self care, Self reliance

Help Yourself

For as long as I can remember, I’ve practiced caring for others. My own self-care, as we call it today, amounted to brushing my teeth and bathing. As a child, I ate the things I liked that were put before me, typical meals of pot roast, spaghetti, or fried chicken, with white rice, buttered noodles and corn. The boiled to death cabbage, lima beans and peas I would put in my napkin, excuse myself from the table and head to the powder room to flush them down the toilet, or try to go unnoticed and feed it to the dog under the table. We had loads of other stuff in the house too, none of it checking the self-care box: Fruit Loops, Ritz crackers, fun size Milky Ways, 2-liter bottles of Sprite and root beer, and King Dons. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, there was maraschino cherry juice to wash it all down with, from the jar in the fridge door. My exercise in high school amounted to playing on the tennis team, swimming in summer, occasionally jogging and generally running around, thinking and talking quickly, tightly strung like the tennis rackets I owned through the years, the Wilson junior valiant, Miss Chris and Chris Evert Autograph.

But enough about me. Back to the others. Hold the door, write your thank you notes, pass the (insert whatever is on the table) and then you can have one. Certainly, good manners are important to observe, but I think with the overt nudges from my mother, this practice went deeper. The idea that you always bat last was seeped into my soul at a very early date. It’s a wonder I was born before my twin, instead of letting him go first. Maybe he was a gentleman from the get go, and instead held the door open for me, insisting that his sister go in front.

It seems all the shoulds were always swirling in my conscience, with my mom running down her list before or even in lieu of ever asking me about me. Did you do your homework? Set the table? Make your bed? Clean the ring in the tub? At the end of every bath we’d sit in the tub, still full of water, bubbles now burst, and shake Ajax on a small sponge and as instructed, scrub the grimy tub ring surrounding us. Ingenious on our mother’s part, because who likes cleaning tubs? I look back and wonder if she ever took stock of the day for herself or her family, past the to dos. Was the day good? Or did you struggle? Are you making friends in your classes? Did you do anything interesting today? Would you like to talk about it, or can I do anything to help?

As a little girl I had a sudden, isolating bout of insomnia. Most nights I could hear my family one by one drift off to sleep, all of us upstairs in our house, and I was left wide eyed, lying there awake, which of course branded me the first one a burglar would get. It didn’t matter that we were never burgled, or that we had a 110 lb. German Shepherd who would protect us; it was forefront in my mind. I begged my sister to teach me how to fall asleep and, like the rest of the family, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You just lie there and it happens.” Like swallowing or sneezing, the practice was automatic, and it worked every time for everyone, pets included. Everyone, except me.

My dad decided that a few nights each week the two of us would go on walks before dinner, several miles to the end of our street and back. Early on in our regimen, all the walking caused whatever was running in my head to stop and join me and also drift to sleep. I loved these walks, just the two of us, where I felt special and cared for with no siblings along, and loved him doing something just for me.

Later, there were the couple of years when I was the last child in the house, the other two now off to college, one graduated. My parents were divorcing and had been sleeping in separate rooms. I used my mom’s bathroom in the mornings to get ready since it had a grownup vibe and a drawer full of makeup: a bottle of Revlon tawny beige foundation, but no blush, blue eye shadow and the skinniest silver tube of mascara. My Bonne Bell lip smackers tinted gloss completed the look, and the mini Susan Woody went out into the world.

Occasionally in the bathroom I’d see notes taped to the mirror and one time found a message scrawled directly on the glass in lipstick in my mom’s handwriting, which read, I will not be your scapegoat. I had no clue what this meant, but knew it wasn’t a sexy love note between my parents. This marital anti-bliss vibe ate at me, and as a result, I ate too. I’d cook a Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese after eating a full meal and eat the whole thing, or I’d grab an entire stack of Chips Ahoy cookies from the cookie jar, and then tear the plastic off a package of lady fingers and dive in, or nosh on fun size candy bars chewing the nougat and caramel, feeling it coat my teeth. All the tennis playing and wired-ness I possessed couldn’t offset this eating, and I began to want to purge myself of these binges.

One night while my dad sat in our den in his wing chair drinking Budweiser from a can and reading The Atlanta-Journal, as he did most nights, I asked him what you give kids who have swallowed poison, that thing you take to throw up. He asked me again what I was talking about, eyes still fixed on his paper, and when I repeated my question, he replied, “Ipecac.” “Can you spell that?” I asked. He did and I wrote it down.

Thus began a new chapter of self-care, one of eating and purging. I had chalked it up to my desire to stay thin, but it dawned on me just a few years ago that this bulimic season in my late teens occurred at precisely the same time as my parents’ separation. I don’t remember all the details, but I do know it was unsettling to see my sister’s bed unmade each day, knowing she hadn’t surprised us by coming home from college, but rather my dad slept in there. Or to come home from school late after tennis practice to find the house quiet, my plate of dinner warming in the oven, my mom in bed for the night. It was eerily soundless yet the house was perfectly neat, the fridge full and pets cared for, as if invisible elves were tending to all these things, while my mom stayed largely out of sight.

I’m not sure if it was the silence screaming loudly in our big house or the tawdry lipstick note, but this tense undercurrent didn’t sit well inside me. The self-care I chose was the only way I could control something, a way to give me the best of both worlds: eat comforting foods but not let them show. A little swig of Ipecac, my private salve, and no one would ever know. Thankfully it only happened a handful of times and then I stopped.

My self-care practice has gotten much better, and if I am going to continue to improve, there are three things I must remember:

1) What you eat stays with you, assuming you’ve dropped the propensity for purging, and you should choose good things, not the comfort foods from tv or grabbing your attention in the grocery aisles. The truly good for you comforting ones are those you’ve known all along, the things you adore, like home grown tomatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken and grilled fish, or a really good meatloaf. Salads you can tell were made with care with soft washed lettuces, avocado, grated carrot, thin cucumber slices, sunflower seeds, too. Homemade bread and eggs scrambled with cream cheese and snipped chives, pasta carbonara with whisked egg yolk, sugar cured bacon and plenty of parmigiano reggiano cheese, or steamed haricot vert with a little butter and salt and cracked pepper. Strawberries dusted with powdered sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar, a fistful of bing cherries or a plump satsuma orange at Christmastime, its cheery leaves in clusters at its stem.

2) Exercise flattens anxiety, your stomach too, and builds bone. There are the walks too, no longer with my dad, but with my dog in my neighborhood, or the long ones you take at the beach, wet sand underfoot, pelicans overhead diving for dinner, soaring over the sea. There is jogging and 10K races that leave you feeling strong with a smile on your face that lasts days. There are your bones, exactly 206 of them, which carried you into adulthood and will still carry you if you work them, move them with the earth under you, walk, run and lift, each time pushing yourself to do more.

3) Sleep is delicious brain food and like exercise, cuts the edge off a bad mood. My insomnia has all but gone and I am a good sleeper, rarely waking even during two pregnancies. Our bodies know what we need and if you’re like me and falling asleep in front of the tv and can’t get through a show, or at the kitchen table with dishes still to do, or worse, on the stair landing where you stopped to sit for just a minute, you ought to get yourself to bed. All these things that you do, that you work at, that you keep up, all of them will wait for you when you are ready. And you’re ready only after you’ve cared for you.

It’s easy to defer to your factory default setting and focus on everyone else, but in adopting this holy trifecta of eating, sleeping and moving, you can reset and shift back to you, where you’ve always been all along. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly put it, Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

I’m not sure why these obvious, common sense things — which all of us learned out of the gate — have taken decades to sink in, but I’m encouraged to finally realize that self-care begins with self.

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Me, circa the early ‘70s, modeling my new go go boots.

 

Empty nester, Family, Midlife, Parenting, Self reliance

Leaving the Nest

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Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

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Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

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Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?