Celebrating Sixteen Years with Anxiety

A few days ago I posted to facebook a list of sixteen memories with my son. One for each of his sixteen years. In many ways it has been more wonderful, more rewarding than my nineteen year old self could have imagined. I wrote in his birthday card “You made my life.” I meant it.  But today I considered the darker side of those sixteen years. Because along with my gorgeous child came an avalanche of anxiety, and I have spent his lifetime clawing my way out from beneath the rubble.

There have been moments when this has seemed a hopeless task, and others when I could see the light. Still others when I lay down on the job and laughed at the absurdity of it all. And those moments may have been the most healing of all. So without further ado, here is my list of memories with anxiety, for it has been my near constant companion these past sixteen years.

  1. When you and I visited that doctor in Singapore for the third day in a row, insisting again that my pink and tender ingrown toenail had turned gangrenous.
  2. When we sat across from the other doctor at Mount Elizabeth Hospital and argued that my stress headache was meningitis.
  3. When we were so afraid of the flight home that we openly sobbed upon takeoff and then experienced liquid diarrhea for the duration of the twenty six hour journey. On the long haul flight our travel companion was a gentleman equally afraid to fly. He explained that he was, in fact, on a separate flight from his wife that day in case the plane went down, leaving their children orphaned.
  4. Panic attacks at home! Alone! With tiny babies!
  5. When we couldn’t look at our foot for six straight weeks because toe cancer.
  6. When we went to the doctor for that bump behind our ear and he informed us that it was part of our skull.
  7. When we became convinced that there was a stalker outside the house, and barricaded the doors with furniture. We stayed vigilant throughout the night with rented movies and a chocolate stash. And an axe.
  8. All the times we have gone to the emergency room thinking we were having a heart attack.
  9. Those days when we used to go to the grocery store for the week’s foo,d and then return home to dump it directly in the trash. Because e coli.
  10. When we tossed that entire mac and cheese dinner because we had cut our finger chopping the onions, and were afraid that we might give everyone a blood borne disease. Like HIV. We do not have HIV.
  11. All those times we turned the car around to make sure that the bump we felt in the road was not, in fact, a body.
  12. That time Andy went to the bathroom, and we couldn’t find him, and he didn’t answer when we called out, and we panicked that he might not be real.
  13. The meaning of the universe. We won’t speak of it further.
  14. Panic attacks in public places!
  15. That time the cat missed his vaccinations and then scratched Cleo and we googled a bunch and found out that rabies can lay dormant for decades in some cases, and we became convinced we had killed our daughter. Remember that documentary about that girl with rabies? Why did we watch that?
  16. All the times we put a smile on it and got shit done anyway. Because we are tough as nails.


Batter Up!

Back to school week is my least favorite. The sweet togetherness of summer is replaced by the anticipation of anxiety and stress. Everyone still wants to sleep in, but they need me to make sure their shit is taken care of. My inbox is jammed with more information than I care to process, and everywhere I go I find myself struggling to maneuver my own loaded shopping cart  through aisles packed with Moms who sport a similar stricken expression.

Just weeks ago I was  gallivanting the country with my beautiful family, discovering  Atlanta’s most magnificent donuts. Now I find myself  pondering whether a package of Sharpie Electro Pop Ultra Fine Point Pens will soothe my daughter’s battered self confidence. After some debate, and with Little Bear lolling about in the front of the cart, my M&M bribe to keep him quiet rapidly diminishing, I decide that no, the Sharpies are unnecessary. I will just stick to the list.

We need three boxes of tissues and they only have a pack of five. We dig in yellow cardboard boxes for the last “ultra fine point black marker (sharpie preferred!)” We decide we probably have one at home, maybe in the junk drawer? I find my Mom with the girls. They are tossing their popcorn snack out of the wagon and shreiking. I am sweating now, and regretting my decision to eat the other sharing size bag of M&Ms  back in the clothing section. I tell them to clean up the mess, but soon recognize this as fruitless and sort of gather it all up into a pile and smile apologetically at a  nearby employee.

A few days later I walk my beautiful, confident six year old to the front porch of her new classroom. She’s wearing a cow backpack with a matching lunchbox and has my old yoga mat under her arm. Her hair is braided into a crown, and all the crazy strands are already falling out around her pretty face which just radiates pure joy. She shakes her teacher’s hand and forgets to say  goodbye. “Cleo!” I yell. “What?” Her face is fantastically annoyed. “Have a great day!”

Then I walk little bear to his room. He won’t have his sister for support  this year and he’s been up all night worrying. He has bona fide circles under his eyes and he’s visibly holding back tears. He wants to sit on the bench outside and I we do this for way too long. I can feel the disapproval of his teachers that I’m letting him drag this out. I look around for a more competent adult  to take control of the situation. The process of peeling his little self from my arms is predictably horrifying, so I spend my first free morning in months purchasing new craft supplies and planning fun projects for us to do together. It helps.

The big kids board the bus on their first day without much fanfare, but Maeve calls me in the afternoon upset. My girl has taken a giant leap out of her comfort zone and signed up for middle school athletics. Her new coach has, with exactly zero tact, called her out in front of her peers for failing to provide the necessary forms and purchase the proper athletic shorts. I have missed the email and Maeve doesn’t have telepathic capabilities, so she is fucked.  I am livid. I recall an image of this woman to mind, standing in the gym with her hands clasped behind her back and her feet spread apart. She’s using a bunch of terminology I don’t understand because I don’t live and breathe middle school athletics, and all I need to know is where to show up and when. Just tell me where to get the damn shorts lady!  I write her a scathing email and then delete the whole thing. I write her another asking that she contact me urgently.

The next few days are a shit show. There’s the trip to the UPS store to sort out the whole athletic form debacle. And the trip to the pediatrician for Bear’s cough. There’s the morning ritual wherein I watch bear gulp back tears in the rearview mirror and then observe while he takes deep breaths on our walk up the path. Of course it’s all for naught since he still loses his cool when we reach the classroom door, and I feel my heart physically breaking every time. There are job interviews because this year I will have to work so we can afford the fancy school tuition. And the talk with the athletics teacher, where I do my best to hold back because really, she’s just like me, and the first week of school probably isn’t her favorite either.

The Guy Who Made Me Ugly Cry in Yoga Class

One of the initial steps in my recovery from panic disorder is to expose myself to the places and things that have induced extreme anxiety and panic in the past. This meant it was time recently to reintroduce myself to Bikram Yoga. Bikram is an interesting experience turned love of mine that I discovered during the honeymoon phase of being put  on the anti anxiety medication Escitalopram. This phase, whether due to placebo effect (I am on an extremely low and likely ineffectual dose), or actual efficacy of the drug lasted about a year, and enabled me to try out some things I had been itching to for a long time.

I dragged my sister along to our first class a little over a year ago. We entered the hot room feeling self conscious and unsure. I spent the first half  of the class coercing my body into postures it surely did not welcome and the second half lying on my mat studying the water spots on the ceiling tiles and worrying that the headache I was experiencing was indicative of heatstroke. But the lovely teacher encouraged me to drink a ton of water and come back the next day, so I did! I attended twelve days of the fourteen day promotional period. During that time I learned a great deal about my mind and body. I gained flexibility and confidence, and I quickly realized it was the only form of exercise I had actually enjoyed…ever. This, I thought, might be “my thing”.

Some days were better than others. It was disheartening at first to look around the room at the veritable sea of svelte, toned, and super flexible bodies, the bodies of yogis who have been practicing for many years. I began to understand pretty quickly, however, that becoming more fit and healthy was only a byproduct of the yoga, and far from the actual point. I started to look only at myself in the mirror. I tried to be compassionate toward my  body, abused as it was by my sustained weakness for banana nut muffins and  unassailable respect for the ritual of afternoon tea. I learned to celebrate mini victories, rejoicing in my newfound ability to touch my toes or balance on one leg. I noticed that the usual, persistent thoughts and worries about the kids would dissipate as I studied myself in those mirrors. The Bikram dialogue became my meditation and I pushed myself hard as I dared to “reach for the back wall” in backward bending pose, or to “lock the knee” in standing head to knee. My sister loved it too and together we encouraged the rest of my family to get involved. Before long five of us had signed up for the Thirty Day Challenge.

We sweat… gallons, we twisted, we wobbled, we learned to breathe through  the discomfort. “In by the nose, out by the nose, it calms the nervous system” they said. Some days we cheated ourselves, others we pushed too hard, but every day, for thirty days, we showed up. And we were victorious! Every one of us finished the challenge and experienced massive improvements in our flexibility and strength. I felt calmer in my interactions with the kids and with Andy, and my sleep was incredibly restful. It was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what yoga can do for a person, but it was a strong start.

I did not continue a daily practice, but I did show up regularly for a while. That is, until the day I had a massive panic in class. I was late, class had already started and I could feel it rising. Maybe my blood sugar was low, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep. It doesn’t matter. I tried to resist rather than accept and soon I found myself trembling on the mat, dizzy and nauseous, heart pounding, thoughts racing. I remember it took about forty minutes before I could really engage. Forty minutes of intense waves of panic in a room heated to 105 degrees at forty percent humidity. At the time I felt it was the kind of experience a person shouldn’t have to endure without help.

I wish now that I had just continued to show up, to let the panic roll through while I simply did the yoga. It is a simple approach that is anything but easy. But instead I allowed the panic to choose. I attended class sporadically for a while, but the panic kept coming and I eventually sent an email canceling my membership. It was a difficult time.

Fast forward to today, forging deeper into this journey of acceptance and mindfulness I signed myself up for another Thirty Day challenge. The purpose this time had very little to do with training my body. I knew going into it that I would have many panic attacks because I had conditioned myself to believe they would occur. One day, one of the co owners asked if it might be helpful for me to set my mat up by the door. “No”, I explained  “I just need to accept”. That day I set my mat up in the front row.

There were days where I felt it wouldn’t be possible to will my body out of the car, but I did. One day I found myself at the studio door having slept very little. I had been enduring waves of panic since 4am. I had dropped my children at school dressed, fed, hugged, lunches packed, and now I wanted to crawl into a hole. I struggled through the drive, every turn toward the studio a deliberate decision, the motions of throwing my bag over my shoulder, locking my car, pulling open the door and signing my name on the sheet, each an act of bravery. But I noticed halfway though class that I was meditating, breathing, accepting. Victory. Once again I completed the challenge, but this time it meant so much more.

Somewhere in the middle of the challenge the studio owners treated us to a demonstration and kinda sorta posture clinic with yoga champion Joseph Encinia. It’s not really an experience I can do justice on this page. It was beyond inspiring. His story alone; the story of a little boy suffering from a painful autoimmune disease, of a teenager who endured a heart attack due to his medication, the story of a man who triumphed over his illnesses and lives a full, rich life due in part to yoga was motivating enough. But the man himself, with his energy and drive and light, not to mention his awe inspiring  demonstration…well, it’s the kind of thing you look back on to pull yourself out of the dark places.

At the end of class, when it was time for savasana, a time I usually reserve for desperately struggling to pull my busy mind back into stillness, Joseph said “let’s meditate”.  It was a short yet powerful meditation that required us to hold in our minds the person we love most in the world, to wish them safety, peace and happiness, we wished these things for ourselves too, then for someone we struggle with, and finally for all beings. It was a profoundly moving meditation and the tears came out of nowhere. After Joseph left the room I covered my face with my arms and lay helplessly on the mat allowing the tears to come. At first I thought it was just me, but soon I could hear a few other stifled sobs.

Its called loving kindness meditation or metta meditation. Years ago, Andy sent me an email as part of our thread “What the F*** is wrong with Elaine”, detailing how this particular type of meditation is helpful for those experiencing anxiety and panic. Turns out it’s also coming up soon in the meditation series provided by my therapist. There are plenty of beautiful and inspiring examples of loving kindness meditation on you tube, but I’ll leave you with this. It’s a version of the Loving Kindness Prayer similar to what was said to us in class:

Loving Kindness Prayer

May you be happy

May you be well

May you be peaceful

May you be safe




Fifteen years, two days, one hour and sixteen minutes. That’s how long I’ve been a mother. Fifteen years, two days, one hour and sixteen minutes ago I watched as my flaccid, unresponsive son, his tone a sickly purplish gray was whisked from my body and to a far corner of the delivery room. There, an army of attendants cajoled him into being; their nervousness betrayed by voices unnaturally loud. My mother tells me she saw it coming, but I had been clueless. When they turned down the volume on the fetal heart rate monitor, it’s normally reassuring “clippety clop” alarmingly slow, when two nurses appeared out of nowhere to push on the top of my belly, when all manner of instruments were used to drag him into the world, I was mostly unaware of the gravity of the situation. Nobody told me. Nobody had enough respect for that nineteen year old girl to fill her in.

I looked into my Mothers face in the moments after he was born, while we waited for his cry, mostly confused. She reassured me that he was beautiful,  perfect. She smiled and her eyes were filled with tears. I think I asked if he was okay. He was. He was beautiful and perfect indeed. They wrapped him in his little receiving blanket, covered his little cone head with a hospital hat and placed him in my arms. I looked down into his blinking eyes, his sweet face searching for the voice he knew so well, for the voice that told him he was safe. His bottom lip was tucked all the way inside his mouth so he looked like a little old man, and he had some red marks on his tiny swollen cheeks. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what anyone said. But I remember the enormity of the feeling. It wasn’t overwhelming or frightening, not even as young as I was. But there was a fierceness to it, my complete and perfect devotion to this little soul. And then the breathtaking realization that he was everything.

We’ve travelled the years at lightening speed. Every long newborn night, every doctor’s office struggle, every harrowing toddler tantrum and nineteen hour plane flight, the harrowing tantrum on the nineteen hour flight seemed never ending at the time. But the good stuff, it’s all just in snapshots. They’re shuffled all wrong and I can’t piece them together properly into a coherent story. But oh they are wonderful to just spread out on the floor of my memory, a big messy pile. It’s achingly sweet to pick them up, squint at them, try to see deeper, to remember what his sweet toddler hair smelled like, how it was to hold his hand in mine as we crossed the bridge at the park, how our feet sounded together as we stamped loudly across it to scare away trolls. Can I recall how his breath sounded when I knew he was asleep and I could safely retreat from the room? How did his voice sound as he played pretend with his toy trains? I can almost hear it, but not quite. They told me it would go fast. I didn’t listen. I couldn’t have understood. Listen, watch, pay attention. Soon it’ll all just be snapshots.

On his birthday I made him a mountain bike cake. Mountain biking promises to be a lifelong passion of Aidan’s if this year is anything to go by. He is an athlete, and a boy scout. A freakin’ boy scout! And a loving, if mischievous, big brother. He is a prankster and he has a wicked sense of humor. You may or may not be able to tell, but I am insanely proud of him. He is heading into high school this year and I am helping him to navigate scheduling, relationships, responsibility. This is the dreaded year he will learn to drive.

My role in his life has recently shifted dramatically. I have a measure of trust in him that I wouldn’t have thought possible a few short years ago. Don’t judge me. This is the kid who I am ninety nine percent sure pulled the fire alarm at the Extended Stay hotel in Nashua, New Hampshire causing dozens of guests to stand outside in the cold while we waited for the fire department to arrive. He still won’t own up to it. He’s the kid who had his father running laps around said hotel after him before pulling said fire alarm. He’s the kid who would steal and hide my keys in restaurants and then watch me frantically turn the diaper bag inside out, all the while insisting that this time it really wasn’t him.

We also seem to be coming out the other side of the whole “parents are embarrassing” phase. I am often surprised to learn that I’m invited to his school or scouting events and, happily, hugs in public are no longer verboten. When I speak to him now I am acutely aware that I am speaking with a young man. We can discuss politics, music, or the most recent episode of The Walking Dead with equal candor and I am finding out what an utterly cool human being we have raised.

To Aidan, who will read this before it is published; I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to be your mother. Maybe the Waldorfies are right and from somewhere out there you chose me.  More likely we just ended up each others people by random chance out here in this fantastic universe. Either way, holy crap I am glad you are you,  I am me, and we’re together.


On Gender Norms…Or Something

When Maeve was little, I preoccupied myself with worrying that she was inundated with anti feminist messages. I fretted about her exposure to Disney Princess movies, concerned about their overt gender stereotypes. I banned Barbie dolls, with their impossible body proportions, from our home. We owned and read frequently a copy of  “The Paper Bag Princess”, a charming story about a princess who outsmarts a dragon and in so doing rescues her prince. The prince incidentally turns out to be a “bum” and so she marches off into the sunset without him.

These days Maeve is a makeup obsessed diva. She prances around in belly tops and mascara, and I am constantly begging her to put on a shirt. Go figure. She of course has many wonderful attributes that leave me with little doubt she will do something spectacular with her life. But I’ll brag about those later.

Around the same time that I was feeling self-righteous about my Barbie doll ban I had a train obsessed little boy who surprised me when he asked to be a fairy for Halloween. I dressed him in a little Peter Pan type outfit  and he donned some wings and an entire can of spray glitter. I’ll never forget the squeals of delight when he checked out the finished look in the bathroom mirror. The following year he was a “Bat King” and we wrestled with cheap stick on talons all evening. And time marches on.

This time around, however, the trains rarely depart the station and the legos are only occasionally dumped out on the floor (in their entirety). Their main purpose seemingly being to lodge themselves between my toes on late night trips to the bathroom. My little bear with the chicken heart often prefers instead to raid his sisters dress up clothes and twirl around dressed as “Ana” from Frozen. I frequently have to chastise Maeve when she declines to fix his makeup along with the two younger girls, and when they all lined up to have their hair curled on New Years Eve, there was Bear bringing up the rear.

I announced to the boys last week that I would be taking them for haircuts. Bear’s face crumpled and he squeaked out between sobs “I no wanna have short hair.” Having traveled this particular road before I asked the stylist to just clean up around his ears and neck. I allowed my eldest to grow his hair out for years. It wasn’t such a big deal until he started public school at age ten. There he was ridiculed enough to finally want to cut it off…sniff.  He now has something of a hair complex which may or may not have anything to do with his previously long locks. Huey’s hair is, of course, adorable. Good call Buddy.

Thankfully the younger kids go to a progressive little school where the children, boys and girls are free to express themselves. Kids will be cruel sometimes, it’s true, but we are fortunate to have brave, compassionate, thinking teachers who can handle a multitude of quirks, and who teach the children to celebrate diversity and  honor the beauty in their differences.

However, there is a line for me. I did not, for example purchase a second Holiday party dress for Bear even though he requested one…emphatically.  I instead bought him some sweet little winter sweaters that he loves and some t shirts with Christmas illustrations, also a big hit. Of course I am more than happy to zip up his Ana dress so he can join the girls in pretend play. In fact, I find it’s less of a hassle than wrestling the plastic sword from the hands of an over zealous miniature knight.

Someday I will reflect back on this time the same way I do the Halloween spent with my forest fairy, giddy with delight at his glittering costume. Or on the times spent cuddled with my precious baby daughter reading “The Paper Bag Princess”. I won’t remember so much the second guessing and wringing of hands.  Only Bear’s hopeful little face on the drive to Granny’s house this New Year’s Eve. “Granny’s gonna think my hair is beeful,” he said quietly to me . “Yes she is sweet boy,” is all I needed to reply.

On Losing the Battle

Today, as the first light filtered through the blinds I gazed at my beautiful boy who had climbed into my bed through the night. I breathed in his sweet smell and played softly with his little rubber ears. I wished hard that he didn’t have to wake up to the world changed as it was this morning. I despaired that he would come to know such a repugnant individual as the leader of his country. Worse, that he would someday come to understand that we let it happen.

Our country elected this man President of the United States and we should all hang our heads with shame. What will we tell our daughters? How will we explain that this man, who is so blatantly misogynistic, is allowed to set foot in the Oval Office? How will we excuse ourselves when they start picking away at their rights and freedoms? How could we have done more?

I read that Canada’s immigration website crashed in the wee hours this morning as those desperate for an escape, a do over, for the gag to be up, frantically googled. I’m here to tell you that won’t be me. I won’t be running. I am a British Citizen, a resident alien in the United States, an immigrant, and this is my home. My husband is American, my children are American, and soon I will be too. Next election cycle  my little guy will be eight years old. Old enough to understand and bear witness to his grown ups fighting to put someone worthy in our country’s highest office, someone he can admire and emulate. So as we move forward reluctantly this day, this week, and for the next four years my promise to my son is that this will be the last time I sit by idly as hate trumps love.


The Quality of a Moment





The kids are asleep, the dishwasher is humming along. My feet are throbbing a little and I don’t remember when I sat down last. A few moments ago I looked up at our sky full of stars, so vibrant in this beautiful Texas Hill country, and I felt grateful. The enormity of the night sky will often make me feel insignificant, afraid, too small. Bit tonight I find myself giddy with gratitude, humbled by the sheer miracle, the blind luck that put me, little me, here. Able to stand on my two legs in my weed strewn driveway, and drink up this beautiful experience.

As I ran around this weekend preparing meals for the week I found myself overwhelmed by work. I made a point to shift my thinking and allowed myself to feel grateful for the experience of cooking for my family. There was Halloween pasta with bat and pumpkin shaped pieces, carrot and coriander soup made from Mum’s tried and true recipe, slow cooker chili and hot apple cider. I breathed in the smells. I savored the little hands, eager to help, the pasta pieces falling to the floor, their curiosity, and finally their pride at the finished meal.

I had to make a last minute run to one of those awful halloween superstores. Once we had purchased our gross, but totally cool zombie makeup I made a wrong turn and wound up out by the airport. What began as a twenty minute drive had turned into forty. We had pumpkins to carve and I had dinner to serve, school snacks to assemble. Yep, I like to sign up for snack duty on special days like Halloween and Valentines Day. It never fails to make me feel simultaneously overwhelmed and like a superhero. On our longer than necessary drive home I played my favorite music, rolled down the windows and enjoyed the ride. Then at midnight I enjoyed putting little celery stems into clementine pumpkins despite the late hour.

Once this week, while washing dishes, my little pirate friend passed through the kitchen and asked, “do we have any string? I need it to build my ship.” There was an actual homemade pumpkin pie in the oven and I believed in that moment that I may in fact be the happiest person alive.

I wondered aloud to Andy recently that there are occasions in life where you notice that the quality of the moment is somehow different, something akin to a childhood memory, but not. What I am coming to understand is that this is what it feels like to be present in the moment. This is mindfulness. Putting mindfulness into practice is simple, but it is work. I have a long way to go and more to learn. I still fall asleep when I attempt to meditate for more that thirty seconds, but I am working on bringing myself back into the present whenever I notice my mind wandering into that unknown future that I fear so much. I am beginning to realize how very much I have missed these past fourteen years. I will never be reimbursed the time spent worried and stressed about futures that ultimately never came to pass. I know that now, and practicing mindfulness is a not so small part of my whole plan to overcome my anxiety. And guys I have to tell you, I have not had a single panic attack since Andy left three weeks ago. It’s a major victory.






I go overboard on birthdays. Like, way overboard. The traditions I’ve incorporated into our celebrations over the years can sometimes seem almost impossible to pull off. For example there are the chocolate chip pancakes served for the birthday breakfast, followed by the opening of gifts. This happens no matter if its a school day or not. There is always a special treat prepared for the birthday child’s classmates in addition to the Mama made birthday cake  served after dinner. If the birthday is on a school day I’ll always incorporate some sort of fun (and too often costly) activity into the afternoon. This would all be fine, but the expectations don’t stop there.

On the weekend of the birthday there may be a sleepover party or some additional celebration involving school friends. This will include a second cake or cupcakes as well as favors, entertainment and a meal for the guests. For those who have lost count that’s a minimum of four baked treats for the birthday child to enjoy.

I have done fairy parties complete with fairy costumes, crowns and wands, indoor campout sleepovers with tabletop smores, and art and craft parties on rainy days. I have hired a magician, dressed up like Elsa and spent inordinate sums of money on party room rentals at the Zoo, the local community pool, trampoline park and various gymnastics studios to name a few.

I love my kids. This should be obvious, and I guess I feel the need to prove it to them through this excess. I want them to feel as loved and treasured as they are on their special day, so I go overboard. This isn’t a justification. It’s a plea.

The negative effects of all this over indulgence are all too real. I notice it most starkly on the day of the celebration, but it lingers long after. My kids are spoiled. They have no concept of how lavish their parties have become. Their sense of gratitude is stunted even though I force distracted “thank you’s” from birthday boys and girls near crazed with excitement and high on sugar.

I long for the baby years. To witness once more their unmitigated delight as they open their little gifts. Or their wide eyed, open mouthed wonder when they are presented with their first birthday cake, candles ablaze.

I love my kids, so I am going to fix this. I am getting off this crazy train and I’m not looking back. It will be hard at first. Perhaps it will be doubly so since I am obviously not the only mother caught up in this cycle of expectation and ingratitude. Every week a new invite appears in my inbox. Another Mom is making her best effort, shelling out way too much dough. Because apparently this is what we do now.

I don’t need to go back to the drawing board. I’ve adopted some lovely rituals that I know the kids treasure dearly. I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at cake decorating because when I presented my oldest with his cake this year, in the cardboard cake box I had used to transport it, I heard the hurt in his voice when he asked “a store bought cake?” And truly, I love making those cakes. I love making the just perfect one for the person they are in this fleeting moment.  Creating it is a way to quietly consider (usually at 2am on the birthday eve) the person they are becoming and the child they are leaving behind.

My younger kids wear their birthday crown and rainbow cape at the breakfast table. Sometimes the birthday chair is lit up with twinkle lights. The big kids still allow me to decorate their birthday chair with a Balloon bouquet. There is a special, if slightly tattered banner that hangs over the table and always a jar of blooms set out next to the gifts.  I hope someday they fight over that banner and cape.

I actually love our pancake tradition, but perhaps on school days the birthday child could wait until after school to open her gifts. Or maybe she could be permitted to choose just one from the pile. Gift opening really isn’t something to be rushed anyway.

I would like their birthdays to feel like the ones I remember from my childhood. I remember warm family gatherings with grandparents, lots of photographs, and a few thoughtfully chosen presents. Since I am an August birthday I had a couple of special ones while we were on summer vacation. I remember one “cake” made of marshmallows and foreign candies, arranged in a baking dish with candles stuck in.  In the pictures I am wearing my favorite cat nightgown and my cheeks are a little sunburned. I set my hair on fire that year.

Of course I did have my special tenth birthday “disco”! It was like a dream. All my friends and cousins were invited and there was even a DJ. Mum made a Michael Jackson cake and I wore a deep blue dress with a big pink bow. I felt like a star.

As far as I could tell everyone had a blast. There were no complaints about the flavor of the cake, or the choice of music and games. Nobody commented that the knick knacks in their favor bags were lame. In fact, I’m almost certain their were no favor bags. And nobody complained about that either. We kids were genuinely grateful for our afternoon at the “disco” and I had no expectation that it would happen again ever.

Very soon Little Bear will turn four. I have not booked the party room at the Zoo even though it was my first impulse. Nor have I committed myself to hosting a backyard extravaganza for thirty or so kids and their parents. It will be a bit of a challenge, but it is time to focus on our more meaningful traditions.  Less outrageous, but just as rooted in the desire to make the birthday child feel as precious as we all deserve to feel on our birthday.




So This is Me



It’s been a good week. A lot of work is complete, check boxes ticked. Four kids are happy and healthy. I’m spending the weekend with my Mom helping her “slow move” into her new lake house.
But not every week is this good.

I have a good idea of where I want this blog to go, of the adventures I am excited to share. I hope most of my posts will be positive, uplifting. Perhaps I will inspire others to try new recipes or DIY projects. Maybe I can offer my experience to a younger mother on her trying day. I would love to make meaningful, lasting connections in this space. I hope, soon, to inspire with photographs. But today is different. You see, it would be dishonest of me if I did not share this part of myself with you.

Yesterday I had an encouraging visit with a new therapist, and on the tail end of my good week this post truly comes to you from a place of hope. I live, and I choose my words deliberately here, with anxiety and panic disorder. I say “live” because I work very hard to make sure that this disorder does not stop me from truly living. I felt my first flash of this demon mere days after my first son was born. Okay, no big deal, I decided. What new mother doesn’t check the bassinet a few too many times before bed? What new mother doesn’t suddenly feel, too acutely, her own mortality? It seemed pretty normal and I accepted it. Over the years it waned, but it would return after each pregnancy stronger than before. Now, fourteen years after my first experience walking into the doctor’s office, wobbly kneed, tiny baby in arms, begging for reassurance, for the guarantee of safety he couldn’t provide, it has morphed into panic disorder with a touch of OCD.

I write this post today partly in the hope that someone out there will read it and feel less alone. The statistics tell us that one in ten people struggle with some form of anxiety disorder. On my bad days I find this impossible to believe. Are there other moms in the school pickup line fighting back panic, smiling despite desperate fear? Could the pretty and confident Whole Foods cashier, or the nurse attending to my sick child also be living with this?

There you have it. My life is beautiful and I experience so much joy. People tell me that I am “laid back”. You wouldn’t know it to meet me on the street, but I have raging, debilitating bouts of panic that can sometimes block out that joy.

I used to hide it. For years I excused myself from get togethers and I would often feign illness. I even turned down a free trip to Singapore. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I felt weak and I squelched it down, shut it up until finally I couldn’t anymore. When I eventually opened up and shared my story, asked for help, read, learned, and began the work of recovery I realized something important. Something I want to share with you especially if you are a fellow panic sufferer. If you have anxiety or panic disorder you are far from weak. You are brave. You may, in fact, be one of the bravest people you’ve ever met. You get up every day knowing you are likely to experience intense fear. It’s the kind of fear most people will only experience a handful of times. Perhaps in the moments before a car accident or in the midst of a heart attack. People liken the sensations to those you might experience were you being chased down by a bear. The fear may be sustained or repeated throughout your day. You do it anyway. You face it down and you push through. Maybe you can only make it as far as your own front yard, but still, you do it every day. Even the impossible ones.

Not everyone has been understanding. I have had doctors treat me with disdain when I have gone to them with my fears. As if I wished to waste their time. As if I haven’t  yearned every day to stop the the obsessive thoughts. As if it was within my power to slow my heart, dry my palms, still my mind. I know now that I looked to them for tools and knowledge that they didn’t possess. Anxiety is often misunderstood even by those we go to for help.

People though are mostly good. I believe this completely. They won’t always know how, but they want to help. When you are direct about what you need people will show up.

My family seem mostly bewildered, but they are compassionate. On good days (and there are many) we laugh about it all. My sister jokes about “The Great Panic Attack of 2012”. The kids were dressed beautifully. The girls wore sparkly tutus and fall sweaters with little fox hats and tights to match. The boys were smartly dressed, and I was dashing around preparing  the pies and cranberry sauce we would contribute to the Thanksgiving feast. Expectations were set, plans made. In my world this means a panic attack is all but inevitable.

This particular panic started with some pain in my left arm. Most people I imagine would barely have noticed it, but in a flash my mind latched on to a sliver of a thought, a tiny what if? And BOOM we were off. With adrenaline released my heart rate exploded to around 170 beats per minute, my entire body was soaked with sweat and with my pupils dilated the world seemed harsh and unreal. The air felt thick and breathing seemed difficult. I just couldn’t get a deep breath. I shook violently, my poor mind racing, trying in vain to identify the threat. Outside of me the world looked far away, dreamlike. The terrifying sensation of derealization was setting in. My stomach lurched as I endured waves of nausea. I fought to maintain balance, afraid I might pass out.

At the hospital I could barely tell them what was wrong. “I’m afraid I’m having a heart attack” I explained. They wanted specifics. As always, I was upfront about my panic disorder. They wanted to know how this felt different. I had no answers. This is the nature of panic. Nothing is wrong, but everything feels wrong.

Hours later, discharge papers in hand, I felt embarrassed, guilty until I learned that my kids enjoyed their hodge podge Thanksgiving immensely, and were cuddled together on my sister’s couch watching a movie. A plate of food was warmed for me and, while I knew it wasn’t over, with the adrenaline spent I found relief for a few hours.

It doesn’t always play out like this. The sensations vary enough to add more confusion, more doubt to the experience. A handful of times I have sought out medical help. Mostly though I am able to ride it out at home.

It’s been a long journey, and I have learned a great deal along the way. I have made steady progress on my own, but after a difficult experience last month I have decided to enlist the help of a therapist who specializes in anxiety and panic disorders. I had my first visit with her on Friday and I am excited! She employs the cognitive behavioral therapy method which is proven to significantly reduce or cure anxiety in the great majority of cases. Apparently my mind and body are going to duke this thing out once and for all. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted.

I highly recommend anything by Dr. Claire Weekes. If you are struggling her words will bring immediate clarity.

The DARE Method taught by Barry McDonough has also been immensely helpful.

Little Bear


When you’re pregnant, to say you dream about your baby is an understatement. You practically live in your imagination. Who will he be? Who will he grow to be? You try to imagine what he will look like, wondering at the possibilities. I have looked upon the faces of my newborns with curiosity and surprise, wonder and delight, complete adoration. But with Little Bear there was recognition, a deep sense of belonging, like we had met before. I looked down into his little swollen face and I thought of course, of course this is what he looks like. There is one picture of this moment. The rest were taken hours later, when the visitors arrived and the mess was cleaned up. Unprepared, we had only one camera phone and we’d left the charger in the car. I treasure this photo, our introduction, Little Bear and me.

We toyed with the idea of putting him into preschool this time last year. He would be three. His siblings had all started preschool at this age, we reasoned, but we knew. “He’s not ready,” I said. They had all marched confidently into their new classrooms, eager, excited. I worried he’d be anxious, that we’d have issues with separation, that he may actually be the kid who wouldn’t stop crying. Anyways, he wasn’t potty trained. And then there was his speech. Maybe it was time to look into that. It wouldn’t do him any harm to stay home for another year.

I was right. We dealt with the separation anxiety gradually, pushing gently. We enrolled him in a preschool prep program for kids with developmental delays. We discovered he was a little behind with his gross motor skills as well as his speech and began taking him to therapy once a week. At first it was hard. I’d sit for hours in the waiting room when I could have left. He would never have known. But I’d said I would wait. And this kid knows, on the deepest level, that I won’t let him down. Every single day that responsibility terrifies me. I tell my husband ‘if anything ever happens to me, you tell him, you make sure he knows how much…’ and I can’t quite say it. He laughs, but promises he will.

We spent the year playing and working. There were hours upon hours of open gym time and art classes, park time and gymnastics. I set up our house to be more Montessori friendly and encouraged birthday and Christmas gifts that would help him catch up to his peers. I filled our house with physical therapy props, I stooped over behind him, physically placing his feet on the correct stairs in the grocery store, at Granny’s house. ‘Step here first buddy, then the other foot here”. I waited, I rephrased, I engaged, and soon the words came, and then the confidence. We don’t have it all quite right yet of course, but he is ready.

Granny bought him a little lunchbox with a hedgehog and a water bottle to match. I chose his new school clothes online and we tried them all on when the package arrived. Star pants and rocket ship t shirts. and pumpkin pajamas. Because its just never too early for fall guys, it’s just not. We packed his little shoe box, a few extra outfits in case of accidents, a hand towel, a napkin, and a little turtle napkin ring. He attended orientation with his big sister by his side, and he hugged his new teachers. Yes, he is ready.

I don’t know if he is my last, but he might be. I have had a child in diapers for the better part of fourteen years. I had my first child when I was still trying to figure out my own identity, and I became the best mother I could be when I fully embraced motherhood as that identity. The thing is, I love this. Like, really. I can’t imagine that there is anything that comes after this that can even touch it. People talk to me about this being my “time for me.” I buy books encouraging me to set goals for myself, but hold on a minute. Maybe I just want to sit here in this space, to feel it all slipping away, acknowledge the loss. I will hand him over to his new teachers tomorrow with a smile, a kiss and some encouraging words knowing I will get into my car and sob uncontrollably. And yes, I know it’s only preschool, but I’m not ready.