Beyond Bubble Baths

I was honoured to have my story chosen to be shared on the This is Brave website.  This beautiful site was created to foster community and share stories of women’s mental health.

I’ve written snippets of my travels in mental health since my cancer diagnosis.  This story is a reflection on all I’ve learned the past 18 months about taking care of myself – more than that – about unpacking why I actually didn’t like myself very much.  Self-loathing is a horrible thing.  As Arthur Frank says, it is me writing as the Wounded Storyteller but now more from my scars than my wounds.

I tackled the old notion of self-care in this essay and called it Beyond Bubble Baths.  I also hope to put an arrow in the heart of the whole narrative of having to be brave and strong when you have cancer (or a kid with a disability or become a mother or your marriage breaks up or when you are grieving or during any other significant life event).  There is great pressure in our society to ‘present well’ ‘be strong’ ‘get back to normal’ because of people’s own discomfort with sitting with someone in their pain.

This is Brave is a popular Instagram site and it features the stories of younger moms.  I’m 50, hardly a young mother, so I wrote about what I wished I had known about loving myself as a younger woman and how that would have changed the way I mothered my three children.  I would have allowed the hard emotions, both in myself and my kids.  This was hard to admit and then write.  As I said, my children have had a strong mother, but not a happy mother.  For that I feel deep regret.

Part of the This is Brave experience is that the writers are gifted a photo shoot.  Although the idea of getting my picture taken made me break out in a fear sweat, I gamely drove out to the studio.  Julie from Julie Christine Photography was lovely and immediately put me at ease.  It is weird to see photos of me as usually I’m the one taking photos of my family (or of food).  I know that having photos of myself mean that I’ve stepped out from beyond my various roles (of mother, wife, children’s health advocate) to become more visible on the road to fully embrace myself.

Here is one of my favourite pictures. I am wearing pink because I hate the whole breast cancer awareness crap (also known this month as Pinktober) and I’m taking pink back. It is a sad picture because it is okay to be sad.  If you feel sad that means you have a chance to feel joy too. xo.

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moms gotta chillax

Last night, I watched the first episode of Speechless.  I chuckled uncomfortably at the Minnie Driver character, Mama Bear of a kid with CP.  My husband laughed considerably louder than I did.  I looked around nervously to see if there was a hidden camera in our apartment.

Some highlights from the ‘mom’ character:

She’s intense and a bit wacky
She lectures people on the correct language of disability, disabled parking spots and appropriate accessible accomodations
She’s burned through many schools and moved houses trying finding a good fit for her son
The teachers have a meeting about her before she shows up to the school, to figure out how to ‘handle’ her
Her husband is long-suffering
Her other kids are long-suffering too

This all felt eerily familiar.

I turned to Mike afterwards and asked:  what did you think?  He replied:  I think she even has the same hair as you.  Oh.  Got it.   I thought to myself:  I gotta learn to relax.  

This morning I was sitting on the couch, drinking my coffee.  Teenage Aaron stumbled out of his room and stood in front of the fridge in his underwear.

Moms gotta chillax, he said, talking into the fridge.
What did you say? I said, unable to understand his mumbling at the best of times.
He turned to me and said clearly and definitively:  Moms gotta chillax.  Massage, day spa, books, sushi, baths, he added, counting things moms can do to chillax on his fingers.

Got it dude.  Mama Bears, promise me this weekend you will pick one thing to do to chillax.  Personally, I’m going for a pedicure at the day spa.  My Yoda has spoken.

care of ourselves

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At the Erin Rose pub, off Bourbon, in New Orleans. (Note: go for the killer po’boys in the back room).

I have a colleague, Joanne Minaker, who is a visionary when it comes to women’s issues.  Her philosophy is that we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.  And I know y’all are nodding and saying, yes, yes, we know that.  But 21 years into motherhood, I can unequivocally say that this is absolutely true.  And while we might nod, how many of us actually take action on self-care?  We’ve got loads of excuses:  no time, no money, too many other people to look after.  But don’t forget:  a happy mom is a happy family.

Joanne hosted a Be Bold with Care Retreat two weeks ago.  One our Bird Associates Tara Hogue Harris, attended and wrote about her experience on our company blog here.

I could not go because I went to Los Angeles and New Orleans instead.  I went to LA to see my long lost eldest son, who is living the life in Koreatown with his lovely girlfriend, while drumming and touring across America.  It did his mama’s heart good to see him.  I was happy to see the whites of his eyes, go for Korean hot pot for dinner, walk around central LA with him, and then drag my pink suitcase up to a Mexican burrito place to meet up the next morning.  I saw where he lived, I saw he was in love, I saw he is happy.  All is well.

Then I boarded another plane and met my husband in the airport in New Orleans for what I (half) jokingly called Our Marriage Saver.  Every two years, we make very complex child care arrangements to go on adult trip together. (Yes, I realized how privileged we are to do this.  It costs a lot of money).  Since Aaron has been born, we’ve been to San Francisco (twice), Italy, New York and now New Orleans.  These have all been very adult vacations.  We eat hard, dance hard and go to bed really late and sleep in even later.  We eat food that isn’t kid friendly, go on big hikes, take leisurely shopping expeditions (Sue), go to pubs (Mike) and sail through airports, unencumbered by children.

It is frankly awesome.  Our cups get empty when we are neck deep into parenting.  The geographical cure does work to refill it, even if that cure takes you as far as your local bookstore or bathtub.

After six days away, I have the luxury of having an overfilled cup to draw upon.  My husband and I giggled together, and walked wide-eyed down Bourbon Street, drinks in hand and beads around our necks.  We jumped up and down to 80’s music, hung out in local pubs, ate po’boys, gator gumbo, jambalaya, muffaletas, shrimp and grits and pralines and drank a substantial amount of Hurricanes (me) and Old Fashioneds (him).  We went on a food tour, a bus tour and a swamp tour.

I’m still detoxing – drinking a lot of water and eating vegetables while I recover.  Want to go on an adult trip and not into Vegas gambling?  New Orleans is where it is at.  As Joanne says, caring for ourselves isn’t just about going for a pedicure (although that can help), and care is really about human sustenance.

When I got back home, I was hit by a tornado of problems:  crappy work emails in my inbox, scheduling medical appointments for Aaron, trying to find him private behavioural supports, being told the school speech pathologist won’t see him, and bearing witness to injustices in our educational system.  This is frankly exhausting. Plus, it had snowed when we were gone.  Winter has begun in earnest.  And it’s going to be a long one.

So go ahead.  I invite you to take a break from the grocery shopping, the laundry, the advocacy, the outrage, the therapies for your kids, the school phone calls, the early mornings.  Treat yourself, even if it is for one afternoon.  Disappear to a movie.  Go for that pedicure.  Browse in the bookstore.  Have a long hot bath.  You deserve it, my friends.  And I believe that you are well worth it.

Ps:  thanks to Corrie, Ella, Eisech and Helga who held down the fort back at home to make this happen for us.   And to my parents, who generously provided childcare for our previous trips. xo