College Students and Mental Health

While teaching freshman composition at UTA last semester, I got to teach on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: college students and mental health.* The subject is near and dear to me, of course, because I struggled with my mental health as an undergraduate college student. It is also still near (but maybe not dear) to me because, at this phase of life I’m in–graduate student/mother/wife/teacher–I am again battling some anxiety.

At a public university, I couldn’t talk openly about what has most helped me since my own depressed undergraduate years. That is, prayer and meditating on Bible promises to replace negative thoughts. But I did tell my students I had struggled mightily in the area of mental health, and that I had gained some victories by learning to better express myself in a variety of contexts: talking honestly with friends, arguing “nicely” with my husband (as in Rogerian argument), and practicing expressive (personal) writing in private as well as in public settings, to name a few.

“Communicating well is an essential life skill,” I told my students from the beginning. As the course progressed, I increasingly talked about good communication as an aid for better mental health. In the middle of the semester we practiced some small group communication on several “mental health Mondays.” Following, we read a chilling ESPN article by Kate Fagan, entitled “Split Image,” about a college freshman who struggled to communicate a true picture of herself and ended up committing suicide. The article begins, “On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal: star athlete, bright student, beloved friend. But the photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.” We read the long article out loud with our desks in a circle, and I posed the questions Why did she do it? and What is the “argument” of the article? One astute and un-shy student said, “People who look great on the outside aren’t necessarily feeling good on the inside. They can be living a double life.” True, that.

My class of 24 was the quietest class I’ve ever taught. Very few of my students ever spoke voluntarily in class, even to one another. But when we took an anonymous mental health survey at mid-semester, my students learned some troubling things about their classmates. One-third said they were struggling with mental health to the point that it was interfering with their normal activities. (This statistic supports national research we read in the class.) One student was clearly suicidal, based on his or her anonymous comments. Forty percent reported they were in college not because they wanted to be, but because their parents wanted them to be.

Around the time I gave that survey, a handful of students stopped showing up. A couple did not turn in their second required essay. Though all my students started strong, four of them eventually failed or took incompletes. Except for a couple students whom I couldn’t reach, the strugglers eventually admitted to me–via emails, essays, or in person–that they were struggling with depression, anxiety, or relationships (romantic or parental), or all of the above. None of the failing students was academically incapable of succeeding in the class.**

I find often in life at large–not just in college life–that our failures are due to struggles of the mind (stinking thinking some call it), and/or the inability to ask for help. The longer I observe humanity, the more convinced I become that it’s simply hard for people in general to communicate honestly  about their feelings. It’s hard for people to ask for help. Sometimes it is hard for us to even recognize or admit that we need help. This is a sad reality.

Another sad reality is a persistent belief, common among the older generations, that mental health struggles are myths. I was saddened when I read statements in my students’ final essays like “My dad doesn’t believe in depression; he just thinks people who claim it are weak.” I was also saddened to learn how reluctant my students were to simply talk openly with their parents. Some students admitted to me that they literally didn’t feel safe expressing their needs to their parents. One student wrote in her final reflection that she had changed her major from the one her parents selected (a major she hated), but she was keeping the news from them as long as possible out of fear of their reaction. Another admitted that her parents had threatened to disown her if she did not go to college.

Wow. My quiet class of twenty-four, though they didn’t speak up much in class, spoke loudly and clearly by the end of the semester: they have lots of legitimate (and normal) struggles, but they were generally uncomfortable sharing those struggles with others. They lacked skills in healthy self-expression that I believe could do much to prevent normal struggles from turning into mental health issues.

This is why I feel teaching college writing is not just a career, but also a calling. As I’ve transitioned back into professor-mode over the last year and a half, I’ve had many “aha” moments of why God has put my feet on this path. Namely, my life story has been one of figuring out how to communicate in order to achieve or maintain stable mental health. Now I can use what I’ve learned, and what I am still learning, to help young adults learn critical skills of communicating at a critical, crisis-inducing time.

Yes, communication–in a relational, expressive sense–is an essential life skill. These basics of communication are even more essential than academic writing, I believe–yet how much time do parents, teachers, and church leaders take to teach these “basic” skills? When we can’t express our feelings and/or ask people for help–healthy stress responses, by the way–we resort to unhealthy stress responses: fighting, fleeing, or freezing.

Over the last year and a half, I have seen that young people today need caring adults who won’t dismiss their struggles, but who will listen without judgment. Are you one of those adults?

If you are reading this blog post and have college-age kids in your life, or any age kids, for that matter, I hope you will ask yourself: Am I a safe place for these young people? Do I respond to their struggles and concerns in such a way that I invite them to share with me? Or do I react in ways that would lead them to want to hide from me, and not communicate honestly?

And some questions for self-assessment:

Do I know how to communicate my own needs to the people around me? When I am stressed, do I engage in healthy responses such as journaling, praying, or talking to trusted friends? Do I do the best I can with the resources around me to manage my mental health?

Aside about Managing My Own Mental Health

One of the resources I used to manage my anxiety last semester is CAPS, the free counseling and psychological services UTA offers its students. I first visited Ransom Hall (pictured above) in July of last year, when I was home for the summer and felt the familiar anxiety coming back. We were smack-dab in the midst of transitioning my mother-in-law and her possessions into our household, and me transitioning my possessions and my full-time professor position from my office at SWAU to my garage and my new office and roles at UTA. I called off a visit to see my parents in Minnesota in July because the thought of the trip, on top of everything else, was making my anxiety worse.

When I started my semester at UTA in late August, the anxiety improved for awhile–I do better at work than at home–but as the semester wore on, life crowded in on me, like it did to my students, and I felt myself struggling to breathe. I couldn’t find much time to journal or talk to friends, much less my husband (though I did pray on a lot on my commute). I was physically sick for about half the semester, so I couldn’t exercise much. However, I made use of the resources available. Ransom Hall is right next to my office in  Carlisle Hall, so at mid-semester, I sought counseling (controlled crying and venting?) again. At the end of the semester, faced with another long break at home (I felt the anxiety coming), I sought again anxiety medication at the campus clinic.

Before Christmas, I made a playlist of anti-anxiety songs and played it over and over for a couple weeks. I saw a couple friends, but not as much as I would have liked (they’re mostly all busy moms, too). After a year and a half of crazy transitions and not seeing my family, I desperately wanted to escape to Minnesota, but failed to communicate to my family how important such a break was soon enough, and never made that trip. We did fly my little brother here for a visit, though, and his presence has been a comfort. And last week my dad happened to call me while I was having a panic attack, and, hearing my sobbing and hyperventilating over the phone (a quite unusual call for us), he planned a last-minute trip to Texas during the last few days of my break. I wish I could have communicated better, earlier, and less dramatically my needs to my family, but so be it. There is a lesson in this. I am still learning to communicate my needs to the close people around me in order to take care of my mental health. I am still a work in progress. But I have learned a lot, and I have a lot to share. Sharing uncomfortably personal things seems to be the ministry God has given me, in fact, and I embrace it gladly, happy that sharing my hurt can lead to someone else’s hope.

End of Confession

You don’t need a college education to improve in these areas (communication, mental health management, being supportive of others in their struggles). You just need a willingness to be honest with yourself and others, and a willingness to listen. If you feel like you need help in some basics of communication, you might benefit from a radio interview I had the privilege of doing this past October with Adventist Radio London on “Overcoming Depression.” Praise God that depression is no longer a part of my story!

Again, Happy New Year, friends! I’ll sign off this post the way I signed off my class last semester: good communication and good mental health to you!

*Providentially, this “topic cluster” was added to the First Year Writing folder just this year–just for me, it seems.

**All the trends I’ve noted in this paragraph also applied to a 25-person Research Writing class I taught last year at Southwestern Adventist University, a private Christian school. An interesting comparison.

Two a.m. Soul Cry: Finding Release Valves for the New Year, and Your Current Season

img_5269I didn’t write a Christmas letter or send out Christmas cards in 2019. I found that, at the end of the fall 2019 semester, I was too emotionally exhausted to do much of anything but cry. All semester I went to school/work to be a student/teacher, and I came straight home to be a mom/wife. That was my semester. Everything else got put to the side. This week, our family is decompressing and ringing in the New Year in a cabin in Arkansas. I am still trying to unwind from that crazy semester, as well as the crazy Christmas season. As well as just, well, life as we’ve known it for the past couple years.

I still don’t have words to express all the feelings I have about my personal life right now–except perhaps what I could only get out in some free verse in October. One night after coming home late from a night class, I couldn’t sleep, and a poem spilled across my notebook pages at 2 a.m. (This was unusual at this stage of life. My readers know I’m not a poet.) Perhaps what comes through in the poem is that I don’t know how to tend to some important relationships right now while also trying to stay mentally sound myself. I feel like, for the past few years, every six months or so we have had a huge life upheaval: two job losses, moving to a new state, a mom-dad role switch, the death of a parent, a parent added to the household, two new jobs, re-entry into graduate school…what have I missed? Anyway. stressful times.

My dad has a tradition of sending out an annual Christmas poem, and since I didn’t write any Christmas communications, I’ll dedicate my October poem to my dad, and to my mom, and to my brothers, Kyle and Caleb. All of these dear ones live at least a thousand miles away, and I have seen none of them for at least a year and a half. I also dedicate the poem to my good-humored husband, Buc. One needs a sense of humor at times like these. During stressful seasons we humans need some release valves like crying, talking with friends, writing poetry, or doing whatever leaves us with a little more peace. May you take your human and/or artistic license in 2020 and do whatever emotionally uplifting, nonviolent, non-destructive-to-relationships, and legal things you need to do to weather whatever season you’re going through. God bless you, Friends, and Happy New Year.


Showing Up
10/20/19

Sometimes life is about showing up
being present
hugging a screaming, inconsolable child
saying I love you or
praying with you
when, really, that’s all I can do.
I can’t fly over the ocean to you
or even across five states for you.
I can’t take my family, your grandsons,
to visit you.
I have nothing to give.
Nothing but wishes and prayers and a
heart full of emotions I can’t express.
Life just doesn’t cooperate.

The house is a mess.
And I have to go to work.
And I could work my life away,
forgetting to stop and sit with you.
Neglecting to sit and eat with you.
Not bothering to look you in the eye.
Just giving up trying to connect…
because connecting seems so hard.

Where do we go when we run out of
answers?
When Mom, Dad, Husband, Wife, and “Higher Education”
cease to fill us, delight us, comfort us?
And when, after a lifetime of reading and
school and straight A’s, we can’t learn
what we need to know, no matter how
much we study?
Only here. Crumpled in a chair at 2 a.m.,
heart racing, praying, knowing I don’t
know much of anything. But it’s okay.
He knows.
You know, God.
You know it’s going to be okay.
The world doesn’t rest on my shoulders–
it rests on yours.

And so.
I can breathe. I can sit. I can put
work away. I can leave that dust.
I can give up so many expectations
that never did anything for me
but strangle me.
What if Mom is not all put together?
(And I mean she, and I mean me.)
I’ll speak for myself and say
I’m a mess. Emotionally.
I can clean all day–clean my life away–
but what will that do if I alienate you?
I’m sorry, Family.

I see me now, or I’m starting to.
It’s not totally my fault. I didn’t make
this mess (completely). But neither did you.
It’s a long legacy, passed down to us from
our first mother, our first father.
We’re just the latest installation in a
forever-back line.
We were gifted the curse at birth.
And so we grow up nasty and defiant,
a collective screaming child. Rude, disrespectful,
selfish, self-centered “I’s.”
Our parents wounded us, though it’s the
last thing they wanted to do.
We grew up to do it, too.
We’re messy people, producing more messy people.
Heaven help us–Jesus help me.
For on my own, I can do no better than
live out this human legacy.
Human nature tells me to leave–
don’t stay the course–do what’s easy.
Emotions go cold–play mind games.
Get angry, bitter, blame him, blame her.
Don’t take responsibility.

But.
You came to change the story,
Jesus. You came here, by me–right
beside me, and us, in this mess.
You flowered in the fray–
a tender shoot from dry ground.
Unsupported, despised, rejected.
Unfairly treated, betrayed, and abandoned.
Abused, misused, and unfairly accused.
If anyone had the right to be angry,
it was you.

But what did you do?

You showed up.
You prayed, You pled, You loved, and You bled.
You cried and You prayed, even while betrayed.
You kept Your eyes on the skies and on
better days (One day
you will see me coming in the clouds,
You said.)
Still–You prayed and You pled, and You
loved, and You bled.
You didn’t turn cold or deny the pain–
You uttered this refrain:
God, if it is possible, take this cup from
Me. But if it’s not possible, Thy will
be done.
And God didn’t take the cup away, because
this suffering was Your mission.

And when they beat You and hit You,
kicked and spit at You–tore off
Your clothes and dressed You in robes,
nailed Your body to a tree,
You prayed,
Father, forgive them for they know not what
they do.

Oh, what those eyes could see.
Me. (And I mean you.)
How could I be so stupid?
Life wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Forgive me. I didn’t know what I was doing.
And I still don’t know what I’m doing, Lord.
And I don’t know how to fix it–
this pain in me and this pain around me–
And the pain inflicted on me, and the pain
I inflict on others.

But praise God.
I don’t have to know.
Because it’s not my job to know.
And it’s not my job to fix it.
You know, and it’s Your job.
That’s why You came and lived
and prayed, and pled, and loved, and bled,
and suffered, and died,
and rose again.

It’s 2 a.m. and the night is almost gone.
Day will rise, hope will rise, again.

And sometimes, like today,
life is just about showing up.
Being present.
Hugging a screaming, but consolable, child.
Saying I love you to my husband.
Sending I love you’s to my mom, my dad, and my brothers
(thousands of miles away).
Praying with a friend who’s with me now.
That’s all I can do.
And that’s all I have to do.


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Shooting for a B (A Message for Christian Perfectionists)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“Fast asleep.” by ClickE is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

I’ve spent a lot of my life aiming for perfection. But there’s something to be said for shooting for a B, and even simply showing up (if you bring a good attitude, of course). These are some things I said recently while doing an interview with Adventist Radio London (ARL) on the topic of perfectionism. (I was asked for the interview after my article, “Breaking Free from the Perfectionist Trap” came out in Vibrant Life Magazine in June.) The interviewer, Vanesa Pizzuto, said that the thought of “shooting for a B” made her cringe. But she agreed with me: “We can’t do everything perfectly.”

No, I can’t do everything perfectly.

I am still trying to let that truth sink in, because letting go of my perfection still makes me cringe sometimes, too. But I know this is crucial advice for me, a lifelong perfectionist. I am juggling many balls right now–wife, mom, graduate student, teacher, church member, public speaker, freelance writer–and I desperately need to be able to prioritize. I need God’s wisdom to show me when perfectionis called for, and when just showing up, or just a little preparationwill suffice.

The brain surgeon in the operating room needs to aim for perfection.

The auto manufacturer preparing airbags (and many other car parts) needs to aim for perfection.

Life and death matters call for a measure of perfectionism.

But most of my daily tasks aren’t life or death.

To the extent that I believe this truth–that the bulk of my daily choices don’t matter that much–I can either live in a state of peace or a state of anxiety. I’ve been there, done that with the perfectionism-and-anxiety thing…and I’m sick of it. So I am admitting the error of my ways (in this area), and reciting these crucial truths to myself:

  • It’s okay to shoot for a B sometimes
  • It’s okay to just show up sometimes (without an exhaustive plan in hand, but with a good attitude in heart and mind)

Contrary to my anxiety-feeding fears, nothing catastrophic is going to happen if I don’t have:

  • A perfectly clean house
  • Perfectly healthy and balanced meals at every meal
  • A perfectly toned body and my perfect weight of 125 pounds
  • Perfectly planned lessons for each class I teach
  • A perfect schedule for my kids that I follow to the letter
  • A perfect record of daily reading my Bible (I’m just being honest…it doesn’t happen every day)
  • Every reading assignment as a graduate student (and there are many) completely read and thoroughly annotated

These are some of the things that make up my daily life, and, at various points, they all have caused me anxiety. You know it’s a really bad day when I’m stressing over all of them! But as I continue this walk of life, this spiritual journey, I hope I am getting a little better at recognizing this trap of perfectionist thinking (and its domino-effect-anxiety)–and then promptly turning it all over to Jesus.

It’s an ongoing struggle. I won’t lie. But as I said in the interview with ARL, the best thing I can do, when roiled by unrealistic visions of A-plusses in every detail–the best thing I can do, is stop. Stop it right there, thoughts. Call out these unrelenting sky-high expectations for what they are: traps of the devil. And confess to my Creator:

God, I’m sorry for entertaining these thoughts. You are my Creator–You are the Author and Finisher (and the Perfecter) of my faith. Forgive me for focusing on myself and my limited abilities, and not on You, Your omnipotence, Your omnipresence, Your omniscience. Forgive me for taking on a yoke that You never intended for me (Your yoke is easy, Your burden is light!). Forgive me for giving in to fear, and getting derailed (again).

I need You so much, Lord. I need you every moment of every day. Thank you for being with me, whether I acknowledge Your presence or not. Help me to put my thoughts on You, and take courage. Help me to remember that You created me for a specific purpose in this world–and that purpose was not to be perfect in every way, but to do the work You intend for me. Help me daily to separate the (eternally) important from the insignificant. Help me remember I don’t have to figure out my life alone. And help me to remember, and truly believe, that whatever You want me to do, You will help me to do–with Your power, not mine.

Now, I’ve said that most of my daily decisions don’t matter that much. For those of you who feel uncomfortable with that thought–or if you cringe at the thought of shooting for a B–let me just be clear. As a Christian, I do believe, overall, that what we do during this life matters. I believe that our choices, our actions, our obedience or non-obedience to God, will ultimately lead us to eternal life or eternal death. And, speaking as a parent, I accept that my actions can either pave the way to heaven or pave the way to hell for my children. So I don’t take my daily decisions lightly. With that said though, I often take the small details of every day much too seriously.

If my day is chaos, and the kids aren’t going along with my perfect “plan” for the day, which is more important: making sure they eat from all the food groups today, or teaching them about Jesus? See my point? I can drive myself crazy (and I have) trying to check all the boxes in every category. But we aren’t living in a perfect world. I’m not perfect, the people around me aren’t perfect, and conditions are rarely ideal. Thus, some things gotta give. The key is asking God which things can go–and then homing in on the things that really need doing (and realizing that sometimes the things worth doing can be done at a B level).

If you struggle with this perfectionist trap (and you know who you are:), won’t you join me in asking Jesus for wisdom to separate the life-and-death (really important) matters from the daily (not-so-important) details? Only in Him can we hope to live the “perfect” life–meaning, the life He intends us to live–and only as we adopt a biblical perspective can we begin to envision what God’s perfect life for us actually looks like. Courage, fellow perfectionists! May God help us all on this journey.

The Fiction(?) of the “Perfect Mom Post”

Barbie
“Little miss perfect.” by abigailala is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To my mom readers: I don’t know about you, but browsing Facebook makes me feel bad about myself. My Facebook feed is full of mom posts promoting their great parenting hacks, model kids, fun family trips, and impressive summertime bucket lists. I hop on Facebook for awhile, and I log off feeling empty, and deeply insecure about myself as a mom.

Recently, I was off Facebook for about a year as I manuevered my first year officially back to work (teaching) since the births of my two sons, now almost 3 ½ and 5 ½. But when summer break hit, I logged back on and got triggered. I saw many manifestations of those “perfect mom posts,” and I immediately felt like a bad mom because of all the things I wasn’t doing. I didn’t have a summer bucket list for the kids. I didn’t have any fun trips planned. Long ago, overwhelmed by the many transitions that have characterized this stage of our lives, I had stopped making the effort to even post cute pictures and captions of my kids.

I eyed the feed for a couple weeks warily, despairingly.

I wanted to lash out on my own Facebook feed. I felt angry and insecure, and it was Facebook’s fault. Pinterest’s fault. It was the fault of those perfect moms with their perfect kids and perfect posts.

I did lash out. Thankfully not publicly. I opened my trusty writer’s notebook one night and released a self-righteous personal essay, from my professional standpoint as a writer and writing teacher, on how moms need a lesson in audience awareness and rhetoric: “Leave all the personal pictures for family photo albums, and for Grandma,” was the nature of my rant.

While I penned my angry essay, I thought I was doing my fellow moms a service, teaching them good writing technique for Facebook. Teaching them to consider their audience, because, obviously, my negative reaction as a Facebook reader and audience member showed that they were doing something wrong. Initially, I planned to post that essay on this blog.

But boy, I’m glad I gave the idea time to rest and, later, reconsidered. I realized that what I had written was likely to anger, if not hurt, my own target audience. I was about to be guilty of the very writing and publishing sins I was calling out. I also realized that I might be wrong about some of my key assumptions.

I wrote: “People didn’t used to wave family pictures around at the watering hole; why do we do it on Facebook?” “I long for things to be more like they used to be, women sitting around together having real, personal conversations.”

I remembered how lonely I had been as a stay-at-home mom, feeling disconnected from family and friends. I remembered how I felt lonely not only when we lived far from family and friends in Missouri, but also while I lived down the road from family and friends in Texas.

Women long to connect with one another; and in our modern world, it’s hard to do that in person sometimes. Who am I to say that moms wouldn’t share the same silly stories, or tips, or even pictures of their kids, with one another, if they were able to sit down with one another in person? I realized I was being too harsh.

For myself, when I get a chance to really talk to other moms–or when I take the time to write on social media–I know that I need to have harder conversations than the ones that often show up on Facebook. But who am I to say that the other moms on my feed need frequent “therapy sessions” like I do?

We all have different areas of struggle, and I need to get okay with the fact that motherhood is not a huge area of struggle for all women. The fact that some women “just love staying home” with their babies (and happily, and frequently, post their feelings about that on Facebook) should not threaten my worth as a person. I have my own unique strengths, and as I’m finding, those strengths center more in the workplace than in the home.

As I pondered all these things, I was pleasantly surprised, in fact, to realize that my professional training could help me understand the “fiction” I thought I was reading in those “perfect mom posts.” (Warning: We’re about to get a little nerdy here, moms…).

Scribbling Women–AKA, The Before-Facebook Days

A concept from my past training as an English major came back to me: the concept of “Scribbling Women,” or women of the nineteenth century who wrote domestic fiction, often under aliases, because they were trapped at home without a public voice. Ha. I remembered how, once I got a little babysitting help as a SAHM, I was a pretty voracious scribbler myself. The stay-at-home mom years were some of my most productive blogging and book-writing years. I was never a super active Face-booker, but perhaps I would have been more so, had I not had additional writing platforms available to me. During my SAHM-hood I was also blessed to have public-speaking platforms available to me, after the publication of Ending the Pain.

So, I did the responsible thing as a reader, and reconsidered where those “perfect mom posts” were really coming from. In the college classroom, we call this “critical reading,” as we apply knowledge of the “rhetorical situation.” The three elements that make up the rhetorical situation are writer/speaker, subject, and audience. These three elements are present in any writing or speaking situation–any communicative act–and they make up the message that is transmitted (spoken, written, or otherwise communicated).

Rhetorical Triangle

Writer/Speaker: These ladies that had my heart racing were not out to make other moms feel bad. They were merely moms dwelling at home—many of them home by choice—and if their posts were any indication, they loved being at home with their kiddos. They were moms who had chosen to stay home with their kids who, although happy at home, still needed to connect with other moms. So they were using the best platform they had, and that was Facebook.

Subject: The stuff of our lives makes up our conversations, so it makes sense that when one is a SAHM, a frequent topic of conversation will be kids. Oh, I remember it well; when I stayed home, with no work outside the home to divide my attention, my kids were almost all I thought and talked and wrote about. Home again for the summer, I am currently much more kid-focused; I find myself thinking and speaking and writing a lot more about motherhood than when I am working. It makes sense. We think and speak and write Facebook posts about the stuff of our lives; so who am I to criticize other mothers for posting mostly about their motherhood experience? (I did it too, once.)

Now, it is my sense that some moms could be more honest about motherhood in their posts, but that’s a subject for another blog. Until a mom messages me, or comments on my ugly-honest motherhood blog posts that they feel the same way (and a number of them have), I shouldn’t assume that her posts or published feelings are deceitful or fake; as a Christian, I should be happy that she is happy, and that her parenting journey is going well.

Audience: And now we get to audience. Who am I to say that these mom posts that had me so riled up a few weeks ago are inappropriate for their intended audience? As I reconsidered, I realized that I had taken it upon myself to react on behalf of all readers based on my own insecurities as a mom. Who am I to say that posts that make me feel insecure make other mom-readers feel that way? I am but one mom in a sea of Facebook moms, and, admittedly, I have some deeply rooted mommy issues that other moms may not have.

I don’t want to begrudge any happy moms for their “perfect mom posts” anymore (and I really just mean “happy,” “grateful,” “glowing,” “laughing,” “silly” mom posts). If those are the conversations moms need and want to have, some lighthearted chitchat at the watering hole, that’s great.

For myself, I’ve been grappling with some old mommy issues this summer. I’m talking about issues with my own mom…and you can bet that those issues filter into my own mothering. So maybe (probably) my own painful history, and the painful continuing story, is where my anger, and insecurity, is coming from.

Do any of you out there struggle with parental relationships? Anyone have mental illness, divorce, separation, or estrangement in your family history? Anyone understand? If so, message me, email me, call me, or meet me for lunch, and let’s have that conversation.

I’ll leave the lighter mom posts to other moms who can honestly make them. And God bless you, moms. You are doing an awesome job…every one of you who keeps showing up and doing the best you can do. For me, those “perfect” mom posts (“happy,” “grateful,” “glowing,” “laughing,” “silly” posts) feel more like fiction right now, so I’ll put my writing and speaking energies elsewhere. This writer will try to take her own advice and strive to create content that accurately represents the writer (speaker) and subject, and appropriately connects with the intended audience.

Year of Blessings: Update Post

Write Spot
I had the privilege of directing the Write Spot, the campus writing center, at Southwestern Adventist University for the 2018-19 school year.

Okay, after ten months of silence, it’s time for a blog post. Last you heard from me, I was starting a new job as an English professor at Southwestern Adventist University. Well, that position is ending, and a new chapter is starting. I’ve begun my PhD at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA); as of this coming fall, I’ll be working on a doctorate fulltime and teaching part-time for UTA.

Guys, one year ago as a stay-at-home mom, I had no idea I’d be back in grad school right now; no idea I would have fallen in love with teaching college composition, and have decided that this is what I was made to do. Life simply continues to be a whirlwind of changes. The 2018-19 teaching year was a blessing, on so many fronts. It was also a year of heartache, fear, and anxiety.

The Heartache of Losing a Loved One, the Blessing of Extra Time

My husband lost his job in March of 2018, as you may recall. We were then in Missouri, detached from any family (his family being in Texas, mine in Minnesota). After considering many options, without a job lined up, we decided to move back to Texas. We didn’t know then that Buc’s dad would pass away just seven months after our return. We didn’t know that I’d get a one-year position at Southwestern Adventist University and Buc and I would essentially switch roles for this year, but in hindsight, oh, what a blessing! We will ever cherish the extra time we got to spend with our Dad and “Poppa” Gendke. I am thankful that it was Buc at home, and not me, to be able to spend extra time with his father, and later, to bring extra comfort to his mother. Buc loved the job he lost, but he loved his father so much more. If this had been the only blessing of our job loss and move, it would have been worth it.

But there’s more.

The Blessing of Going Back to Work

If you read this blog, you may remember that I was a floundering mama in Missouri. Wow, was I a mess. Staying home with kids simply seemed to bring out the worst in me. I’d love to say I love being home all the time with my kids, but the truth is, no, I don’t. There’s a complex explanation here that involves my roots: my upbringing, my fears, and my sinful nature. Maybe I’ll unfold that in writing later. But the simple explanation is that providing childcare for littles does not call forth my strengths. On the contrary, it ramps up my anxiety like almost nothing else I’ve experienced. So, while I love my boys dearly and I’m so glad I have them…

Oh-my-goodness.

I’m so relieved I got to go back to work this past year! And not just to any job. Guys, this past year, I think I literally worked my dream job. I’m so amazed at how great a fit this position was for me. Suddenly, after years of feeling like a colossal failure, daily feeling bad about myself and my performance with my littles, I felt comfortable and confident again.

The Blessing of Finding my Calling

In the college classroom, specifically in teaching my writing classes, I found a passion that is second only to writing. In my comp classes, I provided learning experiences for a young audience, but now young adults (not young children). And this seems to be my sweet spot as a teacher. (Maybe this will be my sweet spot as a parent, too.) I knew how to talk to young adults, how to connect with them—in short, how to help them. It was nice to finish a day of work and feel I had really helped people; I had really provided skills they needed.

When teaching, I like to write on the white board. Here’s a taste of my Essay and Opinion Writing class, fall 2018. Did you realize that many college kids just take pictures of the board, now, in lieu of writing down their own notes? This was news to me this year!

You may or may not recall that I taught high school English for three years before having my children and writing my books. Well, this feeling of satisfaction did not accompany the high school job. Thus, I really didn’t expect to fall in love with teaching as I did this past year. What a blessing to have had this year to figure out my audience as a teacher.

At the end of the year, having to tell my beloved college students that I was not coming back was sad and felt a little confusing. I didn’t want to leave. I did reapply when my position was reopened. But I was not re-hired. No one was. The position, my position, has been cut at this time for budgetary reasons.

The Fear and Anxiety

The months leading up to this news were chaotic and stressful. Ever aware of the impending hiring decision, I was doing everything I could to keep my job. I updated my resume, wrote a heartfelt cover letter, re-interviewed with the English department, put my best foot forward in a departmental presentation—I even enrolled in a PhD program and one night class, not because I wanted to do a doctorate (I ended grad school last time with mixed feelings), but simply because I wanted to keep my job.

All year, I kept my head down, eyes off Facebook and this blog, and instead focused on teaching, and trying to keep my job. All my extra time went to my kids and husband. I’d say all other relationships—the ones outside my home—suffered. By January, because I felt so anxious, I decided to take part in a depression and anxiety recovery program at my church on Monday nights. Well, it was a good try at dealing with my situational anxiety, but unfortunately, the demands of the seminar—eight weeks, Monday nights for two hours, with hours of assigned reading each week and personal homework—created more anxiety. I simply didn’t have the space in my schedule for it.

The Blessing of Losing my Job, and Gaining Graduate School

By the time my boss informed me I would not be rehired, the last day of my spring break, the news actually came as a relief. Although teaching was going well, overall, I was being stretched in too many directions: fulltime job, PhD work, mother of small children, and a once-a-week anxiety seminar that I didn’t have time for. So, after spring break, I had Monday nights back, and closure about my job. I still had to get through the rest of the semester, though, which included teaching a full load, and my Thursday night class, for which I had to write a twenty-five page paper.

Here’s a last look down the SWAU English department hallway (and into my office) before I move my stuff out. It’s quiet now, for summer break, and I may take advantage of that peace and quiet a few more times before I transition my office to UTA.

Actually, the sting of losing my job was greatly lessened by my concurrent involvement with the doctoral program. With that twenty-five page paper looming, and questions of, What will be my areas of research for the next three to five years? I had plenty of new material to occupy and distract my mind from the job loss. In addition, toward the end of the spring semester, I was awarded a doctoral assistantship, which will pay for my tuition, and also pay me to teach one or two writing classes at UTA.

UT-Arlington_DirectoryLogo.gifI couldn’t have predicted it, but I actually feel happy to be back in graduate school. I’m so much more ready to focus on graduate studies and a career now than I was in 2012 when I finished my master’s degree. At that time, I decided to step away from grad school and a career and have kids and write. That decision led to the beginning of this blog, in fact. Back then I was still trying to heal from childhood trauma. I needed to do some hardcore expressive writing, and focus on family.

The Blessing of Buc (My Hubby)

As I type that line, I imagine some readers asking, What about your family now? Don’t your kids need you at home?

This picture was taken on the morning of January 21st of this year, Sam’s fifth birthday. It was dress-up day at school, and he chose to go as Catboy from PJ Masks. This photo makes me happy.

Do my kids need me? Yes, they do. But do they need me to be the parent who is predominantly at home? Or is it possible that, in my particular family, Dad is the one better suited for this job? I’d like to write more about these particular dynamics in another post, but suffice it to say, this past year of Buc staying home with the kids (mostly Seth, since Sam entered preschool) has proven to be another huge blessing, as well. Buc did great! We are finding that, for our family, Dad is the better parent to stay home.

This Summer…

It still pains me that staying home with my kids seems to bring out the worst in me. On summer break currently, I am again suffering some anxiety. I keep remembering back to something I said to a friend on the brink of turning thirty, when I first became a mom: “I want my thirties to be more relaxed.” When I said that, I’m not sure I knew what I meant by “relaxed.” I think somewhere in my imagination, I wanted “relaxed” to equate to staying home with my babies and happily living life on the porch, a glass of lemonade (okay, coffee, lots of coffee) in hand. Well. It didn’t take long to discover that, for me, being at home was not relaxing.

As I write, I am about to turn thirty-five. I have a husband, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old. I have a house and a yard to take care of. I also have an appointment to teach and study for my doctorate fulltime in the fall. Before you judge me as crazy (for taking on so much at once), or a bad mom, please know that going back to work has saved me. It has saved my mental health. And maybe it was the first step in preventing psychological damage in my kids.

This summer, I’m going to try to be a happy, hands-on, blessing of a mom. For me, that takes a lot of prayer, planning, and energy (it stretches me much more than being in the classroom). So, I’m trying to leave margin, trying not to fill up my plate with much. That means blogging won’t be a high priority, although I hope to blog sporadically. My other goal is to reconnect with some family and friends, and actually try to rest a bit before the busy-ness starts up again fulltime in the fall. I hope to continue reflecting on this year of blessings that has just concluded, and prepare mentally for the busy year ahead.

Look at my handsome little dudes! Even though I write about mothering struggles, I am still a proud mom, and I know the best days are yet to come. This photo was taken May 20th, right before Kindergarten graduation at Sam’s school. As a preschooler, Sam (right, 5 years old) still participated in the program; Seth (3 years) even got to cut the ribbons for the pre-K and K classes before they walked down the aisle.

Thanks for taking time to catch up with me. I hope and pray you have a blessed summer, and can find some time to reflect on the blessings in your life and/or rest, plan, and pray about whatever difficulties you may be facing.

Back to Work

SWAU Logo

office 1If you missed the news, I got a full-time position teaching college English at my alma mater, Southwestern Adventist University. As of July 1, I became the “working spouse” in our home; Buc became the stay-at-home parent. Now we are trying to figure our new roles, and those are not always clear-cut.

One thing is clear, though: I have trouble letting go of control when it comes to the home front, so it’s been an interesting summer with me transitioning my time more and more to the office and less and less at home.

I am blessed that Buc has wholeheartedly supported me getting back to work—almost pushing me out the door some days—because it can be hard for me to let go at home. Sometimes I need that little push to leave things in his hands.

Though the home-to-office transition has been a bit clunky (trying to get my mind out of mom-mode and back into academia), after weeks of hammering out syllabi, nosing through textbooks, and scratch-outlining assignments, I feel excited for the school year to come.

It helps that I’ve been assigned a list of “fun” classes: Essay and Opinion Writing, Composition Theory, Advanced Grammar, and Research Writing (“fun” being a relative term, there:) I think this English department sensed my nerdy, writerly self coming, which is why they also appointed me to become director of the campus writing center. I realize that, to some, this would be a bummer of a task; but not me. Every time I report to the quiet of my office, hunker down to hammer out writing curriculum and dream up teaching ideas, I thank God for allowing me to work at something I love.

And work at something that comes easily.

office 2

I love my job as a mom, too. But, gosh, that job has not come easily. On the day I drafted this post, I was at home with two kids who had both been sick recently–including one very clingy and one very defiant child. I was also sleep deprived, and I felt panic rising. The tears welled up. I took an anxiety pill, which pills I haven’t needed very often since going back to work. But this little panic reminded me to look up and thank God for how He is working in my life—and in my family.

“Go to work. Please, go to work,” Buc has been saying since I got my keys to my office—not only because I tend to micromanage (and annoy) him at home, but also because he knows it is good for me. In my moments of panic, he adds the words: “I’m glad you’re going back to work so I can be the one to handle the kids more; they don’t affect me like they affect you.” (Wonderful, supportive spouse. Thank you, Lord.)

It is humbling to admit I feel so powerless and helpless as a mom. But I admit it so that I can praise God that He has seen and heard my struggle, and He has provided a way for our family to get through it: Mom going back to work and Dad staying home. Oh, and our vibrant and social Sam starting preschool in the fall with his “Nanny,” my mother-in-law and a brilliant Pre-K and K teacher. This is a beautiful blessing, too. (God bless all you family members, mentors, church members, community members, who choose to step into a child’s life and be a positive influence; we parents just can’t do it all on our own—and we are grateful for your support!)

Friend, whatever you are going through, no matter how frustrating, hopeless, panic-inducing it seems, please take heart. Know that God sees you. He knows your struggle. He understands, and He has infinite ways to lead you through the wilderness. When you don’t know the answers, when you don’t know the way, when you don’t know how to pray, here’s a little script for you:

Lord, thank you that you promise to provide ways I do not know, ways I have not seen. You promise to do a “new thing” in my life—when I seek You. You promise that I will find you when I seek you with all of my heart. And when I seek you first, you promise to add all these other things [the needs I worry about meeting] unto me. You promise to provide. Thank you for providing a way, even before I can see it. Now, just help me trust you to lead me there, and lead me through.

At God’s leading, and with my husband’s and mother-in-law’s overwhelming support, I am happily heading back to work.

be strong sign
I wanted something inspirational to greet me when I go to work every day, so I placed this sign where I would see it first thing when I come to my office every day.

Home Again

texas
“Texas” from Alpha Stock Images

We have moved back to Texas, and it’s good to be back. I truly didn’t know how I’d feel coming back to this state that holds one-third of my life’s history. Last year, when we were still in job limbo, I thought I wanted to go back to Minnesota—where I spent the bigger part of my history. But now Texas feels like the right decision. It feels like home.

As far as new starts go, this is a BIG one. When we left Texas 3 ½ years ago, we had one child: 11-month-old Sam. Buc worked an 8­–5 job in the finance industry. I wasn’t working in the traditional sense, but I was getting off the ground as a writer, developing this blog and the book that became Ending the Pain.

IMG_3373

 Now, we have returned with two children: 4-year-old Sam and 2-year-old Seth. Buc’s career in finance is at a pause after a merger of his two former companies, and I have been hired as a full-time English instructor for next year at Southwestern Adventist University. Starting next fall, I will “work” in the traditional sense, and Buc will stay home with the boys and begin his own business.

Buc and boys
A dad in his glory:) I am so blessed to be married to this man, and I don’t tell him enough. (I just prefer to embarrass him occasionally on this blog…he’s been suffering the side effects of marrying a writer since this blog’s beginning in 2013:) 

Am I excited for this new chapter? Oh, man. You don’t know the half of it! Not only does this new job feel right, but being back in our old home feels right. Yes, we were able to move back into our first house as a married couple—the house whose white walls I filled with color and whose big, empty rooms I filled with couches and friends and prayer groups. There are a lot of good memories, and good feelings, in this house.

Amanda and me

I am writing this post as if I’ve reached the mountain top after experiencing near death. I know that’s being a little dramatic, but it’s not dramatic to say that the last couple years in Missouri were hard.

I’m still kind of asking God, “What just happened, Lord?

 

Seth and Sam in Truck
Sam (left) and Seth exploring the moving truck on March 27, the day we loaded it, a day before we moved our lives from Missouri to Texas.

I still don’t understand the emotional roller coaster we faced after baby #2. I don’t quite understand the anger. The anxiety. The marital strife. I don’t understand how moms of little children survive if they don’t have help (from family members, church family, a spouse). While in Missouri, I don’t feel like I ever figured out how to mother my two boys and keep my sanity on a regular basis—without regular breaks. I still don’t know.

All I can say is praise God those years are behind me; and praise God that He provided the help I needed to survive. Praise God for my husband who has never given up on me, even through the defects of character the last few years brought out it me.

Praise God for Janice, our babysitter/nanny/cleaning lady who helped me stay afloat and who invested so much love and energy into my kids several times a week. (Praise God for the fruitful job that allowed us to hire Janice for those years!)

Janice and Emily
Janice went from being our cleaning lady in 2016 to our babysitter/nanny in 2017, to my friend. I didn’t know when I hired her what a godsend she would be to our family, and I really don’t know how I would have survived without her. (This is a story for the next book:) Thanks Janice (and Emily, pictured on the right). We miss you both already!

Praise God for the MOPS group I belonged to that gave me moral support and a break from the kids every other Thursday morning.

Praise God for the handful of mom friends I made at my Missouri church whom I didn’t spend nearly enough time with, but who still encouraged me through emails, texts, and phone prayers, and allowed me to do the same for them.

Church friends

No, we didn’t thrive in Missouri, but we survived. Maybe the lesson was this: No mom is an island. Before motherhood and Missouri, I was at a peak place in my life, feeling pretty good about myself and my abilities. Feeling, maybe, a little too self-sufficient. Well, that feeling is gone.

Maybe I needed that 3 ½ year lesson in seeing my need, so I could appreciate what I had, and have, here in Texas. Got it, Lord.

Today I am so thankful for new starts—the new starts God gives me daily, and other new starts, like this one, where my whole world kind of gets picked up, rattled around, and set back down. I may not understand the clunkiness of what happened in the past 3 ½ years, but I trust that God is working out those years for good—in our lives and in the lives of those we came into contact with in Missouri.

me and kids in truck