Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, I am seeing many people online choose a word to focus on for their year ahead; Words like joy, freedom, vitality, strength, and truth.
I have also been doing this for the last few years, but of course the end of the year comes and I don’t even recognize the word I chose for the year because life derails my aspirations. Even when I decide not to set specific resolutions but rather an intentional word for the year – the universe says “nice try” and I find myself reflecting back on the year and seeing it had an entirely different theme to what I anticipated.
I don’t know about you, but so far for me, the decade of the 2020s has sucked.
2020 started off great and I had the best of intentions to cultivate more “adventure” in my life, only to reflect back on 2020 and find that the theme of the year was “home”.
In 2021 my word for the year was “health” and while I did get my own health back on track that year, the idea of “health” took a complete u-turn as my mom suffered a rare CVST stroke in October of 2021. All of a sudden I had to be confronted with the reality that sometimes, despite our best efforts to take care of our health – shit just happens. The word for 2021 ended up being “unpredictable”.
I entered 2022 as a ball of anxiety and worry. I chose “peace” for my word, but my year was anything but peaceful. My mom’s health continued to decline and she was hospitalized several times. Looking back at my Resting Heart Rate from my Apple watch data, I bet you can tell when.
Devastatingly we had to pull her from life support at the end of August after near-constant seizure activity in the scar tissue of her stroke made a life-worth-living an impossibility. My word for 2022 ended up being “anguish”.
To be honest, I’m not super optimistic heading into 2023. The world seems to be heading towards a financial crunch and lately it seems my kids bring home a different virus every week. So I’ve been considering my word for 2023 very carefully. In previous years my intentional words were all nouns; all changeable and redefine-able by the other words around it in a sentence. I had a boring adventure. It was a year of haphazard health. My mom now rests in peace. My intentions in this decade have all been words easily derailed by forces beyond my control.
So this year I’m choosing a verb. Something I do. Something I do slowly, or beautifully, or happily, or gratefully, or angrily, or tearfully. But still, a verb is something I do and I control. This year my verb is “create”.
I consume a lot. I eat. I read. I watch. I buy. But I don’t create nearly as much. My consumption is passive and procrastinatory. My consumption is usually not even that good for me; I drink too much caffeine, I eat too much sugar, I buy junk from Amazon to fill a right-now need, I re-watch the same things on tv. I consume to avoid the more difficult task of creating. I don’t write very often any more. I often feel like I need to read another book on the subject before I could possibly write about it with any informed opinion. But really, five books on the subject is *probably* enough for a blog post. I get takeout or eat chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs as often as I cook. I buy things that I could make. It’s just easier to consume. It’s safer to consume. It’s more comfortable to consume. But creating fills me with more of a sense of self-worth and purpose, which, I am told (from all my reading on the subject), are two cornerstones of happiness.
Creating takes more time, so the next thing to do, now that I’ve decided on my “verb”, is carve out time in my weekly rhythm to “create”. Some of the ‘consuming’ time will have to go out the window, along with those intentional nouns. Can I set aside one evening a week to write instead of read or watch TV?
What about you? Do you choose a word to focus your year ahead? Reflecting back, how have your intentional words panned out over the year? Would you like to try a verb-year with me? What is your verb?
I just finished reading “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” by Vivek H. Murthy, who is the current Surgeon General of the United States. It was a fascinating read, made even more interesting knowing that it went to press just as the pandemic started – so Dr. Murthy wrote about the medical impacts of loneliness before the world had to isolate from loved ones for months at a time. The research and the advice in this book are even more salient these days – two years into a pandemic where humanity’s social fabric has been shredded.
There is a lot worth discussing in this book, but one part that really sat with me and challenged my thinking is the following passage.
“The Paradox of Loneliness”
“If Loneliness is so bad for our health, it would make sense that we would do everything in our power to connect with other people at the first sign of social isolation. Often, that’s just what does happen. When the biological process works as designed, the anxiety we feel in the first flush of loneliness will motivate us to find “our people”: We’ll go home to Mom. Or hug our spouse. We’ll help a neighbor or call an old friend. If we’re able to find and connect with people we trust, and if they’re responsive and genuinely understanding, the loneliness will subside and our stress state will recede. This is how most of us get through situational loneliness, such as the lost feeling that can descend when we move to a new town or start a new school or job.
But it’s not always easy to find or make those connections. When we become chronically lonely, most of us are inclined to withdraw, whether we mean to or not. John Cacioppo [professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago] determined that our threat perception changes when we’re lonely, so we push people away and see risk and threat in benign social opportunities. John’s widow, Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who was his close collaborator and has taken on the role of continuing and expanding his work on loneliness at the University of Chicago, found that lonely brains detect social threats twice as fast as non-lonely brains. This may seem like a paradoxical response to a mechanism that evolution designed to prevent isolation, but from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense.
When our ancestors were separated from the safety of the group, they needed to react defensively even to marginal threats, since they might well turn out to be lethal. But in modern life that same hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats. Fleeing into self-preservation mode, we’ll avoid people and distrust even those who reach out to help us. With prolonged loneliness, we’ll decline invitations and stop answering the phone.
Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security,which can appear to others as self-involvement. These two elements – the threat perception shift and the increased focus on self – are key parts of the hypervigilance story that makes it difficult to engage with others when we’re lonely.
Then the reactions begin. Those who’d like to help start running away, leaving us feeling even more alone. Before long we’re trapped in a vicious cycle of suspicion, jealousy, and resentment. Loneliness thus fuels more loneliness until the fracture leads to severe alienation. Clearly, the solution is more complicated than telling someone who’s lonely to go to a party or “just be with people”. (emphasis mine)
As I digested this passage, I thought of the time earlier on in the pandemic – when we were all sheltering-in-place here in Santa Clara County for most of 2020. We were not allowed to see anyone outside of our immediate home unit. We were not allowed to drive outside of our county lines. Only essential businesses were open. At first the posts on my Facebook were encouraging – people coming together and saying we can flatten the curve if we all stay home. But gradually, as the loneliness settled into our brains, we became more antagonistic with one another. In our county at least, lines were drawn – if you wore a mask, you were a good person. If you didn’t wear a mask (or you didn’t wear it properly) you were the problem and the reason people were dying from covid (even if you didn’t have covid and therefore couldn’t possibly pass it on).
This period of time was pretty distressing to me because my four-year-old son would absolutely not wear a mask. I had many friends and other parents online tell me it was my parenting – I wasn’t modeling wearing a mask, I wasn’t choosing the right kind of mask, I wasn’t doing some magic parenting trick to get him to wear a mask. Because my son wouldn’t wear a mask, I had several friends who would not spend time with us even outdoors. We were not welcome at places like the fully-outdoor San Francisco zoo or our neighborhood playgrounds. We were told that my son was not welcome to pick up halloween candy from the end of a driveway if he wasn’t wearing a mask. A security guard came up to him in the outdoor library plaza and told him to put on a mask or we couldn’t pick up our books. We were told at a shoe store that we couldn’t buy shoes from them if he didn’t put a mask on.
I felt stared at and judged everywhere we went. My son began to internalize his struggles and his self-esteem plummeted as he became more socially excluded. Finally, I asked his pediatrician for an exemption letter and he wrote us one immediately. The psychological and social harm of long-term isolation and exclusion were costing us much more than the mask was possibly protecting us and others from covid-19. As we were able to socialize more, his hypervigilant state calmed down and he began wearing a mask.
Of course, all of this I experienced through my own lonely-brain lens. I was defensive and I pulled away from people who I perceived to be a social threat to us – I’ll call them “the mask police.” Even friends who were clear with me that they understood my son’s struggles and it was okay – I still perceived them as a social threat and I pulled away. It’s like I couldn’t get my brain to stop. I had a hard time trusting others and I felt bitter.
Meanwhile, the “mask police” were themselves also functioning in a “lonely brain state”. They saw my unmasked son as a threat to their safety and in response, they pulled away from me. To repeat Dr. Murthy’s quote above, “hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats…Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security,which can appear to others as self-involvement”. We were all in our own states of hypervigilance – and we saw different things as threats to our health and safety. The more isolated and lonely we became, the more likely we were to jump to conclusions about someone and stick them in a box we labeled “bad people”.
This hypervigilance came up again when the vaccines came out. Our lonely brains saw unvaccinated folks as threats to our well-being, even when we were fully-vaccinated against the virus and thus, unlikely to die or even experience hospitalization. Rather than lovingly talking to our loved-ones about how worried we were about their health, our hypervigilant brains blamed them for our continued isolation and saw them as a threat to our survival, even once we had antibodies to the virus we feared. I regret many conversations I had with loved ones during this time as I tried (without success, I might add) to convince them of the benefits of vaccines by speaking unkindly and threatening to socially ostracize them. To anyone I hurt with unkind remarks or social pressure, I am truly sorry. Now that my brain is less lonely and I no longer feel like I am in a state of hypervigilance, I see your humanity. Being in a state of hypervigilance doesn’t excuse anyone’s bad behaviour, but at least I can now understand why my brain seemed to be so angry with people whom my heart loved.
Online social networks like Facebook did not help with the lonely-brain at all. Maybe Facebook made us feel more socially connected, but it was a facade. It was more of a social distraction than quality social time with others. It was also a great place for people to vent their frustrations about anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers out into the void without really considering the human face and individual struggles and stories behind people’s choices. My lonely-brain became even more lonely reading Facebook posts in the Sunnyvale Moms Group about how kids who aren’t masked should have to leave the playground. I was in a psychological tail-spin.
So what is the antidote to the lonely-brain phenomenon? Connection. Face to face connection. Conversation.
Something changed for me when I started using the app Marco Polo to connect with a few close girlfriends every day. Marco Polo allows you to send a private video message to friends. It’s like leaving a voicemail on someone’s phone, but it is a video. The only people who can see the video are the ones you sent it to. I could send videos sharing my life and my thoughts to one friend, or to a group chat of a few friends. As moms with busy schedules, it is hard to find time to connect with other moms on Facetime or in person – but Marco Polo helped us see into each others’ lives when we had to be apart. In time, my lonely brain felt better and even though it wasn’t in person or live, it was still better than text or the impersonal void of a Facebook newsfeed.
This past year, I’ve been trying to get my family back “out there” and to engage in community again. I believe it is vitally important to our mental and physical health. I started volunteering at the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum, I started attending Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, I signed my kids up for gymnastics, music class and boy scouts. We started having neighbourhood kids over to play at our house. My husband returned to work at the office. I started asking friends to go for early Saturday morning hikes with me. I gathered a group of moms together to celebrate our strength through this pandemic. All of these activities helped heal my lonely brain.
Though I will also admit, that one thing that surprised me, is how exhausting it was. Even though I believe socializing with others is vital to my mental health, I found myself unexpectedly wiped out by many of my social interactions.
I’ve heard from many others who say the same thing – before the pandemic they loved to socialize, they loved to host, to attend events. And while they still feel drawn to try these things again, the very activities that used to energize them now leave them feeling depleted.
What is up with that?
Could it be that we were all just closet introverts with highly trained extroversion muscles that have gotten weak over the last two years of the pandemic? Is socializing a muscle that can atrophy over time? Or could it be that we are all very empathetic people and we can easily feel the emotions of those around us? With everyone so tense in these gatherings (for a variety of reasons), perhaps we take on that tension and just feel exhausted at the end of it all?
I’m thinking it’s perhaps a combination of the two. I do feel the energy in a room as palpable as I can feel the carpet underneath my feet. Being around tense, nervous, anxious, and upset people leaves me feeling the same way. I also think perhaps all the efforts that come with socializing are muscular – and these muscles get stronger the more you socialize. My social muscles needed for groups larger than three people are weak and just like any other muscle, need to be exercised little by little.
What do you think? Can you look back at parts of your pandemic experience and say, “yes, I think I was pretty lonely then and maybe that’s why I said those hurtful things”? Is it easier to comprehend the dissension and friction in society these days when we look at it through a lens of loneliness? Can we forgive those who have hurt us these last few years by recognizing that they were an isolated, lonely human and in a state of hypervigilance? Can we see that their brains had been hijacked by an instinctive drive for survival? Something for us all to consider as we try to move forward beyond the pandemic.
Today I am 6 months alcohol-free. I started cutting back last January as part of a weight-loss goal, but I noticed as I cut back, that the nights that I didn’t have any wine, I slept better. I also felt less anxious the next day. I realized that I had been self-medicating with wine to help calm my anxieties, but in fact, it was making it worse.
At first, cutting back was really hard. Like embarrassingly hard. (2020 was rough y’all and I maybe relied on the wine a bit more than I should have….) I realized that a trigger for me for pouring a glass of wine was coming down the stairs after my kids were tucked into bed. So I stopped coming down the stairs after I tucked them in. I bought a kettle and some chamomile tea and I put it with a mug in my bathroom. Instead of coming down the stairs, pouring a large glass of wine and flopping on the couch to watch tv, I stayed upstairs in my bedroom. I drank sleepytime tea and I read. I cut back drinking gradually – drinking less each week than I had the week before, eventually going several weeks between glasses of wine. And then June 28, 2021 I decided to go a full year without alcohol, just to see how I’d feel. So far, it has been life changing for me. I‘ve never felt healthier or stronger. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back.
I used to say, I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a glass of wine.
Now I say, I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a good night’s sleep and to not feel anxious tomorrow.
Anyways, I share this as hopefully an encouragement for anyone trying to kick any bad habit, but also to explain why I’ve shied away from evening gatherings where there would be an expectation of alcohol. I am finally feeling like I’m getting to a place where I can go out with friends and have a club soda and not feel like a loser or worse, feeling like I’m making other people uncomfortable by not drinking. 6 months in, my mind doesn’t really default to or crave wine very often anymore; but it is funny how old neuro pathways can spring up on you – a couple of months ago, I went through airport security and before my mind thought about finding my gate, it thought about finding the bar.
More than anyone, I need to thank my husband for quiety supporting me on this journey this year. Keeping our home dry, and being my cheerleader in his no-pressure no-big-deal-if-you-fail way.
Below is a picture of the books I read in 2021, while I stayed upstairs and drank tea. I recommend them all, but my favourites were: Secondhand, The TeaGirl of Hummingbird Lane, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, and Longitude.
I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.
I am slowly and tentatively emerging from my pandemic bubble. Omicron is still up in the air, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” As I emerge, I find myself grieving a bit for life pre-Covid and the sense of community we’ve all lost.
By community, I don’t mean crowds. I do not miss the busyness of people. I do not miss Christmas shopping line-ups or even Christmas parties with hours of small talk. I don’t miss the atmosphere of everyone having their own agendas and doing their own things side by side.
I also find myself fortunate to have rich friendships and deep connections with others: my kids, my husband, my neighbours, and – with the help of technology (Marco Polo and FaceTime) my friends and family back home. When I speak about grieving a loss of community, I don’t mean intimate relationships. It’s been hard to put my finger on – what do I mean by loss of community?
I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.
In chatting with my husband about this, he identifies a similar feeling in loss of community through almost two years of remote work. My husband works for a large company with offices all over the world. Before the pandemic, when everyone was working in-person in their respective offices, there was a fair amount of “tribalism” between sites – different sites would oppose one another in coming up with a solution to a common problem. Yet, after almost two years of working remote, that tribalism has completely disintegrated – which is a good thing. People are collaborating across worksites more harmoniously. However, at the same time, he also feels they have lost a team-wide excitement for working on a problem together and a motivation for achieving a common goal together. As humans we are built to be in community and, at times, in healthy competition with one another. We come up with ingenious solutions to problems when we are supported and challenged by our peers in community.
I miss the rituals of community and the feeling of unity that comes when people participate in a ritual that transcends social structures. Anthropology super-nerds, like myself, will recognize this as what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas. “During the period of the ritual, rank and status are forgotten as members think of themselves as a community. This helps cement unity among community members.”
In the weeks before Covid shut everything down, we were busy with our weekly nature walk group, our Mothers of Preschoolers Group (MOPS), and having friends over for dinner. And while none of that seems as inherently ritualistic as say, a wedding, there were elements of ritual there. Take for example, my moms group (MOPS) meetings.
Moms Group Meetings
Every second friday, I would drop my kids off at childcare and go into a theatre space next door to enjoy a hot potluck breakfast with 100 other moms seated at tables. We’d listen to a speaker and eat a hot meal with no kids asking us questions or pulling at our clothes. We didn’t have to cut anyone else’s food, or hop up from the table to fetch someone water or grab a cloth to wipe up a spill.
Stay with me while I get into some nerdy anthropology theory over this. One anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep wrote about rites of passage, defined as “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life, especially birth, puberty, marriage, and death” (Oxford Dictionary). Van Gennep argued that all rites of passage had three phases: separation, the liminal phase, and aggregation. One familiar rite of passage is a graduation ceremony, so I’ll use it as an example. In the separation phase, the ritual-participant is separated from their role in the social structure – they sit apart from their families in special gowns. In the liminal phase, ritual-participants are neither here nor there – they are betwixt and between and form a new kind of community with the other ritual-participants. The students sit together as one and wait for their turn to cross the stage and receive their diploma. In the aggregation phase, students are reunited with their families, the tassel has been pulled to the other side of their hats, they have a diploma in-hand, and they are reunited in the social structure with a new status – that of a graduate.
Victor Turner took this further in his book The Ritual Process. He expands the idea of these phases to other rituals, not just rites of passage. Rituals are “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony” (Cambridge Dictionary). My moms group meetings were rituals, not rites of passage – but I see the same phases present. First, in the separation phase, we dropped our kids off at childcare. Then, in the liminal phase, we sat together, undefined by the number of children with us or our visible parenting style. We ate together and we learned together listening to a speaker brought in especially for us. Turner writes, “What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purposes is the blend they offer of low lines and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. We are presented, in such rites, with a “moment in and out of time,” and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol, if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.”(p. 96) In the liminal phase of our weekly ritual, we were women eating together in communitas – we were not only “Mom of multiples”, “Working mom”, “Stepmom”, “SAHM” or any of the other mom-statuses we ascribe to ourselves. In the third phase, we were reunited with our social status of “mother” as we picked up our children from childcare and continued about our days in this role, inspired through our participation in the ritual.
Victor Turner continued, “There is a dialectic here, for the immediacy of communitas gives way to the mediacy of structure, while, in rites de passage [or rituals], men are released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas. What is certain is that no society can function adequately without this dialectic.” (p. 129.) Through this ritual, we moms were released from the expectations and constant responsibility of motherhood to eat together in communitas, and then return to pick up the kids and our responsibilities, re-inspired and refueled for the days ahead. Since the pandemic began and many of these sorts of community “rituals” ceased, I’ve noticed how much I miss them.
Recently my husband attended a summit for his work – his first in-person work meetings since the pandemic began. He found the meetings to be incredibly productive. Participants were “released” from the expectations and daily structure of responding to online messages in order to work together on a specific problem in communitas. They left the summit with a clear direction and inspired by a sense of teamwork and accomplishment. When people say they want to continue to work remote even after the pandemic, I don’t know if they realize what they’ll be missing without communitas.
As we’ve moved away from so many in-person rituals in favour of two-dimensional online interactions over zoom and through status updates, comments and hashtags, I also feel a loss of reverence. While this pandemic would have been impossible without all the technologies available to us to interact with one another online, I have yet to experience a moment of reverence through them. I’ve missed the awe and wonder, the anticipation, and the deep respect for the moment, the place, or the person that allows a hush to fall over a crowd. The awkward silence at the beginning of a zoom call is not reverence.
While being at home with two young children through this pandemic was life-giving and purposeful and in many ways it saved my sanity – potty-training, whining, and night terrors are also not reverent.
In an attempt to find what was missing, I decided to attend a nearby Presbyterian church. Previously, this church would not have been my style. I used to feel deeply uncomfortable with liturgy. I’ve always felt awkward with call-and-response prayers and with communion. And I treated hymns with derision. I preferred “cool” churches – with contemporary music, dark concert-like venues, coffee, and denim. And yet, in a moment when the entire congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together, I felt both communitas and reverence for the first time in years.
To me, there was something so moving about a whole group of people reciting the same thing together. It reminded me of going to a Taylor Swift concert with my brother when she stopped singing and fifty thousand fans filled in the gap with a resounding chorus of her lyrics. Except instead of a song that has been around for a few years, we were reciting a prayer that has been prayed by millions of people over thousands of years and translated into hundreds of languages. A prayer people have recited together in community, and in the stillness of the night kneeling alone by their beds. I can’t think of any other collection of words that has connected humanity across time and space as the Lord’s Prayer. Can you?
Right Brain Left Brain
I don’t think reverence has to be religious. A great many secular moments from graduations to Taylor Swift concerts to the carving of the Christmas roast can be reverent too.
Recently, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. The author was a neuroscientist who had a stroke and remembered the experience of having her left brain completely destroyed by the hemorrhage. Several years later, when she had regained her ability to speak and write, she wrote about the experience of living in her right brain – a place where she felt no judgment or self-criticism – she just felt at peace and one with the world. Dr. Bolte Taylor describes the differences between the right brain and the left brain as this – imagine you hike to the top of a mountain. You get to the peak powered solely by your own body and you are surrounded by a beautiful view of a cascade of mountains and a crystal clear sky. Your right brain is in awe of the beauty that surrounds you. Your right brain perceives the majesty and makes you feel like you are one with the universe, whilst at the same time a tiny speck on the enormous planet. Meanwhile, your left brain is assessing whether or not you need to put on a sweater, if you’re hungry, what you should eat, and which angle to take the selfie.
It made me think, maybe reverence, is just something that exercises our right brain, just as talking exercises our left brain. Maybe it’s something our brains need. Maybe there is one true religion or God. Or maybe humanity has sought out God and the supernatural because it’s what our right-brain is wired to do – to perceive the incredible and feel at one with the whole.
However you experience communitas and reverence, whether in a sacred or secular way, I think it’s a fundamental part of the human experience.
I know I’m in a rut because of the pandemic. I could go out and socialize, but I’m happy in my house and it’s so much energy to get back out there again. But I know I need to. I know my kids need to be in community again. My husband is still enjoying remote work, but he knows he needs to get back to the office so he can feel part of something important again, rather than just another cog in the machine.
Community gives us a sense of purpose, belonging and significance. And the love, beauty, and harmony that comes with feeling part of a community is fuel for our right-brains. I have lived much of this pandemic in my left brain – analyzing COVID stats, deciding whether I should wear a mask in this particular case or not, questioning whether I have a tickle in my throat or COVID. I am ready to re-engage with my right-brain. What about you?
Last week we celebrated my daughter’s second birthday. As a pandemic toddler – she really doesn’t have any friends, so we decided to celebrate with two of our vaccinated neighbors who have been surrogate grandmas to her during all these months of Shelter-in-Place. One of these neighbors has a dog who lounges out on his front lawn most mornings and we stop in to see him whenever he is outside. He came to her party dressed in his fancy Hawaiian shirt and V fed him a plateful of milkbone cookies.
Now that the two year old milestone has come and gone, I’m now turning my eyes to that big, scary, horrible, messy parenting task of potty training. She’s very ready, and has already used the potty a few times. It’s more me holding her back, not committing the time and the energy to the training. And so, I’m gearing up and giving myself a pep talk to get it done.
And it needs to be a pretty big pep talk.
With my son, potty training was awful. I decided to wait until after V was born to start because I knew that many kids have regressions after the birth of a new sibling. DK was 2 years, 9 months when V was born, so I figured – what’s a few more months? It would be a good time to train him with a newborn around, right? Newborns sleep so much of the day and we are going to be home so much – potty training will just fit right in there.
Boy was that ever a dumb plan.
Fast forward to 6 weeks after V was born, I decided out of the blue to begin potty training. Remember, I was sleep deprived, I had never potty trained anyone before, or really seen any child be potty trained, and I had half-skimmed “Oh Crap Potty Training”. I had not taught DK how to pull down or pull up his own pants, I had not taught him how to rip toilet paper (and he may have been the first two-year old in the history of toddlers who never tried to unravel the toilet paper), he never played around the house naked, and he was scared of the sound of the toilet flushing, It went as well as you would expect it to go considering these limitations.
I started off trying to follow the advice of the Oh Crap Potty Training lady – just do completely naked potty training, watch your child very closely and try to catch him right before he pees and get him on the potty. Well, with a newborn who also needed near constant attention, that translated to – clean a bunch of pee off the floor and feel like a failure.
Around day 3 of naked potty training, DK had to have a bowel movement. He was crying and pleading with me to give him a diaper and I refused, all in the name of a greater good. He was agitated and running around, clearly uncomfortable. I tried to get him to sit down on the potty but he refused. I put V down safely in her crib, where she began to scream, and I tried to hold DK down on the potty. That did not work. He ran away and as he ran, he pooped – a stream of shit spraying on the floor behind him. Everyone was screaming, including me, and then DK ran back around through the mess and tracked poop all over the house at a gallop.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I got us out of that mess. I somehow cleaned everything up on my hands and knees, tears trickling down my face to a soundtrack of V screaming in the background and DK dancing around me with a contented gut.
It was a serious low point for me in parenting and I gave up potty training for several months after that.
I felt like I committed a human rights violation – forcing him to poop in a way he didn’t feel comfortable. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to go to jail – but among the top reasons is having to use the toilet in an open room with other people watching. Being forced to soil oneself is one of the most degrading things that could happen to a person. Wasn’t I asking him to do the same thing, but in reverse? He was comfortable in diapers, and here I was demanding he do it differently, against his will.
He wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. The whole experience for me was so stressful, I had to have my mom come out 6 months later and help me. She had a bit more experience with potty training a toddler (my brother and I are, after all, potty-trained) and she also was able to be a bit calmer and matter-of-fact about it. Whereas for me, I felt like I had earned a great big F on my parenting report card in the subject “Potty Training”. It was hard to stay relaxed when I felt so much pressure to get it done and get it done right.
When my mom came to visit, we threw out the guidance of the Oh Crap Potty Training lady who said to not use rewards and to not use training underwear. We let DK wear training undies and when he sat still on the potty for 30 seconds on the phone timer, he got a chocolate chip. Over the span of a couple of weeks he earned two chocolate chips for peeing on the potty, three for pooping in the potty – and much later I upped the ante and gave him four chocolate chips if he would poop in the big toilet (so that I didn’t have to clean the potty every time).
The trend these days in my parenting circles is to focus on intrinsic rewards – not extrinsic rewards for motivation. After all, you don’t want your child to only do things for the extrinsic reward (a chocolate chip), you want them to want to do things because of the personal satisfaction it brings (bathroom self-sufficiency and privacy). I do believe in the importance of intrinsic motivation – but when it comes to doing hard things that are out of our comfort zones, or things that we don’t really want to do, extrinsic rewards work very well. This is why we get paid at our jobs. Very few people show up to work every day and give it their all because they are personally satisfied to do it. Maybe there are some children out there who genuinely want to change up the way they’ve had bowel movements their entire lives – but my child was not one of them. At three and a half years old, he was firmly in the “why fix what ain’t broken” camp and needed the promise of a chocolate chip reward to see the “why”.
Another idea my mom brought with her was after every try or potty-related-anything, she would get DK to choose a sticker, have him stick it to a blank piece of paper and then above it she would write what he got the sticker for. It wasn’t a fancy potty training chart, it was just a piece of paper with stickers and writing – but over the course of the day, the paper would get filled with all of his tries – big and little, successful and unsuccessful. At the end of every day when we were reading him his bedtime stories, we would read back over his potty experiences of the day, reminding him of and praising him for all of his efforts.
By the time my mom left, we (she) had mostly potty trained him. When we left the house to go to the playground though, I still felt insecure, so I’d put a diaper on him. This was another one of my mistakes because old habits die hard and as soon as that diaper was on him, his body would relax and release and he’d have a bowel movement – every single time. So after a week of that, I strengthened my resolve and got rid of the diapers once and for all. Surprisingly to me, we didn’t have many accidents.
I learned a lot from potty training DK that I am carrying forward with me as I begin potty training V:
I threw him off the deep end. I didn’t teach him some of the basic things first – like undressing and dressing himself. I didn’t normalize the toilet flushing or let him play with rolls of toilet paper. With V, we switched her to Pampers 360 Fit diapers just after she was a year old. These diapers pull up and down like underwear instead of securing them with the side tabs. We’ve worked with her on dressing herself and pulling up and pulling down her own pants. We’ve taught her to wash her own hands at the sink and how to dry them with the towel. We’ve taught her how to rip toilet paper and flush it down the toilet.
I gave her access to potties earlier than I did with DK. She also had more access to seeing other people use the toilet than he did.
It’s okay to use extrinsic rewards for hard habit changes
When mom is flailing, it’s okay for grandma to step in.
Overly enthusiastic praise is not for every child. DK hates overly enthusiastic praise. He actually preferred to keep potty training a secret. He did not want to tell Daddy, he wanted everyone detached and unconcerned about his progress. It’s amusing now that he ever wanted complete secrecy because nowadays he announces to the entire house that he’s going to the bathroom and precisely what he plans to do in there.
So now it’s time to start potty training V. I’m determined not to completely fuck it up this time. I’m taking the best of the advice from my mom, from Oh Crap Potty Training, and from another book that my cousin mailed to me around the time I was potty training DK called “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day” by Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx.
But first, A History of Potty-Training
Back before we had washing machines or disposable diapers – babies wore cloth diapers and mothers had to wash them by hand. I get annoyed when I have to carry a dirty diaper down the stairs and put it outside in the garbage – so I can only imagine how much mothers hated the job of hand-washing a poopy piece of cloth. Mothers were motivated to potty train their babies as early as possible to eliminate this extra work and used extreme and harsher methods of potty-training to achieve success.
Two inventions came along that shrunk this housekeeping burden; Disposable diapers and electric washing machines both began making their way into American homes in the 1940s. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the popular narrative on potty-training and encouraged parents to wait to train until the child showed interest and was psychologically ready – an average age of about 18 months old at the time.
As disposable diapers became more accessible, more parents delayed potty-training – waiting for “readiness”. The American Academy of Pediatrics advocated a child-led approach. Pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton helped popularize this trend to wait for child readiness. However Brazelton held a financial relationship with disposable diaper company Pampers – a company absolutely interested in keeping children in diapers as long as possible. Over the years, disposable diaper companies made their diapers more absorbent, more comfortable, and for bigger bodies. By 2001 the average age for potty training was 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys.
I can’t help but wonder why children in the 1950s were psychologically and physiologically ready at 18 months old and yet children today are not psychologically or physiologically ready until 3 years old (on average).
The parenting trend in 2021 is to wait for “readiness” but I think with DK I honestly missed the signs and procrastinated way too long. By the time I got around to it with him – he had entered the stage of toddlerhood (30 months+) where he realized he is his own person and wanted to exert his will to see what it would take to break me. It made the whole “you will use a potty from now on” thing a real battle of wills. I am determined to potty train V before she stops wanting to please me.
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day was published in 1974. Azrin and Foxx developed and tested the method with 200 children of different sexes, backgrounds, abilities and ages. It is a bit old-school – but we’ve been teaching children how to relieve themselves in a culturally appropriate way for thousands of years, so I don’t see why we need to re-invent the wheel with every generation. It is a kind and firm approach that teaches the potty routine.
While I’m not sure that I will be successful at training V in less than a day (that seems like a really high bar), I am going to try the method in this book. I’ve already laid out the groundwork that they specifically mention as the pre-training steps:
1) Learn to dress and undress herself
2) Allow her to watch you (and others) use the toilet
3) Teach her the words associated with potty-training (e.g. wet, dry, stand up, sit down, potty, toilet etc).
4) Teach her “to cooperate in following your instructions” (“V, can you go get me a club soda please?” is one of our favourite games).
Okay, check, check, check and check. V can do all of that.
I am setting aside Sunday May 30 as the day to begin. My husband is going to take DK out of the house for much of the day. I am going to be prepared with a brand new potty training doll, a selection of toddler-friendly juice boxes and some salty snacks. I am going to put my phone on airplane mode and give her my undivided attention and go through this training program.
Then when it’s all done, I’ll be able to tell you, dear reader, if it worked. Are you ready? Is the anticipation of my success or failure killing you? Well without further ado…
Diary of a Mom, Day 1 of Potty Training the Azrin/Foxx method, Sunday May 30, evening
Well, it actually went pretty well! I had everything prepared the night before – training underwear in a size 4T so that the waist and thighs are quite loose, salty snacks, a selection of toddler juice-boxes, water bottles, M&Ms and Raisinettes. The raisinettes (chocolate covered raisins) were a particularly excellent choice because V loves them so they were highly motivating for her, but also because raisins will help with bowel movements over the next few days. I also purchased a doll that wets (This one, expensive – yes, but cheaper than 3 months worth of diapers) and I wrapped it up for her as a present. This morning I sent my husband and son out for the day to go on train adventures together and with the house quiet and me able to give V my undivided attention, I gave her the present and we began.
The doll was a huge hit! She loved teaching the doll how to go potty, rewarding the doll for a successful pee, and emptying the potty. I followed the advice in the book and we played with the doll for quite a while, filling the doll and V up with liquids as we played. “Baby drinks! V drinks! Mommy drinks!” “Cheers!” Practicing with the doll helped her enormously and within the first two hours she peed on the potty twice of her own initiative and she also pooped (PRAISE THE TOILETING GODS). We had one accident right before nap time, so I decided to power through and do underwear at nap time. She stayed dry through her nap, but despite our best efforts she had two accidents after her nap. But then, with prompting she used the potty successfully three more times before bed! So all in all a very successful first day. She’s wearing a diaper to bed tonight.
Diary of a Mom, Day 2 of Potty-Training, Monday, May 31
Yesterday was new and exciting. Today V was not as into the potty-training experience. She seemed unsure if she wanted this new way to be her life now. She wasn’t completely opposed, just uncertain and uncommitted. We had a few accidents, but she helped clean herself up and then we did a few practice runs from the spot where the accident happened to the potty as per the Azrin/Foxx method. She LOVED doing these practice runs – running quickly to the potty, quickly pulling down her pants and sitting down. We did it over and over again after an accident and she squealed with delight. DK joined in and we were all running around the house in glee. Since she was in the middle of playing but was far away from the potty when the accident happened, I think the running-to-the-potty practice helped her with some confidence of what she can do differently next time to not have wet pants. Tomorrow I think we will try some running to the potty practice when she still has dry pants.
One part of this method that I like is the use of the question “do you have dry pants?” as opposed to “did you pee your pants?”. The first question just asks the child to reflect on the facts – the pants are wet or they are dry; whereas the second question assigns blame.
Diary of a Mom, Day 3 of Potty Training, Tuesday, June 1st
I decided to cancel our weekly nature walk with friends today in favor of staying home and continuing to practice with the potty. This was a good decision. V was excited to keep potty training and she had many successes and only one accident. She was keen to try and eager to eat chocolate-covered raisins as her reward. I actually had to go to Target to buy more chocolate-covered raisins as now she wants DK to have chocolate-covered raisins with her to celebrate a potty success (which is so sweet I could cry). I am tired but optimistic.
Diary of a Mom, Day 4 of Potty Training, Wednesday, June 2nd
Today was a long day. We had many accidents in the morning. A friend came over to play in the afternoon, which was a fun and much-needed playdate for the kids, but V was pretty distracted with playing and didn’t want to stop to use the potty. I am starting to doubt that this was a good idea and whether I misread the readiness signs.
Diary of a Mom, Day 5 of Potty Training, Thursday, June 3rd
Okay, as a mom, I am the one who struggled with potty training today. We made progress and I know I must focus on the success we had. But it’s taking so long! It’s hard not to feel like with every accident or emotional outburst that it’s a sign that I misjudged her readiness. I think that’s the greatest lie we Millennial parents tell ourselves. I know my child is far more capable than I give her credit for. It’s my own laziness, insecurity, and desire for instant gratification that is holding her back. Personally, I want to give up today. Go back to diapers because it’s easier. Admit defeat.
But to do that would be to tell her that I don’t believe in her, that I don’t believe she can do it. And sometimes believing in your kid is what they need to get themselves across big hurdles.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Diary of a Mom, Day 6 of Potty Training, Friday June 4th
On Fridays I take the kids to the playground and they both needed to get out of the house and climb and swing and slide. I was feeling down about the day before and I was prepared to put V back in a diaper for this excursion. To my surprise when she woke up this morning, she was all about using the potty. She had a potty success and then wanted to wear her undies to the park. I packed our travel potty and showed her how it would work before we left. At the playground she came and asked me for the potty a few times, wanting to try it but wasn’t successful. Yes, I was THAT MOTHER who brought a potty to the playground and had her kid pull down her pants and use it next to the stroller.
Despite our best efforts and V communicating her need for the potty and trying her best, we had an accident. I forgot to pack a spare change of socks, so we had to go home. I thought of spare undies and shorts – but I forgot that when pee dribbles down your leg, it makes your socks wet. Whoops, #momfail. This afternoon we had more success with V initiating using the potty of her own accord while wearing undies. I’m feeling optimistic that we are halfway there.
Update: Of course literally AS I TYPED that last sentence on my laptop at the kitchen counter V pooped in her undies. So getting overly confident is a bad idea.
Further update (end of day): She’s getting it! She’s getting it! We’ve now had three successes where she initiates a bathroom break all by herself, gets herself on the potty and does her business. Hurrah!!! I see a light at the end of this tunnel. I am not giving up.
Diary of a Mom, Day 9 of Potty Training, Monday.
I am now saying “this girl is potty trained”. She has used the potty numerous times of her own initiation over the last couple of days. The final two pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place today. First, she woke up with a dry diaper and got herself on the potty on her own. Second, she initiated bowel movements on the potty. So I think we are trained and I’m personally impressed with the Azrin/Foxx method. It’s possible it was the girl, possible it was the readiness, but I also think their method was clear and made sense to her and to me. It helped me be consistent in training which I think helped complete the training quickly.
To any mom endeavouring to potty train soon – I do recommend checking out this book. While some of the method I adapted to 2021 sensibilities (I didn’t like the phrasing they used for expressing disapproval at having wet pants), I think on the whole, parents in 2021 should not be skeptical of a potty training method used in the 1970s. It is kind and straightforward. It is not child-led, but it is respectful of the child and it gives the child the undivided attention they need from adults when learning something new and challenging.
I’d love to hear from you if you try this method! Did it work? Did it not work? Can I bring you chocolate? If any of my local friends are interested in borrowing my copy of this book and the doll that wets – let me know! I’m happy to lend it out.
*To my children: I realize I am posting about your potty training experiences on the internet, and you may be absolutely horrified of this when you are in jr. high. I promise I will take the post down before you turn 9 years old, unless this post goes viral and becomes the post that launches me into professional writing and pays for your college tuition. In that unlikely event, I promise to pay for your therapy.
Azrin, Nathan H., Foxx, Richard M. 1974. Potty Training in Less Than a Day. Pocket Books.
Well it’s officially been a year of mostly staying home in a worldwide pandemic. The vaccine is being rolled out to older folks and to those with health issues that might make the virus particularly challenging for their immune system. And it’s hopefully only a few weeks away for me!
I feel like I’m sitting at an airport with a delayed flight – watching everyone else get on their flights to get to where they are going and I am just sitting here, waiting.
For me, this year of the pandemic has been divided into different phases or “chapters”:
Covid – Table of Contents
March 2020-May 2020….Total nightly anxiety but peace-filled days with my kids playing in the backyard. We had teddy bear picnics, made long chalk train tracks, celebrated V’s first birthday, and didn’t get takeout at all. I drank a lot in the evenings and ate a lot of bags of chips. I gained weight.
May 2020-June 2020….Optimism and our first Covid bubble family with our neighbors across the street. That was a great time.
June 2020- August 2020….Construction. A pipe cracked in our bathroom and was leaking down two stories into the basement. We had many contractors in and out of the house at that time and I was very nervous about getting covid.
September 2020 – November 2020…. A second wave of optimism and our second covid bubble family with DK’s best friend’s family. Another great period of time in 2020.
November 2020 – January 2021…. Total reclusiveness. Relishing the coziness of home through the season and enjoying the simplicity of the holidays with our children.
End of January 2021 – February 2021…. My panties were in a twist, y’all. Frustration, impatience, exhaustion were the emotions on the tip of my covid emotional iceberg.
March 2021….A third and hopefully last wave of optimism and planning for the future. Sitting in the airport gate excited to get on my “flight” to an amazing vacation (aka waiting for the vaccine so I can see people again).
What has your year looked like? Have you also had very distinctive “chapters”?
A Year of Personal Growth
Despite all these separate chapters, one thing that remained consistent throughout is my determination to make this period of our lives focused inward on personal growth.
It was during this year that I worked to establish some good home routines for our family. Bedtime routines, a daily family clean up, and meal plans.
It was also during this time that I took on some personal goals. I got back into my habit of reading, which had dropped off my radar with V’s birth and buying and renovating our house. I started taking weekly Spanish lessons online with a one-on-one tutor in Vera Cruz, Mexico through Verbling.com. I joined Noom and began prioritizing my own nutritional health in a quest to lose the baby/pandemic weight. I quit drinking wine every night as a way to wind down from the day and dull the pandemic anxiety. And most recently I started running using the Couch to 5k app. I’ve been going out nearly every morning (mostly to get away from my family for 30 minutes, I’m not a saint), and I’m up to running for 8 minutes straight. People no longer look at me as I wobble past them in the plaza and wonder if I’m okay and if I need an ambulance.
And yet despite all that I have accomplished for myself, I still found myself feeling down that I hadn’t found time to write on my blog. I love writing. I love the creative outlet. I have tons of ideas bouncing around in my head for posts I want to write. But it’s just so time intensive and requiring deep focus! Who has time for that right now?!
I found myself resenting that I didn’t get time to write. That much of the time I got to myself was three minutes here to log my food with Noom, thirty minutes there to go for a run, an hour a week to learn Spanish. What I wanted was several hours of peace and quiet to deep dive into my thoughts and research and just write. At the same time, I felt guilty for taking the time I did take for myself. I felt guilty for using my phone at the dinner table to log my food with Noom. I felt guilty for not taking my thrill-seeking daughter in the jogging stroller when I run. I felt guilty for my Spanish class starting at 8 pm and rushing through the kids’ bedtime routines once a week so that I could attend on time.
Thank goodness my husband is free of the pathology of mom-guilt and has been able to tell me many times: don’t feel guilty about that. He has encouraged me to get out of the chaos of the house and write, to take a break from the kids. But do I listen to him? No. I let the mom-guilt continue its cascade.
One morning on my run, I was listening to a podcast and I heard another mother talking about the subject of personal growth.
She said that the truth was that we can’t have it all all of the time. We can have some things sometimes and other things at other times.
Right now we are in a global pandemic and reliable childcare isn’t really a possible option for us at the moment. And that’s okay. This is a season. Reframing my “I have to be with my kids again today” to “I get to be with my kids today” is a good reminder to me that this is a season, I won’t always get to be with my kids. And when I’m in that future season, maybe that’s when I will write more.
Maybe right now is when I do the living that I will later write about.
In this podcast interview, this woman had written a book and she was telling us about the process of writing it and publishing it as a mother of four kids under the age of ten. I’m inspired by her, but I also hate her just a little bit (hey, I already told you – I’m not a saint).
That is my dream, to someday write a book. But maybe I don’t write my book until I’m 50 years old. Or maybe I write my book when I’m 75 years old. I’ll definitely have more wisdom to put in its pages at 75 than I would at 33.
However this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to make time to practice the craft of writing, because it is a creative outlet I enjoy, and practice will make me a better writer. So I’m writing this post on my phone while I snuggle my daughter to sleep.
Bringing My Kids Alongside
In her book, The Brave Learner, Julie Bogart encourages each individual in the family to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (commonly known as BHAGs in the business world) and for the family to work together to help each other achieve their personal goals. For my husband, he wants to work extra hours on a side project that is needed at work and might be the kind of thing that lands him a promotion. So I get up early with the kids so he can work late into the night on his professional goals. DK wants to build a railroad in the backyard. So we bought him a set of books about a boy and his grandpa who built a model railway on their farm so that he could “do research”. I’m not sure what V’s BHAG is, as she’s 2 years old, but she loves to help me cook, so I stand patiently by while she makes a huge mess with the flour and stirs in too many raisins. Someday perhaps she will cook a meal for us. And for me, my kids and husband say “have a good run!” when I trot out the door every morning on my quest to run 5k.
Bringing my kids alongside me in my goals shows them through osmosis how to work towards goals – The hard work, the time investment, and the importance of practice towards progress. When I was in 9th grade, my mom went back to school. Seeing her study and write papers gave me a great perspective of what kind of work ethic would be required when I too went to university. Realizing this has helped me let go of the mom-guilt. My children want a mother who is healthy and intellectually fulfilled. They are learning how to pursue their own passions by seeing me pursue mine. It is good for my children to see me struggle and get frustrated with something I am learning how to do – and how I keep at it until I can do it. I am a better mother when I’m not resentful and despondent at the groundhog nature of my days.
A good friend of mine recently started a custom cookie business. She had it in her mind that she’d like to learn how to bake and decorate sugar cookies, and so after years of wishing, she bought some tools and got started. And here’s the truly amazing thing – she’s incredibly talented at it. Like seriously, check out some of these pictures of her cookies. You can follow her on instagram @humbleandkindcustomcookies.
In a few short months she has built a beautiful brand and sells stunning cookies. All of this success is hard to balance though with a busy life with two kids, but she can let go of the mom-guilt knowing that while she builds this business, her boys are seeing what it takes to be an entrepreneur. They are seeing attention to detail and brand management. They are seeing design and creativity. They are seeing accounting and time management. They are seeing their mom as a woman with passions and talents outside of her identity as their mother and they are seeing their father support her in her goals. And someday they will understand and support their spouses in the same way.
Charlotte Mason said “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” and my friend’s sons are getting a great home education as they bear witness to work.
I wonder if bringing our kids alongside us in our dreams of pursuing our careers and achieving our own big, hairy, audacious goals is the antidote to the mom-guilt that plagues so many moms who work outside and inside the home.
Pockets of Time in Imperfect Places
When I was single, I had this little one-bedroom apartment on the fourth and top floor. Outside my windows was the foliage of a big birch trees and my home felt a little like a nest in its branches. I would spend Friday nights cleaning so that Saturday morning I could wake up to a quiet, clean, and peace-filled apartment, make a cup of tea, and sit down and write. The sun trickled in through the tree leaves and bounced off the warm, cream-coloured walls. It was my dream writing environment: quiet, clean, organized, sunny, warm, and with a view of nature.
I continue to tell myself that I can’t possibly write anything decent without the perfect writing environment at home. But my home is so rarely quiet or clean. Trying to prepare the perfect writing environment takes time away from when I could actually be writing.
When I was doing my Master’s degree, I was trying to get through a ton of readings. I would print journal articles and read through them while I waited in line at the campus coffee shop, while I waited at stop lights, or while I waited for class to start. I do know from experience that pockets of time can yield great efforts towards a goal. And yet I need to remind myself daily not to expect the perfect moment – but to do it in the here and now, a little at a time in an imperfect moment.
In this season of my life, I need to accept the time given to me in the imperfect spaces of my day: waiting for the shower water to heat up, waiting for the lunch noodles to cook, the three minutes per day that my children actually play nicely together, or sitting in the dark with my daughter while she falls asleep as I type slyly on my phone.
What about you? Do you have any Big Hairy Audacious Goals you have been putting off because you “just don’t have time”? How could you bring your family alongside to work on goals together? Where do you have pockets of time?
Coronavirus continues its slow burn through my county in California like the longest slow dance of my high school tenure. With summer coming to a close, kids back in zoom school, and wildfires surrounding us, I need something to look forward to. I turn my sights to Halloween and my stomach drops. What if there is no Halloween this year?! As of this writing, they’ve cancelled trick or treating in LA county, and I’m just waiting for our county to do the same.
I’ve had to disappoint my kids over and over again throughout this pandemic; Barking at them to stay away from other kids, getting them outside only to see the playgrounds covered with tape, and saying no to seeing friends. I’ve played by the rules our health department laid out for us, and we celebrated three birthdays in a very low-key way, but cancelling my kid’s favorite holiday is just too mean.
I ask around in a few online mom’s groups and neighborhood forums – and the overwhelming opinion is, “no, we will not be participating in trick-or-treating this year”. What? Even outdoors and with masks, people are hesitant to have kids come close enough to pass them candy, and many parents aren’t willing to risk the high-touch load of a crowd-sourced candy stash. My heart sank. You can’t trick-or-treat alone. It’s a community-lead thing. The only thing worse than cancelling Halloween would be to get our hopes up and our costumes on, and go out trick-or-treating only to have no one answer the door.
Rite of Reversal
Aside from Halloween being my four-year-old’s favourite holiday, it’s one that I know carries a lot of ritual importance in our society. It is what anthropologists have termed a rite of reversal.
A rite of reversal is a ritual in which the social order is reversed; the world devolves into chaos and then reverts back to order. These rites are important in human culture because they remind us why we have social conventions and rules in the first place. Sure, chaos is fun for an evening, but at the end of the day, when you crawl into bed, you’re happy that when you wake up in the morning, things will go back to the way they were. Trick-or-treating on Halloween night is an example of a rite of reversal.
Children, who are usually only in public spaces in the daytime, get to run through the streets after dark, often without their parents.
Children get to go to stranger’s homes and rather rudely, threateningly demand candy (Trick or Treat!).
Children get to dress in costume.
Spooky and scary replaces light-hearted and predictable.
Children get to eat lots of junk food/candy.
Everyday I try to teach my children to be polite (say please and thank you and not be demanding or threatening), to dress appropriately (not go out in public in costume), to eat healthily (celery sticks not chocolate bars), and to not ever take candy from strangers. Yet, on Halloween, the opposite of these behaviours is allowed and encouraged. We literally send our kids out at night in a costume to threaten strangers to give them candy or they will play a trick on them.
Halloween is special. On Halloween you can break the rules. In doing so, it releases tension between child and parent and reinforces why we have rules at all. While Halloween is a fun night and some kids might wish it were Halloween every day, the fact that it isn’t every day is what makes it so fun and so special.
I care about Halloween for my kids for a bigger reason than their smiling faces covered in chocolate at 9 o’clock at night…I believe it is an important cultural rite that helps balance the adult-child or rule-maker/rule-follower relationship. So I’ve been wracking my brain trying to find other ways that we can celebrate Halloween in a way that fits in with the uncertainty of a pandemic, while upholding the spirit of the rite of reversal that it is. Ways that still reverse the order of things to blow off some of that pent-up steam. I know I need a release from our new-normal even more now in the midst of this will-it-ever-end can-I-hire-a-babysitter-yet pandemic.
I have wanted to host a Ghoul’s dinner for a while – a special dinner where for one night only, my family subverts the normal and throws out all the table manners that my husband and I have been trying to instill. Parents and children get to be excessively rude, having fun and doing all the things we aren’t supposed to do at the table: belching, reaching, gagging, eating with our hands, wiping our faces on our shirts, blowing bubbles in our milk, building castles with our potatoes, banging cutlery on the table, and throwing food on the floor. This night of chaos (and subsequent family clean up) reinforces why we have table manners all other nights of the year. People, and especially our children, are creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. We certainly wouldn’t want a chaotic meal with spaghetti in our hair every day, so when you do a ritual of reversal for fun on a set day of the year, it reinforces why we care about correct behaviour. Life generally is more pleasant when we follow social conventions and we don’t have to clean globs of food off the floor – but once a year, it’s nice to let loose and remind ourselves of that.
If you’re not keen on the mess and rudeness of a Ghoul’s dinner, you can still subvert the normative meal-time framework by serving a desserts-only or desserts-first meal for supper on Halloween night. I can imagine the look on my four-year old son’s face when he comes down the stairs to the dinner table and sees a table set with a huge cake, sides of ice cream sundaes, pie, brownies AND cookies. A Candyland dream come true! We might even play Candyland while we eat.
Trick or Treat
There’s something so exciting about walking around the neighbourhood after dark. Everything is quiet and still and there’s a small thrill that you shouldn’t really be out. Halloween night is even more thrilling with permission to leave the public space (the sidewalk) and go up to people’s front doors (a public-private space) and shout “Trick or Treat!”. In usual years, neighbors give our kids treats because they don’t want a trick played on them. But what if we went back to the original intent behind that phrase and played “tricks” on neighbors who aren’t handing out candy? Now I don’t mean mean-spirited, illegal or dangerous pranks – but perhaps we could leave some cards with tricky riddles or tongue twisters on them as “tricks” instead of receiving “treats”. I think that would capture the ritualized subversion of order as well, but from the opposite angle.
Halloween Treasure Hunt
One thing that I love about Halloween night is how well my kids sleep afterwards. Even if they’ve had 15 mini chocolate bars, they crash hard onto the pillow from the excitement of running around the neighborhood for three hours before bed time. By the time trick-or-treating is over, my kids have earned their candy stash. They worked hard for it, going door to door schlepping a heavy bag around while wearing an awkward costume in the dark. Part of truly enjoying anything is the hard work associated with getting it. How good does a cold beer taste after an afternoon of digging holes for fence posts? So good.
How could I make sure that candy, which is usually restricted in our home, is part of our celebration this year, but in a way that my kids still have to work hard to earn it (instead of just buying some and throwing it in a bowl on the counter)?
I thought we could order some halloween-themed plastic eggs (or we could put halloween-themed stickers or draw silly faces on our leftover plastic easter eggs) and hide them around the house and our yard, filled with candy. I mentioned the plan to our immediate neighbours on our block with kids and we decided to collectively make it an event for our street at dusk on Halloween night. A Halloween treasure hunt is possible to remain distant from others – after all, if you’re searching where someone else is searching, you will have to share the booty, so it’s in the kid’s best interest to search an area on his/her own.
While the Centre for Disease Control guidelines indicate that there is not much evidence that coronavirus transmits particularly well on surfaces, it is easy to wipe down a plastic egg with an alcohol wipe before opening. And if multiple homes are packing the eggs, they can put the candies in the eggs a full three days before Halloween to give any potential virus particles on the candy wrappers time to die before the eggs are hidden, found and opened.
2020 has been an unbelievable and unforgettable year. I want our Halloween night to be unbelievable and unforgettable too, in a good way. A way that doesn’t stand out in our memories as the worst Halloween ever, but as one of the best in spite of everything else going on around us. Throughout so much of this pandemic, my kids have had to adjust and go along for the ride. I want to put them and other kids at the forefront this Halloween and make sure they know that their childhoods are still important, even in the midst of all this scary grown-up stuff happening. Maybe you will join me.
As many of you know, I have been fascinated by the writings of a Victorian woman, Charlotte Mason, for about two years now. I am inspired by passages like:
“Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest.”
Some of it, on the other hand, I chuckle….ahhh to travel back to Victorian times…Scientific advice about feeding your child a variety of bland foods, airing out beds every day or dressing only in wool – while well-intentioned and researched for the time period – is dated in 2020. There are some wonderful words of wisdom in her writings, but you also have to read between the lines with a discerning eye and your critical thinking cap on.
One piece of advice that I initially scoffed at, though upon further reflection, she is absolutely right, is her obsession with air. She spends a full six pages in her first volume, “Home Education” talking about the air we breathe, and it is definitely something I took for granted before 2020.
“You can’t live upon air!” we say to the invalid who can’t eat. No, we cannot live upon air; but if we must choose among the three sustainers of life, air will support us the longest. We know all about it; we are deadly wearing of the subject; let but the tail of your eye catch ‘oxygenation’ on a page, and the well-trained organ skips that paragraph of its own accord….Oxygen, his name; and the marvel that he effects within us some fifteen times in the course of a minute is possibly without parrallel in the whole array of marvels which we ‘tot up’ with easy familiarity…” (p. 30, Volume 1)
Breathing is a pretty phenomenal activity – that we do it without thinking every few seconds, reassures me that even in a world teeming with busyness, chaos and uncertainty, some things go on as before. Here is a video, if you’re interested, about the mechanics of breathing.
Considering how important oxygen is for human existence, oxygen puzzled scientists for centuries. The prevailing theory in the 17th century was that all combustible matter contained a substance called phlogiston that was released during combustion. Air was so ubiquitous that we didn’t even realize we lived in it. Another element must be responsible for why things stopped burning under a glass dome – the item had run out of phlogiston, not that the oxygen in the dome was gone.
“Phlogiston theory states that phlogisticated substances are substances that contain phlogiston and dephlogisticate when burned. Dephlogisticating is the process of releasing stored phlogiston, which is absorbed by the air. Growing plants then absorb this phlogiston, which is why air does not spontaneously combust and also why plant matter burns as well as it does.”(Wikipedia)
Scientists at the time believed that when something burned, it was because it contained this mysterious fire-element, called phlogiston. These ideas built upon the Ancient Greek, Empedocles’ theory of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Phologiston was considered the element of fire. It wasn’t until scientists were trying to trap phlogiston that they discovered oxygen and hydrogen. However, ironically, they didn’t even realize what they had found – they believed they had found dephlogisticated air (air with the phlogiston taken out of it). (The Mystery of the Periodic Table, Benjamin Wiker, 2003)
As a fish moves about in an ocean of water, we live in an ocean of air – and yet it is something we think so little about and took us so long to even realize. So often the things that are most prevalent and unquestionable are overlooked. I rarely think about the process of breathing. I rarely think about the air I am breathing in and what it is made of or contains. I take such a fundamental thing to my continued existence completely for granted.
Mason lived between 1842 and 1923 – the crux of the industrial revolution in Britain. This was a time when coal and oil were burned for lighting, when every home had a fireplace for heat and cooking, and when the main means of transportation used horses (and in cities like London or New York, there were 50,000-100,000 horses working daily in the city, each horse producing 35 pounds of manure and two pints of urine per day.) Basically the air was putrid in dense cities like London. So her emphasis on fresh air for children was very relevant from a public health perspective.
Now, 100 years later, we are in the midst of a pandemic where the virus spreads chiefly through the air we breathe and as we sicken with it, our lungs fill with fluid, making it harder to breathe. Time I spend outside my home, I spend wearing a mask to protect myself and others from the virus, and in California as I type this it is literally raining ash on my car from surrounding wildfires. The air quality is poor here right now and we’ve been cooped up in our home for days.
For me, fresh air has never felt so precious. I don’t think I’ll ever take the ability to breathe freely for granted again.
One of my favourite spoken word poems is “If I Should Have a Daughter” by Sarah Kay. One portion of the poem comes to mind now.
“She’s gonna learn that this life will hit you, hard, in the face, wait for you to get back up so it can kick you in the stomach. But getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.” – Sarah Kay, If I Should Have a Daughter [emphasis, mine]
These last few weeks, it has really felt that California’s lungs are just getting slammed from all sides.
Before covid, I would get outside with my kids every day. It was part of our daily routine, our habits. I could palpably feel a need for fresh air, my body craved it. We were outside every day rain or shine.
When the pandemic hit and everything shut down and we were instructed to not leave our homes for anything but essentials, we locked down and barely left our property for anything. Sure we could go out into nature, but I felt too afraid to in this new world order. We spent a lot of time in our backyard, still spending lots of time outdoors every day – but I missed the smell of trees and I missed the smell of the sea. And I missed the smell of sweet grasses blowing in the warm breeze.
Charlotte Mason wrote, “There is some circulation of air even in the slums of the city, and the child who spends its days in the streets is better supplied with oxygen than he who spends most of his hours in the unchanged air of a spacious apartment. But it is not the air of the streets children want. It is the delicious life-giving air of the country.” (p.32, Home Education)
The first day that we went to the beach after they reopened, I cried. Being back and being able to take in a great big breath of fresh air off of the expanse of the sea was life-giving. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it until that moment.
Charlotte Mason saw the importance of getting out of the city as much as possible to breathe fresh air. She also emphasized the importance of airing out the home. As mentioned above, homes in Victorian England were heated and lit by burning different fuels, which suck oxygen out of the air. She wrote,
“Put two or three breathing bodies, as well as fire and gas, into a room, and it is incredible how soon the air becomes vitiated. We know what it is to come in out of the fresh air and complain that a room feels stuffy; but sit in the room a few minutes, and you get accustomed to its stuffiness; the senses are no longer a safe guide.”
In spite of all the technology advances we have made in heating/cooling/air filtration, my home still gets stuffy. And if the air outside wasn’t unhealthy to breathe from all the plumes of smoke settling into our valley, I would open the windows and take a deep breath.
What have you been taking for granted lately? What advice have you scoffed at? Whose friendship have you assumed would be there when you finally got around to responding to that text? Who have you disagreed with without hearing their side of the story? Maybe a moment to open the windows and let in some fresh air.
A few weeks ago, I found myself alone, with my two children, at Alum Rock park in San Jose without cell coverage. I had been having an off day with my kids – and because of that, we ended up separating from the group we were with and just doing our own thing. My husband had no idea we were there, and, as we were having an off day, my friends probably assumed we had just left and gone home.
We walked toward these really pretty mineral springs. It was nice to get some mental space after the tantrums and whining of the day. Breathe in, breathe out. Rock cliffs rose up on the one side, and the sulfur-scented water was blue-green and crystal clear as it babbled along underneath low-hanging trees. It was hot and dry and we saw a couple small snakes. Before becoming a mom, seeing a snake would have put me in cardiac arrest – but now, some kind of mom-instinct kicks in and I’m able to stay unruffled while I manage a possibly-threatening situation. I calmly picked DK up and we continued on pushing V in the stroller past the snakes. DK wanted to go down to the springs to throw rocks in, but at this point, I felt uneasy at being all alone out there without even cell coverage to call for help (there are rattlesnakes at Alum Rock!), so I trusted another important mom instinct and we got out of there to rejoin civilization.
We are meant to raise our children in community. This is how humans have been raising their children for thousands of years. The saying “it takes a village” is cliché for a reason. I think that’s part of why my instinct to “get back to where there are people and we are safe” kicked in when we were out there, just the three of us. Hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago didn’t have cell coverage either, but they also probably didn’t peel off the group with their kids into an unfamiliar territory.
And yet, it seems incredibly hard to find a true village to raise your family with. We live in an age with nuclear families, private homes divided by yards and roads and driveways and dual-paned windows. We live in an age when you go to the park with your children and the other parents aren’t looking around for someone to talk to, they are looking down at a 3×5 inch screen and talking to someone across the globe. And, we live in a very transient time – people chase dreams and jobs across state-lines, across the country and across the world. This trend is especially obvious in Silicon Valley where people come, make their money, and move back to a place with a lower cost of living. Eight of my friends moved away in 2018. In 2019, three of my friends have left. So far in 2020, I’ve said goodbye to 4 dear friends. It feels like a never-ending cycle of meeting people, getting to know them, welcoming them to my inner circle, and then saying goodbye.
So how do I find my tribe? How do I make mom-friends again and again? What’s the secret?
The secret, actually is quite simple: Join an online local moms group (Facebook or Meetup.com are good places to find one), put yourself out there and host events at times and locations that are convenient to you. When you do this, you might be surprised who will show up AND the best part is they will show up because it is a time and location convenient for them too. So you can do it again. And again. And again. And slowly, through the repeated events, you will get to know each other, your kids will learn to play together, and you will have built your tribe.
Once, I organized a playground play date in a local moms group at 7:30 in the morning. I thought no one would show up. But a girl with a baby the same age as mine and who lived nearby came. That day I met my friend Pav, because she too was up with a baby at 5:30 am and by 7:30 was ready to get out of the house. Because I said “Hey, does anyone want to join me?”, she is still my good friend. Don’t just wait until someone else hosts an event and try to fit it into your schedule. Host it yourself. Do things you want to do, that you are prepared for, and you will meet other moms who want to do the same things and who’s kids have the same nap schedules.
I wanted to meet other moms who were interested in getting outside with their kids. So I started hosting weekly nature walks at times and locations convenient to me and my kids. It started by connecting with a couple of moms through a local moms group about Charlotte Mason, and over the year, we have gathered quite a large group of like-minded mamas through word of mouth and friends inviting friends.
Over the past year of doing these nature walks, I have discovered another important secret: doing things that scare you is always better with a community. Take going to the beach for example. The beach isn’t that scary normally. But it is terrifying to a mom with more than one young child to keep track of. Honestly, it’s kind of out-of-the-question to go to the beach with my kids alone. How could I keep both kids safe from waves and eating sand and drowning? I need my mom tribe. Together, we approach parenting as if we are playing zone defence. I liken it to being a Canada goose. If you’ve ever seen a bunch of goslings and geese, you’ll notice that the geese stand in a circle, facing outward, surrounding the goslings. Going to the beach with my mom tribe seems a lot like that. We have some moms standing near the stuff and the sand toys, we have some moms standing near the water. We have some moms standing near the cliffs that are oh-so-fun to climb. In basketball terms, we are playing zone defence. Man to man is impossible anyways when you have more children than arms.
I am beyond grateful for my mom tribe. Together we have caught frogs, scared away snakes and backed away really quickly from a mysterious growl in the bushes that one five-year old said was “a bear” (we actually think it was a mountain lion). Doing things together has taught me a lot about parenting, about patience, about how to pack a lunch, when to put bug spray on, and what poison oak looks like.
So much of motherhood feels like I’m just fumbling along. But with my tribe, at least we are all kind of fumbling through it together and carrying one another through moments of doubt.
How can you start your own mom tribe today? What kinds of things do you like to do with your kids? Which times and locations could be convenient for you to invite others to join you in that activity?
I love telling stories. I’m actually pretty good at it…get a glass or two of wine in me at a party and I’ll tell you about the time a seeing-eye-dog-in-training licked poop off DK in an airport bathroom with more colour and enthusiasm than Stuart McLean.
In this, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree because my dad is also a great story teller. I remember when I was a kid asking my dad to tell me a story and he’d make one up on the spot (or at least I thought he did). One particularly memorable one involved baby Heather with the hiccoughs and everytime she hiccoughed, she’d float little by little towards the ceiling. Her family members and neighbours all tried to pull her down until everyone she knew was hanging on for dear life, down in one long line from her shoe. Just when they thought all hope was lost, little baby Heather farted and everyone came tumbling down to earth. Everyone laughed and laughed and laughed at the fart and lived happily ever after. Now I’m not sure if this is a Jim Dunphy original (it definitely has elements of a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate factory), but that’s not important – I thought it was hilarious and I loved hearing this story. Thinking about that now has made me reflect on doing the same thing for DK and baby V.
I honestly haven’t really tried coming up with anything decent yet – it’s hard to come up with a story on the fly that a kid will like that has a beginning, a middle and an end. I can’t just tell him about that time I accidentally shaved off my eyebrows. A few days ago, in a desperate bid to get him to agree to take a bath, I said “Let’s play the three billy cars!
“Once upon a time, there were three billy cars. And the name of all three billy cars was?…”, I began.
“Gruff!”, exclaimed DK excitedly, plunking his butt down in the bath water that two seconds before was “too hot! Too cold! Too wet!” He gathered three cars up quickly and I grabbed his tow truck.
“The three billy cars were on their way to the gas station where they could eat and eat and eat and get fat. But on their way to the gas station there was a bridge over a rushing river,”
“Under the bridge lived a troll who was as mean as he was ugly!” DK continued, quoting our version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone word-for-word.
“A tow troll!” I said, shaking the little blue tow truck and giving an evil laugh.
DK drove a yellow car along the bath tub’s edge.
“The first billy car came to cross the bridge,” I continued. “Trip trap trip trap trip trap, went the bridge.”
“WHO’S THAT TRIPPING OVER MY BRIDGE?!” DK screeched in his raspy “troll” voice, bouncing and smiling in the tub in excitement.
“It’s only I, the first billy car and I’m going to the gas station to make myself fat!” I said.
DK mumbled and looked at me, not quite sure what the “tow troll” should say next. So I prompted him,
“No you’re not! For I’m coming to tow you away!”
The tow troll chased the little yellow car around the tub and then finally gave up, very tired. DK, shrieked with delight the entire time.
And so we continued through the rest of the tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. And then we did it again, because, 2 year olds.
I had stumbled upon a way to play with my kid that doesn’t make me want to scratch out my eyeballs, at least the first time through the fairytale skit, because I’m not grasping at straws coming up with things for my character to say. Don’t get me wrong, role playing banal conversational exchanges like, “how are you today?” “I’m good how are you?” “Do you want to play with me?”, are important role-playing exchanges for developing conversational skills with a preschooler…but I can only take so much of that. Re-enacting our favourite stories in play is something I do find enjoyable and I don’t think I am alone here.
Telling tales orally is a rich human tradition. We have been passing down stories orally to one another for thousands of years. Before the inventions of the written word and printing presses, we had no other choice, bedtime stories were oral narrations. The fairytales and nursery rhymes we recite to our children today are the same ones parents on the English Isles and Northern Europe told their kids over centuries. Around the world, different cultures have their own rhymes and oral tales that they have been telling children over generations. Telling stories to our children seems to be an intrinsic part of parenthood.
Charlotte Mason recognized that oral tales were one way humans had been learning for millennia and a core part of her educational philosophy is “narration” wherein a child explains in his own words what he just read, either orally (grades 1-3) or written (4+6). Mason writes,
“Education…demands a conscious mental effort…the mental effort of telling again that which has been read or heard. That is how we all learn, we tell again, to ourselves if need be, the matter we wish to retain, the sermon, the lecture, the conversation. The method is as old as the mind of man, the distressful fact is that it has been made so little use of in general education.” (Vol. 6, pp. 159-60)
Telling back in your own words what you just read or had read to you requires active listening/reading, focus and attention. It requires comprehension of the text. Along with printing, narration is the first step to learning how to write and compose. We know from modern educational research that we remember hardly anything of what we read or hear, but we remember a lot more of what we teach to others. Storytelling (the art of telling a story from memory) is one form of narration.
Not only does telling a story from memory help cement it in the storyteller’s mind, the personal interaction with your child is memorable for them.
DK and I had already been reading a couple of books of nursery rhymes (I like Mary Englebright’s versions because I love her illustrations) and age-appropriate fairytales (I really like Paul Galdone’s fairytale book series), but I wanted to try just telling them orally without the book or props in front of me, to see how DK reacted. I re-read a few of our fairytales by myself one night and practiced the structure of the story in my head. Often fairytales have lots of repetition, which is loved and needed for preschoolers. So I figured out what I needed to repeat to make sure I had the basic structure right. He loved hearing me tell a story he was already familiar with in my own words and it was fun because I could add my own spice to the story – changing the name Goldilocks to DKeylocks, for example. He listened with rapt attention and an energetic thrill to be a character in the story. I won’t know for a few more years, but I also hypothesize that hearing me retell familiar stories will also help him in his storytelling abilities when he is 5.
Telling tales is also an easy way to distract from frustrations at having to wait for things. I can tell him a tale while I nurse his baby sister. I can tell him a tale while waiting in line at the grocery store. I can tell him a tale while he sits on the potty. It captures his attention, entertains and also creates a social bonding moment between us, storyteller and listener.
So now I have to practice some more tales and expand my roster!
What about you, dear reader? Do you have some favourite stories you like to tell your kids? How do you incorporate tales from your childhood into your child’s life?