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180 Degrees South

After watching the movie 180 degrees South last night, I came away with this thought:

When a climber gets to the top of a mountain, they stay for only a few moments looking at the view before heading back down. The top is the goal, but it is the journey to the top where the hiker is most likely to learn something about themselves.

Although having a baby at the end of pregnancy and labor is a lot different than the top of a mountain. The similarity is in the journey. If we focus solely on a healthy baby, healthy mama, and not on the journey to that place, then we miss out on all the possibilities for transformation and growth.

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I just am

I love my niece, Emily, so much. She was the first baby in my life. I spoke French to her until she was three, something I didn't do with my own son. She turned seven this month and I wanted to share my thoughts on life with her. So, I wrote her this little story and slipped it into her birthday card. Would anyone like to share a story that they have written for their children about life?

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There lived a little girl named Penelope. She was seven years old. Although she was only in first grade, everyone always asked her, "What do you want to be when you grow-up?" She never knew what to say because she didn't know who she was yet. She wished for the future and to be big so that she would finally be able to answer the question.

Many years later when she was married, had a house, and a dog, she realized that she still didn't know who she was nor what she wanted to be when she grew-up. Yet she was grown-up and had a job. Where were the answers?

Then one day, while observing a flower blow in the wind, all her other thoughts stopped. She felt calmness flood over her. She felt so alive and at peace. Her existence wasn't much different from the flower that she watched. She felt the wind tickle her skin and move her hair. She put her hand on her chest and felt her heart beat. "I just am," she said.

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Does smiling really matter?

I don't look happy in our vacation video. I felt happy but the pictures show a stone faced and serious mom. My lips are so tightly closed that I can see lines where they bunch together. Zack took a video of Mikey eating spaghetti because it was hilarious. Mikey was naked (think hot Mexico) and working so hard to stuff one strand of spaghetti into his month. He was covered in red sauce. When the camera shows me, my eyes are so wide that it looks like I don't have eyelids. I am so focused on feeding Mikey that I am missing the comedy of the whole scene. But I swear, I wasn't. I was happy and giddy the whole time. I guess it was on the inside because my face showed a totally different story.

[Previously published for sfgate.com/moms]

I've decided to start forcing a smile. Not like a fake smile but more of a relaxed face smile. I've heard laughing is therapeutic and in Bali they meditate with a smile. So I've decided to practice relaxing my face, parting my lips slightly, and curling up the ends of my mouth as often as I think about it.

Now that I am aware of my tight face syndrome, I can feel it. I felt it driving towards the Laurel Village parking lot, and then I loosened it and found a parking spot right away. I felt my lips tighten and pucker while picking poultry at the grocery store. I relaxed and felt happier instantly. I smile when I do the dishes. I smile when I type on the computer. I smile when I play with Mikey.

Being a mom is sometimes so intense that I have to stay focused and on task, but now I am doing it with a smile.

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Why save candles for birthdays?

[Previously published for sfgate.com/moms]

I can think of one good reason. Fire isn't a game and I shouldn't be teaching Mikey that lighting matches and birthday candles over and over is fun. Nonetheless, this candle game happened organically this morning and Mikey loved it.

He found the box where I keep the leftover candles from birthday cakes (all two of them) and wanted to light one. Mikey wasn't able to blow out his second birthday cake's candle. He almost scorched his eyebrows trying. So I thought maybe he could use a little practice. A pear was handy, so I sliced the pear and stuck the candle in it. I sang, "Happy Birthday too you..." and he blew it out right on cue. His face glowed like he had won Wimbleton. Then he wanted to do the next candle and the next. Soon he didn't wait for me to finish singing and by the end I wasn't singing at all. He was blowing out the candle and the match with one big puff. He was done with the game when we had lit and blew out each candle in the box. I used this opportunity to review colors and numbers and other things listed below:

The Candle Game

1) Discuss the difference between smoke and steam.
2) Practice blowing which isn't an obvious skill.
3) Use fine motor skills by putting the candles in the pear hole.
4) Name each candle color.
5) Teach about matches and that he is not to play with them without me. Fire is dangerous.
6) Sing Happy Birthday which boosts self-esteem and makes a child feel special even on an ordinary day.
7) Count the candles and matches.

Candles can stand in anything. It doesn't have to be a cake or cupcake.

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Can my two-year old understand me?

[Previously published for sfgate.com/moms]

Mikey is going through a very frustrating developmental period for me. He is unhappy mostly everywhere except home. And at home, I can't even finish unloading the dishwasher before he says, "Mama come." He needs my full attention all the time. I really enjoy hanging out with him but lately it's been difficult. I didn't realize how drained a felt, until Mikey's papa came home tonight, and I scurried off into the office and closed the door.

I was hoping for a little peace. My goal was three minutes. I didn't even make it three minutes alone before Mikey started screaming for me on the other side of the door. I heard Zack saying, "Let's go play in the yard." But, by that point Mikey was so worked up nothing would satisfy him apart from being in his mommy's arms. I opened the door and grabbed my keys. I needed out. I felt trapped and I needed some space. My decision didn't help the volume of screaming and Zack didn't know what to do, so he followed me down to the garage with our wailing child.

At this point, Mikey was so red and horse from crying that I couldn't leave him. Nonetheless, I was still upset and needed a walk. So, I took him and marched off into the street with no idea where I was going. Zack stood on the steps with no shoes and the whole house open, "Where are you going?" he asked. I turned to look but didn't respond. I just didn't know.


I held Mikey tight in my arms and walked in silence. Tears dripped down from under my sunglasses. When we reached the Panhandle park, I let Mikey down to walk. He reached for my hand and held it as we crossed the bike lane. Mikey never wants to hold my hand when we walk. He swats it away every time. But tonight it was his hand that held mine. "He is holding my hand to comfort me," I thought.

His hand transmitted so much love that I came out of my depressed state and into the present moment. It was a warm San Francisco Friday night. A woman sat on the grass with her newborn baby. Dogs ran after balls. Crows cawed loudly in the trees. Bikes zipped back and forth on the path. The warm offshore breeze dried my tears.

We continued to walk hand-in-hand without talking. Mikey would pick up a leaf or an acorn and show it to me. I would nod or smile. Just as soon as he'd let go of my hand he'd say, "hand, hand," and want it back. But this time, it wasn't for him, it was for me.

He maintained a steady walk. Normally, he can barely walk up our small street in under an hour and getting him to walk up the stairs to our apartment is about as frustrating as it gets. But in that moment, he walked. We stopped briefly to watch the basketball game and the skateboarders, and then we headed out of the park and back up the hill to the house.

We passed the newly painted orange Buddhist meditation house and Mikey looked up at me and said, "Orange." When I looked back into his eyes they weren't the eyes of a two-year old. He held my gaze with the most beautiful smile that I have ever seen. For a brief moment, my son knew more than I. He was all knowing, comforting, loving, and still. Mikey held my hand all the way home and he didn't let me go.

Zack caught up to us on the bike just before we turned onto our street. I ran a lavender bath as soon as I walked in the door. Mikey climbed in and Zack leaned over the side of the tub and washed him while I relaxed and enjoyed their company.

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Why do parents who don't need the money go back to work?

[Previously published for sfgate.com/moms]

I was talking to a mom at a baby shower who explained why she chose to go back to work even though she didn't need the money. As she told me the story, tears swelled up in her eyes. She works at a company that offers a year maternity leave (amazing, I know). She took the full year with her first child but returned to work after three months with the second. She said that she couldn't handle it. Two kids were too much for her. She felt like she would snap at any moment. So she hired someone to do the job for her. She said that she feels really guiltly about her decision.

The reality of her situation saddens me. People have kids but don't want to do the work or feel someone else could do a better job. She loves her children but she can't be with them all day long. My interest in her story stems from my own mom not wanting to be with me or my two siblings. My mom left my dad and the three of us young children when I was only four years old. She gave my dad custody and went to live in Florida to get her Ph.D.

Maybe it's good that my friend at the baby shower went to work. If that's what keeps a family together, then so be it.

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Should I Follow My Own Rules?

[Published previously for SFGate.com/moms]

I think that everyone can agree that one kid grabbing a toy from another kid's hands is a big "no,no." Now I ask, what about me (mommy) snatching an open magic marker from Mikey? I have done it before. But it felt hypocritical. Why should I expect him not to take what he wants when I demonstrate the opposite? If it's not life threatening, it can be a perfect learning opportunity and a way to treat him like a sensitive human being.

If I really believe in talking it out and asking for things rather than taking them, then I need to practice what I preach. And so, now I do.

I put my hands together like I am begging for food and kneel down right in front of him. I look at him in the eyes and I am very serious. I say, "Mikey, please give mommy the marker. We only draw on paper. Mommy wants to put the marker away until art time. Please give mommy the marker." He normally drops it gently into my open hands and I say, "thank you." Or, he says, "thank you, Mikey," which means that I should say it. If he refuses then I tell him that I am going to take it on the count of three if he doesn't give it to me. It isn't quite playground rules but I do recognize that I do need to make executive decisions sometimes.

These moments allow me to practice being present. I stop whatever I am doing and embrace the moment. I remain separated emotionally but completely focused on it. These moments don't last more than a few minutes but they are intense and a great spiritual practice. It takes a lot of will power for Mikey to give up the marker and for me not to take the easy way out and grab it from him. Mikey always runs away from the ordeal quite happy and content with himself. And, I save my walls. It's a win win!

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Good Communication Skills

[Published previously for SFGate.com/moms]

If Mikey wants something and it conflicts with what I want, I can be sure that the conversation won't end there.

Here's a scenerio: Mikey is standing on a foot stool in the pantry holding the jar of fig bars. We are just about to sit down to dinner and he wants yet another fig bar. So, I say, "Mikey wants another fig bar. Yep, I hear you sweety, you want another bar." His shoulders relax and his face softens and he nods his head. Then I say, "Mikey, you've already had two fig bars, no more, just two."

Most of the time he'll repeat back, "just two." And sometimes we'll do the scenerio again or I'll have to look for a compromise like asking him if he'd like to start eating dinner a little before papa gets home.

What amazes me about this scene is that it works every time no matter what the conflict. By just repeating back to him what he wants, he is soothed into listening. The poor guy just wants to know that he is understood. Don't we all!

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Wisdom of Inconsistency

{Published earlier for SFGate.com/moms]

I remember my mom killing herself to keep everything equal between the three of us children. As parents, we are told that it is important to be consistent.

I was relieved to read in Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, by Dr. Sarah J. Buckley that it is okay to be inconsistent because it's human nature. Have I ever cancelled an engagement or changed my mind about something? I feel relieved because it's hard work trying to line up the way Zack does things and the way that I do them. Buckley says:

Consistency between parents is artificial and unnecessary. ...I also believe that we can have different attitudes, thresholds, and responses, yet still parent together with ease.

I no longer have that nagging voice in my head saying that I am doing this whole mothering thing wrong when I let Mikey make a huge mess with the packaging poppers one day and not let him do it again the next day. Each day is different, each moment is different. Sometimes I feel more tolerant than other times.

If I say no to another book because I am tired from a day of fun with my little bundle of joy, but papa wants to read one more, fine. I don't need to feel like we're giving in to Mikey's attempt to delay bedtime.

Mikey is learning that at different times people are willing or unwilling to oblige. Buckley says, "Our children know that we will respond differently because we are different people. We don't want them to manipulate those differences, but it's okay to do things differently."

Since I have let go of the feeling that I need to be consistent, I feel more real and honest. Inconsistency has allowed Mikey to see more of me as a person and less of me as an authoritarian mom. I hope that he is learning how to be more true to himself as well.

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I live on a relocated cemetery

[Written previously for SFGate.com/moms]

This Friday I was alone in my apartment. Husband and 2-year old were elsewhere for the night. I had a nice night out: yoga and dinner. I cleaned up that day's breakfast and the rest of the house from 11pm to midnight. I lay in bed alone. I fell asleep and then awoke two hours later because I felt someone holding my hand. I don't think that I've slept alone, I mean really alone for two plus years. So, I thought maybe I was just imagining that Zack was in bed with me, but I woke to the same feeling every two hours until finally morning came. Much of the Richmond District was a graveyard. The Encyclopedia of San Francisco says:

Golden Gate Cemetery was created in 1868 on about 200 acres purchased by the city north of Clement between 33rd and 43rd avenues. It was also known as Clement Street Cemetery and the City Cemetery. In 1909, it was turned into Lincoln Park Golf Course. It is unknown how many remains were moved, and several hundred were discovered when the Palace of the Legion of Honor was being renovated in the 1990s.
My house was part of a housing development put on top of an old cemetery, one of "The Big Four" cemeteries. After we moved into our house and started digging in the garden, we found a large piece of a tombstone. If they forgot to remove a piece of tombstone, what else did they forget? My neighbor has a fully intact tombstone in her yard. She calls it, "Our New Yorker." He was a pioneer from New York. Although she jokes about it, she confessed that she got holy water from a church and poured it over the top. I am starting to think that I should do the same thing.

It was like people were hanging out in my house, but I couldn't see them. Like trying to sleep with someone watching you. Or, trying to sleep with the lights on. They weren't mean or unfriendly just there. I've felt them before with Zack home but somehow I was able to ignore them better. Friday night was a haunted, sleepless night. I am glad that I've got a full house again.

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Opting out of preschool

[Previously published for sfgate.com/moms]

I am going through some sort of journey that I never thought that I'd take. I went from working when Mikey was only three months old to quitting completely when he was just over a year. I had him signed up for preschools when he was one month old and now I've decided preschool can wait.

Mikey is 2.5 years old and it seems that every child his age in San Francisco is in preschool some part of the week. I only know one other mom who doesn’t have her child in a school.

Our weeks are free from commitments. We have no plans and therefore the space to live life slower.

I am so happy that I don't have to rush out of the house every morning. I love playing at the house until Mikey is ready to do something else. I realize how lucky we are to be together all day. He says to me, "Mama, Mikey is happy."

I want to give him what I didn't have. Like most parents, my parents worked. I was shuffled from school to the babysitter. We spent two hours a day in the car commuting back and forth into town. I had to wait for happiness, which I found on the weekends and in the evenings while reading bedtime stories with my dad.

The concept of choosing not to send Mikey to school doesn't seem that earth shattering, but for me it is. I am choosing a path based on my intuition as a mother. I am trusting my feelings and making big decisions based on them. I am not doing what everyone else is doing but doing what I want to do for my child. I can identify with how homeschooling moms and dads must feel. It takes a lot of courage to defend my decision. Although from reading this article, it seems all too clear that our boys are feeling school burn out early.

In this culture of working parents and scheduled activities, I am taking a different approach. Like the slow food movement, I am starting the slow kids movement!

(Mikey is now 3.5 years old and he started at a preschool this Fall (2009). It felt totally right, but it didn't work out for him. Among other major behavior changes, he went on a hunger strike. I spoke with him about it and we decided that he still liked preschool, but he wanted something less noisy, fewer toys, fewer teachers, fewer kids etc.)

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