The Last of the Single-Digits

As Lily enters her last year of being of a single-digit age, I can’t help but think this is an enormous turning-point for her. Her physical development is starting to catch up with her precocious nature. And it’s readily apparent to anyone who sees her that this little girl is becoming a young woman. Already. How is that even possible?

I’ll admit, my memories of being a child are a bit fuzzy. I have general time frames at which certain things happened, and have some recollections of things I did and people I did them with. So I may be looking at Lily’s development through a very skewed perception when I wonder how in the hell a 9-year-old can already be becoming a woman. To me, she’s still a baby. I mean, 9, in the grand scheme of things, is really quite new to the world. But then I look at this long-legged beauty, and listen to the clever, witty things that comes out of her mouth, and get slapped with realty. A baby she most certainly is not anymore.

Then again, I don’t want to encourage her to grow up too fast. Meaningful, careful change takes time. I want her to have all the time she needs.

This first occurred to me when, one day this spring, she had her two good girlfriends over to play—both of whom are one year older than she is. The three girls were all outside taking advantage of the mild spring weather. I just sat and watched them. They were all wearing training bras, all in different stages of needing them. They were all wearing some sort of accessory or had nails painted. They all had cute, sassy little outfits on. They all looked very much like they were becoming little ladies. And one might assume by just looking at them without hearing their conversations that they might be gossiping about boys or talking about situations with other friends at school. But they weren’t. They were playing house. Well, a strange combination of house and Minecraft, but house nonetheless. Like with baby dolls and each girl playing a different role: mom, dad, little sister. They were making pretend food from garden materials, and playing with Lily’s tea set and toy dishes that she got when she was 2. And it was so sweet.

It was at this moment that I really came to understand the term “tween” (even though I still think it sounds ridiculous). Here was my girl in a training bra, with hoop earrings in her ears, and temporary metallic tattoos on her arms, playing house and tea party. Not quite ready to move on, and not quite ready to let everything go. A little bit like a child, and a little bit like a teen, and nothing all the way. She’s kind of stuck in this middle-ground trying to slowly traverse her way from one stage to the next. And though I’m a little bit sad at how quickly childhood goes by, it’s sort of endearing as well. I do have many memories of that time in my life, with my girlfriends, and it was some of the best times of my childhood. I’m really glad she’s able to experience it as well.

In continuing with Lily’s transition from girlhood to womanhood, I also noticed that she’s become much more aware of how other females act, dress, and present themselves. I see her looking at older girls, studying them. What are they wearing? How are they talking? Who are they with? It’s almost as if she’s trying to figure out how she fits into the womanhood equation. And when she comments about seeing other girls maybe acting in a way she doesn’t agree with, I can see that she’s sizing up their choices in relation to what I’ve given her as a perspective on what it means to be a woman. Of course I’m going to always be, perhaps, a most influential example. But I do try to explain that there really is no one definition of what it means to be a woman, and I think she’s really trying to piece out all the choices available to her.

It’s a puzzling time, I think, making this transition. She needs to figure out what her values are, and how they compare to what we’ve tried to instill in her, and what might be uniquely her own. She needs to figure out what she likes about herself and others. She needs to figure out what her strengths and weaknesses are. All awhile taking into account what she feels others see in her. And I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to be there to play a more active role in her life this past year. Not having to dedicate so much of my time and energy to my job and someone else’s children, but rather my own, has been a true blessing. Especially given Lily’s nature.

One of my favorite stories to tell about Lily, and one I think I’ve already included in a birthday reflection, is from when she was about 10 months old. She had a very favorite book that we read approximately 1 million times a day. And one day, she picked it up and held it out to me. I asked her if she wanted me to read it, and she grunted and clapped her hands. And when I jokingly said, “But what if I don’t want to?”, she stiffened her arms out to her sides, balled up her fists, and yelled. I still think that memory is both hilarious and telling of her. Lily wants what she wants. And God help you all If you make her angry.

And even though she has definitely come to realize she can’t have everything she wants, she’s still just as fiery and quick to anger. But now she will pout, stomp upstairs to her room, and shut out the world. I understand that sometimes she just needs some time alone. But luckily I also have the time, energy, and patience to be there for her. Because every time (I’m not exaggerating), every time she gets into one of these moods, if I come to her room to see if she wants to talk after she’s had time to calm down, she always does. She wants me to hold her hand or snuggle her, and just listen to her. She wants to cry and yell, and be heard. And I’m forever grateful that she lets me do that. That I can be present for her. Because I know so many children who never had that, and how it made them grow distant, angry, self-critical, and even harmful to themselves and others. And I’m grateful that Lily loves and trusts me enough to know that no matter if she’s angry with me or someone/something else, or if she knows I’m angry with her, I’m still going to come into her room, sit on her bed, and ask her if she wants to talk about it. And I hope this will help her through whatever challenges this next year will bring.

And I expect there to be many challenges ahead of us. With homeschooling on the horizon, it could be a recipe for trouble even though it will also most probably bring us closer. What I hope is that Lily will continue to see how much I believe in her, and transfer those beliefs to herself. I hope she will go back to loving school, as much as she loves learning (which are, of course, not one in the same). I hope she continues to grow as an artist now that she will have ample time on a daily basis to experiment with new ideas, mediums, and techniques. I just hope that every hurdle we come upon, we will jump over together. Whether she is giving me a boost or the other way around.

Because as I love my children equally but different, I love my firstborn in a way a parent has to love the person who brought them the greatest gift of parenthood. I see so much in her, and I would do anything for her. She was my first sidekick, my first baby, my only girl, and hopefully my future best friend.

And so, Miss Lily-Girl, I wish you more happiness than you can ever know. I love everything about you, even the things you yourself don’t seem to appreciate. Because you know what, Pookie, everything inside of you makes a whole you. And without them, you wouldn’t be the girl I know so well. Embrace all your quirks, interests, shortcomings, fears, hopes, and dreams because every bit of those things make you the funniest, cleverest, pun and joke-making, intelligent, talented, beautiful little sassy-pants that you are.

I saw a story online that told of a mother who always told her daughter, “I wish you enough.” And it resonated with me. Yes, I wish you the world, but only so far as the world brings you that which fulfills you. I wish you enough from life to make you happy. Because no matter how much you have of toys, clothes, books, travels, whatever, as long as it makes you truly happy in your soul, it will be enough to sustain you. And that is what I wish for you, my dear girl. I wish you enough.

I love you, Pookie. I hope you have a most marvelous last single-digit birthday. Thank you for being my baby.

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To My Kiddos

This morning I read a news article explaining that the original founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, were arrested in the Capitol for protesting ‘big money’ in politics. Knowing a bit about the two, and knowing that they regularly speak up for and out against issues that they find important, I wasn’t really surprised by this information. But maybe because it’s the primary election day; or, maybe because we’re in the midst of a political movement that has been a long time coming and needed, and the likes of which we haven’t ever seen; or, maybe it’s my own growing desire to do something of similar meaning and importance; or, maybe it’s a firestorm of all of those things; whatever the reason, I felt compelled to seize this feeling, and make this an opportunity to hopefully teach my kids a little something someday. Thus, this letter is born.

 

Dear Lily and Ollie—

As your parent, I want so very many things for you. The normal stuff—love, friendship, health, opportunities, and of course happiness. But I also want some pretty complicated things too. I want you both to understand things about life that took me far too long to figure out, or at the very least, accept. But these things I want for you aren’t things I can give you. No, these things are far too valuable, and which you must earn on your own. And I worry each day about you missing out on them, and feeling like I could be failing you if you do. Please understand that it’s not that I don’t want to give you these things. If I could, I’d open your skulls, and crack open your ribs and shove these things deep into your brains and hearts. But like most things that are worth anything at all, these things will only be worth it if you go out and get them yourselves, and define what each means to you as individuals.

I can hear you now, Lily, “Ok, Mom, stop being so damn vague. Get to the point.” Or, at least that’s what I imagine you’ll sound like someday when you’re old enough to read and appreciate this. Ollie, tell your sister to calm down. I’m getting to it. So impatient she is. 😊

What I want so badly for you is something I was not able to give myself until recently. I want you both to feel safe enough to always be brave, and fierce, and radical. To do what’s right, not what’s popular or expected of you. To believe in something so deeply you’re willing to risk everything for it. To put yourself out there and try. And to put yourself on the line sometimes. You know, “fight the good fight”.

I want these things for you because no one ever achieved anything great by sitting on the sidelines. And what I want for you is greatness. Not necessarily in the sense that you need to be President or someone rich and famous. But greatness in the sense that though you may question yourself or doubt your choices, you’ll never regret them because you’ll have earned a life that makes you genuinely and wholeheartedly happy. I mean happiness that seeps into every cell of your being. Happiness that cannot be permanently erased by a slipup or momentary hard time. Happiness that is so inherently a part of who you are that no one can take it away. But the only one who can give you that is you.

And so you need to live each day with the intention of doing all you can to better your life. To find that place of deepest contentment. But not be afraid to shake things up to get there. You need to go to sleep every night knowing that you truly did all you could that day to be the best you, work toward the best world, and that what you’ve done could have enacted change or goodness for others, and lead you to your greatest happiness. If you cannot do that, you mustn’t be too hard on yourself, but promise yourself to do so tomorrow. But don’t sell yourselves empty promises. Believe me, that’s only a temporary soothing. It’s a Band-Aid where you need stiches. Use your words, and use your heart, and act. Take a plunge, knowing you could, and likely will at some time, fall hard. Then get yourself back up again, brush off those bits of gravel from your pants, and climb up and jump again.

Of course, don’t be foolish. Your dad and I have hopefully raised you better than that. Do your research. Think. Inspect. Ask around. See for yourself. Experiment. And listen to others. Don’t always take what they say and adopt it. But listen. Always be listening. And choose wisely. There are so many chances to take. And there are so many battles in this world. You can’t fight them all. It took me until my 30’s to realize that. You must be more like Atticus and less like Scout. (Surely, you’ve both read To Kill a Mockingbird by now! What kind of mother would I be otherwise??) As long as you are helping others, and not harming yourself or anyone else, know that we will support your choices.

And just remember that everyone is someone. We all have thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, mistakes, etc. If you can look into the eyes of every person you meet, and see them as a person, an individual, regardless of their actions, behaviors, or choices, and see what is universal in us all, I think you will never really make a terrible mistake. We’ve tried to raise you with empathy, and with consideration for others in hopes that when you see a wrong being committed, you’ll act to stop it. And when you see a need being unfulfilled, you do what you can toward filling it. Everything we have done and continue to do is for you two. For your greater good and so that you will become amazing adults. And we hope you can use our examples as a springboard for doing so much more. Losing my job for speaking out against poor education practices is small peanuts really. But I have the hope that it was one of the first examples of you seeing your parents standing up for what they believe in, even though it had a somewhat unfortunate outcome. Follow us, kiddos, but eventually pass us. Forge those trails on your own. Look back and we’ll be waving. We will always be here; we will always support you. So don’t be afraid to be yourselves and do what’s in your heart. Because if you do, you’ll never want for a thing. And what more could we hope for you both?

Love you with all my heart and soul,

Mom

So what WILL you do then? Or: In Defense of Stay-at-Home Parenting

I know that anyone who frequents any social media sites are likely up-to-their-eyeballs sick of divisive articles that pit one group against one another, particularly parents. You’ve got the groups that think breastfeeding in public is a disgrace, and the group that thinks formula feeding is poisoning children. You’ve got one group that tries to convince others that not vaccinating your kids is the most irresponsible thing you can do, and the other group claiming vaccinations are unnecessary and we’re, again, poisoning our kids. And let’s not forget the natural birth = warrior mama vs. c-section birth = the easy way out debate. And then, last but not least, we have the groups that claim working parents are neglecting their kids and are selfish to want a career, and others who think stay-at-home parents are on one extended vacation. Enough, right?

Well, maybe one more…

Because I’ve made it abundantly clear to anyone who will listen that I am not going back to teaching in the foreseeable future (and by foreseeable, I mean ever), I’ve had plenty of conversations that have progressed in the same way:

Me: “Yeah, I think I’m done with teaching. It’s just not what’s in my heart anymore.”

Other person: “Huh. Ok. I get it. But what will you do then??”

Me: “Uh. This. What I’m doing now.”

Other person: “So, like, just staying home.”

Me: Smirk. “Yeah, Just staying home.”

Because, you know, all I do all day is hang out and eat bon bons. Don’t all stay-at-home-parents? No? Bummer. What did I sign up for then?

For the record, I can’t speak to any other family’s situation, and I’m not here to write my defense of what I do all day. I’m writing this to perhaps illuminate a topic that is incredibly misunderstood.

What is the role of the stay-at-home-parent, Mergler Style: Get up; feed the cats; feed the birds; wake the older child, make sure she gets out of bed, dressed, and having put on deodorant and clean socks (Trust me, that’s a feat all in itself); entertain all manner of questions and comments as younger child follows me around the house; make sure the third child…er, husband is awake and getting ready for work; make lunches; feed older child; brush older child’s teeth; do older child’s hair; get children dressed to go to bus stop; go to bus stop; come back and make breakfast for younger child; eat breakfast myself; shower (if I’m lucky); get younger child dressed; brush his teeth; treat his eczema; pack his bag; help him get dressed to leave the house; drive him to school; take him to his locker and help him unpack; take him to his classroom; give him ten thousand hugs and kisses; go back home; clean the house; do laundry; go grocery shopping; run errands (all of these in any particular order or day); try to squeeze in time for reading or writing; go get older child from bus stop; go pick up younger child from school; come back home and help older child with homework; make children snacks; make dinner; clean up after dinner; family time; bedtime routine–both children because husband is tired from working all day–brush teeth, get in pj’s, read books, hugs and kisses, lights out; hope for time left to interact with husband and maybe read; go to bed. Get up the next day and do it all over again.

Now, do other parents do this and more? Of course. One of my good friends teaches full-time and is a single-parent. And I’m well aware that working parents still parent as well. But just from my experience alone, I can say that very rarely did all of these things get done in one day, particular without one or both parents getting testy.

I don’t know about you, but nowhere in that list do I see eat bon bons. 🙂  Do I have some free-time most days? Yeah, of course. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But in that free-time, I’m focusing on doing what I can to make sure I’m as rested, stress-free, and happy as I can be because I know that my mood directly affects that of my family. And I know that when I’m feeling frazzled, so much less gets done. I’d bet anyone any amount of money that if you asked my family if life is better now, that we’re happier now that I’m not working, that they’d definitely say  yes.

But yet, for so many people, this is not enough. Having a well-run household and family life is not enough. Having my kids never wanting for attention or help is not enough. Having a daily existence that is 90% stress-free is not enough. Because I should be doing something else. And why wouldn’t I want to?

I admit that for quite a bit of my life, I felt that to be a strong, independent woman, I needed to be reliant on no one but myself. I swore I’d never let myself get in a situation where I was monetarily dependent on my husband. I felt it was the opposite of feminism. A feminist can stand on her own. She runs her life, and doesn’t need anyone.

Now I have come to believe that the most important aspect of feminism is the presence of choice. I have options. I can go back to work if I’d like. But instead I choose to be a stay-at-home parent. And it’s in this choosing that I think I’ve found the same amount of power, control, and independence that I once did while having a career outside of home. Not to mention, I’ve matured enough to realize that depending on someone else doesn’t make me weak, it makes me human. And depending on my husband just means he is an integral part of my being and necessary to my happiness. I see nothing wrong with that.

Ultimately, I think we’re all just trying to do our best. We’re doing what we feel is best fo ourselves and families. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m not looking for anyone else to validate my way of life. I am happy. My family is happy. That’s the only validation I need. But I will put out a plea for others parents. I know many people–men and women–who are stay-at-home parents and who would appreciate just a wee bit more respect. Being a parent is, in my opinion, one of the hardest, but most amazingly rewarding jobs there is. And no one has to agree with me on everything,  but I think we can all agree that it is work, and that we all deserve a little credit for doing it.

So please, all you lawyers, teachers, bankers, tradesmen, etc., please don’t ask me what I do all day. And please don’t ask me what I’m going to actually do in the future. I’m going to do this. Exactly what I’m doing now. And I would never dream of asking you the same question.

 

Do More of What Makes You Happy

Last year, from my Secret Santa (aka my dear friend, Erin), I received a magnet that stated simply: Do more of what makes you happy. It was a perfect gift considering I was doing virtually nothing that made me happy, and Erin knew how miserable I was, and how desperate I was to break out of that funk. But deep in that funk I was, and though I would look at the magnet stuck to the side of my refrigerator every day, I couldn’t manage to follow its advice. Until now, that is.

As most of the people in my life (or who have read my blog entries) know, 2015 was a year of great change. Both great in the sense of many changes, but also in the sense of things that ultimately brought more happiness to my life.

I transitioned from working 50+ hours a week, constantly stressed, feeling like I was spinning my wheels only to go nowhere, another cog in the education system desperately in need of repair, to a stay-at-home wife and mother. And granted this new position I’m in has its own share of stresses, it is truly nothing like trying to do it all as I was before. Because even though I left my house by 6:45 a.m, and most often didn’t return until about 5 p.m, I was still coming home to my family and needing to immediately switch gears and turn into wife and mom. And by the time mothering was done for the night, I was too spent to give anything else, either to myself or my husband. Now there are days, though, when I’m desperately lonely being home all by myself. I crave adult interaction. I sometimes feel like my contribution to the world has been greatly diminished.

It’s not always been an easy transition to say the least. To go from so many years of just going, going, going, to days now where I do have the luxury to step back and take a breath is stranger to me than some might think. I’d grown so accustomed to always doing more than I feasibly could that I sometimes forget that what I do now is not only reasonable, but appreciated and more than enough. Instead of continually striving to do more, failing to finish, and never receiving thanks for it, I am now able to budget what really needs to be done, and see the positives of my efforts. Getting kids to and from school, making sure the house is well-kept, making nutritional meals (even if they’re not always eaten), helping with homework, working through behaviors and relationship issues, and showing my kids they’re valued each day is a lot, even if I’m not also bringing home a paycheck. And I need to recognize this more and scold myself less for not doing more.

Because, you know what, 2015 was also a year of bravery. And I’m just starting to give myself proper credit for it all.

Earlier this year, something snapped in me, and I decided enough was enough. I decided that nothing, especially not a paycheck, was worth feeling like utter shit all the time for. I spoke my peace, defended what was right for both students ad teachers, stopped doing more that what was required of me, and, if I may say so, gracefully accepted the consequences of it all. This cog came loose, setting off the entire machine, and it needed to be rid of. And instead of putting myself back in line with everyone, I tore loose and hightailed it out of there. And I can say with absolutely no pretensions or doubts, I don’t regret it even a fraction of a percentage. Not then, and certainly not now.

This is not to say there weren’t days when I doubted myself or wondered if I’d gone truly mad. But I’d found ways to work through it. And one of those ways was through writing.

I have, off and on throughout the years, dabbled in writing. I’ve always loved writing, but lacked the confidence to do much about it. But in November of 2014, I began this blog, and throughout most of 2015, I managed to keep up a semi-regular posting. And really, the main start of it all was my New Year’s Reflection from last year. It really helped me pinpoint what was important to me, and one of those things was writing. (And shit, I wrote 3/4 of a fucking novel–to be finished in Jan. 2016! 🙂 )

I wasn’t always able to write as frequently as I should have, both because I lacked the time, and because I lacked the motivation or belief in myself. But I tried, above all, to be honest in my writing when it did come. And in being honest in my writing, I needed to be honest to myself. And this involved finally admitting I had depression and seeking treatment for it. I know I’m not the only person in the world that suffers from some type of mental illness, and I know that many also don’t understand it. I was one of those people, even after having gotten my eventual diagnosis. I didn’t realize how multifaceted the condition was, and how much work it would be to manage it. But I think finally addressing this need of mine helped put everything else into perspective and place. This shift in understanding of myself led to a shift in expectations for both myself and those around me. And though depression is not easy to deal with sometimes, and is something I quite likely will live with the rest of my life, it has changed my life immeasurably for the positive. Because in recognizing I had new needs, I also was forced to make absolute changes to my life. Changes that I wouldn’t have made without this. 2015 was a year for doing what needed to be done. 2016 will change that.

This is not to say that there won’t always be things that need to be done. The kids will always need to be fed, clothed, cleaned, healthy, loved. The house will need to be kept in relative cleanliness and organization. My marriage will need to be a priority in order fort the whole family to work as one happy, successful unit. But if there is a day when we have sandwiches for dinner, will that hurt anyone? Of course not. If there is cat food on the kitchen floor or dirty laundry in the hamper, will anyone die? No, that’s ridiculous. So instead of trying to get everything done, I am going to focus on getting done what will make us as a family the happiest, and say fuck all the rest.

This isn’t to say that I’m just looking for excuses to be neglectful or lazy. Instead, this allows me the space to be flexible, understanding, and to forgive myself if I’m not perfect–which, spoiler alert! I won’t be.

You see, I’ve finally come to realize that there’s no reward for running myself ragged and doing more than what is reasonable. No one is getting a medal for being too busy and hectic. And winning the contest for being the most stressed out is no longer a contest I’m interested in participating in. If it forces me to be less than my best self most of the time, then I’m over it.

I know that I’m only one person in a complicated equation that is human relationships. But I also know that the happiness of all my relationships depends, at least in part, to me. If I’m miserable, apathetic, stressed, exhausted, or any of the myriad negative emotions that can encompass a person at any time, then I will pass that along to everyone I live with, and thus my most important relationships will suffer. And though I’m only one part of each relationship, I am an important part. And the only part I can control is my part. So, though I can’t control others, I can certainly do what I can to make sure we’re as happy as possible. And while I will inevitably fail at this from time to time, I am determined to make more of an effort than I have before. Nothing good has ever come from being negative. And nothing but good can come from trying to be better.

So here we are again at the point when I suppose I should be listing my resolutions, only I again refuse to make any. Instead, I have chosen to make myself promises instead. And each of my promises will all work toward building a happier me and the life that I see is most beneficial.

First off, I promise to make more time for hobbies, relaxation, and simple enjoyment. Americans notoriously overwork and under play, many working Americans don’t even take any vacation time each year. Studies have shown that not allowing the mind and body down time leads to all sorts of health issues–both mentally and physically. It’s my goal to live as long and as well as I can. And spending some quality time each day doing what I love–reading, watching the birds, gardening, writing–will hopefully help me along in this goal. And at the very least, it certainly won’t hurt.

Next, I promise to be better to my body than previous years. This is not where you will see me pledging to lose a bunch of weight or give up sweets. Fuck that, actually. I promise to give my body the credit it’s due and to celebrate all it provides me with. It has grown and delivered two children. It has planted and maintained a huge ass yard of gardens. It has offered comfort and security to my children. It has climbed great hills, skied down slopes, and so much more all because I asked it to. It may not be perfect. It may have flaws, and I may not always give it what it needs, but I know that I’m doing my best. And instead of making comparisons to others or wishing I was more this or less that, I am simply saying I’m enough. And as long as I live a mostly healthy life, the sweets I eat, or the days I’m too unmotivated to exercise, will be minor. My body and my mind are not separate, though I treated them as such in the past. If my mind is sound, my body will follow. If I can mediate to relive stress, or write my thoughts out in self-therapy, or stretch and strengthen my body in yoga, then both my mind and my body will gain. And it will be enough.

Lastly, I need to focus on taking each day as it comes. Each day is a gift, even when it’s a challenge. Some days will be better or easier than others. And some days the best thing I can do is just go easy on myself. I need to recognize that I’m doing the best I can with each moment. And though my best may see some flux along the way, as long as I am making a conscientious effort to be true to myself, I know I will be fine. I need to remember that though I can do anything, I can’t do everything (stole that from Pinterest :)).

No more ultimatums, no more pressure. Only reinforcement of that which speaks to my soul. I know so many people think that type of stuff is corny and new-agey, but I couldn’t care less anymore. Its taken me this long to finally feel comfortable with myself and to finally advocate for what I know is really best for me, and I’m not going to let anyone take that away from me. If I can go to bed each night feeling like some good came out of each day, then nothing else matters.

I wish nothing but what makes each and every one of you equally happy as 2016 continues.

The end of NaNoWriMo

Today is the last day of NaNoWrimo, the day by which all participants should have reached 50k words and verified it, thus “winning” the challenge. Today I am at 42k words, haven’t written in 3 days, and have no plans to do so today. And I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you what I learned by doing NaNoWriMo.

I signed up for this challenge with some optimistic naivete. Having never written more than a short story, but wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, I thought this would be it. I’d heard of NY Times best sellers that were NaNo books, and I figured anything was possible. Sure 50k words is a lot, and it demanded commitment, but I had the time and the drive. I could do it.

And sure, I did do it. I got to 42k words, which is in itself pretty impressive. And if I wanted to, I would have reached the 50k mark. And after having 7k be my highest word count, I feel super proud of myself. You see, because even though I didn’t “win,” I still feel like a winner. NaNoWriMo was the kick in the ass I needed. I needed to go from talking about writing, and wishing I was writing, to actually writing. And I did.

This challenge made me go from thinking I’d never be good enough and that my writing is unremarkable, to thinking that it might be unremarkable now, but that I have the potential to make it better. That a blank paper will never be more than that, but a paper with lots of red cross-outs can be better. And my 42k words will get better. On my time, at my pace, by my rules. I appreciate NaNo for getting my engine started, but I know now that time constraints and word count goals make for more quantity of writing than quality of writing. And to be fair, no one claims to have a polished novel at the end of the month. But I felt I was putting too much pressure on myself, and that was not good for creativity.

Now, I know that all writers work under some sort of deadline. When you are working with an editor and publisher, you need to have your work completed by a certain time. I get that. I also understand that every good writer writes every day. Every. Day. But that’s just not ideal for my life right now. I could write something every day. And maybe that’s really the point. Just to get something down. But I could not commit to 2k words each day. Some days the words flowed very easily, and I reached over 2k words, and other days not so much. And it was on these “not so much” days that I felt enormous pressure. If I didn’t hit 2k, I would be behind, and if I was behind, I would have to race to catch up, and if I didn’t catch up, then I failed. That was no good for getting the creative juices flowing again.

And while I realize 2k words isn’t that much to ask of someone, it just wasn’t always feasible for me. When I left my job as a teacher and decided that I was never going back to the profession, I did so for many reasons. But one of the main reasons was that I had put my job ahead of so much else for so long. I sacrificed personal time, my health, and pushed my family to the side for ultimately nothing that gave me long-term pleasure or benefits. And when I decided teaching was no longer the best fit for me, I swore to always put my family first, no matter what else I was doing. And there were several times during NaNo that I should have been with my kids, because they were sick or wanted attention or just because otherwise I was holed up in my office and not really present; and, I didn’t honor my commitment to them. And I always felt a pang of guilt then. But in my head I defended my actions as it’s only for a month, it wouldn’t be forever. And I got through much of the month this way. But what would I say if I continued past the November 30th mark (as my 42k words is roughly only half the book)? Would I continue to justify my reasons for eschewing my promise to myself and my family? I wasn’t willing to do that.

But toward the end of the month, with Thanksgiving upon us, my kids being home for 4 days, not to mention some bouts of pink-eye, upper respiratory viruses, and then strep throat, I couldn’t see myself focusing on my writing above everything else. As the days went by, and my word count stayed stagnant, I started to realize that making it to 50k wasn’t really winning me anything but a return to the life I’d previously lived and loathed. And it was then that I made a conscious decision to not finish. My story would still be there waiting for me when I was ready to pick it up again. But these moments when my family needed me were too crucial to miss.

I know I might seem hopelessly idealistic in saying I don’t want to live a life that feels like a burden. Yes, I know sometimes aspects of our lives are difficult. But after having lived for so long with everything being difficult, I know the danger in complicity. I know how making concessions can be a very slippery slope toward feeling futile and worthless. I never will allow myself to live like that again. And when it comes to writing, I never want it to feel like a chore. Challenging, frustrating, perhaps? Sure. But never like something I have to do instead of something I want to do. I want to want to write even when I can’t, when I have something else I need to be doing. I don’t want to feel like I have nothing I want to say when I have all the time in the world. And that’s exactly why I walked away so close to the finish line, and why I don’t regret it or feel like a loser at all.

I congratulate all of the participants who will, by day’s end, have met the goal of 50k. And I also applaud all those who tried and didn’t get there, willingly or otherwise.

Hopefully we all have so much more to live. And while I know today could be our last and perhaps then I should write like I don’t have forever to finish, I choose to simply live life enjoying what I can from each day. And if writing is a part of that day, great. If helping a sick child blow their nose or catching their vomit in my bare hands so it doesn’t hit the carpet is part of that day, that’s great too. I will live my life by my rules only now, and my rule states that I always do what feels right. And today what feels right is saying farewell to NaNoWriMo. Regardless of my word count, I now consider myself a writer.

What did you do today?

If you were to sneak a peek into most American homes during dinnertime, you might find a family or couple or roommates sharing a meal and asking each other the following question: What did you do today?

It’s a seemingly innocuous question. If nothing else, it’s used as a conversation starter, one in which that at least implies interest in the fellow human to which the question is posed. But is it really that innocent? Even if the intention by the questioner was never to impose any sort of judgment on the questioned party, I maintain that it’s a question rife with implications.

And yet this question is asked more often  than any of the following questions that could potentially elicit the same information, but much more deeply. How about: “How was your day today?”; or, “How did you feel today?” (to a well, not ill person); or,”What was the best part of your day and why?”; or my favorite for the kids: “What were the highlights of your day so far?”. By asking these questions, one would still be able to get a sense of the other’s day’s events, but they will also be able to tap into something far more important than actions and events: the person’s emotions.

Now I’m not trying to say that asking “What did you do today?” only allows for the other person to rattle of a list of actions without commentary. But I’ve found in my life that one of a few things happen. One is that the person being asked doesn’t really have much to answer or contribute. Perhaps it was a largely uneventful day. Another is that the person answering really just want to talk about one thing that was important, but feels obligated to include everything in the day. Or lastly, the person questioned may feel judged if they “didn’t do much”. As if some sort of activities marathon needs to happen every day in order to see the day as successful.

Ultimately, the first question (“What did you do today?”) is focusing on actions and events, not feelings, questions, observations, or learning points. It also implies that a day’s worth is based on what a person actively does.

For example, if Josh were to ask me, “What did you do today?”, my answer would possibly be: “Read, watched the birds, wrote a little, went on Facebook, napped.” And this is when I am done getting kids ready for and off to school and before I pick them up from school and work on homework and dinner. This is my “free-time”, if you will.

If this was my answer, it would seem as though I’m lazy as hell and do basically nothing all day (Gee, must be nice to be unemployed!). And while this is not necessarily true, it might seems so to those who think of “doing something” as being busy all day long. (Then again, what really is busy? …But I digress.)

Hear me out.

What if by watching the birds I saw a new species or learned a new behavior that prompted further research into migratory patterns or ornithology? Or what if I saw an animal in distress and helped it? Was that doing nothing?

What if by reading I gained further insight into what makes a good story and used a technique in my own writing? What if I read a book I’ll never forget, one which connects humans on a deep emotional level, or one which I would want to share with my children? Was that doing nothing?

What if by napping I was able to re-energize myself after a hectic morning of getting kids off to school, thus allowing me to be better rested during the afternoon and evening when my kids need a lot of attention and interaction. Was that doing nothing?

What if by going on Facebook I not only got social interaction with other adults (considering I’m unemployed and either alone all day or with small children), but I also was able to read up on current events and news of importance to me? Was that doing nothing?

What if by writing I learned more about myself and worked toward building a happier life that better fulfills my needs and more closely matches what I value? Was that doing nothing?

But lastly, what if I really did do nothing? So what? Does this make my day–or me for that matter–a waste? What if all I did was rest, and be entertained and happy? Is that really doing nothing? Why is the measure of a day based on the societal norms that may not best represent individual beliefs, goals, or practices? Why can’t my day just be filled with whatever the hell I damn well please?

I have no answers to these questions. I still struggle every day with this dilemma. Having been a student and then teacher for so long, I still maintain this ingrained mindset that I shouldn’t waste a single minute of my day being idle. Not having worked this last month has been challenging in this regard. It honestly often interferes with my ability to truly enjoy every day because I’m either judging myself for having not done enough, pressuring myself to do more, or worrying that Josh will think I’m taking advantage of not working.

I know this is truly my problem, and that it’s largely self-imposed,but I also know I’m not alone in this. I’m fairly confident in my claim that it’s a common mindset in America, and that it’s not easily broken or overcome.

But so long as I can only control my own life, I know I can only focus on re-wiring my thinking. And this is something I am working toward accomplishing one gloriously uneventful day at a time.

The Fog Has Lifted

It’s been two months since I came to accept that I suffer from depression, three weeks since I started treatment on Zoloft, and over two years since I’ve felt this light, this happy.

I don’t know what stopped me from taking care of my mental health for so long. I guess it was a lot of things, really. Stubbornness in admitting I had a problem, and the unwillingness to admit I couldn’t fix this all on my own. I also think I really didn’t even fully understand what was happening inside my brain. Did I really have a problem? Am I over exaggerating everything? And worse: am I going crazy?

There are still so many stigmas attached to mental illness. It’s a topic that remains largely taboo, and I think this adds to so many misperceptions and misunderstandings of what mental illness looks like in all its various forms. I mean, even I, who was dealing with it, didn’t even know what it was I was experiencing. Didn’t everyone feel overwhelmed, out of control, hopeless, and despairing all the time? Oh, they don’t? Shit, I guess something is wrong with me.

But it’s this very statement that shows that even I maintain some semblance of ignorance of the complications of the human brain and our conditions. Nothing actually is wrong with me. Is my brain chemistry different than others’? Yes. Do I need to cope with some different things than others because of it? Yes. But does that mean something is wrong with me? I don’t think so. This is just who I am. And I’m starting to realize  that it’s ok. I’m not going to be ashamed of it. I’m not going to hide it. I’m not going to be like the pharmacist at Target when I picked up my prescription and whisper, “Zoloft” as if it’s something illicit. I’m depressed, and I’m on ZOLOFT! Will I always need this medication? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But if I do, I’m ok with it because it has helped to bring me back to my former self, something I truly could not do on my own.

I don’t really know if I can even explain the ways being on Zoloft has helped me. And I don’t think that if I did find the right words, you would even be able to understand fully because you can’t be inside of my brain. Here’s what I do know, and what I can say: my brain is finally cooperating with me. Instead of flying out of control when stressed, snapping at my children for little reason, feeling dizzy and like my mind is underwater, and ultimately shutting myself off from reality to cope, I now see whatever issue is pressing and deal with it. I can think objectively. I can problem solve. I don’t ruminate on upsetting things like I once did to the point of making myself physically ill. I can walk around Target with the kids by myself and not freak out every few seconds about them talking to me or walking too far away or worrying about how many people are there and figuring out how I’m possibly going to get through the insurmountable task of picking up a few things from the store.

Now I come home from work happier. I have patience again. I’m reading to my kids at night again. I’m happily cooking dinner. I’m not overwhelmed with physical contact from others. A simple kiss from the hubs used to feel like just another thing that others were demanding of me, and I simply couldn’t give anymore. Now I remember how nice it is to feel his lips and face and look into his eyes. When my kids crawl into my lap it no longer feels like suffocation, or like bugs crawling all over my skin. Conversations and noises don’t make me want to scream and hide in a dark closet.

This is not to say that things don’t bother me anymore. The difference is that I can cope now. I can rationally work through everything without the most minute incidents becoming world-ending. And if I do get angry or annoyed or upset, it doesn’t last long, and it certainly doesn’t  push me down a spiral of despair into my zombie-like trance. And when I feel myself slipping back into what would lead to a depressive state, I can actually sense my mind working around it, almost as if it’s telling itself to stop and not go there. It’s really nice being a part of the world again. I really didn’t realize what I’d been missing until it was restored. I will never let myself feel like that again without doing something about it.

I really appreciate everyone who has supported me throughout this. All those who have had to deal with my mood swings, anger, irrationality, sadness, absence of self, and did so while still loving me. It couldn’t have been easy. And it won’t likely always be easy in the future. Depression is not really something that will just magically go away in a month because of medication. It’s going to be a process, something I may have to deal with the rest of my life. But I now know that as long as I have the support system I have and the treatment that I’m receiving, I will be fine. More than fine. I will be me. Wonderfully me.