Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Necessity of Self Care

I have been reflecting on a blog post that I recently read in the context of the Buddhist philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh writes that:

So in taking care of yourself, you take good care of your beloved one. Self-love is the foundation for your capacity to love the other person. If you don't take good care of yourself, if you are not happy, if you are not peaceful, you cannot make the other person happy. You cannot help the other person; you cannot love. Your capacity for loving another person depends entirely on your capacity for loving yourself, for taking care of yourself”

This applies so deeply to motherhood where the insistence upon martyrdom is still strong. I was recently reading a blog post by a mother who was reflecting upon the challenges of parenting and attempting to cast the struggle as a duty and, ultimately, a blessing. The writer suggests that being a mother is the greatest and most wonderful thing, and that nothing in her life will ever be better than being constantly needed. She suggests that when her children leave her life will be empty and meaningless. You can find the entire article HERE.

One of the statements in the article that disturbed me greatly reads as follows:

“The sooner I can accept that being Mommy means that I never go off the clock, the sooner I can find peace in this crazy stage of life.   That ‘Mommy’ is my duty, privilege and honor. I am ready to be there when somebody needs me, all day and all night.  Mommy means I just put the baby back down after her 4am feeding when a 3-year-old has a nightmare.  Mommy means I am surviving on coffee and toddler leftovers.  Mommy means my husband and I haven’t had a real conversation in weeks.  Mommy means I put others’ needs before my own, without a thought.  Mommy means that my body is full of aches and my heart is full of love.”

In the context of Thich Nhat Hanh's theory of the essential practice of self-love, the above paragraph hints at nothing less than self-abuse. No one should be living a life where they “never go off the clock.” Even mothers should be able to carve out time alone when someone else is caring for their children and they are pursuing their own interests. If you are “surviving on coffee and toddler leftovers” then you are not nourishing your own body with healthy food, and that can only mean depletion and sickness down the road. If you are not talking to your husband then your relationship will suffer greatly. As co-parents it is essential that you maintain your relationship, even in the chaos of a house full of children. Your marriage is the foundation upon which your family rests and if your marriage suffers so will your children. Especially terrifying is the author's contention that “Mommy means I put others' needs before my own, without a thought.” This is the most damaging and persistent myth out there about parenthood and motherhood in particular. If, as a mother, you never put your own needs first, if you neglect your own health and well-being in favour of the health and well-being of those around you, eventually everyone will suffer. Thich Nhat Hanh so wisely says that you must take care of yourself in order to have the capacity to care for others. Love comes from a place of wellness, not a place of depletion. If you are exhausted, if you are ignoring the desperate plea of your own mind and body for nourishment and healing, then you will grind yourself down to a tiny nub and you will have nothing left to give of yourself.

The author of the blog post also talks about motherhood as being the sole purpose of her life. She states that being needed is what gives her value as a human being:

“I am sure there will come a day when no one needs me.  My babies will all be long gone and consumed with their own lives.  I may sit alone in some assisted living facility watching my body fade away.  No one will need me then.  I may even be a burden.  Sure, they will come visit, but my arms will no longer be their home.  My kisses no longer their cure.  There will be no more tiny boots to wipe the slush from or seat belts to be buckled.  I will have read my last bedtime story, 7 times in a row.  I will no longer enforce time outs.  There will be no more bags to pack and unpack or snack cups to fill.  I am sure my heart will yearn to hear those tiny voices calling out to me, “Mommy, somebody needs you!”

I would like to challenge this vision of the useless old person in a care home. While I will be the first to admit that parenthood is a deeply important job, and while I will agree with the sentiment that there is worth in being a caregiver for small children, I must emphatically disagree with the notion that a woman has no other source of worth. Yes, children will grow up and your role in their lives will change. And while you may not have the power to heal them like you once did I like to hope that your influence will still be valued even as an old woman. I hope my son and I will maintain a relationship that comes to be more and more one of equals. We will, one day, sit together as two adults who might help each other see the world in new ways. As he gains independence it will be important for him to need me less in some ways, but I hope that he will choose to love me still, even when he is long past the point of needing me to bandage his knees and sing him to sleep. I also hope that I will find other ways to express my worth and value to society. There are so many other places that a woman can engage with the world in powerful and meaningful ways. If your children don't need you in the intensive way they did when they were small then certainly someone else in the world does. We have so many opportunities to fight for social justice, to be a voice for the voiceless, to get involved in our families and communities and the structures of our globalized world and help those who are less fortunate. I hope that sitting in your wheelchair at the end of your life thinking that your value ended when your children moved out is not an inevitability. And to assume that no one will “need you” in your advanced age is narrow-minded and ageist. We need our elders. We need their wisdom and the accrued knowledge of their advanced years. We need them to continue to tell their stories to the younger generations so we can all have a sense of our heritage and history.

I can see what this author was trying to achieve. She wants to show the reader the beauty in motherhood. She also wants to vindicate her exhaustion by situating herself as a martyr. But I must argue that this position is damaging. If we encourage women to lose themselves to motherhood, if we keep insisting that martyrdom to our children is the ideal, and the highest work that we can do, then we will continue to condemn mothers and parents in general to a place of insecurity, depletion, and depression. It's important to find joy in the process of motherhood and I appreciate that this author was attempting to do just that. She wants to see beauty in the night-time feedings and the muddy boots. That's a wonderful exercise in mindfulness. But at the same time it is dangerous to live through your children and find worth only by subsuming yourself into their needs. As parents we must live for ourselves as well, feed ourselves, feed our souls and find modes of expression outside of parenthood so that we can model self-care for our children. This is the greatest gift we can give them, and it can only be achieved by sometimes putting ourselves first.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Small Moment of Utter Idiocy

It has become apparent that I am too dependent upon modern technology. I was in my driveway last week attempting to get into my car when I found that the battery in my key fob had died and pressing the "unlock" button to open my car door was no  longer an option. I pressed it a few times hoping to hear that comforting click but the battery was well and truly dead. I stood outside my car feeling a wide range of emotions. The first was bewilderment--"how am I going to get into my car?" I thought in dismay. Thinking about the problem I realized that my husband had another key fob and I could simply go back inside and get it. But this lead to rage--"What if this had happened when I was away from home and didn't have access to another fob? What if my son had been in the car and got locked in? What if I was on my way to somewhere really important and my fob just died, stranding me? Who came up with this stupid system that can fail in such a way that getting into  your car becomes impossible?"

In the midst of my annoyance I was scanning my car door absentmindedly. Suddenly I registered the small detail of a keyhole by the handle. I flipped open the key on my fob (until now used solely for the purpose of turning on the car engine) and realized that the key I held in my hand would very likely fit in the keyhole on my car door and, wonder of wonders, unlock it. And so, I was able to get into my car, now in a state of shock over my own stupidity. When on earth did I forget that physical keys can be used to open car doors? Technology is a scary thing people. The old ways are slipping away. I share this story as a cautionary tale to others so that you won't be caught in public fretting over your inability to get into your car when your fob battery dies.

Friday, January 31, 2014

How to Disappear Completely

There has been a lot of talk about mental health in the days since this year's Let's Talk campaign sponsored by Bell. It's taken me awhile to get to it, but I've been wanting to add my voice from the perspective of post-partum depression. I wrote the following piece a number of weeks ago after stumbling across a print called "How to Disappear Completely" by Lauren Grey. You can look at Lauren's work on Etsy in her shop The Haunted Hollow Tree.

How To Disappear Completely. Print by Lauren Grey. 

This image is me. I see myself in every line of its beauty and terror. The artist, Lauren Grey, perfectly encapsulates what it is to be a mother and especially what it is to have post-partum depression. There is that gaze between the mother and child. They look at each other steadily. All that exists in that moment is the gaze, that connection of eyes and through the eyes the connection of spirits. They are locked together through that gaze. The mother is still, but she isn't smiling. This isn't a picture about joy, it is an image about a primal bond and also a devastating loss of self.

What is terrifying about this picture is expressed in the title. The artist calls the painting How to Disappear Completely. The baby is almost entirely present except for one foot, but the mother is nearly erased. She is reduced to her face and the gaze that she casts upon her baby. She has her eyes to look upon him and her hands to hold him but the rest of her is simply gone, reduced to hazy outlines, whited out with gesso. She exists only in her relationship to her child and outside of that relationship she is lost. There is no surrounding context, no world outside the mother and child, no background, no locational details, no other people. The archetypal mother engages in the process of dissolution.

I wonder if the artist meant for this to be such a tense image. It's possible that the intent was a lovely one; it's possible that the artist set about to capture the act of disappearing into a single, condensed moment as a new mother forms an intense bond with her child. You can disappear into a baby's eyes. Lose yourself in the look of complete trust, vulnerability, and pure need. But it is a dark thing to be lost, to become ghost-like and transparent. The viewer can observe nothing of this mother except her motherhood. She is incorporeal, disembodied. Her baby is the only physical presence, almost fully rendered, detailed, whole. I am deeply shaken by this image in which only one half of the mother-baby dyad can be complete.

This is exactly what post-partum depression feels like—a slow fading away with nothing left but the intensely physical and all consuming bond between mother and child. When I look at my son I feel as if the entire universe is contained in his tiny body. I feel I could survive anything except the loss of him. But I also find myself shattered, my soul broken up into a million little pieces that can blow away on the breeze like dandelion fluff. I'm running through thigh-high grass trying to recover every single seed that once made up my identity and potential, but they are scattered too far. I dissolve. There is just me and my son while the rest of the world, and my self in relation to that world, disappears.

How do you learn to live within that condensed and intensified reality? How do you define yourself when your entire existence is compressed like matter sucked into the vacuum of a black hole? This painting shows a cosmic event: time and space, self and other compacting into a pinpoint of highly volatile, unbelievably heavy matter. Mater. Mother.

Post-partum depression is this duality: the beauty and immensity of a star being born in opposition to extraordinarily powerful destructive forces released through that birth. Somehow this image captures that feeling with such honesty that I want to cry, but also scream “YES. Yes. This is exactly what it looks like.”

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: The Patience Stone Audiobook

2014 is going to be a year of books. Along with a few book obsessed friends I'm embarking on my very first Reading Around the World project in an attempt to think more concretely about literary voices--who gets heard, who gets translated, whose books make it to Canadian shelves, and what countries are underrepresented in my literary diet?

The plan is to eventually read at least one book by an author from every country in the world. This might be overambitious, but I'll take it a day at a time. I hope to read one or two Around the World project books each month this year and then I'll re-evaluate.

My first book was The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi from Afghanistan. I decided to listen to the audiobook which is read by Carolyn Seymour and was available through Hoopla.

The Patience Stone has received much praise for giving voice to the innermost thoughts of a young Afghan wife and mother. Her husband is in a coma after being shot during his time serving as a soldier. The narrator begins to pour out her most guarded secrets to her unresponsive husband, using him as a "Patience Stone," a mythical stone that is said to absorb all your confessions until it finally shatters, setting you free from your suffering.

Our narrator tells us about all the horrors she has suffered at the hands of her husband, all the pain she has endured simply because she was born a woman. I deeply respect Rahimi's project, but I have to say that the audio version was so difficult to listen to that I almost gave up on this book entirely. I ploughed through to the end only because I thought that the reasons for my distaste were worth thinking about.

My first observation is about voices and their associated authenticity. Having a narrative from the perspective of an oppressed Afghan woman is unarguably a valuable thing, but the narrator's voice comes to us through a series of filters that, possibly, strip it of its power. The first filter is the author himself. Here we have a woman's narration coming through the imagination of a male writer. I don't fundamentally have a problem with this. Fiction is such that authors should be free to speak through whatever characters call to them and Rahimi, a refugee from the Afghan war himself, very likely has enough knowledge to imagine what it is like to be an Afghan woman. Much of the power of this story comes from hearing the thoughts of a person who is not allowed to speak her mind due to sociocultural constraints. Rahimi gives his nameless narrator a voice, but I kept tripping over the fact that it was only through a man that this fictional woman gets to speak. It was an issue I could have set aside, especially since Rahimi handles the story with great sensitivity and courage, but the audiobook's reader truly ruined this novel.

Carolyn Seymour provides the second filter through which our narrator's voice must pass and the voice emerges completely ravaged and beyond repair. Seymour is a white British actress (Russian father and Irish mother) and in her hands our narrator becomes whiny, overly dramatic, and takes on the characteristics of someone out of a soap opera. Seymour constantly has the Afghan woman weeping and wailing, sobbing and whimpering, flying off the handle into screaming rages and generally achieving a constant high pitched whine that made me cringe every time I had to listen to another chapter. Why they couldn't get someone with a representative accent is beyond me. Or perhaps its because that would have meant actually involving an Afghan woman in this story, something that is apparently beyond possibility and says more about the condition of such women than this book does.  So the voice of this Afghan woman comes to me through the imagination of a man, dramatized by a white woman with a British accent and it seems to me that the result is unforgivable.

After finishing the book I watched the trailer for the movie and am happy to report that it corresponds much  more closely to what I would have liked to get out of the audiobook. The actress playing the narrator is Iranian but her demeanor is far more stoic, strong, and unyielding than the obnoxious interpretation prepared by Seymour. The actress (at least in the 2 minute clip I was able to view) gives us a deeply intelligent woman who has been forced to suffer through life in silence and take unbelievably difficult actions in order to survive in her war torn and oppressed world. The actress speaks with soft strength and portrays a character who guards a secret inner power. I would like to see the entire movie or perhaps read the book again myself as I suspect that without Seymour this would be a powerful and moving work of literature.

I also recommend this book quite highly since I think it provides fertile ground for talking about literary lenses and filters, but I wouldn't touch the audiobook with a 10 foot pole.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Toddler Travel Adventures

Okay, everyone wait just a second while I give myself a pat on the back. I made it from Vancouver to Windsor Ontario, including a transfer in Toronto, with a 2 year old. We did it. We got here and while we were both in tears at some points of the journey, we survived.

I left Vancouver yesterday with a yawning pit of anxiety consuming my insides. Our flight was pushed back a day due to the bad weather and mess of backed up flights at Pearson airport, so I was already feeling frustrated when we actually got to leave on Friday. I was also completely terrified to get into a contained, airborne space with my toddler. I'm cramming in a trip before his second birthday because he still flies for free, but that meant he would have to sit on my lap for the combined 5.5 hours of our flights, and that isn't even mentioning time spent in the airport. It was like I was about to be on Fear Factor or something. Getting on that plane was akin to eating a plate full of worms.

Our initial flight from Vancouver to Toronto was delayed by 30 minutes so I got to start worrying right away. My connection in Toronto left only one hour of leeway, so I was now down to a half hour to catch my flight to Windsor. The flight attendants assured me that further delays were unlikely and I would make my connection. So I tried to breathe and relax. Hayden and I explored the Vancouver airport and found it to be a fairly entertaining place. Hayden was especially taken with the moving walkways which we rode on for nearly an hour straight. I passed the same people having lunch about 40 times and I could tell that they were laughing at me. But no matter, my son was happy and I was feeling pretty good about things.

We boarded the plane a half hour late as projected and I headed to my seat, which ended up being in the middle of a set of three. Not good. I began to imagine the next 4 hours, crammed between two other passengers with no real access to the aisle and a wired toddler jumping on my lap. I asked the woman in the aisle if she would trade, for both our sakes. She reluctantly agreed and I could breathe again. Eventually she was offered another aisle seat and I got an empty seat next to me for Hayden. I felt like things were really going my way. "This might actually be okay" I dared to say to myself.

In an attempt to be one of those good and well prepared mothers I had packed a goody bag of dollar store toys for Hayden. I figured we could open one each hour to keep him entertained. I  had piles of stickers, a colouring book, crayons, a puzzle, cars, a dump truck, and a magnetic fishing game. It all turned out to be useless. He stuck one sticker into his album and declared stickers passe. He had no interest in the totally cool dinosaur colouring book. He spent almost the entire flight to Toronto plugging the headphones into the jack on his seat and pulling it out again. He occasionally glanced at some cartoons, but generally seemed content to practice his fine motor skills. He ran up and down the aisle a bit, knocked over the cups of other passengers, washed his hands in the tiny plane bathroom about five times, and absolutely refused to sleep even when he was hours beyond his usual naptime.

I have to say this for him though--my kid was unbelievably well behaved and good-natured for the entire trip. It was like some sort of miracle. Like my son was a Changling, but in a good way instead of an evil way. I am pretty sure that benevolent spirits or aliens or ghosts inhabited the body of my child on that flight and turned him into a complete angel. He charmed all the other passengers, and even though he must have been exhausted by the end of the journey he was still smiling and laughing most of the time, though becoming vaguely hyperactive. I was so proud of him and his amazing travelling abilities almost made up for the  near heart attack I suffered in Toronto.

Our plane arrived at Pearson airport, as projected, half an hour late. That should have been enough time for me to make my connection, except that some sort of power issue caused our plane to be unable to turn off one of the engines, and we all had to wait on the runway until the issue was resolved. I became increasingly agitated. When 6:20 arrived, and with it the scheduled departure of my connection, I began to panic. A well meaning fellow passenger offered to see if my connection had been delayed on his phone. The results were that it wasn't delayed. And that's when I started to cry. I was standing there, stuck just minutes away from the terminal, and wasn't going to make my flight. If I was lucky I could wait 4 hours and get the midnight flight (not a pretty picture with my child refusing to nap on the go). If I was unlucky I'd be stuck in Toronto overnight. I was collapsing under the weight of my disappointment and frustration. I stood sniffling and quietly crying as we were finally let off the plane.

In desperation I asked the attendant at the desk if I might still make my connection. She then gave me a ray of hope: my flight had been delayed. I had already been removed from the passenger roster, but now with the delay I had been put back on. I was given new boarding passes and I then made the most maniacal dash through the airport that you can imagine. I had Hayden on a leash attached to his backpack so I wouldn't lose him, I was dragging a rolling suitcase, and carrying a backpack full of camera gear. I was NOT going to miss this flight.

"We're going to have to run" I said to Hayden and took off. The poor kid. He tried his best to keep up, but he couldn't. He kept falling flat on his face and I heard the gasps of other people in the airport. But I didn't stop. I used the handle of  his backpack to pull him back onto his feet and kept running. When he had fallen about four times I tried to carry him, but he was too heavy and my rolling suitcase kept tipping over. I was crying and swearing, and wary travellers came by to look at me with pity and pick up my suitcase for me. I charged my way down an escalator to my gate and practically dragging Hayden behind me we got to the departure desk.

"Sarnia?" asked the weary attendant.
"No.GASP GASP...Windsor" I said.
"We haven't boarded yet" he said
"What??" I said as I tried desperately to catch my breath and ward off an impending panic attack.

As it turned out my flight had been delayed an entire hour due to some sort of malfunction. Turned out I didn't need to run like a crazy person through the airport. I was a bit annoyed that I  hadn't been told that from the outset, but I was also relieved that I would get to Windsor after all.

Hayden and I settled in to wait. The good news: we were going to get on a plane to Windsor. The bad news: the plane had recently been broken in some fashion. Hayden spent our one hour wait running in circles around my luggage. I think he was starting to lose his mind a bit. Sleep deprivation can do that to a person.

We got on the plane eventually and we got to Windsor. Hayden had a few small meltdowns when he was forced to sit on my lap, but mostly spent the flight doing up his seat belt and then undoing it again. Again with the fine motor skill obsession. We looked out the window and sang some songs. And we got to Windsor in one piece.

As I was getting off the plane one of the other passengers actually stood up and applauded.

"You are an AMAZING mother" he said. "I watched you this whole trip and you never lost your temper and your kid was a trooper and he is just so lucky to have you. You did a great job."

I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes at this unexpected praise from a total stranger. And the whole trip suddenly felt meaningful. We proved something Hayden and I. We faced adversity together and both managed to be our best selves (perhaps minus the dragging my child through an airport). Hayden got through the day without a nap and I got through without complete mental collapse and as hard and exhausting as the trip seemed to me, from the outside it looked like we were just breezing along, handling everything with grace and infinite patience. From the outside I was a good mother, and for once it felt that way from the inside as well.

So we're here and Hayden is making sugar cookies with his Baba and I'm listening to their laughter downstairs and feeling like it was worth it to come, even if I do have to do it all over again on the way home.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shortbread, mulled wine, and a raccoon

If Christmas had a flavour it would be butter shortbread. The simplest, yet richest cookie you can imagine. An indulgence without excessive flashiness.

If Christmas had a a sound it would be a distant fiddle, carrying on the frozen breeze over snow locked fields.

If Christmas projected a single image it would be this: two children waiting in the pre-dawn darkness for the first rays of light to signal the start of Christmas morning. As the sun slants through the blinds there is a simultaneous intake of excited breath as they are given leave to burst from the warmth of sheets into the glow of the Christmas tree where magic makes the air crackle.

If Christmas had a smell it would be a mixture of mulled wine, cranberries, and pine needles.

If you could touch it there, against your fingers, would be the stickiness of sap and the roughness of tree bark, the slip of one perfect satin ribbon, the bristle of fur on the dog passed out under the table where he has spent the evening licking up crumbs.

And at its core, the light in the winter darkness: being embraced by the people who hold your heart in theirs, a perpetual gift that they carry like a torch all their lives.


This holiday season has brought on a crafting spree. Here is a felted raccoon who found a new home at a recent gift exchange.

Felted Raccoon. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2013

Felted Raccoon. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2013.

Felted Raccoon. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2013.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Soul of the Season

Christmas lights me up. There is a pagan magic that still lingers in the holiday and my whole being orients itself towards the solstice. The Christian nativity story had fallen away from my personal festivities a long time ago, but in a small Christmas miracle I was brought back to the story by theological scholar Tom Harpur, who managed to breathe new life into the tale.

Harpur, in his book the Pagan Christ, traces the mythological figure of Jesus back to his origin in the ancient Egyptian god Horus, born through a virgin birth to the goddess Isis. Harpur asks readers to consider the Christmas story as the powerful allegory that it was meant to be rather than trying, and failing, to force our brains to believe in the physical impossibility of a virgin birth or other unlikely aspects of the story.  Harpur argues that “the story is not the literal account it seems to be on the surface; it is about the birth, in the heart of every human being, of the Christ. It is a supreme telling of the central myth of all religion—the incarnation of the divine into human flesh.” (143). 

On the darkest night of the year at the winter solstice humans in a multitude of times and places celebrated the return of the sun. This celestial event corresponded to mythological events including the birth of the Sun (Son) into the soul of every person. Harpur is a bit vague about what he means by Christ being born into the heart, but I take it to mean coming to the knowledge of our own inner divinity, seeing the spirit that resides in the housing of our flesh, or growing into a relationship with the soul--that ever elusive and undefinable part of our consciousness that makes us search for greater meaning.

I don't think you need to have supernatural beliefs in order to find this myth appealing. Suddenly Christmas can be about finding the divine spark in your own soul, about nurturing that new-born light, and letting it become a fire that guides you through your days. The spark is likely different for everyone, resulting in myriad actions--a tradition that lives on in the custom of New Years' Resolutions. Each year as the light of the sun draws equal to and then surpasses the light of the moon we have a symbolic chance to be reborn.

So at Christmas when you light fires in the hearth, set the mantle with candles, and hang the tree with a million twinkling beacons you can think also of the birth of the Sun in the darknesses you have been harbouring within yourself. We all have wounded places that could use the persistent flicker of a guiding star to bring them back into the light. The pilgrimage is there to be taken and you don't even have to leave your home. 

What rituals are integral to your holiday festivities? I'd love to hear about them!