Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fresh Brewed: Self Care

Welcome to Fresh Brewed! Each week, if I can, I will write about a topic that relates to families. Then, at the bottom of the post is a Linky Tool so that you can link up your posts related to the topic for the week. It doesn't have to be a new post from the past week, if you have written about it in a previous post, link it! The topics will be broad enough to encompass many avenues of thought, but do please only post related posts. Opinion posts are welcome, but not bashing ones please. Please keep it respectful. There may be posts with vastly different viewpoints, or addressing points on vastly different areas of the topic. That's fantastic as every family is different and struggles with different circumstances. If you are not a blogger, but you have an interesting article to share, or read something another blogger posted, please feel free to leave a link in the comments section of the weekly post and a short description of how it relates to the topic. 

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Mother May I... 
And the Struggle to Make Ourselves a Priority

The tendency to care for other's, specifically our children's, needs before our own is in our genes. 

Yes, we are literally genetically programmed to ensure that their vital needs are met before ours. This begins with conception and continues all throughout pregnancy. The nutrients, minerals, and proteins, that we have in our body automatically go first to the growing fetus, then the remainders nourish the mother's body. If a mother is not taking in enough calcium through her diet to supply the rapid growth of baby's skeletal system, then the calcium stored in mother's bones is mined and used for the baby. 

This process continues while a mother is nursing, with her energy and nutrients being directed at her ever busy milk factory. But not only that. A mother's brain and body actually experience hormonal shifts that enable her to be on heightened alert, to wake when baby cries (this partially explains why Daddies blissfully snooze until crying reaches fever pitch), to respond to babies hunger cycles by letting down milk even before baby cries, and often recognizing the different cries baby vocalizes.

It is no real wonder then, that as our children grow, our tendency to tend to their needs first is really first nature, not even second.

Looking around society however, one can reasonably ask, where should a mother's needs fit in? If this is our nature, then shouldn't we follow it? To what extent?

Again, our own bodies provide a good basis. A woman who is malnourished has a very difficult time getting pregnant and carrying a pregnancy to term, and those who do may have babies who experience low birth weight and other health difficulties including being at higher risk for pre-term birth, and more susceptible to infection. A woman who is poorly nourished and is trying to breastfeed may find that her milk supply dries up and she can no longer nurse her infant. And when resources are scant, a woman who is nursing and finds herself pregnant may discover that her body will not allow her to do both at once. Her milk supply will cease, saving critical nutrients and energy for the growing fetus.

In these cases, a woman's body is designed to cut off care for a child if the mother's body is so depleted that her body and brain feel it is at risk of shutting down. It has gone into survival mode.

Obviously, these are extreme cases regarding pregnancy and nursing. And in most cases, completely preventable. But how many of us have found ourselves in extreme deprivation of our mental, physical, and emotional energy and resources? The fact is, far too many. And the fact is, this is still dangerous!

I know from experience, and from taking with numerous mothers that one of the primary things that keeps us from taking better care of ourselves is...GUILT.

We feel selfish and guilty doing anything that feels self-indulgent rather than productive or for the greater family good. So we avoid it. The demands of life, the consumption of our energy just compiles and overwhelms us though and the downward cycle robs us of joy. This is not a healthy way to parent. This is not a healthy way to live!!

Selfishness is defined as "devoted to or caring for oneself...regardless of others." Nourish is defined as "to sustain with food or nutriment; supply what is necessary for life, health, and growth." and "to cherish, foster, keep alive..." One is detrimental to happiness, but the other is essential.

Our children are not designed to be aware of our needs in this area. By design, they are survival structured. They behave in whatever way gets their needs met. As infants this means crying to alert parents that they are hungry, dirty, or hurt. As toddlers this involves a fear of strangers and separation anxiety. It also involves throwing tantrums, because, logically the more disruptive one is the more likely they will get needed attention. Clearly toddlers cannot distinguish between the health benefits of carrots and cupcakes, they just need food, so their behavior is the same. Even sibling squabbling is a means of survival. Child One takes what he wants, or what his immature brain is telling him he "needs", Child Two grabs it back, self-defense and adrenaline kicks in and before you know it fists are flying and teeth are biting. Their brain has no way of knowing yet that there is enough to go around, that everyone is safe, and that this is not an emergency. They simply are not programmed for it, yet. 

So clearly they are not going to be able to analyze their behavior and think, "mom looks tired, I think I'll just quietly play in my room and not make a mess." Gradually as they grow and mature, they will begin to be able to reason better, but it's long process.

Here is the tricky part. They will never learn to look out for our needs if we don't demonstrate that our needs are as important as theirs. Dads tend to do this naturally, and kids accept it and it becomes part of life. How can moms forge this same autonomy?

1. Stop viewing caring for ourselves as optional. Gently, but firmly, stop allowing our family members to do the same.

Changing the oil in our vehicle's engine is essential to keeping our car running and useful. Let's face it, Mom is the engine of the family. Caring for our needs, especially in regard to rest, nutrition, and stress management are as vital as good oil in an engine. We can run for a while on bad oil, but eventually, we will seize, burnout, and the risk of damage is high. Fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, headaches, are all physical symptoms that our "machine", our body and mind is in severe need of maintenance. 

2. Don't live in crisis mode if we are not experiencing an actual crisis.

In periods of war, famine, or emergency, it is common for mothers to ensure that their children get a larger portion and to forgo comforts to make sure the children will survive. The premise for such sacrifice in part is that we believe the situation to be temporary, and the short term sacrifice will ensure that our children survive and suffer as little as possible, then we will be able to restore ourselves when supplies are again bountiful. 

Most of us however, are not living in such a state of crisis. Yet, we often work well beyond our energy thresholds as if we were, even if it's not as extreme as the above scenarios. We have to get better at labeling emergencies, and stop reacting to normal daily events as if they were. In fact, we need to treat our bodies and minds as if we are preparing them for a time of crisis. By fortifying them with good nutrition, rest, and activities that help us maintain mental clarity and positive emotions. By filling our reserves now, when life is busy but not in crisis, we will have a more fully engaged response now, and be better equipped to deal with a real emergency should one arise.

3. Learn to say "No."

The happiest people stay that way because they allow themselves to say "no." No, to things that drain their energy reserve. No, to people or things that harm them rather than help them. No, to people they love because the benefits don't outweigh the risks. No, to their own negative self talk. No, to other's negative talk. No, to doing things just because it's "expected" or because it's "standard". No, to doing things for others that they are perfectly capable of doing themselves. No, to apologizing for things not needing an apology. 

"No." It doesn't always need validation or explanation, and typically the person most demanding of one is the least deserving of it, nor will it be sufficient. Practice until saying it feels as natural as acting on other's requests once did. A "no" can often later be changed to a "yes" if we decide that the circumstances merit it.

4. Learn to say "Yes."

The happiest people also allow themselves to say "yes!" Yes, this is what I need. Yes, to things that bring joy. Yes, to new things. Yes, to things that feed our passions. Yes, to time and conversation with those we love. Yes, to indulgences. Yes, because it is what we would encourage someone else to do in the same situation.

5. Take your own advice.

We all tell other moms how important it is to take care of themselves. To make time to engage in activities they love. And that they are doing a great job. Then we go home and do the exact opposite. Stop it!! Need a visual and physical way to remind yourself how important this is? 

Write a letter to a mother struggling to get it all done, and who doesn't feel very good about herself. After the date begin the letter "My dear friend" and then leave the name space blank. In the letter, commiserate with her, encourage her, tell her she is beautiful, and how important she is to her family and as a friend. Give her ideas of ways she can give herself fulfillment that is free or cheap, and that can even be done at home. Pour out your love to her, because you know how she feels.

Good. Your letter is all done? Sign the bottom, "With lots of love" and sign it.

Now, make a copy of it...write in your friend's name at the top of the letter. Then write your name in on the top of the copy! Every single word in it was thoughtfully written, carefully forged from a place of understanding and love, and they all apply to you personally. Put that advice into action! 

There will always be more to do than we can fit in a day. The only way we can enjoy life as we do it is to prioritize. We automatically prioritize every other member of our families. We are just as much a member of that family. A family portrait isn't complete when one member stands to the side. Their absence is glaring and the picture is incomplete. So too is our family when we do not treat ourselves as a priority. 

So, how do you take care of yourself? What are your challenges to prioritizing your needs? What are your goals? Share your thoughts in the comments and then link up your own Mama stories!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Preschool at Home! Chalkboard Painting

Here is another treasure from the backfiles.

This started as an act of desperation on my part, I just needed her to be occupied so I could finish something, but it quickly became one of her favorite activities.

If you have a chalkboard (we made ours on a half wall with chalkboard paint), all you need is a paintbrush, sponge, or washcloth, and a cup of water.

Dip the brush in the water and have at it!

Kit LOVES how the water turns the board black. So often, she will be at this so long that by the time she gets across the board, the first area she painted will be dry and a fresh pallet once again.

You can get creative with the things you use as paintbrushes, but she has been completely happy with our basic art brushes from Walmart.

I love watching her do this.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Barefoot Princess

So I was going through old drafts, "cleaning house" so to speak, and I found this precious gem that got left behind. It was just the pictures, I hadn't written anything with it yet, don't even remember what if anything I was going to.

Several things I love about these pictures. 

One, she has baby hands and toes in them, her hands and feet are growing and looking like big girl feet lately, and usually have several colors of fingernail polish on alternating nails. 

Two, the dress in these pics doesn't fit her anymore, but, we have the exact same dress in a size 5, which heartbreakingly, does not look as gigantic on her as it feels like it should. 

Three, she still runs barefoot least some things haven't changed.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Winston the Service Doodle Update!

I know, I know...It's about time!!

Well, here you go. A very picture heavy, explanation light catch-up post.

Our handsome boy at five months old! He's a year now, can't believe it!

Kit loves her matching necklace!

Helping Kitty Bitty through a thunderstorm.

He whizzed through Puppy Two class at only 7 months old!

Story time and snuggles.

Just dozing at IHOP.

Snuggling on Mama's feet watching Kit jump at a bouncy house park.

Winston's "You gonna give me french fries?" face.
The blue strap across his nose is something many people ask about. It is called a "Gentle Lead". It is exactly like the bridle on a horse's face, but without any kind of mouth bit. The lead goes around his muzzle and be hind his ears where it clips securely, but he can still eat, drink, yawn, and bark if necessary. The leash clips on under his chin and allows me easy and gentle control over his head. If he is going too fast or ahead of us, I just gently pull the leash back a bit and his head turns, he gives his attention to me by checking in with my eyes, and if I need to give an addition command, such as wait or sit, then he is ready and willing. I do not like having to give correction with a leash attached to his collar as I believe he has a soft throat, plus I don't feel it is as quick or natural to get his attention. And this sweet gentle boy has no need for any kind of prong or choke collar, he is smart and eager to please.

Watching Kit ice skate!
Then running to the car in the cold wind and snow!

I love it when she "shares" her song book with him at the Kingdom Hall.

"In Mah pretty pink 'muddle boots'!"

Helping Kit feel comfortable at the library with other kids and grown ups around. When she needs a little extra space so she is sure not to get accidentally touched, he provides a soft and fluffy barrier.
Helping her wait in line in a new place!

We were able to take two family trips in two months. We looked at over a dozen houses in four days. Before that, Victor and I were able to go to Hawaii for six nights for our anniversary. And major meltdowns are at an all time low. When we visited a new congregation in Branson, Kit even talked and hugged, yes hugged!!! another little girl there, and proudly announced that she had made a new best friend! 

Winston has changed our lives! And chewed up most of our shoes. But that is as much our fault as his, I'm constantly telling the kids to put them away, but we all forget sometimes. Anyhoo, he's doing great, Kit is doing pretty great too, which means life is just a little smoother. 

You can follow Winston on Instagram @Winston-the-servicedoodle! 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


"It's not the fall that kills you."

We've all heard this line. (Especially us Sherlock fans!!)

I completely agree. It's not the fall that kills me.

It's the summer.

The unyieldingly hot, suffocatingly humid, seemingly endless Deep South summers.

This past one, I experienced the worst mental emotional collapse I have ever had. I lost almost all function as a person. I was on the brink of a very ugly precipice.

With the last possible energy I could muster, I asked for help.

And help came. Well, I went to it really.

I was referred to a psychiatrist, after a couple visits and some medicine trial and error, she is helping me get back on track. Away from the precipice, and up and moving like a person again.

A very slow person, but a person again nonetheless.

My battles with depression over the years were even less under my control than I had ever realized. It wasn't something I could fix on my own. I didn't know the deeper root cause. Now I do.

I have BiPolar Disorder type 2.

Now things make a lot more sense. The years and years of doing great, awesome even, to plummeting into depression, then slowly crawling back out again. The cycle seems so obvious. I have a family history of Bipolar. But it never crossed my mind.

I only knew of one kind of Bipolar. The one most people think of. This is type 1. Where people go into a manic phase and their reckless or paranoid behavior causes major problems. And what a gross stereotypical oversimplification that is. But sadly it's still what most people think of.

I don't have a manic phase. I have hypomanic phases. It's a more controlled high than full mania. It is characterized by a flood of feel good hormones, surges of energy, great ideas, heightened senses, wonderful productivity, and a wonderful sense of self-worth. I thought for years that that was my true self. That was who I was, and my depressive episodes, which could last months, stole that self, held it hostage in the black fog.

Turns out, they are both my true self. One is as much a part of me as the other. And I have to learn to love the darkness as much as the light.

I am currently on two medications to help me try to balance and curb my "mood swings". Yes that is the technical term, which has been so abused that it really feels that it no longer applies to the very serious illness from which it sprang. So I will instead say, my medicine helps to lessen the severity and duration of my depressive episodes and lower the instances of hypomania.

I am relieved to have help in the depression department. But I honestly miss my hypomania. I was so good at getting things done during these stages. And now I can barely make it through my days without many rest breaks and a lot of mental effort.

I'm really still at the beginning of treatment. At my current doses, I've only been on these medicines for three months, the first three months was a lot of medicine tweaking every few weeks. I'm on an anti-psychotic, and an antidepressant. I CANNOT take the antidepressant without the anti-psychotic, a lesson we quickly learned this summer. I had some disturbing side effects.

I still have episodes. I recently had a severe depressive episode that lasted about four weeks. Then boom one day I woke up hypomanic and I have been for over a week now, though not nearly the same as I used to be. But, I'm making lists, plans, menus, looking forward to socializing, pre-organizing schoolwork instead of dragging into it day by day. I still do a large of amount of this from my bed, but I'm doing it instead of not being able to wake up at all. I know it won't last, but I'm trying to make the most of it while I'm here.

I have been forced to slow down. To start over with the soft foods of life, so to speak. Some days I can handle more, a lot of days I can only handle a little.

One of the major things that became very clear over the summer and in my course of treatment...I can't live here in the Deep South anymore. It's causing more harm than good. And so, after much discussion, and deliberation...we are moving!

We are moving in the spring to Branson, Missouri. It is the middle ground for Victor and I. He can still do his job without the enormous costs of having to set up a separate shop and contend with extremely cold weather, but I get hills, fall colors, some real winter weather, including snow, and much easier summers.

So the next few months are definitely going to be busy and full of change which has already caused plenty of stress and craziness to our already stressed and crazy household. Hopefully though, this time it leads to a happier, healthier, more capable Mama after it all settles down.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Caregiving:Things I Didn't Know I Needed

Caring for an aging and ailing family member is immensely hard. It consumes so much energy, attention, and yes, money as well. 

Caring for a child with special needs can and often is just as immensely hard, and is often a much longer journey. While I primarily focus on caring for an aging parent in this post, almost all of the points apply to caring for a child with special needs as well, and the accompanying printable list is just as useful for these parents as well.

Support can be a difficult resource to find at times, and respite even more elusive.

It has been a year now since our role as full-time caregivers to an elderly parent ended. We have still not fully recovered. We are still floating in bits and pieces in the aftermath of a storm that pulled our family in so many directions at once we felt parts tearing and then smashing into each other again.

For a family who has some time to prepare for a loved one's illness, it can be incredibly hard to care for that one full time. When you are thrown full force into it without any time to prepare, however, it is beyond overwhelming.

For someone on the outside looking in, things could seem very strait forward and black and white. But I promise, it gets very muddled down in the trenches.

Many times during the period we were caring for Grandpa friends and family made offers of assistance. "If there's anything you need." "Don't hesitate to call if you need something." I appreciated the sentiment of these statements. I knew they were genuine words from people who cared about our family.

I could not ask for what I didn't even know I needed though. At the time, I was drowning in responsibilities, hardly any that I could just hand over to someone else to manage for me. Grandpa arrived at the zenith of difficulties with Kit and Zak and learning that Autism and SPD were behind the nonstop issues that had dominated the previous year and a half. And things got worse before they got better, at least where Kit and Grandpa were concerned.

Now looking back, it's easier to see what, where, and when I needed certain things that would have or did give a measure of relief. It's also clearer what proved completely unhelpful.

Here is a list of Needs and Not Needs that hopefully might make another family's life as caregivers a little easier.

I with the house work. So many days I felt like I was busy all day but the house looked worse than when I started. Being home all day and homeschooling may lead one to think that I should have had plenty of time and hands to keep up with the house, but the exact opposite seems to be true. My homeschooled kids are very messy by nature and very prone to forgetfulness. Add other challenges inherent to Autism and Sensory issues, it's a recipe for household disaster. I never could get more than just cursory cleaning done. By the time I finished one surface job, three more disasters had occurred.

Three times I hired someone to come in and do the deeper cleaning for me, but only once one actually showed up and did any cleaning. She did a fantastic job, and then her life promptly got complicated so that she could no longer come to clean. After that I hired a teenager to entertain the kids for a few hours one afternoon a week so that I could get in some serious cleaning. That worked out great for a good part of the summer, but then she had to resume her own home and school responsibilities as well. I even traded music lessons for cleaning with a friend until her kiddos lost interest in the lessons.

What I really needed was someone or several someones to come on a regular, reliable basis and help me tackle the deeper cleaning chores that would have allowed me to catch up and stay afloat better. I was willing to pay what I could, but what I really needed was someone who would not have taken my embarrassed no for an answer. A few friends and family members did insist and simply rolled up their sleeves and made me let them help, and honestly I needed that. I needed them. I needed to let go of feeling ashamed and embarrassed at needing help and open my heart and arms to accept the gifts of labor and love that others were offering.

I Needed...meals. We became a family of six overnight. The sixth and newest member being a full grown person who ate regular food. It was already a challenge to cook for a family of five, but now we also had Grandpa whose finicky eating habits surpassed all those of any picky eater I had ever met. Many days, Victor and I had to prepare separate meals just for Grandpa. This was exhausting. I wish I had thought to call up those friends who had offered to help and ask them to bring me freezer friendly ready made meals to get the kids and us fed and through those tough days instead of turning to fast food.

I Needed...encouragement. Several good friends and close family members proved true by always having ready shoulders to cry on or an ear when I needed to vent. There were many who genuinely commended Victor and I for caring for Grandpa. All of those words were appreciated. The best and longest lasting encouragement came when friends would write us a card or letter though. It was something we could hang on the fridge and look at when we were hiding ham and chicken in his salad so that he would get some protein for the day since he refused to eat any thing except salad for months. Those cards and letters are visual hugs, and they are so helpful in making a caregiver feel noticed and appreciated.

I Didn't Need...people asking when we were going to move him to a nursing home. This is an intensely private and personal decision. Each family and caregiver have different aspects of life and circumstances to consider. While an outsider may feel they would make a choice easily, one really never knows until one is faced with those kinds of issues, challenges, and decisions. If a caregiver feels comfortable talking about it they will. If they do not, it feels awful to have to awkwardly explain or avoid discussing a topic which may feel intensely private. Trust me, it is a subject that has been investigated by the caregivers and family. We all make choices for many different reasons. Respecting a caregivers choice and privacy regardless of one's own feelings or even experiences can go a long way toward becoming one in whom caregivers confide and really trust.

I Needed...breaks. Yes, our situation was especially unique, in that we were smack in the middle of Autism and SPD and were learning everything as we were going along with it at the same time as we became full-time caregivers for an elderly and mentally ailing Grandpa. Finding a babysitter for Kit was nearly impossible. Finding a babysitter for three kids one with real special needs and a Grandpa with issues, not going to happen. Thankfully, Auntie moved closer to us, and Lela and Nana also lived near enough by that they could periodically come down and hold down the fort for an evening or afternoon and let Victor and I have a date night. 

We were and are still so grateful for those who learned signs to be able to talk to and understand Kit when she was non-verbal. The list of people who could step up and steer our ship without us on board was very small. It often took making multiple arrangements with family members and friends to make certain plans happen. Because of the energy and organization involved, we most often simply stayed in rather than go out. We handled everything ourselves instead of delegating more. This was harmful to us as individuals and as a couple. We both hit burnout multiple times in a matter of two years. Our patience worn thin because of life's demands meant that we had little to give to one another. We needed more people who were willing to come spend as much time as necessary letting Kit get used to them, to learn sign language, her routines, and Grandpa's as well so that Victor and I could have had more opportunities to feel relieved of duty and focus on each other for a while.

I Didn't be reminded of what I fun person I used to be. Our world came crashing in on us in multiple ways the year Grandpa moved in. We were already feeling the changes happening due to Kit getting older and having trouble going places or having people over. Besides the logistics, going out was just simply not something I had the energy for anymore. I wanted naps, quiet space without screaming meltdowns happening in my lap, or to eat something in one sitting. While going out with friends did have an aspect of fun and held the potential to be good for me, I could barely muster the energy to dig through the laundry for a clean bra on most days, much less shower, make up, hair etc. 

Gradually the invites slowed in frequency, then stopped all together. I was okay with it, honestly, a little relieved. I didn't have to excuse myself and see the hurt or disappointment in a friend's eyes if there was no invitation to start with. I had some amazing supportive friends through those tough times. I would have loved it even more if more of them had shown up with coffee and muffins and were absolutely okay with ignoring the grossness all around the house and just talked with me, filled me in on the world outside of Autism and Alzheimer's.

I Didn't Need...advice. At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all and like a real jerk, the vast majority of the time we really needed empathy rather than advice. Our situation truly had some unique aspects, and Victor and I were really the experts in managing things. When others (specifically those not closely related or close friends) would start a sentence with 'you should' or 'you need to', it made me want to scream sometimes! I end up looking like a jerk if I try to explain why that suggestion won't work, or I waste valuable energy trying something anyway that I have experienced going sour before. 

This does no mean that we did not ask for or seek out guidance and advice, we absolutely did, because we are not know-it-alls and really wanted to do right for Grandpa and our kids, special needs or not. It was when it was unsolicited, an especially from ones not particularly familiar with our situation that it proved a source of frustration rather than helpful.

Full-time care giving for an elderly loved one is definitely one of the hardest things we have ever done. It is impossible for us to separate this form of care giving from that of being full-time parents to kids with special needs. We had both thrust upon us nearly simultaneously. The interesting thing though is that whatever challenge you might be facing related to either one or both, the list applies to your needs. There are gems to be harvested even for parents without extenuating circumstances. Take a good look at your situation and see what areas your needs are not being sufficiently met. The list above may help you to identify problem spots that you need more help shoring up.

In the moment, when someone reassuringly says, "let me know if there is anything you need, anything at all", we often seem to suddenly forget every area that is lying around in need of some TLC. So having a list of things you often struggle with can be a life and energy saver.

Most people who offer really do want to help, but they don't want to breech your privacy and they don't know your areas of greatest need. But if you have a list of specific ways friends and neighbors can help, they will readily take on an assigned task.This is so much easier and less stressful than having to call up someone and feel like you are disrupting their life because you can't handle yours. And you both come away feeling better instead of helpless.

Here is a printable list to help give you ideas of how to allow others the privilege of helping you. I highly recommend you also keep a list on your phone or mobile device and let ones chose a task and set up a day that works for you both. Put this appointment into your calendar! 

I wish I had had this while Grandpa was alive and under our care. I think it would have helped a lot. Hopefully it can help other caregivers get what they need!