my great nordic breakdown

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Illustration by Lindsay Campbell

Just for something completely different, here’s an essay that I had published in the Globe & Mail’s Facts and Arguments this morning – My Great Nordic Breakdown.

You know when you are at a meeting and they ask the ice-breaker question:   tell us something nobody knows about you?  Well, this is my answer to that question.  After my first marriage broke up, I lived in Norway for five months with my two eldest kids when they were 7 & 4 years old.  While I have a journal I kept during that time (buried deep in a box), I have never written about our odd adventure.

The writer background is this:  an editor of another prestigious newspaper was interested in the story, but when I submitted it, she said:  this isn’t a good fit.  So after a couple of days of feeling hurt by this, I dusted myself off and submitted it to the Globe.  Who accepted it.  There’s a great amount of rejection in this line of work.  But this is a good lesson in not giving up.

The Globe and Mail has been good to me.  This is my third Facts and Argument essay that I’ve had published, and I had another one accepted that I had to withdraw because of a long story that I can’t tell you.  So to all my writer friends out here:  try the Globe!  They don’t pay, but the byline is nice on your CV!   And they are friendly to mama writers.  An editor there once told me:  if it makes me laugh or cry, I’ll publish it.

ps:  Don’t read the online comments.  Never read the online comments.  I sadly forgot to take my own advice this morning.  Ugh.

an ode for the chick trip

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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:
Jasper 
Washington DC
Seattle
Chicago
San Francisco

 

the mama bear

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A wise physician once told me that she teaches medical students anger directed at you is often fear instead.  I think understanding what lurks behind anger is key to working with families.  Well, key to working with anyone actually.

I was in a meeting at work this week when my cell buzzed with a call.  Twice.  I left the room to answer the phone.

I missed the call and listened to the voice mail. It was my son’s school phoning.  There had been an ‘incident’ at the school, and no he wasn’t hurt, nobody was hurt, but could I call back.  I looked at the time.  It was 25 minutes until dismissal and my husband was due to pick him up.

Here’s what I felt deep inside in quick succession: a flush of shame, a touch of annoyance, followed by a slow burning rumble of rage.  The shame of getting a call from the principal.  The annoyance of being pulled out of a meeting, assumption to call ‘mom’ first, when they know damn well my husband works from home and the dismissal bell was about to ring.  I called my husband and asked him to head to the school early, and went back to the meeting, my face flushed and my heart rattled.

After finding out the details, I felt agitated at the escalation of an event that the school termed an ‘incident’ that I would call ’12 year old boy mischief.’  This agitation mixed with the shame and annoyance very quickly devolved into anger.  I carried around this anger – which felt like a suitcase full of rocks – well into the evening.  I went to bed early at 9 pm to try to rid myself of the day.  Two days later, I can feel the residual of this rage.  It feels like a bad hangover.

If I pause to unpack that suitcase full of angry rocks, I find something interesting.  Buried deep inside that suitcase is shame.  The shame of being a bad mom for having a kid who is sitting in the principal’s office.  The shame mixed with guilt about being at work (maybe if I was at home, he’d wouldn’t ‘misbehave?’).  The shame about not being able to magically and telepathically control the behaviour of my child while he was at school.

All I could do when I got home was to hug my son and tell him I loved him even when he made mistakes.  Even when other people were angry at him.  I told him that I made mistakes too.  I told him tomorrow was another day.  His eyes were downcast, his mouth was etched into a frown and I knew he felt the shame too.  This made me even more angry.

This is where the Mama Bear is born – from this suitcase full of anger.  So educators & health professionals, the next time you encounter an ‘complaining’ dad, a ‘hysterical’ mom, a ‘crazy’ parent, a ‘difficult’ caregiver, stop before you label them. Recognize that this anger comes from a biological need to protect our loved ones.  Underneath that is sometimes shame, fear and hurt.  (Well, sometimes we are just MAD.  AT YOU.  But that’s another blog post).

I’d suggest taking the time to pause and try to understand the meaning behind the anger, to garner some empathy in your heart and then to demonstrate some compassion.  Try not to label, blame, finger-point or counter-punch with anger back at us.  Poking an angry Mama Bear in the eye with a stick absolutely does not help.  Instead, a little bit of kindness will go a long long way.  The most important thing to consider is:  how might I feel if it was me?

inked – the mom version

I’ve been carrying around a slip of paper in my wallet for months now.  It is a silhouette of three little birds in various stages of flight. These represent my three children:  my son in another country, living his life as a musician; my daughter the next province over, poised to start university next week; and my youngest son, who is on the brink of adolescence.

My hesitation to get a tattoo was a strange mixture of fear of pain coupled with the embarrassment of being an almost-50 year old mom wandering into a hip Vancouver tattoo shop.  Tired of excuses, I went in on Tuesday and finally just got it done.

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I was sitting at the end of a yoga class at work yesterday.  The instructor told a story of her 19 year old daughter at the dinner table.  Tears fell out of my eyes.  I have a 19 year old daughter, but she’s no longer regularly at my dinner table.

I felt sad for myself, but then I remembered my birds on my shoulder.  I breathed gently, and joined in the Namaste at the end of our session.  I bowed to the spirit of my daughter, the spirit of my wayward eldest son, and the spirit of my youngest son with an extra chromosome.  May those little birds perched on my shoulder remind me that it is ok to let them go.  It is only then they are free.

after birth

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Elisa Albert strips all the posturing and candy coating off motherhood.  Her novel After Birth is the punk rock gospel of being a mom – the fuck you to everybody who wants to hear a chirpy ‘everything is fine!’ after a woman gives birth.

Everything is not fine.  Early motherhood (in particular) is messy and leaky and cranky.  It is unbearable loneliness complemented by sleep deprivation,  It is also full of so much love that your heart actually does burst inside the cavity of your body.

After Birth talks about how motherhood actually feels.  What I found astounding is that Elisa Albert wrote a book about a time when in my journal I have scribbles like:  rt side, nursed x 12 mins.  2 BMs.  40 min nap.  bananas, oj, milk.  What do I recall about early motherhood?  Nearly nothing.  One kid couldn’t latch on and I endured excruciating pain every time he chomped down on me.  Another baby never slept and nursed all night long.  And yet another one sent me into deep grief with the diagnosis of his disability.  And yet I loved (love) these children with every cell in my body.  Eventually I came out of these dark places.  BUT THIS IS ALL I CAN REMEMBER.

Captured in the fading passages of Elisa Albert’s testament to motherhood is this:
So whose gonna write about it if everybody doing it is lost forever within it?

After Birth somehow transcends this sleep-deprived, life-changing, nipple-chomping memory loss.  Send it as a gift to every new mom you know.  Let them know they are not alone.

 

i just want a hug

what kids need

what kids need

One of the many things I am going to miss from Edmonton is the Family Inclusion Group that was started by five moms at my son’s school.  Four of us have kids who have Educational Assistants, and one other mom has typically developing kids, but is interested in inclusion, and creating kind and caring school environments for all children.

That mom’s name is Amy Elliott, and she happens to be a Speech Language Pathologist.  Last night, our group co-hosted a presentation from Amy and Registered Psychologist Pamela Barrett called Beyond Temper Tantrums:  Uncovering Behaviour.  

Behaviour is a hot topic in our world.  This talk gave concrete strategies for both parents and teachers when working with children of all kinds.  Over 30 folks showed up, including our school trustee and administration.  (Our organizing group was very pleased.  We have been searching for a topic that wasn’t just a ‘special needs’ topic – one that would appeal to a greater audience).

Amy and Pam gave a professional, practical and passionate presentation.  I’ve been a mom for almost 22 years, and I’m still learning every single day about how to be a better parent. Here are some of my own take-aways.

  • There is always a reason behind behaviour for all children under 12.
  • It is our job as parents and teachers to be curious about what those underlying behaviours are.
  • Punishment is only a bandaid solution.  Unless we find the root cause of the behaviour, it is going to continue on.

They said that all children need to: feel a sense of belonging,  be loved, have a purpose and  feel important.  (At this point in the presentation, my eyes are welling up.  I was thinking YES!  And all that must NOT be conditional on a child exhibiting ‘good’ behaviour).

Some great points for educators:

  • You can’t teach the mind until you have the heart – Dr. Gordon Neufeld
  • Kids won’t respond to people they aren’t attached to
  • Encouragement is more effective than punishment

A memorable quote for me was:  A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.  I’d also add to that – a misbehaving child is also a misunderstood child.  My youngest son has flourished in environments where people have taken the time to listen to him, and uncover the reasons behind his behaviour.  I truly believe that all his behaviour is communication – and he is always trying to tell us something.  It is up to us to figure out what that is, and give him the tools so he can communicate it more effectively himself.  This can be done through social stories, visual cues, helping him identify emotions, and simple reminders to breathe.

Amy and Pam stressed that having empathy for the child and what they are going through is absolutely essential.  For like the porcupine in the picture above, the more kids push us away, the more we need to demonstrate our love and understanding.

Their message of love and belonging is a powerful one.  I hope it gets spread throughout the schools with Edmonton Public School Board.  As Amy and Pam said:

The need to belong, to be securely attached, to feel important and worthwhile and to be loved is hard wired into the human body.

When we see behaviour that does not contribute to the fulfilment of these needs in healthy ways, let’s be curious about what’s going on and wonder how we can help the individual get back on track.

Our kids are worth it, don’t you think?

Edited to add:  These fabulous resources were also shared:

 

you can do this

Slide04Eleven years ago, I had a memorable phone conversation with my friend Maureen. I was eight months pregnant, and I had called her for advice. For my third, and last baby, I was determined to purposely go the no medication route, but I was really scared.

My previous birthing experiences went like this: I had an epidural with my first baby, and then no medication with my second. Forceps pulled out my eldest boy because I couldn’t feel to push properly and I’ve never gotten over the guilt for that. That image of those bruises from the forceps on his little face is forever etched in my memory. My second labour was medication free only because I had a super fast labour with my girl and there was no time for intervention (not because I had necessarily intended it to be that way). I remember feeling very afraid.  My labour was induced, so the contractions were terrifying and felt like a bulldozer coming at me, knocking me down over and over again.

I shared my intention to forgo meds if I possibly could to Maureen, who had experienced four natural childbirths. I looked up to her as my birthing mama guru. She was strong as hell.  She said one thing to me that I will never forget: You Can Do This. Those words snapped me to attention, and to this day, I still murmur them to myself whenever I feel fear lurking inside my chest.

I carefully wrote You Can Do This on an index card, and during my long labour with Aaron I yelled at my husband to show me the words. He dutifully held up the card while I breathed my way through my contractions.

You Can Do This turned my labour upside down. Instead of fighting each contraction, and thinking no, no, no, I welcomed the pain because it was evidence that my body was working hard. Each contraction brought me closer to meeting my baby. When I was near the end, close to transition, I distinctly remember that Mike and I were giggling together and shouting: The baby is coming! The baby is coming! It was the strangest thing. Instead of fear, I felt joy embedded in those waves of pain.

Aaron popped out after a few minutes of pushing, and the best feeling in the world is having that fresh baby placed on your chest right after birth. Just thinking of that now, 11 years later, makes me tingle.

Afterwards, the nurse told me, with tears in her eyes, that she had never seen a couple so happy and excited to have a baby. You can do this. And I did.

I want to acknowledge that everybody does not have a positive birth experience, and that not having medication is merely a choice – and certainly not the only way to have a baby. I know that my experience was not only due to determination – luck and good fortune came into play too.

Because I had survived and even thrived through the pain, I suddenly acquired this electric feeling like I could do anything. It was a glimpse into a thrilling world that meek shy me had never seen before.

This place of strength came in very handy two weeks later when we found out that our baby had Down syndrome. My resiliency from that labour spilled over into my life with my son, especially during those early dark days of grief. I am so very grateful that his birth was uneventful (if yours was not, I can promise you that you will make your way). My own experience helped put me on a positive path in our new journey, and along with the love of a good man and supportive mom-friends, it is one of the things that still helps sustain me today.

Maureen’s brilliant philosophy does not only apply to birthing a baby. If you take one thing away from my writing, please know this: You can do this. No matter what it is, you can.  And I believe that you will, too.