So we have a few summer birthdays around here, and Rachel’s came first and here I am just getting around to posting it. I did write it awhile back, but I had to get some photos together for it. One of my favorite parts of writing these annual birthday letters is perusing photos from the past. It’s so easy to forget how much my children have grown and changed because I am caught up in the daily chaos of just making sure kids eat, sleep, read, get to soccer and to school, and stay safe and quasi-clean. I loved finding some photos of my sweet, contemplative, animal-loving Rachel. Another year has come and gone. She’s quickly approaching the decade-mark and is as funny and sensitive as ever. I love you, Rae-Rae…to the moon and back.
You’re reading beside me as I draft your annual birthday letter, your long hair sunshine-kissed, and that perfect nose of yours finely dusted in freckles. Oh, how I love the smattering of freckles that sprinkle across your nose and cheeks. I hope they don’t fade as you age. You’ve grown up so much in the last year, and I feel a mixture of happiness and sadness when I study your face and see the faint outline of the woman you’ll one day (too soon!) become.
Pop was watching you eat a bowl of cereal recently and he told you that you were going to be a beautiful woman someday, and you sweetly smiled and said, “Thank you.” You accepted his compliment graciously. I hope you will always do that. It’s so sad how so many women argue against complements or sheepishly brush them aside instead of accepting them as the gift that they are.
This has been a good year for you. You remain, passionate, sweet, and sensitive. You share my own perfectionist tendencies. Watching you carefully put on your long socks, shin guards, and soccer cleats is akin to watching someone perform the ancient art of origami. You are careful, intent, and you do everything with great purpose.
You loved school this past year. You found a best friend in Grace; your teacher encouraged your creativity; and you read more books than we could count and retained your “Top Reader” title. You really came alive on the soccer field as well and played tough and with unbridled tenacity. You ran your hear of your first 5K and came in third place in the 10 & under division despite being only 7 at the time. You laughed, you cried, and you told me lots of silly jokes. You whispered, “God bless you,” and gently made the Sign of the Cross on my forehead at night after night just like I do to you. You made your First Reconciliation and your First Communion. You were so ready for these special days. You told me you weren’t nervous just excited. You fell in love with horses all over again at horse camp and have been petitioning worry-wart Daddy to allow you to take riding lessons ever since. You take care of Speedy the hermit crab when your sisters forget all about him, and you mourned the premature and sad death of Speedy’s companion, Padfoot. You sang a duet of “Silent Night” with Grace at the Christmas Eve Mass, and the two of you really did sound like angels. You’ve read countless facts loud to me from your miscellany of almanacs and National Geographic fact books. You have a true desire to learn and gain knowledge not to prove anything but simply because you are curious and knowing more gives you intrinsic pleasure. Knuffle Bunny is still your lovey although you no longer sleep with him much anymore. Lately, you’ve been saying you no longer want to be a vet because you don’t want to see animals suffer. You’re thinking of being an animal trainer and maybe an actress. Or maybe a writer. You keep a diary and enjoy writing stories.
You’re currently working on mastering your dive at the lake and the pool. You gave basketball camp a try this year. You taught yourself how to do a flip on the trampoline. You’ve daydreamed, written me beautiful, heartfelt notes that have made me cry, and loved fiercely – everything from animals to books to God and to family.
You still will gobble up tons of shrimp, and the colors aqua and turquoise remain your favorites. You enjoy friends and playing with Madeline, Mary, and Thomas, but you need downtime and alone time like you need air. You have a great and witty sense of humor. Just recently, we were playing a family game of Cranium, and you and I were on a team. I had to spell KARATE backwards and since the yellow category is my forte, I was getting all cocky. “E. A,” I said. You looked at me like I was crazy, and I realized my mistake. Later, you joked, “When you started to spell ‘karate’ wrong backwards, I thought to myself, ‘Well, you learn something wrong every day.” Ha. Ha.
You feel deeply. And, Rachel, I love you deeply. You’re always making me proud as well as making me laugh. Sometimes when your beautiful, brown eyes shine with tears you’re bravely trying to hold back, you make me cry. Or maybe we make each other cry. You’ll always, always be my “Baby Rae,” a child carved from my own passionate heart and sensitive soul.
This eighth year of yours has been wonderful, and I look forward to everything that’s to come and to witnessing you become the special and amazing young woman I know you’re destined to be…
I love you, my sweet “Rae” of Sunshine. Happy, happy 8th birthday!
You’ve always loved animals.
And you’ve always had a lot to ponder and dream about.
When you’re happy, your brimming with joy. But when you’re sad, you’re really sad.
You have always loved nature and being outdoors. (That’s you on the left and a younger Madeline on the right.)
And you will always be my sweet Rae-Rae.
Several times a year my husband works three 15-hour shifts in a row starting on a Friday. After working the amount that most people work in an entire week in just three days, he then works from 5 pm to midnight for several days in a row. I feel badly for him because I know it’s tough, exhausting work, but if I’m truthful, I feel really badly for myself, too, because during these interminable shifts, I feel like my work is just as exhausting. Only I’m not saving lives; I’m just keeping four people alive and on a bad day, I fear I am destroying their lives and one day they will end up horizontal on a couch talking to some stranger about how their mom went a little crazy sometimes.
When I had babies back in residency (my husband is a doctor and he really does save lives and do little things like catch cancer), he frequently worked long hours and although it was never fun, I didn’t mind it so much. I’d fall asleep with the babies early, or I’d miraculously get them to sleep on their own and then curl up with a good book. Or, back when I actually could have called myself a blogger, I’d write up a post or two to share on my website.
But now when he’s gone for these long stretches, I barely just survive. And that is no hyperbole. There have been several times this weekend when I felt like I wanted to run away or in the very least, cry my little, crazy heart out.
I foolishly thought being a mom would get easier, but I’m finding every day that it’s just getting more complicated – and a lot more noisy and busy, too.
Maybe it’s just because of the kind of children I have or how I’ve (failed to) raised them. A friend recently sent me a link to an article called “Strong-Willed Children are a Blessing, Not a Curse.” I needed the article, but I wondered why my friend thought I needed it. Oh wait. She’s seen the tenacity, the colorful, noisy, passionate characters that are my children. My children are very sweet, but they are most definitely more of the spicy variety. Or as another friend put it once, “I have one sparkly child, but you have four.” She said this as my children – who weren’t even disobeying or being overly wild – were circling around me more animated than a Pixar movie.
I had the pleasure of watching my one-year-old niece recently, and we had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. The sweet girl had only slept for 45 minutes the entire day, and she’s a long napper when at home so I was prepared for a tantrum or two. But nada. Little Ellyn walked around happily taking in all the flashing lights and beeping and buzzing. At one point a toy helicopter that was circling around in a game’s plastic bubble case caught her attention. We watched it for a bit, but then I had to keep Thomas from scaling the prize counter so I scooped Ellyn up in my arms, and I vindictively started gloating. Here it comes. She’s gonna blow. I feel a tantrum coming on.
But nope. She waved “bye-bye” to the helicopter all on her own and looked at me with her bright, blue eyes and smiled. She freakin’ smiled as I forced her to go with me away from the current object of her affection. Huh?
When my brother came to get her, I told him she didn’t sleep much and thinking back to my babies, I said, “She probably won’t sleep too much tonight now will she?”
“Oh she almost always sleeps from 8 to 8 or so whether she naps or not.”
Later I was texting my mom, the grandmother of both Ellyn and my four lively, little beasties, and I wrote, “Ellyn is so easy. None of my kids were like that.”
Ding. New message from Gaba: “I love how different and unique all of my grandchildren are!”
As in easy-going and not-so-easy-going.
I don’t mean to throw my children under the bus or come off as thinking I am the only mother in the world with challenging children. I know that’s not true. I also know that different children are difficult at different stages in their lives. My Thomas was a very easy baby and very laid-back when he was immobile (oh that glorious, golden baby stage when they sit like happy Buddhas and just babble at the beautiful world around them!). Now he screams and rams into unsuspecting sisters all day long. He throws books when he’s angry, but he also gives big bear hugs all throughout the day and says the sweetest things to me like, “You are a beautiful mommy.” Still, I would describe him as “affectionate,” “active,” “animated,” and “expressive,” but I wouldn’t ever use the word “easy” except maybe when he’s asleep.
I suppose what is tough right now is that usually I’ve had one child in a more challenging phase, but the rest have been more straightforward to parent. But right now everything seems a little complicated. My oldest is a relatively easy “tween,” but it’s new to me so that can make it more daunting. And a 3-year-old boy, well, after three girls, I’m just not used to that either. And I have other children who are just prone to passionate outbursts because they are, ahem, the daughters of a very passionate mama.
So life is crazy, and even though I love my kids like crazy, they sometimes drive me crazy, too, especially when there’s no one on deck to help me out and my only alone time is at 5 am in the morning or after 10 pm when my nocturnal child finally slips into Slumberland.
My kids are full of life, and a lot of times I love the beautiful chaos or I at least tolerate it pretty well. But not so much today. Today I found myself wishing the Wicker clan consisted of a bunch of boring, (quietly) moaning zombies.
After Mass today, an older woman told me I had a beautiful family, and I wanted to burst into tears at what felt like a ridiculous comment or maybe I wanted to cry out of pure gratitude for her kindness because at that moment I felt like my family was anything but beautiful. My 6-year-old has an annoying habit of desperately needing to empty her bladder in the middle of each and every Mass, but I told her no today because I knew Thomas would want to go and I was just barely keeping him from becoming completely unhinged as it was. This caused her to ask every five minutes if she could go to the bathroom yet. She also kept whispering that she was still holding it in. “I’m still holding it in, Mommy.”
“Offer it up,” I hissed.
Thomas was flipping through a book of saints, and every picture he saw he pointed to the halo-adorned person and asked in a quasi-whisper (AKA a loud, raspy voice), “Is he a saint? Is she a saint?” And if I didn’t say “yes,” he would emphatically ask again if this clearly pious person was a saint or not. Clearly, I need to work on catechizing the 3-year-old in the family.
Then Thomas cuddled up beside me where Mary Elizabeth had been sitting and holding in her pee, and she looked at him and told him to move and that she had been sitting there next to Mommy. An older child valiantly moved over (not without a dramatic sigh), so prime-next-to-Mommy-real-estate would open up, but, of course, Thomas and Mary didn’t want to sit there. The left side of Mommy is clearly a more desirable spot. So they proceeded in poking each other while an older child sighed (loudly) at their distracting behavior and then proceeded to say, “Shhhh…” in anything but a hushed whisper. I shot daggers at all my kids. I whispered “motorcyle” to Thomas because I had told him good behavior in Mass would result in him picking out an el cheapo plastic motorcycle out of our toy grab bag at home. Enticing him with the motorcycle started out as a reward for good behavior, but now I have no shame in admitting I was using it as a full-out bribe.
Worst of all the priest mentioned at the end of Mass that this was the second Sunday that an altar server had not shown up for his/her scheduled assignment. My Madeline was up there now, but she had been late because clueless Mom had it in her head that Mass was over at the gym today because of our parish’s air conditioning issues. I apologized to Father after Mass and explained my mental gaffe, and he was so kind and charitable that I nearly broke down crying again.
Thomas asked me what the Eucharist tasted like and without even considering my answer, I said, “Love.”
And I told myself the rest of the day – which had started out with yelling and screeching from both the children and me – would be calm and would convey nothing but love.
We returned home and I was supposed to make my signature scones for a special back-to-school breakfast for tomorrow. Only the chocolate chips were MIA. I called my husband at work – because interrupting a man who is saving lives for the sake of chocolate scones is totally reasonable – and he promised he’d only eaten a few and had put them back where I keep our chocolate baking stash. Eventually, a contrite child admitted she had eaten a bunch. We found what was left (in a bag on the basement floor of all places) and tossed in a few token chocolate chunks into the batter.
Then it was time to share the inspiring signs my older girls had made for the year with encouraging phrases like “If you can be anything, be kind,” and “Give your best.”
The favorite one of all was the one that read: “You’re one smart cookie” because it came along with chocolate chip cookies my oldest had baked in honor of my youngest daughter ending her homeschool career (for now at least) and entering a brick and mortar school. We nibbled on the cookies and then talked about what patron saint each child was going to choose for the school year.
Madeline wanted St. Sebastian since she has a big soccer and basketball season ahead of her and also St. Madeleine because this saint apparently encouraged school girls and is Madeline’s namesake. Rachel chose St. Cecilia. Mary asked about this saint’s story. I made the mistake of mentioning how she kept singing even as she was dying. Thomas asked how she died.
“She was beheaded,” an older daughter said.
“What does that mean?” a younger, uncorrupted child asked.
“Her head got chopped off,” said older-but-not-always-so-wise child.
So then Thomas kept asking about why her head got chopped off and who was the person who chopped off her head.
“Was he a bad guy?” Thomas asked.
Well, what do you think, kiddo?
Then Madeline showed him a picture of St. Sebastian alive with arrows in his body.
Just what we needed: More gore for the 3-year-old BOY!
“What happened?” Thomas asked.
“Well, don’t be afraid because this won’t happen to you, but this is called torture,” Madeline gently tried to explain.
Great. Up next: Waterboarding!
I snapped the book shut. “Thomas, this is all you need to know. These people loved Jesus so very much that they were willing to die for him.”
Then I quickly changed subjects and started reading about St. Faustina thinking this might be a good fit for Mary’s patron saint and knowing she died because of poor health not in some gruesome manner that would attract the attention of our warrior boy. As I read about mercy, the kids started bickering (again). I switched to my theatre voice and projected above the cacophony, but they continued fighting. I forgot all about how our home would be nothing but a place of love that afternoon, and I yelled.
Then I locked myself in my room. Every two minutes someone knocked and gave me an important update.
“_______ just whipped us with a blanket.”
“__________ is going crazy. He/she needs a nap.”
“___________ won’t help clean up.”
“Mommy? Where are you?”
“Let me in, Mommy! I want to be with you!”
“Mommy, can I come in there with you because __________ is being so mean and won’t leave me alone.”
“Mommy, we finished cleaning up.”
“Mommy, are you there?”
And I started to cry. And I wrote an email to our priest (and he’s going to probably think I am a wacko). And I Googled that article about strong-willed children and read these words from it over and over:
One Sunday, I was out in the hallway at church with a particularly fussy Andrew, who was about 3 years old at the time. While he was screaming, a sweet elderly woman came up to me and said, “Your kids are so cute.”
I glanced down at my screaming toddler, and wondered if she was talking to the right person.
“They have some spunk,” she went on, “which means that they will accomplish great things.”
I told her that I hoped she was right, and she confidently assured me that she was. Quite honestly, I was a little stunned at her timing. She had seen me come to church week after week, and watched me struggle with my rambunctious children. She knew that I spent more time walking the halls while trying to keep them quiet than actually sitting in the meetings. I did not understand why she had picked that particular moment, when my patience was shot and my child was screaming, to tell me that my kids were full of potential.
As I walked away and pondered her words, my heart filled with hope. Although I was struggling, I had to believe that she knew something that I didn’t know. I think she knew MANY things that I didn’t know. And, maybe… just maybe… she was the answer to my prayers — a sweet assurance that this stage would not last forever, and that my seemingly impossible children had come to me with strong wills because they would NEED them to accomplish great things later in life. I found comfort in that.
I have looked back on this experience many times since then. I have thought about her words as I have struggled through countless difficult stages with my kids. I have thought about them as I have watched difficult stages fade into sweet stages of understanding and growth. I have thought about them as I have witnessed unreasonable children grow into thoughtful and self-motivated teenagers, whose strong wills are now ingrained into their characters in a way that strengthens them and others. There is now no doubt in my mind that this sweet woman knew what she was talking about that day so many years ago. She knew, as I am now learning, that strong will in a child is nothing to fear. It is a BLESSING.
Of course, those children require guidance. They require extra patience. They require strong leaders (parents) who gently, but firmly, remind them that they still have much to learn — that their way is not always the best way. They require parents who can teach them how to channel that strong will into useful pursuits, which sometimes seems daunting in and of itself.
There have been times in the midst of teaching such a child when I have felt like I was teaching a brick wall. There have been times when I have felt like I was going backwards instead of forwards. There have been times when I have desperately wanted to throw my hands in the air and scream, and times when I have done just that. But there have also been moments when I have felt like I was the student instead of the teacher. There have been moments when I have sat back and watched, in awe of the drive and conviction that is coming from that same child. In those moments, I have seen small glimpses of the greatness that is within them — the greatness that is still in the process of emerging from its cocoon.
And I knew that there’s a lot of defiance and stubbornness and tenacity and animation in my children, but there’s spunk and greatness, too, that’s going to emerge one day.
It’s true I haven’t had four babies who blissfully slept through the night at six weeks or even six months. I have kids who think they know more than I do (and sometimes, maddeningly, they do). I have children who brim with passion that sometimes comes out as joy and empathy, but it can come out as anger at times, too. I have children who question my every command. I have children who cleverly redirect the lessons I try to teach. Case in point: I once told them a story of two boys playing by a tree in Africa. One always obeyed his father without question. The other was more defiant and was always asking why this and why that. His name was Wicker. Wink, wink. Well, their father told them on this particular day to immediately come away from the tree and to run away from its branches toward him. The obedient one did as he was told and fell safely into his father’s arms. The defiant one asked why he needed to do that, and before his father could respond a poisonous snake that had been wrapped around one of the tree’s branches struck him.
“The boys were in Africa?” one of my children asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, good thing black mambas don’t live in Georgia,” the same child quipped.
At that moment, I did not appreciate her insight or the fact that she knew black mambas were venomous snakes indigenous to Africa. I only saw defiance in her response.
Too often I am too focused on the bad, on what is driving me absolutely crazy.
Sometimes all I see is a lack of respect in my children when they don’t listen right away instead of recognizing their creative minds are going a million miles a minute. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only mom with children who sass off at times or who fight with each other.
A lot of times I fail to see the silver lining in their tenacity, their passion, their vivacity, and energy. I’ve had coaches say things about how smart and passionate one of my children plays. I’ve had a speech therapist tell me one of my kids has an extraordinary mind. I’ve had a homeschooling friend who taught one of my daughters in a co-op talk about what a passionate, focused artist my child is. I’ve had people comment on Thomas’s big and loud guffaws – as well as his big and loud screams. I’ve had several teachers comment on my children’s kindness or leadership skills.
My children sometimes drive me crazy. Their obstinate natures drive me crazy. Of course, they need to be taught and guided, but I don’t need to break their spirits in the process. I wouldn’t want to because as much as I get exhausted and overwhelmed and wish mothering was easier for me, I know in my heart that defiance can plant the seeds for strength and encourage. It can later manifest in the young adult who isn’t afraid to stand up for her pro-life views. It can blossom in the girl who says no to the boy pushing her past her comfort zone in the trenches of dating. It can surface in the athlete who gives her best on the playing field – and in life. It can come alive in the child who kisses her mom’s tears away and says, “I’m sorry, Mommy. Today has been a tough day. We can all try harder.”
I also know that someone else’s child who might seem easy to me might push her poor mom’s buttons. The grass is always greener…yada, yada, yada. Motherhood isn’t supposed to be easy for any of us. On the contrary, it’s supposed to be anything but. What motherhood is doing for me is liberating me from a life that surely would have been more about Me, Myself, and I rather than the Holy Trinity.
Sacrificial love doesn’t come easy for me. God knew I’d need something to humble me.
First, God gave me marriage. It was so much easier for me to be selfish when I was single. Now I’m not suggesting single people are more selfish than married folks; I just personally needed an extra push in the direction of holiness.
When I was on my own, my priorities were more worldly: Get a good job. Buy those chic, chunky espadrilles. As a spouse, my priorities have changed (although I still have a penchant for a cute pair of shoes). I’m living more for eternity. I frequently find real happiness when I look beyond myself and what the world has to offer and fix my gaze on making my husband happy.
I thought I was getting the whole holy thing down pat – respecting and loving my husband and biting my tongue when he left dirty laundry on the bathroom floor. Saintdom, lookout. Here I come!
Then I became a mom, and I realized there was a lot more to learn about giving until it hurts. And lately, there have been more difficult lessons in this constant emptying of self. With my husband working long hours and my kids getting antsy and being overtired from soaking up the last drops of summer before school’s back in, they have been, at times, driving me to the brink of absolute desperation.
I can’t do this, I think. But I can and I have…over and over. And I will do it again. Over and over.
My kids also are driving me toward something else besides a non compos mentis state. They are pushing me toward the recognition that yes, truly the very traits that make me want to poke my eyes out such as their indefatigable strong-wills, passion, and sensitivity are the very things that will, as the wise woman in the article above recognized, give my children spunk – but also towards the realization that “easy” kids wouldn’t have softened my hard edges. “Easy” kids wouldn’t have forced me to let go of my perfectionism, my ideals, my own wants and desires. “Easy” kids would have been, well, too easy for someone like me – a person who struggles with pride and wanting everyone to see me as having it all together when I clearly don’t.
I have an aunt who is one of the most faithful women I know. I’d assumed she’d always been like this until we started talking one day and she admitted she’d turned away from her faith for a long time.
“What caused you to change?” I asked.
“Being a mom to four kids under 5,” she said. “It brought me to my knees.”
This is what motherhood has done for me as well. It has brought me to my knees. It has become a very real way of me expressing God’s love. It has given me never-ending opportunities to grow in holiness. It has led to a life of authenticity – where I live a very real, messy, and life in front of others in my imperfect humanity but reclaimed through Jesus. It has handed me a “get out of jail” card and a life that is helping – tantrum-by-tantrum, defiant child by defiant child – to free me from my self-seeking, shackled ways.
Not too long ago – although it feels like eons ago – I had the very rare (more like once-in-a-mom’s-lifetime) opportunity to go clothes shopping with two close friends. I walked through a clothing store full of beautiful garments, vibrant colors, and varicolored fabrics that looked as if they were spun from Nepalese saris and were as soft as clouds to the touch. Each of my friends and I wandered around the store on our own, sifting through all the beauty. Then we reconvened in the dressing rooms where we participated in a fashion show for one another.
We ended up trying on some of the same things, and something struck me (other than the fact that there was no need to rush in the dressing room because my friends weren’t going to throw a tantrum or have an accident): We all had uniquely shaped bodies and what looked lovely and flattering on one of us ended up looking just okay on someone else. If I had been alone and had witnessed some stranger waltz out looking like Aphrodite while trying on something that I had just discarded to the “Definitely NOT” pile on the account that it looked like a trash bag on me, I probably would have immediately looked at my own body in disgust and blamed it for its inferiority to that other woman’s body. But not during this particular shopping trip. Maybe it’s because I love my friends, and I know they unconditionally love me. Maybe it’s because I see my friends as beautiful and in their presence, I feel good about myself and what I have to offer to our friendship. Whatever the reason, it was really enlightening for me that as I slipped into myriad clothing – some that looked good on me and others not so much – I didn’t blame my body for not looking as nice in that flowy kimono top as it did on my super petite friend. Nor did I get upset when I saw a dress that immediately brought Sir Mix A Lot to mind when I tried it on (I like big butts and I cannot lie. Forgive me for quoting Sir Mix A Lot), look quite flattering and modestly chic on my lovely, athletic friend. There was nothing wrong with any of our bodies; they were just different. And if something didn’t look quite right on one us, it wasn’t our fault or our flesh’s fault – it was the cut of the dress or the shirt that just didn’t work for us.
A few years ago I needed a dress for a cousin’s wedding. I found a beautiful coral dress with what I thought would be a flattering cut. I ordered the dress in two sizes. When the package arrive at my doorstep, I could not wait to try it on. I knew coral was a good color for my complexion and the dress had looked so perfect in the catalog. I tried on my typical size and discovered that the dress hugged my Sir Mix A Lot (sorry again) bum way too tightly. Ugh. Yet, the top portion of the dress looked perfect on me, and it really was such a pretty color – the shade of a fiery sunset. Well, surely the bigger size will fit right. Indeed, it did fit my bum just fine, but it hung way too low on top, and I immediately began to lament my mismatched curves. I have the derrière of an hourglass but the top of an isoceles triangle. I tried the dress on for my mom and my husband. They didn’t feel it was flattering on my figure either, but they blamed the cut of the dress whereas I cursed my figure. I also tried the dress on in front of my oldest daughter who just happened to be in my bedroom when I decided to engage in another ritual of self-punishment.
“That dress is too tight on your bottom, Mommy!” she exclaimed as I examined my rear side in the full-length mirror.
I smiled and nodded. And heroically held back the tears as I slipped out of the dress silently, once again, cursing my body.
Later when a friend asked me if I’d found a dress for the wedding, I recounted the horror of trying on those two dresses, but something slipped out of my lips that I hadn’t realized at the time as being the truth. “There was something wrong with those dresses. They’re just not cut for women with a strong backside or any curves on the bottom.” Sure, the model had looked good in the dress but other than the fact that she was probably in her twenties, she was also built in a straight line. There was nothing wrong with her figure, and the dress was cut just right for her. But there was nothing wrong with my figure either, and the dress really and truly was not made for someone with my natural proportions.
But so often we women blame ourselves when something doesn’t fit right or look good on us. Or we buy jeans that are a tad too tight with a promise to ourselves that we will work harder and go Paleo (again) so that the jeans will fit in a month or two. Then we spend the next month fantasizing about doing a million crunches and the day the jeans hang loosely on our body while berating ourselves for the fact that the jeans still don’t fit. We should never buy anything for the “someday” when we will be five, ten, 20 pounds thinner. We shouldn’t buy for the day when that tiny tummy bulge vanishes and the LBD hugs our bodies in all the right places. We can’t buy for the fantasy. We have to buy for the reality.
I’ve also noticed that sometimes I am afraid to buy a really beautiful piece of clothing, and it’s not just its price tag that might be deterring me. So instead I buy a bunch of loose, cheap clothing because at some level I think that this aging, mom-body of mine doesn’t deserve something beautiful. I don’t want to mess up the white sheath dress that fits me just right with all of my gunk (and, yes, the gunk that comes with being a mom to little, messy kids). Maybe I finally convince myself to buy the dress, but then I relegate it to the dark recesses of my closet only to be worn when I feel worthy of its style and delicacy. That’s rubbish. Why not pull out the dress for Mass or brunch with family? Don’t save things for a rainy (or thinner, more beautiful) day. Don’t live to look good – live to feel good. That starts from the inside out. How has hating your body or even just a part of your body (your flat chest, your scrawny arms, your tubby tummy, your big thighs) ever gotten you anywhere? If something doesn’t fit right, blame the clothes, not your natural design. Buy and wear clothes for the life you’re living, not the fantasy life you hope to one day lead or the life you once lived when you were, let’s say, 20. Be realistic with yourself and your figure. Treat yourself with kindness. And remember life is a lot be a lot like a good dress. A dress doesn’t wear you. You wear the dress. A life isn’t meant to be wasted or held hostage for the day things magically change. A life is meant to be lived. So brave those florescent, dressing room lights. Bring a friend if it helps you to see the uniqueness of the human form and to appreciate your own body. Keep searching for the right dress, the great pair of jeans, the feminine midi skirt that is right for your beautiful body. Surround yourself in beauty every day, and know that you are absolutely, unabashedly worthy of it all.
Dear Skinny Jeans,
I haven’t forgotten about you although I am working on it and hopefully at the end of this letter my farewell to you will be complete. For some reason, every time I open my closet lately I hear your siren song calling my name, taunting me and telling me that life was better…I was better, stronger when I fit comfortably into you. Sometimes I mark my life by the times I weighed this or that. And, of course, there was the skinny jeans age when I effortlessly slid into your tapered denim legs. My mom was buying me a special birthday gift, and we were at a store I couldn’t afford to shop in at the time. My third baby was not quite one year old. I was running around raggedly. I took (foolish) pride in my lithe postpartum body. I found you, and you were even on sale. My mom and the sales lady all said you looked great on me, and I felt great wearing you. But maybe that was the problem right there. Clothes or the way they fit me shouldn’t dictate the way I feel, especially not the way I feel about myself, my strength, or my worth.
So the other day, knowing full well I am not as thin as I was in that glittery-gold “skinny jeans era” even though I cannot recall the last time I stepped onto a scale, I decided to try you on – just to see how you’d make you feel. Why do we women let a number on a scale or a clothing label or how a pair of jeans fit us shape the way we see ourselves and even our lives?
Well, I had to stuff my flesh into you. The zipper slid up easily enough, but then I had to lie supine on the bed to button you and then I felt like I couldn’t breathe. You didn’t make me feel good at all. You reminded me of failure. You reminded me of weakness. You made me fearful of the “fat” girl of my past – the one a boy spat upon on the bus, the one another group of vicious boys oinked at, the one who bore the nickname “Miss Piggy.”
Walking stiffly around my house with you clinging to me was a form of punishment, and there was also an unrealistic hope that you would quickly stretch and fit me loosely as you once had. I found myself mourning the old me – not one my critical self labeled as the “fat” one – but the one who was thin enough that you hung loosely on my hips. Now you dug into my hips like sharp teeth, and I wasn’t sure which pain was worse – the searing physical pinch of tight fabric on skin or the emotional pain. It wasn’t so much that I was married to the desire of looking good in you any longer. It was just I wanted to protect myself against future pain. I equated wearing you with happiness and security when really those things have nothing to do with my waistline. And I was afraid that allowing you to become tight on my waistline was allowing myself to slip back into that lonely, uncertain girl who got teased on the school bus.
I peeled your denim off me like it was second skin I was shedding. I cried at first because of what I had lost – a size 25 inch waistline, power, ephemeral happiness. But then I started to weep for a different reason. I hated it that someone who was supposed to be a body image role model, someone who was blessed with daughters whom she wanted to teach to reclaim the beauty of Creation, someone who wrote a book called Weightless and now I felt weighted down by this burden of self-loathing. This led more tears to flow.
Rationally, I know that thinness does not equal happiness. It is an illusion. Skinny people suffer. Overweight people suffer. Rich and poor suffer. Most human beings suffer. I also know that I like to pretend that I was gifted with you during a blissful, healthy time, but this is a half-truth. I had happy moments, but I was thin partly because life had lost its luster and so had food because I was mired in the darkness of postpartum depression. On the outside, I looked happy enough, but on the inside I was breaking and crippled by sadness and uncertainty. That’s been a trademark of big chunks of my life – smile, be the life of the party, and then go home and weep, question every word you uttered, berate yourself for all that you are and all that you lack.
And you, Skinny Jeans, I was allowing you to be another reminder of all that I wasn’t and couldn’t be instead of seeing you as just a silly piece of clothing from a distant part of my life. My expectations of still wearing you comfortably after four children and when I eat fully and richly without counting calories and exercise out of enjoyment and not as a punishment or obligation, it was absurd. And, yet, I couldn’t let go of you right away. So I draped you on a hanger and hung you on a silver knob of my dresser where I would see you every morning and each night in hopes that you would remind me of what I once was and give me the drive to be stronger, to work harder because I couldn’t let myself go. I couldn’t return to what I saw as that unlovable, little girl hidden behind too many layers of flesh, the “fat,” ridiculed one.
A reader once emailed me that while she appreciated my book and writings on body image, she also found it disheartening because in her words I was a thin, pretty woman, so how could I really know what it’s like to feel overweight and unlovable? At first, I was angry. Who was she to tell me what I was qualified to write about? That’s what my pride said. Then I was hurt because I wanted to tell her she didn’t know me when I was the overweight kid and the object of fat-shaming and bullying. Of course, she also didn’t know me when I was the ugly duckling turned swan and very confused by the new attention from boys and people calling me pretty. It didn’t sit well with me. I felt like the same person through all those phases, but people saw me and treated me differently based solely on a change of my physical appearance, and sometimes I gloried in it – all that newfound attention. Other times I resented it. I just wanted people to love me for me and not comment on my aesthetics. At the same time, my peers’ admiration gave me satisfaction. I can remember going out to eat with girlfriends and nibbling on shards of lettuce while they took down greasy cheeseburgers and slurped up thick milkshakes and thinking that I was stronger than they were.
And if people thought the thin me was better than the heavy me, then how much better would they think an even thinner me was?
So I restricted more, but it wore on me. And sometimes there was something freeing in scarfing down Twizzlers or globs of gooey cookie dough. Eating was a guilty pleasure instead of just a pleasure. I was the perfectionist who found short-lived happiness and relief in overeating because it felt like a moment of freedom and reckless abandon. But the guilt that followed was overwhelming. I couldn’t let myself to return to that bigger, scarier version of myself.
But what I know now even as I mourn the skinny jeans era is that I’m not afraid of gaining weight or being what the world might consider “fat.” What I’m really afraid of is rejection. I want to be loved and lovable – able to be loved. We all do. Don’t assume a woman perceived as beautiful by society doesn’t deal with loneliness or self-hatred any less than a woman who is seen as overweight might. The outside is a poor indicator of what’s going on in the inside for a lot of people.
One day my 10-year-old waltzed into my room. Sometimes I look at her and feel equally proud and sad. Proud because she is so comfortable in her own skin. She sees her body as a strong instrument that can run a mile in just over seven minutes and can take her across the soccer field or basketball court rather than an object to be fixed or tweaked. In a world that lauds self-improvement, this is a young girl who is satisfied with herself and sees that she is good enough. I was nine when I first considered dieting. A few years after that I had started to hate my body and wanted to hide all that extra flesh away. I decided I would be the funny, outgoing girl to distract people from the extra weight I was carrying around. My oldest daughter has made no such decisions. She’s herself because she’s herself. She’s outgoing because she likes people, not because she wants them to like her.
Well, she noticed you, Skinny Jeans, hanging on my dresser. “Are those new?” she asked.
“No,” I told her.
“They’re cute. They look like they might fit me,” she remarked.
My girl takes after her daddy. She is tall. I have already started passing down old running shorts or tops I no longer wear because she’s nearly my height, and her hands and feet are already bigger than my own. She has just started to take an interest in trying on my clothes.
“Can I try them on?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “But they’ll be too big on you.”
My beautiful daughter still thankfully impervious to any trace of body image angst yanked the jeans off the hanger. She clearly did not revere you, O Skinny Jeans, as I did. You were just a cute pair jeans. Nothing more, nothing less. She tried you on, and I was shocked to discover you were just a little long and your waistline was only an inch or two too big. You almost fit my athletic 10-year-old daughter, and I had been berating my approaching-40-body that has been pregnant five times and brought four children into the world that you were too tight on me. Why was it that I was using an old pair of jeans as a barometer of my self-worth? Why was I so afraid of letting go of being thin and just being satisfied with being fit and happy? You were given to me under subterranean duress when I didn’t feel like eating or doing much of anything else. You do not personify joy or happiness. And my no longer fitting into you like I once did doesn’t mean I am on the verge of being my scared and rejected 9-year-old self.
Skinny Jeans, you are nothing but fabric – and not even all that much of fabric considering my 10-year-old will probably comfortably wear you in a year or two. You are not the Holy Grail of Happiness. You never have been. You, the scale, my weight – none of this defines me. I refuse to listen to your taunting, to the lies you whisper to me that if I lose enough weight so that you sag on my hips again, I will somehow be happier or inoculated against self-doubt. I will not hold onto you or another life I wish I was living. This is where I am now. I am going to be content with this beautiful now.
Thanks to you, I decided to sift through my closet and purge. I wasn’t just saying good-bye to old clothes or clothes that never made me feel good about the natural design of my body, it was a valediction to negativity and an illusory hope that life was better in the past (when I fit well into this bit of clothing) or would be better in the future (when this article of clothing fit me again) when it’s pretty damn wonderful right now. It was a purging of self-loathing, self-scrutinizing. A purging of ridiculous expectations and holding onto certain articles of clothing that represent a life I think I want to live rather than being content with the life I am living. Why do we sugarcoat the past and glorify the future while muddying up the present? I realized that in holding onto all these different sizes of clothing – the “skinny” clothes, the “just-in-case-I-gain-a-few-pounds-or-get-pregnant-again clothes” – I wasn’t allowing myself to fully live in the now.
What I decided to keep were the life-I-am-living-right-now-clothes and the if-I-really-stop-to-consider-it-the-life-I-am-so-grateful-and-happy-to-be-living-right-now-clothes, the comfortable clothes, the jeans that my figure fills well now and has for the past few years, the pretty, delicate, bohemian lace top I feel feminine yet adventurous in, the cozy sweaters, the line of brightly colored fitness clothes I have covered many miles in or held a plank in. The neon tank (“You look so pretty in those bright, neon colors,” I hear the friend who gave it to me as a birthday gift saying) I wore when I recently ran a 5K where I somehow placed first in my age group and third overall in the women’s division. These remind me that the size on the label of my clothing have nothing to do with my strength or my happiness.
Ironically, back when I wore you, Skinny Jeans, I felt too tried to run or to do a push-up. Now I run as my body allows, which isn’t as much as I’d like, but God has a way of humbling me and reminding me that sometimes a weaker body yields a stronger soul. These days I weight train because I enjoy it and because it’s something my husband and I can do together in our basement after the kids are asleep. I play pickup basketball games with my kids and end up sweaty and happy. I jump on the trampoline with my little jumping beans giggling around me. I dance in the kitchen while listening to Pandora and making my family’s dinner, and my kids either join in or affectionately call me a geek. I was always a geek. After I made my transformation, a boy said, I was a geek trapped in a hot body. But like the beautiful weight loss memoir I couldn’t put down, It Was Me All Along. Once a geek, always a geek and proud of it.
I am not going to fear my (heavier) past or yearn for a different (thinner) future. I am not going to see myself as a failure just because I still sometimes struggle with seeing food as a necessary pleasure and as fuel rather than thinking about it too much and wondering if maybe I, too, should go paleo or give up gluten or try to be a vegetarian again when I know that for me everything in moderation is the best dietary path to take. I am not going to hide away and not write for weeks on end because the ghosts of my eating disorder have returned to haunt and tempt me and I feel like I am a hypocrite if I try to be encouraging when maybe we all need encouragement from real people like me who have suffered and still do from time to time. I am going to share my mistakes, my weaknesses, these big, confusing feelings I sometimes still have about myself, my weight, my personality, my life in hopes that they might help someone else out there. I am not going to let an old pair of jeans – or a new pair of jeans either – control my happiness. I can choose joy. I can always choose joy.
I imagine a ceremonial burning where I hurl you into the flames and watch your faded denim turn to ashes, but I then I realize that would give you far too much power. You’re just clothing. My daughter might need a new pair of jeans in the future. My thrifty side can’t deny that, so I’ll just tuck you away in a storage closet upstairs. As for some of your friends – other pieces of clothing that don’t make me feel good about myself or my body like the floral pencil skirt that never fit me right, but I held onto thinking that something was wrong with my body’s proportions and thinking I could change my natural shape instead of considering that perhaps something was wrong with the cut of the skirt – well, I’m moving on and donating some to charity and selling some on Thred Up. I don’t need to keep anything around that makes me unhappy or tempts me to criticize my body. Clothes like that are like bad boyfriends, and I had one of those in the past who made me feel just as badly about myself but that I kept around for far too long thinking there wouldn’t be another guy who would take me. And here I am married to a man who would have taken me when I was 16 if I’d given him more of a chance, a man who loves every inch of me and always will, a man who says he loves a happy me the best no matter what the blasted scale says or what jeans I’m wearing. I hope these pieces of clothing will find their way into another woman’s closet and that they will make her feel good and happy and content with the life she’s living. Because whether we are a size 0 or a size 20, we all deserve that.
The week of birthday letters! My sweet M.E. turned 6 on Easter Sunday this year, and she lost her first tooth that day! It was a memorable birthday!
Dear Mary Elizabeth,
Happy 6th birthday! As Madeline sometimes writes on birthday cards of little ones in the neighborhood, 6 is such a big number. Truly. When we moved here, you were just a chunky nugget (Papa called you “Chunk Style” when you were a baby), and now you’re a long-haired, little girl who is usually very easy-going and free-spirited, but you most definitely have a feisty, stubborn streak.
You’re playing soccer this year and loving it. You run after the ball with fierce determination. You told me after a game against a particularly physical and rough opponent, “I may be a little thing but when I’m out there, I turn into a pistol.” You may have overhead someone saying that about you, but it’s true.
You’re such a wonderful combination of femininity and fierceness. You’ll be wearing a glittery bracelet that you’ve dubbed your party bangle while digging in the dirt searching for earthworms. You love to draw and one moment you’ll be sketching the dainty flowers and the next minute you’re doodling goofy, cartoonish characters with jagged teeth and bulging eyes.
You love to accessorize. You always have as evidenced from the photo below. A girl can’t have too much bling.
For your birthday a thoughtful neighborhood friend gave you a gift certificate to Claire’s. You’d never been to the mecca for fashionistas. I’d say you were fairly excited by the selection.
Out of my girls, you love baby dolls the most and really seem to enjoy taking care of them. You also frequently talk about how you want to be an at-home mom like me. Once I was making silly faces at you while putting gas into my car (you love it when I do that and make even sillier faces back at me). When I got back in the car, you said, “Mommy, when I have kids, I’m going to make silly faces with them, too, when I get gas.” That was such a simple but meaningful compliment. You notice the little things I do, and they mean something to you.
Once Rachel told you, “You could be the first woman president.”
“No, I couldn’t,” you replied. “I have to stay home with my children.”
Now I am not trying to dissuade you from shooting for the stars, but saying that made me realize that you are thankful that I am here, taking care of you, teaching you how to read, baking banana bread with you at your side, folding laundry, and reading you storybooks.
Aside from baby dolls, you adore your two baby cousins and could hold them for hours.
Let’s see. What else is new in your 6-year-old life? Your reading is starting to take off. You can read simple books. Your handwriting has always been good given your artistic aptitude. Your favorite colors are “blue, yellow, and green like Mommy’s favorite colors and all the other colors.” You have a big heart that has room to love all the colors of the rainbow as well as most things in life from worms to sparkly jewelry.
You adored being a flower girl for the first time last fall and took your job very seriously.
You’re a great big sister to Thomas. The two of you play very well together. A frequent playtime activity is playing the Titanic theme song on our old Casio and putting on a fancy dress and dancing together and pretending it’s your wedding. Not surprisingly, Thomas recently said, “I choose M.E.!” when he was talking about whom he wants to marry one day.
You’re a very affectionate child. You give spontaneous hugs and like to cuddle up close when I read to you. “Put your arm around me,” you’ll say. I don’t have to steal kisses or hugs from you! You’re very generous with them.
And while we joke that you’re our flower child because you seem to dance through life without a care in the world (except at bedtime when your stubborn streak flashes and you have frequent vespertine tantrums), you actually have a very sensitive soul, and I have to be careful to assume that all’s well in your little world. You still talk about my nana; her death had quite the impact on you. You loved bringing her Gaba and Papa’s nesting dolls and sitting at her feet as if she were the queen, which she kind of was. You also miss our neighbor, Mr. Thomas, who died the same year Nana passed away. Recently, Rachel and Madeline were both talking about the books they were reading, and both involved people dying. “Why do Maddy and Rachel read so many scary books about people dying?” you asked, your green eyes imploring. You also try to save injured bugs you find outside.
Other favorites in your life include cuddling with Fang, tomatoes, baking with me, singing (you have a pretty, soprano voice, and when we sing with one another, you say, “We sound good together, Mommy, don’t we?”), bugs, picking me flowers, riding your bike (you never needed training wheels; you went straight to the real thing when you were only 4 after using a balance bike), being with friends, taking baths, making art, swinging, putting lip gloss upon your rosebud lips, and giggling. I know I’m missing so much. A yearly letter could never capture the essence of your full life and lovely personality. I love being your mommy. I love how you still hold my hand. I love your funny stories. I love your earthy eyes and strawberry blonde hair. You cut your bangs earlier this year and at first they looked like Beyonce’s baby bangs (not that you know anything about that, but you do know who Taylor Swift is and like almost every other girl in America, you think she’s pretty) and I have to admit that they are growing out quite nicely. We had an at-home spa day recently and gave each other foot massages and I gave you a manicure, and you were just so tickled to be with me and to be doing something together. Thank you for loving me so well. Thank you for being lovely you.
Happy 6th birthday! Don’t grow up too quickly, okay?
I love you just the way you are. As my friend Amy said, “The world be a lot less sparkly without you!”
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