When I was in high school I would pour through the pages of Elle magazine, carefully tearing out the images that spoke to me to tape on my wall. I created a collage that was equal parts aspiration and self-flagellation. I was not those women, but I might be able to be like those women.
It was the era of the supermodel and I gravitated to the women who were boldly described as breaking from the mold of typical model. They were big and athletic. Yet in all my searching I never found a report of a model weighing what I did—big was crossing the 115lb threshold. Athletic was having a curve behind their shin, not shoulders that invited, “Wow, you must be a swimmer” comments. Eventually I quit papering my wall, but I did keep searching. I still do today.
I read the words of other parents, skim the titles that purport to be about the working mom reality. It’s never my reality. I can’t seem to quell the desire to find a toehold to allow me to feel like I fit in somewhere, somehow. It’s the strangest thing, because I am not unhappy in my life, but somewhere along the line I came to believe that like the drop down age menus online, we are supposed to be able to be concisely categorized.
My mom and I were talking about the guilt we collect as parents, like so many tattered fashion images. She talked about her horror at the way options seem to have shifted to expectations, an idea written about beautifully by Galit Breen in her post Confessions of a Non-Volunteering Mom. Two things hit me, the first, maybe I fit into a category of misfits or, maybe, just maybe, all these ridiculous quizzes and if this than that polls are really a fancy way of forcing us into categories and in the end, we are just us.
The other day I saw a moment that I wanted to capture because it pretty accurately represented me, the real me and, I’d hazard to say a me that other women might relate to. It was 8 degrees outside, I’d been putting off a trip to the bathroom to pee since before noon. My hands were cracking. It was 2:15 and I had 30 extra minutes to make it to the bus stop. I decided I’d deposit Sean’s paycheck and swing into the grocery store. I made a quick left turn into the credit union parking lot. I had no pen in the car and the woman ahead of me took forever, then, when she was done I pulled forward. I reached for the capsule, but had stopped my car too far away, when I finally reached it, I realized she’d taken the pen with her. I was annoyed, but also not, because the credit union is a client, we want people to take the pens.
I had to root around in the bottom of my voluminous bag to see if I could find a pen. The more I searched, the more I had to pee. Finally I found a pen, endorsed the check, sent the capsule back and caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. I’d done my hair, but the wind was strong, I looked rested, but I could see that I was annoyed, and behind the door I knew I was awkwardly squeezing my lags together. The mirror was slightly dirty. It was the perfect snapshot of me trying to juggle all the balls and, while not dropping any, I was teetering.
There I am, kind of pretty, kind of stressed, and as always, really in the thick of things between working, parenting and living. As I think about it now, I realize that rarely do drop down menus or quiz results truly capture who we are, partly because they are too limiting, but mostly because every day we can slip outside of one set of lines and start leaping in and out of another.
Maybe being a misfit is the best fit.
Dinner was late; my plan to bake a chicken was thwarted by a conversation that ran long. Doing the what-to-make scramble, I grabbed a package of ground beef from the freezer, a box of linguine noodles and fixings for a halfway-homemade sauce.
“Can we do the beds?” I asked.
Sean looked at me, he was tired, but he nodded. “Yep, let’s do it.” We’d agreed to deconstruct the bunk beds so that the girls’ room could get refreshed and so that maybe, just maybe, Ave would be able to make her bed. The top bunk, as Bethany can attest, is challenging on the best day, debilitatingly maddening on the worst.
“I bumped my head and my finger is bleeding.” Ave and I have both said this on separate occasions about making the top bunk. I have long since given up trying to cajole her into making it. Honestly, you can’t see it. “Just move the covers toward the pillow so they don’t hang off the bed, ok babe?” I say. Most days I try not to look up as I pass the room.
“Thanks.” We set about rearranging the room. The girls sequestered themselves in Briar’s room, my earlier warning to, “Give us some space, because you know we sometimes get frustrated when we take the beds apart” having done its job. It was a pretty easy 45 minutes.
I let Sean know how grateful I was that he’d humored me, because I think it would be safe to say that we reconfigure the girls’ rooms on a quarterly basis. “No, problem,” he said, “Just keep the hardware handy for 3 weeks from now when they want to put’em back together.” We both laughed.
“Girls, dinner!” I called, their response the thundering sound of them launching off of their beds and toward the stairs, elbowing and shouting the be the first down.
We talked about the day until Ave exclaimed, “Oh, thank you for getting the lacrosse sticks for us. And thank you for taking us skiing.” Finley chimed in, “Thanks for renting Strawberry Shortcake for me.” Avery titled her head, “Thank you for setting up time for us to play at the Dome.”
“Ok, girls, thank you for saying thanks, but how about the things that don’t cost money. Dad does stuff that doesn’t have to do with spending money.”
Avery nodded, “Yes, for that too.”
I had a worried smile, wanting to protect us from going down a path that was “things” focused, leaving time and consideration in the shadows. How do we help them appreciate the significance of spending time on their rooms or rough housing as dinner cooks?
Finley said, “Yes, exactly the stuff that doesn’t cost.” We all turned to watch her. Her face lit up, the unmistakable light of an idea and knowing that she is being heard.
“How about we say thanks for how Dad got the stuff to mom for Avery to be born.”
The moment they put Briar in my arms on that September morning I realized that I would never see anything the same. Watching her nurse, take her first bite of cereal, the expressions on her face as she felt spring rain, snow, and the fur of a kitten—I was riveted. I still am, but for the first time I am truly aware of how much she is watching me.
Please come find me at Scary Mommy today, where I am sharing a moment when Briar and I locked eyes and really talked about what we saw. As is her style, she taught me so much about shifting the microscope.
Raising three kids I get how easily one can fall into a couple of predictable traps:
Rewarding good behavior with sweets.
Rewarding good behavior with purchase.
Depriving ourselves of time or forgiveness.
When the girls perform well on an assignment at school, it comes home with a pack of Smarties taped to it. When they finish their reading assignments they get a coupon for Pizza Hut. Finley says, “If I’m good can I get a…”
I get so frustrated, but do I do the same thing? Do we go out to dinner to break from routine? Pick up a little this or that at the check out?
I began to wonder, do I do this with myself? Can I curb the behavior and still feel rewarded? When I am feeling out of sorts can I get by without decadent splurges? Can I believe that my day can be fun or happier without treats?
Here I am last week in NYC doubting Spiderman’s claims that I should let him pick me up.
I think the trick for me is figuring out things that feel good and remembering them for something that can be enjoyed as a reward or, maybe even more importantly, things that can be peppered through a day or week to keep me feeling upbeat.
1. Take the time— I don’t have to make the time, I already have it. I just need to rearrange the things I do or how long I take to do them in order to have time. A trip to the gym, maybe it isn’t 90 minutes, but 35 minutes can make a huge difference about how I feel. Instead of puttering from 6-6:45 while the girls play, Sean can be at home spending time with them. It’s time that he doesn’t normally get, and I can be at the gym.
2. Make a line—Drawing a single line of liquid black eyeliner across each eyelid makes me feel more confident. I don’t want to get into a scuffle over whether or not make up should be a good thing. I’m talking about how I feel when I wash my hands in the bathroom before a meeting and give myself a once over. It isn’t about how I look, it’s the confirmation that there was time in the morning that I took for me. I was worth a few minutes. The same goes for lining up the shoes at home. Whether I ask the girls to tidy things up or I do it myself, when something in the house shifts from a should-do to a that’s-done, it feels really good.
3. Say it—I don’t want to read The Fault in Our Stars. I don’t get the kale thing. I enjoy biting my cuticles. Whatever the thing is that I stay quiet about because it seems to go against popular opinion, when I let it out and just own who I am and what makes me tick, I feel relief.
4. Smile—I know, I know. Fake, false, not feeling it, but the thing is that whole fake it ’til you make it thing has something going for it. When I was a kid my imaginative play always involved an accent. I’d pretend to be Russian or from the South, I would speak a made-up French dialect, with different sounds rolling off my tongue. Even after I’d move onto another activity, my speech would lilt toward the sounds I’d been making. Smiles are the same way, whether I put one on in a meeting or override the awkwardness on the street and make eye contact with a stranger so that I can smile or say “Hello,” in the wake of that smile I can always feel the embers of genuine contentment.
5. Let It Go—Sorry, had to. A quick search on Pinterest will illustrate all the reasons I should let it go—the troubles are too heavy to keep carrying and the person doesn’t deserve to have a free ticket to travel with me the rest of my life. Careful though, Pinterest will also imply an inadequacy in centerpiece making and suggest that none of us are working our glutes to their fullest potential. Staying away from Pinterest and loosening the grip on anger is a boost, it isn’t condoning or accepting; it’s just opening up more space/strength to create new joy.
It’s funny how some distance, can make everything seem small.
6. Pet/Scratch/Hug—The cat, the dog, a stuffed animal, your spouse, your kid, yourself. It works like science.
7. Scrub—Your face, the crisper drawers of the fridge, the bathtub. Call it getting out a bit of aggression by focusing on a simple, yet high yield project. When it’s done something is cleaner and under control.
8. Make Good—Maybe you don’t have this one, if so, good for you. I have several things that I have said, “I’ll do that one day,” or “I ought to…” that I haven’t yet done. Returning a borrowed item, sending a hand-written card, visiting a friend, they’re all things I have in some way committed to and unwittingly judge myself for not doing, if only sporadically. Following through can quiet the internal voice of failure.
9. Try it—Don’t make the bed, make the bed. Turn something that you do every day on its ear. Part your hair on the other side, use half and half instead of nonfat milk in your coffee. Ride on a scooter with your non-dominant foot forward or wear the way-too-trendy scarf you got as a gift. You can always switch back, but at least you’ll be reminded that there are options in life.
10. Say yes—Because even if you’re nervous and think it could never work, every once in a while you realize that you were wrong.
This list is small and I go back and forth from talking about myself to talking about the reader. A while back someone attacked me for saying “you” and not “I” or “me.” She said it was arrogant of writers to assume that they speak for everyone. It’s not that, I write for me and always hope that in some way my words might strike a chord with someone else, if they don’t, that’s ok.
I still hope that you find a list or a path, or some special thing that works for you, because we all deserve that.