I scooped - or rather, scraped - up yet another offering of poop by my now 4-month-old puppy, and quickly transitioned into a pillar of core strength as I held onto the leash, taught with a puppy lunging away from me attempting to chase a butterfly, while with the other hand deftly tied the poop bag into a knot. Phew! I did it. And I thought, this whole puppernity leave gig is a LOT of work. No more sleeping in (OK, I don't do that anyway), planning my daily schedule keeping the puppy’s needs in mind (thank you dear Lord for the crate!), visits to the vet, taking him and the older dog for walks (no more than 5 minutes per month of puppy’s life, per day, I just learned), taking him to obedience training… It really is like having a newborn baby in many respects.
This blogpost started with me picking up poop, and poop is actually the main theme. Not literally (phew!), but more of a useful metaphor for life. Lately I have found myself sort of obsessed with the concept of a sh*t sandwich. My kids think it’s disgusting, but I admit that I have found myself saying “sh*t sandwich” (without the polite asterisk) pretty frequently while engaging in what I call Parenting. Here is an example:
Puppy makes a sound, I say, “he needs to go out and pee, please take him out,” child continues whatever activity they were doing, puppy pees on kitchen floor, I remind kid that puppy’s peeing inside was human error, and now child must take puppy out and clean up puddle. Kid grumbles. And I say, “this is the sh*t sandwich of getting a puppy.”
It is graduation season, and my firstborn is about to graduate from high school next week (eeeeek!), and I have been privy to several conversations with young adults about career options and college majors. We talk about what they enjoy, what they feel they are good at, what appeals to them. But especially now that so much of my day revolves around poop (of the canine type), I also talk about their version of the sh*t sandwich. What are they willing to tolerate? A couple of them mention law school. So perhaps their sh*t sandwich includes endless reading, memorization of facts, engaging in conflict, tons of stress, long hours, conservative outfits, being in a competitive environment. If all of this seems part of the appeal, then they are probably headed down the right path. If it’s their version of a sh*t sandwich but they can stomach it because they truly feel a calling to pursue law (and it’s not just because their parents expect it), then at least they are less likely to be blindsided by the poopy stuff.
I think it’s especially important to talk about the sh*t sandwich in this day and age when kids are led to believe by their parents, educators, influencers and US News & World Report that there is really only one narrow path to success and anything less is mediocre at best. Anxiety and suicide are at epidemic rates among our young, and while mental health is a complicated topic, I have to ask myself, how many young adults are falling apart because they started off all excited about their course of study, or career or job, and were never warned about the sh*t sandwich? Everyone knows that law school is hard, medical residents have an insane schedule, and professional actors have to wait tables for years on end. But how about the fact that most jobs are mostly a lot of work, mostly not that fun? If I were to write a top 5 list of Sh*t Sandwiches it may look something like this (in no particular order):
I love taking photos and post them on Facebook and Instagram, and people often comment on how good they are. But what they may not know is that for every great photo, there were ten lousy ones. I think of life the same way. For every great entry in the Fakebook or Instagram highlight reel, there were many moments, interactions, and disappointments that were undocumented. The sh*t sandwich. And that’s okay - but let’s be real and acknowledge that we are all going to experience self-doubt, disappointment in others, wondering if we made the wrong choice, being tempted to give up. That is the sh*t sandwich. Put it in the poop bag, tie the knot so you can’t smell it, and toss it in the trash. And then do the next right thing.
The woman, a stranger, turned around and looked right at me, smiled, and then mouthed the words, “I see you.”
You may be thinking, creeeepy. But it wasn’t creepy, it was a powerful moment of connection. We were in church and the pastor had asked all of the women, of all ages, to stand up, and he urged the men and boys to cheer for us at least as heartily as they do their sports teams. So while we were standing there, which to me was a tad awkward, I looked around and marveled at how much of the congregation was female, and that was when that woman’s gaze met mine.
Mother’s Day is like Valentine’s Day. A “Hallmark holiday” that can be either a source of joy and gratitude, or a reminder of what we don’t have. Another opportunity to compare ourselves and our lives to others, or to unfulfilled dreams, or things gone wrong. My own relationship with Mother’s Day has been an evolving one. Some years have been full of joy, not taking for granted the miracle that I had two healthy kids after having had three miscarriages. Some years have been fraught with sadness, having lost my mom to cancer when my kids were 1 month and 3 years old. Some years I have longed for one thing on Mother’s Day: to have some peace and quiet, nobody needing anything from me. “All I want is a weekend at home alone” was often my wish (hasn’t happened yet - and at this point I don’t really want that anyway). Now, my kids are 15 and 18, and the oldest is leaving for college in a few months. My wish for today was, “Please come to church, let’s go to lunch at our favorite diner with vegan options, and then please clean your room.” I used to long for silence and space, and now I still cherish both, but I have learned to create that for myself on a regular basis, as my Self-Care items on my daily To Do List. Just like many people scoff at these Hallmark holidays by saying, “every day should be Mother’s Day” or Valentine’s Day, I have realized I need every day to include Self-Care (which is a work in progress, and some days I am better at this than others). It would be unrealistic and immature of me to hope that my family would know exactly what I want and need, and do it all on Mother’s Day.
I have heard the saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” I think this means, if I expect everyone to do as I say, and as I don’t say but fervently hope, I am setting them and myself up for failure, which will lead to my resenting them for not getting me, so obviously they don’t really love me, and they in turn will resent me for my assumptions and display of dismay and anger. Makes sense to me. So at some point I started to consciously lower my expectations for holidays, weekends, events that had a lot riding on them. And it worked. But I was careful not to confuse lowered expectations with settling for less than I and others deserved. It did not mean being a martyr (which is just a really codependent passive aggressive approach, yuck). For me, lowering expectations actually meant, I changed the way I looked at things. I would set an intention beforehand, such as, be present; be of service; don’t worry about getting anything done; be a good listener; be helpful; give yourself permission to not say anything, or to leave the room, or to go for a run…
A couple of dear friends thoughtfully texted me this weekend to say they were thinking of me, as I faced another Mother’s Day without my mom. “I see you” is what each of these texts basically told me. So many of my friends have lost their moms, or are currently dealing with the heartbreaking situation of witnessing their mother slip away physically and/or mentally. Or perhaps their dreams of being moms themselves have been thwarted. Or they are moms but lost some precious angels along the way, before birth or after. Some of my friends have had to endure life after their beautiful child was ripped away from them due to illness or violence or an accident. How hard it must be for you to see other seemingly intact families celebrate and carry on, oblivious to your pain.
I see you…
As I looked around the crowded church this morning at all of the women, representing all stages and ages, all races and ethnicities, various levels of belief, all sorts of professions and socioeconomic status, I thought about what a privilege it is to be a part of this female tribe. I thought about how lucky I am to have friends who are older than me and have walked through things before me, and are now shining a light for me to follow, and to learn from their wisdom. Our culture may want us to believe that after a certain age (50+?) we are no longer relevant and we are only beautiful if we tug, smoothen, cut, and inject here and there. But I know that is yet one more lie that I refuse to believe.
If my mom was still around, and was healthy, I know she would be doing all sorts of community service and creating beautiful clothing, and going to the gym 365 days a year with her gold Reebok sneakers. I am sad she is not here to watch my daughter embark on living out her dream in fashion, which she inherited from my mom, and to take in my son’s beautiful, kind spirit and playful sense of humor. And, I am grateful that I can truly understand how hard it is when a friend loses her mother, how untethered we feel.
I see you…
A meditation teacher I had once used to say at the end of the weekly class, “Have the week that you have.” In other words, let go of expectations, accept what is. Instead of “Happy Mother’s Day” I would like to say, I see you, on this Mother’s Day. And you are beautiful, and strong, resilient, wise, and you have everything you need, right inside of you. And, no matter what, you are loved beyond any human comprehension.
Tonight we have a graduation party. For our puppy. Except he isn’t exactly graduating because he is 3.5 months old and apparently it is recommended he keep taking this weekly class until he is 6 months old, at which point he then moves up the next level. So far he pretty much obeys Sit, Leave It, Let’s Go (for walking). He has done pretty well, especially since he is by far the youngest in the class. I wanted to start off on the right foot especially because everyone tells me labs are brilliant, and I know from having an older dog and two teenagers, the work you put in on the front end is worth every bit of effort. In our first class, we went round the room and shared our puppy’s name and something interesting and one of the owners shared that her puppy is bilingual. A part of me immediately felt the need to teach our puppy at least another two languages.
Our oldest kid is graduating this month too, but unlike the puppy, she is really done with high school. She got to experience three high schools on two continents, and she is more than happy to move on. We moved to the DC area when our kids were going into 8th and 11th grades and it was in some ways a total culture shock. For one, this area has a great amount of wealth, which in practical ways means many of the kids have Uber accounts and credit cards in middle school (which means, a certain disconnect from parent interaction and oversight). The other thing that really hit me was the amount of emphasis on achievement, or rather, over-achievement, which has created an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety on local youth.
I decided that our first year here, my main priority was going to be to do whatever I needed to do to be the calm, safe presence and protect the calm safety in our home, as my husband transitioned into a new job and my kids figured out how to survive and find their new sweet spot in their new schools. So I didn’t throw myself into things, instead deciding to have a BS year (Be Still). Of course, this was not exactly executed because of my need to be doing interesting things, but for the most part, I took a listening stance. I wanted to see what was going on here, where there is most need, what is the culture like, etc.
Not long after we moved here, I met someone who does college admissions coaching. I had never heard of this, but apparently it’s a Thing here, and other areas. They have different levels of coaching (i.e. price points) but we are basically talking, thousands of dollars to have someone give your kid a checklist with structure and accountability, and help them with their essay (all things their high school counselor and website provides, FYI). I asked this person why she had gotten into this and she said that when her oldest was in middle school, she felt like some of her friends weren’t motivated enough, and that this type of coaching would help the kids make better choices now, if they were already thinking of college and how important it is to be doing well as early as middle school.
As I listened, I thought, OK, part of me thinks that makes sense. Our choices can definitely help us or hinder us further down the line. But part of me thought, that is terrible - to stress our kids out so early about college! Of course, I was also thinking that based on what I know of mental health, when kids are doing stupid stuff, for example drinking in 7th grade, it’s not because they lack vision and focus as much as, there is a good chance they are hurting because of trauma, family conflict, etc., and making poor choices are a way for them to escape discomfort. In my years of coaching, and of working with people with addiction, I have never heard, “I really wish someone had put more pressure on me to achieve and be a better student.” If anything, I have repeatedly heard, “I really wish my parents hadn’t pressured me so much to do well in school/sports/music/my weight… I wish they had asked me what I wanted, and listened to the answer, even if it was, ‘I don’t know, but not this.”
I totally get the urge to give our kids the best we can to set them up for “success” and provide the most opportunities. Remember that moment I described above, where I felt a twinge (shame? Competitiveness? Inadequacy?) because my puppy only understands one language? And that is for a freaking puppy. So I totally get it when it appears, thanks to Fakebook, lawn signs, local newspaper announcements and features, school parent forums - that everyone else’s kid is receiving awards, recognitions, getting recruited, getting “verified” on social media, turning down Ivy League offers. It’s no wonder so many kids are spending their summers in Kumon tutoring, SAT prep courses, un-fun summer camps. It makes sense that so many parents are making their kids get a special plan so they can have special accommodations for test-taking (before you get all worked up, I know, some kids do need these, but definitely not to the extent that we are seeing, especially in affluent areas where parents have figured out how to game the system). That whole college scandal we just witnessed? I just see it as an extreme version of what so many people are willing and wanting to do. It is so easy to judge when we are not in the position or have the temptation to do something. But if we dial it back and bring it back to our own context, may that maybe look a bit more like our reality? For example:
A little while ago, a mom was anguished over her high school aged son, who is in treatment for substance use disorder and depression. Apparently he had just relapsed. She was miffed, saying, “We gave him everything! We could tell when he was really young how much talent he had, so we gave him the best coaching, got him on the best teams, etc. Now we give him this great treatment program and this is what he does?!” I thought, “Did you ever ask him if this was what he wanted?” I imagined what it must be like to be this young man, feeling that he has disappointed his parents who see him as unfulfilled potential, someone who “wasted” all of his opportunity. I thought, how hard for him to carry his parents’ burden this way - no wonder he feels compelled to escape.
I know how hard it is, probably one of the hardest parts of parenting, to know what our kids are capable of, and to watch them flounder, or be distracted, or have priorities that perhaps don’t match our vision for them. We parents are excellent at two things: future-tripping and catastrophizing. So it seems like we are being super helpful when we sign them up for all of the things, make sure they get 10,000 hours in at least one of them, and freak out if they trip up. In complete transparency, I have to check my own mindset and motives every day. Last fall, our 9th grade son was involved in 4 sports at the same time. I know, right now you are thinking, “and you are telling me to CTFD???” (CTFD= Calm The F-k Down). Bear with me. He was finishing up a summer Triathlon program, doing a brief Learn To Row through his high school, on an in-house hockey team, and checking out his high school hockey team. I knew this insanity was temporary and I allowed it as he wanted to do this, and I was curious to see where it would go. When he decided to prune a couple of things, we talked about how sometimes it is wise to know when a season has ended. Our culture loves to vilify quitting (unless it’s smoking or heroin), but I think it’s an important value to teach our kids, especially if we are going to teach them about self-care.
Often, I tell my kids, “if everyone is doing something, it’s probably either stupid or not right for me.” I admit for a minute I considered getting a college admissions coach for my daughter since it seemed like everyone else here was doing it, and I wondered, what am I missing? Fortunately, she told me that was stupid, so I didn’t. (And she got in everywhere she applied). I remember when she was in 6th grade, I was talking with another parent, who was hoping her daughters would go to an Ivy League school (they weren’t even in middle school yet) because of how many opportunities this would bring them. I replied something like, “I really don’t think that where a kid goes to college ultimately determines how happy and well-adjusted they are adults. I think that if someone really wants to do a certain type of work, using their strengths, and they feel it is meaningful work, they will find their way there and be successful - no matter what school they go to.”
Now, six years later, I still believe that. I heard Dr. Lisa D’Amour say, “Today, middle school is high school and high school is college” in terms of the pressure to achieve and perform. That is crazy - no wonder so many kids are losing sleep and freaking out. As parents, I think we can all agree that our primary role is to keep our kids safe and provide them with unconditional love. I think it would be an excellent thing to ponder on a regular basis, whether or not our child feels like we doing this? We lock the doors, push for safe schools, safe water, etc. - but are we doing our best to nurture their tender hearts and souls?
“The idea that ‘I need to be happy’ or ‘my child deserves to be happy’ comes from a sense that the present moment is somehow lacking. In other words, we see our life through a lens of scarcity, noticing all the things we don’t have instead of the abundant way the universe provides for us. And so, as the Declaration of Independence sanctions, we set off in “the pursuit of happiness,” not realizing that this can never bring us happiness. On the contrary, it’s the breeding ground of discontent and disappointment.”
So, how do we parent in a way that we are connected with our child, see them and hear them and accept them as they are, while also guiding them through this achievement-focused environment? I think that like all things I coach with, there is no one size fits all. Some kids are innately achievement-focused and they thrive under huge amounts of stress, happily taking on five AP classes while starting a new club and leading several teams and launching a foundation to end world poverty while running a marathon to raise money for childhood cancer. We need these kinds of kids, just as we need the kids who are not quite as driven, or haven’t yet grown into their drive. I think as parents it is important to try to tune out the insanity around us with other parents (at school forums and in parent Facebook groups), listen to our kids and allow them to show us what they need, and be discerning. Don’t believe a lot of what you hear about what it takes to get into college, what your kid “needs” to do, and what success means and how to get there.
To learn more about how to help your kids by being a more connected, mindful parent, check out our upcoming workshop: Connected Parenting.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.