ve been working tirelessly all weekend, feeling so incredibly worn, those words of acknowledgement, “you must be tired.”  This is the strength that we see in those kind, always welcoming eyes that I met those 14 Thanksgivings ago. It is that heart that my five-year-olds so affectionately call Grampy and my two-year-old calls Babba.

So, today, on my father-in-law’s birthday, I just want him to know, we see him for who he is. He may not say much, but we hear every word.  Don’t let his sometimes gruff demeanor fool you.  He is full teddy bear.  He is full of heart, he is full of love, he is full of strength.

On your 78th Birthday, we love you Grampy, Babba, Byron. Happy, happy birthday.

A Work Day That Ends in Sushi

Previously published on:  http://www.coffeeandcrumbs.net/blog/2016/4/8/a-work-day-that-ends-in-sushi

My husband and I waited seven years to get married; in those months after we became engaged, before I even picked my dress or wedding colors, I had already started planning for the family that occupied our daydreams. We’d have three kids; I was sure of it. We would have two boys and one girl. Of course, our baby girl would be the youngest so she would have two older, protective brothers. They would come on cue two years apart.

Instead, I picked my strapless A-line dress, we settled on red roses and ivory linens with gold trim, we got married, and we had six miscarriages.

I would get pregnant, and just as we would allow ourselves that hopeful glimpse of the first trimester final stretch, I would miscarry. It was crushing. Yet it became a cycle that I became all too familiar with. My emotions became a pattern of predictability: excitement, anxiety, devastation.

By my third miscarriage, the emotional strain of losing each baby I had lovingly carried  brought me to the point of buckle-at-the-knees desperation . . . followed by a sinking relief. I felt relief that I wouldn’t have to wake up another morning asking, is my baby’s heart still beating? I would let my anxiety wash away, replaced by a heaviness in my heart, and almost a strange sense of peace. It was a dark place to be, but a familiar dark place. A place that I could control.

In the midst of uncertainty, I even developed a miscarriage routine. Routine was something I could do. And something I could do well, on my terms. It was a way to say, “I got this.” Even if I didn’t.

 I would realize I was miscarrying, and continue through my day. Continue to care for other people, to smile and joke, when inside, I was hurting so much. I was thinking, “I know you are hurting, patient-in-my-emergency-department, and please be assured I will do my best to take care of you, but you see, what I can’t tell you is that my baby is dying and I am hurting too.”

My baby is dying right now as I stitch up this cut on your finger. My baby is dying while I try to figure out why you are having abdominal pain. My baby is dying while I tell your loved ones you are having a heart attack. My baby is dying and I can’t take care of her the way I can take care of you.  My baby is dying and no one knows it but me.

After work, I would call my husband, then stop to get the sushi I had craved since learning I was pregnant. I would go home and focus on the pain of my cramps, because that was exponentially easier than acknowledging my broken heart. When everything passed, I would mentally brush my hands off and ready myself for the next time. That was my routine. My miscarriage routine.

I was riddled with guilt over everything about it.

During this two-year period, I felt like a failure. I felt like a weak woman. I felt I was doing something wrong. I felt it was my fault. I felt guilty. I felt inadequate. I felt out of control. I felt ashamed. I had never felt so vulnerable and nothing had ever felt so personal.

A year into the process, I went to an infertility specialist and received the million-dollar work-up. Nothing was wrong. How could nothing be wrong? But test after test confirmed that, “Congratulations! Nothing is wrong!” Translation: there is nothing we can fix. I was started on this medication and that medication, because “It’s worth trying.” I was hopeful, but hopeless. I was exhausted from this constant testing of my emotional strength.

And then it was our seventh pregnancy, and this time–twins!!!! Twins!!! My excitement was quickly followed by a flood of anxiety. My husband and I kept our news to ourselves. We held our breaths.   We had been through this. We tiptoed around our fears, whispering to one another, stifling the excitement we held in our glances towards one another, and we waited. And waited. And my belly grew. And I had no cramps. And I had no bleeding. And I saw their heartbeats. Time and time again.

The infertility specialist said we didn’t need him anymore. I sat still in his clean, slightly-dated office, in the same blue upholstered chair with its thin wooden arm rests, the same chair I had sat in for two years, staring at the same framed picture of him and some big fish he had caught with his nephew, and I weighed the heaviness of his words. Then I broke down in wave after wave of tears. We didn’t need our infertility specialist anymore.

We passed three months. And four months. And five, and six, and seven, and eight!!!!! And two healthy beautiful babies were born.  They are beautiful to this day. I stare at them sometimes, and marvel at how they came to be.

Sometimes when I am tucking in my five-year-old daughter at night, I tell her, “Do you know that you are more beautiful than I could have ever imagined?” What I mean to say is, everything about her existence is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

When we decided to have a third, I was ready for the journey. I was nervous of going through the process again, but having had our twins, I knew it was more than worth it. The day we decided we wanted to try again, I put up my defenses against my own emotions.

Five weeks later, just like that, we found out we were pregnant. I braced myself. I was fearful this would become another pregnancy that would fall victim to my routine. I went in for ultrasounds every week. Week after week, there was a heartbeat—I couldn’t believe my ears. And then our beautiful baby girl came into our lives seemingly seamlessly. It was too good to be true, but it is true.

These three beautiful babies of ours.

I realize now after eight pregnancies and three babies and innumerable dreams for our family, there is nothing to be ashamed of. There never was. There was nothing I failed at.

 These days, when I see the chief complaint of “possible miscarriage” show up in my emergency department, I want to see that patient. Not because I can provide better care than my colleagues, but because I want to share my story. Mother to mother. I want to give them hope and I want them to know they are not alone. I am unashamed of the tears that fall from my face when I share in their grief and acknowledge my own. I want them to know it is okay to grieve and natural to feel defeated, and then it is okay to hope again when you are ready.

Sushi has once again become my favorite food. When I eat it now, it doesn’t taste the way it once did. I don’t feel like I am swallowing heartache, loss, and failure. These days, when I stop for sushi at the end of a long day, I bring it home to share with my three children and husband. We talk about what was good about our days, what could have been better about our days, what we look forward to tomorrow. It has become our family favorite meal.  No words can express what these days that end with sushi mean to me now.

I am thankful for everything I have been through. It has given me what I have, it has given me who I am, and it has given me what I have to share. And most of all, it has given me and my husband our beautiful, healthy children.

The Thing About Mother-In-Laws

I met my husband in college. Just two college students trying to make it to class and finish papers before those absurdly-quickly-approaching deadlines. We met each other’s friends, we learned about each other’s hobbies, and about each other’s likes and dislikes. We came to know each other’s favorite study spots, favorite foods; we came to understand how the other dealt with stress and success. We were different in so many ways, but we were beyond compatible and I think we both knew, this was it.

Fast-forward seven years: he proposed, I said yes, we got married. Instantly, I had another side of the family, and so did he. But what has been on my mind isn’t brother-in-laws, or sister-in-laws, or father-in-laws, though they all have their crucial places in our lives; what has been on my mind is mother-in-laws.

It’s a strange thing isn’t? You’ve grown up your whole life with your own mother, who is the center of your world. You know what a mother-child relationship is like, what it should be, based on your own upbringing; and here you are, a grown adult, being thrown into a new mother-child relationship. Except no one is the child, and really, the mother role has changed dramatically.

I think about the parallel lives my mother-in-law and I have lead. She too was present in her children’s lives from the moment they were born. She too made decisions about when she would breastfeed her children and when she would give them formula. She too decided how their foods would be prepared when they transitioned to solids. She too decided when her children would begin to potty train. She too decided what vegetables they would eat, what type of milk they drank, and what clothes they had hanging in their closets. She too planned their summers and weekends together. She too orchestrated every detail of her young family’s lives down to the socks her children wore. Neither of our families would have taken its particular routes without us in them.

I think about what it must be like to evolve from being a mom, directing every part of your child’s life, to now assuming the role of a mother-in-law and grandmother. In thinking about this, I have come to realize the most wonderful thing about my mother-in-law. No matter our differences, my mother-in-law never judges or criticizes the choices I make as a mom. I wish I could bold this, underline this, shout this through the written words on the page. She now stands witness to another person making a separate set of footprints in this path of young motherhood, with footprints that are different from her own. I imagine it must be hard at times to see another person parenting the people you love in a manner different than your own.

But. She never judges me. She never criticizes me for the decisions I make for my family.

And this is why my mother-in-law has taught me the greatest lesson of whom I’d like to be when I enter into her role.

As a young mother, struggling to navigate the raising of young children, this is the greatest gift a mother-in-law can give: non-judgmental eyes, and a gentle, but resilient ever-present support. This is the quiet, constant backing I need for my waxing and waning confidence.  This means everything to me. And while my Type A spirit, will keep me barreling forward in my independent parenting style, my mother-in-law’s influence on how I would like to be as a grandparent and mother-in-law resonate loud and clear. The best way to be–I have come to appreciate–is to respect a young parent’s judgment, way of parenting, and just be supportive and present.

Becoming a mother-in-law, I imagine, must take some adjusting to. You now share this role as the heartbeat of your family with someone you never anticipated sharing this role with.

I am so thankful to have the best mother-in-law to learn from. She has shown me what it is to be kind, to be patient, and to be open-minded. She has given unconditional support, even to a daughter-in-law that is somewhat frantic, somewhat uptight, somewhat of a neat-freak.

The thing about mother-in-laws, is that adding that title to their resume changes nothing about who they are as a mother, because our ultimate goals are all the same: to love the families we share and be present in the best way possible. I am thankful that I have a mother-in-law that gets that.

Thank you to my mother-in-law. You are the definition of love and I couldn’t be more appreciative of having you here to steady our day-to-day chaos.

Happy Mother’s Day. We love you.  Please never move.