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5-Day Artist Challenge, Day 4: Music

In my bakery-café of the 5-Day (plus an intervening month) Artist Challenge, how to metaphorize music? How can I possibly convey, bread-wise, what music means to me? The truth is, I can’t. But I’m going to use some more it’s-my-blog leeway and say: it’s COOKIES.

Some cookies need lots of practice and training to make. Some cookies you can just whip up on instinct. Some are stunningly intricate, some are satisfyingly simple. Some you’ll make over and over again, and they never fail to comfort. Some cookies are so sublime, you have to drop what you’re doing and close your eyes to enjoy them properly.

Mozart cookie: lovely and mathematically precise.

Christmas_Viennese (1)
Classic Viennese cookies via andrewingredients.co.uk.

Debussy cookie: sophisticated, with deceptive lightness.

Colorful macaroons
French macarons via bonepi.com.

Miles Davis cookie: smooth, sweet-salty, and ultra-cool.

Double-Chocolate-Peanut-Butter-Salted-Swirl-Ice-Cream-Sandwiches-glitterinc.com_
Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwich cookie via glitterinc.com.

Gordon Lightfoot cookie: deliciously chewy and sturdy, with lots of traditional ingredients.

Cinnamon-Oatmeal-Raisin-Cookies.ashx_
Cinnamon Oatmeal Raisin cookie via recipeshubs.com.

Rage Against the Machine cookie: hard-core, with principles.

badass cookie music
Vegan Power cookie via chicvegan.com.

Justin Bieber cookie.

golden oreos
Golden Oreos via thecolorless.net.

Now that you’d rather be eating cookies, let’s get back to Music. At this juncture, I’ll admit that cookies still don’t fully express what I want them to, because I could FAR more easily live without cookies than live without music.

In utero, I was already learning to depend on melody and harmony; as my mom sang with her Renaissance choir, I frolicked along.

During my childhood, we listened to music in our house all the time – from Sandra Beech and Raffi to Sleeping Beauty and Mary Poppins to Brahms and Prokofiev to Bruce Cockburn and John Fahey to the Beatles and Jethro Tull. We often attended the symphony and the opera as a family in those days, too. We would take turns staring at the performers from the second balcony, using binoculars.

Music was always full of images and emotion for me, even when I was quite little. We often listened to music to fall asleep, and certain pieces moved me so much, I felt bereft when they ended. I can remember a long pre-teen afternoon spent nerding out with my little sister, writing interpretive poems based on Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring; it was so beautiful it had to be poemed.

As for my musical training, it’s been a bit spotty. I sang a lot, from toddlerhood on (we have audio footage of my Raffi covers). I cheated through about three years of piano lessons from my mom; I could play well enough by ear that I didn’t need to read the music – until it got too hard, and by then I was rather behind in my music-reading abilities. After that, I mostly contented myself with making up pieces to play, so that I could forego the reading of music. (Well, not completely – I did also learn the soprano recorder.)

In high school music class, I learned to read music for flute and piccolo, and eventually alto saxophone. I love love loved being in the Concert and Jazz bands, playing in big, thrilling ensembles. Making awesome music with a large group of humanity… it’s a rush I wish everyone could experience.

In my teen years, I began making mix tapes (back when they were actually tapes) that would later by replaced by playlists, collecting songs I loved and cherishing them like shiny shells. I also fell in love with a whole bunch of musicals. The significance music takes on when you’re a teenager in the midst of your identity quest (plus lots of hormones)… it’s just EPIC.

First live rock concert, just for reference, was the Grapes of Wrath at the Hamilton Tivoli in 1992, with my best childhood friend Natalie. We were 14.

Since high school, I’ve fit music-making into my life here and there – choir and concert band at the University of Toronto, a women’s choir for a few years here at home, and in recent years, my ukulele, and Massed Choir for one week a year at OELC. When I have a compelling enough reason, I open up GarageBand or a score-writer and make a record of music that’s been in my head, waiting to get out.

I still use music constantly. It’s therapy, energy boost, relaxer, comfort, distraction, focus aid, pick-me-up… you name it. Music helps me celebrate when there’s joy, and process and heal when there’s pain. I do not know how I’d live without it.

Furthermore, I think we all need it, on a fundamental level. Like, as a species. Why else would we have vocalized and pounded out rhythms together, since forever, in all the corners of the world we occupy? In this way, music is almost more like water than bread, transcending political boundaries, flowing through us, connecting us, keeping our souls quenched. You know??

Yep. That’s what music does. Makes me wax friggin’ lyrical.

What music keeps you alive?

***


 




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A Message to the Daddies on Mother’s Day, or “How (Not) to Incur Mama’s Wrath”

This post is dedicated to all the fathers and fathers-to-be out there, with love – especially if this is your first Mother’s Day. I hope some of these words can be useful to you, or to someone you know.

(If you are an equal-time, full-time, or single dad, then you can stop reading now… Welcome to the Mama Club.)

daddy-message-mothers-day

I know some truly great fathers. My own father, my husband, and many of my friends are modern, enlightened dads, thoroughly invested in their children’s lives, who demonstrate their love and care in all kinds of ways. They’re “father figures” in the best sense of the word.

It’s not easy, taking on the Daddy role. Becoming a father is huge; it changes everything. Life becomes a balancing act, a dichotomy, with societal expectations for fathers having done an about-face in half a century. It’s beautiful, too – I’ve seen guys morph from macho to mushball, and there’s nothing more wonderful. When they’re with their children, they are better people, opened up in new ways. But it’s still tough: how do you be your old self as well as your new father-self?

That is a question only the fathers can answer. But I do have some insight into another, perhaps even more tricky, question… How do you keep your relationship with your Baby Mama healthy?

It’s tough, watching her go through wicked hormones, sleep deprivation, pain in various lady parts, shrinkage of social life, etc., and not knowing how to help. Especially in the beginning, she might even seem like a different person, and you’re not sure how to react.

Did anybody warn you about how hard that would be, for both of you? For lots of couples, it’s quite a curve ball.

I remember, when I was pregnant with my first child, a friend warned me: “No matter how good your marriage is now, having a baby will strain it.”

Another friend said, “Just be prepared – if you disagree about parenting, you will always feel that you’re right, because you’re the mom. And you pretty much always will be right.”

Since then, I’ve been in many more conversations with mothers about their parenting partners, and certain themes are unmistakable. The issues that make a mom say, “I freaked out on my husband the other day…” or “Last night I finally snapped when he…” are the same ones, over and over, across all kinds of families – even the ones you have always assumed are perfect.

Our family is no different. My husband and I have had our share of issues, and our combined wisdom on this topic is hard-won – genuine communication is often painful, but absolutely worthwhile. It took a lot of frank talking, and even more listening.

Let me be clear: my husband is a fantastic life-mate, and I love him to pieces. I got one of the very best ones. He was a brick through my three labours and deliveries; he has changed his share of diapers, and dealt stoically with countless other icky messes. He does all the best Daddy things with his living son and daughter, and keeps his stillborn son close to his heart. He is thoughtful and loving and firm and really fun.

It’s just that these great qualities – especially at the beginning – couldn’t exempt him from the basic truth, the one I hear repeated constantly by moms: it’s extremely hard for Dads to really get it, to understand what we go through.

This may sound cry-me-a-river-ish. After all, most of us get into the procreation gig because we want to, right? And women are the ones biologically designed to gestate babies, give birth, breastfeed, and fiercely invest, mama-bear-style, in the welfare of their children.

So where’s the issue?

If motherhood is such a joy, why do I know so many healthy, well-adjusted moms who have become enraged (some on a regular basis) at their baby daddies, whom they have previously loved with ease? Why are dads flabbergasted to find themselves abruptly on the receiving end of moms’ wrath, when they know they’re doing a good job?

I think it happens when fathers have not yet recognized this fundamental truth:

Motherhood is indeed awesome – AND, it’s really tough. A lot tougher than either of you first thought.

Birth and baby-bonding can be beautiful, transformative experiences. I know I’m not the only mama who has completely lost track of time, just staring at her newborn’s face. Breastfeeding, once mama and baby have mastered it, can be just as dazzling as they say. Where I live in Canada, maternity leaves are lengthy enough for new mothers to immerse themselves in their roles, and most moms I talk to wouldn’t have it any other way: they want to spend all that time with their babies, they want to be their child’s food source, and they want to be there for every tiny moment, every change and milestone. The rewards of new motherhood can be grand.

newborn mama

How can we possibly complain?

Here are some of the reasons why it’s so tough, and why the frustration can build up into Wrath:

1. Transmogrification.

We’ve acknowledged that becoming a father is an enormous change – at least, it is if you’re doing it right. But for most mothers, having a child is beyond huge. It alters us from our foundations. Our lives as we know them completely unhinge, and re-attach to revolve around our babies. NOTHING stays the same for us. Not the shapes of our bodies, not our hormones, not our instincts, not our priorities, not our careers, not the functioning of our brains, and especially not our day-to-day activities. Intellectually, we know this is how it will be – but it’s still a giant, often overwhelming adjustment when it happens. (N.B.: For moms with postpartum depression/anxiety, PTSD, and/or colicky, high-needs, or non-sleeper babies, it is a different and exponentially harder story.)

How To Avoid The Wrath:

  • Be sensitive about whether you are both able to do things like take a shower whenever you want, eat hot meals with both hands free, have conversations with adults about grown-up topics, etc… or whether only one of you currently enjoys those luxuries.
  • Consider whether your golf/hockey/gaming/running/gym schedule is still intact. If you’ve just become a parent, your timetable should reflect that. What about her hobbies? Do they still exist?
  • Don’t be the guy who says, “You’re no fun anymore!” Outlandish as it sounds, I am NOT making this one up – it’s a direct quote. Dads who say this are putting themselves in the league of Fathers Who Become Ex-Husbands. (Not kidding.)
  • Also, if you have the urge to remark on the changes in her body, even as a joke… QUASH IT. I guarantee she will not find it funny. (Unless you want to tell her she’s gorgeous. Then go ahead.) So many moms torture themselves about their postpartum bodies – even if they’ve never mentioned it to you.
  • Along similar lines, please be patient when it comes to sex. If you are feeling any boob jealousy because Mama is breastfeeding… best to keep it to yourself. If you like breasts, just remember why they were put on earth (motorboating not being a biological imperative). If you are feeling sexually neglected, remember: between hormonal changes and physical pain (because no matter how well the birth went, there will be some), not to mention lack of sleep and postpartum body-image issues, it takes a while. It’s a rare couple who really gets it on within the first month… and depending on what happened to her girl parts, it’s often more like two or three… or six… (I know, sounds unimaginable. Welcome to parenthood.) But she’ll get there.

2. De-Expertization.

Committed parenting is an ocean of doubts and questions to which there are no single right answers.

Basically all moms, with all their hearts, want to do what is best for their children. A new mom spends all day every day with the baby, attempting to do just that, even though it’s a job that is impossible to do “perfectly.” When they encounter problems, or even uncertainties, they discuss them with other moms; they research on internet baby forums; they read baby books. It’s like a whole new career. (And for stay-at-home moms, it IS a whole new career. In the U.S. especially, where maternity leaves are brutally short, many moms choose to leave the workforce entirely – and motherhood is their new life’s work.)

For moms who, before motherhood, spent most of their time doing something they were good at, it is really challenging to suddenly be doing something so unmasterable, so uncontrollable, so guaranteed to maximize your insecurities.

When mothers run into parenting troubles, fathers often offer advice about how to solve baby problems, and they do so with the best of intentions. You want to help, to ease frustration, to be really involved. That, in itself, is great… you just need to tread carefully.

You may be passionately committed to fatherhood, but if you’re working full-time outside the home, it’s just different. You don’t have the same number of hours to get hands-on experience and bonding time with the baby, and it’s unlikely you have the same gut-level motivation to research whatever feeding or sleeping or other issues have cropped up.

Just imagine how you would feel if you were investing your whole self in a new calling, spending all your time and energy trying to get it right, and someone with far less experience blithely piped up, “Hey, have you tried this?”

You see what I mean.

How To Avoid The Wrath:

  • If you can find the time, read some parenting books and/or articles. There are lots written especially for dads, if you’re into that.
  • In particular, if mama and baby are trying to resolve a specific issue (that she is bearing the brunt of), do the reading necessary to be on the same page with what they’re trying.
  • If you don’t have time to do this… then don’t offer advice (as mentioned above). Give her credit for the nonstop on-the-job training she’s been doing. Be the one to listen, and ask what you can do to help.

3. Underestimation.

Ask any stay-at-home mom: people constantly trivialize the work you do when you’re “just” parenting. In fact, there’s a widespread fallacy that it’s not actually work. As in, “Oh, so you’re not working right now?”

Well. Is it something you would pay someone else to do? THEN IT’S WORK. (One could also mention things it has in common with jobs like teaching, waiting tables, mediating, housecleaning, coaching, and lifeguarding.) Babies can’t wait patiently for their needs to be met. Toddlers don’t understand the importance of a to-do list. Full-time parenting is exhausting. Hearing comments about how easy you must have it gets old real fast.

Yes, most of the moms who stay home with their kids – for any length of time – have chosen it, and love it overall. That doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk – mentally, physically, or emotionally. It’s like many of the most rewarding jobs: the more you care about it, the harder it is.

How To Avoid The Wrath:

  • Try not to say this: “Wow, the house is a mess! What did you do all day?” It can be very tempting. Oftentimes the house IS a mess – but I highly recommend you refrain on this one. If the dishes didn’t get done, trust that there are reasons. Chances are, she would have liked to get more done – it’s hard for lots of moms, especially in the beginning, seeing their “productivity” take a nosedive – but baby needs come first.
  • Even if all the baby does is sleep and eat, those things can be a lot less straightforward than it seems like they should be. Especially now that Google is there to make us second-guess everything we do.

4. Default Parenting.

No matter how much each parent loves his or her children, there’s always a default parent. With new babies, it’s natural for that to be Mama, for reasons both biological and societal. However, in my experience, Mama remains the default for much longer and in more situations than necessary, because the precedent has been set. Even if she has gone back to work and has as demanding a schedule as Daddy, in many cases she is still automatically taking care of most meals, day care drop-offs and pick-ups, school communications, hand-me-downs, doctor’s appointments, etc.

In large gatherings, she is the one whose parental radar never turns off, even if both parents are there. It happens all the time: kids are playing, dads are socializing, moms are partly socializing, and partly checking if the kids need to pee or need snacks or band-aids or are getting up to mischief or going too close to the stairs/breakable things/sharp things. I don’t know why this dynamic is so common, in this day and age… but it is.

How To Avoid The Wrath:

  • Avoid saying, “Oh man, I am SO TIRED.” I’m sure you are. Being a parent AND a person is tiring. But unless you are doing exactly as much nighttime baby-feeding, midnight potty trips, nightmare-soothing etc. as Mama, she is the wrong person to complain to about your fatigue. She is the one at whose expense you get your sleep (and keep in mind that if her body is a full-time milk factory, this actually uses even more energy than pregnancy). If you’re tired, she’s exhausted. Reserve the complaints for your guy friends.
  • Be present. When you are in the same building with your children, even if Mama is there, you’re automatically on duty too – unless you’ve specifically made other arrangements with your co-parent.
  • If you are one of the countless Dads who like to take leisurely bathroom breaks with their favourite book/magazine/handheld device, remember you’re on the clock. Those fifteen-minute intermissions are very noticeable to the mama who doesn’t even get to pee alone, never mind take more than ninety seconds at a time on the john.
  • If you wish you could reverse the roles (she probably does too, sometimes), please don’t assume that it would be the proverbial stroller-ride in the park if you did.

5. Bad Cop Syndrome

This follows on the heels of Default Parenting. There’s usually one parent who’s more strict than the other, and that’s normal too. But it’s funny: even though the phrase goes “Wait till your father gets home,” as if Daddy’s the one who draws the hard line, nowadays I’ve seen much more often that Daddy is the permissive one. He says yes more frequently to sugar and extra video game time and fun new toys. Daddies bend the rules way more often.

And it’s not that those things are awful. They’re fun. But if Mommy’s the one who sticks to the boundaries and Daddy’s the fun one, well… that makes Mommy the bad cop. Especially because now she’s now monitoring the kid(s) AND you. She did not sign up for that. It sucks to be the killjoy, even if you know it’s your job. The point is, it should be both of your job.

How To Avoid The Wrath:

  • Don’t give credence to that harebrained dad from dumb commercials, the one who always screws up. People joke about how moms end up with one extra kid because dads are like big children; in reality, this is not funny at all. Perpetuating the perception of fathers as bumbling fools who can’t parent properly is insulting to you and your family, and it only takes society backwards.
  • Make sure you’ve talked about the limits the two of you, AS A TEAM, are setting for your children. Stick to them, unless you have a very good reason not to. (For the record, your child simply asking is not a very good reason.)
  • Attractive as it is sometimes to say things like “No dinner if you can’t cooperate!”, try not to make threats you can’t keep. Kids only take you seriously if you mean what you say – and you will soon pay for your wavering.

6. Interminability. This is probably the hardest thing about New Motherhood – and Motherhood in general: it is relentless. Even for mothers with dream babies who feed well and sleep lots, it’s still hard being the be-all and end-all of your child’s existence. Beautiful and rewarding, of course, but sometimes… damn hard.

Is there any other job where you are working or on-call literally 24/7, for months (or even years) in a row? Especially for a breastfeeding mama whose baby doesn’t bottle-feed, or one whose children are very mama-centric, or one whose baby daddy is mostly (or always) not home… Sometimes it feels like we just might not make it through with our sanity. (And remember, grasp on sanity weakens in proportion to the amount of time spent listening to crying/screaming.)

As I see it, the key thing is Me Time, or rather the lack thereof. I know “Me Time” is kind of an annoying, new-agey phrase that sounds like it belongs in a spa ad. But trust me, it’s a critical issue that goes unaddressed shockingly often. For a mother with a newborn, depending on the baby’s needs and personality, the simple ability to take a break can basically cease to exist. I remember, in the first few weeks of E’s life, fantasizing about folding a whole load of laundry uninterrupted or going grocery shopping alone – and those don’t even count as Me Time. Taking ten-minute Sitz-baths for my postpartum stitches felt like over-the-top luxury.

Please note also that mom-dates, although they are fun and rejuvenating and do wonders for moms’ mental health, don’t count as Me Time either. Mom is still on-duty the whole time. Real, legitimate Me Time must remove her from the duties of motherhood, and remind her of who she is, as herself, in addition to being a mother.

If you still spend the majority of your time being yourself, doing things you used to do before becoming a father, then it’s hard to relate.

If it’s not possible for Mama to take breaks at the moment (which can happen, especially early on), examine the extent of your own Me Time, and how much of it is in her presence. The discrepancy between your Me Time and hers will likely be proportional to her level of aggravation.

How To Avoid The Wrath:

  • Notice and appreciate when you have time to yourself – and this goes double for when you have the house to yourself. I have heard described SO MANY scenarios in which Mom has literally not had a moment of Me Time all day, and Dad comes home (or is already home) and puts his feet up, or takes a bike ride, or goes to putter in the garage, or picks up his iPad, without thinking about it. Trust me, this habit incurs the Wrath.
  • Enable her Me Time, if you can. Even a few minutes can make a big difference to a tired mama’s mental state.
  • Ask yourself this test question: How many times have I been on a real trip – out of town – without the kids? How many times has she? (If she goes on trips with the kids, it’s not the same at all.)
  • Remember that motherhood today is burdened with impossible standards. Between the contradictory wisdom of the Interwebs and the generations-old pressure to Take Care Of Everything, not to mention new expectations of scheduling kids to death and making life Pinterest-worthy… There’s just no way to ace it.
  • Don’t let her be a martyr to the work; take some of it off her plate. Don’t give her the chance to identify with that perfect-but-drudgey 1950s housewife who barely got to be a person. (That effing model housewife, whether she ever existed or not, looms in the maternal subconscious, judging us when we haven’t vacuumed.)

And there you have it! Those are the big Wrath-Incurring Issues. If my advice seems self-evident and way too easy, that’s great. You are ADVANCED. If it seems condescending, I apologize – I only wrote what the complaints called for. If it was overwhelming… feel free to re-read. 🙂

So. Are you all ready to celebrate Mother’s Day?

I know some say that it’s the kids who should be appreciating their mothers on Mother’s Day, and yes, they should, if they’re developmentally able. But if you are grateful to have progeny, your appreciation is just as important. And don’t forget to call your own mom, if you can.

All the information above might have given you ideas about how to show Mama you’re glad that you have kids with her. Just in case you’d like a recap:

1. Recognition. Be observant enough to see what she does, and what she gives up, on a daily basis.

2. Appreciation. I have seen these situations improve dramatically with a simple acknowledgement from Dad: I know you work hard, and even though we are a team, I know that when it comes to the kids, YOU DO MORE, and I appreciate it. Nobody wants to work thanklessly, especially when it’s work they pour their passion into.

3. Facilitation. Help her get those breaks that remind her who she is, and what she’s good at (besides being the best baby mama in the world).

4. Recalibration. As your child(ren)’s age permits, especially if Mom goes back to work, swing the balance back. Take honest stock of who’s doing the non-negotiable child-care things that have to happen each day, and try to even things out. You will reap the rewards; if you ever felt the pang of your child rejecting you in favour of Mommy, this is the time when the tables can turn.

5. Libation. Just a couple of wee bonus tips: if you have a newborn and you’re around when Mama is breastfeeding the baby, get her something to drink. It’s a small gesture that makes a big difference to a mother possessed by the nursing thirst. On similar lines, if you ever have chances to pay her back for the alcohol-free time she’s done by being the DD, take them.

And if you want to do more for Mother’s Day… you might ask her what would make her happiest.

Thanks for reading, Daddies (and Daddies-to-be). I hope it has been worthwhile, and that if you make a loving effort to understand her experience, she will be able to do the same for you.

Happy parenting, and good luck.

***


 

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8 Unromantic-Sounding Ways I Know We Will Last

two hearts making an effort

“How’s your relationship these days?” is not a question most of us ever ask people. I’ve probably only ever asked it of newlyweds (where it’s more like “How’s married life?” nudge-nudge) or of very close friends with whom I have a precedent of relationship discussions.

It is a bit odd, though. Among parents, there are the constant “how are your kids” conversations, and it’s expected that you’ll dish on the hard parts as well as the fun parts. But for some reason, even though Sean and I are at the age where the majority of our friends are in committed relationships, we rarely discuss that very important aspect of daily life. Somehow, it feels rude or intrusive to ask, even though we certainly care about the answer.

One result of this is that when friends have major relationship troubles or break up, it’s often a complete shock – sometimes even to close friends. You think, But they always seemed fine!

Obviously, the reasons to break up are as diverse and numerous as the couples who do it. For the couples who stay together, there are myriad reasons for that, too. Presumably, though, most couples who’ve had a long-term relationship – whatever its future – had a period of awesomeness at some point. A chapter, of whatever length, where the connection was uplifting and the chemistry was wild and both parties thought, “This could be IT!”

Setting aside the Big Bad Wolves of Relationship Destruction (infidelity, abuse, addiction, etc.), how else do those paths diverge, such that some couples stay together and some split up?

I can only speak for myself in this, of course. I’m no expert. If someone asked me, “How can you be sure you’ll be together forever?” I’d say, “I’m not. It’s impossible to be a hundred percent sure. But I am supremely confident.”

How, you ask, can I be supremely confident without blind faith? What’s the secret? And could it be helpful to anyone else?

Well, shucks, that’s why I’m writing this. So that you can all SOAK UP MY GLORIOUS WISDOMAlors, voilà: here is my carefully crafted counsel, based on my own untrained and entirely non-objective experience of thirteen years with the same person (9.5 of them married).

1. Let Your Inner Grub Out.

If you’re gonna be with someone for the long haul, they need to see the real you, and your real habits. Not dressed up, not scrubbed down. When Sean and I moved in together, cohabitation was our way to make sure that neither of us had habits that would be deal-breakers for the other. We are lucky to have very similar scores on the slob-to-neat-freak scale. If I forget to put the CDs back in their cases (yes, we’re sooo retro, we still have CDs), or if he forgets to put his nasal rinse packet in the garbage, we know we’re about even. We have also found we’re able to handle each other’s dirty laundry and live with each other’s stinkier sides, and we like each other even in comfy pants and scruffy hoodies.

2. Get Used To Non-Perfection.

Speaking of grubs, your personality-related grubbiness is gonna need airing out too. We all have our flaws. We all have at least one side that’s lazy or naggy or procrastinatey or judgey or grumpy or insensitive or whatever. (Fun game: guess which ones are mine!!) And if you join yourself with a person, you join yourself with their flaws. Those flaws are not going anywhere. And Sean and I are well aware of the less awesome parts of each other – and ourselves. Sometimes we drive each other a little bit bonkers with that. But even though we know we can’t change each other, we do support each other’s quests for self-improvement, which are constantly evolving.

3. Forget Sweet Talk. Try Straight Talk.

Speaking of imperfections, it’s good to know we can live with each other’s, but sometimes discussion is necessary. It’s amazing how easy it is to find yourself playing games, manipulating, expecting someone to read your mind if you’re feeling pouty. But that’s lame. If my husband is driving me bonkers in some way, and I never articulate it to him, then what chance is there to improve things? If he’s upset with me for something, I want him to tell me – even when it hurts to hear. (Contrary to some beliefs, it is NOT more respectful to say nothing in an attempt to spare someone’s feelings.) It usually hurts, although we also take pains to word things as plainly-but-tactfully as possible. Those moments are really hard, but bearable – and worth it – if they come from a place of caring. Leaving those unsaid things to fester, on the other hand, is a great way to drive spikes into the potential cracks in a relationship. (We consider that, true to our marriage vows, being irresponsible with spikes is not an option. We have invested; what we have is not disposable or replaceable; therefore, proper maintenance is necessary.)

4. Learn To Mess Up Properly.

Speaking of upsetting each other, Sean and I have learned, many times, that if you handle mistakes with honesty and sincerity, it works way better than denying or deflecting blame. THIS IS HARD, too. Admitting you’re wrong… I honestly think everyone struggles with it. True apology feels deeply vulnerable. But it’s also humbling, illuminating, disarming, and endearing. It allows a couple to be a team, with both members party to the resolution. And I’ve noticed that when a person can be candid about mistakes, those aforementioned flaws and foibles can sometimes even be… kinda cute.

5. Never Mind About That Honeymoon Phase.

Speaking of admitting things, let’s be frank: the exorbitant new-relationship ecstasy does not last forever. Sometimes Sean and I look back on how snuggly-wuggly and cutesie-wootsie we once were, and we think, Yeesh. Our friends must have been nauseated. That swooning stage is not sustainable, long-term. And to be even franker, in a long relationship, there are sometimes downright cool periods – times when you feel distant or annoyed or just not that attracted to each other, or even disconnected.

N.B.: DON’T PANIC. It doesn’t mean the spark is gone forever.

For me, those are usually the times when I’m feeling deflated about life in general. Fortunately, I’ve learned not to put stock in those times. I know that that’s just how I feel if I’m short on sleep, or not eating right, or stressed out about certain things. I wait it out. I know it will pass. It always does. If it needs a little nudge, some of that straight talk (see #3) comes in very handy. Invariably, the moment comes when I look at my husband and feel the affection/happiness/spark surge back in.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in my experience, the settled, solid, non-swooning phase is, in many ways, more sublime than its predecessor. And it still includes kisses that make me weak in the knees.

6. Go Ahead And Take Love For Granted.

Speaking of sometimes-latent affection, one of the perks of being in a committed relationship is getting to take love for granted – in a way. It’s not that I take love in general for granted; it took me ages (years, even) to tell my high school/university boyfriend that I loved him, because I wanted to be absolutely sure I knew what I meant, and meant it well. But once you’ve taken that leap and decided that yes, this is love!, it’s your right – and responsibility – to trust that it’s there… even at times (see #5) when you feel crotchety and not-so-loving. My Hubbibi and I always end phone and text conversations with “I love you.” Especially if we’ve been exasperated with each other, or having a difficult conversation, we both know that by saying “I love you,” we’re affirming that we don’t take challenging moments as bad signs, that we both trust in the proof of our history. Unless one of us were to go through a fundamental change, we know: I’m me, and you’re you, and we love each other.

Furthermore, I really believe that the out-loud declaration of “I love you” is, for lack of a better analogy, like a valve that opens to let the love flow. The absence of “I love you,” on the other hand, is not just a silent moment; it’s a gaping hole through which the love can gradually – and painfully – drain out. I know couples have very different outlooks on when to say it, how often to say it, not wanting it to “mean nothing” if said too often. I see where they’re coming from, but I don’t think saving I love yous for special occasions makes sense. Love, with your life partner, is a gift – but not the diamond-bracelet kind of gift. It must be a practical, everyday gift, like a high-quality glue that can get kinda grungy but does not let go. Even if you say it dozens of times a day, it still means everything.

7. Love Is Not All You Need.

Speaking of love, it’s not the last word. It’s also really important to like each other. If you don’t enjoy each other’s company, all the good chemistry in the world won’t make up for it. I always smile when I see that quote on someone’s wedding program, “This day I will marry my best friend,” etc., because I think that’s the dream. What more could you want? Permanent sleepovers with your best friend! Always coming home to your favourite person! Once you cohabit, and more so once you have kids, it won’t always be “quality” time. There will be many humdrum household activities to share. Once in a while you might think, “Remember when we used to do FUN stuff together??” And you will again. But in the meantime, even if you don’t spend lots of time together (couples on opposite shifts, or with very different hobbies, for example), just sharing those run-of-the-mill activities can be lovely with a cherished friend.

8. Smarten Up And Be Grateful.

There are lots of couples out there who make their marriages function even though they’re not particularly happy or compatible together. Sean and I are fortunate in lots of ways some couples aren’t: we have very well-matched senses of humour; we enjoy the same simple ways to spend time together; we like the same music; we have similar nerdy and/or intellectual tendencies; we have harmonious politics; we genuinely love each other’s families.

We do, however, have differences that can be difficult. We aren’t passionate about all the same things; we don’t have the same style of communication; we have different instincts on a lot of minor issues; but all those things are surmountable with some conscious effort. And with the time we’ve already spent together, we owe each other that conscious effort. Who are we to let small things mess up our relationship when other couples have such larger hurdles?

Ignoring my good fortune seems spoiled to me – like living in such abundance that you feel entitled to waste perfectly good food – and I HATE wasting food. I’ve made a habit of intentionally appreciating the good things, so that when things don’t seem super-rosy, I never forget that I’m still an extremely lucky gal.

One more thing… A Note About Mental Illness.

As many of you know, my beloved Hubbibi is subject to chemical depression sometimes. It took a long time for both of us to understand that while depression can be triggered or catalyzed by circumstances, at its foundation it has nothing to do with how many things are good in one’s life. I have had to pull myself back from feeling like my failings were directly contributing to his depression.

The thing is, before our marriage, we did almost break up – several times – and I mostly blame the depression. It’s an illness that steals your mojo, takes the glow out of even your favourite people and things, makes you feel like stuff isn’t worth doing, saps your motivation to do even the things you know are good for you.

So again, speaking just from my own perspective… If your relationship seems lacklustre despite solid history, consider that mental health (or lack of it) could be an issue. Because there are ways to deal with that. We would never have gotten through those almost-breakups, not to mention having children, not to mention losing one child, without confronting those issues head-on. Being open about this, and being a united team where mental health is concerned, has saved us multiple times.

Just sayin’.

So, to sum up:

If someone were to ask me, “How did you know that Sean was THE ONE?” I’d say, “I didn’t. But I knew he was a super-special-awesome one.”

If someone were to ask me, “How do you know Sean IS the one?” I’d say something annoying like, “He is… because he is.”

I don’t necessarily believe there’s only one human in the world I could possibly make a life with. But Sean is the person I’ve chosen, who has also chosen me, with whom to build something special and interesting and beautiful. He is the only person with whom I can have THIS life, and this life is the one I want.

***

P.S.: To read more about mental health struggles and successes, please click here.


 

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Sometimes it’s hard to find words.

Dear Sebastian,

I hope you enjoyed the music yesterday. I loved listening, and feeling so close to you.

The three women whose voices delivered our lullaby were singing with you in their hearts, thanks to the initiative of my dear friend C, who loves the song and felt that it should be shared in person.

I haven’t been to a traditional Sunday morning church service very many times in my life – it felt a little funny to gather with a congregation that is not Quaker, and not in silence.

But it was really nice to be there, sincerely welcomed by strangers with smiles, hearing about the people that the community is presently holding in the Light (they didn’t use those words exactly, but I knew what they meant), following along with the hymns, watching the music director’s exuberant piano-playing, listening to the reverend speak about love and what an important part it is of each of us.

And when our song was sung, the notes soared sublimely up to the vaulted ceiling, and it was lovely to be gazing at the candle flames, the flowers, the jewel-coloured windows, and the most beautiful organ pipes I’d ever seen. Of course, I was crying too.

It is hard to describe what was going on in my head and heart.

It was exciting to be announced as “the composer” of the piece – I almost felt like the genuine article… And it was incredible to be given the gift of finally hearing the song I made for your first birthday, live and real, for the first time ever, sung by people who care about your story.

Most of all, it meant the world to feel close to you.

The truth is, I missed you so much over the holidays this year. I thought of you often, and wore your necklace every day, but mostly – I’m so sorry – I tried not to think about you. Usually I welcome the connection I feel when I think of you, even though it’s sad for me. But this time, for some reason, the grief felt harder, chilling. When we put your special ornaments on the tree, I had a taste of the dark kind of sadness that reminds me of cold baby graves with teddy bears beside them, and devastating family tragedies that blacken December. I did my best to steer clear of those thoughts.

But in a big room filled with beauty and sunlight, listening to our music, I was okay. We were okay.

And somehow, the singers wanted to thank me for the song. I couldn’t remotely find the proper words to thank them.

Even though part of me would have liked for everyone who loves you to have heard the music yesterday, it was easier that only a few people present knew your story. C’s mom gave me a big, bolstering hug (which I really needed) when the song ended, but the general audience had no reason to wonder how I was taking the experience, thank goodness. Many of them told me afterward that they enjoyed the song, and that was all I wanted.

After the service (and lots of hugs, and a few more tears on my part), the three singers took the song to the hospital with them, to say goodbye to a dear friend who won’t be with them much longer. They had asked permission, which I gladly gave; that was when I fully realized that this lullaby has always been meant to be a comfort to both the listener and the singer. It’s just that, until now, the only singer had been me.

What a blessing, this experience.

I still can’t come up with all the words I need right now. I’ll just remind you that I love you and I miss you. As always, I am glad that you are part of my heart. I wish I could kiss your little cheeks.

***

To listen to the original lullaby, please click here.


 

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Killing the White Poppy

As always, humans are up in arms about stuff right now. The thing I’ve been reading about today is the white poppy.

Image from torontosun.com
Image from torontosun.com

Traditionally, the red poppy is worn to remember and honour war veterans, both living and dead. In the past, I’ve worn a red poppy to indicate that I am thinking prayerfully of soldiers, like my grandpa, who did what they felt they had to do, and experienced things no human should have to experience, in the pursuit of an end to conflict.

Every year on Remembrance Day, I also think about the others who have made (and continue to make) sacrifices in times of war. All those who die or are broken or see their lives torn apart. They are innumerable.

That is what I understand the white poppy to be about: the recognition that peace is the goal. That war equals tragedy. Lest we forget.

In the past few years, I’ve been aware of another belief: that by honouring those other people, the civilians, or by expressing the wish to make peace a priority, I am disrespecting the soldiers and veterans.

I am not wearing a white poppy… because I do not want my message to be mistaken.

The “I Remember for Peace” campaign at Ceasefire.ca has elicited many heartfelt messages from people who wish to respect soldiers and veterans and also honour their pursuit of peace. Inevitably, there are people who feel it’s appropriate to add messages like these:

“White poppies are bull shit and everyone involved in this should be shot.”

“wear a white poppy? expect a white loogy in return for spitting in the face of every soldier who sacrificed their blood on the battle fields so you can have the rights and freedoms you enjoy today. I will gladly spit in the face of anyone I see wearing a white poppy and I will be encouraging others to do the same.”

Incredibly, these people believe that they are showing respect. I am not wearing a red poppy this year because I know these people are wearing them. Again, I do not want my message to be mistaken.

Every year since I’ve been blogging, I have posted on Remembrance Day (and Veterans Day). This year, I am giving the floor to veterans. Even so, I know there will be people who read this and want to spew ugliness over it. I’ve decided that tomorrow, I am just going to be silent, and show my respect that way.

*

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

– Douglas MacArthur

Any soldier worth his salt should be antiwar. And still there are things worth fighting for.

– Norman Schwarzkopf

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.

– William Tecumseh Sherman

An honorable Peace is and always was my first wish! I can take no delight in the effusion of human Blood; but, if this War should continue, I wish to have the most active part in it.

– John Paul Jones

No one hates war like a soldier hates war.

– Tommy Franks

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

We know how to win wars. We must learn now to win peace…
– Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers

***


 

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Undulating Perspective II: Blurry?

Odd how my last post was about climbing ladders out of dark places… and then this week I’ve felt barely able to climb a very short ladder.

I’ve just gone back and re-read a post from almost four years ago, in which I discussed how widely varied is my outlook on life, depending on several (mostly physical) factors. It was both comforting and kinda sad to read my own words and realize that my present self seems to be in the exact same mental place as my past self. Except I rather think that my fluctuations are a bit more intense these days… but maybe it’s just that I don’t remember clearly. I know I tend to look back on E’s babyhood with rose-coloured glasses, so maybe it was actually just as hard.

Here are some things contributing to my ladder-slipping:

  • Realizing that, for the past five years (plus a month or two), I have been either pregnant or breastfeeding (at night), except for a six-month window when I was intensely grieving. So basically, I don’t remember what it’s like to have proper energy levels.
  • We are passing around a cold – it’s been well over a month now – and I’m not sure how we’re ever supposed to kick it without KIBOSHING ALL BABY KISSES, which is simply not gonna happen.
  • It gets me down when my house is a mess… but I have this little person in my house who believes it’s her sworn duty to un-tidy everything I tidy up – usually simultaneously. She is a champion meddler/messer-upper. And her brother willingly collaborates, when he’s home.
  • Work has been tough this week. I came home one day and confessed to Sean that it was one of those days where I ask myself Why did I pick this job again? I said, “It was like pulling teeth the whole time,” to which he mischievously responded, “Imagine if you COULD pull their teeth?” That did provide a good chuckle. (“Come here, kid. You’ve just lost another molar.”)
  • Baby AB has sharp teeth that can put serious dents in your finger, if you let ’em. Now imagine that on your nipple. NOT. COOL. E had a short stint of nipple-biting, but always let go when I yelled. This one just hangs on.
  • As you may have surmised above, Baby AB and I are still not sleeping through the night. This is undoubtedly the main cause of my lack of optimism. We are working on it, and I’m sure eventually all will be well. But in the meantime… sigh.
  • E is still in his dramatic phase (or what we desperately pray is a phase). It seems he’s pretty sweet at school most of the time, but at home he has a tendency to use his nasty voice and/or whiny voice and/or horrible screeches often enough that Sean and I are both losing patience way more often than we’d like. With two kids at the screamy stage together, it’s a bit much.
  • It seems I don’t get anything done. (Case in point: how long since my last blog post?) I have no idea how other people have consistently clean kitchens or vacuumed floors or calm inboxes or pre-planned meals or reliable workout schedules. (If I owe you a phone call or email or letter or playdate or a visit… I’m sorry!)

When I get to feeling clobbered by life, my knee-jerk reaction is to think of people who have it worse, by all kinds of degrees. My colleagues who have much tougher student situations than mine. My friends with really upsetting family crises. Parents of very sick children, and children of very sick parents. Moms who live in war zones and have to protect their children from bombs. It does put things in perspective – I mean seriously, what do I have to cry about? – but also makes me feel like a wuss. Shouldn’t I be better at my own (simple, easy) life by now?

What does help is to remind myself that I’ll probably feel better very soon, because all kinds of things can turn the day (or at least the hour) around. For example:

  • My Hubbibi has a new job that, although it’s not his dream job yet, is far less stressful than his last one.
  • Two new babies among my friends in the last two weeks! Yay!
  • Last Sunday I participated in my first-ever blogger brunch, and got to hang out (sans children!) with five smart, creative, inspiring ladies-who-blog, only one of whom I already knew, but all of whom it was a true pleasure to meet. (They have the kind of gorgeous blogs that I will forever pin, knowing I shall never achieve that level of pinnability in my own blog. I’ve already mentioned bear & lion; please also meet Heart, Heather, Heather in Heels, Lovely & Chic, and Rustic Retrievals.)
  • Yesterday I gave my Grade 5/6 class a (Hunger-Games-themed) activity booklet I’d made, and they were actually MORE excited than I’d expected. It felt like a coup, seeing them rush to finish their French questions so that they could do… more French!
  • That nipple-biting, mess-making baby is also darn cute and funny. She makes us laugh a LOT.
  • I’d still rather E be sweet at school and a turkey at home, rather than the opposite.
  • I know that if I say I’m having a rough time, there are many people in my life who immediately offer moral support. (For example, both my sisters detected the sub-text of stress in my texts this week and expressed their concern. I appreciate it even when I don’t feel I have time to talk about it.)
  • Even with the exhaustion, sometimes it’s stunningly clear in my heart that everything is okay, and that I’m incredibly fortunate. For example, when my kids play together. Too cute for pessimism.

IMG_5094
LOVE.

I’m fine, y’all. Thanks for letting me vent. <3 <3 <3

***


 

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Preschooler No More

11:36 a.m.

Dear E,

Today is your first full day of kindergarten – JK. I am sitting here fervently wishing I were a fly on the wall of your classroom. Are you having fun? Are you nervous about anything? Did (do) you like your first recess? Are the other kids nice? Have you eaten any of your lunch? Are you remembering to ask for help when you need it? I know that by the time you get home, you will remember approximately three things – if that – and they probably won’t be the things I would ask you about.

I was so proud of how ready you were today.

You have gone from saying “I don’t want to go to school” earlier in the summer to “When do I get to go to school??” just recently. (I think the turning point was when we bought your backpack and lunch bag and indoor shoes.)

You have visited your classroom twice, and met your teachers. Your first time there, at the JK visit in August, you found your name tag, went right in and had only a moment or two of hesitation, holding my hand, before you began exploring the different (lovely!) activities on the tables… You had your friend C with you, a bit older and experienced with school, so I just sat aside and watched you and the other JKs discovering your classroom. I could perfectly imagine you as part of your big class, doin’ the kindergarten thing, just like the JKs I taught two years ago.

Then Friday was an hour-long visit – with no parents. You had been a bit worried about it; the night before you’d said to me, “What if I get lost?” We have talked a lot about school in recent weeks, so you wouldn’t stew with your worries – and so you’d have an idea of what to expect. Daddy says that he dropped you off with no fuss at all, and when he picked you up, you wanted to go to school the very next day (Saturday). You learned (and remembered!) the word bibilothèque. You told anyone who wanted to know, “I went to school! I had my first day, and next time I’m going to ride the bus!”

So, on this cool, sunny morning, Daddy and Auntie Em and Baby AB and I accompanied you to the bus stop. You had a few moments where you weren’t sure you wanted to take the bus after all, but when it arrived, Daddy helped you up (those ENORMOUS steps with your GIGANTIC-looking backpack) and you sat in the first seat. You didn’t cry. You waved to us calmly – we were smiling like mad so you wouldn’t forget how great it is to ride the bus – and then you were gone.

photo

Your posse waded home through a wave of emotion and nostalgia. Daddy fretted about the things you might not be ready for, and whether you would be okay. Now that I’ve spent plenty of time in kindergarten classrooms, I could confidently tell him that you would be fine – you’d probably already had circle time, been to the bathroom with a group or a buddy, played at recess… but of course I was fretting inside too, because that’s part of what moms do.

Good thing I know some things about kindergarten teachers, especially 1) that they’ve pretty much seen everything, and 2) that they are amazing and full of love.

I remember witnessing, two years ago, the parents dropping their kids off for the first full day of JK. Some children were crying and clinging, and some marched right in, eager to get going. Then, once the kids were finally all inside, there were a lot of parents peering in the classroom windows, emotional themselves, trying to see their progeny in the new habitat, inadvertently causing some children to recommence dramatics.

At the time, I didn’t truly understand. Shouldn’t you be thrilled when your child embarks on a new phase, especially if s/he is excited to go to school? (And shouldn’t you hightail it out of there as soon as s/he has successfully made it into the classroom?)

Now I get it: it’s actually harder for parents than it is for kids. I know that yes, we ARE thrilled, and shattered too.

How amazing that you, an incredible creature we’ve so carefully grown and sculpted (or tried to), are now a semi-independent being. How painful that you are now going to go have a whole life apart from ours.

Especially now. When I went to kindergarten, I went for half-days. Even the kids I taught came every other day. You, like most kids in the province do by now, will be going all day, every day. That’s most of your waking time. And I’ve just spent the fourth year of your life on maternity leave, so I’m used to having lots of time with you and witnessing lots of E-awesomeness. (And some other stuff too.) It’s tough thinking about all the cool things you will do… that I will miss. But that’s how it’s supposed to be.

***

9:26 p.m.

The first big day is done… You did great! (And so did we, resisting the urge to get in the car and follow the bus.) Mr. A, our friend who now works at your school instead of mine, was kind enough to let me know that you’d had a good recess and send me a bit of footage of you with a big smile.

What a relief – and only partially surprising. You are so sensitive sometimes, so melodramatic… and then sometimes you are just strong and take everything in stride. You came home with your new communication bag, and your lunch part-eaten (I’ll bet you dawdled), and you were happy, and even kinda nonchalant about your day. (And I was right – there wasn’t much you felt like telling us. Why should you? You live in the moment – that’s what childhood is for.)

You were pretty worn out, though. Dinner was a series of medium-sized meltdowns – which we were expecting. Right now, you’re probably in the deepest sleep of your life thus far.

Sweetie boy, we are SO PROUD OF YOU. You’re a wonderful person.

Love forever.

baby E
Weren’t you JUST this a minute ago??
e and baby ab
Now you’re the SO big brother.

***


 

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