Old Family Pictures & Genealogy: Our Connection to the Past

grandma2I can still remember sitting at the dining room table in my grandma’s house and looking at old family pictures. Those days were at least 25 years ago now.

When you’re a kid, time almost seems to stand still. Those Sunday afternoons at Grandma’s house seemed like they would never end.

Now I cannot believe how much time has passed.

The photo to the right shows my grandma’s family around 1921. My grandma is the girl in the front, about 8 years old here. She grew up in a family of nine (her younger brother hadn’t yet been born here) in Cleveland, Ohio.

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My grandparents in 1942: Love the hat!

Those old photographs now belong to my mom, but I have scanned several of them. They reside in a box in the closet, on my computer, and in my heart. I look at them now with an awe and appreciation I couldn’t as a child. Now I’m a mother. My mom is a grandmother, and so the cycle continues.

Seven years ago, I dove into genealogy and researching my family tree on both sides. I used Family Search as a free resource to find a lot of my information, but I was also fortunate to have documentation of my own. I used My Heritage to build my family tree online and share it with my family. Next week, I will share more about my experiences with family tree creation, so come back to check that out!

I wanted to update and document my family tree, as heritage is important to me. Knowing where I come from is part of who I am. When I see old pictures of family members, I can look into their eyes and smile with them, feeling that connection. I am transported back in time, and Grandma is sitting next to me at her dining room table again, telling me who all those people are in the photographs.

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Special Sneak Peek at My Next Horror Short Story

Flushed

Mom sleeps in my sock drawer. I suppose if I were a better daughter, I would clean out the socks that don’t have matches or the ones with holes in them. At least the socks are clean, which is more than I can say about my old mother. She is a courteous inhabitant of my sock drawer, taking up only a six-by-four inch corner.

    As I climb into bed, I stop to stare at the tattoo on my inner wrist–a semicolon. Mom’s voice disturbs my concentration.

    “What a stupid idea. Why the would you waste your money on something like that, Julia? Something that never comes off. You’ll be old and wrinkled, and it’ll look like a piece of shit on your skin.” Here words echo through time, a memory from five years ago as fresh as the day I got the tattoo.

    Yes, Mom, some spots never come off, like the stains you put on my life, imprinted on my soul.

    “It’s a semicolon, not a period, symbolic that my life isn’t at an end. There’s still more to come,” I said the day I got inked.

    She snorted–then later snorted some crack and drank a bottle of vodka. “Aw, how sweet. You just failed at killing yourself, just like you failed at everything else in life…high school, one job after another. How many boys have you fucked? Don’t tell me you’re a dyke now. Screwing girls is probably the only option you have left. If you haven’t gotten into the pants of every guy in Pepperville yet, I might just have a heart attack.”

    “Please do, Mom…have a heart attack, that is. And I learned from the best. You wanna talk failure? How about your failure as a mother?”

    Slap! Her hand made contact with my cheek. The sting didn’t hurt as much as the further confirmation of her betrayal to the only person she was supposed to love. I suppose she did love me, in her own messed up way.

    I blink into the darkness now, willing the memory to die like my old mom. Ironically enough, it was a heart attack that did her in. With the chemical abuse she did to herself for years, to die of natural causes was a surprise. Of course, dowsing herself with booze and drugs likely contributed to her heart turning on her, but who knows? That her heart killed her, an organ she didn’t seem to possess in the figurative sense, well, that was more irony.

    How sweet, as Mom liked to say.

    “Shut up,” I mutter into the black.

    A switch flipped off the light five minutes ago. Why can’t I flip off a switch in my mind to turn it off, too?

    I glare at my dresser, what looks like a dark blob in the corner of my room. Next to the blob in the shadows, slightly darker than the rest of the room, a mass seems to detach itself from the dresser. I shake my head and lie down, closing my eyes. Every night since the funeral, it’s been like this. Two weeks, only two weeks, but it could be two years for the infernal haunting of Mom’s voice from that drawer.

    Some people speak of feeling a presence climbing into bed with them when trying to sleep. It’s more than a cat or a dog jumping onto the bed, but something so human-like as it moves across the surface, settling next to the victim. I can feel Mom sidling up next to me in bed, pulling the covers over us and grinning at me with her yellow nicotine teeth and dull skin. Every time I close my eyes, her bloodshot eyes glare at me. She smiles at me like a Halloween decoration and asks me who I’m in bed with now. She blows out smoke into my face.

    You, Mom? In bed with you? How twisted is that?

    Not by choice, Mother.

    I groan as I bolt up in bed, throwing the covers off. The humidity of summer sticks to my goose-bumped skin, and I wonder why the hell I was trying to stay warm only moments ago when it’s so hot. That’s right. Because I was shaking when I got into bed. Yes, downright freezing.

    I throw on the light next to the bed and wince at the brightness. My dresser sits as it always does–unmoving. The air smells of stale cigarettes and alcohol-vomit. That’s ridiculous. I leave the bed and make way for the dresser like I’m about to attack. Grabbing the top drawer, I swing it open with such force that my socks spill out all over the floor. Mom’s wooden box clatters to the faux-wooden floor, unharmed.

    I pick up the box and glower. “Just shut up, won’t you? I couldn’t afford to bury you, and no one else wanted to deal with you. God, why am I still putting up with you?”

    The box of ashes clutched in my shuddering hands, I move to the closet. I yank clothes off their hangers in my haste to dig through the bottom of the closet for it–my safebox. I haul the heavy thing out of the closet, set it on the dresser, then plop Mom on top of it.

    I flip on light after light as I make my way down the hall and into the living room, then finally the kitchen. Pulling open the junk drawer, I rifle through it until I find it–my box of keys.

    I return to my room with the box and begin my search for the key to the safebox. Grumbling to myself for not throwing away old keys, I spend the next few minutes trying every key like a mad woman. When one clicks the safebox open, I laugh in triumph. I remove the important papers from the box. Nothing is more important than locking Mom away, imprisoning her. How funny that her ashes will be protected in the event of a fire.

    Satisfied with my work, I leave the mess of keys and put the safebox back in the closet. I pull the door shut, but it gets caught on a dress half-hanging out. With a groan, I snatch the dress from the hanger, throw it down, and slam the door all the way shut.

    I flick off the lights and return to bed. The dresser is a formless mass in the darkness once again, but the shadow beside it is gone. I toss and turn for the next hour and find myself staring at the closet. Does the door seem to be open a crack? Just enough for Mom to peek out?

 

Facing Loss and Embracing New Possibilities

Loss.  It’s a word we don’t want to hear, let alone experience.  Yet we all experience it.  We all know loss, not just of it.  Some of us have known it on a first name basis for too many years.  If we’re lucky, some of us know it only as an acquaintance for brief periods throughout life.

When I say “loss,” what comes to mind?  Losing a loved one to death?  Divorce or a tough breakup?  Loss of a job, a friendship, a dream?  Or maybe just all the socks that lost their mates in the laundry?  Sorry, I had to throw a random joke in.  This is a tough subject matter.

Chances are, if you’re lived long enough like me, you know loss intimately enough to define it, to know the emptiness it leaves in its wake, to know healing is hard, to know that moving forward after a great loss can seem insurmountable in the moment of grieving.

I was in a Bible study once where the question was asked: What do you think the saddest word in the English language is?

My answer?  Hopelessness.

Whoever wrote that study agreed with me.  Now maybe you have another word, but I’d suspect that hopelessness would be in your top ten most depressing words.  Hopelessness and loss are often intertwined like a tight braid, held in place by an elastic of grief, anger, sadness, and denial.

Then where is acceptance, which can lead to hope?

My earliest memories of loss aren’t deep: a goldfish being flushed down the toilet, our outdoor pet bunny escaping and running away, attending wakes and funerals of people I didn’t really know.

For me, the loss of my innocence at an early age, something precious ripped from me, was the type of loss that affected me the most at the time.  When I was eight years old, two boys in my neighborhood, barely older than me, sexually molested me.  They had access to pornography.  It wasn’t sex, but it was bad enough.  I knew enough to know that “stuff down there” could cause pregnancy and AIDS, which had just come out as the latest big disease scare.  For months, I thought I was going to die of AIDS and prayed several times a day to God: “Please don’t let me have AIDS.”  Luckily, I told my parents what happened, and they went to the police.  I stayed away from those boys, but it never went to court.  No one was held accountable.  Maybe worse than thinking I had AIDS was that it seemed like everyone at school knew my secret.  Those boys told other kids.  I remember feeling dirty and violated for years after the incident as I walked the halls, sometimes being asked, “Were you raped?”  As a child, I couldn’t pinpoint terms like “dirty” and “violated” to describe the uncomfortable feeling of a slimy snake creeping inside me when people stared and asked rude questions, but I know now that was what I was feeling.

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But I survived because of the kids who were my friends and because of my family.  I had parents who loved me.  I had a few good friends who stuck by my side, and as the years passed, the news of it died.  Understanding more about “stuff down there,” I knew I wouldn’t die of AIDS.  I stayed away from those boys as much as possible.

My next experience with a huge loss came when I was 15 and lost both of my grandmas within two weeks of each other.  My dad’s mom had been battling cancer for over a year, and she lived in Kentucky, so I rarely saw her and wasn’t that close to her.  While my dad and brother attended her funeral, my mom and I stayed home to be with her mom, who was in the hospital.  We received the news no one wants to hear–the cancer had metastasized to her lungs (from a sarcoma on her leg the previous year), and there was nothing to be done.  Even chemo would only give her a small chance.  She was already 81 years old and didn’t want to go through that.  Despite being given two to six months, she passed a mere two weeks later.  She was at our house, so she died surrounded by family and didn’t suffer for long.

I had always known my life with my dear grandma.  We visited her every Sunday after church.  She had that warm voice that greeted us and those rosy cheeks and that beautiful smile.  She always had candy in her purse and cookies on top of her fridge.  She had her quirks from living through the Great Depression of watering down her shampoo, of saving a hundred plastic bags, and of using the smallest amount of batter left to make a quarter-sized pancake an eighth inch thick.  She burned her pizza that tasted like cardboard, but her pork chops were marvelous.  She spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter with us.  She went on numerous vacations with my family.  She was special.

pablo (2)So how could I, at 15, understand what it meant to face life without one of the most important people?  While she was still in the hospital, I wrote a letter to her, where I told her brave she was, how much I loved and admired her, and asked her to send me a sign upon reaching Heaven.  She passed on a dreary early April day.  The rain continued until the day of her funeral four days later.  After we came home from an emotionally draining day, my mom called me to look out the window with her.  Stretched across the clearing sky was a beautiful rainbow!  I knew this was her sign to me!  Just as soon as my mom and I saw Grandma’s rainbow, it faded.  I had no doubts.  I found comfort in that rainbow.  Even though I would miss her dearly, time had helped heal the immediate stabbing loss.  A scar remains on my heart, but my grandma and her rainbow would go on to create something miraculous.

I wrote her life story in a fictionalized account and published it a year ago.  She has been my inspiration to write more books, to embrace what I call my heart’s song, my raison d’etre.  Not only died my grandma give me hope and the possibility to write, but my daughter is named after her.  Emma was a surprise child, not planned but welcomed and blessed!

Out of loss came immense possibility that became reality.

As the years went on, I would know the loss of a relationship with a boy who I once was in love with, but I would then meet the wonderful man who would become my husband and the father to my children, who I’ve been married to for 14 years.

We enjoyed several years of marriage where it was just the two of us.  We got to know each other more intimately.  We travelled to Italy, Hawaii, the Caribbean.  We focused on our careers.  We got a house together and made it our own.

The next step seemed obvious: children.  I was in my late twenties.  Everyone around me seemed to be getting pregnant, so I knew I was at that life stage when it was time.  My husband, Erik, and I were ready…as ready as we could be.

pablo (3)Little did I know how hard our journey to conceive would become.  Every month would come and go the same: hope that this would be the month we got lucky, only to flee with more tears and heartache at an empty womb.  This trend would continue for the next two and a half years.  My husband and I went through testing.  They could find nothing wrong.  We tried artificial insemination three times…nothing.  We were told fertility drugs would only increase the chances slightly, so we held off.  As 2008 drew to a close, we were on the verge of trying in vitro.  Drained beyond panic and exhaustion at this point, I suggested we held off for six months and just tried to relax and enjoy life again.  We had put so much pressure on ourselves to conceive that I was just done.  With it being Christmas, my favorite time of year, I didn’t want to deny myself drinking some wine and the general fun of the festivities.  

That Christmas was great.  Pictures from the time show a true smile on my face, surrounded by coworkers, friends, and family.  I stopped thinking so much about conceiving.

The New Year came.  I was late.  Of course, there had been a few months when I had been tricked before by this very thing.  Why did early pregnancy symptoms have to mirror the ones I got when it was that time of the month?  I knew the stabbing pain of loss from too many months of not conceiving, and I didn’t want to be tricked again.  Why get my hopes up?

But I couldn’t wait.  It was now five days past.  In the bathroom at work, I took a pregnancy test.  When two lines appeared instead of one, I thought for sure this was a dream.  You can imagine my elation!  Finally!

All those months of loss died upon receiving this amazing news.  My pregnancy would continue as healthy, and I gave birth to a 7 pound boy right on his due date of September 10, 2009.  Luke was a miracle baby, a baby so many friends and family, and my husband and I, had been praying for for years.  

As Luke grew, we knew we wanted to grow our family more.  The stresses of trying to conceive were no longer a problem because we knew we could do it.  Luke was now a toddler, a happy kid who was walking and beginning to talk.  A younger brother or sister would be great for him.  As we wanted our kids close in age (2-3 years apart), we decided the time was ripe.  On New Year’s Eve of 2010, I had a hunch I was pregnant and took a test.  It was positive!  The exciting thing was that this second baby would be due the same date as Luke’s birthday!  We attended a friend’s party that evening, and I declined the wine.  The other girls gave me knowing looks, two of whom were pregnant.  We all squealed quietly.  

On January 12, 2011, I miscarried.  Sure, it was early…only six weeks in, but the loss of my baby hit me like a train.  Loss of life is tragic, no matter how old.  A mother carries her child in her for the first nine months.  She and the child are literally a part of each other during that time.  I think I cried more that day than I ever had.  My prayers to save the child went unfulfilled.  I was devastated.  How could I possibly move on from this?

One thing I knew: I didn’t want to keep my loss to myself.  Having a miscarriage is understandably a very private thing for many people, but suffering alone is daunting.  I shared my experience with those around me, mostly other women from church and my friends.  What did I immediately notice?  How common miscarriages were.  How many people related and understood what I’d been through.  If it weren’t for these brave, strong women supporting me through this tough time, I wouldn’t have been able to heal.  Of course, a woman never can forget her lost child, but with the support of friends and the passage of time, healing can occur.

My doctor encouraged me to try to have another baby after allowing my body (and mind) to heal for a month.  Would you believe I got pregnant that first month?  After the hardship of trying to conceive with our first child, there was no pressure.  I had another healthy boy that November: Josh.

As my boys grew, life seemed to fall into a comfortable routine.  I continued to stay home with Luke and Josh.  The boys played together and were both generally happy kids.  As Luke got older, however, we noticed that he wasn’t developing socially and verbally like other kids his age.  We had already enrolled him in speech therapy soon after turning two, as he didn’t have many words.  Seeing little progress over several months with therapy and Help Me Grow intervening in our home, it was suggested that I take him to a developmental pediatrician.

Luke wasn’t even three years old when we got the diagnosis: moderate autism with a speech delay.  My husband and I sat there as the developmental pediatrician, a speech therapist, and a psychiatrist gave us the news.  We were inundated with information in the form of tons of papers of what we should be doing as far as intervention, plans to move forward, what the diagnosis meant, and so much more that I couldn’t process it all.  

I went home, determined to be proactive.  I enrolled Luke in occupational therapy (OT) for his fine motor delays.  Help Me Grow got us set up with the preschool in our city, and he would be receiving services there.  We would continue private speech.  I read through the information and tried to arm myself with knowledge, hoping that early intervention would make a difference.  My son was still so young, after all.  He had time to catch up with his peers.

Luke made progress, but it was slow.  He, to this day, speaks in single words or short phrases to express his wants and needs.  We paid a lady to come into our home to potty train him over a weekend, and it was successful…only to have that work undone a couple of years later when he regressed with no understandable reason why.  We haven’t been able to completely get back to where we were with toileting.

While usually a happy kid, Luke has been prone to meltdowns, especially when overloaded due to sensory processing issues.  Loud noises, crowded rooms, hunger, cold, heat, tiredness, and more can trigger a meltdown.  When he was smaller, it was easy enough to pick him up and put him in his room until he calmed down.  

As he’s grown, his meltdowns have gotten harder to control and more violent.  He kicks, hits, pulls hair, throws thing, and pulls pictures off walls.  We’ve had to remove the lamps and anything breakable from his bedroom.  He is on a medication to help with the meltdowns, and while they are less frequent, they can happen without provocation.  His mood can change like someone has flipped a switch.  As his mother, it breaks my heart to see him like this, to know he cannot express himself like he wants to.

pablo (4)My biggest struggle is facing the loss of the son who I thought I would have.  I will be honest.  I hate autism most days.  Look what it does to my son.  As moms, we have these too-perfect dreams of what our kids are going to be like.  Sure, we expect them to have some struggles and quirks, but a diagnosis like autism… Who expects that?  I often rant and rail at God at the unfairness of it all.  I have cried bitter, angry, dejected tears in the middle of the night or locked away in my closet because–let’s be honest–it’s not fair.  Even yelling at God is prayer, however.  Any communication with God is prayer.  Knowing that helps.  God can handle my anger.

Soon after the diagnosis, after a few weeks of trying to hold it together and be proactive, depression grabbed hold of me and pulled me down.  I took out my anger and hurt on those closest to me.  Sadly, from time to time, I have turned to this dark place because sometimes I just cannot take it.  I feel unqualified, underprepared, unable to raise a special needs child.  Did God really think I could handle this?  

I have been through plenty of times of loss in my life, but those losses have either resolved themselves or have found a way of healing.  This time, this loss is ongoing.  There’s no end in sight.  This is lifelong.

So what do I do?  How do I choose to face this epic loss and embrace a new possibility?  Hard truth: I embrace the loss of my picture-perfect dream and truly embrace the boy who is my son.  Because he is my son.  He is a person worthy of love and deserving of understanding.   No diagnosis changes a mother’s love for her child.

If it weren’t for Luke’s autism, I would not have met many other precious people in my life.  I have cried with other moms “who get it.”  I have hugged and been their source of encouragement, and they have returned the favor.  Other people have been strong for me when I couldn’t be.  My parents, my church, my friends…they are the true heroes here, not me.

And God.  I cannot understand why Luke has autism, but I believe God works good from the bad.  My heart and mind have been opened by raising a special needs child.  I believe I am more compassionate and understanding of others who have various diagnoses.  I believe we all will go through some sort of diagnosis at some point in life.  It’s all part of living.  God holds us and sustains us through, often by using other people in our lives to carry us when we cannot walk.

Whatever loss you’re facing in your life, I ask you to take some time to try to see a new possibility in it.  Every experience is a chance to grow, to learn something, to continue in hope.

That is a much better place to be than alone and suffering in your loss.  Loss is just as much a part of life as gain.  I believe there is much to be gained in loss–hope for tomorrow.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday, including book reviews.

My new novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for only $2.99 here.

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Review of Life as a Spectrum Mom: The Ups, Downs, and Upside Downs of Parenting Autistic Kids by Karen Pellett

I love the title of this quirky and honest book because I am also a spectrum mom.

Now try saying the title fast three times while I sit back and smile.

Okay, in all seriousness (or not)… Can I really take life so seriously?  Karen Pellett, despite raising not only one kiddo on the spectrum, like me, has three.  Yes, three.  And she manages to find humor in her situation because, honestly, sometimes all you can do is laugh when life takes a detour around every carefully crafted plan you had for your kids, and life seems to be mocking you as your child melts down for the fifth time in ten minutes.

This is the first review of a nonfiction book I’m doing, and while I usually read fiction, because I am trying to escape from brutal reality at times, I felt drawn to this mom’s story because I understand her pain, her worries, her frustrations, her joys, her laughter.  Anyone who is a parent understands these sentiments in regards to raising children–the hardest job you will ever, ever have…and no one is paying you to do it.

The author begins the book by sharing facts about her three kids (a girl born first, followed by two boys, all in three years)–their names, their quirks, their diagnoses, etc.  She also explains how she had a vision of what her family would look like before having kids and how that changed quickly.  It was either get on board with what she’d been dealt with or continue in denial, refusing to accept it.

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I commiserated with her when she said it took years to conceive their first child, as my husband and I also went through that.  Then you get the best news ever–you’re pregnant!  But then after the child is born, you start to realize she or he isn’t developing typically.  For us, our son had delayed speech.  At 24 months, he hardly spoke, and we got him started with speech therapy.  Nine months later, he was diagnosed as autistic.  Karen’s daughter has ADHD and sensory processing disorder (SPD).  My son also has ADHD, although it wasn’t until last year that was confirmed.  Both of our oldest kids are eight.  

But as Karen’s story continued and she almost died while giving birth to her last kid, I soon realized that I had to take a step back.  I am not one for comparing heartaches, but I can say her situation is harder than mine.  I know how it feels to watch helplessly as your child grows frustrated and has a meltdown, which results in throwing things, kicking, hitting, and ripping pictures off the walls.  As a mother, nothing hurts more than seeing your kids in pain, whether that pain be physical, mental, or emotional.  If we could, we would take it away.

But that is not the reality of things.  I love how Karen has shared funny stories in the midst of telling her tale, which often is quite serious–like her injuring her back and needing surgery or having a car seat thrown at her head, resulting in a concussion.  She is a strong woman who has been through more than most, and I admire her brutal honesty in sharing her story.  Books like hers as essential for bringing awareness and understanding to autism.

While I don’t often feel judged by the public eye when my son acts out, I know there is still ignorance out there.  I was at the library (alone, for once) and walking out when I passed a mother and her son, who were standing off to the side.  The boy was obviously autistic, exhibiting the hand-flapping, bouncing in place, and vocalizations my own son does.  He was about ten and wasn’t wearing pants or shorts.  He had on a diaper, a shirt, shoes, and socks.  Now, I don’t know what was going on, but even when a mom tries to be prepared with extra clothes and diapers, accidents happen.  Also, autistic kids have sensitives, sometimes resisting clothing.  I continued on my way out, but an older lady stopped me and asked why that boy wasn’t wearing pants.  I am glad she asked me, as I was able to explain to her that the boy was autistic.  I don’t know if this woman knew nothing about autism, but she was shocked and seemed to judge the mother for not having pants on the boy.

My purpose in sharing this story is to drive home the importance of autism awareness.  I will promote it and push it.  That said, I highly recommend you read Karen Pellett’s eye-opening book.  You don’t have to relate to her or have autistic kids, but I believe her book brings servings of awareness to the table of autism.

5/5 stars

Buy Karen Pellett’s book here.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday and a book review the second Friday.

My new novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for only $2.99 here.

My first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful,  is available for $3.99 here.

 

“Who Am I?” Asks Mom

Note: This blog post is aimed at moms with young kids and is a throwback to a post I wrote a year ago.  Being on vacation this past week, I wasn’t able to write a new post, but I think this one is worth re-sharing.

My alarm was set for seven o’clock.

But it’s my daughter crying in the next room that wakes me.  For the third time that night.  Only it’s no longer night.  A quick check of my phone shows it’s 6:45.  My husband has just left for work.  It’s only fifteen minutes, but it’s fifteen minutes of sleep I was denied.  My sleep is like gold to me; it’s that precious.

I’m being robbed.

As I struggle to sit up in bed, I inwardly curse the sunlight.  Sunlight means morning, and I’ve never been a morning person.  As I rush and fumble to make her bottle, I wonder if morning people were only created to make the struggle of another new day that much harder.

As I lift her out of her crib and pacify her cries, the squeals of my sons aren’t far behind.  

And so it goes nearly every morning – or some variation thereof (pick which kid you think wakes first tomorrow!) – as “Mommy” fights to get dressed without an audience and make her coffee before she needs to be piling the kiddos into the van or standing at the bus stop.

I’m a stay-at-home mom of seven years.  It was my choice, and I don’t regret a minute of it.

I’ve heard it said many times that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I must have gone insane a LONG time ago.

So, I spend my days carting kids to camp or school.  I pay the bills, scrub toilets and wipe all around them as I clean the disgusting leftovers from raising boys who don’t aim well, pick up the groceries, and curse that I’m making a second and unplanned trip to Costco or Aldi that week because A) I either forget something the first time or B) my kids decided they suddenly loved Oreos more than Chips-Ahoy… and yep, we’re out.  Somewhere in there, if I can squeeze in a thirty minute workout on the elliptical at the Y and/or my weekly reward of a tall decaf nonfat latte from Starbucks, I find a simple and way-too-happy level of satisfaction.  By late afternoon, I’m fretting half of the time that I didn’t think ahead enough to pull something out of the freezer for dinner.  And the kids are hungry and cranky.  And so I am.  And tired.

Then there’s laundry.  Endless, forever and ever laundry.  Need I say more?

There are the lowest levels of motherhood that involve butt-wiping, changing out socks for ones without holes, and scraping something (I don’t know what) off the wall that’s probably been crusting there since Apollo 11.  There are silent tears and woe-is-me moments in the closet.

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There is the “I-need-to-take-a-shower-just-to-wash-my-damn-hair” and “I-really-need-to-shave-my-legs-so-can-I-please-take-a-short-bath?”

By the end of the day, my husband and I wonder how we do this.  All of this.  We hope for a good night’s sleep, for our minds to just shut down, and for more time with each other or just to ourselves tomorrow.  Because it didn’t happen today.

“Welcome to motherhood,” older moms (read: empty-nesters) tell me.

Yes, thank you for that, because it wasn’t already clear to me.  Unlike the glass doors to my back yard that are covered in tiny handprints.

But then there are those moments when I stop.  Just stop and marvel.  I watch my oldest son, who has autism, as he engages in a swim lesson and think, “My God, I love you.  I’m crazy about you.  I just love you.”

Or I am amazed at the stuff my four-year-old boy comes up with.  The questions he asks: “Mommy, if the Earth is round, why does the ground look flat?”

And I can never not smile when my baby girl laughs and smiles at me.  Even on the worst day, her happiness infects me.

This is motherhood.  The thing I signed up for: taking care of little people who drive me crazy but who I’m crazy for.

And yet… sometimes I ask: Who am I?  

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Sometimes I just feel like a servant who cleans up poop, feeds everyone else before her, worries about her kids endlessly, talks only about her kids with other moms, who… talk about their kids.

I am a mom, first and foremost.

But I am also me, Cynthia “Cyndi” Hilston.  

If you’re a mom, I suspect you know what I’m getting at.  You probably find yourself identifying with other moms as you all wonder: “Is my kid the worst behaved kid in the world?”  “What doctor do you take your kid to?”  “Are you happy with such-and-such school?  Do you feel like you have no time to yourself anymore?”  “When’s the last time you went on a date?”

So I asked other moms: Do you feel like you have an identity apart from being a mother?  Do you have something that you do that’s only for yourself?  How do others see you?

Because, although we’re moms, we’re more than that.

It reminds me of people, who, when asked their name, also say, “Hi, I’m Tom Smith, and I’m a mechanical engineer.”  As if their job title were their identity.

Or when someone has depression and others use that label to basically define them.  Or autism.  Or ADHD.  Take your pick.

People are more than their jobs.  People are more than their mental conditions.  People are also more than just parents.  

I believe we are more than the sum of our parts of our identity, but somewhere along the way of being moms, many of us feel like we’ve lost who we are as a whole person.

Being a mother is very fulfilling, but it’s also the most challenging, most draining “job” you’ll ever have.

We live vicariously through our children.  We cheer for them on the sidelines at soccer games.  We cry with them when they didn’t get the grade they wanted on the paper they worked extra hard on.  We laugh with them when they’re telling silly jokes that don’t really make sense.  We hurt for them when we watch, helpless, as they suffer with a lifelong learning disability, or even a short term illness, like a cold.

But we all know that we can’t really live our lives through others.  Yes, even our children.  

Because they are their own people.  One day, they will grow up and move on, although hopefully not out of our lives!  We want them to grow up to be independent, happy, healthy, successful – any number of good things.

But some of us are also fearful of feeling left behind.  Empty.  Forgotten.

Because… without our kids, what are we?  

When I posed my identity questions to other moms, the responses were overwhelming.  Mothers obviously had a lot to say on the subject.  Although not everyone felt like they had trouble with the “Who am I?” question, many moms admitted to feeling like they have no idea who they are without their kids.  It downright scares some.  Many stated that they feel awkward talking with other adults about anything other than their kids.  

Although it’s impossible to put people into perfectly separate groups, trends became apparent once moms started answering my questions.  Mothers who continued working, whether full time or part time, admitted to feeling like they still have an identity apart from being only a mom.  Having a place they go to daily for a few hours gives them adult interaction and fulfills something that many stay-at-home moms feel they lack.  Many moms who work full time, however, admitted to feeling guilty that they don’t get to spend enough time with their kids. So, even though a mother works, she still seems to identify first at a mom.  

Those who work part time feel it gives them the time with their kids and the time they need to feel like they are doing something for themselves and getting to talk with other adults.  Many of the stay-at-home moms who feel they’ve lost their identity beyond “mom” thought working part time might help them regain some of what they’ve lost.

To further complicate matters, some moms feel judged because they work or stay home with their kids.  It seems like an already frazzled, stressed mom just can’t win!  This topic is enough to generate into whole other blog, so I won’t further ponder this.  I will say this, however: It’s unfair to judge a mom for working and say that she’s selfish for not spending more time with her kids; it’s just as unfair to judge a mom for staying at home and say that she’s lazy, as if being a stay-at-home mom isn’t a job!  Um, excuse me?

But I digress — sorry.  

Working part time isn’t the only option for helping a mom keep her whole person.  Some moms take classes, volunteer in the PTA or in other school programs, go running, do independent sales jobs, and make sure to schedule time to spend with their friends and husbands/partners.

In the struggle to keep up with friends, many moms also stated that they don’t know what they would do if they didn’t have their fellow mom friends and neighbors.  Despite questioning their sanity, like I have on numerous occasions, most moms believe that having kids has given them purpose in life and that they like who they are more as a person now that they are mothers.

So, where do we find our balance?  Because that’s what it all seems to be about.  Balance.

We juggle schedules daily, trying to remember if it’s Meet the Teacher on Monday or Tuesday evening for William and if Wednesday was supposed to be Lexi’s ballet practice.  We drive from one event to another, driving ourselves slowly crazy, until it all boils over like a pot of over-cooked spaghetti noodles.

My suggestion would be to start simple.  If you really feel like you have absolutely no “you” time, take five or ten minutes a day.  It can be whenever, whether scheduled or not.  I sometimes like to do this right before bed, even though I’m tired.  I can just lie there and think about my day and where I can be thankful.  Read for ten minutes.  Write a simple journal entry.  It doesn’t have to be much, but it’s something that’s just for YOU.

As impossible as this may sound, try to schedule date nights (whether once a month, every other month, or every season), but try not to go more than three months without going out with your husband/partner on a date.  The biggest strain on a marriage is children.  It’s even more important to keep in touch with your significant other now that you’re parents.  If money is an issue, just go somewhere for an hour and take a walk.  Walk the mall if it’s winter.  Tell yourself that it’s just as important that you have that date night as it is taking your kid to the doctor.

Also make time (again, once a month to every three months) to hang out with your friends.  Even if it’s just movie night at one of your houses after the kids are in bed.  It’s something!  

Dates and getting together with friends don’t have to cost a ton of time and money.  We can always come up with a zillion excuses about why we can’t find the time or money, but the truth is, if something matters and is important, then you can make time for it.  Re-evaluate your weekly schedule.  If you’re constantly driving around, ask if your kids are too involved or if you’re too stressed out because you’re spreading yourself too thin.  It’s okay to say “no!”  Really, it is!  Sometimes I think a mom just needs to hear someone else tell her that it’s okay to actually say it.  So, I’m giving you permission to say “no.”  (Not that you needed my permission!)

Finally, if you’re not doing something for just you, find something.  Maybe you had a hobby that you let fall to the wayside after having kids?  Try it again.  Or discover something new.  Mine is writing.

I’m going to be trying a yoga class next month.  I also make sure to get a massage once per month.  There’s nothing selfish about taking care of yourself, because remember, if you don’t take care of you, you aren’t much help to anyone else, including your kids.

So, it’s hard.  There’s no denying that.  But the moms that said they feel like they still have an identity apart from being a mom have managed the balancing act in their lives.

However you manage to find that balance, keep it in mind, and when it starts to feel unbalanced, go back and rethink things.  You matter.  You are a mom, so you’re already amazing.  But you’re also you.  And that’s pretty amazing, too.

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Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

Ugh, do I have to wake up?

Waking up is vastly overrated.  The pillows, the blankets, the soft curve of the mattress against my body, these are calling my name, beckoning me like a lullaby.

But if I’m honest with myself, I’m lucky today.  I actually didn’t wake before my alarm on my phone.  My kids didn’t wake me up.

Hey, I can get dressed, wash my face, and brush my hair in five minutes of silence!

Small blessings…

If I sound sarcastic, I don’t mean to be.  There are those sunny people who would tell me to be happy for another sunrise, and while part of me wants to show them where they can shove their bright remarks, the better part of me knows they’re right.

Besides, you can’t hold too much against me right now.  I haven’t had my coffee yet.

So, it’s the start of another day.  In the hour or so before getting out of the house, I need to feed three young kids breakfast and get them dressed and ready for school (with the exception of my daughter, who is only one).  Oh, and I also need to feed myself somewhere in there.  You’d think this wouldn’t be so hard, but that’s a lie many young moms tell themselves to feel better.  Kids are disagreeable by nature, little people designed to push Mommy’s buttons.  I admit I am not the most patient person on the planet, but after several mishaps in less than an hour, sometimes I’m ready for the clock to read 8:00 PM and not 8:00 AM.

But I push through my little aggravations…usually.  I get the boys off to school, and it’s to the Y to work out.  Working out is a great stress-reliever, but you know what comes to mind about the Y for me?  There is an older gentleman who works at the Y I go to.  He’s a custodian.  It’s his job to clean toilets, to scrub floors, and to unclog drains.  Yet he always, always smiles at me (and everyone he passes) and says, “Hello, how you doing?”  He’s the type of guy you can’t help but smile back at and say hello, even on the tough days.

So, what’s he got that a lot of us don’t?  Can I have your seeds of happiness and plant them inside of me, sir?  I don’t like being miserable…and yet, I do it to myself.  I choose to complain many, many times throughout every day about mostly trivial things: red lights, running late, being behind a slow driver, my son arguing with me, having to turn around and change a poopy diaper after just doing so…

Yet there are bigger things that lie just under the surface.  Am I a good mom?  Am I doing enough for my kids?  I don’t feel equipped to be the mom of an autistic son.  Who thought I could handle this?  What about my dreams, my ambitions, my identity?  I’m a writer.  Is my stuff any good?  Are people just humoring me by being nice?  Do people really want to be my friends?  Who could possibly love me?

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Wow.

Tough questions that stab at the heart.  Those are seeds of discontent, of lies, of hatred, of fear.  Plant those and they will choke out anything good, honest, loving, and hopeful.

I’m throwing out this obvious disclaimer before I go any further: I am not an expert on the topic I’m going to attempt to write about here–gratitude.  My guess is you probably struggle with feeling grateful most days as well.  It seems to be human nature to focus on the negatives.  So, let’s take this journey together.  Let’s foray into the muck of lies we tell ourselves (that we’re no good) and try to come out on the other end into something better (that we’re worthy).

I have done some book studies in a small group I’m in at church on this topic–gratitude.  Some people call it counting your blessings.  It’s not always easy, especially when emotions take hold and force us to take an ugly turn.  As I’ve gotten older (and maybe a bit wiser), I have heard that little voice in the back of my head more–yes, even when I’m super-hormonal and slightly crazy!

When things are spiraling out of control, I can often see it unraveling.  I know I am only going to make things worse for me and everyone else who has the unfortunate habit of crossing my path miserable.  Often, I am focusing on one bad thing and ignoring many good things.  There’s that one person who has let me down (or so I think), has pissed me off, or is just seeming to not live up to my expectations.  Ah, expectations.  Those nasty, petty things we want others to do, because, you know, we (read: I) know best.  Um, right…

Stop right there.  This is where we (yes, you and I) take a deep breath and think.  Yes, think.  Not react.  Think about what’s going right in life.  There are plenty of people who love me, who support me, who are there for me.  I am breathing, aren’t I?  I am alive.  Sometimes it’s raining, and I long for sunshine.  Sometimes it’s sunny, and I want a rainy day to cuddle inside and read a good book.  But every day is truly a blessing when you think about it.

If you’re like most Americans, you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and clothes on your back.  You don’t even have to think about these things, these bare necessities, but they are blessings.  Often, I find that when I am taking my blessings for granted, when I stop and think about it, I know I have been blessed to be a blessing to others.

That’s gratitude–being thankful for what you do have without expecting more.  A wise woman I know who has been through hell and back has a mantra: What are you doing with what you already got?

So, plant those seeds of the good stuff and water them often.  That’s how you start cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  You make the conscious effort (a choice, yes) to be grateful every day and count those blessings.  I started writing my blessings down, with the goal of reaching 1000.  I think I stopped somewhere in the 800s, but I got pretty far!  I didn’t write them all in one day…a few a day, sometimes with several weeks in between writing them down.  When you see those blessings written down, it can make them more concrete.

It takes a lot of practice and a constant, conscious effort to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Do it enough, and that little voice starts to speak with more authority.  You are more than the sum of your fears and little hates.  You are someone whose life has a purpose.  For me, I believe God sees the beauty in us even when we don’t see it in ourselves.

Those seeds can grow into something beautiful, something life-sustaining and worth sharing with others.  So, I invite you to think about it.  Plant some good seeds with me, make a choice, and watch them grow.

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Poetry Tuesday – Luke

He screams, terrified, angry,

And tears stream down my cheeks, wet, desperate;

I plead and ask what goes unanswered,

And wish with dreamlike vanity for relief and release.

Although his crying subsides outwardly,

I often wonder if he shares in my deep inward weeping,

Buried under mounds of smiles and the day’s busyness.

This…this cheap imitation of what real life

Is supposed to be isn’t what I purchased,

But this gift (?) was given to me —

Weary, wary me — so unprepared.

Then there is laughter genuine from his lips,

And I hold him, precious, sacred;

Although words are few from his mouth,

Sometimes words fail miserably.

A mother’s love, a son’s love —

These are unchanged by any diagnosis.

01/25/15 (written in response to my son’s autism)