Category Archives: Bright Places in Parenting

Stuff about parenting

Teach Your Kids to Use Protection

Parents of teenagers (and future teenagers), I know this isn’t your favorite thing to think about.  The thought of one’s child having sex can make even the most progressive of parents want to stick their head in the sand.  But our children will probably grow up to be adults, if we’re lucky.  And most adults who are healthy and well-adjusted (plus many who aren’t) have sex at some point in their lives.

So as parents who love our children and want them to be safe, healthy, and happy, we need to take the inevitable into consideration when deciding what we’ll teach our kids about sex.  I don’t have an answer for when exactly you should teach them these things, but I’d suggest it’s probably earlier than you think.  And I do have a suggestion about what you should teach them.  It has to do with using protection. 

You may already be planning to teach them to use protection if/when they become sexually active.  Maybe you’re even planning on giving them a box of condoms.  And that’s great.  Condoms are pretty effective protection against risks to a person’s physical health.  But physical health isn’t the only risk involved with sex.  There are also mental, emotional, spiritual, and social risks.  We need to teach our children how to protect themselves in these ways too.  

So whenever you decide to give your kid that box of condoms, I suggest you include with it this list of questions.


Questions to Ask Before Sex for Mental/Emotional/Spiritual/Social Protection:

Is this something that you really want to do?

Have you made sure this is something your partner really wants to do?

Will you stop if you change your mind (or your partner changes their mind)?

Are you (and your partner) in a good state of mind to be making decisions that involve risk and consequences?

Would doing this be consistent with your (own) values (including any moral, ethical, or religious values)?

Is your partner someone you trust?

Is your partner someone you respect?

Does your partner treat you like they respect you?

Will this be a private act between the people involved (not recorded, broadcast, or otherwise made public)?

Is this intended to please both you and your partner?


I think this is a good list for anyone, of any age, who’s about to have sex.  There are probably some great questions that I haven’t thought of, but every one of the questions I did list is, I feel, important.  How you want to use the list (or teach your kids to use the list) is up to you, and for some people, maybe some of these things don’t feel like requirements for sex.  And that’s fine.  But it is simply true that a “no” answer to any of these questions increases the amount of risk involved in having sex.  That risk could be mental, emotional, spiritual, social, or even physical for some of the questions.  A “no” to these questions doesn’t mean anything bad will necessarily happen.  That’s what risk is.  It’s a possibility.  The goal with these questions is to minimize the risk.

What do you think?  Any questions we should add to the list?  Feel free to comment with any suggestions.

 

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Life: For When It’s Not Worth Living

Note:  This is an email I wrote to my teenage daughters.  I realized after I did that they’re not the only ones who need to know this.  In case it might reach someone else who needs to hear it, I’m posting it here.  Thanks for reading.

handreachesup

At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, I want to start by saying this email is probably the most important email I’ll ever send you.  Maybe the only important email I’ll ever send you, in the grand scheme of things.  Please, please read it.  Read it carefully and thoroughly.  And then read it again, and read it often.

As you know, depression and mental illness in general run in our family.  Given that, and the fact that suicide has been coming up in various ways in your social circle, I want to tell you something.  (Did I mention this is important?  It’s important.)  This something has two parts.

Part One:  Depression is an illness.  In a very real way, and in every way, it is a sickness.  It is a sickness in that it happens in your body.  It is a sickness in that it is not your fault.  It is a sickness in that it is not a judgment against you or a weakness or a moral or intellectual failure.  It is a (potentially terminal) sickness in that it poses a threat to your well-being, your ability to function and your life.  And it is a sickness in that it can be treated.

Part Two:  While depression is absolutely a sickness, what it feels like is, most often, not being sick.  What it usually feels like is being healthy but in a world that is hopeless, painful, insipid, impossible, meaningless, terrifying and sort of evil.  It feels like you’re living a life that doesn’t matter, that’s not worth living and that hurts too much to tolerate.  But what I want to stress here is that to a depressed person, all that feels real.  It feels like they’re seeing everything totally clearly and that it really is that fucked up.

The good thing about Part One is that it means that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Yes, sicknesses can be chronic and fatal.  But depression is one that is highly treatable or at least manageable.  While many cases sadly go untreated or under-treated, there are very few cases that are impossible to treat.  That means depression, or at least all the symptoms of depression including the feelings mentioned in Part Two, can basically go away.

The bad thing about Part Two is that a depressed person often doesn’t give a shit whether there are treatment options, because their depression tells them (in the most convincing way a thing can possibly be told) that what they need is not treatment but out.  That the world is too awful and that their life is too painful for them to stay here, alive.  When depressed people choose suicide, they are not trying to hurt themselves.  They are trying to save themselves.  In the only way they feel they have left, they are taking care of themselves.

So what I want you to do, now and always, is this:

If you ever feel like your life is not worth living or like you’d be better off dead, recognize that as the symptom of an illness that it is, and seek treatment.

(To be clear, my argument here is not that your life is worth living, nor that you wouldn’t be better off dead.  I happen to believe these things, but they’re irrelevant to what I’m telling you here.  And if you’re not depressed, you don’t need me to tell you those things, and if you are depressed, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.)

The trick is in realizing that those feelings (which will feel like totally accurate perceptions to you if you’re depressed) are actually clear signs that, in fact, you are not seeing things clearly.  Because healthy, non-depressed people, barring those in rare circumstances, do not want to die.  It doesn’t make biological sense.  It’s maladaptive.  It’s the symptom of a serious illness.
But the good news is that, with treatment, a depressed person can feel better.  They can even feel like a healthy, non-depressed person.

Now, it’s hard to convince someone who is genuinely suicidal that they should put effort (and sometimes it will be a significant amount of effort) into something that will keep them alive.  If they gave a shit about being alive, we wouldn’t be talking about this in the first place.  That’s the crux here.  And it’s why it’s so, so important that people with depression understand, on a factual basis, what those feelings mean.  You don’t need to believe that your life is worth living or that you wouldn’t be better off dead.  You just have to understand intellectually that those feelings are illusions, neurochemical trickery caused by an illness.

Then, like someone driving forward while looking in the rear-view mirror, you have to act on what you intellectually know is going on, rather than what you’re seeing right before your eyes.  You have to take the steps – and sometimes there will be a lot of steps – toward health, and toward life, in the absence of any desire to do so whatsoever.  You have to tell yourself that it doesn’t have to feel worth it; just keep going.  It doesn’t have to seem possible; just put one foot in front of the other.  Then again.  And again.

The pay off, when you get there, will be a sense of waking up from a horrible dream.  A realization that there is good in the world.  And good in you.  That you want to see what happens tomorrow.  That you do, after all, give a shit.  And it’s the most amazing feeling.

I didn’t mean for this to be this long.  But I need you to hear every word.

I don’t know if there’s a god that answers prayers, but if there is, I ask them to never let you suffer from depression.  One thing I have rock-solid faith in though is the fact that you are strong and smart and brave and caring and good.  So if the heavens can’t protect you from depression, I’m going to ask you to do this one thing.  If you ever feel like you want to die, pour all your strength and smarts and bravery and caring into seeking treatment for depression.  Even if at the expense of everything else.  Give yourself a chance to be well again.  Give yourself a chance to want your life.
doorlight

The Answer

“Am I going to die?”

That was the question my 4-year-old asked me today.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, because our family cat just died a couple weeks ago.  And maybe surprise isn’t the right word for how I felt when she asked.  But I definitely felt thrown by it.  And unprepared, even though everyone who knows me would tell you that this kind of question is right up my alley.  I think about death a lot.  I talk about death a lot, to many different kinds of people, including many children.  If anyone would know how to answer that question, it would be me.

But knowing how to answer it wasn’t the hard part.  It was giving the answer, while every part of my being was begging me to give a different one that was the challenge.  “Just  change the subject!” a voice in my head shouted.  “Tell her why it’s okay!” suggested another.  “Just lie!” they all said.

And it was the fact that I couldn’t do anything about the answer that was a challenge.  And the fact that the answer is absolutely guaranteed to be so, no matter how badly I want it not to be.  And no matter how badly she wants it not to be.   This kid, this sweet, innocent child who I would do anything in my power to protect, will die.  And that’s not subject to debate.

Nor is it frivolous information.  It’s not like it’s something she’s just as well off not knowing.  That’s the kicker.  Even if I was morally okay with lying to her, there’s also the fact that she is a mortal, sentient, conscious being.  And that means that she has only her lifetime to come to terms with her own death.  And she cannot come to terms with something that is hidden from her.  When she asks that question, she deserves an answer.  The answer.  And she critically needs that answer, painful though it may be – for both of us – now.

So what I did what I had to do, and with my whole heart aching and my best attempt at gentleness, I gave her the only answer that belonged at the end of that question.

“Yes.”

mama and baby

Dance Forever

I’m not really one to lament the passing of my childhood.  I value the clarity I’ve gained in adulthood, my focused priorities and the awareness of my limits.  I wouldn’t want to be a kid again.

But I do know kids have a special kind of wisdom that is dependent on the prematurity of those same qualities.  Like this morning, my 3-year-old heard music and said:

“Quick, Mama – dance!”

with an urgency I usually reserve for water near my laptop.  And then later, while we were dancing, she said:

“Let’s keep doing this forever.”

She has yet to learn any reasons why those statements wouldn’t make sense.  And while I wouldn’t want to go back, I cherish these glimpses into that world.

Yes, child.  Let’s dance.  Forever.

dance

One Good Thing

Today, I offer you a tip.  This tip has a couple layers to it.  We’re talking about helping kids receive gifts with gratitude.  First, in a literal sense, and second, more metaphoric.  (I love when the concrete can be applied to the abstract.  Especially when dealing with kids, who are still learning to think abstractly.)

gift

Many years ago, I learned the first (concrete) part of this tip, when I heard someone share a trick they had for preparing kids for situations in which they’ll be receiving presents.  It’s a way of avoiding unfortunate comments from the child in the event that they do not love the present they got, and it’s very simple.  You just teach them that whenever they open a present, the first thing they’re to do is say one thing they like about it.  (Followed by “Thank you!” is ideal, of course.)

This is something you can practice with them before the gift-giving occasion.  Hand them different things from around the house, and challenge them to say one thing they like about each one.  I like to make it fun by choosing things that they’d never want.  A single sock or puzzle piece, for example.  An empty cereal box or toilet paper roll.  Anything.  They’ll laugh, but they’ll also think of something positive to say.  Through practice, it will be come natural for them to receive things graciously.

happy

This can also be made into a game if you have more than one child.  I give each kid a paper sack and have them go around the house collecting 3-5 things that they would NOT like to receive as a gift.  Then we gather in a circle, and the kids give each other items from their sack one at a time.  The recipient has to say one thing they like about their “gift.”  (Note: You may need to make an explicit rule that certain disgusting items are off limits, or you might end up with a used baby wipe in the mix.)

It recently dawned on me how perfectly this idea of finding One Good Thing generalizes to the rest of our lives.  Happy people are those who can look at whatever life hands them and see the good in it.  Who turn the lemons into lemonade.  Who practice gratitude.  This skill is far more closely linked to happiness than any beneficial life circumstances ever have been.

joy

So now I teach my kids not only to receive actual, tangible gifts with One Good Thing, but also life circumstances in general.  Particularly situations that are disappointing.  We take turns thinking of a time we were sad, frustrated, discouraged or let down, and we share something “good” about it.  I want this to become habit for them too.  Maybe even more so than finding One Good Thing when they’re given a present.  I want them to see One Good Thing everywhere.  I want them to know that disappointing circumstances almost always are, in some way, gifts themselves.

In your own life, when things don’t go how you want them to, I challenge you to think of One Good Thing.  Then, if you don’t feel better, think of one more.  Repeat as needed.  I think you’ll be surprised at how very many things that happen to us really are gifts.

kitten

 

 

 

Parenting Hacks for Feeding Picky Eaters

Peanut butter and jelly.  Peanut butter and jelly.  Milk.  Banana.  Peanut Butter and Jelly.  Cookie.

That’s pretty much what my 3-year-old is willing to eat in a day.  She’s what is classically referred to as a “picky eater,” a term that some thoughtful parents take issue with these days.  However you label it, my middle child is highly selective in what she will eat.

It can be stressful when your little one refuses to eat most foods or, sometimes, anything at all.  But speaking as a mom of four, who’s been at this motherhood thing for almost 12 years now, I’ve come to realize that for most kids, this is nothing to worry about.  And there are a few things you can do to help the situation, which I’m going to share with you!

fruit

The first thing that should ease your mind is Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, an approach to feeding children that is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  This research-backed philosophy states that it is the parents’ job to decide when, where and what children eat.  It is the child’s job to decide whether and how much they eat.  So maybe you tell little Susie that she can eat bananas at the table at snack time.  But you don’t say, “Now Susie, you have to eat your bananas!” or “Come on, Susie, have one more piece of banana before you go play.”  Those things aren’t your job.

Not only are they not your job, but they are counterproductive, in several different ways, for helping Susie develop healthy eating habits.  When you overstep your responsibilities in feeding – which are to provide healthy foods and guidelines as to where and when they’re eaten – you’re getting in the way of your child learning important compotenents of a healthy diet, like what a full (or hungry) belly feels like, and what happens when you don’t eat enough during meal times (or eat too much).  Stay out of it!  If you’ve provided healthy foods, you’ve done your part.  Now you can relax!  (That’s very good news, in my world.)

This article from Slate summarizes and references several interesting studies done on this stuff, including some about the ill effects of pressuring kids to eat or not to eat certain foods.

Here are some great tips from Stanford’s Maya Adam:

And the last tip I want to leave you with is how you can use a fact from social psychology to your advantage.  Social psychology has identified something called the “familiarity principle”, also referred to as the “mere-exposure effect.”  This is a documented phenomenon in the human mind, whereby people come to favor things as they become familiar to them, sometimes for no other reason than that.  It happens with people’s faces, with product labels, with anything.  Including food.  So introducing a new flavor or texture multiple times may increase your kid’s liking it just for that reason.  Also, research suggests that we may need to try a new food 10 or 15 times before we know whether or not we’ll like it!

tasting time

The way I incorporate the mere-exposure effect into my strategy for feeding my “selective” 3-year-old is with a game we call “Tasting Time.”  Here’s how to play.

You will need:

  • one or more foods (simple, healthy, whole foods are preferable)
  • a sign symbolizing good tasting food (“Yum!”)
  • a different sign symbolizing bad tasting food (“Yuck!”)
  • a bell

supplies

 

 

First, have your child taste one of the foods you’ve chosen.  (I like to taste the foods with my daughter, and she reminds me to do this when I forget.)  Encourage your child to pay attention to how the food feels, smells, tastes, etc.

taste

 

 

Then ask your child if they liked that food.  If they like the food, they can put the “Yum!” on the plate.

Yum!

 

If they didn’t like it, they can put a “Yuck!” on it.

Yuck!

 

 

 

And if they say that they did like the food, and they want to take another bite, they get to ring the bell.

ring the bell

 

 

Then repeat with any additional foods you chose.  You can do it with just one or as many as you want.  And that’s it!  This is a fun, easy way to help familiarize your child with different foods.

A couple tips:

  1.  Include foods the kid already knows and likes in the Tasting Time foods.  If they’re always foods the kids doesn’t know or like, the game will start to get less fun.
  2. I laminated my signs, so it’s not a problem to put them right on the plate.
  3. Don’t worry about letting the kid label foods as “yucky.”  It feels a little counterintuitive, because it feels like you should be encouraging them to see all these healthy foods as yummy.  But really, what you’re doing when you let them call foods yucky is encouraging them to listen to their own bodies (which is essential to healthy eating habits), and you’re also giving them the sense of autonomy and power that kids are so often craving when they refuse to eat foods they know their parents want them to eat.  But this way, you’re giving it to them, so they don’t need to fight you for it.  And you’re still getting what you want, which is their trying new foods.
  4. Be positive and relaxed about whatever label your child picks for foods, and about the game in general.  Make it fun and stress-free.  That’s the feeling you want to come to mind for them the next time they taste those foods.

 

So these are all good ideas for ways to approach a picky eater.  But the most important thing to remember is that except in rare circumstances, your child’s dietary preferences are nothing to worry about, however restrictive or ridiculous they may seem.  This will pass, and your child will be fine.  And the more you believe that, the more true it becomes.

Bon appetit!

 

How to Find Mindfulness in Motherhood

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Meditation is good for you.  In all kinds of ways, for all kinds of people.  More and more all the time, we’re seeing that its benefits are numerous and scientifically verifiable.  (I won’t take the time to argue this premise, but if you’re doubtful or curious, please do research it on your own.)  It seems there’s no one in the world who couldn’t benefit at least some from meditating.

Hey, watch this video!

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You know who doesn’t have time to meditate?  Moms.  I know, I know.  I’m sure your cousin’s friend’s hairdresser has two kids and meditates for an hour each morning.  But really, you and I both know that for the average mother, in our culture, meditation as a regular practice is simply not practical.  The practice of meditation, as many people understand it, involves spending a predictable, quiet few minutes alone, to sit and clear ones mind and focus on breathing and what not.  If a mother could find quiet time, she’d use it to make a phone call without someone screaming in her other ear about their missing sock.  If she could find alone time, she’d use it to go poop, without having to share the bathroom with little people who insist on reading to her and flushing the toilet repeatedly (before she’s finished!).

But rather than curse the plight of the modern mom for failing to provide time for meditation, I’d like to offer mothers a workable alternative to meditation.  And anyone else for whom meditation is not practical.  What I’m going to recommend here is even an excellent complement to meditation, so even if you do meditate regularly, you can benefit from this.  Basically, if you’re any kind of person who wants to be more mindful (or happy, healthy, focused, calm, etc.), read on.

doorway

Mindfulness For Mothers

To do this, you will need only your regular life… just as it is!  Is your life noisy?  Fine!  Is it messy?  Great!  Is it chaotic?  Swell!  We’re not afraid of those things here.  In fact, we’ll use them.  Garison Kiellor said, “Bad things don’t happen to writers.  It’s all material.”  It’s kind of like that here.  I mean, we’re not writing, so material means something different in this sense.  But if you take “material” to mean “something to work with,” then we’re on to something.  And when you’re in the middle of using this strategy – of being mindful, bad things don’t happen.  It’s all just something to work with.

The basic idea is taking whatever situation you’re in and dedicating a period of time that’s comfortable for you (maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10, 15, whatever) to just living through that situation as fully and presently as you possibly can.  Without judgment.  Without rushing.  Without labeling it or telling a story about it.  JUST living it.

There are many forms this practice can take.  I’ve named and described four of them below.  Feel free to create your own.  The important thing is just being mindful, present and real.

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work

1) The Quiet Work

Here’s one to try when you find yourself doing a job (probably a chore) that is fairly monotonous, maybe somewhat mindless.  We mothers have no shortage of such jobs, so take your pick!  Say it’s cutting vegetables for dinner.  Start by accepting that that is what you will be doing for the next (whatever period of time you have chosen).  Agree with yourself that, for now, that is your task.  Acknowledge the vegetables, the cutting board, the knife.  Acknowledge the room you’re in.  Notice it all.  You don’t need to label any of it, justify any of it, explain or question any of it.  All you have to do is notice it.  Then begin your Quiet Work, with quiet intention and calm purpose.  Breathe.  Be fluid, gentle and unhurried in your movements.  Feel the weight of the knife as you lift it.  Feel the texture of the vegetables.

Be there with the process, in mind and spirit as well as body.  When thoughts come into your head, watch them come and watch them go, without engaging them.  Imagine your mind is a an empty white room, and on either side of the room, there’s a wide open window.  A warm breeze is blowing in and out of the room through the windows.  Your thoughts and feelings are like leaves or bubbles, entering the room on the wind, swirling about, and then blowing out again.  Just watch them.  Let them be what they are, without naming them or analyzing them or trying to control them.  Just let them be, and let them go.

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mess

2) The Mindful Mess

For this technique, all you need is a mess.  It can be a physical mess (a cluttered desk, a messy bedroom, a kitchen with dishes everywhere, etc.), but it doesn’t have to be.  A mess, for our purposes, is anything that feels disorganized, overwhelming and/or out-of-control.  If that is your monthly budget or your body image or your bedtime routine, you can use it for this exercise.  The name of the game here is to immerse yourself in that mess, mindful and present, employing many of the same concepts we talked about with The Quiet Work.  Be with the mess, without judging it, without judging yourself for it.  Acknowledge it.  Notice everything about it, including the feelings you have about it.  For the time you are working The Mindful Mess, you do NOT have to be still or passive.  Work on your mess if you want to!  Wash some dishes.  Throw away junk mail.  Look at your bank statement.  Brush your hair.  Or just sit with your mess.  But whatever you do or don’t do about your mess, commit to spending some period of time working The Mindful Mess.  Stay present, open and aware.  Feel yourself breathing and the weight of your body.  Watch your thoughts and feelings come, but let them go.  Stories about what this mess means about you as a person are just that – stories.  Acknowledge them as such, and send them peacefully on their way.  Let the mess be what it is, but not more than it is.  Let yourself be who you are, without being defined by, or confined by, this mess.  Just be.

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interaction

3) The Peaceful Interaction

This technique requires another person, and with you being a mom and all, what better person than one of your kids?  After you’ve practiced any of these mindfulness exercises a few times, you’ll start to see them as a kind of gift you can give yourself.  But this one is also a gift you give your kids.  As with the other techniques, you allot a period of time that is dedicated to mindfulness.  And in The Peaceful Interaction, you commit to being full present with the other person.  Entering the shared space between you with your whole heart.  And with your mind open, and free of judgment or expectations.  Watch, listen, notice.  If you speak or act, do so from your heart, authentically and intentionally.  Notice your own thoughts and feelings, as well as your movements and sounds, as you notice the other person’s.  Allow the person to be who they are, and let them see who you are.

Note:  With children, especially little ones, it’s obviously often necessary to set limits for them, if they’re behaving in a way that is harmful, dangerous or just against the rules.  This is not forbidding them from being who they are, this is a way of loving them authentically.  Just make sure the limits are set without judgment or labeling, and that they really are coming from a place of love and care.

With The Peaceful Interaction, notice how your child reacts to having your full, undivided, mindful attention, even for just ten minutes.  You might be very surprised how far that can go.

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rest

4) The Watchful Rest

 

Sometimes, as a mom, I feel like the only time I have to sit back and relax is when I’m actually in the process of going to sleep.  Bed time.  And I don’t mean the suggestion of this last technique as a joke at all.  In many ways, while you’re falling asleep at night is the perfect time to practice mindfulness!  For some anxious souls among us, it may even be necessary.  You know those rushing thoughts that, for whatever reason, seem to think bedtime is a good time to appear in your head?  Those random worries that surface, sometimes even to the point of causing insomnia?  Or maybe bedtime is a time you spend day-dreaming, looking forward to things, revisiting fond memories?  Either way, unless you’re the type of sleeper who’s out before your head hits the pillow, bedtime can be ideal for practicing mindfulness.  Just as with the other techniques, commit to spending some time just being.  Feel your body, feel your breath.  Feel your heart beat.  Watch your thoughts come and go, without engaging them, without judging them (or yourself for having them).  If worries arise, acknowledge them, and then let them go.  (Note:  When first using this technique, if you find the worries or your to-do list too distracting, keep a pen and paper by your bedside when you go to bed.  Then, if any overbearing worries or thoughts keep nagging at you, let yourself sit up – calmly and quietly, still without judgment – and write a note to yourself to deal with whatever it is tomorrow.  Then go back to bed.)

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Mindfulness is an incredibly powerful tool with potential to transform you and your life.  Speaking for myself, when I first started consciously practicing mindfulness, I had a strong feeling like I was giving myself a gift when I did it.  I once described it as “giving myself my life.”  And in a way, that’s not an exaggeration, because the only access you have to your life is through the present moment.  So the more you learn how to occupy that moment and really experience it, the more you’re really living your life.

Yes, it’s a gift to myself, and a wonderful one at that.  When I’ve given myself permission to let go of all the other stuff (my worries, my plans, my faults, my regrets, etc.) for that time, what I’m left with is just myself, living my life, occupying the most wonderful moment (this one!) and completely free.

Hope this post finds you well and content, and I hope that just maybe it inspires you to set yourself free too.  If only for ten minutes at time, surrounded by piles of laundry and screaming children.  That’s your moment.  Live it.

namaste