Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why this Christmas is all about Me, Me, Me...

This is the year I spend the holidays with myself...and for myself.

This must sound incredibly selfish, irresponsible and indulgent to anyone reading. On the contrary, this is the best thing I could ever do for the people and world around me.

My kids are having a great time in San Diego, enjoying LegoLand despite the rain. They will be spending Christmas at the Bellagio in Las Vegas with aunts, uncles, and cousins all around. They are also going to the Grand Canyon. At their age, I could only dream of doing all of that. So they will be fine... more than fine, actually.

This is not the first time they've traveled without me. I've traveled without them too. But it is the first time that I don't wake up every morning wondering if they have had their 3 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, or if anyone is breaking all my golden rules while I'm not there watching.

The first night after they left for their vacation was tough. I made up for months of paying for Netflix and not using the service, and got to bed at close to 4 am. That was Saturday. Thanks to yoga and ballet classes on Sunday, I completely crashed that night. On Monday morning, I was fine. I got to work on all my deadlines and projects -- for which I had chosen to not go on vacation.

I was the responsible, focused person again. And I was still a mom, loved and loving, even though my babies were not around to both hug and bug me. I had breathing space. I was glad for that. And it didn't make me a bad mom.

The problem is, many people would think so. What? You would let your kids go on vacation without you so you could do your own stuff?! The truth is, some years ago, that would have been how I thought too. As much as I had embraced and enjoyed my motherhood experience from the minute I knew I was pregnant with Amon, it hadn't been an easy, smooth sailing journey.

I gave my all to the role and experience from Day One. From the minute I saw the little "+" sign on the home pregnancy test kit, I quit smoking cold turkey, stopped hanging out in clubs, stopped drinking except for the occasional half glass of wine, quit coffee (I used to drink four cups a day, black, neat), sushi, etc. Whatever could have been potentially harmful, I quit...just like that. It may sound trivial but these little things added together meant a complete lifestyle change.

It was also, on hindsight, a reflection on my misguided attitude back then that motherhood was all about doing it RIGHT with strict rules and self-imposed regimes. Thankfully, at the same time as I was building my little totalitarian mom-dom, I also began to delve deeper into my yoga practice.

The question I'm most often asked is why I chose to train in and teach pre-natal, babies' and kids' yoga. The answer is simple: that was my journey. So thanks to a developing practice and slow but steady spiritual growth, I learned, in baby steps, to achieve balance.

The first six months to a year of my first child's life and my newly crowned motherhood status, I wore the badge of breastfeeding Nazi proudly on my sleeve. Anyone who dared so much as whisper the world "formula" to me was cut down to size and banished as an evil spirit. I had strong ideas and convictions, many based on research and statistics, and I would fight detractors. If they didn't concede, I cut them off.

I wasn't all wrong. In fact I was right about most things, as even my worst detractors have come to admit seeing the healthy, happy kids A & A are today. But I could have done it in a different way -- one that was less exhausting and demeaning to my spirit and that of everyone around me. It took several years of practice and growth to break through the fight-or-flight instinct.

Being still and taking the path of least resistance were not easy to learn. But I did learn some of those lessons and they came in handy with the second pregnancy and baby. By then, I didn't feel the need to fight anyone. I knew what I was doing with my kids. I didn't have to bark back at anyone that I was the MOM and I knew best. Somehow, by not doing all of that, people just understood. Nobody tried to tell me what I should or shouldn't do, well meaning or otherwise.

By then I was a certified teacher, which in many people's eyes would count as being an "expert." But it had nothing to do with that. I realized that in the early days, people were questioning and doubting my mothering because I was questioning and doubting myself. When I no longer doubted myself, everyone stopped doubting me.

That was a huge lesson. But it wasn't until three years ago, when my second child turned two, that I began to learn an even bigger lesson.

I had lost myself in my motherhood. It had taken me six years to learn how to fight without having to win, and win without fighting. The process consumed me so completely that I became just that - a struggle of motherhood. My self identity had become subsumed in the name tag that reads: "Mom of A & A." I had given up doing all the things that I loved and felt happy doing -- writing, music, dancing, etc. I didn't feel as if I deserved to have time for, or do anything for myself. And because I believed that, I led everyone else around me to believe the same. No one could talk to me without mentioning my kids. I could put together an engaging debate on the current affairs of the day but people would still be more interested in how old my kids were and what grade they were in.

I was partly to blame. It didn't help that I had given up my full-time job and felt identity-less because of that. I wasn't the only woman in my shoes. All around me, every day, I saw women who were devoid of self but brimming over with motherhood. The way society loves to glorify motherhood had a large part to play.

Don't get me wrong. I believe we should honor mothers. I've been there and I know what a feat carrying and giving birth to a child is, and how much more so challenging it is to be consciously raising that child everyday. What I object to is that latent to that sense of glorifying honor is also the attitude that mothers should subsume their own needs and identity and make self-sacrificial decisions in every way.

I had this argument with someone recently. I have $50. If I chose to spend it on myself instead of my child, does that make me a bad (or at least a poor) mom? Most people would say yes. She was a mum, of course. She said she was going to spend the $50 on a new dress for her 14-year-old daughter instead of a haircut for herself. She said it was more important for her teen to look good than it was for her, in her 50s. I told her that I would spend that $50 on a haircut for myself, so that I would feel good about the way I look, and as a result my teenage daughter would be getting positive vibes from me about self image and self esteem. That would have a much greater impact on her life than a new dress (which she may still feel bad about herself wearing). The woman bought the dress.

Mothers are individuals. We need to remember that ourselves. And everyone else needs to remember that, too. If we don't take care of ourselves, we will not be at our best in giving to and taking care of our kids. That is such simple wisdom and yet so easy to miss. I completely missed it for six years.

Even now, I sometimes find myself subsuming my needs to the instinct to mother. Not long after my kids' vacation was planned, I began to plan a mission trip. My two kids are going away, so now I'm going to go mother 20 orphans. It was all in the best intentions. I missed working with kids and what better time than Christmas for a volunteer trip?

I had wanted to go to Haiti initially, but realized that it was naive to think I could just show up on my own without any connection to an aid organization that knew its way around. Instead, I found an international organization that was reputable and well regarded. I was set up with a trip to Costa Rica, and it was perfect because I could even use my frequent flier points to book the flight. But somehow, something was holding me back and I dragged my feet over booking the flight. One, two, three days went by. It was a perfect arrangement but something didn't feel right.

I emailed my friend in New York, whose clear vision and simple wisdom I always valued and cherished. She wrote back: "Follow your heart. As long as you know you are being responsible."

That was it. I wasn't being responsible...to myself.

Mothering is a great act of selfless responsibility. But it can also be one of selfish defense. It can be a wall that one builds around to block out the world. I'm busy, I'm a mom. I have all these things to do. I can't think of anything else. It's hard. I'm doing great on a tough job. So I don't have to engage. And you'll have to respect that...and me.

It wasn't that I didn't genuinely want to reach out to the orphans and give them all the love and mothering I can. I did. But the person who was really in need of that right now...is me. In the last nine years, let's just say many bad things had happened. I've been through turbulence, trauma, life-and-death moments. But I had never taken the time out to reflect, to heal, and to tell myself that I deserve to be taken care of as well.

That night, as I sat there re-reading my friend's email, I thought of T. -- a HIV positive man in his 50s I interviewed two years ago for a grad school project. He had been in and out of jail all his life and his relationship with his daughter is strained at best. I asked him if he thought there was a chance he could fix that, now that he's finally out of jail for good and re-building his life.

His answer threw me off: "No. I'm gonna have to fix me first. You may not agree, but if I ain't fix, I'm no good to her or to myself or to anybody. So I'm gonna spend time on me. I'm gonna fix me first."

T. was no philosopher and neither had he read any philosophy in his life. But he found the answer that most of us spend an entire lifetime searching for...in books, in philosophy, in religion, in prayer. The capacity to love and be loved stems from the same space within - self love. For some, that is manifested in the grace of God that they feel inside. For others, it is a sense of inner peace and universal compassion. They are all one and the same thing.

The next morning, I got online and made arrangements to spend Christmas eve and Christmas Day at an ashram and meditation center. I'm spending Christmas with me, but not alone. I will be in an open and loving community of people who will accept and understand when I say that this Christmas is going to be all about me, me, me.

I'm gonna fix me first.

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