About a year ago, I felt like I was living in a constant state of stress. Whether it be work, family, adult and parent responsibilities, finances, aspirations left unreached, creative pursuits, or issues with the world at large, I was a ball of worry, nerves, pressure, and so much more, clawing at the walls for a way out of this invisible box I felt I was stuck in all the time.
Every little thing would bother me, from a comment someone at work made, or a creative project taking a little longer because ‘life things’ just got in the way. Negative, negative, negative, it felt like a cloud that was engulfing me at nearly every turn.
Then, somewhere along the way, either just before or just after the birth of our third child, our second daughter six months ago, something happened. A switch felt like it got flipped.
Why did it take me so long to flip that switch? Was it the birth of our third child that was the impetus for such a shift in focus? Why didn’t it happen with the first two?
I have no idea and can’t tell you. But I can tell you that around this time, I just started looking at things…differently.
Suddenly, the things that I used to find myself so bothered by no longer really mattered. I mean, sure, they were there, they weren’t ideal, they were still annoying. But they no longer gnawed at me, they no longer stayed with me. Sure, it could be that I’m just so exhausted from three kids that I don’t have the energy to worry about other things anymore or to get upset about things that used to bug me. Maybe there’s a quotient of truth there.
But, I think most of all, I just started thinking differently. Somehow, I inadvertently shifted my mindset and instead of getting bothered or down about the things that weren’t working out, weren’t great, that I couldn’t achieve or have, I started feeling incredibly grateful for everything I did have.
And it was world changing for me.
I was looking at the success of other people and I wasn’t feeling joy. Instead it was making me feel bad, as if their achievements were a reflection on what I hadn’t done or hadn’t accomplished. It’s not, but for whatever reason, that’s how I was looking at it. And that view led to toxic feelings, feelings of doubt, of depression, unnecessary comparisons instead of feeling happy that someone was experiencing something good.
It’s like somewhere along the way in our development, this need to have things, more things, or this thought process that when someone gets something we didn’t, that it’s our own faults, our failure. So instead of feeling happiness for someone else, we default to a comparison that we missed out on something, that we’re not ‘worthy’ of it and then start questioning why, then start getting angry, or sad. And that leaves us disillusioned.
Suddenly, after far too long of dealing with the clouds of depression, angst, anger, sadness, self doubt that came about when things went south somewhere in life, I found myself stopping for a moment or two to mentally face these thoughts, these feelings, and start asking myself – “what are you happy to have?”
My family, my friends, a job, a roof over my head, clothes on my back.
I started to look around me every morning. The frustration of the cats waking me at half hour intervals from 3 am onward turned into (most mornings. I’m human, I falter) an appreciation for the love these furry little guys show us each and every day from the moment we took them in and welcomed them to our family. Gratefulness that it was our growing cat population in our house that awoke some paternal instinct in me long before we welcomed home any of our human children.
Ah, our children. How quickly life has changed in the 8 years Meg and I have been married. Sometimes that change can make us feel like nothing gets accomplished because we’re constantly chasing after or tending to one of the kids. But to imagine our lives without any one of them, chaos included, is unfathomable. There will come a time when they’ll be older, when they’ll have their own lives, and we’ll be wishing for the chaos, the sleepless nights and those times when sure, nothing around the house felt like it got done, but man, weren’t those kids fun? The laughter, the joy, the wonder, and the sheer love that each one brings in their own way, from the way they look at you when they first see you in the morning, to that hug at the end of the night. There has been nothing in our lives like it and it has been nothing short of a blessing to be a parent and be there beside them as they grow. And right there with me amid that tornado trio of kids is a beautiful, wonderful, funny, incredibly intelligent wife who is a true partner in all of this craziness of life, through thick, thin, and everything in between.
Friendships. Many of us are all going through the same things in life. Or maybe we’re not, but being around your friends, hearing about their struggles, sharing in the joy of their triumphs, and vice versa is important. Being around them, just knowing you’re not alone, even if no one has all the answers, makes the speed bumps in life a little easier to hit, and the good times even better.
A home in a neighborhood with good people who talk to each other, who look out for each other. A backyard with wildlife, where I can see birds come to the feeder every morning, squirrels doing acrobatics for seeds, or sometimes even a deer wandering through the yard on their way to and from the nearby woods. Space for our children to run, to play, to be kids.
A job that, sure, may not always be ideal, but then very few are. It may not be what I set out to do/want to do with the rest of my life (and it may not end up being, but who knows?), but it’s allowed me many things – the opportunity to go back to school, new professional skills to learn, more time with my kids than other jobs have, allowed me to make my student loan payments on time, to pay our bills, and afford to live when so many other people struggle just to make those ends meet and often can not.
This appreciation and gratitude for all that I’ve realized I have has for the most part made me forget what I didn’t, or what I thought I didn’t and thought I needed.
Several studies link gratitude to lower levels of depression, less toxic emotions like resentment and envy and can actually create higher levels of self esteem.
Over time, I found myself more and more looking for the bright side of situations. When someone came to me with something that might have been a downer to me last year, instead of reveling in what made it bad news, I find myself trying to look for the opportunity, or the silver lining within.
And when I started looking at the positives of situations, of my own life, I just found myself generally happier overall. No one expects you (or me) to be a ray of sunshine 24/7. We’re only human. But I’m a much happier human now.
It didn’t happen right away, but in time with a little work and a little focus, I’ve found that practicing the art of appreciation as gratitude has changed not only my outlook, but my life.
Love the life you’re with, find the reasons to love your life, the pieces of it, even in times of turmoil that can remind you what parts you’d never change, the parts that other people would love to have, and it can make a big difference. At least it did for me.
I write this, lying here in the dark of our room. The red digital numbers on the clock reading 11:13. Meg is asleep next to me, while one of our cats, Jasper nudges his way between us to curl in for a night’s sleep.
At the foot of the bed sits the cradle that’s been in Meg’s family for generations, and seen all three of our little ones rest their heads in it.
In there tonight sits our youngest, just shy of six months old, alternating between sleep and rapid bouts of coughing, worse now than when I took her to the doctor’s earlier today out of fear of an ear infection. The ears were clear and the best diagnosis for her recent and regular bouts of misery and blood curdling screaming were chalked up to the perfect storm of teething, gas, and bad eczema all over her body. The doctors offered some dietary change suggestions for Meg, cutting out things like dairy and peanut butter among others to narrow down what it is in the breast milk that could possibly be leading to such widespread redness.
And as our nearly six month old coughs her way through the night, our two year old has already thrown up twice in bed, leading to impromptu washings of her, her clothes and sheets. Upset stomach? Another virus? The second round of flu that’s been in the headlines? Or just a bug? I don’t know.
*Post-script note: Since writing this, there were two more incidents of vomiting throughout the night, with more washings, sheet strippings, and washes to the point that we started running out of sheets and pillows. And by this point, I had taken position on the floor next to her for the rest of the night.
And as they slumber, here I lay, feeling utterly helpless. There’s few feelings worse than watching your children sick, looking to you for aid and only being able to do so much for them before having you put them back to bed and tell them it will be alright, even if you’re not quite sure when it’ll be…hoping that if we are convincing to them that perhaps we might be able to convince ourselves too.
There are some downright awesome shirt designs out there for kids. Our two year old daughter’s shirt with cartoon marshmallows joyously leaping into a mug of hot chocolate, or our five year old son’s red shirt with a timeless/retro shiny metal robot swirling through the air leaving a rainbow behind him. Or the the overlapping rainbow silhouettes of a stegosaurus wearing sunglasses.
I have a ball looking at all the fun graphic shirts as we stroll through the kid’s section of stores. And to be honest, as I initially wrote this, I was intending it to be a bit of a gripe with shirt selections for our son as he moves from size 5 to 6.
For a long time I had noticed that those awesome, creative, happy designs on shirts are becoming harder and harder to find once you move beyond a size 5. No, for a while it seemed that once you hit size 6, the clothing industry primarily focuses all its creative energy to the same, tiring theme of “extreme!” or “in your face!” designs that are so eye-roll worthy, I feel like I’m in a bad TV show trying to be hip.
And my biggest question was, “why?”
Why was it that so many clothing manufacturers (and retailers) make such an incredible shift from fun to cliche “extreme!” with the step up from one age/size to the next? Not only from a consumer standpoint, but a cultural one. In a world that could use more thought, more care in each of us, no matter our age, why would we push upon impressionable young boys (I say that because this is mostly seen in young boy’s clothing versus the girls) this image/statement through wardrobe that once you hit six, get ready to be in your face, get ready to be tough, get ready to be extreme?
I’m a believer that variety is the spice of life, but there seemed to be smaller and smaller variety for boys starting at this age. I couldn’t understand why options for young boys were being narrowly limited to skulls and crossbones, camo, or sayings like “prove it!”
It felt as if we as a society push them toward a peg they’re subconsciously told they need to fit into instead of allowing a child of 5, 6, 7, etc, just be a kid, to relish in the fun, the silliness, and imagination that is childhood and allow them to discover who they are on their own, free of the stereotypes that adults seem to think matter.
However, as I mentioned, this may have started out as a gripe, but is turning into some appreciation. I’ve noticed recently that this is now so much the overwhelming case I once found it to be when we’d walk through the kid’s clothing racks at stores. And I’m grateful for that. A trip through Kohl’s young boys section may not have all the cute designs of their Jumping Beans for toddlers to preschool age, but there seems to be much less of the “in your face,” tough guy” stuff I once felt was everywhere I turned while we shopped. The same goes for Target, which seems to, by my notice anyway, increased selection of clothing for young boys with cool geometric and color designs, animals, dinosaurs, and less harsh words and a great focus on discovery and kindness.
I for one am incredibly grateful. I’m sure there are many stores out there too, I just mention these two as a pair of the larger box stores in our area. And of course, there’s always great selections from individual clothing designers that you can find with a little bit of time online. And whether it’s a shift from the manufacturers, the retailers, or just an individual taking the time to shop online through smaller merchants, it’s worth the time and effort. Because spreading even a little bit more happiness through a shirt that makes us smile is the kind of chain reaction of brightness we need more of in the world.
And there is an upside to the question of wardrobe for young boys. Our little guy chooses his own clothes when he gets up and dressed each morning and more often than not as of late, we’ve noticed he bypasses pictures, characters, logos, etc, and goes with solid colors, stripes, or other wardrobe items that remain neutral in their appearance. It may sound a bit bland, but what we’ve come to realize is that his choices allow his own individual personality to shine through, not cluttered by a shirt with a saying, or even that adorable little robot flying through the air I love so dear.
Maybe in the end each child finds what their individual style is, how it fits into who they are, and of course, as we parents all know from our own childhoods, that’ll change time and time again.