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Posts Tagged ‘midlife’

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

Feeling like a ‘natural’ mother

 

May 20, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

Happy Birthday!

I’m so sorry to be a day late with my letter this week, though it does give me the opportunity to wish you well on your big 3-9. I hope you got everything you wanted, including some time to reflect on your plans for the year ahead. The year before I turned 40 was a completely transformative one for me. I wouldn’t wish everyone the same experience – transformation is not for the faint of heart – but I know from your letters that you are ready for a new adventure. I’m looking forward to coming along on it.

Given that your last two letters have been about parenting, I think you will understand the reason for my tardiness: I took the boys to NYC for a long weekend, my first trip with them alone. It was a good moment to reflect on my own parenting style, and some of the questions that you ask about how and if mothering comes ‘naturally’ to women.

I’m not a fan of boxes and categories (I nearly listed ‘cages’ here, which tells you something about my approach to boxes and categories), and this is particularly true of mothering. I also get suspicious when the word ‘natural’ is applied to women as mothers. Good, natural mothers, it seems, opt willingly for whatever choice is the hardest, most painful and most self-denying; bad, unnatural mothers are those who opt on Day One for the epidural and continue, at every opportunity, to choose the path that preserves their sanity and a sense of themselves as distinct from their offspring. Selfish, really.

Of course I have times when I feel like a fraud as a mother (who doesn’t?) but for the most part, imposter syndrome takes hold when I am forced into a model of mothering that isn’t, well, natural for me.

For example, here is my personal word association for maternal failure: holiday meals. Getting my children dressed up against their will for a ‘festive’ meal and watching them struggle to use cutlery and eat food they dislike, while other family members watch in judgment is a special kind of torture for me. I am also bad at the following:

Playing, or feigning interest in, video games
Doing activities that involve being cold
Sports
Discipline
Sitting around and doing nothing
Going to the playground (see above)

But I am very good at:

Reading and instilling a love of words
Cuddles
Listening to what is said, and what is not
Adventures and special events
Creative solutions to any problem

And I find that when I parent with an emphasis on my strengths, I feel quite comfortable in the role; whereas, when I try to be a different kind of parent, a more authoritarian one, or a sporty one, or a chilled out one, for example, I feel like an imposter.

I was thinking of the event we did together the other night, where we got into a conversation about what we do for fun. One of the women in the audience said that she didn’t do much for fun, other than hang out with her children, and I said, “I don’t think parenting is fun.” It’s true. There are many things that I like to do for fun, and parenting isn’t on the list. Tennis is fun. Dinner out with friends is fun. Reading is fun. Talking about books and writing with other writers is fun. I could go on. I take delight in many things.

Parenting is work. Of course it is. Parenting is an ongoing act of love. And ongoing acts of love (as opposed to falling in love which takes little thought or effort, or even sense), are, as we know but don’t like to admit, work. Rewarding work. Meaningful work. Even joyous work. But not effortless. Not without struggle. Not without worry and frustration. Not ‘natural’.

And this is all good news, my Reva, because if we let go of the idea that there is one successful way to parent, we’ll be freer to find a way that works for us, either inside or outside the box.

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/real-mothers-day/

Read the Pen Pal archive here: https://www.facebook.com/ourpenpalproject?ref=hl

Pen Pal Project

Courage, my love

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

I’m celebrating a big anniversary this week. Two years ago, I self-published The Hole in the Middle. I didn’t really choose self-publishing. I did it because I couldn’t get anyone to take me seriously as a writer in the traditional publishing business.

This week, my publisher is shipping a brand-new edition to bookstores across the country, with a quote on the front from a famous writer who also happens to be a new friend (we met at a literary festival last summer). It’s so amazing and weird that Kobo asked me to write a blog about it.

But honestly, when I look back at everything that’s happened? The self-publishing, and the crazy internet sensation, and the Canadian book deal, and the U.S. book deal, and the marriage breakdown – all of it connected, all of it complicated and bittersweet – do you know what strikes me the most?

I can’t believe how f***ing brave I was. I’m so proud of that. I’m a fairly shy person, all evidence to the contrary. I used to have a phobia about public speaking. I used to have an almost crippling anxiety about what people thought of me. The biggest obstacle to my success with the book, from the beginning, was my own fear.

Courage is a relative quality. It is quite different from fearlessness. To be courageous is to do the things that haunt you. Only you know what they are. To self-publish my book, to put myself out on social media, to tell everyone I knew that I had written something, and ask them to buy it, all the while knowing for an absolute fact that no one in the book industry believed my book deserved publication: that took every bit of courage I had, which was significantly more than I knew I possessed. (I filmed a video about it.)

And now? I feel like the old rules don’t apply to me anymore. It is scary but also truly liberating.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned: Not everyone will like you. Not everyone will value the same things you do. Not every relationship will survive forever.  People change. You will too.

These are terrifying realizations, but once you accept them as true, the rules shift. The most important questions change. What do you want to contribute? What are your greatest talents? Who deserves your loyalty and your time? Who doesn’t? What are you doing because you think you should? What are you doing because you genuinely love to do it?

On a micro-level, I’m exploring these questions while choosing furniture for my new house. My designer, who is accustomed to working with couples to identify the appropriate shade of greige, is thrilled. There is no compromise. There is no discussion. What do I like? It turns out that I like … what I like. Which is random and eclectic and colourful and creative. Who knew? Here is my new carpet, for example:

instagram carpet, rug

My point here, and I do have one, is that we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to fit in with other people – families, friends, and especially spouses. But maybe we ought to practice being ourselves a little now, as Jenny Joseph’s famous poem suggests? We – all of us – deserve that.

Really looking forward to our event on Friday!

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Find the Pen Pal archive here.

Pen Pal Project

Great Expectations

April 7, 2015, 6:30 a.m.

Dear Reva,

I’m writing to you at the last minute this week. I rarely work before school drop off at 8:45, but I’ve been struggling with what I want to share.

Normally, I write to you about personal things, but things I’ve had time to process. This week has been one of the saddest and most stressful of my life. I’ve had several of those weeks in the past year, but we weren’t writing to each other then. But I can’t come up with any other topics, really, because my busy brain is, well, processing.

Here’s what happened, in short: I spent a full day in mediation and arrived at a final separation agreement with my husband, and sold my house the same evening. In other words, I dismantled, in one day, a life that I had spent 15 years building. These are positive outcomes in many ways, actually, but I feel somewhat dazed. When I wake up in the morning these days, I’m often disoriented, as you are when you wake up in a hotel far from home, thinking that you are in your own bed, and wonder: where did that ugly lamp come from? I always need a few seconds to locate myself in time and space.

Being in the here and now: I told you in an early letter that this is my challenge, or as you yoga types like to say, a core aspect of my practice. I know this because I’ve been doing Moksha yoga recently – your influence! I find it unexpectedly grounding. Also, all the sweating makes me feels as though I’m expelling toxic stress, though part is mostly in my head, I’m sure.

I liked your letter about drinking. I’m interested in how we (women in particular, but men also) use numbing behavior to shield ourselves from discomfort and vulnerability. Drinking is one method, certainly, but perfectionism is another; as long as we are focused on the next achievement, there’s no need to stop and ask ourselves why, or even if, we really want whatever we are chasing after.

Have you read any of Brené Brown’s work? She does research on shame, and writes compellingly about the lengths that we will go to protect ourselves from vulnerability. Her point, a good one, is that if you numb one feeling, you numb them all: numb sadness, and you numb happiness, numb fear, and you numb courage. Check out her TED talk here.

I’m also intrigued, though not especially surprised, by the study you cite on women’s declining happiness levels. As Nora Ephron once said: “The major concrete achievement of the women’s movement in the 1970s was the Dutch treat.” I’ve been a stalwart feminist since adolescence, but really, doesn’t it seem, more often than not, like our generation of women got a raw deal?

And we’re supposed to be thrilled with all of our amazing choices! We can choose to have high-powered careers, for example, while other people raise our children, and be exhausted all the time, and wonder what it is all for. Or we can choose to stay home with our kids, and feel judged by working women, and guilty for squandering all our talents and opportunities. Or we can choose a middle road of part time or less ambitious work, and feel uncomfortable with the trade-offs we’ve made.

And many of us in every category are pouring a big glass of wine at the end of the day to numb feelings of frustration and disappointment.

In mediation this week, the mediator began by saying: “All divorces are about disappointed expectations.” I thought it a very profound observation, and true more broadly. Midlife, too, is about disappointed expectations, and a successful transition involves revisiting and recalibrating the expectations we’ve carried into midlife from other ages and stages. I am not saying that we should lower them, necessarily, but that we need to be more honest about them, with other people and with ourselves.

A lot of ink is being spilled these days about happiness, and I’m all for it.  We are the luckiest people in the world, and we should all be happier than we are.  But until we let go of old expectations, and stop numbing our disappointments, and come alive to what we really want from our relationships, our work and ourselves, happiness will feel elusive.  Elizabeth Gilbert circulated a quote this week by Howard Thurman, a preacher and American civil rights leader, and it struck a chord with me: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It is spring, after all.

Yours,

Kate

Pen Pal Project

Birthday Angst: A Personal History

February 9, 2015

Dear Reva,

I love that photo of you in Jamaica. It looks like a Vanity Fair shoot of a Hollywood star at home. How do you manage to look so glamorous all the time?

Thanks, by the way, for the temporary tattoo. I still haven’t tried it. It is sitting, believe it or not, in my ‘to do’ file. The file is large. The tattoo keeps falling to the bottom, both figuratively and literally. Perhaps I need to move it as an action item onto my ‘to do’ list (that’s a promotion from the file). It could be #9 today, after going to the dentist, writing this letter, paying my Visa bill, learning how to use my new website, arranging for snow removal, finding an electrician to fix the light in C’s room, registering the kids for summer camp, and going to the post office. But I should probably find some time to write my book.

There, you see? This is why the tattoo lies neglected in the file. I wonder what else is in there. Hmm. I should probably check.

So…birthdays. The big decade markers have always thrown me, though I tend to freak out a year early, on the nines. At 19, for example, which came at the mid-point of Grade 13 (we had that in Ontario back in the dark ages), I despaired at my lack of accomplishment. Of course, I had been miserable for several years – there is nothing you could offer me in exchange for reliving high school, nothing – but my general misery was exacerbated by the sense that I had not accomplished enough before turning 20. I mentioned my high-achieving, perfectionistic tendencies, right?

At 29, I was agonizing over my career and my biological clock. I’d quit law and gone to work at the University of Toronto, but I was junior and uncertain about my professional choices, and was beginning to think about having a baby. I didn’t think I should change jobs again unless I committed to putting off pregnancy (I stayed at U of T and had a baby).

Thirty-nine, though … that was a doozy. I had two kids, and a very senior job, and a bunch of volunteer commitments. And I was entertaining at least once a week, and working on my marriage, and doing, I must say, an A+ job of all of it. And I was exhausted and burnt-out and beating back a nagging suspicion that I was living someone else’s life, except for the three hours on Sunday afternoons when I was writing the novel that eventually became The Hole in the Middle.

And as for 40 and 41, they were, I think, aftershocks of the trauma of 39, which didn’t resolve right away. It took a couple of years to quit my job after realizing that I hated it, and to muster enough confidence to call myself a writer. And, given how things turned out, I guess it’s fair to say that there were some marital issues brewing.

to do list, tattoo, to do file
My to do file, tattoo on top!

I love your idea that we should celebrate our achievements more often. I think you are absolutely right that high-performing women are usually ‘future thinkers’, which is to say that they are always focused on the next thing. I have a marvelous therapist who is trying to cure me of my future-thinking ways. I think I am incurable. Recently, as she shook her head in frustration, I said, “I’ll get there.” And she sighed and said, “Not there, Kate. Here. I want you to get here.” It makes me laugh every time I think of it.

Yours,

Kate

 

Link to Reva’s last letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/think-need-celebrate/

Reva’s response to this letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/reality-bites/