Fun-house mirror

There’s a mirror in my bathroom that I call “the skinny mirror”. I probably shouldn’t call it that because I know the boys have heard me refer to it that way, but whatever, I’ll work on it. This mirror is awesome. I’m not sure how it works, but it’s a little like a fun-house mirror and it seems to slightly elongate one’s shape and therefore makes one appear, well, skinny. It’s done wonders for my self-esteem. Even if I know it is an optical illusion.

I’ve laughingly joked that I almost have body dysmorphia, except in reverse of how many people seem to experience it; I walk around thinking I look better than I actually do because of this damn mirror. If I need a dose of reality, I have other mirrors which are happy to give it to me.

But I know body dysmorphia isn’t funny or to be joked about. This is what leads to lifetimes of unhappiness. Eating disorders. Addiction.

Our society is so flooded with negative messages about body shapes and sizes that way too many people obsess over their perfectly normal, healthy bodies. Or maybe society is so flooded with messages that a certain body shape or size is desirable because that body shape is what is used to sell stuff, whereas other shapes are not as good.

I had a sad discussion with a friend today whose 13-year old daughter was in tears over the “extra skin” on her belly. This girl is beautiful, her body is perfect, and there is no extra anything on her anywhere. And yet, she was determined to do an “ab challenge” to make her stomach perfectly flat (or probably concave) as modeling ourselves after models will make us wont to do.

I say, “I’m so glad that I have boys” and yet, that is false too.

Boys are just as susceptible to these body image problems as girls.

I’ve had to stop my boys dead in the track of their conversations on several occasions when the talk turned to “diets” and “six-packs”. They are not even ten, yet! I am careful not to talk about losing weight and to only stress “being healthy” and “making good food choices”. Everything in moderation, I tell them.

Last year, I changed my diet and I explained to the boys I was doing it to be healthy, not too lose weight. I was trying to change my body from being a “sugar burner” to a “fat burner” and I explained that fat was the preferred fuel for the body. Too many carbs, and too much sugar, just makes the body ultimately slow down and become unhealthy. They internalized this and I think they are more conscious when I tell them that something has too much sugar.

But imagine my dismay at hearing my (rather skinny) young son talking about how he shouldn’t have too many calories. Or my other son comparing himself to his brother and calling himself the “fat one”. He is not. Not by a long shot.

I continue to reiterate how they are extremely active boys and don’t need to worry about anything other than getting enough healthy foods and plenty of water to keep them growing. And yet, they still seem to be getting the message that they need to have a certain kind of body to be attractive and worthy.

This bothers me on so many levels.

I know I am not passing these messages on to them. I do not talk about weight. I do not own a scale. I do not count calories. I do not talk about “six-packs”. However, these messages are still coming through to them.

I’ve struggled most of my life with being happy with the way I looked. When I was very young, I was super skinny. People called me skeleton and skin-and-bones…it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Then when I hit puberty, I grew a set of hips and an ample butt and I had people pointing out my thunder thighs and fat ass. Seemingly, I couldn’t win.

My weight has been all over the place. I’ve been skinny and in bad shape fitness-wise, plump and in good shape, ridiculously enormous with pregnancy, and now, I’ve sort-of settled into my “mom” body, which is pretty average. Certainly, I was in much better shape last year when I was eating better and exercising regularly. Oh, but how I love ice cream. And french fries. And…I digress.

Last week, I was lamenting with friends about how hard it is to try to eat healthy and lose weight. No one had sympathy for me because they perceived me as not having a problem with my weight or eating healthy. Yet, I could sit with a different set of friends and I’d be the biggest and unhealthiest of the bunch, and they would still feel unhappy with their bodies.

I think the problem is we have all become so programmed to believe in an idea of beauty and health that essentially tells us only rail thin or super muscular people are beautiful and healthy. And that is simply not true.

Our minds have become a fun-house mirror of their own. We see ourselves through distorted lenses. We magnify our flaws. We don’t see the truth in front of us. And we pass it on to the next generation.

My sister is a beautiful woman. She is super petite. She has a body that most women would cut someone for. But even she is not satisfied.

And finally, at age 40, I’ve accepted that I will never have my sister’s body. We are just not made the same way. Yes, I’m petite (read: short), but I’ve got those hips (maybe twins were in my design from the beginning) and I’m fuller all around. That’s OK. Some people are tall, some people have an enormous rack (I do not), some people are naturally stocky, some people are super skinny; there are so many different body types. Why do we continue to compare ourselves with one type?

Being comfortable in our own skin, accepting our differences, making healthy choices when it comes to food, exercising regularly, and having that damn piece of cake without guilt are what we ought to be striving for.

Letting our children, girls AND boys, know that their bodies are GIFTS and that they should love them and feed them and make them strong and resilient is more important than ever in this age of over-saturation of advertising and emphasis on the young and beautiful and the tendencies of models to only represent one body type.

Maybe more of us should get “reverse” body dysmorphia. I’m not suggesting we all become morbidly obese, eat whatever we want, never exercise, and then look in the mirror and say, “Damn, I look GOOD”. But, I do think everyone could benefit from a skinny mirror. The thing is, it’s all an illusion anyway. No mirror is an accurate reflection of how you look. It all has to go through the filter of your mind. Which is why we have the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

More of us need to open our eyes. To behold ourselves in a different way. Perhaps to behold ourselves the way we look at our children, or someone we love. Without critical judgement, without comparison to another. Simply hold an alternate view of ourselves that says, you may not be perfect, but damn, you are one fine, beautiful human being who deserves to be happy. And no, those jeans don’t make your butt look big.

Ginger ale and crackers

Everyone in my house slept through the night. Thanks to my sister, the goddess of basically everything, who brought me a plethora of home remedies including ginger, honey, cloves, apple cider vinegar, peppermint, ginger drops, saltines, ginger ale, and lots of vitamin water, I was able to stop the excruciating pain and vomiting and get some uninterrupted sleep.

Mostly uninterrupted, actually, since my little bear C felt the need to sleep in my bed again. Between some strange show he caught  glimpse of that scared him and watching his mama barely able to drag herself off the bathroom floor, I think he just needed to stay close by.

He was in tears several times last night and kept saying that he didn’t want me to be sick anymore. Poor baby. It’s so hard as a parent to watch your kids be sick. You want to be able to take all the pain away and you feel so helpless to make them better. I had told both of my boys that very thing when they came down with the stomach bug… if I could, I would be sick instead of you. I guess what I didn’t consider was how helpless they feel watching their parent get sick.

I wrote before about how being sick as a single parent is one of the hardest things among many hard things. When I wrote it I was thinking about how you just have to carry on even when you are feeling so miserable. And yet, I didn’t consider how awful it must be when you actually cant carry on. I was only sick like that for a day. I can only imagine what parents go through who have to suffer cancer and chemo treatments or other chronic illnesses that lay them out for days at a time. Knowing your kids are worried and scared must be torture.

The boys didn’t have school today, but I had already paid for the “School’s Out Camp” that they YMCA puts on so that working parents have some options for all the days that kids seem to have off during the school year. So, I made some lunches and put on clean clothes and drove them over to the camp for the day. That was about all I could manage.

When I got home, I took a couple of sips of ginger ale, sent an email to work to let them know I wasn’t going to make it, and crawled back into bed. Part of me felt guilty, like since I wasn’t actively vomiting that I ought to be working or cleaning the house or something. But I realized that the most important thing that I had to do was to be ready for those little boys to come home again. To see a mom who was “better”. To know that she was going to be able to take care of them and that everything was under control.

So I slept most of the day. Then, I gave myself a little pep talk and got up to take a shower and clean the bedclothes and dirty dishes and disinfect the bathroom. Now, I feel like I just won a marathon. Climbing onto my stripped down bed with a little plate of crackers and my cup of ginger ale, I realize once again how lucky I am. Soon, I will go and pick up the boys and make them dinner and we will all snuggle and watch a movie and they will feel safe and loved and secure. And that is all I can ask for.

Genius, madness and addiction

Candle_flame_(1)It has taken me quite a few days to write this and I’m still not sure I got down all my feelings. I was shocked and saddened to read about Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. He was an actor that I always admired. Everything I saw him in, I loved, even those roles that were disturbing and unlovable. I believed him. He was an incredible talent. And everything that I have read about him as a person confirmed what I would have guessed–that he was a beautiful, sensitive soul.

I was also shocked and saddened to read comments by people regarding addicts and their choices and sort of a general sense of “well, that is what happens when you choose to do drugs” and an undercurrent of “serves them right”. Especially when it comes to celebrities, there seems to be this idea that they have the world on a silver platter and so it is hard to sympathize when they throw it all away. Not that people who hold these opinions cry for the 12-year-old in the inner city gutter either, but maybe they find it slightly more understandable.

But loneliness and fear and insecurity and shame and pain and struggle don’t only affect the poor. These are part and parcel of the human condition. Mix it with a highly intelligent and sensitive soul, possibly with a predisposition for mental illness and you have a recipe for an addict.

They say there is a fine line between madness and genius. Much has been written about the creative mind and links to mental illness and certainly, addiction is a mental illness. However, I think that many brilliant people suffer from addiction and other mental illnesses, not only because of their genetics and biology, but also due to specific personality traits. I suppose it is still up for debate about whether personalities are formed purely from genetics or whether there are environmental factors at play: the whole nature vs. nurture argument. It is one that has always fascinated me. But let’s say for the sake of argument that there are environmental influences that shape our personalities, in addition to the biological traits we are given at birth. I feel like it is the combination of the genetic predisposition of the creative minds and that their personalities are often more sensitive, more empathetic and more feeling that lead to addiction and other mental illness.

This is what concerns me.

I have never battled a drug addiction, unless you count nicotine and for these purposes I’m not counting it. But I have had addiction come creeping around my door. I’ve had moments in the past where I felt like I was balancing on a very narrow precipice and by the sheer grace of God, I was pulled away from spiraling down into a very dark place. I’ve known what it is like to feel completely alone and to feel such pain and to think, well, I could dull this pain with alcohol, food, drugs, sex…the list goes on. I’ve felt emotions that I had no proper outlet for. I’ve had feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt and anger and I could go on and on. Many of these feelings just come along with being a teenager and young adult. Growing pains, if you will. Everyone experiences them to some degree. But I think there are others who experience them on a different level.

Almost Famous is one of my all-time favorite movies and PSH delivered one of the great lines, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” He played the uncool Lester Bangs who was Über cool in his uncoolness. I think that many kids go through their teen years feeling different and uncool. Maybe they are. Maybe that is a good thing. There are lots of adults who feel that way too. It is an honest feeling. Much better to be honest and real than cool. On the other hand, honest and real can sometimes hurt. And if you don’t or can’t find someone else you can share that with, it can become very lonely.

Whether a person is born with the propensity for these feelings and thoughts or it grows as personalities are shaped, I don’t know. I just know that it is in me. The feeling of “other”-ness. Of never being cool. Of maybe never wanting to be cool and wondering if that made you really weird. Of feeling pain that wasn’t always even yours. Of feeling the world’s pain and suffering almost as keenly as your own and having it be so overwhelming that you just don’t know what to do. Of having it all be too much. Of your brain being too much. And now that I have arrived at what I hope is early middle age, I can look back and feel proud of what I’ve accomplished in my life and the person that I have become, but it has been a long haul. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions, but thankfully, none of them has led me into a bathroom with a needle to get rid of those feelings. But that isn’t to say that it couldn’t very well have happened to me.

And then there are my kids. They exhibit some of these same traits: smarts, sensitivity, creativity, marching to the beat of their own drummer. And considering that both sides of their DNA background carry the genetic disposition toward this kind of suffering, I worry. Am I teaching them the proper outlets for these feelings? Am I too hard on them? Am I not hard enough? I struggle because I don’t want them to struggle. So many of my fervent prayers have been, “Don’t let them turn out like me”…not that I didn’t “turn out” OK, but I sure had to endure a lot of pain and fight to get here. I’m a good person, don’t get me wrong, I just want a smooth ride for my kids. This may be completely unrealistic and certainly trials make one stronger, but I guess I don’t want them to have to fight quite so hard.

As parents, our greatest hopes and fears are wrapped up in our children. But that can be a huge burden for them. We want them to know that they are loved no matter what and yet we want to push them to reach their potential. We want to teach them to make good choices and to be happy with themselves even if they are uncool. Especially if they are uncool. No one wants to imagine their children feeling such a great loneliness or sadness or “other”ness that they turn to something destructive to numb that pain.

But if we realize that in every child there is that possibility and potentially more so in those that are sensitive and creative and “too smart for their own good”, we can start from a young age teaching them a better way. That doesn’t mean it is going to stop all of the beautiful, brilliant, sensitive souls like PSH from succumbing to the hounds of addiction that come scratching at their door. But maybe it can save some of them.

The attitude toward addicts of “Well, they did it to themselves” is disturbing to me. We are all a part of this human brotherhood/sisterhood. Maybe people should take a step back and realize that addiction doesn’t discriminate. All it takes is one insidious seed of pain, one bad decision, one gene, one traumatic episode, one moment and addiction could claim your best friend, your neighbor, your daughter, your father. If we could reach out and reach in to help and support these people, maybe they would have a fighting chance. Yes, ultimately it is the addict’s choice to get help and stay sober. But isn’t it a million times easier to do that when you have a safety net?

I’d like to see more people realizing that as much as picking up that first drink or drug or throwing up food or whatever is a choice that what follows in the brains and bodies of an addict is not so much of a choice, but an overwhelming compulsion and ultimately a physical dependence. It becomes the only choice. With support and love, we can help these people realize there are other choices and that they have the strength to make them. Those of us who can have a couple of drinks or even go through a stage in life in which we abuse ourselves with substances and then put that away with other follies of youth need to understand that it isn’t the same thing. The compulsion, the powerlessness, the need is what separates the addict from us.

My heart aches for all of the families who have lost someone they love to addiction. It aches for those addicts who are destroying themselves and can’t stop. It aches for all the sensitive souls out there who are feeling like they are not enough and too much at the same time. I have people in my family who have suffered this way. Friends. People I love more than words can say. But there is hope and my wish would be that the citizens of this world stop judging that which they don’t know. That they start holding out their hands to help other people up. That if they themselves can’t help, that they pray. And if they can’t/won’t pray, keep their opinions to themselves.

Let’s reach children before they stumble down this road. And for those people who are there, on that road, there is hope. You can take the path of recovery. From what I understand it is a very rocky path, but there are some of the most beautiful, empathetic, sensitive, brilliant souls traveling it. You couldn’t ask for better companions. And the clear views you will have of this wonderful world are breathtaking. You are worthy.

R.I.P Phillip Seymour Hoffman and all those who lost their battle.

5 parenting challenges I considered writing about this week

Everyone loves lists and it is a blogger’s favorite trick, so here we go:

Top 5 parenting challenges that I thought about writing for this week’s post:

1. Popular music and where to draw the line

I love music. I remember being maybe 9 or 10 and holding my tape recorder up to the radio so that I could record my favorite songs from the Top 40. I loved to listen and sing along: Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf, Billy Idol’s White Wedding, Madonna’s Like a Virgin…I didn’t understand what I was really singing about. Frankly, it was adults’ reactions to Madonna that tipped me off that something was up. My first record was Huey Lewis & the News, “Sports” which I won off a boardwalk game down the shore. I am sure my mother was thrilled as I went around singing “I want a new drug, one that won’t make me sick…” But now the shoe is on the other foot. It is disconcerting to hear my sons’ sing Ke$ha’s, Tick Tock “…brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack…” not only because of the content, but also because there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I would ever choose to listen to Ke$ha, so I have no idea where they get that. Hypocritically, I was more than happy to let them listen to Tom Petty’s Listen to Her Heart “You think you’re going to take her away, with your money and your cocaine”. I tried to sing loudly over the word “cocaine” and convince them that it was “croquet”. Of course, this didn’t work and they repeated it to their younger cousins. Whoops. And now with songs that have explicit lyrics available via Spotify and Pandora, I can’t be sure that they aren’t getting exposed to things that they shouldn’t. I wouldn’t ever want to make music “bad”, but I don’t really want to hear my 8-year olds singing about drugs or sex. It’s a pickle.

2. Dating as a single mom

This is a topic that fascinates people. I have been asked very many times: How do you meet people? What is it like? How do you handle things with the kids? Answer: I haven’t the foggiest idea. I once remarked to someone that I finally understood why traditionally people have felt it is so important to get married before having children: because meeting someone and dating while you have kids is a bit of a nightmare. To be fair, I wouldn’t say that I was ever very good at “dating” before I had kids either. I’m definitely what they call a serial monogamist. Dating is a foreign concept for me. And since I am so protective of my sons, I will not let just any old someone into our lives. Only the most amazing, trustworthy, kindest soul who won’t let us down and will love us all completely will do. And they have to make us laugh. And be able to stick by us through the busy ups and downs of our lives, all while putting up with our idiosyncrasies. So…I think I would make a good nun.

3. The woman that got fined for not having grains in her kid’s lunch 

This isn’t exactly a parenting challenge, but it kind of is, right? I mean, we all struggle with lunch. We do what we can to make sure our kiddoes get good nutrition and eat what we want them to eat. But this lady sent her child off to school with a healthy lunch and she got fined AND the school supplemented her kid’s lunch with Ritz Crackers, as if that was what made it all OK. Now it is nutritious because we added the crackers, see? Essentially, there is a government “guideline” for schools which states that a healthy lunch must have a milk, a meat, a grain, and two fruits and vegetables. And parents get fined if they don’t follow it. This was in Canada, but I can very quickly see this happening in the U.S. (Large soda, anyone?) I understand that the government wants to protect us from ourselves and keep us healthy. I understand that there is a problem with obesity and malnutrition. But I don’t think Ritz Crackers are the answer. In fact, I am trying to figure out a way to eliminate grains and processed foods from our diet because I suspect we are all being slowly poisoned by the food we eat. The government needs to stay out of it. By the way, I used to love Ritz Crackers and they are pretty much C’s favorite food, so, no disrespect to Ritz, but I wouldn’t suggest they are the key to a nutritious, balanced meal either.

4. Real and perceived judgments about single moms

C wanted to wear a dirty shirt to school the other day. For obvious reasons, I wanted him to change. He has been incredibly stubborn and difficult and I knew it was going to be a battle, but I was ready to put my foot down. However, I was surprised to hear the reason why as it came out of my mouth, “You have a mother who has a job and puts a roof over your head and provides for you. You are not going to go to school in dirty clothes looking like a street urchin whose parents don’t care”. Street urchin? Really? I’m worried that people will think I am not a good mom because he is wearing a dirty shirt? Or that it will show single moms don’t care about their kids? Where is this all coming from?  There seems to be an awful lot of judgment out there regarding parenting as a whole. Everyone is very concerned about what everyone else is doing and why and offering their opinions (judgments) on why it is good, bad, or whatever. I have my opinions, but I generally try to keep them along the lines of “this worked for me, so I like it” or “I don’t think that would work for me, so I reject it”. I have cared about other people’s opinions of me for far too long. And just when I thought I had shed that skin for good, I became a mom. A single mom, to boot.  Suddenly, everywhere I looked it seemed someone else was passing judgment about someone’s parenting idea or single moms on welfare being a drain on society. Now I seem to be taking all these judgments and internalizing them. As if I have to be an EXTRA good mom, so that people don’t dismiss my children because they are being raised by a single mom. Is this a single mom’s curse? Or just my own neuroses?

5. Our normal life

My oldest and dearest friend and I were probably 10 or 11 when we were driving to Great Adventure with her parents. It was a long drive so we amused ourselves by waving to people and trying to get them to wave back. We put signs in the window that said, “Why be normal? We’re not!” We thought this was hysterical. And so true–who wants to be normal anyway? Boring. Other people clearly approved of our message because we got quite a few honks and thumbs up. But a few nights ago, I had to hear my son say, “I just want to be normal” because he wants our family to “be like everyone else’s”. Meaning, with a dad; something that I just haven’t been able to manage to give him and maybe never will. I tried to explain that there is no such thing as “normal” and that everyone is different and unique and sameness is boring. However, I realize that for an 8-year old boy fitting in and being the same as everyone else is probably the most important thing in the world. No matter what I do or how I try to make up for it, I will never be a dad and we will never be “normal”. I just pray that I figure out a way to show the boys that our “normal” is just as good as anyone else’s.

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The hardest thing

In my head I’ve composed dozens, if not hundreds, of blog posts over the years. Things pop into my head, especially while I am driving, and I explore them and roll the thoughts around in my head and try out different words and then usually when the boys are finally asleep and it is time to turn those thoughts into words on a screen–forget about it…I’m too tired or the thoughts are scattered and I just don’t do it. Yesterday while I was doing laundry I was pondering this and thinking about how when I was sick last week  I had all these great ideas about things I was going to write and how the moment I was feeling a little better I couldn’t seem to make the time to sit down and write them. And I was vowing that I would sit down and write about how the hardest thing about being a single mom is getting sick and having no one to take care of you and how you have to manage to take care of your kids and yourself when really all you want to do is drift into a Nyquil-induced sleep for about 4 days. But then I realized that so many of the posts in my head begin with “The hardest thing about being a single mom…”

They can’t all be the hardest.

So, let’s see. Is it:

when they were newborns and I was ripping the sheets off the bed and the pillow cases off the pillow at three in the morning while desperately trying to keep my babies from suffocating and there was no one there to tell me they were sleeping safely in the co-sleeper and that everything was just fine? That was certainly no picnic.

Or nights when one baby would start crying just as the other one stopped and then the other would start again while I stood between their cribs making shushing sounds and trying to sing while bawling my own eyes out? That one still makes me feel sad.

How about going to a doctor with 3-month twins in tow, feeding them and fussing over them, while I cry to the shrink about how I just screamed for no reason and how I was sure that I was cracking up or suffering from post-partum or something because normal people don’t just scream and having her look at me and shake her head and say “I think you are just learning to adjust to your new situation”? Well, um, ok…

Of course, there was going to work and leaving them with a nanny for 10 hours a day starting when they were just 4 months old and realizing that I was not going to be able to make ends meet OR spend time with my babies.

And not being able to get my hair cut whenever I need to. Letting myself “go” because keeping myself “up” is a luxury of both time and money that I can’t afford.  Realizing that pride in myself may be a thing of the past.

What about the nights lying in bed alone thinking of the adorable thing that one of the boys did, or the new word they said, or the great skill they achieved and having no one to share it with and feeling the most profound loneliness and realizing that the boys would one day feel that too when they have something they want to share with their Dad.

Possibly, it has been when each of the boys has been sick or hurt and I have been so worried for them and having to go to doctors and hospitals and for tests and surgery and wanting–needing–someone to share that burden of anxiety.

Maybe it is being determined to be both mom AND dad. Good cop AND bad cop. Ying and yang. Trying to “make up” for the fact that they are stuck with the mom in the sea of dads at sporting events and cub scouts and everywhere else.

Or the feeling that every decision I make, however large or small, is going to influence whether my children grow up happy and well-adjusted or turn into serial killers.

I guess I could go on and on. I could write post after post about each of the hard things I’ve done. But then, so could any parent. Being a parent is hard. Being a single mom of two wonderful boys is super hard sometimes, but we are all out there doing the best we can, hoping to raise happy kids and to be happy in ourselves. I guess that is the hardest thing for all of us…finding the balance in life that will allow us to be truly happy in all our endeavors.

But for all of you coupled parents out there- the next time your spouse gets sick, remember to take care of your children and let your honey crawl into bed in their Nyquil-induced stupor with nothing harder to do than drift off to dreamland and know that they are loved and that their children are in good hands.