Monday, September 28, 2015

Middle School, Memories, and More Healing

My son started middle school in August. I knew he would face an adjustment period, what with lockers and classes all over the building and having to make new friends. What I did not expect was how his year would affect me. His sister went through sixth grade two years ago, after all. His teachers' names are familiar, their email addresses in my contacts list. I know his schedule, the pickup routine, the homework expectations. It's old hat by now, right?

But for weeks it's all I can do not to burst into tears when he comes home and begins telling me about the challenges of his day. My throat constricts and I silently pull his head in to my chest, squeezing my eyes tight to keep them from spilling over his hair. Then one day I realize that my tears are not only for him, my brave and sensitive boy who's growing up fast. As I watch him navigate the mysterious and labyrinthine corridors of his new school, my inner child is reliving what should have been my first year of Jr. High at his age--the year we joined ATI and became truly isolated from the influence of the outside world.

Every time we drove by the Jr. High school when I was a kid, I used to imagine what it would be like to attend. To get off the bus and walk those halls, surrounded by other young teenagers in denim jackets. It was a frightening fantasy, but an exciting one. I didn't know that I would be allowed to experience Jr. High, but I pictured it just the same.

And then, the summer before I turned twelve, we moved to the country on the other side of town. Ever since kindergarten, there had been friends next door to play with. Now we could see only one other house from our yard, but no children lived there and the adults were gone all day. We had fields and woods and a barn to play in, but it was just the five of us kids, ages two to eleven, playing together every day. We didn't have television, stayed away from the cinema, and the old radio with a spoon for an antenna was kept tuned to the network from Chicago's Moody Bible Institute.
Dad quit his job after the move and started his own business from our house. No more trips to see his office or stories about the other engineers he worked with through the week. Sundays became our primary social event: though we went to church, the handful of other children were all younger than me, and we didn't have Sunday School. (When we changed churches later, we were only allowed to go to Sunday School or youth group on special occasions.)
Our jovial dentist patted us on the shoulder once a year; we saw our Catholic doctor even more rarely. I never saw a counselor or took a test to assess my educational progress. Our family friends were all other homeschoolers. The most worldly people I knew were my uncle, whom my mother taught me to wary of, and my grandparents, who drank coffee, watched PBS, and accepted evolution as science.We saw them about twice a year and they were always careful not to criticize my parents. 
The summer of 1987 my parents also enrolled in Gothard's ATI program. We had been homeschooling pioneers, and I'd adjusted to that. Mostly I taught myself math and English and science from textbooks and read all the history I could get my hands on. Now, though, everything changed.
Acquiring good character, rather than knowledge, became the educational priority. Gothard's Wisdom Booklets, with their confusing questions and loosely-connected propaganda, took center stage. Dad switched our grading system to adapt to the weekly report forms we had to fill in and mail to Headquarters. I studied Greek vocabulary and Puritan sermons alongside my elementary-age siblings. Washing dishes, vacuuming carpets, and Bible memorization counted as school time.
For the next eight years, my academic progress was neglected, and with neither peers nor professionals who could instruct me better, I lacked long-term achievement goals and any standard to which I could compare my work.

Middle school is a tough place to be almost twelve. My kids have days when they wish they could stay home and study with just me. They've come home and cried when the stress of holding it all together seemed unbearable. But they have already developed social and learning skills that took me decades longer to acquire. In some subjects, they have already surpassed the work I was doing in "high school". And tackling hard assignments and facing their anxieties has made them stronger people than I was at twice their age!

Some days I envy my kids' educational opportunities. Other times I mourn the schooling that was kept from me in the name of my parents' god. I'm constantly grateful for the circumstances and people that led us to schools where our kids can learn and grow so much.

Most mornings I wrap my arms around my son and squeeze him tight before he hoists his backpack. I am supporting and reassuring him, to be sure, but I am also understanding my wistful younger self, telling her that I see her and love her, that her need to explore and understand her world will not be neglected again. That while her story had some sad parts, it turns out okay. And that from here on, she gets to write her story.

It's a choose-your-own-adventure!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

On Healing and Managing Triggers

Three years ago I didn't know what "triggers" were. I thought PTSD was something that affected soldiers. I never used terms like grounding, self-care, inner child, or trauma. I'd never done a yoga stretch and I owned but a single coloring book. I've learned a lot since then!

A couple months ago, I ran smack into a multi-pronged trigger that nearly took my breath away. This time, though, I had a whole toolbox of resources to help me stay afloat through the swirling emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.

I got out of the house right away and spent time looking at art. At trees. At the sky. I went walking multiple times a day. I talked with my therapist. I leaned heavily on my support network of friends around the world. No need to pretend I was okay. I let them comfort and heal me, receiving their gifts of soothing words and music. As we shared our secrets and heartaches, we strengthened one another.

At home, I did a jigsaw puzzle, crocheted a scarf, baked cookies, cleaned cabinets. I drew pictures, painted, colored in my coloring books, wrote in my journal. I danced. I did yoga. I swam and went ice skating. I sang loudly in my car. I pounded out my feelings on a poor pillow. I chopped up a tree! I sought solace and guidance and escape in stories--stories about grief, about love, about growth and change. I watched new movies and old favorites.

I kept offering my body nourishing foods, even when everything tasted like cardboard and nibbling a sandwich took an hour or more. When I found a dish that tempted my appetite, I allowed myself to indulge, thankful that I could appreciate the experience. I cared for my body by seeing doctors. I loved it by buying clothes that express who I am now. Clothing can carry so many emotional associations that a new outfit can feel like a baptism!

I smelled flowers, touched tree bark, listened to birds, watched squirrels and butterflies in my backyard. I gave long hugs and asked for them, too. Chris and I spent hours and hours talking on the porch in the twilight (and drank many glasses of wine!).

In the past, major triggers have wrapped me in a cloud of foggy numbness. This year, though, I've felt an array of conflicting emotions simultaneously, each one distinct and insistent. The intensity of feeling has been overwhelming at times--but I found it helped preserve my sanity to assign my varied emotions to different inner voices: The child within, for example, is lonely and scared, the bitch always sarcastic. The big sister in me is bossy, the mom often anxious or driven by guilt. The drama queen thinks she's going to die, while the journalist believes each human experience, however painful, will be invaluable in the future. And the sexy tart, oh, goodness me!

And instead of being stuck in hyperarousal, my nervous system is responding to all strong stimuli--however happy or upsetting--with tears. I have not cried so much (or in front of so many people) in years, yet it feels...cleansing. I have felt more alive this year, even with the triggers, than I have in a long time. More human. As if a long-sealed part of my heart has cracked open and is finally healing from the inside out. 

Other times, I've only managed to survive the immediate trigger. But this time around, I've been able to go far deeper into the emotional flashbacks. One sense of anxiety and loss has called up so many others from across the years and I've found myself weeping over decades of unacknowledged sadness, separations and stresses I still might not have fully mourned had it not been for this summer's jolting trigger.

I could have protected myself better. I could have guarded against being hurt or reminded of the past. I could have made myself less vulnerable. But I took the risk of living my life instead. And as upsetting as triggers can be, I'm convinced that working through them can make us stronger. None of the time I invested in recovery and managing past triggers was wasted, and this time won't be, either!

I'm still using my coping strategies as needed. Still crying and growing and leaning into the feelings that arise. Still learning new things and being patient with myself.

But what a fabulous year it has been!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Feminist Homemaker

"And what do you do?"

It's an innocent question, neither nosy nor rude. One that pops up in the most casual of introductions all the time. And yet it can haunt some of us for hours afterward.

Why am I a stay-at-home mom?

I found myself mulling uneasily over this question after a conversation this summer exposed my own doubts and I got defensive. When I am uncertain, I tend to flounder and feel guilty. Should I want a career? Should I want to stay home?

When I was homeschooling, the justification was simple. I was already doing a "job". (In hindsight, it's apparent I wasn't aware I had other options.) I have no regrets about those early years of pottytraining and naptimes and going to the park and teaching my little bookworms to read. Still, now that they're older and in school all day, I've felt the need to rethink my reasons for not earning a paycheck.

My feminist values tell me that I need to be pulling my weight, that I should have the resources to support myself instead of being financially dependent on a relationship. I'm also afraid of perpetuating an outmoded patriarchal family model or unhealthy expectations of what a mom should look like.

However… not working does not automatically put me in the same category as Michelle Duggar. :) And I'm privileged to know other ardent feminists who are unemployed, by choice, for various personal reasons. And so, I ponder.

As for expectations, my children see me pursuing knowledge and new skills. They see me involved in the community. They see me actively promoting equal rights for women. They see that Chris and I have independent interests and relationships. They know women working in a variety of fields. And they know every family operates by its own rules.

Chris and I have shed patriarchy gradually and embraced gender equality together. While there has been some shading and blending as we've adapted to these values, he remains our household's breadwinner. And yet, we are a symbiotic team. We eat better food less expensively because I stay home and cook (our meals average $1.25/person!). He can focus on his career from eight to five and college classes on weekends because I can run the errands, take the cars for service, schedule appointments, shop, and sign the field trip forms. I can take classes, volunteer, exercise, help kids with homework, and cultivate supportive friendships because he brings in the income. And since he currently works at home, we get all kinds of extra moments during the day to connect as friends, freeing us to better focus on the kids when they are at home.

While extra income could ease some stresses, we are financially comfortable enough. If I worked part-time, my earnings would quickly diminish in higher food, fuel, and insurance bills. If I worked full-time, we would have more stress around daily school pick-ups and drop-offs. I would have much less time for the self-care that helps me manage my mental health. And instead of relaxed evenings together, we would have to pack all the laundry, shopping, organizing, and meal prep into that time slot.

To us, that time to just "be" after dinner and homework is worth more than we would gain if I went to work. It is a matter of what we value most this year. Our schedule and priorities are always evolving and we are open to change. But for now, we are savoring that closeness and flexibility.

On a personal level, overcoming years of emotional trauma and cult mind-control has been a long journey and there are still days when the demands of motherhood on top of that seem overwhelming. I'm grateful that I've had the option of concentrating on those aims without trying to hold a job at the same time.

Reflection on my domestic role has been time well-spent. These days I find myself prouder than ever of what I do and of the ways I contribute to our family's well-being. I am a feminist homemaker: a cookie-baking, jelly-making, youngster-shuttling thriving woman who thinks for herself while advocating for the right of every woman in our community to make her own choices.