Letter to Myself re. Christmas 2015

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December 1, 2015.

Dear Jen,

By now your Christmas preparations will be in full swing. You’ve pulled out the decorations, circled the tree-buying date on your calendar and started a “who’s getting what” list. But if past behaviour is any indication, you will start to go a little crazy around December 20th. You’ll be tired, overwhelmed, stressed and a little bit bitchy. Think PMS with mistletoe. You will resent all the running around, the obligatory social engagements and the pressure you’ve put on yourself to find the perfect gifts. The purpose of this letter is to save you from yourself.

Christmas is like birthing a baby (I think). There’s excitement and anticipation leading up. You are organized, you are ready and you have a pan. You even get a little cocky, congratulating yourself on everything you accomplished in advance, pitying those who weren’t as smart as you. Then it begins and you want to get off the ride. You wonder how you could have miscalculated reality so severely. You beat yourself up. You beat your husband up. And before you know it you are screaming for drugs and vowing “never again.”

Jen, the most important thing you need to remember is that Christmas is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be joyful. It’s not supposed to cause stress, anger or bankruptcy and if it does, you’re doing it wrong. Remember the spirit of Christmas, how it promotes love, togetherness and peace. You got so caught up in having the right stuff with which to celebrate that you forgot a little bit about why we were celebrating in the first place. Yes, there is a lot of shopping that needs to be done: gifts, decorations, food, toys and warm clothes to donate, the all-important sparkly top … these are all part of our enjoyment of the season. But you need to know when enough is enough. If you can’t relax until the garland is up and you’ve found the perfect twinkly lights then, once again, you’re doing it wrong.

Remember the day you went to three stores to find the perfect little ornament to go with the neighbours’ cookies? That was stupid. Your heart was in the right place but you got caught up seeking picture-perfect presentation instead of thinking about the reason for the gift. They are wonderful neighbours who tolerate our dogs, pool parties, overgrown foliage, squeaky trampoline and occasional hot tub nudity. I’m thrilled our kids are growing up together and I hope they never move. Wouldn’t that have been a nicer sentiment to put in the card (minus the nudity) instead of scrawling “Love the Millards” 30 seconds before flying out the door?

Do you remember what caused you the most angst in 2014? I do. It was shopping for people outside our immediate family. Let’s be honest: shit got crazy. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make someone happy but for God’s sake, the 15-year old who babysat once is probably not expecting diamonds. So chill.

We are not a religious family but this year we need to find a way to teach our daughters about the true meaning of Christmas. In 2014, the Kindness Elves helped us promote random acts of kindness that hopefully they’re continuing to practice. I’m not suggesting we erect a live nativity in the front yard but maybe it’s time to stop being so afraid of talking about God and Jesus. It’s okay if you don’t always know what to say, and it’s okay to not have all the answers. When in doubt, refer to chill out instructions.

In short, you need to take it easy. Less is more. Christmas is all about the kids, and they don’t care if the garland comes from Walmart or Pottery Barn. They don’t even know what garland is, and in a few years they’ll be spending most of their down time with friends. What they do care about is a warm, loving home, time and attention from mom and dad, and presents under the tree. If your kids are happy, your family is healthy and we’re all together, then everything else is just noise. Don’t give in to the temptation to make Christmas about more than that.

And as an extra bonus for sticking to that healthy eating plan (you look fabulous, by the way), here are a few more suggestions for making Christmas 2015 a little easier. You thought of them while lying awake wondering about amazon.ca’s Christmas shipping cut off.

1. Organize a pancake breakfast for staff at school. Hold it the morning after the winter concert. This will be your gift to everyone who interacts with the girls outside their homeroom teachers. Nothing says “I appreciate how much you care for my children” like a table full of syrup and bacon.

2. Almost no one appreciates knick knacks, coffee table books or joke gifts that clutter up their home (except for Daren, who could open a museum). But everyone appreciates something delicious that has the added bonus of disappearing when you’re done with it, so give more edible gifts.

3. Your friends will be feeling equally frazzled and clueless as to what to get you. So instead of stressing over gifts, plan a night out in January as your gift to each other. A kidless night out is better than a new scarf or lip gloss any day, even it means pitching a tent in someone’s driveway and watching SITC reruns on an iPhone.

4. Resist the pathological need to see that person you worked with in 2011 “before the holidays.” Unless she’s leaving the country on December 25 you can see each other AFTER the holidays. It won’t be any less special.

5. Know this: Twisted Peppermint is NOT THE BOSS OF YOU. If you don’t have Bath & Body Works candles and hand soaps scattered throughout your house, Christmas is not ruined. Resist the temptation to buy 13 soaps to get nine free, and spend it on wine instead.

Love,

you.

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The Black Dog

 

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There’s nothing I can say about Robin Williams’ suicide that hasn’t already been said. I can’t mourn his loss,  celebrate his talent or rage against the demon that is depression any more eloquently than has already been done. But one of the crazy things about depression is this: even though people who suffer with it generally experience the same symptoms, it is a very individual and very personal disease. There are few experiences  that are so universal yet so isolating. Depression, thought it might manifest in the same or similar ways, grabs us and keeps us and affects us very differently, which is why I believe that sharing our experiences (without comparison or judgement) is so important.

Mental health is a tightrope many people walk every day, and depression is often triggered by a major life event. For me, it was an ovarian cancer scare followed by pulmonary emboli, surgery and recovery. (Sorry to make light, but anyone who’s given themselves needles in the stomach and been forced to wear a horse-sized maxi pad for weeks knows these aren’t things you easily recover from. I can’t even see a white surfboard without breaking out in hives.)

After hearing those amazing words – “there’s no cancer” – and being sent on my way sans left ovary, everyone around me celebrated (except for the right ovary, who was very lonely). But returning to normal life and trying to put my body and mind back together quickly became an insurmountable task. Some people describe depression as “the black dog” (sorry Austin) or a dark cloud. For me it felt like being trapped in quicksand (now that I have kids I would describe it as silly-putty on steroids.) It was a persistent pressure that smothered me from all sides every minute of the day. It made getting out of bed or off the couch feel impossible. I cried over everything and couldn’t feel happy, let alone ecstatic, that I was going to be okay. I had terrible nightmares about being told they’d made a mistake in surgery and that there actually was cancer but now it was too far advanced to treat.

Predictably, the people around me didn’t understand this. How come I wasn’t happy? How could I be sad when I’d just received the best news ever? So what if I hadn’t pooped for 17 days and my bedtime ritual was a needle in the stomach … there was NO CANCER.

I was emotionally drained, exhausted, sore, mad and VERY hormonal. All before noon. I was like an angry hornet: pissed off because I wasn’t invited to the party and determined to ruin it for everyone else. I didn’t want company but I didn’t want to be alone either. The things that always gave me pleasure, books, my dogs, my favourite TV shows, FOOD…. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Intellectually I saw my emotional state as ridiculous, but I couldn’t do anything about it which only made me feel worse.

The missing ovary and resulting hormonal instability (“hormonal instability”, THERE’S an understatement) probably deserve some of the blame, but whatever the cause I was a MESS. I tried counselling but that got off to a rocky start when my therapist left the office early the day of my first appointment. Apparently she forgot I was coming.

Even before the surgery I’d been taking a low dose anti-depressant. Depression and mental illness lurk among the branches of my family tree so I’ve always been a bit obsessive about my mental health. I told myself taking anti-depressants was just being proactive but in truth they made me feel like a different person. I was less irritable and emotional and better able to manage setbacks. Minor disappointments were no longer the end of the world, and I was now able to enjoy myself and my relationships with more of an even keel.

In her amazing book “Twenty Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed”, Sherrie Eldridge wisely counsels parents to “Evaluate Your Emotional Health” during the adoption process. Often, the stress of infertility, the waiting for a child, the setbacks, the multiple disappointments can all lead to depression. And then when you actually get your child, there can be challenges you were completely unprepared for and ill-equipped to manage. It’s a cruel fact that the thing you’ve yearned for and waited years for, can be the thing that sends you down that rabbit hole. When you realize that the serene fantasy you’ve spent years envisioning is never going to happen, it can be a real shock to the system.

But we soldier on. We all do. Each of us finding ways to manage our demons and our stresses. Some work and sadly some don’t, but as long as we’re trying and hoping, I think there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Even at my worst, I never even contemplated suicide and for that I am incredibly thankful because I know that place exists, and I can scarcely imagine a hell any more real than that.

 

Dear Daren…

It’s been 7 days since you escaped left for the cottage. I hope you and your buddies are having an AWESOME time golfing and that the weather has been spectacular. I hope you’re getting lots of sleep and enjoying many delicious meals and adult conversation. Don’t forget to try that new seafood place we talked about!!

Not much is new here. The girls have now memorized the entire soundtrack from Frozen and sing it to each other every night, substituting key words with “poop” or “vagina”. Last night they fought for 25 straight minutes about whether dolphins or mermaids were better. I’m not sure who won because I was smashing my head into the concrete and could not hear, but it seemed pretty heated.

Yesterday Harmony asked “why?” when I told her she should not open the door of a moving car, so I’m pretty sure we made the right decision to send her to summer school. Speaking of which, a bunch of artwork came home on the last day and I saved it for you in the recycling bin.

Good news about the plumbing! It was NOT a diseased muskrat after all. Turns out they had not been flushing the toilet in their bathroom for a few days (thank you environmental science unit!) so we had a talk about conserving water in more practical ways. And speaking of water … here’s what went down in the pool this afternoon:

This is Harmony crying because Leila accidentally hit her in the head with a golf ball. Where did those come from I wonder???

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This is Leila crying because Harmony yelled at her for hitting her in the head with a golf ball:

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And this is the toad who had the misfortune of hopping into our yard but mercifully kept them busy for the next 5 hours. Expect a call from PETA.

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And this is me, taking my first selfie just for you.

You wish

You wish

Can’t wait to see you on Monday. Don’t be afraid to bring wine to the airport.

Your loving wife.

 

 

 

Lessons From Little Me

Last time my mom came over (Easter), she brought a box of old photos and keepsakes that I promptly deposited in the middle of the dining room table and forgot about. This tells you a few things about me:

1. I’m not big on nostalgia

2. I’m not big on my dining room table.

But last time I checked, Easter was IN APRIL so yesterday I finally I decided it was time to find this box a new home. Perhaps on some other barely-used surface, like the stove.

But before beginning the relocation (an arduous process of picking up the box, turning around and walking eight feet), I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside. Predictably, it was full of old photos, school projects, letters from camp, and ribbons and medals (mostly ribbons) from my days as a competitive swimmer. Strolling down memory lane, I was happy to see that my girls are already taking after me in several ways. As an adoptive mom, you’re always thinking about nature vs. nurture and I was pleased to see that, for now, nurture seems to be winning out. Here’s some proof that they’re coming by it honestly.

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Lesson: When in doubt, go naked. Or at least remove your underwear.

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Lesson: Cats are awesome and they love to be held. Also, faux brick and brass fireplaces are savvy decorating decisions.

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Lesson: Thick hair, decent fashion sense and teeth are not required to be successful in Sr. Kindergarten.

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Lesson: A pot belly and thunder thighs should never prevent you from wearing a bikini if that’s what makes you feel good. Side note: your Grandma is beautiful.

 

Open to Openness

This week Leah McLaren wrote a column in the Globe and Mail titled “Kids Don’t Care Where The Love Comes From.” It’s a terrific piece about “alternative family models” (those created by donor eggs, donor sperm, surrogacy and adoption) where “biological parents take a secondary role to non-biological parents” creating new levels of openness. Leah rightly points out that because these children are less threatened by the unconventional, adults no longer need to “protect” them from the details of their birth.

In adoption, openness refers not only to how much information is shared with the child but also to  the amount of contact the adoptive family has with the birth (biological) parent(s). As mom to two adopted girls, I feel the same way about openness as I do about Lady Gaga and Brazilian waxes: fascinated and terrified.

Initially, Daren and I believed closed adoption would be “best for the child.” Whether our future child was given up willingly or not, we didn’t see what good could come from ongoing contact. But truthfully we felt threatened. Although we came to adoption happily and willingly, we still experienced a lot of fear, anxiety and insecurity, and we dealt with it by taking control of as much as we could and eliminating wild cards wherever possible. Put your hands over your ears and scream “LA LA LA LA LA” at the top of your lungs. Yup, that was us. But our intentions were good. We wanted to create a safe, secure environment (read: impenetrable fortress) for our little one, and we were determined to eliminate future hurts by making her ours and ours alone. But guess what? When you adopt a child, especially when the adoption happens years after birth, that’s neither possible nor wise.

When you embrace adoption, you embrace the fact that many people other than you will play an important role in raising your child. Birth parents, foster parents, extended family, grandparents, social workers, therapists … it truly does take a village. Modern parenting has come a long way from the Victorian era when children were considered property, like livestock and chastity belts. But while we’re no longer locking our kids in dark closets as punishment for spilling their milk, many of us still think of them as property. And while no one would equate a child with a goat, few would deny feeling a sense of “ownership” over their children. But this doesn’t work in adoption and once we understood that we were able to see all the benefits to openness.

Why is openness so important? Because knowledge is power. Because a child can’t truly understand her story unless she understands where she came from. And if she doesn’t understand where she came from, she will have a hard time figuring out who she is. Think about the curiosity you had as a child, the questions you asked about your parents and grandparents as you tried to understand why you are the way you are and why you look the way you do. Where did my red hair come from (insert mailman joke), why am I so tall when mom and dad are so short (insert milkman joke). If your children don’t find these answers, it can be confusing and upsetting. We all want to feel connection and belonging and sometimes it’s the things that seem trivial (hair colour, height) that help form our identity.

Unfortunately there is still some stigma around adoption (a bright, well-educated 11-year old recently asked me if I got my girls from an “orphanage”), and there is still shame associated with being born to parents who gave you up, willingly or not. Layer in secrecy and a lack of personal history and you’ll probably be seeing that child on the news for all the wrong reasons.

Currently the birth parents of both our children have opted not to have any contact with us. Twice a year I write a letter to Harmony’s birth mom that goes into a file at the adoption agency, and soon I will start doing the same for Leila. If either girl’s birth mom or dad ever requests contact beyond the letters, the agency will ask us if we want to exchange pictures, emails, meet in person, etc. I do this for the parents but also so each girl knows we respect and honour the birth parent relationship. I hope this will help them feel more comfortable talking about and researching their history if they ever choose to do so. I won’t pretend this doesn’t make me want to throw up a little, but it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of raising these amazing kids.

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Version 2.0

Today was Leila’s first day of pre-Kindergarten. Here she is looking perfectly adorable and ready to kick some academic butt.

Doctor? Astronaut? Prime Minister?

Fact: 89% of successful women brought kitten suitcases to school.

Someone sent me Robert Fulghum’s “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” and even though it’s chocked full of wisdom I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting updates for a (less) mature audience. Here goes:

  1. Wear underwear everyday, no exceptions. They’re called privates for a reason.
  2. Do not put anything in your nose, ears, mouth or anus that doesn’t belong there. This includes play doh, lego, crayons and your fingers (all of them).
  3. Don’t follow the big kids. They’re all following each other and pretty soon it’s going to be like the zombie apocalypse in your school (without the flesh eating). So do your own thing.
  4. Don’t let your mom talk you out of wearing fleece pants underneath a taffeta Christmas dress if that’s what makes you feel good. It’s not your fault you’re the only one in the family with any fashion sense.
  5. It’s okay to have pet hair all over your clothes. The kids with goldfish will be jealous.
  6. Brush your hair only if the mood strikes you. You’ll spend plenty of time in front of the mirror when you’re older.
  7. When it comes to lip gloss, less is more. Mommy should not need a spatula to get it off you.
  8. Your mom has no idea where your library books are so don’t bother asking.
  9. It’s okay to poop at school. It’s not okay to hold it all day then run home screaming, clutching your butt.
  10. Wash your hands 30 times each day. 50 if the turtle/chicken/lizard is in your classroom this week.
  11. Change your food preferences daily. Just because you begged for it yesterday doesn’t mean you have to like it today. And if you’re not hungry, just take a small bite out of everything in your lunch bag so it cannot possibly be reused the next day.
  12. Include everyone in your games, invite everyone to your party. You never know when you’re going to be the one who needs a friend.
  13. If mommy goes out with her friends you are probably going to find a bag of chips and a brownie in your lunchbox the next day. Embrace it.
  14. If it’s not blood, broken bones or barf mommy will not be coming early to get you so don’t bother calling.
  15. Know that mommy and daddy don’t expect you to get straight A’s but they do expect you to try your best.
  16. Good behavior is EXPECTED and will not be rewarded. Deal with it.
  17. The promises mommy makes when you are screaming and clutching her leg may not always be honoured. It’s never too early to learn that life is full of disappointments.
  18. Don’t bother asking to bring the turtle/lizard/baby chick home. The answer is no.
  19. Be especially nice to the kids who aren’t nice to you. They are sad and could use a little bit of your smile and your light.
  20. If those kids are still mean to you, kick them in the shins and run away.

 

Liar, liar pants on fire.

“Mommy! Mommy! The tooth fairy didn’t come.”

Right. I knew there was something I forgot to do last night.

And this is how we start the day. H close to tears and Daren and I locking eyes, simultaneously mouthing the F word.

Did I mention it’s not even 6:30 am?

Did I also mention the tooth had already been lost several times, including once at the bottom of the pool?

"A little to the left Daddy. I think it's over there."

“A little to the left Daddy. I think it’s over there.”

All last night this thing was coveted like the Hope Diamond. I even dreamt about an old lady on the side of ship, standing in her jammies, on tippy toe, throwing Harmony’s tooth into the ocean. Which was okay because at that point I’d fitted it with a GPS tracker and insured it with Lloyd’s of London.

I had one job after the girls fell asleep, and I failed miserably. Now I know how Al Cowlings felt 20 years ago. YOU HAD ONE JOB.

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But all was not lost. Daren managed to slip a few toonies under her pillow for her to find before school, so thanks to some trickery, dishonesty and a modest cash payment to our 7 year old, the day was back on track. Now I’m forced to wonder…. If my 7 year old is that gullible, what can I put over on the 4 year old? Broccoli tastes like chocolate? Pizza is good for you? There will be plenty of money left for you to go to college? The possibilities are endless.