Category Archives: childhood

Bless Our Mess

My son’s occupational therapist shared with me something cute my 8-year-old shared with her at school. She said, “He said my house sure can be a mess sometimes, but its the best mess. Its my favorite place to be.” At first, I have to admit, I was mortified because I carry a little bit of secret shame about my free-spirited, “just trying to survive and stay sane as a working mom” housekeeping philosophy. But, then, I was struck with how profound my son’s statement really was. Our house, our family, ourselves sure can be messy, but messy can still be amazing. Messy can still be our favorite place to be. A big ole come as you are mess is actually quite comforting and endearing. You are always accepted and don’t have to clean up first and fit everything into a neat and tidy toy box. It’s the expectation of shiny, well-organized constant perfection that trips us up in so many ways, isn’t it? I honestly don’t want a constantly neat and tidy house. I want a sanitary house with clean dishes, the litter box scooped, enough clean clothes for the week and the trash taken off, but do I want floors with daily fresh vacuum lines and with toys neatly in their place or my son’s art supplies in perfect order at all times? No, I really don’t.

One of my favorite things about my Mom’s parenting style was that she was very relaxed when it came to her expectations of the house. She would rather let us relax, study, and play at home most days than to have a rigid chore chart schedule. There were times she asked for help or told us “alright that’s it, your room is a disaster its time to clean it up,” but overall there was always a sense of home being a place to rest, get schoolwork done, and to not have to be as tightly wound as the outside world expected. I want my kids to look back on their childhood the same way. That their home is the one place of constant refuge where they can kick back and relax, be messy, be themselves, but also a place where they can earn a dollar if they help Mama do the dishes.

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Of course, I’m not advocating never cleaning or letting your house be unsanitary, but I am all in favor of relaxing a bit and instead of shaming myself for my messy home, savoring the fact that this is my son’s favorite place and “the best mess.” My kids don’t care that my desk is overflowing with books and papers for the online class I teach. I’m thankful my youngest son’s room looks like a Lego explosion and he feels creative freedom and relaxation. I’m thankful my oldest son’s room is an explosion of stuffed animals and art supplies where he can shut the door and decompress after school. I’m thankful I can go to yoga or read a book instead of spending hours each day trying to get my home to look like a magazine. I do not enjoy cleaning at all because it is an exercise in futility and I don’t have the time to put any effort into futile pursuits my kids will just undo for me. Why spend an hour picking up Legos or hounding my son to do so when I could instead be playing Marvel versus Capcom with him or even just sitting by him on the couch reading a book, available if he wants to talk while he draws? He is just going to empty out the Lego boxes looking for the perfect Darth Vader helmet tomorrow anyway, so why bother? Ain’t nobody got time for that. I sure don’t. I work 3 jobs for goodness sake and take care of 2 boys, one of whom has special needs that take up any excess energy I might have. When you are just trying to survive as the parent of a child with special needs, you don’t have time to get neurotic about perfection. You start to accept and cherish the beautiful mess that is your life because your ideas about perfection were shattered the day you received that diagnosis.

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As I think and write, I realize that housekeeping tends to be a deeply personal issue for me and for probably most of us women. Men are pretty much off the hook because if someone comes over and the house is a wreck, no matter if the wife works just as many hours or not, somehow the spoken accolades or the passive-aggressive disapproval falls on her. Her only hobby  after working full-time should be cleaning and childcare right? That is the unspoken expectation so many of us feel. It is us women who frantically announce, “Ya’ll! Clean up NOW Grandpa is coming over in 2 hours!” as we bust out the mop, the vacuum, and the shovel for all of those toys simultaneously in a flurry of panic at the thought that our family member or friend is going to judge us harshly for slacking off and maybe playing with the kids or reading instead of non-stop cleaning.

Who do you allow into your home? I am very selective. I know which friends are my “safe friends” who I don’t have to clean up the house for if they want to swing by for coffee and these friends are the same ones I go to when something serious is going on in my life and I need to share my pain or my emotions without having them judged “a hot mess” or offering to “tidy up” my feelings for me either. There is something beautiful about accepting the messy parts of ourselves, our people and our homes. Let’s cut ourselves and each other some slack as we wing it through parenting, housekeeping, and realize we are all really a mess in one way or another. But we can find the love in our messiness. We don’t have to get it all in the toy box to be loved or enough.

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Joyful Movement: How did you enjoy moving your body as a child? What would joyful movement look like to you?

Remember when you were a child? All wild and free doing whatever felt good? I do. I remember swimming being the most exciting, wonderful thing ever. I looked forward to Summer all year, daydreaming about spending the whole day in my grandparent’s pool or going to swim at the local college. I remember frolicking through the woods behind my great-grandma’s house running as fast as I could and then exploring the plants and animals slowly and with care. I remember dancing wild and crazy in my room to the Aerosmith CD my Dad gave me. I remember the first time I rode my bike without training wheels when I was 4-years-old. My Dad right behind me holding onto the seat and telling me “Go for it! You got it!” looking back and realizing he wasn’t holding on anymore and I really was doing it! I rode my bike all over the neighborhood, to the corner store, to my friend’s house. All smiles and freedom in the sunshine. I felt powerful and able. I felt free and relaxed.

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Then I became an awkward teenager…I remember a shrinking feeling when I looked around and realized I was not very “athletic” when it came to team sports or “talented” when it came to dance. I didn’t try out for the dance team or anything else because I didn’t feel good enough. I was confident in my intellect. My body? Not so much. I dislocated my knee dancing when I was 9-years-old and suffered through a 7-month recovery period. Ever since that day, I distrusted my body. I wanted to keep it safe so that I wouldn’t be injured again. I was just “not the athletic type” so I shunned physical activity except what was required to pass gym class or work my Summer and after school jobs.

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Sums up my teen years…

After the birth of my 2nd son when I was 23, I realized I had to get into the gym or let myself go. Two choices. So, I joined a gym and pushed myself to the limit running, lifting weights, eating a low-carb, high-protein diet, tanning, etc. I became a typical “gym rat” and didn’t listen to my body or enjoy what I was doing at all. I did enjoy the endorphin rush from running and I enjoyed listening to music while I ran, but this wasn’t about body love. It was all about subjugating the body and pushing through workouts with force and anger to look a certain way rather than trying to have any amount of joy or fun. I pushed so hard, in fact, that I injured my knees, my foot, developed heart palpitations, etc.

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So, I had to take a break from that. I started going to a yoga/Pilates class because it was all that I could do other than walk. I loved it. I ENJOYED it. Wow, exercise could be…fun? joyful? something I look forward to? That started me thinking….what if I went back to enjoying moving my body like I did when I was a little girl? What if I did what my body enjoyed? What if I cut out the nasty protein shakes and low-carb protein bars and ate food that both nourished my body and tasted good? What if I started swimming again? Riding a bike again? Going to yoga/Pilates and Zumba dance class instead of the “Pump” weightlifting class I hated? What if I followed my body’s wisdom?

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My sons and I have discovered that swimming is “our thing”. We go at least once per week to swim at the indoor pool at the local aquatic center. We swim in the lake and outdoor pools in the Summer. It is a way to be active that we all enjoy rather than suffer through. We also enjoy racing each other down to the lake behind our neighbor’s house and back to our house. We play. We have fun. I dance around the house wild and free when no one is here but my kids. They join in. I can’t afford a bike right now and don’t know where I would ride it in my town where I wouldn’t get run over anyway, but one day…one day….’

And you know what happened ? By listening to my body, moving it in ways that feel joyful, fueling my body with delicious and nutritious food I’m still physically fit (although no longer a stick figure). I am healthy. I am happy. I am joyful. I no longer pressure myself to suffer through 2-hour workouts and eat food that tastes like chalk or cardboard.

The body is pretty wise. It often tells us what we need to hear but don’t want to hear. Our mind can justify pushing ourselves to the limit and white-knuckling it through life, but the body screams “No!” in many ways we often ignore until we are physically debilitated.  For so many, exercise is something they have written off because they don’t want to join a gym, push through workouts they don’t feel any joy doing, and they don’t feel like a “gym person” or “the athletic type.” The truth is, all the human body requires to be healthy is movement and good nutrition. That movement can be any type of movement. We just gotta move!

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How did you enjoy moving your body as a child? What would joyful movement look like to you?  Just for today….let’s wing it without a plan and try to soak up some fun along the way. 

Kids? Chaos? Just Dance!

For years in graduate school studying counseling I learned about various therapeutic interventions as well as building a helping relationship with clients in a classroom sitting down with calm and insightful adults.  During my internship, I worked with clients who were generally calm adults and kids who were usually happy to play therapeutic games, draw, play doll house or sand tray, or puppets. Then…oh then….I started working in the field of domestic violence with traumatized children and their mothers. child-abuse-statistics-overcoming This can be a challenging group to work with. These kids are experiencing major changes and transitions in their lives. They may have recently moved, started a new school, may be aware that Dad is in jail or that their parents are getting a divorce. Many have witnessed the abuse or have even been abused themselves in some way. There is just SO MUCH going on all at one time. Kids, being the little sponges they are, soak up the behavior they see modeled around them in the home. They often act like little mirrors, reflecting the chaos that is taking place or has taken place in their homes. They often mimic behaviors the abuser had such as throwing things, cursing, hitting, name calling, blaming others for problems they caused, and expecting everyone to cater to their “might makes right” attitude. These behaviors can be difficult to handle in a group setting when you have 10-15 kids all acting out their pain, trauma, and negative learned behaviors.

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Traditional therapeutic activities and interventions work with some kids or groups of kids, but sometimes you get the “perfect storm” of personalities, trauma histories, and then mix in a little ADHD or other disorders and the nice activity we had planned for the group therapy session just has to go straight out the window. I cannot be rigid in my approach. If I am rigid, I will fail these kids. I must go with the flow or, like trying to stand still in a rushing white water river, I will be taken under. I have to ride the waves. We have to be flexible and constantly asking “what does this group of kids need right now in this moment?” danceon A while back, I had a “perfect storm” situation in my group. The plan had been for the kids to work on a puppet show about families and then to do some crafts with clay. It became very clear that there was so much kinetic energy, anger, and frustration in these kids that chaos was building. The puppets were being thrown and used to hit each other rather than to do the puppet show. Kids were upset at each other for taking each other’s puppets. The clay was being broken into pieces and thrown. Redirection and other techniques  weren’t working. Normally, this would be my cue to take everyone outside for some recreation therapy. But, of course, it was raining. So, dance party it was! I turned on the CD player. A child had thrown it and broken the top. It wouldn’t read the Disney movie songs CD. Improvising yet again, I turned the radio on to a station I was pretty sure wouldn’t have any inappropriate music and thankfully it worked. One child volunteered to be the “DJ” and turn the music off periodically so we could play “Freeze Dance.” Sounds good to me! So all of the kids put on costumes from the dress up center and even gave me a cape to wear so that I could be Little Red Riding Hood as I danced. They all cleaned up the toys to clear the “dance floor” (a sheer miracle since just minutes earlier toys were flying around hitting me in the head and everyone was refusing to clean). Then…we danced! For an hour! Smiles, laughter, giggles, kids who were previously at each other’s throats holding hands to spin each other or try a little bit of the swing dance moves I showed them. One child who would usually shy away and look sad was all smiles and laughter. Time seemed to stand still and I realized this was exactly what she needed. My heart swelled as I danced my heart out with her.

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Then the mamas came to pick up the kids from group and they all smiled and erupted in laughter watching me and my assistant dancing with the children and everyone giggling and smiling. It was a teaching moment for them as well. I said “yes, anytime the kids are crawling the walls with energy and you can’t take them outside to run, just do a dance party in the house with them!” Everyone left smiling and happy. The moms were grateful that the kids had gotten some energy out after being cooped up for so many rainy days. “Freeze dance” or “dance party” was not in any textbook of therapeutic interventions that I can recall reading in grad school. However, this is what these kids (and I) needed in that moment of chaos. They needed a physical outlet to release the inner chaos and they needed the feel good brain chemicals that dancing and music releases to help calm their traumatized nervous systems. Sometimes, instead of fighting the chaos directly by trying to get the kids to sit down and follow our plan, we just have to allow that chaos to erupt and channel it in a positive direction. We can try to build a dam to shut it down and keep it pent up or we can get in our kayaks and ride the rapids with them while laughing.

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Whether it is parenting or counseling or just living life, winging it is all about flexibility, being willing to learn by trial and error, letting go of our picture perfect plans for new plans, and enjoying the adventure amidst all the chaos. Let go. Don’t fight the chaos. Jump in it and dance. Let me know how it goes.

Just Say “NO”: Underwhelming Our Family Schedule

“Jen, don’t feel like you have to be on all the committees for the PTO and all the other junk people will pressure you into when you have kids. The best thing you will ever learn as a mom is how to just say NO.

I remember my Mama giving me this nugget of wisdom when I was just a little girl and she was slaving away baking all this stuff for some PTO bake sale she had somehow gotten stuck baking the majority of the treats for after working all day at her job. I tucked away that little nugget of wisdom and thankfully remembered it when I had my own children and all kinds of requests coming at me to “get involved” “make a difference” “sign up!”

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For a long time, I thought I had depression or anxiety. Turns out, I didn’t. I just had an overwhelmed schedule that was underwhelming my spirit. I felt dead inside and constantly “on high alert” scrambling, trying to be on time, to get everything on my list done, to achieve at work, at home, and anywhere else I could. Then, I started having migraines and feeling like I had no motivation. I burnt out. I got to the point where I threw my hands up and just said “NO! Living like this is not really living!” and I quit one of my three part-time jobs, stopped feeling like I had to bake cupcakes for the class party (those Publix cupcakes are really pretty decent) or had to go with my kids as a volunteer on every single class field trip , realized my 4-year-old would survive and thrive without the team sports I signed him up for even though he didn’t ask me to, and I didn’t have to sign up for everything there is in terms of church service or volunteer stuff in the community, etc.  I basically just quit.

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I quit everything other than my job, my family, and the things I actually enjoyed. I zoomed out and realized that first things first really is a good philosophy. I have to take care of me first, my family second, and if there is anything left over, then sure I’ll let that overflow and help out somewhere. But, right now there isn’t any overflow. Or very little. I do lead a women’s group on Sunday mornings, but that is because meeting with other women and talking about Jesus is something that I love doing, not something I have to grit my teeth through. I am tired of gritting my teeth through life. Instead, I vow to enjoy life and let my children see me doing it.

My Mama’s wise advice has become my mantra. It helps me feel less guilty about having no desire to “get involved” and “sign up!” due to the fact that I feel like most days I can barely keep my head above water trying to raise two young children (one with special needs), work 2 jobs, make some half-hearted attempt to cook and keep my house semi-clean, and spend some romantic time with my husband at the end of the day trying to keep our marriage from falling into complacency or roommate status. Ain’t nobody got time for nothin’ else! At least not this mama!

I think we all owe it to ourselves and our kids to make a life that we actually enjoy living rather than being “Yes girls” who are so pressured into service (either through our own internal chatter or other people’s requests) we feel like the life is being sucked out of us and there is no time in our schedule to breathe or actually enjoy mothering and living. 

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I love my kids. They bring so much joy to my heart. I love playing outside with them in the sweet bliss of knowing I have NOTHING on my schedule. No school, sports, church, or extended family events on my calendar that day. My kids have expressed zero desire to sign up for sports, thank you Jesus! They would rather play with each other out in the yard than get together with a big group of kids or a team. I certainly don’t want to sit around watching them practice and ferrying them around in Mom’s taxi service from one activity to another. I am thankful that my boys love free play and free time outside as much as I do. We are a spontaneous and unscheduled family because I refuse to do things just because we “should” do them.  One day if they really, really, really want to play sports, I will allow it and figure out some kind of carpool co-op, but today I relish the fact that my kids are so much like me and I will not push them to “fit in” and do team sports or anything else that doesn’t bring them joy. We would rather go swim, run around the yard, go find a cool place to hike, or go paint some pottery together at INK. That’s just us. I love us.

We love our church family and I am so thankful they have made my son feel welcome even with the challenges that go with his special needs. Our whole family looks forward to going every Sunday morning and worshiping, learning more about Jesus, etc. But I’m just gonna go ahead and say. Wednesday church isn’t for our family. We love ya’ll, no hard feelings, but it just isn’t for us.  1) It’s too much for me because I run my butt off all day at work for 8 hours helping women and kids in crisis at a shelter and I have to go back and do it all again Thursday nights. Call me selfish, but I want to sit down and chill with MY kids when I get home on Wednesdays. I miss my kids and my husband. I want to sit around my dinner table and talk with them in an unrushed manner. I want to go hike down to the lake and talk to my kids about their days. I want to sit my butt down and breathe. I need a slower pace after a hectic day. I just don’t have anything left in my heart to give. I can dig deep and fill in in the nursery if there is an emergency and I’m really, really needed because there will be 20 kids unattended if I don’t. But I really just want to be home. Maybe that’s bad. But it’s me. It’s honest. 2) My kids feel the exact same way. They are tired and just want to go home after going to school and being babysat by Grandma until I finally get off work at 5:30. Yes, I could rush them through Taco Bell drive-thru and tell them to cram it down their throats because we HAVE to go to Wednesday church and then listen to them be grumpy and irritated because they really just want to go home and rest. But, instead, I would rather just go home and take my time making healthy food while they play outside or just sit down and play in a relaxed state because they are home where they want to be.

Since my kids and I are on the same wavelength, we are just going to do what is right for us and hope no one judges.  Busy mamas, if even God Himself rested on the 7th day, shouldn’t we get some rest as well? Is all this stuff we do really necessary? Thank you Lysa TerKeurst for this wisdom (read “The Best Yes” if you want to go deeper on this issue). My heart soars when it doesn’t feel constricted with external demands and pressures.

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Maybe you are a “go, go, go” family. That’s ok. I don’t judge. Maybe that works for you and your kids. All I ask is that you understand and don’t judge my decision to underwhelm my schedule so that our family of introverts who need peace and quiet can enjoy our lives. It is not due to laziness or lack of ____________. It is what we truly need in this season.

Maybe you are where I once was and feel like your schedule is so overwhelming you can’t breathe. I assure you, saying “no” doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a devoted mama, it doesn’t mean you are selfish. It just means you are human, you can’t do it all, this isn’t the right season for tons of service (other than to your young kids and family) and maybe you want some time to spend with your kids that doesn’t involve the words “Hurry up! We are gonna be late!” Remember, saying “no” makes way for you to say “yes” to the good things, the things God whispers in your heart for you to do. Things like walking leisurely to the lake talking about Jesus with my kids.

We all just have to pray and listen and intentionally underwhelm our schedules in ways that work for us so that God can overwhelm our hearts with His loving presence and we can feel Him nudging us towards our “best yes” assignments, the things that we are passionate about and do bring us joy.

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We mamas (and daddys) are all just winging it through parenthood, juggling so many balls. Sometimes its ok to just intentionally drop the ones that don’t bring us joy, that don’t bring our kids joy so that we can juggle the ones that really matter with a confident smile on our face knowing “we got this” rather than a look of terror that all of the balls may drop at any moment. Can I get an amen? 🙂

Counseling clients: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t dunk his head under and make him drink,” a wise professor of mine would say to us grad students who were learning to be counselors. She made sure we understood our role as a guide, not a savior. Empowerment, not rescue is the goal. I could not do the work I do everyday without this understanding. I can see 100 success stories and that one client, that one family that isn’t a success story would break my heart in two if I didn’t have this understanding at the core of my being that I am here not to work miracles and save clients from themselves, but to empower them and provide resources for change if and when they want it. Working in the field of victim advocacy, sometimes I wish I had a magic wand and I could save people from their circumstances, their abusers, and sometimes even themselves.

Sadly, some clients will not choose change. Children are drug along for the ride. They don’t get a choice. My heart breaks for them the most. If they are being abused, neglected, or are in danger, I make DFCS reports. I lift them up in prayer. And that is the extent of my reach. That is all I can do. I have to know my place. I sleep well at night knowing that I am doing something, even if it isn’t a something that boasts a 100% success rate. I remind myself of all of the amazing success stories I have witnessed and sit in awe reflecting on some of the amazing women and families I have had the privilege to watch overcome and thrive.

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How do we measure success? One thing I have learned is that success isn’t always radical change or what I picture as “success” in my mind. Sometimes, it is small changes that keep a woman and her children safer and more stable than ever before. Sometimes its safety planning and “advocacy beyond leaving”. Sometimes its attending support groups and finally she has a group of women to lean on as she plans how and when she will leave.  For many women, coming into safe shelter is a huge leap of faith and courage which provides her children with a safe home where she doesn’t have to “walk on egg shells” in fear for the first time. Success, to me, is anything that helps the family move forward towards safety, stability, and empowerment rather than backward into abuse, violence, chaos and instability.

Every case is different. There is no cookie cutter victim. There is no cookie cutter survivor. Did you know domestic violence affects women of all races, socioeconomic classes, vocations and levels of education? There is no stereotypical victim. Women transition from victim to survivor  in their own time and on their terms. It is a truly beautiful transformation to witness. We see her walking with a confident assurance, her head held high and a smile on her face with no fear in her eyes for the first time. Women come back and tell us about their accomplishments which range from getting her own place, to getting her GED, to getting her degree, to getting a great job. These women have a desire to pay it forward and help others.  It is an honor to be able to even play a small role in that process.

Each day I wear many hats and try to ask “what does this family need to heal?” I work with the whole family. You can’t help kids if you don’t help their mothers. I am officially a Children’s Advocate, but I work with mothers just as much as I work with children. I get to see the family living day to day and address any issues that come up. I give as much as I can to guide and empower clients to move forward. Sometimes the most valuable help I give is not my counseling skills, but the fact that I am a mother who has struggled financially myself and I know my community resources like the back of my hand because I’ve used them. Relating to her mother-to-mother and providing her with assistance resources, brainstorming options, etc. is sometimes more important than any specific counseling intervention. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A woman can’t think about her emotional state if she and her kids are hungry or she is worried about how to pay the light bill. We take care of first things first. Sometimes doing homework with teenagers or kids who have been so distracted and traumatized by the violence at home that they are unable to concentrate in class is what I do for hours each afternoon. Sometimes I connect mothers with financial assistance for daycare so that she can find a job for the first time. Every other Wednesday I pick up and unload a food bank order and stock our food pantries and freezers. Many days I draw or paint or play in the sandbox or the dollhouse doing play therapy with children who tell me horrific things and I tell them “its not your fault” and help them to talk about their feelings knowing they are now safe to say what they truly feel. All of this is therapeutic. I love not being confined to seeing my clients just 1 hour per week. I can provide them with more “intensive care”, but that also means I bond with them more closely and I have to keep my role as guide in perspective.

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Sometimes, a client just will not drink the dang water that is right there in front of her no matter how gently or strongly we nudge. No matter what resources are provided. There will always be those clients (who are the minority thankfully) who choose drugs, alcohol, the abuser, lying men, old habits, etc. over safety and stability. I am on the outside looking in and can clearly see the grave error they are making. They can’t. I have to remember times in my own life when I couldn’t see my own errors because I was right there in the thick of whatever I was struggling with. I have to remind myself that we all have free will and our reasons. I don’t judge, but my heart just breaks for the kids. I will defend an adult woman’s right to make self-destructive choices all day long, she is a grown woman after all and to view her like a child would be disempowering. But, when I see her children suffering from these choices, I feel so many things from anger to heartbreak. To learn more about how domestic violence affects children see: http://www.honorourvoices.org/ I see the trajectory of that child’s entire life changing when they remain in a violent and chaotic home. I see that child being at-risk for going down the same or an even worse road. Would she want this for her son or her daughter? I’m sure she would say “no, never” but so much of a child’s future is written during childhood. Children are resilient and can heal when they are in a loving, safe and stable environment. It is the kids who never fully escape an environment of chaos, instability, neglect and violence who cannot heal. They never have the chance to. It is like having a broken bone that is never set in a cast. The body just grows it back together the best it can, in a crooked way that gives the child a limp for the rest of his life. So the cycle of violence perpetuates…

I wish I didn’t have to ever see what were once devoted and loving mothers go down the black hole of meth, heroin, cocaine, and prescription pill addiction, unaware that their kids are being pulled into the black hole right along with them. I wish I didn’t have to ever hear a woman’s horrific abuse history and then see her walk out and go back to her abuser or to another abuser. But, I tell myself and my coworkers, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.” How can I compete with the rush of hard drugs or the allure of a man’s promises if that is what she is looking for? I can only hope that some seeds have been planted that might grow in a different season of her life. My mama told me “Jen, some people just have to learn things the hard way. You’re one of them.” I was. I get it.

May the clients who got away rise like the phoenix out of the ashes and try again, fly again one day. May their children have people in their lives who will be their guardian angels until then.  “He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.” Psalm 91:4 Amen. Selah.

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BRAVE: Self-love and bucking the trend of deprivation-focused eating as a woman

This weekend our Pastor gave a sermon on what it means to be “brave.” I pondered what it means to me to be “brave”.

I thought to myself, “Its brave just to be a female in our society who actually EATS!” Most women I know are either on a diet or just live a lifestyle that is perhaps not a diet but is undeniably restrictive and deprivation-focused. “I don’t eat carbs” “I eat Paleo” “I had a fat-free, sugar-free yogurt for lunch” “I only eat vegetables” is the way most women live. Even when I starved myself on an ultra-restrictive low-carb diet and compulsively exercised daily, I didn’t fit into society’s “beauty box”. I looked like a flat-chested body builder. Guys would come up to me in the gym and ask me how I got my legs so massive and ripped. No matter what I do, my body will never be waif-like aka “model-like” unless I go full-out anorexic. Today, I take a stand as I write this. I will never go back to that. I will never go back to feeling tired, hungry, angry and deprived all the time (even when people give me all kinds of compliments for doing so).

dieting

I am all for healthy eating. I am not saying go out and eat a KFC “Double Down”. Fruits and veggies are our friends. But dessert doesn’t have to be our mortal enemy. I’m just saying that I don’t want my day-to-day life to consist of counting calories, culling carbs, and smoking cigarettes to try and keep my appetite suppressed. I don’t want to feel bad for putting dressing on my salad. I don’t want to feel bad for having…God forbid…a cookie for dessert. If I had a daughter, I would want her to feel free to have that cookie and not stress about it. I wouldn’t want her on some restrictive diet trying to lose weight so that her friends are complimenting her instead of criticizing her natural shape. By “natural shape” I mean the shape she finds herself in when she eats a balanced, healthy diet and engages in regular physical activity. I know girls who eat so healthy, work out, and are a size 12. What’s wrong with that? We all have different size frames, genetics, etc. Some of us are 5’5 and a size 8 in peak condition. Some are 6’2 and a size 14. That’s ok.

perfect body

I think we should celebrate diversity and health. Today, I celebrate the fact that this body of mine grew and birthed two strong and robust baby boys without the need for any medical assistance. Yes, I received prenatal care, but there were no medications or interventions at any point. I birthed both of my boys at home with a midwife present. See, these wide birthing hips are actually a genetic advantage, an asset. But, my whole life I hated them and saw them as abnormal because all I saw on TV was a bunch of narrow pelvises and women who looked like 13-year-old boys with breast implants.  Even when I was anorexic, I was a size 7 because of these hip bones. And that’s ok. I don’t want a “thigh gap.” My husband loves these thick thighs. I told him about the concept of “thigh gap” and he snarled his nose up looking disgusted and horrified. God, I love my man.

What’s funny is that most men I know don’t even particularly like the skinny girls more than the thick girls. But we women want to be skinny girls or uber-fit girls. Why? Because we think it makes us “better” and then the slippery slope “better than.”  I think we women actually perpetuate this culture of deprivation, alteration, and lack of acceptance because we internalize it so deeply that we spew our dissatisfaction with ourselves onto other women. We project it onto our friends and daughters.

diet

Mothers urge their daughters to slim down and worry that their daughters might get the slightest bit overweight. They don’t worry like this about their sons. A “stout” boy is ok, but a “stout” girl? No. Grandmas tell us to stand up straight and suck that stomach in.  Our friends ask us to join them on fad diets and restrictive cleanses. I always want to say “ok so are you saying I need to diet? Cause personally I don’t!” when asked to buy the latest diet supplement or join a fad diet. We buy Spanx to hide our real shapes. We buddy up about weight loss because we need “accountability” not to have that darn cookie with dinner. We lust over our husband’s butter-laden baked potato while we act happy to eat steamed broccoli. At least I do…or did yesterday…dang it I’m just not going to live like that. Because that’s not living. It’s trying to shave off the square edges of WHO I AM to try and fit me into this small round hole that is the “beauty box” society tries to sell to us women and girls everywhere we look. I like baked potatoes and I like my wide hips and strong thighs.

bodygirls

Brave is standing against that. Brave is loving my body as-is. Brave is just continuing to do the next right thing for me, for my health, not for a number or a size or a thin aesthetic. Brave is eating like French women do. For pleasure and for health. In balance, with portions that are not too large or small. Without cutting out bread and wine. With a nice long walk after eating.  Enjoying life. Balanced and happy. Chocolate and champagne are not off limits. We shall see how it goes…

Tell me, how do you eat in a way that is healthy and doesn’t leave you feeling deprived, angry, and sad? What works for you? This women and food thing is difficult terrain to climb alone. Let’s wing it together and fly to the top of this craggy mountain! 

Breaking News: Boobs! Meanwhile in New York beautiful things are happening…..

So I go online this morning and the “top news” story trending is this story about a celebrity’s breasts (although I applaud her speaking out about the negatives of breast implants): https://gma.yahoo.com/melissa-gilbert-feels-going-size-dd-just-average-134014073–abc-news-celebrities.html 

I look forward to a day when women’s bodies are no longer “breaking news” and instead our minds, hearts, spirits, professional accomplishments and philanthropy are the “top stories”.  Amazing things are happening in this world! Flowers are breaking through the hardened sidewalk of society. Stories like this one:   http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/24/living/feat-humans-of-new-york-harvard-fundraiser/

How are we in 2015 and still women’s bodies are not only fair game for commentary, news stories, judgment, etc. but these stories overshadow stories about exemplary women who are making a difference in the world every day in ways that have nothing to do with appearance? How many news articles do you see discussing a male politician’s new hair-do or fashion choices? How many male actors are plastered on a magazine shamed for gaining weight? No matter how accomplished or dignified a woman is, her body is still subject to the gauntlet of public opinion. News stories about women’s bodies or fashion choices trend, while other stories get overlooked. Why is that?

little girl

It’s no wonder we women are so dang messed up and every woman I talk with has some kind of body image issue. Some part of her body she hates. Instead of seeing herself as a whole woman with inner and outer beauty, a woman will take issue with her breast size or shape, how big or small her butt is, or how big her nose is. Why can’t we all rise up and just buck this trend? Because it is all around us. It is pervasive. We can’t dig a hole, crawl in and escape it.

I am an accomplished, professional woman who has received numerous kind and crass comments about my body over the years (especially during my stint waiting tables and during my dating days) from women and men alike. I just want to tell all of them “please don’t comment on my body; its mine you know. I’ll ask if I want your opinion.” I hate how every time we are at the park with my father-in-law he comments on women’s appearances. I hate how one of my best friends slipped and called me fat the other day joking around…even though she knows my struggles…and she struggles too. I hate when I try to open up about my insecurities to a friend and she offers me diet advice instead of advice on how to love myself…

nobody

The worst thing for someone like me is when all of a sudden I start receiving a lot of compliments about how good I look when I’ve lost weight. You see, I don’t ever let myself get “scary skinny”. This is a common misconception about eating disorders. That only people who look skeletal have one. Not true. These people who complimented my slim physique were well-meaning, but they were complimenting my eating disorder. They are positively reinforcing my anorexia. When I slip back into my patterns of restricting food and compulsively exercising, I am literally flooded with all of these comments about my body from women and men alike “oh you look so good! What are you doing?” I’m starving myself eating an apple, a yogurt, and a salad everyday….I’m exercising for hours at a time hating myself….I don’t recommend it. It’s a pretty miserable existence.  No one compliments you when you gain weight, even if on the inside you are psychologically the most healthy and happy you’ve ever been. In our society, weight loss and uber-fitness is lauded as the pinnacle of success. “She has it all” yeah…including an eating disorder and self-loathing….no I don’t have it all. For Pete’s sake, I don’t even have dessert! Have you tried living like that?

If I’m about 10 pounds overweight I’m in my happy place with my eating disorder and food. If I’m skinny again, I’m losing. Losing and risking my life. I’m having heart palpitations and my stomach is screaming for food and I’m not listening. But I sure do get a lot of compliments….

eatingdisorder

For the past two years, I’ve been in the best place of my life. I have felt like I was in full recovery and have started to love myself as-is instead of constantly trying to change myself. My husband and my counselor have both helped me start to love myself even with a little extra weight on me that comes from….you know…eating and not compulsively exercising. My husband is the only person who tells me I look better the way I am today than when I was 100 pounds. Even my friends remind me that I looked “so great” back then. Sigh…they can’t help it. They are women and they have been acculturated just like I have.

So I’ve been doing well with this thing, but yesterday….I saw a picture of myself and was horrified. Utterly disgusted. I broke down crying. It triggered something in me that I couldn’t talk myself down from. I couldn’t see the sweet moment I was having with my children in that picture. I couldn’t see the smile on my face. All I could see was fat. FAT. FAT. FAT. DISGUSTING. LET MYSELF GO. NEVER GOOD ENOUGH. I cried and cried and then I had to go to work. I didn’t eat all day. I felt dizzy.

There are three precious little girls at work. They asked me why I was only eating a small piece of chicken and a small salad for dinner as I sat with them. They knew I normally ate more and enjoyed dessert. These girls tell me they love me every day. Over and over. They smile and run to hug me when they see me. They want to be around me 24/7. They want to play games and eat with me. I couldn’t bear to tell them the truth. I lied to them. I told them I had a late lunch and my stomach wasn’t feeling so good today. But it wasn’t my stomach that was hurting. My heart was breaking. My mind was racing and at a loss. I don’t want to go back down the road of misery, but I don’t want to look at pictures of myself and feel horror.

When I start focusing on doing the “Paleo diet” or whatever other “eat this, not that” diet people tell me to try, it spirals out of control into orthorexia then anorexia. Honestly, I’d rather just not eat than eat food that I don’t like and get no pleasure from eating. I don’t like being in a deprivation mindset. It feels icky. It feels wrong to me. The only way I have overcome anorexia is trying to eat healthy foods, but not put too much thought into it. As long as it doesn’t contain MSG, artificial sweeteners, or anything else that is just plain toxic, its ok by me. Carbs are ok. Desserts are ok. I don’t count calories (counting calories always becomes a game to me of how little I can eat and survive). I just focus on moderation and healthy choices as my goal.

dieting

But, look where “not thinking too much about it and just eating normally” has gotten me? To the point where I am horrified by a picture of myself. Obviously this “eating like a normal person” thing isn’t working either. I don’t know what to do but turn back to my old ways…nothing I’ve learned in counseling school works for me. No advice my healthy friends give me works. Mindful eating? Nope. I enjoy it too much and fixate on the pleasure of food to the point where I binge. “Healthy eating” turns into a contest to see how I can use fruits and veggies to drastically reduce calorie intake. Treating my body like a temple? Then I start feeling guilty for not being able to eat perfectly (I hate smoothies and I can’t stay on a “30 day challenge” of any kind) and I get depressed because I am a failure and my temple will never be good enough.

Food and I have such a messed up relationship. I don’t understand how some people just go about their lives eating and not having this love-hate, starve-binge, freak out if their pants are tight, freak out when they see a bad pic where they look fat issues….I wish I could just be normal. But I’ve struggled with this since I was 9 years old. I am a highly sensitive, perceptive, and intelligent woman who grew up in this culture where women’s bodies are always the subject of commentary and news stories. My mom would go on and on about how much she hated her stomach and how fat she was (she wasn’t actually ever overweight). Family members would praise me when I was starving to be thin. This stuff has deep roots.

My natural body type is curvy with wide, child-bearin’ hips and thick thighs. I am short. I have never had a perfectly flat stomach even before kids. I’m stronger than many men. My biceps are bigger than my husband’s. That’s just how God made me. I am still living in a culture which floods my mind with photoshopped images of women who look nothing like me and I can’t even scroll through my Facebook newsfeed without someone posting pictures of scantily clad women or their “before and after” weight loss pics (they usually look better in the before though). I wonder how my husband could want me when there is so much (real or fake) “perfection” out there. But he does. He is so good to me. He always says the right thing and he is so atypical.

I would never want this for these little girls I was sitting and eating dinner with. I would never want to model food restriction to these beautiful, perfect angels. I would want them to know that they don’t have to be what the magazines try to tell them they need to be. They are wonderfully made by the Creator who made the stars. I want to be a role model for them…but I’m back-sliding….it feels like I’m sliding down the mountain and I’m grabbing onto it, but my fingernails are breaking off and I know I can’t hold on. I pray and pray and cry and cry. I don’t want them to see me fall. All I can do is hide from them how I really feel. And that is not who I am. Of all things, I never want to be a liar again. Authentic is my goal, my mantra. But tonight, I can’t.

friends talk

I can look at any other person who is overweight or normal weight and not ever think a judgmental thought. I actually think women who are “thick” are so beautiful, so sexy. But not me. I see me at a normal weight, maybe 15 pounds overweight and think “Oh my God what have I done! I’ve let myself go and pretty soon the next picture I see of myself I will look obese and then…..”(down the rabbit hole I go with all of the awful things that will happen to me if I don’t look good enough). Why can’t I just love myself when I am able to love every other person on this Earth just the way God made them? My whole life has been chasing “good enough”. I’m still chasing it. Why can’t I find it? Intellectually, I understand that God made me perfect, whole, loved, accepted, cherished. But in my heart I know that this world doesn’t run according to how God sees me. And, as much as I hate it, I have to live in this world. 

friendschristwhoyouare

We have to live in a society that tears women apart with subtle things like every single magazine having articles like “How to stay slim without feeling hungry”. Women compliment each other on weight loss and eat fat-free Nutrasweet laden yogurt for lunch. Men download porn and view women as 2-dimensional objects who exist solely for their guilty pleasure. They don’t wonder who these women are…what they think…what their lives are like…if they are sad or addicted or contracting AIDS. They don’t wonder if maybe when she was a little girl she really wanted to be a doctor or a teacher, but she’s doing this instead because she has 3 kids to feed and they have a deadbeat daddy. They don’t know that a lot of abused girls grow up trying to take their power back by claiming to “enjoy” doing this for a living. They don’t realize that girls who are posting naked pictures of themselves online seeking attention are feeling empty and insecure. They don’t care.

There is so much sickness in our society. Even women who have fulfilling careers, who excel academically, who earn professional degrees and hold our heads high as our strong bodies walk down the street know eyes are looking at us. Not at the whole woman, not wondering who we are, what we do, what brings us joy, what good we are doing for the world….those eyes are looking at our body parts… undressing us with their eyes. Other eyes are comparing our waistlines to their waistlines. We women are all trying to answer the question, “Am I ok? Am I good enough?” 

I hope the women in my life I love dearly have found their answer and that it is “yes, I’m wonderful.” However, based on what clients tell me in counseling sessions, most girls lose that confident assurance around the same age they go through puberty and start looking outside into the world asking the world that question and receiving a resounding, “NO. Not good enough” everywhere they look.

I’m gonna fight this thing. I am determined not to slip as far down as I once was. Today, I may still be sliding down the mountain. Yesterday, I lost the battle of my mind. Today, I’m going to try again. I’m going to try and make peace with food, with bad pictures. I’m going to try to “love myself as my mama loved my baby feet” (thanks Mary Lambert). I’m going to try and see myself how I see those precious girls at work. “You don’t have to try so hard, you don’t have to try try try try, you just have to get up get up get up you don’t have to change a single thing” my Pandora radio sings to me as I write this.

Today I’m going to make a Youtube playlist and listen to songs like these over and over, winging it until something sinks in…are you winging it through a messed up relationship with food? Are you a woman who is just trying to figure out how to live in a world which tells us only certain body types are acceptable or attractive? Share your wisdom, struggles and thoughts with me please.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXoZLPSw8U8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8NvU9Ah-uY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3f1zii5skA

Jumping In

As a little girl, I was scared to death. All the time. Of pretty much everything new or unfamiliar. I was the child who didn’t fight or take flight, but would simply freeze and smile trying not to look as terrified as I perpetually was. It is a miracle my little heart didn’t just explode it would often beat so fast. I remember taking swimming lessons at the local community college at the age of 5 or 6. First, there was the part of getting dressed in the ladies locker room all exposed with these other naked kids. Then, we were herded out into the pool room and told to sit on the side of the pool. Oh, the goosebumps on my cold little shaking arms! Every sound echoed and the pool was soooooooo BIG it might as well have been the ocean. We were sitting on the side of the shallow end and my eyes grew wide as I watched the older kids diving off the high dive fearlessly. “Just do what the teacher says, just do what the teacher says, just watch the other kids and act like them” was running through my mind at rapid speed like a CNN ticker tape of updates.

“Everyone in!” the instructor shouted in a sweet yet authoritative voice as she blew her whistle. I slid in like the other children and then clung onto the side wall for dear life. After blowing bubbles and back floating and being told repeatedly by the instructor that she would rescue me if I started to drown, I started to ease in. I realized I could always just back float if I felt like I was going to drown. I learned to tread water. Then I never worried about drowning again…until it was time to learn to jump off the diving board and then try to dive off the high dive.

Luckily, my fear of crying and having everyone laugh at me and think I’m a big weenie is (still) more powerful than my fear of….pretty much everything else. So, even though I shook so hard I thought I would fall off the ladder, I climbed every rung and put my little hands together and let myself fall head first off that diving board. I dove…well I belly-flopped. I swam for my life thinking I would never, ever reach the surface of the water and find air. But I made it. And I learned that belly-flops don’t actually hurt that bad. The 20 or so belly flops I did before doing a decent dive were worth it.

I fell in love with swimming, diving, all things water related. I held my strawberry-blonde little head high and told my mama “I don’t need any water wings because I can swim all by myself.” I’ve been winging it through my many moments of fear and sheer terror ever since. Some things I have experienced would terrify anyone, some seem so silly looking back.

Can I tell you a secret? I love to write, but I have resisted writing for a long time out of fear of belly flops. So here I am at the bottom of that diving board ladder…afraid to click “Publish” because I’m afraid people will laugh or (worse) just not care what I have to say? Will I occupy this moment and every other moment in my life thinking of all of these ideas but never actually writing any down? Or will I just belly flop into the pool and write so that one day at the very least my kids will have a neat collection of their mother’s writings to reflect on when I’m dead and gone? If you know my kids, you know they are going to need as much post-humous guidance as I can give them. This is my first blog so I guess I’m in the pool and I’ll just plan on dog-paddling around with my water wings on until I figure it out. But, of one thing I’m sure, whatever it is you or I or anyone is scared to do : JUMP IN! We won’t drown. We’ll wing it. Together.