Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Search for Personal Fulfillment

It's been a while, I know. The year so far has been a good one, which has been a refreshing change. My last two years were tough. Two years ago I spent much of the year in a miserable pregnancy. The kind where the days drag by so slowly and you can't believe you have another two first-trimester months left of horrible, nauseous half-living. And then the two months you were counting drag to three, then four. And after the nausea finally lessens, there is horrible hip pain and bronchitis and sleepless nights. My pregnancy with Anna made that whole year drag.

Then last year, my amazing husband was working full-time and was full steam into a master's program and had a busy church calling. I didn't see him that much, and when I did see him, I was already so tired. Our number one piece of advice for newlyweds has always been to spend time with each other, because at least in our marriage, we found very early on that doing so made a huge difference in our relationship. Last year, we were reminded again why spending time together is so important. Because two tired, over-worked people who only see each other between 10 pm and midnight don't make the happiest pair :P

In December and January, we reevaluated. David cut some things out of his schedule. He initiated the change and did it cheerfully, but I knew he was sacrificing. Dave is a dreamer and has always had big ambitions. He is very good at seeing what he should or could be doing to get to a certain desired point. And I know that through this whole master's program he has seen doors that are closed to him because of his family, even if they are simple things like joining clubs on campus to network and be involved in exciting projects for extra learning and growth. Just as he supported me through my Cambridge program, I would of course support him in all of his opportunities, but I'm not sure either of us realized how hard it had been on us until he cut back. In December he had nothing on his to-do list and it was a wonderful change.

I mulled over changes I could make too. I realized we needed date nights (cause previously we didn't have any. Bad idea when the kids come around folks). But I also needed to make some personal changes. I realized I needed some kind of outlet for personal fulfillment.

I've become interested in the topic of personal fulfillment for moms. It's a hard world for stay-at-home moms right now, and I'm not even talking about the social stigmas. I imagine that for much of the history of the world there was a built-in community for moms. This could be an idyllic idea, of course; I'm no historical anthropologist. But I tend to imagine people built into closely-knit communities of neighbors and extended families, where kids played together and moms shared the work and the child-rearing. Even in America, don't we have those ideas of suburban houses filled with stay-at-home moms and packs of kids roaming, exploring, playing ball, riding bikes, wandering into and out of their neighbors' houses, everyone knowing each other and providing a safety net of care, support, and encouragement? Like I say, maybe the idea is idyllic, but I think the reality was closer to that than to our very isolated modern world. Now, while I stand at the front window doing dishes, I might see a lone adult out walking his dog. I see a few kids come off the school bus and disappear into houses down the street for the rest of the night. We wave to our next-door neighbors when they get into or out of their car and we've had brief conversations with them a few times, but that's the extent of our acquaintance. And we know few of our other neighbors.

I think there are still neighborhoods where the moms pull out their lawn chairs and sit together in a row chatting while they watch their kids play together, but I also think that is becoming less and less normal. Which means that for most moms, being a mom is an incredibly lonely job. And if I the introvert feel the oppression of loneliness, I can't imagine what it must be like for my extroverted friends.

And so I've been watching my mommy friends and acquaintances and wondering if they are having a hard time like I was having last year. Over-worked, over-tired, under-stimulated, under-socialized.

Multi-level marketing programs of all kinds have been bursting on the scenes among my acquaintances recently. I have seen some recent criticisms of programs like that, most of which blame "the [oppressive] culture" for making moms feel like they HAVE to stay home with their kids, guilt them into not working, etc. Their conclusion is that since they feel they can't work out of the home, MLM is the only way they feel like they can contribute to the family income or find a personal outlet or whatever. I'm skeptical about such criticisms, because it seems to me that in our world, it is easier for a mom to work than to stay home. Our society basically preaches that if a household doesn't have two incomes, it can never succeed financially. The social reasons I've discussed above make a work environment attractive to a mom, since work is a place where friends, or at least adults to talk to regularly, abound. Work is also a creative outlet, and even if the work you are doing isn't particularly important in the grand scheme of things, the satisfaction derived from being immediately useful and accomplishing a project well is important. Not to mention the fact that contrary to the assumption in the criticisms I've read, it's becoming less and less socially acceptable for women to do the antiquated job of "homemaking." So anyway, I'm disinclined to think that myriads of women are forgoing these and other benefits of working just because they're worried about being judged by some portion of their cultural group.

I think the clearer reality is that many moms DO want to be home with their children. Because even when being a mom is so. hard., it also fills some deep and immense void in us, that usually we didn't even know was empty. The sheer force of love, wonder, laughter, amazement, beauty and snuggles that our children provide really does fulfill in a profound way. And often, therefore, we can't imagine leaving these miraculous, incredible little ones with someone else for most of every day. If there's any possible way to do it, we want to be there with them to teach and guide, play and giggle, hug and hold. Even when a lot of the time is spent doing thankless, drudging, repetitive tasks, or in begging these precious little ones to listen to us just once.

As for me, I have a small slice of experience as a working mom. I went back to work part-time after Madelyn was born. I think I knew myself well enough to know that I would need a transition...I had been working full time AND writing my master's thesis (I really discourage anyone from doing both of those things at once by the way) up until right before Madelyn was born, and I worried that it would be hard for me to go from beyond-full-steam to nothing. Or if not nothing, then at least a very, very quiet life at home all day long with a newborn. And I had work that was going to be unfinished if I stopped. I'm not very good at leaving projects undone. So I had a wonderful two months of maternity leave, where I basically read one young adult novel from the library each day while I snuggled my baby girl, then I left her some mornings with Dave and some mornings with a friend while I went to work for a few hours. The balance worked for a while. It started to become less okay with me, though, as Madelyn got older and could start, for example, waving bye-bye when I dropped her off. We moved out-of-state when Madelyn turned ten-months-old and at that point I stopped going to work, but I had already decided that even if we didn't move, I would stop before Madelyn turned one. I wanted to be there with her. Even with all the other things that I knew would be hard.

And I think a lot of these MLM moms are the same way. They WANT to be there with their children. Because mothering is amazing.

But as fulfilling as mothering is, as much as it fills to overflowing part of us, I'm becoming more and more convinced that for some mothers anyway, mothering doesn't fulfill ALL of us. We still need outlets for personal fulfillment, for connection with the wider world, for obtaining a sense of satisfaction when sweeping the floor for the fifth time in a day just doesn't quite satisfy. Other moms have figured that out for themselves, and I started to realize my own need for personal fulfillment right as the year was turning and I was looking into 2016 with a sense of listlessness. As 2016 started, I was "just a mom," with no ambitions, no goals, nothing to look forward to.

A couple of things helped change my outlook. Dave was a big motivator. He has always encouraged me to develop myself outside of my normal roles. HE has been the one pushing me to probe for open doors and try to make connections with people who might provide opportunities. I was playing my flute a lot in December for different holiday programs, and Dave mentioned how much I seemed to enjoy that. Normally, I don't play my flute a lot anymore - can't really when the girls are awake, and my time after the girls are asleep is so precious that fluting is not usually my priority. But Dave was right, when I was playing, I was happy. So I started looking into community bands or orchestras and I sent out some emails. I got a little emotional when I heard back from the nearest band that they had plenty of flutes already and didn't need me. I think by then I'd latched onto the idea so fiercely because Dave had helped me realize that I needed something just for me. I was bitter about the "rejection," I felt like I'd needed that band so much.

The second thing that prompted me to start looking for "something" was a book I received from my mom for Christmas - The Happiness Project. It was interesting to hear someone else vocalize the need to actively seek fulfillment. The author's own search for increased happiness was engaging enough, but more than anything, I needed her push to make changes for myself. To be proactive in seeking satisfaction.

I didn't sit down after that and make a whole long list of new year's resolutions. That wasn't for me this year. But I found two "things" that I hoped would make a difference. Two things that I jumped into, basically on a whim, but a determined, desperate kind of whim. One was a big new, intellectual kind of project to work on. It's been wonderful. I have a towering stack of well-worn books from the University library (thanks Dave's student status!). I have a notebook devoted to research notes again. I'm learning and outlining thoughts and ideas for a purpose again, with a hope of being useful to others. As I mentally review my day before bed, I feel like I'm more satisfied with the time I've spent with my girls and the time I've spent picking things up off the floors because I can also include in my list the satisfying study I did during quiet time or before bed.

The other thing was a chance to be out, just me, and socialize for a set time each month with other women. I joined a book club. Someone I knew from the Jerusalem Center posted an off-hand remark and tagged other members of her book club. Normally when I'm considering contacting someone (about anything cause introvert), I mull and dither. But this time I didn't think about it, I just contacted her immediately, even though I hadn't seen her in years. I asked her about her book club and where they were located. She graciously invited me to join them, even though I was a stranger to most of the group. Despite my normal social inhibitions, I jumped at the chance. Now once a month I have a "me" outing to look forward to, where I get to let Dave put the girls down to bed and I go and talk about intelligent things (books), and, just as importantly, I get to talk unreservedly about everything affecting my life (because turns out, the same things that affect my life affect the lives of the other women there). It's a breath of fresh air.

There have been other things to help me this year: trips (Dave and I have been saving for the big trip to Florida we took last month)...turns out, big or small, I need things on my monthly calendar to look forward to; lunches with a dear friend; periodic dates with Dave and a less demanding school and church schedule that allows him to be home a little more. But I do feel like those things alone wouldn't have made such a dramatic difference in my daily mood and level of satisfaction without the personal academic project and the set chance to socialize with other moms.

So there you go. My long, rambling musings about personal fulfillment as a mom. I don't know how many will read this, but if any of you would ever like to talk to me further about what has helped YOU find fulfillment, especially when raising little little children, I would welcome the discussion! I want to know how to better help myself, how to better help friends, how to be more self-aware. I want to know that others have been there before me and found ways to bring meaning and fulfillment into their lives. So yes, friends, please, whenever we have the chance, let's have that discussion.   

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"This is the World I Want To Live In. The Shared World."

What a few weeks it has been. The world has been reeling. I don't need to tell you: attacks in Paris and Beirut, hundreds dead too early in cafes and concert halls and sports stadiums. Refugees fleeing atrocities in the Middle East, men and women around the world collectively paralyzed by the decision between opening their arms in love and faith or barring against possible terror incursions that would threaten their own families. Terrorist attacks in Israeli communities I have been to, been a part of for however briefly.

And on Saturday the 14th, my own sweet grandpa died. I posted a picture and message on Facebook and Instagram about Grandpa a couple of days later. It felt a little funny interrupting the stream of posts about these heavy world events to post something so natural, so intimate. It felt like such a calm, comprehensible thing amidst the chaos, my 92-year-old grandpa passing away quietly at home from something as normal as old age.

His funeral was calm and pleasant. The family gathered, we were remembering and telling stories. Madelyn was twirling everywhere she went in her new (to us) flowy dress. I felt a few quiet tears, but it seemed that most of my "sad" emotion had been spent when I received the first phone call.

Last night my very talented sister-in-law, Sarah Lynn Hill, sent us the album of pictures she had taken of the funeral. With it came pictures from my grandparents' home, and they were stunning. I will treasure them my whole life as reminders of my childhood.
It's amazing how things like chairs and clocks can become so familiar and have such meaning when they have been associated with people you have loved. I only regretted that those pictures couldn't have been taken in my grandparents' longtime home in San Jose, the beautiful white rambler with black roof and shutters and the big beds of flowers. I will always, always think of that home when I think of my grandparents.

I must have had that thought in my mind when I went to bed because I spent the night dreaming of their California house in great detail. I went through every room, hanging on to every detail I could remember: the way the light fell through the rooms, the little round yellow soaps in glass containers in the bathroom in the hall, the color and texture of the wood in their furniture, the way the house smelled and sounded, the views from the windows. In my dream there were desperate plans to hold on to that house - Dave and I were going to buy it somehow (even at 5 million dollars, an inflated price because I was dreaming, but not much. It is, after all, in California).

After I woke up, my first to-do was to make a batch of rolls for a funeral luncheon at the church across the street. I had volunteered when the list came by on Sunday. Having been the recipient of the lunch made by volunteer strangers on Saturday, I wanted to pay the service forward. My sink overlooks the church and its parking lot, so I saw the hearse pull in when I was measuring water for my yeast. I'm sure that because of my dream my feelings were extra tender this morning. Watching Saturday unfold again across the street made me quite emotional, even though this time it was someone else's grandpa. I saw the mortuary workers pull the casket out and wheel it inside. Another flag, another World War 2 veteran. There are so few left now.

I was weepy all morning. There was something emotionally cathartic about the physical act of making rolls. As I measured, stirred, and shaped those rolls, I cried because I missed my grandpa. I cried because my feelings were so full and many-faceted: there was sorrow and pain because of loss (the loss of my grandpa, the loss of his home, the loss of such a stable part of my childhood), and there was love for the unknown recipients of my rolls, there was sympathy, there was gratitude, and there was peace.

As I worked, I watched the parking lot fill and mourners stream inside the chapel. I cried because I loved the giving, the sharing that these tender but monumental life experiences bring - new births, marriages, deaths. When people come and rejoice and grieve together because we all know, we've all experienced, we've all felt those times in our own lives. I love this shared world.

I don't know who you are, you who grieve across my street today. You who grieve around the world. But I offer you my rolls and my tears. And all the love I can give.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September In Pictures

(In which I try really, really hard not to write anything, but sometimes cheat through captions...)

Anna has the cheesiest grin!

We had twin cousins visit for a couple of weeks. Love these girls in their turquoise jammies!

Grandpa time!

We finally planned a vacation for our own little family - three days in Southern California sharing three of our favorite things with our girls: the beach, Disneyland, and Sea World.

Before we got to the beach she asked me, "Will there be a sandbox there?" Yes, dear, a very big sandbox...

Madelyn wasn't the only one happy about the sand...

Even more than the sand, Madelyn LOVED the water. She must be her daddy's girl, she stayed in the waves almost the whole time we were there.

Madelyn's very favorite thing at Disneyland was meeting princesses

Anna didn't like meeting Eeyore as much as Madelyn did...

It was so, so hot and humid so ice cream was definitely in order

I loved this - she was conducting the music

Trying to be eaten by dozens of tiny fish...

Madelyn was so disappointed that she hadn't been splashed during the first show. So next time we sat very close to the front and got splashed four times in a row right at the end of the show. She didn't like that either, but who can keep a real frowny face when you've been asked to frown for the camera?

Anna didn't like having her nursing session disrupted by bucket loads of salt water either, but it made for good pictures afterwards!

Getout Games for my brother's birthday - so fun for all of us, even Madelyn!

Madelyn chose to go camping for her birthday

She was so excited :)

We are sooo grateful that this spunky girl is in our lives. We can't imagine life without her.

Putting new toys to use right away

This picture is so Madelyn, a hard-hitting, twirly-and-sparkly-dress-wearing princess. Happy birthday sweet one!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Jerusalem Part 3: Yad Vashem

Dave and I left for Jerusalem a day earlier than my family so we could spend some time with a dear friend from Cambridge and her beautiful family. Her friendship was one of the most meaningful for me during my Cambridge year away from Dave - spending time with her and her young, boisterous family in her home was fresh air for me when I was away from my own home and family. I have missed her companionship and her wisdom, intelligence, and frankness. It was ridiculously good to see her again.

And (clearly) we had a blast with her kiddos too! Aren't these two darling?
One of the things we did that day was visit the nearby yeshiva, or school of Jewish learning. What a neat experience! It was probably the most electric academic environment I have ever seen - dozens of young men together in a great room filled with tables and sacred texts sitting together in pairs, talking over and debating passages of scripture and commentary. No one was studying alone. No one was studying quietly. It felt like the kind of study that energizes - it made me want to join them. I was grateful to witness it for a moment.

As we were leaving the yeshiva, we passed a bus stop on the side of the narrow road. My friend quietly told us that it was the bus stop where three Jewish teens had been taken from last year and then brutally murdered. Had we heard about it? 

Of course I had heard about it. The murders and subsequent war with Gaza that resulted in the loss of more than 2,000 lives dominated the news last summer. And there was that bus stop, right in front of us, suddenly looking chilling and eerie. It was too easy to picture three of the yeshiva boys we had just seen standing there, then to see them...gone.

After I returned to the States and collected Madelyn and started back into normal, post-travel life, I noticed a small, cynical voice in my head. Where before I might have gone to bed late and exhausted and wish inside myself that my girls would sleep through the night so that I could, now the "devil-on-my-shoulder" voice sneered at such a trivial concern. My worries, when even subconsciously compared to three murdered boys and 2,000 other lives lost, seemed absurd. 

There have been times in my life when I have felt heavy, weighed down by thoughts about these kinds of huge, horrible happenings in the world. It has been said that in the last days, "the love of many shall wax cold." The internet makes it so much easier to see the hatred, scorn, cynicism, injustice, cruelty, hardness, and bitterness around us and throughout the whole world. Sometimes it is hard to fight against the feeling of being pressed down by it, consumed with despair for the apparent absence of kindness and gentleness. 

Yet, I had an experience at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum of all places, that helped to counter that pressure. My tour group was given some time - not enough of it! but so valuable nonetheless - to visit the museum while we were in Jerusalem. We loaded Anna into the backpack like every other time we had descended from our tour bus, only to be told by a guard at the entrance that babies weren't permitted into the main museum building. So I - who had been to Yad Vashem before - sent Dave in and set off with Anna alone into other parts of the complex where babies were allowed. 

I'm so grateful for that hour alone! Yad Vashem, perhaps paradoxically, felt to me like a place of supreme peace and quiet after the crowds and rush of the tour. 

First I followed signs to the art museum, which was empty and still. The art on the walls was from Jewish artists who were killed in the Holocaust, beautiful works, some with Jewish themes, some without (me being me, I liked the Jewish themes the best). The plaques next to the works told about the artist and the artwork as plaques in art museums always do. The difference, though, was that this time, every plaque ended with the phrase: "[Artist's Name] was murdered at [Aushwitz] in [1944]." One after another, "[Artist's Name] was murdered," "[Artist's Name] was murdered..." It was powerful. Forceful in a different way than hearing numbers - the way that forces you to see, brutally, what beauty and virtue the Holocaust ripped from the world.  

Anna didn't let me stay long in the art museum. She was tired and started fussing, breaking the stillness of the place. So I left, wandering through the complex, trying to pacify Anna, passing young IDF soldiers on field trip. Feeling dull after the horrible beauty of the art museum, I vaguely leaned against the walls of a concrete tunnel, then climbed some stairs, looking for a place to sit. But as Anna quieted, I was drawn to a monument I had seen on my last visit - the Hall of Remembrance, a large, dark tent-like dome where an eternal flame burns in memorial to those who were lost. 

Like the art museum, I was the only one there in the dark, quiet, airy place. I stood looking at the simple, stark tomb, Anna sleeping on my back, and all at once I was weeping. Everything that hall represented was so, so sad.

But just as suddenly as I was overcome by the tragedy, I was overcome with an enveloping, burning feeling of love. Not just my love, but I felt distinctly that I was feeling the love of Another, One who felt the grief and anguish of every innocent who has suffered in this world. One who knew people would suffer because the love of other men would grow oh, so cold. One who wept for them and suffered with them in a dark garden long ago, suffered so much that He bled from every pore. And I gazed at the cold names of the death camps on the floor and knew that His love and suffering was wide and broad enough to encompass everyone who suffers. Somehow, in a way we don't fully understand, it covers all the tragedies and injustices of the world. He knows those who have and do and will suffer. Somehow, He will make it right. Everything will be made right. I felt it so strongly while I watched that eternal flame burn.

The Lord God will swallow up death in victory;
He will wipe away tears from off all faces.
He is sent to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives;
to comfort all that mourn, to give them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
Isa 25:8, 61:2-3

....I've been sitting on this post for a while now. I know that it is complicated to talk about Jesus Christ and the Holocaust, I am sensitive to it (I have that degree in Jewish-Christian Relations for a reason). But I have seen what life looks like when a man confronts the world's horrors without any source of hope or love; it is unhappy and bitter and friendless. And standing there in Yad Vashem, I was reminded again that absolutely, in every possible way, Jesus Christ is the bright reason for my hope. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Camps and Clans

Well, I survived camping for two nights alone with just the girls...

...AND I did it despite afternoon rainstorms and hail! To be honest, it has been a long time since I've felt so cozy and comfortable on a camping trip. I forgot my air mattress, but an extra-prepared uncle lent me thick comfy pads, over which I put my flannel sheets and a big fluffy comforter with an extra thick blanket on top for extra warmth. I settled myself in between the girls - Madelyn lay to my right in her sleeping bag and Anna was on my left in her car seat. It was a precious feeling, being there between my two girls, sharing a new and special experience with them. 

For two nights we came merrily back to our tent under the stars after late evenings enjoying excellent company from my amazing extended family. Every two years or so growing up I came to reunions with my mom's side of the family. Lately, with a family-owned ranch to visit in Wyoming, the reunions have happened annually, where as many who can of the 170ish of us get together for an extended weekend to camp, chat, play games, eat, and chase the littles - the fourth generation, the children of my grandparent's grandchildren. 

I expect to have a nice time when I go, and this year I had even more fun than I anticipated. The first night I was up late playing pairs Nertz with my siblings and cousins in the pavilion while Madelyn ran through the darkness in a cluster of second cousins alight with glowsticks. As we headed to bed in the (for her) very novel and exciting tent, Madelyn was glowing with enthusiasm for the fun she had had, and eagerly anticipating more fun the next day (so much so that at 5:20 in the morning she popped up in her sleeping bag with a look of supreme excitement on her face, saying, "Play with cousins now?!!"). 

On Friday, groups of us collected throughout the day to chat or play card and board games, then after lunch the whole group - those ages 2 to 60 - paired off into random teams for a relay that had us giggling and cheering and scrambling to do things like grab marbles with our toes, string yarn through our clothes, and build cardboard boats to set sail in the pond. That evening we gathered for a home video/talent exhibition that kept us cheering all night. Madelyn and I fell asleep exhausted but happy in our (slightly soggy) tent that night, listening to the sound of happy chatter around the nearby campfire.

What I hadn't expected of the family reunion was to be edified as well as to be entertained. We milled around in the pavilion throughout the reunion, chatting in small, rotating groups, and while we caught up on each other's lives, we also bore testimony to each other. It was amazing how naturally it happened: 

While one cousin talked about the ups and downs of his career, I heard him bear strong testimony about the principle of tithing. 

As one cousin who recently moved spoke about the challenges of trying to fit in with a new group of people, she acknowledged that it was an opportunity for her to stretch and grow and help others by reaching out to those who needed friends and who weren't used to being accepted by already established cliques. 

I heard one of my cousins, in a quiet voice full of faith, talk about how she has learned to fill her life with love instead of fear, to guide her family in paths of righteousness, and to recognize the value of the usually unappreciated talents and gifts of others. 

I heard cousins affirm the value of gospel obedience. 

I watched young cousins step in willingly to help even younger children, sacrificing other activities to watch, shepherd, and love the young ones. 

As we spoke of those who have passed away within the last three years - my grandma, a cousin, and my mom's oldest sister - I saw everywhere the confidence that there is life after death and that families can be together forever. 

In the past, there have been debates about whether we should go on having these reunions, now that the family has grown so big. One of my uncles has talked about how important it is to him that the reunions continue so that his grandchildren know their second cousins, know they are part of something bigger than themselves or even their immediate family. He wants his grandchildren to know what kind of legacy they are a part of. During this most recent reunion, I saw how that legacy provides so much more than just fun or even companionship. It provides faith and strength and testimony. 

My sweet grandparents started this clan and connect us to that legacy. My grandpa is alone and approaching his mid-90s now, but he was at the reunion giving hugs to everyone he saw. He doesn't remember all of us anymore. I don't think he knew the names of any of his numerous great-grandchildren. But he loves them so much. What a blessing in your 90s, to have a whole clan of people who came from you, who belong to you, who love you, who have patterned their lives after yours! Who come together frequently and delight in each other's company, and who lift and buoy each other up. David and I just celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary; we are young still. But I have the best examples to aspire to. Maybe one day, we'll be blessed to be surrounded by such a clan of our own. I can't think of anything better.

Grandpa and Anna