Matryoshkas, or, “There Be Dragons”

We think we know people. We spend our lives being surprised in ways little and large, when we discover newly observed things about them, or when our projections are revealed as coverings which prevented us from seeing who was actually on the other side. We cannot know anyone fully, but practicing openness and observation, learning not to personalize other people’s being, their actions and their words, can help us know them and us better.

Then there are the coverings we make for ourselves, the layers of person-like substance used to shield or project, to interface or to confuse. Sometimes they’re consciously designed; often they are the accretions of childhood experience, created in parts of our subconscious mind for defense or role-fulfillment, enjoyment, necessity.

I think of Matryoshkas, Russian nesting dolls. I think of dolls made not to blend, but a different personality in each layer, showing the complexities of which we all are composed.

The unexpected revealing of such layers can be a cause of celebration, of trauma, of delight, of pain, of confusion, etc. In any long-term relationship such reveals are inevitable, and can result in anything from rupture to consolidation.

A huge part of my current grief and pain is the shock I feel at discovering that my ex-fiancé was capable of doing things I would have sworn he would not. I feel betrayed, but I have to keep compassionately reminding my inner child that though some of his actions did betray our relationship, the reveal of more of his personhood is not about me at all. And really, as a grown-up I know that people are capable of all kinds of destructive action, as it is part of our human nature. When I look at the first sentence of this paragraph I realize that rather than grieving the fact that he *could* do X, Y, and Z, I grieve that he *would*, and did.

My loss is real, and not real. I did not have what I thought I did. But none of us ever do, quite. Because what we know of ourselves and of others is incomplete.

I am in the middle of a sea-change. I can’t see the shore behind me, and I don’t know where I’m going.

But I believe that we spend our lives creating ourselves, through thought and action, through the choices we make. And so as I open this self-doll to see the next one, I know I have some choice about who/what she is/will be.

As does the man who has been my beloved.

The oversimplified Law Of Consequences under which we operate

The Law Of Consequences. It sounds so straightforward, reasonable, linear, just, doesn’t it? We like to think it makes sense. We talk of natural consequences, i.e., my kid forgot to turn in his homework, and so he’ll learn responsibility by finding out that means he’ll fail this assignment and get a lower quarter grade. It is comforting to think that the universe apportions out an appropriate result for every wrong choice, exactly calibrated so the individual so afflicted can learn from his/her mistakes.

It so doesn’t work that way. The god of consequences is fickle, unpredictable, inattentive and hyper-focused by turns, and not at all run by the linear thought patterns of which we are so fond.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of measuring our responses by the magnitude of the consequence we have felt, instead of by the mistake we feel we have made. And so consequences can be experienced as terrible, sometimes life-altering punishment (which, in shame and guilt we can feel we deserve) or, if there is no perceivable negative outcome to an action, we can feel justified in what we’ve done since “nothing bad happened”. (This is a common aspect of unexamined privilege: the guy who pushes his unwilling girlfriend to have sex, but doesn’t think it’s a problem, because she doesn’t complain, for example. He’s focused on the outcome he sees rather than the value of consent, and he misses truths about himself and her, as well as the pain he’s caused, as a result.)

In a prior relationship, my boyfriend had a cat I thought was sick. I put all my energy into trying to persuade him to take the cat to the vet; so much so, that it literally didn’t occur to me that I could do it myself. That was a mistake. The ultimate result was that the cat died, despite my trying desperately, via forced feedings and fluid injections, to save his life. The guilt I felt was astronomical. Such pain. And in the extremity of the moment, I turned my mistake into a gigantic crime of moral dimensions, and beat myself up with it. It took me such a long time to grow and move through that. The little cruel god in my head told me, sneering gleefully, that I deserved the pain, because I had done something so stupid and unforgivable. My therapist gave me the gift of seeing how very small that god is, no matter how vindictive, and that I could look beyond it to other realities and other ways of seeing.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t help our children to help themselves, to learn for themselves, to experience and experiment with life, and, so importantly, to allow them to fail, repeatedly. I fail repeatedly in ways large and small. But one thing that I have been learning is that my life doesn’t have to be defined by my failures or my successes. I don’t have to interpret their existence as proof either that I am a Bad Mother, a Bad Person, a criminal deserving of the universe’s retribution, or a Hero, a Special Snowflake, or a model citizen deserving the universe’s praise. The picture is a mixture. It’s complex, multi-faceted, not a matter for measuring and judging.

In fear, in grief, in anger, it is so easy to slide into making judgments about the actions of oneself and of others (particularly those closest to us) based on their perceived consequences. But when we do that we run the risk of not adequately assessing the impact we have and/or that others have on us; and also, of assigning blame and guilt inappropriately rather than viewing people and situations through the lens of compassion and love and looking for positive solutions.

And doing so makes it very hard to tolerate limbo, transition, or uncertainty.

Had I actually had something malignant in my breast last week, I would have assigned greater weight to my procrastination in the matter of scheduling a mammogram. Since it turned out to be nothing, it would also be easy to sweep the experience under the carpet, close my eyes, and pretend nothing had happened. I am going to opt for the middle course, and have a yearly mammogram from here on out. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn this lesson without the pain I could have experienced.

Getting older, I have been gradually learning to step back from the, “Well, you should have known/what a stupid mistake; of course x thing happened/I deserved to be punished” responses. I am trying to focus instead on truth, compassion, and understanding as a way to see clearly and act lovingly so as to find positive ways to move forward. It’s a life-long spiritual task. But as I make progress down this road, I start to feel better; at once more accepting of my lack of control, and aware that I have more mastery and choice available to me than I have believed to be true.

Personal work, parenting

Ted and I had another joint session today, mostly focused on parenting, specifically of Hazel. It was very helpful, especially the reminder that in order to take care of anyone else you have to take care of yourself first. Parenting can feel so incredibly relentless (because it is), that there’s no time or space in which to think, to process, to figure out how you feel or what you want or need to do. From the first moment in which I come downstairs to Hazel’s favorite chant, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” to her pleas/demands/desires during the day for more, or less, or different, or the same, or sooner, or later, or for answers to infinite questions, to her desire at night for all Mommy all the time, I have to work to balance the needs of my child with the needs of my inner child, my vulnerable, human, imperfect self. And the less I pay attention to the latter, the less likely I am to pay full attention to the former.

I have realized that when I am feeling too overwhelmed or super irritated, I have a tendency to stop looking at Hazel, not to make eye contact, and to resist talking to her too. A fundamental lesson here for me is that rather than changing her, (and I’m not talking about setting healthy boundaries, but deeper efforts to change who she is or what she wants or her style of expression due to my own personal discomfort or difficulty) I have to take better care of myself. If I’m having a hard time because I’m feeling sleep-deprived, or because the 749th repetition of a request is driving me bonkers, I need to step back, ask myself what I need, and take action to give myself at least some percentage of that. I can also, of course, ask Hazel for help or understanding (where appropriate). When a request is framed that way, i.e., “I am very tired, and would love five minutes of quiet. Do you think you can help me out by reading to yourself until half past? I’ll be happy to play a game with you after that,” she is usually quite positively responsive. And that works better than just barking, “Hazel, you’re being too loud. Be quiet!” at her.

And I have to look at her. If I need a break from eye contact, I have to at least tell her that I’m taking some space for myself to get more peaceful inside. I have to make it about me, in my communication with her, and not about her, because it is about me.

Obviously, this does not mean that I won’t correct behavior that needs it, or set firm boundaries with her. I will. But in order to come from a place of love toward Hazel, I must first love myself so I have the emotional and energetic wherewithal in order to parent the way I wish to.

Ted and I share this issue, and can support each other in our learning process around it. We can remind each other to take a step back and assess what’s going on inside. We can ask each other if we need help. We can understand and sympathize with each other as we work on changing our responses.

It was nice to be reminded today that I shouldn’t feel bad about struggling to take care of myself, that particularly at the beginning of having the twins there was no time to even ask what I needed, because I couldn’t get that far down the list, due to the overwhelming nature of taking care of two newborns and an older child. It is good to be reaching a time when we can at least start considering what we each need.

Parenting is so much harder than I realized it would be, because it brings up every single one of my most difficult personal challenges. But I do genuinely appreciate this opportunity to grow and learn. Some days it’s easier to feel graceful about it than others, of course.

Personal work, sleep training, preschool, Whole30, practicing

Today I felt a lot better, because last night I went to bed at 9:45 and, bar waking up at 1:45 and 7:15, slept until 8 am. It was amazing; I felt almost normal when I woke up. Sleep is such an imperative. It’s like oxygen, necessary to the body, but we think we can do without it. It’s easy to de-prioritize it in the press of life’s events and demands. But having sleep affects everything else.

I had an excellent session with my therapist today. It’s been years since I saw her regularly, and the content, mood, and effectiveness of the time I spent there today was considerably different than the first hours I spent in her workroom. I have been able to jettison a significant load of defensiveness. I’m more open, more able to listen and take in what she has to offer. Consequently, it’s possible to get a lot more done in a much shorter span of time. I am grateful for and proud of all the work I’ve done over the years. One thing we talked/laughed about today, though is how all that work can seem to disappear when one is re-immersed in patterns and s**t that had supposedly been dealt with already.

One of my major tasks is to let go of deciding on the rules and then punishing Hazel for abrogating them, and instead work on guiding her with more gentleness and intention, and letting her explore upon the solid foundation of my faith in her and in me to deal with whatever comes up. This will help her develop and maintain a similar faith in herself and those close to her that will enable to have an open posture based on confidence rather than a tight, closed one learned from fear of failure or disappointment.

Of course, that also requires me to be loving and compassionate with myself, because that’s where it all begins. And I know that, but sometimes I’m so committed to my self-disgust/loathing/hatred/scorn, that I don’t see it as such, but merely as a reasonable response to my flagrantly obvious and horrible flaws as a human being.

But now I can take a step or three back and see with more clarity that a) that’s not true, not a complete picture of me, and b) treating myself like crap can only lead to me treating others like crap, causing me to reinforce my self-hatred stance, and so c) remaining stuck in that place can’t contribute to my further learning and development, but only to pain and a smaller life, which is not what I want. Also, self-hatred is so extreme that it can create a situation in which I spend so much time and energy thrashing around trying not to be me, that I have nothing left with which to do my actual work. That way I can avoid looking at the things that really do need attention.

And, after all, we are all works in progress. None of us is perfect, and we all carry our load of human pain, whether or not we’re always conscious of it.

—–

Tomorrow we’re going to start naptime sleep training for the babies. This may well be harder than the night-time piece. Our consultant has said it may take two weeks or more for it to even out. So, I am going to go to bed on the early side again tonight, to give myself a shot at a really good night sleep two nights in a row, so I have some sort of cushion tomorrow.

—–

This was day 4 of the Whole30. Though I had a desire to drink an entire gallon of milk, I managed to avoid sneaking tastes of the yogurt I was preparing for the twins. And tonight when I had some (unsweetened) applesauce, it tasted sweeter to me than it did the first time. I think I’m already adapting at least to some extent to the lack of added sugar in my diet. Ted did great too; he had to bring snacks to the kids’ preschool class tonight, and despite severe temptation didn’t eat any of them himself. Yippee!!

Speaking of preschool, the coop class that we decided to try for all three has worked out fantastically. The babies love it, Hazel loves it, Ted loves being back, they all come back happy and hungry. Last week was the trial class, and tonight he paid for the whole series of sessions. I’m glad it’s gone that way, as I think that class was hugely beneficial for Hazel when she was a baby/early toddler.

—–

I practiced tonight, worked on precision. That was initially frustrating, but very good. I can regain all my control and chops from before, and it will take work. It felt good to do some of that tonight.

Downsizing, personal work, parenting

Our downsizing continues. Someone bought our treadmill, so that’s another big item that’s no longer cluttering up our basement. And I’m glad it’s going somewhere it’ll be used. I liked it a lot, but it’s not practical for me, and won’t be until all the kids are in school. We’ve since joined a gym anyway, and I’ll be getting cardio workouts on the bike.

Today I had a good session with my sometimes therapist. I did a bunch of work with her years ago, and have since seen her only once in a while when I had something up. Right now it feels like I’m in big seas, and the waves are building, coming thick and fast. Issues having to do with parenting, with how I relate to people close to me, with how I handle my professional and family life are all big and important, and so it feels like a good time to have a few sessions in a row to help me do this learning with support and more effectively. It’s a big shift. In my moments of fear it seems like I have to learn how not to be me. But I know that is not true, that instead I am working on shifting learned responses that have their seeds in my very early life and family of origin. And that is ok. It really is a universal issue.

I know what I want, which is to find more and better ways of getting a needed healthy distance from the internal and external issues and circumstances to which I have strong emotional responses. I personalize things too much, which means that sometimes I get more mad or sad or ashamed than is particularly useful or warranted. And of course, parenting is full of situations that challenge me in that area. The relentless nature of parenting also means that there is very little time to process, and that makes it harder to step back and engage my internal objective observer. One thing I need to do is take more time in the moment, though. To ask for it, give myself permission to have it, and to leave the room if necessary.

One thing we talked about in the session was Hazel’s growing tendency to focus on the negative. We have a new tradition of sharing our favorite things from the day while I’m nursing the babies at night. Hazel has often begun with a complaint or story (often a seemingly made-up story). So, my therapist suggested that we separate our sharing into positive and negative. We tried that tonight, and in fact added another layer, which was negative followed by suggestions for moving forward. It was very successful. When it was her turn for positives, Hazel said she’d really enjoyed our neighbor coming over for a bit tonight while Ted had something he had to do, and that she’d liked playing “Go Fish” with him (Ted) too. When it was her turn for negatives, she said that it had been hard to listen to the babies crying all day. (Emily is teething, and pretty upset.) I asked her if she wanted suggestions for how to deal with it. She nodded, so I said that sometimes what I do is just say out loud what’s going on and how I feel about it: “Wow, Emily’s crying a lot, and that’s hard to listen to.”
Hazel: “Yeah, and sometimes I cover my ears, or leave the room.”
Me: “Those are great ideas!”
Hazel: “You could do that too!”
Me: “Well, I often can’t leave the room, because I have to take care of the babies, but if I really need to, and I can, I do.”
Hazel: “And sometimes I tell them, ‘No, no, no, no, no crying.'”
Me: “Well, that’s not your job, honey, but I’m glad you have so many other ways to take care of yourself. It’s better to take actions to take care of yourself than to try to make other people change their behaviors to take care of you.” And then I laughed and laughed, and added, “Mary.” Ted laughed too. Hazel asked why.
Me: “That’s my issue too, and I’m still working on it.”

Then we sang and read, and Hazel was calmer than she often is. And then it was bedtime. Emily was out like a light, no crying at all. It took Joanna took 20 minutes to calm down. We did help her a bit, but it seemed to us that she was clearly testing the new boundaries: “Waah, waah” silence, “waah, waah,” silence, slightly complaining cooing/talking, “waah, waah,” silence, etc. She was able to calm down and go to sleep. They’re both learning, and I feel good about it because we’re providing a loving environment, but also having faith and confidence that they can get this. And they are.

And so can I.

Working on self-care and life balance

I went to the dentist the other day, and after decades of pretty healthy teeth, discovered that I have a bunch of small cavities that he wants to fill. I am not happy about this, and am going to wait until August, after the current craziness has died down, to start the process. In the meantime, I have a (less than pleasant-tasting) wash I have to use twice a day, a special toothpaste, and I need to make sure to use my electric toothbrush rather than the standard one.

The list of small things which I need to do a better job of fitting into my day seems to grow ever longer. My parents, my mother in particular, have always seemed effortlessly healthy. They never seemed to be troubled by cravings, they were never overweight, and they always genuinely enjoyed salad. And since my dad is now on a very restricted diet, they eat a very tiny amount of fat. I, on the other hand, have always struggled with the various health-related things I need to do routinely: eating “right”; not eating too late; brushing and flossing; exercising; sleeping from 10 pm to 6 or 7 am; doing whatever physical therapy or other similar exercise I might have.

For the last few years I have been attempting to wrangle my days into a healthier shape and rhythm, with uneven success. I no longer routinely stay up until 2 or 3 am, so that’s an improvement. I eat more vegetables than I did before I had kids. I’ve discovered that I actually like to exercise, and before I had the twins I was at the gym a few times a week. I have even stopped reading the blogs I used to check every night. Instead, I write my own nightly post, play a bit of Scrabble, and get in touch with feeling tired.

Nonetheless, my day seems to me to be like a basket that’s full to overflowing, and when I try to stuff something else into it, no matter how small or innocuous it seems, something gets pushed out.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of wishing, in a general sort of way, that I was a better person. Or I promise myself I’m going to try to be a better person. This is not useful, or course, because I just feel very anxious and inadequate after making such a tenuous and overarching commitment. It’s fairly laden with judgment, too. Or, I’ll promise myself that I’m going to *do* better, which is more helpful, but only just. The lack of detail leaves a troubling amount of room for all sorts of projection and self-castigation.

Then I remember that it’s all about what works and what doesn’t work. It’s about paying attention, staying present and focusing on my feelings, needs, and goals. And it’s about compassion and forgiveness, without which I seem to be almost incapable of making a lasting change.

The other day I noticed that one of my students seemed slimmer. I asked her about it, and she said that she had, very slowly, lost some weight using a free app called LoseIt that she downloaded to her phone. She said it was helpful to be able to track what she was eating so she could eat more mindfully. I have not only gained a fair amount of weight in the past several months, but have also gotten myself seriously hooked on sugar and carbs again. If I eat a dessert, I just want another one. I don’t like being in this place, so I got the app on my phone, and tried it out today. Consequently, I was more careful about what (yummy food!) and how much (a reasonable amount) I ate, and it gave me the boost I needed to get out for a bike ride with Hazel when I got home from work.

I called up the nanny and asked her to ask Hazel if she wanted to go out in the Madsen with me, and since she did, to have her ready when I got home. We went out and tooled around for just under a half hour. It was enough for some conversation, neighborhood sight-seeing, and a lovely exercise-fueled mood boost. That helped me to feel good enough to brave all the new dental stuff. The only thing I haven’t done is my PT exercises. I’ll work on getting those in tomorrow.

So, this has been a long, journal-esque post. But everyone I know struggles with finding and maintaining balance. And everyone I know has their ups and downs in that process, (even my mother, who makes it look so effortless). And we all deserve compassion and support in our efforts to find what works for us.

I am glad to be making some progress.