I procrastinated on this blog all week. I had an idea weeks ago. Wrote a draft. Re-wrote it and then, just now, deleted it entirely. Truth be told, I needed the last couple days to decompress from the weekend before I could figure out what I wanted to say. My emotions were a bit jumbled and I was mad at myself for that. It had been months since I felt this way.
Once I got through Thanksgiving, escaped to be with my family in Ireland for Christmas and made that monumental decision in early January to quit my full-time job to pursue my passion, I was feeling pretty good. Very, very happy honestly. The happiest I had been in a very long time. Cue I Can See Clearly Now (the Jimmy Cliff version from the Cool Runnings Soundtrack, of course). People have noticed and commented and that has made me feel even better. But this weekend, I slipped back into a bit of a funk. And I was mad at myself for that.
Only today, was it finally pointed out to me, that what I was feeling was valid. I must stop being so hard on myself. Saturday was my birthday. Sunday was Mother’s Day. For someone like me, given what I have been through, experiencing the losses I’ve experienced; this was a very emotionally charged weekend. That is my reality. I am not being selfish for feeling this way. It is what it is. It’s not something I have that much control over.
But I tried. I filled my weekend with lots of activities and I am grateful for friends who invited me out both Friday and Saturday night. When I woke up Saturday morning, it was raining. Hard. It was also pretty chilly for May. The alarm was set for six because I had to be at the start of our town’s 5k race. This race was the graduation race for both my Let Me Run boys (which I wrote about) and my running club’s beginner to finisher program. Not a great day for a 5k.
I was planning to run with a few of the boys who had set a goal of finishing in under 30 minutes. I knew from our training runs and what they reported from their mile time trials at school last week that this was a realistic goal. I gave them explicit directions: “We’re going to go out together. We are going to take the first mile slowly. Stick with me even if you feel like we’re going too slow. In the second mile we are going to pick up the pace a little. Once we hit the 2-mile marker and have only a little more than a mile to go, I’m letting you lose to run as strong as you can to the finish.” They followed directions!
Everything went according to plan. Two of the boys finished in 27 minutes. I was still running and pacing a boy from the younger group in that last mile. He was running so strong! I kept encouraging him. I wanted this for him so badly. When the finish line and the clock came into view he saw that not only was he going to break 30, he might break 28! He took off! I was so happy for him, happier than I might have been if it was my own personal record. His official time was 27:59. Mine was 28:01. I finished 4th in my age group. No medal for that. Not my fastest race. But it will be remembered as one of the most special moments in all of my 21 years of running. I walked back to my car in the rain. Smiling. I had forgotten for the moment that it was my birthday.
Mother’s Day started with a 10k race (hey, I had 6 miles on my training schedule anyway) and then my daughter talked me into a road trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. Driving for two hours after running a 10k might not sound like fun for mom, but the prospect of at least 4 hours round-trip in the car with my teenager would mean some good quality conversation – which we had. Plus her suggestion of the Philadelphia Zoo spoke to my soul. As a college student in Philly, the Zoo was a place I frequently went on my own to decompress. In Philadelphia on Sunday, it was warm and sunny. And the Zoo was even better than I had remembered it.
So, on paper, I had a really nice weekend.
Still there were the unspoken emotions ever present as I navigated days that were once shared with people no longer there. That is my reality. I have to remember that and be kind to myself. I have come a very long way, but there are still triggers. There are still – occasionally – difficult days. No matter how much I think I’ve prepared, they still sneak up on me. Now I know to make self-care paramount. Run. Meditate. Take the dog for a long walk. Make one of those “as needed” appointments with my therapist. Maybe go to the Zoo.
This is a bit of a follow-up to last week’s post. That post, shared on our town’s Moms FaceBook page garnered the most views for anything I’ve posted for this blog. I am grateful for that. Thank you for sharing. When I started writing about mental health about a year after my husband’s death, it was my desire to help open more eyes and ears to something that deserves so much more attention.
Another post in the last week on that moms page which got a lot of attention got me thinking about how the standards to which we hold ourselves and each other can be quite harmful to our mental health. The post (for those of you not following along) was from a mom of younger – I assumed elementary school-age children – who was fed-up with the speed at which one particular teenager was driving down her residential street. This of course would be a concern to any mom whether coming from the perspective of a parent of small children whose safety was in jeopardy or the parent of the teenager who may be speeding. Had that post stated the issue and then maybe something along the lines of if any knows who this is, please tell them to slow down, the safety of all our children is at stake! the response probably would have been all positive. Instead the post was addressed to “the parents of the teen” and concluded with the line Get your kid under control!!!!
The blame evoked in that post got under my skin. And instead of leaving well-enough alone I responded; I believe, as diplomatically as possible. I said something like, I understand your concern, no one should be speeding on any street in our town, but to hold the parents of a “child” of driving age responsible is wrong. There comes a time when young adults need to take responsibility for their own actions and at that age, parents have little control over what their teens do. To this she called me a failure as a parent. And I told her we should plan to chat again when her children were teenagers. The thread continued with many other moms weighing in. I can’t tell you anything that was said exactly because the original post and long thread of comments that followed has since been removed. Yes, it got that bad.
Let’s first talk about the expectation we – mothers – set for ourselves. We want to do everything right for our kids and if we perceive that they are falling short somewhere along the way, we often take the blame. We put enormous pressure on ourselves. At the same time we are trying to raise our children to become successful adults, we are also trying to have satisfying marriages, running a household, managing the care of aging parents, and maybe even trying to balance a successful career. That’s a lot. And when a number of those areas aren’t working out quite as well as we planned. It gets frustrating. And depressing. Our mental health is in jeopardy. We need to give ourselves – and each other – a break and stop blaming, criticizing, and judging, or allowing ourselves to be.
That’s why I couldn’t leave well enough alone and not respond to that post. I was thinking about moms who were dealing with things far worse than speeding, and not wanting them to feel that in anyway they were to blame, As the parent of a 17-year-old, I now conclude that how our children turn out has as much to do with luck as great parenting. Like we can only take so much credit for the success of our children, we can only accept so much of the blame.
I didn’t always see it that way though. I remember how not long ago I was that mom – the mom of a 11 year-old with good grades and perfect attendance, who loved school, was interested in attending Princeton or Yale, and was a finalist in the DARE essay contest. I was certain I knew how to raise a child; thought I’d have those teenage years covered and my kid – through my example and exemplary parenting skills – would be perfect. I secretly judged other parents who were struggling, and imagined what they must be doing wrong. But before my husband and I could finish patting ourselves on the back, life quickly changed. Seventh grade happened. And I began to learn that 1) these kids have free will, 2) we only have so much control, and 3) we can’t protect them from everything. And that’s okay.
As our children grow up, our perspective as parents change. Everything I experienced as a cancer survivor and losing my husband to suicide changed my perspective too. I don’t judge the way I used to. I now understand that everyone is dealing with challenges in their own homes and in their own bodies and in their own minds that the rest of us know nothing about. And sometimes we are simply ignorant, unable to see beyond our own perspective at that moment. I have learned as a coach that we are all – our children included – naturally creative, resourceful and whole. We’ll figure this out.
But let’s take care of ourselves – our own mental health – first. It’s like they say during the flight safety demonstration, ” If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” Especially as parents, we are no good to our children if we don’t first take care of ourselves – eat right, exercise, de-stress as much as possible. That way we have as much energy and as much mental capacity to deal with everything the kids are going to throw at us. Sometimes even still, that’s a tall order.
We’ve heard it a million times, parenting is the most difficult job we will ever have — and we often have to do it while we deal with our own insecurities, limited perspective, other stressors coming at us from several different directions. All while under the watchful gaze of other parents who think they can do it better. Have you ever looked through a bookstore for a parenting book? Have you seen the number of often contradictory subjects? Do you know why this is? Because we are all unique. Every parent. Every child. There is no one size fits all solution that will work for everyone. We have to find what works best for us.
Remember in my last post when I said, “as if parenting wasn’t a gray hair creating, anxiety producing fiasco that constantly left me in a state of self-doubt already”? Well, I (we all!) don’t need other parents adding to that self-doubt. We need to support one another. We need to approach our relationships with other parents from the perspective of a coach – that everyone is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. Sure we need to look out for each others kids, and talk amongst ourselves to solve problems and discover solutions when there are issues facing our community or our children. But we must work together. Blame, criticism, judgement, and unsolicited advice doesn’t help anyone.
Most importantly, take care of yourself. We all have the strength we need within ourselves. To find the answers that are right for you and your family, look no further than yourself. Stop listening to everyone else. Trust your instincts, your intuition, yourself. And a journey of self-discovery starts with a clear head. When you’re feeling the heat; get out of the kitchen. Walk away. Get off FaceBook. Meditate. Go for a run. Walk in the woods. Make an appointment with a therapist. Hire a coach. Practice the self-care that works for you. Solving the mental health crisis that I spoke about last week starts with us.
Ramapo Valley County Reservation. Mahwah, New Jersey. April 2017
Yesterday my daughter celebrated her 17th birthday. She took – and passed! – her drivers test and is now a licensed driver (as if parenting wasn’t a gray hair creating, anxiety producing fiasco that constantly left me in a state of self-doubt already). She took a friend out to dinner last night – under her own power. This morning she drove herself to lacrosse practice (while I got to sleep in a little longer!). Mom is no longer needed for drop offs or pick-ups. So here I am somewhere between enjoying my own freedom, and missing her; being happy for her because I remember the new life that suddenly enveloped me as a driver; and yet being worried because I remember, too. We hope, as parents, that we have given our children all the tools and skills they need to survive in the wild alone, understanding that there comes a time when they are responsible for themselves and we can’t possibly protect them any more from the mistakes they will make. We hope – we pray – that those mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth, not pathways to tragedy.
My daughter’s new freedom came just a few days after she told me they had announced that another graduate of her high school lost his battle with heroin addiction. This young man, who just a short year ago walked the same halls as my daughter, was now a statistic in this tragic epidemic that has engulfed New Jersey. My heart broke for the boy’s parents. Having lived through the loss of both of my parents, other close friends and relatives, and even my husband, I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of despair that one could feel by the loss of a child.
This finally stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it hit closer to home – literally and in its timing. This is not the first tragedy like this to touch our small town. I have cried for other parents before. A local parent wrote a book in 2014 about her son’s death from a heroin overdose at his home not far from us. My friend is involved in supporting an organization, Michael’s Voice, whose mission is to educate, give hope and remove the shame and stigma from people affected by opiate addiction. She has shared their information on FaceBook; but until now, I never visited their website. Today, I can see so clearly the link between suicide – which touched my life personally – and addiction. And how we are missing the point as a community and letting our kids down.
On the Michael’s Voice website, Michael’s mother writes, “It was an accident. Lured, by a cunning drug that destroys impulse control and crushed, under the shame and stigma of being addicted…..He used alone and died.” She understands the “stigma of being an addict.” Addiction is a mental health issue, not a crime. We teach our kids in the 5th grade about drug and alcohol resistance, by telling them that drugs and alcohol are bad. By high school that “education” no longer matters and too many kids who don’t possess the skills to cope with the increased stress of acedemia or athletic performance, turn to drugs. What teenager cares about what a police officer told them in a 5th Grade DARE program at that point?
The “War on Drugs” has failed. There are countless statistics showing that treating drug addiction as a crime, isn’t working. Google it and you’ll find a plethora of articles backing up that statement. Here’s one that provides a good summary: Why the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working. And I could write an entire book on children as collateral damage in the “war on drugs” because of the results of having a parent in prison due to a drug offense. But those aren’t our kids, right? So let’s keep the discussion on “our kids.” The majority of heroin related deaths in New Jersey are now people under the age of 30; the number of heroin users seeking treatment in New Jersey who are white has increased 20% in recent years (Herointown, N.J.: The state’s heroin crisis in 9 startling statistics, NJ.com). While New Jersey is (thankfully?) ranked among the lowest states for suicides in the United States, suicide is a leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. We don’t have a drug abuse problem, or a suicide problem. What we have collectively is a mental health problem. In the article about the young man’s death this week, they quoted his last Tweet, “There has to be somewhere better than here.”
Our communities continue to pour money into an ineffective program and ‘crime prevention,” while a huge stigma still exists around mental heath; while our kids lack the tools to cope with life in an increasingly stressful world. I am not going to pretend that I have done anything right, or that my child doesn’t have the potential to be a statistic. We can’t judge other parents, or say “not my kid.” I know all too well, as a cancer survivor and suicide loss survivor, that yes, the unthinkable does happen – in our towns, and in our own homes. Fostering open and honest, non-judgmental, communications with our kids, is probably the most important method, but we can’t do it alone. And lessoning the stigma around mental health issues – including addiction – is a necessary component to healing and reducing these statistics. We must start talking about that in our communities.
Since one size doesn’t fit all, there has to be a whole bunch of programs and the schools and other community organizations need to get behind them. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am volunteering with the Let Me Run program for elementary and middle school boys (similar to Girls on the Run). Some of the objectives of the program include “being able to identify and express a wide range of emotions; learning to be a better friend and identifying true friends; defining success and competition in healthy ways, expanding knowledge on various topics so they can make better physical, emotional and mental health choices” – essentially giving these boys the tools they need to cope with life as it becomes increasingly challenging and stressful. If I hadn’t volunteered to be one of two necessary coaches for the Wednesday/Friday session or if the local Lutheran Church hadn’t agreed to lend some indoor space (for inclement weather), this program simply wouldn’t have happened. When the lead volunteer coach who founded our program approached the schools some months back, she was told that a classroom could be rented at $75 a day! The program doesn’t have that kind of a budget. I just don’t understand why the schools wouldn’t want to fully embrace a program like this.
When my daughter was in the 6th grade, having enjoyed the DARE program the year before, she wanted to participate in the “DARE Club.” She was told they couldn’t accept her unless I was willing to volunteer with the program. I couldn’t. I was working full-time in New York City. So she missed out. I don’t know that it ultimately made a difference, since that program has been deemed so ineffective, but we should not be denying our children opportunities to participate in programs that can potentially provide them the tools and skills they need. And most of all, we need to start letting our kids know that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on in their heads, what to do when something doesn’t feel right – to us, to their teachers, to their friends. We need to create a culture where their voice will not be met with judgement. We need to demand from our government that financial issues aren’t an impediment to getting the help anyone needs.
The high school provides a driver’s education class as part of the health curriculum sophomore year. In order to get a learner’s permit at 16, the State of New Jersey requires six hours of behind the wheel education with an accredited driving school. There are countless hours of practice driving with an adult, and then the requirement of passing the road test before being issued a probationary license. They are very well prepared – equipped with the tools and skills they need – to be competent drivers when they pull out of the driveway for that first time alone. And just in case, we put them in the safest cars the auto industry has ever produced, with all-wheel drive, anti-lock breaks, and airbags, and we require them by law to wear a seatbelt. Yet, mental health issues – addiction and suicide – continue to be a leading cause of death for our children that we don’t even want to talk about. Let’s start talking!
My car. Without me. On the road beyond my driveway. Ramsey, New Jersey. April, 2017.
Somewhere in your career, or maybe in school, you learned about SMART goals. SMART goals are the first step in creating an actionable plan to achieve success. Creating SMART goals works in life and running as well as business.
It is generally accepted that the SMART acronym was first written down in November 1981 in Spokane, Washington. George T. Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company published a paper titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”. – A Brief History of SMART Goals
The original definition of the acronym S.M.A.R.T. was Specific, Measurable, Assignable/Agreed-to, Realistic, and Time-related/Time-bound. There have been variations on this to make it more usable outside business management. Those include: Strategic, Significant, Stretching; Motivating, Meaningful; Attainable, Action-oriented, Ambitious, Aligned, Achievable; Resourced, Reasonable, Relevant, Results-based; Time-based, Time-limited, Timely, Time-sensitive, Tangible, Trackable. I’m sure there are more you can add to the list.
Whether I am working with runners or life coaching clients, the definition that I believe works best, which is pretty close to Doran’s definition, is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. So let’s look at goal setting within that frame work. Clients come into coaching with a goal in mind. Usually it’s a very broad goal. “I want to run a marathon” or “I want a more fulfilling job” or my favorite, “I want to be happier.” Yikes. It’s understandable that most people don’t know how to move forward from there. Everyone one of us is creative and resourceful however and by contemplating the answers to some questions, we can begin to shape some goals with which we can realistically begin to shape future we desire for ourselves.
Specific…What is it that you really want to achieve? If the answer is that you want to be happy, I would follow that up with what does happiness look like? What does a better job look like? Answering those questions will help steer the way to specificity. Vague goals don’t work because they are hard to plan around. If your goal isn’t specific enough you won’t know what to do today to work towards it. So a specific goal maybe something more like, “volunteer with an organization that has meaning to me” or “go back to school to finish my degree” or “build the skills necessary to move to the fundraising department in my organization.” Finishing a marathon is a specific goal, and therefore has a plan attached to it. For many who has never run before, though, or maybe have achieved a 5k so far, its not a good place to start. It may not meet some of the other criteria, and be a better longer range goal. When I finished my coaching core classes and began the certification process over 6 months ago, my obvious (specific) goal was to become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, and in working with my mentor-coach, my desire was to deepen my understanding of coaching, which without the next piece of criteria isn’t that specific.
Measurable…What does success look like and what will determine that you’ve reached it? Crossing a finish line is obviously measurable. How do you measure happiness or fulfillment? Or a “deepened understanding?” When I work with clients, we discuss big goals, those major changes that they want and usually the reason they came to coaching. Those can be 6 month or 1 year or 5 year goals. In working with my mentor-coach, I was focused on the next 6-12 months and ultimately achieving certification as a professional coach. The measurement that I laid out with her however gave me a better sense of measurable – and specific – benchmarks along the way. I will know I’ve succeeded when I am familiar with the process of coaching and feel more confident that I want to pursue this as a career; I feel comfortable with the material I’ve learned and it feels like the skills come naturally to me; I can write comfortably about coaching concepts in my blog without consulting “the book.” Check.
Achievable…What can you actually, realistically, do? Here we need to take into account other commitments we’ve made that make realistic demands on our time. We need to consider our real physical limitations and make adjustments accordingly. I use the words realistic and real here because I want to stress that achieving the most meaningful goals will be challenging at times and require us to stretch. There wouldn’t be the same sense of accomplishment in achieving a goal that didn’t require some sacrifice or ask us to move beyond our comfort zone. Going back to school will take time. Training for a marathon is hard. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t physically capable of doing it. There will always be voices inside our heads telling us we are too young, too old, too fat, too slow, too weak, too poor, etc. trying to talk us out of our goals. That’s different and we’ll talk about those saboteurs and gremlins another time. What I’m focusing on now is setting achievable goals that don’t set us up for failure. The goal should be to walk, then run, then register for the marathon. And at your first job out of college, while it’s good to be focused on the CEO job, it’s good to be open to the progression that will get you there.
Relevant…What does this goal have to do with everything else going on in your your life? What does it do to other goals and desires you have? What will it do to support or complement them? What change will achieving this goal accomplish in your life? If your goal is to run a marathon, it’s important to understand that training is time-consuming and requires a lot of energy (and time to nap after long runs on a Sunday afternoon). A goal to go back to school however supports a goal of getting a better job. Buying a house supports a goal of wanting to start a family. When I first started pursuing my interest in coaching, it was to complement my goal of transitioning my business into something that would give me more flexibility and be something I could do beyond retirement age. Getting certified as a coach was relevant to my life plan.
Time-sensitive..A goal isn’t really a goal without a due date to which you can hold yourself accountable. So what’s the due date? Target dates should have a little bit of wiggle room so, again, you’re not setting yourself up for failure. And they should be realistic, and have some progressive bench-marks built-in. For example: “I will run a 5k in 10 weeks, a 10k in 3 months, a half-marathon in 6 months and a marathon before next summer.”
So decide on your SMART goals and write them down. Have long-range, mid-range, and short-term goals that complement and support one another and the life you want to create for yourself. Then begin to put a plan in motion that will help you reach your goals. Goal setting is simply creating the end zone. How you get there takes planning; a process of doing, training, conditioning or learning that when executed will make the goal that much more achievable. More on planning another day…
The New Balance Track & Field Center at The Armory. Washington Heights, New York City. March 2017.