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Beth Anstandig

I’m done with this “beautiful mess” crap. I’m over the exquisite authenticity of it all. If I hear one more vulnerable-manifestation-of-this or conscious-intention-of-that, I may find a pack a wolves and run off with them. I write this after 20 days with very little solitude and the absence of my structured life, a schedule of work, exercise, recovery meetings, school, babysitting, and animal time. They are neat and tidy boxes on the calendar and they keep my emotional well being afloat amidst the dynamic waters of a full life. I’ve been momming from the left side of my body and running a business from the right side. Somewhere in the middle, my spirit has been pressed flat and lifeless like the sandwich I found in my daughter’s lunch box when we opened it in January.

After long breaks, especially the winter holiday break, there’s always a glorious Monday morning when I stand at my front window and stare at the ranch gate, non-talking mammals on one side of it, and the intensely chatty humans of the world on the other side. It isn’t joy or a thrill of possibility I feel as I revel in the solitude and quiet. Instead, it’s a deep and painful relief. I imagine it’s how you’d feel if you got stabbed with a knife (I know, this is a bit extreme) and it was stuck there, a sharp and terrible foreign object, and then finally someone bravely pulled it out. You’d have a gaping, bloody hole and seared flesh, but at least it could heal.

Please note, dear reader, we are not going to be talking about the attitude of gratitude or recapturing the innocence and magic of the holiday season or the angelic nature of our children. Not here. Not now.

Parenting lessons and developmental changes in our children or in our adult selves don’t come from cleverly written book chapters or nicely numbered tips in a blog post. They certainly don’t come from Pinterest boards showing us how to make our families’ lives look bright and shiny on the outside. They are in our stories, the honest-to-goodness events in our days, those glaring, eye-squinting moments like overexposed snapshots, when we are in terrible agony and confusion. Our knowledge and thoughtfulness run full speed into our raw instincts and reactions. They often happen when we reach critical mass, when we have not one more moment of tolerance or patience left. There’s nothing psychologically sophisticated about this. It’s all about our flooded nervous systems and our insistent reflex to respond to it. We do what we have to do because we are perfectly pressured in that very moment. For me, the most powerful moments of growth happen right there.

Let me describe my own personal pressure cooker. I’m not a grinch or a scrooge, but I do find myself moderately annoyed by the winter holidays. It’s mostly the global expectations that people whine about but continue to perpetuate which bother me the most. I know the tension. I live it. I participate. We may have a natural desire to be part of the holiday spirit, to connect, decorate, to celebrate, to give. But then perfect strangers ask questions about Christmas shopping or those adorable holiday cards start filling up the mailbox. The social media filters make other people’s tropical vacation sunsets look even more vibrant. Then there’s the triggering hashtags about “my best life” and how the perfect family goes on the perfect vacation with a perfect nanny along for perfect support. All of the external pressure rubs against what we internally want or what real life allows–and the sparks start to fly.

Now, let’s add the winter solstice and seasonal mood changes. Yes, it’s a true story that all living creatures are affected by daylight and temperature. Of course, humans feel it too, that depressing slide toward the shortest day of the year when the skies get grayer and darker and the weather turns wet and cold. As a parent, the deal is often sealed in the school parking lot, standing there holding a backpack full of candy and holiday artifacts in one hand and a sticky hand in the other, looking down the barrel of three weeks which are cruelly referred to as “break” or “vacation” but are actually many, many days of parenting without a breather. Is it a sweet time to connect with family and friends? Is it a welcome break from the morning rush of mobilizing a household? Is it nice to have some new adventures together? Sure, it is. If you casually chat with people, they will cheerfully encourage you to enjoy the holidays and that you should feel so lucky to have the time off. But nearly three weeks of it? For me, it hits a fight or flight button with a loud internal alarm ringing. It makes me want to run away from home.

Hold your horses! Do you live with an underlying belief that your self-care comes last? Wake up to the empowering practice of listening to your needs. Become more resilient, less stressed, and feel more ease in your life. Download our free Radical Self-Care Guide:

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This year, we patched it together in between strep throat and some mystery illness we later found out was probably scarlet fever. I know, it sounds Victorian and melodramatic. Ask Dr. Google. This is still a thing. One day at at time, we did the holidays. Some days flowed like an easy river, peaceful, simple, and mostly effortless. Others felt like listening to blaring club music with a broken drum machine on repeat while you nurse a migraine. Family helped some. A periodic babysitting shift here, a play date there. We took two short trips to quench our thirst for adventure and we had a truly lovely time together. All of this was effective in moving through the holidays and the school break; however, I never got relief from the pinch point. Not only did I work overtime to make the break perfect, which it was not, I beat myself up the entire time. I took an already pressure packed and painful three weeks and cornered myself in relentless suffering.

So what is the squeeze? Why does this relational shoe feel too tight?

The human parent is a unique beast. Our squirrelly thinker tells us that our instincts to push back or say no to our children are wrong and negligent. We have forgotten how to listen to our bodies, to the wise animal inside of us that wants us to let go, to invite the conflict, to welcome the struggle. The dance of development is just that, a dance. I always thought that my daughter would lead it all. But there have been times when my inner sense tells me something new is needed. I can feel it in my bones that a new layer of space is needed, and that I have to nudge her toward more independence. I have to push her away. And, my mind tells me that I’m a terrible mother for feeling it. It’s the worst.

When you watch a bitch and her pups, there’s a distinct phase when her role changes, her tolerance for the puppy pile and raucous play wanes and she starts expressing boundaries. She’s tired and her life tasks are different than theirs. They’re annoying and rough, and after a couple of months, they start to hurt her. In the animal kingdom, pain and pressure ask for change. A baby starts biting the nipple and the wordless conversation about nursing and weaning begins. The big shifts won’t happen immediately but these very real and felt experiences wake us up to change. The pain is an essential signal.

I’ve been hanging out at parks and schools and playdates for the last nine years and I’m awestruck at the over-involvement, the constant presence of parents, assisting, preventing accidents and injury, making everything easier for their children as they play. I watch these grown-ass adults squeeze their bodies into small tunnels and shove their way down curvy slides with all of the best intentions, to be part of their children’s lives, to support them. But isn’t there some profound value in children having space and freedom to explore, fail, space to wrestle with adversity, to fall and get back up again? And, what about the needs of the parents? If we sit on the sidelines and give our children space to play, doesn’t this allow us time to connect with each other? To have our own friendships? To have our own interests?

I’ve wondered, at times, if my parenting philosophy is a cover up, if I’m spinning the story to suit my own needs, and I’m really just a lazy bum who doesn’t want to lift a finger to parent. The internal parenting scripts tell me I’m doing it all wrong and that I’m neglecting my child by not tracking her every move and fulfilling her every need. But I’ve been taking notes from the horses, especially this past year as the herd has collectively raise Sally’s colt, Moonshine. They share that responsibility like their lives depend on it. Because they do. Their group survival and energy conservation on sharing tasks and resources and allowing leadership responsibilities to shift through the herd throughout each day. I highly doubt that Sally has been grazing about, wondering if she’s a shitty mom while Moonshine plays with his best friend, Levi. Or, that Sally questions her parenting dedication when Rosie stands over Moonshine as he naps. There’s an unconditional acceptance of shared leadership that seems to allow a grace and ease that I can honestly say I’ve never felt as a parent.

There was a magnificent intersection this winter break, a four way collision between these lessons from the herd, my inner critic, three weeks without structure, and a developmental transition in my relationship with my daughter. With a bit of space, I’ve been able to see that the needed adjustments in the parenting were ever so slight and subtle. Do less. Right-size my expectations of vacation. Stop trying to hit home runs every day. Ask for more help and allow others to own their roles in my daughter’s life. Let her be bored. Take more time for myself. Allow myself to have a life. As usual, my suffering came from the inflated and impossible standards I’ve held myself to. It makes me wonder if the mess in my mind and on my heart has caused more of the pressure than the parenting itself. Our minds are that powerful.

In an effort to truly own my “good enough” mothering, I decided to celebrate this new acceptance of myself with a gift. It’s a simple coffee mug that reads: World’s Okayest Mom. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now. As I sip my morning coffee, I feel a grin emerge. I lie back on the couch in my obnoxious, pink cheetah bathrobe and give myself permission TO BE. Nothing more. Nothing less. Drinking from this holy mug of mediocrity has helped me start my day with a conscious connection to what has emerged as THE solution. It turns out that by setting myself free, it’s been a smidge easier to ask my daughter for some space, to do the loving push and behold as she emerges with more independence. It’s as if the grace I’m offering myself is a gift to her. I believe this is the case with leadership. Our self care, our internal stability radiates and touches all who we love and lead.

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