Just Smile

The power of a smile, it can create an unexpected connection, it can alter your day when you’re absorbed with your own distracting thoughts and it can surprise you with its sudden shine and gravitational pull.  I have always been a “smiley” person. I learned early in my life that a smile can change the course of a situation, it can put people at ease, and it can potentially get you what you want, or need, in many situations.

My Mom has always smiled a lot. Maybe that’s where I picked it up. I noticed she smiled in public when she was interacting with pretty much anyone. Typically, people treated my Mom with kindness and showed interest in her and what she had to say.557847_4741898744657_653824696_n - Copy It probably didn’t hurt that she was attractive but it was the smile that warmed people up to her and made her approachable and easy to talk to. I realized early that it was the easiest thing I could do to make a connection, so I followed in her footsteps, maybe a little too much. Sometimes I smile so much that people actually call me out on it. One morning I was riding up the elevator with the President of my company, also my friend, and he paused as we stepped out into the hall and asked, “do you always smile, are you always happy?” Without hesitation, I said, “most of the time, I guess I am.” When I walked away I couldn’t stop thinking about his observation. I have been leveraging “the smile” for so long it truly does come naturally. And I can pull a smile out of my ass, even on my worst day because when I smile, people smile back, and that typically turns my day around quickly. But always happy? That’s a different story and a bit more complicated.

Smiling as a kid was a way to put a person or a situation at ease and I’ve been focused on making people comfortable for most of my life. I grew up in an emotionally loving but volatile home. Both of my parents are/were “feelers”. They also had the ability to use logic and information, (specifically my Dad) but when push came to shove we were an emotionally driven family and emotions can rise and fall pretty quick as a result. I had to learn to navigate these situations and make choices. When you grow up around intelligent and emotional people it’s like a dance and I had to pay close attention to what music was playing that day. tammy &michelle CO_0017I found that with my parents a smile could get them back to a calm and loving place much faster so I used that along with my gift of words. Between the smile and the words, I could get away with practically anything. But as I grew into a teenager and young adult my tactics may have become manipulative and for certain, self-absorbed. I smiled a lot in later years because it was a distraction, a decoy, from what was really going on. Has anyone asked you while in full smile, “what’s wrong?” Nope, me either. So, this has been a sure fire way to keep those pesky investigative questions at bay and manage my inner battles alone, completely alone.

So, this leads to what’s behind the smile. And that very daunting question, “are you always happy?” Well, mostly I am happy but sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with the speed of life and my old tactics begin to fail me. I have always believed that being sad was something that I did alone, in my car, in my room, anywhere that was safe to cry and feel everything that may be going on inside.  Iphone Pictures 2017-May18 7884Being sad is not something I choose to carry around on the outside and definitely not in the presence of others. But there are days I’m really sad, and I assume that’s no different than anyone else walking around this world. When I’m feeling sad I guess I fake it until I believe what I’m faking. I consider this the art of reframing and I’m pretty masterful at it. I put energy out to others, typically starting with a smile, and they send their energy back to me. It’s quite magical how others can lift you up in those moments of “faking it”. Eventually, this leads to a better moment, interaction, and day.

Here’s the challenge with this strategy, I stopped telling the truth. I didn’t start lying, it’s not like that but I have not been truthful for a long time, almost longer than I can remember. If you pride yourself on showing up in a positive way and that eventually becomes your brand then the “undoing” is to begin to show yourself in the most vulnerable way. For me, this means unfolding and coming to terms with the imperfections of my life. It is the act of letting people in to help me navigate the unsettling challenges that we all ultimately face. This is a daunting and ever-present, challenge for me.

The people closest to me can see right through me, as they should. I need them to, and I’m grateful to have them in my life so that I can be challenged and pushed at the most difficult moments. Fortunately, I have a few of these people in my life but it’s Aubrey that’s been around the longest. My smile has never fooled Aub, who has been watching my tactics for a lifetime. Maybe it’s because she knows my history, or maybe it’s because she’s been reading me for almost 30 years and sees the young vulnerable Michelle all covered up in “experience”. 1044499_10210776713953193_5548242026145674262_nOr maybe it’s because she’s annoyingly intuitive and just an overall badass. Whatever it is, we all need these people in our lives, the ones that will call us out. The ones that see us through the smile and the nodding and the attempts to move past a topic. We were down at the beach several years ago, which is where she lives, and out on our customary “date night” to catch up. We were only sitting for 3 minutes with our husbands when she simply asked me, “how are you?” I guess I paused, I don’t really remember, but she immediately stood up, grabbed my arm and ushered me out. Just as we stepped out of the restaurant and stood in the parking lot, in the dark of night, I fell apart but was still saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” She wasn’t having it, she knew I wasn’t fine and she wasn’t willing to listen to the words. She was focused on what I was feeling and I was feeling raw, to say the least. The smile didn’t work and she broke me down. Thank God she did. I went back to therapy when I got home and started to dig a little deeper to figure out exactly what was going on. If it wasn’t for Aub that night I would have continued down the road of life potentially fooling everyone, including myself. I wasn’t being truthful and she could tell. It’s that simple. d55538

I needed Aubrey’s help at that moment and I need more help than I’m willing to accept pretty much every day. As I tried to explain in my past blog, Help, it’s difficult, and I’m trying to be intentional about getting the help I need. I have so many people in my life that have tried and keep trying to support and listen to the truth but most days it seems easier to keep all the difficult stuff to myself. It’s exhausting to open up and go down those complicated roads. So I’m trying to think of it in moments versus big proclamations. For me, this means saying something sooner, even about the little things. If I think Greg, or a friend or my Mom is implying something then I’m trying to ask more questions to disrupt the stories that I build up in my head. Or if something pisses me off I’m working on saying, “that kinda pisses me off.” We don’t have to take everything on by ourselves and I think if I start addressing the little moments maybe they won’t build up to be such big issues. I have a choice and I’m doing the best I can to open myself up to asking for what I need and to share how I’m really feeling in the right moments. Let’s be honest, sometimes, all you need to do is smile in passing and move on. It would be weird to unleash everything “real” to the unknowing or undeserving.

I don’t plan to stop smiling, it wouldn’t be me if I did but I am working on what’s behind the smile. Sometimes it’s a lot of things and many of those things are difficult and painful. I want to be truthful and I want to be more open to getting help and then sometimes…I just want to smile.

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The Wall

Women and men, we are more alike than we are different but our differences have impacted our lives both personally and professionally. When I began leading the diversity and inclusion efforts for my company I was very focused on gender. For starters, I’m a woman and like many women, I’ve been working in a male-dominated field for over 22 years. As a technical recruiter that was recruiting IT professionals, I was very familiar with being one of the only women “in the room”. As a leader in D&I many of my efforts focused on underrepresented populations in the workforce. Women made up almost half of our workforce but very few women were making it to executive levels in the company. As I started to explore why this was happening and how we start to correct it I started to learn more about the differences between women and men. The reality was, we are living in a modern society but we had not evolved based on old societal norms that are still dictating “our place”. Both women and men are suffering tremendously from these old ways of behaving but it’s taking us centuries to correct it.

Let me first call out that there are, clearly, some biological differences between women and men. The most obvious is that women can build a human, right inside of our bodies. Crazy stuff! Men, they cannot do this. This very obvious difference is the crux for many of the challenges that we face as we work towards equality for women in the workplace. http_prod.static9.net.au_mediaNetworkImages201806180934180616_coach_pregnancyBecause we spend 10 months carrying a child and have “tools” to provide for that child in the early stages of life, women are the default caregiver most of the time. There are only a few exceptions of abandonment or death or a very progressive man stepping in early on. Women are seen as the natural caregivers and men are expected to get back to work protecting and providing for their families.

There is also a difference in hormones for men and women. Men naturally have more testosterone than women, 7 to 8 times as much, and it’s this hormone that supports men in their ability to take risks and “protect” what is “theirs”. This hormone is also linked to having more confidence. There are a lot of studies on this, here’s just one article on How Testosterone In Men Can Help With Confidence. Men needed this confidence hundreds of years ago so they could make very quick decisions about life and death. niord_and_the_saber_tooth_by_aaronmiller-d86d9smAt any moment a saber tooth tiger could be threatening to eat their family and it was their job to fight this vicious predator off. What an amazing thing to provide men with this injection of invincibility to take on risk. It’s truly fascinating and I see it play out to this day, but we don’t need men to fight off vicious animals, at least not the likes of a saber tooth tiger. But they still hold the keys to confidence in many situations; whereas women were needed to “hold down the fort”. We were back in the hut nurturing our children and our communities. And we needed to have lots of children in order to work the land or hunt or protect. So we had a lot going on. We also would spend days making food and fetching water from water sources that could be miles away. It was a team effort and everyone had a part to play. MjgxMzcxNQBut over the years innovation and technology changed the game. We figured out how to build wells for water and then there’s that whole indoor plumbing thing. We also discovered electricity so we could make and heat food without a fire. Boy how times were changing. When I was a kid it was a big deal to have a microwave; just minutes for a full meal to go from packaged and frozen to hot and ready. Amazing stuff! But here in lies the problem. The world around us was changing so fast. We now had weapons that anyone could use like guns to protect ourselves and we eventually had conveniences that made working all day to support the community much more efficient. So why do we continue to normalize men protecting and providing and women supporting and nurturing for so long? Well, maybe because it worked and it’s really only been the last 100 or so years that technology has come so far so fast.  How could the evolutions of our bodies catch up? They haven’t so we have to talk about how to shift while we still have a lot of natural and societal norms playing against us.

In Dr. Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly she talks about how shame impacts men and women differently. The short summary of her research says that everyone has worthiness issues and worthiness is about shame. Men feel shame when they feel weak (can’t kill the saber-tooth tiger) and women feel shame when they aren’t doing everything perfectly (managing the community and nurturing everyone sufficiently). So who wants to feel shame? Not me and I imagine not you either so we desperately avoid shame at all costs. This means that men can never appear weak and women feel the need to “do it all” and to do it perfectly….yeah for us.

After decades of watching women and men in the workplace, I saw this playing out time and time again. Once I started to take note and talk openly about the different behaviors The Wall analogy struck me. It’s very personal to me as I’ve avoided many walls, run through a few and was pushed over some. I’ve been using this analogy for several years to describe how men and women approach challenge or risk and here’s how I describe it…

When we hire young men we ask them to run through walls. We point at the wall and say, “run through it”. And guess what, they typically do. Then we point at another wall and they do it again. They do this over and over again because they can’t imagine what would happen if they didn’t just plow through that wall. Picture1Now, let’s look at how women approach this wall. We point at the wall and say, “run through it”. And guess what, they typically don’t. You see, us women have a few questions. What’s on the other side of the wall? Is it worth running through? Will it hurt? What’s it made of? Is there another way to get over the wall? A window, a door? Can I use a tool? What do I have to leave behind if I run through it? Why am I running through this wall again? And if you’re in an industry like I am the men that are in leadership positions and making decisions about who gets the next opportunity can be like, “seriously, if you can’t just run through the wall I’m not sure I know how to help you. I can’t want this more for you than you want this for yourself!” Sound familiar? So it took me a while to connect the dots but it’s so clear to me now. Men don’t feel they have a choice. It starts when they are young and they hear things like, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Or even better, “don’t be a pussy.” If you want to watch a fascinating documentary on the impact of societal expectations that we put on our boys check out The Mask We Live on Netflix, it explores masculinity in today’s world. I have two little boys and I’m determined to find some balance for them so they can be themselves and maybe ask a few more questions before running through certain walls without feeling shame.

As for women, much of my work has focused on empowering them and building confidence so they can feel more prepared to run through walls when they are presented to them. We’ve also focused on advocacy because I’m sure, like many other executive women, I did not always run through the wall. Other people pushed or carried me over the wall and they believed enough in me to help me get to the other side. 41oZH6px1JL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_There are countless books for women focused on helping them be more prepared for The Wall but some of the best clarity came to me through an organization called Linkage. Susan Brady, Senior VP at Linkage, has done a great deal of work helping women to overcome the hurdles that they typically face in the workplace. Check out this video on the 7 Leadership Hurdles Women Face in the Workplace. If you would like to learn more about the hurdles Susan has a book coming out in November called Mastering Your Inner Critic and the Other 7 Hurdles to Advancement. I was honored to contribute to Susan’s book with some of my own hurdles and there have been many. I believe this work will be impactful for women and help us become more aware of what, we ourselves, could be doing to get in our own way. Do not hear me wrong here. There are a lot of societal implications impacting women in the workplace but the fastest way to see improvement in your own life is to get clear on you first.

Women will need to stay intentional in their efforts to face The Walls. This will continue to be a challenge for many of us and there will be times we do not run through them and it will be the right thing for us at the time. There will also be times that Men will run through too many Walls and this will create long-lasting damage. Running through The Wall can be devastating to middle-aged men as we see heart disease, addiction and the highest suicide rate across the US for men. Women continue to struggle to rise in leadership at the highest levels with still more CEOs named John or David than women. We may all need to evaluate the impact of The Wall for both men and women. And I’m sure some of you reading this feel like you may be on the other side of this stereotype and that’s cool but it’s an entirely different discussion. What happens to men that won’t run through The Wall and what happens to women that run through without question? It’s not easy for either one of them. I have been criticized for running through The Wall. I was seen as too focused on my career and in it for myself. It was uncomfortable for my male counterparts to witness my ambition, it wasn’t very ladylike. Ugh! But the more clear I’ve become on my purpose the easier this has been to overcome.

So I say we focus on what we can control and that is to get more grounded in ourselves through focusing on our strengths, prioritize more effectively, begin to gain clarity on what we enjoy and what we want to do, and give ourselves a little room to learn and grow. Failing is a must for both men and women. When we fail we learn to get back up to realize that it’s not that big of a deal. download (2)I find that surrounding myself with trusted advisors has helped me make better decisions that work best for my life. I have the right support around me to take the risks and to get back up when it doesn’t work out the way I’d hoped, and it often doesn’t work out. These are both personal and professional relationship and I am grateful for them all. I am still struggling to make the right decisions about which Walls to run through so I’m in this with you. It’s one more part of my journey and I suspect that it always will be.

So I say make some choices about what Walls you want to run through (guys) and then when you decide, run through it without looking back (ladies)! For on the other side may just be our next great adventure and most certainly will be progress!

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Grief

Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of bad news impacting some of the people that I care about. People dealing with sick parents that are losing their battles and moving towards their final days. People losing close relatives and other’s that have been diagnosed with cancer at a very young age and struggle to think about a future for their young children that may not include them. Now that I’m in my “mid-life” I feel like it never stops and it’s all heartbreaking. As a bystander, I sit back and feel helpless. Most of us can relate to grief because we’ve all felt it in some small or major way in our lives. I am a true believer that pain is not relative, it just is, which means that we can’t compare our pain to others. We don’t get to decide that certain people have it better or worse, it just doesn’t work that way. Whatever we’re suffering with is our battle to fight and when we try to compare it, we diminish what we all desperately need, and that is to be seen, heard, and loved in times of loss. But this doesn’t mean people can “fix” how we manage grief. The hardest part about grief may be the loneliness we feel regardless of how we are being supported; managing grief is a lonely business.

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My first experience with grief was probably like many. I lost several pets and felt how disoriented our house would feel when one of our fur babies was no longer with us. Misty, pictured here, was the first dog I loved and lost. 422069_10201089525979548_239899276_nMy parents would typically handle this with a small amount of time to feel the loss and then shortly after they’d introduce a new sweet puppy or kitten into our family and our hearts would be full again. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how difficult pet loss can actually be. As a child it was fleeting, but as I’ve become more attached to my pets it’s devastating when you lose one of these loyal members of your family.

The next loss was of grandparents and this was, in many ways, underwhelming for me. For one, I wasn’t very close to any of my grandparents so I didn’t have a relationship that would be missed or unresolved. And, typically, grandparents are an expected loss. When they live to be in their 80’s or 90’s it seems inevitable to lose them. My Dad’s parents were his foster parents and they were much older. “Uncle Fred” as we referred to his foster Dad was born in 1899 and “Sister” as we called his foster Mom was born in 1903. They were very kind people and all of my memories of them are positive but I wasn’t around them much and I was very young so the loss was associated more with how hard this was for my Dad. The people that took him in at the young age of three, when his own parents were unable and unwilling to raise him, were now gone and he had lost “his people”. This was hard to watch and I hurt for my Dad but had very little of my own pain. Then my Mom’s Dad died, this was very painful for her. I wanted to be there for her but had few of my own emotions tied up in my grandfather. Eventually, my grandmother would pass after years of fighting dementia. She was often unkind to my Mom due to feeling unworthy her entire life and even more so in the years that followed her dementia diagnosis. I don’t think I skipped a beat when she died. I actually felt relief that my Mom was free of the woman that treated her so badly at times. We never had a service for her which felt odd but I was more shocked at how indifferent I was to this. It felt wrong to feel this way or in this case, not feel the grief.

The most difficult moment of my life was when we lost my Dad to a sudden heart attack at the prime age of 51. Dad_toombstone_updatesIt felt surreal, like I would wake up and it would be a terrible dream. But I never woke up and I still find myself, to this day, weeping after 20 years of him being gone. Grief hit me like a mac truck and in some way, I never fully recovered. I was 23 years old and my life was already spiraling out of control before the loss. Grief now consumed me and I struggled to breath when I was alone with my thoughts. So I got busy and I got focused and I never stopped. Accomplishment and success became my coping mechanism and I was going to run like hell to escape the pain of losing my Dad. I suppose there are worse things I could have leveraged to cope but after 20 years I’m just starting to undo the need to be busy in order to avoid the pain.

More recently the loss of both of my in-laws in many ways matched the pain I felt when I lost my Dad. There are so many reasons it was different, I was not only devastated by my own feelings of loss but for Greg, his siblings and my children who were loved so deeply by these people. Mom mom & Pop pop Chapel_newI remember the same feelings of intense sorrow and begging to bring them back but I didn’t have any of the “baggage” or rich history that typically comes with a parent/child relationships. My feelings of loss were wrapped up in empathy for all those around me that were experiencing the loss of a parent for the first time. I delivered my Mother-in-law’s eulogy and felt honored that the family trusted me with this task and grateful that I had the opportunity to share everyone’s feelings about this amazing woman. I still cry to this day when I think of her and how deeply she loved my husband, my children and me.

Up until recently, I’ve always associated grief with death. The loss of someone you deeply care about, and this is for sure the epitome of loss, there’s no coming back from death. But for several years I’ve felt this deep sense of loss in my life. This loss is centered around the lack of control over what’s happening to Greg and my Mom, both suffering from incurable diseases. My Mom, who is the woman with all the answers and a true intellectual, is slowly losing her mind to dementia. And then there’s Greg, the man who never stops trying and has a talent for fixing and building things is slowly and painfully losing his ability to move. 12669677_10208684205961801_6551327148144256238_nI’ve spent many hours in therapy talking about these two people and my inability to manage these very heavy challenges. I am an incurable optimist so I have done my best to out smile, out work and deny that watching these two extremely strong people suffer loss every day has not had a profound impact on me. This is when I started to understand that I was dealing with “chronic grief”. This is not to say that I can’t move past the stages of grief but that I’m watching loss every day and the people that I’m losing are still standing right in front of me; still accessible, still present, still fighting and both still loving me fiercely! It’s not like either one of them is giving up. Quite the opposite, they both approach each day with a mental strength that is not only astounding but admirable. And it is their ability to move through the world still figuring it out, even with constant obstacles that I feel the need to suck it up and get over myself. Who am I to feel the pain of their loss? It’s a question I ask regularly and then I have to remember my own words. Pain is not relative.  It is our own. I believe this but the urge to just smile past it, work harder and bury myself in “busy” in order to avoid the pain seems so much easier than facing the “what’s next” and the “what ifs”.

Truthfully, we are all just taking each day as it comes. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. I know this first hand. One day you wake up to a normal extra-ordinary day and the next you wake up to a very sick pet or news from a doctor that your life has changed forever or a phone call letting you know that your very young and healthy Dad has suffered a catastrophic heart attack and died instantly. We just don’t know.

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So I choose to keep moving and to keep smiling and try to accept each day as it comes. I also choose to allow myself to feel the pain and the loss and to feel deeply sad at times. I am forever grateful for the number of family and friends that are always just a text or call away. Often the universe speaks to us and people reach out at the most necessary moments because we are all connected by this greater purpose to support one another. If there’s one thing I have figured out, it’s that we can’t do this alone. And alone I am not.

The “Real” Vacation

After spending a great week in Colorado with my Mom I returned home to change suitcases and pack for the family beach trip that we’ve had planned for months.  This would be the first trip to the Outer Banks that we’ve done with friends, versus the extended Webb family, and I was excited to be on an actual vacation opposed to the week in Colorado that was a mixed bag.

This was going to be 7 days of relaxing, playing, eating and socializing with friends at our favorite place, the beach. We went with two amazing families from our old neighborhood. The Litz’s have been some of our best friends for almost 15 years now and even though we moved away almost 5 years ago we manage to make time to connect and support each other still. The Morgan’s have been in our lives mainly because of Madison but we have grown to love and appreciate them as a family. Ella, their middle daughter, is Madison’s best friend. Ella’s Mom, Missy, has been their Girl Scout Troop leader since they were around 4 years old. Missy has been like another mother to Madison and I’ve enjoyed having another woman in her life that cares for her so deeply. We were excited about the week ahead!

It’s been 4 years since we got a house on the beach in the Outer Banks because it’s so pricey in the summer but I was determined to get us back there knowing it’s one of my kiddos favorite places on the planet and happens to be where my life long best friend lives. They were over the moon excited to leave on Saturday morning and I was doing my best to pack and prepare in the 20 hours I had after returning home from Colorado. As usual Greg did all the heavy lifting to get our “stuff” in, or on top of, our car while I was gone. He packed all the beach essentials and his seven fishing rods, which he seemed to think was not that many….hmmm. Anyway, the car was, for the most part, packed and I just had to get some of the basics, check the kid’s suitcases, and get my own stuff together. Greg made this really easy and we pulled out of our driveway only 40 minutes later than I’d hoped. Huge win for us!

In the beginning of a road trip the anticipation is typically contagious and the kids are super nice to each other as we make the 6-7 hour drive to NC.  We’re agreeing on movies and snacks and even bathroom breaks. Okay….time out. This is when I think I should reset my expectations because it’s all too good to be true. 39003893_10217586452192393_4286148890622689280_oThe excitement of what’s to come is so overwhelming that we care less about irritating each other or getting “our” way than normal. It’s a beautiful thing, but it also makes me sit back and think….this is probably about as good as it’s going to get all week. Don’t get me wrong, I’m caught up in it as much as they are and I’m imagining days on the beach in the sun and surf. Drinking yummy drinks and eating anything I want. We are all in this euphoric place and it feels great.

We’re the second family to arrive with the Litz crew close behind us. It immediately hits me that I hope everyone is happy with their room situation. I know how this goes, there are more ideal rooms than others and someone often gets the crappy end of that deal. In general the rooms all seem nice but it’s the anxiety, since I made the final decision on the house, that everyone might not be as content with their arrangements. If that was the case everyone kept it to themselves and made the best of it. Greg and I always take the top master that’s close to the kitchen so he doesn’t have to ride the elevator as much due to his MS. For those that don’t know my husband, Greg, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2007 and has been fighting the battle ever since. He is winning in mindset but losing physically every day.

With Greg’s challenges I know that the kids and I need to do the heavy lifting to unpack and get things in the house. We are not there 15 minutes and Chris, Ella’s Dad, essentially unpacks our entire car. I’m floored. Greg hasn’t even come up to see the house and Chris has all of our belongings in the right rooms. What a relief to have so much help upon arriving. I’m thinking if this is an indicator of the week we are good to go. Dan and Marnie arrive soon after and decide to order subs for everyone, another to do off my list. Marnie and I head to the grocery to stock up for the week.  39397662_10217624411861361_6205498594712092672_oIt’s pretty much chaos but we are trying not to buy all the same stuff and be smart about it. We succeeded for the most part, outside of bananas, there were a lot of bananas….hahahaha! First night was a success and I was feeling surrounded by some amazing people that were willing to make decisions and help out, feeling thankful and excited.

When you vacation with people that you know relatively well but have never lived with it’s a bit of a dance on how to co-habitat with them. For instance, do they want to chat in the morning? Do they like to make the coffee a certain way or prefer it to be ready? Who needs to own the remote? It’s just silly stuff, but you try to figure it out real quick. And I think we did. This group was so easy to be with for a week and I was amazed almost every day that everyone was willing to help out and make things simple. I’m a late sleeper on vacation and I’d wake up and look out on the beach to check things out. The gang would have already set everything up including a cooler full of drinks. Things were going well and I felt like I could just relax.

So this is where it takes a slight turn. On Tuesday Greg was becoming increasing agitated that he could not move around on the beach the way he wanted. Even worse he couldn’t even get to the beach because the stairs that led to the beach didn’t have a rail on the pool side. So Greg would do his best to scoot up and down the stairs but it was frustrating to say the least. Then once he got on the beach he couldn’t manage walking on the sand. He also couldn’t get close enough in the surf to cast his rods into the water. He would spend hours setting himself up to try and fish just to fail or tangle a line or fall. I knew he was becoming more and more frustrated but Greg tends to manage himself well and make the most of it so I kept my distance and offered help when it made since. We hit a tipping point when he couldn’t get up the stairs on Tuesday. He let me know that I had rented the “worst possible house” for him because of the rail situation and I was very hurt and angry. I went to the beach and left him to manage himself. He considered finding a way home and leaving us to enjoy the beach without him; which felt like a terrible and selfish solution from my perspective. But if that’s what he wanted than I guess I couldn’t stop him. This is the “real” vacation. It’s all the things that happen when Facebook isn’t looking and it can be painful and hard and sends me into an emotional spiral. IMG_0370I post a lot of pictures and I continued to show the world the fun we were having, and there was a lot of fun. But then you go hide in your room and cry because nothing quite works out the way you hope it will. This picture, the one I captured of Greg struggling to get back on his feet from the surf is what we watch all day long. You catch the awesome moments too but these are the more frequent moments that make up the reality in our life. It’s painful and hard and thankfully we were surrounded by extremely caring people to help.

But in the end Greg didn’t leave. He stayed and on Wednesday the guy that can’t get on the beach or up the stairs is the one that built a temporary railing so that he could. This also helped Missy’s Mom who was struggling with the same issue. IMG_0045He bought PVC pipe and rope and erected a full blown railing (you can see it on the right side of this picture). Took him almost all day and Chris did his best to help but Greg was determined to solve this problem, and he did. How is this possible? I watch him overcome extraordinary circumstances every day and I’m still not sure how he does it. This is my husband. He is unstoppable. There are people that are fully capable physically that can’t hold a candle to Greg. Once he let go of the anger and moved into how he could fix it, he was an entirely new man again. So then we got drunk and had an amazing evening on the beach with our friends:-) He did need four of us to carry him off the beach, due to a slight buzz, but no one cared and willingly lifted him up and towards the house. After this evening of celebration things were not perfect. Greg continued to show signs of frustration as he struggled to enjoy his time at the beach. He did go to the pier one day to try and catch fish but still had no luck. At least he got to fish and wasn’t struggling to manage the sand.

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Now for me, I struggled throughout the week. Like most, I feel tired of having to make it all work and on vacation I was feeling especially selfish. I wanted to enjoy my time too. I don’t get but a few weeks of the year to just relax and enjoy the family without the interruption of work and other demands. But it just doesn’t work that way. Life keeps coming, there’s no pause button. If I thought I could get a full week of bliss I was delusional. I realized that I have to take the moments just as they are, moments.
39024223_10217601116518992_3856327878106939392_nMaybe that’s the amazing picture you capture of your kids laughing and playing and then you put down the camera and jump in the ocean with them. Because it’s all just moments and they aren’t set up to be strung together so beautifully, like a string of pearls, but probably broken up by real life because it’s hard and complicated. On the day Greg blamed me for the terrible decision on the house that I picked I was given the gift of connection and acceptance. I was sulking after his words and went to drift in the ocean and think. Missy could tell I was down and comforted me with kind words of affirmation that assured me that I was doing the best I could and that the situation was impossibly hard. I felt seen and heard and I’m grateful for that moment as well. She saw me and that was all I needed at the time.

The crazy thing with all this adult stuff going on behind the scenes is that I’m pretty sure my kids had no clue what was going on. You see, they are used to seeing their Dad struggle every day and they didn’t even bat an eye when he spent one of his vacation days building a railing to solve his issue. That’s just what their Dad does. They were preoccupied with friends and waves and kites and sunsets on the beach and thank God for that. I want my kids to enjoy those moments for as long as they can because one day they will come to understand that the “real” vacation can be messy and emotional and hard. But it’s seeing them laugh and play and enjoy themselves that makes it all worth it. 39685839_10217651274812918_4774158369172750336_oThere were a lot of rainbows while we were at the beach and every time I see one I’m in pure wonder and amazement. It helps me stop and appreciate something so magical that you can forget, even for just a moment, that “real” life is not always magical but it is what we decide to make it. So now if you blend this with what I share on Facebook you can see the “real” vacation for what it is, beautiful and hard all in the same moment.

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Great Expectations

I’ve heard the saying, “Expectations are the root of all evil”. This resonates deeply for me.  When I have an idea of how people should behave, react, engage, and then they disappoint me I find myself feeling frustrated, even angry. And guess what? People almost never behave the way you expect them to, and if they do, you might find yourself feeling shocked, or at least, pleasantly surprised. When expectations are not met this typically leads to resentment. So, why not just stop doing this? For me, it’s the hope that it could be different. But it’s the letting go that I can’t seem to grasp.  I can’t get out of my own way on this one.

This idea of expectations is haunting me as I prepare for a trip home to see my Mom this week. There are no greater expectations than the ones we hold our parents too and my Mom lets me down time and time again. The sad thing is that I’m conditioned to be let down and I still manage to sucker myself into believing that it might be different this time. It’s never different, and these days it’s even worse than different, it’s impossible. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not putting this on my Mom. She has her own baggage to deal with and her own story to tell and it’s a story of suffering and sacrifice and triumph. So this isn’t about my Mom being a bad Mom, because she’s not. The anxiety is about me wanting things to be a certain way and the selfish view that it would be nice if that way positively impacted me.

Growing up my Mom was the sun, the moon, and the stars. My world revolved around her, she was the light and the warmth and she helped me to see how big the world was and encouraged me to make my place in it. 37041_10201089525379533_313737862_n - CopyMy Dad was this ridiculously cool and interesting guy that seemed to be good at everything he ever did (expect marriage and not leaving). So when I was nine and he moved out, my Mom was left to be the daily parent and when he died in 1997 she was left to be the only parent. My Mom was the strongest person I knew. She was beautiful, intelligent, warm and ambitious. She had overcome some major adversity as a child and survived to “do better” with us. I thought she was invincible. As a child, I thought I would live with my Mom forever. 1554611_10202926476462162_1898871335_n - CopyI considered her one of my best friends and she was for sure “my person”. When something went well in my life she was the first person I would call and when something went really really bad she was my lifeline. She was the person that would never judge me or turn me away. She was always there. I felt so grateful to have her since I knew what losing a parent felt like and I was well aware that my friends didn’t have the same relationship that I was so incredibly fortunate to have.

When you put someone on a really high pedestal, the fall is devastating. In 2004 when I had Madison my whole world changed. Everything shifted in me and for the first time in my life, I loved something, someone, more than I loved myself. 5153_1191343262989_809151_nMy Mom was there to help me during the first two weeks and when my friend Angela came to take her to the airport I wept. I begged her not to leave me and she fell apart not knowing how to walk away. She did go back to Colorado and I realized I was more capable than I thought but that was one of the last moments that I remember being 100% vulnerable with my Mom.

Once I got the hang of parenting, which basically meant I could keep Madison alive, I started to get cocky. I was going to prove to the world that I was in control and could handle this massive responsibility. This is when the judgment started and I could see all of my Mom’s parental flaws. Now that I understood parenting, my expectations were higher and when I looked back I had a lot of questions for my Mom. All of these questions were accusatory and unproductive but now I understood what it felt like to be a Mom, I felt like it was my responsibility to impart my new found wisdom. The reality is that the pressure of raising a child was so heavy I was looking to avoid judgment in any way possible and holding my Mom to an impossible standard seemed just as good a way as any to soothe my insecurities.

With so many miles between Colorado and Maryland, I could temper my behavior and bite my tongue when we were visiting until I couldn’t and then I’d usually show up like a giant asshole. Mentally I found myself discrediting my Mom to protect myself and slowly I felt us drifting apart. She was now, only “my person” for the good things, and I reserved my failures, for well, pretty much no one. This was the slow road to loneliness and my inability to ask for help was more evident than ever.

Fast forward to 2015, I now have three children, ages 12, 10 and 7 and they are all thriving; which means they are alive, doing well in school, and have some interests and some friends. Not the highest bar;-) My Mom and I are more disconnected than ever and I’m having a very hard year. So many things in my life seemed to be out of sorts. Greg, my husband, continues his battle Multiple Sclerosis and was struggling with his mobility. My brother was in need of help and living with us that summer to work on his recovery. My best friend was a new Mom and in need of a lifeline and I had my first real scare with potential breast cancer (which I did not have). I was in over my head and wanted more than anything to have “my person” but my Mom was fighting her own battle. This was the summer she was diagnosed with Dementia. When my Step Dad told me it took my breath away. I Googled, I cried and I felt completely helpless. The good news was that my Mom did not have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of Dementia, but it was Dementia and that was enough to bring me to my knees.symptom-overlap-middle-stages The first thing I thought was how is this capable, confident, independent and completely in control woman going to handle losing her mind (literally). Then, probably too soon, I thought about myself.  This solidified that my Mom would never be the person I wanted her to be. Truth is, there really was no chance of this in the first place, based on my expectations, but I still had the hope that it could be different. I was devastated, for her and for me.

You would think with this news I’d be more kind and understanding and start to support my Mom in a different way. I’m embarrassed to say it didn’t happen that way. I acted like a child that wasn’t getting their way. We’ve had some of the worst fights ever in the last couple of years because I’m struggling to rise above my own needs and expectations. There was this part of me that just wanted to hug her and cry and tell her it was going to be alright. But I was angry and I was grieving and the person I was losing was standing right in front of me, how are you supposed to do that? I wanted her to tell me that everything was going to be alright and she couldn’t. So I made sad attempts to resolve old issues and I started to villainize my Mom to justify my anger. It felt awful and I felt ashamed. It was not getting better, I was not getting better. I stopped reaching out to her and buried myself in my own life in Maryland, which was not hard to do.

Then one snowy day this last winter I pulled out these DVDs of some old home movies. The kids and I sat down to watch but they quickly got bored of seeing their baby selves lay on a play mat for 25 minutes or play with a sweet potato in their highchair for what seemed like an eternity and they left the room.  I, however, was mesmerized and I watched and watched and watched for hours. I was so grateful for those videos and the beautiful memories they held. They were from 2004-2010, prior to my Facebook addiction, and having a camera on my phone, which is hard to remember. Suddenly, I find myself watching a scene of my Mom playing with the kids. I think it was in the summer of Madison’s 3rd birthday so Liam wasn’t even a year old. She was singing and laughing and playing and engaging and they were LOVING her. 33702_1710771328366_2121417_nTHERE SHE WAS, my Mom, that was her, the Mom I forgot about that was so fun and easy and warm. I immediately began to weep and couldn’t stop crying. It hit me like ton of bricks. I had forgotten her. The Dementia had been so slow that I didn’t even realize the impact it had on her, and me, until this very moment. My Mom was right there, but at the same time it was clear, the Mom in that video was gone. It was devastating but at that moment I completely altered the way I was seeing the situation. No, my Mom would never live up to my expectations; she never could have, even without Dementia. She was different now and I could choose to see that person differently. This meant I also needed to be different; I needed to change and come to terms with this new reality. It all made sense.

So the story continues. I’m heading to Colorado this week to spend four days with my Mom. It will be just my Mom and me FOR FOUR DAYS. My Step Dad had a conference in Vegas and was concerned about leaving her for so many days alone. My Mom doesn’t need full-time care but she has a lot of anxiety and her short-term memory is almost all but gone. I’m nervous because my Mom deserves to have someone that shows compassion and support during this difficult time. She was my sun, my moon, and my stars; the least I can do is provide a safe place where she feels love.  I want to be better and do better. The funny thing is that I don’t think she expects anything from me, not now.

What’s really scary is that I’m sure my children all currently have unrealistic expectations of me and I will inevitably let them down. I think this is just how it works with parents and children. We think our parents are supposed to have it all figured out, be better than the typical human. I hope that I can be vulnerable enough with my kids for them to see me as the broken imperfect person that I am. I know there’s a chance that they will hold me to great expectations, as I did with my parents, and I’m afraid they will also be greatly disappointed. All I can do is my best and maybe just maybe they’ll give me a hug one day and just let go.

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Help

I’ve unknowingly walked through my life believing that there are “helpers” and those that “need the help”. Early on I didn’t consciously assign judgment to either of these roles but simply saw people as one, or the other. From an early age I thought I was meant to be a “helper” and over time I saw this as a strength. Eventually, I started to associate asking for help with weakness. For me, it was really hard to ask, and then crushing if I didn’t get the help I needed or wanted. Asking felt like it sucked the life out of me so not asking was the safer bet. So began a pattern and a belief that I would be happy, even honored, to help as many people as I could but would steer clear of asking for any help if at all possible. One of the first major misguided lessons of my life.

tammy &michelle CO_0019When I was a little girl my Mom told me that she could hear me in my room crying by myself. I don’t remember doing this but I do remember her telling me later, with what felt like pride, that I preferred to be alone when I was in pain.  I did feel proud of this and it was more comfortable so I held back sharing my pain with most people early on. My Mom and Dad were open with their emotions and I never remember feeling shame around crying, or anger, or any emotion for that matter.  But clearly, I felt embarrassed in some way. Even to this day, I try to hide my tears in a movie theater during a sad scene, but doesn’t everyone do that? So early on, probably 3rd grade when I received my first diary, I started to journal my feelings. It was a way for me to get my “crazy” out and not involve anyone else. Just me and my journal, it felt safe.

In 5th grade, I was put in a small group of kids who had divorced parents. After two sessions with this group of kids, the teacher pulled me aside and asked me to help the other kids. She told me that I was handling things so well and it would be wonderful if I could help support them through this difficult time. This was for sure a moment of pride. I could be useful and that somehow meant that I was ok.  Over time I started to equate “ok-ness” with “enough-ness”. If you didn’t need help you were better off than if you did. It was that simple.

After high school, I went to community college and managed to hold down two, sometimes three jobs so that I could have an apartment of my own. MichellesI remember feeling like I was really in control. But I was broke and barely getting by. I got myself in some financial trouble because of that damn credit card application that’s in your bag when you buy school books and had to ask my parents for help. My Dad had me sign a contract stating that I’d agree to pay the money back by a certain date. I assume he did this so I was clear it was an official loan, or my Stepmom made him do it because she didn’t trust I would pay it back. Either way, I thought it was weird and it felt terrible. My Mom didn’t make me sign anything but worked out a payment plan with interest included.  I guess I should have felt grateful to get the loan and at an interest rate that was much more competitive than the local bank, but I was mortified. I repaid both of my parents as soon as possible, I suppose their tactics worked. But I never ever asked for their financial help again. I didn’t know much but I did know that asking for this help felt awful.

IMG_9178When I was 23 my Dad died of a sudden heart attack at the young age of 51. I quietly begged for help to relieve the pain but wasn’t sure how to ask those around me for what I needed. I have never felt more alone and more in need of help than at that moment. I’m sure people tried to help and I imagine I was getting some help that I didn’t even realize but I felt helpless and worked very hard to get to solid ground where I could find relief from the pain. The answer, I ran from my first marriage and threw myself into my career which resulted in a move to Baltimore where no one knew my past and how much help I truly needed.

My most vivid memory of clearly asking for help was in September 2013 when my daughter, Madison, was hit by a wave and swept out to sea. Once I realized that she was in the water and couldn’t touch or make her way back I ran to the edge of the break and screamed, “HELP!, HELP, PLEASE HELP HER!”. I can’t even begin to describe the terror I felt at that moment. But no one came, no one could help. WFV 2013 096So I went in and the ocean beat the living shit out of me but I managed to pull her back to shore. At that moment I realized that it was the adrenaline and a sheer will to reach her that helped me and I was grateful for whatever force was with us that day. But again I was left feeling like the “helper” and for months I had terrible flashbacks. I would sit paralyzed in my car and struggle to get out and go inside the house or work. I remember sitting in my car and calling Angela, one of my besties, and telling her I couldn’t stop crying. She listened and then she suggested I go see my therapist immediately. It was exactly the help I needed and I felt relieved to have someone else making a decision for me.

My brother Mark has been one of my greatest teachers on the subject of “help” in recent years. When he called me three years ago and asked for my help it would change my perspective on help forever. My brother is in recovery but at this time alcoholism was crushing him and he was now in need of a home and support to get back on his feet. 10428416_10206177270649985_560921163018834319_nSo he left Texas and moved to Maryland to live with me and my family. But I was not prepared for the next year and what difficult decisions and actions it would take to truly provide the right help to my brother. I learned there is a fine line between enabling and helping. Someone said this to me and it somehow made sense, “if you are enabling he will be happy  but if you’re truly helping he will be frustrated, maybe even angry.” That was hard to consume but sure enough, that was about right. My brother had been one of my greatest helpers and now he needed me to do the helping but I didn’t know how. This was an awful feeling. Somehow I thought I could be even more than “the helper” but also “the fixer”. How arrogant of me and what a lesson of humility this was. We don’t fix people and they don’t fix us, it’ doesn’t work that way. I was facing something new, I didn’t know how to be “the helper”, I needed help and so did he.

There are countless moments that we each face that we are either the “helpers” or the ones “in need of the help”. That’s logical to me and makes complete sense. So why does it feel so impossible to ask for the help that we need? We all want to help because it feels good to support the needs of others. We also feel tremendous relief when we get the help. But historically I have associated help with weakness.  Just recently it became overwhelmingly clear that asking for help is actually one of the truest forms of strength that we can exhibit. It was me all these years confusing this and now I’m working on retraining myself to learn to reach out and just ask for the help that I need.

Building this new skill is difficult since secretly I’ve praised myself for being the “helper” all these years. I’ve managed to juggle various situations and the complexities of my life by helping others and taking on all of the “asks”. But over time it’s like my boat, of helping, has taken on so much water that I’m starting to sink. Without learning how to be the “asker” I’ve suffered and at times I feel like I’m drowning. Since I believe that suffering is optional I’m determined to look at this differently and learn.

I just finished Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers and I’m realizing that when I’m asking for help no matter how small or enormous it feels it truly is just a prayer. I’ve never really known how to pray but in learning how to ask for help I believe I’m also experiencing something even greater than just the skill of asking. At that moment I’m learning to surrender and let something so much greater than myself take over. We can be “the helped” and “the helper” but letting go of the belief that we get to control how all this actually works is one of my first steps towards peace.

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Rainy Saturday Mornings

It’s raining today. I love when it’s raining on a Saturday and we have no plans. It doesn’t happen very often and when I checked the weather last night I started fantasizing about my day. I get strangely excited about the possibilities of being stuck in my house all day. Mornings are by far my favorite part of the day on the weekends.

When the kids were smaller I had to get myself settled into the idea of how I’d have to entertain them on a rainy day. How much coloring, crafting, dance party having, and putting together an endless number of puzzles could I handle in one day? What movie would we watch to break up their need for focused adult attention? I always considered how long the movie was because this determined how much time I’d have to check Facebook or put together the photo books I love or call my Mom or make lunch, or maybe even eat lunch.

396503_4553848323514_1225192966_nGreg is a “projects” guy and always keeps himself busy with building something or fixing something. He’s been this way since I’ve known him and in our early years, it meant he would sneak out of bed in the morning and go do whatever project he was focused on. Sometimes it would be small things like yard work which usually required fixing some piece of equipment that was broken. But sometimes he was building a brick wall in our house and I could hear the noise, even though he was trying to be quiet so I could sleep. When the kids were little this typically meant he was outside or on an errand by the time they were starting to wake up. So I was on kid duty, almost always. It worked because I wanted to hang out with the kids, especially on a lazy morning. Feet_2010_5They would crawl in my bed and we would snuggle and laugh and maybe turn on a show so I could drift in and out for just a little bit longer. Now when Greg heads off to the garage to work on his newest thing it means I get a quiet morning to slowly wake up with no one around to make requests. In the early years of our relationship, this always left me feeling lonely. Now I crave this time and I’m grateful when I have the bed all to myself in the morning. No one to judge me, or need me, or even want me. Just me, in my own thoughts, with time to breath.

Now that the kids are older they love to wake up on their own time and just hang out in their rooms. Madison is usually the last to wake up so once I realize I haven’t heard her I head up to her room and give her a nudge. She typically won’t join us for a couple more hours so we see her around 2:00 in afternoon. The boys are usually playing video games or watching TV, maybe with a neighborhood friend that’s not allowed to show up before 10am on the weekends. They are all very capable in the kitchen but it still surprises me when I wake up to the smell of bacon and eggs because Liam felt like having a hearty breakfast. And then there are the times I wake up to the smoke alarm because well, Liam felt like having a hearty breakfast;-)

My routine involves getting up and opening my shades so I can see the trees. Then I make my bed and lay back down with a blanket over me while I check out what’s happening in the world on all my social sites or I write in my journal. I make my bed so that when I hear Greg come back in the house I can quickly jump up and not have him think I’m still just laying in bed. I don’t think he cares but it feels like I narrowly escape judgment. It also means I have accomplished one thing in my day already. Make your bed, change your life.  Not sure it’s working but it feels like a good start. Then off to the kitchen to make hot tea and then I typically head to my office to organize life. Sometimes when the house is still quiet I snuggle on the couch and watch Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Had a chance to watch this morning and basically cried through the entire interview with Anne Lamott. She was talking about her new book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow, and like many of Oprah’s guests it hit me in a soft spot, the spiritual journey. More on this another time.

What a gift it is to have time to myself but I often look around and wonder, where did everyone go? Sometimes I don’t recognize my life. It changes so fast and I feel like I’m out of sorts and can’t keep up. The summer is always a time to slow down and take a breath. And a rainy Saturday morning is like that on steroids for me. Seriously more quiet time than I know what to do with. I know some of you may be in the throes of it with infants, toddlers, or even aging parents that require intense attention. So this all probably sounds heavenly, and to be honest it kind of is, but it’s fleeting and I have to remind myself to just enjoy the moment.

Now off to rally the troops, I think it’s time for some board games. I hope they want to play with me. heart-8544467