These Are The Days

Smart ~ Writer ~ Mom

Category: Emotions (page 1 of 6)

About Good Mothers and a Lion

It’s not often that I’m completely blown away by a movie. But this past weekend, on a whirlwind trip to New York City with my husband, we saw the Oscar-nominated film, “Lion.”

And, well?

Wow.

I haven’t cried that hard in a long time.

The themes of loss, guilt, redemption, and longing that run through this film pulled at my heart from the opening credits.

lion-565820_1920Lion is the incredible true story of Saroo, a young Indian boy who, at five years old, becomes separated from his family. He awakens on a train some two thousand miles from his home and, after a series of heart-wrenching and dangerous encounters with strangers, realizes he is lost and alone.

Eventually, he is adopted by a couple from Australia. I held my breath as little Saroo walked out of the plane and into the room where his adoptive parents were eagerly waiting to meet him. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t crying either. My guess is that in that moment he was feeling an uncomfortable mixture of sadness and confusion along with a tiny sliver of hope.

Nicole Kidman portrayed his adoptive mom, Sue. In that first meeting with Saroo, she knelt down, smiled at him sweetly, and through tear-filled eyes said, We’re so happy to see you…we’re your mum and dad.

As joyous a moment as that must have been for this couple who longed to adopt a child, my heart couldn’t help but ache for little Saroo and his longing to go home. This ache was deeper than I’d anticipated because I found myself suddenly overcome with emotion. You know the kind I’m talking about. The kind that seems to bubble up from nowhere and spill out through your eyes. Your nose. Your throat. My sobbing was audible and decidedly unflattering and terribly hard to control. As I sat there, embarrassed, watching my husband scramble to find a napkin or tissue for me, I found myself instantly connected to that little boy.

**********

The story then jumps forward two decades. Saroo, now 30 years old, is a man with a good life and good friends. It’s evident he was raised in a loving home by a caring family. Still, for 25 years, he’s wondered about where his story began. You can sense that something is still pulling at him. A longing to return to India, to the home he remembers in his heart. And so he intensifies his search – using the new tool Google Earth – and slowly begins to piece together his fragmented childhood memories.

**********

Yesterday, I came across a clip from an interview on Australian TV with Saroo and his (adoptive) mother, Sue. The interviewer asked Sue if she had been worried when her son first began his search. Was she worried he would find his birthmother and leave the life he’d known in Australia? Or worse – would he discover that perhaps his birthmother had abandoned him and didn’t want contact?

Sue wasn’t afraid of any of these things; her response to the interviewer was incredible.

She smiled and said that no she wasn’t afraid for herself, but rather for her son. She didn’t want him to be disappointed or hurt. But she wasn’t worried or insecure about his search for his birthmother. She said that although she didn’t know the circumstances of how he came to be her son, she knew from the first moment she saw him that he had been loved by a good mother. There was a kindness in his eyes and a warmth in his heart, she said, that told her he had been well taken care of.

Although this isn’t a traditional story of adoption (whatever that means), there are similarities that struck a chord with me. In the months following my son’s placement, I often wondered what kind of relationship would evolve between him and me and more specifically between me and his mother. I felt vulnerable and less than. Would the love I have for my son be questioned because of the choices I made? I’m embarrassed to admit being nervous that I would be categorized with negative stereotypes about unmarried girls that get pregnant. As it turns out my fears and worries were unfounded. For nearly 30 years, my son’s mother has never looked at me with anything other than kindness. She’s a good mother. And somehow she always made me feel that I could be good too.

**********

I won’t ruin the movie’s ending, but let’s just say there are way more tears.

Tears of loss and struggle. Reunion and sadness. Closure and peace.

If you haven’t guessed, I loved this movie. This extraordinary story of a young boy whose name means Lion and his two mothers … it’s easily going down as one of my favorites, although I don’t know how easy it will be to watch again anytime soon. But it will definitely stay with me for a long time.

Jagged Little Memory

music-786136_1280Music is powerful.

For me, music can elicit strong memories of a certain time or event in my life. I’m guessing that’s probably true for most people. Do you recall your earliest music memory? And do you have songs and genres that you can directly attribute to personal growth, healing, pain, or joy?

I do. Here’s a few:

My earliest music memory is “I Can See Clearly Now” – Or as I still call it, “Bright Sunshiny Day” 🙂
I remember the exact moment I first heard this song. I was in the backseat of our family car. My father was driving and his father was in the passenger seat. We were crossing over the railroad tracks at the Wyoming Avenue stop just past the old Cumberland Farms; the hardware store with the thin, plank wood floor; and, the old penny candy store where I first tried candy cigarettes. Ah, 1974. I was four years old. Not sure where we were going or why my grandfather was in the car, but I remember dancing around in the backseat to the scratchy sounds of Johnny Nash coming from the car radio with nothing more than a thin seatbelt (if that!) holding me in place.

Another early music memory is Seasons In the sun. Goodness, this song. I’ve been told I played this 45 ad nauseam on an old record player in our musty basement. An uncle was staying in our den for a few weeks and the section of the basement where I was playing just happened to be directly under his sofa bed. He had (and still has) a “bigger than life” personality. I’ve never seen him get angry or lose his temper. But I’ve been told that he grew so tired of hearing this song that he threatened to break my record player. 🙂

And then there’s Carole King’s Tapestry album. Is there a finer album out there? I think I’ve written about Tapestry before but this whole album takes me back to the late 70s hanging out at Margaret’s house on Florence Street, just around the corner from my house. Her folks had a duplex with a finished attic. We hung out up there and played it on her big sister’s record player over and over and over and over. To this day I still know every word to every song on that album. My favorite? It’s Too Late.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller was probably the anthem of my early teen years. More than the album, I remember the huge-ness of the Thriller video. Definitely a defining moment in my generation. And there was Billy Joel, The Who (I know they were earlier, but this is when I discovered them), Van Halen, Pat Benatar, Whitney Houston, U2, and all the big hair bands that were the soundtrack of my teen years.

But when I moved to Florida in the 90s and started adult-ing, it was Alanis Morissette’s songs that eventually helped me grow up. In the early 90s, I was all buttoned up, trying to be professional and smart. Confident and promotable. I was the do-gooder, the perfect little Disney cast member. I was making amends for past transgressions and the perfectionism was nearly killing me. I had dated maybe two guys for brief periods during a time in most people’s lives when their dating life is full and colorful. I was afraid, and so I eased into a neat and tidy life, first living with some wonderful roommates who became lifelong friends (side note: gay men make the best roommates), and then eventually moving into my own apartment and testing the waters of my own independence. I was still timid. My life was quite orderly. I wasn’t a prude, but I don’t think I was a typical 20-something either. While other friends were dating and nightclubbing and living seemingly carefree lives, I was planning how to climb the corporate ladder. I was doing all the right things.

And then it was 1995 and Jagged Little Pill came out.

And if I can be so bold (and by the way YES I CAN because Alanis says it’s ok), this album unapologetically blew my fucking mind.

But before it blew my mind, it scared me to death. I’d never heard a woman be so bold, so mean, so vengeful, so MUCH. She broke all the rules. She sang about not wanting to be perfect. About being dumped by a lover. About being lonely, frustrated, rejected … loved, cared for, sexual, wild. She sang about all the things that I was and wasn’t. I was equal parts horrified and intrigued.

Without a doubt, my favorite songs on this album are “Perfect”, “Ironic”, and holy crap “You Oughta Know.” I heard Alanis (I hope she doesn’t mind me calling her Alanis) on Howard Stern this week. Not the whole interview, but most of it. I may be exaggerating, but she is surely the most brilliant person on the face of the planet.

Best part of the interview was when she sang an acoustic version of You Oughta Know.
It. Was. A-MAZ-ING. Howard asked her about the song and whether she ever took revenge on an old lover. Her response stayed with me – she said she didn’t believe people should act on feelings of revenge. Instead, she said she believes it’s exceptionally healthy and cathartic to express these feelings in song or some other art form. She talked about how healing the writing and singing of that album was for her and how it got her through some heavy emotions.

I wasn’t dealing with the same things that she was and I certainly wasn’t seeking revenge on anyone. But I was dealing with feelings like betrayal, loneliness, abandonment, and emptiness.  I could totally relate to wanting to scream and yell and be completely out of control. And maybe hit somebody. I could relate to the struggle, the difficult push and pull of becoming an adult. I could relate to the desire to be loved and cared for. And I could relate to wanting to be a wild, sexual, confident woman. I blared this CD in my little blue Saturn every day. I never danced to it in nightclubs; instead, I explored this new world safely and danced to it from the confines of my living room. Embarrassingly enough, I imagined I was in a nightclub.

Isn’t it ironic…

I loved everything about this album. I had a visceral reaction to the lyrics and the music. Although ultimately it would take me years more to deal with everything else, Jagged Little Pill helped me relax, if only for a little while. It gave me permission to scream and yell and release my anger. It made me feel heard and understood. It made me feel less alone.

Now, as the 20th anniversary remastered edition is being released, I listen to these songs – just as I listen to Johnny Nash and Carole King and Madonna – and I remember the young woman I was and just how far I’ve come.

The Antidote to Shame

I remember the elbow squeeze very well. When I was a young girl, it was always delivered during a time that was considered particularly important: at a wedding or some other kind of grown-up thing, at a rich family member’s house, an important social event. It was as harmless as a sideways glance or a raised finger telling a child not to touch a hot stove, but still, it was a tacit reminder to be on my best behavior.

The desire to please was instilled early. I’m still shaking off its effects. Can you believe it? I’m nearly 45 years old (holy crap I’m almost 45) and I still struggle every single day with this desire to make sure everybody is happy. And when I miss the mark, the people that are most often left out of that equation are always my husband, my kids and myself.

There’s nothing implicitly wrong with wanting to please people. Right? I mean there’s such satisfaction that comes from giving someone a meaningful gift or cooking a satisfying meal or planning the most exquisite event. But problems arise when we try to please everybody and we do it at our own expense. Why do we do this? Why do I do this? Fear of disappointing? Fear of repercussions? Fear of embarrassment? To avoid shame?

* Ding, ding. We have a winner *

Oh, shame. It’s a wretched word, isn’t it?

I think shame is an unintended consequence of good behavior. We try to be good kids – and then as parents, we try to raise good kids. We instill these unrealistically high expectations on ourselves (or others do) and if we falter WHICH WE WILL – even a little – this dark cloud of shame is cast upon us. It’s inescapable, isn’t it? Shame is powerful. It’s crippling. Shame is narrow in scope, but oh so grand in depth. It cuts deep.

Most of my issues surrounding shame stem from disappointment and embarrassment I believe I had caused in my history as a birthmother. I’d been sent 3,000 miles away to have the baby, and after I’d placed my son with his family, I returned home. It wasn’t discussed again. It was as if my favorite television show had been interrupted, but was now back. We now return to your regularly scheduled program.

While my relationship with my son and his family was fully open, that same openness didn’t transfer into the relationship with my extended family and friends. Few people knew of this deep, dark secret. No one told me not to say anything. It was just implied. Like a phantom elbow squeeze.

Note: this is also why the movie “Frozen” rocked my world. Great story, fabulous animation, superb songs – but goodness. The lyrics in “Let It Go”? Broke. Me. Open.

“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see….be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let them know…”

Yup. This was the story of my life for about 20 years. And so the façade was in place and emotions were ignored, denied and surpressed. YesEverythingsFineThanksForAsking.

My good friend Lori is an adoptive mom and a huge advocate for open adoption. In her book “the Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption”, she says of the benefits of open adoption, “Openness is the antidote to shame.” I couldn’t agree more. And while much of my shame stems from my history as a birthmother, I think Lori’s definition goes beyond the realm of adoption. Openness in adoption is healing, but I also believe openness in the larger picture of life can also have a healing effect; it’s literally and figuratively good for the heart.

I’ve talked in this space about how I typically keep my emotions bottled up. Despite talking with two therapists (one fantastic and one sort of meh), it was actually a blogger I admire who reminded me of a simple truth about why we shouldn’t ignore our emotions and just put on a happy face. She said, “If you’re cold, you shiver, right?” Emotions are natural reactions to what’s going on around us – just like shivering is to the cold – so why do we spend so much time trying to pretend everything is OK? Why are we resisting shivering?

If you feel sad, cry. If you feel anger, frustration, anxiety, elation or whatever, let it move through you. Feel it. Own it. I’ve learned that when you do, it loses its power of you.

Wow, that was a whole lot of “back story” to get to the original intent of this post which is – this past weekend, we brought our girls to see the new Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out.” I know there’s already so much buzz about this film, but I purposely avoided reading other people’s blog posts until I could sort out how I felt and why I liked it. As you can see, I’ve been doing a lot of sorting.

If you haven’t seen it yet, or don’t know the storyline, it’s about an 11-year old girl who moves across the country with her parents. She’s having a hard time adjusting. New home, new friends, new school, new everything. She’s trying to fit in and make everything work, but she’s also doing what many of us do: she’s trying to please everyone around her. Note: there are a few similarities between the movie and my older daughter. Both are eleven. Both just made a recent move (second one for my girl in three years) and both had to make new friends in a new neighborhood and at a new school. If nothing else, the movie gave me a bit more perspective into what my daughter may be going through.

The movie takes place primarily inside this little girl’s head. Some key emotions are in charge: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. The latter three are sort of sub-characters; the ones really at play here are Joy and Sadness.

Of course, all of these emotions are needed for human beings to process all that happens in our lives. But too often, we stuff one or more of these emotions deep down and put them in a little chalk circle (as the character “Joy” does to “Sadness”). She wants the little girl to have only joyful, joy-filled, happy memories. Of course there’s nothing wrong with choosing to be happy and choosing to make lemonade out of lemons, but we all know unresolved sadness can have clinical outcomes including anxiety, depression, rage, and everyone’s favorite emotion: shame.

Avoiding shame and thus trying to please everyone has (unfortunately) been a big part of my life. But to me, the bigger point from the movie is why are we all so afraid to face our emotions? I was told what most kids are probably told: behave, smile, be polite, be a good girl, don’t act up, don’t cause trouble, speak when spoken to, etc. But there was none of this in the movie. Her parents didn’t tell her to ignore her feelings or to be happy for them; but she did it anyway. Why? Fear of not fitting in, of being different, of ruining things, of disappointing others, of all of these things?

The movie really was superbly done. Core memories, long-term memories, etc. were all discussed as only Pixar can. Throughout the movie, the ebullient and always happy “Joy” tries her hardest to keep “Sadness” from touching any of the girl’s memories. But in the end, the little girl reached her breaking point. She stood in the doorway having just changed her mind about running away and quite literally her emotions took over. And this is when the movie got me. “Joy” steps aside and realizes she can’t do it alone. She encourages “Sadness” to approach the control station in the little girl’s mind. “Joy” nods her approval with the realization that the only way to deal with “Sadness” was to deal with the sadness.

Just like you, I’ve had many moments of joy in my life. So much so that I often feel like Sandra Bullock’s character in Hope Floats when she says “My cup runneth over.”

(How many movies can I possibly reference in this one super-long post that no one is probably reading anway?)

It’s only recently – in the last few years or so – that I’ve allowed them to intermingle with sadness. But you know? It’s a hard habit to break. It’s hard to be vulnerable and trusting. It’s hard to put your faith in other people, even those closest to you, when you think your feelings might disrupt the balance of the universe.

I’m glad that it was sadness that saved the day. It was her power that allowed the girl to release the pain and hurt. Her emotions were no longer in a chalk circle. She was free.

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The Song Remembers When

One of my favorite Trisha Yearwood songs is “The Song Remembers When.” The lyrics talk about the power a melody or a verse has to bring you back to a moment in time. And although times may have changed and people may have forgotten, songs can always trigger your memory.

Tonight, as I walked down the hall to our bedroom, I passed my little one’s room. As usual, her lullaby music was playing softly. I hear it every night, but for some reason it made something inside me stop and remember.

We first bought the CD – a sweet collection of instrumental Disney music – about 10 years ago when our older daughter was very young. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was well into the throes of some form of postpartum depression.

Whenever I hear any of the songs, my mind travels back to our tiny condo in Syracuse. To her pink and purple room with the flowers on the wall. The little green dresser, the princess bookcase, her kid-sized blue and green gingham-print rocker. I remember the smell of Johnson and Johnson lotion (the one in the pink bottle). When she was very small, I would rock her and our eyes would lock. I would stroke her little cheek. Her eyes would flutter shut and then open again, as if she wanted to steal a few more moments of the day. All the books say you’re supposed to sleep-train your baby, never let them sleep with you, don’t let them fall asleep in your arms. Screw the books. I did all of those things.

I realize now how very lost I was back then. Even though my husband was a very attentive father, I felt overwhelmed and exceptionally lonely. I was scared and unsure of myself. And I had yet to realize that the unresolved feelings I’d expertly avoided when my son was born were now bubbling up inside of me and manifesting in the form of guilt, supreme self-doubt and uncertainty. My world was consumed by this little person to whom I was entrusted.

I’m in a different place now. Literally, physically and figuratively. I still feel the effects of depression (does it ever fully go away?), but it doesn’t have the same hold over me. I now know that moving through my emotions rather than avoiding them is the healthier route. I now know how to take care of myself a little better. Guilt and self-doubt and uncertainty linger, but if I let it move through me, it doesn’t have the same power over me.

It just sometimes catches me off-guard the way the songs did tonight.

His Safe Place

Every Wednesday I help serve lunch at the school my three-year old attends.

Between kindergarten and 8th grade, there are about 90 kids. It’s a small school and the class size dwindles with each grade level.

Thankfully for the students I don’t have to cook anything. My job is to help get the pre-ordered hot lunches ready, sell fifty-cent snacks, and hand out wipes so they can clean their hands. It’s only an hour a week and it’s pretty easy to do.

Today was a little different.

This small, blond-haired, brown-eyed boy  sat at a table against the wall away from his classmates. At first I thought he was in a time-out. But it was soon apparent that he was there of his own choosing.

He looked down a lot.

His left elbow firmly planted on the table. His hand propping up his sad face.

He used his fork to slowly push around his lunch: chicken nuggets, celery sticks and a few carrots.

I must have stared a bit too long because one of the other parents said, “His dad died unexpectedly a few months ago and he’s still having a really hard time.”

Whoa.

It turns out he also has autism. Social situations are difficult for him.

I can’t imagine what this little guy must be going through. They say he doesn’t talk very much and when he does, it’s minimal.

He asked me for one of the baby wipes to clean his hands and my eyes filled up a bit. I just wanted to scoop him up and tell him everything would be OK.

I’m absolutely horrible in situations like this. Emotions don’t come over me gradually. They hit me like a freight train. They barrel me right over the mountain to the other side with no time for stopping or catching my breath. I feel it all – and although I can stuff my emotions down like the best of them, I’m glad I didn’t do or say anything stupid.

At that point, his teacher came over and asked him if he needed anything.

“No, I’m fine.”

And then she said something I thought was pretty cool. She said, “You know, this is a safe place. So whatever you want to do or say is OK.”

He kept looking down, but I detected a small nod.

My eyes filled up again. And then my little shift was over.

And now I can’t stop thinking of this little guy.

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