Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When Stress Calls Your Name: Sanity Tips for Mommas, Part 1

I remember lying in bed, staring at the wall, wondering, Am I going insane?

It wasn’t just a frustrated moment of throwing up my hands and yelling at the kids, “I am going to lose my mind!”  It was a quietly creeping fear that from here I was just going to circle the drain into further confusion and chaos.

My second child was a baby, and for several months I had debilitating insomnia.  I was stuck in an awful cycle where my anxiety and OCD were keeping me awake, and my mind-numbing exhaustion was aggravating my anxiety.  I was hardly functioning.  Life seemed hopelessly shallow, and I was going through the motions just trying to survive.

Up until that season, I didn’t have a category in my life for self-care.  I wanted to please people.  I knew how to work hard.  I tended to pack my schedule full, and when life got hard, I just pushed harder.

But that season was, literally and figuratively, my wake-up call.  Pushing harder and doing more, more, more was no longer an option for me.  If I was going to stay sane as a mom, and be there for my family the way I wanted to be, I needed to make changes in my life to minimize and better deal with stress.

That was a little over three years ago.  Since then I’ve developed practices that have helped me be in a healthier place.  These practices aren’t for everyone.  I know I’m vulnerable in areas where some people are not, so I need to put up safeguards for myself.  You may be perfectly okay burning the candle at both ends, whereas I would be a hot mess, wax melting all over the place, house on fire, kind of mess.

But I think all of us, to more or less extent, need practices in our lives to help us deal with stress.  These are mine.

White space on the calendar

I used to pack my schedule full.  I remember one day when my oldest was a toddler, and I had a social event in the morning, another in the afternoon, and another in the evening.  This might have been okay except that I’m an introvert (an introvert caring for a toddler, no less) and I had given myself no downtime to recharge.  I remember prepping for the evening event when I just wanted to go to bed.  Looking back, I think, why was I doing that to myself?  And to the people I was hanging out with?  What was the point of going through life exhausted and dreading the next event?

I once invited over a mother of several young children, who responded, “We can’t come that morning because we have something scheduled for the evening.”

What? I thought.  I’m not inviting you for the evening.  I’m asking about the morning.  Then I realized that she knew her limits, and in the stressful season she was already in with multiple young children, she was only scheduling one thing per day.  She was perfectly comfortable saying no to whatever wasn’t best for her and her kids.

I’ve learned that some of my favorite moments in life are when we have nothing going on and are just resting at home as a family.  Moments when we pull out a board game on the dining room table, when I sit on the deck reading a novel, when I get down on the floor to play with my kids, when we spontaneously take a walk together.

If these are my favorite moments, why am I frenetically filling the schedule so that we hardly ever have them?  What is this game—whoever has the busiest schedule wins?  I quit!

I’ve been learning to make white space on the calendar, and to plan each thing in the context of everything else—meaning that if we already have plans for Friday morning, maybe I shouldn’t make plans for Friday afternoon.  If all our weekday evenings are busy, we absolutely must be home on Saturday.

You might be in a season of life where you can fill your calendar to the max and it’s pure joy.  If so, that’s great!  But if you’re in a season similar to mine—an introvert, I’m dealing with some health issues, and I have little children in difficult seasons—practice saying no.  Protect your calendar.  Create some space to for you and your family to breathe.

What are your triggers?

What causes stress in your life?  You may already know.  Or you may need to make a list and ask for input from those who know you well.  Then look through your list of triggers, and find a way to either manage or eliminate each one.

The idea is this—if you are already in a stressful season doing what God has called you to (whether that’s building your marriage, raising young children, working your job)—your plate is already full.  Don’t pile on stresses that you don’t need to handle and that keep you from the essential things only you can do.

Which stresses can you eliminate?  For instance, if watching the news causes you stress, stop.  No one is paying you to do it, right?  The world doesn’t need you to do it.  If it’s not helping you help people, stop.

I’ll make it personal—I keep returning to the point where I need to stop, at least for now and maybe forever, reading articles about Trump.  I’m just done.  I’ve already made up my mind I’m not going to vote for him, and reading the recent news about him never makes me think, Wow, I’m so refreshed right now!  I really feel ready to deal with my kids after reading that.

The same applies for reading about crime and other violent news stories. There is a delicate balance here—I don’t want to have my head in the sand.  I paid some attention to what happened in Orlando.  I want to be aware of what’s going on in the world so that I can respond with wisdom and compassion.  At the same time, we live in a time of greater global awareness than ever before, where we can read up on the atrocities of ISIS, for instance, yet at the same time it’s easy to ignore the difference we can make in the sphere of influence we do have.

Secondary traumatic stress occurs when you experience stress by hearing about the firsthand trauma experienced by another.  I was recently at a foster care event, sitting in a room filled with foster parents who are pouring out their lives to help neglected and abused children.  The speaker asked how many of us daily watch the news, and the response was startling.  Hardly any hands went up.  The people in that room were so busy with the ministry right in front of their faces, that they were already in as much stress as they could handle.  Any triggers they could eliminate had to go.

Some triggers you can’t eliminate and you just have to manage—for instance, the screaming tantrums of your toddler.  There’s no way you can run from it, and you just have to have a game plan for how you’re going to deal with it in the moment.  How are you going to keep your cool?  How are you going to help your child get through this?  How are you going to plan times when you can get a break so you can jump back into parenting with a new perspective?

What feeds your soul?

This is the flip side of the coin—after you have a plan to eliminate or manage the stress in your life, think through the things that feed you, that make you feel alive, that refresh you and fill you up.

Here’s my partial list:

  • Reading the Bible and praying
  • Reading other good books
  •  Having meaningful conversation with friends (1-on-1 or in small groups—I’m an introvert!)
  •  Sitting quietly on the deck
  •  Listening to worship music
  • Writing blog posts
  • Teaching

Staying sane in my life right now means prioritizing these things.  Sometimes it’s a simple choice that after the kids go to bed, I’m going to turn off Facebook (potentially a trigger) and go sit on the deck, and for ten minutes breathe deeply and watch the sunset.  Sometimes the only way to prioritize these things is to have a strategy—to plan ahead and to ask for help from my husband or others so I can make time to be emotionally healthy.

There’s a balance—the hard truth is, what feeds my soul often (though not always) happens away from my kids.  Of course I don’t want to be the absent mom too busy pursuing my own dreams to be available for my children.  But it’s also true that I’m a better mom to them when I take the time and space to nourish myself.

That’s part 1 of my healthy practices and I’m going to cut it off there—part 2 will follow Lord willing in a few days.  What are your strategies for staying sane in the middle of whatever craziness is your life?  Please share!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Summer Reading, Part 1

I never got to a “Books I Read in May,” but here’s a look at the highlights I’ve read over the last several weeks.

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

This one’s not an easy or encouraging read.  It’s a memoir of someone who grew up in a Mormon cult, where she witnessed abuse of all kinds.  This is a true story, and a look into how a woman can fall prey to a cult and tolerate abuse in her drive to try to meet her emotional needs.  Eye-opening story, and ends with hope.

A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

I’ve already found that I enjoy historical fiction focusing on immigration to America, and this book was another great read.  The characters were sympathetic and the plot engrossing.  I guessed early on that this book was thoughtful and realistic enough that the ending was not going to be a predictable, and it wasn’t.  There’s romance in the story, but more than that, it’s about a woman healing from a tragedy and coming into her own. 

Two stories are told in parallel—an Ellis Island nurse recovering from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and a modern-day woman healing from the trauma of 9/11.

My only complaint about this book was that the themes of love and truth were a little murky, as if neither the author nor the characters had clarified their worldview of life.  But it’s a novel, not a sermon, so I’ll let it pass.

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

I really enjoy WWII fiction, so I was looking forward to this novel about a Paris architect who helps hide Jews during the Nazi invasion.  He begins motivated simply by a desire for money and the thrill of tricking the enemy.

This is a fascinating story about how different characters develop under pressure.  The author has a dry, almost cynical humor.  There’s description of torture and of extramarital affairs, as well as a fair bit of language.  Few of the characters are very sympathetic. It’s definitely not a book I’ll be going back to, but it’s one of those stories where the insights into history and human nature may outweigh what is inappropriate in the story.

Scary Close by Donald Miller

This is the first Donald Miller I’ve read, and to me, he’s kind of like Brene Brown for Dummies—meaning he echoes a lot of her ideas about vulnerability and emotional wellness, but he does it in an extremely accessible and narrative-style writing.  (Reading over that sentence it sounds like a criticism, but I mean it as a compliment—I really like Brene Brown, and I like how Donald Miller was such an easy read.)  I really appreciated his thesis—that our true self can put up a false construct that is meant to impress people, but in reality keeps them at arm’s length.  We can only achieve intimacy with other people by being our true selves and taking the risk of being vulnerable.

To be honest, I thought some of his writing style was a little weak, and there are some things I don’t agree with him about, but all in all I thought this was a great book, and helpful for someone like me who struggles with vulnerability and developing friendships.  I also got the feeling reading the book that he and his wife would be great people to get to know in real life—authentic and kind.

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

Most of the books I read are recommended by friends on Goodreads, but this one I spotted at the library and picked up with no prior recommendation whatsoever.  This made me a little hesitant and I was ready to put it down if it turned into a steamy romance or turned Shakespeare on its head.

But ultimately, I really loved this book.  I was set director for my college’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, and the rich description of this novel brought back to me our color and design choices for that performance.  I know the characters well, and I felt that the author of this book (a Shakespeare scholar herself) really captured the true characterization of both Beatrice and Benedick.  Her novel also developed the themes I see in the play—the gender issues at work, and the contrast between true and superficial relationships.

Most of this novel focuses on what happens before the play actually begins, though the story of the play is told nearer the end.  This novel also brings in some of Romeo and Juliet, as well the events of the Spanish Armada.  It’s a truly fascinating historical fiction book, and I’m really glad I read it.

Dignity and Worth: Seeing the Image of God in Foster Adoption by April Swiger

I got this book free on Kindle and excitedly delved into it.  I felt like it strengthened my Christian understanding of how foster care and adoption fits into our worldview—our understanding of God and of how He created people.  This book was also full of practical advice on topics like responding to birth parents, avoiding adoption scams, adopting interracially, and respecting confidentiality.

I would highly recommend this book for any Christian, so that we can all together be more supportive of foster and adoptive families among us.  And I would especially recommend it for any Christian who wants to foster and adopt.

This author struck such a chord with me (we have fostered three times, one placement being a baby boy whom we wanted to adopt but lost a week after his first birthday).  I really wished I could sit down with her over coffee, so I did the next best thing—found her blog and emailed her—and got a long message back!  Which made me really happy.

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

This novel explores the question: how does caring for a child change you?  The twenty-something main character takes on the care of a ten-year-old special-needs boy so that his mother can write a book.  I almost quit this book part-way through because the conversations were long and a bit boring, and I didn’t sympathize with any of the characters.

But I felt like the story improved as I became attached to the child character and saw how caring for him really could be a life-changing experience.  The ending was a bit blah, though.  Good, but not a favorite.

The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

This novel tackles a difficult topic—how adult children address abuse in their past.  The story is beautifully told, and the author is sensitive and sympathetic.  I didn’t find the ending completely satisfactory, but I would still recommend it as an interesting read, especially for those who like novels about family relationships and appreciate stories that aren’t necessarily straightforward, but more nuanced and complicated.

Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

This is a great book for anyone (all of us!) who are pondering the Christian response to the LGBTQ movement.  Rosaria tells her story as a former lesbian who converted to Christianity.  She’s an English Ph.D. and a Reformed Presbyterian and you can sure tell both—oh, my goodness.  She is a deep thinker and not afraid to tackle and explore the toughest issues.  The book is a bit heavy and reads at times like a college textbook—not a bad thing, but a lot to think through on a late night after a busy day with little kids.  So I’ll be honest that I skipped over some of it.

I wish her writing was more accessible and narrative-style so that she would have a larger audience, because she has great things to say.  But she’s also an awesome example of a Christian female intellectual scholar, and I think we only need more of those!

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Goddess in My Living Room: Rethinking My Expectations About Health

When I became a mom, a crib entered my home.  A changing table.  A rocking chair and a boppy.

And a Goddess in my living room.

The Goddess of Health.

Up until that time, she had not been very important to me.  I drank soda, I ate what I wanted, I exercised sporadically, I stayed amazingly thin.  But now that I was responsible for a little person, the Goddess of Health had space in my life.  I wanted very much to please her.  I wanted to win her favor for the sake of my little son.

And others assured me that if I followed her rules, I could expect her blessing.

At first it wasn’t hard.  I took my vitamins and made a few dietary changes.  When it was time for my son to start solid foods, I followed a specific schedule.  I started looking at ingredients before I put food in my shopping cart.

High fructose corn syrup displeased her.  So did anything artificial.  And for my sacrifices, she rewarded me with a healthy little boy.  Definitely worth the effort.

Then her rules became more complicated.  Things that used to be okay weren’t okay anymore.  Maybe the packaged food was advertised as healthy—but what was really healthy was just to make my own.  Organic was better.  More fruits.  More vegetables.

Then her rules became confusing.  Was grinding my own wheat to make bread really healthy?  No, that wasn’t enough, because what if the wheat was GMO?  And should I even be eating wheat at all?  Wasn’t paleo better?

When any of us got sick, which was not very often, I learned what sacrifices would earn her favor back.  More vitamins.  More herbs.  She was particularly fond of garlic.  Then she started requiring essential oils.

All this was getting expensive.  But my son, and now a daughter, too, were healthy, so it was worth it.

One winter I wrote a blog post about keeping your kids from getting sick.  It was full of great ideas.  If I followed them all, I would appease the Goddess of Health, who would then keep sickness far from my home.  That winter it worked so well for me.

The next year I reposted the article—I think I added a few new rules I had learned in the interim.  And then my kids got sick.

Not badly sick, thankfully.  There was no fear, just a whole lot of crazy.  They got the stomach bug that would not go away.  For almost eight weeks, it seemed like someone in the house was always throwing up.  We no longer went anywhere together, because someone needed to stay home with whichever child was sick right then.

I posted my complaints on Facebook and got a lot of advice.  How could I win the Goddess’s favor back so she would heal my children?

Probiotics, someone said.  But I was already doing it.

Essential oils, someone else recommended.  Ginger?  Peppermint?  Special immune blends?  I was already doing it.

Someone recommended that I sacrifice to the Goddess all dairy and sugar.  I tried to take it with a smile.  They must not know how good our diet already was.  I had sacrificed already!  She should be happy!

Because I was becoming resentful.  That Goddess of Health?  I was mad at her.

I was mad because I had done her thing, I had followed her rules, I had bought her stuff.  And when it got harder, I had stayed the course.  And when it got confusing, I had kept researching and tried to find amidst the conflicting voices online what would really make her happy.

I had done everything right!  I had held up my end of the deal.  And she had not blessed me.  And I didn’t have time to take it up with her because one of my kids was puking in the hallway.

It was my anger that made me realize I had that Goddess in the living room.

It was my resentment that showed me that when I followed her rules, I had expected her blessing.  I had earned good health, and I was not happy that she had not come through.  Why was judgment coming?  Hadn’t I appeased her with all my sacrifices?

It took me a few weeks of vomit to realize the Goddess had to go.  For one thing, she wasn’t working.  I was tired of following her rules when the guaranteed results hadn’t happened.

This didn’t mean we would spend the rest of our lives eating at McDonalds.  I knew that a lot—maybe even all—of what I had been doing made sense.  I wanted to care well for myself and my family.  I wanted to do what I could to help us be healthy.

But I no longer felt that I’d earned it.  I no longer believed that everything had a clear cause and effect and that if we did enough right things, we would be healthy.

Because we live in a broken, fallen, twisted world.  No matter what we do, our bodies are deteriorating, and ultimately, health fails us all.

I realized following the Goddess of Health had caused me to judge others.  Are they sick all the time because they’re not eating well?

It’s true that actions have consequences, and that healthy choices truly help.  But it’s also true that sometimes those who make the healthiest choices get really sick.  And we don’t know why.

I reminded myself of all this when my son got a cavity.  I felt like taking it up with the Goddess of Health again.  (We hardly eat any sugar!  We brush his teeth twice a day!  With homemade toothpaste!  And other people are saying they never get a cavity when they follow all these rules, so why, why us?)

This whole blog post has actually been in my mind for several months, before 2016 ever happened.  And I am glad I threw out the Goddess before this year began.

I started 2016 all excited about being healthy.  I was going to drop that baby weight and fight back that anxiety.  I jumped into the Whole 30 paleo diet and posted weekly updates on this blog because I was so excited about how well I was eating, how great I was feeling, the weight I was losing.

Then I woke up in late January with pain in my foot that after four months has not gone away.  And despite the fact that now my practices are healthier than ever and I’m taking all the powerful herbs that are supposed to kick Lyme to the curb, I’m afraid I’ll be in pain for the rest of my life.

So if I still had that Goddess of Health, I’d be furious at her.  Forget eight weeks of vomiting—okay, that’s traumatic for a mom, but that is nothing compared to four months of chronic pain that I fear will never go away.  I did all the right things! I would yell at her.  I’m supposed to be young and healthy and feeling great!  And there are people who don’t give a rip about their health and have never heard the word “paleo” and are running past me while I limp along.  Really?  Really?!

Because that is not how it works.  There is no Goddess of Health except as a construct of our messed up minds, wanting to be in control.  To earn favor by following rules.  To judge others who don’t measure up.

There is no Goddess of Health.  And I’m grateful because her demands are exhausting and she doesn’t make good on her promises.  But there is a God who is sovereign over all suffering and sickness, who works pain for good purposes that are hard to understand when you’re in the middle of it.

There is a God who asks us to honor our bodies as temples of His Spirit.  But He doesn’t give us burdensome rules about how to do that.  He tells us His Kingdom isn’t about eating and drinking, but about righteousness and peace and joy in the Spirit (Romans 14:17).  And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).

He tells us to do right without expectations.  Following rules can be all about gaining control and managing consequences.  But following the Way Who is a Person, Who is Jesus, can mean walking through dark, scary places, where you wonder if you’ve made a wrong turn, but His Presence says keep following because He is there.

Keep following, even when it doesn’t make sense, one step at a time.