From dust bunnies to neuroplasticity and renewal

I walked in the room, sat on the freshly made bed, leaned back and heard an audible sigh of relief emerge from my mouth followed by “oh my god, this feels so nice!” As I looked out beyond the end of my bed the piles of laundry had disappeared, the chair only had a throw draped over the back, the dust bunnies had been sucked away and the floor gleamed from being freshly dry mopped. I realized in that moment that this was the exact feeling I get every time I arrive at a hotel, or spa, or retreat center. In the minute I put down the luggage and relax on the freshly made bed, taking a moment to let all tension melt away and anticipating the opportunity for renewal… I feel this very same way.

nothing. left.  to. do.

Immediately my mind dashed from experiencing the feeling of pleasure and relief to sorting it out intellectually. Priming, my thoughts landed on priming. Setting ones self up to have a particular kind of experience based on the antecedents of the experience. I understand this conceptually and when I find myself in the throws of the experience I am always caught off guard. It seems like no big deal really for people who consistently prepare themselves in a ritualized way to come to the ease of an experience. But for my entire life that has escaped me. I find this particularly ironic due to the fact that I have for years worked as an organizer and coach teaching people about creating home and work environments that support their unique lifestyles and needs. And yet when it comes to my own life I am like the cobblers daughter…..  Setting up ones self for ease in life is really in my mind all about planning, ritual  and mindfulness. Three of the more challenging endeavors in my own experience.

Someone once told me that when you have kids you either get hyper organized or you fall apart… I don’t have to tell you which way I went. I expected however the opposite, I had dreams of being the perfect mom with tidy neat children, clean starched clothes, cutely cut hair and never messy when eating. I thought of perfectly mannered quiet and polite children who were socially and emotionally intelligent, never had a tantrum in the grocery store and we would all just float through family-hood beautifully. But it became very clear very early on that having children was everything I expected and nothing I expected all at the same time. What made it even harder was the distance between any family of any kind…. mothers, brothers, aunts, cousins… half the country away. Our little family was an island, with no actual support, no built in baby sitters, no sunday mornings at grandmas for brunch, no family gatherings where we could let down for a few hours knowing that our kids were loved and safe no matter what they pulled over or messed up, or broke, or puked on. We were on our own… and I was responsible for the survival of my kids 24/7…no real breaks, no vacations, no date nights or deliberate self care for years.

I sometimes hear parents with older kids bemoan the intensity of first time parents or parents with really young kids, they laugh at the crazy rigamarole they put themselves through for nap time and bed time and eating on schedule. I hear them say “Oh my god she just needs to lighten up”, or rolling their eyes they say “she’s a little nuts with the schedule” or best of all ” Oh my god she’s a stay at home  mom… whats she so uptight about, she’s just needs to relax!” And to this I empathetically say “Well first there is a protective neurological wiring that is going on in the biochemical structure of that womans’ brain that is driven by the requirement of making sure her children survive and thrive. Second, she is desperately trying to manage and find meaning in the nonsense of experience thrown at her as a new mother. Third she is trying in no small way to find and plan for some microscopic moments in her day where she can have the feeling of sitting on a freshly made bed in relief, hopeful that all the mothering tension will slip away.” But the problem for many of these mothers, especially the stay at home parents who are geographically disconnected for any family of origin,  is that those moments never really come.

The study of neuroplasticity, that is how the brain changes, wires and rewires itself from cradle to grave is hugely applicable here in this discussion of parenting, geographic dislocation and survival. When stay at home parents are the sole providers of emotional and social intelligence for their children, when the economy of our time is one of scarcity in financial, relational, emotional, spiritual and intellectual realms our behavior wires our brains to those particular experiences.  I remember vividly a rare opportunity after my family had moved to a bigger house of having what then felt like the luxury to take a nap. My mother in law was in town visiting, she was happy to play with and occupy my 4 year old and 6 month old children.  I went up the stairs, closed the door climbed on to rumpled heap of a bed, closed my eyes and could not for the life of me come down from the edge of being on call for my children. I had not spent the last 4 years training my brain with behavior that would indicate that  a nap during the time my children needed to be attended to was even remotely safe. And in that moment I had to grapple with all kinds of voices everything from “oh my god you just need to lighten up” to its “ok everything is just fine… the kids are fine” to  “you can’t take a nap… what about the laundry, what about the dishes, and the toys and snack and dinner and getting more diapers and and and…. ” I had to reassure and let myself off the hook. I had talk myself into letting it be ok to take a nap.  I was exhausted, anxious, responsible, loving and neurotic.  Having help in that moment didn’t feel like relief if felt like neglect. I had a brain wired for mothering alone.

Recovery time proves to be hugely important in wellbeing and horribly under valued in our culture, particularly mothering culture. The time taken by an individual to engage in renewing activities, like reading a book, taking a nap, looking at photographs of fun times, meditation, an awesome cup of tea with a warm scone, anything that brings a sense of refreshment to ones day, hour or moment are actually an acts of practicing mental health.  Recovery time in retrospect is really what I  neglected by lack of prioritizing planning, ritual and mindfulness  in my own self care.  And in reality its hard to have time to consider that when you are in the throws of managing a tiny little island family. The age old advice, “sleep when your children sleep”, “the children are more important than the dishes”, ” take care of yourself first”, “when mommy is happy everyone is happy” all seem a bit trite when the survival of ones kids, the expectations of well fed, well mannered, well attended to, well educated, well loved, well cared for ,well well well well….. does not include any recovery time for well being of the primary care providing parent.

My kids are older now, they are more self sufficient, I actually have some down time, I take naps, and read books of my own choosing. I am beginning to rediscover and prioritize the practices of self care and planning, ritual and mindfulness.  Being aware of my own personal needs with enough time to plan for the ease of an experience is still a challenge. And while I know the theory on an intellectual level through the study of systems thinking  and organizational, environmental and positive psychology applying those principles of priming to my own life still regularly escapes my capacity.  I prove to myself on a daily basis that we teach what we need to learn, because apparently I am an excellent coach, teacher and organizer.. I have the credentials and testimonials to prove it… and yet I am my own most difficult client.  The amazing thing is change is possible, neurological rewiring happens everyday and planning, ritual and mindfulness make recovery time easier. Sitting on my own freshly made bed, feeling the opportunities for renewal without being in a hotel, a spas or retreat center…. that’s progress.

Floating through family-hood beautifully…. well thats still a bit tricky but I’m working on it!

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