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Step Outside Box for Self Care

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Self-care is a buzzword in the field of mental health and it’s time to question what it means.

Typically self-care seems to mean being alone, reading, taking a bath, listening to music and possibly having a beauty treatment. This ME time is useful when you’re a busy working mom or law student. But a rigid version of “me” time doesn’t speak to most people fighting with loneliness, depression, anxiety.

Many forms of illness circle the brain. The truth is this: women thrive on connection. Even misery loves company, perhaps “miserable company,” but someone bearing witness. Even introverts thrive on it just not on small talk, but on deep essential core connection. As Jean Baker Miller wrote from The Stone Center, many years ago, “We need ‘zest.’”

When we talk about self-care, let’s broaden our definitions and recommendations. A weekend in the sun. A day volunteering. A group yoga class. Reading aloud at a library hour. At a week-long retreat I supposedly filled to the mindful brim with relaxation; instead I heard my brain chattering like teeth in the cold. The only time it stopped was when someone absently stroked my hair, someone with whom I’d talked about feminist issues in third-world countries.

All the yoga, the sharing, the food and light were nothing compared to that unsolicited gesture.

Valentine’s Day and Universal Love

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Just when you thought the holidays were over, Valentine’s Day arrives. Depending on your attitude you either sneer politely at the explosion of pink and red in the card aisle or begin to anticipate, plot and plan.

This sneaky holiday is, I know, a Hallmark event. I know that if you love someone you don’t need one day dedicated to roses, champagne and chocolates. I certainly never enjoyed dressing up during the slushy epicenter of New England winter to freeze quietly at a small table. But here’s the thing: I LOVE Valentine’s Day. Here’s my favorite book on the subject.

Frankly—and I know I may be making enemies—I’ve always loved the holiday. I like making cards. I love sending them. I like the whole pink-red-gold-confetti “here is my heart on my sleeve” gesture of them. A vintage valentine postcard hangs by a pale blue ribbon in my linen closet. A new one reads I LOVE YOU MAMA in letters that straggle across a crimson shape. The table on the night before is spread with sequins, scrap paper and scissors.

Why is this holiday different from Christmas and New Year’s? Both those holidays long outlived their magic for me? Unlike the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, I always felt my heart. Family may be unwelcoming at Christmas and New Year’s has never made sense to me. New Year’s should happen in September redolent with the smell of pencils, fallen leaves and kids buying books or, at least upgrading their iOS?

Valentine’s Day speaks to universal hope. We all have hearts. We all can love. When my daughter was 5, I hung Disney Princess costumes down the banister of our small staircase. Those pastel dresses in yellow, pink and blue were a scratchy mix of tulle and love. I covered the stairs with confetti and hid the 3-inch plastic mules that matched the dresses underneath each gown’s skirts.

I think I heard her gasp that morning.

The heart keeps beating. We sow new traditions without trying. Years later my daughter’s dad lives down the street. This year she will be with him on Valentine’s Day. But I’m glad she says “Mom loves Valentine’s Day.” Glad I’m not bitter. Glad that what is beautiful still moves me, not romantic love but the joy of connection. Hold someone dear and it doesn’t matter what relationship they have to you. Tutors. Babysitter. Old friends. New friends. You may be between loves, but we do not stop loving.

My brother’s heart is recently mended after a week of holding our familial breath. My dead parents lie together forever. Tradition is as old and newly minted as my grandparents waiting online in Ellis Island, the pile of orange life jackets discarded by Syrian refugees. Hope, like love, springs anew.

Friendship casualties and lonely mothers

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Part 2 in a 3-part series on parenting

Friendships have been, for me, a sad casualty of this career. My friends without children don’t enter my life. I mostly see the mothers of children my daughter likes. If I am lucky, we enjoy each other’s company, but rather than sharing tips or woes, parents often hide their struggles with their kids because these struggles are now failures of career proportions.

Isolation from friends, in turn, takes a terrible toll on marriage. Women turn to their husbands for the sorts of intimacies we relied on from other women. Suddenly this one person, already so different by gender alone (I did not count men as my friends before I married) is supposed to be everything. Which is, of course, impossible. 

Women are lonely. I hear it everyday. My personal fantasy is Sex and the City. But not the shopping or the brunch. It is sharing confidences of a daily nature with someone real, live. Watching that show, I remember how much  zest is gained by laughing or confiding in others.

If you look at who is blogging, a lot of them are mothers; I suspect that many blogs exist because women are lonely. We miss the sort of confidences we used to share with real friends and now tweet and text to whomever might be listening.

When I realized I really was in this strangely alone, stopped asking and reading I asked myself what I thought I wanted Penelope to have: Resiliency, a sense of agency, and the belief that the world was a safe place which would welcome her.

Behavior and character do not come from magic. They come from a multitude of opportunities, from temperament and shaping. This is where my training as a psychologist helped me get through childhood. I know that I can only hope to get it right, at best, some of the time. I know that being ‘good enough’ is really not very complicated. In fact, it is quite simple. But it is hard and repetitive work and requires a great deal of self-forgiveness. 

To be continued…

See Jane Read. See Jane Jump.

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I identified myself as a reader at the same time I understood I was a self. I was at day camp which seemed quite far away from my home in the city,  though of course it was not. Underneath a dense triangle of pine trees, I remember holding a book open before me as I walked the  path.  Suddenly the words made sense. I saw pictures where I had seen dark code. 

My own daughter struggles when she reads. She is not the first with her hand up in class, eager to share her thoughts about the characters or images inside her. After years of waiting for her quick mind to catch fire, I realize that reading is “not her thing.” Not that she can’t, or won’t read. But not at any moment, any pause. The sheer delight of dipping into a a book does not beckon her. The libraries that were my home away from home do not call her. Annabelle generously commands the playground, the snowball fight and the dance studio where she shepherds younger girls with subtle grace. They flock around her asking for their hair to be brushed into buns, smooth as glass.

I watch the laborious unnatural training of her mind to read and it strikes me as surprising. She observes my inability to get a package back in its wrapping and laughs at me. I find myself rethinking my lifelong companion, my addiction, the pure peaceful pleasure of reading.

My daughter does not always want me to read to her though I want to open the world of my childhood. I want to introduce her to the families I knew. The words unfurl as I read to her, stored in the place age has not decayed. I cannot remember most of this morning but I can remember what comes next in the Rush’s first Saturday or how the All of A Kind Family slept in chocolate cracker crumbs traded in the dark.  The Brown family that harbored Paddington and his marmalade sandwich wait to entertain her.

The hunger to read has been, for me, like other people describe the hunger to practice medicine or be in nature. Only in the books of childhood was I free from the romance tale. Girls are thinking and talking and feeling; they are using all their senses to become known in the world and explore history, cities, fields, mysteries. Books have the power to stop the passage of time,

Before ‘happily ever after’ arrived, before the princess and prince eclipsed my stories, I ran free. Childrens’ books remind me of a time when my deepest being was absorbed in an enterprise of pure imagination. As I read I was an orphan in India,  sister with a rare phoenix bird, a British child entering a wardrobe with rustling furs that led to Narnia.

When I wait online at her school, Annabelle bursts out of the line with excitement. When I ask her about her day, she shakes with excitement. I wonder how long it will be before she peppers her definite needs with the word  ‘like’, before she asks friends if she looks ‘fat’ in her clothes, before she finds her anger terrifying?  Books which guide girls quickly turn into a romance plot- each one ending with love like The Holy Grail.

If there were one thing I wish she could grasp- It is that she is already complete. Everything which comes next is misunderstanding. Books may deepen and enrich us.  They can mirror and extend our understanding of ourselves. But books also distort glaze over our goals and change our sense of an ending. Curiously, like my own mother, Annabelle favors detective stories: the mastery of right over wrong. The sense of justice, The role of the detective.  She reads in an investigative manner, methodically and for purpose. Perhaps her body and dextrous hands will give her more pleasure than my imaginings did.

Perhaps she will be freer than I was. I could not imagine having a book and choosing to ride a bike or play outside instead. Her own extroverted nature may force her away from the distortions of introspection. She has so many friends she does not hide behind a book. Perhaps her joy in investigating will serve her well as she pushes off from the land of childhood, waving.  This week she was still confident she could be a french teacher, a orthopedic surgeon or choreograph the dance of a shooting star .

5 Books Every Mother Should Read

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Quizzes abound: What Disney princess are you? Which Downton Abbey character are you? These questionnaires are found everywhere. This new fad of quizzes tells me that we yearn for rules and definition the more we feel unclear. Books on mothering and motherhood are everywhere. As an academic (lapsed) and a haunter of libraries, there’s no better way to master a situation, I thought, than research. So, when I realized I was going to be a mother, I started reading.

I started out with What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In about 10 weeks, that book was obsolete. I was on bed rest and nothing went as “expected.” My reading also went far off the beaten path. I roamed about in fiction, poetry and mass market self-help. I have emerged 11 years now, with 5 books that are my guides. I turn to them and recommend them to others with the eagerness of a zealot or a convert:

1. Perfect Madness, by Judith Warner

2. I Don’t know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson

3. Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott

4. The Bitch In The House, by Cathi Hanauer

5. Mothers Who Think, by Camille Peri

None of them, in fact, are self-help books. These are decidedly anti-selfhelp books. I prefer books which repeat passionately that predictable rules just won’t help in this sort of situation. These authors are the women who “get it,” get me, get the whole “wow I’ve really got this thing down … whoops, I have no idea what I’m doing” feeling, and shore me up. Thank goodness that women who write and reflect are as baffled as I was by the strange careerist role of being a mother in this time.