Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mothering in the trenches: Finding time for yourself when your kids are little

In my downsizing quest, I've found stacks of old articles I wrote 15 years ago, when I was in the mothering trenches raising young children. Here's the opening to a story I wrote that was published in Vancouver Kids magazine in March 1999 when my kids were 9 and 6.

"It's difficult for mothers to take time for ourselves. On a recent evening after dinner, I locked myself in the bathroom for a much-needed Calgon moment in a hot bath with soothing vanilla candles, fragrant bath oil, a loofa sponge and a resolve to shave both of my legs.

"Almost immediately after settling into the steaming bath, I was jolted back to reality by my children knocking on the bathroom door. What was I doing in there? Could I pour some juice for Conor? Answer Katie's questions about her homework? Where was Conor's Batman cape? And when was I coming out?"

Ah, those were the good old days!

I'm serious.

Although it's exhausting raising young children, I loved being a mommy. I enjoyed playing with my kids and sparking their imaginations. We built fairy houses on the banks of rivers, read stacks of picture books and created art projects. Visits to thrift stores helped me stock the kids' dress-up trunk so they could pretend to be dinosaurs, pirates, cowboys, fairies, knights and princesses. Even Batman.

Fifteen years later, I'm a single empty-nester. I can take a soothing bubble bath whenever I have a hankering. How ironic that a bubble bath is no longer what I long for when I need to relax.

Now, I most often head for the woods or the river for a hike, call a friend for a chat or make a cup of tea and read a book. When I was in the thick of raising young children, I didn't have the luxury of such freedom.

I have several younger friends who are in the child-rearing trenches at this moment. They're giving every bit of themselves to their families and their jobs. It's brutal being in the trenches.

I hope these women realize what a wonderful job they are doing--and that before they know it, their kids will grow up--and they'll have plenty of time for bubble baths, walks in the woods and reading an entire book from cover to cover.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Storing stuff for a life I no longer lead


The lights went out. Complete darkness engulfed me.

I was straddling stacks of plastic bins while looking for my camping gear in my 10-by-10 storage unit. I didn't want to move for fear I'd upset the bins stacked high around me. So I waved my arms until the motion detector kicked the lights back on.

Blinking, I looked at the stacks of boxes surrounding me. My hand steadied myself on a cardboard box marked "platters" Back in my apartment, my four favorite Fiestaware platters in cobalt blue, yellow and red were on a shelf. Yet here was an entire box marked platters. How many platters did I need? I rarely used the four platters in my apartment.

Next to it I found a box marked "candles and vases." I knew I had one or two vases stored in my sideboard in my apartment. When was the last time I lit a candle or arranged flowers in a vase? How many candles and vases do I need?

Leaning against the wall was an enormous, clear Space Bag stuffed with surplus linens: kitchen towels, oven mitts, placemats, cloth napkins, tablecloths, extra sheets and towels. I haven't used any of those in four years since I hosted a holiday dinner at my big house.

I no longer have a big house. In my tiny apartment kitchen, I have exactly three oven mitts and one table cloth. I gave away my teak dining table to my friend, Henry, five moves ago. I eat at a tiny gate-leg table that began its life aboard a fishing boat. It bears the scars of cutting fish. It folds down to a one-by-three-foot footprint. And it doubles as a coffee table and workspace for my computer. In my old life, the fishing boat table had been relegated to a dusty corner. Now it's my only table.

In my old life, our dining table had been encircled by a matched set of six century-old prayer chairs from Saint Anne's Catholic Church in Ghent, Belgium. They were a bargain I found at Portland Antique many years ago, and they had fit our 90-year-old house. When I'm eating a meal in my 600 square-foot apartment, I sit on a folding wooden chair that can be moved out of the way when it's not needed. Those beautiful antique chairs were not practical and would not fit my new life.

Five moves in two years, and I still have too much stuff. I had a epiphany while surrounded by my stuff in my storage unit: Why was I paying to store stuff for a life I no longer had--and likely would never have again?

Even worse, by having to pay a monthly storage fee, this stuff still owns me. Our stuff should not own us or dictate how we live.

I'm no longer the soccer mom, wife and mother of school-age children cooking family dinners or hosting large holiday meals. I usually eat alone. When I have friends or family over, we eat at the fish table (if it's just two of us) or on the couch or outside in the forested yard.

No, I'm a different woman than the obese soccer mom I was four years ago. I'm a divorced, empty-nester. But don't feel sorry for me. I have a great life. Now I'm an adventurous woman paddling my own canoe. In the past few years, I've started dragon boating, returned to hiking and backpacking, conquered my fear of skiing, tried archery, belly dancing and swing dancing, kayaked many rivers and camped several nights in a teepee. I've found my voice again by playing an African djembe drum around a campfire. I'm dating an amazing Mountain Man who also is ready for fun. I have a dragon tattoo on my right shoulder blade. I'm the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! I've changed.

Through all of this adventure, I've rediscovered myself. In the process, I've brought my young adult daughter along for the journey and have modeled a strong, confident woman as I've taken her hiking or to an archery range to learn to shoot a bow.

But standing in my storage unit surrounded by my surplus stuff, I resolved to continue my downsizing journey to simplicity. I will get rid of those platters, candles and vases. I don't need all those linens. I still have too much stuff.

Instead, I want to live fully, joyfully each day, unencumbered by too much stuff. Instead of my hands grasping material things I no longer need, my wish is that my hands and heart be open to the delicious possibilities ahead.

In August, I backpacked for the first time in 28 years. The Mountain Man and I backpacked in the Elkhorn Mountains and camped at an alpine lake surrounded by curious mountain goats.