I was running in my neighborhood one day when I heard a siren in the distance. It got louder and continued for a few minutes, shattering the quiet of the morning. My heart raced a little faster as a dozen what-ifs suddenly barreled through my brain. I was only a few blocks from my daughter’s school. Was the emergency there?
For a moment, I stood frozen in the road, wondering if I needed to do something. Run to the school perhaps? The logical part of my brain effectively nixed this idea, so I checked my cell phone instead. It is my lifeline, a way to connect with my kids—the pieces of my heart that now float untethered in the world for longer and longer stretches of time.
Before long, the siren's wails got quieter and faded away. I checked my phone again; no one had called me. I finally exhaled, but I couldn’t relax.
Admittedly, I tend to live on the over-anxious side of the personality curve. But it’s not surprising that becoming a parent bolsters our sense of vigilance in everyday situations. Wrapped up in the core of motherhood is a perpetual commitment to be “always on,” ready to protect and nurture our kids starting from the moment they are a tiny blip on a screen, for as long as we exist in this world. It is an awesome responsibility and a sacred commitment, the reason we often feel important and powerful yet terrified and full of doubt in the same breath.
I’ve noticed a particular amount of angst that arises with this role, a feeling we begin to carry with us once we learn we are mothers. I remember my first prenatal yoga class, how the instructor gently placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “You’re holding onto a lot of stuff here.” Growing up, I wondered why my own mother seemed stressed at times. “I’m not tense,” she’d say through gritted teeth, an almost comical denial.
Now I understand. The luxury of worrying only about myself is long gone. Driving my kids around, I sometimes become aware that my hands are clenching the steering wheel tightly; the knowledge that I have precious cargo in my backseat is always at the forefront of my mind. I’m late, always late, trying to get everyone where they need to go while staying one step ahead of sibling conflicts. Most mornings I feel like a referee in some bizarre game, calling out instructions, administering penalties. Where are your shoes? Go brush your teeth; the bus will be here in ten minutes. Stop taunting your sister, or you’ll lose another toy! And for Pete’s sake quit climbing the counter!
Only after becoming a mother did I truly understand what it meant to be tired. Not simply physically exhausted, but mentally drained. A mom's brain is always spinning. Turning, turning, turning, like a hamster on a wheel that never stops. Sleep is never quite as restful as it was before children. My kids could snooze through a fire alarm or a Guns N’ Roses concert in our hallway, but motherhood has blessed me with an apparently bionic ear. A soft whimper, a tiny creak of a bedroom door, and I sit up in bed, eyes searching the dark space to see who needs me.
Like so many high-pressure roles, motherhood has a natural cadence that’s not exactly conducive to relaxation. To be a mom is to travel steadily through an endless series of peaks and valleys, as we face challenges and then almost immediately prepare for the next ones. We survive pregnancy and the seemingly infinite stretch of sleepless nights with a newborn, only to move on to our children’s first day of kindergarten, their first painful breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the heart attack-inducing experience of watching them learn to drive. And sprinkled throughout our days are the random events that prompt us to worry about our children’s immediate safety and well-being: a cough that lingers just a bit too long, a phone call from school or the news of violence somewhere near or far. There is always something. There will always be something.
My kids are well past the baby and toddler stages now, and I’ve realized that I won’t ever be the type of mom who exudes serenity and calm. I think I’m finally okay with that. Someday, my kids will likely remember that I was tense sometimes. But I hope they’ll also remember how very much they were loved.
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Summer means more time for family fun, and this month we traveled with the kids to visit relatives on the West Coast. My siblings and I grew up in northern California, where we lived in the same house from the time we were babies until we had landed our first real jobs and officially joined the ranks of adulthood.
After I moved out, my childhood home often felt like a loyal friend, one whose steady presence remained in my life despite distance and the passing of years. As time went by and I started a family of my own, I didn't visit as much, but we could always pick up where we left off, just as good friends do. So it was a strange feeling when, earlier this summer, the house was listed for sale for the first time since before I was born.
My family decided to take the kids on a little tour of the house before the real estate process got underway. I think we all wanted to pay our respects, in a sense, and acknowledge what the place had meant to each of us. As we arrived, I noticed the agent's bright white sign staked in the front yard, next to the rock where I used to sit and wait for friends. A hummingbird rested for a moment on the old prickly tree that was part of the home's original landscaping nearly four decades ago. Instinctively, my fingers curled away from the pointed leaves, remembering their sharpness and the many times they'd poked into my skin.
With all of the furniture and knick-knacks finally packed away, the house sat empty, its white walls and hardwood floors reflecting the early afternoon sunlight. Rarely, if ever, had the living room been so silent or the kitchen so immaculate. I looked around and instantly recalled the life that had once coursed through this place, giving it a pulse and a personality of its own. The happy chaos of countless birthday parties; the rollerskating in the basement as Madonna and "Weird Al" Yankovic blared in the background; the Halloween and Christmas decorations draped every which way; the aroma of morning pancakes sizzling on the stove, rousing reluctant teenagers from their slumber.
In my old bedroom, I stood near the window and looked out at the street, the same exact view I had growing up, the same cement, the same trees, the same sky. I showed my daughters the small deck that once connected my room with my sister's--the perfect spot for passing secret notes and spying on each other. My room had hosted a healthy mix of noise over the years; my own trumpet and French Horn practicing often competed with my brother's drum set next door or the muffled beats of my dad's stereo in the basement. I smiled at the corner where my bed used to be, recalling the many times I'd flung myself down in tears and written a lengthy diary entry about some boy, some school test I was convinced I'd failed, or another grave injustice. My room, a place that had absorbed so much pure energy and emotion, felt small to me now, almost constricting.
In the backyard, I greeted the old lemon tree that's still standing; I wondered how it survived so long, despite the occasional frosty spell. We peered down the narrow side yards that had housed our bunny run and chicken coop, and I pointed out the rectangular patch of dirt where our swing set once stood. It was here that my siblings and I had to retrieve the chickens many times (the monkey bars were their favorite roosting spot).
I knew seeing my former home would bring up feelings of nostalgia. But later, standing in front of my parents' old bathroom vanity, I wasn't prepared for the rush of sadness that suddenly filled the space behind my eyes, the heaviness that tugged at my throat. This was my mom's domain, the place she would get ready each morning, often talking with me about this or that as she brushed her teeth or put on makeup. I could still feel her in this place, as I looked out the glass doors to the patio. Seeing what she used to see.
I didn't realize it was happening at the time, but now it's so clear to me that this house was the place that shaped the person I would become, through those millions of moments that constantly unfolded within its walls and the people who were there to share them with me. And no matter how far I may travel from this place, I know a part of my soul will always live here.
~ ~ ~
A friend said to me the other day, "You don't give yourself enough credit for how resilient you are."
Resilience. It's a quality we often don't recognize in ourselves, even though we have it in spades. I'm starting to realize that resilience isn't something we have to learn or develop; it's just a part of human nature.
I'm thinking more about resilience as my five-year-old daughter and I are in the kitchen one spring day. I hear what sounds like someone knocking on the front door. Assuming it's a delivery, I head to the entryway.
No, it's hail, arriving as abruptly as an unannounced guest. Pea-sized pebbles of ice shoot down from the sky. Come and see this, I call to my daughter, who is delighted with the idea of "snow" in late April. For a few minutes we stand there and just watch, listening to the pounding of ice hitting wood and brick and cement, the surprising intensity of it. The storm is over quickly and my daughter wants to play outside; she grabs an umbrella, even though it's not necessary now. The sun is already breaking through the clouds. Birds are chirping and rooting in the grass for worms. Aside from the tiny spheres of ice littering the ground here and there, it's as if the storm never happened.
We may not always see resiliency in ourselves, but it is easy to find it in nature. We observe it in the daffodils as their slender green leaves nudge through soil that only weeks ago was blanketed in snow. We see it in the robins and blackbirds who faithfully return each spring to build new nests, intricate creations that will likely fall apart once the babies have flown away and winter's chill arrives. We marvel at the tenacity of sea stars and their capacity to re-grow parts of their bodies that have been lost. Whatever the obstacle or setback may be, all living things have an innate ability to go on.
Like a hailstorm that plummets into the earth with astonishing force, any crisis in our lives can consume us fully with its power and intensity. In these moments, we can't imagine things ever returning to normal. But more often than not, we somehow muddle through and come out on the other side, where, as if by magic, the world is fresh and new again. And if we are lucky, we might find joy that wasn't there before.
Whatever we may be facing in life, we can take a cue from nature, and remember that we are all tougher than we think.
~ ~ ~
It began innocently enough. My husband and I decided to invest in an iPad for the kids, envisioning it as something we’d employ for special situations, like helping lessen the boredom of long car rides, airplane trips, or emergency department waiting rooms.
Sooner than we’d expected, however, this nifty gadget had wormed its way into our daily lives with alarming ease. The kid-friendly apps we installed were all fine and dandy and even somewhat educational. But they were all but forgotten once my daughters discovered YouTube.
Ah, YouTube…the purveyor of videos both hilarious and heartwarming, and boasting enough interesting content that you could easily squirrel away an afternoon and not realize it. I don’t remember exactly how my children first became acquainted with this website, but I have a sinking feeling that I was probably the person who introduced it to them. Maybe I wanted to show them that cool Sesame Street parody of Glee or a clip of a goat dressed up as Princess Elsa (hey, that one was pretty darn funny). Whatever the content was, that initial video had a powerful effect on my kids’ brains. Like Helen of Troy, it was the clip that “launched a thousand ships.” Once my kids saw the beauty and splendor that one click of this simple red and white icon afforded, they were hooked.
One afternoon, while I was prepping dinner (er, okay, watching One Direction music videos), I had queued up a new Disney Junior episode on YouTube and let my daughters plunk down on the couch with the iPad between them. After the show ended and a few more minutes had passed, I noticed that my darlings were not only still quiet, but also that neither had moved from her spot on the couch. An unusual scenario, since by this time, one of them typically would have elbowed the other in the ribs and bickering would have ensued. I tiptoed over to the couch and peered over their shoulders, the glow of the iPad making my eyes glaze over a bit. On the small screen, a pair of perfectly manicured hands appeared to be crafting sparkly Play-Doh into little dresses for plastic Disney princess dolls, as a soothing voice narrated in the background.
What the frick? I thought. I didn’t see the appeal. But my daughters were entranced. And just like that, my kids had joined a vast subculture of their peers who are fervent fans of YouTube’s “toy unboxing” videos, in which unseen narrators noisily unwrap various trinkets and play with them. Anonymous YouTube toy reviewers like the mysterious “DisneyCollectorBR” are garnering 90 million views for their most popular videos, and plenty of moms I talked with said that their kids, too, were enthralled with “egg shows” (slang, I learned, because the narrator often unwraps chocolate eggs with a toy inside).
I thought my kids would soon tire of these videos, but they only discovered new narrators, some with pleasing Australian accents, others with annoyingly high-pitched and grating voices. While the content seemed innocuous on the surface, after a while I began to notice a negative effect on the dynamics of our household. Bedtimes were getting later and later, and actual, screen-free family time was becoming miniscule in the evenings. The toy unboxing videos began to take on the flavor of addiction. If we drove anywhere in the car, my daughters asked to watch a video on our phones. “Can we watch Disney Collector?” were often the first words my kids greeted me with each morning and after school. And whenever my husband or I announced that it was time to switch off the iPad, our daughters would screech and react as if we had denied them the very air they breathed.
But the worst part? The more my daughters watched the videos, the more they began to crave things--things they didn’t realize they’d ever wanted and most certainly did not need.
I tried to counsel my oldest child about the dangers of modern consumerism. “You know, honey, some people end up collecting so many things, they can’t even have friends over anymore because there’s no space to play.”
Without missing a beat, my daughter replied, “Well, if those people have too much stuff, they can just give it to me!”
Clearly, my sage advice wasn’t getting through to her.
So my husband and I got stricter about access to YouTube, putting the iPad on a high shelf and switching it into airplane mode. This did not work, largely because I wasn’t strong enough: as long as the kids could find the device, they would ultimately convince me to break down and queue it up for them, just for a few moments of blissful silence that would quickly morph into hours.
Finally, after weeks of failed attempts to limit screen time, I said to my husband, through gritted teeth, “Hide. The. iPad. I don’t care where. Hide it someplace they’ll never find it!” And he did. It’s been over a week now, and my daughters’ requests for “a toy video” have greatly diminished; when the requests do come, the grown-ups pleasantly but swiftly decline them. Slowly, the toy unboxers’ tenacious grip on my kids’ minds has begun to loosen.
Now, let me be clear: I think YouTube is really entertaining, and I’m often just as guilty as my kids when it comes to getting pulled in by a popular video. I’m grateful for this technology’s extraordinary ability to take my kids out of reality when they need a distraction, like when my daughter needed to sit calmly prior to a minor surgical procedure (thank you, Disney Collector and your egg surprise videos!). But most of the time, I don’t want my kids to have their awareness shifted from the present moment. And I definitely don’t want the content on a little screen to be more important than the experiences unfolding right now in real life.
So in the interest of resetting and refreshing everyone’s brains, our family is just going to take a little time off from YouTube. That means, at least for now, the iPad stays hidden, and the web site gets disabled on phones and computers. How long will this break last? It’s hard to say, but I’m thinking at least until the spring…or until YouTube posts any more cute videos of goats dressed as princesses, that is.
~ ~ ~
Growing up in the 1980s, I was enthralled with the world of Star Wars, a place where an invisible energy called the Force could be harnessed for both good and evil, where epic battles were waged in outer space and on faraway planets.
Decades later, the movies have grown up, and so have I. As I count down to the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve realized the original trilogy isn’t just entertaining; it’s also filled with parenting insights. Here are some examples:
The Dark Side can be hard to resist. I want my kids to grow up in a household where we settle conflicts as peacefully as possible, and where I don’t have to yell over everyone to stop yelling at each other for Pete’s sake! I have the best intentions, I really do. But some days, when Her Highness picks yet another fight with her younger sister, or Little Princess throws her fourth tantrum of the morning, I can’t help but kick my lofty goal of “patient parenting” to the curb as I unleash my frustration. Angry words, more yelling, more tears. And in these moments, I know I’ve moved further away from the person I want to be—the person my kids need me to be. I think of Luke Skywalker, who is determined to use the Force for good but still has a moment of weakness when the Emperor goads him repeatedly to turn to the Dark Side.
We may not agree with our parents' way of thinking, but there is always something to learn from the choices they made. Admittedly, Luke and his father Darth Vader are a pretty extreme example of this. Though they possess the same talents and DNA, they make strikingly different decisions about the courses of their lives. In the end, they have a moment where they finally understand and truly see each other. Before I became a mom, armed with the latest Dr. Sears book and with an entire Internet of parenting tips at my disposal, I figured there was nothing new or relevant my parents and their “old school” style could teach me. I was wrong. While many of my parenting choices do contrast quite a bit with those of my mom and dad, particularly in the way we approach discipline, I have grown to appreciate my parents—and the decisions they made—so much more as my children are getting older.
Size really does not matter. Just ask Yoda, the small and powerful Jedi Master who uses his mind to lift Luke’s X-Wing fighter ship out of a swamp in The Empire Strikes Back. My second daughter was born nine weeks early and weighed in at a whopping two pounds, five ounces. She’s never been above the 1st percentile on the growth chart. She's also tough, feisty and determined. When I look at my kids, and other children who are doing amazing things, I know that diminutive is not a synonym for weak or helpless.
A strategically offered snack can be a game-changer. Remember how in Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia befriends an Ewok in the forest? The furry, curious creature thinks the princess is an enemy and is ready to attack her, but she is able to distract him with a tasty candy bar that’s conveniently stashed next to her blaster. Five minutes later, they’re best friends. When my child is in a fit of rage, about to scream loudly enough to blow out my eardrums, I can often magically turn things around by producing a bag of fruit snacks.
Life can be stinky and messy, and there’s often nothing to do but slog through it. In A New Hope, the good guys are forced to escape from storm troopers by sliding down a chute into a filthy pit of garbage. They eventually find a way out, but watching that whole scene makes me feel like I need a shower. During the not so glorious moments of caring for small children, there are diaper blowouts, potty training setbacks, and vicious stomach bugs that can take down an entire household in a matter of days. But just when you feel the walls closing in on you, and are sure you'll be trapped under the muck forever by some horrifying tentacled creature, you manage to muddle through the mess and come out on the other side. It may not be glamorous, but you had the grit to get through it, and maybe that means the next time will be easier.
As we continue our own parenting journeys this holiday season and beyond, may the Force be with us all!
~ ~ ~
I'm Gina, mom to two girls, writer, and seasoned coffee drinker.