“The best thing you’ve ever done for me, is to help me take my life less seriously. It’s only life after all.”
-The Indigo Girls
I often write about the beliefs and disciplines that help me relax and live bravely. Many of these are proactive strategies – things I do before I am upset to remind myself that I am loved and that the world and I are all right. These things are good, and they help me maintain a peaceful heart, to some extent. But the thing is that I live with three children, and I am convinced that they meet early in the morning to plan the most effective way to take me down each day. So, the fact is that my peace is not going to be consistently maintained, no matter how much reading, writing, praying, or yoga I do… because there are very strong willed forces working against me. These forces are led by a little girl who will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that her name rhymes with fish.
Allow me to offer a specific example. Here’s what our evening looked like last night, after Craig and I suggested that everyone had to eat their dinners even though dinner was, admittedly, gross. One nanosecond before this moment, we were discussing daddy’s day at work and our upcoming weekend plans, laughing, and generally feeling like a lovely, well adjusted family. Then – this.
Now, the problem is that I am not good in these situations. There are mothers – my friends Gena and Casey come to mind – who roll with these scenarios. When their kids tantrum, Gena and Casey’s facial expressions don’t change. Their eyes, weary smiles, and demeanors suggest: “Oh well…kids will be kids,” and then they calmly do whatever needs to be done to diffuse the situation. This is not my first instinct.
My first instinct is to freak out. My first instinct is to remember that yes, this chaos is proof that I have ruined my life and the lives of everyone in my home and that we are a disaster of a family and that no mother, in the entire history of mothers, has ever been forced to endure the drama, decibels and general suffering of this moment. My instinct is to tear my clothes and throw myself on the floor and bawl and cry out worthless declarations like “I can’t TAKE this anymore!” My first instinct is to allow my anxiety and angst to pour out like gasoline on a raging fire and indulge in a full-on mommy meltdown.
This, Craig suggests, is not helpful.
So, after a few years of parenting, it became clear that I needed a strategy to help me regain my peace after I had already lost it. Because I am going to lose it, frequently. It is what it is and I am who I am.
Enter Joan Didion.
Have you read Slouching Towards Bethlehem? Ms. Didion is a VERY serious noticer and writer. No fluff. Every word she chooses is necessary and precise. She leaves no room for argument or conjecture. As you read, you understand that Ms. Didion knows what she’s talking about and perhaps you should just hush yourself and read on. Also, she trusts her readers to recognize the important parts of her writing without even using italics. Or maybe it’s just that she doesn’t go off on tangents so she doesn’t feel the need to constantly use italics to signify that she is now coming back around to the point. Let that be a lesson to me.
In an essay called “Self-Respect,” Ms. Didion offers the only strategy that has ever consistently helped me regain my mommy peace once I’ve lost it:
“It was once suggested to me that as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable. It is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a food fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any sort of swoon, commiserate or carnal, in a cold shower.”
Yes, Ms. Didion, yes. It’s the little things. The little disciplines that help us get through the day and regain peace. It’s not necessarily a different career or parenting philosophy or neighborhood or husband that we need. Sometimes it’s a deep breath, a bath, a glass of water, or a paper bag.
I now store paper bag hats on all three floors in my house. And when everyone starts losing their minds, I put on my bag and breathe and hide. Tada! Instant quiet time, oxygen, and a reminder that things are not necessarily as dramatic and horrible as my kids or jumpy head might suggest.
Here are a couple more pictures taken in phase two of the family tantrum, when we had moved things over to the couch for a change of scenery.
I draw smiley faces on my bags because I know that a large portion of my kids’ mommy memories will include these bags, and I’d like them to be smiley memories. Also, I love how the smiley face makes me look content, even though inside I am scowling and hyperventilation and ruing the day I was born. I think the thumbs up gesture really completes the effect. One piece of advice: if you decide to employ this strategy in your home, don’t be tempted to cut out eye holes. I tried it once, and it ruins everything because, well, eye holes mean you can still see the carnage, and the carnage can see your maniacal eyes.
No eye holes.
Just to preempt the question that many of you plan to email me when you finish reading . . . No, I am not joking. I really do this . . . which might have been an excellent alternate name for this blog.
Anyway, bag or not, I’m just saying that it’s helpful to adopt “small disciplines” to remind oneself that life is much too important to be taken seriously.
Carry On, Warriors.
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
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