I grew up with a parent for whom tradition was really important. Things needed to be the same, every time, for her to feel successful and safe. The same birthday cake and meal. The same Christmas tape playing while we decorated the tree. The same kind of tree. The same casserole for breakfast. The same late arrival to the same candlelit church service before the same Christmas Eve party. Etc, etc, etc . . .
I get it, it was something she never had growing up so it was something she felt she needed to create in her own family. Routines and rituals are grounding, secure, and comforting. Deviation from those routines, unless it came with a clear and shared plan given in advance, caused significant additional anxiety in my house.
I, on the other hand and maybe not surprisingly, am not a big fan of routine, ceremony or tradition for the most part, at least anymore anyway. This is one part my personality (is my Pattern showing yet?) and one part learned anxiety. This double scoop cone of active mind + learned fear results in one big tasty bite of … enthusiasm.
It presents as constant, persistent, relentless, movement.
I like going to Apple Hill every year but always at least to one new farm. I like going to the pumpkin patch but a different one each Fall if we can. Though I have a favorite roll recipe I don’t think I’ve ever made the same holiday meal twice. I never use the same holiday decorations in the same way, ever. I give things away when they’ve served their purpose or no longer bring me joy. When I visit a city I scout out the top things to do by category and time commitment and feel successful when I’ve completed as many as possible.
The idea of a “forever home” sounds absolutely awful to me. I have changed jobs so many times and worked on so many projects with so many people I have to type my resume in eight point font to make it fit on three pages. I sincerely dislike returning to a place I’ve already been unless I either absolutely love it, I’m taking someone new there, or I’m familiar enough with the other options to feel confident it’s the best choice. I have a really hard time choosing so much as just a restaurant, or a meal at a restaurant, because I don’t want to have something I’ve already had before because there is only so much time in this life and I want to experience…
all of it.
Yeah so, my anxiety isn’t about feeling successful by doing the same things every time, it’s about feeling like I’m not doing enough. No real surprises here, eh?
My coping mechanisms for this kind of anxiety generally involve a few things- lists, primarily, and research. I have lists for trips I want to take, seasonal activities I want to do, restaurants I want to dine at here in town. Researching reviews and recommendations helps me feel more confident in my selection and having those ideas down somewhere I can see them brings me a sense of ease. There’s some comfort in the idea of later if later is identified, you know?
What I’ve been working on lately though, as I’m unpacking the hows, whys, whens, and whats of my anxiety, and is to really hone in on ways I am and might be transferring it to my own children. As I’m learning how my environment as a child conditioned me into a state of anxiety and how the resulting choices I made as a young and not-so-young adult wired my own brain to operate this way by reinforcing patterns of adrenal response I’m becoming acutely aware of what it’s creating for my family.
But because of this awareness, and because I’ve chosen to work directly with a therapist and to gird myself with additional tools and support, I’m able to stop focusing on how I’m getting it wrong and instead get really curious about how to do it better now.
I’m more often than not now able to pause and ask myself questions like- What is the function of the emotion or behavior that’s coming up for you right now? What is your desired outcome? What does good enough look like?
That’s usually a line of questioning that gets me right back into my ordered, thinking, higher brain, and right out of my frantic, fearful, lower brain.
When I get there I can go deeper —
Is this about me, or my kids? If it’s about me, what is that I really need right now? If it’s about them, then what do they really need right now? If it’s about both, then what do we really need right now?
It turns out that my kids don’t need to experience the super deluxe childhood package to feel loved, and neither do I. We don’t have to go to every restaurant, every park, every trail, every farm, or cross off everything on every list together.
What we truly need is just time together when we are relaxed and capable.
I caught myself in an anxious spiral this weekend, mid pumpkin patch selection, 2019 edition. I had spent at least an hour googling and searching message boards for threads on the best locations for the best ages, which places had the most to do and for the best price, where the pumpkins were cheaper, who had the smallest crowds and for the critical decision factor, where could I get the best pictures?
And then I paused and watched myself. I looked at what I was showing my children, what I was teaching them about not just task management, but how to rank experiences.
My anxious behavior around decision making doesn’t just impact me, it impacts them. It sends a message of imperfection, of worry, of fear, of dis-ease. It teaches them to find fault and reinforces obsessive behavior. It tells them to avoid stillness and find joy in the busy-ness of perfectionism. Ultimately, what it says to them is—
I am not enough on my own, and therefore by default and example, you are not enough on your own either.
Now here, back in the logic brain, I could say to myself, “Michelle, just make a decision. If you don’t like the outcome, then just make another fucking decision.” So I just picked one, because it doesn’t honestly matter where we go or the specifics of what we do, it matters that we were together.
Yes, I hope they’ll carry memories of doing fun seasonal things with me into adulthood and that those experiences help them learn and grow and develop healthy relationships with themselves and the world. I hope they are happy memories filled with examples of times they felt loved and important, seen and connected. I hope they aren’t memories of a stressed and anxious mother, of me “getting mad at them” or of having to be coerced into doing the same thing over and over again long after joy faded from it.
I hope they are able to look back, look now, and look later, and know that they are enough just as they are. What I hope to teach them, instead, is to pivot without attachment, to regulate their own emotions, and to empower them to be them.
It is, as ever was and ever will be, an imperfect process. I have made, make now, and will continue to make mistakes. What I can commit to is being in the active process of progress, and knowing that it, like me, is enough.
And, you know, we ended up at two pumpkin patches that day after all. But it wasn’t because of FOMO, it was because we wanted extra time together, and that, my friends, is what the whole damn thing is supposed to be about anyway.
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