I began this blog in 2016 with a quest to reconcile faith, social change, personal responsibility, and matters of the heart. I figured it would take me forever to get there. Just like becoming a well-rested mother--a myth. Follow my progress as I prove otherwise.
Meet the Cast
Welcome to my life. If my kids can’t get my attention by repeating “Mom” a dozen times, they call me Elissa. I love my name, yet all the other elissas I’ve met have their own pronunciation. So the fact that my children say my name correctly gets my attention every time. I’ll get you up to speed on that. Take it slowly at first: ee-LEE-suh. Then a little faster: e-leesa. Almost there: elisa. Now add in that silent ‘s,’ and you have me in a single breath: elissa. I am one elissa, but when both esses are seen and heard, one Elissa is enough.
My husband’s name also boasts silent, duplicate letters. His is just a lot easier to sound out. Merrill hails from the Pacific Northwest, while I grew up in Northern Colorado. We met in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had graduated from Brigham Young University two years prior and was in my third year as a nurse. Merrill, in trying to balance school with job demands, had decided to join the army reserves, who would then pay for school.
I had just decided to stay eternally single the day before he sat by me in a church class. He had just signed his life away to the army the day before that. When he asked me out after class, I thought, “We won’t ever meet again, so what’s one date?” Well, it was the end of my being single. And it set me on the path to becoming a mother.
Two years later, the mythically well-rested mother met her very first baby. She has not slept well since.
We always said we wanted three, maybe four, kids. Number four kept us guessing all the way here, but he made it safely. In order of appearance, we have Bug (12), Turbo (9), Bear (6), and Cub (3). Some people use pseudonyms to protect their children’s identities online. I use them because I can’t remember my kids’ names.
With introductions out of the way, let me catch you up on my journey. You are also welcome to jump into a random blog post and put the pieces together yourself. I can wait.
Born into Joy, Crushed into Perfection
Like a typical child, I began life with curiosity, a sense of wonder, and an affinity for pushing my limits. I have an identical twin, so at times we pushed each other further along, or at times we reinforced our version of “normal” and stayed comfortable where we were. Mostly we kept our mom on her toes, which explains why she never slept.
Out of sheer gumption, I felt driven to excel throughout my school years. I received top grades, got along well with adults and peers, and I took pride in doing my best. But like a lot of kids in my generation and culture, I began to believe that persistence mattered less than achievement. I shied away more and more from anything that required repeated attempts at success and focused only on what came easily for me. What I could be “perfect” at. Not only my interests but my very breath felt increasingly constricted.
I wouldn’t hear the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” until I reached my mid-30s. In my late teens to mid-20s, I tried to free myself from the tightening coils of perfectionism by taking on new challenges and former ambitions. Trying to expand my sense of self, it turned out, was more terrifying than having let go of what made me “me” to begin with.
Not that there was much of “me” left to lose. I had already quit playing the flute and piano; competing in sports; having fun; drawing, writing, or reading for pleasure; and seeking out adventure of almost any kind. Eventually my desires to become a doctor, to immerse myself in the Spanish language, and to travel flew out the window so easily, that when I stopped practicing as a nurse one year into being a mother, I felt hardly a flicker of regret. I felt more like I was doing everyone a favor by stepping away from life-and-death situations. So in my early mom years, I stuck to what I knew: childcare, housework, cooking, organizing, and saving money. I became the Home and Family Manager.
[And I should note that I made my decision after an affirming experience that spoke peace to my soul. I knew that focusing my time on my daughter was the right thing for me to do at that time.]
Sounds pretty safe. So why did I feel so fearful that I could hardly breathe?
Fighting for Control
I figured that once I had my life under control, I would finally feel happy. It never occurred to me that happiness had been an option all along. Control required constant effort, and that meant never stopping until I reached the top. But the top of what? My laundry pile?
Wanting control and predictability made my world ever smaller. I had made friends with “my depression” in high school and college years. I’d realized that she wasn’t just a stranger passing through. Our arrangement of “I’ll take meds and let you stay if you promise not to kill me” snapped into pieces under the weight of motherhood.
My whole world ran on a continuous cycle of depression and anxiety. Even though I showed outward signs of success and happiness, I rarely felt safe. A voice inside kept tearing me apart no matter how hard I tried to get this mom thing “right.” Everyone I had ever loved–or had hoped to please in some way–took turns embodying this cruel voice. Isolation from these people made me at once feel safer and more fearful. I couldn’t escape the constant barrage of criticism. No rest for this weary mom.
But I kept hanging on because here and there I found a glimmer of hope: a phrase that stuck from a therapy session, a disclosure from my twin that let me know I wasn’t alone, a word of encouragement from my mom that filled a place of self-doubt I hadn’t even known was there, a verse from the scriptures that struck me to the core, a thought from a religious leader that resonated with my soul, a note in a medical journal, God’s Spirit whispering comfort to my heart, and especially the gentle way my husband refused to play my head games.
The voice I kept hearing had nothing to do with these sources of hope. I began to understand that I alone bore responsibility for the life inside my head. But I had no idea how to respond to the unrelenting self-ridicule. I often just criticized myself for still having this unwanted voice.
We moved back to Colorado, and I strongly considered finding a therapist, but instead I got morning sickness and stuck to primitive self-care–like remembering to pull back my hair for the inevitable retching while I brushed my teeth each morning.
After our third baby joined us, I felt a wholeness I had not felt with my first two babies. I was proud of myself for going through an unmedicated labor and birth for my first time. I felt relieved to have Bug in kindergarten every day. Turbo had preschool a couple of times each week, and though he showed no signs of participating in any way, I at least had some time to myself while Bear napped. Time for organizing, saving money, doing laundry, and cleaning. I would not let myself rest because this renewed sense of accomplishment seemed to keep the heartless voice at bay.
But I did find time to blog, and that place for self-expression opened my mind to changing from within. I edged toward deconstructing, and then rebuilding, my identity.
A couple years into my family blog, a friend encouraged me to go deeper. So I began this blog as a safe place to express and develop my own thoughts regarding politics, social change, and my religious faith. I had usually only echoed the views of those whom I wished to please, but I felt a growing dissatisfaction with this kind of self-camoflauge.
I began to understand that my experience thus far in life wasn’t simply for discovering myself or even for playing my chosen roles to the best of my ability. I could make a notable impact on the people in my world by being the true me.
Pain Becomes Progress
I still felt driven to keep my house spotless and to engage my kids in every activity our city offered. After all, this is what good mothers did. I didn’t know yet that my first two kids dealt with ADHD. Their brains needed compassion, but I frequently compounded their struggles by losing my temper and behaving like a worn out toddler. The pressure I felt to achieve perfection I now passed on to my children.
The tension in my brain surpassed its neural confines. It traveled all along my body from my jaw to my calves. The moment a form of self-deception (such as self-pity or self-criticism) sneaked in, I felt my entire right side clench like an angry fist. I combatted the pain with physical therapy, but what I really wanted was the relief of a nice, full breath. My problem was literally all in my head, and physical therapy couldn’t change that.
With our fourth (and last) pregnancy, the demands of three kids and miserable morning sickness took their toll. I spiraled toward suicide and knew I had to get help. After a complicated last phase of pregnancy, Cub arrived early but safely. Once we settled into a routine with our preemie, I began working with a therapist who was female, which had been a limited option in Utah. At last I let my vulnerability show.
Progress Meets Rapid Change and More Pain
Three developments set us up for our family’s next phase. First, we pieced together the clues with the help of teachers, friends, and our pediatrician that our children had ADHD. That revelation and eventually finding some relief through medication and therapy renewed our family’s optimism for the future. Second, I’d made enough progress in a year of therapy that I felt ready to take on the unknown. Third, an idea came together for reaching a dream my husband and I were pursuing. We made a quick move three states away to live with Merrill’s parents in the home where he’d grown up. We planned to find land for a little homestead and build the ideal house for our family.
The realities of this journey quickly threatened to drown my newly emerging self. But thrown into that chaos were two crucial blessings. One, I could now easily go for a daily jog. The distance I covered mattered less than the time I now set aside to bring new thoughts into my life.
Enter the other blessing. I had learned about a life coach and member of my faith named Jody Moore, whose free podcasts probably saved me from myself. I at last found out what needed management, and it wasn’t anyone or anything outside of me. My brain and I were going to start living life on my terms.
My brain heard that declaration and in its admirable, but misguided, desire to keep me “safe” tried to thwart my every sign of progress. I got caught up in some ugly thoughts about myself and others that brought about useless pain. Gradually, though, I discovered how to experience the useful pain and let the rest of it go.
Fortunately, I also recognized the need for more help. I jumped back into therapy and then found a psychiatrist as my ups and downs and my explosive temper worsened. I learned that Bipolar 2 (characterized by depressions and mini-manias) described my life pretty well. I’m also seeing now how much it is wrapped up in my need for external validation. A new layer to explore, another step toward rest.
Here We Are
Our family stayed on the bumpy but rewarding road of home-building for two years. We now live (and tackle project after project) in our dream home. We have had some of our best moments as a family this past year despite the upheaval of 2020, which appears to have spilled over into 2021.
We also continue to have full-blown meltdowns blaze up in the middle of our imperfect, but fitting, routine. So if I read this later and am tempted to punch it in the face for sounding too blissful, remember, Elissa, that every single day was an uphill battle bathed in optional bliss.
Consistently leaning into our challenges means apologizing as if it’s the sixth love language, and centering our family life around our Savior. We count our faith in Jesus Christ and His Gospel as our greatest strength during the constant changes of life.
When we packed up and moved into our new house, I sometimes wish I could have left the former Elissa entirely in the past. I keep dragging that horse around,* but I find her more endearing and our wholeness more enduring as we balance the conflicts that reside within. And since Bear loves unicorns, I like to think that a horse is just a mythical creature in chrysalis.
The kids balance their lives between too much screen time and too much mess. Since they occasionally behave their best when they think we’re not watching, my husband and I must be doing something right. It takes a lot of effort, but I try to not feel guilty about everything I could be doing for them that I’m not.
They think that all in all their parents are coming along nicely, so we’ve decided to keep each other. We have also acquired a cat, a lizard, and 18 chickens. Whether we’ll keep all of them is yet to be determined.
I, along with my husband, work from home. When I’m not spinning in circles with kid excitement, I loosely call myself a freelance writer and editor. The list of things I no longer care about or pay attention to has grown significantly, but the people in this home and what they teach me matters more anyway. While they’re here, I want to see and hear and appreciate the people who make my life beautiful.
That includes me. I want to see, hear, and appreciate “me.” Now that I have learned to care for myself–my true Elissa-y self–I can breathe again. I feel alive even in moments when I can’t remember why I’m still here. Taking in one full breath after another and trusting that God sees and hears me are the beginning of rest.
I know who I am, and living as my true self brings me into a whole and present existence. I am here. If I can be here over and over again, I won’t have to wonder if I’ll ever get “there.”
Reconciling faith, reason, experience, and intuition–sounds unlikely, even mythical, right? But if I can become a well-rested mother by doing just that, what other mythical creatures can I get you to believe in?
Follow along to find out.
*To add color and personality to these posts, I use lyrics from a favorite musical selection as the post’s title. Please access the music in a legit, non-pirated way if you enjoy the linked sample on my blog. The song linked to this post is Shake It Out by Florence + the Machine. To me the music video is about facing inner demons and reclaiming one’s true identity.