Respecting My Limits

volunteerism, group activities, life lessons

The hair nets were an extra special bonus!

Swallowing four uncoated Advil without water was a bad idea, but I was desperate. An hour into our family’s volunteer shift at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, I’d already lost my battle with back pain and wasn’t about to admit I couldn’t keep going. Apparently those peeps who wrote the Proverbs verse “Pride goeth before a fall” knew what they were talking about.

Our task at the Food Depository was straightforward:  box up endless husks of corn to be sent to area food pantries and soup kitchens. Along with 50 other volunteers, we scooped up armfuls of corn and carried them over to boxes lining a nearby conveyer belt.

Our efforts would ensure hundreds of local families had fresh corn to eat over the next few days. Two hours of bending and lifting would ensure I’d be in traction for the same.

The assembly line work was fun at first. I started off in my natural “can do” enthusiast mode, chatting up the other volunteers and striving to be a good team player. While my older daughter rolled her eyes at my eagerness, I felt proud of myself – “Look at me in a group, being a people person.” I enjoyed watching how other people approached our joint task and admired the power of a group in action.

An hour later, I’d lost my joy. My team spirit and positive attitude quickly followed. My neurons screamed for me to stop bending and lifting. I felt cranky and old, yet we still had another hour left to our shift.

My patience with teamwork disappeared like the memory of a sexy dream and soon I was picking people apart in my mind, no longer appreciating our varied humanity, instead fantasizing about who I could lose my shizz at first.

Would it be the sweaty man next to me who grunted like a over-muscled gym rat every time he bent into the corn bin? Or the woman who spent all her time straightening the corn instead of boxing it?

I needed an attitude adjustment and the ibuprofen burning my esophagus wasn’t going to cut it.  I was done but didn’t want to admit it.

I hate having limits. In my mind, I’m still as lithe and supple as the twelve year old across the bin from me who bent over at her waist repeatedly like a deranged drinking bird. Doesn’t she know she has a limited lifetime allotment of pain-free hinges, and she used up at least seven years worth that day?

drinking bird via scientificonline

“For the love of god, girl, bend at your knees!”

Looking over at my husband and daughters working diligently, I tried to convince myself that I’d done enough and had nothing to prove. I could stop whenever I wanted. Right?

But where would we be if everyone stopped whenever they wanted? Don’t we need people who push through pain to accomplishment, Annie Warbucks-style?

I had a choice. I could save face by ignoring the signals my mind and body were sending and pay the price later. Or, I could respect my limits and sit my ass down. Hiding in the bathroom was an option too.

Have I mentioned how much I hate limits? After picturing all the starving homeless people who would be denied corn if I stopped and swallowing my pride (it stuck in my throat right next to the Advil), this time I chose to honor my limits and not hurt myself to prove my worth. Instead I spent the rest of my time handing out hair nets and hand sanitizer. My pride took a beating, but my back appreciated the loving choice.

Blood Test

My family knows blood. Whether through accidents, falls or roughhousing, my loved ones spill their share of life-giving plasma on a regular basis.  Unlike my husband and kids, I manage to keep the majority of my precious Type O molecules where it belongs.

Unless I’m on jury duty. jury duty

In my lifetime, I’ve had two spontaneous nosebleeds and for reasons still unclear, both happened in county courthouses.

The first time, sitting in the jury box during voir dire, the much too sexy sounding term for our country’s mind-numbing jury selection process, I tried to stop the sudden surge of blood without drawing any attention to myself.

Scared I would unwittingly secure a spot on the jury by disrupting the proceedings, I sacrificed my favorite turquoise sweater to staunch the flow. A fellow potential juror offered a pocket pack of Kleenex, which I promptly filled to saturation. My fistful of blood streaked tissues may have persuaded the court to release me from jury service.

My second jury duty-induced nasal eruption, two years later, coincided with a lunch break. I’d spent the morning in a courtroom with a judge who didn’t allow any reading materials, counting the minutes until lunch. As I bit into a turkey on rye, I felt a cold drip from my nose. The sight of blood droplets speckling my coleslaw activated my startle response; I looked around to see if any others were spontaneously leaking bodily fluids.

Clutching my sole napkin to my nose, I hurried past the security screening where a guard helped me to the bathroom. As I leaned over the sink, my nose gushed blood, streams splattering the porcelain basin. Before long I’d attracted a small crowd of security guards, all eager to see Old Faithful gush on demand and to offer care and opinions.

“You’re losing a lot of blood there, honey. I think you better sit down and put your head back.”

“Sit tight and pinch your nostrils until the ambulance gets here.”

Although shocked at the amount of blood leaking from my body and the whiteness of my usually olive-colored skin, I had no intention of going anywhere in an ambulance. Who the hell calls an ambulance for a nosebleed? Apparently, the security guards at the Circuit Court of Cook County, that’s who. So much for being inconspicuous.

When three attractive, engagingly funny male paramedics arrived, I couldn’t believe my luck. I wished I was having a heart attack or suffering from a broken limb; anything but an unimaginative, messy nosebleed. Granted, I was married, but that level of male attention doesn’t come along often. Other than in romance novels and romantic comedies, that is.

Although I ultimately declined to go to a hospital and returned to jury duty that afternoon, I enjoyed every second of the paramedics’ sexy expert care. Taxpayers of Chicago, I thank you. Keep up the good work.

My next jury duty summons arrived in the mail yesterday. I’ll pack tissues, a change of clothes and some lipstick just in case. I can hardly wait.

Falling In Love with My Life Again

A friend recently shared her favorite advice for keeping her marriage strong. Her method doesn’t involve sexting or Kegels or kinky sex positions. Instead, whenever she’s feeling disillusioned in her marriage, she literally walks outside of her home and looks in the window at her husband, as if she’s getting a glimpse of a stranger’s life.

While I suspect she’s a wannabe voyeur, she swears this technique helps her fall in love with her husband again.

At first, this exercise sounded like a lot of work to me, what with leaving the house and all, but after a particularly difficult afternoon with my own family, I needed to look at my life with new eyes, so I took her advice.

I stepped out our back door and slammed it as hard as I could, enjoying both the dull thump of door rejoining frame and the brittle rattle of wooden blinds bouncing off the adjacent window.

The incessant hum of the nearby air conditioners provided a cocoon of white noise, the ideal backdrop for my peeping-tom activities. The warm mid-September air still held traces of summer’s musky scent, like the lingering smell of sunscreen on skin after a shower.

I counted to ten, willing myself to forget every pre-existing frustration with my family before looking through the kitchen window.

As the late afternoon sunlight cast stripes on his lean face, I watched a man with a freshly shorn crew cut and soft crinkles around his eyes slicing a cheese pizza into small squares. The man had an easy looseness about him as he moved through the kitchen pouring milk into plastic tumblers and piling grapes in a bowl, abiding by the five-second rule on dropped food.

Two young girls, years apart in age and build, played separately across the room.

The younger child, wild brown curls tumbling across her face, appeared to be playing school. Looking up over the edge of a clipboard, she cocked her head and paused for an answer from imaginary pupils before drawing a red check mark on her notebook.

The older girl sprawled on a couch nearby reading a book, her long legs wrapped around a striped pillow. While she read, she fidgeted her toes to remove the bright pink socks covering her feet, then threw them at the younger girl, hitting her on the head and launching a firestorm of muted screams.

Moments later, when the family gathered around the counter for pizza, I wondered what the man was saying to earn his children’s rapt attention. (Perhaps he was making up a story about a strange woman who skulks around looking into people’s windows?)

The father pulled his fingers back and blew on the tips as he divided the steaming slices onto three plates. (Three? I resisted the urge to knock on the window and remind him to save me some pizza or never see me naked again.)

He helped the younger girl cut her pizza into small bites and gently brushed a sticky curl off her cheek. The older girl tapped the younger one on the shoulder and pointed down the hall, snatching a piece of pizza off her sister’s plate when she wasn’t looking.

The younger girl, bug-eyed with anger, curled her lips into an Edvard Munch-worthy scream. Even enraged, this child with spindly arms and an unusually wide mouth was strangely adorable, reminding me of a hairier version of E.T. And from a detached distance, the older girl’s actions seemed more of an awkward, playful attempt at connection rather than as mean-spirited instigation.

The father walked around the counter to give both girls a hug, stealing pizza off his older daughter’s plate and eliciting a stream of playful screams and giggles.

I glimpsed my smile reflected in the window and felt a surge of gratitude for this spirited bunch. Mission accomplished.

They're trouble but they're all mine.

They’re trouble but they’re all mine.

A Decade of Parenting Lessons

Parenting Tips, Parenting Advice, Free Parenting Advice, Parents

This summer, our oldest daughter, Ava, turned 10. That means I’ve officially been a parent for ten years.

With a decade of parenting lessons under my belt, I now qualify as a parenting expert. At least in my own mind.
Some lessons I’ve learned the hard way, like how it’s not a good idea to give your kid silly putty before she goes to bed.
Others, I’ve learned the very, very hard way, such as there is no way to protect my daughters from experiencing pain or sadness or disappointment, no matter how much I try.
In honor of our daughter’s 10th birthday, here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned about being a parent so far:

1.  Screaming at your kids to get them to stop screaming is counterproductive

Go figure. Every few weeks I test this one just to be sure it’s true. Trust me, it is.

2.  Parenting is like watching your heart walk around outside your body

Watching those four long legs (two per kid) walk into their first day of school last week broke my heart. Thankfully my heart healed quickly and was soon jumping for joy.

3.  Stop trying to be the perfect parent

I tried for too long to be a perfect mom, regularly raising the bar of perfection to keep me on my toes. What did I get in return? A healthy dose of resentment and martyrdom. Brilliant strategy, no?

Now I strive to be authentic with my kids, to show them the real me. Am I too real? We won’t know for a few more years when the therapy bills start pouring in. Our kids’ future therapy appointments will go like this:

Our Kid:  Feelings, feelings, feelings, that’s all my mom cared about when I was growing up. She didn’t hide any of her feelings, and she encouraged me to express all of mine!

Therapist:  How did her obsession with feelings make you feel?

Our Kid:  Torqued and cranked. Why couldn’t she have pretended she didn’t have any feelings? Like normal parents. Would that have been too much to ask?

4.  If you think you’re in control, think again

I want my kids to express all their feelings, needs and wants and feel safe doing so, but I’d prefer it to be on my timeframe.  Preferably when I’m rested, fed and have finished using the bathroom by myself. Is that wrong?

Unfortunately, my kids couldn’t care less about my agenda, preferring to express their beautiful (aka loud) feelings as we’re trying to get to school on time or on the rare occasions my husband and I are both feeling amorous. They are giving that way.

5.  White lies don’t count if they keep your kids safe (or make your life more convenient)*

For years we’ve warned our kids about the imaginary snapping turtles that live in the pond behind my in-law’s home. Our girls never went near the pond without an adult, and we didn’t have to watch them every second they played in the backyard. A twofer – safe and convenient!

*Caveat:  I assumed our ten year old had figured out the truth by now, but this summer, after fishing on the pond with her uncle, she expressed relief at not catching a snapping turtle. Really? I can only imagine that future therapy session.

6.  Make peace with your kids’ disgusting habits (and await the positive power of peer pressure)

I spent months trying to curb my oldest’s nose picking habit when she was four or five years old. I tried to trust she would grow out of it, but mostly I tried to convince her it was a disgusting habit. She kept picking. By age six or seven, she’d stopped on her own, likely because her school friends teased her mercilessly.

I rarely notice when my youngest daughter picks her nose. She prefers to pick at home in the privacy of her bedroom (and to leave her boogers on her bedpost). I may have to wait a little longer for peer pressure to do its magic this time. At least until we start allowing sleepovers.

7.  Accept the things you cannot change (aka put down the whip you use to self flagellate) 

Our daughters are five years apart in age. I’m a different parent now than I was ten or even five years ago. Which one of my kids got the better parent? How badly did I screw up my first kid? Why hadn’t I learned to relax and trust way back when? Why am I even asking these questions? Our daughters “get what they get and they don’t get upset.”  (At least until they have a therapist on their own payroll.)

8.  Make peace with the “H” word

I don’t freak when my kids tell me they hate me. I try to remember that hate and love are kissing cousins. And I hate them too at times. Yet my love for my daughters is more intense and real than any other I’ve had in my life, even the love I had for my husband early on in our relationship. Lucky for him, I’ve also learned to hate him too at times.

9.   Look in the mirror

Our kids reflect our best and worst qualities. Both of our daughters are loving, kind and responsible. They’re creative and dramatic, bright and persistent. They’re also impatient, stubborn, opinionated and dictatorial. From their dad’s side.

10.  Stock up on support & self-care

I get by with a little help from my friends. And when I say “a little” I mean the daily, near constant, sanity-providing support I get from my peeps, spiritual groups and overpriced therapist. I credit them with the rare glimpses of sanity I string together. They remind me to put the oxygen mask on myself first and make time for myself and dates with my husband a priority.

None of this parenting stuff would work without support. And babysitters.

What are some of the best parenting lessons you’ve learned? Although I’m now a certified parenting expert, I’m entering the tween years, so cough up the good stuff in the comments. 

End of Summer Directive: Make Memories Or Else

summer-funI love countless things about summer:  the sweet juiciness of a ripe peach, the freedom from all the gear necessary to survive Chicago’s other seasons, the hot sun on my car’s black interior. What could be better?

Yet every summer I struggle with the pressure to be the poster girl for summer fun.

When it’s sunny and warm, I tell myself we should be outside taking advantage of the weather and our city’s non-stop summer events. Every speck of free time should be jammed with swimming, biking and outdoor adventures like the rest of the northern hemisphere (or at least my summer loving Facebook friends).

That much of the time I’d rather be home writing, reading and futzing – my favorite season-less activities – never factors into my idealized image of summer fun.

photo via Wikimedia Commons

photo via Wikimedia Commons

This summer started off the same. I had many wonderful plans for others – teach our youngest to read, write and ride a bike, help our oldest improve her division, backstroke and jump shot, make hubs more romantic clean out the basement. In July, we’d enjoy nightly family bike rides, weekly movies in the park, and every museum/beach/swimming pool in a 30-mile radius.

My summer plans for me? Coordinate all this spontaneous joy, of course!

Contrary to popular opinion, memories don’t just happen. They require military-quality planning! And for years I’ve been just the drill sergeant person for this social director job. If I made my loved ones miserable in the process, so be it. We would enjoy every last drop of summer, like it or not.

We have memories to make, people, and summer is running out. Where’s the damn picnic basket?

But, did you see us around town enjoying all these glorious summer activities? No, no you didn’t. As my mom used to say, “my eyes are bigger than my stomach.” Back then, she was referring to my food, but this expression applies to my approach to summer. My ideas and expectations of myself outweigh my ability to digest. I overload my plate with shoulds, and then feel guilty if I don’t devour each.

As the end of summer nears, instead of panicking and attempting to pry every drop of fun out of summer’s stingy little hands, I’m ready to let go of the pressure. Enough with the guilt and shoulds and pushing. Enough.

I don’t know how this miraculous transformation came about, but I suspect divine intervention a la Touched by an Angel. As far as I know, Roma Downey did not tap me on the shoulder in a gauzy haze of godly love. But somehow I’ve let go of my summer whip and am ready to relax and enjoy connecting with my family without an agenda. We’ve been playing card games, watching movies and walking around the neighborhood eating Italian ice. And I’ve never been happier.

I’d still like to make a trip to the zoo and another museum before my kids start school in two weeks, but there’s always next summer. Or this winter. If we’re not too busy snowshoeing, ice fishing and tobogganing.

How To Keep That Vacation State of Mind

This relaxed state won't last much longer. Promise.

This relaxed state won’t last much longer. Promise.

I’ve got the glow. The family-vacation-went-better-than-expected glow.

Like childbirth narratives, vacation memories are subject to reinvention. Instead of recalling the intermittent pain of persuading four genetically related, stubborn humans to agree on everything from meals to water play, I only remember the laughter and bonding – togetherness times ten.

Our family memories will last a lifetime.

My vacation-induced glow, however, will last only until we step through our front door. That’s when the real fun starts.

If you’re like me, the overwhelming affection you feel toward your loved ones and the relaxed vacation joie de vivre last just long enough to survive the trip home.

Once real life intervenes, the vacation glow peels off like a wet tankini, leaving piles of laundry, kids with no bedtimes, and sunscreen-induced acne behind.

I’m a great vacation mom – my yeses outweigh my nos ten to one. Want to eat gummy bears for breakfast? Again? Sure. Just be sure to wash them down with fruit punch. You best stay hydrated. Not shower for a week? Who cares! Lake water is clean enough. Jump head first off a floating trampoline? Why not? You’ll learn to swim on the way up.

Once home, I’ll have to slay the monsters I created. Or send them to your house.

IMG_4393 (640x480)

“How can we keep this vacation going and enjoy these last few weeks before school starts?” my husband said.

“We can ditch the kids and jet off to Bermuda for the rest of the month,” I said. “Right now I’m feeling relaxed and loving and up for anything. The second we get home, I promise to be a raving bitch.”

And so it will be. God help us all.

How do you keep that vacation state of mind going once you return home? Is the transition home after a vacation hard for you – or is it just me?