2018 by Cara Stolen

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I’ve never been much for New Years Eve. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I even stayed up until midnight to celebrate. But I LOVE New Years Day. I like to get up early and watch the sunrise, I love to set goals, and I am convinced that a new day planner has the ability to change your life.

On January 1, 2018, I woke up in our new house for the second time. Half the house still had subfloor exposed, and our kitchen was missing countertops and a sink (among other things). The night before, I celebrated the new year from my rocking chair. As fireworks sounded in the distance, I attempted to nurse Maggie before giving up entirely. That night I put all 90 mL of breast milk through her feeding tube at 12 am, 3 am, and 6 am, as she refused to nurse entirely. So as I made coffee that morning in our laundry room, I felt defeated, and disappointed, and mind-numbingly exhausted.

That day I didn’t set any goals. I didn’t reflect on the past year. I definitely didn’t look at our budget. I just tried to survive another day.

But later, at the end of January, I decided that February 1 would be my own personal New Years Day. And after some journaling, and lots of prayer, I felt God pulling me away from the elaborate goals and plans that I usually make for myself. Instead, I felt Him put a simple theme on my heart for the year: self discovery. After years of trying to better myself for others, I felt called to dig deeper into who He made me to be. So, in 2018 I set out to discover who I really was. These are a few of the things I found along the way:

  • After years of declaring myself “uncreative,” I discovered that I am, in fact, the opposite. This year I took several writing workshops, a photography class, started this (mostly neglected) blog, and had an essay published on Coffee+Crumbs.

  • I am a One on the Enneagram. I spent most of the year trying to discern my number, and thought for months that I was a Three. But after reading a few books and listening to too many podcasts to count, I finally figured out that I am in fact a Perfectionist. This has, without a doubt, been the most life changing revelation of all this year.

  • I love coffee, but caffeine is not my friend. I’ve been (mostly) caffeine-free for about 6 months and have never felt better. My skin is clearer, my sleep is more restful, my energy levels are more consistent, and my anxiety is reduced. Bonus? I can drink coffee all day long when its decaf!

  • I am a better mother when I take anti-anxiety medication. This year I spent about half the year on meds, and half the year off, and I can say with utmost clarity that I am a better version of myself while taking them.

  • I put a lot (too much) of my self-worth in my productivity and image. I focus an embarrassing amount of energy thinking about possessions, and appearances, and analyzing the appearance and productivity of others.

  • While I can create a killer spreadsheet budget, I am not all the great with money. I live in the present moment, and delaying gratification is difficult for me.

  • I am much more of an introvert than I previously thought, and I require a surprising amount of alone time to recharge.

  • It’s easier for me to be vulnerable with people I don’t know very well than those that know me best of all.

  • My mind is filled with non-stop chatter, that is (mostly) negative and self-focused. I am ruthlessly hard on myself, and it’s exhausting.

  • At my worst, I can be critical and judgmental of others. And after a year of self-reflection I have to say that this is, hands-down, my very worst quality.

So, there you have it: 365 days of reflection boiled down to 10 bullet points. And while 2018 turned out to be a pretty great year, I’m ready for the fresh start of 2019.

Happy New Year, friends.

Dear Maggie by Cara Stolen

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My Dearest Darling Maggie Girl,

Today is your first birthday! I can’t believe it’s been a year since you were born. This year has been one of the hardest and best years of my life, filled with more joy and heartache than I ever imagined possible. Together we navigated your difficult start in this world, learning and growing as the months marched on. At one, you are sassy and sweet, silly and determined, and your quick, easy grin is a daily reminder that life doesn’t need to be taken so seriously all the time.

You love being right in the center of the action, and will crawl and climb your way there whenever possible, often sitting on top of me when I read bedtime stories to Royce. But you are also independent, and will wander off to play by yourself sometimes. You hate to sit still, and already use your voice to communicate--yelling with annoyance or shrieking in joy at your brother’s antics.

You love to eat, and will wave both hands in the air to ask for a snack when I cook dinner. Avocados and Strawberries are your favorite, and you’ll smack your lips when you want more. But if I give you something you don’t like? You’ll throw it on the floor. You still nurse morning and night, and I treasure those quiet moments at the beginning and end of each day.

You took your first steps last week, while laughing at your brother and eating a graham cracker, which seems to fit your personality just right. It was bittersweet for me, watching you take those first toddling steps of independence. You walked right toward me, and I caught the first glimpse of you at 5, and 13, and 25. I can’t wait to see where those feet of yours take you in this big ‘ol world.

You ADORE your brother. While I know that your relationship will likely ebb and flow as you both grow up, I can’t help but hope it stays this way. The two of you love to play together, and hearing your joined giggles is the light of my life. He (of course) has taught you to make all sorts of funny noises, and our car rides are often punctuated by the two of you spitting or making ah-ah-ah noises with your hands across your mouths.

You like to play peek-a-boo, and giggle like crazy when we tickle you. You already have quite the sense of humor, and think its so hilarious to speed-crawl away from me during diaper changes, your little naked butt disappearing down the hallway in a flash. You say “mama” and “dada,” “hi!” and “boom!”

Bath time is your favorite, especially when you get to take a bath with your brother. You splash and giggle, and don’t seem to mind when Royce dumps water over your head or tries to “help” me wash your back. At bedtime, you snuggle chest to chest with me, tucking your head right under my chin, and it melts my heart every time.

Sweet girl, you bring so much joy to our family. I hope you always know how much we love you, and how much we delight in you. As you learn and grow, test boundaries (and my patience), and eventually take flight into the world, I hope you will always remember these few things:

Be kind. Always. The world is a better place when you are kind.

Laugh hard, and often. Laugh at yourself, laugh with others, laugh so hard it hurts, just so long as you keep laughing.

Be fearless. Try new things, even if you’re afraid. Fight for what you believe in and stand up for yourself and others.

Never settle. You deserve the very best this world has to offer you.

Be strong. Both physically and emotionally. Take care of your body, and your spirit. Feed both with goodness, and exercise both with dedication.

Be smart. Don’t follow the crowd, and don’t listen when others tell you it’s better to play dumb. Listen to your heart, and use your head.

Lastly, remember that you are unique, and beautiful, and enough. The God that made this exquisite world thought it would be better with you in it, and don’t you ever forget it. Be confident, and love yourself just exactly as you are.

Watching you grow is a gift I will never take for granted. Happy Birthday Maggie Mae.

Love,

Mommy

On Rainy Days by Cara Stolen

‘Mom! Mommy! Mama!’

He has been awake for an hour, talking and singing and ‘reading’ to himself. I take a deep breath and flip on the light. He is bouncing up and down, eager to start the day.

‘Mom!’ He points a chubby, accusatory finger at a book on the floor. ‘I don’t want that book, I want this book!’ With triumph, he holds up his well-loved copy of Cowboy Small.

I had hoped that the quiet time I spent snuggled up with hot coffee and a book this morning would prepare me for the physical and emotional demands of parenting a toddler all day. But I can already feel pin-pricks beneath the surface of my skin and know it wasn’t enough.

Mustering a smile, I roll my shoulders, trying to relax. ‘You want me to read it to you, Buddy? I can go get Sissy and we can all read it together in your bed?’

His face falls, and I silently ridicule myself for being selfish this morning instead of spending some one-on-one time with my son. ‘No. I want up.’

I cross to the window and pull back the curtains to see low clouds threatening rain. Before babies, I relished days like today. They felt cozy and full of promise, begging to be filled with a good book and hot tea. But today, those rain clouds mean a day stuck indoors. Inside, there is never enough of me to go around, and my senses become overwhelmed by the noise and touch and demands of my children.

***

‘Mom!’

I turn to face him and kneel down to meet his gaze. His face lights up again.

‘Mommyyy! I’m going to Miss Sara’s today?’

‘No, today you get to stay home with Mom and Sissy alllll day!’ I inflect enthusiasm I do not feel, and my stomach clenches with guilt. In irony that does not escape me, I spent my morning reading about forming secure attachment to your children, the first tenant of which is Proximity.

Tentatively now, he asks, ‘I get to go to work with Dada?’

‘No, Buddy, Daddy’s busy today.’

His whole body tenses, causing me to brace myself in anticipation.

‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! I DON’T WANT TO STAY HOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMEEEEE!’

Throwing himself on the floor, he is overcome with emotion. Tears stream down his chubby cheeks as he pounds his fists on the floor. I count to ten and resist the urge to react similarly with a fit of my own. I say a silent prayer for the day ahead, and mutter ‘I’m the parent, not the child. I’m the parent, not the child.’

***

‘Mom I want a muffin.’ His hand yanks at the hem of my shirt. ‘I want a muffin. Mom! I want a muffinnnnnnnnnn! MOMMY! I SAID I want a MUFFIN!’

I physically recoil from his touch. My chest tightens, and I force myself to take a deep inhale. My nerves feel frayed. Exposed. Raw. I am not supposed to have this reaction to my own son. His incessant chatter shouldn’t cause such a visceral response in my body. How can my own child trigger my anxiety? Shame courses through my veins.

***

A therapist once described my anxiety as ‘free floating,’ and I sobbed grateful tears that someone finally named the feeling I had experienced for my entire life. For me, anxiety is physical, and I feel it in every cell in my body. A tightness in my chest, an inability to expand my lungs, a claustrophobic tenseness in my muscles. I feel like a caged animal. A prisoner. Like I drank 15 cups of espresso before an MRI. And more often than not, I have no idea what is making me feel this way. No specific worry or concern, no fear of impending doom. Just the feeling, without the specificity.

I am most often triggered by sensory overload: loud noise, excessive touch, clutter; but also by the rapid fire of my own thoughts. Sitting in silence makes my skin crawl, but I find relief from reading in silence. The sensory overload of sitting in traffic can be mitigated by an audiobook or podcast. For me, occupying my brain and avoiding sensory overwhelm when possible are ‘best case scenario,’ and I have survived that way for years. But living that way is also incredibly selfish, a fact that motherhood has forced me to face head on.

***

The room fills with laughter, drawing my attention away from the mountain of laundry I am folding. We have retreated to the master bedroom as rain pelts the windows. He has pulled the comforter from our bed and giggles as his sister tries to use him as a climbing gym, tickling him in the process.

‘Mom! Come lay with us!’ His eyes twinkle as he meets my gaze with a grin, his words wrapped in a blanket of joy and delight.

I am startled by how light and innocent his voice sounds. Where I have so often seen a demanding, loud, and attention-seeking toddler, I see a sweet energetic boy with his daddy’s eyes who is growing up too fast. Am I missing it? Am I too preoccupied with my own survival to truly enjoy his childhood?

I hope that my children remember their childhood with fondness, my love for them shining golden light through those memories, the way the evening sun shines through a forest and creates pockets of twinkling magic. But I worry that they will instead remember me as being sober and withdrawn, busy battling my anxiety. I fear that this illness will prevent me from providing them with the mother I know they deserve.

‘Mommy! Come lay with us! Please!’

And so I do. I lie on the soft down and wrap my arms around my babies. I breathe in their sweet smell, and feel my lungs fully expand for the first time all day. I fly my white flag, and temporarily make peace with my demons. I snuggle them closer, and close my eyes to allow this momentary calm to wash over me. In moments like these, when I am so aware of all the ways I am not a perfect mom, I am still exactly who they need me to be.

 

 

 

Photo by Danielle Dolson on Unsplash

Why I Write by Cara Stolen

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Occasionally, words come easily; flowing through me and onto the page effortlessly. But more often, writing feels like wrestling. I’m not a wrestler, so one might argue that I have no business in a wrestling match. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the strategy. Despite that, I feel a consistent, gentle nudge to show up anyway. A quiet invitation to dig in to the turmoil of life to try to find hope and meaning.

Sometimes, the struggle produces something I am proud of. But often, it simply serves as practice, building my strength and stamina, conditioning me to be a strong and competent steward of words, and preparing me for the rare moments where the words seem to write themselves.

I had that experience recently. I, an inexperienced and untrained ‘writer,’ sat down and wrote 1631 beautiful, difficult words, that filled me with a deep sense of clarity, peace, pride, and accomplishment. It’s the peace and clarity that keep me coming back for more, compelling me to keep fighting for words even when I lose more than I win. But the accomplishment component appeals to the achiever in me, and I walk a thin line between writing for the right reasons and writing for the wrong reasons.

For me, writing is both deeply personal and connective. I feel called to use my words to help others feel seen, heard, and understood. But I struggle with the difference between ‘sharing’ and ‘connecting.’ When I shared my essay, it fell flat. And I am ashamed to admit that a lack of ‘likes’ affected how I felt about words that I was previously so proud of. Words that provided me with a deeper understanding of myself suddenly seemed unimportant. But this is because sharing appeals to my ego, while connecting nourishes my soul.

Maybe, with dedication and practice, this line will become clearer and better defined. Or maybe it won’t. Only time, and many, many more words will tell. My hope is that taking this hard, honest look into the face of my ego helps me to always remember the desire for peace and clarity that kept calling me back to my desk. Mostly, I hope that it helps me to become a better steward of words. Both the hard fought and the given.