Daughter: Nurture Yourself

I was feeling sorry for myself on Mother’s Day since my mom told me told me to “go find another mother” just the day before.

“I’m done!” she said on voicemail. “I’ll find another daughter, and you can find another mother!”

As I listened on speaker, my jaw dropped. My daughters, who were standing next to me in the kitchen, were mortified. “Did she just disown you?” said the oldest.

I have no idea, I said.

“So if you’re disowned”, continued the youngest, “you’re kinda like an orphan, then, since Grandpa left. And do we have a Grandma, then, or not?”

Some of us didn’t have moms–or the kind of moms who earn praise on social media on Mother’s Day. My mom has always been part of my life, but so, too, has her mental illness. I am not and will never be used to being the recipient of her where-the-hell-did-that-come-from verbal abuses and wildly varying moods.

I can’t claim to be “unmothered,” but I feel I can rightfully claim to be unnurtured.

My mother operates in a mindset of specialness (my needs are bigger and more important than yours) and scarcity (you better meet my needs before anyone else’s– or there won’t be anything left for me).

Unfortunately, it’s never too late to be a mother who hurts her child. I found I was yelling at her in my night dreams, “LEAVE ME ALONE!”, and awake, my mind was buzzing with anger.

Eventually, she called again with an apology, laced with implications of my responsibility.

This is true for those of us unmothered or unnurtured: we daughters must nurture ourselves–and once we are mothers, we nurture our own children by instinct rather than by example.

By nature, I am deeply introverted. I have found I feel nurtured

*in silence

*in books

*in naps

*in podcasts

*in walks with my dog

*in yoga

*in the arms of my man

These are the activities, and non-activities, that soften my brain and strengthen my heart. To be sure, there are occasions when I’d like to turn to my mother for calm, for coaching, to feel unconditional love. We, the Unnurtured, must cultivate these within ourselves; from earliest childhood on, we must search for healthy ways to self-soothe–and to choose ever so wisely those with whom we are intimate.

Where I felt my mother failed me, I have worked ever harder to become the mother I needed. I aim to offer to my children unconditional love, space to be fully and completely themselves, and freedom that comes from my emotional stability.

When hearing of my Mother’s Day “disowning”, my son wisely said, “Isn’t parenting a  pay-it-forward kind of thing? Like she raised you, and now it’s your turn to raise us?”

Right on.

Now, rather than agonizing about how be a “good daughter,” I insist on asking first how to be a good mother.









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Middle School and the Job Market

My 12-year-old daughter is definitely going through a growth spurt. She is thriving on Krave chocolate cereal and Edy’s ice cream, bowl after bowl. She’s gotten longer, more self-assured, more stylish, and more sarcastic seemingly overnight. I catch glimpses of the young woman she is becoming in her pale skin, bright blue eyes, her posturing and clever comebacks.

What’s most remarkable is her growing insight into not only her “self,” but also the world around her.

She told me she realized she was good at making friends. She’s begun noticing when someone is new at school and needs directions, when someone’s sneezing and needs a tissue, and when someone needs a partner for an activity. She has found windows of opportunity to extend herself that others miss. It sounds to me like she’s on to something: being “liked” in school can start with an act of kindness.

She’s also asking questions about why we do the things we do, why her dad does things the way he does. This is her world, and if she asks “why?” about her family’s decisions, my hope is she will ask “why?” about the larger world as she matures.

At almost 45, I find myself trailing behind her.

My growth spurt has layers. I work through one dimension only to discover another. I have no control over the order and density of these dimensions. First divorce, re-stabilization, re-connecting with my voice and my joy via yoga, dating after 20+ years, finding love once I stopped searching, quitting a job I didn’t enjoy, digging deeper into my values and principals.

But still there’s more.

After spending 18 years primarily raising children, re-entering the job market feels as disconcerting as middle school.

I’m tired of taking personality inventories, searching job postings every morning, and sending out my resume and cover letter to no response. The only call backs I’ve gotten so far were to jobs I wasn’t actually interested in (retail–$10 an hour/40 hours a week–and waitressing. My interviewer had me waiting 40 minutes, so I just left). 

How many of me are out there–competent, intelligent, motivated, life and school-educated women who have been busy raising great human beings that can’t even score an interview?

The real problem right now is that I have moments of doubting my value. Of wondering how I got here, mid-life (probably), not totally certain what I should be doing. I ask myself if I’ll know the “right thing” if and when it comes along, and maybe there just isn’t a right thing. Maybe there’s just the job I’m offered, whatever that might be.

I remember looking at myself very closely in the mirror at my daughter’s age. Checking out the girl in the mirror, the pupils and irises, the pores of her skin, the freckles and blemishes. And haven’t I done the same now? I’ve come as close to my “self” as I could get and looked intently at all that is there. I see who I have been and who I am.

Now I’m looking for the windows of opportunity to extend myself, waiting for my turn to be on to something.

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On Becoming the Person I Loved

In 1991, When I was 18, I took my first creative writing class at UW-Milwaukee and fell pretty hard for my teacher.

Susan was alive.

I bet she taught that Intro class repeatedly. But you’d never have known; she brought what seemed like brand new energy and excitement into that room on the second floor of Curtin Hall. She must have been about my mother’s age then, in her 40’s, and she was married to another Creative Writing professor and had a few children. She wore floor-sweeping skirts and Doc Martens, bracelets on her wrists, and her blonde hair in a shoulder-length, blunt bob. She arrived in the morning with a leather backpack, in which she carried, among other reading and writing paraphernalia, her writing journal, hardcovered and worn. I wonder now if she carried it with her so we would be inspired? Or did she carry it in case she was?

She’d begin class by talking about guest lectures, poetry readings and the indie bookstores as though we all knew already about these things, as if we already had an in and understood the language and customs of the poetically inclined. I wrote down everything she said. I looked names up afterward, bought tickets to events I went to alone. I bought my own journal, which was hardcovered and Waterlilied by Monet. She directed me to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I felt, suddenly, understood, underlining every other line, responding with pen in the margins.

I read Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, James Wright and William Stafford. I heard Czeslaw Milosz and Jamaica Kincaid read. I spent my extra money buying books at Woodland Pattern bookstore on Locust Street in the Riverwest neighborhood. I was building a library and writing as though possessed.

This was before email. If I wanted to talk with Susan, I visited her during her office hours, sometimes waiting in the hallway as she spoke to other students. I brought to her my writing journal. I was writing through the pain of my childhood and my young adulthood and I needed a Witness. As I sat in the chair next to her while she read my work, I was anxious, anxious to be recognized, to be heard, to be affirmed. This is the desire of the young writer: to be enough to be validated by her hero.

Susan never addressed directly the content of my writing, instead attending to the technicalities and effects. The contents were for my on-campus therapist. (I thought I’d forgotten her name. But I just remembered: Joanne.) Even so, Susan’s comments and recommendations shored up my oh-so-tender sense of competence–and self– on the page. Every expression was a tentative step, a “This is my story. And I want to tell it. Are you there?”

And she was.

As time passed, I have often thought about Susan. She was the lovely and capable and magical mother I didn’t have. I saw in her a striking strength and self-possession. I felt in her the radiance of her passions. She was alluring in a way that was worlds beyond magazine models. My adoration of her is in me still.

I have become my version of you. Now I am about the age you were when you introduced me to Rilke. I don’t need to flex my muscles to know my strength, nor do I need to be shored up to self-possession. I’ve long forgotten any desire to be desirable, secure in my own magic.


In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.

Rainer Maria Rilke , Letter 3, LTAYP

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Skipping School to Get an Education With A Camera

Ten days ago I called my 18-year-old son in sick to school so he could actually learn a thing or two.

On February 13, tens of thousands marched from Voces de la Frontera (Voices of the Border) on 5th and Mineral in Milwaukee to the Courthouse on “A Day Without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees.” Voces’ Executive Director, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, is my friend, fellow Ashtangi, and one of my heroes. In just 10 days, she helped organize an astonishing event to rise up against President Trump’s immigration policies and take a stand for society’s most vulnerable and valuable.

I’ve never marched for a cause before.

My son and I didn’t know what to expect. He came wearing Vans on his feet and his Nikon Coolpix p900 around his neck.

The wisdom of Susan Sontag’s 1977 text, On Photography, has helped me understand and appreciate the education my son received via the lens of his camera as we marched across the 6th Street Bridge.

Photography, Sontag says, is not really an “art” for most but a “social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.”

The social rite role of photography is unconsciously ceremonial. When we are part of an event we want to remember or chronicle, today, more than ever, we take and share photos. The photos my son took at the march were a way of saying, “Something interesting happened, and I was there.” I watched him watching the gathering crowd, deciding what moments and sites were worthy of capturing. An elderly man with the US flag draped over his shoulders. A baby girl in her daddy’s arms. A man dressed as a clown. A young man with a posterboard reading, “Sheriff Clark, I want a dream.” My son was looking for stories of an individual among the bigger Story of the whole. A week later, on his 18th birthday, my son took out his laptop, and showed family and friends his photos from “A Day Without Immigrants.” The march photos then became part of another social rite–celebration of birth–ceremony inside ceremony.

Photography serves as a defense against anxiety; having camera in hand gave my shy son a way to participate in the march by becoming unofficial observer/recorder. Especially since the crowd was mostly Hispanic, and we were, as we almost never are, the minority, he could achieve a sense of belonging and purpose through the camera lens. The lens, then, directly connected him to each person he acknowledged through the camera, not as voyeur or outsider, but as a fellow member of the cause.

Tools of power: photographs, according to Sontag, have a way of “encouraging whatever is going on to keep happening.” If this is true, and I believe it is, my son’s camera, small scale though it may be, became influential. He took out his laptop, showed his sisters his work. They’re young but absorbing his interests and overhearing his convictions. He showed some family friends, who asked to be notified of future similar events. Photographs cast a visual vote and can propel others to action.

Though Susan Sontag rightfully notes most don’t make photography into art, some do. I find photography the most compelling of the visual arts. My son has an artist’s eye, and he found, as I bet all photographers do, that every few hundred photos, something extraordinary happens–something he couldn’t have been looking for, a beautiful accident, that tells the individual story within the Story better than textbooks ever could.




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A Permission Slip for My Son on his 18th Birthday

To Whom it May Concern:

I hereby give permission for my son to do the following:

  1. Disappoint me
  2. Make as many mistakes as necessary
  3. Change his mind
  4. Adopt a point-of-view different than mine, in any area
  5. Stop worrying about me and his other family members
  6. Refuse/neglect to seek my advice or guidance
  7. Keep whatever he needs to private
  8. Express any emotion
  9. Choose whom he loves, where he works, where/how he lives, and how he spends his free time
  10. Decide when and how he visits home
  11. Develop his own voice and personal style
  12. Express himself creatively and otherwise in whatever way he wants
  13. Find his own spiritual path
  14. Work according to his own timelines
  15. Make decisions based on his own set of principles and values
  16. Not answer a phone call or text from me
  17. Question everything, especially authority
  18. Prioritize himself

This permission is given freely and will be given constantly without application of guilt. This permission slip is dated today, February 21, 2017, and is valid now and until his last day, and is given with infinite gratitude of his first moments of his first day, when he was slippery in my arms, as I cried, “He is so beautiful!”

His Mom



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Harper Lee and Standardized Tests

My daughter, who is a high school freshman, is reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Well, she’s supposed to be reading it. She told me when she was attempting to read the book, she was constantly drifting off, reading the same sections again and again, and nothing was penetrating. She concluded something might be really wrong with her, maybe a disability.

Disability, my ass.

She’s just not a reader. Never has been. I checked out the film To Kill a Mockingbird from the library, and my son and I talked her through the movie, stopping along the way to point out characters, plot, and theme.

It is preposterous that my daughter should think something is wrong with her because she dislikes and struggles with reading–the same way it would be preposterous for my son to think he has a huge advantage in life because he reads constantly.

I remember learning about Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences in college, and as soon as I felt my kids could understand, shared it with them. Gardner proposed that there are 8 intelligence modalities:

*Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
*Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
*Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
*Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
*Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
*Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
*Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
*Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)

My kids enjoyed hearing my opinion on what intelligence was theirs, and now they are old enough to be able to identify it for/in themselves. My older daughter is clearly not linguistic (but my son and I are); she is bodily-kinesthetic and logical-mathematical. Silly then to think she could concentrate on and comprehend the meaning of Harper Lee by only being handed the book! On the other hand, in 9th grade, I would have zipped through the book and underlined important information, written a super paper without help–and suffered in gym class and daydreamed in math.

We parents can’t have our kids thinking they are stupid if they can’t stand Harper Lee–any more than we should let our kids go on feeling like failures for sucking at volleyball. This is a conversation I plan on continuing with each of my kids indefinitely. Unfortunately, my daughter can’t take a pass on English class (Sorry, but I’m not a word person. Can I double up on gym?).  She’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that she has to spend copious amounts of time in school doing things in which she’s not exactly a natural. To be fair, she has other venues in which she can and does excel, almost all ball-related.

This “Harper Lee incident” only deepens my belief that the educational system is antiquated and many of its goals irrelevant. Give my athlete a book and tell her to read 11 chapters. Useless! To tell the full truth, I think most homework is senseless busywork, and standardized tests are garbage. I was alarmed when, years ago, my kids got their test results in the mail and fretted over them. Now I chuck out the test results in unopened envelopes.

Postscript: Last night, after I’d written this, my above-mentioned daughter asked to read all the blog posts that mentioned her. She read a few aloud, which she claimed was giving her a headache. When she read this one, my son, who was listening, said, “I vividly remember when we first talked about multiple intelligences!”  My daughter asked what “antiquated” means. 



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What’s Your Problem?

The other day I listened to Jonathan Fields’ interview with Mark Manson (author of The Fine Art of not Giving a Fuck) on Jonathan’s (extraordinary! inspiring!) podcast Good Life Project. The title of the episode is “Mark Manson: On Pain, Possibility, and Profanity”–soooo worth your time. Jonathan always ends the episodes by asking his guests what living a good life means to them. Mark’s answer was hardly surprising if you’ve read his articles. He said, “Living a good life means you have good problems–problems that invigorate you, excite you, and bring meaning into your life.”

In his article, “The Most Important Question of Your Life,” Mark says that rather than asking ourselves what we want out of life, we really ought to be asking what pain we want in our lives, what we are willing to suffer for. So it seems to me he is proposing that if we want a good life, we’d better get serious about what we are to roll up our sleeves and get to work for–and be well aware and accepting–even welcoming– of the certain accompanying pain.

I thought about this chosen pain stuff, the “good” problems” stuff, and I’ve made my choices. I think we’d all do well to sit down and deliberately choose our problems and do our best to resolve problems that drain, depress, paralyze or poison us. Easy to say, not easy to do. I’m thankful for every hour I spent with a good therapist or wise friend. There’s no choosing “good” problems when bad problems are having their way with you.

For the record, here are my chosen problems:

  1. Body/mind/spirit health. Commitment to total health is hard ass work, and sometimes it hurts. My Ashtanga yoga practice has physical pain woven in its fabric–for good reason. My mind gets worked over in therapy sessions, in conversation with trusted friends, and in super-attentive self-observation. And I don’t know about you, but I find spiritual health is like anything else; it feels the pull of gravity, and it’s my job to build and keep momentum through yoga, listening and responding to a variety spiritual teachers, and my own personal studies. Work, work, work.
  2. Intimate relationships. I don’t need to explain this one. Whether with children or a partner, intimacy doesn’t come without its share of pain.
  3. Simplicity. I choose to live a “simpler” life. Less stuff. Less commitment to a job. I want to live in a way that is decidedly uncluttered, unrushed, highly flexible, and light. If I choose to “work” less, I’m going to have to be willing to live with far less and be willing to accept the fact that my financial future is not neat and tidy. Undoubtedly this choice, like any other, will have its sting.

These are good problems, problems that invigorate, excite and bring meaning (and focus) to my life. I wish my parents had chosen their problems more wisely. Instead, I watched them unwittingly select problems that, even today, they feel like have chosen them.

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