Making Memories

So, I am not sure what has been going on with me lately; mid-life crisis, sleep-deprived funk, or post-family-growing blues. Either way I have been meditating on the whole concept of what makes a happy life.

I would love to say that I have come up with all the answers, but let's face it, if I had all the answers I would live in a chaos-free home, wouldn't struggle to pay the electric bill and would spend an occasional night out with the gals sipping margaritas and discussing the philosophical differences between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. Alas, my life looks more like a haphazard survival show with shenanigans on par with Michael Keaton's Mr. Mom.

This brings me back to my question, what makes a happy life? Is it a life where you sail through and nothing bad happens to you? A life where you find your dream job, do it for a prescribed number of years and then retire in relative luxury? Or is there something else there? Something more real, more textural.

I decided to start small. I Googled "making memories" only to be greeted by page upon page of scrapbooking websites, vacation planners, photography studios and other craft oriented websites. But, that wasn't what I was looking for. I wanted to know HOW you make memories. Memories aren't the objects we buy, the trips we take or the pictures we take to immortalize them. No, I was talking the creation of the memory itself. The idea or feeling that those things are held on to in attempt to recreate. Some trips do create memories, but many family vacations just end up on the vague recollection pile, so the act of vacationing itself didn't seem to be key.

My next step was to Google "The secret to happiness," because, you know, it makes total sense to get your spiritual guidance from a random search engine. So the very first link that popped up was, The Best Kept Secret to Happiness: Compassion. I read it as soon as it popped up, "Ah yes, I thought, how true, helping others helps you. Well, that much is obvious." So, I moved on to the link underneath it, WebMD promised an intriguing piece of writing, At last! All the secrets of HAPPINESS explained! I wasted no time linking up in breathless anticipation of having the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness explained to me in 12 easy steps. While I found definite clues  there, I would hardly argue that it is a roadmap to satisfaction. I like the idea of optimism, love, spirituality, altruism, humor and purpose. But other things like good health, security and sense of choice struck discordant with me. After all, there are plenty of people who are very sick, and still happy. There are plenty of people who struggle financially, wonder where their next meal is coming from, and still find satisfaction with their lives.

Link three stretched my mind a little as it was expounding on finding what you like and focusing on it in order to bring pleasure into your life (a worthy goal to be sure), however the source of this wisdom definitely challenged my own world view as it came from the author's deceased brother who spoke to her in visions after he became deceased. But, I am always game to keeping my mind open and the lesson seemed to make sense. It didn't tell me what I wanted to know though. Why do some memories stick with us, good and bad, and how do those construct our perspective on our life.

I found the link that came next to be amazing. There is actually a site dedicated to the secret of happiness, as in, Now how super cool is that?! What an amazing website. It was full of books and testimonials and explanations on how to be more happy. In fact, I was so enthralled I ended up wasting an hour cruising around reading, getting ideas and adding more must-read books to my books list (You know the one we Moms all make for that elusive day when you have time to actually read something for yourself).

These ideas are all great; compassion, thankfulness, filling life with things that you like, finding a purpose. But, this was still not what I was looking for specifically. I wanted to know, what made a memory, well, memorable. Why can I remember the name and face of the bully who slammed my hand in the kindergarten door causing injuries so severe that I nearly lost part of my finger, but I can't remember my 12th birthday? Why can I remember my first kiss which was part of a play and didn't mean a thing, but my whole first relationship is fuzzy at best? And what I really wanted to know, is how do families create memories that will last the test of time? I Googled that too, but mostly got photography studios. Clearly there is the feeling that you need to capture the memories in visual form in order to preserve them, a sentiment clearly carried by the millions of people who arrive at their children's performances, fighting to get front row seats, only to proceed to enjoy the whole thing through the lens of a video camera or Iphone. What happened to being present in the moment? Or are we too busy capturing it lest it be lost to time?

Lastly I Googled, "why we remember" and came up with TONS of interesting articles. I found the science of how we form memories and a detailed explanation of types of memories and how they work. All the articles I read were very interesting, albeit some were a tad over my head. I extrapolated that in order for a memory to become long term it has to be relevant to someone's life, have a strong emotional reaction attached to it, or in other words be extremely visceral. And lastly, it needs to have a strong sensory component to it; a smell, a taste, a sound, a memorable image, a tactile feeling.

So, now I know HOW to make long-term memories. Now I want to learn to apply that to my own life. If a happy life includes compassion, thankfulness, optimism, love, spirituality, altruism, humor, filling your life with things you like and purpose, then how do I give that to my family? That should be my purpose. I want to look for ways to give those long term memories to my children, or at least fill their lives with rich moments that have the potential for becoming life long memories. Because more than being successful in their life, what I really want my children to be, is HAPPY.

So, with that in mind. Here is a list of ideas for things I am thinking about doing with my children over summer break to incorporate some of the ideas discussed above. Each activity seeks to plug in to relevancy to their lives, teach compassion, thankfulness and optimism, and incorporate sensory images.
  •  Cook with them. (In all fairness I do this already, but I feel very strongly that cooking with your children gives them a sense of community, family culture, purpose, healthy view on food and its preparation as well as being a reading and mathematical tool for education. In my opinion cooking with your kids is the single most enriching thing you can do for them. It is messy and can be stressful for sure, but the benefits far outweigh the struggles).
  • Volunteer (I am not sure where I plan on doing this, but now that Raindrop just turned FIVE *yikes* and Snowflake is seven I think they are old enough to start with small, age appropriate opportunities. I am hoping this will teach them thankfulness for what they have, optimism in the human spirit of giving and compassion for those who are struggling).
  • Take time out for family outings. I don't know if we will go to the lake, bike ride, hit the museum or the zoo, go put putting or just spend the day with our feet in the creek, but I know that I am looking at putting a premium on getting out at least 3 times a month for quality family outings. No screens, phones, or other distractions. I do know I am going to look for unusual places and sensory rich environments.
  • Fill their lives with things they like. My kids are at the age where they are still discovering what they are all about. I am going to spend the summer really seeking what brings them joy by exposing them to as many different types of experiences and projects as possible. Who knows, maybe I can make this the summer of self-discovery, for them and for me.
  • Chores. Ok, I know it sounds weird, but if purpose is a key component to happiness, than it would make sense that instituting a job system would provide purpose to children who otherwise might not feel valued as productive family members. Isn't this why preschool classrooms everywhere incorporate classroom jobs, to give kids a sense of responsibility, accomplishment and purpose? If completing a difficult task that requires hard work and perseverance provides a sense of accomplishment and pride, than I need to figure out how to up my children's difficulty level. I realize we are too easy on our kids when it comes to comfort and ease of life. Perhaps we are actually doing them a disservice. To change this I am thinking of creating a job system, a challenging project, working together on a home improvement project, or maybe just upping our expectations a notch.

Obviously this idea is a work in progress. But, I think it is a project that is worth pursing. Only time will tell if it helps create more long-term positive memories for our kids, but in the meantime it gives me purpose and provides a place to focus my energy that has threatened to become self-consuming lately. Ultimately I am seeking to improve their lives, but in the meantime I hope it will help me turn my own frown upside down.

15 Minutes CAN change your life!

I have spent a lot of time and space on discussing the lack of outside or cultural support for parents in America, but today I am focusing on inside the family. Earlier this year I discussed the need to, as parents, allow ourselves to see our friendships and relationships as vital and crucial to our children's development and give ourselves the time and permission to pursue them (you can read that article here). Today I am discussing the need for parents, especially mothers, to acknowledge our need to make sure to take care of ourselves first and foremost. It is the classic "in the event of a crash, please place your own oxygen mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting those around you." We need to place value on ourselves from time to time, even if it means dumping a screaming toddler who has been demanding to be held all day in their crib for 15 min for a mommy time-out.

Last year I was drowning in my own clutter and as a result, was drowning in the clutter in my mind. After three very rough pregnancies over six years I had roughly a total of  27 months of backlogged projects. My mental state was reflected in my house and/or vice versa. It was then that I discovered the marvelous and fantastic FlyLady ( She introduced the idea that you can change the state of your house by committing to at least 15 min a day. When Starman got so terribly sick and spent 5 days in the hospital followed by 6 weeks home on oxygen I abandoned ship, so to speak, and switched back into the all too familiar- survival mode.

This Christmas I picked up where I left off last Spring. Three months in and the 15min concept has literally changed my life, not just the state of my house. Now I set the timer for EVERYTHING. Hate to play dolls with your daughter? Set the timer. Don't want to go through backlogged mail? Set the timer. Thinking that your head will explode if you have to sing one more rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus"? Ok kid, I will sing, but only until Mommy's timer goes off! After all, you can do anything for 15 minutes.

So, after it worked so well with the house, The Husband and I decided to commit to getting healthier guessed it... 15 min a day. Once the kids are in bed we trade off on the Wii Fit or Just Dance games or weight lifting. While The Husband does his 15 min of exercise I *shine my sink* (a FlyLady staple). Then we switch and I do mine. We started 8 weeks ago and so far I have lost 6 lbs (sadly nothing compared to The Smug Husband's 15, but really, who's counting?). I feel great! I have more energy to chase after the kids and more energy to keep up with the house. Another 15 minute victory.

A friend suggested that if the 15 minute thing was working so well I should commit to writing 15 minutes each day on one of my many, many writing projects. Starting today I am committing in honor of her. She is a great friend and I value her input. It feels great to take these 15 minutes for myself.

So, I now try very hard every day to spend 15 min on:

-Playing with or reading to the kids, or on good days, both
-Exercising with The Husband
-Blessing my house (housework, decluttering, yard work)
-Shining my sink
-One load of laundry

So, in one and a half to two hours of my day I make a point to spend quality time with myself, my kids and my husband. It has changed my life, my perspective and my overall satisfaction with my life. The rest of the day? Well, you know how it goes. It's back to survival mode.

There are studies out there that say that parents are some of the least satisfied people in the world, although my favorite article which debates that conclusion can be found here, in the New York Magazine. I would say that it is largely because American culture demands that parents sacrifice sleep, personal time and self-care in the interest of spending every waking minute "developing" our offspring. We spend so much time and energy trying to increase their competitiveness that we sacrifice our own happiness and financial stability. I would argue that instead, we should realize that life should not be put on hold while our children are growing up. Instead, we should find a way to balance our own needs with theirs. We owe it to ourselves, but we also owe it to them. Put on your own oxygen mask and breathe deep. Then help those around you.

With that in mind, I stumbled across another fantastic website, The Orange Rhino. It is all about learning to, and committing to find ways to avoid yelling at your children. At first glance that might look like it something that we would do to benefit our children, which it does, but what it really does is boost your confidence in your parenting and provide a more peaceful household. Let's face it, these things really have more benefits for Mom. Two weeks ago I stopped yelling at my kids and have been putting a Care Bear sticker on my calendar for every day I manage to get through the day without pulling out the tornado siren yell. I have fourteen stickers and I have never been so proud of anything in my life.

Since most parents struggle with very similar problems; messy house, unruly kids, severe lack of me-time, I suggest trying to set your timer from time to time. You just may find that it helps, or at the very least, you know that there are only going to be four more minutes left to sing that f#$%ing "Wheels on the Bus" song and then you can tell your sweet daughter to sing it her[damn]self cause Mommy's timer says it is time to quit.

I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane

(humming John Denver)
My bags are packed, I'm ready to go...
I'm standing here outside my door...

Freaking out.

In just over three weeks I am hopping on a plane and flying to a whole other state in order to meet the paternal side of my birth family. Quite frankly I can't decide if time is going by too fast, or too slow.

I am actually surprisingly calm, for the most part. I figure I am a nice person, they sound like nice people, I am sure it will all work out. It even occurred to me that they might be every bit as nervous as I am. My plan was to sit down and make a list of all the questions I have ever had as an adopted child so that I can focus myself and get some of them answered. But it seems every time I sit down to make that list I find myself just staring at a blank page and eventually walking away. And today it came to me. I can't seem to get the questions written down because they need to come organically. If they are meant to be answered, they will be. Some now, some at a later time.

Truth be told I am just excited to see the family from which I came, and how they might differ from the family I was brought into. As in all things, my mother is coming with me. I would never dream of making this trip without her. She is the rock I have depended on for my whole life, even when I didn't always acknowledge it. [Yes Mom, (who of course reads my blog) you are the best, and I love you to pieces. And for the five millionth time, I am sorry I was such a bratty teenager... can we let it go already?].

As an anthropologist I admit to being fascinated on how the whole thing is going to unfold; what part of me is nature and what part of me is nurture? It is almost like I am my own anthropological study. Writing this, I am reminded of the short biography I found when I stumbled on to my birth sister's employment website. I was  unnerved when I first found it because it was almost eerie at how similar our interests and focuses are. We have almost identical interests and very compatible career choices. Some day I would love for her to know I exist and to get a chance to meet her because she sounds like someone I could really connect with. Either way, it was amazing to realize some of my life may have been written before I was born.

That, however, is a whole other ball of wax, as they say. For now, I am focused on this journey to connect with my birth father and family and in three short weeks I get to meet them face to face. I will get the opportunity to personally thank them for the wonderful life that I have had with my family. I can also thank them for being open to connecting after all these years. Adoption really is a journey that never ends, whether it be the constant state of wondering (such as couple friends I have that are adopted from overseas with no hope of finding records), the search and discovery process, or the constant juggle of relationships in the open adoption.

Three weeks and I get to take a step that I never dreamed possible even two years ago. A little nervous, but mostly excited I have no doubt the people I will find when I arrive will be flawed and complicated, as we all are. But, I am just as sure we can get to know one another and find a connection and hopefully answer questions on both sides of the fence.

So with that.....

I'm leaving on a jet plane...dah dah, dah dah, dah dum dum dum....