PART 2 – Returning to ourselves: how I’m making peace with “me” in motherhood

Becoming a mother is beautiful, thrilling, and deeply fulfilling. It’s also all-consuming, and can bring us to a place where we have trouble remembering who we are. In Part 1, we discussed that two things can be true: becoming a mother forever changes us, AND, at our core, our unique wiring and the passions and dreams inside of us haven’t disappeared. We talked about how changing our definition of “productive” can help us regain a sense of accomplishment, and how expressing our passions and interests in the act of parenting can help us still feel like ourselves.

Today, I’ll touch on three more identity struggles we face as moms, and how I’m pursuing peace in the midst of them.

The identity struggle: We lose touch with ourselves as we spend our days immersed in the big, unruly emotions of another person.

Healthy adults have boundaries. When we’re at our best, we avoid projecting our feelings onto others. (*ahem* When We’re At Our Best, lol.) We set aside time to intentionally discuss difficult topics. If we sense some tension in our friend or partner, we back off and give them some space.

Young kids do none of these things. There they are, with their hearts on their sleeve at all times, pulling us immediately into their emotional reality. My pleas of, “mommy just needs a little space/silence right now” get only quizzical looks in response, and no matter how many times we hear that bringing us their unruly emotions means we’re their safe space, that doesn’t feel like a beautiful truth in the moment.

For those of us who are deeply empathetic or highly sensitive (*raises hand*), this can be especially overwhelming. But the truth is, each of us has a profound connection to our children that’s unique to parenthood, making us impacted by their every high and low in a way that’s not quite like any other relationship we’ve experienced.

To pursue peace: “Zoom out” to see the grander narrative, accessing your faith and sense of purpose.

So how do we untangle our emotions from theirs?

I’ve observed lately that how consumed I am by my children’s moods is often related to the vantage point I’ve embraced that day: how “zoomed in” or “zoomed out” my perspective is. What I mean is, if I’ve taken a moment to bring big-picture concepts – like purpose and calling – to the front of my mind in the morning, I’m more likely to be clear-headed through the ups and downs of my day.

For me, this can be as simple as just thinking about God – reading my devotional or a quick passage of scripture, or even just playing a song. These can all serve as simple reminders that the world actually doesn’t revolve around me (surprise, surprise, I know!) I’m reminded that I’m rooted in a much grander narrative, and that there’s a reason I woke up this morning. With that renewed sense of purpose, it’s like I’m operating on offense, rather than defense. I’m front-footed, not surprised by challenging moments. Instead, I’m ready to tune into what’s going on in my body and mind, take stock of what my kid’s emotions may have triggered within me, and pause before responding. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably getting a barely-passing grade in this area, at best. But recognizing this reality is a crucial first step! As we increase our awareness, we begin to give ourselves space to give calm, measured responses to our children when we need a moment to process. (On that note, I saw these wonderful suggestions on Facebook recently for helpful vocabulary to use with our kids).

What helps your mind “zoom out” and recall the big-picture motivations that guide you? Maybe glancing at a vision board on your wall in the morning? Having meaningful scriptures or quotes on display around your home? Repeating an affirmation in the morning? Find what works for you to get a breath of fresh air and a bird’s eye view. Just a few minutes at the start of the day can turn a hard moment around later on.

Motherhood – especially in a pandemic – can feel all-consuming. As we resist the urge to auto-pilot our way through and stay tuned-in to purpose instead, we’ll be better equipped to respond rather than react when we’re confronted with the complex, emotionally-loaded world of our kids’ hearts and minds.

The identity struggle: Distanced relationships and FOMO

In Part 1, we discussed how what we do and who we are feel deeply intertwined. This makes our transition into motherhood, which changes up pretty much every aspect of our days, especially jarring for our sense of identity. Suddenly, we can’t spontaneously meet up with a friend or attend that event or wander into our favorite museum/mall/coffee shop “just for fun” like we used to. And that creates some serious fear of missing out. Our schedules look different, so we have to say no more often, so people invite us less often, and soon enough we don’t even feel plugged into what’s going on anymore. (Granted, I’m definitely having to rewind my brain to pre-’Rona to remember this feeling, but you get the point.) The worst part is, when we do get invited somewhere and the logistics work out, we’re still likely to have less energy (physically and emotionally) to enjoy it fully.

To pursue peace: Cultivate the relationships that feed your soul.

The simplest adjustment I’ve made in this area: initiate, initiate, initiate. I’m a sensitive soul, so it’s easy to take things personally that are simply NOT personal. We all make plans all the time, with large groups and small, and all different combinations of friends (again, pre-Rona, lol). I’ve had to tell myself many times, “no one is trying to exclude you, Ellie!” Initiating moves me away from believing things that aren’t true, and helps me focus on doing what’s in my power. I’ll find an event that look fun and invite someone along, or even just initiate an intentional, distraction-free conversation. (I’m still easing back into doing this more, now that my energy supply is slowly returning after this crazy year.) Intentionality is key, because our time is limited. One example: “let’s schedule a call to talk about this book!” It may sound super nerdy, but it’s one way for me to feel more like my true, full self, and I’m grateful for a few bookworm friends who feel the same. 😉

It’s also been crucial for me to stay in touch with people who remind me of who I am: who make me feel fully known simply by referencing old memories or asking questions others wouldn’t think to ask. My sister is a perfect example. Even if we’re not discussing anything profound, I feel lighter when I speak to her because of our unspoken understanding of one another. I don’t have to word things in a certain way or feel limited to specific topics; I’m simply free.

Here’s another example. I was visiting my alma mater for an event a few years ago, and I stayed with one of my dearest college friends. Now, returning to a prestigious university with super-accomplished alumni when your resume doesn’t boast the same types of traditional successes as those of your peers can be a recipe for feeling small. But at the event, some younger alumni were genuinely excited to meet me and hear my story. To be honest, I was really surprised, humbled, and moved. Teary-eyed, I tried to explain to my friend that it felt so good to feel “seen” and valued for who I am, despite taking a different, less outwardly “important” path than many of our peers. But I didn’t even have to finish my sentence. With a knowing look and some beautifully affirming words, she wrapped me in love and reminded me that I never have to doubt my life’s impact or importance. I will never forget that moment.

Who in your life just gets you, and brings you back to your true self? When I keep those people close, I don’t get as caught up in FOMO. Yes, life does look different, and the time I spend doing things “just for me” is way too infrequent. But centering these key relationships rejuvenates me in a way that, in this season, is enough. Of course, this doesn’t stop FOMO when we miss our favorite artist’s concert when they come into town, or have to leave an event early that we’d been looking forward to. But cultivating a few close, grounding relationships can give us a solid foundation to keep our souls healthy and thriving in this season of life.

The identity struggle: Mental fog

We’ve all heard of “mom brain” – the very real neurological changes we experience in the early years of motherhood that make us more forgetful, emotional, and absent-minded (to name a few). These changes, paired with the general overwhelm of having a whole new category of responsibilities on top of our old ones, can make us feel like we’re navigating our way through thick haze.

Who am I?

What do I even care about?

I feel like I don’t have anything to talk about.

What day is it, even?

When days start blending into one another and I can’t remember the last time I had a truly meaningful adult conversation, it’s easy to lose touch with my own thoughts, feelings, and interests. Without the mental sharpness and clarity I used to experience, I can feel like I’m losing my grip on who I actually am.

To pursue peace: Choose to join your kids in the present whenever you can.

This may not seem like the most natural cause-and-effect, but it’s been working wonders for me these past few months, after a very mentally foggy year.

Children naturally occupy the present. They dive into play with their full body and soul, and when they’re talking about an interest of theirs, you can see in their eyes that it’s lighting up their whole world. They live in this beautiful space that I wish I could get back to more regularly, where productivity and multitasking don’t even cross their minds, and there’s no phone to unlock every 3 minutes to be sure they didn’t miss anything.

So, whenever I can, I try to enter that world – even if it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. By the end of it, my head is clearer. My shoulders have relaxed. My to-do list feels just a teeny bit more do-able.

How does this work? Being present and choosing to focus our whole self on one thing – whatever that thing is – parts the clouds in our minds. This act of “single-tasking” and practicing mindfulness stops me from letting future concerns affect my present, giving me clarity to see what’s right in front of me. And that flows into whatever tasks I’m doing that day, child-related or not. I’ve gotten way too used to doing so many things half-way that I’m actually not getting anything meaningful done. And as a mom, nothing fills me with more regret than using the hours I’m not with my children inefficiently. Being present for a few minutes with my kids is like a reset button that reminds my brain what it feels like to actually make a choice to direct my energies toward one thing. That clarity and purpose then spills over into other areas, and helps to clear my mental fog.

I read here that “people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing.” What a waste, right? There is so much our children can teach us in this area. Sprinkle a few short, truly intentional moments into your day and let me know what changes you see.

…..

I hope these words encourage you to take one small step toward returning to yourself today – whether that’s “zooming out” to gain some perspective, reaching out to a friend who feels like “home,” or immersing yourself in the simple joy of play for a few minutes. Each season of motherhood is temporary, but you will always be you. Let’s grow together in understanding our needs and learning how to meet them. Your kids deserve to experience their whole mommy, in all of your beautiful complexity.


Let’s connect:

Uprooting my own ableism as I parent my autistic son

“Parents need to focus on healing and empowering themselves. They must shift their beliefs about autism. Once the parent knows who they are, the child will respond.” — Lori Shayew

A note: I wasn’t sure whether to share this story. I want everything I share about autism to be from a perspective of joy, strength, and empowerment. I want my writing to reflect that every facet of my son is a gift; it’s not autism, but the world’s response to it, that brings any fear, inconvenience, or negativity into the equation. But I want to be transparent at this moment, although the topic is painful. If my desire is for the world to heal and become a place that fully embraces my son, then I need to be honest about my own journey of healing. Even more importantly, I need to invite others to heal alongside me. I hope you will receive my reflections below in that spirit.

As I was heading out to do our grocery pick-up last Sunday, my 6-year-old asked me if I could pick up a donut for her on the way. We are all about random special treats around here, so I happily said yes.

I wasn’t planning to get one for Koimburi. Keziah can just eat hers while he’s napping, I reasoned — that way he won’t see it, so no harm done. I mean, it’s not like he asked for one, so why spontaneously give him something that’s not exactly the healthiest choice? Makes more sense to just save the $1.75, I thought to myself.

By the time I pulled up to Krispy Kreme, though, I was on the verge of tears. At some point on the drive, the ableism embedded in my logic hit me hard, and my heart felt sick. It does even now, as I type these words, and the tears are returning.

I love my son with everything that I am. I love him so much it hurts. But inside of me, I’ve internalized a value system that calls him less worthy because he doesn’t speak — less worthy of something as simple as the joy of a donut. Would his taste buds be less delighted than his sister’s? Would he be less excited, or feel less of the love that a thoughtful surprise conveys? Surely not. But because he couldn’t request it verbally, I almost denied him that simple joy.

I shouldn’t need people to communicate the way I do to realize that their emotions — their joys and pains and desires and everything else — cover the breadth of human experience just like my own. And if I — his mother — could have such a moment of blindness, how can I expect any better from the world around him? This thought left me even more devastated.

It’s about so much more than missing out on a Krispy Kreme — although that is a tragedy in and of itself. It’s about who we decide to honor in their full humanity, and who we relegate to the category of “less than”. It’s about the assumptions we make and their heavy impact. Eden of @the.autisticats on Instagram recently discussed this in the context of stimming (self-stimulatory, repetitive movement/noises). They said, “It’s common to assume that people who move & sound like me automatically can’t write like me. Too many people who move like me are denied the opportunity to learn how to write, because they can’t speak.”

My mind immediately went to an article I read last June entitled “I am a proud, Black, nonspeaking young man with autism. My life matters.” I was floored by the honest, heartfelt reflections from this 14-year-old poet at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. I also felt immediately ashamed of the assumptions I hadn’t even realized I’d made about how a nonspeaking person would write.

I’m unlearning so much, and the process is painful. But I’m so deeply grateful for the chance to grow.

Reflecting on these early days of our journey (Koimburi was diagnosed last July), it angers me that the whole conversation around a diagnosis — at least how we experienced it — only serves to perpetuate ableism. This will honestly take a whole separate blog post at some point, but I raise it here to lament the missed opportunity that could have saved us — and all parents with similar experiences — so much heartache.

Both society at large and doctors — even kind and gentle ones like the specialist we saw — treat autism like a terminal illness, like “bad news”, a problem requiring intense services to “fix”. Even before the diagnosis, when we’d google possible causes of his sudden speech regression, autism was always the first word to pop up. And despite having a decent amount of exposure to what autism actually is, my heart would sink every time.

To make it really clear: autism is not like a terminal illness. It is not something to grieve, any more than sexism in society makes me grieve being a woman. Do I grieve the impact of discrimination and gender-based violence? Obviously. But I love being a woman; there’s no one else I’d rather be than precisely myself.

And so it is with autism. If I had known then what I know now — that autism is a beautiful, unique, and inextricable part of who my son is — I don’t think my heart would have sunk. In that specialist’s office last July, I wouldn’t have desperately attached my hope to the fact that she had used the word “mild” to describe his autism. My mind wouldn’t have raced with thoughts of all the interventions that would get him as close to “normal” as possible. I could have soaked in the information as the gift that it is: a gift with the power to help me nurture my son’s thriving, exactly as he is. I could have started daydreaming not about “normal,” but extraordinary. Unfortunately, this perspective is not offered to tired and fearful parents when they need it most.

Ableism, like every other -ism, poisons the air around us. We breathe it in without even noticing. I breathed it in without even noticing, until something as random as a donut stopped me in my tracks. If I want my son to grow up in a world that values the unique gifts inside of him, affirms that all forms of communication are valid (hello, assistive devices!), and truly acknowledges the fullness and depth of each person’s humanity, I have to start with me. I have to create that world inside my own home. Will you join me?

Returning to ourselves: how I’m making peace with “me” in motherhood

When I became a mom, I didn’t realize that when I met my first little blessing, I’d also be meeting another completely new person: me.

It’s not that I was suddenly unrecognizable, but a gulf now seemed to separate the old me from the new one. That disconnect was jarring. How I spent my time, the things I cared about and prioritized, where I invested my emotional energy — it all changed, and left me dizzy in the process.

The innumerable ways motherhood changes us are both remarkable and disorienting. The capacity of our hearts seems to have grown overnight, with newfound purpose and motivation, and yet we’re left grasping for pieces of our life we weren’t yet ready to part with.

For me, when the dust settled, I remembered that two things can be true at the same time: becoming a mother forever changes us, AND, at our core, our unique wiring and the passions and dreams inside of us haven’t disappeared.

Internalizing both of these truths is easier said than done. I don’t want to throw motherhood under the bus by believing that I’m not complete unless I add other, more “interesting” things to my resume. I don’t want to devalue my role by insinuating that mothering isn’t a good use of my skills — that I’m somehow “overqualified” and not living out my potential.

At the same time, I don’t want to spend the next 18 years pushing down my most heartfelt dreams. I don’t want to sacrifice other areas of fulfillment because moms “just don’t have time”. And honestly, it’s not even mainly about not wanting to sacrifice; as we’ve heard time and time again, you can’t pour from an empty cup. We give our children a gift when we mother them from a place of inner thriving. Joyful, fulfilled people are more present, engaged parents. Society hasn’t caught up to this concept and begs us to choose, but we don’t have to allow it.

So how do I marry the two “me’s”? How do I pursue peace amid this tug-of-war inside me?

The list of identity struggles we face as moms is long. Today, in Part 1, I’ll touch on two of the struggles that are looming largest in my life right now, and how I’m pursuing peace in the midst of them.

Struggle #1: Who we are feels deeply intertwined with what we do…

…and what we do changes drastically after having children. Suddenly we’re having much less contact with other adults. When we do, we’re less likely to be having meaningful, high-level conversations thanks to shorter chunks of alone time, our kids’ interruptions, or decreased mental energy. Our world seems to have shrunk, and we’re no longer getting the energy boosts that creative thinking and new ideas bring.

And on top of that, if we’ve reduced our work hours or taken a break from the workforce altogether, we have much less of a sense of completion at the end of the day. We likely haven’t checked any items off of a to-do list that seem “significant” to us. It feels like the parts of our brains that we’d use at work, or having an intellectual debate with friends, or even just chatting about our favorite TV shows, are all gathering dust.

To pursue peace: Change the way you see your “wins”

Two things that have helped me combat the lie that “I haven’t accomplished anything”: celebrating little wins, and different wins.

Little wins can energize us toward bigger ones (see last week’s post on willpower). To maximize on this, I’ve begun daily practices that I can “check off” with minimal effort for a sense of empowerment that carries me into my next tasks. A solid, quick morning routine (7 minute workout, devotional, affirmation) has been instrumental for me. I’m pretty much bursting with pride by the time I complete those three simple tasks, since consistency has always been a struggle for me. Celebrating those little wins makes me feel like I can exercise discipline and prioritize the things that are important to me on any given day. It helps me feel confident and competent.

I’ve also found celebrating different wins to be impactful on an even deeper level. I often evaluate myself as being much less productive now that I’m a mother; I’m used to the deep frustration of stewarding many areas, and getting a barely-passing grade in all of them. But what if we changed our definition of productive? This isn’t a feel-good technique, but rather a more accurate appraisal of the impact of our days. If our checklists included things like “laughed really hard with my daughter” or “really stopped and listened to her silly story when I wanted to zone out,” we might realize we’ve made a greater impact than we thought, AND be motivated to be more present in the little moments than before. This is a work in progress for me, but I’m already seeing a difference.

But missing the intellectual stimulation of a former job or hobby you no longer have time for is still oh-so-very real. Which leads me to:

Identity struggle #2: “I don’t want motherhood to be all there is to me”

When I look in the mirror, I see a compassionate soul, a bubbly extrovert, a caring friend, a singer/actress who wishes she could dance, a bookworm, a Georgetown and Michigan grad, a passionate advocate, and so much more. Those closest to me see all (or at least most) of those things, too. But I can become fixated on this nagging fear that most people see me as “just a mom.” This feeling is so unhelpful for two reasons:

1. Even if I were “just a mom” (which literally no one is, but I digress), that would be a fabulous, glorious thing. Motherhood is a million jobs in one, a profound and fulfilling calling, and an incredible feat of which every single one of us should be deeply proud.

I don’t think it’s the “mom” title itself that makes us want to push back against it, but rather the way society devalues it. The longing to be fully known is universal. No one wants to be pidgeonholed as “just so-and-so’s daughter” or “just that quiet girl” or even “just a doctor.” But being seen as “just a mom” adds an extra layer because it carries a particular connotation in our minds: one-dimensional; bland; lacking vibrancy, color, and nuance. And who wants to pour their whole heart and soul into a job that (we fear) others perceive in this way? This thought pattern leaves us feeling not only insecure, but demotivated.

2. We shouldn’t believe how motherhood is often characterized in our society because it’s a lie. But also, by falling into this mental trap, I’m giving others permission to define how I feel about myself. Who cares if 99% of the world doesn’t know that I taught myself to cook and bake from scratch, or that I was high school valedictorian, or that I watched every Jim Carrey movie released between ‘94-’04? Does that somehow make me less interesting, less intelligent, less creative? How could it? Yet I can easily hand that power to others and, in so doing, forget to water my own grass and cultivate what makes me “me”. When others’ perceptions infiltrate my own, I’m more likely to neglect the parts of me that make me feel unique, fun, and whole. As self-sabotaging as it is, I subconsciously resign myself to the attitude, “if they don’t care, why should I?”

To pursue peace: Never stop basking in — and uncovering — who you are

Take some time to really examine, “who am I at my core?” Motherhood changes every facet of our lives, but it doesn’t erase the beautiful complexity of who we were created to be. We’ll almost certainly grow new passions and discover new priorities, but everything that has brought us to this point is still with us. And the best parts of motherhood only serve to enhance and sharpen who we were “before.”

One of my favorite things about motherhood has been the way I can integrate my passions and interests into the way I parent. One example: I’ve always been deeply invested in the fight for racial and economic justice. In parenthood, I cherish taking my children to protests, choosing books that help them understand history and embrace their power, and answering their questions in a way that inspires deeper thought. This energizes me and reminds me that my passion hasn’t been put on a shelf, even though I can’t attend many community meetings or research current policies as much as I’d like in this season.

What’s important to you? How can you creatively integrate self-expression into your parenting? Maybe it looks like more museum trips or science projects, or creating incredible household routines, or choosing some new supplies for arts and crafts time, or trying a new workout/dance class together. Whatever gets you excited!

The more I’m expressing my core identities in the little moments of parenting, the more I can truly celebrate motherhood — not seeing it as something that ties me down or limits the fullness of who I am, but something that is intricately woven into all the things that make me “me”.

And in those quiet, kid-free moments (however rare they may be these days), we can nourish those parts of ourselves, too. This year, I am thankful to have 4 hours per week set aside in my schedule to write. I look forward to this time to explore whatever topic is on my mind, and it fulfills me in a way that helps me enter the rest of the day satisfied and renewed.

Maybe you don’t have 4 hours that you can dedicate in that way. But what can you do? Maybe find an audiobook or podcast on a topic you wish you had the time to engage in more, and just listen for 10 minutes before you go to bed, or while you’re folding laundry. (This is another practice that gives me so much life, and occasionally even makes me excited to get to folding, lol!) Any time you carve out for you will have a ripple effect on your family.

We also need to ask ourselves, “who and what am I living for?” It’s so easy for the perceptions of others to be a driving force in our decisions. Take this very post, for example. I realized quickly while writing that it would take two or three posts to cover everything that’s on my heart for this topic. At one per week, that means maybe three weeks of motherhood-specific posts. My heart sunk. “But I don’t want people to think I’m ‘just’ a mommy blogger!’” (There goes that “just” again.) Because I’ve internalized society’s valuation of motherhood, I think I have to put all the other amazing aspects of myself on display in order to “be” somebody in the eyes of others. But if approval is what I’m chasing, I’ll end up drained. When I pursue purpose, I find myself recharged and empowered to walk in the fullness of who I am.

Take a moment to remove others’ perceptions from how you evaluate your choices. What truly makes you feel as though you’re walking in your purpose? For me, my evaluation consists of:

  1. Am I living in a way that’s consistent with my faith, bringing glory to the One who created me?
  2. Am I honoring the unique way I was created, maximizing the gifts and passions I’ve been given?
  3. Am I impacting those around me in a positive way, while tending to my own mental and emotional health?

Figure out what questions get at the heart of what matters most to you, and don’t settle for choices that make sense to others at the sacrifice of what you’ve decided is most important.

…..

Of course, there is so much in our lives as mothers that simply can’t be changed. Our time, our relationships, our priorities are different. Those realities are worthy of stopping to truly grieve — even if we wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything — and they affect us all differently. Like you, I’ve heard plenty of well-meaning advice and thought, “that’s nice, but you don’t know my situation.” Mental or physical health diagnoses, availability of childcare, financial status, marital status, size of your “village”, number/ages/special needs of children, and so much more all have an impact on how much time or emotional capacity you’ll have to pursue self-discovery.

That being said, I invite you to take stock of not only your limitations, but of what can change — even if that’s something as small as a mindset shift, like changing what you consider a “win”. We’ve all been in that low place of comparison and discontentment. Sometimes the feeling is acute, like a pain in my chest. But getting stuck there doesn’t help us to experience joy and live intentionally. What does? Recognizing whatever power is in our hands, and using it to build a life of wholeness.

…..

This is only scratching the surface, and I can’t wait to post Part 2. In the meantime, tell me: where are your biggest identity struggles in motherhood? What ways have you found to return to yourself?

To beat the pandemic blues, I’m ditching “motivation”

How growing in discipline — gently and graciously — has brought me wellness and joy

Do me a favor. In your mind, picture your most grace-filled friend: the one who consoles you when you’ve blown all your new year’s resolutions, normalizes your struggles, and reminds you that your worth is not defined by your accomplishments.

Oh, hiiiiii! *waves frantically* It’s me! I have all the grace, for myself and everybody else. I don’t need the validation and pats on the back because I’ve given them all to myself, becoming even a bit too assured of how awesome I am, whether I’m checking things off my to-do list or not.

In the midst of 2020, that was a good thing. On the days when I was mentally and emotionally depleted and declared unlimited screen time for my kids in order to make it through the day, I experienced zero guilt. I wrote up cute little schedules, ignored them after a few days or weeks, and never judged myself for it. As long as there was love in my home, I considered each day a win.

In November, though, I started to feel a shift. I still wanted to be kind to myself but — as anyone who’s experienced true, honest friendship knows — kindness doesn’t always look like a pat on the back. Sometimes kindness is shedding light on an area that needs growth, or doing the harder thing because the result will be worth it.

I realized that the soft cushion of grace I had laid out for myself had aided my survival of 2020, but it wouldn’t help me thrive. My days were all starting to blur together, and I knew it would take a change to lift my energy and my mood. So I turned to social media, asking friends for “some advice on how to get motivated — how to wake up in the morning feeling ready to pursue PURPOSE.”

I got some incredible advice: daily gratitude practice, celebrating small wins, mindfulness, affirmations, journaling, working out, and setting small, achievable goals, to name a few. I eagerly jotted these down, trying hard to not feel overwhelmed at the thought of another to-do list (even one that was for the sake of my mental health)!

As I started to slowly implement a few of those strategies, two pieces of advice stood out. The first: my favorite mama-coach asked me,

“What if it’s not about motivation, but discipline?”

You know that feeling when truth just slaps you in the face? Yeah. I needed that slap. I had been focusing on “how can I feel motivated?” instead of “how can I grow the muscle of discipline?” And once I remembered that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and therefore something I have access to according to my faith, I became eager to grow that muscle, knowing that God promised to help me.

Image for post

The second: another friend recommended I read The Willpower Instinct. For some reason, I typically avoid books that sound self-help-y, but like I said, I was eager, and Dr. Kelly McGonigal did not disappoint. I’d highly recommend it; the dozens of scientific studies she cites, which I don’t get into here, are equal parts fascinating and motivating. (Also, can we talk about how great it is that her name is Professor McGonigal?!)

But before I share my highlights, I need to state that I’m not jumping onto your screen right now as some hyped-up motivational speaker, shouting empty platitudes I found on Google. I am painfully aware of how horrendous the past year has been for our mental health, and the last thing I would want is for this post to result in anyone feeling worse about their current unmotivated state. Please know: I. Am. With. You. I’m sharing these reflections as a fellow warrior on the battlefield. As I was limping along a few months ago, feeling like I was hanging on by a thread, these are the concepts that helped me take grace-filled baby steps toward what I want my days to feel like.

For most of 2020, I felt like life was just happening to me. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Taking control of the small, but powerful choices that I have in my grasp has been empowering. I’ve felt a heaviness lifting, and that’s what I wish for each of you.

So after all that background context (now you know what my husband has to deal with every time I tell him a story, lol) — here are the 6 biggest lessons from The Willpower Instinct that have changed the game for me:

#1: Find your REAL “why”

Sometimes what we think we want is not actually our biggest motivation. Parents — how often have you told yourself “I want to be a better parent”? How often does that actually help you in your day-to-day decisions? Close your eyes and actually envision what you want your life to look like. Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel? A mom who took the author’s course on willpower did this, and realized she needed a more intrinsic motivation than simply being “good” — that alone wasn’t stopping her from yelling at her kids. What worked? Realizing that at the end of the day, her bigger-picture motivation was that she wanted to enjoy parenting — and it’s clearly not enjoyable to yell all the time.

When you want to give up, step back and reflect on whether you’ve identified your truest, deepest motivation that will compel you to fight temptation in order to reach it. The “halo effect” we feel from being “good” is fleeting, but living out our values because we truly believe and are invested in them has a positive snowball effect.

#2: Understand dopamine

This one blew my mind, y’all. I’ve always associated dopamine with happiness (the “feel-good” hormone, right?) Come to find out, dopamine doesn’t activate an actual sensation of happiness, but of wanting: it’s the PROMISE of happiness we’re feeling. Unfortunately, we easily confuse the two, and thus sabotage finding true satisfaction.

Dopamine is the feeling that races through us when we’re thinking about something we really, really want — like when I see the Krispy Kreme sign light up. But McGonigal asks us to pay close attention to how we actually feel after we get what we crave: is it all that we imagined? In the case of my donut cravings, I’ve started to notice that the craving is always strong, but the actual taste? I mean, it’s nice, but not what my mind had hyped it up to be — especially when I’m seeking it out as a stress reliever. Non-food indulgences tend to go the same way. Mindlessly scrolling through social media. Skipping my workout. Those don’t rejuvenate me like they seemingly promise to. As we know from experience, and as McGonigal highlights, “when we’re stressed, our brains persistently mis-predict what will make us happy.”

So, what can actually boost our happiness? According to the author, “we need to separate the real rewards that give our life meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted.” Working out, good conversation, meditation, spiritual gatherings, physical touch, and being creative all activate oxytocin — a true feel-good reward. But here’s the catch: we have to remember how good it feels, so that we’ll pursue it over promises that won’t deliver. McGonigal gives an example of a student of hers who avoided yoga class for 3 years because it felt easier to unwind by drinking wine and watching TV. When she finally went back to class, she was blown away by how good she felt. She decided to record herself in her happy, peaceful state afterwards so she could remind herself how “worth it” it was later.

To be clear, dopamine exists for a reason: it helps keep us motivated and even boosts our memory and learning. But chasing the promise of reward will always be just that — a chase. Instead, let’s seek out actual mood-boosters that are sustainable over the long haul. For me, the short routine of doing a 7 minute workout in the morning, reading my devotional, and choosing an affirmation for the day has created such a shift. Just like the yoga lady, once I realized how “ready for the day” I felt afterwards, I wanted to keep doing it! I never used to set my alarm to get up before my kids. Now, my 6:45 wake-up is second nature. And remember how I said I give myself all the grace and resist routines? Well, I literally haven’t missed a weekday workout in a month, which feels crazy to even type, knowing myself! I really do attribute that to the mental shift described here: making the “harder choice” to get the real reward, knowing that choosing it will become easier and easier as that choice bears fruit.

#3: Who’s the “real” you?

This one is simple, but powerful. Who do you believe is the “real” you? Is it the you who sets goals, or the you who can’t help but to lose control? This question is so important because it has the power to combat “moral licensing” — the name McGonigal gives for our tendency to reward ourselves for good behavior in self-sabotaging ways. She writes:

Moral licensing turns out to be, at its core, an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behavior if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad. From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward. But, why must we see ourselves this way? Moving beyond the traps of moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self who wants the best for us, and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy, or easily tempted self as the real us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked, or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.

She continues:

When you think about your willpower challenge, which part of you feels more like the real you? Do you feel like the kind of person who can succeed, or do you feel like you need to fundamentally suppress, improve, or change who you are? Do you identify more with your impulses and desires, or your long-term goals and values?

When we commit to seeing ourselves as the person who wants to pursue the goal, not the one who needs to be reined in and controlled, we can more easily avoid self-sabotage. This has been so true for me. I used to complain that I’m simply not the type of person that can stick to a routine, even something as simple as one task. But guess what? The little morning routine wins I described earlier gave me a boost of confidence, so I decided to institute Wednesdays as laundry day. Instead of seeing it as an uphill battle against how I’m wired, I’d simply try my best (see below), knowing that in the long run, more predictability will bring me less anxiety overall. I celebrate myself when I do it, thanking myself for pursuing the peace that comes from that small sense of order. Not seeing myself as the enemy has been a tremendous help.

#4: Self-forgiveness over guilt and defeat

While guilt is not how I’d describe my own feelings when I don’t live up to my goals, I definitely get frustrated and tend to give up easily. But there’s good news for all of us: beating ourselves up doesn’t push us toward our goals, so we can stop doing it!

What happens when you criticize yourself? Well, it doesn’t feel good, so naturally you want to escape the “conversation” with yourself and the accompanying guilt, shame, and pain. And how do you escape? Probably by making a decision to indulge in something that brings instant gratification and sets you back from the very goals you’ve set.

Try being gentle with yourself instead, as counterintuitive as it may sound to some. Why does it work? You’re less likely to walk out on the “conversation” when your inner dialogue is kinder. Self-forgiveness helps you stick around long enough to analyze how you’re feeling, what led you to make a decision you regret, and what you can do better next time. That’s way more productive than escaping and repeating the cycle!

As McGonigal puts it, “it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view.”

#5: Break out of autopilot

As we discussed in point #2 (Understand dopamine), instant gratification is a beast. One way to resist it: try the 10 minute rule.

Studies show that instituting just a 10 minute wait time before giving into temptation shifts whatever we’re trying to resist from a “now” concept to a “later” concept. Once we do that, we can more soberly and accurately compare the temptation with our long term goals. In a “now” vs. “later” battle, “later” doesn’t stand much chance. By pausing for 10 minutes, though, it becomes a fair fight of “later” vs. “later,” and I have the space to reframe my dilemma. Last Monday, for example, my body woke me up too early and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was annoyed, to say the least. On autopilot, I would have just laid in bed and mindlessly scrolled on social media. But I paused. Would that decision really help me start off my day with intentionality and positivity? Definitely not. Instead, I sat up, pulled out my laptop, and worked on this blog post. And it felt so great that I texted the two girlfriends who serve as my accountability/cheerleaders to brag about it. Even at 6 a.m., that pause helped me see my two options for what they truly were, and I was able to choose well.

Obviously, this strategy is only for things you’re trying to resist, like mindless scrolling. Is your willpower challenge something you’re trying to do more of, like getting your home organized? If so, simply flip the strategy, and take 10 minutes to DO whatever it is that will move you closer to your goal — then you have permission to stop. Chances are, it will feel great and you’ll keep going. And if not, 10 minutes was better than nothing!

Those 10 minutes allow us the space to be mindful, to observe the way we’re feeling when we’re faced with a willpower dilemma. In fact, this is how the book concludes: “If there’s one ‘secret’ to willpower, it’s the power of paying attention, not running on autopilot.” In the difficult times we’ve been living in, I’ll be the first to admit that my brain has felt like mush some days, and all I’ve wanted to do is “check out.” But this information reminds me that any little steps I can take in the direction of mindfulness will serve me far better in the long run.

#6: Remember, your future self is YOU! Show yourself some love!

This is another fact that amazed me: when we envision our future selves (like when we optimistically say “I’ll feel like doing that tomorrow”), we’re literally using the part of the brain that thinks about other people — not ourselves. We completely dissociate from whatever actual emotions we have about the task at hand in the present, assuming that this mysterious Future Me will somehow feel differently.

But Future You is… wait for it… YOU! And science shows that people who have a better sense of their future self being THEM are far more likely to make decisions that will be beneficial in the long run.

So how do we cultivate this sense of [future] self? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Create a vivid “future memory” of any kind — close your eyes and experience a day in the life of your future self, whether it’s next week or next decade.
  2. Write a letter to your future self — this website is one easy way to do it! In your letter, describe what you’re doing now, or jot down that visualization you just did of what your life might be like.
  3. Pose this question to yourself: What would your future self thank you for if you were able to commit to it today?

I’ll leave you with that question because, for me, it has been what has helped me most over these past few months, as I’ve been climbing out of the haze of the difficult emotions that the past year has brought. It helps me remember that I deserve a life marked by peace, joy, and fulfillment. It reminds me that cultivating that life is in my power, today. It draws my attention to seemingly small decisions I can make right now that will energize me to not only be fully present and live as my most authentic self, but to also be a compassionate partner, an intentional parent, a dedicated employee, a loving friend — all roles that are truly important to me.

Motivation will ebb and flow, but I can arm myself with a mindset that values discipline and consistency over quick fixes. Like any muscle, I can grow my self-control — it’s not fixed. As I lovingly cheer myself on to do just a little more each day, I’m caring for who I am now and fighting for the wellness — mind, body, and soul — of Future Me. And after the year we’ve had, we all deserve that.

A letter to my son

On reveling in the present moment as you grow into all that you are: autistic, loving, joyful, and free

My precious one,

I love your smile. I’ve never seen such twinkling eyes, such pure sweetness. I thank God for each smile, each laugh, remembering when they were much harder to come by not so long ago.

I love your energy — how you sprint across the room out of pure excitement, over and over again, squealing with glee and clapping along to Cocomelon. The pitter-patter of your feet is unmistakable from every corner of the house.

I love your determination — the force with which you grab my hand and lead me to wherever I’m needed. The way you sneak away to find the iPad hiding in my bedroom, or stealthily grab a treat from the dining room table the moment I step away.

I love your love — the way you lay your head on daddy’s shoulder so gently as you dance to “No Letting Go” before bed. The way you climb onto my legs as we play and slip your arms around my neck into the tightest hug.

How can I express my gratitude for the peace your presence brings? Your glow, warm and pure, chases away every anxious question in my mind. When I’m tempted to dwell on the burdens of our therapy schedule or wonder about milestones and timelines, your joy keeps me rooted. Present. Mindful.

There is so much ahead of us, but right now there is a beauty in our simplest moments together that I want to savor. I know that as we emerge from this pandemic and venture out into the world, as you begin to brave playgrounds and preschool, there will be attempts to weigh you down with expectations and labels that were never yours to bear. I want to revel in this time, before the world accosts us with its boxes. It’s just you and me and Daddy and Sister, learning each other and growing together one day at a time.

But even as I soak in these moments, I also remember: just as we learn and grow, so does the world.

You are growing up in a world where new generations are carving out how freedom will be defined. Right now, as we celebrate Black History Month, activists are not only honoring the past but envisioning #BlackFutures. They are centering the fight for liberation around Black joy and the celebration of every unique, intersecting facet of Black identity. They are writing their own history, not defined by pain but by the inherent dignity of Black life.

They fight, that one day you would step out into the world and be truly free. And they are not the only ones fighting for you; you are part of another fiercely loving community. Autistic adults* who have walked in your shoes are raising their voices with passion and care for your well-being. I know I’m not immune to the assumptions and biases of the world, so I am learning all I can from them. Like those marching for Black lives, these advocates are working to craft a future where you can not only survive, but thrive — where your uniqueness will be seen, valued, and celebrated. You are their motivation, the reason why they fight, and I am listening closely as they speak to learn how to love and honor you for all that God has created you to be.

I love you, sweet angel. You bring so much joy to my journey. Forgive me for the moments when I yearn so deeply to hear you say “mama,” that I miss the chance to embrace you for exactly who you are today. Keep wrapping those soft little arms around my neck and keep me right here in the present. There is absolutely no place in the world I’d rather be.

Love,

Mommy

*a note: at this moment, I am choosing to use identity-first language (“autistic adults”) instead of person-first language (“adults with autism”). If you’re curious, here’s a great post about this debate. (Bonus: it’s by a fellow Georgetown alum!)

I would like to sincerely thank the following Instagram creators for their invaluable insights in this very early stage of my journey parenting an autistic child: @fidgets.and.fries @the.autisticats @notanautismmom

Doing what makes me come alive

In 2021, I decided that I’m going to write.

It started out as a whisper. While making my (first-ever) vision board last month, the word “WRITE” in a cute font stood out in a magazine, so I pasted it right at the top. I’ve always loved to write; I love the way it pulls tangled thoughts out of my brain, and I’m fortunate that my job requires a good deal of it. Even just taking the time to write a long Facebook post on a social issue or a reflective Instagram caption brings me energy and clarity like little else. But I’ve pretty much just left it at that.

This year, though, I’m chasing down joy. I’m cultivating purpose. I’m pursuing what invigorates my soul and brings health to my heart. After last year, I’m not settling for less.

Of all the ways 2020 affected me, more than anything, it kept me in a mental fog. If you asked me how my week was on any given day, I probably couldn’t tell you. Griefs blurred into one another, and waking up with any kind of intentionality seemed impossible. I’m so grateful for the sunshine-y humans who fill my home; they sprinkled so much brightness into last year. They — along with God and dear friends — grounded me. But I wasn’t able to focus on growth, on truly thriving.

Towards the end of the year, though, something shifted. I began to feel more like myself — like I could start trying to live “on purpose”. I started some daily practices that have been keeping me rooted, grateful, and present, and have given me the space to daydream about what I want my life to look like. How do I want to feel when I get up in the morning, and at the end of the day? What do I want to spend my time on?

My mind kept coming back to writing, for how it both enlivens me and helps me process my reality. I’m a verbal processor, which Hunja knows better than anyone. As we get ready for bed, a lightswitch flips on in my brain, and it becomes what he (affectionately/exhausted-ly) calls my “soapbox hour”. I process my thoughts on current events and strategies for racial justice and the highs and lows of parenting and on and on. I feel clear-headed and alive. And I get that same feeling when my fingers are on a keyboard.

So, once a week, I’ll be here posting — for my own sake, but also because I am a big believer in what written words can do. They have the power to spark conversations (within ourselves, and with one another) that can foster introspection, empathy, and understanding. They can even create community, when we see our own reflection in the experience of another.

And I don’t know about you, but I long for community — as much of it as I can get, particularly after a year that paired collective traumas of all kinds with deep isolation. I think community, more than anything, is what drew me to making this commitment. “WRITE” means I could always just start journaling, right? That would save me from the vulnerability of asking for likes, shares, and engagement. But if I’m anything, I’m a relational being, so the chance to spark connection and conversation is everything to me. So if you’ve read this far, please know that I’m grateful for your company on this journey!

It feels a little strange to have just written about… writing. But I’m sharing my process, firstly in hopes that it encourages somebody to pursue whatever brings life to their weary bones this year. And secondly, to ask for your support as I express what’s on my heart, in hopes of cultivating human connection, shared reflection, and a sense that we really are all in this thing together.

I’m Learning To Let My Children Grow Into Who God Intended Them To Be

“I learned a long time ago that my children would inherit one of two things: either God’s promises, or my fears.” — Lisa Bevere

I don’t consider myself a fearful person. I’m free-spirited, tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t map out my future with much detail.

Enter parenting.

Suddenly two people exist in my world who make my heart burst with love, and whose destinies are seemingly up to me to decide. Will they be kind? Will they be socially conscious? Will they love God? Will they love themselves? Will they make wise decisions? I want them to dodge every mistake I’ve ever made and avoid every heartache I’ve ever felt. And if I parent them well, I can, right?

When I write it out like that, of course it seems absolutely unrealistic. But in my day-to-day, that doesn’t stop me from trying. I will raise a daughter who is secure in her identity. I will raise a son who never feels limited by a label. Those, and a million other hopes and dreams that are deeply important and valuable — and yet ultimately not up to me.

As I write this, my mind takes me to a moment last year that stopped me in my tracks. One of my best friends (and my daughter’s Godmother) and I were doing an Instagram live together discussing parenting and race. We began talking about what my daughter’s identity development will look like as she grows up, being half-white American, half-Kenyan, and growing up in the U.S. where (in a sense) she is also African-American. I casually mentioned, “I’m gonna have to re-read Dreams from my Father and get some wisdom from Barack!” My friend replied graciously but firmly, something like: “…or she’ll carve a new path and decide for herself what her background means to her.”

I felt rebuked (in the best of ways, as only your closest friends can) and also… lighter. I realized I had been carrying this self-imposed, impossible expectation that I was the sole bridge between my children and their experience and understanding of the world — the sole influence on how they will bloom, on who they will be. Now, don’t get me wrong: at ages 6 and 2, my kids are definitely most heavily influenced by their mom and dad at this stage. But that won’t always be the case. And when they’re “out in the world,” will I be fixated on wielding my power over how they “turn out,” or will I be a steady, nurturing operating base from which they can explore?

That’s a big difference. It doesn’t mean that our choices as parents don’t matter — they matter deeply. What it does mean is that parenting is not me, as an artist, painting the masterpiece that is my child. That’s God’s job. Maybe I’m more like a lovely grass green amidst all the other colors on the palette that God dips into as He pleases, my guidance and love swirling in unexpected ways into the finished product. Or as Paul Tripp puts it:

“Parenting is not first about what we want for our children or from our children, but about what God in grace has planned to do through us in our children.”

It’s a mindset shift that is so much easier said than done. At the end of the day — if I can be real with y’all — my happiest daydreams are of my daughter becoming an activist and eventually president of the United States (or Kenya!), while performing on Broadway in her spare time. (Just typing that puts a giddy smile on my face!) But that dream has everything to do with me, and involved zero consultation with the One who actually created her and placed her own unique gifts inside her, just waiting to be uncovered.

I want to be a Treasure Hunt Parent. When I came across that phrase in Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, I’m pretty sure I broke down crying because it felt so beautiful and so hard at the same time.

“When it comes to who my children are, I don’t want to be an Expectations Parent. I don’t want my kids striving to meet an arbitrary list of preconceived goals I have created for them. I want to be a Treasure Hunt Parent. I want to encourage my children to spend their lives digging, uncovering more and more about who they already are, and then sharing what they discover with those lucky enough to be trusted by them. When my child uncovers a gem inside and pulls it out for me to see, I want to widen my eyes and gasp and applaud.”

She continues with this directive: “un-God yourself.” In other words, resist the urge to author the narrative. Remove the “shoulds” that cloud our vision of the unique creations standing in front of us. Say to our children, in word and deed: “My only expectation is that you become yourself. The more deeply I know you, the more beautiful you become to me.”

When I reflect on this, I simultaneously feel so inadequate and so freed. Inadequate, because resisting my desire for control is a daily battle. Freed, because God’s hands are a far safer place for my children to be than my own.

More than anything, though, I feel excited — and of all the emotions that parenting brings, that’s a pretty great one, right? When I think of how much I have yet to learn about these small, wonderfully complex humans living in my home, my heart skips a beat. They deserve my wonder, my awe, my delight. By God’s grace, I hope to walk in that more and more each day.

“Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me” and other MLK quotes

I took this photo from behind the pastor’s pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. While interning for the SPLC in Montgomery, AL in 2008, I had the honor of attending this church, where Dr. King began his journey as a pastor and organizer.

As a teen, I was enthralled by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but that summer in Montgomery was revelatory. It pushed my mind to see beyond the isolated stories of “heroes” who were always pictured in black and white, in some seemingly faraway time and place. I began to see in full color: to picture ordinary Black women and men walking miles each way to exhausting jobs —for a year— to end the indignity of segregated buses. They had walked the very streets I walked each day, and they were not a sentence (or, if you were lucky, a paragraph) in a history book — they were living, breathing, beautifully unique human beings.

And so was Dr. King. As pastor of Dexter in 1955, he insisted that every member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP. He saw faith and the fight for human dignity and human rights as inextricably linked. Can you imagine how that would go down today? When we keep his image trapped in those black and white photos, we don’t really allow our minds to imagine how revolutionary he was, how absolutely hated he was for holding up a mirror to this nation and forcing it to stare its ugliness in the face. I wish we could take the “just preach the gospel,” anti-Critical Race Theory, “BLM is doing it wrong” white pastors back in time a few decades and challenge them to post MLK quotes on their (metaphorical) social media pages then.

A few friends I love and respect posted a challenge today: to listen to a speech of Dr. King’s today in its entirety. I chose his final Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. I was moved to tears on multiple occasions, struck afresh by the biting truths spoken and the urgency with which he shared them. My favorite part:

“One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?’ I looked at him and I had to say, ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.’ Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

He didn’t mince words, he didn’t compromise, and he certainly didn’t soften the fiery fervor of what God had laid on his heart to make white folks feel better about themselves.

And he was killed for it.

I have found in my life that an untimely death serves to intensify that person’s legacy. I pray that we get to a place in our nation where that is true — where we no longer settle for a whitewashed narrative of Dr. King’s work and mission, but instead recognize his legacy in the words and actions of those fighting on the front lines for Black Lives today. Let us not seek out a watered-down version of his vision that makes us comfortable. Rather, let us draw deep inspiration and resolve from his bold, unapologetic demands for an end to war, an end to the evils of capitalism, an end to police brutality, and an end to racism in all of its forms.

Our default setting: the audacity of white supremacy

The morning after last week’s U.S. Capitol Insurrection, my 6-year-old, Keziah, and I went on a mommy-daughter date to celebrate the end of winter break. We laid out an adorable picnic near a pond, played a game of Candyland, and giggled as the ducks ducked their heads underwater and helped clean one another’s feathers.

Last time we were at this park, we were enjoying watching the ducks in and around the pond. Keziah was walking up as close as she could to them, enjoying studying them. When she’d get close, they’d often scurry back into the water.

Near us, there was an older white woman throwing bread for them to eat. In a rude, impatient voice, she snipped at Keziah: “Stop chasing them away! I’m trying to feed them!” First of all, the audacity to take that tone with not even a fellow adult, but a 6-year-old.

Second of all, from what I could recall, feeding bread to the ducks is not even allowed. But not seeing any signage in that immediate area to point her to, I simply said, “Ma’am, she’s a child” and moved on.

But my mind went straight to that incident in reflecting on the armed white men who stormed our nation’s Capitol Building.

Whether or not our little duck-feeding incident was racially motivated, the analogy to white supremacy is spot-on: a person asserting their dominion and self-defined rules over a space that should be available to everyone, while at the same time excusing themselves from any rules laid out for the common good.

White people, this is our default setting.

Our education and life experiences have taught us to take up space, ignoring the harm caused to those whom we bump in the process. They have convinced us of our “rightness” and, at the same time, have assured us that the rules don’t apply to us. We will spend a lifetime unlearning this. No matter where we are on our journeys of racial justice advocacy, I hope we don’t walk away from yesterday’s display of unabashed white supremacy without continued introspection. When I enter a metaphorical room, do I look to see who may have been squeezed out? Do I stop and interrogate myself when I theorize in my head about how BIPOC activists “could have said/done that differently”? Do I justify ways in which my privilege has allowed me to bypass rules that my BIPOC friends must adhere to?

Food for thought. I will also shared some words on the topic from Brittany Packnett Cunningham — the most spot-on take on last week’s events that I’ve heard thus far:

“This is the literal example of white supremacy. What does white supremacy mean? It means that white people believe that they have dominion over everybody and dominion over everything; that they are, in fact, supreme. So we saw a group of white people, of white supremacists here, thinking that they own a country that they colonized and therefore they can do whatever they want with it. They think they can storm any building in that country because they believe they own it. They think that they can erect a noose on the side of a building that was built by enslaved Africans in America because they think they have full permission to do so — and did so on camera because they knew the police would do nothing about it. But they do not own this country. They do not own democracy. They do not own us. They are tragically confused, and we will not be intimidated, despite the fact that police did not hold the line today.”