When Helping Is Not Helping

Weeks ago, I asked Finn a familiar question, “Wanna go running with Mommy?” A look of recognition flashed across his round face and two bare feet dashed across the room toward our front door, where an old, beat up stroller is always waiting on the front porch. Thankfully, he loves a ride in the stroller. I bundled him up in a jacket, found a toy for him to hold tightly and we set out on a thirty minute adventure through Salem.

Sometimes I talk to him about all we see. “Look at the birds, Finn! Do you see them up there on the wire?” Sometimes he squeals back a few sounds in response and sometimes he is silent. On this particular day, I looked down at him and noticed that the small bear I’d brought with us had fallen down by his feet. He stretched and grunted with all his might, but couldn’t quite reach it with his hands.

Just as I was getting ready to retrieve his fallen toy, I noticed something important. Finn had switched tactics and instead of using his hands to grab the bear, he was now using both feet to try to scoop up the toy and bring it within reach.

I pushed the stroller onward, thinking that maybe he didn’t need my help after all.

He worked with a quiet resolve and after several failed attempts, he secured the bear between both feet and lifted them up just high enough so that an extended hand could grab the bear. Feeling accomplished, he snuggled it close to his chest. I could have easily helped him retrieve it, but he had been able to do it all on his own.

This little scene got me thinking about parents and our desire to help our kids. It got me thinking about how quick I am to jump in and “fix” little problems that arise daily. These little problems are the first trials my kids are facing. They are teaching my kids about grit and determination, about failure and resilience, they are teaching my kids about life. If I am apt to jump in and fix the problem am I helping or am I hindering?

Kids, pour your own glass of milk, spill it across the counter, then find a way to clean it up. Climb the dogwood tree in our front yard without me there to catch you. Take ownership of the folder you didn’t pack in your book bag instead of asking that I run it by the school. Now is the time to try and mess up, to learn to muddle your way through imperfectly, to grow in your ability to do on your own. As you age the problems change, but they never quite go away so let’s start practicing now.

The next time you call for my help and I reply with something like, “Figure it out,” I mean that I know you can do it without me.

I mean that I love you.

I mean that sometimes I will help you by not helping you at all.

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Bribery and 37 Weeks

In the last few months we’ve made some progress around the house as I’ve gone full tilt into nesting mode. We’ve purged a great deal of random stuff, organized cabinets and closets throughout the house, cleaned out the fridge for the first time since moving, and prepared a small room for our little one.  

But despite all this effort, it seems that every morning I awaken to a minefield of mess. It’s scattered across the floor and glaring at me from cups and dishes that haven’t yet made it to the dishwasher. I try to remember that yes, we do LIVE in this house, which means our house will look lived in. However, there’s a part of me that craves order and functional space.

Presently, exhaustion is my biggest enemy. I don’t recall this level of tiredness with either of my other pregnancies, though I was much younger and generally, a bit more pleasant back then. It’s a bone tired. A vacuuming-the-living-room-has-left-me-spent kind of tired. An I could fall asleep at a red light sort of exhaustion. A tired that makes taking a shower feel as difficult as running a marathon.  

So today, I needed to shower AND I needed the house cleaned up – a double whammy. I dragged myself off the sofa and explained to the boys that after I took my shower, we would all be cleaning up the downstairs. Then I had an epiphany. If they were good helpers, I’d let them spend a little bit of time playing some games on my iPad.  

I felt like a rockstar as I trudged upstairs. This is how amazing moms function at 37 weeks pregnant, I told myself. I got this. Bribery has some very real benefits and I planned to make use of them all during these final weeks.  

I showered and dried my hair and not surprisingly, felt unwell after such an undertaking. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the energy required to move 35 extra pounds everywhere I go, but it leaves me quite miserable. I came downstairs completely out of breath.

As I rounded the corner I heard feet stomping out of the kitchen and two voices whispering, “Here she comes! Here she comes!”

This usually means a disaster has occurred. I braced myself for the mess that usually accompanies one of their science “spearmints” gone bad. Cinnamon and baking soda would be scattered across the countertops. Or maybe instead, a weeks worth of applesauce pouches were consumed in thirty minutes. I walked into the living room and saw rug fibers unobscured by Mario figures, game cards and pieces picked up, blocks put away and two little boys smiling sheepishly.  

I collapsed on the sofa in joy. “Ohhhhh! You cleaned up! Thank you, boys.” I pulled them close and gave them each a bear hug.  

The room was certainly not Pinterest worthy. But it was good enough for today. And like life, the best of it isn’t often nestled in being perfect, but in being present. And presently, my three and five year old had given their exhausted, pregnant mother a room she could easily walk through, and they’d done it without requiring a hint of nagging on my part. Hallelujah!

“Can we get on the iPad now, Mama?” 

“Yes, yes you can, boys.” I spent the next twenty minutes plopped uncomfortably in a chair, still waiting for my breathing to return to normal. The boys took turns playing Subway Surfers, trading every 7 minutes, and as I watched them sitting hip to hip on the sofa, I knew I had much to be thankful for.

Goggles, a Strainer, and a Glorious Lounge Chair

“Can I wear them, Mommy? Can I?” Jackson asked as he held up a pair of neon green goggles. They didn’t belong to us, but we were alone on the shore of Loch Haven and I didn’t see the harm in borrowing them for the afternoon. “Just be sure you take really good care of them,” I replied.

I adjusted the straps and we worked together to pull them tightly over his head. A little bug-eyed five-year-old grinned back at me. Then his feet splashed quickly away from the shore.  


His first investigation was rooted in exploring the world below the surface of the water. “Do you think I should put my head under water?” he called across the lake. I nodded my approval from shore, and surprisingly that was all it took. For the very first time he held his breath and tilted his face down into the murky water. He looked for salamanders hiding in the sand for a while, and then Parker placed different objects down below for him to spy. An afternoon was spent exploring a completely new world below the surface of the water, a world Jackson had never seen before.  

Sometimes, it’s the littlest thing that is holding us back. Forget the giant walls, the sweeping chasms. Sometimes gaining access to the simplest tool has the ability to transform the world as we know it. It turns out, a great adventure can even be hidden in someone else’s neon green goggles. 

Parker, too, uncovered a small jewel that day in the form of a plastic strainer. Last summer, we spent a great deal of time pursuing salamanders, though I was the only one who ever managed to snag one. Not anymore. Parker was transformed into a steadfast salamander catcher with the help of his strainer.  



He waded through the water until he spied one resting on the sand below. Then he plunged the strainer underwater and as the salamander tried to flee, he’d scoop it below the belly and bring it quickly to the surface. Sometimes, the salamander got away, but a great many times the strainer would rise supporting a shiny creature. His new tool offered him access to a newfound ability.

I joined the boys in making a discovery as well. While they were engaged in unrelenting action, I found a bit of stillness. I plopped by pregnant body down on a weathered throne, also known as a lounge chair, and watched the day unfold from the sidelines. In years to come, I imagine this summer will be fondly remembered as “my lounge chair summer.” It is the first one in a long time that doesn’t require me to chase little people around. And perhaps it’s especially sweet because I am supremely aware of all the change that will soon be upon us. Next year, I’ll leave the lounge chair behind once again and return to the sacred act of corralling tiny feet.  

But not on that day.

That day, I stretched out long in the sunshine and watched the beauty around me – the birds calling from shaded branches, the shimmering lake surface, the grins on two little boys’ faces as they explored their newfound worlds and I basked in the joy that a pair of goggles, a strainer and a lounge chair can bring to those who behold them.  

Shedding Our Heavy Coats

On the first day of spring, I stood at our back door and noted the curtain of fabric bulging from the wall-mounted coat rack in our kitchen. This solid fortress of extra clothing exposed winter’s fierce and unpredictable temperament. 

The wall was overflowing with coats for every option of weather, for each member of our family. It held my black down coat for the coldest days, Jamie’s rain jacket, a hooded winter coat for both boys, a fleece jacket for me, a fleece jacket for Jamie, Jackson’s hunter green hoodie, a lightweight coat for Parker, and quite a few more. So many, many coats.  

My eyes had grown tired of looking upon this jumbled mess, and I decided the excess of scarves and hats and coats was no longer needed. After all, spring had officially arrived.

I lifted each winter coat off its metal hanger and draped it over my left forearm, where the heaping stack grew and grew and grew. Then I delivered them to a bedroom closet for safekeeping until next winter.  

When I returned to the kitchen I glanced in the corner and noticed the newfound space unveiled. The hangers were no longer overburdened with layers of fabric. A lightness had returned and I sensed the space could once again breathe easy.

I had felt the same lightness earlier that morning when I awoke to the sound of little boys squealing with laughter. The feeling persisted as Parker chased rowdy birds and squirrels on the front lawn before preschool. No coats were needed as we raced out the door and climbed into our champagne minivan. Jackson pleaded with me to crank up Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” so that not a soul we passed on the road could possibly doubt all the sunshine in his pocket.  

Lightness was riding proudly through the spring air and nestled in the empty spaces around my coat rack. It was pulsing out our van windows and soaring within me. Where had it come from?

In short, everywhere.  

It is in the collective blooms of lavender phlox and in three-year-olds who utter “Mama” every sixth word they speak. It is there as we eat peanut butter sandwiches on the front porch and in the vibrant trills and calls of birds just before daybreak. It is in music and motion and the sun as it warms my aging skin. It is there when I write, when I give a voice to my own truths. It is there as our heaviest coats fall away, as our shoulders and our hearts are set free from the weight they have carried. 

Farewell long winter!
Farewell heavy, heavy coats!

Spring is calling us forth.  

Keep On Walking

Sometimes, life keeps sending the same lesson my way over and over again. I suppose it’s the world’s way of casually mentioning that I haven’t been paying attention too well. Maybe I think that I’m learning and growing, but the reality is that I’m quick to fall back into old habits. So, life answers my resistance by again presenting a situation that asks me to rethink what I know, to question the person I am or the person I hope to be.

Months ago, my friend Mike and I were running through town comparing notes on our thyroid-less lives when he suggested I write about how it is okay to walk. I knew exactly what he meant – we have an expectation for what we should be able to accomplish, for how it should look as we go about our business. It’s easy to cling to that notion instead of offering ourselves much needed grace in the face of hardship. When our lungs are achey and our muscles are tired, it’s fine to slow down and start walking. The same rule applies to life. Some days, some circumstances warrant a pace that seems less than desirable.

I struggle to accept this, and perhaps that is exactly why the concept keeps showing up in my life.

I saw the coming year as a chance for a little comeback. After running with Mike on and off for six years, we had made plans to take on a marathon together. Not only do we share a love for running, but we are also connected by being diagnosed with thyroid cancer within six months of each other. The marathon was a way to reclaim our old selves, while claiming victory over the cancer that has challenged us. 

But the world had other plans for me. Pregnancy has asked me to get more comfortable walking in my running shoes. My distances have decreased and my pace has slowed significantly. These days, I’m doing more walking than running.

I was asked to walk again when I stopped taking my antidepressant. The very first thing I noticed was that if I were going to stay off it, I was going to have to reshape my expectations for myself. I watched the rush around me; the minutes filled to the brim with constant activity, endless commitments, and it left me feeling overwhelmed by the hustle of life. I could keep up with it all when I took my daily dose of Celexa, but off it, I yearn for a slower pace.  

Thus, I consider all the things I value in this life. I turn each over carefully in my heart and make a decision. Some things stay and some things I leave behind for now. I simply cannot do everything I think I should be able to accomplish. I keep those that revitalize; those that bring joy; those that offer love. I have to accept my limits and know that today, a little slower, a little less to do, is the best gift I can offer myself. I keep walking.

Weeks ago, I was out with our black lab Libby when I wrapped my finger in her leash the wrong way. She lunged forward with full force, crunching one bone into four. If you’re going to break a finger, the middle finger is definitely the best one to break. I get a free pass at flipping the bird for the next few months, which has offered extensive comic relief. I was pissed and slightly amused as I considered that the same lesson was once again revealing itself.

This is gonna slow you down even more, but keep on walking, my mind whispered. 

It seems we are acutely aware of what we are missing, and the truth is that we are always missing something. But even in the absence of one longing, we are in the presence of another. It’s a battle of the mind. Seeing what we have, instead of lamenting that which is just out of reach. 

I remember how the earth slows down during the winter months. She seems to know that going full speed is an unsustainable venture and so in the quiet of winter she rests. She, too, takes up walking in her running shoes. The cold air moves through empty branches. Darkness falls early. Flurries glide through grey skies and settle on the frozen ground. Winter is a season rooted in dormancy. Winter knows me well.   

I still type at my keyboard with my nine working fingers. I still sneak out to Pandapas every Tuesday morning and wander through the forest with some of my favorite people. I still smile and read and laugh and cry. 

Still I walk. 

I walk down uneven sidewalks, over the coarse yellowed lawn, on a soft trail of pine needles, along the lakeshore, uphill and downhill, through an alcove of rhododendron, over stones in a creek. I breath in slowly, deeply, and think to myself, What a lucky, lucky fool am I!


“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” -MLK

      

The Best Words To Wake Up To

I was awake, but still in bed. The first rays of light were peaking through the blinds on a cold December morning. Both Parker and Jackson were still cozy in their beds and I decided it was a luxury I’d grant myself as well. The radiant heat of full night’s rest was trapped beneath my heavy comforter and I wasn’t quite ready to leave it behind.

My mind wandered through the day before – it had been both fast paced and productive. I had driven up to Christiansburg early in the morning to get Libby spayed, embarked on a trail run at Pandapas, and then shopped excessively for Christmas before picking Libby up after surgery and heading back down the mountain. I had barely seen my boys in all the hustle of a full day’s worth of errands.

Suddenly, the high pitched screech of a creaky door knob broke the silence. I heard the crash of an old door being thrown open just down the hallway. Two small bare feet pounded across the wood floor. They turned the corner and headed downstairs. I smiled when I heard the words that accompanied those two marching feet. The words were soft, breathless, and filled with anticipation.  

“Ma – ma, Ma – ma, Ma – ma,” Parker whispered to himself.

As my ears soaked up his sweet song, I realized that I was the first person he thought of when he woke up. Me! Of all the amazing people in the world, he couldn’t wait to see me, his Ma – ma.

I climbed out of bed and noticed the air wasn’t nearly as cold as I thought it would be outside the warmth of my covers. I suspected that this had everything to do with the sweet voice I’d just heard outside my doorway.  

I retraced his foot steps down the stairs as my heart sang, “Par – ker, Par – ker, Par – ker,” the whole way. 

“Good morning, Monkey!” I smiled as I hugged his tiny frame.  

It certainly was, all because I was a little boy’s Mama.
    

Invisible Scars

A year ago, a nurse wheeled me down a long hallway toward Jamie after my total thyroidectomy. He sat with me for a bit before my parents came down to check on me. They stood at my bedside smiling and doing most of the talking. I was a bit groggy as I looked at them and whispered, “How big is it?”  I knew I shouldn’t really care about my incision, but there was a part of me that did. 

My dad moved his pointer finger up to his neck and traced an invisible line as he explained, “It goes from one side of you neck all the way over to the other side.” 

What? Across my entire neck? I had thought the damage would be so much smaller.  

My mom nudged my dad and gave him the marital death stare. I knew the words she was speaking with her glance. “Pete, come on! Can’t you tone it down a little bit? You don’t have to be completely honest right now.”

Today, one year later, this cut that went from one side of my neck all the way to the other side, is barely noticeable. It is a thin white line that has faded over the passing of 365 days.  

This scar I carry with me often reminds me of fear and bravery, uncertainty and grace, hardship and love.

It is a physical symbol of the struggle I went through last year. But not all scars are so visible. Quite often, they remain unseen, hidden away far below the surface. I’ve decided that these are the hardest scars to carry.

Long before my cancer scare, I was sick and I didn’t even know it. I suspect that sometime after Parker was born, I started a long slow fall into depression. The signs were all there, but I missed every single one of them. I was exhausted. I wasn’t running. I was perpetually irritable and overwhelmed. Mostly, I was numb. I tried to explain things away. Motherhood is just hard, I told myself. This will all get easier. I just need to try harder. I just need to keep looking the part. Keep mothering. Keep pushing on. Keep making dinner. Keep smiling. I became an actress by day as I went through the motions of all that I thought I should be doing.  

Days and weeks and months and years got harder and harder. I was completely overwhelmed with the demands of my life. I wondered how on earth people got it all done. I napped with the kids nearly everyday because exhaustion was a constant companion. I withdrew from the people I love. I was wrought with the guilt of falling short over and over again and began to harness a growing resentment toward the people I love most. I was working so damn hard to survive, to make it through each passing day.  It felt like I had to give twice the effort to accomplish only half of a task. I could sense that I was a shell of my old self, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling.  Where was the person I used to be? I wrote her off as having disappeared after the kids were born. Apparently, she had the good sense to get out of town and escape the mayhem that surrounded me.

It turns out, the old “me” was in there all along. She was waiting patiently for the numbness to fall away, for me to walk back into the light.

This summer, I got lucky and stumbled my way out of the darkness.  

It was an ordinary Saturday morning. We had plans to meet an old family friend at Barnes and Noble and so Jamie and I worked through the process of getting clean clothes on everyone so that we could look mostly civilized when we arrived.  

As my feet trod down the stairs, I glanced at the clock and realized we were all ready to go and it was quite early in the day. The sun was shining and blue skies shown through our finger smudged windows. Parker sat in front of the storm door with his right leg bent before him as he worked to fit his small foot into the correct shoe. I felt something odd stir within me. It rose up in my chest. It was light. It was something I had not felt in a very very long time. It was the faintest seed of joy.  

JOY!

“Maybe I’m getting better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe everything is going to be okay.”

I turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs and walked back into the kitchen. I opened the cabinet and pulled out the medication I’d been prescibed four weeks earlier as I sat before a doctor sharing details that I’d hoped to spare everyone.  

My palm pushed down on the white top and twisted the cap off. One small pill fell down into my palm. I grabbed a small water glass and took an antidepressant. It was the first time I didn’t second guess my decision to do so.

I carried a small hope around with me for an entire day. Maybe I’m getting better. Maybe joy would find me again.  

It was the beginning of my return to life.  

At first I felt intense relief that I would not have to live that way any longer. I was free from the cage that had held me.  Thankfulness washed over me as I reclaimed myself.  But then the shame and regret set in. I had missed years of my kids’ lives. Everything I should have felt when Parker was a baby, I had missed. Even though I’d been there physically, I was numb through it all. The memories felt tainted by my depression, by my irritation, by my anxiety. A wave of guilt swelled around me as I thought about how this has affected my boys and my husband. It was enough to make me cry for a very long time.

There is a saying that happiness is a choice. I used to believe these words. Now I know it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes the wall is too high, the hole is too dark. Sometimes we just can’t find our way out.

I am learning to make peace with what happened. I can beat myself up over the past, over something I cannot change, or I can start living today.    

But making peace is some hard, heavy work. As I started that process, it occurred to me that while I’ve never once been ashamed of my thyroid cancer diagnosis, there is a sense of shame that I feel at having suffered from depression. It taunts me at times, whispering, “Your life is beautiful. What reason could you possibly have to be depressed?”

I’m a girl who likes answers and it unnerves me that I have no reasonable explanation. My mind walks through postpartum, through a move, through motherhood, through thyroid cancer and knows that one or all of these reasons are enough. But that doesn’t satisfy shame’s torment.  

So I find myself back in familiar territory, typing steadily away at my keyboard. It’s a place that helps me make sense of the senseless; a place I find hope in my heartache. My fingers dance together, bringing a story I have tucked deep within me out into the crisp fall air. I remember the heaviness I carried for so long, the way I struggled to get through the day, the relief I felt when plans fell through because I wouldn’t have to put energy into pretending to be okay.  Depression stole a few years of my life, but it didn’t steal them all. I am fortunate to have found joy again, to have found myself. 

I am alive once again.

For me, this December will be about finding and sharing joy. Our little family will watch the twinkling lights scattered though trees and outlining homes as we drive through town on dark, blustery nights. We will roam the fields at Joe’s Tree Farm with red cheeks and runny noses. We will breathe in the scent of pine that fills our living room while the boys play game after game of foosball. We will drink hot cocoa and build a blazing fire below festive stockings. We will savor the joy of gathering together with the people we love. We will rejoice. And this year, I will bask in the fullness of the season. Joy isn’t just around me; it is once again within me.

Our scars, whether visible or not, tell a story. They are little miracles that show our ability to heal after trauma. They are proof of our resilience; proof that we have stood in the fires of life and walked onward.

May we remember the perspective we have gained, the lessons we have learned along the way.  May we be brave enough to carry each of our scars with unwavering grace.