Parenting

To the new parent feeling inadequate, you are enough.

Dear new parent,

I see you pushing through your exhaustion to show up for your child. I can hear the crying you fear might not ever end. I feel your insecurities as you wonder if you are making the “right” choices. And I want you to know, you are not alone. Though our stories may be different, we share so much. I see you because I’ve been there myself, as have so many others. So I’d like to dedicate this story of birth defects, breastfeeding and drag to the new parent trying their very best…

I was born with something called Poland Syndrome. I have a muscle missing in my chest cavity which required breast reconstruction surgery when I was 19. As you may be able to imagine, growing up a girl with one fully developed breast while the other side of my chest was caved in led to some insecurities and body image issues. To say the least. And when I got pregnant at 29 years old, I still had never really been able to even discuss my condition without crying. With anyone. Not even health professionals. And even though my reconstruction surgery had been 10 years earlier, I still never wore low cut neck lines or showed any cleavage. So to say I had a complicated relationship with my breasts would be an understatement. Although to be fair, I mostly coped by not thinking about them in any way. I just lived my life and they lived theirs. And the right one even felt somewhat detached from me. In part because I have no nerve sensation in the reconstructed breast.

And so what happened next might surprise you. I decided I had to breastfeed. I’m still not so sure why I felt so strongly about it. I’d like to say it was totally out of a conviction that breast milk would be best for my baby. But I am sure there was also some part of me that felt insecure about my womanhood and thought breastfeeding would affirm that my breasts were good enough. Or something. I researched whether it was possible, confirmed one breast would be able to more than supply my baby, and set in stone my plan to breastfeed.

Now if you have any insecurity as a person, being a parent will magnify it ten times. I had a baby with the sweetest disposition. One who had no colic, never really cried much to speak of…except every time I tried to breastfeed. Then my little newborn angel screamed like we were in a scene from the exorcist. I’m not even exaggerating. (Okay maybe slightly) But my new baby did not like my breast. Cruel irony or a supernatural joke, I’m still not sure. But every feeding session in the first few weeks was heartbreaking. I followed all the guidance. I would try to breastfeed for at least 20 minutes or so before offering a bottle with milk I had pumped. My baby outlasted me every time. And it did cut me to my heart a little each time my breast was rejected. Except the miraculous thing about being a parent is, I didn’t take it personally. Even through my jokes about cruel ironies, I knew somehow, the baby wasn’t trying to hurt me. And so I kept trying…

And thankfully, I had a lot of support. From family and professionals. The lactation consultants at Huntsville Hospital were so supportive. Prior to giving birth, I had never been able to discuss my Poland Syndrome or my breasts without crying, and that was on a good day. Now I had to go in and explain to a stranger why milk was only being produced out of one breast, and ask for them to help me make my baby accept it. I don’t remember the consultant’s name, but I remember she did me the greatest kindness- she did not act surprised or even interested in the reason I had only one milk producing breast. She acted like it was no big deal, and a common issue. I will be forever grateful for that gift. Because I was already scared and fragile. And I felt like she responded to me, not to my issue.

And I really don’t believe she knew about Poland Syndrome until that day. No other health professional I have ever come across before or since has. Usually they ask me to spell it and ask other questions. When I was a child, doctors would parade medical students in to look at me. And I felt like a medical oddity. A freak. But not on that day in the Women’s Clinic. On that day, I felt like a whole person needing a little help. And she tried to help. Gave me a supplemental nurser and taught me different holds and techniques. And none of them worked.

In the end, I pumped milk and for 5 months fed my baby exclusively breast milk but from a bottle. So even when the baby started to sleep through the night, I had to wake myself up every few hours to keep on top of the pumping. It is exhausting just remembering that time. I’ve been trying to remember why, or how, I kept it up for that long despite well meaning people advising me to just switch to formula.

That baby is now nearly 16 and a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve been watching too for the last couple of years. At first out of some parental obligation to monitor and discuss the content, but now I am hooked as well. RuPaul sings, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Truthfully, I didn’t really get that until Oprah came on an episode and quoted it, and then I heard the wisdom! I may have been disguising a birth defect, but we all cover up things. We all dress up and perhaps even hide parts of our selves. And in the last Season Finale of Drag Race, Brook Lynn Hytes’s mom said something about how she thought she was meant to raise and shape her kids, but actually each of her four children formed and shaped her. We get the children we need. They teach us as much as we teach them. I got a baby who taught me I was strong enough to overcome my insecurities. And that what I was hiding under my drag was always good enough.

And dear reader, you are enough too. Love, Angel x

The Resurrection of Audrey 2

A few weeks back my teenager bought a plant and named it Audrey 2…

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And began documenting it’s life on snapchat to a group of friends…

And then things turned dark. Or rather the leaves turned dark. And my teenage gardner was too sad for words. And so on Snapchat there was just a circle marking what we believed to be the end of Audrey 2.

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Days went by. Tears were shed. I suggested we just buy another plant. But my gardener teen wasn’t ready to let go and continued tending to the plant. This last week we left for a short trip. I expected to find Audrey 2 still worse off when we returned. But we came back to a miraculous sight. Which my teenager again documented on Snapchat:

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Rejoice! New life sprouting and Jesus similes on Snapchat. The Easter season is truly upon us!

Last year on Easter Sunday, I visited my in-laws in Cambridge and went to their church. It was the first service of a newly merged congregation. And the minister that day spoke about what he said was one of the lessons of the Easter Story- that before there can be new life, there must be death. It seems such a simple, obvious lesson. But I tell you that day as I listened to the minister describing how the parishioners might feel grief at the loss of their individual communities even as they knew they were building something new and stronger together, I sobbed, and I honestly heard the Easter story in a whole new way. I felt the sadness of the death.

Growing up in a Methodist Church, I was very familiar with the Easter story. But when you already know the happy ending, sometimes you don’t really stop to think about the sad bits. But last year on that Easter Sunday morning, I needed to hear that lesson. That sometimes, even when you know the ending will be happy, even when you walk up the hill willingly, the death that must come before new life is still hard, still isolating. And there will be grief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And I cried. I cried for the loss of community I felt. I cried for everything I had given up in America in order to start my new life here in England. And more importantly, I gave myself permission to do so. Prior to that morning, I felt like it would be too ungrateful, too selfish to feel bad in any way for the things I left behind. After all, I chose to come here. I disrupted my children’s lives and the lives of those closest to us. And really what did I have to feel sad about? We are building a wonderful new life here. And yet, I did feel sad. I felt loss. And that’s okay. More than okay, it’s normal.

Recently at a work training (I am a Franchise Consultant helping Franchisees with their businesses), we looked at this Transition Curve:

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The trainer was explaining that all new business owners go through this transition curve. And again, the new business owner chose the path. They know what the happy ending looks like. And yet the transition will be hard. Because before new life, there must be death. Loss of old habits. Loss of old lifestyles. Loss of identity. And a crisis of meaning will come. And sometimes things don’t work out. Because even when everything points to success being just around the corner, sometimes at the crisis of meaning point, people start to doubt their path. Sometimes it just seems too hard. And sadly, sometimes not understanding that the grief is temporary can cause a crisis in faith that leads to a crash and burn.

I hit a crisis of meaning point last year on Easter Sunday. And luckily for me, I heard the minister say that before there can be new life, there must be death. And I heard Jesus say it will be hard. “Why have you forsaken me?” And so I allowed myself to start to mourn. And luckily I’ve spent the last year on the upward curve of informed optimism.

And so dear reader, if you are in a state of transition, even if it is one you willing threw yourself into, I know how you feel. You are not alone. And my Easter prayer for you is that you allow yourself to feel the loss and the grief. Accept that before new life, there must be death. And when the leaves start to darken, don’t give up. Keep tending the plant. And like Audrey 2 watch your new life grow stronger and taller than ever.

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My Complicated Family Tree: Story of a Grateful Stepchild

Not too long after I separated from their father, my oldest daughter joked around saying she hoped if I ever got remarried the man wouldn't have kids. She said she didn't want to have any step siblings. When I asked why not, she replied, "Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale?" I laughed. Then I pointed out that if I did get remarried, I would be the stepmom of the story. Which would make her and her sister the evil stepsisters. That blew her mind a little bit! Then she said perhaps the truest statement ever, "Yes, but you're not wicked. You're just overwhelming..." Fast forward a while and now this summer my girls will be getting a stepsister (they are no longer concerned she might be evil!) and I will become a stepmom.

And so not wanting to be too overwhelming, I decided to do a little research.  As I skimmed through descriptions of books written by experts and stepparents with all kinds of advice, it occurred to me. I already know quite a lot about best practices in stepfamilies. In fact, my childhood was kind of like a Master's level course on the subject. Both my parents had stepparents. I had stepparents. Even my stepparent had stepparents.

Now like everyone, I have some issues stemming from my upbringing. Because the adults in my life, like all other adults, had their faults. (I could list both my issues and their faults over a drink some time if you like) But I promise you that none of my issues stem from my parents' divorce or being part of a stepfamily. Because when it came to modeling the right way to blend families, the adults in my life were the very best. Here's some of what I learned: 

It is much easier for a child when all the important adults in their life seem to like each other. No one ever made me feel like there were sides to choose. They didn't even make it look hard to get along. A fact that now as an adult looking back, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been at times. But I have no memories of either of my parents ever saying anything bad about the other. My stepfather and father would go play basketball together. And while I had friends with divorced parents who had to have two of everything because their parents couldn't be in the same room together, in my family, we spent holidays and birthdays with anyone in town to celebrate: ex-husbands, new wives, grandparents from all sides with their 2nd (or 4th!) spouses. My uncle lived in a trailer in his ex-wife and her husband's yard for years to be close to my cousins. My father's mother and her 2nd husband were so close with my mom and my stepdad, you would have assumed they were one of their parents. And in a way, they were. 

The adults in my life growing up taught me that commitment makes a family. Not blood relationships. And once you've made a commitment to someone, you can change the marital status, but they are still your family. And their family is your family. And everyone is always welcome at the party. Crazy ex or not. And even when someone messes up in a big way, if they come back knocking on the door, then you let them in like the prodigal son. And this open, accepting family policy helped me to grow into an open, accepting human being. And I am grateful to my complicated family tree for that. 

As much as I appreciate and learned from all sides of my messy family tree, I am most thankful for the lessons taught to me by my stepfather and his family. Or rather my family on my stepfather's side. My mother married my stepfather when I was 7 years old and suddenly I was part of a huge family. He had 5 brothers and sisters, and they all had kids. My sister and I were the only stepchildren. And yet no one ever made us feel like we were any different from any other child in that family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated us the same way they treated all of their biological grandchildren and nieces and nephews. That sense of belonging was a blessing. 

My stepfather was only 20 years old when he married my mom. And my sister and I already had a dad. One who was a part of our lives. And yet for most of the year, we lived with our stepfather and our mom. Again, now as an adult, and future stepparent, I am beginning to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of his position. But as a child, I never sensed there was an issue. 

Because even though he didn't replace my dad, he was absolutely one of my parents. When I fell off my bike and needed stitches, he carried me to get help. He taught me how to drive. And  when I ran out of gas, he brought me some on the side of the road. When I got lost (which happened all too frequently!) I called him for directions. He coached my t-ball team and never seemed to mind that I spent all the games picking dandelions. He grounded me when I came home a few minutes past curfew. He came to every school event and band concert. He took me bowling. He read me stories. He played with me. Sometimes he yelled at me. But always he loved me. And he never asked for anything in return. Just like a real parent. 

And yet as much as he was absolutely a parent to my sister and me, we did not call him dad. Even as we called his parents grandma and grandpa, and his brothers and sisters aunt and uncle, we always called him by his name. If that bothered him, he never let it show. He certainly never made me feel guilty about it. But I always thought he deserved his own title. 17 years ago when my first niece was born, he got one. Papaw. And now my girls have 6 grandparents (soon to be 8) and yet they only have one Papaw. A papaw we all love. 

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

I am a grateful stepchild. Thankful for the lessons being a stepdaughter taught me. That family is a living, growing organism. And children need to feel the important adults in their lives like and respect one another. And there is room in the heart for so many. And when we add new members, we never need to replace or push out the old ones. Maybe just do some rearranging. Love is not a competition. And neither is parenting... 

 

 

 

Our children are listening...

So this morning my 9-year-old was laughing about a sign she had seen which made fun of Trump by calling him names. I started to tell her how mommy prefers we disagree with people on their policies and how we should engage in critical dialogue about their plans and actions, but I prefer we not actually call people names. To which she replied, "but Trump started it." I sighed. And I was disheartened a bit.

And so all the way to school this morning, I half heartedly talked to both girls about how people can disagree with us on things and that doesn't make them bad. But as I said, it was a half hearted attempt. Because as my daughter had said, Trump started it. And I feared that with all the hateful rhetoric now being so up front in american politics, I might be fighting a losing battle by asking my daughters to use respectful dialogue. And again, I was disheartened. 

Then after I dropped them off at school, I checked my email. My nearly 13-year-old had sent me an email last night. Strange. I'm not usually on her social media list. In fact, I've promised to never comment publicly on her Instagram... but anyway, I opened the email to find she had sent me a poem she wrote with her friend. And that brings me to this moment. When I'm going to share the poem now with you all. Because she has been listening. And I could not be more proud of the message she has heard. And she has reminded me that despite all the negativity around them, kids will hear positive messages. So we have to keep saying them...and I am hopeful once again for our future... 

Humpty Trumpty

Humpty Trumpty’s mother turned on Fox News
Humpty Trumpty’s mother loved Donald’s views
The idea of a border wall sounded so great
It would keep her and her son Humpty safe

Humpty Trumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Trumpty had a great fall [into Mexico]
All of Mexico’s horses
And all of Mexico’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Mexico’s leader assembled the humps
Gluing him together with quite a few bumps
They chucked him back over
Trump’s border wall
He was back in America
Humpty and all

So even though Humpty was full of hate
Mexico still found it in them to make him great [again]
So this is where many people hit quite a slump
You should be kind and respectful to everyone
Even Donald Trump [even though he’s a nutjob]

— By Dukie Momo & Jojo Pickles

Let the bosses boss...

The other day during a stirring rendition of Old MacDonald Had a Farm, I paused after every verse to ask a different 2-year-old what animal they'd like to sing. Some children were shy or hesitant and needed prompting from their parents. "How about a sheep?" Nod. With a baa baa here and a baa baa there... "Doggie. You like doggies" Yes! Child shouts "doggie" and we keep singing. With a woof-woof here and a woof woof there... Then it was Alexa's turn. She confidently says, "a grasshopper!" "Oh, a grasshopper?" I repeat. "What sound does a grasshopper make?" Without missing a beat Alexa offers up a three second high pitch scream that sounded like she was trying to scare someone. Ok then. With a "aaaaAAAAaa" here and a "aaaaAAAaa" there... It was my favorite verse of Old MacDonald ever. 

I admire Alexa's talent for making choices. And making choices quickly and confidently is a talent my friends. Have you ever tried to pick a restaurant for dinner with someone who does not like to make decisions? It can be excruciating. So I like to celebrate and follow the little decision makers in my classes. I say "follow" because frequently linked to the talent of making choices quickly is the desire to change the game. Or the class. Or the song.

One of my favorite TLG memories is of teaching a then almost three-year-old named Norah. I didn't know Norah when she was born, but I imagine she came out of the womb knowing what she wanted to do. She was fierce and mighty and so much fun. Some days she decided she was a T-Rex. Some days she was the leader of her "dragon girls." She would say to her classmates, "follow me dragon girls..." and they would follow her right off the red mat. Who wouldn't want to be a dragon girl? Still makes me laugh, and it has been YEARS since Norah and her dragon girls were in my class.

But for as much as Norah used to make me smile as she'd lead her gang away from me and my directions, she made her mom sometimes shake her head and apologize. And she's not the only parent to say sorry for similar behavior. Because decision makers know what they want to do next and they ask for it. No matter what we are doing. Sometimes this embarrasses their parents. They apologize because their child comes up and tells me directly what they want to do. Even though most of the time, I'm like "Great idea!" Because I believe just like wanderers need the space to wander, and observers need to feel safe to observe, the leaders need to sometimes lead.  

In addition to the apologies, I have often been asked by parents something along the lines of “how can I teach my child to not be so bossy.” To which I say, "What? Bossy? Your child is a born leader. You can’t teach that kind of confidence.” Those leaders-to-be don’t need to be hampered; they need to be nurtured. They need to be taught to respect others rights to say no. They need to be taught that sometimes you have to compromise (even when your idea is the best). And they need to be taught not to be a bully. But bossy? We need some bosses. Otherwise we'll all just be singing some variation of with a woof-woof and a baa-baa forever. 

So gather your dragon girls and sing it with me, "with a aaaAAAAaaa here and a aaaAAAA there...." 

And now may I present Norah the forward rolling T-Rex... 

 

P.S. I haven't seen Norah in about 4 or 5 years, so I contacted her mom before I posted this to make sure it was ok to use her first name. Norah is now in second grade, and her mom shared this with me, "Norah makes me laugh everyday and nothing gets her down.  She is a natural leader and hates to see a child being mean or picking on another child.  I have heard quite the stories from her teachers the last couple of years of them sitting back and Norah politely telling the mean child that they need to apologize and that is not how you treat other children. The last child say "ok Norah I'm sorry" and Norah politely says "I'm not the one you need to apologize too, please treat ... With respect!" So proud Norah. Way to lead.