Friday, April 20, 2018

Bravery like birds


I hug her one last time, kiss her cheek, and whisper in her ear that she’s brave. In her eyes, old tears dried at the corners, I see fear, and it pains me. I bite my lip, send up yet another silent prayer, and turn my back and walk away. I feel like a mother bird, pushing her young offspring out of the nest, wishing, hoping and praying that she will open her wings and realize she can fly.

They, the ubiquitous “they,” always say that having kids is like watching your heart walk around outside of your body and I had never understood exactly what they meant until recently. In so many ways, she’s my mini-me. We think alike, we view the world the same way, we share similar struggles. I know the feelings of fear and dread that knot in her stomach this morning, all the emotions raging within, her mind that spins with tormenting thoughts, distracting, wholly consuming.

Her goal today is to get in trouble at school. There are many things we say and do in parenting that we never anticipated. Please take that rock out of your nose. Stop licking your brother’s toes. But asking my child to break a rule? This is unchartered territory, not the advice I’m accustomed to reading in the pages of parenting books. Specifically, we’ve instructed her to disregard her classroom rules and get up, walk over to the pencil sharpener and begin sharpening her pencils during a time when her classmates are seated on the floor and listening to a lesson. She is to stand there, toying with the pencil sharpener and creating a ruckus until her teacher calls her back. This is our baby step toward facing her fear of “getting in trouble.”

It’s counterintuitive and baffling, especially for me, a fellow rule-follower to the Nth degree. She and I, we care so much about what other people think. We’ve lived our lives boxed in on all sides by the opinions of others, desiring perfection, wanting to be found satisfactory. Because alas, on most days, we catch ourselves assessing our worth as based upon what we do, what we have, and what other people think of us.

It is these chains that we are trying to break today, in days past, and in the many days to come. We are undertaking what those in the psychotherapy world would term “exposures,” instances where we intentionally face situations that make us feel most anxious. And then, equipped with “coping thoughts” and strategies, we ride the waves of emotion with the goal of coming out okay on the other side, braver, stronger, relieved and very much still alive. These exercises are a part of a new approach we are taking, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a practice that is believed to help individuals overcome anxiety, which is our obvious long-term goal.

All morning, I’ve watched her. I know exactly how she is feeling. It’s written all over her face. I know she will think of nothing else until the triggering deed is complete. I know how it will consume her, how she will think, rethink, overthink and then begin the cycle again. She will obsess over how and when she should approach the pencil sharpener. Should she jump up and run to it right away after her classmates are settled on the carpet? Should she wait until five minutes into the lesson? What if her teacher asks them to bring pencils to the carpet? What if it makes sense to go and sharpen her pencil during that time frame? Will the exposure be void? What if her teacher never asks them to go to the carpet? What if she can’t get the pencil sharpener to work? What if her teacher never calls her back from the sharpener and she stands there sharpening for 15 minutes? What will others think of her?

We rehearse and discuss all morning long. She is plagued. She cannot fathom how this pencil sharpening ordeal will go down without an eternal stamp of embarrassment tattooed across her forehead. She can’t get outside of the situation and see it for what it is. It feels so life-altering.

Experience tells me this is how the morning will go down: she will walk over to the pencil sharpener and her teacher will say a simple “Hey, can you please join us at the carpet?” And then it will be over. All this anxiety over a situation that lasted a grand total of three seconds. No “behavior slip” with her name on it. No trips to the principal’s office. Her permanent record with remain unmarred. Her teacher will still like her. She will not lose any friendships over this. Her friends probably won’t even notice that she was missing at the carpet and they most certainly won’t remember the situation in two minute’s time.

It’s easy being the outsider looking in, but to be the one experiencing it? I’ve been there countless times before and I know it’s the pits. I can hardly stand it, knowing I am pushing my child to do this. Yet I know it is for her best. How often have I obsessed over similar circumstances?

We have been attending an anxiety group “for our daughter” and meanwhile, I catch myself frantically taking notes for me. Everything they present applies to my struggles. They are highlighting all MY behaviors. They are giving voice to the way I view so many situations.
I’m like a schoolgirl on her first day of class, absorbing, inhaling information. I’ve been doing my own therapy too and it’s like all my worlds are colliding in perfect synchrony, pieces coming together and building upon each other. We learn about our inner critics, these voices that tell us we are failures, not good enough, voices that convince us everyone is paying attention and judging. We learn about positive self-talk, our own inner voice that is to replace all the negative ones. We need to create new pathways in our brains. We need to reroute our thoughts onto detours, with the goal of those detours one day becoming the new main thoroughfare. All this is taught at a child’s level, which is apparently just the level I need.

I feel EVERYTHING. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see it more clearly before. I’m mortified that it took hearing the information presented at a class intended for my child to obtain a full grasp on it. I feel entirely overwhelmed. There is so much work to do. She’s been on this earth for less than a decade and I’ve been here for over three and here we find ourselves, on the same page. I mourn the fact that I didn’t have the tools I needed earlier to combat my anxiety, that for so long I have allowed what other people think of me to govern my life. I feel responsible. It stings knowing my daughter shares my DNA, that she struggles because I struggle. I know genetics are not my fault, but it doesn’t erase how this knowledge pains me.

At the same time, I celebrate our progress. I celebrate the ways God is working in our home and family. The Holy Spirit is moving and empowering and filling our minds and teaching us the way HE views us. More than ever before, we are learning to view ourselves as “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are countering our negative thoughts about ourselves. We are replacing them with words of worth. We are learning to let go of the opinions of those around us. We are breaking the rules. We are living on the edge a little. Well. The “edge” for us anyways.

And, by the grace of God, we are being pushed from the nest and realizing, Hey. We might just have wings to fly.

This, my friends, is bravery.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Too Spicy!"


It’s safe to say I might have left a few of you hanging, promising to do a blog series on feeding kids, pumping out one post and then falling radio silent on the topic. For anyone who has been waiting, thank you for hanging in there.

I set up the framework for my approach to feeding kids by outlining the Division of Responsibility in a recent post here. If you haven’t already done so, I hope you will go back and read it.

Before we get any further, I want to level the playing field. I want to assure you that I struggle with feeding my kids too. I don’t have perfect little eaters. For a brief, conceited blip in time, I thought I did (ha! keep reading), but the reality is, none of us do. Please be assured that I don’t come at this from a place of having it all together. But I certainly hope you will find my tricks and tips and insight helpful as we journey this together.

I remember my first year as a mom. I couldn’t wait for the six-month milestone to arrive so that we could dust off the high chair I’d been storing in the closet of our condo, the very first baby item I’d purchased, mere months into our pregnancy. Of course that would the first baby-related “necessity” I would come home with, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be needed for an entire year. That high chair joined our clan on one of those hormonally-charged-we-must-get-everything-ready-RIGHT-NOW days that every woman who has ever been pregnant knows well. Somehow buying a high chair, the bump around my middle barely visible, satisfied my nesting urges that day.

We welcomed our daughter, survived the sleepless nights that made up that first half-year and then it was finally time. I was eager to venture into the world of solid foods, bound and determined to raise a super eater. I was sure she was going to like everything, never complain and jump at the opportunity to try new things.

Puffy with pride and confident in my background as a dietitian, I forged ahead in feeding her. I made baby food from scratch. I seasoned her purees with cumin, chili powder, even cayenne pepper, hoping “make” my daughter like spice and heat. Regarding all those parents I heard complaining about their picky kids, well, they were obviously just doing it wrong, I thought to myself.

I must confess that in those early months, I honestly believed I was on to something. My daughter did in fact consume her spicy purees without issue. She tried everything I gave her. People complimented me on having “such a good little eater” and I took full credit for all our successes.

That is, until we hit 18 months, and everything changed.

“Too spicy!” my verbal child would suddenly wail. She began refusing foods, and not just the spicy ones. The girl who, just days prior, was eating me out of house and home, was now turning things down right and left. I immediately grew concerned. What happened? What went wrong? I felt embarrassed and ashamed that my child, the daughter of a dietitian, was showing signs of pickiness, while an audience looked on.

As it turns out, nothing went wrong with her eating. Simply put, toddlerhood happened. My daughter was merely transitioning into a new developmental phase that was completely normal, yet it caught me totally by surprise because I was unprepared.

Alas, my pride bubble burst and I was quick to learn that in fact it wasn’t my “stellar feeding skills” that landed me with such a compliant eater during that glorious first year. It was the developmental phase she was in and her personality to which I owed the credit. This second year of life brought with it new surprises and my daughter became just like all the other “picky eaters” I’d been hearing about. The only difference being that she had a cuckoo mother who was spiking her food with chiles.

Most of our “parental feeding worries” stem from incomplete or inaccurate information regarding the normal nutritional stages that our kids go through as they develop. It’s easy to get our panties in a wad, stress out, and take it as a personal failure when our kids aren’t eating the way WE think they should.
  
Have you had a similar experience with a child who suddenly grows skeptical over a previously-accepted food? Would you call your child a “picky eater?” Does your child ever get stuck on one particular food item and ask for that same one, over and over again? Does your child’s appetite seem erratic? Is he or she easily influenced by what those around him or him are eating? Does your child have a strong affinity for sweets?

Well, guess what. I have great news for you:

YOUR CHILD IS NORMAL!!!

You can breathe a sigh of relief now. Though learning that your child’s eating behaviors are normal doesn’t make them any less frustrating, I hope it will allow you to let your stress level drop a couple notches. Your child is not “too far gone” in their eating patterns. In fact, they may just be passing through a normal nutritional phase, some taking their sweet time on a more scenic route.
Be encouraged, the feeding challenges of today won’t last forever. You are just passing through.
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Stay tuned for my next post where I will dive into some normal nutritional phases in greater detail...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Eleven years



Eleven years ago, I married the man for me. Looking back now, I remember very little about our first few years together, aside from a handful of struggles that no newlywed would ever forget. There are times where I wonder, what was it that we wrestled with in the day-to-day, during that season when life seemed simpler?

It appears the size of our challenges grow as each year passes, doesn’t it? We have more responsibility now, more influence, more resources, more offspring who have joined the party. Suddenly more humans are impacted by each choice we make. For us, it’s these three adorable people that he and I created.

But it isn’t just the struggles that have increased in size. Our hearts have grown too. Hindsight reveals just how little we knew each other when we were first wed. We were just babies in love, with hardly a care in the world when we said, “I do.” Now we’ve covered more ground. We’ve seen more sides to each other. We’ve peaked at the dark nooks and the crannies and have tasted the things we’d once kept hidden. Years together will do that to you, revealing the inevitable that can only be kept concealed in the short term. The more surface area exposed, the more space there is to love and embrace one another for all that each of us are. As our struggles grow and change, so does our love for each other.

I’ve spoken into his life and helped certain areas thrive and he’s done the same for me. Pieces of us have shrunk and others have expanded. We’ve changed shape as a unit. It’s this dance that we do, an extra give here and then some take there. Sometimes we are coordinated and sway in rhythm, but oft times, even with years of experience under our belts, we are clumsy and step on each other’s toes.  

When I first envisioned marriage, I thought there would be a lot more uninterrupted, leisurely conversations and a lot less bickering over half-finished projects, who cleaned the toilets last, and whether it makes logical sense to put an area rug under our dining room table. (What, to sop up the milk spills? I’ll let you take a wild guess who stands where on that one). I pictured a lot more walks on the beach together, more romance, and that we would have the energy to pursue each other well without planning three weeks in advance. I assumed our relationship would deepen without effort, that we would grow closer naturally and not further away. I anticipated weekly date nights over weekly evenings spent in therapy. 

No, this place we find ourselves, it doesn’t look the way we imagined. It never does. But do you know what else I never foresaw? The beauty and affirmation that arrives wrapped within the embrace that follows a moment of raw vulnerability. Or the joy the stems from having a built-in best friend. Or the privilege of being my person’s number one cheerleader. The pride that comes along with having an automatic front row seat as I applaud him in his accomplishments. The immeasurable connection experienced when there is physical intimacy. Or the glow I feel, knowing I am absolutely adored. And finally, the security of commitment, of choosing to love one another, faults, shortcomings, failures and all, every single day.

These are the rich, rich gifts I never knew I would receive in marriage. 

Happy 11 years, Graham. To God be the glory! 

May our love grow evermore. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Permission Granted


Hey Girl.

Yes, You, Dear Reader.  I’m talking to You.  I have something that I want to say, a message that has been bubbling from deep within, informed by my own experience and etched upon my soul.  I tried to write about something else, but I couldn’t get You off my mind.

You are tired. So very, very weary and you can no longer keep up with all the things. You have been showing up at the appointed times. You have been checking the boxes.  Life is unfolding around you, yet you feel like you are missing it entirely. Like a spider in a toilet bowl, discarded for disposal, you are flailing frantically, a last-ditch effort to keep your head above the surface.  Any moment now, the waters will come rushing forth, swirling and spinning, and you know you won’t be able to hang on against the force.  It’s only a matter of time before you find yourself washed down, down, down.  Down to who knows where.

“Is this it?  Is this life now?”

These are the words you find yourself whispering as hope and joy feel all but a distant aspiration.  You long to experience life’s pleasures, to be present, maybe to be a little less angry.  You are frustrated by hardship, defeated by exhaustion and you just don’t want to do any of it anymore.

You’ve been showing up to all the things, saying “yes” to all the requests asked of you and now you feel bitter and unseen and overlooked.  Has anyone noticed your efforts?  Has anyone even paid attention to how many things you crossed off your list today?  You are doing-doing-doing and achieving and attempting to please all those around you but have never felt emptier.

You may not recognize it yet, but you have lived your life a prisoner to your mind.  Your mind, which tends to don a jersey in the opposing team’s color, is doing everything in its power to take you down all day long.  Thoughts torment you, telling you all the ways you aren’t measuring up.  They tell you if you don’t earn an “A” grade, you are not worthy of love.  They tell you approval is something you must work for.  They pile guilt upon guilt, eventually miles high, the gasoline that fuels you to keep on trudging ahead and doing the things that leave you bitter and weary.  They say if life isn’t hurting, then you obviously aren’t doing it right.  

I am so blessed, and I really should be thankful for all that I have,” you tell yourself, conjuring up pictures in your mind of orphans in third world countries, just as you’ve been taught.  But these words taste as sharp as acid in your mouth, ingenuine and forced.  Deep down, you are far from grateful and this feels like an unholy ugliness, something you must keep hidden.  How dare you not appreciate all the good in your life?!  And so along with a checklist of other things you “should be” feeling, you swallow your emotions, don a smile and forge on ahead. 

Each time you find yourself with a moment of quiet in your typically-chaotic days, you feel incredibly guilty.

“You really should do something productive,” the voices tell you.

“No one else is getting a break, so why should you?”

“You don’t deserve this,” they say.

Well I’m here to tell you it’s time to SHUT THOSE VOICES DOWN.  

We cannot continue to guilt ourselves out of enjoying the pleasures of life.  Some of us (and you know who you are), in the name of “hard work ethic,” have been ignoring our body’s cues, begging that we slow down and rest.  We wear our stress like badges of honor and are quick to judge those who aren’t over-worked and under-rested.  We see people around us setting boundaries to preserve their well-being and jealousy and envy turn us sour.

“Lazy,” we call them, accusingly, only because it makes us feel better about ourselves and justifies our overtaxed natures.

More recently, God has taken my former mode of operation and turned it on its head.  With outside help, I have begun to recognize that my over-committed, no-margin lifestyle wasn’t doing anyone any favors.  And the girl who once said yes to everything now, on occasion, says no.  The one who believes her measure of worth is directly correlated with her level of productivity is slowly fading.  The one who once viewed rest for the “weak and lazy” is now fighting to create moments of peaceful quiet nearly every day for the sake of her own sanity.  I am working to overcome my feelings of undeservedness because, the more I read scripture, the more I realize that the God I believe in longs for us to enjoy and experience pleasure in his good, good gifts.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-14 says “So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God.”

Some of you need to hear this word today. Some of you need to lower the bar for yourself at least seven notches.  Some of you need the permission to STOP.  You’ve been spending every spare moment or all the preschool hours doing and accomplishing, and your weary spirit is barely hanging on.  You’ve lost the ability to feel real joy.  You don’t know what brings you pleasure anymore.  Each time you try and do something “for yourself,” your mind races through all the things you “should” be doing instead and you end up more drained than you were to begin with.

You have permission to stop.  You have permission to pick up a book and read all afternoon long.  You have permission to not accomplish a blessed thing during every single nap time this week.  Heck!  You have permission to be the one taking the nap if sleep is what you need!  You have permission to put your feet up this weekend and let the laundry mountain grow.  Your soul is weary, and you aren’t going to make it at this pace.  It doesn’t matter what everyone else in the culture around you is doing.

You need to do what YOUR soul, mind and body are crying out for. 

And for you, the act of resting, truly resting, takes far more strength than getting anything crossed off on that list ever would.  So, rest, my friend.  Permission granted.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Division of Responsibility


Remember that time, back in your childhood maybe, when you found yourself alone at the table, minutes, maybe hours even after the mealtime had passed, staring a pile of green something-or-other in the face?  Yeah, I think we all do.  The phrase "You may NOT get down from the table until your plate is clean," uttered emphatically by our parents, echoes fresh in our minds like it was just yesterday.  They meant well, really they did, but I think there are better ways to raise up healthy eaters than to engage in battle.

Although I am a nutrition expert by title, let me assure you that I'm right there in the trenches with you, maneuvering the challenges of feeding my own kids.  Feeding children is HARD and I've watched many-a-mealtime go downhill as it morphed into a battle of wills.  My growing passion is to help change the way families approach the table by removing some of the power struggles that can easily develop around food and mealtimes.  Since our kids will not reside under our roofs forever, my goal is to help others empower their kids to make their own good choices.  Are you in?

In our society, there is so much focus on WHAT to feed our kids and so little focus on HOW to feed them.  I'll fess up.  I like to go "under cover" when we go to my kids' well check ups.  Who knows, maybe it's written in giant red letters on the outside of each of their charts "SHE'S A DIETITIAN" but really, I just want to know what doctors are telling parents without a nutrition background about feeding their kids.  My children have an incredible pediatrician and you couldn't pay me money to switch to anyone else.  They have received wonderful medical care throughout the courses of their lives.  But, I must confess I've been a bit surprised by scarcity of how-to feeding guidance that has been provided to me.

So if you're looking for a little more guidance on this big, rather important topic, I can point you to some resources that can help.  Many of my favorites were created created by a fellow dietitian, Ellyn Satter, and I would highly recommend her books "Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense" and "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family" if you are struggling in any way with feeding your kiddos.  She also has a wonderful website with a lot more information if you are looking for additional resources. 

Before we begin the actual act of feeding our kids, we need to build a foundation and lay some ground rules.  And I think the best way to start this is by introducing you to "The Division of Responsibility," also known as "The Golden Rule of Feeding," which was developed by Ellyn Satter. In it, Satter outlines our responsibilities in feeding as the parents, and our kids' responsibilities as the ones being fed.  I believe having a clear framework that differentiates our jobs and from our kids' jobs is essential for maneuvering the endless eating and feeding obstacles our kids will throw our way. In the same way that establishing a family system of rules regarding how we treat and store our belongings helps keep us from living in constant chaos, operating under the Division of Responsibility in feedings helps us determine when to intervene in a feeding situation and when to let go. 

Okay, so what is this Division of Responsibility? Here goes!

Division of Responsibility

THE PARENT is responsible for...

-WHAT
-WHEN
-WHERE

...foods are offered.


THE CHILD is responsible for...

-HOW MUCH
-WHETHER

...they choose to eat.

If I totally just blew your mind, go back and read it again. 

Did you let the words sink in? 

You as the parents get to decide WHAT foods to serve, WHEN to serve those foods and WHERE to serve them (at the table, on a bench at the park etc).  Your child gets to decide HOW MUCH of those foods you served to eat and even WHETHER he or she wants to eat them at all. 

Have you heard of this approach before?  Are you following it?  Or does it sound totally foreign and maybe even foolish?  (Why yes, I just said your kid gets to opt out of eating the food you worked so hard to prepare.  How super annoying is that, right!?)  But don't bail on me and call it all blasphemy.  There is so much more I want to tell you. 

While you may not just yet be able to fathom how this methodology works in practice, I'm guessing it is news to no one that our relationship with food in the United States leaves something to be desired. Obesity is affecting kids at younger and younger ages, eating disorders are rampant and body image issues continue to wreak havoc on kids and adults alike.  I imagine you can rattle off a whole list of personal food and body struggles as easily as you can your own phone number.  Many of us have lost the ability to enjoy eating without guilt, we've lost our hunger and satiety cues after drowning them out for so long, and we don't know how to confidently nourish our bodies.  Let's do our kids a favor and not pass on all our junk, shall we?

When I first learned about the Division of Responsibility, it went against nearly every grain in my body and I didn't think there was any way it could "work."  If I didn't force my daughter to eat her broccoli, "How would she ever eat broccoli?", I wondered.  As a type-A, self-proclaimed control freak, the idea of letting my child decide whether to eat made me feel very uncomfortable. How would I make sure she was getting everything she needed? 

Well, the thing is, I totally DO still have a say in what my kids eat because I am the one who gets to decide what I offer.  Since I am responsible for choosing which foods to prepare, it guarantees me a degree of control, at least when we are eating at home (when they are in others' homes, we are at the mercy of our hosts but I firmly believe that is healthy and ok).  Though my kids can opt to refuse what I serve, if I only serve nutritious options and don't break the Division of Responsibility and allow them to short-order something else for dinner, then what they consume will be healthy.  Are you following?

The truth is, sometimes, OK, a lot of times, actually, my kids don't eat vegetables.  But I don't sweat it (I will get to America's odd obsession with kids and their veggie intake in a later post...)  I don't freak out when my kids turn down vegetables at one or two or even twenty-two meals.  I have studied what is normal developmentally for children of different ages and know that it takes time and practice to learn to eat well. Thankfully, one meal or one week of meals or even one month of meals isn't the be-all end-all.  Our goal should be to aim for a variety of foods and a rainbow of colors over a period of time.  Not every plate will be perfectly balanced and that's OK.

If food fights are commonplace in your home right now and you wouldn't exactly describe your child's diet as "healthy," take heart.  You certainly aren't alone!  You would be amazed at how many battles are instantaneously defused when a child realizes you aren't going to force them to eat.

Feeling overwhelmed and confused?  That's okay.  We are just scratching the surface.  In the days and weeks ahead, I hope to dive into these concept even deeper, providing you with specific feeding "jobs" as parents that will help you wrap your mind around how this all works.  I also plan to flesh out what maintaining the Division of Responsibility looks like in practice with real kids and real situations, because we all know it's one thing to read something on paper and it's a whole different ball of wax to try and apply it to a specific scenario, right?  All right, more soon.

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