Trust Falls

“There is no way she will be able to go.”

Those were the words we kept tossing back and forth at each other as we did our best to assess the situation and plan accordingly. Decisions needed to be made, financially and otherwise, as to whether or not Bailey would participate in an upcoming out-of-state college showcase soccer tournament. It wasn’t the first time we were weighing health concerns and the sustainability of her involvement in competitive sports. In the previous season she was only able to play 60-75% of the time as the pain condition she’s been battling would knock her out of several practices and a handful of games. But Bailey would always echo what her team of doctors would assert – that continuing to play was an important part of her treatment. Using the body and remaining active can counteract the messages of pain circulating throughout the central nervous system. So she kept playing, even if there were frequent disruptions.

But this time was different. Following a rather severe pain episode involving her lower spine, she progressively lost the ability to activate the nerves in all of her extremities. In simpler terms – over the course of a few days, our active soccer superstar of a 15 year old daughter seemingly lost the ability to walk and move her arms with ease. After ruling out degenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and any evidence of cancer or even benign tumors, she was diagnosed with functional weakness. Basically, there was a breakdown in the communication signals between her brain and several of the nerves that activate muscular responses. Neither Brian nor I could have imagined that she would be able to recover in time for the tournament. We decided to make the deposit anyway. “Just in case,” we said.

Here we are, seven weeks later, and I just dropped her off at the airport to travel with her team. She went from having to utilize a wheelchair and sleeping on our couch because we couldn’t keep carrying her almost full-grown body up and down the stairs of our two-story house, to fully functioning again just a few weeks into her rehabilitation process.

There was far more complexity and heartache and beauty and resiliency to those weeks than I could express on this platform, but watching her relearn or remember how to walk was a profound experience that continues to unleash new wisdom as we move beyond the surrealness of it all. I remember the physical therapist who initially worked with Bailey telling her that she knew she was scared of falling, frustrated with her brain and body, but that it was important for her to trust that her brain still knew what to do even if it was acting like it didn’t. She also reassured Bailey that if her brain faltered, that she would be right there ready to catch her.

Trusting her body has been hard for her. It’s been hard for all of us. So dropping her off to fly away to another state, to stay in a hotel room with teammates who don’t understand the near constant pain this kid deals with feels really hard today. Severe pain episodes are difficult to predict and we are unsure of whether or not the functional weakness will return at some point.

She is still working at and learning how to trust her body and brain. It’s a tricky thing because trusting her body doesn’t mean constructing an optimistic mindset and naively clinging to some false hope of smooth-sailing from here on out. Instead, we’ve been wondering about trust by way of surrender. Rather than using energy to resist and resent the pain, Bailey tries to surrender to the movement and progression of the powerful waves. They will eventually pass right on by even when it feels unbearable in the moment. She is learning how to trust by way of surrendering control. She is learning how to trust that her body is doing what it can to perpetually move towards healing and rehabilitation. She is learning how to surrender to her own spirit of resiliency.

As is so often the case, I am working at trusting by way of surrender right along side her. I have had to wrestle with my own sense of failure at not being able to remedy her pain. I can’t control it. I can’t predict it. I can barely even understand it. Surrender requires that I make space for it – for all of it – for the struggle and the recovery, for the suffering and the healing. I’m learning how to trust and surrender to that universal rhythm of all life.

And these life-stretching, heart-wrenching lessons are expansive as well. Of course this wisdom traverses into other categories. About a year ago, Bailey began to understand with greater clarity a few aspects of her own sexuality and in the recent months she decided to identify publicly as a lesbian. I haven’t written openly about this reality until now, primarily because it is not my story to tell. It is her story. And it is sacred. We have allowed her to lead the way in determining when and how to invite others into this part of her story. As we continue to learn how to honor her story and hold space for it in our family narrative, I imagine I will learn how to reflect more openly about my mothering experience as it unfolds.

Trusting by way of surrender has been much harder for me when it comes to this particular category. The truth is I think I have good reason to be cautious and guarded with humanity given our history as it relates to the care and treatment of any type of marginalized group in our society. I have no control over how people in varying degrees of relationship with my glorious daughter will respond to her and her sexuality. I certainly have agency and will go to great lengths to do whatever I can to protect her, to defend her, to advocate for her, but I know all of my efforts will fall short of completely shielding her from harm. Optimism is not my jam. It’s always felt too contrived. But maybe trusting by way of surrender in this category looks more like trusting Bailey’s ever-developing spirit of resiliency.

As a family we are practicing huge trust falls these days. We are trusting ourselves and each other mostly. Trusting that we are more able to catch ourselves than we sometimes realize, and that when we can’t catch ourselves the rest of us are right there ready and willing to hold each other up. We are trusting our own capacity to suffer and heal, to struggle and recover…together.

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Young Love

I just love your arms, Mama
She stares at me unabashedly,
unflinchingly, unceremoniously.
They hold me, they help me,
they cover me, they snuggle me.

I hold her gaze this time,
letting her young daughter love drench
this parched and weary mama heart.
Someday the ambivalence will come
between us too, my baby girl.

But these strong smooth arms
are for you and for them,
no matter how young or how old,
my daughters, my beams
of light moving forth.

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Rising Still: Beginning thoughts on caring for teens with undiagnosed illnesses and chronic pain

When I began this new blog venture (the fifth blog I’ve ever been a part of creating or co-creating), I had anticipated it growing into a space where I could capture and catalogue my musings of this stage of my own motherhood journey with my four girls. I felt the time moving along much faster than I had ever previously known it to move, even faster than it had flown by in the earlier sleep-deprived and drowning-in-diapers stage of parenting. The year prior to launching the blog was spent trying to sort through the unexpected and sudden uprooting of a life we had rebuilt for ourselves after a few wild adventures involving a short stint in Uganda, an equally short stint in California and a three year journey through a graduate program at the school I now work for part-time.

I had hoped to be more intentional about the practice and rhythm of writing. I had hoped to be more focused in my musings, to use this platform to generate or house a few new vocational projects. I had hoped to unfold my feminist leanings in how they shaped my mothering, or unfold my mothering and how it shaped my feminist leanings. I had hoped that this little writing space would generate the deep wisdom that comes from exploring one’s own life. But as is so often the case, at least in my life, things rarely workout exactly as I imagine they will.

I have roughly seven to ten drafted posts sitting and waiting on my blog dashboard. They’re patiently awaiting a revisit, edits, a conclusion perhaps. But there they sit. Left undone. Untended. Unfinished. I started to understand these abandoned blog posts and major lulls in my own writing practice as a type of resistance. It dawned on me this morning, that the resistance could be directly connected to the title of this blog – Little Women Rising. To write about my girls rising into bold and brave and brilliant young women could be a challenge these days as two of the four have been contending with complex medical issues that leave them both lying down more than rising up. Oh the irony.

I know I need to write. Resistance be damned. I need to find my way, paving one word at a time, through the shit show I feel like we are living these days. So here I am in this space I created with vocational aspirations, now realizing I need this space to sort out how we will rise together in the face of the heaping pile we stumbled into.

Let’s begin with a list of feelings.


5 Things You May Feel if Your Child is Suffering from an Undiagnosed Illness (as of yet) and/or Chronic Pain that Impacts Daily Functioning

  1. You may feel like you are legitimately going crazy. This feeling often follows awful doctor’s visits where the expert you vulnerably and desperately approach looks at you or your child and inevitably suggests stress as the culprit because they have no other known categories for your ailments, or maybe they simply hint at their suspicion of an exaggeration or paranoia. Sometimes it surfaces when your child becomes irritated with your obsessive symptom check-ins and new google informed wonderings every hour on the hour. And the feeling lurches from deep within too, because you actually know that you are going crazy. The inability to sleep past 4am without grabbing your iPhone to type one more symptom into google, the difficulty concentrating on anything else and the frequent and increasing dissociation would be enough for any therapist to diagnose you with an anxiety disorder. I know this. I was a therapist before life took a turn. But now, my view from the proverbial (and metaphorical) couch, is that perhaps going a little crazy is a normal response to a crazy experience. Eventually, your craziness may lead you to some answers or someone who seems to hear you and believe you and your child. Make sure you take as many deep breaths in those moments as is humanly possible.
  2. Panic, denial, grief, and numbness may all take turns. Panic is always just a new symptom or blood test or scan or pain episode away. It’s the panic of discovering something life threatening. But then it’s the panic that you’ll never figure out what’s going on or how to usher relief for your child. And then denial often swoops in convincing you that you’re blowing this way out of proportion – that none of this is as big of a deal as you fear it could be. Denial can even convince you in moments that this is all psychosomatic and it’s of your own doing – that your personal brand of crazy is creating this response in the body of your child. Grief is the hardest for me to sit with at this point. It’s the grief over what has been lost already – the time, resources, energy, opportunities for play and delight, days upon days of struggle. But it’s also the grief over what losses may be set before you still. It’s hard to sit in the grief for very long before an undoing occurs. I’ll explain the undoings a bit further down the screen. Numbness used to feel like the safest place to situate myself but too much numbness starts to lurk a little too close to the edge of deadness. Panic, denial, grief and numbness keep taking turns unless they are arrested by something even more powerful or substantial or true. A sunset, the playful demands of a four year old, attending a lecture with Dr. Cornel West and a room full of people looking to do better by one another have all been powerful enough interruptions in the recent weeks.
  3. You may oscillate between feeling powerless and having delusions of grandeur. It’s when I feel confounded on what to do next that I typically find myself crying on the floor in my closet, or pounding the steering wheel of my car as I sit parked in the privacy of my garage. Bouncing around from one doctor to another, one specialist or clinic to another, listing the weeks (or years) of the progression of symptoms and all that has been either confirmed or ruled out over and over again is beyond exhausting. And perpetually finding ourselves at the feet and mercy of a fractured medical system that rarely exhibits the continuity of care necessary for more complex cases can further deplete an already exasperated family. I combat the sense of powerlessness in the process with some significant overcompensating by way of the above mentioned incessant google searches, but I have also expanded my pursuit of answers to scouring the research and studies found in the scholarly journals I can access. These searches are propelled by the notion that if I can just find the missing piece to the puzzle or if we can just get to the right expert then somehow I can remedy everything. These delusions of grandeur – that I can somehow fix what is broken for (and within) my child – seem connected to some primal and instinctual maternal wiring, but it simultaneously exemplifies a resistance to the spiritual reality and developmental milestone of truth that my teens and I must each accept – I am not God or Goddess. I do have agency, so I am not powerless. But beyond my own agency, I must contend with the limitations of a world that functions according to natural realities and imperfect human systems. There is so much nuance and tension to be found and explored between this psychological, philosophical and spiritual dichotomy.
  4. Loneliness may be difficult to combat for both you and your child. I’ve noticed something both heartwarming and heartbreaking during our visits to various clinics at Seattle Children’s Hospital over the past year. Perfect strangers often strike up conversations in these settings. You don’t see that in many other places here in the midst of the cultural phenomenon of the Seattle freeze. The interactions I have been privileged enough to witness (or close enough to eavesdrop upon) are typically initiated by one parent of a patient asking another parent of a patient about what clinic they are visiting that day. It’s a connecting point. We are all standing in the same lines, sitting in the same waiting rooms, sorting out how to best care for our child and get the answers we need. Within the walls of the facility, I don’t feel so alone. I see the exhaustion in the faces of the other caregivers too. There are plenty of parents and children that are patients in far worse condition than we currently find ourselves experiencing. Regardless of the spectrum of need and desperation, we all know at least a little something about each other’s worlds. Outside of those walls, it feels overwhelmingly isolating at times. Chronic illness/pain is often an invisible issue. So there could be (and likely are) others walking around my small world facing similar battles, similar emotional and physical exhaustion, but I wouldn’t know it just by looking at them. And they wouldn’t know it by looking at us. I sometimes wish we could all walk around the world with chalkboard signs hanging from our necks that reflect our current sufferings – whether physical or emotional. I am certain we would all have at least one thing worthy of displaying. Maybe then we would all be a lot gentler and kinder to one another as we move through the normal operations of everyday life.
  5. You may encounter opportunities for the deep psychological work of undoing internalized messages. It might be hard to access these deeper levels of the self when you’re operating out of survival mode and navigating life one step or moment or task at a time. But there may be moments where it feels like your own tectonic plates shift and open up a crevice that allows some kind of profound and transformational insight to fall into the core of your being. Mostly these experiences are remarkably fleeting. A few weeks back I dragged myself away from all research devices and committed to walking as long as I needed to in order to feel like a whole body of a person, not just an obsessively thinking head of a human. The thinking didn’t necessarily stop, but the walking generated a more embodied presence than I had felt in several weeks. I could think a bit, and then cry for a bit, and then yell at the Divine for a bit too. Head, heart, and spirit. I guess that’s what was necessary for me to begin to hear the messages that were in need of deconstruction. “This isn’t supposed to happen now. Why is this happening now? What am I supposed to be learning in all of this? Are we being punished? Are we cursed? WTF???” They were rather revealing questions of my heart and soul. I’m learning to unpack what they each reveal about the messages I’ve internalized. This isn’t supposed to happen now. Interesting that I’ve bought into the myth of our culture that life is meant to play out a certain way…if you’re a decent human, if you work hard, if you play by the rules. I wonder if my privilege has prevented me from accepting that neither suffering nor struggle bow down to the notion that children and teens shouldn’t have to face hardship (especially if college and dreams of playing soccer at that level are on the horizon). The remaining questions of why and lessons to be learned and whether a curse is at play all reveal, at least in part, my own susceptibility to an egocentric state of mind. Why not happen to me…to us? That’s the countering voice I heard that day in the middle of the woods. It wasn’t a response that minimized my own experience of suffering, but it was a truth that reminded me that suffering and hardship will greet us all at some point(s) in our journey. It’s simply part of the human experience. Who am I to think that I should somehow not experience hardship when my news feed is filled daily with tragedy after tragedy of greater or lesser degrees? This is not to say there isn’t meaning to be made out of these experiences. I’m just learning that the meaning may have more to do with increasing my capacity for empathy and understanding, not getting stuck looking inward alone. These are the great undoings that can happen when our own little worlds quake and crack.

 

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Mantras

“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness.” ~Rachel Naomi Remen

When I was on the road to recovery from Briella’s birth, I had a series of stints placed within my body to aid a few of the organs damaged in her delivery and subsequent emergency surgeries. My body was not very happy with these long vessels extending from my kidneys through my ureters and into my bladder. I read somewhere along the way that some people don’t even notice the presence of these implanted foreign objects. Other people have bodies that make it known that they are not happy at all with the intrusion. My body was in alignment with the latter camp. I was in near constant pain as my nerves shouted and convinced my brain that the insides of my organs were being perpetually stabbed by these straw-like vessels that allowed urine to flow through my impaired bodily system. And then there were the constant infections, the evidence of my bodily resistance to it’s need for assistance. I would take three to five baths a day in an effort to minimize gravity and relax my confused and frustrated body. Every single day was a struggle and it left me completely depleted.

My mantra, repeated over and over again in those days, “This too shall come to pass,” carried me through. And that’s just it – I knew that inevitably the pain, the infections, the tubes both in and out of my body, the fixation on my injured urinary system, that it would all move toward some semblance of resolution. But I often wondered in that season about people who experience chronic pain. What must it be like to accept that there may not be an end to the pain? What must it be like to know no cure? What mantra could carry one through the open-ended days of pain? I shuddered at the thought back then. I felt my heart grow heavy and weary with empathy for those who carry such narratives. And I would marvel too at the realization that so many humans find the strength and resilience each day to bear their own stories.

As life would have it, those months of unrelenting pain and those wonderings that increased my empathy for individuals who contend with chronic pain were a clearly a primer for this current season of life. I am cautious to share too many details in this space, mainly because it’s not really my story to tell, though it undeniably intersects with mine. What I can share is that much of our life over the past 16 months has revolved around sorting out and tending to the health issues of our 15 year old daughter, Bailey. Though we seem to have ruled out any life threatening conditions at this point, chronic and unrelenting pain has been a significant part of this chapter in her life, and ours as we all bear the impact day in and day out.

BaileyWe are trying to figure out individual and family mantras to get through the hardest days. Instead of anticipating and hoping for the passing of a season (because we’re not sure that will ever be the case), we are learning how to search for beauty, and laughter, and delight even in the midst of the cloud of pain that follows her everywhere she goes.

Some days are way harder than others. Somedays the cloud pisses me off. Somedays the cloud rages and pours down on her…and us too. Somedays I remember that a cloud that rains periodically and diffuses our access to the source of light is not the same as having no sun at all. The sun is still there even if I can’t always find it, or feel it. The clouds and the sun can coexist. Maybe that will be my mantra.

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4

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It seems fitting that I’ve been mostly bed ridden with a nasty virus these first few days of the new year in anticipation of Briella’s 4th birthday. I had no choice but to be present – present to my body and how it aches right now with sickness, but also present to the memories of that day and the months and now years that have followed. I wonder sometimes if there will come a time where Briella’s birthday won’t carry with it the sting of trauma. Maybe someday. But for now, it is still so full of all of the jumbled-up-ness of a birthing trauma.

This one day held within it a hope that was years in the making. The truth is our marriage was pretty busted up over a decade ago. It had been cracking left and right in the earliest years – the years we had three babies (and lost one) within a four year span. We were barely adults when we married and tried to do grown up things like pay the bills and buy houses. An unconscious fantasy of escaping the wounds from my family of origin by creating an entirely new family of my own along side Brian’s conditioning to be the good Christian boy drove most of our joint decisions. And we tread water for a little while, partially sustained from years of marriage counseling and bound together by the expectations and demands of our faith tradition. But eventually the shit hit the fan and went flying everywhere, as shit does when it hits the fan (not that I’ve ever tried that or anything).

The departure of our pastor, my boss and mentor of nearly a decade, from our community and his marriage triggered an abandonment wound, or re-opened the deep abyss, leaving me questioning almost every decision I had made in my life up until that point. The desire for someone, something, to fill that big gaping canyon in my heart and soul left me struggling to get out of bed some days and clawing at those who weren’t able to take the pain away on other days. Brian discovered that the good Christian boy routine was leaving him and our relationship cold and smelling of near death.

I considered an affair. Brian considered leaving me. We decided to move to Seattle instead where I would get a degree to be better equipped for the possibility of single parenting. We thought we were preparing for an inevitable transition out of our marriage. Instead, with greater distance from both of our families, from the man I thought I couldn’t live without, and from the church culture that was suffocating both of us, we were able to find ourselves a little more. We’re still finding ourselves all these years later, because that’s the only way to keep finding each other too.

So Briella’s birth story was 8 years in the making because following the birth of our third daughter, our life together was looking kinda shady. We found our way through near catastrophe, I managed to get that grad degree, we moved back to Colorado where Brian acquired his masters and we bought another house all the while hope was rising. Perhaps we could create one more life out of ours together. Perhaps that fourth child would be our denouement, the evidence of the long, hard, and beautiful work of creating a family and then forging a family back together again.

briella-baby

That’s a whole lot of hope to place upon or point toward a single event in the epic novel of our life together. As the story would go, that pregnancy, and that day, and the following days did not go as we imagined, dreamt and hoped they would. Except for this: She is glorious. She was then and she is now and she forever will be. Of this, I am certain. She has every single one of us (especially her sisters) swooning at her every word and dance and laugh. If she had not come to be, I wonder if we all would have felt something missing from our life together. She is glorious from her chipped front tooth to her nugget like toes. She is glorious in her ability to take up space in a family with several spacious personalities. She is glorious in her determination to do things her way and on her own. She is glorious in her repeated declarations of love for those she holds most dear and in her impassioned expressions of disappointment when she does not get her way.

So her birthday holds undeniable glory but it also holds memories of great terror. I was the closest I’ve ever been to death on that day. Twice. Brian was faced with the possibility of raising four girls all on his own after we had been working so hard all those years to stay at it together. My girls were confused and terrified for several hours as no one knew how to help them process what was going on in that frantic operating room. And the thing about tip-toeing to the very edge of your terror, is that you can’t just shake that image out of your mind. Pretending it doesn’t matter now because she was okay and I am still here doesn’t really work. I witnessed the threshold of my own finite life. That experience must be reconciled and somehow integrated into our current existence for wholeness to even be possible.

The truth is we are each still learning how to carry that intimate experience of the terror of death in direct correlation to the birth of her glory in a way that ultimately sets us free to hope more, to hope deeper. Remembering both the terror and the glory, letting them inform each other, is part of the healing work still, four years later. Before January 3, 2013 our hope was limited to imaginings of an idyllic birth to symbolize or represent the beauty of the ongoing healing work in our marriage. But our imaginings were too small. Too limited. And so our hope was refined through her birth – it needed to expand large enough to hold the jumbled-up-ness of both terror and glory, of the finite and the infinite.

So on this day I celebrate her absolute glory, and I remember and honor my unshakeable encounter with the terror of finitude.

briellamama

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Photo by the very talented Bailey Gauthier

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No one told me

No one told me it would feel like this, I thought as I let the hot water wrap around me like a blanket. I looked down at the scar from where they pried two of them from the embrace of my womb. That same womb was taken too from this body that worked so hard to keep them safe and keep me here. Breasts stretched and depleted from the years they volunteered to replace the four severed and dried up umbilical cords. All parts of this body have been stretched and pulled and depleted and offered.

And no one told me it would feel like this. Like the pulling and stretching never really stops. They just keep expanding, extending, pulling away and beyond. An image comes to mind of the four quadrants of my heart being pulled, stretched outside of my body, beyond my body. In moments I wonder if it will be ripped apart entirely. But somehow it learns to grow even when I don’t want it to. It extends and then finds rest in it’s new shape just long enough to take a breath before the pulling begins again. Most days I want it to stop, all the while hoping and sometimes knowing that the stretching is part of my own process of becoming…not just the process of their own.

But no one told me it would feel like this.

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Facing the Pain Together

There we were, the three of us sitting in Faith’s room coming undone together. A day of reacting, of crying, of hurting led us each to our own discoveries. Faith was the one first able to get at what was going on underneath the reacting, the irritation, the symptoms. When she started to name how different she perpetually feels from her peers, from the way things are or the way girl’s are supposed to be, and how she feels sick to her stomach when she thinks about such things, Bailey and I both found her there too. We were back in our own truth and in our own depth, instead of being relegated to our surface selves – the selves most notorious for revealing all the symptoms of the deeper wounds. The most common symptoms are exasperation and irritation at the world around us. Bailey echoed Faith’s sentiments on what we’ve come to refer to as high school girl culture and added her own disorienting and disillusioning experiences related to an event they both attended over the weekend.

Instead of trying to help guide them toward some sage wisdom or manufactured sense of empowerment in their individuality, I let my own tears begin to fall and do the painful work of receiving the greater truth that was coming to me in that raw moment. This was what I had feared most when I first wondered if I should ever have any children. How could I survive witnessing my own daughter(s) having to endure the torture that comes with being female in this world? Wow, I would think to myself, that’s a little dramatic, Shauna. And then I’d remember the darkest years. Years that followed the abuse. Years that followed the objectification and sexualization. The years of splitting. All the girl parts of me that were ever free enough to explore, to feel pleasure, to experience life subjectively were no longer allowed in public. And eventually they forgot how to be present in private too.

I swallowed whole some new illusions when I first turned to religion. I wanted to believe that I could somehow shield my children from the atrocities of a long standing societal system that perpetually objectifies one half of it’s members. If I could become godly enough, stay married enough, be the best and most holy mother to my children, gain wisdom enough, and heal psychologically enough to prevent the pattern of abuse from recurring then my children would be held together, protected somehow from the splitting I had experienced.

But here we were. Sitting together in the bedroom of my 16 year old feeling the impact. Because no matter how hard I have worked for the past 16 years at mothering to the best of my abilities, I could not shield them from the culture hell-bent on ravaging and devouring and splitting the lives of girls and women. And this fixation ruins boys and men too. But that topic is for another day, another post. Neither of my teens have stories of abuse. Neither of my teens have survived the complete fracturing of a family unit. Neither of them are even remotely as needy and starved for affection as I was when I was their age. I thought that if I did everything I could to ensure that they had very different stories from my own, that they would be spared from the pain. Relatively rational creature that I am, I knew they’d still have to encounter hard things, but I envisioned they’d be entirely unencumbered by the rules and expectations bestowed upon them the moment the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!”

But here we are. The truth is that my daughters, because of the sheer fact that they are in fact my daughters – descendants of this particularly hyperaware and ridiculously sensitive and perceptive human they call mom, they had no choice but to swallow the red pill. So they see life as it really is. They see all the rules. All the masks. All the denial. All the pain. Much of the horror. They hear the stories of blow jobs and anal sex from 15 and 14 and sometimes 13 year old girls who claim its their best form of birth control. They ask if it’s even possible for a girl to orgasm in either scenario and then they are even more confused as to why sexuality for their peers is about being objects and not subjects. They feel split too – between who they really are and who they would need to be to fit in with their peers. They feel the poison all around them and they see their friends drinking it freely because it’s all that they have known. They even know that some of the poison seeps into their skin because it’s in the air all around them. It’s on the walls of their high school. It’s even in our house because their mama drank from the poison for much of her early life and she’s 37 and still trying to purge the toxicity. It’s on their screens. It’s in their music. We are all choking on it all the time. And my girls and I…we know it. And it feels unbearable and overwhelming sometimes. We feel powerless much of the time. And it feels painful all of the time.

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Rage Rising

The topic is never far from my mind. I wonder if that is true for most (if not all) women. Perhaps my own awareness of the topic is intensified particularly because of my work and training as a therapist alongside my own history of past sexual abuse. But then again, the current statistics suggest that if we do not have a personal narrative of sexual violation, then we most certainly know some who do. So if the topic isn’t as much of a focus for others, dare I say that I think it should be.

I have been a fairly mild-mannered feminist for the past several years. Never wanting to be perceived as a raging-man-hating-f-word, I have tempered my passion. I’ve justified the tempering as the necessary means to foster a “safe” environment for discussion around difficult categories. I want to be heard and I realize that raging out loud doesn’t always lead to the conditions for the kind of dialogue I want to encourage. And there it is. Did you catch that? It’s one more example of how internalized patriarchy has molded my own posture in the complex world I find myself navigating as a female. I have internalized a belief structure that requires women to either cut off their rage or to hide it under layers of gentleness, politeness and thoughtfulness in order to be deemed worthy of lending an ear.

Rage found it’s way to the surface this week. If only for a moment, the seal was broken. After reading about the recent gruesome attack and gang rape of several aid workers in Sudan, being reminded of how rape is used as a weapon of war, and hearing news of Brock Turner’s release from jail after a measly three months, it was reading through the school dress codes for my daughters’ middle and high school that caused my blood to boil. Because it’s all connected. Somehow. And I hope to unpack some of that in future posts. But for now, I’m allowing the rage to surface.

My husband could tell that something was bothering me earlier in the week, and so he asked me what was wrong. I turned to him and the words came forth like a flame, “What the hell is wrong with our culture that this keeps happening? Why do we continue to produce emotionally underdeveloped men who think it’s their right to do what they want with women’s bodies? I’m so mad. I’m pissed at male culture. Honestly, I’m pissed at men.”

Telling the truth about my rage has opened up all sorts of deeper questions in the days that have followed that declaration. If I’m pissed at men, how does it affect my relationship with my husband, my fathers, my brothers and male friends? How does it impact my parenting? What am I really mad at within male culture? What is at the root? And ultimately, what do I do with the anger? Because that’s the hope — that anger can compel action toward a greater good, that it can generate movement or growth or transformation once it’s expressed or revealed.

Once again, I’m reminded that the first step is always deepening our awareness. It’s letting what has been unconscious, or subconscious, come into consciousness. So I’m swimming within that process, letting it do it’s thing. And then I’m sure even more will rise up. Who’s with me?

 

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16!

It’s true. We have a 16 year old in the house now. I haven’t been able to write much about what that feels like as a mama. The words are still trying to find their way to the page. But I wanted to share the words I was able to share with her this last week on her special day. 

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Photo taken by Bailey Gauthier

You are 16 today. When I take in the breathtaking beauty of your now almost-adult-face, I see all of those earlier and squishier versions of that very same face too. I see the very same eyes that captivated a room when you first came out to greet us. I see the playful toddler who loved to dance and sing the Barney theme song (Lord have mercy). I see the three year old grin that could fill an entire room with it’s hint at mischief. I see the observant four year old who always took in everything and everyone around her. I see the six year old who’s heart broke when you discovered and then attempted to remedy how the world could be crueler to some than others. I see the nine year old that was profoundly impacted by the very human pressure to perform and be perfect. I see the 11 year old girl who started to recognize her own capacity as an athlete. I see the 13 year old who began to experience the complexities of relationship with the opposite gender. I see the 15 year old who endured an enormous amount of loss and transition all while facing the frustration of having a physical body that can be fractured.

And here you are at 16. I know you are as anxious as you are excited about approaching adulthood and the responsibilities that come with the freedoms. I know that when you look around the world today you are often confused and disheartened. But YOU, my daughter, are braver than you have yet to realize. And you bring more light into this fractured world than you have yet come to believe.

Lately I have imagined that there is this ticking clock looming in the background of our relationship. It’s as though a part of me believes that my time as your mother somehow ends when you turn 18. Yes, I know – it’s a little nutty. But I’m sure that’s not shocking. Maybe every mama feels this way while her heart is racing to catch up with the metamorphosis of her daughter rising into womanhood. Sometimes I think my relationship with time is more complicated since that day three and a half years ago when we all wondered if my clock had run it’s course. So I am daily reminding myself that what we have is today. And today you are 16. And we are both here to witness this moment right now. You know your mama loves words, and so I wanted to mark this day with some very intentional words. I want to bear witness to you and the woman you are becoming with each passing year.

Just a few weeks ago we sat together and watched the Democratic National Convention declare Hillary Clinton as the first female nominee of a major party for the 2016 presidential election 96 years after women won the right to vote. In one of the introduction speeches, actress Meryl Streep mentioned two characteristics that all notable women throughout history possess: GRIT and GRACE. You, daughter, know something of these words too.

GRIT is the stuff of fierce women. You’ve had it since birth. And thank God because you will need it still in the journey to come. Sometimes life is going to kick the shit out of you. I know you have seen this already – but I assure you, the shit will continue to fly. Harnessing grit isn’t about becoming hardened or learning how to fight back. It’s about learning how to still STAND even when life tries to knock you down. It is about toughness, but not the kind of posturing of strength we see so often today. It looks more like a sticky, grainy, gritty resolve than it does any form of violence. It’s about holding on to who you are and claiming your value in the face of a culture or system that at times will attempt to diminish your worth. It’s about always knowing and declaring that you matter because you are not because of what you may or may not ever do in this world. Grit is the stuff of real women who stand against a world that tells them they’re never enough. So grit is necessary to stand in your own two feet and fill up your share of space in the world.

GRACE is the stuff of honorable women. It’s about how you move through this life, how you see yourself and how you see those around you and beyond you. Grace is knowing that you are worthy and so is EVERYONE else. And I really mean EVERYONE else. Even those who live as though they’re not worthy. It’s about accepting your limitations and not believing that they diminish your light. Living with this kind of grace is as much about offering it as it is about knowing it deep within yourself. It is the place I’ve seen you return to time and time again. May you continue to know GRACE and be GRACE as you move through your life.

Beyond your GRIT and the embodiment of GRACE, there is something else that has carried your heart through hard times and planted your feet on scared ground. My dear, you’ve been able to embody a spirit of GRATITUDE. I first saw it in your four year old eyes as you would often take in the beauty of those Colorado sunsets. This one word, really this one posture toward the universe has been my own life raft many times over. Choosing to employ a lens of gratitude even when it felt impossible never failed to lead me to the well of a life force larger than any heartache I’ve ever encountered. And I’m not talking about a contrived, shallow, dishonest sentiment here. No. not. that. I’ve heard it said many times that when tragic things happen, we should look for the helpers. When dark things happen, look for the light. Not because the helpers remedy the harm. Not because the discovery of the light means the dark no longer exists. But we must hold space to see both the good and the bad. The practice of gratitude helps us see. all. of. it. I love that even as a young girl, you’ve always been profoundly moved by the beauty of this natural world. May that kind of awe extend always to all of life and all it’s complexity and creativity.

So on this day, your very sweet 16 indeed, I give you these words and reflect back to you the light you bring forth day by day. 

With love to infinity and beyond,

Mama

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I had these words hammered into a lovely Thistle Stone necklace. Photo by Bailey Gauthier.
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Pilgrimage to Disneyland

IMG_2406We just returned from a long-anticipated family road trip that included jaunts to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disneyland and Newport Beach. We also somehow fit two different soccer tournaments for two different kids within the span of our 10 day trip. We’re a family on the move through much of life, in case you hadn’t picked up on that detail already. This pace and determination to cram fullness into limited space and time is often a point of contention for many who find themselves in relationship with me. I’m notorious for underestimating the amount of time a project might take or just how much work a task will require. I always find a way to get it all done, at times at the expense of my own body and at the mercy of those who choose to love me anyway.

Deciding to tackle Disneyland in a single day was evidence that this pattern of mine is alive and well. We have actually done Disneyland on two previous occasions – also in single day excursions. On these previous occasions the kids were all pretty young (as were Brian and I) and we weren’t overly concerned about conquering the park. We knew then that even a taste of the experience would feel like magic for our girls. BUT expectations and desires shift when children morph into teenagers. If I’ve learned anything in this season of parenting two teens, a tween and a threenager, it’s that these years are about continual growth and change. “Duh!” you might be thinking (yes, I still use ridiculous sayings from the 90s). I am not, however, strictly referring to the surge of pubescent hormones responsible for the fairly rapid metamorphosis of their glorious bodies. I’m talking about the space between all of us as well – that relational matrix found within every family system. As our “big” girls are each transitioning from childhood to adulthood we are perpetually being asked to make more space for one another’s differences and separateness. We are expanding as each daughter discovers how she is different and continues to lean into her process of individuation.

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So how do you do Disneyland in a single day with a family as large as ours? Because these days I’m feeling how large we really are – not just in numbers, but in spaciousness with six different humans who all have their own expectations, desires and needs. I should add that it was also 95+ degrees and a gazillion times more populated than it had been when we last braved those crowds a decade before. We were a hot sweaty mess of a family that day, spending a larger portion of our vacation budget than originally planned and spending most of our time in lines feeling like it wasn’t quite what any of us had hoped it would be. But we did it. We bumbled and bumped our way through sorting out who wanted to do what and with who and how and where to meet up and reconvene. It was a day of some bickering and then compromise and deconstructing and leveling expectations, and ultimately making peace with reality and making space for each of our exhausted hearts in the end.

As the sun began to set and we found the relief we all needed from the blazing heat, we entered into the best part of the day together. Our tired feet and empty bellies led us all to the same desire – to eat and rest together before we would stake out our spot for the evening parade and fireworks show. It’s this rhythm of family I’m learning to embrace -the wrestling and sorting and pushing out and beyond that must take place so that there is enough room and space for everyone to gather within.

Later that night there was a moment of magic. I’m a sucker for fireworks put to music and it turns out each of my girls are as well. Just before the finale, Disney did what it does best – it made magic. Let It Go was blaring through the speakers and I couldn’t help but notice each of my girls singing along to a song we’ve listened to way too many times (it’s the threenager’s favorite movie). The three big girls were standing in front of me and Briella was perfectly situated on my hip and then it happened. The entire audience gasped as we all began to notice snow trickling down from above. I first caught Briella’s wonderstruck face and then each of my girls raised their hands into the air utterly delighting in the collective spectacle. I felt my eyes well up instantly with tears of such deep gratitude because this is the point of it all. Life is mostly about the struggle, the sorting out, the navigation of sometimes competing desires or needs, the individuating, the sweating and bickering and compromising. It’s the mundane and the messy. But then there are moments of magic. And it’s not that the moments of bliss make the rest of it bearable. It’s that the moments of reality make the magic that much more magical.

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*All photos taken by Bailey Gauthier

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