moms + mental health

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 10.34.47 PM

this super cool pin is from

I hesitate to write about the effect of having a child with a disability has had on my mental health. This is for two reasons.  First, my thoughts are kind of a mess.  The second reason is because this child, my son Aaron – who is now 14 years old and has Down syndrome – is a beloved and wanted child. I fear adding to the bad rap that haunts disability.  The truth is that the important stuff in life is hard. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be important.

(Please note that I write about moms because I am a mom, so I don’t assume I represent other moms, people with disabilities or dads or brothers or sisters.  Their feelings are valued and significant too.  But their stories are different from my story.  Here goes…).

If I am honest, being the mother of any child is fraught with looming and inevitable loss. You help them attach to feel secure in the early years only to gradually let them go. This is heartbreaking work. There are many joyful and painful aspects to being a mother in general and being the mother of a kid with a disability is no exception.

When Aaron was born, I had the added work of grieving for the baby I expected in order to accept the baby I got. I had many years to figure out with my other children that there’s no such thing as a perfect child. (Usually this truth smacks you in the face in adolescence when the school principal calls you). With Aaron, the realization that no child is perfect came when he was a baby – instantly, right at his diagnosis.

This grief has faded but it has not entirely gone away. Some parents feel sad on their child’s birthday. I feel sorrow when I spot a group of teenage boys at the mall. Aaron is not part of that group and this causes a sharp pain in my heart.  I think this has to do more with me than him, as I have always felt left out and have struggled to find belonging. Unwrapping my feelings from his feelings is difficult but essential work.  I also grieve for my older two children who have grown up and left the nest.  I miss them a lot. There is loss there too, but in a different way.

Having a child with a disability makes me feel particularly vulnerable. In a world where we are supposed to be strong, feeling vulnerable is extremely uncomfortable. This is especially true if we’ve adopted the ‘mama bear’ identity to advocate for our children.

People tell me I’m brave and strong. This is a façade. Mostly I am scared and weak. I cover up my vulnerability with anger that is specifically directed as outrage at the health and education systems. (See my Twitter feed for evidence of my outrage).

Many families get caught in the ‘busy trap’ to avoid feeling pain. They sign their child up for all the therapies in an effort to have the ‘best kid with Down syndrome ever.’ We did this too.  Being self-aware of the reason you engage in therapies is vital: is to help your child be the best they can be, or is it to fix them, to make them as ‘normal’ as possible?   Be careful, for you can lose both you and your child in the fixing. Accepting all your children for who they actually are – not for who we want them to be – is a long, never-ending journey.

There can be struggle to make meaning. Some of us try to change the world in an effort to find purpose from our child’s diagnosis. This is exhausting. The world doesn’t want to change to accept our children. We can only change ourselves. It is our job to equip all our children the best we can to allow them to grow up in a way that they are true to themselves – disability or no disability.

In my humble experience, the most important thing you can do for your own mental health is to allow yourself to feel all your feelings. Surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally.  Don’t be afraid of being still.  Find other parents and lift each other up. Be as kind and gentle with yourself as you are with your own children. All this can help you find peace in your heart. (Note: I struggle to find peace in my heart every single day.  This is okay because I’m perfectly imperfect too).

I am grateful to Dr. Yona Lunsky for inspiring me to speak up about my mental health and to write this essay. xo.

smile because it happened

Last Friday, my husband and I tacked on two extra hours to our babysitter request to sneak out for after work drinks.  The week had been oddly brutal for random reasons:  Wednesday seemed to be proclaimed be hostile to Sue day, Thursday was littered with unpleasant emails and Friday zoomed in at the tail of never ending to do lists.

I was sitting across from my husband at Portland Craft, pretending I live on Main Street and happily sipping an amaretto sour.  An hour in, Mike started to become  jittery, disappearing to the washroom and ‘checking the score on the hockey game’ on his phone at the table. I was blathering on about something when I saw his gaze shift slightly and his face brighten up.

My daughter Ella suddenly materialized beside me, fresh off a plane from Edmonton.  I had been totally punked, never suspecting my man and girl had been scheming a trip to Vancouver for Mother’s Day weekend for many weeks.   My hands flew to my mouth in shock and I grabbed her, hugged her, and burst into grateful tears.  I last saw her over two months ago, and my heart ached heavy for her.  She is a beautiful young woman, inside and out, a light of my life.

Mike and Ella had a good giggle about my shocked reaction.  I had suspected nothing, and I think this is the first time I had ever been truly surprised.  It is difficult to surprise someone who keeps a tight reign on the family schedule.  I like to know every little thing that’s going on so I can dutifully record all activities in my date book.

I had told Mike that all I wanted for Mother’s Day was to see my far-flung kids, knowing full well my eldest was in the US and not travelling and wistfully hoping for some miracle that Ella (busy, in between semesters of nursing school and working) would visit.

The emptying nest has been a sad phenomenon for me as a mother.  I put my deep longing to see my older children in a little box in my heart that I take out only on occasion:  when I’m driving and a Mumford & Sons song comes on; when I set the table for three instead of five; when I’m trying to fall asleep at night.   These are rather pathetic occurrences and my only solace is that my kids are independent, strong of character and living the lives they want.  And, they generally respond to my texts on a timely basis.  What more can a mother ask for?  My loose parenting philosophy is this:  make sure they are securely attached in their younger years and then let them go.  This is hard heart-breaking work.

Ah, but the reward of seeing them, even rarely, is very rich.  We do not take each other for granted.  All weekend, I delighted in Ella’s presence.  We roamed up and down the streets of Vancouver, eating sushi & burritos & doughnuts (not all at the same time) and shopping for shoes.  We went for pedicures.  Ella played soccer with Aaron’s soccer team.  Both kids made me a lovely breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day – eggs benedict on a sesame bagel with avocado and sausage.  They concocted artful handmade Mother’s Day cards – Aaron under the guidance of his sister, carefully crafting the letters M in Mom like hearts.  We sprawled on the couch together and watched Amazing Race.  We basked in the sunset on Spanish Banks.

Soon it was Sunday night and time to take Ella to the airport.  This was the over part and yes, I cried at the departure drop off area.  Ella said, ‘don’t cry or I’ll cry’ so I stopped and held my sobs until I hit Marine Drive back home.

But then I remembered this good Dr. Seuss quote.  Am I blessed?  Yes.  Have I done my job as a mom?  Yes.  I saw Ella for a sweet 48 hours and enjoyed every single second of it.  Happy Mother’s Day to me and to you too.  I hope that you felt loved and expressed love this weekend, because in the end, that’s all that really matters.



an ode for the chick trip


Ella conquers the Fisherman Wharf’s In-n-Out Burger

My husband and I have a total of five children in our blended (blender) family.  Two from his first marriage, two from my first marriage, and our love child who we had together.  Only one of these children is female.  That would be my daughter Ella, now 19.  Over the years, there was a need for a regular chick trip to get away from the testosterone fuelled chaos that lived in our house.

One of the (few?) things I have done right as a mother is that I have spent time individually with each of my kids.  These have taken the shape of date nights, lunches out and trips away.  I captured my eldest son, now 22, only once, when we went to DC together when he was 16 so he could go to a suspiciously-named event called the Maryland Death Fest.  More regularly, my youngest son and I often nip out for movie and sushi dates.

There are so many advantages to this:  alone, you see your children with an individual lens.  It is no longer ‘the children’ and ‘the parents’ – your relationship grows a touch of the more personal – and you can get to know each other as people, not as family-defined roles.  There’s that old adage that all children want from their parents is time, and I believe that’s true, no matter how old they get.

And then there’s the lovely Ella.  Born two weeks early of round head and big brown eyes, she’s transformed into a confident and gentle young woman.  When she was 11, she wanted to visit her birthplace of Winnipeg, so off to Winnipeg we went for our premiere chick trip.  We got our our toenails painted for the first time together and drove past the hospital where she was born.

In 2010 we ventured to Seattle to start our new tradition of travelling for food.  We went to the Blue Ribbon Cooking School for a class, experienced the (worth it) line-ups at Salumi (best sandwich ever, Ella proclaimed), toured the Pike Place Market, and ate fresh banana cream pie from Dahlia Bakery while watching chick flicks in our hotel room beds.  At Christmas in November in Jasper later that year, we indulged in two days of food demonstrations and eating with gaggles of other moms and daughters on their own chick trips.  We met in Chicago four years ago when she was 15, where we had a particularly strange trip which included stumbling upon hundreds of nude bicyclists (twice, which was extremely traumatizing to both of us) and sitting in the front wet row at Blue Man Group.  We ate a lot in Chicago too, at the Girl & the Goat, and requisite food tour eating of deep dish pizza and hot dogs the Chicago way.

But then life got busy.  Ella entered her last year of high school, and took her gap year off and worked as a baker’s assistant.  This year she began her nursing program at university.  She acquired a beloved boyfriend and it became harder to tear her away for lots of good reasons.  Time passed.  A few months ago, we managed to nail down a date and location.  I booked our tickets quickly, before life interfered, and two weeks ago we met in San Francisco, the City by the Bay.

In true chick trip fashion, we ate.  A lot.  Crumble cake at Mama’s, fancy dinner at Foreign Cinema, Italian fare on our food tour, egg sandwiches everywhere, and an important In-n-Out Burger.  We walked.  A lot.  For two girls from the prairies, we walked until our legs were shaking, up and down the famous hills of San Francisco.  We went on a silly double decker bus tour, where our faces almost got blown off on the Golden Gate Bridge.  We visited Alcatraz in the rain, which was particularly delightful because Ella chose this activity and it was an experience I would have never picked myself.

Basically, we thoroughly enjoyed each other for three days. I tried my best not to chatter incessantly nor repeat myself – both bad habits of mine. Then we reluctantly boarded separate airplanes and went back to our regular lives.

But when I’m trying to fall asleep at night, thinking about work or worrying about money, I remember my time with Ella.  I think about us hopping on the cable car at twilight, and the driver taking a run at the infamous hills on Mason Street, and ooohing at the snippets of views of pastel Victorians and twinkly bridges as we rumbled past, me nestled beside my favourite girl in the whole entire world.

Ella is brave and kind.  She is beautiful inside and out, and I feel as if the world is lucky to have her.  I feel gratitude wash over me for the time I shared with her and for being granted the gift of being her mom.

My prescription for you is to spend time with each of your children.  Get to know them as people, not just as your offspring.  It doesn’t have to be as epic as a cross-country jaunt – this can be done by simple things, like walking home slowly from school, arranging anticipated dates to the burger joint, or cooking dinner together in the kitchen.

I know I’m going to sound like a grandma here…but they do grow up.  My time with my adult children is now a rare and precious thing.  Slow down, and remember to like your children too…not just love them.  As Ella wisely told me:  it is hard when you think it is going to be one way, and then it changes.  Such as life – it feels like they are going to be little forever – with small pieces of Lego underfoot and the banging of little fists on your bathroom door…and then one day they are suddenly gone.

Edited to add:  my food travels with my kids are chronicled on Foodie Suz Travels:
Washington DC
San Francisco


a mother’s chronic sorrow

The truth I dare not say was chronicled in a recent blog post by Susan Ellison Busch. She speaks eloquently about having a child with a disability and the loss that comes with grappling with the child that you expected was not the child that you got.  This is not the type of topic that I bring up at cocktail parties, and I tip my hat to her for the authenticity of her writing.

I have a kid with a disability and I have other children too. Being the mother of any child involves this secret chronic sorrow. The losses of motherhood pile up early: the baby who won’t settle in your arms; the toddler who runs away from you; the inevitable loss of status in a child’s life – slowly you are replaced by teachers, coaches, friends, adolescence, girlfriends & boyfriends and college. And then one day your children are simply gone.

My beloved daughter lives a thousand miles away, and I’m thankful for this relatively close distance. We manage to steal visits every few weeks. My eldest son is even farther afield. I haven’t seen him in 10 months. I climbed into my car at 5 in the morning yesterday to embark on a trip to see my boy.

The streets of Vancouver were deserted so early on a Sunday; the traffic was scarce and the lights were all green. I played that damn Mumford & Sons cd, which always reminds me of my wayward son. I don’t know why – he would detest such mainstream music – maybe it is the tinkling piano or the quietly strumming guitar. I think it is the sad lyrics:

And in time
As one reminds the other of the past
A life lived much too fast to hold onto
How am I losing you?

There was a crack in my shell and I blinked back tears in the darkness of my little car. My absent children have never faded from my mind, but I put missing them in a tightly locked box in my heart. I’m normally terrible at compartmentalizing, but compartmentalize them I have done, to save myself from collapsing in to a regular heap of tears.

I often cite the serenity prayer to staff at my work at a children’s hospital. Think of what you can control, I say, and what you cannot. You can’t control the system, or your manager or your colleagues, so let go of that, I say. All you can control, I say, is you – what you say, how you treat others, the thoughts in your head. My flown children soar on the outer edges of my serenity prayer. They belong to the world now.

For 41 hours, I’ll pop in as a visitor to my son’s life. This trip is to see his face, to hug him, to tell him that I love him, no matter how many miles separate us. A mother’s life is full of losses – loss of that dream of that perfect child (here’s a spoiler – the perfect child doesn’t exist anyhow, even for typical children), loss of identity as a mother, the loss of children grown. To live with that sorrow and to avoid a middle-aged life of overbearing bitterness, we must store that sadness in that little box, take it out and examine it only occasionally, to save our fragile hearts.

When I finally saw him after ten hours of travel, I hugged him hard and let out a strangled sob, embarrassing us both.  “I love you,” I said.  “I love you too Mom,” he said.  And that had to be enough.

anthem for motherhood

Whenever I miss my adult children, I listen to this song. No matter how far away my son and daughter are, they always hold a place in my heart.

I Bet My Life by Imagine Dragons was written by the lead singer, Dan Reynolds, and yes, it is about his challenging relationship with his parents. I love it because it talks about the bond he has with his mom and dad, despite giving them hell over the years.

Late this afternoon as the sun was falling low in the sky, I was sitting at my desk in my office, remembering my kids when they were young. I hold a snapshot of them in my head, frozen in time – my quiet, curly-headed sweet children.

Now, almost two decades later, they are living their own lives. This song is for all of us parents whose children are wayward and finding their way. Listen to it, and know that you aren’t alone. xo.

and to all a good night

IMG_5786Yesterday I went for a pre-Christmas haircut with a picture of Jessica Biel jammed into my purse. I walked out with a curly bob, and a free sample of Aveda hand cream, but I did not look like Jessica Biel. I had Aveda lipstick applied to my rather thin lips. Jessica Biel also has rather thin lips but there’s where the similarities end.

Before my appointment, I showed my husband the picture of Jessica Biel, and he widened his eyes and nodded too vigourously. I informed him that he looked nothing like Justin Timberlake either before I walked out the door.

I go to a salon that was very popular with my punk rock friends in the 80s. Thirty years later, it is a bit run down. There are scuffs on the walls and the lights are too bright. I persist in going there because the young lady there is still apprenticing, and she’s cheaper than most. I had vowed never to spend $400 on a cut and colour (yes I somehow, unwittingly, paid that much for a haircut on a prairie town in northern Canada). Also, she wisely doesn’t try to engage me in inane chit chat while she’s yanking on my hair putting foils in. I close my eyes and pretend I’m at the spa getting a hearty head massage. I can hear snippets of conversation around me, and they are ridiculous: one woman talking about how her mother comes into her home and rearranges her shoes into shoe boxes underneath her bed. Someone else giving too much information about potty training her three year old. Another woman loudly announcing she’s a journalist with CBC and she specializes in crime. On her way out, she speaks to another woman she calls ‘Madame Justice.’ Someone else is bragging about her holiday in Puerto Vallarta.

I like my stylist not only because she’s cheap and quiet, but because she remembers details about me and I don’t have to re-answer questions every time I come. She knows my eldest son is a drummer and lives in LA. She remembers my daughter works in a bakery, and that we have a young son who still believes in Santa Claus. I’m positive I’m the same age as as her own mother, as she’s only 20. She has perfectly manicured fingernails, decorated with impressive multicoloured graphic designs.

On my way out, a young man with long curly hair comes in. He seems known to the stylists and exchanges Christmas greetings and hugs. He has a black tuque perched on his head, and he reminds me of my eldest boy. I smile at him and look away, a stinging tear creeping into my eye, thinking of my far-flung child.  ‘He’s not cutting his gorgeous hair off?’ I said to the young lady who accompanies him. ‘No’ she says, ‘Just a trim’. ‘Good,’ I reply, relieved.

This is the first year that I will not have all of my kids with me at Christmas. The drummer is staying in LA and having dinner with his girlfriend’s brother’s place. So many people have asked me if he was coming home that I realized I should have offered him a plane ticket back for the holidays. But I honestly had not considered it, I say with a stab of regret. (Insert bad mom judgements here). I mailed him a heavy package of books and an envelope stuffed with American cash, but no plane ticket. I assumed he was spending it with the woman he lives with, immersed in his new sunny, but gritty, LA life. And so he is.

I’m thankful that my daughter is coming over late Christmas Eve with her boyfriend and kitten so they can wake up Christmas morning and open their coveted stockings. I did not get the kitten a stocking, but I did get the kitten a gift. I cannot resist the their furry baby; she is so cute.

I will make them fake cinnamon buns and I will happily drink strong coffee and eat eggs and lox. We take turns opening presents, from youngest to oldest. Our youngest hands out the presents, and very slowly unwraps each of his, delighting in the whole process and insisting on playing with each gift before he will open the next one. It can take us the entire morning to finish emptying out the bottom of the tree.

I have been hoarding New York Times newspapers to read, and bought myself two books to put under the tree. My favourite thing is sitting on our red couch in front of our (fake) fire and devouring Christmas reading. People seem fearful of buying me books, so I buy my own. Everybody disperses, reclining around the house. Sometimes we play the movie Elf, where the Will Ferrell character (Elf) reminds me of our youngest boy: head-strong, pure, full of silly and love.

Eventually some cooking starts. Without my first-born vegetarian son here, we will go full carnivore, with Mundare sausage and a huge leg of lamb which I’m not sure will even fit in the oven. A child has requested a carrot cake, which I will bake today, which is Christmas Eve. I ran all over town yesterday searching for marscapone cheese. Since when is marscapone an exotic ingredient? I live in a limited city.

We will set the table and light the candles. Maybe I will say a few words about absent children. We will dig into a mostly beige menu (lamb, mashed potatoes, a requested hashbrowns and mushroom soup recipe), carrots and parsnips in maple syrup (the only way I can choke them down) and broccoli with toasted sesame seeds for some green.

I will hopefully disappear upstairs for a hot bath and not have to do dishes. I will email my boy in hopes he emails back, which he sometimes does. Everybody will retire early because it has been a long day.

The next day we will go for Dim Sum with our old neighbours. We’ve been doing this now for six years, so I think it is now officially a tradition. There’s nothing like greasy Chinese breakfast after a day of overeating. We will wait for shrimp dumplings and sticky rice to come around on the little carts, read our Chinese horoscopes on the placemats and laugh with the ladies as we turn down chicken feet. Sometimes the girls from dim sum will go out to a ‘chick’ movie. One year we saw ‘Marley and Me’ and bawled our eyes out, even though I don’t even like dogs. This year we are seeing ‘Wild’, which was a fine book, so I have high expectations for the film.

We are then finished with our Christmas traditions. New Years seems overwrought and we can never find a sitter. So we will sit at home and try to stay up until midnight watching bad musical countdown specials on TV and drinking old fashioneds and amaretto sours. We bid good night to each other, calling cheerily, ‘see you next year!’ We will tuck 2014 into bed one last time, and wake up too early, generally a bit hungover, to face the new year.

the empty nest

my full nest

my full nest

I’m obsessing about The Empty Nest.  This will be boring to those not looking straight into the barrel of this life transition.  Even though I now have two adult children, ages 18 and 21, the idea of mourning for my leaving children coupled with an identity crisis seemed distant to me up until exactly two weeks ago.

Then BOOM.

On Monday, my eldest son informed me he was moving to LA in two days.

On Tuesday, my daughter told me she’s moving out with her boyfriend on September 1.

Since this is too fresh to analyze (well, I attempted a post, but it was mostly about birds), I will lean on others to offer wisdom for me.  Oddly, my own children’s transitions have coincided with the American phenomenon of sending away children to college in the fall.  So there’s a wealth of essays for me to draw upon.

Here is a perfectly constructed quote from Randye Hoder in the New York Times Motherlode that sums up the whole damn thing really well:

She is well on the road to adulthood, & from this, she will never return – Randye Hoder, Struggling to Let Go of My College-Student Daughter

The aptly-named Grown and Flown blog by Mary Dell and Lisa Endlich is now my bookmarked encyclopedia on this subject.  I’ve harvested my favourite Empty Nest quotes from their post called 8 Best of the Empty Nest:

  1. No surprise, Anna Quindlen wrote a beautiful piece ten years ago that is still relevant today.  She says:  No, not the writing job–the motherhood job. I was good at it, if I do say so myself, and because I was, I’ve now been demoted to part-time work. Soon I will attain emerita status. This stinks.
  2. Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough.  -Michael Gerson in Saying Goodbye to My Child the Youngster.
  3. Madeline Levine says in After the Children Have Gone: It is a pleasure to remember that it is not a form of abandonment but an expression of a job well done — and is something to keep in mind as we move back into the center of our own lives, in ways that will make our children proud. 

I will continue my fixation on information gathering, but I believe I will not be able to reflect upon this phenomenon until I am safely on the other side.  One revelation I have had is:  This is not about me.  This is about my kids.  I put on my brave face as I help my daughter pack up moving boxes, and retreat into the bathroom to shed private tears.   I’ve been so proud of NOT being a helicopter parent, but now I’m a puddle on the floor.  I seriously have got to get my shit together.