A mindful life

This morning I worked from home as repair people worked on my dishwasher. That meant locking my dog in another room so she would leave them alone and, of course, she barked the entire time. Between her barking and lots of questions from the repair people that I couldn’t answer (Do you know why the solenoid valve stopped working? Um…no.), I felt like I was losing my mind and was preparing to be in a bad mood about it all. And then I remembered my recent conversation with Shannon, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that these problems are really not a big deal.

Shannon has spent the last few years focusing mindfulness and it’s made a big impact on her life. You can check out a definition of mindfulness here, but I’ll let Shannon explain what it means to her and her life.

Caitlin: How did you become interested in mindfulness?

Shannon: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved thinking and talking about answers to life’s big questions; I think I was just born a philosophic and introspective person. When I graduated from college I started doing yoga, and I LOVED the last five to ten minutes where you just lay on the ground in silence, sometimes being guided through a meditation, sometimes listening to the beat of drums or donging of bells, and sometimes in pure silence. I loved letting my mind wander without judgment, and lived for those moments where you ‘woke up’ feeling like you actually may have achieved 30 seconds of ‘mindlessness’. I always felt calm and restored after yoga, so I decided to take a meditation class, read a lot about how to meditate, and continued practicing yoga as much as I could.

It wasn’t until I moved-in with my now husband six years ago that I realized I had a lot more work to do on myself –work that just striving for this calm, ‘mindless’ state wasn’t going to get me to. I went to a psychiatrist to work through some temper and control issues, and for the first time, learned how to recognize that I was getting stressed out and feeling out of control BEFORE I erupted at my partner or co-worker, etc.

My therapist essentially taught me my first lesson in mindfulness, and gave me a tip that I still think about almost every day: on the days where you can’t imagine doing yoga or sitting quietly, those are the days where you probably need it the most.

So, at the end of a crazy, stressful day, where all I wanted to do was go to bed and get the day over with, I would force myself to do some yoga and sit. And lo & behold, just that little amount of time spent grounding myself at the time I needed it most, acknowledging and recognizing what my body was telling me – that I needed to slow down and ‘chill’ for a bit – enabled me to ease up on my need to control others (which we tend to do when we ourselves are feeling out of control.. go figure!).

It was another year or two until I was online reading one of my friend’s facebook posts where I learned about an organization called Mindful Schools, and decided to enroll in their Mindfulness Fundamentals class, since I had just had a baby and was feeling like I could use a little ‘me-work.’ That class was the first time I heard the term “mindfulness” and when I started my “formal” mindfulness practice.

Caitlin: What exactly does mindfulness mean?

Shannon: There are a ton of definitions of mindfulness, so I’ll tell you what it means to me. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment. That means paying attention to, or being mindful of, our emotions (even bad ones), our thoughts (even crazy ones), and our bodily sensations (even uncomfortable ones) “in the moment,” without judgment. You’re aware of your thoughts, but somehow you don’t feel lost in them or trapped by them, and that can be really freeing.

Caitlin: What does your practice look like?

Shannon: My practice changes over time as things in my life experience change. For example, I’m 23 weeks pregnant now, and practicing yoga, balancing, and sitting weren’t really viable options for me from about week 6 to 15 thanks to a combination of exhaustion and nausea; I also have a two and a half year old, so finding ways to incorporate a daily practice and still tend to him and my husband, dog, house, and work has brought along some challenges, too.

So currently, my practice looks like this – every night before I get into bed, I do some yoga stretching and sit for as long as I can, anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

I also have mindfulness reminders throughout the day, where a trigger alerts me that I need to take a breath and check-in with myself. One of my triggers is when I’m staring at my split-ends when I’m stuck in traffic! (laughs) Another is when I’m tempted to text while driving or when I’m at work and in meetings and feel myself getting distracted. Really, once you get started with a mindfulness practice, it’s not just about “sitting” for 10 minutes a day, it’s about being mindful throughout your day.

Caitlin: Is it for everyone?

Shannon: This is a tough one. While I do think that everyone has the ability to learn about and practice mindfulness, since at some point throughout everyone’s day, you are mindful and aware of what’s going on to a certain extent already, I think you will get the most out of it if you’re not looking at it as a bandaid, or just something else that you need to get on your checklist to do. It’s really a totally different way of thinking and interacting with the world, and for some people, that might just be ‘too deep’ or ‘too hoaky’ or just too foreign a concept to open yourself to. That’s one of the reasons I want to teach mindfulness to kids, because I think kids are so much more open to trying new things than adults.

Caitlin: How has your life changed since you starting studying/practicing mindfulness?

Shannon: Well, to start, I have far fewer screaming matches with my husband. I also find that I am able to notice a lot faster when I’m feeling agitated, stressed, or frustrated because I’m spending so much time watching my physical sensations (like my teeth clenching or pulse racing) and am getting good at doing something to regulate those sensations, like taking a breath, or leaving the room, or just letting the other person know “I’m feeling stressed”.

I’ve also always been really into following my intuition or that 6th sense, and I think when you’re grounded in the present moment, you’re much more in-tune to the universe.

And I think it has also made me more empathetic. When I’m not completely engrossed in my own little world of work stresses, to-do lists, social media – I find that I remember to think about other people a lot more. My friendships have gotten stronger, and I’ll find myself doing random acts of kindness more randomly, too.

Caitlin: How has it changed the way you parent?

Shannon: I started my formal mindfulness practice at about the same time I became a parent. I actually think becoming a parent helped me with my mindfulness practice, in that I found myself so fully present in moments with my new baby, just so amazed at all of the little things he was doing every day, that it was pretty easy to be present. At the same time, mindfulness would remind me to put down my phone or turn off the TV or stop thinking about everything I had to do that day, so that I could be fully present with my son and husband. When you live in the present, and surrender to the present moment, you’re also just less anxious or worried about the future.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is trying to instill some of these practices in their own life?

Shannon: Don’t be hard on yourself. Just start practicing whenever you can. It can be really hard to find 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to just sit and be with yourself. You’re essentially giving your brain a workout, and days when you’re most stressed and crazy are the days when it’s the hardest to be with your thoughts. But just remember, getting to your chair for even a quick 5 minutes is sometimes all it takes (just the act of recognizing that you’re having a crazy day is being mindful – so kudos! You just worked out!).

Also, find some triggers throughout the day when you remind yourself to be mindful. It could be when you’re brushing your teeth or doing the dishes/ making dinner. It could be when you’re staring at your split-ends, too. (laughs)  But, having little reminders throughout the day really help you incorporate mindfulness throughout your life experience, and I think that’s really where you’ll find it has the biggest impact.

Caitlin: What are you goals regarding mindfulness?

Shannon: My main goal, and the reason I was so attracted to the practice in the first place, is to maintain a sense of balance in my life. I hated how I would feel after I lost my temper or became crazy stressed at work for no good reason. Knowing that I have the power within myself to change my interactions with the world around me is pretty powerful stuff.

I also will continue taking the curriculum offered by Mindful Schools, with the hope of eventually teaching mindfulness to kids as a full-time gig. One of my biggest worries in life is that I will have spent all this time walking the earth and not left an imprint; I think teaching kids a practice so potentially life-altering as mindfulness can be one of the biggest impacts I can make on the world.

And in the meantime, before I change the world, my goal is to simply continue to strengthen my own practice and keep living in, embracing, and enjoying the present.

What etiquette really means

What comes to mind when you think of the word etiquette? Using the correct fork when you eat a five course meal? Etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, Jacqueline Whitmore says it’s so much more than that. Really, it’s about making other people feel good. I chatted with Jacqueline about what drew her to the field what etiquette really means to her.

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Caitlin: So, Jacqueline, tell me how you became interested in etiquette?

Jacqueline: Well, I’m the founder and director of the Protocol School of Palm Beach and I’ve had my own company since 1998.

Prior to starting my own company, I worked at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach as their Assistant Director of Public Relations. As part of my job responsibilities, I put together etiquette camps for kids every summer. So, my job was to hire the instructor and to organize the camps. In my search for an instructor, I found someone I liked and admired and she came down every summer (to teach the kids’ camp).

She also expanded it and introduced an etiquette camp for adults. I took the class and I liked it so much that I took another class and then she encouraged me to go to Washington, D.C. and get a certification, which I did. So, I ended up teaching the staff (at the Breakers Hotel) in my spare time.

That gave me good experience because in 1998 I didn’t know I was going to get laid off, but I did. And that was the time that I started the Protocol School of Palm Beach.

Caitlin: Wow, so I imagine getting laid off was devastating, but that really opened up an opportunity for you.

Jacquline: Yes, it forced me to take a leap and start my own business.

Caitlin: That’s great. You know, I think sometimes when people think of etiquette, it maybe seems stuffy and maybe shallow. People think it’s just about saying please and thank you. What does etiquette really mean to you?

Jacqueline: Etiquette, to me, means having respect for other people. But, also, it means having respect for yourself. And, it also means being mindful of how your behavior affects other people.

So, for example, if you’re on a bus on your cell phone and you’re bothering the person next to you, you’re not practicing good etiquette. So, it’s just being mindful of your surroundings and having respect for other people. In other words, it’s doing unto others as you would have done to you.

Caitlin: I like that. You know, I was thinking when I first emailed you, I was really cognizant of being polite and using the right etiquette. I wonder if people feel that way around you often. Do you hear that a lot? That people are watching their manners around you?

Jacqueline: Oh, all the time. I hear that all the time. I do often hear from people, “Oh I better sit up straight,” or “I better not say certain things,” or “I better not use the wrong fork.” And, that’s not really what etiquette is about at all. If anything, it’s about being your best self. It’s not being somebody who is artificial and putting on airs or acting like you’re better than anybody. It’s just being your very best self on your best day.

Think about your best day. What would you wear? What would you say? Who would you surround yourself with? That’s the way I try to live my life, at my very best. It’s not always easy. It takes a lot of practice.

If I said you need to be better than everybody else, that would repel people. That would turn people off. In fact, you know, everyone says, “Oh, I’m a perfectionist.” Well, perfectionism repels people. It’s the flaws we all have that make us relatable and memorable and likeable. I call it the BLT Factor: believable, likeable, and trustworthy. So, if I told you I never make mistakes, you would probably hate me and you wouldn’t believe me . (laughs)

Caitlin: Would you be willing to share one of your more memorable etiquette mistakes?

Jacqueline: Oh, sure, I make them all the time! I am my own best client.

I was in China last year at a dinner party. I don’t speak any Chinese and the waiter came up and handed me a menu and asked me what wine I wanted. The menu was huge and couldn’t read it. I just said, “I’d like a glass of white wine.” And he said, “Well, what kind?” And I didn’t know. So I said, “Well, how about a glass of Australian wine?” And my host leaned over and said, “Well, how about a glass of Chinese wine?” (laughs)

So, I felt embarrassed by that!

Caitlin: Are there any etiquette tips that you feel are especially important?

Jacqueline: I am a big advocate of handwritten notes and I try to write one every day, whether it’s a thank you note, a birthday card, or a congratulatory card, just to keep in touch with people. It’s a lost art.

Caitlin: That’s great and it really is so nice getting something personal in the mail. You know, I really like your approach to etiquette, that it’s really just about making the people around you feel good and feel comfortable. And I think, as a result, it makes you feel better about yourself, too.

Jacqueline: Oh yeah, it’s good karma. What you put out in the universe, you get back.

If you get in the habit of doing little niceties every single day, it becomes automatic. And it doesn’t feel artificial because it becomes part of you. And it makes you feel really good.

I believe if you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you. I used to be a flight attendant and we used to encounter so many nasty passengers. And it was the ones who were really nice who always got the upgrades.

You can read more from Jacqueline on her blog. In the meantime, tell me, do you have a time when you felt embarrassed by using bad etiquette? Is there an etiquette rule you think is especially important? Let’s talk!

Image courtesy Jacqueline

A conversation with a trainer

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Julie is the first trainer I’ve ever worked out with that I didn’t, at some point, want to punch in the face. That’s saying a lot.

Julie is the owner and and head trainer at BAWS Gym. I’m excited to share her journey and wisdom with you today because I think she’s so inspiring. She comes from a place of humility and true caring and I think that’s the best.

Caitlin: When did you first become interested in fitness?

Julie: When I was young, I would watch my dad workout in the basement. He was in the military so like many Marines, he had a very strict regimen. I would go down the basement and watch him workout.  I was always impressed with his pull ups. One day he got off the bar and said, “Do you want to try?”  I was like ten years old. I got on the bar and I just hung there. And every day I went down there and hung until I could do a pull-up.

It got the the point (eventually) where we started doing round robin with pull ups.  It was so fun doing something with him and I really feel like he was the one who inspired me.

Also, not many people know this, but when everyone was playing sports in school, I was always at the YMCA working out.  I just loved weights. I loved them so much. And that’s really how it started.

I did get to an age where it was pissing me off that I was bad at certain things (running in particular) so I just kept working at them. And I just told myself, you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Caitlin: Well, that can kind of sum up the entire diet and exercise experience.

Julie: It’s so true. I train Spartan teams and that’s the biggest thing I tell them. I put them through rough workouts and I just say, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I think it really resonates with people and it just tells them, all right, when I want to quit, I just need to push myself three more minutes. And that’s all that I want from people. When you want to quit, just give a little bit more.  It’s funny how much I’ve grown in life because of that attitude. I’ve totally put that quote to use in so many other areas of my life.

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Caitlin: I would imagine that many of the people you train do, as well.

Julie: Yeah, I think so. I think that once you do that, you really start to train your mind to be stronger.

Caitlin: So tell me about your fitness and nutrition education.

Julie: I started as a floor tech at the YMCA when I was 14. I would watch this one women train her clients and teach classes.  She inspired me and soon became my fitness mentor. She taught pilates. I took her classes and I started to really get into it. So, I got certified in that first. That women, Bethel, took me under her wing and taught me so much about fitness.

Then I went to West Chester University for kinesiology, but the program was really long and I was super antsy to get it over with. So, I dropped out and I went to the National Personal Training Institute and it was hands down the best experience and the best thing I could have
done. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t do that. That got me certified in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and nutrition. I am also certified in kettlebells and Crossfit.

Caitlin: So you now own a gym. How did you get there?

Julie: I worked at a private personal training studio and the owner knew I had aspirations to open my own gym. He asked me if I wanted to buy his studio. I said yes. It was a franchise when I bought it and I tried to sever the ties to make it my own small business. But, the franchise came after me and said they would take me to court if I did that. It was a huge, huge mess. It was so frustrating. We eventually dropped it and I quit my job because more than ever before, I craved being a gym owner.

I had saved some money to get me by while I was searching for a location.  I finally found a spot in Huntingdon Valley.

Caitlin: Tell me about that gym.

Julie: It was called Bryn Athryn Workout Studio, or BAWS. I loved it so much, but eventually I outgrew the space and my training style had gotten a little bit more “gritty”.  And by that I mean, um, badass, I guess. Haha. I knew I wanted more of a warehouse like gym because I wanted a little parkour training, a litte Crossfit action, a little gymnastics, a little pilates, ya know a whole mix of stuff. The space needed to be functional for all of that.

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Caitlin: That’s a good problem to have!

Julie: It is. So, I’ve been in my new location in Hatboro (Pennsylvania) since October last year.

Caitlin: What kind of programs do you offer?

Julie: I do personal training during the day. Forty-five minute, one on one sessions, all tailored to the client. And then I do classes at night. Cardio kickboxing, pilates, strength & conditioning.

I also hold all types of programs and obstacle course trainings. I get groups together to get in shape for a particular obstacle race and then we go tackle it as a team. It’s a lot of fun.

Every two to three months I try to re-evaluate and come up with new programs. So, it changes all the time. The biggest thing I try to do is make the programs fun, fulfilling, and rewarding.

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Caitlin: So what is the most rewarding part of your work?

Julie: Seeing people change, emotionally and mentally. I had a 50 year old man turn to me, after two and a half months of training, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “You know, I actually love myself again.” And I was tearing up because it’s just so gratifying to see people feel that way about themselves.

Fitness is such a big industry and it wouldn’t be so big if it wasn’t so hard.  Being fit is a hard journey. To help people get to their goals is so gratifying. And, you know, I do little videos and I put stuff about food and everything online, but it’s not because I want attention. If I can help one person do better, that’s why I’m doing it.

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Caitlin: I think what’s appealing about you is that there’s no ego. How important is it to you to be a real person to your clients?

Julie: Yeah, you know, a lot of people say they train with me because I’m real. I average a size six, I’m not a size two. I eat a donut when I want one. I don’t wear belly shirts and have six packs abs. That’d be nice, but would mean I would have to live life in such a strict manner. Unless, of course, your DNA is gracious to you. But, I try to be as real possible and let people know that it’s so important to live in a healthy way. And that means balance.

When I was younger I struggled with eating disorders and I don’t want people to go there. I don’t want people to be afraid of food or be obsessed with exercise. Instead, just focus mostly on whole foods, be kind to yourself and move a little almost everyday.  If you find that balance, you never have to punish yourself. You don’t have to starve and you don’t have to overeat. You can find balance where everything just comes together.

Caitlin: And you’re also pretty balanced in the amount of exercise you recommend.

Julie: Yeah, I mean, I used to be that person who was all into cardio all the time (after I went through my weight lifting phase). But, I realized that you only need maybe four days a week of exercise and, if you do it right, only 20 to 30 minutes. It’s great because it makes your metabolism revved just enough to build muscle and burn body fat, but you’re not starving all the time because your workouts are so long!

Caitlin: I know for a lot of people to take that first step to get healthy is really hard. There can be a lot of embarrassment and shame. I know you really succeed in getting people out who otherwise might have been too afraid to join a fitness class. What do you tell people who might be afraid to take that first step?

Julie: You know, it’s a journey and everyone is battling something. The first step is to be kind to yourself.  And if you can change one thing a week that will bring you closer to your goal, that’s awesome. Don’t be embarrassed with yourself because everyone is working on bettering themselves somehow, someway. People battle their issues in so many different ways and no one’s life is perfect. We never judge people who are overweight at the gym. We’re proud of them.  Keep your focus on you and no one else.  They don’t really matter when it comes to YOUR health. One of the things that I feel is great about BAWS is that it offers one on one training if you really feel you want to work out without others around.

I went through some hard stuff with health and fitness. And I believe the universe gives you those things so you can live and learn and teach people. I’ve had to gain weight and I’ve had to lose weight. And both are hard.  I feel that I went on that journey so I can connect with people, empathize and understand their situation to some degree.  It’s not going to be easy, but you have to want it.

Caitlin: I always think that no one is judging you as much as you’re judging yourself.

Julie: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. That’s so true. You are your biggest critic. And we compare so much. I try hard not to compare myself to other trainers.  I feel like I look like the average person in way-

Caitlin: Well, I wouldn’t say that, but okay (laughs).

Julie: Well, I don’t look like a Hollywood trainer. You just have to focus on yourself and stay on your own journey. That’s hard to do, but once you can, it’s really satisfying.

Caitlin: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Julie: With fitness: There is no quick fix. There is no pill, there is no diet, there is no cleanse. It is day in and day out, on the grind. But, want it, enjoy it.

With life, business and myself: Be patient.  Many people will do so well, with whatever their goals may be, and then mess up and be so angry at themselves. Then they quit.  Never quit.  It gets you nowhere, but pissed off at the world.  Trust me, I know.

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, check out Julie’s gym, BAWS. Or, try virtual training, anywhere in the world.

 

The first day of kindergarten

First of all, I can’t believe some kids went back to school before Labor Day. I always remember Labor Day as the final day of summer and being equal parts bummed and excited that school was starting the next day (okay, mostly excited.) But, last week a lot of kids went back to school. So, I wanted to talk to a mom about her experience sending her little one off to school for the first time.

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Caitlin: Did you do anything special to help your son, B, prepare for kindergarten?

Jessica: We talked about kindergarten A LOT! B didn’t attend preschool so this is his first experience leaving me every day to go somewhere else.  We drove past his school a lot, and  we also would walk there in the summer and play on the playground.  We wanted him to be familiar with the school and I think it helped that he experienced some of those things with me and my husband, Hans. So, it was in his safe zone and he felt comfortable which I think helped him prepare to go up there for his first day.

Caitlin: Any trouble sleeping the night before?

Jessica: Haha, well B didn’t seem to have any trouble sleeping.  I kept waking up in a panic and looking at the clock to make sure we didn’t oversleep since we weren’t used to being on any type of schedule! Usually the mornings that we have something to do, my kids sleep in and we are late so I didn’t want that to happen the first time I was sending my boy to school!

Caitlin: So, tell me about that morning, getting ready and then finally, saying goodbye?

Jessica: Well, Monday was his orientation. The rest of the district began school on Monday, but kindergarten only came in with their parents and met their teacher. For some reason I was more emotional facing this day than I was on Tuesday when he went without us. We made a big deal about Monday. My parents came over in the morning and stayed with my daughters, Lila and Kensley. We took pictures out front and both Hans and I went with him to his orientation.

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On Tuesday, he was ready. We put the girls in the stroller and headed up to the school. Once we are there, we give kisses and B goes into the school yard and we stay on the fence and watch him walk in with his class!

Caitlin: Who was more nervous, you or him?

Jessica: Ha, well it’s funny. When B was little he would scream if we left him. We couldn’t leave him in church nursery without a huge fit when we walked out. Over the years, as he has gotten older, he has gotten better, but we usually only leave him in familiar situations (church, family, close friends), so I was really nervous watching him cause I didn’t know what to expect. B is typically pretty shy when he doesn’t know someone so watching him in a whole new world where he knew no one made me nervous for him because I thought he would be nervous. But, he totally played it cool and I was the one sweating it out!

Caitlin: What was the first day like for you, at home without him?

Jessica: My three year old daughter, Kensley, is loving the one on one time with me. There aren’t many days that I get to spend time with just her so now that B is in School and Lila (9 months) is taking her morning nap, Kenz and I get some quality time together. I am excited for this the most.  I really feel like it will be very valuable to her and also to me.

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Caitlin: What was the first day like for Brayden? Did he come home with any good stories?

Jessica: He loved it! He didn’t necessarily come home with any good stories, but he did come home with his shirt on backwards! After taking off a smock he must have gotten mixed up and put his shirt on the wrong way. Hans and I just laughed. He also was excited to let me know that one boy in his class had a Paw Patrol school bag (that’s his favorite show). It’s cute to see the things that he picks up on when I am not around!

Caitlin: That’s so funny he came home with his shirt on backwards. How cute! How was sending your first child off the kindergarten different than you expected?

Jessica: Becoming a parent has taught me more about myself than I ever would have thought it would. It’s hard letting go and putting your child in the hands of another person (or people) to teach them and help them grow. Naturally, I worry about how he’s doing without me. I wonder how he’ll interact with his peers since he isn’t under my wings. I’m learning a lot about myself. I’m learning what it means to give my cares over to God and trust that He has us where he does for a reason.

When B was little and scared to leave us we would always quote Joshua 1:9 to him. We actually have it hanging on his bedroom wall as a reminder. And whats funny is that I’m now reminding myself of that same verse that I’ve memorized with him for the last few years! “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Caitlin: I love that! It’s amazing how much we can learn through guiding others, and I imagine that’s especially the case with children. Now that you’ve been through it, what advice would you give other moms who are getting ready to hit this milestone or are going through it now?

Jessica: Embrace it! It is a really fun and exciting time. It may be a little overwhelming, but it’s worth it and soon it will be the new normal. Watching my boy come out of school excited and filled with confidence makes my heart happy. Watching him grow and overcome fears is so rewarding. It makes the hard times worth it! It all happens so fast so my advice for parents – especially myself- is to pause and take it all in. Enjoy the crazy because one day we will all miss this stage!

Do you have any advice for moms and dads sending their kids to school for the first time? Any funny memories? Share in the comments sections, let’s talk!

 

Let love take over: Lessons from hospice

I recently came across a post on Facebook from an old family friend that brought tears to my eyes. Christopher (pictured below) is a hospice volunteer. He agreed to talk a bit about work I find both fascinating and inspiring. He also shares that wonderful story I mentioned, below.

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Caitlin: What drew you to volunteering with hospice?

Christopher: I have always had an interest and curiosity about the experience of death and what comes after death. I had several experiences as a teenager with death, one in particular in which I was the only person on the scene of a late night car accident and stayed with a passenger as he died. Those experiences had a deep impact that I never forgot about. In college I took a course on Death & Dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground breaking theories on the five stages of grief were relatively new at the time, as well as the academic study of death. Looking back, I am honored to have obtained that knowledge thirty years ago.

It wasn’t until three years ago that I began to think about doing some volunteer work. My children are grown now and after spending years involved in various sports and school related programs, that phase of life had ended.

I was working for Abington Hospital at the time and knew they had a Hospice facility. I felt drawn to it. I walked in one day and discovered that they had an immediate need for someone at the exact time of day that I was available to volunteer.

Caitlin: Wow, it sounds like it was meant to be. What’s a typical day like for you volunteering at hospice?

Christopher: I cook breakfast two morning each week. We have a 20 bed inpatient facility with a lovely small kitchen where volunteers make meals to order for the patients who are eating. We have patients who may only spend their last couple of days with us, but we also have some who spend several months. Many of them are quite self sufficient when they come in and still have hearty appetites. So I might be cooking something as simple as Cream of Wheat or Toast & Tea, or a more elaborate breakfast like an Omelette or fresh Blueberry Pancakes.

I can honestly say there is almost no such thing as a “typical” day.  I could show up one day and no one is eating, but the next time I might feel like an over-stressed cook at a busy diner. Either way, there is always an opportunity to connect with a patient or family member. Family members can spend the night in the rooms with patients, and quite often they will ask for breakfast as well. Preparing a meal, serving food, and perhaps feeding someone is one of the most elemental forms of caregiving. A very intimate experience.

Caitlin: What is the hardest part of volunteering at a hospice?

Christopher: The hardest thing to accept is the younger patients.  When a patient is in their 80’s or 90’s death can be accepted or expected for the most part. That person has lived a full life. We seem to have so many women in their 30’s and 40’s dying of breast or ovarian cancer. Women who have young children and husbands coming in to say goodbye. It is heartbreaking.  We also have a Pediatric wing. It is not common for children to enter inpatient hospice. Most remain in the hospital or spend their final days at home. But we do have children and teenagers from time to time. It is very difficult and tough on even the most seasoned nurses.  At the same time it can be a beautiful experience. We once had a 10 day old baby. Very unusual circumstances meant that the parents could only visit for a couple hours each week. The baby had a congenital heart defect and was slowly but painlessly dying. The nurses and volunteers made a pact that this child would never be out of the arms of someone. There was a continuous stream of loving people who took turns holding the baby and rocking her. She was with us for two weeks and no one will ever forget her.

Caitlin: That’s so beautiful. I’m curious for you, what is the most rewarding part of volunteering with the dying? What keeps you coming back?

Christopher: There is ALWAYS something to learn or receive from my time at hospice if I stay open and receptive. It may come from a patient, or family member, or often from watching experienced nurses. Even the most difficult patients or family members can be learning lessons.  There is a saying “We die as we lived.” This is so true. There are people who are so grateful and giving even while experiencing great suffering or pain. You just know that they lived like this their entire lives. There are people who are the exact opposite. Nothing can make them happy. I’ve learned to accept both types of people as teachers.

Caitlin: How do you keep yourself emotionally intact doing what could be very draining volunteer work?

Christopher: Honestly, the challenge is staying emotionally present. Resisting the temptation to close off.  It can be easy to view death as routine when you are around it so often.  Every patient and family member is facing a unique situation in their lives, and that is easy to forget when there is a constant cycle of families coming and going.

Before I experienced a hospice setting I guess I imagined it to be an incredibly and overwhelmingly sad environment. That isn’t true at all and it didn’t take long to figure out why. There is continuous grief, but at the same time there is continuous Love (Earthly and Heavenly).  I have often described this as the “Beautiful Sadness.”

I have also worked with ways to help staff and volunteers stay mindful and present.  Last year I took a course that was based on  “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. (You can check out a video about the course here.)

Based on the course, I set up a meditation and mindfulness program and have presented it to fellow volunteers. I’ll be continuing the program this fall and we hope to expand it. The goal is to provide a pathway to enhance end of life caregiving skills by reducing fear, increasing compassion, and embracing the emotional roller coaster.

Caitlin: You shared a story on Facebook recently about comforting a family while their loved one was passing away. Can you share that story?

Christopher: Sure. An 80 year old man, dying of liver failure, was surrounded by his family. His wife of 58 years at his side, two daughters and three grand daughters stood around the bed as well. Tears were streaming down all faces. He shook my hand with the strongest grip I have ever felt from a hospice patient. The only words that came to my mind to say to him were, “You are surrounded by love. Nothing else matters right now.”

That family will stay in my heart and that is the greatest gift of hospice care, and why there is absolute truth in the old saying “You get way more than you give” as a hospice volunteer.

The more I think about this, and the words “Surrounded by love”… is the realization that he is not just surrounded by the three generations in the room. He is surrounded by an unending generational chain. All of his ancestors who have passed before him, and all of his descendants yet to be born. It is all part of the same LOVE, unbroken and inseparable. It is with us always.

Caitlin: I think that is so powerful. I am personally really uneasy about death, but those words really made sense to me and I think they’re so true. It certainly brings peace to me and I hope it will for my readers, as well. If I may bring up, I know you recently lost your mother. How has this volunteer work impacted that loss and perhaps helped you deal with it or understand it?

Christopher: I don’t think it lessened the pain or loss at all, but it certainly helped to understand the process of a prolonged terminal illness like she had. I was better equipped and capable of talking to her about death than I would have been without the experience of hospice work. Even more so, was the ability to help family members work through the pain.

Caitlin: What advice would you give other people as they care for family members who are in their final stage of life?

Christopher: Stay focused on the moment, enjoy the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Be sure to take care of yourself as well as the person who is dying.  There is a tremendous amount of internal stress going on that people are often not even consciously aware of. Eat, sleep (or at least get rest), and take time for yourself on a regular basis. Without this you can not give your best to your loved one over the long run. Above all, put aside petty differences or difficulties with family members.  There is no time for this at all. Let love take over.

Caitlin: Let love take over. That’s really great advice for all situations, actually. Obviously, this kind of volunteer works seems like it could be very emotionally difficult. Is it hard for hospice to find volunteers?Why should someone consider volunteering with a hospice?

Christopher: It can be; both difficult to do and to find volunteers.  I think that the people who volunteer for hospice as well as the people who make a career of working with the dying will mostly tell you that it is a calling.  Maybe some people try it and then discover that it is too much to handle. There can be a lot of emotional burnout as well.  This can happen in any field though.  There are many ways to volunteer for hospice without having to be in direct contact with patients. We have a fantastic group of people who make quilts and crochet blankets for every patient.  (I have my mother’s quilt that was on her bed during hospice care)

We have people who are trained to do follow up grief counseling with family members. And we have people who volunteer time doing clerical work or fundraising. These are all vital components of the whole hospice network. I would say that if someone feels called to do this type of work, they should listen to the calling and contact a local hospice. They will always be welcome to come in and discuss the possibilities.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Christopher. I think it takes a truly special person to do the work you’re doing and it makes me happy to know there are people like you caring for those in the last days of their lives.

If you’re interested in volunteering at Abington Hospice at Warminster (in Pennsylvania, where Christopher volunteers) you can call Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Leporace at 215-441-6831.

Image credit: Christopher

 

Heartbreak and Hope: Dealing with infertility

Sometimes the most important topics are the hardest to talk about. I think infertility is really high on that list.

Did you know that about 10% of women in the United States will struggle with infertility? So why aren’t we talking about it? Well, because, it’s really, really hard.

That’s why I’m so honored that Jacqueline offered to talk to me about her fertility journey. If you are struggling with fertility, I hope, in reading this, you’ll find some strength from Jacqueline’s words and realize you are not alone. And, for the rest of us, I hope we’ll learn something about how to be there for our friends and family in this very difficult journey.

Caitlin: So, Jacqueline, first of all, thank you for talking about this issue that I know isn’t easy to discuss. Can you start by telling us a bit about your journey with fertility?

Jacqueline: My journey started about eight years ago. We had been married a few years and had decided that it was time for us to start a family of our own.

A year and a half later, when trying on our own hadn’t worked, I decided to talk to my ob-gyn and asked a few questions. My doctor started me on the process of just checking everything out and seeing if there were any medical issues.

All the tests kept coming back good. Neither of us had any issues. They could find no underlying reason of why we weren’t able to conceive. That was great news.

The doctor suggested that we see a fertility specialist to move things along. We discovered that our insurance covered a good portion of the infertility procedures, which was wonderful. The costs are quite high for both the procedures and the prescriptions.

We had just gotten started when we learned that our insurance was changing carriers. No more awesome coverage! Yikes. We had to move fast so we jumped right into IVF. We basically had to put all of our eggs into one basket, so to speak. One shot.

During this process we also got accepted into an IVF trial so we were fortunate enough to get two shots. Two baskets, Ha!

Unfortunately neither procedure worked. It was a very quick and  head spinning process. We were back to square one.

We moved on to doing IUI next, which was a little more manageable when paying out of pocket.

Caitlin: What kind of emotional toll does that take?

Jacqueline: It’s definitely a roller coaster. Because you go through so many different stages. You start your cycle and you’re both really pumped. You’re like, “This is it! I feel good!”

In the beginning I had to give myself shots of hormones, sometimes twice a day.  Your body is so full of hormones so quickly that it definitely puts you into a crazy brainfog after the first week of shots.

My husband felt very helpless during this process. He knew what a toll it was taking on me.

I often had to take a lunch bag with my dosage in to work. I kept it from my bosses and co-workers. You have to give yourself shots the same time each day and the syringes have to stay refrigerated at all times. I would give myself shots in the ladies room and sometimes in my car. I felt a little like a drug user on occasion sneaking around. (laughs)

The doctors keep close tabs on you during this process and you are in the office almost every other day getting blood work and ultrasounds.

Oh, and they want you to relax. “Don’t stress out,” they say.  Easy to say, not so much to do. After all of that, they do the procedure and you have to wait two weeks to see if you’ve conceived. When the two week mark would start to get close I would tell my husband “Oh my gosh, this might be it. This might be it. I feel good. I don’t feel like I’m getting my cycle.”

And then you do. It’s definitely a heartbreak. You just kind of…. ugh.  I can’t explain the feeling. It was just heartbreaking for both of us.

When you include your family in on it, you feel like you’re all rooting for the same team so it was kind of like, “Ah crap, now I get to tell everybody that it didn’t take.“

So, eventually, I stopped telling people when I was doing cycles. It kind of trailed off after a while. It got a little harder each time it didn’t happen and I thought, “You know what, that’s okay if I don’t tell them.” Because they’ll be thrilled when we say, “We’re having a baby!”

So, it got to the point when that I stopped including my mother in on it because I know that she was having a hard time. It’s just as heartbreaking for a potential grandmother as it is for her daughter and I know she didn’t want to see me hurting. Eventually, I just kind of started keeping it closer to home and it made it easier when people stopped asking because then I didn’t have to say out loud that it didn’t happen again.

And, I would cry. Not always, but it was sometimes just a thirty second cry and you’re kind of like, okay, I’m all right. Put your big girl pants on.

So, it was like nonstop. You’re still on the hormone surge and then you get your cycle, and you’re back at the doctor, you’re not even okay yet with the fact it didn’t work and they’re already talking about the next one.

So, you kind of zoom into the next one and you do it all again. Occasionally I was just too exhausted or the numbers just weren’t good and we would have to take a month off.

Caitlin: Why do you think this issue is so hard to talk about?

Jacqueline: You know, I’m not really sure. I think part of you is kind of surprised that you haven’t been able to conceive and why it’s hasn’t been easy to do. I always thought all it took was going off of birth control and having a few glasses of wine with the hubby.

I think talking about it is tough because you don’t know how to bring the subject up in common conversation. You don’t want to get that head tilt and “Aww” expression. That’s a killer. My husband says it makes him want to throat-punch somebody.(laughs)

A close friend of mine had made me her confidant in her infertility journey. She had gone through it way before I ever began my journey. She had kept me pretty close in her struggle. I am happy to say she was blessed with a beautiful little girl.

So, even though I knew about that, I still thought as soon as I went off birth control pills I would get pregnant the next month. You need other people to talk to.

The frustrations and heartache that a couple can go through each month… you both have the same feelings. We would try and stay positive for each other. My husband is my rock, but it is good to vent to a friend when you need to let off a little steam. It saves your sanity.

After I had finished my IVF rounds and had moved onto IUI, I found out that two of my girlfriends were going through the same thing. One of them was even going to the same doctor! That was a real wake up call for all of us. We saw each other every week but nobody was talking about it! Once we started the conversation it was such a relief to know that we all felt the same things and were having the same struggles. It was good to laugh about the insanity too. It makes it all a little easier to swallow.

Caitlin: Do you still feel disbelief that you’re going through this?

Jacqueline: As many different processes that we went through, IVF, IUI, um, yeah. I am still surprised that nothing has worked. I still have hope. I’ve never lost that, but I do have to say, it’s frustrating. I gave up coffee, I gave up chocolate, I gave up sugar, gluten, alcohol, ate only organic, you name it, to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I read up on everything to educate myself on alternate reasons for infertility. So, there’s still a little disbelief that you feel like you did everything right and everything that you could do and nothing happens.  It’s definitely frustrating.

Caitlin: Since you last did IUI, what’s been the gameplan?

Jacqueline: We kind of took a break.  After years of trying and years of fertility, we were both kind of numb.  It took us a while to get back to the point that we were ready to try again.  It got to be a lot mentally and the hormones were taking a toll on my body. We both decided that I would benefit from a break and a detox. I felt like I was beating my head against a wall.  It was somewhat of a relief because there wasn’t that constant pressuring and wondering. So that was a good thing to do for both of us.  Now, I get fertility acupuncture treatments and we are just having fun trying on our own.

Caitlin: Tell me about acupuncture.

Jacqueline: I actually went at first for allergies. It was suggested that I not take any over the counter medications during fertility treatments to better my chances. This also led me to learn more about my body and to look deeper into what I was eating and into my environment. I am very proactive about my health and have actually become more mindful of how I treat my body whether its food, sleep, exercise- its all related to your total body health. I wanted to know that I was giving myself the best chance that I could to conceive. My husband joined me in this process, I could not have done it without his support. I am currently seeing a fertility acupuncturist and she prescribes herbal supplements that support the fertility process. It’s a holistic approach, I am so much happier with this approach.

Caitlin: What are your thoughts on adoption?

Jacque: I’ve always thought adoption was a great option for anybody. When it come to us as a couple, we were so concentrated on conceiving ourselves, it wasn’t something we really talked about or really looked into. Recently, we have started to look into it. We sent off for information to a couple places that were suggested. One issue we have had is the fact that the adoption agencies suggest that you should come to grips that you are most likely not going to conceive on your own before starting the adoption process.  I’m not sure either of us are there yet.

Our doctor also suggested an egg donor, as another option.  It’s hard to wrap your brain around what to do next when neither of us has a clue. Usually one of us is stronger when the other needs a hand up. Right now, I think we both feel a little lost in the process.

Caitlin:  You mentioned earlier that you had met some friends who were also dealing with infertility. Have they been able to have children yet?

Jacque: Yeah. Actually, all of them were lucky enough to conceive! It just kind of happened one after another after another. And some of them are even on their second child now. It’s wonderful. Everybody had kids now.

There’s nobody who is still in our boat. I do feel a little bit like we are on our own little island now.

But, fortunately, I couldn’t be happier for any of them. Like, serious tears when they told me they were pregnant. Because you know how it feels… the JOY they must have felt when they got the thumbs up that they were pregnant.

Caitlin: Do you think it was hard for them to tell you?

Jacque: I hope not, but I can imagine if it were me telling them, oh god, yes. Yeah.

I’m thrilled for them, but I can see where telling somebody who is dealing with infertility that you’re pregnant would be really hard.

Caitlin: It must be hard for you to hear, even though you are genuinely happy for your friends.

Jacque: I can’t lie, it’s a weird emotion. You’re elated that your friend is pregnant and then time goes on and maybe a baby shower comes up and you’re out shopping and you’re wrapping the present or something silly like that, and I’ll start crying.

It happens like that. It’s not a direct sadness, it’s more of a trigger. It’s really hard to put into words. And it’s not directed to the pregnant person or the baby or anything like that. It just brings up a sadness. It’s just really hard to explain.

I just think that it definitely helps to talk about stuff. It helps the soul I think, to let it work through the things it needs to work through.

And I think it’s hard to articulate to your friends or family what you’re feeling or what you’re trying to say, but if you kind of just sit down and talk, it’s a wonderful thing. You’re not burdening them. They genuinely care, as you do for them.

Caitlin: What do you think is the best thing people can do to support someone they love who is dealing with fertility issues?

Jacque: You know, that’s a really hard question. I found that for myself, there was a fine line between letting people know what was going on and keeping it a secret and that’s why I didn’t tell a lot of people because I was trying to keep my emotions out of it. That didn’t work.

So, I think that probably if you know somebody that is going through fertility, just let them know that you’re accessible to talk to. Be there for them in a gentle way and be mindful of the person’s feelings.

Though you may have good intentions, don’t bring it up at a party. I’ve had people corner me over the dessert table and start asking me a million questions. There is a time and a place, and that’s not it.

Caitlin: Yeah, I guess people don’t really know how to act sometimes with the tough stuff. You don’t want to pry, but then at the same time, you don’t want your friend or loved one to think you don’t care. It is hard.

Jacque: It is tough. I wish I had the answer. I supposed gently checking in is a nice thing.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is dealing with infertility?

Jacque: Be your own advocate and do your own research. If you decide to go to an infertility clinic, research your doctor and ask around. You need to have a good support group with your doctors and know that they care about you, that you’re not just a baby notch on their belt.

If you are considering going the holistic route, the same thing holds true.

With your spouse or partner, good communication is important. I know sometimes, as the woman, I felt alone and that was tough for him. Your partner is going through it with you, don’t forget that. Maybe not physically, but they are going on the same ride as you are and it’s important to know that they’re there for you and to let them be there for you.

Caitlin: What have you learned about yourself in this process?

Jacque: I realized that I have a lot of drive when it comes to doing what needs to be done. I’m not the wuss that I had thought I was. It’s been a lot of hard work. I mean, when you give up your morning cup of coffee, that’s tough! (laughs) We have both learned that we are a strong couple and we can make it through anything.

We will make wonderful parents, God willing.

 

Have you struggled with infertility? Any words of wisdom to share?

Image credit: Corey Taratuta

Adult decisions

My friend, Kiki, has had an interesting decade. She was an honor student at Hofstra University, finished early and jetted off to Greece to compete in So You Think You Can Dance. She’s lived in both New York and Los Angeles and worked as a professional dancer, and yet, she says, all these years, she’s just been going with the flow. Never really making decisions for herself. That is, until now.

Kiki has recently decided that she wants to be a Physicians Assistant and, at the age of 28, she is pursuing that dream and finally feels like she’s living life on her own terms.

I spoke with Kiki about what it means to find your passion, even in the strangest of places.

 

Caitlin: So, you grew up outside Boston, and then went to Hofstra University and majored in Broadcast Journalism. Was it always written in stone that you would go to college?

Kiki: It was definitely always the next step. I didn’t really have to make a choice. I never even really thought about it. Even when I was applying, it was like, I’ll apply to a few and get into one. I didn’t even really think about, “Where do I want to go? What do I want to do?”  I was just kind of like, New York sounds cool. The reasons for my decisions were not really substantial.

Caitlin: So, senior year, you finished up early and went off to Greece before graduation to compete in So You Think You Can Dance in Greece. I think a lot of people would hear that and be like, “She made a decision, she took a leap.” But, you don’t see it that way.

Kiki and her sister

Kiki and her sister

Kiki: That happened because my Aunt saw the audition on TV and said me and my sister should go. And I just went with it. I didn’t decide it for myself. Once we got in, it was exciting and cool, but it wasn’t because I really wanted to be a dancer or on the show.

And when I came back to New York, people were like, “You need to get an agent, go do it.” And so I was like, “Okay, that makes sense.”

So, instead of really finding myself and what I wanted to do, I just went with the flow.

Caitlin: So, tell me the story of when you really discovered what it is you want to do.

Kiki: So, I was dancing for a while in L.A. and I knew I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was really struggling, and wanting to find my next career. And then my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I went home to be with her in Boston as she was recovering from a double mastectomy. I was sitting in her hospital room and a nurse came in and was messing with the equipment and assessing my mom. I was asking her a lot of questions because I was really curious. She turned to me, and was like, “Oh, are you in the medical field as well?’

I think I laughed and said, “No, girl, I’m a dancer in L.A.”

Kiki the dancer

Kiki the dancer

I started thinking about it for a few days and started saying, “I want to be a nurse!”

I started thinking about what that would involve and what it would give me in life. I was like, I want to make money and I want to make a difference. It will keep my brain working and challenged. So, I just went from being a dancer, to being like, “Oh shit, I finally know what I want to do.”

After doing my research, I discovered that being a Physician’s Assistant (P.A.) is the best bet for me. Once I decided on that, it was so empowering. I knew it would be a long journey, and it has been, I still haven’t gotten into school yet, but all that hard work doesn’t feel as hard because I’m no longer in limbo and I know what I want. So, I’ll commit to ten years, and it’s cool.

Caitlin: So you’re doing a few years of prerequisite classes and then you have to apply for schools and then you’ll have a few years of school. Did that ever almost scare you off?

Kiki: No. Because I know I can do it. If I do what I need to do, this will happen.

Caitlin: As we go through our 20’s and see people hitting milestones and being successful, does it ever make you look at your own life and freak out? I know it does to me sometimes.

Kiki: Of course I compare myself sometimes, but I really try not to. You know, as long as you’re working hard and you’re kind and you’re a good person, you’re fine.

I think our 20’s are rough as shit. I think it’s as angsty, if not more than the high school years.

Caitlin: So what would your advice be for someone who feels like they need to make a change?

Kiki: I think it’s important to be reflective and give yourself time. And never settle for anything. Because I knew I didn’t really want to be a dancer and I wasn’t going to settle for that. I couldn’t. I knew I would figure it out, it just took awhile.

Happy Kiki

Happy Kiki

The rest of the hard work sucks, but it’s nowhere near as shitty as not knowing what you want to do. I feel like it was my first real, adult decision. Having committed to one decision and deciding want I want and need now, the fact that I’m heading in this direction, that’s the biggest thing. It’s empowering.

 

What was the first big, adult decision you made for yourself? We talked a few weeks ago about what it’s like to finally feel like an adult. Maybe making one big, tough decision is the thing that does it. What do you think?

Curveballs

Two and a half years ago, life threw A is for Adelaide blogger, Chelley Martinka, a curveball that completely changed the course of her life. I wanted to talk to Chelley about the way she not only handles, but embraces the unexpected in her life. I’ll keep it short here so Chelley can tell her own story, because she does it beautifully…

 

Caitlin: Can you begin by telling me what you were doing about two and a half years ago?

Chelley: This time 2 1/2 years ago I was just having my first child, Adelaide Eileen (Addie). I was concerned about “something”, chalk it up to mother’s intuition, but never really spoke up until her 2 month appointment- which was at 9 weeks. From that moment on, life has been a whirlwind.

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Addie was hospitalized for dehydration at 9 1/2 weeks, and during her stay at the hospital, they made the diagnosis of Achondroplasia, the most common (1 in 40,000 births) form of dwarfism.

Caitlin: So, for those of us who haven’t had children yet, I think a lot of us fear the unknown. What will it be like? How will my life change? I imagine having a child with special needs is THAT, times ten. How did that diagnosis change your plans?

Chelley: Ultimately, it gave me a calling- and that’s not even me trying to find some silver lining- the opportunity to write presented itself (in blogger form) and I ran with it. As far as the other plans…

I had a goal of rejoining my employer from temp to full time 6 months after Addie was born, but due to her weekly aqua therapies, specialists ranging from Boston to Providence to Wilmington (DE), it financially didn’t make sense for me to continue working. I always imagined myself this rockstar career mom in heels and Chanel’s, but that wasn’t my path. Many days I end up working with a napping toddler under my arm, and praying that another viewing of “Nemo” will keep her busy during conference calls… I consider myself a rockstar mom, still. It takes a lot to be a parent, regardless of your situation.

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Just being a parent changes life, but all the things you see in movies and commercials become something you still consider fantasies- even though your friends swear by those moments. Milestones are different, appointments are different, and your relationship with your partner becomes about survival of the family. Special needs are known for ripping marriages apart, and Dave and I work very hard to keep our love (and communication) fresh.

We also thought that Addie may be an only child because traveling for specialists and some of the stressors that come along with special needs can be overwhelming. But there are so many what-ifs, and Addie is such an amazing kid, that we decided to expand our family again. Everyone is so excited, so while I’m glad we put extra thought into it, I’m thrilled that we made the right decision that we could and would embrace everything life has for us, and do it with gusto!

Caitlin: Yeah, I think that’s great. You’re expecting in September!

Chelley: Yes. Camille Thea is due September 24th!

Caitlin: As you begin to imagine your life as a mother of two, how are you approaching this differently than when you were expecting Addie? What is the wisdom that comes from having a child with special needs? A life different from what you expected?

Chelley: I think I am researching more, but from a perspective of wanting to understand rather than a place of fear. My Google really runs the gamut from searches for typical milestone charts, to children who are diagnosed with different learning disorders, autism, Down Syndrome. I do light reading each week- just to know. At this point, with experience of being a mom of one under my belt, I’m more lax about being pregnant- but with a rare diagnosis, I know that all the prep work we do as parents can mean nothing to the child we have.

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I also do advocacy work, so I like to keep up to date on everything I can happening in the special needs world- it’s important to me, more so because I have a child who lives in that world.

And there’s my goal of not living our lives as perpetual victims of special needs. It’s just an aspect of Addie and our family. I try to focus less on Addie’s needs and more on her adapting from the go- which, for now, is her using stools and climbing safely. We don’t have a child-proof house because Addie can’t reach the things we don’t want, but as I watch her, I am learning where a child of average height will be and seeing that we need to move a few pictures and candles.

With parenthood comes wisdom- my best piece of it, is do your thing. No matter who your child is, you are the parent, and if it’s right for your family, then it’s the right thing to do.

Caitlin: Although it was unexpected, Addie’s diagnosis turned you into a stay-at-home mom.

Chelley: Being able to be with Addie and go to every appointment is the best perk. I know everything that is said by every specialist AND I get to see all the milestones! It’s not an “easy” job, but it’s fun to be home with her.

Caitlin: There’s some quote that you hear all the time, something about how God only gives you what you can handle. I think that’s silly and that the truth is, we find the strength we need to find. You mentioned that a lot of people ask you how you find the strength to handle the tough stuff that comes along with having a child with special needs. So, how do you?

Chelley: For this situation, it’s far simpler than one could imagine.

I look at her.

Rhode Island Cake Smash Photography, RI Cake smash Photography,

There are other things I’ve faced, like the death of my brother in infancy, the loss of my 18 year old cousin, father and uncle in quick succession, a major car accident, and recession in one of the poorest states in the country. But, Life’s curveballs are defined by what we think will happen because we only know about the “ideal”, but what happens to us, is also what shapes us. Life is just life, and ideals are just ideas on what would be super cool if…

For me, it’s way cooler to just live it and hope to the heavens I’m doing ok.

I think the best thing we can all do for ourselves, as people, is stop having “such” expectations, as I call them. Things that will be “such a way” because that’s how we think they will be from a book, or movie, or even a friend. Experiences are unique to the individual- I know my husband has a completely different experience with Addie’s diagnosis because I do a majority of the day-to-day. Expectations are healthy, but the disappointment we feel because something “has” to be a certain way to make it “right” is a pressure we put on ourselves.

Sometimes when things aren’t picture perfect, they’re still perfect.

I love that so much. “Sometimes when things aren’t picture perfect, they’re still perfect.” Now, everyone say it with me, “Sometimes when things aren’t picture perfect, they’re still perfect.” Whether it’s a surprise diagnosis, a change in relationship status, or an unexpected career turn, life doesn’t always go the way we plan. But, like Chelley said, those are the things that shape us into the people we’re becoming. And that’s a beautiful thing.

 

On not being THAT bride

As a sales manager and marketing coordinator for a wedding photographer, my friend Jamie has a lot of experience with weddings. Plus, she’s been a maid of honor twice (mine, in fact) and a bridesmaid once. So, as you can imagine, she’s got some opinions on weddings (don’t we all?).

Jamie is getting married in September, so I talked to her about how her views of weddings have changed, both since working in the industry and as she’s gotten older.

The bride-to-be & Me

The bride-to-be & me

Caitlin: So, Jamie, although you’re not an older bride, you do have a lot of experiences with weddings.

Jamie: Yeah, my group of friends tended to get married really young, and my brother and sister are both married, as well.

Caitlin: So, I’ve been married for four years. I loved my wedding and I don’t have any regrets. But, simply, as you get older, your tastes change.

Jamie: I do think if I had gotten married younger it would have been a much more elaborate thing than it’s ending up being. For me, now, it’s more about the marriage and less about the wedding day.

And I think that might come from being in the industry and seeing how much importance people put on just that day. I’ve sat with couples that seem to me like they hate each other. And they are sitting in a meeting planning what’s supposed to be the happiest day of their life.

So, it’s not that it’s jaded me, but its made me realize that the marriage itself is the most important thing and not so much the day that people get really carried away with.

Jamie, at her bridal shower

Jamie, at her bridal shower

Caitlin: So, compare getting married at 29 to getting married at 22, 23.

Jamie: It would have been a lot more of a spectacle. It’s now more about the marriage itself. The younger me would have been more like, HERE COMES THE BRIDE! A party to celebrate me in all my white dressed glory. Not a day to celebrate the start of a marriage. And our family blending together.

Caitlin: You see a lot of weddings since you’re looking at wedding photography all the time. Does that give you ideas for your own wedding?

Jamie: I think it’s narrowed it down. Especially with Pinterest being around now, there’s a lot of pressure to out do other people with your wedding. And that’s part of what I’m saying about people getting caught up with the wedding being this big, grand thing.

Caitlin: And like, just a series of photo-ops?

Jamie: It’s really like a modeling shoot for the brides. She’s the best she’s ever going to look, with everyone watching. It’s more about looking your best and getting a million pictures of it. And having the right favors, and all of the little things that in the long run don’t mean anything, which is why, beyond the DIY stuff, that’s kind of where my fiancé and I decided we want a little bit of everybody in our wedding.

So instead of buying a guest book, we’re having my father build a bench that everyone will sign and we’ll keep at the foot of our bed. I’m not hiring a florist. My mom and my grandmom are going to do it for me. His mom, grandmom, and aunt are going to do all the candles. That kind of stuff.

Everything is handmade by him, or me, or something we found at flea markets. So it’s very us, and very handmade and little pieces of us everywhere.

Jamie cutting the cake designed by her fiancé

Jamie cutting the cake designed by her fiancé

Caitlin: I got married before Pinterest was really a thing.

Jamie: Yeah, a lot of brides say they’re mad they got married before Pinterest.

Caitlin: I’m glad I did!

Jamie: I feel like that’s normal. Especially with wedding photography, Pinterest is more of a hinderance than anything because it’s like, people see all of these pictures and they’re either all doing the same exact thing because that’s what’s in right now, like mason jars everywhere, or like the burlap “Mr. & Mrs.” banner. And not only that, we literally have brides who give us a stack of ten pictures and want an exact replica.

Caitlin: Like to recreate moments from other peoples weddings?

Jamie: Exactly! And that doesn’t make any sense. Focus on genuine moments that are happening.

Caitlin: Yeah, I feel like when you try to recreate moments other people have had, you’re really closing yourself off to the real moments you can have. I know with my wedding, the things I really remember, I never could have imagined would happen. (laughs) The things I remember are the funny, ridiculous things that happened that I couldn’t have planned if I tried. And I think, too, it goes to the larger issue that everything is documented and chronicled now and there’s so many ways to compare yourself to everyone else with the social media lives we’re living. So, a wedding can be THAT, on steroids, if you let it.

Jamie: Yeah, and it’s like, weddings were already kind of a monster. I mean, there’s a show called Bridezillas. How terrible is that? Which is why, to answer your question about how my wedding is different, I think if I had gotten married younger, it would have been more selfish, more “this is my day,” and these are things that I want, and that kind of stuff. And now we’re not doing pomp and circumstance, we’re doing a party.

Caitlin: How has being involved in a lot of weddings changed the way you are as a bride, to your bridal party and the other people involved in your wedding?

Jamie: If you asked the young 20’s me who was out all night with my friends, it would have been more about having a million friends there and I think that even the guest list has narrowed down to just the most important people. I think I’ve seen from everybody what to do, and what not to do. Or experienced things where I said, I don’t think I’d do it that way, or I really liked that.

I think that having been through it and watching other people go through it, I’d like to think that I’m making it as easy on everybody as possible. I also want to make sure that both families are being involved equally. That’s the main thing for me.

Even in regards to the bridal party, I feel like instead of it just being a bunch of people surrounding you in an amorphous blob, all wearing the same thing and then me being in the center of it, I’m more sort of cognizant of everyone being comfortable. Because I feel like everybody has the best time at weddings when they’re comfortable. I really just want everybody to have a good time and I feel like me telling people what they should look like on my day is kind of weird.

Caitlin: If you had one piece of advice to give brides, from your experience, what would it be?

Jamie: A: You can’t please everybody. Even if that’s your goal. Everybody wants your day to be something different. And there’s no way you can do that.

B: The most important thing, and this is from being in the industry and now doing it myself, is just to not let the day get bigger than it should be. It’s not JUST a day, it’s a very special day in your life, but you don’t want to walk away the next day feeling like, what now? You want to be excited like, now I get to spend the rest of my life with this person and we just had a great party to celebrate that.
If you’re married, what did you learn from your own wedding that you share with your friends or family who haven’t gone through it yet? If you’re not yet married, what things have you seen at weddings that you learned from? Come on, don’t act like you haven’t thought about it! Leave it in the comments 🙂

Finding peace after loss

My friend Johanna lost her dad very suddenly when she was 26 years old. Through tears (for both of us), she talked about what she’s learned through six years of missing her dad and shared advice for others dealing with loss.

Johanna 2

Caitlin: It’s been six years since your dad passed away. Has dealing with that loss gotten any easier for you as time has gone by?

Johanna: Yes. I mean, it definitely has. When I think back to how hard it was in the first week, couple months, even the first couple of year, it was so unbelievably hard. But within six years, it’s definitely gotten easier.

This is something I’ll never get over. There are times when I suddenly get upset still and you know, holidays are still hard because I do miss him terribly, but I don’t feel that raw, raw pain that I felt six, five, four years ago. It’s steadily gotten much better.

Your mom said something to me that at the time, it was heard to hear, but now makes so much sense.

Caitlin: She lost her dad really young.

Johanna: Yeah she told me, “You’re now part of a club that no one wants to be a member of,” which is so true. And you know, I’ve had quite a few friends lose a parent and I feel like I’ve been there for them and have been able to understand on a much deeper level and I think thats been helpful for them to have someone who gets it.

Your mom also said to me that you now have to find your new normal. At the time I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to have to find my new normal, I wanted my old normal. I wanted my dad in my life. But, it is true because you do kind of get used to a new way of doing things and living your life without that person. It takes a while, but you do find it.

Johanna 1

Caitlin: You touched on this a bit before, but I do wonder if people realize that when you lose someone, even when a lot of time has gone by, there are still times when the pain feel just as raw and sharp as it did when it happened.

Johanna: Yeah, you know, I’m not bursting into tears all the time and having those kind of episodes that I had before so it is kind of something that people tend to forget. Maybe its something they just don’t want to bring up, because it is such a tough subject to talk about.

Everyone is always looking for the right thing to say to make you feel better, but its not about making you feel better, it’s just about being there.

Caitlin: I think when our friends go through something difficult, we all want to be there for them as much as we can, but it’s often hard to know what to do or say. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but what do you think is the best way to be there for a friend who is going through something like what you went through.

Johanna: I think it’s just being there. Everyone is going to handle it differently and need their own thing. I wanted people to be around me at all times. I didn’t want to be alone. There is nothing anyone could have said that was going to make it better or change it, but I think just allowing me to talk about it made me feel better.

But it depends on the person. Other people don’t want talk about it at all. They just want to be left alone and that’s how they have to deal with it. And I think it’s just a matter of realizing the type of person (your friend is) and what they actually need. For some people, less is more.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is going through a loss that’s been really difficult?

Johanna: I don’t try to say it’s going to be okay, because it’s not. You will be eventually (be okay), but it’s still going to hurt quite a bit.

Just hang in there, because it will get better. And with time it does actually feel a lot better and the pain just does ease up a little bit and it doesn’t hurt as much.

I just remember sitting there thinking that I felt like my world has stopped and everything around me is still spinning and how is this possible? But, you kind of fall back into that groove and you get back spinning too, and you find that new normal. You can find peace and move on with your life.

Thank you so much to Johanna for talking about such a tough subject with such grace and wisdom. What advice would you give a friend who is dealing with the loss of a loved one? Or, if you’ve experience a loss like Johanna, what did your friends and family do for you that helped?