If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.
I noticed it right away. My heart beat faster and my thoughts proliferated out of control. Every twinge of muscle, of intestine, of nervous skin was magnified. I wanted to run, to turn back the clock, to un-make this reaction. I struggled to assert my Rational brain. “Emotional reactions are not the Truth. They are a human phenomenon, but they are not Right or Wrong.” How do I act, what are my choices, given this rising tide of Fear? I immediately decide on Function. I later decide on Communication. I notice that when I begin to dismantle the wall of Function, I feel very vulnerable. My nose prickles, my eyes moisten. I entrust myself to a Listener. I dare myself to be Honest.
Fear is at the dinner table, and we let it talk. It is mostly about The Unknown. What will happen? What will my options be? Will it hurt? I am uncomfortable. I squirm. I weep. I want to flee, but I stay put. I keep talking. Memories of pain join the conversation. I don’t want to return to that place. I realize that I can’t return to that place. Each place is different. Life moves forward; we flow with it. Now that my emotions and thoughts are freed from repression, I feel movement in myself. It is comforting. I am unstuck, calmer. And exhausted. How much energy it takes to be afraid! I will sleep, and use my energy differently tomorrow.
“The quickest way between two points might be a straight line, but it’s rarely the most interesting one. ” So begins the teasing prompt for this week’s photo challenge. I’m a pretty straightforward kind of person, myself. Steve calls it “The Train”. I get my sights set on a goal, and I steam on ahead without getting diverted. And often without being aware of people and feelings and other things that are, well, rather important.
Now, I’m not saying this is a BAD way to be. It can be useful. I get things done. But it’s not the only way to be, either. Steve is definitely a preferred zig-zagger. He calls it playing his “bowling pin” game, which goes something like this: set up the pins in their starting formation and bowl. Wherever the pins have been scattered, set them back up exactly where they are now. Continue bowling toward the pins in their new place. Eventually, you get a game that has ranged all over the house, the yard, the neighbor’s yard, and down the block. Hey! This could go ANYWHERE!!! Isn’t that EXCITING?! Yup, he’s an adventurer. And life with him has definitely opened up new possibilities for me.
We have managed to travel pretty successfully for more than 5 years now. I am pretty good at going off track now and enjoying it greatly. One bit of advice, though. If your GPS system should happen to fail, don’t ask him for directions. Ask me. You’ll be at your destination in under an hour with plenty of gas to spare. Trust me. 🙂
From manic to panic
to sinking, slowly,
letting go, breathing with the flow,
the end of woe,
the bliss of weightlessness,
the natural company of fish.
It’s been kind of a crazy week inside my head. Steve admitted to being a little scared of me. It started out on a real high – Valentine’s Day. I was full of positive energy, on my biological upswing, energetic and eager to communicate my passions, my dreams, my optimism. I went face-to-face with Steve’s downswing and asserted my intent not to be the killjoy in his life or the cause for his anxieties. “Go ahead, follow your bliss and don’t worry about explaining it to me! I’d rather come home to a mess in the living room and you deep into an exciting project than be greeted by restrained order and depression.” I went face-to-face with a family issue the next day, emotionally charged and endlessly repercussive, feeling open to multiple possibilities and honestly vulnerable. My karma was kickin’, I thought. My vibes were sure to cause some awesome progress in the near future.
The next day was a Federal holiday, but I was at work at the museum and anticipating starting lessons with a new student directly after my shift. Families with kids home from school opted not to venture out, however, because of a huge snowstorm in the forecast. The staff was dismissed at 2pm because the place was so empty. I drove 2 co-workers home in a complete white-out and was barely able to maneuver my car into the driveway through ankle-deep snow. I decided to cancel my lesson, hoping my new client wouldn’t mind. She never called me back. I began to doubt my decisions.
The next day, I bundled up boxes of books for shipping and headed out the door for work, running a little late in order to get the last package included. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I noticed there was still snow crusted on the windshield wipers. I pulled the door handle to pop out and clear them off, but nothing happened. I thought perhaps the door was frozen. I pushed with my shoulder. Nothing. “I’m trapped!” I phoned Steve in the house. He told me that he had a similar difficulty the night before when he returned from shoveling at his mom’s house. “Just roll down the window and open the door from the outside,” he suggested. The window is frozen. I finally squeeze my way out the passenger door into a snow pile and meet Steve in the driveway. “When? Why? What do I do?” I’m late to work, and I don’t know if my window will thaw in time to let me collect a ticket and enter the parking garage without parking the car and climbing out the other side. What if the gate closes on me? And I REALLY have to pee! I arrive at work late, flustered and cramped. I wonder why Steve didn’t mention this door issue to help me prepare. Is this a small fire? Why am I feeling angry and unsettled? We talk at dinner, and I tell him my plan to slow down, breathe and concentrate on my bliss the next day.
My shift starts slowly, sun streaming through the windows, small family groups perusing the museum. Suddenly, the school groups arrive. I will be calm and proactive. I will greet them all and give them information and safety rules and smile. But they’re arriving one on top of another, and not listening to me! I whirl around and lunge at a girl going head first down the ladder and drive my knee into the boards of the ship. Ouch! Can’t think about that now, I’m still talking to this other group…and I realize I’m talking so fast that I can’t breathe. My chest is constricting. Asthma? Heart attack? No, you’re still talking. Stop talking and take a breath, you fool!
I am panicked. I am going way too fast. Where is my Willy Wonka detachment? “Stop, don’t, come back…” I am addicted to my thoughts (as Eckhardt Tolle would say), to my ego, to my responsibility, and it’s causing me to suffer. I need to let go and get grounded once more. My knee throbs. I can’t walk. I must slow down now. I have no other option.
I had my first lesson with another new voice student last night. It went very well. I rang the wrong doorbell initially; I don’t think it hurt my client’s first impression too much. Steve and I had planned to go to Madison to take a class at the arboretum this morning, but with a “wintry mix” of snow, sleet, and rain on the roads, we decided to stay home. Initially, this was one more disappointment in my Manic to Panic downfall, but it dawned on me that I could choose to look at it as an opportunity. An opportunity to really slow down. To sink. Like the Titanic.
It’s a very real, natural environment down here. Nothing is “good”, “bad”, “successful” or “progressive” among the fish. It simply is. Things happen. Fish eat fish, waves come and go, and any drama is simply in my head. I meditate on plankton, sucking in and gushing out, enriched by the flow, going along. I’m staying here for a while. I’ll let you know when (and if) I surface.
© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
My laptop perches on my warmly-wrapped lap. Sunshine covers the foot of the bed. Outside my window, sparrows twitter in the snow-dusted branches. Steve and I tap our separate keyboards, sending muffled punctuations from our two upstairs rooms into the tranquil space of our “treehouse” among the maples. It’s Monday morning, and we’re back at work, like so many others in this nation and unlike them at the same time.
Last night, in a nod toward the culture around us, we watched half of the Super Bowl – not on a TV because we don’t own one. Oddly enough, we were able to view it on this screen. It’s been a while since I looked through that window. I recognized a lot of faces from my past encounters with the media, decades aged. (Mary Lou Retton, is that you? Kevins – Bacon and Costner, still recognizable, but changed.) The atmosphere seemed a lot more frenetic, more violent, and more stressful.
Stress. It occurs quite naturally, of course, in physics, biology and chemistry as resistance and instability. Gravity and PMS are phenomena with which I’m quite familiar. They don’t surprise me much anymore, nor do my reactions to them. But stress occurs unnaturally in lifestyles as well, as Distress or Eustress. Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead at 46 with a needle in his arm. Manufacturing stress, manufacturing responses – does this give us an edge? If we are “hardwired for struggle” (as Brene Brown says), can we maximize that adaptation and produce a super response? Will that response be healthy or unhealthy? Eustress, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a positive response one has to a stressor, which can depend on one’s current feelings of control, desirability, location, and timing of the stressor.” If it feels “good” to react with anger, aggression or violence to a stressor, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to respond to a stressor by self-medicating, numbing or repressing, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to elevate our molehills into mountains and complain about the weather, our weight and how busy we are, is this healthy? Are we doing ourselves a favor by pouring more stress into our system and developing collateral pathways that will make us more resilient? Or are we taxing our capacity to the point of rupture?
My husband died from coronary artery disease, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes. Stress did help him develop a collateral artery system in his heart that made it possible for him to survive a heart attack at age 31, but he only lived 16 more years. Beware, America. Look closely at your stress levels. Make your choices wisely.
That is all.
© 2014 essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved.
“You are my friend; you are special. You are my friend; you’re special to me. There’s no one else who is like you; like you, my friend, I like you.” Fred Rogers
Once in a lunar cycle, I am visited by a rather gloomy faerie who insists on blowing her pixie dust into my brain. It settles into folds of gray cells and blooms into spores that cause self-doubt and self-pity. I begin to feel fragile and overwhelmed and retreat into my cave to fight the infection. An outbreak of insecurities spreads like a rash across my self-esteem, starting with the Redundancy Insecurity. I remember that I am daughter number four: the youngest, the last in the parade, the one who will always straggle behind. Not only am I superfluous, I will never catch up to the others; I am not strong enough or smart enough or skilled enough to do what they can do. If there’s anything you want in a little girl, one of the others will be a better choice. Unless, of course, what you want is small and blonde and cute. I figured I won that category. Now that I’m over 50, though, that’s a remote psychological win. I am still convinced of being not good enough to this day, but I am no longer convinced of being smallest/blondest/cutest.
The next bump in the rash is the Unfavored Insecurity. We all know that sibling order can easily be trumped by favoritism. That story comes to us from the Bible itself. So the burning question of self-assessment is, “Am I the Favorite?” Your siblings will, of course, tell you that Mom always liked them best. Your parents will tell you that they don’t have a favorite. You will tell yourself in oscillating fashion that you might be, or might not be, the favorite. You will perhaps try to be the favorite by being compliant and charming and dutiful. Then one day, you will wonder if you have a personality at all and come face to face with the Invisible Insecurity. Yearbook pages flip by your memory, and you can’t recall yourself. There are hardly any photos of you in the family album. (Rationally, couldn’t that be because you were taking these pictures? At a pity party, rationality isn’t invited.) Other people seem to look right through you or past you. Your phone doesn’t ring for weeks at a time. You feel forgotten, insignificant, unloved.
A fine basis for becoming a writer. I will write so that others will notice me. I will be appreciated. I will be esteemed. I will be SPECIAL. I will have readers who wait to get my next installment, who are curious about my thoughts on every subject, who want only to bask in my presence and demand nothing from me save that which I deign to pen. I will not have to research or refine my essays. I will simply share as much or as little as I like.
I am delusional. I am neurotic. I keep writing. Could I perhaps be refreshingly candid and honest? Could I perhaps be sincere? Would that make me special?
What a game I’m playing. I look hard at myself, quivering in this crazy cave. I listen to myself. Compassion arises. I am myself. No one else is. Here I am, being. Being me. I’m the only one who gets this job. I want to do my best at it, no matter what that looks like. Sometimes it looks pretty pitiful. And that’s me doing my best at being me in this mood. The “I’m not special” mood.
I’m not looking for someone to contradict me or rescue me. I’m just looking at me and daring myself to love me or at least befriend me and for heaven’s sake, stop beating up on me.
That is all.
© 2014 essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
I don’t have a television, so I don’t see a lot of commercials. Still, I find NBA games on the internet and catch a few ads in the process. There’s one for a fried chicken franchise that particularly bothers me. Here’s the set-up: two teenaged kids have made a rare venture out of their rooms to join their parents for dinner. They are still plugged into their media devices and never speak or make eye contact with the camera or their parents. The African-American family sits in the living room with a bucket of chicken on the coffee table. Mom & Dad tell the camera that the chicken is the occasion for them to have this special “family” experience. Dad jokes that if the batteries run down, they might actually have a conversation.
Sigh. Is this an accurate snapshot of our current culture? Rewind about 100 years.
I’m reading a book called Nothing To Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young. The author describes her life in North Dakota during the Great Depression. Her mother had acquired land as a homesteader, married and raised 6 kids on the farm. Her sisters struggled to become educated and get jobs as school teachers in local one-room schoolhouses. One particularly brutal winter, their parents found it more sensible to drop off the 18-year-old daughter, the teacher, with the two younger sisters at school and let them stay there during the week instead of transporting them back and forth through the snow drifts by horse-drawn wagon. The week turned into months. Fresh supplies were delivered every week, but these 3 young ladies spent that winter relying on their own resourcefulness for their daily life — with no electricity, simply a coal-burning furnace in the basement and a woodstove with one burner in the classroom. How is that possible? I’m sure that life was one that their parents had modeled for years.
Compare these two snapshots and imagine the changes that have swept through our country. What has “adult living” become? What do we model for our children these days? What skills are being delegated to machines or service companies or ‘experts’ that used to be more universal and personal? Besides modeling tasking skills, how do we model social and moral skills in this decade?
When more families were farming, children grew up alongside their parents and were incorporated into communal activities. They helped milk the cows, tend the garden, and make the food and clothing they all needed to live. In the 50s, when more families lived in cities and suburbs, Dad would drive off in the morning and work out of sight of his kids all day while Mom would turn on appliances to do the chores around home. The kids learned consumerism. Then the Moms left the house and went into the workforce leaving the kids in daycare. In 1992, someone came up with “Take Your Daughters To Work Day”. That was expanded to include boys a decade later. What was first perceived as a Feminist issue of role modeling was recognized as a parenting void: children had no clue how adults spent their work days.
Musing about these changes made me consider what my own children had learned from my husband and me. My daughter made a calligraphy sign when she was in High School: “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived and let me watch him do it.” (Clarence B. Kelland) She was 23 when her father died. What we intended to model and what she actually learned are most likely two different things. One thing I do know. She did learn to cook her own chicken.
© 2014, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
Steve brought me a book we’d sold. “There are a few light pencil marks in the quiz section. Could you please erase them before we ship this out?” I glanced at the cover. Getting To “I Do”: The Secret to Doing Relationships ‘Right’ by Dr. Patricia Allen.
I breathe a sympathetic sigh. I grieve for our culture, for social creatures with neuroses fueled by the media, insecurities about whether or not we will be loved, cared for, valued, mated and saved from personal extinction. Our fears are inflamed, and then ‘experts’ step in to tell us the magic or the scientific formula that will save us. Just take a look at the Yahoo! “Dating Tips & Advice” section: How to Stop Falling for Ms./Mr. Maybe, Happiest Couples, Tips to Get the Love You Want Instead of Settling, Traits Unhappy Couples Have in Common, etc. I imagine it’s big media business. How many of these articles simply recycle the ‘statistics’ from identical studies which probably report varying results? We are in a research culture that strives to control and predict, a desperate attempt to apply a balm to those neuroses that we irritate with obsessive attention.
Let’s take a step out of that arena, shall we? Let’s take the relationship out of the Petri dish and place it back into the organic garden. How do you learn about a growing organism? Attention, observation, action and response. Over time, the bloom becomes less a ‘specimen’ than a personality. It is unique. It is dynamic. It is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It IS. And the more honest you are in your interactions with it, the more you trust it…to be itself.
And where do we find guidance in this garden of real relationships? In stories. There are billions and billions of relationship stories out there. Some are fact, some are fiction. Many of the fictions center around the magical or formulaic as well, but the ones that really inspire are the ones that are singular and sincere. They give us the hope that our own inimitable story may be just as satisfying.
I have relationship stories of my own, and they are very important to me. I have a yearning to share them, with my children and with anyone else who may be listening. Why? Because I hope that my practice of observing and appreciating the slow unfolding of a delicate bloom will spark the same in someone else, that our posture in relationships will become less that of a victim on the couch, more that of a poet in the garden.
© 2014, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved