This Mom Has a Favorite Child

When Erin was home a few weeks ago she took the Red-eye in from LA and arrived in Philly at the ungodly hour of 5 am. I had worked late the night before and had clients scheduled well into the evening that night. Instead of forking out the mula for an airport shuttle home, she opted to transfer across a few different trains and arrived in our town at the more appropriate hour of 8 am where I excitedly and lovingly met her at the train station.

This past week, daughter Sara was headed overseas for a quick visit with Frank & Rosie. She has scored a great price flying out of Philly so even though she doesn’t live that close anymore, she drove *home* and then I took her to the airport for a mid-afternoon departure.

Apparently, this transportation arrangement led to a discussion between the two girls about which child was my favorite – based on the criteria of my willingness to drive to the airport. I believe it went something like this:

Erin: “That’s bunk, I’m obviously not the favorite child”.

Together in unison: “That would be Emily”.

Sara: “No, Frank is both the favorite son and the favorite daughter”.

I have always remembered – and recounted – a story I read in the Virgina-Pilot Ledger Star some thirty years ago, close to Mother’s Day. It was about a woman who had raised a few children by herself after the death of her Navy husband and when interviewed independently, each of the children had expressed that they always thought that ‘they’ were the favorite child. I recall thinking ‘what a gift she gave them’ as I… firmly believed that I was the favorite and I am convinced that it offered me a foundation of confidence.

My parents are gone now so we will never really know but I’ve strived to convey that same sentiment to my own children. I’m not sure it helped to tell them that I was trying to convince each one of them that they were my favorite. Perhaps it is kind of like your husband telling you how beautiful you are – we figure there is an underlying motivation and/or it is a fully biased statement; what else is he going to say?

In any regard, for most of my children’s lives – indeed, even now – my hope is that they know they each ARE my favorite for very different reasons

Frank – well, he’s my only son and the product of my first true love so he gets two very specific distinctions setting him apart from the girls; no doubt motivating their dialogue. He is responsible for my first gray hairs and my laugh lines. He is about to become a father for the first time and I am not only crazy anxious to meet that little critter but also excited for Frank to know parenthood and the enormity of love it manifests. Frank and I had several years alone together after his father died and became my reason for living; there is no doubt that a unique bond forms under those conditions. He IS my favorite son.

Sara – she is the manifestation of my childhood imagination as it pertains to what I ‘thought’ having a daughter would be like. Any time I played ‘house’ with my baby doll (aptly named Sara), I would imagine becoming a mother someday and when Sara was born she was it… She has always been my ‘little helper’, dependable and eager to please. Sara has yearned to learn since the day she was born. Her favorite pastime was to play school and she wanted to be the student. That desire has morphed into exploration and entrepreneurship as she matures, continuing her love of new information and even though it takes her far away from me, I am always so proud of her never ending curiosity. She is the peacekeeper and the unifier having adopted and now embodying the truest spirit of ‘family’. She wraps my heart in a hug with the simple words “Hi mom” and it feels like home. Sara IS my favorite oldest daughter.

Erin – she is my mini. She is headstrong and determined – creating a battle of wills from time to time that keeps her pushing forward. She is fiercely dedicated to her convictions and deeply emotional; traits that I admire as they remind me to stay true to myself and I honor that she acquired that knowledge so young. She is loyal and dedicated; maintaining friendships almost as old as she is. She loves with her whole heart, working to stay open and vulnerable; communicating through her fears. I wonder if Erin is an old soul, here to master a few lessons; focusing on perseverance. She lights my heart like a ray of sunshine every time she turns to look my way. Erin IS my favorite middle child.

Emily – she is the one that did all the things I said my children would never do and has consequently transformed my ideology of motherhood; I became less rigid. Her presence in my life has forced me to relax and reevaluate my priorities. I named her after an Aunt who personifies peace and humility and so it may be no accident that she was born with an elevated sense of compassion and soul, helping me foster and grow more of my own. She is equally fun and serious; diving headfirst into her passions with vigor and persistence. She fortifies and strengthens my heart with something as simple as a phone call. Em IS my favorite youngest child.

My children make me want to be a better person as they mature in their amazing individual traits and talents. I have believed from my first moment of motherhood that they are each unique and magnificent gifts to me and have as much to teach me as I have had to teach them. I am honored – every day – to be their mother.

 

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Freaked Out By “Shoulds” – A client’s letter to her mother

I realize that I was always trying to be who you wanted me to be …

This letter was written by a client as a ‘therapy’ homework assignment and I thought it was incredibly powerful. She gave me permission to reproduce it as long as I waited at least a year and omitted her name. I have done both. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen through the years that could have written the same letter addressed to either a mother or father.  Read through and see my thoughts at the end…

Dear Mama,

I’ve been asked to write a letter to you that expresses my feelings about growing up as your daughter. I’ve thought long and hard about what I want to say to you because I don’t want to hurt your feelings. In fact, I’ve always wanted to just love you. I’ve wanted you to love me and I think you did. In your own way. I have had a hard time understanding that you love me because I don’t believe that you ever accepted me. There were so. many. shoulds. I can’t get rid of them.

I know, you say that you do accept me except that you kept telling me all the things I “should” do. You told me I ‘should’ go to church, that I ‘should’ date Kevin, that I ‘should study harder, and that I ‘should’ go back to school. I tried to tell you that those things didn’t matter to me but you didn’t listen. You told me I ‘should watch what I eat” that I ‘should’ wear my hair short, and that I ‘shouldn’t’ wear short shorts. If I had done those things, I would have been a mini version of YOU – not me. Those things weren’t ‘me’. More than that, you told me I ‘should’ have kids before I got much older and when I did you went so far as to tell us how we ‘should’ parent them. Jesus mom… why ‘should’ I??

Today, I am freaked out by all the ‘shoulds’ that I’ve never achieved. I feel like a failure. I didn’t do what you thought I ‘should’ and somehow I decided that since I wasn’t doing those things that you wouldn’t (couldn’t?) love me. I am not all the things I ‘should’ be mama and I know you are disappointed. Here’s the thing I am confused about.

Why couldn’t you just love ME. The person I am. Why do I have to be like you in order to be considered good or OK? Why do I have to like what you like? Why can’t you just be OK with the person that I am? I’m not a crack addict or a mass murderer. I’m a pretty good person but I feel like it will never be ‘good enough’.

Frankly mama, I didn’t ask to be here. You did that. And because you chose to bring me into this world, I would assume that you might just be happy with who I am but that’s not what I thought for most of the time that I was growing up.

Yes, you came to my basketball games. Yes, you bought me a prom dress. Yes, you sent me to college. I probably didn’t appreciate any of those things at the time as much as I could have. However, I never felt like I could really talk to you. I was always waiting for the next criticism to come. “Don’t eat that”, “you need to lose five pounds”, “Don’t drink, or have sex, or curse”, “go to class”, “clean your car”, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I’m in therapy now mama and I am trying to discover who I am. I realize that I was always trying to be who you wanted me to be and I never figured out what felt right to me. I am almost forty and I am just now doing that. I am not blaming you per se as the therapist tells me you probably did the best you knew how to do. I hope to accept that someday.

In the meantime, I want you to know that I am throwing all those shoulds out the window and I am asking you right here, right now to ACCEPT ME AS I AM. I think that is your role as my mother. Just love me and all the things that might be different from you. We don’t have to agree, we just need to respect that we are two different people and accept those discrepancies, not judge them.

I want you in my life IF you are willing to just take me as I am. I, in turn, will take you as you are. No blame. Just compassion and acceptance. That’s it.

As children, we make the general assumption that our parents love us – or at least we have the unconscious and simply human expectation that they do/will. We tend to develop an understanding of love’s expression via the environment, television, social cues, etc… if a father beats his child stating it is ‘because’ he loves him/her – the child develops an understanding that physical abuse is a form of ‘love’ until he/she is taught otherwise.

If a parent is ‘absent’ – for whatever reason – there is generally an assumption on the child’s part that love is also absent. Children have difficulty sometimes separating ‘fact’ from ‘perception’ – actually even adults are challenged with that from time to time and yet we may expect that our children ‘know better’ (well, of course I love you).

Parents can listen more and preach less.

Parents can accept more and judge less.

Parents can teach more and dominate less.

Parents can trust more and fix less.

Parents can guide more and dictate less.

Most parents do the best they can – based on what they know – in that moment. We really can’t expect much more than that but… when we learn more we need to make it a point to do better instead of assuming that it’s too late or that we are too old to make big changes.

The mother of the client who wrote this letter eventually came to a few sessions with my client where they discussed this letter and learned to accept and honor one another’s differences. Today, the client and the mother have a loving relationship based on compassion, tolerance, and clear expectations. It is working.

Too bad it took almost 40 years.

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Fitting IN

We stood in the shade – on purpose – while we observed the incredible absence of human intervention and appreciated the exquisite beauty.

Continued from Growing & Going Deeper

“The best feeling in the whole world is watching things finally fall into place after watching them fall apart for so long.” ~unknown

Our work on the shop progressed with buckets of sweat and dozens of late nights. We worked side by side, each of us with our tool belts on, attempting to decipher who would be the chief over which project. He was better with the construction pieces and I headed up the painting and design elements. We realized that we worked together well – managing to iron out the kinks when they arose. Some of our first major disagreements happened over that project but for the most part we calmly and (most importantly) respectfully – broke them apart to understand where our communication had lapsed.

So many things were different for me in this relationship – we both came into it aware. We were self-aware, which I find to be a full one-third of the challenge when attempting to address problems. We both had a good idea of the baggage we had accumulated as a result of our prior relationships and the distorted ways of thinking that were generated in various parts of our childhoods. We were pretty typical in that there were some combination and degree of control issues, abandonment, trust, self-perception, self-esteem, self-worth… the same kinds of things that are common in adulthood throughout our culture – varying only by extent and juxtaposition. For the most part, we were conscious of how those elements played out as we interacted – how the defense mechanisms were triggered – and how we consequently reacted.

Knowledge is great but we both had developed some habits that were harder to break. I was quick to shut down – to withdraw and go silent. That had been the best way for me to cope for a lot of years but now, it wasn’t effective. When I used that technique, it spurred a different reaction in him. We had a lot to learn about this dance that we did – it was early in our relationship and our starry eyes often provided cover for the growth that was ready to sprout. It was a wonderful beginning and we both felt it.

My brother was getting married and the construction was not yet complete. We really needed to open for business when we returned from the Caribbean and so we handed the project over to an extremely reliable and trustworthy contractor (extended family member). The five of us (all three girls, Harlan, and me) boarded a plane and made our way with taxies, boats, and rental cars – eventually arriving at a three bedroom house we rented on the island of Vieques – just off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It was one of the first times that Harlan and I openly shared a room within open sight of my daughters.

I had talked to them about it when I booked the house. They knew he stayed over from time to time and they knew we traveled together but it was still a bit awkward having a full-on relationship with a man who wasn’t their dad. They thought I was weird and gross for ‘wanting’ to sleep in the same bed as him but it was a turning point for us and the environment was supportive of the change. Our house was part of a larger complex but small enough to feel intimate and it sat right on the beach – overlooking the ocean with the British Virgin Islands off into the distance.

Vieques used to be occupied in large part, by the US military and so there is a major portion of the island that is still raw and undeveloped. It is accessible by jeep and there are some incredible, unspoiled beaches if you are willing to drive slowly and patiently across tough terrain to get to them. We rented a jeep and explored the island for a few days before other family members arrived. It was almost like a honeymoon – well, maybe not a honeymoon considering the girls were there and I still cooked dinner most nights… but it was a getaway.

Our time on the island felt like a family vacation. Harlan got along amazingly with the girls even though they were hesitant about his presence there from the beginning. He had a special way of being supportive when they needed it but allowing me to be the parent. He never tried to be that to them, recognizing that they had a father. He did want to offer confirmation or affirmation when it was called for – he went to swim meets and concerts, was open to talking with them but rarely… expressed criticism or attempted to discipline. It was as if he knew their limitations and demonstrated respect for them.

One afternoon, while we were all enjoying some beach time and the older girls, were getting surfing lessons from a couple of other teen boys – a great pick up play – I noticed some quick movements in the water and then saw Harlan holding Emily in his arms. It seems that she got hit by a wave and went under – apparently in a way or for long enough that it was cause for concern so he scooped her up; bringing her into the safety of strong arms and fresh air. Since then, it has been a ‘remember when you saved my life?’ moment memory.

This man protected my child. Any parent out there knows the depth of feeling… is it gratitude, appreciation, satisfaction, or acclaim?? When someone ‘cares’ for your child. When they put the needs of your child above their own – it’s as if they are on your team – automatically – partnering with you. I saw that in Harlan that week. He looked out for my girls in a way that allowed me to know that he had their best interest at heart. He had demonstrated that before – when he let them know that they had to be happy with my choice in him – but this week he cemented it for me. I was madly in love with this man.

We ducked out of festivities one afternoon, leaving the girls in the care of the family who had finally arrived in preparation for wedding festivities and drove out to one of the secluded beaches. We kept driving until we found one that was deserted. We wanted a bit of alone time. We didn’t have our suits or towels for that matter as we had been at a barbecue – a ‘get to know one another’ for both of the families that were there. We pulled up to this Caribbean cove of white sand and aquamarine water. There were clusters of palm trees in each direction and a soft breeze that seemed stimulated by the waves crashing on the beach. It was warm and the sun was intense.

We stood in the shade – on purpose – while we observed the incredible absence of human intervention and appreciated the exquisite beauty. Harlan stepped out onto the beach as I looked around to make sure that no other human being was in sight. I took a deep breath and stripped off the limited amount of clothing that I could tolerate in this island heat, leaving every stitch in a pile and ran across the sand, buck naked, right past Harlan as fast as I could into the safety and protection of the crystal blue water.

Splitting Delusions

…there was a theme unfolding in the aggregation of my reading material. The Universe was validating these ideas again and again.

Continued from The Longest Day

“I’m not crying because of you; you’re not worth it. I’m crying because my delusion of who you were was shattered by the truth of who you are.” ~ Steve Maraboli

Our bodies are designed to protect us against complete emotional obliteration and when the defense system is activated properly, it resembles my image of a ‘zombie’ – flat affect, disheveled appearance, monotone speech… that was me for a day or two… I would sit and stare, at nothing in particular but into the room sometimes watching the dust particles dance in the sunlight wondering how many of them I was inhaling with each breath; curious to know if the hair in my nostrils really was catching them so that they were not collecting in my lungs. It is intriguing to consider the folly of our thoughts when the reality is too difficult to deliberate upon. I was experiencing my life in its most simplistic possibility, practically floating through the hours as they passed. That was God’s gift to me, a respite from the suffering so that I might recharge my depleted spirit and muster the courage to move forward.

And I did. I wasn’t open to talking to Hubby for a few days. We moved through our home and work life with obvious dissent but kept silent because there was simply nothing more to say. He would ask me to talk but I simply could not. There was nothing left in my vocabulary that hadn’t already been said at some point throughout the years and to vocalize the same sentiment was now superfluous. Apparently, the prior pleadings, arguments, or confrontations had only temporary effect and the components of a happy, respectful, monogamous relationship that were important to me just couldn’t be met in ‘this’ relationship – the one that existed between he and I. It had finally – after so much time, pain, and frustration – dawned on me that we had been fighting for the impossible. Hubby and I were not the dream team. I understood that the man I had married was not the man that I saw in my heart. And that man would never – ever – behave in a way that so decimated my heart or that of our family. I finally grasped that I didn’t know this man but what was clear, is that I didn’t like him or want to be married to him.

I saw an attorney and followed her advice. He refused to leave our home, apparently on the advice of his lawyer and so he ‘moved’ into our finished basement. It took a couple of weeks for that transition to be complete, as even in pain there is often a question of its finality. The interim was awkward and painful because both of us were desperate for some semblance of normality and comfort, but in our house – there was none. We would occasionally ‘slip’ into old habits as I found myself laughing at something he said and for a microsecond, the energy in the room felt familiar and easy but I quickly rejected its lie because I now knew that nothing was ever ‘easy’ with us. There was a consistent whispering in the air, a beckoning, to concede and return to life as I had known it…

We told the girls we were separating; that Daddy was moving to the basement and we were going to ‘take a break’. They each reacted differently and I later discovered that our oldest had been listening to many of the ‘fights’ and so she was relieved. Man, the things we do to our children! We divided our time at home so that the girls had an equal opportunity to be with each of us. When it was his night, I went out and vice versa. I usually waited until after ‘bedtime’ to come home so that his bedtime routine wasn’t interrupted. You know how it is… because he had worked so many nights as they grew up, I was the person who usually did the ‘tucking in’, at least on weeknights.

The girls differed on how they were adjusting to our separation and we attempted to answer their questions honestly while offering only what we believed to be age appropriate. Franky, they didn’t have a need to know the details of our adult relationship so we kept it simple and unilateral; no blame. My attorney had suggested a book ‘Mom’s House, Dad’s House’ by Dr. Isolina Ricci – a book I refer clients to, to this day. Even though Hubby and I didn’t have separate houses yet, it was a great guide of how to help kids navigate the division of parental attention.

On weekends that were ‘his’ – I left. I called in every favor I had ever earned and visited with friends and family. I used their beach houses, their mountain cabins, and spare bedrooms for months on end. I became an expert timeshare sales customer. I think over the course of eighteen months, I utilized free weekends at resorts selling timeshares a dozen different times. You see, if you agree to sit through a timeshare sales pitch, you can spend a weekend – free of charge – at the resort you are considering. I was a champ – proficient and skillful – on how to say “no” regardless of the ‘pitch’ or pressure. I spent weekends in the Pocono’s, the Jersey Shore, the Virginia mountains, and New York City. I was alone on these trips and took advantage of the solitude to look at myself in the mirror, to learn meditation, and to grow in the way that the universe was directing me.

One of the first books I picked up after what I will call ‘discovery day’ was about reincarnation, written by Dr. Brian Weiss, a psychiatrist in Miami who used hypnosis in his practice of helping patients cope with pain. One patient – Catherine – went into a spontaneous regression and began offering information to Dr. Weiss that became, ultimately, life-changing. I encourage you to pick up the book – Many Lives, Many Masters and keep an open mind. This book was just the tip of the iceberg with his stories of people under hypnosis in regression experiencing amazing and profound insight. I was immediately intrigued. Most importantly, most what Dr. Weiss speaks to in his collection of writing echoed many other things that I had recently explored by other authors… it was if there was a theme unfolding in the aggregation of my reading material. The Universe was validating these ideas again and again.

In this book the phrase “our task is to learn, to become God-like through knowledge. We know so little … by knowledge, we approach God, and then we can rest. Then we come back to teach and help others”.

This idea resonated so deeply in my soul that I sensed vibrations moving in unison with the words as I read them. That’s empirically identical to the basis of what I had taken away from The Conversations with God series I’d been reading, no… studying over that last couple of years. I grew to believe with no hesitation that I was experiencing a journey, a spiritual, a soulful quest to be the best possible version of myself.

The weekends that I wasn’t being ‘mom’, I used to learn and I became more and more enthralled, excited really… about the concepts that were forming concretely in my heart. I was going to use this pain – this growth opportunity – to be better… to be the best me. And I wanted to tell the world about it but I was only a suburban housewife who had never finished her education.

I decided to go back to school.

Building A Village

I felt like I had a comrade – a partner – someone had my back. It took a village after all.

“Sons are the anchors of a mother’s life.” – Sophocles

It is now 2002 and life has taken on a sense of normalcy. I was working more now that the girls are all in school although I try to make it home each day in time to greet the school bus. I didn’t want the girls to be ‘latch-key’ kids as Sara was only ten and it was too early for her to take on all that responsibility. Frank (a.k.a. Francis) had been away at college and I missed him fiercely, not just because he was a great help but he – in many ways – was my equalizer. That’s a lot of emotional responsibility and I’m not absolutely sure he felt it but when he was in the house I knew I wasn’t alone, which I can’t explain because the girls were also paramount in my heart.

Taking him to college was mind bending. We had a bond, at least in my mind, that went beyond the nuclear family we were a part of. He was evidence of a lost love. His presence in my life motivated me to wake up and keep going during very sad, dark days. He was the only ray of sunshine in – what felt like years – of stormy weather. I was excited for him to get out of the house as his relationship with Hubby had become difficult. Actually, I truly believe that the age of 17 is designed specifically so that we are emotionally ready to have our children leave. That senior year of high school where they are teetering on the edge of childhood and independence can be tortuous on both child and parent. I counted my blessings and feel very privileged that none of the kids were plagued with heavy problems but for sure, there were some challenges. I wanted him to have experiences of college that I had missed – living in the dorms, parties, building lifelong friendships, etc., Hubby and I drove him up with a truck full of supplies, unpacked, and helped him settle in. I organized and fussed as an excuse to stay – for him it was like Christmas in July as he noticed all the female co-eds seemingly in every corner or direction he gazed. He, as sweetly as he could, ushered us out with a hug and “I’ll call you” quicker than he could unpack his Jack Daniels.

I walked back to the truck with a heaviness I hadn’t felt in years. It’s an interesting experience to both want something and dread it simultaneously; to be happy and sad at the same instant. It was the first time I was acutely aware of this dichotomy; the first of many. The drive home was quite literally, a slide show of memories flashing across my eyes. Feeling him kick for the first time, his birth, the elated grin that spread across his face when his father walked in the door from work, holding him in the rocking chair as tears ran down my face, our car trips, his sweet smile as he posed for the first day of school picture… etcetera…  I was leaving my only son and it felt very familiar, like the abandonment feelings I had as when the other men in my life had left -when they died.  I used every rational thought in my body to fight away the pain that didn’t belong to this scenario. ‘He was only away at college for crying out loud Leslyn’!! I berated myself until the message stuck but it wasn’t until I had laid across his bed in his empty room that called me the minute we returned home and sobbed myself dry.

I tried to explain that when I called (almost) every day, it was because he had been a part of my daily life for 18 years and I just couldn’t – automatically – embrace the idea of not talking to him. Call me crazy or overbearing or whatever but I missed my kid. Just to be clear, it’s not that he was a ‘mama’s boy’, he was quite independent but I was ‘my son’s’ mama. It was me… I was dependent on his presence. I would eagerly drive the 5-hour roundtrip during breaks and holidays to get him home just so that I could spend the time catching up and talking. I cherished those drives and waited for them. I’ll admit I was disappointed when he was eventually allowed to take a car back to campus. It took me almost the entire four years to adapt.

Thank goodness I had the girls. Without Frank, our home was ninety percent female and there were estrogen hormones in every crevice. Tears, fighting, bickering (as opposed to fighting), hair ties, Barbie dolls, training bras, and shoes filled at least some space in every single one of our days. It was never quiet and while I did occasionally complain about that, I was secretly storing sound bites in my memory bank for the eventual time that I knew I would miss it. It was even more intense when Mom and Abee were there – which was a lot.

Our business was growing steadily. A few years earlier, around the time I was reading Celestine Prophecy, I asked Hubby to concentrate on earning a six-figure income. It was a bit before ‘The Secret’ appeared in mass publication, but the concept of ‘creating your own reality’ was robust in the New Age market. It was similar to the SAGE days when we were taught to imagine your life – exactly as you want to live it – and you will attract it into your experience (i.e., the law of attraction). As the century turned and we pursued a business vision, it manifested almost exactly the way we envisioned – almost.

Some of the decisions we made required a fair amount of travel and night time work. We were hiring and breaking into ‘teams’ of which I was a part but then our children were void of parental attention. Abee was learning quickly and she either stayed at home with the girls or she worked on a Team. Between work and home, it was obvious that all of us were somewhat invested in making day to day life work well. Francis wasn’t home but Mom and Abee were filling in many of the gaps that existed. I didn’t want someone else raising our children so I scheduled her to work with Hubby and I took the bulk of the responsibility for caring for children more often than not. It wasn’t long before I sensed that something was ‘off’.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I knew that Hubby and I weren’t ‘in sync’ as much as we had been. I shared my frustration with Abee as it unfolded. We would sit outside during long lunch breaks at the office and I poured my heart out as she listened closely and emphasized. I was beside myself with not knowing what to do to make things better, to make them work. I wasn’t sure what felt different but there was something… she agreed to talk to him – to listen for clues. I felt like I had a comrade – a partner – someone had my back. It took a village after all.

My village was powerful – it consisted of friends, church, work, and family.  I was one of the lucky ones!