Friday, December 18, 2009

Big Families

The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together. ~Erma Bombeck

I'm an only child. There were times when I did relish this fact. I had my mom and dad all to myself. I didn't have to share them with anybody else. We were the three Musketeers. Life was our adventure. We were a merry little troop of three. And yet, there were a lot of times when three felt too small to me. I was the only Only that I knew. All of my friends had siblings.What began by feeling cozy ended up feeling short changed. As I got older, I began to notice that no one else's mothers drove snazzy little coupes. They all drove station wagons. I saw that other fathers had their hands full with lots of kids. I became obsessed with big families...not just ones with another sibling or two. The families I came to envy were the truly large ones; the ones that other people stopped and stared at. I read, and reread, the "All of a Kind" family books dozens of times. My two favorite old movies were "Yours, Mine and Ours" and "Cheaper by the Dozen". I daydreamed of having scads of brothers and sisters I could share secrets with, argue with, play with and go to bed talking with. My imagination ran overtime as I invented these sibling characters in my head, praying every day that I would wake up as one of six children. Although, this never happened, I did come to have a barn full of horses, enough dogs to pull a dog sled and one exceptionally intelligent Maine Coon cat to round out our family. But, overall, we were a content triangle.

As a new bride, I was excited to begin our family. I looked forward to being a Mommy. I wanted to snuggle babies close and rock them to sleep. I couldn't wait to read books to my little ones. I was overjoyed to think of making Christmas magical for my 'as yet to be' children. I was ecstatic to become cookie baking, carpool driving, Little League cheering on, messy art projects mother. Still, the grass really does look greener on the other side of the fence. My husband and I were not the first in our group of friends to have children, nor were we the last. I saw the long hours of sleepless nights and understood the expenses that amounted with each baby. I also saw mothers "of many" struggling to meet the needs of each child. I knew it could be done, and done well. But, I also knew that we weren't cut out for that type of demand. Jeff and I made the decision to have two children, three at the most. We were absolutely delighted with our son and daughter, and while we were grief stricken over the loss of our third baby, we came to see this as something that was not meant to be. We understood that, for the two of us, pouring our love, attention, affection, effort and resources to the two terrific babies we had made the most sense. Our family was complete. It was the four of us. A square. Symmetrical. My military husband liked to say that we had 'man to man' coverage. We were thankful and content...and we still are.

Yet, the larger family trend has been in the news a great deal lately. The success of shows like "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" (despite the unfortunately public dissolution of marriage), "The Duggar Family", "Table for Twelve" and "Kids by the Dozen" opened up the eyes of a great number of smaller families to the larger families in their midst. News programs, and parenting magazine articles, with titles such as "Is 4 the new 2?","Megafamilies" and "Are Large Families Back?" created buzz
around this trend. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have made newsworthy the thought of expanding large families through adoption. My friends of many children get tired of answering the obvious question "Yes, they're all mine". I have to say that, had I not known women personally who have mothered many, I would have thought it was all a little crazy, despite my childhood fascination. As I struggled to get lunches made for school, make sure the laundry was done, cleaned the house, helped with homework, driven to hockey, soccer, ballet, baseball and sailing, volunteered at book sales, bake sales and raffles, met with teachers for both children and still tried to work on my own projects, the task was daunting. What I've learned from my Megafamily 'sisters' is that they still need to do all of those just requires further planning, a sense of teamwork, and help where they can get it. The television shows, the movies, the pop phenomenon aspect of large families, in some ways, diminishes the magic of it. The women I know who live this life every day do find themselves exhausted, overwhelmed and frustrated. But, they also find immense joy in seeing the specialness of each child's singular uniqueness. These 'not for television' families are the ones who make the loving alchemy happen. These are the moms who are Goddesses. They take the family shape of triangle and square, with which I am familiar, and create hexagons and decagons.

In my yoga classes, I try to balance the male and female elements in our practice. Just as there are male and female nouns in French and Spanish, and one must make the appropriate pronoun use, there are male and female based Asanas, or poses. I try to balance the number of these to create a flowing class that will leave my students feeling both energized and empowered. The Asana that is especially popular for this goal is Goddess. It's a powerful squat with arms raised shoulder height and hands up. I've seen ancient art in the tribal sections of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris that show figures in this same pose. Initially, it makes the yogini feel strong, robust, courageous and mighty. After a few moments, it starts to feel heavy, fatiguing, sapped and burdensome. These are adjectives I've been told by my students, and have felt myself, while practicing Goddess. What fascinates me is that these same adjectives could be applied to motherhood itself, regardless of family size; we begin feeling on top of the world, yet after a while, we find ourselves weary. This helps me to understand that Ancient cultures felt just the same way we do...without the carpooling.

Am I sorry that I'm the mother of 'just two'? Not at all. I cherish my children, and I feel that the family I have is the family I was meant to have. I find myself both ecstatic and worn out with my small tribe. Do I judge people with large families? I don't judge, but I do find them curious and fascinating. I wonder how they manage it all. I respect their efforts and love to see them at work. As I find 'the road less traveled' to be gaining in popularity, I remain confident in my life but passionately curious about their other path.

And, I wish all families, large, small and somewhere in the middle, a very happy holiday season.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Holiday Hot Bath

There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them. ~Sylvia Plath,The Bell Jar

During this busy time of year, the most common answer I hear, when I ask "How are you?" is "Stressed!". Most people I know have Christmas lists that resemble the size and length of a Bill, set before Congress, to become a law. People have to shop for their families' gifts, which becomes more difficult each successive year. How many years can you make cookies for people, or give them a bottle of wine, without seeming uncreative? There are Christmas card photos to take...and with every passing year the children become older, wiser, less cooperative and not as easily bribed into standing still. There are addresses to look up, because in our more mobile society, few people still live in the same house that they may have a few years ago. There are parties to attend, which sounds like an enormous amount of fun until you try to schedule around them. There are parties to give, which is even more stressful....between making sure the dog hasn't eaten the sofa, the hors d'oeuvres or the front porch steps before the guests arrive. There are party dresses that fit last year but now seem sized for a completely differently shaped woman. There are recipes that are "Never Fail!' in the cookbook, but manage to do just that. There are sporting events to attend, cheering for your children while wearing Santa hats. There are office events that we want to appear at our best, yet cultivate a savoie-faire attitude (and not make a fool of ourselves, like Roy from Accounting did one year). There are gingerbread houses that collapse and require power tools to fix. We try to play Secret Santa, without our victim figuring out who is leaving boxes of caramels on her desk. There are Caroling parties that always seem to be held on the one evening per year that disproves global warming. There are Christmas Pageants, concerts and plays. There is too much clutter, and not enough "Yankee Swap" gatherings to dispose of it all. There are important Charity events, such as Toys for Tots drives, Adopt a Family and care packages to support our troops overseas. There is too much to do, crammed into too short a period of time, and far too much enforced merriment. It's hard to 'merry' when everyone is telling you to do just my five commitments each afternoon.

Bah Hambug! So, how do we get out of the doldrums and into the delight? We find time every day for a hot holiday bath. We need to close the door, and draw the hot water, putting on whatever music relaxes us the most. In my case, it happens to be Andrea Bocelli, but you may enjoy hymns, Christmas carols, show tunes, or whatever happens to be your 'happy place', musically. You will want to be luxurious with your bath products. Lavender is wonderful for relaxation, but for the more adventurous, Bath & Body Works has developed a line of holiday bubble baths. My two favorites are their Twisted Peppermint and Nutcracker Suite. Each one lathers up heavenly and takes me far away from the bottle drive I need to coordinate for the hockey team. Make sure that your bathroom is stress's tough to relax, when you're looking at a counter filled with half empty bottles and an exploded toothpaste container. Either earlier in the day, or while your bath is drawing, "clean sweep" whatever you need to...simply put it in a box and deal with it later. (You may find that, once it becomes later, you don't miss that half empty container of bug repellent in December). Lock the door if you need to, but just make your holiday hot bath a ritual you do for yourself. Pour yourself a glass of wine, or a cup of hot chocolate, and sink back, promising yourself that you won't think about anything on your Christmas "to do" list for the duration of your sanctuary in the tub.

However, if you find that your mind is having a hard time shutting off, as mine often does, bring a good book into the tub with you. While I wouldn't recommend trying this even with the steadiest of hands for Kindle users, but if you take care, it shouldn't be a problem for a tradition book. I'd recommend reading something inspirational, uplifting, heart warming, or at the very least, light hearted. We have enough drama in our lives this time of year. This isn't the moment to read Tom Clancy's latest, or any Lee Childs thriller. You don't want heart pounding action.You want to be renewed. Action books can be enormous fun, and can pull us into a web of adrenaline that leaves us feeling mysterious and accomplished. But, during times of great busyness, it's often helpful to read words that are more life affirming. This will help us ease tension and find inner peace. You may enjoy reading inspirational books by The Dalai Lama, or by inspirational Jewish and Christian writers, such as Rabbi Harold Kushner or Max Lucado. Richard Paul Evans writes beautiful,"easily read in a night or two" books that uplift, entertain, inspire but aren't insipid novels. Most of all, I'd recommend reading Mitch Albom's new book, "have a little faith". The journey the author takes, from being asked to write his childhood rabbi's eulogy (when the spiritual leader was still very much alive), to connecting with an inner city homeless project run by an extraordinary pastor, this novel will kindle a light within you may find flickering and on the point of blowing out altogether if you don't nourish the flame.

There are so many ways that we celebrate the holiday season. We spend time with family and friends. We do good works in our communities. We try to make the holidays special for our create memories they'll look back upon with great happiness. But, in all of that activity, we often do 'forget the meaning of the season'. I don't like being reminded, again and again, that we need to reach into our faith traditions, and dwell there exclusively, while I have no ethical way to get out of honoring my other, secular commitments. I don't like hearing how badly the stock market is doing because people "just aren't shopping enough", when I'm trying to teach my teenagers to think of one or two special items, as opposed to one of everything at Circuit City. What I do like is finding a way to balance the must do's, the want to do's, the love to do's and 'do's for my health and sanity'. For me, this means taking a hot bath every night. It means finding a way to shut out everyone, including the people I love desperately, just for a chance to recharge my Elf Engine.

I think that creating a Hot Holiday Bath ritual is a healthy, non-addictive way to deal with holiday pressures. It can relieve tense muscles, warm you all over from a frosty night and give you a much needed break. If nothing else, the presents that the kids have unwrapped, and then tried (unsuccessfully) to re-wrap will still be there when you get out. And, you may just have a more effective, gentler method of handling it all, warm and cozy from Peppermint bubbles.