Category Archives: Books

Learning to Breathe: A review

People have come into my life in a profoundly perfect way over the past year. – Priscilla Warner, Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life

I know just how this feels. It’s a remarkable thing. A gift really. To receive exactly what or who you need, precisely when you need it. I’ve experienced it myself in many ways through my own journey, which began just two years ago. And today, as I sit comfortably in the afterglow of Priscilla’s exquisite memoir, I realize it has happened yet again. Now, with this book, the timing is once again “profoundly perfect.” And even more, I’m certain it was meant to be. What more of an indication did I need but to learn as I read that we share a birthday.

I cannot speak highly enough of Priscilla’s writing. Not only is it elegant and gracefully honest, but accessible in that the context is precise, detailed and completely  imaginable. Her experience becomes the reader’s experience, and you can’t help but cheer her along as she writes of her year-long journey to bring calm to her life. She narrates her quest from the point of view of living it, but also as wise observer. This is a great gift to the reader because she offers a valuable opportunity for everyone to truly learn from her experience, and she does it by sharing all the parts of her journey, her thoughts, her worries, her conversations. All of it.

“Science gives us a lot of the raw information to work with [on anxiety and panic], but how everything applies to you as in an individual is a very specific thing, which you’ll have to figure out for yourself,” says Priscilla’s therapist, Dr. Jaeger.

And this is precisely what she does in this book. She takes the science, she takes the spirit ,and she shows us how she used it to figure it all out for herself. Powerful stuff.

As I read this book and connected with her journey to the very core of my being, as I cried and gasped in understanding and kinship, as I underlined bits and pieces of text, and left dark, heartfelt exclamation marks in the margins, I ironically, felt myself  holding my breath because of the connection I’d found.  I’m just now finding the strength and clarity to emerge from my own season of fighting panic to find peace, and it was the reading of this book that finally helped me recognize what I have done.  Two years ago, when I set out to find myself, I never expected that I would almost lose myself in the process. The markers for my own depression and anxiety were all there, but I now know that I wasn’t ready to face it until this season in my life. It nearly broke me, but in doing so, I was ready for it to save me. I have come across dark waters, but to cross I had to be willing to dive in, to tread water, and finally to extend each arm, tentatively at first, fighting strong counter currents, but soon growing stronger as I learned that I could swim.

This is the lesson of this book, this is the gift that Priscilla offers with her words, and in sharing the guidance she was given by so many others.

“The convention of panic was just a thin veil for you,” Rabbi Robert Sachs told Priscilla in an e-mail one day, which she then shared with us in her book. “It cloaked the stillness and compassion that is you. It takes great courage to let it all go and to display the unbearableness of so much love.

If you’ve struggled with anxiety or depression, or simply feel lost in your life, this book will inspire you to find a path to peace and happiness.

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I know this

When I sat there in that dark room, remembering to breathe, I recognized an inherent inauthenticity in my mothering: I was resolute and cheerful; I was scared all the time. What I felt had nothing to do with how I acted. – Claire Dederer, Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses.

In more ways that I can describe right now, I know this. I will come back to it. Soon.

 

Book review: This beautiful life

I first published this review in August 2011. Now that the paperback edition is available, I’m sharing it again and giving a copy away. The subject matter covered in This Beautiful Life is incredibly relevant, especially for parents whose children are starting to use, or are actively engaging social media. But more than that, it’s an important reflection on self-identity and family dynamics. I expect we’ll see more and more discourse on this. It’s definitely worth the read.

To win a copy of the book, simply leave your name in the comments below. I’ll do the draw on Friday, February 17 at 6 p.m. EST.

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Over the last year I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction, memoirs, parenting guides, and spiritual guides. They’ve helped to give some shape to my life, kept me digging deep, and moving forward. But every once in a while I’ve needed a break, which I’ve found in a good dose of fiction to lose myself in. I call them inhalers, the kind of books you pick up and just can’t put down until the last page, until you reach some form of closure and deep satisfaction. I lose myself in words, words that draw distinct and incredible edges around fictional worlds that can be engaging and entertaining, sometimes shocking, often moving.

On Monday I endured a really long travel day that began before 7 a.m. and didn’t finally end until I collapsed in my hotel room after 8 p.m.  The comedy of delays was made bearable only by the lack of children in tow, and because I had ample time to crack the cover on an inhaler, This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman. And while it was very a much a page turner that I practically devoured, it also had a plot line that hit close to home and has left me feeling concern and deep unease.

This Beautiful Life is the story of the Bergamots, who have moved from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City. This upper-class family’s life is ripped apart when Jake, the 15-year-old son, wakes up one morning after an unchaperoned party and finds a sexually explicit email in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. In his youthful naivete, he forwards the video to a friend, who then for-wards it to a friend and within hours, it’s gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world. What follows is an exploration of the boundaries of privacy and the definition of self and a critical commentary of modern life ripe with critical, and sometimes satirical, observations about family, morality, and the  choices we make as parents.

While the story was entertaining, gripping, and culturally important, I was struck by the lack of depth to the plot. There is so much Schulman could have done to more fully develop the characters and explore the larger social issues that defined them that I was left somewhat disappointed. My gut reaction is that this book was rushed to print to be the first to initiate discussion of the issues explored rather than to fully develop this controversial topic.

That aside, I did find the characters compelling and her descriptors rich with imagery. The story itself raised interesting and important awareness of the future struggles I am sure to face when my own boys approach adolescence, things that we’ve all struggled with:  self-worth, belonging, understanding and communicating emotions and feelings and helping them navigate their new independence and find their way in the world.

If you are looking for an emotional read with true-to-life and compelling characters, that requires you to keep turning the pages while obliging a deeper consideration of your own parenting style and relationship modelling, then I recommend this book. Those of you who, like me, have young children will be glad for the early eye-opener, and those with children closer to or deep into adolescence will seriously reflect on the broader consequences of your child’s use of technology and how you parent and influence their personal lives.

(Full disclosure: Harper Collins sent me a review copy of This Beautiful Life)

Faith: A review

I’ve been reading a lot of creative non-fiction lately, memoir mostly, with books on writing and personal growth laced snugly in between.

I needed a break. I wanted to spice things up and lose myself in the woven world of well-written fiction. My husband doesn’t understand my affinity for books. He reads, of course, but magazines and websites and motorcycle reviews. The idea of drifting distractedly into a delicious novel is completely foreign to him. I’ve explained my thirst for it to him before, how the characters in novels become real people, how the networks and plot lines that weave their tales literally takeover and I become part of their stories, how I then miss them when it’s over, and suffer a sort of grief after every good book I read. He just shakes his head in astonishment, his expression clearly says that he thinks I’m a bit off.

It makes me sad only insofar that I wish he could know it. There is nothing better than digging into a delicious work of fiction, ravaging each page until you close the back cover, sated and full of the images of new people who were, for a time, your family.

So this weekend, I put my feet up and cracked the cover on a new work of fiction: Faith by Jennifer Haigh. From the very first chapter, the author held me captivated. As a Catholic girl, it both troubled and fascinated me.

Faith is a powerful and compelling drama that follows the story and scandal of a once-beloved Catholic priest, Art Breen, as told by his sister Sheila McGann. Sheila weaves the tale of her Irish-American family, their beliefs, their dark secrets through the development of complex characters and their family dynamic, while at the same providing a powerful commentary on the corruption in the Catholic church. The book has all the intrigue and page-turning qualities of a suspenseful thriller, and yet engages the reader with it’s honesty and spirit.

What moved me most about this book was the intricacy with which the author layered each character, portraying each as an individual, while at the same time twisting them together through elaborate descriptions of their connectedness as a family. Her prose is both clear and enticing , while at the same rich and poetic as fitting to the depth of the story she tells.

Over and over Haigh uses the word shame. And truly this is the central theme of the story. A family’s shame, a priests shame, a sister’s shame. This is the thesis, the compunction, that propels the story forward.

If you are looking for an absorbing read, I highly recommend this. The writing is intelligent and witty. But I warn you, the story line is not for the feint of heart. Prepare to cry, to feel uneasy, surprised and to feel deep heartache for all that was lost, and all that could have been.

(Full disclosure: Harper Collins sent me a review copy of Faith)

Living life between hands, head and heart

I’m sitting in my dining room. There is a storm brewing. The wind is blowing the curtains in front me into a frenzy. It matches my mood perfectly as I finish reading This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman. I inhaled this powerful, and intense memoir, at times laughing, others horrified and humbled, and then moved beyond what words can easily express.

I’m left with the intensity of emotion it stirred, feeling equal parts joy and deep sadness.

In this memoir, Coleman shares her incredible story. Every word, every image she depicts has been woven into my heart and I feel so full and connected to it.  The world she describes is intense and vivid, each phrase elegant and evocative and filled with hope, love, and pain.

The story follows the path of  her family’s back-to-the-land ideal, as it shaped and defined her childhood, leading ultimately to tragedy, profound loss and then peace. She tells the tale of her parents building a home with their own hands, and their goal to live self-sufficiently from the land. She eloquently traces their history from it’s idealistic beginnings, to the growing challenge and hard work of homesteading. As I turned the page on each chapter, I was drawn further in, more invested in this family’s struggle, happiness and aspirations. I simply couldn’t put the book down. I felt every desire and every sadness. It was a veritable roller-coaster of emotion from the first page, through to the end.

Each piece of the story comes together through fact and history, whilst she engages her reader with the magnificence of her storytelling:

That my parents had chose this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn’t matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town—not to mention that Jeep’s registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on. We were living the way much of the world  actually lives. On the other hand, we didn’t have phone, water or electrical bills; health insurance premiums; or a mortgage, a car payment, or any other monthly payment, for that matter. No one could come to shut off our utilities and take away our home…

…in the precarious balance of Mama’s and Papa’s emotional investment in our lifestyle. To succeed at this life, they had to constantly feed their vision of it, or it would wither and die.

Coleman’s story resonates not only because of the beauty of her words, but because she tells the tale with raw honesty. She describes the real challenges and celebrates the joys, depicting life at its best and its worst. She talks of her mother’s battle with depression explaining that her mother “felt…other people’s emotions as if inside herself. It doubled the confusion in her mind. She needed quiet to sift through the feelings and throw out the ones that weren’t hers. So she did what she always did in times of overload; she checked out.”  She reflects on her father’s long struggle with hyperthyroidism and tendency toward workaholism, and her own loneliness until the birth of her sister, Heidi, and later Clara. And ends with a deep exploration of her family’s tumultuous journey to recover from loss.

…for so long I was working to prevent just this from happening, the falling and falling apart, but when it actually happens, you realize that once spilled your life never goes back in the same way. It isn’t supposed to. It’s only then that you know you are alive, and that despite uncertainties, you will survive.

Every word in this book is a gift, a connection to the purity and wildness that marks all of our lives. As you read you’ll question yourself, laugh out loud and look for a deeper sense of what matters. More than that, you’ll feel a deep kinship and satisfaction that in some way we are all in this together despite, or perhaps because, our journey’s are so diametrically different.

(Full disclosure: Harper Collins sent me a review copy of This Life is in Your Hands)

The Gift of Memories

“Home, as Wendell Berry points out, is not just a building but an enactment. It is the alchemy by which wood and glass and stone, field and mountain and sky, are transformed by domesticity…If these three nomadic years have taught me anything, it is that only a small part of being home is the house itself. It is also how we choose, over time, to imbue a place with meaning, how we inhabit the spaces we claim—making the beds, cleaning the refrigerator, and adoring the walls; offering dinner to a friend, sweeping the garage, stalking the peonies in May, shoveling the walkways after snow.” Katrina Kenison in The Gift of An Ordinary Day.

Over the last year so many of the books I’ve read have left a fingerprint on my heart—Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life by Karen Maezen Miller, Devotion by Dani Shapiro, Buddhism for Mothers, by Sarah Napthali, to name a few. Each has played an important part in my journey to find myself, and to live a live filled with grace and contentment. But none spoke to my soul as intensely as The Gift of An Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison. In so many ways Katrina is a kindred spirit. Not only was I completely and utterly uplifted by the elegance of her prose, but I was  moved to tears time and again as I read her story.

The book is subtitled A mother’s memoir, but don’t be deceived. It is, for certain, a discussion and reflection on the challenges of raising adolescents and learning to adjust to a mother’s changing role in her sons’ lives, but even more it is a spiritual awakening. As Katrina herself describes, it’s about her “effort to welcome change and shift along with it.”

To fully illustrate the significance of change in her life, her story follows the path of her family’s move from a Boston suburb to building a brand new home many miles away from all that they know. She writes of a longing to simplify life, and embarks on a journey to find her family’s place in rural New Hampshire. In this, I am acutely familiar and it was from this connection that I felt her words speak to me.

When my husband and I were first married, almost 11 years ago, we had but one dream. We wanted to build a house of our own. The first five years of our marriage were all about making it happen. We spent years pouring over house plans, reading design books, and talking endless hours about what we hoped to create. At three years we purchased a vacant slice of land. There it stood, dense with trees and brush, earnestly waiting to help us fulfill our dreams.

The first summer and winter after it became ours, we spent weekend after weekend trekking from our house to the lot. We’d pack a picnic, a hot thermos of coffee and we’d work side by side for hours, clearing, cutting, burning, piling and readying it for the big build. In the evenings we’d curl up in bed with a laptop and a design program. Jay, a civil engineering technologist, worked on the plans, calculating and illustrating each section, each structural piece. We’d tweak and discuss every wall, every door, every room. He’d pulled it all together, right there on a the screen. We relished in showing the plans to friends, in describing how we envisioned each room. Bit by bit, the dream was coming together.

In the spring of 2004 we broke ground.

It had been a year since we’d set the project in motion. I was 27, he was 29. We were fiercely united and committed to making it happen. But little did I know the real work had hardly begun. The home that we had envisioned, every nook, every cranny, born from a desire to do it ourselves, and propelled by love, tears, sweat, blood and frustration, would take 4 months until we could move in. We’d sold our first house, we had a deadline, and we focused on it.

Over that four months I was tested in ways I can honestly say I had never been before and never been again. It was the most physically and emotionally challenging experience of my life. I would argue, even harder that having a baby. Our marriage came within a breath of falling apart. The destruction was close, so close I could practically taste it. I learned so much about perseverance, about pushing through when you think you have nothing left to push with.

I learned about concrete blocks, how to use a compound mitre-saw, how to measure, cut and insulate a wall stud. I learned that it’s better to paint a house when you have running water, and that bathrooms can be made from tarps and trees. I learned not to panic when you dig a hole and come back to find it filled to brimming with water, and far more than I ever imagined possible about water-proofing a basement with tar. Yes. Tar.

At the same time I learned about patience, and kindness, and giving in when you need to. I learned that you can make your dreams happen if you are only willing to stay the course. And I learned to love my husband more deeply than I ever thought possible. He was the light that keep the dream bright. He was the focus that kept our eye on the ball. He was the one who worked hours and hours, long into the night, fuelled by an urgency that wasn’t immediately obvious to me. He kept us on course, and for that I love him.

And so, as I read The Gift of An Ordinary Day, and cherished each memory of Katrina’s, nodding in understanding and kinship for what it means to move forward with something that feels right but may seem absurd. And I’m grateful, so deeply grateful for her wisdom about what it means to live life each day, full of wonder for the simple things and the joy of “moving more deeply into the present.”

This book was a gift for me, an exquisite gift rich with memories of where I’ve been and hope for where I’m going.

Thank you Katrina.

What moms should know

One of my closest girlfriends says that she gets a vibe from a book just by caressing the cover. I love this about her, to me it says that life is about diving in and getting a feel for things. I couldn’t agree more. An avid reader myself,  I try not judge a book by it’s cover, but the look and feel certainly help attract my attention.

Meagan Francis’ book The Happiest Mom: 10 secrets to enjoying motherhood had that effect on me. It feels exactly like a journal, and I have a private love affair with journals. It looks like a scrapbook, and I’m an avid paper crafter. So the moment it arrived in my mailbox, I was enchanted. I couldn’t wait to dive in. My enthusiasm was heightened because of my online relationship with the real Meagan Francis. How exciting to read the published words of someone I consider to be a friend, and mentor.

Her words and advice did not disappoint. This book is a beacon to all mothers. Her tone and approach are clear, realistic and helpful, without being overbearing or judgmental as I’ve found many other parenting books (and to be honest, blogs) to be.  What I found most compelling is the idea of tackling the challenges parenthood by focusing on the needs of mothers as caregivers. What  a refreshing and important outlook.

She says, and I heartily concur:

The good news is that taking steps toward being a happier person will make you a better mother. Positive emotions help us become better listeners and more creative problem solvers. In turn, we feel warmer toward our children and are much more responsible to them.

We don’t talk about this enough, that to do well as parents, we need to be well. Real life, motherhood can be hard, and overwhelming. We need help not just to meet the needs of our children, but to meet our own needs as well. Meagan discusses it candidly and honestly. She calls it like it is, and like it should be.

I inhaled Meagan’s book, cover to cover. I felt invigorated by her advice, and take away several good ideas to help manage my life as a mother. It’s a fun read with engaging quizzes that help your reconsider your approach to many different issues. In fact, I think it would make the perfect shower gift for a first time mother, or even a friend who is expecting her second or third child. Meagan’s secrets should be shared with all moms, things like: trust your gut,  and go with the flow and find your tribe. In the words of Meagan:

Aim for good enough, and life will be better than ever.

Well done, Meagan! You should be proud of what you’ve done.

As promised, I’m giving away a copy of Meagan’s book. The winner was randomly selected from the comments on Monday’s post, Interview with A Happy Mom. Congratulations to  Kristin Noelle from Trust Tending!

Interview with a Happy Mom

I’m a relative newcomer to the blogging world. I’ve been blogging since the summer of 2008, but at Coffees & Commutes only since March 2010. I first started reading blogs after the birth of my second son in 2009. I could kick myself for all that I missed before that, but that’s a topic for another post.The very first blog I read was The Happiest Mom with Meagan Francis. I found her at a time when I was decidedly disenchanted with motherhood, I was feeling tired and overwhelmed from around the clock nursing with a young baby and the daily cycle of tantrums with an almost 3-year-old preschooler.

At Meagan’s I found compelling content about real life motherhood. She didn’t sugar coat the messy bits, but she didn’t play on mother’s usual complaints either. I was captivated by her insightful, well-developed and practical writing about motherhood. I’ve remained a regular reader for almost two years.

Now Meagan has published a book The Happiest Mom: 10 secrets to enjoying motherhood. You can imagine my excitement when she asked if Coffees & Commutes could be a stop on her virtual book tour. I was only too happy to oblige! There is much to say about the book, which I enjoyed tremendously, but today I’m pleased to feature an interview with Meagan on two of my favourite topics: writing and motherhood.

On Writing

Why did you decide to write this book?

I have been writing professionally about parenting since 2003, but was always most interested in writing about the mother’s experience: her relationships, home, work, passions, and outlook on life. It was difficult to find magazine outlets that would let me explore these topics in-depth, so one day I thought, “I ought to start a blog!” It was very well received, so a few months later I thought, “I ought to write a book!” I went back through my blog and pulled out the topics that readers seemed to identify with most, those that seemed to form the “skeleton” of a book, and wrote a proposal. In early 2010 I received a contract from Weldon Owen to write The Happiest Mom in partnership with Parenting magazine.

How did you manage to write it and manage such a big family?

Well, I’ve been writing around kids for a long time, so I had already gotten my routines down to some extent. But then my daughter Clara was at a very difficult age–just a little over a year–when I started, and my dad died very unexpectedly when I was just a few chapters in. I stopped working entirely for a couple of weeks, but I found that having the project to return to after all my family had gone home formed a welcome distraction.

I’m not sure writing with a large family is any more difficult than writing with a smaller family. If anything, there are more hands to help out in a large family. For instance, my older boys did the dishes every day all summer and would often take their younger siblings to the park behind my house. My seven-year-old son would often get up the minute he heard the toddler stirring and they would play happily together for an hour sometimes while I’d rush into my office and work. It’s amazing what you can get done in an hour of quiet time when you know it might be all you get that day.

What was the writing process like? How long did it take and how did you organize your time to do it?

The deadline was tight–about three months to write the whole book, and there were lots of revisions flying back and forth between two sets of editors–so I had to put pretty much all my other projects on hold and lean heavily on my husband and other family members for help during that time. My husband generally took one full day off of work each week, (he’s self employed) and I would work from about 9 AM until 3 or 4 PM those days. Then I’d work for an hour or two in the mornings before the kids woke up on the other days and try to eke out time when the kids were playing happily or at the park.

Every night when I went to bed I’d jot down a few things I’d absolutely need to get done the next day, so that in the morning when my brain was still trying to wake up I could just glance at the list and pick something to get started on. That cut down a lot on aimless Twitter procrastinating or spinning my wheels.

I also took advantage of every little snippet of time I had. If the kids were playing together quietly I knew I might only get 15 minutes, but that’s long enough to write a section, come up with a list of quiz questions, or print out revisions and take a quick look. You really have to guard your time when you’re working at home around little kids. Every minute counts.

What advice can you offer other aspiring writers, or people who want to share their stories about life and motherhood?

Stop talking about writing. Sit down in your chair, apply your fingers to the keyboard, and do it. You will write some stuff that’s not ready for prime time, but every time you write you’ll get better. Obviously, a blog is a great place to get practice, but I’d also recommend submitting your work around so that you get used to being edited, criticized, and rejected 🙂 Being able to deal with those three things with grace and persistence are what take you from “wannabe” to really doing it.

On Motherhood

What’s it like to have a house with so many kids? How do you find time for yourself?

Well, it’s kind of crazy sometimes, to be honest! But usually it’s a good crazy. Mostly it’s the noise levels that can be really hard to deal with. That and the minute you address one child’s needs, there’s usually another one wanting or needing something! On the other hand, the kids are built-in playmates. Rarely do you see a lonely kid moping about and nobody is ever bugging me to entertain them–except my five-year-old, when his big brothers are all at school.

I don’t so much find time for myself as make it. I joke that a lot of moms seem to be waiting around for the Time Fairy to show up and grant them eight hours of conflict-free “me time.” I have found it works a lot better to decide what you want or need, and take it. So maybe that’s putting your yoga class on the family calendar and just going. Or maybe it means getting up early on a Saturday morning and just leaving with your laptop so you can go work at the coffee shop. There is really so much more time in the day than we like to admit to ourselves. We lament the lack of time but don’t realize how much of it we waste on blogs that aren’t worth our time or just refreshing Facebook over and over to see if anything interesting has happened. If something that interesting happens, it’ll still be around in a few hours.

Probably the biggest way I make time is by trusting my spouse to be competent and able to take over for me without my having to do endless preparation before I go (I’m not perfect at this, but working on it). Even if he doesn’t do everything the way I would, he takes good care of the kids while I’m gone. He knows where the cereal and milk are. He knows where the diapers are. If the boys end up with the wrong kids’ clothes on, it’s not the end of the world.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a mother, but that took you completely by surprise?

I think the realization I’ve slowly come to is that my happiness and self-worth are separate from my children, no matter what a huge presence and focus they are in my life. Motherhood is not going to make me happy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be happy in my life as a mother. Regardless of how my children turn out, or how they feel about me, or how they behave today, or who they become tomorrow, how I feel about my self and my life and what I put out into the world is all up to me.

How do you think your children would describe you?

Probably depends on the kid. I think my 13-year-old would call me “annoying” right now. He’s convinced I’m a horrible taskmaster because I make him walk the dog and empty the dishwasher every day. My 11-year-old is very sweet and loving at the moment and we have hilarious conversations. He’d probably say I’m “funny.” My five-year-old is a mama’s boy and loves to snuggle with me and sit with me and play with me and, wow, he just really loves to be with me right now. I could imagine him saying that I’m “warm.” My two-year-old would probably simply say I’m “mama.” At her age, I am still front and center in her world.

My seven-year-old was the hardest to answer! He’s at the age where he’s becoming so independent of me, and has never been super warm and fuzzy with me to begin with–he’s just not that kid, though he can be very sweet and loving, he’s not gushy or snuggly. Our relationship right now is much more about what I can do for him: help him with homework, get him a snack. I honestly think he doesn’t give me much thought otherwise, and that’s OK. Kids are self-absorbed and I’m not delusional enough to think my kids spend a lot of time thinking about my inner life (yet.) So I think my seven-year-old would say I’m “there”–and I think sometimes just being “there” is enough.

Where do you turn when you need advice?

My sister, my friends, Twitter. Depends what kind of advice I need. I miss my mom for that–she died when I was 22, and I know there are so many things I’d ask her about now if she was still around.

If you could change one thing about motherhood what would it be?

I think it would be great if there was a pause button. Like if I was getting overwhelmed, I could hit “pause” and have ten minutes or so to go in my room and breathe with all the kids stuck in place. Or I could go on trips without the kids without feeling conflicted about leaving them. Truthfully though I’d probably abuse the “pause” button. I think sometimes those overwhelming, conflicted moments are the things that teach us the most about ourselves, even though they can be so unpleasant to live through.

The mom in me can’t live without…

Snuggles, because they make all the rest of it worthwhile.

 

Double lives

I’ve just finished a marathon reading of the book Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. It’s an anthology of personal essays by Canadian women writers who struggle to balance the passion of writing with the challenges of parenting. I purchased it several months ago with a gift certificate I received at Christmas. With a mountain of books towering on my nightstand and lined up, ready to read on my Kindle, it sat patiently waiting until last week ago when I finally decided to dive in.

I’m not sure it’s meant to be read from cover to cover as quickly as I did, but I simply couldn’t put it down. Each writer offers a different, and yet resonant perspective about the path we forge as mothers and writers. How, so often, motherhood offers the very gifts that influence and affect the depth of our writing, while at the same time taking away the time and focus we need to fully develop the craft.

As each page turned quietly in my hands, I was inspired, moved to tears, and uplifted through words of complete honesty, understanding and support. Each and every author in this book, many of whom I didn’t know before reading it, gets it exactly right. All of them.

From Denise Roig who writes:

How do I accomodate the needs of the people I love most in the world and my own (not inconsiderable) need for time, space and quiet to write?

To Cori Howard:

I had been raised on the abominable myth that women can have it all, do it all — career, family, everything. What kind of feminist would raise their daughter believe that kind of crap? Anyway, I was still new to motherhood and in the throes of a pretty major identity crises, so I was still grasping onto my life as a freelance writer.

To Robyn Sarah, who captured my heart and a few tears with the words:

Yet there is no question in my mind that it was during this period that I found my voice as a poet. Taking my place in the chain of generation —the physical, emotional, and spiritual voyage of becoming a parent—was what liberated the writer in me.”

Her words accurately describe my own journey as writer. While I’ve always been a writer, and do a significant amount of writing professionally, it has never been what it has become in the last couple of years. Before becoming a mother, I simply dabbled and wrote primarily institutional, journalism style writing. While this passage was the right one for me, and the fit good, I didn’t truly find my voice until I became a mother.

As I snuggled in bed these last few nights, inhaling every honest and humble word, underlining passages and feeling a deep kinship with each woman’s voice, I was struck by the hand I had been dealt by the universe. It seems truly fortunate that I should finally immerse myself in this enriching collection at the very moment when I feel such an acute sense of  struggle to balance my own multiple lives as mother, full-time professional, and aspiring writer.

I’m left with an incredible amount of inspiration from their collective wisdom. But even more importantly I feel a renewed sense of solidarity that compels me to push forward and continue to explore my writing, however and whenever I may.  Whether on this blog, in my personal journal or through the development of my book, I understand that all of it contributes meaningfully to my personal faith as a woman, writer and mother.

Tackling food

On Monday we’ll be discussing the book Women Food and God by Geneen Roth at the Maladjusted Book Club. It’s a complex and evocative read that explores women’s relationship with food and eating. Roth leads us down an intricate path about the relationship between spirituality, self-worth and our complex eating habits. She says:

Our personality and its defences, one of which is our emotionally charged relationship to food, are a direct link to our spirituality.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have chosen this book to read on my own because I didn’t consider myself to have issues related to what or how I eat. I am also fortunate in that I’m not overly concerned with my body size or appearance. I enjoy food and I try to eat healthy. Occasionally I indulge in certain comfort foods (or beverages, hello Starbucks!), but I don’t let it control me. In general, I believe that I have a healthy overall attitude toward food.

But what struck me about the book is, if you take her message at it’s core you can easily apply it to any obsession or struggle in your life. Her basic premise being that “if you believe the world is a hostile place…you need to be in control of the immediate universe for things to go smoothly.”

Given that argument, and my personal control issues, it was easy for me to realize that I do have many issues with food, though not entirely from the perspective she tackles in this book.

Let me explain.

There are many challenges to being a full time working mom, but for me one of the most difficult is dinnertime. To be honest it’s the place I judge most harshly as a parent. Before I had children I loved to cook and explore new food and recipes. Every week I made it a priority to try at least two new recipes. I found food to be an easy and enjoyable way to demonstrate my love to my husband.  You know what they say about the way to a man’s heart.

By extension, I had a similar expectation of myself as a parent. I believed I would serve only the most healthy foods, my children would be encouraged to try all kinds of things and they would be willing because of the diversity of tastes that I would prepare. I would spend weekends baking and making fresh, wholesome treats for the week. It was an important portrait of how I perceived motherhood. I call it the grandmother effect: the belief that comfort and family is defined by the kinds of food you provide for your family.

However, the gap between what I envisioned and what is reality is quite vast. Both of my children are fussy eaters. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t seen my youngest son, who will soon be 2, eat a vegetable since the day I stopped pureeing his food—at 9 months. He’s stubborn and willful and will not eat a thing he doesn’t want to. My oldest has come a long way and will generally eat a healthy variety of foods. But he’s meat and potato kind of fellow and not fond of any “mixed foods;” thereby eliminating casseroles, stir fry, soup, and most ethnic dishes. Also, it must NOT be spicy. In others words, I must serve bland and boring.

As they get older, and I’ve faced down meal after uneaten meal, I’ve grown tremendously weary and reluctant to try. It’s hard enough to muster the energy to cook a meal after being out of the home for more than 9 hours for work that I’ve all but given completely capitulated to the world of chicken nuggets and french fries.

And I berate myself internally about it. I feel like a failure and worry that I’m giving up too easy, not trying hard enough. I believe it makes me less than. I dread sitting down to do our weekly meal plan because I’m out of ideas. I try to serve at least two meatless meals a week. Given my youngest’s aversion to vegetables, and my oldest unwillingness to eat anything with any flavour, it has proven virtually impossible. I typically turn to grilled cheese and soup. Chicken noodle soup. That’s the only thing they’ll eat.

I realize this issue is not unique to my household, and that there is virtually an entire industry devoted to helping parents manage fussy eaters. I get that. I’ve tried many solutions. But this is about how it makes me feel, and how hard I am on myself because of it. I base my entire worth as a mother on how I feed my children. You may laugh or be skeptical, but this is not an exaggeration. And it’s not lost on me that just 4 1/2 years into parenthood, I’ve virtually given up. You can imagine what that does to one’s self-confidence.

But here’s what I now know. It’s all about control. Control over what my children will and won’t eat. Until now, I’ve been tackling this in all the wrong ways. I’ve allowed them to wear me down and have given in bit by bit. But if I just gave up control of the immediate, and served the foods I want to eat, over time they just might come around. It might actually make it less about control for them. We could possibly find neutral ground.

And so I decided to devote February to exploring my personal issues with food, and my struggles as a mother with two mouths to feed. The Maladjusted Book Club turned out to be the best way to kick it off.

For a more thorough discussion of the entire book, head over to the Maladjusted Book Club. I’ll be talking food in various posts throughout February, so I hope you’ll be back to read more.