When We Look Back


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Years ago when the ink was barely dry on my heart wrenching divorce, I was in the very necessary stage of moping around the house and crying. A friend who had apparently grown weary of my lament, sent me a picture of a quadriplegic wounded warrior, lying in the crib with his new baby.

Ouch. Okay. I got it. I got the point. I understood the whole “I felt bad because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

Dry your tears. Count your blessings. It could be worse. It could always be worse.

But the thing is, I needed that time. I needed to feel sad and grieve my loss. I needed to putter around and feel the heartbreak of everything I had lost. I wasn’t going to live in that space forever, but I needed to pass through it to get to the other side.

The other side is where I would find the gift of perspective. Perspective would show me how much better and beautiful life could still turn out to be– something I couldn’t see just yet.

Perspective is the gift of time and experience. 

Last week my daughter, along with thousands of other high school seniors across the country, found out that school is officially canceled for the rest of the year. While we suspected this might be the case, we were just barely holding onto the tiniest thread of hope that maybe… just maybe… things would end differently.

We weren’t ready for it to be over. She wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.

I intentionally keep saying “we” and “us”, because it has occured to me over and over again that while this is primarily her loss, it’s my loss too.  She is my youngest. The baby.  I’ve championed her (and two other kids) through these years and dreamed of her success and accomplishments right alongside her. It’s the end of an era for her, but it’s the end of an era for me, too.

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One day she woke up and went to school, like it was any other day, never realizing it was actually her last day of high school forever.  It has left everything so unfinshed. Undone. Wanting. It feels like we’ve been reading this fantastic adventure about her life and suddenly the pages go blank. What happens? Where’s the rest of the story? Where are the pictures of Prom? The senior picnic? Signing yearbooks? What about hearing her name called and watching as she walks across the stage at graduation…the victorious culmination of all these years? Parts of the story are missing now and we’re trying to figure out how to write the ending. Somehow, a closing chapter needs to be written.

 


 

If it sounds dramatic, I’m okay with that.

It feels dramatic. 

For my daughter and others like her, the depth of time is much shallower in youth.  Each day, week, and month carry a lot more weight when there’s only been 17 or 18 years of living. There’s a post going around social media reminding us that boys barely out of high school left to go off to the Vietnam war and that’s how their senior year ended. It feels as though it’s meant to shame some sense into our modern-day seniors. And while I understand what’s trying to be said, I have to imagine those boys did not march off to war galantly that very day. Only perspective years later could show them the honor and value in their sacrifice.


So for today, as we navigate these tricky waters together, I steer clear talking of silver linings. She knows things could be worse.  And we’re all beyond grateful we have our health. But also, we are sad. There is loss. It is hard.

Someday, when we look back, when she looks back, I already have so much anticipation to hear what gifts time and experience will deliver. I think about her sitting in job interviews or talking to her own kids about perseverance, optimism, and making the best of a bad situation. After all, she’s part of the Class of 2020. The Year of the Quarantine.

Missing out on the second half of senior year will always sting a little, of course, and not yet, but someday it’s going to make her life richer in ways she can’t know today. It’s going to make her stronger in ways she won’t see tomorrow. It’s going to make her wiser in ways she can’t understand right now.

It’s also going to make for one hell of a story for the rest of her life. Take it from me, kid. I’ve got the time and experience and someday, you will too.

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Post Script for Emery Patricia~ You have been the best quarantine buddy a girl could ever ask for. You have braved these weird, scary, uncertain times with courage, stability, and humor that has us laughing every single day. You already knew how to do hard things, but now you can add “Canceled and Quarantined Senior Year” to the list.

“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can”~

You have. And you will. And now you’re off to go finish writing the rest of your story! Congratulations, Emery!

 

Does It Ever Get Easier? [Spoiler: No]

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Photo Cred: Harper’s Bazaar 2012

A young single mom recently asked me if this gig ever gets easier. You know, the momming by yourself? I was alone in my bed, drinking wine and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and laughed out loud. Poor sweet thing. She might be thinking since my squad is a lot older than hers, I’m on easy street now. But alas. It doesn’t quite work that way.

My short answer? It doesn’t get easier. You get tougher.

And while nothing feels better than being an invincible, badass woman and single mom, holy smokes–shit ain’t easy.

But here’s the long answer:

The past few years have been some of my toughest mom years yet. When they’re younger, the physical exhaustion is greater than the mental exhaustion. But as they get older, it’s the mental load of single-momming that weighs the heaviest.

School stuff. Grades. Projects. Health issues. Health insurance. Driving. Cars. Car insurance. Friend problems. Boyfriend problems. Broken hearts. SATs. College visits. College decisions. Financial aid. Teach them life skills. Teach them coping skills. Teach them math. Proof read papers. Quiz them on vocab. Teach them morals. Teach them boundaries. Teach them about relationships. Teach them about God. Religion. Tolerance. Safety.

But also, have fun. Be cheerful. Be happy. Be breezy. Make memories. Create a warm home environment that reminds them we’re a family. A whole, loving, family.

By yourself.

With your job. And your house. And all the other life stuff that comes with being a grown up. (By the way, look good. Stay in shape. Eat well. Don’t age.)

In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed says this of single moms, “She has to be her best self more often than it’s reasonable for any human to be.” 

There is no luxury of passing the baton or tag-teaming it. There is no whispering fears in the dark of night.

“What will we do if….?”

“How should we handle…?”

“I’m scared.”

There is no space for being too tired. Too spent. Too done with the day. The week. The month. Life. They need me. And they need to know that I am here and I am present and accessible and theirs. No matter what happens. No matter what we face. And happily so.

It’s not that I don’t have a super supportive family and friends. I do. And I could not be more grateful. Their intense love and support for both me and my kids is a total game-changer. But the buck still stops with me. There is still an aloneness to single-parenting that rests squarely on my shoulders. 

I have to make it okay. Every single day, I have to make it okay. That is my job. And my commitment to giving my kids the lightest part of the mental load runs deep.

“We will figure it out.”

“What’s coming will come and we’ll meet it when it does.”

“I’m not worried about it. We’ve got this.”

These are my mantras. There are no alternatives. If anyone is going to lose sleep under this roof, it’s going to be me. There is a constant drive to make their lives feel whole. Safe. Steady. Happy.


If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. If it sounds like a cry for sympathy it’s not. Raising these three kids? It’s the Magnum Opus of my life. It’s also really f*cking hard. And not (necessarily) because they’re hard kids. But because life is hard and there’s something about parenting alone that is lonely. Every misstep and mistake follows a trail leading back to me. But also every triumph. And there’s been lots of both.

I’ll never get over the wonder I feel for each one of them. These magical people they are turning out to be; But I can’t get over the amazement for who I’ve turned out to be, either.

I did it. I’m doing it. We’re doing it together.

I am trying to sell my kids the world. I want them to believe along with me that life is good. This world is tough. Life can be absolutely brutal, but it’s still a good place to be.

This life, right here with them, is exactly where I want to be.

“Any decent realtor, walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”                    [Good Bones, by Maggie Smith]

I have made this place beautiful. And so far, I think they’re buying what I’m selling.

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If you’re new around here and curious about the backstory to my single momming, grab a glass of wine or cup of tea and your own bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, settle in, and read  THIS post about becoming a widow at 26, or THIS post about divorce. Yes that’s right. Widowed and Divorce. All that and a bag of Cheetos 😉

Somehow, Sunday Always Comes

It’s around noon on Easter Sunday. I’m at my kitchen table with a Bloody Mary waiting for my beloved Carrot Souffle to come out of the oven. In an hour or so, I’ll be sitting around my parents’ dining room table, blessed to still have both my mom and dad. My brother and his wife will be there, and happily, this year I’ll be joined by my son, my youngest daughter and my boyfriend (which still always feels weird to say at the age of 45…) My older daughter is in another state with her grandma, having her own Easter.

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I’ve been thinking all morning about the ways my parents’ dining room table has changed over the past 20 years or so. About the way it is different every year, every holiday. I’m thinking of all the times there were both empty seats and a full kids table. All the memories. The silent tears and heartaches around the table. The laughs. The new life. The new people who have only passed through and those who have stayed.  At some point or another, almost all of us were either widowed, divorced, or sat there with and without our kids. We’ve mourned spouses, grandparents, and kids and babies who should be here.

It’s amazing to me. Life is amazing to me. The way families and relationships and life changes over the years. There are years I sat at that table afraid to speak or I would cry. Years I drank a little too much so I didn’t have to think about being the lone single person there, with or without my kids.  Life is just so fragile and so beautiful and I see it so clearly around the dining room table.

I don’t know what Easter means to you, but on this Easter Sunday, I think about how Sunday always comes. Historically speaking, Good Friday was the darkest day in human history. And Saturday– the time and space between Friday and Sunday– seemed dark. So very dark. Sad. Quiet. Hopeless. And as if it would last forever.

But Sunday came. It did. Somehow, Sunday always comes. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s not how we ever pictured it, Sunday comes. And in its own way, it is new and beautiful and it is okay. I feel grateful today. Sunday is here. It is hardly what I pictured. But there will be eating and drinking and laughing and celebrating. It is sunny and new and somehow, it’s still going to be beautiful.

A Thank You Letter to my Toughest Kid

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I never thought I’d write you, of all people, a thank you note. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? After all, for what on earth do I have to thank you? If there’s a debt of gratitude here, isn’t it from you to me?

But I’m reading “Field Notes on the Compassionate Life- A Search for the Soul of Kindness,” by Marc Ian Barasch, and like any book worth the paper it’s printed on, with every page I am propelled into an emotional tug of war.

“Soren Kierkegaard said we think a person who is loved owes a debt of gratitude to the one who loves them. There is an expectation that it should be repaid in kind, on installment, “reminiscent,” he says sarcastically, “of an actual bookkeeping arrangement.” Instead, he turns the whole thing on its head: “No, the one who loves runs into debt; in feeling himself gripped by love, he feels this as being in an infinite debt. Amazing!”

Was Kierkegaard onto something? Is it I who owes you for the privilege it has been to love you? For the way that love has transformed me? Shaped me? Whittled me down to the core of my personhood? Dared me to look in the mirror and see myself for who I really am– flaws and imperfections included– so that I could fully understand who YOU really are and all the ways we are more or less the same? So I could see how similar our struggles really are? So I could humbly take note of all the things I want to change about you- that I pray you outgrow- and clearly see they are the very things I hope and pray for myself?

Like a hurricane, you have torn through my life at times, upsetting all that was so meticulously thought out and designed for my comfort and enjoyment. My ease. You force me to regroup. Re-think. Re-configure. Your selfishness forces my hand to be more generous in word and in deed. Your frequent lack of concern for my feelings forces me to see all the ways I, too, am selfish and self-centered and want the universe to revolve around me.

Your strong-willed spirit requires so much more from me than I knew I had.  Your absolute insistence to do things your way instead of mine constantly reminds me that I do not own you. You belong to yourself and you need to live in a way that makes sense to you, even when I don’t understand, even when it would never work for me.

You would not let me be a lazy mom (if such a thing exists). You’ve demanded I be present. Involved. Aware. Creative. Much more thoughtful. Smarter. Clever. Strategizing and learning to cope with what I, in my piety, have deemed a difficult person.

For all the circumstances you dragged me into involuntarily that required me to get over myself; That obligated me to learn how to circle the wagons in loyalty even when my heart was breaking in humility, thank you. For compelling me to dig deeper and become the best version of myself as a mom, a woman, person, just by being who you are, thank you.  Because of you, I’ve seen the very worst and very best of what I’m able to be. Do. Overcome. Persevere through in order to give you more. More. More. More. Thank you.

You see, the other children are easy. Rule followers. Quick to listen. Quick to act. Wanting to please. They require so little of me, really. I can relax around them.  But not you. Your struggles. Your needs. Your unwillingness to just do things my way, dammit will not let me rest. They have driven me crazy with anger and frustration and grief and made me search. Search, search, search.

You have kept me awake at night, gripped with fear. Whispering prayers in desperation. Prayers for you, prayers for me. Holy utterings that one of us will somehow get this right. This growing. This learning. This becoming. And somehow, even though I am the parent and you are the child, it’s happening together. It’s happening to both of us at once. While I am trying to teach you, you are teaching me. And though I would not have chosen it to be like this– while I would have rather taken the easy road, it’s the difficulties here that are refining both of us.

And I have finally accepted that the toughest chapters of my life have always. Always. Always been followed by the best chapters of my life.  And that includes the pages with your name on them. And your name is on all of them.

I’ve always believed each child should secretly suspect they are their mother’s favorite; That I’ve done such a thorough job favoring each one of you, NONE of you would believe this is about you.

So if you’re reading this and do imagine it to be you? Thanks, kid. I owe you.

 

{Looking for another Mother’s Day read? Check out The Mosaic of Motherhood from a few years back.}

 

Suck it up, Buttercup

 

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Photo Cred: HAIR, by John Barrett

She was crying as we pulled up to the school and she didn’t want to get out of the car. My daughter was having an “off” morning and I was trying to decide on the best course of action. Is there a worse way for a mom or dad to start the day than with a crying kid who doesn’t want to go to school? I was stuck in the frustrating in-between of wanting to push her out the door so I could get on with my day and wanting to crawl back in bed and snuggle her close, rub her back and shelter her from whatever was making her upset.

“Are you going? What are we doing here?”

“Do you think you can you suck it up and make it through your day? If I’m going to get a call from the nurse in 5 minutes, please just save me the trip back to school and we’ll turn around right now.”

” I know you don’t feel 100%– but you don’t have to feel 100% to make it through the day.” (Hell, I make it through all kinds of days hovering around 35% or so.)

Yeah. These are things I said. But if you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure you’ve said them too.

We circled the Drop-Off loop one more time while she was wiping the tears and checking her mascara in the visor mirror, all the while my heart complexly interwoven with impatience and heartbreak. I knew it was not her best day. I knew she was upset. And I knew she was upset with me, too. She thought I was being hard on her and that was making everything worse.

As we pulled up to the doors, my eyes were watching the clock. I knew in one more minute she’d be late and I’d have to cop a lame excuse note, but the tears were still coming.

Ticking clock. Cars behind me. Buses lined up to move. What do I do? Do I make my normally cheerful little freshman walk into school crying? Do I drive us back home? On any given day, I’ve done both.

Today? I made her get out.

“I love you. Take a deep breath. You can do this. I know it’s not your favorite thing right now. It’s not mine either. But in just a little bit, you’ll be distracted and moving on with your day. Go. So you’re not late. Hop out.”

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Many a day I’ve allowed less than sick kids stay home. Many a day I’ve coddled kids who didn’t feel up to doing whatever the day required of them. And the more time goes by, I’m not sure it was the right decision. In the moment, it was the easiest decision, but the easiest decision and the right decision are unfortunately not usually the same thing.

When you’re trying to raise up kids into strong-minded and responsible adults, it becomes more clear on the daily that you’re not doing them any favors when you allow them to lie down under the weight of their little world. It’s not reality. It’s not how life works. And it’s a mentality that won’t serve them well– or at all– in the Grown Up world.

A friend recently introduced me to the famous acronym, MTXE, coined and embraced by former Wichita State head coach Gene Smithson during his tenure from 1978-86, which stands for “Mental Toughness Extra Effort,” a mindset that helped the Shockers compile a 155-81 record with two Missouri Valley Conference titles and a trip to the Elite Eight over a span of eight years. I’ve started using it with my kids and there are days I want to write it on my own hand as a reminder.

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I think of my own life experiences, of things that have required Mental Toughness and Extra Effort in my own life (widowed at 26 with 2 small children, a tough marriage, a tough divorce, an accident resulting in a few broken bones and surgeries, to name a few);  Of the endless days I’ve lived through compartmentalizing personal pain, anxiety or fear so that I could fulfill obligations and responsibilities and be a dependable mother, employee, daughter, friend. I want to know I’m raising my kids with the mental toughness and fortitude that difficult life- or even just DAILY life- experiences require; That there is a way to be both aware of your feelings and in control enough of them as well, so you can face the day regardless.

I’ll be thinking of my daughter all day, aware that she’s struggling. And if the school calls and I need to pick her up, of course that’s okay. But I still won’t be sorry I made her get out of the car. And someday, even if it’s not today, neither will she.

 

 

Your Kids are Watching You. Man Up.

Yesterday was a bad day. It didn’t start out that way, but at some point in the afternoon, it slid sideways.  Kid issues, pain from a jacked up back, the death of someone we know- by dinner time, I was done. DONE. I felt irritable and sad and just off.

And boy did my kids feel it.

I was short. Impatient. Annoyed. Quiet. They’re not used to that version of me- at least not anymore- and it was awful. By the time we sat down to eat, there was silence. And so on top of everything else, Mom Guilt over the atmosphere I had created was washing over me heavily. After dinner, I laid down with a heating pad on my back and texted each kid an apology.

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jaznajalil.com Things Mums Do…

That might sound lame, but that is definitely how we handle some things around here and it works for us. Sometimes it’s a little easier to say exactly how we feel when it’s not face to face. Plus, everyone scattered after dinner, no doubt, to escape me.

My kids were forgiving and gracious and understanding and I’m grateful. And as I went to bed early to put us all out of our misery, I promised myself, “I’ll do better tomorrow.”

Here’s the thing: It’s not that there’s no room for us as parents to be human; of course there is. Actually, it’s important that our kids see us feeling and see us working through some of our stuff  (when it’s appropriate), but it was impressed upon me for the millionth time: My mood and attitude sets the tone for everyone- and it’s not a job I take lightly.

If I’m happy, they feel it and they’re happy, too. If I’m sad, they feel it and they’re concerned.  If I’m mad, they feel it and they don’t like it. If I’m worried, they feel it and it makes them anxious. If I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, they see it and they take note. When I’m proud of them, they stand a little taller, work a little harder.

You get the point. And I know you see it in your own house.

Man, that’s a lot of power. And a LOT of responsibility.

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And so when I woke up this morning, I knew I needed to regroup before the day got underway.  I made coffee, wrote in my gratitude journal, prayed for myself, for them, for all of us on this journey together. I looked over some meditations to strengthen and encourage myself and basically re-center myself in goodness and positivity. And it worked. I woke the youngest and as we sat at the table while she ate breakfast, we talked and laughed the way we always do and I knew she was relieved I was feeling better today.

So I want to tell all the other Mamas and Daddies out there today: Regroup. Do whatever it takes. Make whatever changes you need to, big or little. Get counseling. Get medication. Get time away. Get a hobby.

Your kids need the best and brightest version of yourself.

They need you to man up. They need you to find a way to push through the bullshit of life like a champ. They’re watching you and taking their cues from you. And they’re modeling much of their own behavior after YOU.

There is no excuse. There is honestly no excuse. My back still hurts. Today will bring the usual crap any day brings. But the sun is shining and today’s a new day. I’m here and I’m ready and so are they. Let’s do this.

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Taking the Long View

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One of my kids recently had to do something really hard. They had to go make something right that they had kind of screwed up. This is no easy feat, no matter how old you are. Making a mistake is so much easier than making amends. But making amends is so powerful. So much better. So freeing.

And so as my kid was going out the door to go do this thing– and just DREADING it, I looked them in the eye and said, “You are GOOD. YOU. Are. A good, good soul. You’ve got this.”

And then I cried at my desk. Tears of gratitude. Tears of compassion and humility and overwhelming love. Motherhood, personhood, is so raw and exhausting at times.

And what I’m learning right now is that it takes decades to build a person. Decades.

We expect so very much from ourselves and from our kids. And yes, it’s good to have standards and expectations; of course we should. But our character, our true selves, our best selves, our real selves…those things are built over a lifetime. An entire lifetime. And yet we expect things from each other that we just haven’t had the time and life experience to develop.

 

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Rialto’s Drift (USA) by Patrick Marson Ong

As a mom, this moves me deeply and challenges me to see my children in a different light. I expect so much of them. Self awareness and emotional intelligence are a high priority for me personally, but at 43, I’m just barely there. And it’s hard, conscious work all the time. I’m not sure how I can possibly expect the people in my house who have the distinct disadvantage of less time and less life experience (and let’s be honest- less therapy) to be even close to that.

So I’m learning to take the long view. Nobody needs to be perfect right now. Or tomorrow. Or next week. (Or quite frankly, next month or next year. Mercy.) Nobody needs to get it all right, right now. We need to keep stumbling forward. Making tiny strides and picking each other up with lots of empathy towards how hard it is to grow up and adult. Lots of forgiveness. Lots of grace. Lots of Love. Lots of acceptance. Lots of quiet conversations about who we are and who we want to be and if our actions today are helping us get there.  Lots of laughter at ourselves and with each other as we’re  trying to figure it all out. Over decades. Over a lifetime.

Because here’s the thing about the short view: It’s incomplete. It’s underdeveloped. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s unfair. It’s unforgiving. It’s unrealistic. It’s impossible. It’s an exercise in frustration– with ourselves and with each other. It’s harsh and uninformed.

It’s true the longview takes a long time– a lifetime– But since that’s all we’ve got, I’m going to stick around for it because I can see in the distance it’s going to be beautiful.

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