An Open Letter to my Daughter About Her Mother

Hi Sweet Girl,

My hands are clammy right now, and there’s a slight shake as they move across the keyboard.  I’ve got a pit in my stomach, and frankly, I feel like I could vomit.  I’m scared, I’m anxious, and I just want to get this right.  I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for over a year now.  Every time I think I find the courage, I end up talking myself out of it, worried about what others will think or say.  Over the past year, however, I’ve realized this has nothing to do with other people, and it has everything to do with me.  And in the future, you.  It’s become an itch I can’t scratch, and its time.  I don’t have an outline in my head for how this one will go, I’m just crossing my fingers tight that it will come out in a way that makes sense and has meaning. You and your brother are off playing at a friend’s house right now, your dad is at work, and I think I just needed the house completely silent and to myself to think this through.  No one needing me, no baby monitor buzzing, no one needing to be fed, and no toys clanging… just me.

No one knows I’m writing this. I’ve only ever talked about this to a few people in my life. While I should probably give a few people a gentle heads up, I’m scared I’ll get talked out of it. I don’t want permission from anyone. I need to do this for me. I need to own the experience, put it to rest, and move on.  I need to write down these raw and powerful feelings I have right now, because when you’re old enough to understand it all, I need to remember what’s reeling through my heart and through my head at this very moment.  I cant forget any more of it. I’ll eventually delete this post before you could ever find it, and I’ll share when I know we’re both ready, but today, I need to do this for me.

So, here we go.

Back in middle school I was terribly insecure and wanted nothing more in the world than to be popular and fit in. Not too uncommon, right? Sounds like just about every other middle-schooler. I went about trying to achieve that in just about every wrong way I possibly could though, and became friends with people who’s actions didn’t align with the person I wanted to be.  Ahh, middle school growing pains. My friends and I used to sneak out of the house at night all the time; one of our favorite poor choice activities.  We’d walk miles at 2:00 in the morning through neighborhoods just to meet up with boys.  Oh, how tempting and persuasive cute boys can be. Sweet girl, please don’t try sneaking out.  I can assure you I wrote the handbook and I’ll be two steps ahead. You have no idea how sick looking back at all this makes me feel now that I’m a mother myself.

One summer night a girl friend and I were up to our usual tricks and began our trek across town in the middle of the night to meet up with some guy friends.  After a few hours of TV and laughing in their basement, we began the walk back home.  As we winded our way through a neighborhood we were stopped by another friend’s older brother.  I didn’t know him well and rarely saw him, as he was a busy, attractive, 18 year old high school senior at the time. I just knew him as my friend’s older brother. He and his friend got out of the truck and began to make small talk with us, asking us why on Earth we were out so late and what our parents would think if they drove us home and told my parents what we were up to.  I wish I could recall with perfect clarity all the words that were exchanged next, but I can’t.  I’m not sure if it was a mechanism my brain has utilized to protect me, or if its normal memory wear of an event from 18 years ago. Maybe a little bit of both.

What I do remember, however, is being walked to a patch of yard in between two houses.  I remember the friend being a lookout in the street by their car.  I remember feeling helpless. I remember feeling scared.  I remember the white and blue pajama pants I had on. I remember how damp and cool the grass was. I remember thinking that with all these street lights someone surely has to be seeing this; with how close these two houses are, there are people a mere 20 feet away from me. I remember crying. And I vividly remember him saying how he wished girls his age could do what we were doing.  I was 12.

I don’t remember walking home.  I don’t even remember how my friend felt or reacted to all of this, as she was involved too.  I just remember me.  Thinking it was all my fault, and how I had already been letting my parents down so much that they could never find out.  Because it was my fault.  I didn’t scream.  I didn’t fight.  And in my 12 year brain, that meant I must’ve consented.

What happened next, honestly, was probably the most devastating.  The boy I was madly middle school in love with at the time found out.  While he “forgave me” for what I did, the damage was done.  As friends close to me found out and they shared their disgust and disapproval for what I did, the experience became cemented in my brain as something that was my mistake.  Something I should be ashamed of.  So I was.  The self-hate spiraled into an eating disorder I could use for control, and the experience held great significance in the beginning of my own sexuality.  I was already dirty, so who really cares anymore?

I held onto this self-loathing for many, many years to follow.  It hurts my heart thinking back on how long I held onto this. But then things changed my senior year of college.  I was stuck in the middle of loving two guys, and at the time I couldn’t decide who I was supposed to be with (spoiler alert: one of them was your father).  I felt so out of control, and it was at this time my eating disorder decided to rear its ugly head again.  After some not so gentle pushing by friends, I finally sought help and went to see a therapist.  Walking into his office was one of the most pivotal moments in my life.  After I got past the initial sessions thinking, “How could this old guy possibly understand anything I’m going through”, we got to work.  We kept digging and digging through past experiences, the people who have shaped those experiences, and my patterns of handling tough situations. We eventually stumbled upon my experience that summer night at 12 years old.  At first I was reluctant to share with full disclosure, because as embarrassed as I am to admit this now, I still felt so much shame at 22 years old.  I didn’t want him to judge me.  But I did it anyway. Oh, the breakthrough.  Things spilled out of me and were seen with such clarity like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life.  Together we put the pieces of this puzzle back together, and for the first time, I was able to address everything from the other side.  As a 12 year old victim, that was taken advantage of by an 18 year old man, who wasn’t equipped with the maturity or cognitive ability to process things correctly at the time.

Since graduating and moving on from college, the experience kind of stayed at bay. I had made some peace with it, and finally got the courage to tell my parents.  It wasn’t until becoming a mother, becoming a mother to a beautiful and vibrant girl, that this all started to creep back up on me.  If I’m honest, sometimes it confuses me.  I can’t quite put a finger on how something that happened so long ago can still make my insides shake and my hands get sweaty, but it does.  Maybe by putting it all down, I can finally shake off this last lingering piece of it.

Sweet girl, there are some things I want you to know.  Things I need you to know.

I want you to know I will do everything in my power to create a body positive and sex positive relationship with you as you grow so that there is nothing that would ever be too much for you to share with me. I am always, always here to support you and champion for you.  There is no exception to that rule.

I need you to know that your sexuality is yours, and no one else’s.  There is no specific timeline, and no specific rules to follow.  I hope I can help educate you enough so that you will be empowered by your decisions.  As long as your decisions ensure your safety, are made with a clear mind, and are made because you feel it is what will make you happy and fulfilled, there is no shame in that, and I support you.  If our culture is anything like it is today, society may try and tell you differently, but sweet girl, please know that these choices are yours. 

I need you to know that consent means you have 100% agreement, that you’ve verbalized that very explicitly, and that you’re in a clear head and heart to do so. Anything less than that is not OK.

I want you to know that you can’t regret decisions if they were made by taking into account all the information you had available at the time. Looking back with new information and feeling guilt or shame gets you on a fast track to self-destruction.  We’re all human, and we have to learn somehow, right?

I want you to know that you are the only person who has permission to control how you feel about yourself.  You dictate your self-worth.  I remember so clearly one night an ex-boyfriend of mine in college told me that “he knew I was weak because I was battling an eating disorder”.  Oh sweet girl, let me tell you, I am anything but weak.  I dictate who I am too, and I know the word “weak” does not accurately describe any part of my being.

I need you to know that I love you with every fiber of who I am, and as I sit here next to you, watching you smiling up at me with wide-eyed innocence, I promise to do my very best to guide you in a way that encourages your confidence, self-love, self-awareness, and empowerment. You are wonderfully made, you are powerful, and you are fiercely loved.

I’m putting this all to rest now, and it’s liberating.  All I need is the courage to get these clammy hands to hit ‘Publish’. Thank you, sweet girl, for unknowingly waking a part of me that wasn’t fully asleep, and for continuing to teach me about myself whether you realize it or not.  For I too am wonderfully made, I am powerful, and I am fiercely loved.

All My Love,

Your Strong Momma.

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To the Toddler Momma Who Feels the Pressure

Dear Toddler Mom Who Feels the Pressure,

It doesn’t happen all at once, does it?  It’s more of a gradual mixing of equal parts pressure and mild panic.  It starts when you see Johnny’s mom post a sweet little video clip of him singing his ABC’s. Well that was cute! Maybe we can incorporate the ABC song into our bedtime routine. I know that one. One day at dance class you overhear some moms talking about how their daughters recently mastered counting and identifying all the numbers from 1-20 in preschool.  Hmmm.  That’s pretty impressive. They can identify them, too? I bet at least one of them still calls it ‘five-teen’. At a family gathering your mother-in-law pulls you aside asking what your plans are for little ole Bennie because she plays Bunco with this woman who’s cousin’s wife’s best friend just taught her three year old how to write his first AND last name with all letters facing the right way.  What the fuck? Isn’t his last name Lombardozzi? My kid only enjoys writing so he can see how much pressure it takes to snap the lead. Then there’s the hair on the camel’s back.  While at a play date with some of your mom friends, one of them shares her daily schedule for her 2.5 year old. Which is fine, except for the fact that includes a 35 minute block at 9 a.m. during which they use flash cards to practice sight words.  WHAT?! Too far, Karen. TOO FAR. 

This gradual mixing of pressure and panic has eventually gotten you to question the very competency of your role as mother.

My kid isn’t doing any of these things yet.  Should I start looking at preschools already? But I’m not ready.  Do I need flashcards? Yes, flashcards. Ok. But of what?! I don’t want little Bennie to fall behind. What do they even need to know before kindergarten? I have no idea. Can I google “shit to know before kindergarten”? Why can’t I get Bennie to sit for more than four freaking seconds to learn from me, anyway? Where do I start? Upper case letters or lower case letters? WHY ARE THERE TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CASES OF LETTERS? Should I send him to a private preschool to catch him up? I mean he’s clearly already fallen behind.  That’s it.  In the morning, I’m hiring a tutor.  Now where do I find a tutor for a two year old? I wonder if that Lombardozzi kid can come over before nap time? 

Oh Momma, I feel you.  I feel you because some days I am you.  My education and work experience is in elementary education, a lot of which has been working with at risk students.  Teacher Erica knows better than to feel this way, but Momma Erica understands the pressure.  For the past few months I’ve watched mom friend after mom friend send their littlest tots off to preschool with their adorable little backpacks, and I’ve internally struggled over when to send my own.  It can be a challenge to drown out all the noise around me and really get to the root of what is right for MY kids. But no more.  Teacher Erica knows better.

Please don’t misunderstand me, or feel offended by my words.  If you’ve stopped by here before you know me well enough to know that I wholly and completely respect your choices.  Maybe you’re starting preschool early so you can have some time to actually work your part-time job from home.  Maybe you don’t know anything about how to teach them when they’re that little and sending them off is what feels right for you and yours.  Maybe you can’t afford a preschool you feel good about, and sending them isn’t even an option.  Maybe your tot hasn’t been able to make any friends and you want her to gain some social experiences. Whatever your situation – whatever the reasoning for your choices – they are yours, and I support you whole-heartedly.  We all just want the best for our kids, right?

But to the Toddler Momma Who Feels the Pressure, I want you to let it go.  Let it go with me. Put on your blinders, follow your gut, and know it will be alright.  You want to know how I know?

Because they are toddlers. Toddlers who learn everything they need to learn right now through play.

They are toddlers who joyfully transfer water at the water table or sift sand through their hands for hours on end.  They are toddlers who love to jump, crawl, spin, climb, and sprint down aisles at the store.  They are toddlers who carefully watch everything you do, and tell you “I do it!” one hundred times a day as they begin to explore their new independence.  They are toddlers who are learning to share, and desperately trying to regulate their emotions when it doesn’t go their way.  They are toddlers.  And this is how they learn.

Before ABC’s and 123’s, they need to time and opportunity to think critically, apply, play with cause and effect, flirt with boundaries, communicate emotions, experiment with their physical capabilities, and workout their social muscles.  They need time to be bored so their imagination can fire. They need opportunities to question, to examine, observe, negotiate, be let down, learn responsibility, and gradually build their attention span.  They need time to watch you do all these things, as well.  Academics will always be there, I promise. There will always be books to read, teachers to listen to, and curriculum to follow.  Preschools today keep moving from play based to academic based, and while that helps us feel like we are giving our children a leg up in the short term, it is not always beneficial in the long term.  So if not preschool right now, then what? Right? The good news, momma? Most of this can happen authentically in your day to day life, and often times with little to none of your help.  They are toddlers. And this is how they learn.

Let them develop their fine motor skills through play so when they do get to school, they are able to hold their pencil with ease and cut with scissors like it’s nobody’s business. Bust out the chopsticks, syringes, spray bottles, and tweezers.  Encourage them to use their utensils at meal time correctly.  Wring out sponges full of water, rope Cheerios on a string, and transfer beads between bottles.  Build wobbly block towers, and let them hammer golf tees into the soft grass (with supervision!). Let them put coins in the parking meter, push pipe cleaners through holes in boxes, and let them pick up their peas at dinner using their pinchers.  Keep those little hands busy.

Take the time to teach them about their emotions and how to appropriately navigate them.  Emotional control is a growing concern with today’s youth, and putting in the work in this area is essential.  Guide them to recognize the differences between anger, frustration, sadness, joy, and empathy.  Name the emotions, and talk about your own feelings as you feel them.  Practice cool-down techniques, breathing techniques, and phrases that allow them to communicate these emotions.  Equip them so they don’t grow into adults who lack emotional control and struggle to succeed in the workplace and in relationships.

Give them opportunities to practice patience and delayed gratification.  Our world is so ‘I want it now therefore I need it now’.  Don’t give in the toy request just because they asked for it.  Put it on their wish list instead and let them earn it.  Teach them that sharing follows this concept too.  Sharing isn’t so much “I want it now, so you must give it to me”, but more of a “when you’re done using it, I’d really like a turn”.  When they demand your attention in the middle of you talking to someone else, teach them a signal or phrase that says, “I see you, and I will listen in a minute when I’m done talking”.  Aside from emergencies, not all of their wants and needs will be met exactly when they would like them to.  And that’s OK.

Let them explore and develop their gross motor capabilities so when they get to school they can sit upright in their chair with a strong core, and physically keep up with a full day of school.  Toddlers are made to MOVE.  Its what they do and how they learn.  It is quite literally what keeps their brains going. So provide those opportunities.  Let them climb rope ladders, walk a balance beam, bear crawl up a hill, jump on a (kid friendly) trampoline, and climb up to the big slide.  (And only when there’s no one else at the playground, let them climb up it, too 🙂 ).  Teach them how to jump on one foot, skip, shuffle, do somersaults, dance, walk backwards, swim, kick, ride a bike, throw, and spin.  Don’t always catch their fall so they can learn their physical capabilities and boundaries. Let them scrape up their knees.  Let them PLAY and MOVE. They aren’t built to sit yet. They are toddlers and this is how they learn.

Teach them social etiquette and manners. The ‘please’s, ‘thank you’s, ‘nice to meet you’s, and holding the door open.  The ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean it’s, ‘excuse me’s, ‘no thank you’s, and respecting personal space. Teach them how to wait in a line, how to say hello and goodbye, and how to wait their turn to speak in a conversation.  Let them order their own meal at a restaurant, and teach them how to start a conversation with new friends at the playground.

Let them be bored and let them learn to play independently.  Boredom can fuel imagination, as does being left alone to play with toys in whatever way you see fit.  They don’t always need to be entertained, nor should they always look to you for their entertainment.  Give them some toys or tools to engage with and let them do their thing! And when they are done, join in on the imaginative fun and spend a morning walking and talking as real life pirates exploring uncharted waters.

Give them opportunities to practice independence and self sufficiency.  I know, they are our babies and sometimes its so darn hard to give up, but if you’re wanting to raise capable and well adjusted adults – let them do it.  Let them attempt to get dressed on their own for as long as it takes for them to nail the difference between the neck and arm holes.  Tying their shoes, cutting their food (with kid friendly cutlery), washing their hair, brushing their teeth, preparing meals, making their bed, feeding the dogs, buckling themselves into the car seat (which then gets checked! 🙂 ), and cleaning up after themselves. Our lives are so go go go these days that slowing down and taking the time to allow them this independence can be painstakingly brutal.  But its worth it one million times over.  Slow down, and let them do it.  They will still need you plenty, I promise.

Don’t always give them the ‘effect’ in cause and effect.  Let them discover that on their own sometimes as they exercise decision making abilities.  When you jump off the stairs one step too high, it will hurt. When you drop food off the table, the dog does get it.  When you refuse a jacket in the winter, you will get cold.  When you avoid dinner at all costs, you will go to bed with a hungry tummy.  When you’re mean to friends, they won’t want to play with you.  And when you won’t listen to mom and dad, there will be consequences.  Let them be teachable moments, and let them discover what good and bad decisions look like.

Set a strong foundation for kindness, compassion, and tolerance.  Teach them how good it feels to be kind and helpful to others.  Show them how rewarding it can be to be a good helper.  Demonstrate how to comfort someone who is sad, how to think of others’ feelings (this one takes a long time!), and how ALL people deserve kindness and love.  Recognize and celebrate differences between yourselves and family and friends.  Read literature with diverse characters and cultures.  Give them experiences that teach them gratitude for what they have and inspire a desire to help those less fortunate.  The world needs more of this, and you have the opportunity to be a catalyst for it.

This stuff doesn’t all show up on a preschool report card, but I promise you… its worth it.  These are the kinds of tools that need to be taught at this age so when it is time for academics, they will be ready to learn and thrive.

Still hung up on academics? That’s OK.  I am sometimes too.  We can’t fault ourselves for wanting to exercise those little brains.  And I’ve got more good news for you Momma.  You can teach age appropriate academics within the nuances of your everyday life – you just have to take advantage when they arise.  Teach counting with one-to-one correspondence at the grocery store by letting them put the tomatoes in the bag.  Count toes before putting on pajamas, birds at the bird feeder, slices of apple that still need to be eaten, and pennies they’ve earned for their piggy bank.  Teach directional words like over, under, bottom, and top while playing at the playground.  Teach them how to tell stories and elaborate on their day by Facetiming grandma and grandpa.  Slowly build up teaching them multi-step directions.  Start with one (“Put your cup on the table”), to two (“put your cup on the table and take your plate to the sink”) to three (“put your cup on the table, take your plate to the sink, then come here for a hug!”).  Point out colors in natural surroundings as you explore.  The greens of the grass, the blues of the sky, the red of the stop sign on your way to the park and the firetruck that squeals by, and the yellow leaves of fall.  Read fun counting and rhyming books.  Build critical listening skills by closing your eyes and listening closely for the differences between a plane and a helicopter flying by.  Play memory matching games, and recognize numbers as you play hopscotch, dial a phone, or read a clock together.  Let them count money to pay the cashier.  Incorporate talking about the weather in your morning routine.  Read read read, and read some more.  Better yet, focus on their relationship with books and make it one of comfort, happiness, and joy.  (Their future teachers will thank you!).  And no, a little Sesame Street never hurt anyone. 🙂

Toddler Momma Who Feels the Pressure, you’re doing a wonderful job.  Your concern and care over the best for your child shows it.  If you feel overwhelmed, that’s OK.  I do, too.  We’ve got plenty of curriculum right here at home, huh? Let the pressures of ABC’s and 123’s roll off your strong shoulders for the moment, and remember its OK for life skills, playing with friends, and exploration to be your focus right now.  They are toddlers, and this is how they learn.  

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Some Advice I’m No Longer Giving

I’ve given the same piece of advice countless times when new moms stress about getting everything done before baby. It usually sounds something like, “Just remember all that baby will need for those first few weeks is you! Baby will have no idea if he or she is being rocked or put to bed in a Pinterest perfect nursery.  They don’t know if your house is spotless! Just take your time and do what you can – you got this!”.  It sounds pretty good, right? It’s always spoken with the best of intentions, and at the end of the day, its the truth.

During my first pregnancy I didn’t feel an overwhelming need to nest.  Looking back in hindsight its kind of mind-boggling to me. We moved an hour away 1.5 weeks before the due date, and  I’m a “to-do list checking, everything has a plan, things need to be organized” kind of gal. Somehow, someway, I was able to take it all in stride.  Tayler’s nursery got done two days before she was born, and I don’t have any vivid memories of stressing over it.  Maybe I was too busy with work and the  move to succumb to those feelings, or maybe my hormones were in better check the first time around.  Either way, I didn’t have any overwhelming nesting instincts, and therefore felt my “all baby needs is you” advice felt good rolling off the tongue.

I’m currently 31 weeks into my second pregnancy, and all that advice sounds like at the moment is white noise with a few fart noises inserted throughout.  At this moment, I never plan on giving those words as stand alone advice ever again. What this fundamentally sound advice does not take into account, and is perhaps the most important this to consider, is mom’s natural feelings and emotional need to get things done.  What I didn’t realize until about 20 weeks into this pregnancy is that those, “I’m throwing out half of my clothes, you need to move the refrigerator now so I can clean under it, I’m not leaving this house till baby is born, and if you don’t help me hang things in his room right now I will unleash the Kraken on your ass” feelings are as real and as natural as eating spoonfuls of ice cream straight out of the carton.  My to-do list has been extensive, and those who aren’t helping me check them off are considered an enemy of the state.  I’ve gone on several hour cleaning benders on little sleep and a bad back, and I’ve spent countless hours looking at different kinds of cloud mobiles.  We’re fortunate to have many close friends and family getting married this summer, and while all I want to do is go let loose and celebrate such joyous occasions, all I really want to do is be home.  Being away from home gives me anxiety. I’ve organized baby boy’s clothes three times already knowing well that they’ll have to be washed and reorganized again anyway.  I was nearly in tears the other day leaving Babies R Us when they didn’t have the carrier I wanted, and I’ve literally went around all the baseboards and every inch of ceiling in baby’s room with one of Tayler’s tiny paint brushes and a tiny can of white paint because I didn’t think our edging job was sufficient when we painted.

These instincts are seen all throughout nature.  Rodents try and find the absolute lowest sheltered spot available.  Dogs pace and build nests with items they find throughout the house.  Rabbits dig and line their holes with grass and hair plucked from their body.  And birds insist on staying in their nest as much as possible. When its in our DNA to prepare for baby, no matter the level we feel it at, I think it needs to be embraced.  Not brushed off.

I’ll be the first to tell you some of my nesting habits during this pregnancy are completely irrational.  In my head I know that edging the entire room carefully by hand was crazy and no one would’ve known the difference.  I know I have several months to go until I’ll actually be able to use the carrier I want and have plenty of time to order it.  I know that leaving for a weekend is a good thing, making memories that will last a lifetime.  I know putting together little bookshelves at 11 pm isn’t necessary.  And as a second time mom, I know all too well that the mobile is for me – baby could care less. I know.  I know all of this. I haven’t lost touch with what is realistic and rational.  But it doesn’t change the feelings stirring within me, and I can imagine I’m not the only mom who has felt them in their own way.

I’ve thought about what kind of support I would want from my friends and family as I prepare for numero dos, and I’ve come up with a new approach.  First and foremost, don’t down play a nesting mom’s need or desire to get something done.  What may be trivial and silly to you, may just mean the world to her at the moment.  Don’t make her feel stupid.  Instead of pushing things back farther and farther on the calendar, make a plan for how and when you can get it done. Soon.  Together.  Time does matter. Don’t tell her not to stress (she will anyway).  Instead, ask her in what specific ways you can help her and when she would ideally like them done by.  Compromise on how much you pack on the calendar leading up to baby. Sometimes a need to stay home can feel overwhelming. While I’m not encouraging total hermit crab behavior, prioritize and choose which things are an absolute must.  Listen to her.  For this short period of time her hormones can trump logic, and she knows it.  Her brain, heart, and body are getting ready for baby – you can’t fault her for that. Just roll with it, and listen to her needs.  Be proactive, and help in ways you think she might like but hasn’t spoken up about yet.

Let momma bear be momma bear.  And when the time finally comes to bring baby home, she’ll be happily at ease knowing her nest is the perfect place to smother this baby with heaps of love and laughter.

 

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