The long road out of postpartum depression: you don’t need to be brave

Finn was born crying and didn’t stop for six weeks. I used to joke that if he was awake, he was crying. I spent six weeks shushing and swaying and swaddling and trying ANYTHING I could find to stop the crying. I remember taking him into a little boutique baby shop and the owner said, “Does he have colic?” I felt insulted. No, he didn’t have colic. He just cries a lot. Ugh.

And then one day, I eliminated soy and dairy from my diet (since I was breastfeeding) and all of a sudden he opened his eyes and said “a goo.”

It was like a dream.

The crying stopped and he was a happy baby. I felt like the sky opened up and the sun shone down on us.

Only I still felt in the dark.

I felt like I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I was depressed, agitated, quick to startle.

My baby’s crying stopped, but mine was only beginning.

I woke up in the morning with my heart racing for no reason. I cried all day long. One day, we were lying on my bed– Finn was about 6 months and Charlie was almost 3 and I couldn’t hide the tears that were rolling down my face. Charlie, who has been an old soul since birth, asked, “Mommy, why are you crying?” I didn’t know. I couldn’t give him a reason. I just couldn’t stop.

I would park Charlie on the couch and Finn in the Bumbo in front of TV just so I could go in the other room and cry.

The boys were doing adorable infant and toddler things, but I couldn’t see them because I was staring off into space and crying.

The rational side of me could see that I was depressed, but the depressed side of me felt like the world was ending. There was nothing good. Only darkness. It was like a heavy suit of armor that kept me from feeling anything but sadness.

My sister called me every day and later told me she knew before she even said the words, “How are you today?” that I wasn’t good. She said it was an unmistakable tone, almost a shake, in my voice. She never wanted to hear my voice like that again. She convinced me to call my OB-GYN and ask for help.

I felt like I should be stronger than this. I felt ungrateful to be depressed. I had two amazing boys who were happy and healthy, a husband who loved and supported me– we had a great life. Why couldn’t I snap out of it? The pressure to force myself out of the depression was only making me feel more hopeless.

Reluctantly, but with every ounce of courage I had, I called my OB and told her that I thought I had postpartum depression. She said, “Honey, your baby is 7 months old. You can’t have postpartum depression.” She suggested I seek psychiatric help, which only confirmed my suspicion that I wasn’t depressed but actually crazy. I didn’t even listen to the rest of what she said. I fell into a puddle on the floor and hung up the phone. My OB wouldn’t help me and didn’t even believe I had postpartum depression.

I felt like that was my one lifeline– my life preserver before I drowned– and she didn’t believe me.

Here’s the tricky thing about PPD. It’s not just the depression. It’s the paranoia. I was scared to admit that I was depressed because I thought someone was going to come take my babies from me. Deep down, I was unraveled. Unnerved. Shaken to my core. And that made me unfit to care for these two souls. I could barely care for my own.   Looking back, it seems ridiculous, but at the time, I was convinced it was true: I was crazy. I felt like the most pathetic person in the world. I thought that everyone hated me– even my closest family and my husband. I didn’t think I was worth saving.

Despite “all I had to be happy about.” I couldn’t find the happiness. Despite breastfeeding and getting an abundance of the (so-called) happy chemical oxytocin. I was drowning in sadness.

I was inconsolable.

I called my sister and told her my OB didn’t believe me– that she made me feel crazy and told me to go to a psychiatrist.  My sister said, “Who is your primary care doctor? I’m calling him. I’ll call you right back.”

She saved my life that day.

I cried on the floor of my bathroom while the kids banged on the door outside.

My sister talked to a nurse at my doctor and told her my story. The nurse said, “I’m so sorry that happened. We are going to get your sister help.”

The doctor called me a few hours later and he said, “I’m going to take care of you now. Can you come in tomorrow?”

The next day, I sat on the chair in the doctor’s office. Charlie climbed on my back and I nursed Finn while I sobbed to the doctor that I didn’t want to stop breastfeeding to take an antidepressant. He explained that my health came first, but he would find me a drug that was ok to breastfeed with.

I agreed and I started taking Paxil the next day.

It was a long road to recovery.

My doctor checked in with me every three months and made me promise to stay on the Paxil for at least a year. I hated that drug, but it saved my life.

Three months after I started taking antidepressants, I started seeing the fog lift. I didn’t feel like myself again, but I was getting glimpses of her. At 6 months, I told the doctor I was feeling better, but I still felt hopeless. He told me that was usually the last symptom to go. I was just happy to not feel crazy anymore.

I kept taking the Paxil and putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually the hopelessness went away. I started enjoying things again. I started seeing myself as loved and worthy of love again.

I stand here today lucky to have people in my life who would fight for me. People in my life who knew that wasn’t who I am. People who knew I was worth fighting for even if I couldn’t see it.

I even had the bravery to get pregnant two more times after that. And we have our beautiful twins as a result.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the depths of that depression and how my mind got away from me. I hope and pray that everyone out there who is suffering can find their way back.

There is no shame in asking for help. And sometimes we need others to ask for us.

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Happiness came once again. It was a hard road, but I am better for it.

If you are a mom who thinks she is experiencing postpartum depression, get help! Don’t give up on yourself! This isn’t your fault. There are resources to help you, but many of them don’t speak of how long PPD symptoms can last. In my case, it was well past the first 6 months. And that is ok. Check out this amazing website run by a mom who has been through it: postpartumprogress.com  That link will take you to the “Symptoms of PPD” post. Read it. It’s in language you will understand. You will not be made to feel broken or ashamed.

There is also a lesser talked about kind of postpartum depression that Dads experience called paternal postpartum depression (PPPD). It’s real and it’s just as scary. Twenty Six percent of new dads experience it and there’s no shame in admitting it. Check out these resources: postpartummen.com,  “Sad Dads” on parents.com, “Depression in Men…” on postpartum progress.com. 

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The truth about our Disney vacation

You know those videos (mostly commercials) of the parents surprising their kids with a trip to Disney? You know the ones:

Parents (likely on Christmas morning): “Merry Christmas kids! Guess what Santa brought?”

Kids (all sleepy and cute in their Christmas jammies): “What?”

Parents: “We’re going to Disney World!!!!”

Kids: “OH! MY! GOOOODDDDDDDD!!!!!” And much jumping and hilarity ensue.

I hate those freaking videos. Continue reading

It has to stop #NotOneMore

We were running late for the bus this morning. Permission slips were signed and lunches were packed. Then cereal was spilled and knees were scraped. I struggled to find four matching pairs of shoes and wriggle them onto four restless feet (thankfully, the big boys can put on their own shoes!) It was a typical morning, but we were running late nonetheless. We ambled down the street, as we do, and I heard the bus’ distinct rumble. The optimist in me said we’d make it, but as we rounded the corner I caught a glimpse of the orange blur and knew we were too late. I turned all of the kids around and said, “We missed it. Let’s go back and get the car.”

As we walked back, I tried to mentally reschedule my morning and figure out how I was going to get everything done—I hadn’t factored in a drop off to both boys’ schools. I was waiting for an important email that needed an answer right away. I didn’t have time to drive the kids to school.

I shuffled the kids into their car seats, started the engine for air conditioning and ran back inside to check my email one last time. I was sitting at the desk for about 30 seconds when Charlie came inside.

“Mom! Finn doesn’t listen!”

I was stressed and impatient. I barked back, “Charlie! I don’t want to hear it!”

He implored, “He didn’t want to play, so he just turned away… he said I was being mean and now he’s getting the babies to call me a bully…”

“CHARLIE! I SAID I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT!”

He stormed off grumbling something under his breath.

I immediately felt guilty. Not just because I am always on a quest to stop yelling at them, but because it was a school day and who knew if this could be the day…

No matter how stressful our morning, I always make sure I kiss them goodbye and say “I love you.” I try to send them off to school on a positive note. Not because I’m Mary Poppins or because I think “happy kids do better on tests.” But because just before they get on the bus each day I think to myself, “What if this were the last time I see them?”

“What if the last conversation I had with them was one I’d rather take back?”

It may sound morbid, but any parent who has been alive since Columbine can’t help but wonder… Is this the day a crazy person might unload a magazine of bullets into a classroom of innocent children?

Yesterday, there was another school shooting. I watched the story on the Today Show this morning while the kids got ready for school. I did what I often do when there is disturbing news; I create a human shield in front of the TV while hovering near the speaker with the volume on 2. It was heart wrenching, yet oh so commonplace. This time it happened in Portland, Oregon and, according to NBC news,  it was the 74th school shooting in the U.S. since Sandy Hook. The shooting in Portland is the fourth school shooting in 18 days. Three weeks ago, after the shooting at University of California, Richard Martinez, father of slain student Christopher made an impassioned plea:

“Our family has a message for every parent out there: You don’t think it’ll happen to your child until it does. His death has left our family lost and broken. Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop?”

I am both fearful and ashamed to live in this world. I shouldn’t have to worry at the bus stop if this may be my last moments with my child. Yet, it’s a thought that occurs to me every day. I should be worried about classroom bullies and getting picked for the kickball team at recess, not getting shot while they play in the schoolyard.

This isn’t about bigger walls or more security or having an armed policeman at the door. It’s not even about the mental health crisis in this country, although the lack of support for our country’s weakest and most vulnerable is reprehensible. It’s about the guns. High powered guns and mass amounts of ammunition are far too accessible in this country. Get rid of the guns. There is no excuse.

I am enraged by the gun lovers in this country who contend that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Well, I’d take my chances with a crazy person and sling shot and a pile of rocks over a high-powered, semi automatic rifle.

Shouldn’t a child’s right to live supersede the right to bear arms? Obviously, our Congress doesn’t think so. Even in the light of Sandy Hook, we can’t seem to pass effective gun reform legislation and it is simply appalling.

Where have we gone wrong? 90% of Americans support stricter background checks, yet somehow Congress can’t seem to vote the way of its constituents. Even President Obama is throwing up his hands.

When will you take a stand? When it happens to someone you love? In your own backyard?

No matter where you stand on the issue of gun reform, can’t we all agree that NOT ONE MORE child deserves to die?

If you’d like to be a part of the movements to make gun reform a priority in Congress, please visit and support these websites:

Moms Demand Action “Much like Mothers Against Drunk Driving was created to change laws regarding drunk driving, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was created to build support for common-sense gun legislation. The nonpartisan grassroots movement of American mothers is demanding new and stronger solutions to lax gun laws and loopholes that jeopardize the safety of our children and families.”

Sandy Hook Promise “Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) is a national, non-profit organization led by community members and several parents and spouses who lost loved ones in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and 6 educators. Our intent is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation.”

Americans for Resposible Solutions (Gabby Giffords’ Political Action Committee) “With Americans for Responsible Solutions and likeminded friends engaging millions of people about ways to reduce gun violence and supporting lawmakers willing to take a stand for responsible policies, legislators will no longer have reason to fear the gun lobby and their dangerously deep pockets.”

Everytown.org #NotOneMore Richard Martinez’s postcard campaign powered by Everytown (a subsidiary of Moms Demand Action). Sign it and empower his voice: “Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician they can think of with three words on it: Not One More. People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough.”

Don't they deserve to feel safe at school?

Don’t they deserve to feel safe at school?

 

10 things I learned when I gave up Facebook

In all the hustle of this modern parenting world, I did what my kids thought was impossible, and I gave up Facebook for Lent.

Pathetic as it was that my 8 and 6-year-olds thought I wasn’t strong enough to stay off Facebook for 46 days. I promised them I would.  To be honest, I was checking it up to 6 or 7 times a day… so my own addiction was scaring me.

My mind had been feeling really cluttered. At the end of the day, I would lie in bed and my heart would race and I couldn’t figure out why. I found myself thinking about things I saw on Facebook (sometimes about friends, sometimes about people I hardly knew) and I would worry.

I found myself yearning for the 80s– the time when I grew up. A simpler time. A less connected time. My mom didn’t have Facebook to distract her. She didn’t pin cupcake recipes on Pinterest. If she wanted to get away from us, she went into her bedroom or went to the bathroom and shut the door or “rested her eyes” on the couch. She read magazines. Real paper magazines. She picked wild blackberries with us. She didn’t have her face buried in a phone. She made phone calls with a corded phone and talked to real people on the other end.

I wanted my kids to remember me doing things with them, not seeing the top of my head as I post their accomplishments on Facebook.

So, here are the things I did when I spent 46 days off Facebook…

I judged myself less. Ok, it’s sad and embarrassing to admit, but I can’t help it. I, unwittingly, compare myself to other people. It’s human nature. I see friends posting pictures of their perfectly primped kids in their name-brand attire and think my kids are raggamuffins. They never match. Their faces are usually dirty and they are usually wearing hand-me-downs. So be it. Without the chance to see other people’s “perfect” kids, I didn’t feel so bad about my own (adorable) dirtballs.

And while I spent less time criticizing myself, I also spent less time thinking about how others were judging me. I was less aware of my own presence outside of my house. The only people’s judgement I needed to worry about were sitting at my kitchen table, and it felt nice.

I took less pictures of my kids. Without my phone constantly in hand, I didn’t have it at the ready to snap their pictures. Without the instinct to post their cute little mugs on Facebook and Instagram, I found myself just being with them instead of capturing what they do (and sharing it with my friends and family). I still took pictures of them, I just didn’t know what to do with them. They sat on my phone. I texted them to my husband. I made them my screen saver. I don’t think there is a whole in the internet where my kids’ pictures used to be.

I got my news from Brian Williams. Sure, I had to wait until 6:30 pm, but if it were newsworthy enough, Brian told me about it. It made me realize how much “news” is really just social media buzz. Brian Williams didn’t tell me what was #trending, he told me what was happening… in our world, not just in my news feed. It really broadened my perspective on the world. I used to feel like Facebook made me feel more connected to people, but instead it makes me feel more isolated and pigeon-holed. Facebook’s new algorithm chooses what and who it wants to show me and as a result, I feel like I am in a box. Staying off of Facebook forced me to seek out my news instead of hearing it 2nd hand (and from the same people). Besides, if something on Facebook were really important (like Grumpy cat turning 2), the Today Show would tell me about it.

Ugh.

I didn’t read more books. I just didn’t. I thought I would have more down time, but it turns out I never trolled Facebook as a singular activity. It was my distraction– my escape. I was never fully focused on Facebook. I did it as a multi-task (if you can call it that.) I justified doing it to take my mind off the mind-numbing thing I was doing (like watching the same Peppa Pig episode). I realized that Facebook only served to numb my mind more. I was never fully focused on either thing, Peppa or Facebook. Without the chance to check Facebook while watching Peppa Pig, I turned off the tv and made the kids play Candy Land instead.

I was less frustrated. I have been writing a lot  about yelling at my kids less. I found that when I wasn’t trying to do 2 things at once, I was less annoyed with my kids. If you haven’t read Orange Rhino, go check her out. She’s amazing. She’s not perfect (just like the rest of us), but she’s trying to yell at her kids less and she’s inspiring as hell. Thanks to her, I’m trying to pay more attention to what frustrates me, and being on Facebook while trying to parent 4 kids is definitely high on my frustration meter!

I had thoughts and I kept them to myself. Usually, when something funny happens, my first thought is to tell it on Facebook. I have an inner-monologue of self-deprecating Facebook posts in my head at any given time. During the first few weeks of my fast, things popped into my head and I itched to do something with them. I couldn’t believe that I had a thought I couldn’t share it with my 560 Facebook friends. After a few weeks, the itch went away. I didn’t feel the need to encapsulate a funny thought or life experience into a Facebook update. My experiences were mine and mine alone. I kept them to myself or occasionally shared them with my husband– if he could ever hear me over the chaos at the dinner table.

Charlie turned 9 and I didn’t publicly wish him a happy birthday on Facebook (which he isn’t on anyway, so it’s really kind of ridiculous). I didn’t lament over “where the time had gone” or tell everyone what a smart, wonderful, thoughtful little boy he is growing into. I had those thoughts. I just told them directly to him, instead of announcing them to the internet.

I thought about autism less. The day Finn was diagnosed with autism, Facebook stopped being fun for me. I started following a bunch of autism bloggers and advocacy discussion pages. Many of them have really helped me understand autism and how to advocate for Finn’s needs, but now 3 years later, I can’t stop reading the discussion pages and bloggers (even though I have a pretty good understanding of Finn’s autism). I see an article or discussion post and I can’t look away. What if it’s something I need to know? Well I just spent 40 days not knowing what the discussion boards were saying, and I think I’m ok. I think Finn’s ok. Instead of thinking I needed to do something “autism specific” (like more OT or horse riding therapy or melatonin for sleep or more organic foods), I just listened and responded to my kid. I focused less on his behavior being a by-product of his autism and more on it being a part of who he is. Every behavior does not need to be shaped and modified. He is a little boy. I’m sick of thinking about him in terms of IEP goals.

I didn’t take 1 selfie. Well, duh. What the heck would I do with a picture of myself? It seems rather redundant. Without the need to share what I am doing with the rest of the world, why would I need to take a picture of myself doing it?

I didn’t take 1 personality quiz. Perhaps it’s a sign of my age, but so many of the posts in my newsfeed were about people taking personality quizzes (“What Gilligan’s Island character are you?” or “What does your music collection say about you?”) I don’t really care. I don’t care if you are Ginger or the Professor. And I don’t really care if having a Biz Markie CD coupled with the Beatles’ White Album makes you an “eclectic dreamer with the propensity to bob your head.”

I felt less important. There’s nothing like a push notification on your iPhone to make you feel like you need to check it immediately. It’s a very inflated sense of importance. What if someone really needed me? What if it weren’t just a comment on a comment I made?

Lives could be hanging in the balance…

I was willing to take that chance.

If you needed me, you had to email me or actually, gasp, call (or text) me on the phone. Not many people did. And I’m ok with that. In this age of instant everything, I am OK with not being right at people’s fingertips. I took the Facebook app off my phone and iPad. Every few weeks, Facebook would send me an email and say, “wait, wait, you missed these posts from your friends…” But, in all, the “quiet” felt really nice. So nice, in fact, I have decided not to reload the apps on my phone and IPad. I am back on Facebook; although I haven’t posted anything. It feels weird to jump back in. So, I think I’m going to stick to checking it on the old-fashioned desktop computer. It’s less accessible that way. Just the way I like it.

On Easter Sunday, I announced that I had made it through Lent without going on Facebook, and Charlie said, “Oh, I forgot that Facebook existed.” I couldn’t think of a better reward for my fast! I think I’ll have to keep it that way.

I want my kids to learn that real friends are the ones you can see in person (at least every once in a while) and family is the most important of all.

Here’s to living a more real life…

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Our whole raggamuffin crew in our unmatching, uncoordinated Easter outfits. Would you expect anything less? By the way, I didn’t post this on Facebook.

 

 

Practice makes… less regret

I lay in bed last night with the boys just after finishing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It took us 9 months, but we were finally done. Now we can watch the movie! The boys were thrilled. I lay with each of the them, snuggling and talking about their days. I giggled along as Charlie declared he would no longer call Chap-Stick by its given name, rather (in Doofenshmirtz’s voice) “the lip un-chap-inator.”

I felt light.

I felt jovial.

I realized it was because I hadn’t yelled at the boys in a few days.

Instead of lying with them, hoping to undo the day’s regret with a nighttime snuggle, I felt at peace. I didn’t have to apologize for my transgressions and hope that they would be resilient enough to forgive their fallible mom… yet again.

And it wasn’t like the past few days haven’t been wrought with temptations to yell.

Finn had an epic meltdown yesterday morning. It was one of those meltdowns where no matter what I did or said, he continued to spiral out of control. I offered a “Finny wash.” I offered a calm down space. I offered help. I tried rationalizing with him. (He was upset because he woke up an hour later than usual. He thought he would be late for school even though he still had an hour to get ready– um, yes, we normally wake up pretty early in the morning!) No matter what I did, he could not recover. He was “going to be late for school” and it was getting later by the minute. He was spewing offenses at me and throwing anything in his path. When I didn’t respond, he took to insulting Henry and Tallulah. Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly zen throughout the meltdown, but I didn’t completely lose my temper (or yell!) and that felt really good.

I know that the temptation to yell is lurking around every corner, but small successes like the past few days give me confidence and hope. Not to mention that “Orange Rhino” tweeted back at me and actually read last week’s post!

Thanks to everyone who reached out and commented on my post last week (despite my Lenten ban on Facebook!) Knowing I am not alone in my quest for parental peace gives me strength. As Momastery says, “we can do hard things.” Boy, can we ever!

Happy birthday… to me

Today is my birthday. It’s always a bit melancholy for me.

Reflecting over the past year as a stay at home Mom can seem uneventful. My accomplishments are my kids’ accomplishments. I don’t have projects at work or deadlines to meet. My successes are measured in milestones and they rarely have deadlines. I don’t have drinks with friends after work. I have Crock Pot meals and a glass of wine after everyone is tucked in tight. I don’t have work clothes or even clothes that are fashionably relevant. Most days, “getting dressed” involves changing from my pajama pants to my yoga pants.

The days all seem to blur together. The routines are so steadfast and, well, predictable.

It’s not glamorous, but really, whose life is? I wouldn’t change a curve or straightaway on this road. Staying at home with the kids was always a dream of mine (one in which, after 6 years of higher education, my parents must be supremely proud of). But, deep down on those days when I was buried in research writing my thesis, I was pining away for the day I would throw it all away to change diapers and watch Sesame Street all day.

And here I am at 37 with everything I always dreamed of. I am not a mover and a shaker in the business world; not too many people in the real world know my name. But when it comes to raising kids, I’ve got this down.

Yes, I’m 37 today. I don’t mind admitting it; I’ve earned every one of these years. Every worry line on my face and every gray hair are exactly where they are meant to be. I am proud of this journey and the four precious souls who are my life’s most important work. They are my greatest accomplishments. Just as they are. Not tomorrow or in 20 years.  Not once Charlie masters his times tables or Finn is finally released from physical therapy. Not when Tallulah is out of diapers or Henry is finally all caught up to his peers (which he is, by the way. I can brag on my birthday, right?) But, right now. Today. Not when they grow up and make something of themselves. Right now. While they are still mine. For everything they are… Sticky fingers and dirty faces. Tantrums in the supermarket and hiding in the clothing racks at TJ Maxx. Arched backs while I try to strap them in their car seats. Spilled milk EVERY morning. Runny noses and toilets never flushed.

This is the stuff of life. These are the real accomplishments. The thankless work. Six people’s clothing all folded and put away just where they all need it to be. The cereal bowls ready every morning. Being here when they bound off the bus every day. Filling and refilling juice cups. Signing tests and agenda books. Pinning artwork to the bulletin board. Knowing what is being served in the cafeteria for lunch. Writing notes in lunch boxes. Reading them Harry Potter at night. Wiping little butts and sniffly noses. This is the grit and the joy.

Loving them is what I want to remember most. Feeling loved is what I hope they will remember most.

This is motherhood. And I’m right in the thick of it.

Exactly where I want to be.

Tallulah dug her fork directly into the cake right after this shot was taken.

Tallulah dug her fork directly into the cake right after this shot was taken.

I entered this post into the “Yeah Write Weekly Challenge (except I have no idea how to put a “badge” into my post so that you can click on the pretty picture to vote for my post.) Click here instead and please vote for my blog (if you liked it!)

Christmas Magic

I need to wean myself and my kids off of Christmas.

We woke up this morning and the radio stations were back to playing their usual garbage. ABC Family went back to playing “How I Met Your Mother” all day.

It’s like everyone pretends yesterday never happened.

But it’s all just too fast for me. I prefer Christmas to fade out in a slow burn.

I always let the kids leave their presents under the tree for a few days. I like to watch them play with their things before they just become more stuff I have to pick up and put away. Before all the pieces get lost in the abyss of the playroom. Before they are simply trampled under the stampede of little feet running around this house.

I still like to snuggle with the kids on the couch, watch Christmas specials on DVR and gorge ourselves with Christmas cookies.

I’m still secretly hoping it will snow.

I’m not ready for it all to be over.

As I wrote the Elf on the Shelf’s goodbye letter this year, I cried just like I do every year. Not because I would miss having to move that Godforsaken thing, but because it symbolized another year under our belts. Next year is another chance that we will have a non-believer in the house. And that just hurts my heart.

I love that the kids race down the stairs to find the elf in the morning. I love that Henry and Tallulah ask all day, “Where’s Runny?” and then giggle when they rediscover his (extremely unimaginative) location. I love the boys’ questions about the logistical probability of Santa. I love when they open the present that they really, really wanted and squeal, “thank you, Santa!”

When parenthood came with a Santa suit, I immediately started dreading the day the truth would unravel his threads. Being Santa is one of the greatest joys of parenthood. Keeping his secret is one of the hardest, but most rewarding lies I’ve ever told. Charlie, who is in third grade, seemed on the fence this year. A fifth grade neighbor planted the seed on the way to the bus stop one day, but Charlie never said anything about it. I’ve been dreading the conversation. I’ve been preparing for it; worried about how to let him in on the secret without making him feel duped.

I don’t remember how old I was when I found out, but I remember having trouble accepting it. I thought Santa still came for other kids, just not for me. For me, Santa was my parents, but he still came for other kids. Because I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around his utter nonexistence.

I was heartbroken.

I’m just not ready for that heartbreak for them.

Santa doesn’t overindulge my kids. He is not about fulfilling their every wish. His spirit is more than that. His spirit is more than just one day.

As I walked around to check on each child on Christmas eve, their usual sweet faces looked especially angelic. I knew they were dreaming of magic. And you just can’t replace that feeling. I’m not ready for Christmas’ magic to be over.

For them or me.

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What I’m thankful for… autism edition

I reached into the cabinet to get bowls for the kids’ morning cereal. Yellow Crayola bowl for Finn. Anything pink for Tallulah. And whatever bowls I find for Charlie and Henry. The predictability of Finn’s needs have become second nature. One of the many battles I choose not to fight.

Only this particular morning was different. Finn wanted to get the bowls. He reached in and got everyone’s bowls (which in and of itself was a miracle). He got three, thoughtfully-chosen bowls for his brothers and sister and picked out a Mickey Mouse bowl for himself. I stood there, awestruck. He didn’t pick the yellow bowl. He didn’t need to have the yellow bowl. He chose a completely different bowl on his own.

There was once a time when Finn would be so frustrated at not having the yellow bowl that he would throw himself on the floor in a full meltdown. Writhing around and crying. Screaming, but never saying why. I, at the time, did not know that he NEEDED the yellow bowl. He, at the time, was too frustrated to tell me it was the yellow bowl he NEEDED.

His meltdown was his communication. Only I didn’t know what he was trying to say.

He pushed. I pulled. Was it the cereal? Was it the spoon? Did I pour too much milk? Was there jelly on his chair? Until one day, I figured out that the yellow bowl is what made him happy. And so I hand-washed the yellow bowl every day.

Such is the life in an autism household. Once we figured out what caused the meltdowns, we did our best to avoid them. We were in such a habit of avoiding the triggers, we never bothered to figure out if they still were… triggers.

And that’s what happened with the yellow bowl. Finn grew out of his need for the yellow bowl. And life goes on. One less thing that upsets my boy. Yahoo!

Finn’s victory over the yellow bowl got me thinking, though. People all over Facebook are posting what they are thankful for every day in November.

I wanted to do my own version of what I am thankful for… autism style. And while I’m sure I could come up with 25, I thought I would keep it short and just give you some highlights.

We have made so much progress over the past few years. Progress that was hard fought, in some cases. But, I always find that the best perspective is found in hindsight, so here goes…

1. The yellow bowl- See above. Getting stuck, but not being stuck. Sometimes, if we stay in one place long enough then we can move on. I was fully prepared to have to pack his yellow bowl for college. Turns out, I don’t have to.

2. Finn walking completely flat footed- “Ohhh, he’s a toe walker?” Yea, he’s a toe walker, so what? It was something so innate to who Finn was, it never occurred to me to think it was a problem or a symptom of autism. In the years since his diagnosis, we’ve had every specialist try to correct the toe walking, for fear it would shorten his Achilles tendon and require invasive surgery in the long run. We’ve been through Physical Therapy, MAFOS (leg braces), Botox surgery and finally serial casting. I told Finn’s Orthopedic Surgeon that I would believe it when I saw it, and I am simply amazed! He NEVER walks on his toes anymore! Hallelujah! (I have been meaning to write a post about Finn’s serial casts because I think it would really benefit some people who are looking for the information. When I Googled it, I couldn’t find much on serial casting as it relates to autism. I will write it someday, I promise!)

3. Finn going to the bathroom by himself in the morning without waking anyone! Normally, Finn wakes Charlie at 5:30 a.m. because he is too scared to go to the bathroom alone. Charlie sits on the tub and reads books to Finn while he goes to the bathroom. Every. Single. Day. (I know, brother of the century, right?) But for the past 3 days, Finn has woken up completely on his own and let Charlie sleep! THIS IS HUGE! We have been rewarding Finn immensely for this and I am hoping it continues. We could all use to get a little more sleep around here!

4. Finn being back in his General Ed classroom 100%! I wrote about it the other day (click here if you missed it.) It is something that just will not get old for me. The way he follows the classroom rules and engages with his friends. It is a vision of beauty that only another autism mother could understand.

5. Finn naming “5 best friends” in his class! Um, duh. Do I even need to elaborate on this one?

6. Having nothing to fight for at the school. See #4 and #5. If Finn’s happy, then Momma’s happy. And if Momma’s happy, everybody’s happy!

7. Perseveration- Perseveration is one of those “tell tale signs” of autism. It’s one of the last things I chose to recognize in my boy. When the doctor asked, “Does he fixate on one specific thing like an inanimate object or a specific subject matter? Does he have any special collections?” I felt insulted. No, he doesn’t collect human body parts, if that’s what you’re implying. It made me feel weird, like I was harboring a psychopath. Well, yes, he carried around a small plastic reindeer for about two months and then cried like the dickens when we lost it on the beach. And, yes, he had to read the same “Little Red Caboose” book over and over for a short time, but he eventually moved on. And, oh yea, we watched “The Polar Express” well into the summer, but, who cares? But now, instead of seeing Finn’s “perseverations” as symptoms of his autism, we see them as things that bring him joy. We, as a family, have embraced his “obsessions,” which currently include lighthouses, and enjoy taking family trips to see them. I am also so thankful to the many friends who have joined in on Finn’s interest in lighthouses, including Pam C., Betty P-M, our neighbor Roger, and Kate S who have sent postcards, snapped photos, snagged brochures, bought souvenirs and otherwise made the day of one lighthouse-loving 6 year old! I can’t tell you how much it means to us!

8. Health insurance benefits that cover ABA therapy- Trust me, I know how lucky we are that Joe has a job which falls under the NJ mandate to cover ABA therapy. I know how expensive it is to pay for this type of therapy out of pocket. It is an utter outrage. One that I am thankful to not add to my list of things to be outraged about.

9. Finn brushing his own teeth! Again, this might be one that only other autism mothers can appreciate. But, if you knew what a sensory nightmare brushing teeth once was for us, you would understand how huge it is that Finn brushes his own teeth! From squeezing the toothpaste onto the brush (Yay, fine motor skills!) to actually brushing all his teeth (and quite effectively, actually, he had no cavities at his last checkup!), the entire thing is a miracle! He was never able to tolerate ANYTHING sticky or gooey on his face. Now, he doesn’t even wince! He is still very meticulous about the positioning of his Dixie cups on the counter and swishes and spits a certain amount of times every night before he’s satisfied, but hey, we all have our routines!

10. Finn riding the General Ed bus without an aide! Riding the Gen Ed bus was completely Finn’s idea. I don’t know that I would have pushed for this one on my own… the bus can be a little rough. But, he wanted to be with Charlie, so I fought for it. The school gave him an aide for six weeks and then took it away. I decided to choose my battles. See # 6. It’s going well so far. (Except when Charlie’s absent, I have to drive Finn to school, but who’s counting?)

11. Finn letting the twins play in the playroom- I know this sounds absurd, but for the first two years of Henry and Tallulah’s lives, he wouldn’t even let them step foot in the playroom. He still gets upset when they mess things up, but the other day, the four of us played trains (Finn’s trains) on the floor in the playroom. It had to be on Finn’s terms, but it was a giant leap, trust me.

12. Finn’s teachers and aides- I wrote about his pre-school teacher and aide last week. They taught him to feel safe and love school again. And his kindergarten teachers and now first grade teachers and aides are teaching him to be a good student, person and friend. Forget the IEP, the teachers and aides make all the difference. They just get it. They get Finn and I am so thankful for that! When Finn was the only one who didn’t wear a costume on Halloween, nobody cared. When Finn wanted to stay in the classroom during the Halloween parade and do math worksheets, his aide obliged. (See what I mean? They get him!) Finn is reading on grade level and doing math enrichment. This is light years ahead of where we were this time last year when he wasn’t even in the Gen Ed system to get a report card!

13. Joe being the best Daddy- Joe never skipped a beat when Finn was diagnosed. He never took it as hard as I did. Autism didn’t scare him. Despite how uncertain those times were, Joe never faltered in his belief that everything was going to be ok. He carried the weight for all of us for a while. And he always knows exactly when I am at the end of my rope and jumps in and saves me every time.

14. Our supportive friends and family- I don’t know where we’d be if it weren’t for the love, help and support of our family. My sister Suzanne who is my sounding board for everything. My mom who always sees the best in us and jumps in to babysit or have sleepovers whenever she can. My Dad, who from the start, took a big interest in understanding what made Finn tick and has really changed his expectations of all of us. My other siblings, Kelli, Colleen and Chuck, who have been there for us in every possible way, from being a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on or a drinking buddy or a financial analyst. And our friends, who are more like family, who just get it. Like, Pam, who will jump into a pool at a moment’s notice if Finn screams that something is too close to the filter! And Christine (our babysitter / Mary Poppins / adopted child) who stays with our kids whenever we need her and is one of the best 22 year olds I know! Our kids think of her as a sister (and a constant “nuggling” companion on our couch!)  It truly takes a village.

15. Finn saying “I love you”- Finn has always been verbal, but I realize that others on this autism journey communicate differently. It is not lost on me that I am extremely lucky that in addition to the things that I wish he didn’t say, like “I hate you,” “You’re the worst Mommy ever,” “You’re toots,” and “You’re rude,” he can also utter the sweetest three words a mother can ever hear. On our most challenging days, we end our night curled up in bed and all it takes is “I love you, Mommy” and I am ready to do it all again tomorrow.

16. Perspective- It’s a gift only time can give. I wish I could have told the scared Mommy who heard the word autism two years ago how much progress her boy would make in two short years. That fear and sadness have their place as long as they are a catalyst for change. That progress is possible. And it’s astounding and beautiful. But I guess I had to live through it all.

Just to see it for myself.

My parenting legacy: my quest to stop yelling at my kids

When I was a kid, my mom used to make “baked apples.” It was a cored apple with brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins. Although it was a “healthy treat,” it tasted like heaven. But even better than the taste was the smell. Suzanne and I would bound off the bus, see my Mom’s car in the driveway and run into the house. Midway from the bus, we could smell the baked apples wafting out of the kitchen window and it just smelled like home.

She probably didn’t make the baked apples all that often, but the memory and the smell stuck with me.

Both my parents worked when we were kids. Suzanne and I would dread the days when we were “latchkey” kids because it meant we would be home alone until dinnertime. I usually watched Duck Tales and Oprah (like all 8 year olds do) while Suzanne checked every door and window for signs of burglars. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were my Mom’s days off and they were the best days of the week. School was always more tolerable on days that my mom was going to be there after school. Baked apples or not, Mom meant “home.”

It’s that feeling that has always driven my own parenting aspirations. I wanted my presence to feel like a safe haven for my kids. A place of respite from the pressure of the world. A soft place to land.

Only I haven’t been feeling like that kind of Mom lately.

I’ve felt stressed and overwhelmed and frustrated. Easy to snap at the kids and roll my eyes at them for doing things that aren’t their fault (like spilling their milk for the umpteenth time), not because I blame them for the mistake, but because it creates more work for me. And the list is already so long.

Except the kids don’t know how long my list is. Nor should they. They are busy being kids. I don’t work outside of the house. My job is creating a home for these four souls. I shouldn’t care that I’ve cleaned the same spilled glass of milk every single day for the past eight years like it’s groundhog day. It’s my job to be gentle with their tender little hearts no matter how much milk is spilled.

Some days, when I’m trying to talk myself out of my frustration, I remind myself that ten years from now none of this will matter. I won’t even remember all the little things that swirled around my head each night before bed. Long gone will be my worries about the bills, and Finn’s struggles at school, and Charlie’s worries “about the unknown,” and when Henry will stop drooling, and Tallulah’s superhuman insensitivity to pain.

The decisions will have been made. Our story will be told.

Long after the stress of this young motherhood life is gone, I often wonder what part of my own legacy will be left? What will be my “baked apples?” Will the kids remember how I (try to) read them Harry Potter every night? Will they remember the affirmations I whisper in their ears before bed? I know they know I love them, but do they feel it? Or do they see a crazy, stressed-out banshee lady?

When we were kids, Suzanne and I were friends with a family who, like us, had 5 kids. Their kids were much younger than the 5 of us and things definitely got chaotic in their house. The mom was always exasperated and yelling at everyone. We would visit their house and the mom always seemed on the brink of a breakdown. I was 8 and I realized it. I’m sure she had a lot on her list, too, but we were kids; we just thought she yelled a lot. I never wanted to be like her.

The stress of parenthood and parenting a special needs child is just something that is interwoven into my life. It can be a thread in the pattern, but I can’t let it ruin the whole design. The stress is always going to be there. Despite my best efforts, my floors will always be dirty. The TV will always be too loud. The twins will always find a reason to pull each other’s hair. Charlie and Finn will always wrestle too hard. And milk will always get spilled.

One day, the stress will be gone, but so will the twins’ chubby knees. And the funny way that Tallulah says “Goldfosh.” And Henry’s incessant insistence that we “go to ‘Mickey Place’ with Daddy.” And Finn’s fascination with lighthouses. And Charlie’s relentless enthusiasm and budding liberalism.

The chaos is not going away any time soon. I have to find joy in the chaos. I have to parent meaningfully through the chaos.

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Those four hearts are far too important to take chances.

I will do better. Starting today. I’m taking the “Orange Rhino Challenge” to not yell at my kids for 365 days. Behaviorists and autism experts are always saying that as your child starts to lose control, you should remain calm so that they can model your behavior and their behavior doesn’t escalate. I know this. But putting it into practice when everyone in the house is melting down is another story. But that all ends today. I’m jumping in with both feet. It seems really daunting, but they deserve a little peace and, frankly, so do I.

Finn must have sensed I needed this.

Finn must have sensed I needed this.

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He made both of these this morning.

Inspiration for this post:

“Learning to hold a yell”  by Orange Rhino

“10 things I learned when I stopped yelling at my kids” by Orange Rhino

“12 steps to stop yelling at your kids” by Orange Rhino

“The perfect storm” by Lisa Jo Baker

“How mothers are made” by Lisa Jo Baker

Putting myself on the list

“And how are YOU doing? Are you finding time for yourself?”

She was completely well meaning, but I wanted to laugh in her face. Actually, I think I did. Finding time for myself? How could I possibly? I had infant twins, a 6 year old and a newly diagnosed 3 year old whom I hadn’t the slightest idea how to help. Finding time for myself would have to wait.

I had little people who needed me.

The woman who asked the question was the therapist we were seeing before Finn was officially diagnosed with autism. At the time, I hadn’t a clue what autism meant. The therapist would give us weekly homework like, “Try playing board games with him.” Huh? What the heck did playing board games have to do with autism? And how the heck was that going to stop him from hitting his brother? But each week, I would drive all four kids to therapy. We would sit out in the lobby while Finn played Legos and talked to his therapist. Charlie played with toys while I tried to maintain some normalcy by returning phone calls to my girlfriends (in between breastfeeding the twins and reading my ever-growing reading list of autism books.)

I didn’t have time to worry about myself.

I would soon be grappling with a cerebral palsy diagnosis for Henry. I would soon have to fight for services with Finn’s school. And amidst it all I still had to feed everyone (cooking is not my forte). And go to soccer practice. And write milestones in baby books. And be a room mom for Charlie’s class. And remember to breathe in and out.

It was laughable in its absurdity.

I think as a Mom, I took on the responsibility of controlling everything and helping everyone all on myself. I read all the books. I joined all the groups. I immersed myself in anything I thought would help Finn. Moms all over the world do it all the time. I certainly didn’t invent the concept. We think that no one else can do it like we do, and we take our job pretty seriously, so we don’t let anyone try. We don’t ask for help when we need it. We want everyone to think we have it all under control.

Even in the face of completely out of control circumstances.

I have been so completely obsessed with autism over the past two years that I’ve forgotten who I am. Every waking moment is spent thinking about how I can help Finn. How to help him be happy. How to help him succeed at school. How to help him make friends. How to help Finn be happy in his own skin. How to make Charlie feel like his life is not wrought with sacrifice. How to make Finn not wish he were Charlie. How to make Charlie wish he didn’t belong to another family.

Last week, I saw an old friend from college. I haven’t seen her in probably ten years. She was a great friend of mine, but she moved away to the West Coast and we haven’t seen each other since. She called me and wanted to meet at the zoo because she was in town to see her parents.

We had a great day talking and laughing and chasing our kids around. It’s funny how ten years can go by and circumstances change, but old friends never do.

I barely mentioned autism once.

I drove home that day and cried my eyes out. Partly because I missed my old friend. Partly because I missed the old me.

The me who didn’t have a care in the world. The me who traveled far and wide to catch a Pearl Jam concert. The me who felt like she could take on the world.

I woke up the next day and joined the gym.

I have let my stress rule my life for too long. Literally, the day Finn was diagnosed, I called Weight Watchers and quit. I cried on the phone to the poor recipient of my quitter’s phone call and said, “My son was just diagnosed with autism and I can’t keep counting points because I have all these books to read. And I can’t keep paying for Weight Watchers because I really need a bowl of ice cream!”

She said, “I’m so sorry, honey, don’t worry. We’ll be here for you when you want to come back.”

And since that day, I’ve fed my stress with food. (Well, actually, since BEFORE that day, but let’s just say the stress eating has been epic.)

So, I have vowed to put myself back on the priority list.

I’m hoping that the gym will be good for me and for Henry and Tallulah. It will give us all somewhere to go during the day. Seeing people and being accountable, instead of holing up in the house and hiding from the world. Giving myself a healthy outlet for my stress. Creating a strong body which I’ve already discovered houses a pretty strong mind.

Putting myself on the list doesn’t make me selfish. I have to take care of me, so I can take care of them. Because if I’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that NOTHING will stand in the way of my family.

And I’m stronger than I thought I was.