Why Are Middle School Moms So Unhappy? And Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

A recent study on the happiness and well-being of moms showed a U-shaped curve across a child’s development, with mothers of infants and adult children being the happiest.

The low point? Middle school.

Why aren’t we talking about this?

Mothers of young children can feel understandably overwhelmed at the sudden and total transformation of their lives. We admit this, and happily talk it to death in blogs, parenting groups and on social media. What we don’t talk about is the way much the same thing happens again, when we reach the middle school years.

If you do any kind of reading, web-surfing or talking to other parents prior to having a child, you’re pretty clear on some of the reasons new motherhood is hard:

Uncertainty. We’re awash in “am I doing it right?” in the face of this new role and this new tiny person, and everyone we meet is ready with opinions, criticism and judgment.

Our bodies. The physical elements of childbirth and recovery, the rush of hormones post-delivery, breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, and a body that looks very different than it did nine months ago.

Loss. No matter how wonderful the reason, every transition brings with it a sense of loss for what we’re leaving behind – this is why weddings are so emotional. In the case of new parenthood, of course, the change touches every corner of our lives and all our relationships. It’s natural to grieve what your life looked like before, even as we welcome the change.

When I was pregnant, suspecting these challenges were coming helped me to be prepared. I soaked up support and encouragement wherever it was offered and before long settled into my new role with some growing pains, and a lot of gratitude and joy. The early years were intense, but by the time kindergarten happened, things were looking up.

The ‘latency’ period of childhood (from six or so until the onset of puberty) was, for me, one of relative calm. It was like the second trimester of pregnancy, where there were certainly changes going on, but everything was mainly cute, fun, and stable. Her increasing independence meant that parenting wasn’t quite so intense, but Mama and Daddy were still her sun and moon.

And then puberty happened. And those old challenges I thought were behind me, reared up in different form.

Uncertainty. I still wonder if I’m doing it right. There’s precious little encouragement for a mom in our current culture, and I’m almost used to that, but in adolescence, the stakes are so much higher. Their brains aren’t fully developed but they have the autonomy and ability to do things that will impact the rest of their lives. I have the sense of time growing short; we have about four more years to help her become a functioning adult, to make ourselves obsolete – a fact that makes me gasp for air if I think about it too much. I no longer worry about what other people think of my parenting; now I worry about what SHE will think of my parenting. I wonder how my decisions, the life and the home we made for her, will stand up to the passage of time. Whether it will always be clear how much we loved her; what damage is done by the times we missed the mark.

Our bodies. Perimenopause – that long on-ramp between our most fertile years and menopause – is like both adolescence and the postpartum period, where it feels like my body is just doing its own thing, whether I like it or not. Physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, and a libido that’s all over the map combine to make daily life in my body more challenging than it used to be. My body also doesn’t look like it used to, as years and gravity take their toll.

Loss. This is closely connected to the changes in my body. I’ve never been much of a flirt, don’t often dress provocatively in public or use my sexuality as a tool (though I have zero problem with women who do any of those things). Because I wasn’t overtly sexy as a matter of course, I thought I had nothing to lose with the coming of middle age – that I would continue to occupy the same smart, edgy and funny public space I always have. Instead, I’m feeling a terrible, creeping invisibility as I age out of my sexual prime. I’m choosing to fight it, but it still registers as a loss – and a hard one.

Loss also creeps in through my role as a mother. Parenting a blossoming and independent young woman is a daily joy, but I still mark the loss of those years when we were her sun and moon. While I knew they wouldn’t last, their ending still comes with a pang.

The antidote to these challenges as a new mom was knowing they were coming, and knowing I was not alone. We can be this same antidote for other women if we start talking about it, laughing about it, sharing our wisdom.

The joy and gratitude are still here, too. In the same way the uncertainty is compounded by the high stakes of adolescence, so are the joys. Watching her take her first steps pales in comparison to watching her discover who she is.

 

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On Not Going Quietly

“Tell me a fun fact about your mom.”

Adrienne’s friend Anna asks her this as I’m driving them to practice – not out of interest, I know, but as part of an online game. Still, I listen. What’s my fun fact – my work? Baking kick ass cupcakes? Swearing too much? That I totally fell for the ‘frozen shark’ internet hoax?

Adri: Uhhhhmmmm….I think her favorite color…is…blue.

Me: … … (keeps driving while the remains of my shriveled, desiccated heart blow out the window)

Anyone who has parented an adolescent (or even been in a room with one) knows it’s not an easy gig. The same eyes that once looked at you like you were the moon and stars now look at you like you’re obsolete. Adolescence is so all-consuming that even the most self-aware teens start to treat their parents with an utter lack of interest, as though you couldn’t possibly have any other dimensions than the one that drives them to games and cooks their dinner.

This is not easy on anyone’s self-regard. It’s especially painful for many women because it happens at roughly the same time we start aging into literal and figurative invisibility in the public eye. Aging out of, to credit the legendary Amy Schumer, our fuckability – the point being that once women can no longer be seen as sexual objects, we can no longer be seen at all. The wounds are slight, but they are many. The deli server ‘didn’t see me’ standing right in front of her while she waits on people behind me in line, one after the other until I say something. College-boy bartenders start calling me “hon” and “sweetie” like they’re doing me some kind of favor. Colleagues seem more free to talk over me in meetings than they did just a few years ago.

The weapons with which I fight the disappearance of my personhood continue to evolve, but for now these are my favorites:

At home, I am letting my family see more of me as a person. I am starting to talk about the things I do and think and see and read and feel, even when they have no direct bearing on our home life, like I have every right to do so. Because I do. This is surprisingly difficult. I found I had developed a pattern of mostly talking about things that have some bearing on our family or something I do for Adri, while they talk about their own interests and activities. It’s not a healthy dynamic for Adri to witness or be part of, and certainly not one I’d want for her if she has children. I don’t want HER to disappear when she hits middle age. So I’m talking more about nonessentials, revealing more things she might not know about me or my past, trying to be sure to do it for its own sake, and not because I seek her interest or approval. I balance that by just accepting her lack of interest when it arises – allowing it, allowing any feeling that results, and being mindful. She is not here to provide me with adoration or feels; in fact, I am here to be the rock she pushes off of as she enters life’s current.

Out socially, I intentionally ask other women about their work. Several years ago I noticed how often, when in groups, only the men talked about or were asked about their work – even in the presence of women who had jobs with equal or higher authority, interest, and importance. This isn’t recent, but given the encroaching invisibility, it seems more important now.

In my personal life, I try to…well, be a person. Learn new things, take time to myself, give time to activities and causes of my own, and cultivate my relationship with Anthony separate from our roles as parents. This has been the hardest part. School and work requirements and extracurriculars tend to encroach on any regular, scheduled ‘me time’ I might try to establish; and the presence of a teen in a small house means Anthony and I are almost never alone. (For anyone who might not know, that’s the one exception to a teen’s lack of interest in parents: if they try to have a private conversation.)

I have been at the point of exhaustion on this, of giving up on creating space for myself, many, many times. It would be so easy. Because it’s not terrible, soul-sucking things that are absorbing the time I might have for myself. It’s things I LOVE – being with my family, and being involved in their lives. But when I don’t have regular, consistent time away, I am not the parent or partner I want to be. When I ask myself the two questions I often ask (Is this the person you always wanted to be? Would you want this life for Adri when she’s grown?), the answer is more often ‘no’ if I haven’t taken care of myself.

So I keep trying.

I like to think my efforts now will pay dividends later. The more meaningful things I have in my life as Adri gets older, the less likely I am to be unbalanced by the absence I’ll feel when she is grown, which will make life easier on us both. And if some day she faces a similar challenge, I will want her to keep trying to be herself. Maybe having seen me keep at it will help her do the same. She has too much to give to the world to give up.

And so do I.

Birds, Bees and Blue Hair

We’ve been pretty open with our daughter about sex from the beginning, I thought. We taught Adrienne the anatomical names for all of her girl parts (and let her sing them in the grocery store). We provided answers on how babies are made as soon as she asked. When we saw she was shy about discussing these things with us (who really WANTS to talk about sex with their parents?), we bought her age appropriate books about how her body functions and about how sex works. With illustrations. We’ve talked about birth control. About STDs. About consent. About assault. About unplanned pregnancy.

We’ve tried to take any sense of shame out of sex, because that’s what causes the secrecy and the damage. We want her to know that her worth as a person and our love for her are in no way tied to her sexual decisions. And we want her to be able to come to us if there’s a problem, to understand that her sexual decisions are in her hands, not ours, and not a potential partner’s.

I actually thought, having done all this, (go ahead and laugh, veteran parents) that I was almost done. That she knows what she needs to know – and so very much more than I knew.

But we’ve never talked about pleasure. We’ve never talked about her having her own expectations for sex. And we’ve never talked about the sexual environment that she will have to come of age in. In this interview, author Peggy Orenstein talks about what it’s like for girls out there right now.

And it is fucking terrifying.

In her book, Girls & Sex, Orenstein explores the current sexual environment for adolescent girls. She discusses how culture is impacting the sexual expectations girls put on themselves, and that boys put on them: the pressure to look and act sexy at ever younger ages; oral sex as social currency; the way alcohol drives hook-up culture; and the notion of sex as the gateway to a relationship, instead of the other way around.

Did I mention this is terrifying? I really want to bury my head in the sand on this one. I want to…but I won’t. The book illuminates both the things I’ve been doing wrong, and what I think I’ve been doing right.

On the wrong end, I’ve been talking to her about relationships as though we’re still in the era I dated in. And the current environment makes that era seem quaint. The fact is, things are so different that I can’t give her much relationship guidance that will make sense. The thing I can help her develop, though, is a strong enough sense of self so she’s not doing anything – sexual or otherwise – because she’s pressured to. I can help her learn to listen to her intuition about when she’s being respected and when she’s being used. It doesn’t feel like enough; but it’s what we have.

And the stuff I’m doing right? First, being openly accepting of same-sex relationships. Orenstein notes that young same-sex couples have a different dynamic, and much to teach us about reciprocity and equality in sexual relationships. Also, encouraging Adrienne’s friend relationships, and her self-expression when it comes to her appearance. She’s friends with a group of girls who support one another, smart, kind girls who are into science and fandom and all sorts of good mischief, who have their sights set higher than our small town, and who don’t much care what the middle-school queen bees are doing. They seem to like being a little outside the norm with how they look – androgynous dress, hair in edgy colors and styles. And each time Adrienne has come to us asking about doing something new, our answer has been a carefully considered yes. I had thought this was because we want her to express herself (and because, you know, we’re awesome like that). And we do; but Orenstein’s work made me wonder if these things might have a value I hadn’t considered.

I’d thought about the down side – that any kind of non-typical appearance can be a magnet for judgment. But what if choosing to look a little ‘outside the box’ has a benefit? What if these girls, by seeing themselves as outside the mainstream, are insulating themselves against those mainstream pressures? Thin insulation, to be sure. But I hope that, layered on top of a strong sense of self, the examples of respectful relationships that are abundant among our close friends, and the knowledge that we can talk about sex like we can talk about anything else, she may avoid some of the more horrifying aspects of the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture. I dare to hope that she and her friends and the other young women in my life can develop their sexuality on their own terms, on their own timeline.

So, I am not almost done. And I won’t be, for years. Time to brush the sand out of my hair and initiate some more hard conversations.

No, people do not buy steak on food stamps

Where does the persistent myth come from that people live like kings on public assistance? Probably from people who have never been there.

Anthony and I both come from tough economic backgrounds. My family was on government assistance for awhile; his was not, but struggled all the same. Neither of us ever went hungry, but there were sometimes strings of days where oatmeal was dinner. And while we are thankful to be raising our own child in better financial circumstances, there are things we learned growing up this way that we don’t want to lose – and that we hope to pass on to Adrienne.

Similarly, while we are not religious, we still try to incorporate into our family life some of the traditions we were raised with. One of these is Lent – a season of penance and almsgiving that precedes Easter. One of our family’s Lenten practices has been to spend a week living on the food budget of a family of three who receives SNAP benefits (food stamps). It’s about half of what we spend on groceries in a typical week, and we donate the difference to a local food bank.

There are, of course, many flaws in such an experiment: we know that this is temporary; in the event of a true emergency we could access our usual resources; we have a full-service supermarket where we live, and a car to transport our purchases. But it is a humbling reminder, and it gives Adri a window into what life is often like for families with less – including the ones her parents were raised in. Here are some of the things we learned.

At the grocery store. Adri and I did the week’s shopping. She knew the budget and ran the calculator. Rather than planning a menu and shopping from a list like we usually do (what sounds good for dinner this week?), we shopped the sales and put meals together on the fly based on what was most cost effective, trying to keep health in mind where we could. It took nearly twice as long as usual, but we ended up with these simple meals for the week:

  • Tuna helper with peas; apples
  • Protein pasta with marinara; grapes
  • Homemade chicken and dumplings with veggies; homemade applesauce
  • Sloppy joes, celery and carrot sticks, grapes
  • Turkey chili and corn bread
  • Tilapia, rice, broccoli, bananas
  • Leftovers

I felt pretty proud that we put together such a decent menu – for a second. Then I realize that I can do this because Anthony and I come from mothers who were masters at stretching a food dollar, and they passed those skills to us – not just in economizing, but in cooking and keeping food. People who grew up homeless, with addicted parents, in a series of foster homes, didn’t have that kind of stability. Without those skills, where would that leave us? Loading the cart with frozen pizza.

It’s also made possible by our pre-existing prosperity – the grocery store, the car. The grocery store is two miles from home, one way. Divide roughly what the groceries weighed by what I can carry at a time, and I’d have to make that walk every single day – not something I can do while I work full time, as most people on food assistance do. Or, pay four dollars a day round trip transportation, which, even if I could afford it on this budget, doesn’t operate in the evening when I get home from work. Anthony and I also have a regular and dependable work schedules, which means we are home to cook dinner.

At home. Everything takes a lot more work, a lot more thought and planning. If we’re leaving the house we have to think about whether we’ll be hungry while we’re out (no stopping for an unplanned snack or meal out), and plan accordingly. I pre-cut, cooked and parceled up some of the fresh fruit, veggies and hard boiled eggs so we’d have go-to food in the absence of the string cheese, nuts, yogurt and crackers we are used to snacking on but couldn’t afford. But those containers and plastic bags I used to do that were not purchased on this budget. What if I couldn’t afford the containers?

It seems we can’t do anything without thinking about it. Adri drank one of the flavored waters we bought for her lunch, which meant one day during the week there was no drink in her lunch. Not a tragedy, but not something she would normally think twice about – which is the whole idea.

I’m aware that my efforts – cooking, packaging, planning – shield Adri from the full impact of what it’s like to live this way, but I’m not sure how to do it differently. And certainly, that’s what I would do if this was not temporary – just the way our parents did for us. This bit of real life falls on parents hard.

While the meals are as balanced as we could make them, they don’t contain the variety and flavors we’re used to; herbs and spices just don’t fit in the budget. It’s more carb-heavy than the way we usually eat, and I feel sluggish and blue. Food is utilitarian; the enjoyment we derive from planning, preparing and eating healthy, good-tasting meals is nowhere to be found.

The weekend – when we are all home eating all three meals – looms large, and the weekend meals are cobbled together from whatever’s left: Saturday’s breakfast sees one of us eating cereal, another the last bit of egg salad, the other one peanut butter on the last of the bread. No fruit or veggies for anyone, because those are gone.

After. We’re humbled. Grateful for what we have. We slip back into our usual buying and eating patterns thankfully, but with a tinge of emptiness, of sadness, because there are so many people for whom this is not a choice. We also ended the week wanting to hug our mothers, who deployed incredible skill and effort to make a way out of no way; who scrimped and canned and preserved, who saved coins in a jar to buy a kid a McDonald’s cheeseburger once every month or so.

I don’t want to lose the perspective our backgrounds have given us. It’s true we worked hard for what we have, but our place of birth, our talents, our hardworking families – these are all unearned gifts. We didn’t hit a home run; we were born on third base.

Slaying the Dragon of Shame

Adrienne had her friend Anna over this afternoon, and as Anna’s mom was picking her up, we were talking about last week’s talent show at the middle school. It was clear Anna’s mom had been there to see her perform.

I could feel that hot, prickly rush start to crawl up my neck.

Her mom had gone? Not only did I not go…I didn’t know it was a thing parents could attend.

Worst. Mother. EVER.

You know that feeling. That hot flood of emotion when you’re late to an important meeting. When there’s an empty package of Oreos in your hand you don’t remember eating. When you forgot about the Halloween party and your kid is the only one in class without a costume. It’s not guilt (I did something awful). It’s shame (I AM awful). It happens to perfectionists all the time – it’s the reason we’re perfectionists.

It’s different than embarrassment – it’s not that mortifying but hilarious story you tell on yourself later for laughs. We rarely talk about it. Or, at least, we rarely did before Brene Brown. Her book “I Thought it was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” has brought us a powerful dose of the only antidote to shame: talking about it.

Brown explains that shame can be hooked to traumatic events, to abuse, to an illness or injury that makes you feel like you’re the only one in the world to have this thing wrong with you. But it isn’t always; women experience shame around many ‘ordinary’ experiences like motherhood, work, sex, appearance, especially when the unrealistic expectations for perfection in one realm collide with the unrealistic expectations for perfection in another. But one of the things that helps us be resilient to shame and its destructive effects is the willingness and courage to break our silence, to speak out about the very things that have caused us shame. In illustrating this, she relates a little about the history of the word courage:

The root of the word courage is cor, heart, and in its original form meant, ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ These days, courage is most often associated with the kind of heroism that involves violence and blood – like St. George slaying the dragon with his sword.

But have you ever heard about St. Martha and her dragon? It’s a very different kind of courage.

Martha is the sister of Lazarus and of Mary Magdalene. We first encounter her in the Bible when Jesus comes to visit her home. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha bustles about, cleaning up, preparing food. Yep – everyone’s having a good time except Martha, who’s making dinner and doing the dishes. When she complains about this to Jesus, he reminds her, “Mary has chosen the better part.”

What!?

For most of my life, this story pissed me off every time I heard it. Typical, I’d think. Busting your ass making sure everyone’s fed and here’s someone not only not helping, but not even appreciating your effort, and giving you a hard time in the bargain. Sounds like the experience of Thanksgiving for about half the women I know.

As I’ve grown older though, I’ve started to see that story as a reminder to choose connection, choose presence, despite all there is to do. It’s not a zero-sum game; if Martha had sat down next to Mary, everyone would not have died of starvation, their skeletons still gathering dust in the same spot today. If they were hungry, they might have tipped the house boy to run to the market for takeout. They might have all gotten their bony asses up and headed to the kitchen and continued their conversation there. If Jesus could turn water into wine, imagine what he might have done with leftovers.

But that’s not all of Martha’s story – not by a long shot.

According to legend, some years later, Martha was summoned by villagers who were being terrorized by a fierce dragon. She must have had quite a reputation; I bet if there was a firebreathing dragon in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t be the first person my neighbors think to call. But the villagers’ trust was well placed. Martha slew that dragon – not with a sword, but with gentleness and compassion. She tamed and befriended the dragon, tying it to her sash and leading it away. A very different kind of courage – and the kind we might employ to tame our shame-dragons.

When it comes to my shame-dragon, a sword just doesn’t do me any good. I’m already seared by the flames of worthlessness, burned by feelings of inadequacy, the vultures circling as they wait to pick over what’s left of my dignity. How is a blade going to help? In order to tame the shame-dragon, I need the balm of Martha’s gentleness; the healing salve of self-compassion. Touched with a radical belief in my own okayness, with a fundamental unwillingness to add pain on top of pain, the shame dragon transforms. What was scaly and searing and ugly becomes humble, quirky, and even a little funny-looking.

So I missed the talent show. And it’s not the worst thing in the world.

The Hard Conversations: Teens and Trafficking

One of the hardest conversations I’ve had with my young teen so far is about human trafficking. It felt like I nearly eviscerated myself to come up with what to say, so I’m sharing it here in case you’d like to use it with the kids in your life, or in case you spot a big gaping hole that we should be filling.

This is what we told her:

There’s this terrible thing called human trafficking, that happens all over the world. Just lately it’s been in the news because it has happened to kids close to our community. It’s hard to talk about, but knowing about hard stuff like this gives us a better chance to protect ourselves. Have you heard of it? (Her answer was no.)

What it is, is slavery. People lure or recruit kids and teens in all kinds of different ways by earning their trust – maybe offering to start you off in a career in modeling, maybe give you a new iPhone, any of a million things. Recruiters get to know you over time, and then eventually, when someone goes with one, they’ll be trapped. Forced to be prostitutes or to work like slaves, beaten and mistreated, and never allowed to go back to their families – sometimes even taken from the country so they can never get home.

These recruiters are another reason not to put personal information online, and a good reason to be suspicious of people who want to give you things, or when someone approaches you and it doesn’t feel right. They hang out in places kids hang out – malls, parks, theaters. That’s why we don’t let you be unsupervised in those places.

We reviewed things she can do if she feels she’s in danger. Many things we’ve worked with her on for her entire life, but something we’re emphasizing now that she’s older is – do everything you can not to go to a second location once you feel like you’re in danger. Make. A. Scene. And also know that if you make the worst scene ever, scream, kick, bite, palm-heel strike someone to the face and it all turns out to be a terrible misunderstanding and the person in question is legit, you’ll never, ever be in trouble with us and we will figure it out together.

We also set up some some ‘safe words’ and phrases she can call or text us with if she needs help but, for whatever reason, can’t articulate it – not just in terms of trafficking, but just being anywhere or in any situation she doesn’t feel safe.

And that took ALL of our parental fortitude for the week, so I hope she doesn’t have any hard questions for me for a few days.

Confessions of a Reformed Valentine Hater

There’s plenty to hate about Valentine’s Day: the retail machine, where men have to feel worthless unless they purchase flowers/candy/jewelry, and women have to feel worthless unless they receive them. The way the ‘celebration’ focuses exclusively on couples. The fact that there have been red hearts in the stores since the day after Christmas.

I willingly hated it all. Valentine’s day and I had some rough years, when the circumstances of my life were just not conducive to romance – or at least, not the kind you see in the jewelry store ads. I felt left out. Pissed off. Bitter.

The last few years though, I’ve been giving more thought to my relationship with myself. As a perfectionist, my inner voice is a relentless asshat, an abusive spouse, a controlling parent. And it’s impossible to feel loved when you’re being yelled at all the time, no matter how many diamonds and roses come your way.

So I’ve been experimenting with the previously alien notion of loving myself. Not in the abstract, but actively treating myself lovingly. Pushing myself less. Talking to myself in my head the way I talk to my sweet daughter. Not all the time – the asshat is still there – but whenever I remember.

It is changing my heart.

Changing it from a fragile, brittle thing into something expansive and elastic; something that is not destroyed if other people make mistakes with it. And somewhere in there, I stopped hating Valentine’s day.

The fact is, with Christmas long past and spring still just a dream, this is a great time for a minor holiday. For a little treat, for extra snuggles. For getting yourself a new pair of PJs and curling up with a blanket, a good book, your pet, or someone you love (big or little) to watch a good movie. For a house to smell like fresh-baked cookies. For a mom or dad to go mildly insane and carve everything in their kid’s lunch bag into a heart. To give a treat and a Valentine to your elderly neighbor. To give your nearest and dearest a funny card card or a silly little gift.

Yep, ideally we should do this stuff all the time. But ideally my house would always be as clean as it is when I know company’s coming. Is it? Of course not. And it turns out I don’t mind having an external reason to do something a little extra special, for myself and for others.

And if you just can’t get over your hatred of Valentine’s day, February 15 is my second-favorite February holiday: discount chocolate day.

Do something nice for yourself. You deserve it.