Friday, August 3, 2018

What are you doing with your life?



Lately I’ve been feeling the pressure. Pressure to know. Pressure to decide. Just pressure in general.

I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing, perhaps because it’s summer and, with the kids around constantly, the only thing I can muster energy for during my alone times, which, by the way, I hire a sitter for in case you’re getting some crazy idea that I have magical children who give me personal space of their own accord, is reading. Reading only takes marginal effort. There are minimal thoughts involved, beyond the subconscious imagination types that produce the mental movie reel that runs alongside the novel’s plot.

I am practicing diligent avoidance with writing too. I’ve been wondering, for perhaps the billionth time, what is this writing thing for anyway? For so long I’ve felt these undeniable urges to pen words to a page, a fuzzy vision toward something bigger someday in the future, but the details have yet to be made known to me. In the meantime, I question, what is the point?

Two years ago, I attended a writing conference and it was there that I received the clarity and courage I needed to return home and quit my paid job. It was there where I was urged to identify “my reader” and then “write only for her.” I was told that all my words, social media posts etc. should be formulated with my reader in mind. While this bit of advice has, I think, resulted in some stronger final drafts of my essays, I’ve discovered that it is much, much harder to put forth words with any regularity. Short works take me weeks which turn into months, and it isn’t because my content is necessarily more complex. I think it’s actually because I’ve been editing myself out. I overthink each piece because I’m thinking of “her,” my reader. I want to make sure my words don’t come across wrong to this person, or that person, or offend this mom or that one. I have opinions, but I remove them because I know not everyone will agree and I don’t want to cause a ruckus on the internet. By the time I hit “publish,” I wonder if my words have been edited so severely that they have lost some of their meaning. Certainly, they have lost much of their depth and raw emotion.

I wonder if maybe this is the reason I have been struggling with writing. Suddenly I am writing FOR someone else. Someone else who does not compensate, who is often silent. And the words and their intent lose their luster. I am no longer putting words on the page for the joy of seeing words strung together. I am no longer stepping back in surprise as the words pour out and I think, “Huh, I never realized I thought that until now” (writing is black magic this way).

Writing that was once a mind-clearing, therapeutic outlet feels forced and inauthentic. Since I am writing “for my reader,” I feel the pressure to have a strong conclusion, a purpose to all my pieces, a take-home message to tie it all up in a nice bow. But there are many days when my life is just messy. There are no bows there for tying. My anxiety takes over and I can’t shut it down. I rage at the children. I practice avoidance with my husband. I leave the laundry for days upon days upon days on end. What I'm realizing is that I don't enjoy writing when I'm writing for "her." And so I'm going to switch gears and go back to writing again "for me." I don't know where that will lead me.

I was talking to some girlfriends, most of us moms in slightly different stages of early to mid-motherhood. We were discussing that largely celebrated (and for some slightly dreaded) day when our youngest child enters elementary school. When the earth goes around the sun for that final lap and the heavens hand you kid-free daytimes as your impending new reality, well-meaning humans begin to ask, “What are you going to do with all your free time?!” And then the inevitable follow-up question that, quite honestly, I wish to ban from existence is an eager, “Are you going to go back to work?!” It’s almost as if all of us overly exhausted moms haven’t been doing work of any kind for the last decade (insert major eyeroll here).

I hate this question because it operates under the assumption that I, as a mother, a) should have my upcoming life figured out and b) should obviously be prepared to do something with my time. I mean. We all will do something eventually but what makes me shudder is the assumption that we are all just antsy to head out and earn a paycheck again. Talk about pressure!

As my girlfriends and I went around and shared our thoughts about the future, we each had a unique idea on how we might spend our time once the kids were all of schooling age. There was some talk of hobbies, others talked about how their financial contribution to really benefit the family. But one theme was consistent: we all felt SO MUCH pressure to know what we were doing. And none of us had an answer.   

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine you just finished running a marathon. You are hot and sweaty and sore and dehydrated and tired, and you definitely stopped thinking clearly about 23 miles back. The only coherent idea you possess is as follows:

I need a chocolate milk. I need a chocolate milk NOW.”

This thought circulates through your brain on repeat and you can consider nothing else until you amend the situation and find said beverage. (Trust me, I know. I ran a marathon once.)  

Despite the fact that perhaps you aren’t at your very best in this moment, someone hands you a Cliff Bar and tells you, if you are worth anything to anyone, you’ll reverse the route you just completed and run another 26.2 back to the starting line without so much as a rest or potty break or a hip hip hooray or minute to hydrate or tend to your blisters or missing toenails. No, there isn’t time for such luxuries. Once must always earn their keep, mustn’t they?

Ummmmm, say what now?!

Allow me to interject here, but has anyone stopped to consider the message this sends to a mother? She’s been through just a couple of major things in the past decade. First off, if she began as a career woman, motherhood likely propelled her toward job change – whether it was stepping out of the paid working world or trading a fulltime role for part-time. Even if she maintained her same position in the company, she experienced a considerable mental shift to create space for her new title of “Mom.” More than likely, she lost an identity or two, gained a new one, got run over a couple thousand times by unrelenting toddlers, had her body shrink and expand like a balloon (under all her layers it looks like a deflated balloon now too, BTW), and stayed awake far more hours than she slept. But heaven forbid she not have an answer to your eager query:

“And what are you going to do with your life now?”

GULP.

My “moment,” the day when my youngest enters kindergarten, is rapidly approaching (396 days to be precise), and I’ve been freaking out about it for, oh, the past nine years or so. This is perhaps why I’ve been considering and reconsidering and questioning what this whole writing thing I’m doing (and not doing) is about anyway. Is it a hobby? Is it a career option? Is it my own personal therapy? What am I going to do with my life?

One of my sweet friends said it so well when she summarized her future plans (and I’m paraphrasing), “Maybe I will just use the time to actually be a good wife and a good mom rather than barely surviving at everything I do.”

I LOVE that! It’s sounds so freeing to have space and margin, doesn’t it?

And so to her and myself and everyone else who has a plan for our "moment" (or whose plan is to have no plan!), I say, “Get it, Girl!” Let’s erase all this pressure and expectation and take things one day at a time, ok?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Rest is not high maintenance



My first recollection of a “high maintenance” experience took place when I was about 7 years old. We sat in a line atop the picnic table, legs dangling down, unable yet to reach the battered wood bench below. It was the third morning we’d spent this way, waiting. Breakfast of Krusteaz pancakes cooked on the Coleman, and sausage, a little too black with char, had long since digested in our bellies. We were antsy to start the day, ready to hit the beach or the miles upon miles of biking trails that looped the campground. But not everyone in our party was the wake-and-go sort. So, we sat there staring at the camper before us, waiting for the single occupant who was readying within, willing the door to squeak open, the audible declaration that the day could now officially begin.

We were camping on the Oregon coast with another family, a college buddy of my dad’s, his wife, and their two girls. They always camped in a trailer, which seemed rather luxurious compared to our meager tent, the six of us squeezing into a tiny square of nylon. We would sometimes stay for a week at a time. We rarely showered (that’s what the ocean was for!) On a good day, we may have brushed our hair. But that was the extent of our personal hygiene while living outdoors. Which is why it was utterly baffling for me to wrap my mind around what could be happening in that trailer as we sat there on the table. The blondes next to me seemed unphased. Apparently, this was the daily routine for them, waiting for mom to get ready.

Finally, when it felt like we could wait no longer, the doorknob to the trailer would turn and we’d jump to our feet eagerly. Out would step a perfectly pedicured foot, followed by the rest of her, eyes emphasized by carefully-applied liner, sky-blue shadow and mascara in a coordinated hue. Her lips were bright fuchsia and her cheeks smudged in pink, but I’m told it was her hair that kept us waiting the longest. She was a stickler for her hot electric rollers and refused to be seen in public with her hair uncurled, camping or not.

While I am in no way trying to peg this singular experience as the source of my issues surrounding this idea of being high maintenance, I am using this story as a tiny illustration in a bigger picture. Seven-year-old me wasn’t a fan of waiting for this grown up lady to finish her beauty routine. I didn’t understand why we all had to delay our day’s activities solely because of one person. I found it incredibly annoying. It was experiences like this (along with many, many others) that began planting seeds in my soul that led to my formulating the following logic:

High maintenance people are annoying.

High maintenance people have lots of needs.

Therefore, having needs = annoying.

Somewhere along the lines, this skewed logic grew and eventually cemented itself in my young adult brain as fact. I didn’t realize it was happening but, before I knew it, I had developed an intense feeling of shame over having any needs at all. Having needs meant I was weak and incapable. They made me feel self-centered. Certainly, having personal needs for space or rest or creativity also made me a nuisance to others. So, I stuffed away my needs, pretending they weren’t there because I wanted to be strong. And I didn’t want to bother people. Often, I plowed ahead without any boundaries. I said yes when asked (because obviously saying no would be "unchristian") and lived a very overscheduled, unfulfilling life with little space for pleasure (because to enjoy something means we aren’t toiling hard enough - please catch the sarcasm).

A couple weeks back, our family was preparing to head out of town for the weekend. We had nothing on the calendar for the Friday we were slated to leave. Well, nothing unless you count the scheduled alone/writing time that my husband and I have worked into our Friday morning routine to give me the break and creative outlet I need to feel like a real person. The fact that I continue to overlook this as a legitimate calendar commitment bears witness to the remnants of my shame. It took nearly a decade of tears and fighting (mostly against myself) before we finally set up this system of scheduling kid-free hours for me. And, though it seems to be about as essential as oxygen for my personal well-being, I’m quick to appear sacrificial and altruistic by volunteering to give it up. This, as it turns out, never bodes well for anyone. I don’t want to need this time. I don’t feel deserving of it. It makes me feel high maintenance. I don’t care for the jealous glares of other moms commenting under their breath about how good I have it. I want to be superwoman and be viewed as capable without doing the hard work of making space for my own needs somewhere in there too.

On this particular Friday, I assumed we would jet out of town right after breakfast since we had “nothing” on the calendar. But my dear and intelligent husband informed me that he had planned otherwise.

“We aren’t leaving until after you have your time in the morning,” he told me. “You’re a better person when you get that break.”

I could have let the bluntness of his words sting as they went down but instead I saw them as a sign of the deep love and understanding my husband has for me. He recognizes my needs and desires to protect them. And he is absolutely right. I am a much more functional, kind, and positive mom and wife when I have an uninterrupted chunk of time to myself each week. It’s simply a matter of fact. While we’re at it, I also need a moment to myself every single afternoon (thank you summer break for confirming this), to gather my thoughts, to not have anyone ask anything of me, in order for me to be a non-screaming, sane person as I enter the “Witching Hours” each day when the clock strikes four.

My need for quiet and pause doesn’t make me wrong or weak or a failure or bad, the lies I told myself for so many years. It makes me a human. And an introvert. It’s how I’m wired.

I used to (and sometimes still do!) feel so much shame about it. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve talked to so many women, moms especially, who are wrestling similarly. We are (generally speaking), a group of burnt out, stressed out, tired out ladies who are desperate for respite yet feel so ashamed for needing it. What we are doing to ourselves isn’t healthy. So, if you find yourself longing for rest yet experiencing guilt over desiring time to yourself, here are some words for you:

Having needs does not make you high maintenance.

You have permission to slow down, pull some strings, say no, learn to savor and rest and do all this guilt-free. You are allowed to have time alone. You are allowed to hire a babysitter and not for the sake of going to appointments and running errands. You have permission to enforce daily quiet times for your kids so that you can read a book in the hammock and NOT be productive. And guess what? You are still a good mom! You are allowed to take a sunny day off work and not cancel daycare just to go to the beach and enjoy a day of summer without being responsible for keeping small humans from drowning. We do not have to be “martyrs” for our families. I think the title of “martyr” loses its credibility when we are cranky about it anyway.

What’s keeping you from making rest a priority? Is it guilt? Perhaps feeling like you don’t deserve a break? That taking breaks somehow makes you weak or less than? Or, does it feel wasteful to spend your tight budget on something for yourself? Is it concerns over childcare or finances? Or are you worried that people might judge you? I’ve experienced each of these barriers time and time again but my conclusion is this: prioritizing your own basic needs is worth fighting for. You might have to make sacrifices to create space in the budget to pay for a sitter. You might have to get creative or put yourself out there and ask someone for help. No matter the barrier, there are steps we can each take to better care for ourselves, as well as others.

Pay attention to your physical needs. Incorporate rest. Sleep, wake and repeat. And may God release you from all shame and guilt, reminding you that EVERY PART OF YOU (needs included!) - are made in His image.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Slog



Hi oh faithful reader! So much for that nutrition series I promised, eh? What? You have no recollection of said series? Forget I said anything then. For the two of you that might still be waiting for the series to materialize, I must be honest and say that it ain’t happening. At least not right now. I was on a roll for a hot second (three posts – ha!) and then I fell off the wagon. In the most positive of ways one can fall off a wagon, I would argue. Technically, I guess you could say I jumped.

The old me would have powered through my verbal commitment to the internet, made the arrangements, written half-heartedly and pushed myself to the point of resentment (of whom, I’m not entirely sure) to pull off the promised series. But then I would have felt annoyed and unfulfilled because my energies were needed elsewhere, and I found myself experiencing a heavy sense of obligation, even if entirely self-induced.

I teetered on the edge of the wagon for a good long while, fighting the inner voices that screamed that not following through on a writing series that NO ONE HAD ASKED ME TO DO somehow made me a failure. Totally crazy, I realize (spoiler alert: I’m in therapy – but we’ll get there….)

Anyhow, I battled those self-inflicted negative thoughts of failure and eventually stocked up enough grace for myself to don my knee pads and jump off the wagon ON PURPOSE, intentionally trading my laptop and my promised writing series for a bedside table towering high with novels that I have been reading as if my life depended on it.

So that’s where I’ve been. Reading my novels and entertaining my 4-year-old whose preschool began their “summer” break WAY earlier than his mother feels was necessary. But I digress… It still bothers me that I didn’t finish the writing series but I’m sitting with it (which I’m told is all a part of the process). I say all this not to justify my absence but rather to give permission. For some of us, the harder choice is to say no to productivity and yes to this life-giving thing called rest. (You all know who you are).

Back in December, I began a new kind of therapy which I’ve eluded to in some of my recent posts. Graham and I did some significant work together with a couple’s therapist but then determined there were some issues that needed to be addressed individually before we could continue to move forward. There are many, many layers to the struggles I (we) have experienced, but one significant contributor that I bring to the table is my anxiety. I don’t suffer from the panic-attack-fearful-of-flying kind of anxiety, but rather, a form that presents itself as intrusive thoughts that can literally consume me if not held in check. Our couple’s therapist provided me the verbiage that these thoughts “torment” me and I can think of no better way to describe it. So, I’ve been engaging in some pretty hard work the past 7 months to kick decades of anxiety struggles to the curb. Or at least out of the driver’s seat. At this point, I would consider even that a win.

My individual therapist (who specializes in anxiety and trauma) uses a method called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and, to be totally frank, it sucks. Which is one of the reasons establishing times to REST and creating MARGIN in my life has become of utmost importance. There is just no way around it: the process is dang tiring. Part of the reason for this is because it pushes you out of your comfort zone in about every way possible. It is no secret that I like a plan. Give me a verbal prescription of what you want done, exacting in detail, and I will not disappoint. When I began CBT, I came in with a list, an agenda of all that I wanted to accomplish. I was ready to get down to business and “get it done.” I would leave my appointments asking, “What is my homework for this week? What should I be working on? What do I need to be doing to achieve my goals?

My therapist saw right through this piece of me and seized the perfect opportunity to make me sit in the gray. Some weeks, she INTENTIONALLY didn’t give me homework. She let me carry the sessions all over the place ON PURPOSE. There was so much less structure in our times together than I’d envisioned. I found it super annoying and remedied these feelings of discomfort by labeling her as incompetent. Certainly, she was unskilled, and the problem was her inability to “keep us on task.”

As it turns out, she knew what she was doing. And I hate being wrong.

I don’t have a check-box therapy plan (so frustrating). There isn’t a map showing how she plans to get me from Point A to Point B (infuriating). The process has been very organic in nature (drives me literally bonkers). But now I’m started to see it. She’s pushing me. Testing me. Stretching me. Forcing me to be okay when things aren’t black and white.  

It’s awful.

And at the same time, it’s good.

Because the process has been so ALL OVER THE MAP, I often feel like I have no barometer on which to measure myself to determine if I’ve made any progress. It’s been hard to know if I’m “getting anywhere.”

This past week, we paid our couple’s therapist a visit for the first time in 8 months to “check in.” She's been in our lives for awhile now. She knows where we started, knows what I looked like before I began this most recent journey into therapy. I went into our time together wondering, Had I made any progress with my beasts? The appointment itself didn’t provide this feedback, which I found hugely disappointing. But a follow up session with my individual therapist, who collaborates with our couple’s therapist, provided the affirmation I needed. She shared the following observation that had been passed on to her: “Kelsie appears visibly stronger.”

VISIBLY STRONGER! I can think of no better praise right now.

What do these words do for me? They help me see that all this yucky-feeling unknown I’ve pushed through, all these sessions that have felt all-over-the-place have actually been doing something. I’m not following a check box, step-by-step plan (at least not that my therapist has shared with me) but it is working. My intrusive thoughts have diminished by at least a fraction of a hair. If not twice that! Or more! I now have an answer for all those times where I’ve left a session wondering “Did that really accomplish anything?” Maybe not in that immediate moment. But in the long term? Absolutely.

And my sitting on the couch reading novels instead of “doing something more productive”? This practice has held an important therapeutic role too. I’m learning to chill. I’m learning to let go. I’m learning to NOT function out of anxiety and spend my hours writing the thing for the people who didn’t even ask for it and DON’T EVEN CARE. I’m no longer operating solely under the dictatorship of those intrusive thoughts. Has it been easy? Heck no. Does it seem counterintuitive that my BEST THERAPY right now might actually be to quit doing and simply put my feet up and indulge myself in a novel. Yep. But it’s working! And that gives me such hope.

So, what does reading all this offer you, the reader, beyond just a bird’s eye view into some of the juicy details of my life? (We all love a good juicy detail - send me yours when you have a sec – j/k!) I know that some of you are in a process that isn’t fun. You might be working toward something, working on something, stuck in the middle of something, enduring something. You might be in a place where it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. The process might be feeling hard and ugly. And you might be wondering whether it’s still worth it to continue.

I have a friend who often reminds me it’s the middle that’s the hardest. The middle is the place where you could just as easily fall back from whence you came as exert the hard push needed to make it to the finish. The middle is the point where it’s most tempting to give up on progress and abort the mission.

I know the feeling. I’ve been there countless times. My word for the year is HOPE and I hadn’t had much of it until this past week. But God is meeting me here in the middle and, through the affirmations of others, reminding me He never left my side. 

I pray for the same for you. I pray that wherever it is that you are working or waiting or longing or hurting, that you would see glimmers of hope shining through the trees as you try to get a visual on your own personal forest. That you would see God showing up along the way. Stay strong and stick with your slog through the middle. Don't be afraid to do the work, no matter how much ugly it brings up or how awful it feels. You are in process and there is light at the end of this mess.

Friday, May 18, 2018

"But what if you can't hear God's answer?"



Last night, I was putting my 8-year-old to bed when she stopped me in my tracks with her questions. She was nearly naked, wearing only her underwear, her typical bedtime attire, that and an oversized square of stretchy cotton fabric that she sometimes wraps around herself. I was on night one of three of single parenting, my husband deep in the bowels of Canada, attending a men’s retreat with our church.

We’d swapped the dinner hour that evening for T-ball practice (a concept I have yet to wrap my mind around now that I am parenting olders) which is why we found ourselves “eating out” at the Costco Food Court at 7:45 PM. We had come just to buy fruit but somehow, I’d succumbed to $170 of other “essentials” that my assistants had deposited in our cart, as is prone to happen every time we visit the place. These essentials included swimwear (for the girls), dresses for a wedding we are attending TOMORROW (also for the girls - nothing like 11th hour shopping) and wine (for mama). Of course, we couldn’t try on any of the clothing there, so I was 97% positive the items would be deemed unacceptable for my eldest, who struggles with sensory challenges, upon our arrival home. Even when able to try things on before buying, 80% of them end up returned or unworn so I’ve gotten used to this routine. I was confident the dress she’d selected would be rejected as soon as it touched her body, but I bought it anyway and prayed this would be the time I would be proven wrong.

Not so.

She’d slipped into the dress a mere seconds after we walked through our door; I knew it was a no-go when I heard the sobs coming down the stairs before I’d even finished putting away our purchases. It looked adorable on her, a soft cotton number with narrow black and white stripes, cut shorter in the front with a small train in the back. She had wanted so badly for it to work but the little triangle of lace detail in the bodice was more than she could handle.

I went upstairs and assessed the situation, offered comfort and helped her transition to bed. It was getting late and we’d agreed that she had some other dress options she could wear to the wedding. I was about to leave her room after tucking her into bed when she let her frustration show. “Mom, why do I have to have sensory issues? I just want to be normal! Why does it have to be so hard to wear clothes?”

Her discouragement was palpable, and I didn’t have a great answer for her. I began rambling on about how there is really no such thing as “normal,” how we all have our quirks and idiosyncrasies that make us unique. But she wasn’t buying it. So, I stopped for a minute to gather my thoughts before I went on.

“Well,” I told her. “Those seem like good questions to ask God. He wants to know how we are feeling and it’s okay to ask him why.”

I was feeling proud of my diplomatic and spiritual answer when she fired back at me, her frustrated tone now rising, But what if you can’t hear God’s answer?”

Gulp.

Her words hung in the air, poignant and personal, the very question with which I had been wrestling. Dang.

She stared out her bedroom window while my mind raced, searching for an answer that would satisfy her and I alike. I started talking, hoping something good would come out if I just began moving my lips. I shared with her that I often wonder the same thing – how do we really hear God? I told her that, though I’d often wished I could, I had never heard his voice audibly. Then I told her about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers, how he moves within us and can bring thoughts and words to our mind. I told her that it’s sometimes through these thoughts and words that we “hear” from God, provided we can be quiet and still long enough to listen. Then I reminded her how we have the Bible, God’s written words to us, His promises.

Her lips cracked into a tiny smile. I could tell she’d never really thought of the Bible as God’s way of speaking to us in the present before. I saw her frustration dissipate as I told her that she is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that God “knit her together” in my womb. We talked about how much work knitting is and how it takes great intentionality. I reminded her that God doesn’t make mistakes and I think what I saw was a flicker of hope flashing across her face.

“What would happen if everything about us was perfect?” I asked.

She looked at me, puzzled, so I went on.

“If we didn’t face struggles and challenges, do you think we would remember to turn to God and ask for help?”

I could tell she was starting to follow my line of thought.

“As painful as it can be,” I told her, “sometimes it’s these very struggles that remind us of how much we need God.”

She had settled into her pillow and I could see her body visibly relaxing as she pondered what I had said. I prayed over her and kissed her goodnight and left her room. 

With each tidbit I had shared, I felt a small internal sting. I was saying all the "right" things but each one I uttered left me twinging with a tiny string of doubt. I gave her my head knowledge, but what is it that I actually believed in my heart? 

As I reflect on all the words that came out of my mouth last night, I realize how easy it was to tell my daughter that we don’t often receive the direct answers we long for. It was simple and straight forward to tell her to read the Bible and pray and listen. That her struggles were intended to work as a means of drawing her back to God. The words rolled off my tongue, but now I am pressed with the challenge: can I let them be true for me as well? Can I sit in my own current season where my list of questions for God feels endless, and claim His goodness? Can I be okay with persisting alongside my struggles as a means of keeping me mindful of my need for Him? I may have sounded confident and convincing last night, but the reality is that I was preaching to the choir. I, too, wonder what happens if I can't hear God's answer. What do I do when I ask and all I hear is silence?

We may not always get to “hear” an answer from God in the way we hope. In the seasons where God feels distant and silent, I pray we continue to ask and seek. I believe we are to continually bring everything before Him and wrestle in His presence. Because it’s in this simple act of coming before Him that we are reminded of our greatest need - our need for a Savior.

I still struggle immensely in the "silence." How can a God who loves me not answer immediately in a way that is audible and clear? But what He is teaching me is that if we never ask, how can we expect an answer? I have seen Him more clearly in my wrestling of late than in all the times where I presented myself as buttoned up and A-okay from the outside. 

So, don't be afraid to ask. He can handle the doubt. And don't let the fear of silence stop you. He will meet you where you are, in the most unexpected and gracious of ways. 

Our God is good this is the truth I'm choosing to cling to today.

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.