Another month along

Yeah, weekly posts aren’t happening at all, are they. Even biweekly has been out of reach. Oh well, it is what it is. In the past few weeks we’ve all been sick — again — one after the other and overlapping. It went on for so long that I forgot it wasn’t normal (this is something I’ve done EVERY TIME our parenting life is more tiring than usual: assume it’s a deficiency in myself rather than just a temporarily difficult phase). But now that we’re all on the mend I can see that it has, indeed, been a challenging time.

Puzzle pieces in the wrong place

It’s all too easy to imagine how having a child can break up couples. Besides the stress, there’s also the difficulty of getting to spend time together. Even though Erik frequently works from home, often the only chance we have to really talk to each other is at night, after Owl has gone to sleep, and then we’re so tired ourselves that we can’t always be present with each other the way we would wish. A few weeks ago we finally had one of these moments when we were able to say hello and how are you, properly, and he asked if there was anything he could do for me. “Just tell me something good about me,” I said. He spluttered and said, “Where do I start?” I needed to hear some compliments. I realized I spend so much of every day with only myself for (adult) company, and somehow, somewhen, this internal dialogue became a ceaseless stream of criticism. Everything I do, I tell myself I should be doing better or differently. Everything I feel, I tell myself is only because of my failings. There’s no praise, no acknowledgment. Just “why aren’t you better?”

This is something I’ve done for a long time, but I thought I’d gotten better about it; I didn’t recognize that it was happening afresh now that I’m a mother. (It makes sense: our brains get rewired by motherhood. It’s only natural I’d have to relearn my habits.) Since that conversation with Erik, I’ve been trying to work on this more consciously, which has meant such seemingly-obvious statements as these (which I typed up and posted to Facebook on June 1):

You’re doing a great job. Taking care of a sick kid is hard. Owl feels better because you are here with her.

It’s completely reasonable to feel unhappy when you need to pee and can’t do so. That is a basic physical need and it’s very frustrating when it’s not met. You’re right to recognize that drinking less water isn’t the solution to this. Your hydration is important.

No loving parent feels calm and happy when their child is howling and uncomfortable. You don’t need to expect that of yourself.

It’s healthy to take time to acknowledge your feelings. Your feelings are valid and there’s no need to feel ashamed of being impatient or frustrated or tired or overwhelmed. These are natural ways to feel. It isn’t disrespectful to Owl.

Caring for a dependent involves a lot of love and a whole lot of tasks no one really wants to do. It’s okay to recognize that. It doesn’t lessen the love.

You deserve to be cared for, too.

And this related post from June 6, when I was sick and at my parents’ house:

Resting isn’t “doing nothing”. Resting is very, very important work. And when you’re sick, it’s extra important. Our society has trained us to sneer at work that’s invisible, but that doesn’t change what your body knows: rest is vital. Non-doing is vital.

I’m recognizing now that these patterns (of being mean to myself, of not taking care of or even acknowledging my body and its needs, of doing too much) are consistent with past times of stress and transition as well. I guess that’s advice I’d give to new parents (it’s only taken me 15 months to figure it out!): before your kid comes, think over times in the past when you’ve been overwhelmed and stressed, and see if you can identify some patterns in your behavior, and what worked to make you feel better. Make a little guide to remind yourself. You’ll need it. (In my case, since I didn’t need it right away, I thought I wouldn’t need it at all. Nope! Parenting is a long-term project.)

Lisa at Navi Kitchen in Emeryville, CA

I was reading this essay the other day and came across this line: “the mind drains the mothership… thoughts can tire out flesh and blood.” OH YES, I thought: this is exactly what’s been happening with me. Not that I haven’t been physically weary as well, but the mental “weather” has been just as draining, if not more so — because my brain can keep berating me even when my body is at rest. 

It’s all rather ridiculous because I spend SO much of every day speaking to Owl with kindness, gentleness, and patience. I try to move at her speed, to understand her feelings, to interpret her communications, to make everything comfortable and accessible and interesting for her. Not that I don’t lose my temper, but people have actually commented on how respectful I am when I talk to her. But it’s as if I only have so much patience and love and generosity in me and in giving that to Owl, I have none left over for myself. And how is that a good lesson for her?

Lisa and 15-month-old Ada, laughing together with Lisa's watercolors hanging on the wall in the background

I do notice that I’m much kinder to Owl (and to Erik as well) when I’ve had more time for myself. My Artist Residency in Motherhood has been some help here, although I’ve scaled back during this busy time when maybe what I need is to double down — particularly on the physical front. Unsurprisingly, given my often-fraught relationship with my body, I’ve been very neglectful of the physical component of the residency, and I’ve approached it as a Thing To Do rather than a philosophy to cultivate. But I’ve come to a couple of realizations in the past week:

(1) If you want to introduce a new habit, you need to make space for it. This is probably why it’s been hard for me to get creative and learn to be more body-aware without also becoming tired and sick: I haven’t been able to simultaneously scale back on household duties or Owl care. So I’ve just been cramming more work into my life and not taking anything out. No wonder I’m running on empty.

(2) The most beautiful thing about my journaling is that it gives me a chance to go deeper than the surface level of my thoughts. When I can’t write, the same thoughts (usually minor annoyances, my to-do list, and complaints about how tired/stressed I am) just go round and round and I never manage to move beyond them. This is conducive to neither relaxation nor true creativity. But once I write these things down, I acknowledge them, record them, and then can leave them behind. This is why writing is so therapeutic for me on a personal level, and so foundational for me as an artist.

Aerial view of a journal and pen surrounded by tea service and breakfast items

Handwritten journal entry on ruled paper

It occurs to me that what I need to do with my physical practice — what I was hoping to achieve, although I wasn’t able to articulate it before — is the same thing, but for my body. I thought I just needed to check in and be more mindful, but without a more focused way of checking in, I just keep getting the same go-nowhere responses: I’m so tired, I’m so SO tired, I’m sick, I’m congested, I’m tense, I’m jittery. I can never move beyond that, and that’s probably because I don’t have the opportunity to push past these surface feelings the way I do with my thoughts during journaling. So how can I do that?

Digital drawing of Lisa sitting down contemplatively

As usual, looking back over the past weeks is an exercise in revisiting highs and lows — times when I thought things were going really smoothly and then times when I felt like everything was a mess and I felt awful. In putting together this post, I discovered that things that happened “last week” (or so I thought) were actually two weeks ago or more. Time just doesn’t seem to work the same way anymore! 

In tentatively great news, however: Owl has maybe, maybe stopped crying in the car. Friends might recall that she first started doing this around five months of age, and it just got worse and worse from then till only a few weeks ago — which means this lasted for ten months. Ten months of never knowing whether any car ride — whether ten minutes or an hour-plus — would involve crying that escalated into screaming so hard she choked on her own spit (as recently as a couple of months ago, it only took 5-10 minutes to get to the screaming-choking stage), which, I’m sure you can imagine, is not conducive to safe behavior on the road; I give fervent and heartfelt thanks that I never hit anyone. I don’t want to celebrate prematurely, but we’ve done two longer round-trips now as well as several shorter rides, and she has barely cried at all. I breathe in the car now. It is such a relief. And now we can go more places. 

She walks now, too.

Moreover, as I said, it’s been almost a week with nobody sick, and that makes everything so much better. On Monday I posted on Facebook, “Some days things just go smoothly.” I still ended the day tired, but it wasn’t the total exhaustion of trying to tend Owl and Erik both while sniffling and fatigued myself. Meanwhile, another mom in one of my online moms’ groups was having a hard time, so I reminded her of something I’d had to tell myself the week before: one hard day or week or even month or year does not make us failures. But of course it’s easier to see that when not in the (stressful) moment.

There’s so much more I could say here and want to, but I’ll just add that I’ve been getting a boost of energy lately from two not-entirely-expected sources. One is Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, a trilogy of novels about some of Asia’s super-rich, both new and old. It’s been derided as superficial and over-the-top (the latter is certainly accurate — and is part of its appeal), but I don’t think I can possibly overemphasize how affirming it is for me to read about contemporary Asians doing whatever they want, without care for how they’re seen by the Western world. I would really love to write a whole post on this but I probably won’t be able to get to it, so I just want to proclaim my love for these books right here.

Unrelated — or not? — I’ve also recently bought some new clothes and a couple of lipsticks, and have been surprised by how much it’s buoyed me to “dress up” a little (and by “dress up” I mean just putting on lipstick before walking outside). I didn’t think I had exactly let myself go, but I wasn’t paying much attention to my appearance either, and I guess over several months that’s taken its psychic toll. For me at least, it’s hard to feel important when I don’t present myself that way to the world. I don’t wear lots of makeup or do much primping normally, but there’s a fine line between being comfortable and being careless. Lipstick, though, exists purely for my own pleasure in self-adornment, and that’s a necessary reminder that my desires (whims, preferences, pleasures) matter and are worth pursuing. Lipstick and bright colors. It’s astonishing how little is required to make me feel joyful in my appearance.

Lisa in the car, wearing reddish lipstick and a raspberry-colored dress

And a snippet from my journal earlier this week: “I forgot to say that on Sunday afternoon, the family all went to the park and took Owl with them so Erik and I got to hang out alone. We talked and I rolled around on the floor stretching out, and that felt so nice I even got up and did some dance-y things. I was surprised that after all it doesn’t take a huge long time for me to access some feeling of freedom in my body. Last night I did a few more floor stretches before bed, and this morning we got to Owl’s music class early and since it meets in a dance studio, I rolled around some more on that floor too. And both these times I felt that pleased surprise again, of it not taking forever to achieve some level of bodily comfort.”

15-month-old Ada, wearing a pink shirt, plays in the sand with an orange rake