I’ve been many versions of myself. There was the shy, sweet Mennonite child who was shredded by the kids and the public school in a prairie town. There was the pre-teen who contemplated suicide and struggled with depression. There was the teenager who was desperate for responsibility and control who reached out and became a punk to make a little space in her life. There’s the post-punk young woman at university, married at 18, wearing hiking boots and flannel shirts and planning to backpack all around the world.
I say, “There was,” but the truth is all of those Sarahs are with me still. Some of them give me strength and others I’ve tucked into bed with hot cocoa and kissed on the forehead while murmuring, “There, there, it’s OK now.”
The Me that I want to talk about today is the early mother.
When I look at that photo I feel a sadness and a sort of itch. An itch because I remember being that woman and how it felt to be her, like there was no match between her insides and her outsides, and that is an itchy feeling.
Let’s see. I was 23 and Rainer 28 in that photo. Two unplanned pregnancies that were so hard I lay down for months and thought that getting my own crackers was a good day. Two babies when our friends weren’t even dating seriously much less parenting and we were so isolated. University students with the attendant shifting schedules and lack of daily routines that might have helped us transition to parenthood more smoothly. At this point we were in London, ON while Rainer did his Masters in Library and Information Science, in married student housing, each about 50 pounds overweight, and doing our best.
Our best was pretty good. I think that I’ve judged that particular me pretty unfairly at times as I journeyed away from her. We devoted ourselves to attachment parenting. I gave myself to parenting in a way that was all-consuming, like an artist at a canvas. These little lives were so precious. Rainer would do a full day at school and come home and parent like a dream while cooking supper and making the kids giggle. I trained to become a La Leche League Leader. We just didn’t know how to be ourselves in all that. We got lost in the cultural definition of ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, especially in Western’s super-preppy married student residence, populated largely by Business grads and their trophy wives and their antiques on the townhouse linoleum.
Life was flux. I had just been finding my way out of the very all-consuming and rigid self-definition that is being a punk and replacing it with an identity as a professional academic (top of my class and with big plans for grad degrees) when I was sideswiped with motherhood. By the time Sandra was 5 we had moved 9 times. Co-op job and back. Summer job and back. This university and that. Every semester a different schedule. Every day a different amount of sleep, a different mood in the kids. And to top it all off, neither child slept through the night til 4 years of age.
We were young parents who didn’t feel young. We were funny, out-of-the-box thinkers, rebels, rabble-rousers who didn’t know how to combine any of that with being Parents. With parenting itself, sure. We were still making unusual choices in our parenting, just not in ourselves.
We had just started to get the hang of good housekeeping/daily rhythms (well, good-ish, we were students!) before I got unexpectedly pregnant with Sandra because of the collision of a backpacking trip in Scotland, a terrible rainstorm, and my now-soggy birth control pills. There was within me a desire for structure. A wish to respect myself more. A feeling that there was strength in me beyond the strength to bend with the winds of life.
There was also a feeling that I couldn’t strike out for shore when the waves made treading water a priority. And this is, I think, the core of what wasn’t working: I was surviving, not thriving. Aside from motherhood, the rest of my life wasn’t doing so well. Things felt a little out of control, since they were, and that showed up in my days.
Why did things change?
There was a whole confluence of factors that just piled up into a useful platform from which I could take many little steps:
Deciding to homeschool. With both pregnancies unplanned, it seemed that I had always just adjusted to one phase as it ended. Homeschooling was a choice I thoroughly explored and made ahead of time.
Moving to this city. Not because of the city, but because it represented stability. Rainer had a job. We bought a house. We weren’t leaving soon.
Reading homeschool message boards. At first I was comforted that there were others who were like me. Then I was inspired by those who said they used to be that way and had changed. One of the first quotes I collected in my commonplace book was from a mother who said, “We all pick the pain in our life – either the pain of self-discipline or the pain of regret.”
There was, simply, a growing need to stop ‘sweeping under the carpet’ in so many areas of life. For example, I wanted to stop doing emergency tidying before someone came over; I wanted to live a tidy life for my own self. And other things, too. It was time to live in a way that made me proud. That I could respect. I wanted there to be a closer alignment between myself and the people I admired.
I had a growing sense that I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and have regrets. I also had a dimly-felt understanding that the external disorder was a sign of an internal disorder, or perhaps more properly, that getting my house and my lifestyle in order would be a part of achieving that sense of grace and peace that I desired. If house guests were worth a clutter-free house, perhaps I was, too. It was a little like always saving the good china for company, but in this case it was saving the peaceful environment for others. Surroundings have far more effect on us than we might believe and I came to see that I needed to at least test this theory out.
Joining Weight Watchers. It gave me a deep, exciting confidence in my ability to set a goal and achieve it. I hadn’t had that feeling in a while, not for goals bigger than a To Do list. It reminded me that a big goal with lots of little steps is doable. Spending the money gave me a good reason to rate my needs and my goals as being as important as the other family members. It helped me unearth a physical Sarah I recognized. It took 10 years off me psychologically, gave me a pile of energy, and stopped me from feeling middle-aged at 25.
And, as I’ve written before, I had a startling moment when I thought, “If I was paying someone to run my life and they were doing it like this, wouldn’t I fire them?”
How did things change?
Blogging. At first I blogged as though Rainer was reading it and might come home and be super nice to me if I had a hard day. Then I blogged with a mission to be homeschooling’s Erma Bombeck. I liked to make people laugh and it seemed like too many people were shining up their image and never talking about how hard things could be. But eventually that wasn’t as satisfying as it used to be and I started using it to focus on the little treasures. And to have a little treasure to focus on each day in order to ‘feed the blog’, I needed to be sure to have one. And so, between a change in my mental sorting of experiences and a change in how we lived (ever so slight), things shifted.
FlyLady. Not so much the system, although I did give it a try a few times. No, more than the practical housekeeping skills, it was her other messages that kicked me in the butt. She wrote things that made me realize that if I wanted things to be different I had to stop wanting and wishing and waiting for some godmother with a wand to show up. If I wanted a better life, then I would have to make it happen. No whining. If I wanted the satisfaction of a tidy dining room, I would have to rate the work of tidying it as worthy. The fact that it untidied itself at a break-neck speed every day? Just one of the stupid facts of life – and heck, one of the definitions of crazy is arguing with reality, right? Also, I really, really needed to learn the lesson of the power of a 5-10 minute burst of work. Wow. I was a mother with never a stretch of hours in which to accomplish things and make them perfect, but that was OK because a Ten Minute Tidy had awesome powers.
Thought Tidying. FlyLady was also part of a general mental decluttering that I did. I took apart my thought patterns. Why was I telling myself certain stories about my day? Why was I letting my mental framing of situations steal the power from me? What emotional relationship did I have with these stories? A lot happened here. I read a lot of books. One of my favourites was The Tao of Pooh. That book led me down some very interesting paths and to a real sense that Taoist philosophy could help me unleash a whole lot of things that sound glib when you type them, like magazine covers: “gratitude, flow, happiness, personal power”.
Life Art. Getting back to my punk teens, the childhood with my wonderful parents who made unusual choices, the attachment parenting, I somehow re-connected with the ability to not try to fit in. There was something so high-stakes about parenting that I’d just gone with the herd, looking and talking like An Average Mom as depicted in ads. Oh, and the fact that I was a mom at 20 and everyone else at playgroup was 30 and I didn’t want them to know how much more their junior I was. But I wasn’t me. I started to think of life as a kind of art, the days and years we have as a sort of canvas, and I started to paint with more accountability to the idea of Sarah on her deathbed looking at the picture and being happy with it.
Things got better. Then they got fantastic. Not always easy, mind you, but fantastic.
I don’t want to fire myself anymore. I don’t feel regret. Every day is a new canvas and we’re having a blast with our brushes. The things I dimly felt – about order and harmony, about bravery, about a custom-fit life, about the incredible power a family can have when parents take care of themselves – they were true.