From deep within my being I have always known I’m an intuitive soul. I swallowed the feelings of the world from a young age. I can’t join any conversation or issue without feeling the full range of emotions being generated. I just can’t, I’m an empath.
I also have a force within me that demands I pay attention to the injustices of the world. To pay attention to who is being suppressed, why, and what strengths lie beneath their suppression. This is where I coined the term love warrior. As my aunt told me, “strong back, soft front.” It’s within my being to feel the energies the world places in my path and offer a way out of suffering.
Finding My Voice
Here’s the tough truth: this force of empathy was not only cultivated in me from who I was born as. It was reinforced through victimhood and abuse. I’ve spent well over two decades finding my voice despite personal abuse and suppression, layered with societal repression as a woman. I’ve been too ashamed to speak this truth fully, yet I know shame can’t live where there is light. And damn it, I’ve got something to say.
Shame holds back lions like me and angels like you from showing up as we were created to be. I thought my heightened sensitivity made me weak. I also believed there were so many things I could not do because I was told I was bad at them. Or things I should be doing because it was expected of me. Screw that.
You see, we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that society has a right to tell us who we are and how we should behave. Now don’t get me wrong, we do need to be able to operate as a collective species. Yet when we’re operating as a collective species based on fear versus love, all we’re doing is breaking our own hearts and, in turn, our world. Suffering begets suffering. Love begets love. If we honor our suffering and say to it, “I’m so sorry you came to me but I’m unwilling to bring you to another being, couldn’t we rewrite history?” I know personally, I’m going to rewrite mine.
I’ve doubted myself for a very long time and am often in awe when I look to see what I’ve done. Like, I can’t believe it’s mine. Yet here I am at 33 years old running a multimillion-dollar organization that I built with my bare hands on the backs of no one.
The Lies We’re Told
I’ve been told a great many lies. Let me share a few with you.
I’ve been told to temper my emotions. That they are too much to handle. My big emotions? They light fires to pave new ways and I will never tone them down, not ever.
I’ve been told to be nice, to put the needs of others before mine, and that I’m more loveable when I’m thin. Have any other women been fed that lie? It’s bullshit. Being nice is blinding us all. I cannot give when my tank is empty, and my beautiful body grew two babies who birthed without intervention. The female body is a goddess in all forms. I will not trade my stretch marks for anything, I earned them. Every one of them.
I’ve been lied to and asked to conform to make others more comfortable. I will no longer conform and thus I will never lose myself again.
I can say this because I’ve been lost in pain for such a long time. I see joy, celebrate, and then a wave of pain comes back over me. The waves that come at me are of course from the outside world and then my mind becomes confused by the pain. I’m empathic, remember? I swallow emotions. I think all love warriors do because we know how real, raw, and true feelings are. The trick here? Learn to protect our own hearts so when evil comes to us, fear finds us, or pain washes over us we can weather the storm.
I would like to think we can all walk through this world without pain. Truly, I love divine love. It’s not possible to do that because without the world showing us what we don’t want to be we would never know if we were becoming it. When pain comes for you, when a person or organization is pressing you down, remember this: pine cones bloom in fire. The pain, as hard as it is, is shaping you to become the tree you were always meant to be.
I’m walking a hard path right now. Someday I’ll tell you about it. Tonight I had a choice. Cry on the floor for the sixth week in a row or pick myself up. Today I walked into the gym and hit some heavy weights to remind myself this pain is forming me. Just as the pain of my past has taken me this far to show exactly what I do and do not want for my own life and the world.
I’ve got big plans for myself and the world.
I’m ready to call out anyone who believes it’s OK to lose sight of a child with autism based on a profit margin.
I’m ready to declare injustice and march for joy. To call abuse, abuse. I want to lead all of our broken hearts into a collective community where you can be you, I can be me, and we are all loved and accepted just as we are. I’m just getting started because the world asked me to be little, polite, and answer the story of shame. I’m making up for lost time. What has the world asked you to be? What lies have you been fed?
Won’t you walk with me and learn that you are perfectly imperfect? That if you’re lashing out in pain you can choose again? If you’re seeing someone as less than you to look again? If you’re seeing someone as more than you look again? That we are all the same. Won’t you honor the gifts of the spirit, of your beautiful, broken heart and write a new history with me.
Can’t we all just choose again? I know I’m going to. You can find me by my trail of ashes.
Over the course of the last month and a half I’ve written to you all about imperfect parenting. Honestly COVID-19 has been a do or die for me. Prior to COVID-19 I was spending too much time on the seesaw of authenticity and perfection. It was exhausting. Since I’ve been home I’ve written to you about lying and stealing, putting down busy and picking up peace, understanding anger, and daddys. Yep, that’s it. That explains my COVID experience in a nutshell. Blog done. Just kidding. Today I want to end the series with a small essay on embracing authenticity.
Parenting Memos Are Shifting
Currently I’m reading “Untamed,” by Glennon Doyle. She says everything better than I’m going to but please let me try (also please read this book)! One of her chapters writes about parenting memo’s. In the 1950’s the memo was birth your baby then make sure they are seen and not heard. In the 1980’s the memo was birth your baby and continue on with wine spritzers and cigarettes. Fast forward and today our memo is birth your baby, then engross yourself with their every waking moment, and even in doing that you’re failing.
It’s a rat race. We are all losing. I remember when I had Henry I felt overwhelmed by him. Now a big piece of that was my own postpartum depression but another piece of that was feeling that I had all the scholarly knowledge in the world and could not keep up with the Joneses. There was/still-is so much societal pressure to be a perfect mama. But who are they? That stupid Jones family? Why the hell are we all trying to keep up? Personally I’m done.
In being home with my children since mid-March I was given gifts I will always be grateful for. The first gift is that by stepping into Shelter-in-Place I could not keep up my pace as perfect mama and authentic mama simultaneously. That struggle had to stop. The second gift was I was able to step away from the noise of society to think about what I truly wanted for my children and myself. My new reality was surrender. And when I thought I’d surrendered, I surrendered more. Through not having a society to keep up with or standards to measure myself against I was able to show up. Truly show up.
Here’s what I learned
The day-to-day decisions and rules I made for myself and the children didn’t matter. Really. How many grams of sugar consumed, screens seen, or books read did not make or break my children. Furthermore the “social” environments (music class, swim class, story time, etc) that I was beginning to run them around to also did not matter. Also, for me, social standards don’t really matter either. I’ve got some really wonderful core friendships and if I never see a cocktail party again I’m good. Really. In sheltering without my own “rules,” I found my children have natural interests. I knew this prior to sheltering, but only honored it when I wasn’t trying to be a perfect mama. This looked like observing them on a prairie path vs. structured art time. Sheltering took me into observation mode daily as I surrendered. My children know what they want to do and what they are curious about every minute of every day. I don’t need to create this for them.
In our home what matters is being seen and loved for who we are; my children, my husband, and myself. It’s my job now to honor who I am and be a model for showing up as myself. Not showing up as I’m told to be. By doing this I’m allowing my children to show up for who they are supposed to be.
I do not know what this looks like yet beyond messy. I know we’ll have to say, “no,” to a lot of old, “yeses.” I know I’ll continue the good fight to raise my children closer to nature than technology. I know that before I discipline I’ll seek to understand. And I know that I’m here to listen to my own soul so my children can listen to theirs. What we find on the other side of this journey is unknown. But us Topalov’s? We’re going to live fully.
My hope is that you and your family live fully too. Collectively, that we can all say goodbye to the rules that tamed us and show up for our authentic lives. That through this authenticity we can in fact bring healing, joy and a new future to our children and thus the world.
New birth memo: birth your baby, love them with your whole heart, let them fly and let them fall, while flying freely yourself.
Last week, I wrote that I’m going to a mini-series on imperfect parenting. Remember when I told you that while toilet training Henry I told him pants were a privilege? This week I’m pretty stoked to share all the immoral things I do to survive mommyhood. Just kidding, I mean, it’s not that immoral.
In becoming a mama, I, like anyone else, had this grand idea of what it would look like and who I would be. I spent 6 months building the perfect nursery off my Pinterest ideas, deciding what outfits were Henry’s “style,” and buying things off my baby spreadsheet. That happened. All of it. It’s hysterical to write now.
When Declan was just about due (3 weeks to delivery) I had turned him from breach and was on rest. I sat around my home and realized I had bought nothing, I’m serious, nothing for him. You know why? Because I co-sleep my babies, breastfeed them, and use cloth diapers. He didn’t need anything. I tell you this because in my dreams of having a baby I thought it came with all this stuff. Once I had a baby I realized it wasn’t the stuff or the picture I created. Being a mom is just like that.
Creating Your Own Mom Values
In being a mom, I, of course, have a list of values, ideas, and dreams that I want for my children. On my best day I’m able to be present and implement small pieces of this. This can look like being super present, playing, reading, cooking, and talking to listen with my children. In my head, every day looks like this. In reality, moments of each day look like this–the rest is up for grabs.
I’m going to tell you some things I do to survive. Don’t judge, we all do them! The first and most important lesson I have learned as a mama is to lie hard. This little lesson came to me when I was teaching Henry to stay in his big boy bed. I would lay him down, he would cry for me to stay and I would gently whisper, “It’s okay mama needs to go potty she’ll be back in 5 minutes.” Henry would feel assured and fall asleep. I never came back, ever. Martin would sit on our stairs and shake his head. What’s worse is I’ve now taught Dametrius and his babysitters to simply tell Henry they are going potty when they lay him down. We are all lying and it’s working.
I also lie almost every morning to Henry. It looks like this; Henry watches a show while I get ready for work (go back and read my post about technology prior to COVID for other parenting fails). I set a timer for 30 minutes and when the TV goes off Henry needs to get dressed. He asks me “Mama can I watch Daniel Tiger downstairs?” I say, “Sure baby, let’s get dressed and brush our teeth.” Henry always pops up and does his routine. We get downstairs and he asks again. You know what I say, “Maybe later.” I also tell Dametrius to do this when he gets Henry ready.
Do you know why I lie to Henry? Because it’s easier, plain and simple. If I told him TV is all done he’s gonna scream and I don’t want to deal with this. Neither does anyone else in our home. I know it’s wrong, I know I should just take a deep breath and say, “No,” but I don’t want to. I want to get my little man dressed without feeling like I’m wrestling an alligator. I won’t lie about the important stuff, promise. But as long as my kids don’t have long term memories I’m using this one.
I suggest using the line “maybe later,” instead of, “No,” I swear it works wonders. “Can I have a popsicle, ice cream, pizza, watch TV, see Grandpa…” The list goes on and on. “Maybe” avoids tears in our home.
Surviving as a Mom
OK, so now you know I lie to survive. I also steal! I told you about a piece of this last week. That in toileting training Henry I would take his prizes every night and put them back in the prize bin. What I didn’t tell you is that in the middle of COVID I realized I was spending my entire day picking up toys.
One item on my pre-baby Pinterest board was wooden toys organized in bins. Almost 3 years later and we are overflowing with plastic toys. After a few glasses of wine one Friday night, I announced to my husband I was becoming a minimalist again. I was one before a husband and kids. Well, more of an imperfect minimalist. Our Amazon delivery driver disagrees but I digress.
On this particular Friday, I told my husband that we never wanted our kids to have so many toys because they don’t appreciate them. So why are we living this way? During naps on Saturday, just like the Grinch, I packed up their toys. Like 75% of them. I put them all in the basement and set a timer for a month. If no one noticed they were gone I was going to donate them. It’s been a month, no one noticed, so those toys are long gone!
There was one tiny T-Rex that I hated and kept putting in the garage donation box that Henry kept rescuing so I finally gave in and stopped stealing that. It actually felt so good to downsize. Now I have to remind myself not to downsize on a daily basis. We picked the toys they have and we now have a one in one out rule again. But man, getting rid of the stuff not only freed up my time it also helped me get realigned with my own values on materialism. On a side note, I’m also doing the 33 challenge and loving it.
A Few More Parenting Tips
I think lying and stealing are the biggies at our home to survive parenting. To give you some smaller ones that I think are helpful I’ll list a few. Bribing is always lovely. If you’d like your child to do something, like come inside without chasing them, I recommend it. We give a lot of chocolate for coming inside vs. chasing. Passing the problem to your partner is a good one. For example, Henry wants a toy to do something very specific, I can’t figure it out, and say “Daddy knows how!” I also recommend making it a pattern to have your partner doing things you don’t want to. Henry likes someone to lay with him after books, so I told him “only daddies do that.” It’s almost a year later and you know who Henry asks to put him to bed every night? Daddy. But hey, maybe that’s because I lied. Who knows?
Parenting is hard work and raising small humans means every day is going to be different. At some point, you just have to do you. If what you choose to do causes no lasting harm to your children sometimes you just have to do what works for you.
I hope reading this brings some joy to all the imperfect parents out there. I’m not perfect, but being naughty can also be a blast (even for parents).
As I write this, Henry is sitting behind me with an empty flask. Don’t worry, we’ve never actually used it… we don’t have anywhere to go!
As we continue to walk through some of my core parenting practices, I’d like to spend this week talking about shame and vulnerability.
Years ago, I was introduced to Brene Brown, a shame researcher, through her book, “The Gifts of Imperfections.” Since then, I frequently refer to Brene as my spirit animal and one of my soul sisters. I highly recommend her work!
Brene, of course, can tell you more than I can about this shame and vulnerability, but I’d like to give my take on how it impacts how I parent (and impacts being a partner to my husband) every single day. Brene teaches how shame is our barrier to wholehearted living. Vulnerability, in turn, is the birthplace of joy. Now, I understand there is a lot in just those two sentences, but they mean the world to me and we’ll unpack them together.
Working with Shame
Let’s start with shame. Brene defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Wow.
How many of us struggle with this? I know first hand I struggle with this every single day. Just last night I was celebrating with my sister, making enough breast milk, down to the ounce, to feed Declan for a year because she had donated milk which (we’re now using to wean). She responded, “that’s great! You were a just-enougher.” I responded she had just defined my entire childhood!
I can’t remember a time that what I did was enough. So, of course, I struggled with love and belonging. I don’t fault my parents, they were doing their best at the time. I think we all experienced this to some extent because our parents didn’t know that their standards or their own judgments for us were creating shame.
In women, we usually associate shame in our body image with being, “good.” While men struggle with being a “man,” (whatever that is….) and beind “the great Oz, fixer of all.” Or so Brene tells me. I absolutely REFUSE to use shame in my home.
What this looks like for me with my children at their age is that I do not put them down for their mistakes, ever. A core family rule is no name-calling. We talk about the action, not the person when a mistake is made. For example, if Henry drops a dozen eggs I don’t say things like, “Look at what you’ve done!” instead I say, “Henry we need to be more careful, Mommy & Daddy paid for those eggs let’s clean it up.” The first sentence is a shame sentence. The second is a teaching sentence using guilt. Per Brene, guilt is a valuable way to teach us how our actions affect others while not telling us we’re bad or wrong. To build on this, if anyone is in a bad mood in our house (trust me this happens…) we excuse ourselves BEFORE we use shame language. On a daily basis, this is an active practice. I’m a human with three young boys, two dogs, and a husband. Sometimes I can lose my temper. But I’m not teaching anyone in my house that they are not enough. They know if I’ve lost my temper it’s on me, not them. That is a powerful lesson.
Working with Vulnerability
OK, so now that we understand shame a bit let’s talk about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy and belonging. This is the peanut butter to the jelly of shame. About a month ago, I asked my husband (who as I’ve mentioned is Bulgarian) if he knew what vulnerability was. There was some laughing, confusion, and then agreement to watch Brene’s special on Netflix.
As a man, vulnerability was a new concept to my husband. I think men in Bulgaria hear the phrase “be a man,” at about 10x the rate men hear it in the US. This is unfortunate in both cases. I am well aware that I am raising little men and I do not want vulnerability to be a new concept to them as adults.
Vulnerability, per Brene, is, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.” This is a big concept for an adult, let alone my little men (now eleven months, 2 ½ and our newest addition at 14). What vulnerability means for me and my littles is not using shame when my children show their emotions. I encourage them to fail versus doing everything for them. We applaud all attempts at courage.
With Declan, this is pretty non-existent right now (he’s too little). With Henry this looks like me sitting back as he tries new things (a lot of gross motor skills right now…) and when he fails I praise his effort. It also looks like me modeling his emotions and what he can do to calm down. If he’s pissed, if he’s been dumped by his dump truck stool (OK this happens like every day…) I say, “I’m mad!” then we practice breathing. I’ve done this since he was 18 months old. And you know what? This weekend Henry got mad and came running to me saying, “Let’s make sounds!” He then proceeded to do deep breaths on his own. How freakin’ cool!
For Dametrius, I’m sure the journey to unpeeling shame and living with an openness to vulnerability will be longer. It’s my hope he walks this path with my husband Martin. I’ve only started to lay the foundation Dametrius. When he moved in, we talked about failure. I told him I never want to see him pass on an opportunity because he’s afraid to fail. That so long as he tries he’s won.
Living with Shame and Vulnerability Every Day
Living with a house full of men, I do not want them to hide behind the label and expectations of “man.” I want my men to be loved fully for who they are; emotions, mistakes, failures, and triumphs. I know they love me the same way and together we belong to each other. Should I ever have a daughter, I will want the same for her. And in 20+ years, when my children succeed as adults, they won’t snicker to each other that they’re “good-enoughers.” They will know they always have been, and always will be, enough.
Last week, I wrote a lot about my journey into motherhood, which took me in and out of the throes of perfectionism. I like to tell people I’m a recovering perfectionist. I say this knowing that, in my mind, there is the best way to do anything, the absolute way not to do anything, and, of course, the middle ground. The rules I came up with are mine alone and therefore mine to release, but I believe they lead to the root of a much larger issue: mom judgment.
What is Mom Judgment?
Years ago, when I was deep into my spiritual journey to find my best self, I began to read a book called, “A Course in Miracles”, as one of my favorite author’s Gabby Bernstein cited it. Being a researcher by nature, I had to learn the source of Gabby’s teaching versus just following her interpretation. One lesson that hit home with me from the Course was “What we judge in others we first judge in ourselves.” Whoa.
My first reaction to this was to challenge it. I started to run through things about myself that I judge and things I judge in others. Time after time I was able to find a root standard that I either hold myself accountable to be or not to be. At the time, my judgments were more related to body image, work ethic, and how I engaged with the world. If I did anything that was the opposite of my judgments I gave myself grief. If I saw someone doing something I wouldn’t do, I would judge them. In writing this I know I may come across as unkind. I promise you, however, that this is not my intention. I am human and I will fight to give myself the grace I would give to others. The teaching from A Course in Miracles was true.
Judging Yourself and Others
Last week in my blog I wrote briefly about the silent competition I was having with other seemingly perfect moms. To unpack this type of perfectionism (and yes, my own judgment) I had to go back to the teaching from A Course in Miracles. Remember the quote; “what we judge in others we first judge in ourselves.” What I found is that as a new mom I had a list of “good mom,” and “bad mom,” categories. While these categories started with me wanting to be a really good mom what happened was that every time a mom would give me a suggestion I would instantly compare that example to what I considered good or bad! And boom, there you have it, my mom judgment was born.
My mom judgment used to look something like this; I’d be out with a friend just chatting about Henry and we’d get on the topic of, say, screen time. That friend would share with me the amount of screen time they allowed their own child to have and I’d scan the response and decide how good of a mom I was because my answer was the same, better, or worse.
I could take that example and dice it a million ways across child-raising topics. Talk to me about formula, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, reading to your child, when to toilet train, sleeping at night, naps, food, school–you get the picture–and I will scan my own moral compass to sort them. Writing this, it’s almost embarrassing to type I did judging like this for a decent amount of time. It’s also incredibly honest and I believe true for all moms to some capacity.
Being Your Best Parent
We as moms are all so caught up in being the best parent that we exhaust ourselves deciding if we are, in fact, doing it correctly. As social beings, the only way we have to assess this is through comparison, so we get stuck in the trap of judging other moms. But really, whether it’s you or me judging any other parent, what we’re really doing is judging ourselves.
Let me say this to you loud and clear. You and I are raising our children to the absolute best of our ability. There is not a right or wrong answer about any given child raising topic outside of abuse and neglect. Even in those cases, we can all give a little compassion to the parent, whose behavior is completely out of line, but is clearly a person suffering in their own right.
I believe on any given day we are all doing our absolute best given the resources we have. That means if you choose to formula feed until your child can eat but I choose to breastfeed until my children are three, mama, we are both amazing. If you choose mac and cheese but I choose organic vegetables, rock on–our kids are fed. Want to allow unlimited screen time but I do like the French and limit mine? Totally cool. We probably have a different view on media as a whole. Also cool!
In the next few weeks, I’m going to share some of my favorite parenting practices. This doesn’t mean that they’re for all of you and that’s OK. But maybe, maybe, you’ll find something helpful that you’ve never thought about before. It does not matter what choices we make for our children so long as they are born from love.
What does matter, and I believe needs to change quickly, is the need we feel to so strictly judge ourselves and then take it out on other moms (silently or not). Beautiful mama, you are doing the absolute best you can and your only grade card is love!
Keep an Eye on Your Judgment of Others
I try to actively practice non-judgment. What this means is I try to notice when judgmental thoughts are coming up. If I notice a judgment thought popping into my brain, I give it a silent wave and send it on its way. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle to stop comparing, but it means I’m not willing to live with the judgement of others in my heart.
If I see a mom buying a toy for a screaming child at the check out (something I wouldn’t do), I smile and offer to help load her bags. If a mom shares an opinion I don’t agree with, I ask to learn more or just let it go. And when a mom starts to mom shame another mom, I change the topic fast. Join me in this! Help the struggling mama you see in public, send a little love to a friend who parents differently than you, and show compassion to your fellow beings who are showing up for parenthood the same as you and I. We can change the conversation we’re having with ourselves and the world by just letting judgment go.
Breathe easy beautiful ones, you’re doing the best you can. Me too.