Recycled Series: Hobbies, Help, & Discernment

{The post below is part of my Recycled Series.}

I have a sweet friend who is in the throes of parental discernment and is agonizing (well, she’s not actually one to agonize over anything; she’s much more grounded than I, but this has been a tough decision for her) over a decision she needs to make for her child. She reached out to me because she knows I understand. Oh, do I ever. She asked me for words of wisdom. Words started gushing out (poor thing will probably never again ask me for pearls of wisdom since she’s buried beneath an avalanche of quasi-wisdom right about now), and then I slowed down long enough to search my archives for  a time I wrote about being faced with a difficult decision. This post is from 2011. Three years ago I was discerning about homeschooling specifically. I am still discerning. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop the discernment process, and that’s probably a good thing. This year two kids will be going to our parochial school, and two will remain home with me (one who is school-age).

It is funny how things have changed since I first wrote this post. Thomas is an active 2-year-old. The hobby I was most passionate about (running) has had to be put on the back burner because of an injury, and now would you believe it?

But I digress… The hobby I am really into these days is coloring. Nearly very morning the kids and I sit down to draw and color. I bought my own set of rainbow markers (since kids around here forget to put the caps on and markers tend to dry out too quickly). I specialize in bubble art like this:

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I can’t get enough of it. It’s ridiculously calming. I have this need to create – perhaps because this is the first time in over a decade that I am not pregnant and/or nursing. My extended breastfeeding nursling weaned in December. Thomas self-weaned shortly before then. Oddly enough, I did have a major letdown the other day. My body just keeps on producing that miraculous cream that made me some fat babies.

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So chunky he got stuck

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Those rolls…

No babies, but I am making lots of lots of bubble art. It’s been a simple but fruitful hobby because it is intrinsically rewarding, which is good for a person like me who has spent so much of her life seeking external pats on the back.

What else has changed? There’s sadly no more Faith & Family Podcast. I sure do miss regularly chatting to those amazing women. On the bright side, right now I don’t feel particularly burned out (yay!) even though we are quickly approaching a very busy time of year, and my to-do list is quite lengthy. Sure, we have rough days. My book club recently read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption Recycled Series: Hobbies, Help, & Discernment (I highly recommend it),and I joked that Louis Zamperini could handle starvation, abuse, and other abject suffering, and it took one day for my kids to break me.  Motherhood does indeed wear me out sometimes, but it also gives me ample joy. I even feel almost at peace with our educational decision. This is progress.

Anyway, in honor of my friend and all the moms out there who are struggling to make a decision or who are perhaps wondering if any other mom out there gets burned out or doesn’t know what to do as far as school or whatever, this post from the past is for you. You’re not alone.

 

1280184 21688413 300x225 Recycled Series: Hobbies, Help, & DiscernmentI recently had the opportunity to chat with Lisa Hendey and Danielle Bean on the Faith & Family Podcast. I always look forward to these conversations because I walk away feeling empowered and encouraged. I learn so much from these wise, faithful women. I hope you will, too.

On this particular episode we talked about hobbies and the importance of downtime for moms and for their children. Then we moved on to asking for help and why so many of us moms have such a hard time accepting assistance from others. We also briefly touched upon how what might be helpful to one person – let’s say occasional help with the littles like I’ve recently solicited – might not be the best fit for you.

We ran out of time before I could stress the importance of looking at your own needs and limitations and determining what would help you be the most joyful mom. That’s why I’ve had to ask for help. I was missing out on some of the joy of being a mom. The chaos and exhaustion was leaving me completely depleted. I’d have a good day perhaps (or even a perfect week at the beach), but then I’d be back to feeling overwhelmed.

I haven’t been writing about some of my recent struggles much because I’d rather not focus on the gook and because there are (almost) always rifts of light breaking through darkness. All that said, I’ve had some tough moments in the trenches of motherhood over the past few months.

The beach gave me respite. And, yes, there was grace. There always is. But there was also more sleep on vacation. Upon our return, my dad and I were joking and started singing, “Amazing Sleep. How great thou art.” Forget the grace. Give me a night of uninterrupted sleep when none of the littles cry out or jab me in the ribs (or jab me in utero), and I’ll be one gloriously happy (and gentle) mama.

A month or so ago there was one night where I cried to my own mama that I just wasn’t enjoying motherhood like I once did. I hesitate to make this admission; it feels hopeless or selfish or annoying or something bad to say something so negative about the most sublime vocation of all. Yet, I believe most moms have been there – when our spirits feel crushed and our kids, while we know they are blessings and we love them like mad, feel like burdens that we just don’t feel strong enough (or well-rested enough) to shoulder.

Maybe there are some moms who haven’t ever felt that way – God bless you! However, one of the hallmark symptoms of burnout in my own mothering life is a lack of joy in being a mom.

When mothering stops being fun, something is amiss. When you feel like all you do is serve your family instead of enjoy them, something is amiss.

Sure, being a mom is exhausting, challenging, and requires ample self-donation, but it’s also supposed to bring you joy. It’s not supposed to suck all the happiness out of you. When the joy seems out of reach, you’re probably burnt out or depressed or not carrying His yoke or not following His will – or a combination of all these things. At least this has been my own experience. I probably shouldn’t speak for others. We all have signs and symptoms that suggest something is out of whack spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and/or physically.

I remember another dark night when I was crying to my husband and I questioned why I couldn’t handle things the way others mothers could (or the way I thought they could), and he reassured me that I was not weak. He reminded me of the ages of my children. He reminded me of the demanding nature of his work that meant I was frequently on my own in the parenting trenches. He reminded me of my own temperament. I was not less holy than other moms. I was me with my own life, interior struggles, and children with unique personalities. I needed to give myself a break. I needed to make decisions based on what would help me – not somebody else – to be a more joyful mom. And to always, always remember that what is important is what is good for me, not just what is simply good.

Having college students come in a few times a week to play with the kids while I write or rest or just grocery shop alone has been a real blessing. But I’ve needed to reassess some other things, too. During the podcast, I feel like I kept throwing the word “homeschooling” out there – like I was testing it out for the first time. (“My babysitter was homeschooled,” I threw out there. Um, your point is? Actually, she mentioned her mom was feeling burntout, but she’s been at it for 17 years!!! I can’t imagine that.) Never mind I began researching homeschooling before I was even pregnant when I worked on-staff at a parenting publication. With Lisa and Danielle, I also briefly mentioned that I’d recently been discerning homeschooling and reevaluating if this really was the right calling for my family or just some ideal I wanted to live up to because I felt like it would somehow make me holier or more like Mrs. So-and-So whom I admire greatly and see as the paragon of piety. (I know it’s not all about me; it’s about my family, and I have to stop focusing so much on what I can and can’t do, etc.) Homeschooling is good – very good – for a lot of families, but it may not be so good for other people. The question right of the moment is: Is it good for me, for our family, right now? I’ve been asking that question a lot lately.

When my husband started his residency, Madeline wasn’t even two yet, but I somehow hooked up with a great group of homeschooling moms (a group called Totus Tuus). Gunner that I am, I went ahead and joined their homeschooling co-op, not because Madeline needed immense erudition (or any academics; she was learning through experiences and playing; she still is) but because I needed companionship and mom mentors. I was blessed with these things. I met some amazing women. Because I admired them and saw them as holy and wise and women I wanted to be like when “I grew up,” I started piecing together this formula for sainthood based on their lives. It went something like this: At least half a dozen kids + homeschooling = near-saintliness.

I can write that now and see how limited my formula was. There are plenty of women whom I admire for their kindness and faith and mothering aptitude who don’t homeschool, never did homeschool, and likely never will. Nor do they bring forth enough children to field a baseball team (my awesome mom being one of them). Then there are people who are called to the single life (my godmother being one) who serve others differently than I do. I have a wide range of friends who inspire me by living beautiful, peaceful, and holy lives, but the way they do that varies greatly.

Then there are the miscellany of saints: knights, hermits, nuns, mothers, intellectuals, farmers. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself: That it’s not following some prescribed formula that will guarantee living a grace-filled, joyful, and Godward life. God calls us all to holiness but in different ways. It’s recognizing that God has a unique plan for me and then bending my own will and desire to try to follow it. It’s not doing what others do or don’t. It’s not trying to live up to some ideal I’ve created in my perfectionist psyche. It’s taking a deep breath, praying, facing my own limitations, asking myself (over and over): How can Katie Wicker become the best version of the person God created her to be?

So, yes, I’ve been discerning sending my oldest to school. Actually, discerning isn’t really the right word. That would suggest some balance and a certain level of emotional and spiritual maturity that I seem to be lacking right about now. What I’ve really been doing is agonizing over it. I’ve started biting my nails again. I wake up almost every single night to start weighing the pros and cons. I’ve consulted homeschooling friends and non-homeschooling friends (thank you, Kris, Dorian, Nana, and Julie K.). I’ve met with the principal and office staff of our local parochial school. I’ve visited a Montessori school. I’ve talked and talked and talked to my husband and my parents. I’ve cried buckets of tears, feeling like I’ll amount to a BIG, FAT failure if I quit homeschooling just because I’d made some silly promise to myself to stick with it. (Please note: I do not think anyone else is a failure if they never homeschool or decide to quit homeschooling. I only hold myself to these ridiculous standards. Like so many women, I am by far my own worst critic.)

My dad recently told me jumping into cold water is never easy because it’s going to be jarring. It’s going to take awhile to get used to it. “No matter what decicion you make,” he said, “It may not feel great or ‘right’ at first.”

But he and a good friend also reminded me I’m not making some permanent, lifelong decision. We can decide something for today and then prayerfully change our minds tomorrow.

It’s just that I want to be comfortable. I want my kids to be comfortable. I don’t want any of us to feel any aftershocks or to feel like we should have never jumped into the water in the first place.

But I no longer want to feel like I’m always treading water either, just barely keeping my head above the surface.

What I do want is the perfect education for my child – one that’s flexible, brimming with faith, enlivens her natural curiosity, gives her time to run and be wild as is her nature but also plenty of time to be with her sisters and her mommy and daddy. Can someone please start a Catholic Montessori school in my area? Oh, that would be an absolute dream come true. So long as we’re talking wish lists, I also want a toddler who starts napping again like she used to for two blissful hours each day and a preschooler who doesn’t fall apart in the afternoon and use her hands to hit rather than her words to speak. I want my oldest to be happy, to thrive. I want my whole family to thrive – myself notwithstanding.

How do I make that happen? I don’t. Not on my own, anyway. It’s not all on me or up to me. Still, there are decisions I need to make along with my husband.

Madeline recently attended an all-day camp, and my gregarious girl did thrive off all the perpetual activity and interaction with others. I missed her tremendously, but I admit I also enjoyed the slower pace I kept with my little ones. So that got me seriously thinking about school. (I’d considered it before, but I’d always quickly pushed it aside and been fairly content with our decision to homeschool.) I don’t like busy work, but this busy bee of mine might be happy with busy work. She’s certainly happy keeping busy. All. Of. The. Time.

People who know my big girl well said she’d love the school setting. I know they’re probably right. But what about our family as a whole? What is best for us? How will I be able to squeeze any school in with a 2-year-old, 4-year-old, 6-year-old, and newborn? Am I trying to do too much? At the start of our first year of homeschooling, the answer was definitely a yes. I look back at the ridiculous grid I created with every block of time mapped out. There would be weekly tea parties, daily narrations a la Charlotte Mason, picture study, afternoons listening to classical music, poetry Fridays, arts and craft time, weekly chunks set aside to immerse ourselves in nature. Have we done some of these things? Oh yes! But on a weekly basis? Ha. No way.

We’ve had some really good days lately. Very, very good days, in fact. Yet, I haven’t been worried about schooling at all. We’re taking a break. So it’s easy to blame homeschooling for my feelings of being overwhelmed since I’ve felt the joy of motherhood again not having to have that stupid grid taunt me about everything I didn’t accomplish.

Gosh, it feels good to just enjoy your kids and to not have any shred of anxiety about if they’re learning enough. Life is learning. I’ve always believed that, but I try to cram too much into life too often. There’s often no room for learning, just rushing. Or at least that’s the way I sometimes feel lately.

I’m dreaming of meeting our newest baby. He/she kicks. I feel a thud inside that’s getting stronger by the day, and I know it won’t be long. My midwife says given my history of premature dilation, I’ll likely have this baby in nine or ten weeks. I smile. My hand drifts to my belly. Then I panic. I’m barely treading water now, remember. How in the world am I going to take care of all these littles and educate my oldest while still squeezing in some ABC time for my preschooler? I start to consider unschooling – how beautiful, how simple! But Type Aers like me don’t know how to unschool. We don’t know how to UN-anything.

My goal for this pregnancy has been to avoid the bedrest sentence I had to answer to my previous two pregnancies; yet, sometimes I find myself pining for time spent in the horizontal position (providing the baby would still come out not too early and be perfectly healthy). Of course, I know if I am put on bedrest, I’ll be kicking myself for ever thinking that I wanted to to be on my side all daylong watching others manage my home and feeling helpless when my little ones needed their mama.

Where am I at now? After many prayers and tears and nail-biting and long talks with my amazing, supportive husband, we’ve decided to homeschool for at least one more year but to really, really take a good, long hard look at the parochial school in our area and if it might be a positive possibility for our family down the road as well as the explore and weigh all of our options. And as my husband keeps reminding me: Aren’t we so lucky to have options? I admit, too, that hearing my oldest break into sobs at the thought of having to leave the newborn baby (Madeline could hold babies all daylong; this is one activity that does seem to keep her still) did have a bit of influence on our decision.

So I’ve dipped my toe into the water. It is cold. It’s dark. I don’t know what’s beneath the surface. I’m scared. Terrified, really. I don’t know how a fourth baby is going to affect our homeschooling rhythm. I’ve never liked schedules; I’ve always preferred to have a rhythm to our day. But it’s felt out of whack lately, and we don’t even have a little, wakeful newborn around here yet.

Still, I feel better now that a decision has been made. My nails are growing a tad longer again.

As for parenting joy, I’m happy a lot of the times. I do notice all the little yet remarkable things that make mothering such a gift. I do love writing journal entries to my girls where I pause and tell them about the details of our days, what I notice about them at that moment in their growing and changing life. However, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t feel overwhelmed a lot, too. Is it just me? I’m tempted to think so, but that’s foolish. Most moms are overwhelmed at certain points of their lives. Maybe we have different stressors and triggers, but this all-consuming mothering gig brings us to our knees, doesn’t it? We can’t do it alone. I have to stop trying so hard to just that.

I also have to make a daily downtime a requirement. My 2-year-old has stopped napping, but I’m making daily quiet time for all of us – even Hopping Cricket Madeline – non-negotiable. (This was something I’d once been very strict about, but it had fallen by the wayside since we moved last summer.) So much of my restlessness is rooted in my stubborn refusal to rest. I’m grateful for the amazing summer babysitter we have right now who paints outside with my kids and sprays them off with the hose and gives them messy moments that their hot and tired and very pregnant mama just can’t say yes to right now. I’m grateful for any rest I can get. (But I don’t really want to be on bedrest. Not that it’s my choice.)

I’m also reminding myself that my worth and measure as a mom, a Catholic, a wife, and simply human being is not dependent on any particular decision I make for my children. As far as homeschooling is concerned, I’m taking it year by year, child by child. That’s always been my motto. And right now I’m focusing on my daily plan, my daily graces, and my daily trust. Give us this day our daily bread. No marathon running for me at this season of my life (metaphorically or not). Baby steps. Small steps walked at my own pace with my own gait. Slow and steady. Grab the grace, a friend recently tweeted to me. Grabbing fistfuls of it now.

 

The best before and after you’ll ever see

Occasionally, I use a popular fitness app to work out that’s definitely designed more for the younger set. The instructor, for example, sometimes talks about her new nail color for the day (can you imagine having time to change your nail color daily?), and I sheepishly look at my chewed nails and un-manicured toes and want to say to the peppy, chic instructor “Doesn’t she know that au natural is the new ‘color’ of the season? She also mentions things like studying and exams without nary a reference to potty training or sassy kids.

Nevertheless, the reason I keep the app is simple: The workouts are challenging and free (the app is free to download as well), and they also incorporate a lot of Pilates, something myriad health professionals have encouraged me to continue to do as I tirelessly attempt to rehab the injury-that-will-never-go-away*.

The app also comes with recipes, workouts, and a forum. I never paid much attention to the forum component, but a few months ago we were on a longer car trip and I started perusing through the “Before & After” section. I will tell you right now that if you struggle with your body image (or ever have), or you have suffered from an eating disorder in the past, this is probably not the best place for you. I’m not sure it’s a great place for any woman to spend much time, given how it’s so body-centric and gives girls a chance to compare themselves to hundreds of half-dressed women.

To be fair, there were some women who really seemed to be using the before and after photographs as healthy motivation.  They have lost the weight and/or toned up in a healthy, balanced manner. The community was also mostly very encouraging. There was one young woman who only posted a “before” picture along with the comment “my body is disgusting, but I’m going to change that.” Someone immediately responded, “Your body is not disgusting. It’s going to be hard to make healthy changes if you don’t love yourself first.” Agreed. There were also girls desperately trying to achieve what seems to be the Holy Grail of Beauty right now – the elusive thigh gap. But for every young woman lusting over one, there were two or three telling her this is an unrealistic goal for most women and is based more on bone structure than fitness.

So the “Before & After” section certainly wasn’t exclusively black hole of negativity. What’s more, taking a before and after photos as you embark on a healthy lifestyle makeover rather than fixating on the number on the scale can be quite beneficial, but I would recommend keeping the photos private. Of course, for some sharing progress with others helps hold them accountable. In fact, the idea of a “social media diet” is growing, thanks to websites and apps like My Fitness Pal and Lose it! to But like so many things in life, you have to know yourself, your temptations, and be vigilant about ensuring what may have healthy potential doesn’t morph into something that leads you to unhealthy comparisons, vanity, and/or obsessiveness.

Personally, while I could recognize some good coming out of this particular social media “Before & After” forum, I also saw a whole lot of bad. Somewhere in the back of mind, I started to look at one young woman’s enviable midsection and wonder why my efforts to strengthen my core were not resulting in that streamlined, muscled look. (Ironically, my “efforts to strengthen my core” have been successful even if you don’t see it based upon how long I can hold a plank these days without earthquake-like body tremors.) If you clicked on the username, you would learn that the “woman” was all but 15. A mom of four inching closer to 40 every day was actually comparing herself to that of a 15-year-old in a moment of absurdity. I wasn’t the only one making unwise comparisons. Many of the girls on the forum were asking questions like, “How did you get your thigh gap?” and “What can I do to have abs like yours?” All of these girls were looking to others for inspiration instead of looking within themselves and asking themselves, What can I – with my own gifts and natural design – do to live the fullest, most healthful life possible?

I don’t like admitting that I was actually on a fitness “Before & After” forum comparing myself to adolescents, but I can bet I’m not alone. Maybe most women don’t go so far as to seek out a forum full of fitness photos, but most of us fall prey to comparing ourselves to someone somewhere. Perhaps it’s someone in the media or on the cover of a magazine you glance at while checking out at the grocery store. Or it’s the fit neighbor who runs by your house every day. Or it’s the beautiful mom who doesn’t look like she just had a baby whom you meet at a playdate. Or it’s the “friend of a friend” on Facebook who posts her smiling, lovely face and her status update: “Soaking up the Mediterranean sun and getting the tan of my life.” Or maybe you’re looking at pictures of you – maybe it’s the “thin” you from that day long ago when you didn’t have varicose veins or maybe it’s the “current” you who’s just a bit too soft – and you’re comparing yourself to what you could be, once was, or should be.

Stop it. Stop it right this very second.

You are more than a paper doll to be dressed up, scrutinized, and criticized.

I wish all those young girls on that app knew this. I almost thought of leaving comments such as these after some of the posts.

I nearly did comment after a post that made me pause. There was a picture of a young girl with a lovely, round face. She wasn’t smiling. Actually, it almost appeared as if she was trying to make herself look as miserable as possible. Beneath her picture, she wrote, “I hate my round face. What can I do to make it thinner?”

I had an answer for her. “Age, my beautiful girl. The aging process will siphon all that collagen from your face, so that one day it’s no longer round and all angles, and you’ll realize your the face of your youth was perfectly fine just as your aging face is lovely as well, and its ’roundness’ was had everything to do with being young and full of life, and your wrinkles now have everything to do with living a full life.”

See, once upon a time I was a chubby girl who got teased and called names like “Miss Piggy.” Then one day some crazy hormones started finally coursing through through her body and – viola! – she slimmed down. She felt like the ugly duckling turned swan. The very boys who teased her started flirting with her; girls asked her what her “secret” was (once again, it was simply aging and hitting puberty later than others).  So the swan preened her feathers and flaunted them, believing all she had to offer the world was skin. She embraced a warped view that to be thinner was to be better and even more loved. She started to exercise rain or shine, sick or well. She started to eat shards of lettuce (hold the dressing, please) for her “big” meal of the day. She grew thinner and yet, she felt that her face stubbornly remained round.

If there had been social media in her day, she would have most certainly become obsessed. She would have seen the girls with hip bones jutting out and hollowed-out faces and wonder why she wasn’t as “strong” as them.

This girl was me. I hated my face. I hated how “fat” it looked.

Now I look back on those photos and I see nothing but youth. I used to sift through photos of my “chubby” self (my “before”) and compare them to my “after.” I was mostly pleased with the way my clavicle was a noticeable ridge and one of the first things you noticed when you looked at my photo, but that face of mine never seemed to change. I put so much effort into trying to change the outside of me while the inside atrophied and was consumed by thoughts of what to eat and what not to eat, how to smile in a photo or tilt my head so that plump face of mine wouldn’t look so full, how to get rid of those nasty calories I’d taken in, how to be thinner, and in my twisted mind “better.”

If I could turn myself inside out, what would my internal before and after look like? There would be a girl – a silly girl who loved writing in her journal, reading, drama, and horses – who was shutting out all the beauty that longed to radiate from within by becoming preoccupied with weight and changing a face that would one day change all on its own.

More recently, I was with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in quite awhile, and we started talking about what we were up to. I admitted that I was in a bit of a slump, but that I was learning something very valuable through it all. I noticed her new Garmin watch and complimented it. “I love it,” she said. “I use it all of the time.”

“I used to use mine all of the time, too,” I said just a tad wistfully. Just call me Eeyore.

“But you don’t anymore!” Madeline, the ever-eavesdropper, added.

Nope, I don’t, and for some reason I started to consider all of the time I’ve invested in trying to rehab my tendons and my lopsided pelvis, and I thought of my lackluster soul, how it’s been mired in what feels like an interminable dark night for too long, and in need of some serious rehab as well. I thought about how going to weekly Mass really isn’t enough to nurture a living faith or to resuscitate a flagging soul. I need to enfold myself into a stronger chrysalis to change: prayer, more confession, more hope.

“You know,” I told my friend. “What I’m going to focus on right now is just trying to be a better person. I’ve spent so much of my life achieving and trying to meet goals, but what if I just poured most of my efforts into being a better person? I know it sounds cliche….” I trailed off.

“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Not at all. It sounds like something we all should do.”

And so I’m working on pursuing a different kind of before and after. Here’s my before: Here’s a woman who God just won’t give up on despite her doubts, her fears, her struggles that are suddenly resurrecting after years of peace and wholeness. Her soul is beautiful, but it’s in need of a makeover. It’s not as radiant and trusting and hopeful as it should be – or as it once was. But that’s okay. There’s no reason to despair or to give up or to compare herself to others who diffuse peace and kindness and unwavering faith.

Because after weeks, months, a lifetime of ups and downs and effort, and grace-seeking and mercy-begging, here’s her after:  This soul of hers is resplendent. It can’t stop shining. It is a grateful soul. It has a few blemishes, yes, because this is a soul of a human, but look at the way it sings and shines and gives and joyfully receives and loves.

That’s the “after” I’m going for. Hold me to it.

 

*I met with a new specialist yesterday and am very hopeful about overcoming this injury and getting back to running, but I am determined to find peace no matter what happens.

 

When being “healthy” isn’t…

A friend of mine passed along a link to an article every mom needs to read: “Moms, Put on That Swimsuit.”

It was most definitely an article I needed to read at that moment.

The author writes,

I refuse to miss my children’s high-pitched, pool-induced giggles because of my insecurities.

I refuse to let other women’s judging eyes at the pool prevent me from exposing my kids’ eyes to the wonder of the sun glittering on the water.

I refuse to let my self-image influence my children’s.

I refuse to sacrifice memories with my children because of a soft tummy.

Because at the end of the day, it is not just about me.

It is about my kids.

I want them to remember twirling in the water with their mom.

I want them to remember splash fights together.

I want them to remember jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms.

I want them to remember that their mom was there, with them.”

Her third refusal really jumped out at me: I refuse to let my self-image influence my children’s.

I thought about my own self-image right about now. Last year around this time, when I ironically was still logging in a lot of running miles (I tend to blame the dearth of running in my life because of my injury as the reason I’m feeling a little less comfortable in my own skin), I wrote a post about my struggle with the scale and how I felt like a fraud admitting I was suffering from “scale sickness” since I am supposed to be a healthy body image expert. I wrote a book making peace with your body, after all. I speak to women and encourage them to redefine beauty and to accept their God-given designs. Shouldn’t I do more than talk the talk, so to speak? Where was my walking?

Some days it’s there. A lot of times I am a super model for my kids and my fellow women. Not the Cindy Crawford variety (I am getting old; I don’t even know who the cool super models are anymore), but of the super ROLE model variety. I sometimes live a life that reminds women that in our efforts to be beautiful, we women must not limit that pursuit to sexual appeal. Our virtue is what begets real beauty.

But there are days when I’m not very kind, or I’m just plain selfish and that makes me ugly. Or there are days when I feel ugly and that makes me not want to be very kind. There are days when I feel lacking as a good human soul – and as a body.

Then there are the moments when I think that maybe I did a thing or two right. I look back on my day. I did something nice for a friend. I cuddled with my kids, read them books, put my husband’s socks away with nary a complaint. And, yet, my insecurities – they are so deep-rooted – still get the best of me.

Let’s tackle the pool first. I have been swimming with my kids this summer. I’ve jumped in, made a splash, and not worried that I don’t have perfect abs. But that’s because I’ve made sure to go to a pool that none of my friends go to, and we’ve visited at odd times. Or we’ve headed to my parents’ lake house where there’s nothing but family, love, and acceptance. I’ve avoided being seen by anyone other than those who will love and accept me no matter what. What will I do in July when we are on vacation, and there will possibly be those judging eyes the “Moms, wear your swimsuits” author mentions? Will I gladly accept the swimsuit and bear my skin all for the sake of my family? Yes. I will. But I would be lying if I told you it was going to be easy.

Recently, I’ve been whining to my husband that I’d like a pool in our backyard like I had growing up, which isn’t really a possibility with our given yard and home. Besides. I love my home and don’t really want to move. But, oh, how I want my own pool! I sound like a spoiled ninny. I use the excuses of a backyard pool simply being more accessible, a great way to fight the afternoon doldrums, a place for me to exercise and rehabilitate my broken-down body, and the fact that we ought to want to create a super-cool teen pad so that when our kids are older, they will want to hang out at our house with our friends.

These are all fine and valid points perhaps, but there’s another reason I am pining for a private pool that I haven’t dared to say aloud. I don’t like public pools. Again, not because I am a snoot. Not because I worry about my kids’ decibel-piercing “outside” voices disturbing the peace, although this is true sometimes. Not even because it can be overwhelming to keep a vigilant eye on four swimming children, but this is a reasonable source of reluctance for me spending every afternoon at a crowded, public pool. It’s exhausting, really. I can’t possibly socialize with friends I might see at the pool and make sure my kids, especially the two littles, aren’t on the verge of drowning.

But perhaps, sadly, the biggest reason and the unspoken one is that I want my own pool so others won’t have to see me in a swimsuit. Or really, I won’t have to be seen by others. I’ve wanted to avoid public pools this year because of the way I look – or the way I once looked and the fact that I don’t think I look that way any longer (my dear husband still says my body image can be a bit distorted and that I haven’t completely shattered that funny carnival mirror in my head that twists and distorts the way I seem myself as well as my body). Or maybe it’s just the way I think every other woman but me (we never see others’ faults as glaringly as our own, now do we?) looks in their swimsuit. I am afraid of those (probably non-existent) judging eyes. I don’t want an audience. I feel okay with just my family, but I don’t want any other onlookers to see my physical flaws or to see that I don’t possess the kind of self-confidence someone who fights for women’s freedom from the scale and the societal constraints of beauty ought to have.

I do also happen to have some really fit friends. I try not to compare myself to them, but it’s difficult when their bronzed skin is sparkling in the sunlight and their muscle definition pops out at me like an Andy Warhol painting.

I feel inferior, weaker.

My kids don’t know about my feelings. Yet. I haven’t complained about my swimsuit. I have taken them to the pool – just an unpopular one where we never see anyone else swimming. I jump in and swim and feel happy and weightless. I forget that I am sometimes still at war with my flesh.

But when I read the article yesterday, I realized me putting on a swimsuit and being confident in it – whether we are hanging out in our backyard patio kiddie “pool”side or at a public pool – isn’t about me any longer. Like the author points out, it’s about my children. It’s about showing them there’s more to life than looking “hot” or just “good” in a swimsuit. It’s not how you look; it’s what you do with your life. We can’t let our bodies or our feelings about them define our lives.

As I came to realize my own reluctance to slip into a swimsuit with ease, I started to consider the other messages I might be conveying to my children – all under the guise of pursuing health and fitness. I recently joked about how my 9-year-old admonished me for doing push-ups less than 24 hours after I’d had an impacted wisdom tooth extracted. At the time, I felt like I was sending her a positive message. Look at your tough mom who can show her strength even in the wake of surgery, albeit a very, very minor one. But this morning, I realized I was performing a precarious tightrope walk there between coming off as strong and healthy and just plain stupid and obsessive.

I am constantly teaching my children about healthy food choices. I don’t define any food as bad or vilify any one food group. Food is fuel. Some of it’s better than others. Food is also a conduit of community and even love. We break bread together. We don’t need to serve it with a heaping side of guilt.

Similarly, I don’t make exercise (for them) about feeling good in a swimsuit. We’re active because it’s fun! They feel great in their swimsuits because it means they get to cool off and swim! Nothing more, nothing less. With the exception of one persnickety child who doesn’t cope well with the occasional swimsuit wedgie, they have no cares when they show more skin. And, yet, I am still not always conveying the “right” message to my beautiful daughters.

There’s a fine line between the pursuit of health and an obsession with it. A relatively new eating disorder known as orthorexia has even been introduced. The National Eating Disorders Association explains orthorexia and those who suffer from it like this:

Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.” An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

I’d add that a “sister” disorder would be those who become “addicted” to rigid exercise routines. The obsessive organic and the compulsive CrossFitter both have problems even if they appear to simply be making healthy choices. We need to ask ourselves: How attached are we to these healthy choices? Does our need to eat a strict Paleo diet or run a certain number of miles a week steal intimacy from our lives? The more attached we are to being healthy, the more we might withdraw from others. We might avoid a social event out of fear that unhealthy food might be served or because it interferes with our workout schedule. We might miss a child’s baseball game because we have to work out. We think we are gaining with these righteous, “healthy” choices, but we’re really losing.

I have often argued only treating women with clinically diagnosed eating disorders is rubbish. Just because a woman doesn’t have a dangerous BMI or drop a below a certain percentage of her weight doesn’t mean she’s not sick. There are women walking around at a healthy, average weights who are slaves to the scale and food or who purge several times a week after eating “bad” food. There are overweight women who are obsessively at war with their bodies and eat as a way to soothe their frayed edges and to fill the part of them that they feel is unlovable. And there are women with athletic, lean bodies who look like the picture of health but who wouldn’t think of skipping a workout even if they had a fever or a family member needed them or it was Christmas morning. All of these women have disordered habits, and I’m afraid performing push-ups because I feel fidgety and then thinking it’s funny or just a sign of my tenacity might be a wee bit disordered as well. Sometimes being healthy just isn’t.

Pray about the messages you might be sending to your children with your “healthy” or otherwise choices you make every day and your subtle and not-so-subtle actions.

Our daughters – and sons! – are watching. They see us when we duck out of a photo-op. “I’ll take the picture,” we say obligingly. “I don’t need to be in it.”

They read between the lines. “Mom doesn’t want to be in the photograph.”

Later, they will wonder why. Is it because she didn’t feel beautiful, good enough? Am I good enough?

“You go ahead and swim. Have fun! I’ll be watching!” we shout to our children at the beach or the pool as we stay wrapped up in a cocoon of flesh-hiding towels.

Mom’s always just watching instead of living. She’s watching the scale. She’s watching how her jeans fit and allowing it determine her mood for the day.

Or Mom is chronically on a diet or refuses to eat anything with gluten in it even though she’s never been diagnosed as being gluten intolerant. It just seems like the healthy thing to do and at some level, Mom feels superior because she can go without a food that others enjoy eating.

“I want to be strong!” Mom says as she squeezes in a few crunches or tricep dips at an odd time.

Kids already think their mom is strong; she doesn’t need to ban a food from her diet or obsessively flex her muscles when a doctor has told her to take a few days off. That’s not a healthy role model. That’s someone with an unhealthy compulsion.

Disordered eating, compulsive exercising – these are addictions. We turn to our addiction – whether it’s with food (binging on it or restricting it) or exercise or the scale – because we think it will give us something we need: Control, self-worth, value, a purpose, strength. All the while it’s robbing us. It keeps us from the pool. It keeps us from making happy memories. It keeps us from enjoying food and enjoying the movement of our bodies. It keeps us from loving our families fully. Addictions cause us to accept fear and anxiety as an inextricable part of everyday life. We should not have anxiety about wearing a swimsuit in front of others. Nor should we fear going to a friend’s house for dinner because she might not serve “clean” food.

A preoccupation with food, our weight, our health, and yes, ourselves keeps us from living.

Addictions always, always take far more than they give.

I see so many moms embracing Paleo diets or going gluten-free or running 5Ks, and I am proud of them for taking charge of their health. But be careful, Mothers. It’s not easy to hide your insecurities or distorted body image in a swimsuit, but it can be frighteningly easy to hide in the subterfuge of an ironclad dedication to a healthy lifestyle.

Consider those little eyes watching your every move. They are learning from you – for better or worse.

Once my most sensitive child was eyeing her reflection in the mirror as I braided her honeyed hair. “I’m not as pretty as [one of her sisters],” she said.

I looked at her sparkling, doe-like eyes. You could get lost in their dark, imploring beauty, and I wanted to gently shake her like a snow globe and watch all the white specks as they settle into their peaceful, beautiful form. Why would she think this? Why would she compare herself to someone else and feel like she had come up lacking?

Why…

Ah, yes. Maybe because her own mother fears the public pool because in her distorted mind it can become a contest of the fairest of the fair. Or maybe because her own mother is so afraid of losing a few days of fitness she ignores her doctor and her husband’s orders.

My daughter is beautiful in every way. So are her sisters. So am I.

I believe my children are nothing but loveliness and beauty personified. I can easily see glimpses of God in them, in their sense of wonderment, their peals of laughter, and the raw joy they exhibit at the most simple sights – a ladybug discovered on their bedroom windowsill, morning clouds gilded with the gold of the rising sun.

Indeed, it’s easy to see the beauty in my children. In me not so much. But it’s time to start working at it again.

So many of us are hungry for something more in our lives. We fill this void with food, or rigid, healthy habits, or we relentlessly pursue beauty or youth in an effort to feel better about ourselves. Many women know eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia – are bad. But exercise and eating clean? Well, these are just good for my health, we rationalize. And they can be. To a point. We must protect what is precious, that is the house – our bodies – that carry our souls. We must consecrate the desires of the flesh to sanctify the spirit within, and that means making healthy choices and sometimes saying no to the Doritos and Ben & Jerry’s.

But we’re no longer being healthy when we lose balance; when we feel overwhelming guilt because we ate one cookie or missed a workout. A desire for self-improvement can easily become self-annihilation if we can’t ever let go of our healthy habits, or we’re always focused on the person who’s more cellulite-free, prettier, or thinner than us. And she might just be sunbathing at the pool, so it’s best to stay hidden at home and keep doing those push-ups.

Then it becomes a compulsion, an addiction. We become a slave to it. And so do our children.

Meanwhile, life is passing all of us by.

Moms, put on your swimsuit. And swim. Moms, step in front of the camera. And smile. Those photos will one day be treasured memories and you might think you look puffy or old now, but a few years from now you’ll recognize the beauty that is you. Your children already see it. Take care of your body, yes, but not at the expense of your health or your family or as punishment for feeling inadequate or for mindlessly munching on potato chips. Don’t let being healthy become unhealthy.

Step away from the mirror and instead become a mirror for your children; a mirror filled with light, a mirror that reflects love, joy, and optimism. I promise that even if you don’t always, your children, your friends, even the stranger at the grocery store or the fellow mom you meet poolside will love what they see. You.

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