The nice girl’s guide to setting boundaries

the anonymous mommy

setting boundaries

Setting boundaries has never been my strong suit. If someone needed help with something, I was always first to volunteer. If someone asked me a favor, of course I was going to help them out. That’s just being a nice person, isn’t it?

If I felt constantly overwhelmed, well didn’t all women feel that way? If I don’t feel that way, I must not be doing my share.

doormat

What held me back the most was the rationale that I wasn’t being nice if I said no to something. So I would take on whatever people heaped on me with a smile, all the time getting more and more pissed off.   I just didn’t want to be mean. The key to learning to set boundaries for me was figuring out that it could be done kindly.

For clarification, a boundary needs to be set when you have been doing one or both of these:

  • Tolerating behavior that you don’t like, and
  • Taking on tasks that are not your responsibility

Too many of us are falling into this trap. I have only in the last few years learned to say no, and it’s something that saves my health and my sanity on a regular basis.

Motherhood

Motherhood both stripped me of the most basic boundaries I had and showed me that I needed to create new ones.  A baby has zero boundaries.  Hell, they take over your whole body and push your organs out of the way!  Once they are born, their needs are not optional.  They are 100% dependent on you to survive, and they have zero fucks to give about what you intended to do today.  Since you cannot tell your baby that this isn’t a convenient time for you, some other people’s needs are going to have to be reprioritized.  No matter how much of a people pleaser you are, you can’t keep saying yes to everything that you did before.  Your energy is a resource and it needs to be rationed.

baby
Ahem.

When is setting boundaries necessary?

There’s a shortcut to figuring out where you need to set a boundary, and that is if you are feeling resentful. This is a clue that you have said yes to something that you really should have said no to. Sometimes this feels ridiculous, like telling a relative that you don’t appreciate them insulting you, but what can I say? Sometimes people are clueless or just don’t think. And they won’t get it until you tell them.

If you haven’t been saying no to being treated this way, you’ve been saying yes. I understand why. Sometimes it feels easier to grit your teeth through it than to turn it into a whole big thing. But it doesn’t have to be a scene. It can be a surprisingly easy conversation.

I have been completely astounded by what I have been able to remove from my plate by doing this:

  • I no longer answer an email the second it comes in. In fact, I close my inbox for large parts of the day. I don’t respond after business hours except in an emergency. (And yes, I have a corporate job. )
  • People have stopped saying hurtful things to me once they realized that what they were saying bothered me
  • I only cook a few days a week. When I feel like it.

And the same people still like me. I even get more respect at work!

What do I say?

Setting a boundary is not the same as snapping. It’s not finally having enough of your colleague’s dumping work on you and screaming, “Screw you and the horse you rode in on!!!”

horse
How did I come into it?

But how do you say no without all of a sudden seeming like you aren’t a team player?

First offense

It’s far easier to set a boundary the first time. Nip that shit in the bud.

spray bottle
Effective perhaps, but not exactly subtle

If someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, simply say, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Don’t elaborate. If they press you, just say, “I have too much on my plate right now.” If you add details, they will start trying to offer “helpful suggestions” as to how you might be able to squeeze it in. Don’t give them that window.  Asked and answered.

If it’s someone saying something that bothers you, call it out. This is HARD for me, but I’m learning. Instead of laughing it off, if it’s someone I generally like, I’ll say something like “Ouch. Jeez.” This will usually cause them to backpedal.   If it’s someone I don’t like, I’ll just say, “What do you mean by that?” followed by raised eyebrows and silence. It usually brings the conversation to a screeching halt and makes the person feel awkward as hell.

Ongoing behavior

So that’s all well and good, but what about the things you haven’t nipped in the bud.   Things that are so long-running they have become an expectation? This is a little more work but doesn’t have to be a huge blowout. A good script is:

I know in the past I’ve _____________________________. I’m afraid I just can’t do that anymore. My plate is too full (OR when you say X I feel Y.) I’m not saying it’s your fault because I’ve never said anything about it before. But it’s just something I can’t deal with anymore. I hope you can respect that.

For a while, I would quake in my boots as I said this kind of thing. My heart still races a bit when I do. What if they say no? What if they yell? What if I cry? Or worse, what if I chicken out?

Michelle Obama and the Dalai Lama

I knew that if I tried to do this off the cuff, I would stumble and apologize my way through it. Not terribly effective. So I asked myself, “What would someone who really had their shit together say? Like how would Michelle Obama set a boundary?” Like a goddam queen that’s how. She’d be kind, but dignified and clear. She would expect her boundary to be accepted.

And so sometimes I still pretend I’m her when I have to set a boundary. Yes, it may be somewhat ridiculous, but it gives me the confidence boost to actually do it instead of just imagining scathing conversations putting the person in their place and hoping they figure it out through telepathy.

michelle obama
I’m going to have to pass…

And your nice girl chops can actually help you here. Kindness can be a huge part of setting boundaries that work. Your compassion and empathy are a tool here. It is possible that the person you are setting the boundary with will balk slightly. No one wants to think that they have been making you feel bad, or that they can’t have from you what they always had. They may get defensive.

Don’t take the bait. Have compassion for them. Think Dalai Lama. You are asking them to exert more effort now. Instead of spilling out all the resentment you have had building up, try to see their side.  Be supportive of them.

dalai lama
You need to back off asshole.

This may seem counterintuitive, but most of the time, if you show people you are really on their side, you will end up with a better relationship because of it. If they see you aren’t blaming them, just asking something different of them, it’s usually a much smoother ride.

This does not need to be a big confrontation.   It’s just a conversation between two people. You are stating what is going on with you. They will state their feeling on it. You will try to figure out how to fit the pieces together better so that you are both heard.

Tricky. Very tricky.

Something came up when I tried to find out what my part was in all this. It was happening repeatedly, so clearly I had something to do with it beyond bad luck. When I dug below the surface a bit, I realized that weak boundaries are really a sneaky manifestation of low self-esteem. Even if you thought you left all that in high school, what greater barometer is there than believing someone else’s wants are more important than your own?

So why did I do things I didn’t want to? I wanted people to like me. I still do. But it turns out that’s not a terribly effective way to get them to like who you really are. I remember trying to make the popular girls like me in sixth grade by giving them candy. It worked for a week. Then they decided it was kind of pathetic. It was a lesson I should have learned then, but if people don’t like you for who you are, giving them things isn’t going to to do either. Sure, they may see you as USEFUL, but who wants to be used?

Think about the people you like. Do you like them because they give you stuff or do things for you? No, you like them because of their great sense of humor or how interesting they are, or maybe they inspire you in some way. You have those qualities too, and your tribe will like you for them. But it’s hard to shine when you are buried under the weight of everyone else’s expectations.

Oh, I’m fine.

Another side of this was that I didn’t tend to ask others for help, and if I did, I felt terrible about it. I would ask for help only in desperate situations and say, “It’s really no big deal if you can’t do it.” I figured they were just like me and would know that if I was saying something, it was serious.  I also assumed they resented the hell out of it.

stuck dog
Only if you’re not busy with something else.

This is not honest. This is not fair. And it is not how I would want others to treat me.

If someone says to me, “Look, I feel like I’m drowning. I really need your help with this. Would you mind?” It actually makes me feel good to help them out, even if it means taking on a bit more work.   Asking in this way shows trust and vulnerability. It calls on friendship, rather than asking someone to be your personal assistant.

Apparently, there are people out there who ask things of others and 100% expect the other person to say no if they don’t want to do it. This was shocking to me. But it also struck me as really reasonable and fair.

Toddlers

So what if you enforce a boundary, and someone breaks it? You need to follow through. If it’s something that they have gotten away with before, you probably will have to show them you mean business. That means NOT caving and saying yes to things you don’t want to do. It means walking away from someone if they say something rude. You don’t need to yell. Just remind them, either with your words or your actions, “We’re not doing that anymore. Remember?” You have to think of them like a toddler.

angry toddler
Actually, I think I’m being quite reasonable about this.

Toddlers are the ultimate litmus test of whether you can hold a boundary. They will test and test and test your limits. I have created a monster at times because I didn’t want to make my son sad, so I failed to follow through on a boundary I set. “Okay if you throw Elmo out of the bed again, I’m not coming back in here to put him back in… ”

Anonymous toddler waits 30 seconds. Throws Elmo. Cries. Very loudly. All I want is to eat some dinner. Hoping it will be the end of it, I go back in and replace the smelly red creature. “I mean it this time. No throw! I’m serious!” But I have now taught my son that I will not follow through. He proceeds to try every trick in the book to avoid going to sleep. If I had just let Elmo sit there and suffered through ten minutes of grief over it, I would have saved myself weeks of headaches.

The lesson? Grit your teeth and follow through.

Start small

This is some advanced level adulting. I don’t pretend it’s easy. It’s not something where you can flip a switch and BOOM! You take no more bullshit! If you’re feeling nervous then start small. Don’t march into your family holiday party ready to tell your mother everything she’s ever done that bothered you. I like to think of it like a video game from the 90s. Slay a few easy bosses. Work your way up to the big ones.

Tell the barista that no, you didn’t order skim milk, and yes, you would like a new one.

latte
Mmm. Tastes like concession.

Actually say what you want for dinner tonight rather than saying, “Whatever you want.”

Every time you stand up for what you want, it’s a win. I’m not saying you should never compromise. I’m saying it shouldn’t be your default setting.

A longer view

I’m not perfect at this by any means. I’m just learning.  But it’s given me a sense of freedom I never had before.  And it’s something I want to keep working on to model for my son. Not only so he learns how to set his own boundaries, but so that he can see in action that women DO say “No” to things, and that “No” must be respected.”

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Slacker Mom Holiday Hacks

the anonymous mommy
slacker mom holiday
Oh shit it’s Christmas.

It never fails. Every year I get really excited for the holidays.   I think of the warm holiday glow.  I imagine beautiful holiday cards, perfect turkeys, the smell of the Christmas tree and laughing together with my extended family.

And then I freak out.  My perfectionistic tendencies creep out from the shadows and start sharpening their teeth to bite off more than I can chew.

I tell myself all I need is to plan properly!  To make lists of my lists.  Have tasks three weeks out.  I feel like if I just spread out the tasks far enough and plan it well, there will somehow magically be time for all of them and I won’t be overwhelmed.  I’ll be able to enjoy the holiday season and still pull everything off.  I mean sure, on a regular day I struggle to find time to pick up my dry cleaning from across the street, but I should still be able to get these extra 64 things done.  Planning!!

xmas planning
It made sense in November, okay?

But then the “to dos” just keep piling up and now they’re LATE!  So I have a choice to make.  I can somehow make everything happen by skimping on sleep and the rare bit of exercise I get, or I can choose to let some of it go.  It’s not always that easy for me to believe this.  I have a ridiculous idea of how I think things are supposed to be, but I have been learning that if I decide not to do something in a given year, the world does not come to a screeching halt.

Get out of Hell free card – skip it

But it’s not the holidays without ____________!  I beg to differ.  The day will come and go regardless.  Know what really matters to YOU.  For me, I’d feel sad if I didn’t have a tree because I love the smell.  I’d be bummed to stay home and eat leftovers or something.  But apart from that, if push came to shove, I don’t particularly care about gifts or cards.  I love hosting it at my house but I understand there may be years where that just doesn’t make any sense.

weird art
An important piece that allows you to blend Halloween with Christmas.  It’s inevitable anyway.

It is okay to just skip whatever parts you don’t want to do this year.  ESPECIALLY if you have a new baby, new job, are grieving etc.  If life isn’t on coast right now, give yourself a little breathing room.  And even if things ARE easy right now, you are allowed to pick just the things you like to do and keep those. (You can call it a “curated” holiday if it makes you feel fancy…) Nothing is going to happen to you if you don’t check off every box.  I promise.

To be serious for a moment, this is a hard time of year for a lot of people.  Relapse rates go up.  Suicide rates go up.  When expectations don’t meet with reality, it can hit hard.  So ease up a little.  Scale those expectations back.  You aren’t in a movie on the Hallmark channel, so things will go wrong.  And that relative who pisses you off every year will probably do so again no matter how delicious a meal you prepare.

So though it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek — because I don’t really believe you are ever slacking if you are taking care of your family and yourself — I give you a slacker mom holiday version of what I consider to be the biggest stressors around the holidays.

The Holiday Card

I can’t imagine that anyone has ever had a good time taking a family portrait in matching sweaters.  It is always a shit show.  No one wants to be there, the kids are bored and unwilling to sit still with smiles on their faces.   You will inevitably get frustrated that they can’t do this one thing for you, and just have a nice family outing.  Save it.  Save the money for the sweaters and the photographer and the aggravation.

holiday card
Everyone now hates me but I got the damn picture

Slacker mom holiday hack

Use photos from the year.  I actually love sending holiday cards.  But I wait and see whatever half-off coupon I can find for minted.com or Vistaprint.com or one of those.  I pick a layout that already exists and just throw in some cute pics from my iPhone gallery.  The whole thing is done in fifteen minutes.  From my couch.

woman on couch
Better.

Decorating

Sigh.  I love having a Christmas tree.  That smell, hanging ornaments that are special to me, and making a new one every year…  Really I love everything about it except cleaning up the pine needles.  I love to deck the halls.  And I also love to light the menorah.  (We have both faiths in our family so we celebrate everything.)

bagel ornament
Hole-y night

There’s just one problem this year.  The Anonymous Toddler will attempt to body slam the tree.  So I may have to go for a Charlie Brown tree this year that I can perch on a high enough shelf, and burn a lot of Frasier Fir candles (for after my son’s bedtime) to make up for it.  Because I do not want to add a trip to the emergency room to my list of things to do.

As for the menorah, despite having a gorgeous handmade one, for the foreseeable future, I will be using an electric one.  I usually hate the electric ones but I actually like this one.

Hosting

We host a holiday dinner every year.  I love doing it.  In my mind, we have napkin rings and table runners and long tapered candles.  Unfortunately, I do not own any of those things.  I have to borrow a tablecloth from my mother every year because even though I have a family and a job…  that’s just a line of adulting that I don’t cross.

place setting
Not happening

Slacker Mom Holiday Hack

Borrow a tablecloth and just set it with whatever group of plates and silverware you have.  Or tell people they are eating on their laps.  (This may happen this year for us as I have invited more people than can technically fit in my apartment under current fire codes.  A table has no place here.)

crowdsurfing
I said get me a YAM not SAM

Outsource

Order some of the food like the side dishes or dessert from a fancy grocery store and put it in your own serving dish, or make it a potluck.  You do not need to cook fifteen dishes.

Make it quick!

Despite all the hassle they come with, kids are very useful to blame stuff on.  Case in point – We have people come over at 4:30, eat at 5:30 and out the door by 7:30 because of bedtime.  This actually works out for everyone.  I only have to put out a cheese plate for appetizers instead of a whole spread, and everyone gets to experience the holiday activity without it dragging on and on.

Tick Tock bitches.

This is also strategic in the realm of booze.  Because my husband and I are sober, we ask our guests to BYOB if they want to drink.  I don’t have a problem with people drinking in my home but I don’t really like it when they get drunk there.  Having a three-hour cap on it keeps most people from getting drunk to the point where they start getting belligerent.  Maybe not everyone, but more so than at a five or six-hour event where they just keep re-pouring.

Family

Perhaps the most stressful part of the holidays is being around extended family.  These people know how to push your buttons – hell they installed them!  You’re already exhausted from all the extra emotional labor, and it can make you feel less able to stand up for yourself.

One issue that tends to get to me is that I don’t know what to expect.  Will I have a good time or end up crying in my car? Both have happened with about the same frequency, so I am always on high alert for comments that will hurt me.  But being anxious about it beforehand doesn’t make them hurt any less.   Yet when I get caught up in that anxiety, it’s like I’ve created a fight where there was none.  I miss watching the kids run around and the sounds of other people I love talking because I’m prepping for an insult that may or may not come.

mean grandmother
I just thought maybe they’d wear something nice for a change.  Oh well.

I’m still learning to be present as much as I can by engaging my senses as much as possible.  But this is still hard stuff that years of therapy has only made a dent in, so while I would definitely recommend bringing yourself back to the moment as much as possible, here is my slacker solution:

Slacker Mom Holiday Hack – Run away

I am not kidding.  Be as subtle about it as you can, but do your best to avoid the person who upsets you the most.  When you get cornered by them, say an effusive “Hiiii!  How are you!  So good to see you!” And then realize that you need to help your kid with something/go to the bathroom/refill your drink/take something out of the oven etc.  Sit as far away from them at the table as you can.  Also:

Take breaks

I don’t have a huge apartment so I can’t do this as stealthily as some.  But large groups of people and lots of noise stresses me out.  So every hour or two, I will slip away to the bathroom or my bedroom (or some other unoccupied room if I am at someone else’s house.)  I mess around on my phone for five minutes, listen to the quiet, and then I am ready to go back in without losing my mind.   This was a habit I developed when I smoked.  I used to just go out for a cigarette whenever I couldn’t deal.  So when I quit nine years ago I really missed those little breaks, so I decided to keep them.

Presents

This one is overwhelming me this year since I’ve had some unexpected expenses lately.

sad dog
He’ll be okay

I absolutely love figuring out the perfect gift for someone, and watching their face when they open it. And I love the fact that I don’t have to subject myself to malls or department stores anymore but can instead get everything shipped directly to my door.  The downside is that it can be a bit too easy to keep spending money clicking away.

Slacker Mom Holiday Hack

I was trying to figure out what it is about giving gifts that makes me so happy and I came up with a couple of things that I am really after:

  • Making other people feel good.
  • Making them feel seen.

So this year I am doing something a little different that will still hopefully get these things across.  I make some damn good cookies, so I am going to make a very large batch the weekend before and put them in mason jars with some cute ribbon.  But along with that, for each person, I am going to write out a note that lets them know what I think is awesome about them and why I am glad they are in my life.  Heartfelt, but not overly cheesy. No, I will not be spending a ton of money, but we all have enough stuff.  What we don’t have enough of is appreciation for all we are and all we do.

‘Tis a gift

This is the first year my son registers the concept of Christmas and he is SO excited by it.  But he doesn’t even realize yet that there will be presents!  Right now he’s just over the moon at all the pretty decorations.  He knows something special is up and has seen enough Micky Mouse Christmas specials to understand it’s all about family and a giving spirit. I wish he could keep that sense of wonder forever, but I know that’s not reality.  For now, though, I just soak it up and let him be my teacher. That sense of wonder and kindness doesn’t require extra effort.  No slacker version needed.

mother and child

How To Conquer Your Little Addictions

How to conquer your minor addictions

 Why I haven’t addressed my little addictions

– and why I still might

Recently, I wrote about my experience with eating disorders and alcoholism (aka Whack-A-Mole).

While I consider myself to be in recovery, that doesn’t mean I am free from dependency. There are also what I refer to as Little Addictions. They are commonplace.  So small they barely count – that’s what I tell myself.  These are the things that won’t kill me, but certainly don’t make me stronger.

Coffee.  I start each day with a latte containing six shots of espresso.  I know what you’re thinking, but it’s just three double shots.  Who the hell takes a single shot?  So it’s really like three.  (Nice addict thinking there, huh?)  I sometimes have a second one of these later. I have an amazing stash of coffee. Including some with a caffeine level so high it carries a warning label.

Huge amounts of coffee
This was just what fit in the shot

There is paraphernalia everywhere from French presses to espresso machines. I don’t like that I joke about it the same way I did about wine. (You can pry it from my cold dead hands, etc.) I was able to quit when I was pregnant, but unsurprisingly the cravings for it came roaring back once I started drinking it again.

What do we want? COFFEE! When do we want it? I'LL FUCKING CUT YOU.
Relax, my son can’t read yet.

An Inconvenient Truth

phone in hand

I am also addicted to my phone.  God, that’s predictable, isn’t it? Just as I was with alcohol, I am perfectly aware of my dependence, yet I am mollified by the fact that seemingly everyone else is addicted too. There are different degrees of course. I leave it in my purse when I am out to dinner, or with friends unless it is to show them pictures of how cute my son is. (They were definitely going to ask. I’m just saving them time really.)

I’m Not That Bad…

A woman I know told me that a man she met on Tinder checked his phone during sex. He thought he was being sneaky about it, in that he didn’t actually pick it up, but Jesus. Just like there was always someone I could point to, often not too far from my circle, and say, “Now that is an alcoholic. I just like to drink.  That guy has a PROBLEM“, Tinder guy is very helpful when I want to rationalize.

As usual, I know it’s a problem and as usual, I really don’t want to do anything about it. Part of me doesn’t understand why I do it. What’s so interesting on there? Nothing really. Candy crush? Endlessly pointless. I have no idea why I play. Facebook? Yes, I love the ability to keep up with friends and see what they are up to, but I really don’t’ need to know on an hourly basis. It’s the same with Twitter and Instagram – they aren’t real, but they take me out of the present moment.  But I have no reason to want out. I have a beautiful life.  Why do things I consider myself lucky to have – a toddler, a job, an apartment cause me to need to “unwind”?

We all know the reasons phone addiction is not a good thing.   Hell, I refused to read the website Hands Free Mama for years because I thought it was about phone-shaming.  (It’s not and it’s amazing.) But just seeing the title of that blog I thought, “I KNOW already, okay?”

How to conquer your little addictions
I’m not defensive. You’re defensive.

Rationalization

The addictive part of my brain tells me that this dependence is technically an improvement. My other addictions were life-threatening given time. But I feel like this is too, in its own insidious way. I might live just as long, but I won’t be here for it.

I remember thinking years ago that if I quit smoking and quit drinking I would be a really annoying person.  I pictured myself as a sanctimonious asshole in $300 yoga pants.  I didn’t think I’d still be “me”. Anyone who didn’t drink clearly didn’t know how to have fun.  “Everyone needs a vice!” I crowed.  I now find it hilarious that I thought I would be vice-free if I just removed the alcohol.

Advanced yoga pose
This is called “Superiority Pose”

What I didn’t realize, was all I would gain when I removed the alcohol.  I pictured everything the same, just without the one thing that made life entertaining.  But when I stopped, I finally was able to get off my couch.  My depression lifted.  All of a sudden I was going to places like the zoo and the beach or to picnics and museums.  I didn’t flake at the last minute because there wouldn’t be booze there or because I was too hungover.  I’m sure there are things I am missing out on with my phone addiction.

But what mole is coming when I smash this one? Shopping? Sex? Work? Money? Another round with the food monster? All of my experience tells me there’s something lurking there. I am still the same person, and that terrifies me.

One of the things I love about AA is that you are encouraged to keep evolving.  To face yourself honestly and do the right.  To keep becoming a better person.  I love that right up until I have to actually do something about it.

Click To Tweet

Dope Dope Dopamine

The little zing I get from a like on Facebook or Instagram, or looking at my blog stats is ridiculous.  It’s like there is a twelve-year-old in my brain going, “Look!  Look!  People like you!  Finally!”  In theory, I don’t care.  In practice, I pick it up like a one hundred dollar bill on the street.

How to conquer your little addictions
If it’s not on Instagram, did it really happen?

I have heard various tips on the subject.

  1. Turn off your notifications. (No.)
  2. Delete Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. (Okay but they’re still easy to get to on the browser.  Also, see my response to tip number one.
  3. Put it somewhere you could hear if it rang but don’t pick it up during family time.

This third one I was actually willing to put into practice and it worked pretty well.  I focused on my family, had pretty good playtime with my son and laughed with my husband.  But for some reason, I stopped doing it after I had a bad day and just didn’t go back.

How Change Happens

They say there are six stages that have to happen to change an addictive behavior:

  1. Precontemplation – Not even thinking about it.
  2. Contemplation – Thinking about stopping, but don’t want to yet.
  3. Determination/Preparation – Figuring out what’s involved beyond willpower.  Strategizing and choosing a quit date.
  4. Action – Putting the plan in place and stopping the behavior.
  5. Maintenance and Relapse – The behavior has been stopped for a moderate amount of time.  Continuing strategies that keep it that way, and if you slip up, getting right back on the horse – using the relapse as data to figure out how to avoid it in future.
  6. Termination – It’s mostly effortless now.  No sense of temptation or craving.

I pretty much live in 2 – Contemplation.  It’s not a comfortable place to be.  It’s knowing I should change even though I don’t really want to.  Or wanting to, and not believing I can do it.  My brain constantly prodding – “Better the devil you know…”

What Would I Tell My Son?

two year old
This is always a good compass.  Would I tell him just to let it go?   I doubt it.  If he were a teen or an adult with this issue, I would tell him that there are no little addictions.  Just what moves you closer to life, and what moves you further away.  That I believe in him.  That it was ridiculous not to try.  That he is never done battling bosses in this game.  He will never be perfect but he should never stop improving himself – only for the reason that it will make him happier!

I don’t know why I can’t treat myself with the kindness I show to him.  But I can ask myself those questions.  And try to take that Mommy’s advice.

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Eating Disorders, Alcoholism, and Motherhood

eating disorders

Whack-A-Mole

My first love was not alcohol. It was food. Starting around age 8, in response to a myriad of stressors, I started bingeing. So I did what far too many ten-year-olds do. I started a diet.

Whack!

Which led to an eating disorder.

Mole.

Then I fell in love for the first time and felt better about my body and was able to slowly learn to eat again.

Whack!

It’s purely a coincidence that I started drinking around then.

Mole.

Then I quit smoking.

Whack!

And stopped eating food, saving my calories for drinking instead.

Mole. Mole.

I tried to beat back the eating disorder and get sober at the same time.

Whack! Whack!

But was asking too much of myself at once. I couldn’t keep it up and started drinking again.

Mole.

Three and a half years ago I got sober.

Whack.

And stopped eating again.

Mole.

And started exercising 2-3 hours a day.

Mole.

Then I got pregnant and had to seriously knock that shit off.

Whack…

My arms are exhausted.  I don’t want to play this game anymore.

First Things First?

Around the rooms, this is known as “Whack-a-Mole”. You take care of one problem, and another pops up.  I have often heard the advice – work on what’s killing you fastest.  But food and alcohol are tangled up together for me, in that they both try to solve the same problem –anxiety.

The first time I went into a recovery group and was reading the Big Book, I kept saying to my sponsor, “Oh, I totally relate to that.  Only about food…”  It happened so many times, she eventually said to me, “You know, I don’t know that alcohol is your real problem.  I think it’s food.”

My reaction was twofold:

  1.  No shit, Sherlock.
  2.  Yippee!  That means I can go DRINK!
But I’m not overly excited about it…

And that’s exactly what I did. For the next five years.  It didn’t occur to me that I was using alcohol in the same way I had used dieting in the past – as a numbing device.  But because I tended to bounce back and forth between the two, it didn’t make sense to me that BOTH could be a problem until much later.

Coping mechanisms

I don’t know why I seem to ping-pong between the two.  I can’t seem to find a point of total balance. There is something in me that is overwhelmed by the daily minor messes of life. I feel too much and it’s embarrassing. I realize this sounds either terribly angsty or depressed. If it’s angst, I should just get over it, grow up, slap a smile on my face and get on with it. And that’s generally what I do every day.

If it’s depression, I ought to take meds for that. And that’s also what I do every day. In addition, I am active, take vitamins, meditate, and do the things I am supposed to do. But somehow there is something in me that wants to check. The fuck. Out. It’s not that I want to die. Not at all.  I just want a break, to not feel. That is probably the thing I miss the most that my addictions gave me – the numbness.

It also has something to do with reinvention. I have this image in my head of someone poised and cool, who doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Who doesn’t talk too much or too loudly, and isn’t weird.  I thought I could starve the loudness out of myself. If I made myself small enough, and sharp enough, then all my excess would be gone. I wouldn’t have these squishy emotions that can’t be contained. And with alcohol, I could feel like the confident easygoing girl in public. And make her disappear alone at night.

The problem with these coping mechanisms is that they eventually stop working.  I kept drinking more or eating less to try to get that old feeling back, long past the point where it stopped working.

What? I just feel my feelings

I remember talking to a friend one of the times I was trying to get better. I asked him what he did when things in life were bad, to cope. He said, “I don’t DO anything. I just live through it, do what I can, and eventually, it sucks less.” I stared at him thinking, “We are a different species.”

In early sobriety, I remember trying to put this sort of thing into action after someone at work had pulled a particularly obnoxious move. I handled it perfectly well in the moment, making sure I didn’t show any anger or point any fingers. But inside I was furious. I am not comfortable with anger. Not then, not now. I want it gone, immediately. I have some better tools now, but at the time I had no idea what to do with this when I couldn’t stun it senseless with alcohol. My sponsor told me to take a bath. I complied. 20 minutes later I texted her, “Okay, so now I’m wet and I’m mad. I don’t see how this is better.”

I have made a good amount of progress in the three years between then and now. I’ve gotten better at doing things the way my alien friend does, trying to go the acceptance route, and for the most part, I’m successful. But I am also aware that nothing particularly bad has happened to me in those three years. (Coincidence?) I did go through a period of being unemployed that was no treat, but I knew there would be an end to it. I don’t know how I’ll deal though when I lose anyone important to me or if there’s a natural disaster. But the program gives me tools, for which I am thankful – meetings, fellowship, prayer…It has a  general direction which is helpful.

The food issues have been harder to part ways with than alcohol.  I am an all-or-nothing person. With alcohol, it is a great relief to know it’s off the table completely.  I don’t have to think about it.  But it doesn’t work that way with food.  I am uneasy with having to find a middle ground and I still struggle with it. Another big difference is that I never miss my alcoholism. I don’t miss being drunk or hungover. But I miss my eating disorder.   I don’t know why.  I hated it. But it made me feel powerful. The mental obsession has never been lifted for me. I don’t go a day without getting on the scale. I record everything I eat. I constantly wish I ate less and weighed less. I hate that I want food. I know I need it, but I hate that it is more than a necessity. These thoughts float through my head in the same way I remember, “Oh, I should pick up the dry cleaning.” They have become mundane.  My body has been cured.  My brain has not.

Recovery communities

While this might not make sense to anyone who hasn’t struggled with eating disorders, this thought is far from unusual. I had to stop going to message boards for eating disorder recovery because too much of it was women talking about how they “wanted their self-control (aka the eating disorder) back”.

Alcoholism recovery is a chummy experience. People drink coffee together and eat doughnuts and laugh about their shared history of disaster. There is just a sense that we are all in it together — relying on and helping each other.

Eating disorder recovery meetings always have a thread of competition running through them. There is always the very immediate yardstick of who is the thinnest in the room. If it’s you, you have to stay that way. If it’s not you, you aren’t working hard enough. This is not really helpful in changing your thinking.

She’s thinner than I am. Something must be done.

Why I am afraid to fully recover

The thing I don’t want to admit is that I know I probably could be better, but I’m terrified that if I don’t think this way, then I will gain weight.  A lot of it. I’ve been overweight, and I’ve been underweight and it’s ridiculous how different I was treated.   Not by everyone, but by a lot of people.  When I was underweight I was treated better than I ever have been by both men and women.   When overweight, I frequently either invisible or a punchline. I couldn’t bear to live that way. I don’t have thick skin. There are those who are body positive and healthy at a higher weight, but I don’t have that kind of self-confidence. I want to be admired, but if I can’t be admired, I want to blend in.

Everything about my recovery from alcoholism tells me this is bullshit. But it has been my brain since I was eight years old.  It’s how I understand the world.  That’s hard to rewire.

Culture

You couldn’t have ordered a burger?

Nearly every woman I know who is in recovery from an eating disorder has also had a problem with alcohol.  Not exactly the scientific method, though there have been numerous studies that seem to suggest this.  It makes sense to me. There is an unspoken battle between many women for who can eat the least at a given meal. When I go out to lunch, I can’t help but notice all the women with tiny salads and large glasses of white wine. I remember how the alcohol killed the hunger pangs and the lack of food made the buzz stronger. It’s a very powerful combination.  In my early days of recovery, I confided to a friend that I had stopped eating again, “It feels like being drunk.  I can’t feel anything else.”

It’s also socially sanctioned. No one ever asked me for tips on how to become a drunk.  But I have lost count of the people who pulled me aside and whispered conspiratorially, “What EXACTLY do you eat?”  As if they could make a meal plan out of a mental illness.  Though I get it.  I often miss being that thin because of how oddly revered it is in our culture.  I have to remind myself daily that it’s better to be happy and normal than skinny and miserable.

There are so many more women suffering with these issues than the numbers tell us. It is incredibly common to have an eating disorder and be a “normal” weight.  The scariest thing about writing this is doing so at a normal weight.  I worry that people will sneer or roll their eyes and think I’m pretending to be something I’m not.   Even at my worst, I never felt like I was a good enough anorexic.

Pregnancy and Eating Disorders

There is one time in life where many of us feel free from these shackles and that time is pregnancy.  For once we are EXPECTED to eat!  We are praised for it! “Oh don’t mind if I do have that Twix bar… It’s for the baby!”

Baby loves KitKats too.

Though circumstance dictated that I quit beforehand, I always figured I’d get a handle on the drinking when I got pregnant and had to stop for nine months.  I just needed a hard reset, I thought.  Now that I have spoken with so many women who have quit through pregnancy, only to ramp right back up to their prior consumption once the baby is born, I’m so grateful that I was lucky enough to get sober beforehand.   But I did sort of do that with my eating.

While some women struggle to gain enough weight due to their eating disorders, I found it to be an oasis. Beyond being culturally “allowed” to eat, my body no longer seemed like an unwanted appendage that I had to drag around everywhere. It was actually doing something. It was making a person. That was amazing to me.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that women gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy, but most women I know with a history of eating disorders tended to gain closer to 50 or 60.  Sometimes more. This is not because we “pig out” but because we are never really sure what an appropriate amount of food is supposed to be. And even if we are getting the correct amount of calories for pregnancy, our bodies aren’t used to processing a normal amount of food.

Motherhood

Becoming a mother can be a double-edged sword.  I have friends who have started drinking again in order to feel like they belong in today’s wine-soaked mommy culture.  But I have a lot more friends who have gone back to their eating disorder soon after the baby is born.

I narrowly avoided it but definitely felt the temptation.  Aside from the insanity of postpartum hormones, and the panic to lose the weight, there was an intense pull to have something of myself that wasn’t “mommy”.  I felt consumed by motherhood and wished for some part of myself that was just mine.  With all its secrecy and manipulation, my eating disorder seemed to fit the bill.  But I resisted.

I have learned enough over time to know that it has nothing to do with me.  Like alcohol, it slowly takes away who I really am.  Something had already taken over my life, and it was a more positive force.  I’m not saying in any way that motherhood has cured me, or that I am cured in general.

True, whenever I’m tempted to go back to my old ways, I look at my son and think about how he needs me to be here for him.  I can’t give him the focus he deserves when I am sick.  But isn’t that a little unfair?  That’s a lot of pressure to put on a two-year-old.

There are questions though that hold promise.  Like why am I only willing to treat my body kindly when it affects another body?  What if I treated my body with the same respect I gave my growing baby?  When I was pregnant I certainly didn’t get five hours sleep a night, drink a pot of coffee a day and live on crackers and Swedish fish (aka my average weekday). Of course not! I wanted this kid to be as healthy and happy as possible. I wanted to give him a chance.  But don’t I deserve one too?

My ultimate goal is to have that same attitude towards myself all the time, not just when I’m pregnant. To insist on my own wellbeing, and to nourish myself. Because even though I’m not a growing child, I’m also not dead yet. My body isn’t a hopeless wreck that I am barely keeping going on caffeine, though it feels like it some days. It deserves a chance too. I sometimes wonder what my body could do if I let it.

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How to parent when the world seems awful

It was supposed to be different. Growing up, I was told a woman could do anything a man could do. That our mothers had marched and protested and burned perfectly good undergarments all to create a world in which women and girls wouldn’t feel like they should expect less.

Take that underwire!

This past year has been a harsh wakeup call. While I became more aware of it over the years, this year shone a spotlight on how bad it really is.

The first time I realized what I was dealing with was my first job in corporate America around twelve years ago. I had a boss who would rub my shoulders daily while telling me, “You drive me crazy, you know that? Did you tell him? Did you tell your boyfriend that if he messes up just once, I am all over that shit?”

Outraged, I told the other women in my office. They all were experiencing the same thing.

when the world seems awful
See if you could just get your measurements to be like hers…

Why doesn’t anyone say anything?” I demanded.

“Oh someone did once. Upper management didn’t believe her, so she got fired. She sued but didn’t win. Now she still doesn’t have a job. She can’t get one anywhere because companies think she’s just looking for a payday.”

“Oh.” I thought. “This isn’t how I was told it works.” No one had mentioned in the PSAs, or the mandatory employee training videos that the bad guy sometimes wins. Quite often, actually.

I waited until my exit interview with the company to say anything. I was terrified when telling the company.  I kept thinking,“You’re burning a powerful bridge. This is a small industry.” But also, “Oh sure. You waited until it wouldn’t inconvenience you to come forward. Real brave.”

It got back to me that he was shocked and angry that I “ratted him out”.   He got a slap on the wrist.

Hashtag revolution?

Fast forward to today. The headlines are full of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. People are shocked and appalled as they should be. All my friends are writing #metoo on their Facebook pages, some including their stories. I tell a truncated version of mine, and immediately take it down, for the safer “#metoo.” I feel the same way I did as when I told HR with a slightly different twist.

“Who asked you?” my brain taunts. “Don’t be so attention seeking. People have had it so much worse.  You’re one of the lucky ones.”

When I took it down I was disappointed in myself. “Real brave. Post the least controversial thing you can about it. That’s going to make a difference. I’m sure hashtags start revolutions all the time.” Some days my head is not a friendly place to be.

I hate that I’m so cynical. This year’s election was the plot twist I didn’t see coming. I believed that my son’s experience of the presidency in this country would be that he would know that was born under the presidency of a black man, and then the first president he would be fully aware of would be a woman. How would the world be different for him? Would he see people who are different from him — be it their skin or their gender – as equal without question? Probably a little starry-eyed and optimistic of me, but I hoped. It didn’t seem possible that Trump could be elected after all the racism, sexism, and generally disgusting behavior he’d exhibited.

And then he won. And all the times I’d been harassed, or mommy-tracked, or ignored were cast in a different light. “Wow,” I thought. “You really hate us, don’t you? I didn’t realize how much you hate us.” Suddenly it wasn’t just a few bad apples. We were in a bad orchard.

I know for a fact not all men hate women. Not even a majority. But maybe more than I thought. I look at my husband and my male friends whom I’ve known my whole life, and I know they are on my side. But I just didn’t quite realize what I was up against.

For a long while, it got me down. I was depressed and felt completely powerless. I have never felt like the ways my parents fought for change – protests, rallies, sit-ins, were particularly effective in this day and age. I don’t know why it worked then and doesn’t work now.  “How am I supposed to raise a good man in this midst of all this?” I wondered.  “How do I help him be different when the voices telling him that women are things are so loud right now?”  What I have come to in these past months is somewhat simple.  I do what I can.  I try and walk the walk.  Small children pick up on energy and I don’t want to be in a constant funk.  So here is what I do when it feels like this world is a horrible and scary place to be:

Turn off the news

I used to be a news junkie. I had CNN or 1010 Wins on all the time in the background listening for developments as if current affairs were part of my job. I needed to be fully briefed so that I could spring into action at any moment! In reality, springing into action generally meant being outraged and getting into stupid battles in the comments section of Facebook.  There was just one problem with this – I was getting angrier but nothing was changing! Imagine that.

via xkcd

I found I was getting anxious whenever I saw the news feed on my phone, so decided to try a week without it. I haven’t looked back. The important stuff finds its way to me whether I want it to or not.

Turn it over

The moment I admit to myself that this is not something in my control, the load lightens a little. I don’t personally have to sit down and figure out the solution to all the world’s problems. This doesn’t mean I should stand idly by and hope for the best. But I can change my perspective. What if my purpose in going to a march wasn’t to try to change the minds of anyone in power? What if it was just to show up so that a woman who is suffering sees that I am with her? That there are hundreds or thousands with her? What if I just make a difference for one person?

me too

Focus inward

I need there to be good in the world and I need to see it. But I often feel like I have neither time nor money to donate to a worthy cause. But right now that’s okay. Sometimes your service is your family or your community. I need to teach my son to be someone who respects his fellow humans regardless of their packaging. He is two and not up for the big conversations yet, so the best I can do is model behavior for him. And that means taking a look at the ways in which I’m not so perfect.

Know where you are part of the problem


It’s hard to see your own part in these things. Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend about the whole Weinstein grossness. She said she was glad his wife picked up and left immediately.

“Yeah, but everyone knew about this before in the industry. Do you really think that she didn’t know before? Just now it’s embarrassing to stay.”

Almost instantly I wanted to slap myself.  Yes, she probably knew. And I’d imagine that’s a fairly humiliating situation. She also probably saw that everyone in the industry was turning a blind eye and that people didn’t want to piss off her husband. How well would it have gone for her if she had left before the public outcry?

I don’t think of myself as someone who blames the victim. I had to catch myself and correct it. I’m surprised when friends of mine do as I did and take down their detailed stories about this issue on social media. I guess I figure they’re braver than I am, but why should they be?

Children pick up on all of our prejudices, even those about ourselves. If I want to raise a man who respects women, then I need to respect women, including myself.

Be kind

Isn’t that what all of this is really about? Not tearing down another human being for any reason. Disagree with them, fine. Yell if you must, but don’t belittle. They will never be any more or less human than you are. Being able to listen with an open ear and an open heart has helped me change more minds than I ever could have with my debating skills.

And I cannot say this enough – no other woman is your competition. You are living your life and she is living hers. You do not need to try to be better, smarter, richer or thinner.

I’m a great believer in the butterfly effect, but I’ve always thought of it more as ripples in a pond. The idea is that when you throw a rock into a pond, it isn’t just the spot where it lands that is affected. You can see the ripples spread outward, far past the point where the impact was made. It carries on.


We don’t ever fully know the influence we have on other people and their lives. The only time people tend to reveal how much someone has shaped their lives, it tends to be at the influencer’s funeral. Which is nice and all, but just goes to show — you don’t get feedback on this in real time. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. We can’t wait for someone else to make the world a kinder place.

So tune out the noise. Turn off the tv and Facebook. Look around you and do some small good things. And be kind to each other.

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Why you should ask for help from your partner

 

I don’t like to ask for help.  I practically have an allergy to it.   I never mind when someone else asks me to help them.  That seems justified.  But when I do it, I feel like it’s too ballsy to go around outsourcing things to people.  I should be able to handle my own life.  But what about my husband’s and my son’s lives?  I manage theirs too to different degrees.  It’s taken me time to realize that I can ask my husband for help and that he’ll gladly take on some of the 5,000 tasks constantly flying through my head.  But asking people to do things that they haven’t been handling previously can be tricky.

The concepts of The Mental Load and Emotional Labor have been getting a lot of press lately.  The gist is that the reason moms are always so exhausted is that they take on more work than others notice or appreciate.   We manage work, the household, and pretty much all the chores necessary to keep everything on track and where it needs to be. And we handle the laundry, the cooking, the bathing, the cleaning, but even if our partners help out with that stuff (and that’s a big if), we are still left with all the other intangibles.

We task ourselves with making sure everyone’s been to the doctor, buying presents, remembering birthdays, buying more clothes for the kids, planning family outings, and keeping the social calendar. It adds countless tasks to the day when we are already balancing taking care of the needs of others for about fifteen hours a day. That’s the approximate time per day spent where we AREN’T handling those things.   And then we try to cram all of those into the hour or two left in our day, and it’s no wonder our heads are perpetually about to explode.

A friend of mine put it this way: “I feel like I have all these plates I’m supposed to be spinning, and I have just figured out how to balance them all, but that’s when everything’s perfect. If one thing goes wrong in our lives, I’m going to drop it all.”

Oh shit, I have to sneeze

And God forbid you drop one. You forget to sell the PTA wrapping paper, or you tank a presentation at work. The kids are out of clean underwear, or you forgot to pay the credit card bill and now your interest rates resemble something you would expect from your friendly neighborhood loan shark. Some things you can afford to drop. Others you can’t. But when we are this fried, we don’t always get to choose what to drop, it just happens.

It’s clear here that something has got to give. Since the article on the mental load went viral, I have heard several of my friends say that they broached the topic with their husbands, and it did not go over well. They felt attacked, and confused. They were, after all, doing more than their fathers did! Hell, they would even pick up tampons at the store if you wanted them to, so feminist and egalitarian is their viewpoint!

The whole argument in the above articles is that “You should’ve asked” shouldn’t be the answer. That they should already see that if there are dishes in the sink, they should be washed and just DO it – because that’s the logical adult thing to do. It can feel like a slight when they SEE the dishes but don’t DO the dishes. We interpret it as their registering it and thinking, “Eh, she’ll take care of it.” But I don’t think that’s the case. They haven’t been taught to see it there and make the connection. If his mother always did the dishes, then his experience of a sink full of dishes is not to look at it as a task that needs to be completed. He’s not doing it to be a dick. It’s a blind spot.

I’m invisible!

Your partner has stresses too.  To imagine he is happily going about an easy life while you toil away is a recipe for resentment on both sides.  In AA one of the most useful (and uncomfortable) parts of the steps is learning to see your part in situations where you are feeling resentment. Your partner wants to make you happy.  They just need a roadmap sometimes.  Here are the things that sometimes keep me from asking for a hand.

I don’t ask for help.

Now I realize the point of the articles above is that we shouldn’t have to ask, but I can sit here on my high horse talking about how things should be in an ideal world, but that won’t poof it into existence. There are steps between our current society and our ideal. One of those is letting my partner know when something is bothering me.

And I want breakfast in bed every Sunday.

Sometimes I don’t ask because what is bugging me is kind of stupid.   Like when my husband leaves empty soda cans next to the sink. WHY!?! It remains a mystery. Does he intend to wash them out? Has he washed them out? Why not just throw them in the recycling? And then I realize I’ve been glaring at a can for fifteen seconds instead of just throwing it out. So my logic isn’t flawless either. And bottom line, he’s a great guy and this is a piece of tin we are talking about. I realize this means I will continue to have to throw out these cans but I’m not overly bothered by it.  (That said, if he puts it on top of the garbage instead of IN the garbage, then I’m going to say something because that is an act of war.) Ahem, I mean it bothers me. Honey.

It will be faster if I just do it myself

Technically it’s true, but it’s also incredibly short-sighted. Asking someone to do something that they don’t normally do, and then explaining how you’d like it done does take some time. And it won’t come out perfectly. So when you have a million plates spinning, it’s easy to say,

Today is not the day. I have too much going on for this.”

This sentence is the thing that bars us from what we want most in life. Yes, today. Do it today. Because even though it might cause some short-term annoyance or discomfort, or it might make you late, you are prioritizing something important – the happiness of your relationship. No one wants to be seething all the time, and in return, no one wants to feel like they can’t do anything right. Give a man a fish and he will expect dinner every night. Teach a man to fish and you might be surprised to find out he’s actually a really good cook. (You will probably also end up with 25 new cooking gadgets, but that’s a separate issue.)

If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done right

This is a corollary to the one above. The actual fact is that if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done your way which is something else entirely. If you want other people to help out and do things, you have to let go of the idea of your definition of done “right”. If your husband cleans the bathroom and misses a corner of the shower, it’s okay to let it go. You’re a mom and your house isn’t going to be perfect anyway. If you are trying to get someone to do something for you consistently, telling them they suck at it is not a terribly effective way of doing it. If everything has to be to your standards, it will have to be you who does everything.

not impressed
Why aren’t you doing that thing you suck at???

 

If it’s something seriously wrong, and now all your clothes are pink, that is generally a mistake that does not get made twice. You have to leave some room for people to make mistakes and learn on their own.

You are asking someone to take responsibility for things they didn’t have to before. Unless they are two years old, most people don’t really want more responsibilities. They are doing this for you, as they should, but don’t expect them to do cartwheels the whole time over how great it is to do chores. I’m not saying they should be surly, just that everyone should try to take it easy and have a sense of humor in the beginning. Easier said than done, I know, but at least keep the idea in mind.

The F*!&ing Morning Routine


Not necessarily related to your partner, but one of the most insidious ways overdoing it can creep into our lives is through things that SOUND like they are designed to help us be more efficient. The “morning routine” is one such albatross. Apparently you are supposed to get up an hour before everyone else (in my house this would be 4 am) and do things like exercise and meditate and read and figure out your top 3 most important things for the day.  This is supposed to make you happier and more productive.   “Successful people” whoever they are, apparently all do this. The very thought of it makes me want to weep with exhaustion. As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of meditation and exercise. But instead of being a helpful tool, I feel like these have turned into things we use to scold ourselves. If you are unhappy, and you don’t exercise or meditate because you don’t want to, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for you, or that your unhappiness is your own fault. As much as Tom Cruise was mocked for saying Brooke Shields could have cured her postpartum depression with exercise and vitamins, our society still implies that if you are depressed, maybe you’re just not trying hard enough. This is bullshit. If you are a morning person and enjoy it, go for a morning routine. But we only have a finite amount of energy. You need to decide where you can spend it.

Taking on more than is necessary 

You saw the cutest birthday party on Pinterest and now you really think you could pull off the perfect afternoon tea party theme for your three-year-old.  Kids like crumpets, right?  Homemade ones?

ask for help
Totally doable!

You have recently heard of a capsule wardrobe and think it’s a great way to save money and finally become more stylish. This will require an entirely new wardrobe mind you, but you will somehow save money in the long run. This must be thoroughly researched. There should be a workbook involved.

You want to get involved in working with at-risk kids in your area through a local program.

Sometimes we take on more than we can handle. One of the tricky things about the mental load is that some of the things we genuinely enjoy doing. I love planning the holidays at my house and getting everything set up for it, and I like planning most of our weekends. But I also know that in seasons where I have a lot of this kind of planning and errands, I am going to have less patience for other minutiae. I would love to plan an elaborate birthday party, but I know that the level of detail involved is a recipe for me being VERY cranky at the end of the day for about a month, and honestly is probably not worth it. Toddlers are happy with invisible tea.

Even worthy causes like community service sound great, but only if you are able to manage it without going berserk. I have volunteered my whole life, but I realize that now, while I have a small child and a job, is not the season for it. I will get back to it. And neither the world nor my living room will fall apart if I am not personally holding it up.

Not saying thank you

You make my life better

I can already hear you thinking, “I shouldn’t have to thank him for picking up his goddam socks!” No, that might be a bit much. But recognizing what the other person does is good too. I thank my husband whenever he takes out the garbage. Why? Because I hate doing it. It’s heavy and smelly and I find it delightful that there is someone in my life who will consistently do it for me. He does the same for me when I make something for dinner or organize an event.

I think so much of this is about being seen and appreciated. I really don’t mind doing a lot of work if I’m recognized for it. It’s when it’s taken for granted that it’s easy to get resentful. Just like a gratitude list, what you appreciate appreciates. The more you say thank you, the more things you notice that are worth saying thank you for.

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Are you messing up your kid?

messing-up-your-kid

What to do when you’ve lost it to prevent messing up your kid

I don’t know whether it’s being an alcoholic or just being a mother, but so many nights I look at my son’s little face and think, “Dear God, please don’t let me mess him up too badly.”

Part of me feels like with alcoholism running in his family, the deck is stacked against him and I want to protect him from any hurt I can, just to give him a fighting chance. But what about when I’m the cause of the hurt? When I go away on business and he doesn’t understand? Or when I realize I’ve been staring at my phone for an hour instead of playing with him? When I attempt to wrestle him into a diaper because he Will. Not. Put. On. Clothes.  When I see his big eyes fill with tears because I yelled?

Does he think I don’t love him? Is he afraid of me? What kind of monster am I if I yell at a small child?

Unsurprisingly it’s not when I am going through this that I find any answers. It’s when my friends go through the same thing that I suddenly have pearls of wisdom about it. I can give them the grace I can’t give myself. But in turn, I can try and remember it for next time. Because as much as I hate it, there will be a next time. And I promise you: You are not messing up your kid as badly as you think.

messing up your kid
Why didn’t I just let him wear his pajamas to school?

We are doing better than our parents

This isn’t to say they did a bad job. I still consider my mother to be one of the best role models around for me or anyone else for that matter, but we learn things as a society from one generation to the next. If you look at parenting just a generation or two ago, it’s pretty crazy to realize the extent to which things have changed. Just as my son rides in a car seat instead of on my lap, we take the information available at the time and we do the best we can with what we know.

rickety playground
Sure, that looks totally safe for a two-year-old!

These are teachable moments

Okay so you yelled at your kid and they cried and now you kind of wish the ground would swallow you up. As tempting as it is to ignore it and figure things will go back to normal when they see you aren’t mad anymore, you are missing an opportunity here.

You aren’t perfect and that’s okay. No one is. It’s important for them to learn how to have humility about their own flaws, and to learn to forgive them in others. I’m not saying to go into a big speech about it, but when you are both calm, find an age-appropriate way of saying, “Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you. Yelling isn’t a good way to solve problems. We all make mistakes, and then we say we’re sorry.” Don’t give excuses for why you were yelling. You can absolutely discuss their behavior separately. But they are more likely to hear you if you don’t seem mad anymore. And justifying the yelling will just get their back up whether they are two or twenty.

Do Better

Now unfortunately along with the apology, you do actually have to try to do better in the future. I’m not saying you will never yell at your kid again because that’s a joke. But if it’s happening every day, then maybe it’s time to research ways to keep your temper better. Whatever the issue is that’s the problem, look at your part of it.  Your child is going to be on every fourth step you do.  This is the best chance you have at minimizing the extent to which you mess your kid up.

Please let him turn out better than me…

Keep it in perspective

One of my favorite ways to keep things in perspective is to ask myself, “Have I ever heard anyone use this as part of their ‘before’ story in an AA meeting?” 99% of the time, the answer is no. You don’t hear things like, “My mom never gave me the toys I wanted,” or “she yelled at me to put on my clothes every morning”.   A kid isn’t a soufflé. It’s not something where you do one thing wrong and they are ruined. And when you do something truly awful? They love you so much and they will give you a thousand chances to get it right.

(That said, if you are hurting your children, or you are worried about your behavior, talk to a therapist, stat.  They can help you.  If you’re not coping on your own, it won’t magically happen.  Insurance covers some of it and a lot of them work on a sliding scale. )

Make sure your child goes to bed knowing they are loved

There are days that are just awful and the two of you seem to butt heads. You are exasperated and just want them to go to sleep so you can have some peace. (Hey, sometimes I wish for that on a good day too.) I’m not trotting out the old adage of “never go to bed angry” because you can’t always change a feeling on a dime. What you do have the power to do is to say,

“I’m still very upset. But I love you very much. No matter what.”

Having that sense of security and being loved is a huge part of the mental health of a person at any size.

Worse comes to Worst

All this aside, you will mess your kid up at least a little. Everyone does, it’s unavoidable. As they get older, I think it is important to share our stories with them. Perhaps not the gory details, but the general message of, “You can turn it around.” There is a genetic element to this, and what they become is not all down to you and your actions. And if they ever do end up at the wrong end of too many bottles, they have you as living proof that there is a way out.

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Time Flies

 

Awhile ago I was having a conversation with my best friend, then about 8 months pregnant with her second child.  Her husband was away for work at the time and she was dealing with a three-year-old and a heat wave.  She was obsessing over getting her son’s new room perfect so that they could move him in there before the baby was born.  I was trying to convince her to take it easy, and it all seemed so logical to me that she should just be able to let some things go and give herself a little grace.  I could practically hear her eyebrow arch over the phone. The pot was on the phone to tell the kettle she was black.

Who me?

Fair point.  I do this all the time.  I take whatever life event is stressing me out, and I seem to find some project that I think will fix everything and give myself a million tasks around it.  It’s my way of trying to take control of the situation.  About a year ago, I started a bullet journal to keep myself a bit more organized and fell into an Instagram hole of amazing bullet journalists.  All of a sudden I decided my handwriting was bothering me, so I needed to incorporate 20 minutes of handwriting practice a day.

Plus my new daily workout to fix my mummy tummy.

And cut back on processed foods.

And have a “no spend” day once a week.

And a weekly meal plan for the whole family where I cook dinner most nights.

But I couldn’t figure out why I felt so stressed and unhappy. Why I kept wondering if I needed to call my psychiatrist to up my medication for the first time in ten years.  The idea that I was putting extra pressure on myself never entered my mind.

Maybe Later

These skills are all lovely things to put into practice, but now is not my time for most of them. I’d love to have beautiful handwriting, but I think everyone would prefer I use that time to shower. Because there is only room for one of the two.

While part of my desire for all these projects is certainly about a wish for control and keeping the outside of things looking perfect, I think it harkens back to something else too – the freedom that I had before I became a mother.

Even before I quit drinking, I was always a big fan of self-improvement practices and learning new things. I had a standing new years resolution to learn one new skill a year for no other reason than it interested me. I would dive into new and overwhelming projects, and experience time speed up as I focused intently and felt the thrill of the tiny improvements in my new skill emerging. I still have this urge. I still want to learn calligraphy and how to surf. I want to learn to play the ukulele. I want to learn javascript and how to make jewelry.

Well that’s efficient

But being a mom is a skill that takes more than one year to learn. I don’t know if it’s one I’ll ever master. It’s trickier than say, learning the piano. As soon as you think you’ve got it figured out — everything changes.

Tempus Fugit

I am also constantly reminded in subtle ways that I won’t always be so strapped for time. The way my son’s head suddenly appears above the top of the kitchen table instead of skimming beneath it – when did he grow? A couple of months ago, I could count how many words he knows. Now I have no idea. Hundreds?

I have always hated it when mothers look at me and say– almost as a warning – “It goes so fast…” I believe it. But it irks me because my attitude has been, “Yes, I get it, but what do you want me to do about it other than to be sad?”

Maybe this is part of the answer – to put some things I want to do on hold because there will space later in my life. When my son is moody and hormonal and just wants me to leave him alone. When he goes off to college and they have to pull me off his doorjamb. Maybe that’s the time for calligraphy.

The limits of time have never sat well with me.  I remember crying as a child once when I realized I would never have time to read all the books I would want to in a lifetime.  I’m still that same girl.  There are too many things I want to do in this life and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I probably won’t get to do them all.

Choices

For me, there is a simple truth that I can’t both DO ALL THE THINGS and enjoy all the things. There is something in knowing the limitations of time.  It means your choices must be considered.  What we choose is special because whether we think about it or not, it’s what we’ve prioritized at this moment above everything else.

I also know I could do everything else on my list, but if I had never gotten to be a mother, it would have felt hollow.  So what if I got to see Kyoto but didn’t have the full human experience of having a child?  This is certainly not the case for everyone nor should it be. It’s just what’s true for me.  I have always wanted this.  It is special, and brief.  It deserves my full attention.

I still have and use my bullet journal. It helps me keep track of play dates and meetings. And I even have a page for “Stuff I Want to Learn”. Having a place to park those ideas somehow lessens the anxiety that I will immediately blank on everything I was ever interested in the moment I am left alone with my thoughts. When I get that down on paper and out of my head, I can then look up and focus on where I am right now. I can see the way my son’s hair sticks up because he’s gotten banana in it again, and notice how he smells like sunscreen and dirt from the playground. And I can know that even if it’s not a skill I can put on my resume, or impress people with at parties, I’m still always learning.

 

Letting Go of Perfectionism

Perfectionism

Perfectionism

There’s a catch-22 in writing about perfectionism. I have wanted to write about this for weeks but kept putting it off. I wanted to do more research. I needed to have the right inspiration… In reality, I was terrified — because if you’re going to write about perfectionism, it had better be perfect.

Let’s get this out of the way: This post isn’t perfect. I am not perfect. And dammit I hate that.

Perfectionism is my preferred defense mechanism. If I am smart enough, thin enough, selfless enough, pretty enough, impressive enough, etc. then no one will notice all the things that are wrong with me.

The Trap

It worked pretty well for a long time. Most people in my inner circle didn’t realize I had a problem with alcohol because I was so high functioning. Had anyone dare say anything, I had my hobbies, career advancements, relationships, and friendships to throw in their faces. I used it to justify my drinking to myself as well. Look, I work hard, I volunteer, I bake, I sew, I write… can’t I have Just One Thing?

The problem was, it worked too well. A couple of times I was brave enough (okay, drunk enough) to admit that I thought I had a problem, and people told me they didn’t think I did. I got the feeling they thought maybe I was being a touch overdramatic. Cringe.

But I also had a strong fear that I wouldn’t be found out. That I would be able to keep up the façade. – until one day I would develop cirrhosis. And then the jig would be up. People would know how imperfect I was and it would be forever metaphorically etched on my tombstone.

I don’t think I’m alone here

There is a huge misconception in this country about what an alcoholic actually is. People picture someone homeless stumbling around with nothing left talking to themselves. They don’t tend to picture a woman. Certainly not one in business attire. And it doesn’t take drinking a fifth of vodka a day to become addicted to alcohol.  A bottle of wine or two will do just as nicely. One of my favorite quotes from Ann Dowsett Johnston about her drinking is, “I drank way more than I should have and probably a lot less than you’re thinking.”

There is something going on here culturally too. It may just be the women I hang out with, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a woman who doesn’t consider herself a perfectionist. I hear it everywhere, “I’m such a perfectionist.” “I’m so OCD”, “I’m totally Type A”. Have you ever heard anyone say they’re type B? Because I haven’t.

I’m so OCD. But not in an unattractive way.

There is a message that if you aren’t a perfectionist, you are lazy. You let things go. And beware, because there are plenty of women out there who don’t. They are better than you, and everyone you love may just realize that.

One of my biggest fears in writing this post is that someone I know would see it and say, “Really? You? A perfectionist? Okay…”

In truth, I don’t know that I am a typical perfectionist. My house is somewhat messy. I’d love for it to be sparkly, but not enough to, y’know, clean it. My clothes aren’t perfectly ironed or expertly tailored, and I often wear flats despite knowing I look better in heels. I have even been known to eat ice cream in public after coming to the shocking realization that no one cares.

The strange thing is, I don’t expect perfection from others, so it seems egotistical that I should have to be perfect and no one else does. The truth is that I feel like my being perfect gets me just up to the level of everyone else’s normal. I don’t know where this comes from. But I do know that it speaks with the same voice that whispers that I should skip dinner. That I could have just one drink.

Imperfect mom

In a way, the thing that has shifted me away the most from perfectionism has been becoming a mother.  It’s a strange thing because I want the best for my child in ways I never did for myself.  But motherhood threw into sharp focus the fact that it’s just not possible.  Seeing that huge gap between myself and perfection and knowing it wasn’t something I could close was an ego blow.  But it was also a relief.  In knowing that it was impossible, I was able to let go now and again.

I know I can try with all my might to be the perfect mom.  To hand sew his Halloween costumes instead of buying them on Amazon.  To read educational books for hours and set up some sort of sensory water station like I see on Pinterest when we are stuck at home, instead of cuddling and watching tv together.  But in giving up some of those things, I also know that my son gets a mom that isn’t wound up like a rubber band ready to snap.

A slow fix

I don’t have a top ten list here of how to beat this. Nor do I have a cute exercise for you to change your thinking (although Steps 4 and 5 are a damn good start.) This is a process. Realizing it is an important step towards learning to question that perfectionistic voice. That’s been what has begun to help me. To stop for a second and ask myself,“Wait, is that really true?”

Is it true that I can’t have people over to my house because there are bags of clothes in my room I still haven’t donated?

Is it true that if I ask for a sick day to take my kid to the doctor that my boss will mommy track me?

Is it true that unless I get Botox, people are going to think my face looks like a shoe?

pretty much

I have to remind myself every day that adult life is not like middle school. I am not under a microscope. And if someone criticizes me for something, their word is not gospel. It’s just their opinion and worth no more than my own. It is my choice to jump down a shame rabbit hole. Or not.

Thoughts?  Want to tell me how perfect I am?  That I do look like a shoe? (I knew it.)  Have at it in the comments.

How to Make Mom Friends

mom friends

mom friends

Even before I had my son, I knew that along with the crib, swaddles and Rock n’ Play, there was one more essential to add to my list of must haves, and that was a tribe of mom friends.

I knew this because I saw headlines from the cool mom voices of HuffPo, Scary Mommy, Red Tricycle etc. that were pumped into my Facebook feed as “suggested articles”.

5 Types of Mom Friends Every Mom Needs”

Ok got it. I’ll be on the lookout for those.

“11 Types of Mom Friends – and Why They’re Important”

 Wait, how many now?

 “The 6 Types of Friends You Have As a First Time Mom”

 Oh, so those come preinstalled? Cool.

Hi.  We’re the mom friends you ordered.

It was my hope that these gems would just arrive as if by magic once I had the baby. They would see me with it and they would have one of their own. The shared experience of the insanity that is childbirth and the newborn phase would make us instantly understand each other. Like trauma bonding. Perhaps I’d meet them in the breastfeeding class at the hospital. (Or was that creepy?) Could I meet them at the pediatrician’s office? I wasn’t sure.

Ever the good student, I decided to get a jump on the process. I joined my local message boards and went to mommy meetups for those in my neighborhood that were due at the same time I was. It was exhausting to lug my ever-expanding self over to parts of town to meet with strangers, but I soldiered through confident that I would check off the “mom friend” list item.

At least I didn’t have to worry about one thing: since we were all pregnant, no one was drinking. I was new to the neighborhood, so no one knew that my abstaining was anything other than pregnancy related. The women were all friendly, but nothing really clicked. I felt the way I did when I was dating – putting myself out there, doing the work getting out of the house, being friendly and a good listener, and… nothing. An introvert at heart, every time I came home and sank onto the couch, I thought, “Why the hell am I bothering?”

I’ve been thinking about you all day.

Something I hear a lot in meetings – especially from women, is that they felt different and out of place as a child.   This was certainly the case for me. I was more or less born a tiny forty-year-old. I was strange. I was never comfortable.  Sure I made friends, and some very good ones at that. But in most situations where I met new people, they usually didn’t take to me right away.

And then? Alcohol. The great social lubricant that made me outgoing and charming. (Or at least it did in my own head). It allowed me to mix with people and be silly. It let me have fun. Until it didn’t.

So I have to find a different way to have fun. One of the best things I have found in sobriety is that I have become “me” again. The strange girl with a snarky sense of humor who loves knitting and writing and has zero interest in staying out late, or in what’s cool. But that’s not to say that I can’t still get out my tiny violin in these situations and replay my greatest hit — “People don’t like me.”

Once I had the baby, I had high hopes that we would now have things to bond over in the mom group. While I felt completely shell shocked by early motherhood, thanks to recovery meetings (and the internet) I knew that others were probably feeling the same way and we could all find relief in saying, “Yes! Me too!”

I did make some casual friends this way.  But I was the first to go back to work and the meetings continued without me. Once the others went back to work, they switched from meeting in a coffee shop to meeting in a bar for “girls night out”. While I have been able to hang at a bar with friends now and again, it is certainly not my preference. I recall the saying, “If you keep sitting in the barber’s chair, sooner or later you’ll get a haircut.” I knew my desire to be liked and to fit in was not a good match for this, and my one social outlet went away.

When I put my son in daycare I told myself I would try again with the moms there. But being back to work and then being with my son at night was exhausting and the excuses started piling up:

I’m already exhausted.

It seems like so much work to GO somewhere and have to be ON.

What if we don’t click?  

What if she’s a mommy wino?

Everyone just wants to drink and they’ll make fun of the fact that I don’t.

I can rationalize bringing sand to the desert. So I talked myself out of it time and time again, thinking “soon” or “next time” or “I’ll know my people when I meet them.”

Two years in and I do have some mom friends now. Here’s the advice I would give to my new mom self:

Don’t overlook what you already have

Through all my concern and frustration over not having mom friends, I was still texting my best friend daily, sometimes for hours at a time. She is a mom as well, though her son is older than mine. I was hung up on the idea of having mom friends whose babies were the same age, not realizing I was already getting the very thing that a mom friend provides – emotional support and a dash of humor. An additional bonus was that since her son was older, she wasn’t in a newborn fog and had some perspective so she could tell me what was normal. I still talk to her every day.

They don’t have to be local

Yes, it’s nice if they are because then you can make playdates and get yourself and your stir-crazy kid out of the house on a rainy day.   But that’s the role of your child’s friends, not necessarily yours. I met a great group of women in a sober mom’s group online and we definitely share all the things mentioned in these articles. Again, just because you can’t touch them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Not everybody is interested in drinking.

This is one where I had to see my part. I threw a very elaborate pity party for myself when the mom’s group switched to a bar group. What I didn’t think about was that not all of them were necessarily interested in that either. There were over 30 women in that group and I now know that a LOT of them are not big drinkers. It doesn’t occur to them. That possibility never entered my mind. I noticed the mommy winos because they stood out to me. My ears perked up more at someone talking about meeting up for drinks because I am sensitive to that, so I felt like it was EVERYONE instead of maybe 10% of them. The normies weren’t talking about booze because they weren’t thinking about it. I couldn’t fathom that, so they flew under my radar.

Keep trying

Helpful, I know. Here’s the thing – a lot of other moms have the same excuses going in their heads. I’m too tired. I have too much to do. Not enough time with family. I don’t know this person, why would I want to hang out with them when I could SLEEP? It’s not personal. She doesn’t know you so it’s not that she has anything against you. It’s just tough to motivate.

I often think of AA as an advanced course in Adulting. We learn to do what we can and not focus so much on what others do. We learn to do our part and let the rest go. As a person who loves to analyze everything to death, the simplicity of saying, “Have I done everything I can do here?” and leaving the rest has been really useful.

You don’t know what is going on in the life of the woman who bailed on your coffee date. If her marriage is falling apart or if she broke her toe, or if she’s had zero sleep and Just. Can’t. Do It. Giving her a little grace and trying again may turn out to be all that is needed. If not? On to the next. Don’t get into the game of, “But why does it always have to be me making the effort?” Because we never know what is going on with anyone else. If you want it, it has to be you.

You will keep meeting more

Don’t sweat it if it takes awhile. When you find the right ones these women will be in your life for a long time. Sometimes something that doesn’t click at first evolves over time. I eventually became friends with a couple of women I never noticed because they were both shy. But with running into each other while picking up our kids at the same time, or chatting at birthday parties we figured out we liked each others company.

Simply having a child exposes you to a whole new community of people, and over time the classes, playgrounds, and parties bring you to wonderful people who will become a part of your life.

And as you find your mom friends, make sure to keep an eye out for that mama who is struggling. The one with deep circles under her eyes at the coffee shop holding a newborn. Tell her she’s doing great, and that it gets easier. Wink at the mom in the supermarket with the kid throwing a tantrum and say, “You’ve got this” as you walk by. You never know when you will make a friend for life.

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