Please stop being so hard on yourself.

They eat chicken McNuggets sometimes and that doesn't make me a bad mom.

You know what’s funny? I was just sitting here thinking about how cool I am because I can honestly say that my percentage of time spent comparing myself to other people has dropped dramatically in the last year. I used to spend a lot of time thinking I was a bad mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, volunteer, niece and so on because other women seemed to be so much better at all of it than me. Now, I don’t do that as much. Like, hardly ever. But I still feel like I’m falling short in a lot of ways. So here is what is funny: I now compare myself to an IMAGINARY Anna.

IMAGINARY Anna is a lot like me, but not so rough around the edges. All of her laundry is caught up and she makes nutritious, delicious dinners for her family every night, even on the weekends. AND, all three of her kids eat every last bite of these meals WITHOUT COMPLAINING. In fact, they tell her she is an excellent cook and make her promise to write down all her recipes so that someday they can replicate her delectable meals for their own children. She is fashion forward and she doesn’t have bad hair days. She wears high heels a lot and they don’t hurt her feet. AT ALL. She can do a yoga head stand. She never yells at her children or loses her patience. Ever. She weighs… well, let’s not talk about how much she weighs because it’s been so long since I weighed as much as she does. I can’t relate to her on that level, but I do envy her and the ease with which she buys clothing (especially bras). She ALWAYS adores her husband and jumps up to kiss and hug him and thank him every night when he walks through the door, even when it is WAY later than she expected him. She doesn’t even blink an eye when he leaves his dirty socks in random places, like the kitchen counter. She doesn’t nag. She is a saint, really. Everybody loves her. She has lots of friends. She is the President of her Book Club and she volunteers every day in each of her three angelic children’s classrooms. In her spare time, she knits blankets for cold people. She has coffee every afternoon with her mother, who is a widow like my mom, and never once gets distracted as her mother shares what is on her mind. She never says things like, “Mom, I can’t even follow you – you are ALL over the place right now!” She follows everything. She does it all. I know she is completely unreal, but I STILL compare myself to her. I think I might have been better off comparing myself to other women because occasionally I actually saw the human side of THEM and didn’t feel like such a loser.

What I’m trying to say here is, women are SO HARD on themselves!

Maybe men are too. Okay, I know they are. Sometimes. But I am not a man and most of my friends are not men so I am not as concerned about them and their well-being right this minute. I don’t hear how guilty men feel when they have to make a choice between showing up for one of their children at one event or another of their children at another event because both their children want them to show up at the very same time, but they can only be in one place at once. Did you follow that? I may have a future in writing story problems. I don’t hear how worried they are when their children are sick or sad or being treated poorly by someone at school. I don’t hear how conflicted they feel when a dear friend needs them desperately and their family needs them too. I don’t hear how sad it makes them to leave their children every morning and pick them up late at night. How they wished they could be there for every single big and little milestone their children reach. But they can’t because they have to work. And, I have never ever heard a man say he feels bad for doing something special for himself rather than spending quality time with his family.

To be clear, I am not saying, nor implying, that men don’t have the very same heartfelt concerns as women. I just don’t hear about it because, like I said, most of my close friends are other women and other moms and they are the people I hear from most often. Women are the people I most worry about.

I am putting out a desperate plea here to any woman (or man for that matter) who is reading this. PLEASE, pretty please with a cherry on the top, let yourself off the hook.

See, here’s the not so funny thing. If any one of my friends, or even a complete stranger, came to me and said, “Anna, I feel so bad for going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s last night to get dinner for my kids…”

I would NEVER say, “Wow, you’re a shitty mom. You’re so lazy. You totally should have cooked for your children!”

I would probably say, “Please. Your kids are fine. You’re fine. Let it go.” But do I ever say that to myself? Not so much. Imaginary Anna always cooks for her children. As long as I compare myself to her, I will keep feeling like a crappy, lazy mother. That is not funny. That is really sad.

I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. As long as we compare ourselves to others or continue to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, we will never measure up, and we will always feel bad about ourselves.

I am getting better at quieting the voice in my head – my inner critic – when she tells me that So and So is a way better mother than I am. Some of us are still working on that. Some of us aren’t even aware that she has no place in our heads. She is unwelcome. Kick her OUT. You work on that and I’ll work on kicking out my new inner critic who tells me all the crap that she tells me.

I know we all have moments where we feel guilty or ashamed or incapable of doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing. That is natural and normal because we are humans and humans have feelings. We need our feelings to help us move through life. Our feelings are like little street signs, letting us know what lies ahead or which way to turn. We have every right to feel guilty. But let’s not wallow in it. Let’s not live there. Let’s not let ourselves stay feeling guilty.

Let’s just notice our guilt, like a little sign saying Guilt Lies Ahead and move on, in a different direction, knowing that we are doing the very best that we can.

Then, let’s let ourselves off the hook because we are in fact doing our BEST. And guess what? Our best changes every day. Today my best is not as fantastic as it was yesterday. You know what Inner Critic, that’s OKAY. I’m OKAY. My kids are OKAY. I’m letting it go…!

I worry about each of the beautiful women I hear say, “I feel so bad about…” I worry that they will stay feeling bad and not see their very own radiance – the radiance that I see when their eyes light up when they see their kids after school each day. The radiance I see when I know they are doing the very best that they can in every possible way. I admire the way women try so hard. We do hard work. I trust it is worth it. I also trust that with as hard as it is, we don’t need to make it any harder. We can let ourselves off the hook. xoxo

Breathe

Breathe. This is what I keep telling myself. In spite of my best efforts not to do crazy this Christmas, the crazy is catching up to me. It actually might have overcome me. I might even be buried in it.

Breathe is what I say when I find a form that was supposed to be filled out and returned last week to school. Oops.

Breathe is what I say when a holidazed woman almost runs over me with her cart in Target.

Breathe is what I say when I almost run over someone else with my cart.

Breathe is what I say when the Alien Conquest Lego set I really wanted to buy for James is sold out. I might have said something else too…something a little less Zen. Thankfully there were other Alien Conquest Lego sets. And, I’m pretty sure he isn’t picky when it comes to aliens and conquests.

Breathe is what I say when two of my three children are sprawled out on the floor of Sears, at the head of a very long line of tired, not so happy looking customers (who could maybe use a little breathing themselves), screaming at me and refusing to stand up to exit the store. Breathe and Santa is watching…

Because every single second of my day seems to be accounted for lately, Breathe is what I say when someone asks me to do something I wasn’t planning to do. I wonder how I’ll fit it in.

Breathe is what I say when I look around a table where my dad should be sitting, but isn’t. I try to catch my breath as the reality of his absence soaks in. Again. I thought that the second Christmas season without my dad wouldn’t be so bad. But it is. I really miss him. The holidays seem even emptier this year. Maybe last year it still felt like he might come walking through the door? This year, there is no question that he is gone. I wonder if he would recognize that three year-old daughter of mine, who had just turned two the month before he died. Would he love her sass? Is he laughing his ass off up in heaven? What would he say when I told him that I was singing Christmas carols with my kids and James stopped us to run upstairs to get his guitar to accompany us? What would he think when I told him that Alexander said, “I think Nature should make an award for our neighborhood because it is just so pretty. This whole town is just so pretty!” last night as we drove home (from Sears!?!) My dad loved strong, spunky girls and women. He loved to share his passion for music and guitar-playing with James. He loved Nature and he loved those who also loved and respected it. He would be loving all of this. Breathe…

A few weeks ago, in the midst of an extremely stressful work week, I yelled to my husband, “Don’t forget to breathe!” as he walked out the door. He told me that was good advice. I think it is too. At the yoga center where I practice, the instructors say that breathing is the only function of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary. I am so thankful for that because sometimes I think I go days without breathing. That must be when the involuntary breathing kicks in. For me, these are quick, shallow breaths, pumping themselves in and out just to keep me alive.

The voluntary breaths are different. These are life-giving breaths. There is a difference, you know – between doing something to stay alive and doing something that makes you feel alive. These voluntary breaths nourish me. Try one. Mouth closed, inhale through your nose. Suck in as much air as you can, and then a little bit more. Now let it out. Slowly. Again, but with your eyes closed this time. And again. Do you feel more alive? Maybe a little tingly? If even for just a moment, these voluntary breaths bring us smack, dab into the present moment. These are the breaths I keep telling myself to take. Before my mind runs off into crazy, or mouth runs off into God only knows where. These breaths keep me right here, right now in the perfection of all these seemingly imperfect moments.

Deep breath. Ahh. For you, in the crazy of your days and even in the calm, I offer this great advice: don’t forget to breathe!

Lost and Found

When my dad passed away last year, I lost my mom too. I also lost my sister. My husband and my children lost me. Since then, we’ve all resurfaced for the most part. I had forgotten about these losses until today after a difficult conversation with my mom. When we were finished talking, I had a good cry. I thought a lot about what we had said and the way we had said it, and how I felt about all of it. The little girl Anna, who resides deep inside me, wanted so badly to crawl into her mother’s lap. She longed for the safety she found there after a disagreement. She wished she could be comforted by her mom’s hand stroking her little head as she sat there, releasing the hurt with every pass through her hair.

I, grown woman Anna, am slightly jealous of that little girl. It seems like life was so much easier when anything that ailed me could be cured in the arms of my mom or my dad. As I thought about what had transpired, I wondered why resolving conflict seemed so much more tenuous now, why it seemed so hard. And then I remembered that Wednesday is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 64. I can’t help but to think that no matter what we said or thought, in the depths of our hearts, we were feeling the weight of an upcoming birthday void of its birthday boy. First, I wanted my dad back. Then, I wanted my mom back.

I live within 30 minutes of my mom in one direction and my sister and her family in another. My dad, bless his heart, came to my house several times a week in the last year of his life. He helped me with my babies like only a Papaw could. I rewarded him with leftovers. When he died, I lost my number one go-to guy. In a pinch, I always knew I could call my dad and he would do whatever he could to help me get through the day. My husband, my mom, my dad, my sister, and her husband, each of them has talked me off the ledge. Each of them has rescued me from some degree of parenting disaster. They are my village. It took a long time for me to adjust to my dad’s absence. At some point my husband, who was practically a saint from the moment my dad died, had to switch his focus from grieving wife back to his work. My village had disbanded. I wasn’t always sure where to turn. Forget maternal disarray, I was a grieving mess. How could I call my sister to come and scoop me off the floor, when she had her own floor to tend to? It was hard.

Slowly but surely, my mom, my sister, and I came to life again. My husband and my sister’s husband were no longer on their own. My children looked up to see tears in my eyes less frequently. In times of deficient coping, thank God, I was blessed with fabulous in-laws and superstar babysitters who saved the day on numerous occasions. As my mom and my sister and I came to life, we returned to each other. Since then, I had forgotten about those early days after my dad’s death. Outside of simply being together, we didn’t have a lot of energy to do much else for one another. We were in survival mode. When I turned to my mom, her body sat before me, but her mind was often elsewhere. I haven’t mentioned my dad’s birthday to my mom. I’m sure the fact that April 20 is coming this week is already on her mind. I don’t know for sure that heavy hearts were involved in our conversation today, but rather than trying to analyze it, I am thanking the Universe for the gentle reminder that I am not the only hiker on the path.

Each and every human being on the planet is on a journey. Sometimes we travel together and sometimes we travel alone. We often travel together in silence. In the midst of giving voice to our stories, we can’t be sure who is really listening. We are bound to lose each other along the way. I know that even when I lose my mom, when our paths part or our attention gets diverted, she will eventually come back to me. I may not fit in her lap anymore, but I’ll always have a place in her heart. And her in mine.

Neverness

About two months after my dad passed away my mom, my sister, and I took a writing class called, Writing Stories of Loss: Healing Through Heart and Pen. The three of us enjoy writing and journaling so we really embraced the opportunity to explore our feelings through writing. We were also able to share what we wrote, which was difficult because my emotions were still fairly raw. Maybe even worse was listening as my mom and sister shared their stories. In fact, once we got going, I was afraid that we would alarm our classmates with our streams of tears. By the end of the day it seemed as if the four strangers we had met in the morning, five if you include the instructor, had become dear friends. If only for a few hours, we were blessed with a beautiful time of sharing and supporting one another.

Each of the writing assignments allowed us to consider our loss from a different perspective. After lunch we were asked to write about one of two topics: Neverness or A Transformative Moment. Neverness refers to the things we would never do or see or have as a result of our loss. Even now, thinking back to the moment when our instructor explained this assignment, my heart tightens. I wasn’t ready to focus on all the possibilities my dad took with him when he died. I wrote about a transformative moment -the moment I arrived at my parent’s house the night of my dad’s death. Sharing that story was cathartic to say the least. Since that day though, my mind has often wandered back to neverness. Can I even bear to think about it now? How about now? I think it’s time…

I will never again know the feeling of my dad’s beard scratching my face as he hugs me good-bye. I will never get to say good-bye. I will never get another hug from my dad. I will never reach for my dad’s freckled hand to give it a squeeze, noting how it has aged since my last touch, appreciating its strength, and remembering how it used to gently brush my hair and pull it back into a ponytail when I was a little girl. We had matching ponytails for a while and when he died, he again had a very long ponytail. When he started growing his hair out President Bush was in office (W). None of us were huge fans of his plan so he said he would cut his hair again when a Democrat took office. But he didn’t. He will never cut that ponytail.

I will never hear my dad say, “Anna Bandana!” or “Anna Bear!” when I call. He always acted so happy to hear from me, even if he had just left my house. He will never come to my house. He will never babysit my children in a pinch. He will never bounce any of my children on his knee, reciting “trot, trot to Boston, trot trot to Maine, trot trot to Boston and back home again!” He will never hold them close to read them a story. He will never sing them Near Ne Now. He will never hear my daughter, who was barely 2 years-old when he died, sing little songs to herself as she twirls around in circles, just like I did when I was little. He will never say, “Alexander T. Cornpone!” when he sees my son Alexander. My dad will never pull up in his pick-up truck to take my son James to his guitar lesson as he did every Thursday for two years before he died. He will never complain to James about the other drivers on the road all the way to and from the guitar lesson. They will never marvel as they count the numerous Land For Sale signs posted along the road by just one local realtor. They will never stop for candybars at the hardware store. They will never jam with James’s guitar teacher, Tim, or make the recording they had planned to make. My dad will never attend any of my children’s games or their school programs. He won’t see them graduate from high school or college. He won’t dance at their weddings. He will never take another vacation with us. My children will never make another memory with their Papaw. My daughter might not remember him at all.

I will never see my dad perform either alone or with his band. I’ll never hear him say, “Now it’s time to pause for a good cause” when it’s time for a bathroom break. He will never play Amazing Grace before Thanksgiving dinner. I will never stand there, worrying that the food is getting cold, trying to appreciate the beauty of the moment as all the people I love the most stand around one table together, listening to my dad sing one of the most moving songs on Earth. He will never eat the dark meat. He will never take leftovers home to enjoy later. He will never nod off on the sofa, then wake-up irritated, ready to go. He will never grow impatient with my mom as he waits for her to get out the door.

He will never bring tea to my mom in the morning or rub her feet at night. They will never watch another obscure movie together, then tell me about it afterward. Separately. He will never finish all the projects he started around the house or in his art class. We’ll never know what he planned to do with all the sheet metal he had gathered for his most recent sculpture. He will never tell me about his next project. He will never do another project. He will never clean out his shed or put his clothes away. He will never show up wearing a funny hat or a cool hat. He will never buy another t-shirt. He will never wear another t-shirt. He will never bring me a new book to read. He will never take one of my books home to read. He will never sit on the toilet reading The New Yorker. He will never sit on the toilet. He will never sit anywhere.

My dad will never exchange a knowing glance with my husband in the midst of the craziness that often swirls around my mom, my sister, and me. He will never tell me how proud he is of my husband or how proud he is of me. He will never look at me and say, “you’re so beautiful” as he did for as long as I can remember. He will never stare at my mom, when she isn’t looking, and tell me how beautiful she is or how much he loves her. He will never share another Jamesism, like he so loved to do. “Oh! I forgot to tell you. You’ll never guess what James said this time…” I’ll never hear him say “Far out.” I’ll never hear him laugh. I will never look over and see him wiping his eyes when he is moved to tears, which was often. He will never be there to rescue me when I need him. I will never again hear cheers or encouragement from my biggest fan. He will never defend me. I will never listen as he shares his wisdom or his unique outlook on life. He will never tell me about a story he just heard on NPR. I will never roll my eyes at one of his jokes. We will never talk politics, religion, or anything else that you aren’t supposed to talk about. We will never talk again in the way I’ve talked to him my whole life.

This feels like maybe it could go on forever. It’s breaking my heart! I will never see my dad in his body or feel his touch again. I don’t think it matters how old a person is when he dies, or how sick he was, or how whatever the case may be. For the record, my dad was young at 62 when he died and he was very healthy. But no matter what circumstances surround a loved one’s death, the absence of their physical presence creates a hole in our lives and in our hearts. I will never stop missing my dad’s presence. I will never stop wishing for just one more hug. That hole will never go away.

What I know now is that even in the absence of my dad’s body, he is with me. He is with my children. He is with my husband. He is with my mom. He is with my sister and with her family. He is with his friends. He is with all the guys from all of his bands, his buddies from work, and the people he knew from the art classes he was taking when he died. He is with his friend, the welding instructor, who was deeply saddened when he heard the news of my dad’s death. He is with Tim and James at each and every guitar lesson. He is with his lifelong friend, Ernest, who flew in from California to attend his funeral. My dad was there when some of the guys he has loved the most, guys from his band, played Amazing Grace at his funeral. And, he was probably wiping tears from his eyes, moved by their loving tribute to the man he was and the influence he had on their lives. What I know now is that my dad’s love continues to surround us. His Spirit lives on in and around all of the people he loved. Some of the things I thought I’d never share with my dad when he died, can still be shared. What I didn’t know then, on the night of his death or on the day of this class, is that even though he is gone, I will never truly lose my dad.