Holding Space for Letdown

sand_heart“All I want for my birthday is to go away with Daddy.”

It was months before my daughter’s sixth birthday. Although she had been on many vacations, she never traveled with her dad. My happiness at his agreement to take her away shifted into heartbreak when he decided to plan a trip without her. My only solace in his decision was that his trip overlapped with a vacation I was taking her on.

“Are you kidding me?” It was days before our vacation, and I could feel my eyes burn. As it turned out, his trip would begin when we returned home — he was going to miss her birthday.

***

“Am I going to see Daddy when we get home?” Our trip was coming to an end, and it seemed I couldn’t hold out any longer. I sat down to prepare for her reaction and told her the truth.

“It just doesn’t make sense!” Over the next 15 minutes, I could feel a stabbing pain in my chest as her yells slowly became quiet sobs, and she at last settled into my lap. “It just doesn’t make sense. All I wanted for my birthday was to go away with him, and he’s going away without me.” Her voice was practically a whimper.

I pushed back the tiny hairs stuck to her mucus-streaked face. “It doesn’t, my love.” I slowly circled my palm on her back, imagining the bright sun shining on us. “It doesn’t make sense.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes before she could see.

A few days after her birthday, we went for a walk in the neighborhood.

“Does my daddy only think about himself?” she asked, completely unaware of how wise she seemed.

As the pride swelled in my chest, I knew I had to stay calm. I paused, looking up at the sun, letting the warm rays wash over my face. Up until that point, I had assumed it would be years of missed birthdays before she thought his behavior could signify anything other than something fundamentally wrong with her. I felt years of concern slide off my shoulders, confident she was better armed to deal with her father than I ever was.

I considered my options. If I said “yes” I would be disparaging her father — something I was not suppose to do, something I didn’t want to do. But if I said “no,” I would belittle her discovery. I wanted to encourage her to question her father, but I also wanted to honor their relationship and my daughter’s need to navigate it for herself.

“Well,” I said. “I cannot say exactly what goes on in his mind because only he knows for sure.”

I leaned down and look her in the eyes. “But when I look at his actions and the decisions he makes, its the most logical conclusion I can think of.”

“Okay.” She smiled happily and skipped off singing, recovering from the conversation in a way only a 6 year old can.

Time passed, and she was going to her father’s house. Before leaving, she cried to me that she didn’t want to go. I wanted to encourage her to stay. I wanted to keep her from him, but I knew that it wasn’t my place. As her mother, it is not my job to keep her from her father. Its my job to give her what she needs to heal and let go. I told her I would miss her, too.

“Daddy! Daddy!” Her eyes glazed over, and she smiled with joy at their reunion. He greeted her with a loving embrace. She grabbed his hand tight, clinging to the connection she desperately wanted. I followed behind them for a moment, smiling.

Then I said goodbye and began to prepare the space within me that my daughter would need for her next letdown.

A Gift to Moms

mom in group picture in 55 3
photo: flickr/ctsnow

I was amidst a current of chemotherapy and after effects of radiation when my body’s recovery slowed and I could no longer keep up with the aggressive cancer treatment.

This gave me a reprieve of several weeks that allowed by body to heal enough to come along with a friend to an API support group.

I had wanted to go since I heard about the group, and my health challenges stood in the way.

The meeting was in the basement of a library. As I walked down the large, open staircase, I wondered how I would make it back up.

The group of about 10 moms sat on the floor in a circle. Young babies were nursing and toddlers were roaming around the room.

Kaylee was there too, alongside her friend Mae. They were both 1.5 and Mae’s mom Kasey had spent hours watching Kaylee while I was living far away for treatment.

I listened as every person introduced themselves, including details about how they heard about API and what brought them there that day.

I had a great pressure in my face as my turn came to pass. I was scared I would break down immediately if I mentioned the words cancer or separation. I hoped the hat on my head and bulky closed hid the disease I was facing.

“Hi, I’m Wendy. I’m here to meet other AP moms like me. My good friend Kasey told me about it.” I smiled as I looked at her. My dear friend who was by my side in an unspeakable way. “She’s up next.”

I was grateful that I made it through the introduction without a tear. My jaw relaxed and I was able to breathe again.

The topic of the day was reconnecting after separation. Like many AP moms, the women were rarely away from their children more than a few hours.

Regardless of how long, reconnecting was difficult. Any separation needs a little bit of loving care. Some needed time and space to help clear out the experiences and interactions during separation.

I really wanted to speak. After all, separation had become a way of life for Kaylee and me. We had become use to being separated, sometimes weeks at a time.

I felt guilty though. I didn’t want to take over the meeting. I thought that as soon as I told any part of my story, it would be the end of other moms telling their stories.

My situation was so extreme.

So heartbreaking

“What about you?” The group leader looked at me and spoke with gentleness. “Do you have anything to share about reconnecting?”

It was just the push I needed to open up.

“I don’t know where to begin. We are separated all the time.” The flood gates opened as I sobbed and snorted. “I was diagnosed with cancer the weekend of my daughter’s first birthday.”

I immediately felt a warmness and comfort come from the group. My thoughts of guilt faded and I felt safe saying more.

“I was diagnosed with a very rare and highly aggressive cancer, so there wasn’t much time. I had to wean her immediately.”

The moms were concentrating deeply on my words. I could see tears form in some of their eyes as they looked at their own children.

“There were no local, outpatient options for my treatment, so I have been living in the city most of the time. Away from my daughter.”

I continued on. I spoke about how she was living at her grandparents house most of the time. About how saying goodbye was heartbreaking with the tears and the “nos.”

I spoke about missing the energy needed to pick her up or give her any care.

I spoke about the frustrations about my daughter falling asleep to TV instead of nursing. How she was eating processed foods. How she was in diapers. Disposable diapers!

The moms all got it. I was surrounded by an audience of other parents who could connect with the difficulty. Not just separation, but also the challenge when other caretakers do not follow the practices we hold dear.

The response from the mothers was healing. They helped shift my focus from what I didn’t like, to the healthier parts of the separation. Kaylee was watched by her grandparents and Kasey. That she was forming deep relationships with other adults who loved her very much. That these relationships would stay around long after treatment and would be a source of support as she grew.

The moms brought up their own separations and challenges. They may have been on the same scale as mine, but were from the same source of heartbreak. From the same place of Love.

I was thankful to hear them.

Then they all had ideas. Creative, wonderful ideas to help. Many of which I hadn’t thought of before.

Where I had started the meeting in fear of sharing, I left with a feeling of love and support. I had the wonderful surprise of seeing my daughter bring me this custom tote bags she ordered for me for my special day.

A love and support I had not felt since I had been diagnosed.

Deeper than that, it was something I had not experienced from the moment I became pregnant.

Something I had craved from the moment my daughter was born and was heartbroken time and time again when I didn’t receive it from the people around me.

I left the meeting with a new group of friends. Friends who began checking in on me, dropping food at my house or recommending a compassionate understanding of my situation and tools that helped.

I have seen this pattern emerge time and time again when someone in the group has needed help.

It wasn’t just me that was healed from the meeting. Every mom in the room was connected to so some kind of healing, whether is be gratitude for the own health or the nature of helping another.

After all when you are in a dark place and need help yourself, sometimes serving another is all the healing you need.

From that first meeting, I thought of the API group as a place of support. A place of wisdom. A place of Love.

When I meet a parent to be or new parent and they ask for advice, the first thing I say is “find some friends who parent like you.”

Sometimes we get blessed with that support from the people already in our lives.

And sometimes, we need to find a new source of support.

For that, API is a gift for every AP minded parent.

It is a blessing I am grateful to have.

It’s Going to Be Okay

“I’m not going in.” Kaylee screamed as I opened the door to our apartment building. It had been months since I left and the transition coming back from her dad’s was still difficult.

She was tugging on my shirt with alligator tears clung to her cheeks and snot running down her face.

“I wish you and daddy lived together… I want to live with both of you… I want to live in our old house…” The sentences were separated by heaving breaths and my heart dropped every time I heard her gasp for air.

“I know its hard. You want us to be together.”

I gave her space and let her know I was available for a hug. I smiled at anyone who passed and stayed with her, allowing her to release the strong emotions.

After what seemed an eternity, she calmed enough to come into the building and we walked to the elevator.

The moment we got into the apartment, she ran to the couch and returned to crying.

“I hate it here and I hate you!” She screamed.

It wasn’t upsetting to hear the words, but to have known she meant it. At least for a moment.

At that moment, she was feeling enough pain to hate the person she loved most.

A pain I had the key to solving and would not.

I stood there, alone, looking around the room and into her eyes as if this pain would just disappear.

I breathed. I did everything I could to stay connected to my heart so I could hold the space for her response and then let it go.

I wondered when this would end. When she would accept having two homes and separate parents. And then I realized that it may never. That the desire to have her parents together may always be there.

Just like I wish my father was still alive, she wants nothing more than to go back to being a family.

But that is life. Filled with so many opportunities to learn the most difficult lessons.

Lessons only love can heal.

And part of parenting is learning how to be the neutral, loving support your child needs when life brings them a trial. When all you want to do is solve their problem and wipe their tears away.

After a few minutes, she calmed down and ran over to me.

“I love you mommy.” Relief came over me as I felt her arms wrap around my neck.

“I love you too.” I closed my eyes and held her tight.

And in my head I told myself, “Its going to be okay.”

Mommy’s meditating!

By the time my daughter was 2 years old, I had completed treatment for cancer. Still very ill, I was on a quest to find health. I understood cancer to be an environmental disease, and while I could not say I knew what had caused the disease, I thought if I made enough changes, I could remove the underlying cause.

I took up yoga, among other practices to cultivate health. I gained so many healing benefits from the practice, especially working with sound and breath, and before long, I found myself engaging in a daily meditation practice.

At first, I would meditate after Kaylee would go to sleep. It started with a few minutes a day. After a few months, it was over an hour.

In every other aspect of my life, I was more calm and perceptive. The benefits of the practice were clearly evident and had a positive impact in my relationships and my ability to parent.

But, it was really hard to do. How do you meditate with a little one by your side?

If I got out of bed in the morning, she would wake up. Upset and overtired, it would make a difficult day for us both. When I waited for her to go to sleep, I was often too tired to stay awake.

The more serious I became about the practice. The more annoyed I was if Kaylee woke up. If I heard a noise come from the bed, my heard would jump as I feared an end to my blissful retreat.

By the time she was 3, I had many incidents of being irritated and having an overtired child who woke up alone and upset.

I also went to a plant medicine retreat to do my meditation and that was life changing for me.

At some point, I was at a dinner party and heard a story about a little girl who sat cross legged with her hands in gyan mudra (thumb and index finger tips touching) resting on her knees. The little girl then grimaced and yelled “MOMMYS MEDITATING!” Everyone laughed at the irony while I completely connected with the situation.

While the practice had helped me be a better mother at every other moment, I was not responding with Love and patience during practice.

It was clear, something needed to change.

And then, I got it.

This practice of meditation. Of being in the moment. Of activating the healing side of myself. Of taking it breath by breath, moment by moment. It was very similar to the experience of loving my daughter. Loving her without the judgements or fears. Those moments where its just her and me and it doesn’t matter what else is around or what needs to be done.

Moments of unconditional Love.

I decided that instead of trying to fight my daughter, I would work her into the practice. Instead of leaving bed to meditate, I would simply sit up in bed. Instead of trying to meditate after she fell asleep, when I was too tired, I would put her to sleep in my lap while I meditated (this was and continues to be great method of getting her to fall asleep!). If she woke up during my practice, I would invite her to join me and give her a hug. If that meant I didn’t get more than 3 minute intervals of concentration or my eyes were open the entire time or I really didn’t meditate at all, that was okay.

My intention was on Love. Once I opened myself to how I experienced that Love, the practice became more deep and the experience of my daughter transformed. I also found that if I took breaks while meditating to interact with her, she would happily play around me and give me some space.

Some days she even sits next to me, cross legged, hands in gyan mudra and tells me, “I’m meditating.”

While it isn’t easy to meditate with a toddler or preschooler climbing all over you, it is possible. The key is in remembering that meditation is not about being calm during a moment of peace. Its about cultivating the ability to have peace during a storm, whether that storm lives in experiences in our days or the expectations in our minds.

And what easier way to prepare then to practice in a storm everyday?

Weaning Early

I didn’t think much about parenting before I became a mom, but when it came to breastfeeding, there was never a question in my mind that we would nurse.

From the moment she latched on, I knew we would be doing this for a long, long time.

And so, on the week of her first birthday, when I found out I needed to have a biopsy for a polyp in my sinuses, I was horrified because the anesthesia would mean we would need to pump and dump my milk for a few hours. Even more alarming was my doctor’s insistence that the medication I would need to help whatever was going on would require me to wean.

On my drive home from that doctor’s visit, all I could think about in the car was having to wean Kaylee. And how that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

When I walked in the door and screamed for my mom, I expected the words out of my mouth to be about weaning Kaylee.

“I may have cancer.” Came crying out as I held my mother tighter than I had before. And I realized that there was much more at stake than nursing.

Two days later, I awoke from surgery and heard the news, suddenly weaning was not in my mind as much as living. And as I watched my daughter open her birthday presents that weekend, I could only hope to see her do the same at Christmas. Just a few short months away.

The next week, I had my first appointment at Sloan Kettering. It was on the 9th floor with the other pediatric patients.

I had Kaylee with me. I had been nursing her frantically. The only time I could maintain any sense of calm was during that beautiful time we shared.

One that I knew was going to end soon.

During the appointment, I was given my options for treatment.

I faced the most difficult decision of my life.

And I chose to give up a year of my life, to save the rest.

But it wasn’t just my life, it was the life of my little girl.

She who would need to go from sleeping by her mothers side and nursing on demand to having a mother who was rarely around.

We had a week to wean before treatment began.

My first thought was to let her nurse as much as possible, even encourage it. Let her enjoy it while it lasted.

But, it just didn’t sit well in my heart. She was only 1. I couldn’t tell her what was happening. It seemed more cruel to go from more than enough to nothing.

I changed tactics. When she came over to nurse, I would offer a hug and a smile. Tell her I love her and act as if that was all I needed as well.

And she was okay with the hugs. She stopped asking to nurse after a day.

Nighttime was a different story.

I didn’t have it in me to try to stop. She was still up every 2 hours and I was not in a place to try to get that to stop with so little time. Sleep was hard enough as it was!

And so, the night weaning was like ripping off a bandaid. Where I was the bandaid, and just like that, I was taken away and it was up to my daughter and her father to get through those first milkless nights.

I was weaning on my own.

Pumped milk is like gold. A precious commodity, you don’t want to lose a drop.

But my pumped milk was poison. With toxicity so great, I felt guilt every time I poured it down the drain.

Unable to fight any infection in my body, I had to be sure to pump milk regularly, because any plugged duct had the capability of endangering my life. At the same time, I had to get my breasts to stop making milk.

And so, it was a delicate balance. A tedious process that was draining physically and mentally.

In time, the milk was gone.

I think back to those first few weeks.

The diagnosis. Leaving home. Being sick.

And out of all the traumas of that year, its this experience.

Of pumping and dumping.

Of being scared to sleep with my child for fear she would start nursing.

Of weaning. Too early and too abruptly. Of having the experience last for weeks with every drop of milk that went down the drain.

And perhaps that is because its just not something anyone spoke about. Everything else seemed so big, weaning was just an aside.

And yet, the pain and heartbreak were tremendous.

Perhaps I will be graced with another child someday. A child that will wean gracefully. A child that will have their mother during their second year of life. A child who has happily married, healthy parents.

And that is a lovely, heartwarming thought. One that brings tears to my eyes.

But thats not what I need. And that life is not any better than Kaylee’s life.

Children don’t need to be protected from experiencing life. They need to be given the tools to help them get through it.

Kaylee is okay.

She is more than okay, she is incredible.

Well spoken, creative and compassionate. She is the walking example that all you need is love.

I wouldn’t take away any of her experiences regardless of how awful they may have been. They are hers to have had.

We spend a lot of time worry about messing up our kids.

Those traumatic experiences they encounter that we could have prevented.

The times we lose our cool and let our anger get the best of us.

We neglect ourselves trying to get it right.

Obsessing about the day to day encounters and experiences.

But its not our job to be perfect. Its not our job to make our children’s lives easy. Nor is it our job to push ourselves beyond healthy limits and boundaries because we are scared.

Its our job to Love. To give compassion. To teach and guide.

To forgive ourselves and others so that our children can too.

Whatever worry you have on your mind. Whatever struggle at the moment. Its going to be okay. Your child is going to be okay. The experiences and traumas we encounter cultivate who we become.

And when we are given love we become love and thats all any of us need.

Halloween

Having neutropenia means you lack the white blood cells necessary to fight infections. Should a patient get a fever during neutropenia, they must be admitted to the hospital to receive IV antibiotics or they are very likely to die (I do not remember the numbers exactly, but its something like a 70% mortality).

The week of Halloween 2009 I found myself a pediatric inpatient at Sloan Kettering with my first neutropenic fever. Every morning I waited for my blood counts and every morning morning I was heartbroken when the count remained zero.

On Halloween morning, when I got the news I had to remain in the hospital, I cried.

During treatment, Kaylee and I were together about 1 week for every 3 and very often, I was too ill to pick her up when we were together. When I was done with treatment, I told myself I would never be separated from my little girl again.

For Halloween of 2010, she was a kangaroo and we went trick or treating in my neighborhood. I had a little hair by that time and I was healthy enough to make it down the block and back. I was so very grateful to be with my little girl on one of my favorite holidays.

During the next year, I was on a quest of healing, both physically and emotionally. This led me to get training at the Marianne Wells Yoga School and become dedicated to yoga and meditation.  Through this practice, I was able to heal from much of the traumas of the past and experience life beyond the fear that is a staple of many survivors’ lives.

And before I knew it, Halloween 2011 was approaching. At that time, I decided to deepen my practice and signed up for a weekend training in California.

I had left treatment promising never to leave Kaylee and now I was about to volunteer to go away.

And so, I spent Halloween weekend in Santa Monica, CA and Kaylee spent it at home, with her father.

Fast forward to this year. I spent many weekends away at trainings to expand my practice. Every time I went away, it was so difficult to leave her and every time I came back, I was more calm and had more tools to resist reaction and respond with Love.

On October 18th I went to Mexico for more training. Although I was grateful she had such a loving and close relationship with her father and grandparents, who would be with her, it meant being separated from Kaylee for almost two weeks (trainings two weekends in a row, the first in Mexico and the second in LA). When I had signed up for the trainings, I had expected to bring her with me. Unfortunately, every plan and backup plan I had to make that happen fell through.

I arrived in LA on October 22nd. I was missing Kaylee terribly and knew it would be another week before I saw her again.

I knew in my logical mind that she was with people she loved and that she was okay. That the time we spent apart when I was ill allowed her to create very close relationships to other adults that were a safe home when I was away. That she was with people she loved. That the people she was with loved her very much. That bringing her to a weekend of long days of training would not be in her best interests.

I knew my feelings were more about my own personal desires than serving her, so I decided to let go of them.

But, I couldn’t.

She was on my mind. Everything I saw reminded me of her.

I met a little girl her age going to Disneyland. She was so excited.

“Next time.” I said to myself repeatedly, ignoring the pit in my stomach.

But then, as I meditated the next morning, everything in my heart told me “go get Kaylee.”

The message was so loud, I jumped up and went to LAX.

I hopped on the next flight home to go get my little girl.

I had no idea who would watch her or where we would stay. I just had hope that with a message so strong, everything would work out.

I booked our return flight for November 3rd (several days later than my original plan to return home on October 29), giving us enough time to go to Disney after training completed. It seemed like a nice way to balance out the long training days and plane rides.

I was like a little girl on Christmas morning.

We would not only be together for Halloween this year, but she would be able to come along with me to California.

And, we’d get to go to Disney!

I was super excited for the trip. There was no doubt in my mind that bringing her to LA was what I needed to do. I was grateful to have had the faith to listen to my intuition despite its impractical nature.

And suddenly, something unexpected then happened…

Two days into our trip there was news of a hurricane.

I hadn’t thought much about it. But then, as time went on, the nature of the storm worsened.

It was clear that bringing Kaylee to California was beyond anything I could have imagined. Had I followed the original plan, I would have been trapped in LA with my little girl in Sandy’s path.

The amount of gratitude for this experience is without words.

Even with all the separation we had experienced in her early years, my connection to Kaylee is incredibly strong. Its proven to be infinitely intelligent.

All mothers have this connection to their children. We’re wired that way. When our parenting is inline with our hearts, we keep the line clear so the important messages can be heard. Listen to it with Love. Accept it with Faith. And act on it with Hope. Because deep inside holds all we need to meet our children’s needs.

Mommy’s here

preparation for blood draw
flickr/SharonaGott

Just after my daughter’s second birthday, she had a prescription to get blood drawn. I told myself it would be okay and I decided that it would be easier for her if she watched me do it first.

We went to the local hospital. I had gone there many, many times during the past year for blood counts as I had been receiving treatment for cancer. A treatment that left me so weak, I was unable to pick her up for most of that past year.

The technicians greeted us.

“This is my daughter Kaylee.” I turn to the side so they could see her, perched on my back in the Mei Tai. It was only a few months since treatment ended, and it was the first time I had worn her in over a year.

“I had no idea you had a daughter! She is so beautiful. Its so nice to meet her.” With each sentence the tech’s voice became more melancholy. As if she were connecting the memories of seeing me ill to the new knowledge that I had a young child.

“She needs to get blood taken. Is my perscription still on file? I think it will be easier for her if she sees me do it first.”

“Its not going to work. Every toddler needs to be held down.”

“I still want to try.” I told them and asked them again to check for the prescription. The nurse found it and I sat down in the chair with Kaylee in my lap.

“I’m pulling up my sleeve so they can take blood.” I said as I rolled up my sleeve and placed my arm on the table.

“Now she’s tying a band around my arm. It doesn’t hurt, but it feels kind of funny. Its not very comfortable and sometimes it pinches my skin.” The tech was not amused. I could only assume she thought that by validating any fear, I would be instilling greater resistance. And nobody wants to hold down a toddler to take blood.

“Next she is going to put a needle in my arm. I am a little nervous because it sometimes hurts.”

“Don’t be nervous.” Kids aren’t the only ones who are told “no” to their emotions.

“Its okay to be nervous.” I tell both the tech and Kaylee.

“How could I not be?” I thought to myself, remembering all the times my veins were difficult to find. Remembering how my blood counts would dictate if I could continue treatment on schedule. The fear I had experienced when they were too low to begin a new cycle of chemo, my fate seemed to be resting in the hands of a single missed week of treatment.

“But you are always so calm when you get blood taken.” I was glad to be pulled out of those memories and back into the room.

Back to that moment. To my daughter.

“I am nervous, you just can’t see it.”

The needle went into my arm with ease.

“Now we can watch the blood.” I said, relieved.

The nurse untied the band and removed the needle.

“Now they are going to wrap up my arm, so I don’t get a bruise.”

“And that’s it. Are you ready?”

She shook her head no.

“You need a minute?”

She nodded.

“You can do this.” I told her with certainty.

She rolled up her sleeve. One of the nurses held her hand to keep her arm still and the other began the process.

I talked her through the steps just as I had done moments before.

I held her tight.

So very tight.

“I am here. Mommy’s here.” I repeated in her ear, over and over.

Just saying those words were empowering. I had been away for much of that past year.

A part of me was fearful in these words, scared cancer could return and take me away again. And I was grateful Kaylee wasn’t wondering the same thing.

I could see her bottom lip puffed out in a frown. Her mouth was quivering. There was no fighting or screams, though she was clearly upset.

“She is so sad. She’s going to make me cry.” Tears filled the tech’s eyes.

When it was completed, we were all amazed.

Amazed at the courage and strength of my little girl.

And so very thankful.

To have been able to tell her “mommy’s here.”

To have had the strength to wear her that day.

To have had the tools to help her through this challenge.

That she had felt safe and confident in her emotions. That she expressed herself.

That despite being weaned overnight and separated from me for almost a year, we still had an incredible connection. That all the principles we had practiced since birth had given us the ability to work through the challenges we experienced. That she had every reason to be a bratty toddler and she was anything but.

After that experience, it was so clear that attachment parenting worked. It worked wonders.

Pushing through the resistance and challenges that came along with AP had become a wonderful gift for our family.

And it was a wonderful gift to see the results in action, too.

A few months after this experience, she came with me to a doctor’s visit. She sat on my lap as I had blood drawn.

When it was over, she pulled up her sleeve and wanted a band-aid.

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