by Conlee Ricketts
I'm not sure if it is fake, false, pretend, or just plain award-winning acting, but I have appeared far more courageous when my child is watching than I really am. I have kept my shit together so my child would feel calm and safe while on the inside I was screaming or crying. Each illness, bloody knee & nose, or broken bone (mine), I plastered a calm “everything is going to be just fine” smile on my face. I'm certain this has helped me grow as a person, but at the time it was exhausting.
I can pinpoint two events where my courage was 100 percent fabricated! One event was a temporary kind of “hold it together” and the other was more of an ongoing “holding it together.”
Short term holding it together: Eleven-year-old daughter
Walt Disney World: Animal Kingdom; Expedition Everest ride: (Spoiler Alert; read at your own risk).
I had never been to Disney World before and I had done all that I possibly could to save for this trip. I wanted my daughter to enjoy a last hurrah before "stay at home mom" became "working mom" again. We decided to be brave and ride the roller coaster Expedition Everest. We waited in line, read all about the Yeti, finally got buckled in and we were off!
The roller coaster was chugging up to get ready for its first big hill. I’m laughing and enjoying my daughter’s screams of enjoyment. Then all the cars came to a slow stop as we reach the peak. I’m cool, sometimes reaching the top of that first big hill a coaster slows as it clicks its way up, so I give my daughter a confident smile.
Something is wrong, we have stopped for way too long. Suddenly the cars chug and slip and we begin to start flying backward down the track. My daughter grabs me and screams. I look down at her with a giant smile glued to my face while trying to memorize her face in the last few moments of our life together on Earth. I was certain we were going to die and I wanted to remain calm for her. Inside I was scared shitless. Period. Convinced we were going to die on this %#*ing roller coaster.
It took me a few moments to notice that the scenery was different; we were no longer outside in the sunshine but inside the Yeti's cave. The damn ride was supposed to go backward! I was unaware. Not being a “Disney Pro” I had no clue what this ride was about.
I never told my daughter I thought we were going to die that day until last month and her "high schooler" response, “Oh my god! Really Mom? That’s hilarious and so sad!”
Long-term holding it together: Six-year-old daughter
The year my marriage ended and I lost our house was all about fake courage and putting on a brave face—for my child and basically for the entire outside world.
I had to schedule time to cry. Hiding my sobs and screams locked in my car alone in a parking lot, or on the front porch at 1 A.M. while my daughter slept. She was so young, and while I have no problem letting my daughter know that emotions are healthy and that crying is okay, this type of raw emotion from me was not something a six-year-old would understand.
I am the “Mom” and moms take care of shit, moms are protectors and problem solvers, and moms, dare I say it, are magic. We can kiss it and make it better.
All the details of my life at that time were all very grown-up problems that had absolutely nothing to do with my child's health and happiness. I refused to burden her with my grown-up problems and emotions. All she needed to know was that we were going to move into a very cool new apartment, life was still going to be great, and that I would take care of anything and everything. Nothing to worry about.
Looking back that’s exactly the way it turned out and everything was fine. I survived it all, and for the most part, I did an okay job at keeping my shit together. I wasn’t perfect and I’m sure there are a few scars that remain for my daughter from that period, but I was as courageous as I could possibly be.
I think trying to help our kids feel safe and protected creates many opportunities for this “courageous parenting” which feels like a giant game of pretend. I'm not sure if others will agree with my choice to schedule time to cry or putting a brave face on things to get through them, but it’s how I have chosen to help my daughter enjoy childhood. I don’t want her to feel responsible for me, or my problems, or my happiness. She is the child and I am the parent, and I’m supposed to be able to handle all the bullshit tossed my way. How I choose to handle the rough stuff helps her see how to deal with her own future struggles.
Right now, she just needs to enjoy her childhood. And truth be told, after twenty-seven years in a classroom, I could re-write this entire essay for teachers. Teaching=Fake Courage. Years of illnesses, bloody knees & noses, fire drills, tornado drills, and every lock down, my face must display the similar “everything is going to be just fine” face that I’ve mustered for my own child because I’m protecting someone else’s child. This is one of those rare skills that actually translates very well to the classroom.
So, as our kids head back to school we put on that all-knowing face of courage for our kids to let them know everything is going to be just fine. And if it isn’t? Well, as the grown-ups in charge, we need to work to support our children through the “not fine” in a calm, all-knowing, and courageous way—whether we feel that way or not.
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My Morning Coffee or Understanding Longfellow
by Conlee Ricketts
I’m sure most of us can point fingers and blame someone guilty of taking us for granted at one moment or another across our life. That isn’t what this is about.
I was dissecting the phrase “taken for granted” the other day over and over in my head as I have a habit of doing. There are so many things that I simply had the assumption of “continuous presence” in my world. I had an expectation of permanence. A completely unrealistic expectation that is so obvious on the surface, yet I clung to the expectation blindly without question, and I neglected to enjoy something or someone or some moment. I neglected to savor it, say thank you, smile and breathe.
What started this was visiting friends and watching the couple who had been together for maybe ten years or so navigate the kitchen of their home, talk, joke, roll eyes, misunderstand one another, be irritated, laugh, brush shit off, and move on to the next task.
I was envious.
Had I ever had a relationship like that in my life? Of course I had, but I don’t now, and I think I took it for granted.
When I was in high school, my mom told me, “All relationships end.”
She was very matter of fact and followed up with, “It will happen at some point no matter what; the longest relationship with anyone ends with death of course.”
She wasn’t sad, she was just being realistic, stoic, no nonsense, basically her charming self. Not that I really want to argue with her now, and yes our physical relationship did “end” with her death 20 years ago, but that was just the physical in-person relationship. She is still around in my emotional and cerebral world so, as expected, and not at all surprising to anyone who knew us….we disagree :-)
I’m pondering the words of wisdom I want my daughter to remember, and I am leaning heavily toward appreciation. Appreciation of the presence of anything in the moment it is present. Beginning with a list of a few things I took for granted back in the day:
I want my daughter to attempt to appreciate her moments now while she’s in the middle of them. Her joy and her pain while still in high school. I want to tell her to “enjoy” any heartbreak that might come her way in the next ten years, as well as the love that she thinks will never come her way; to enjoy the friendships, laughter, and drama that is part of the everyday. Because these next ten years or so will be when she is most likely to truly feel everything the deepest. I don’t want her to take any of that joy or pain for granted and assume she will have an endless supply of these intense experiences throughout life. While we continue to have experiences throughout life, the good and the bad, the way they feel in intensity changes over time. It's just the way the brain is wired to "grow up." The deep, raw feelings she experiences now are at a level that her brain will grow out of over time. If she's in love, she's IN LOVE. If she is hurt and disappointed, she is HURT and DISAPPOINTED. If she is pissed at Mom, believe me, she is PISSED AT MOM.
How will I handle these extreme ups and downs of joy, pain, happy, sad? For starters, I won’t take these moments with my daughter for granted. If I’ve done my job well, she will be ready to navigate the world without me in a few short years. Next, I will do my absolute best to be the person that I needed when I went through all of that: quiet, open-armed, without judgement, and un-angry. “Un-angry” is such a rough, unpolished word, but I just remember a lot of anger during my high school years—both from me and towards me, and it was difficult to navigate. I am 50% of our relationship equation, and I have learned that not engaging with the anger typically will result in the quiet comforting mother/daughter hug that I had always wanted from my own mother.
There are certainly things I miss in my life, and sometimes I think it isn’t the “thing” but the “intensity of the thing" I miss the most. Yes, I took people, places, things, and feelings for granted and was certain they would “always be available.” My goal is to enjoy things again. I will enjoy what I have while I have it, and if I can, I want to help my daughter do the same now while the intensity exists to create a habit of appreciation and understanding.
by Conlee Ricketts
The day before the final day of 7th grade my daughter hops in the car with two of the three girls I regularly take home.
“Where’s (Insert Girl’s Name Here)?” I say. It doesn’t matter who it was, because what happened next is really all too familiar in middle school. It happened to me, it happened to students every year I taught middle school, and it will continue to happen.
“I’m not riding with (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter says sharply. Notice the lack of information I have at this point. I can see the girl running toward the truck.
“That’s not nice,” I say, “I’m not going to just leave her.” This friendship has been dissolving all year but the carpool situation was established, and I only have one more day to get through.
“Well, we aren’t taking her tomorrow!”
“There's only one more day, c’mon. We are taking her to school tomorrow.” I still have no information at this point but I’m trying to de-escalate whatever has happened using my calm voice because there are two other girls in the truck.
“(Girl’s Name) said I was ugly!” and now the other girls in the truck are into the conversation, “How did you hear that?” “OMG I can’t believe she said that!” etc.
“Okay,” now I have something to work with, “did you tell her that was hurtful, or ask her why she would say something hurtful like that?”
“No! Someone else told me she said it!”
“Well I think you should address it with her but not now in the truck in front of everyone.” I say. (Girl’s Name) is now standing outside the truck door while friends in the back seat keep the door closed in solidarity. I have to say “let her in.” (Girl’s Name) gets in.
“I don’t appreciate you telling people you think I’m ugly, (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter blurts.
“I never said that! Who told you that?!” she says.
I look at my daughter and say, “We’re not doing this now in front of everyone.”
I drop everyone off in a mixture of awkward silence and the other girls conversing about random things that essentially exclude (Girl’s Name). After (Girl’s Name) leaves the truck, my daughter’s best friend is able to guess exactly who the boy was that told her what had been said. Then more silence. After the last girl leaves the truck my daughter bursts into sobs. As I reach home and shut off the truck, I sit with my daughter quietly while she cries.
Before I get much deeper into this story I need to explain that yes, Mother Bear does kick in wanting to save my child from all the hurt and evil in the world, but trained professional middle school teacher also kicks in wanting my daughter to learn how to handle these situations on her own. The mother/teacher in me wants her to understand that it isn’t about who said what to whom, it’s about whether or not my daughter is going to believe every bullshit comment someone else says about her and then absorb it as her “truth.”
We cannot control what others say or think about us; we can only control how we choose to react to it, and we control whether or not we are going to add it to the baggage we carry for far too long. I made the mistake of adding every “you’re ugly, you’re too quiet, you’re a crybaby, you’re too tall, you’re stupid” to my own baggage beginning in 6th grade, and I have had trouble putting it down for years. I don’t want this for my child.
When the crying slows I observe, “Wow, you’ve been holding that in well.”
“Since 5th period!” she sobs. Three hours.
“What happened? How did you hear this?”
The story is a familiar one unfortunately. I think an identical scenario happened to me at her age. In between classes while my daughter was at her locker, a boy walks by (typically this is the cute boy or the popular boy) and says “Guess what? So-and-so told me she thinks you’re ugly,” and then he keeps on walking. Now anyone standing around has also heard this, and since he has kept on walking my daughter is left standing there feeling the heat of the imaginary spotlight with no recourse.
“Wow, that’s hurtful. How did you handle that?” I asked.
“I just said ‘OK’ and acted like I didn’t care.” The tears are still dropping off her cheeks into her lap because her head is hanging so low.
“That’s the worst. I’m angry he felt the need to share that with you. What do you think he had to gain by saying that sort of thing to you?” At this point I’m hoping that I can help her to realize that people do and say mean things because of stuff that is going on with them, not her.
“I don’t know," pause, "(Girl’s Name) has been mean to him all year long. He knows that she rides home with me, so maybe he was trying to make me mad at her to stop giving her rides.” She finally lifts her head to look at me.
“Well, if you decide to talk to her about it, these things almost always go just like they did when she got in the car: ‘No I didn’t’ and ‘Who told you?’ So be prepared for the denial. You can think about just letting her know you don’t care if she said it or not, but that it was hurtful, and when she asks again for who told you I would just say ‘the person you said it to. It doesn’t matter anyway, it’s just mean.’ And then walk away. You don’t need to argue about it because now she knows you know. Even if you don’t talk to her about it, you've learned something about both her and the boy who felt the need to share it with you.”
My daughter nods.
“I’m so sorry you held that in all day and that you were hurt like that. It’s not fun at all, but it sounds like you handled it really well.” We leave the truck.
A quality my daughter has that I admire (except when it's directed at me because it's typically accurate) is her fearless approach to calling others out on their bullshit. If you upset her she will tell you; if you do something she doesn’t like she will tell you; if you hurt her she will tell you. She uses this to protect both herself and others. If she sees someone else being picked on or treated unfairly she will speak up for them; she can be direct and sometimes her tone brutal. What she hides a little too well is that she is also easily wounded. The last thing I want is for what happened in the hallway to stick with my daughter for years to come like it stuck to me. Her ability it speak up for herself is really part of what I was missing at her age, so I don’t think it will stick with her, but I can’t really be sure.
We each have choices about how we will react to things. I could have gone all 51 year-old-psycho yelling at 13 year-old-meanie who talked behind my daughter’s back, OR I could choose to help my daughter process the experience of finding out that yes, people talk about us behind our backs.
My daughter was hurt, publicly humiliated, and felt betrayed by someone she saw nearly every day of 7th grade. No amount of me telling her that she isn’t ugly was going to help her navigate what happened to her. It also doesn't really matter whether or not the other girl actually said this or not; my daughter believes that she has. What might have helped was having her think about what motivated someone else’s behavior, having her take time to think about how she might want to address it, and my silence while she cried.
She has heard me say it often: wounded people are sometimes better equipped to inflict more pain on others. I want to help her navigate being hurt by others in a way that sets her free from the pain instead of trapping her into believing that the pain is somehow deserved or part of who she needs to be.
I can’t say with confidence that the pain hasn’t stuck with her. I also can’t say I handled it the best possible way. A month later I can see that the remnants of the sting of the comment have shaken her confidence, and I know that the close of 7th grade has wounded my child. My heart is broken. What I do at this point is the only thing I can do—I simply need to stay available and listen more than I talk.
I laughed when I searched “single-minded.” The Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary gave me these fun words:
· determined, devoted, tenacious, having only one purpose, goal or interest
BUT scroll a bit more and it says that “Related Words” are:
· bitter, cocksure, hardened, pigheaded, and rigid
Talk about words for some self reflection!
The phrase “single-minded single mom” came to me in a flash and for some reason I liked it, even though I have problems with the two halves separately--together they are me.
The phrase “single mom” has always rubbed me the wrong way, and—being brutally honest here—I have never used it once over the past five years—ever—probably because I felt that using it somehow publicly announced a failure on my part. So I have stubbornly refused to describe myself this way. One reason was because of my previously mentioned “failure” announcement feelings. The other reason is a crazy self imposed belief that people would perceive my using it as way of screaming “poor me” while subtly asking for support, or pity, or a pat on the back for “making it work” all alone in the world, and I didn't like thinking that people might assume I needed pity for my “struggle.” My view has always been that everyone has to “make it work” and how you do it has very little to do with a marital/parental status. In fact I may even be struggling less now than during other chapters of my life.
But I love all words because of their beauty as descriptions not labels so I knew I had some thinking to do. Yes—I am a mom; I am unmarried; therefore I am a single mom.
So in the past I resisted, but I’m okay with it now; it describes me, it doesn't label me or define me.
What about single-mindedness? Yes, I’m determined to find my way. I’m devoted to my growth and my child. My interests are happiness, creativity, and love in all the varied forms they show up.
Whoa—what about those related words? Believe it or not this required less inner work than “single mom” did because I accept my truth; I humbly admit to personifying each of those related words at one time or another.
When I am rigid it’s because I’m afraid.
When I am pigheaded it’s because I’m afraid.
When I am bitter, cocksure, or hardened, it’s because I’m afraid.
Each of those results from a much larger fear that rests inside. Excavation, exploration, and honesty are my only tools to provide comfort for these fears. Working with these tools is where I am today. The quest for happiness and joy is my path.
Choosing to be happy takes practice after years of old habits of self-loathing, feeling broken, lost, and inadequate, but it’s possible, and I am “determined” to walk that path of happiness, creativity, and love.
My daughter popped this conversation on me about a month ago and it really made me reflect on my choices while I walk this path, because I want my daughter to walk this path too before her path might harden with inner negativity like mine already had. I know that my choices influence her life by my example and my words. Thinking before I speak is a skill I sometimes forget to use, but thankfully at moments like these I speak slowly and choose my words carefully.
“Is there something you want me to be?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want me to be anything?”
“Oh…well…as corny as it sounds, all I really, really want for you is to be happy.”
“Oh c’mon. Parents always want something from their kids. A lawyer, a doctor, or something for them to be in the future.”
My daughter clearly thought I was bullshitting her; although she would never actually say “bullshitting.” She’s not so thrilled to have a sailor for a mom.
“Well, I have to admit when you were younger I wanted…or thought maybe that you would be an artist of some kind because of the way you use your hands and the way you draw. But I've changed my mind—now all I want is for you to be happy. I want you to choose whatever it is that makes you smile. I can tell you what I don’t want though.”
“I don’t ever want you to stay in a job that makes you unhappy. I don’t ever want you to stay in a relationship that makes you sad. I don’t want you to make a choice that feels uncomfortable in your belly. Don’t let anyone make you feel less than you know you are, or stay where you feel unhappy, unloved, or uncomfortable. Long story short—I want you to be happy.”
I wish someone had said this to me when I was eleven.
So I have decided to embrace the title A Single-Minded Single Mom for me and my blog, and I am forever grateful for the phrase making itself known to me.