A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at a lactation support group. In a room filled with a dozen or so mothers and their babies, I gave a talk on mindfulness. The irony of this topic in this setting (picture babies everywhere--sleeping, nursing, rolling around on blankets, crying, gurgling) was not lost on me. The room was loud and full of distractions. Most of the women were first time mothers, and many of them were tired and overwhelmed. Still, I got through the information and passed on some strategies that I hope they can use at home. We even basked in a few moments of quiet. It was lovely.
I did not love the infant phase. I loved my infants, of course, but I struggled. When I had just one infant, I remember when she would go down for a nap, I knew my time was limited (20, maybe 30 minutes) and I would be paralyzed realizing that I desperately needed to shower, eat, sleep, clean, exercise, and call people, but that I probably didn’t have time to do any of it. When I had my 2 year old and 2nd infant, I was a full time stay at home mom. I remember telling my husband that I was stuck in a full time job that I hated. As my daughters got older and more independent, I started to enjoy motherhood more consistently. Now, with two girls who just finished 2nd and 4th grade, I feel like I am in my element. This is the sweet spot. I do not miss the baby phase, but I know I will miss the school-age phase.
So I was completely caught off guard when I walked into that room full of moms and babies and almost immediately got emotional. I was taken back to those days when my oldest was tiny and my body was not mine. I remember the anxiety...if the baby was making weird noises when sleeping, I worried about every gurgle and hiccup. But when she would go silent...well, that was even more terrifying.
And perhaps I had more reason to be anxious than some. When Aleida was born, she came a full month early. To say we weren’t quite prepared is an understatement, but we were relieved when she came out small but fully cooked. She didn’t need time in the ICU and she was absolutely precious. We were basking in her loveliness on day 2 in the hospital, when the pediatrician came in to check my perfect daughter. She told me she heard a heart murmur, but I didn't despair. "Lots of babies are born with murmurs that go away in a day or so, so I'll be back to check her tomorrow," she'd said.
My husband, Dave, was a resident in Emergency Medicine at the time. He listened to her heart, heard the murmur, but didn't seem worked up, so I calmly waited for the next check up.
On day 3, the pediatrician still heard the murmur, so she ordered an echocardiogram. The technician came in with a big machine and ran a wand over my baby as she lay sleeping on my chest. Dave was watching intently; he had some training in these mysterious images, after all. I just watched my daughter and occasionally glanced at the screen or my husband to see if I could make sense of anything. I couldn't.
The technician, knowing Dave was a doctor, said, "I can't really tell you what I'm seeing. You'll have to wait until the doc looks at the images," but he proceeded to point out major landmarks anyway. Words were tossed around between the tech and my husband that made little sense to me, but piqued just enough worry to raise my own heart rate. When the procedure was over, I asked Dave what he knew.
"Nothing really," he said. "It could be *insert gibberish words* and it could not be. We'll have to wait and see what the doctor says." I know now, he was protecting me. He knew that our little baby had a hole in her heart.
Those gibberish words were actually "tetralogy of Fallot." For a while, I thought they were saying "tetralogy of flow" which made sense since we're talking about the heart. But no, Fallot is the guy who defined the condition. Tetralogy refers to 4 key anatomical features of the condition, but my understanding is that only 2 of them matter. 1. A hole between the left and right ventricles. 2. A narrowing of the pulmonary valve. In a nutshell, oxygenated blood can mix with deoxygenated blood, meaning that not enough oxygen gets taken throughout the system. In an even smaller nutshell, this means babies can turn blue.
Our baby was not blue. She wasn't even purplish. She was pink and rosy and beautiful. The doctors called her "mildly affected." She had the same oxygen levels in her blood as any other baby. You looked at her and you had no idea that she had a congenital heart defect.
But she needed surgery. Open heart surgery. Some babies with this condition come out blue and have to rush into the operating room. We were "lucky" because we had time to let her grow. We started by going to the cardiologist every 3 weeks to check her stats. We watched for "blue spells." We waited and let get strong. We enjoyed her and forgot that there was anything wrong. Truly, as far as heart conditions go, this was a best-case scenario. She was otherwise perfectly healthy. We discovered the condition via the murmur- not a "blue spell" (can you imagine how scary THAT would be if you weren't expecting it?). We were a family with the means and resources and attitude necessary to get her the required care. We had good health insurance. Once she had the surgery, she'd be fine. Other than regular follow up appointments with the cardiologist throughout life, she’d have no limitation to her activities. Shaun White- the Olympic snowboarder- had this condition. So Aleida can be an Olympian if she wants to.
Still...open-heart surgery? On a baby? My baby. It took awhile for me to come to terms with the idea. But I had to. And I had to accept a few truths to get there. First, there is no known cause of this. It is congenital, but not hereditary. Secondly, this didn't define her. She was beautiful and healthy. Her heart needed fixing, but until then, she's just a normal (well...exceptionally adorable and smart and perfect) baby.
Of course I cried when I realized what had to happen to fix my baby's heart. I remember saying to Dave, "Now that I've met her, I wouldn't exchange her for a baby without this problem. I mean, she's pretty perfect, except for this hole in her heart."
I remember his exact response: “She’s pretty perfect with it.”
* * * * * *
Obviously, there’s a lot more to this story. Aleida had surgery at 3.5 months. The doctor, a British doc who specialized in pediatric cardiac surgery, assured us that he did this exact procedure on walnut-sized hearts on a daily basis. The scariest day of my life was just another day at the office for him.
And honestly, now that my heart-defect baby is a tall-for-her-age 10 year old who has a black belt and can fit into my shoes, it all seems like a long-gone bad dream, another life, almost like something that happened to somebody else.
Every once in a while, though, like when I’m surrounded by tired mothers and adorable babies, I am reminded of that time in my life. I’m taken back to the uncertainty, the fear and the agony of handing my 3 month old over to the nurse who would prep her for open-heart surgery. I’m taken back to that place and I am overcome with emotion and gratitude for my healthy, imaginative, sensitive, active child who was once a baby with a faulty heart.
Why tell this story? I’m telling you this story because it is a good reminder that all things pass. In that room full of moms, some were overwhelmed, many exhausted, but all of them clearly loving their babies despite the challenges. They reflected an earlier version of me, and the passage of time hit me harder than expected.
Remember this: The story line you are living right now, whether good or bad, will eventually be a closed chapter in your book of life. So if it’s good, enjoy it. Be grateful. Be present and savor it. If it’s not so good, honor that. Feel the feels and look for support and positivity where you can find it. Be present and know that all the ups and downs are a normal part of the human experience. No matter what is going on in your life right now, you will eventually look back as a wiser version of yourself.
Today, while I was running errands, I picked up a box of Bridge Mix in the check out line. As a personal rule, I don’t give into impulse buys, but I grabbed it on a whim. I took a picture and sent it to my sister with a text that said, “I bought this JUST because it reminded me of mom.”
My mother died over 16 years ago--the same year I got married. I remember feeling frustrated that I couldn’t do justice to either the sadness of losing her or the elation of being in love. I couldn’t wallow in either feeling for too long; instead, it was a seesaw from one extreme to the other and back again. As I rode those peaks and valleys, I learned many lessons about what it means to be alive...what it means to be human.
Each year when Mother's Day approaches, I subconsciously think more about my mom (thanks Hallmark), and I usually have an a-ha moment when I realize it’s happening...like the unchecked urge to buy bridge mix. Sometimes these thoughts turn to grief, acute and surprising. Since I’ve had kids, I’ve often reflected on the contrast between the joys of being a mother and the emptiness left by the loss of my own.
Sometimes, I want to be sad. I will go take out my stash of pictures of my mom and look at them until I cry. I don’t want to pretend that it’s okay that she’s gone. I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t a total injustice that she never got to be Grandma June (she would’ve been GREAT at it) and that my girls will only know her through pictures and stories.
This week, in addition to the coming of Mother’s Day, we also lost a family dog (RIP Loki) and learned of yet another fatal school shooting just a few towns over. The weight of the world is heavy, my friends, and I want to feel the weight of it. I want to miss my mom, grieve our dog, and feel angry and scared about the violence in our schools.
And you know what? That is OKAY. I can feel sad and mad and helpless while still being grateful and present and loving. We tend to think of emotions as good or bad, and sadness, grief and anger come down hard in the bad column. We also tend to think of emotions as mutually exclusive. If we are angry, we can’t also be happy. We can’t be grieving and grateful at the same time.
What if we change our perspective? What if we just allow ALL emotions? What if we name them and wallow in them for a bit? What if we learn from them and use them to grow and change ourselves and the world for the better? What if we recognize and honor the complex web of feelings we are caught up in on any given day...in any given moment?
Because here’s the thing, if I pretend I’m not sad...if I hide from my feelings of grief or frustration, they don’t go away. They fester and arise when I am wholly unprepared, often converting to a more volatile emotion, erupting as anger or despair. Once I am angry or feeling helpless, I am useless. If I am in denial, I am not able to move forward. If I am repressing, I am not processing. And when I’m stuck, I’m not able to honor anyone’s memory or work toward positive change.
What can we do then, when these emotions come up? Here are some strategies to try:
Try these strategies, but also remember that you shouldn’t deny yourself the chance to honor all the feels. You are a human being and the full spectrum of emotions is normal and healthy. Take a moment to allow the pain. Remember that it will pass and you will grow.
One of my "other jobs" is parent lead of a supplemental science program at my daughters' school. I organize curriculum and wrangle parent volunteers to bring 5 two-hour hands-on science sessions to each classroom throughout the year. It's a fun and rewarding volunteer gig that is loved by students, parents and teachers.
A few weeks ago, I spent a morning working with some of the other parents to make training videos and gather materials for the different centers in our final unit. The theme is "Bird Songs" which is very apt for this time of year, when spring is springing, flowers are popping up, and birds are more active and talkative.
Later in the same day, I was out for a walk and I started noticing all the different bird songs. I was able to recognize some of the calls...the slow whistle of the chickadee and the melodic twittering of the little finches. I walked along, smiling and basking in the chorus around me.
Would I have noticed the birds if we hadn't just been creating the materials? Maybe. Would I have spent as much time listening and trying to decipher the different birds? Definitely not.
We are bombarded by stimuli at all times, more than our brain can process in any given moment, so our brain chooses what to notice...like a spotlight that only shines on one small part of a large room. What we don't realize is how much our thinking and patterns affect what our spotlight illuminates.
It's no secret that I am a horse person, so I notice horses every where we go. I notice if they look healthy, what breed they might be, how they are interacting, etc. My husband (not a horse person), will occasionally point out a field of horses, but usually just to joke by yelling, "Look...cows!!!"
My sister, who is a fire protection and safety engineer, notices sprinkler systems in buildings and notes where all the emergency exits are.
This idea has far reaching implications. If you harbor a negative mindset about yourself or the world, you will find plenty of evidence for that. If you think, "I'm clumsy," you will notice every time you trip or drop something, disregarding all the times you walked safely across the room or moved an object from A to B uneventfully. If you think, "People suck," you will interpret all of your interactions to prove that correct.
Likewise, if you are generally optimistic and good-spirited, you can have those feelings validated as well. You will take more notice of smiling faces and acts of kindness. If you think you are generally capable, you will be more likely to laugh it off when you trip over the curb.
If you don't believe me, try it. Start with something impersonal. Go on a walk and decide that you will turn your awareness to the flowers. My girls and I did this on the walk to school this morning and we saw dozens of new plants making their way above ground. Have fun and be creative. Pick a color and notice all the objects of that color. Sit on your porch and take note of how many different sounds you hear. Listen to a song and pay special attention to the drum beat or the instrument of your choice. Practice guiding your awareness so that you can start to apply the technique to the really important stuff, like your overall view of yourself, or people, or life's possibilities.
Once you've practiced on some easy stuff, take it to the next level. Choose a mantra and see what support you can find for it. Start simple: "Today is a good day" or "I see a lot of beauty in the world" or "I have a lot to be thankful for" or "I like where I live." Choose a mantra at the beginning of the day. Set an alarm at the top of the hour to remind you of your mantra. Repeat it often. At night, make a list of all the evidence you found throughout the day to support it. You will be AMAZED by what you notice!
You will also be amazed to realize what some of your default awareness-changing thoughts are...especially about yourself. Start to listen to your self talk and analyze how it affects your observations and interactions throughout the day. Are you generally kind to or hard on yourself? What thoughts do you validate by seeking out evidence? How is your spotlight helping you grow or limiting you?
One of the best things about running the science program is the learning and excitement that happens as we complete hands on activities with the students. Occasionally, a child will see me and stop me when I am at school to tell me something that relates to our latest unit. "I heard a crow outside my window today!" If more children stop and listen to the birds because of the science program, it makes me exceedingly happy. If one or two people reading this take some time to evaluate and improve their spotlight of awareness, then the work is well worth it. Change your thinking--change your awareness--change your life!