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.
I don’t have much of a potty mouth, and I never have. Well, I suppose that statement might not be entirely true if you define “potty mouth” as having the maturity of an 8-year-old and finding words like “poot” and “beanie” funny. Guilty as charged. But I rarely swear. I don’t even like to say the word “sucks.” I’d much rather say, “Oh, fiddlesticks!” and endure the eye-roll of my oldest. She insists a lot of kids use the word “sucks.” I told her she will be around people her entire life who make the wrong choice and that in our family “sucks” is blacklisted and if she says it, she owes me a dollar. End of discussion.
But lately a big thought bubble full of all sorts of naughty expletives has been ballooning up above my head, and the reason for this is simple: I have a 3-year-old boy. I am potty training that 3-year-old boy. Actually, that’s all wrong. The only one getting trained is moi – in the art of self-restraint in keeping those lovely expletives that make “sucks” look like part of the vernacular of Downton Abbey floating silently off in the horizon.
This is no easy task, especially when #@!* keeps happening – not in the potty but in the pants. And gone are the days of cute, breastfeeding, mustardy baby poop. People think my 3-year-old is closer to five. He’s a big boy with a big appetite. He eats a cornucopia of deliciousness. Everybody poops but generally the bigger the pooper, the bigger the poop. I’m dealing with some serious excrements and after all that green St. Patrick’s Day food, I’ve been faced with green poop. My 5-year-old eyed Thomas’s most recent gift. “It looks like the panda’s poop!” A recent visit to the zoo left the kids in awe of the gloriously green poop a panda squeezed out in front of us. Do you know how much bamboo a panda bear eats each day? Forty to 50 pounds of the green stalks. Give Thomas a little green smoothie, green bread, and green eggs, and he starts pooping like a panda.
Whereas my girls found the idea of pooping in their pants gross, Thomas doesn’t really see the problem with it. This is the same child who was nicknamed Poopcasso as a baby after I found him finger-painting with his doo-doo during quiet time. Poop in the pants ain’t no big thing, but don’t you dare say something like, “This is gross,” while cleaning him up because that’s when Mr. Sensitive comes out. Tears form in those big, brown eyes. “Don’t say it’s gross, Mommy,” he says.
Oh, but it is.
What’s been odd to me about potty training this boy is the very first time he used the big boy potty, he, in fact, pooped in it. Everyone had told me how hard boys were to potty train, and I was feeling all high and mighty. MY boy isn’t going to be hard at all. Look at him pooping like a big boy without me even putting him on the potty! When will I learn to never, ever self-congratulate myself in the parenting trenches? It always, always backfires and leaves me eating a hefty slice of humble pie or in this case, cleaning what looks like chocolate silk pie but smells like toxic waste from a bare bottom.
Yet, for several days he did his business on the potty, and my mommy hubris swelled. I never had to bribe the girls, but I was popping jelly beans into his mouth let and right. Lots of positive reinforcement going on. Then one day when the rain finally stopped and the sun was dancing in the sky, warm and bright, Thomas headed outside to play – and to poop. Ever since then he’s wanted to take care of nature’s duty in, well, nature.
Now to be fair, he does pee on the potty quite a bit, but he also frequently relieves himself on the floor and sometimes on big sister’s dolls. He doesn’t like the way diapers feel on his bigger-than-a-toddler-body and routinely complains of wedgies, but he also isn’t too fond of underwear. Or clothes. Going naked and commando is how he likes it and also how he seems to have the least amount of accidents. But I can’t bring him to the soccer fields, grocery store, and playground naked. Can I?
Oh, I know this too shall pass. (This too shall pass…the mantra I fervently chant during any difficult parenting period.) He won’t always be dropping huge loads in his pants or walking around commando. (Will he?) And it’s so easy to sugarcoat the potty training phases of my daughters when, in reality, we had our own challenges. My second, Rachel was a breeze, but Madeline, my firstborn, had some major poop issues. No, she never pooped her in pants. She just didn’t poop. The little control freak was master of her bowels and while my husband and the pediatrician told me I had to make sure she tried to poop every day, I learned quickly that you can’t make a feisty child sleep, eat, or go potty. Not that I didn’t try. I would sit in the bathroom for hours with the child, holding her hand, playing all sorts of games. “Ariel is in the cave and wants to go out swimming with her fishy friends! Can you help her get out?” In case you’re really confused here and gave birth to reasonable children who just felt the urge and went to the bathroom, Ariel was her poop and the cave was her bum. I’d read Everybody Poops aloud to her in the bathroom. And Great Expectations. And All’s Well that Ends Well. But it rarely ended well. Usually, Mom and Anti-Pooper both ended up in tears. And still, she held it in. She. Would. Not. Poop. I plied her with smoothies and dried fruit and lots of food that’s good for your inner plumbing. I’d light candles in the bathroom to calm her. I would gently coax her like the most patient poop doula, but she wasn’t ready to bring her baby into the world. On an adult dosage of Miralax she managed to hold her poop in for 15 days. That’s more than two weeks, people. Hello, enema. That finally did the trick.
Then there was my third child. Oh, she potty trained easily enough and thankfully, pooped on the potty without trouble, but when she got angry at me, what did she do? She pulled a Regan a la The Exorcist on me and stubbornly glared in my direction while she relieved herself on the only rug in our hardwood floor home. I can’t count the times I would tell her no to something and find her peeing on the floor and then feigning it was an “accident.”
Believe you me, there were some big curse word thought bubbles floating above my head back then, too.
But these days none of my girls have accidents or even pretend to have accidents when they’re upset with Mommy. I still have to remind the oldest to listen to her body sometimes because she is such an active, happy kid, she doesn’t like to take time out to do anything as boring as sitting on a potty.
I know Thomas will get there eventually. I recently tried to bribe him with fancy superhero light-up shoes since his friend across the street got a pair when he potty trained. Thomas thought the shoes were pretty cool until duty (or should I say dooty?) called. “I don’t want those shoes,” he told me firmly, and he opened the back door and headed outside like the free-spirited animal he is.
And I sighed and thought, “This suck… errr…this stinks.” Unfortunately, both figuratively and literally.
They’re everywhere. The promises of a new year and a new you. Now is the time to reinvent yourself. Get more organized. Quit smoking. Lose 5, 10, 15, or 20-plus pounds. Exercise more. Sleep more. Eat less sugar.
Personally, I really like my 5-year-old’s New Year’s Resolution: Be nice to people. Now that has eternal value.
Funny aside: My 7-year-old uses the least amount of electronics in the house, but she was the one who wants to watch less TV in 2015. She doesn’t play on the computer or even watch much television. She usually has her nose in a book (she read five fat books over the Christmas break), but she also is the one who always thinks she is worse than she is. I’m not sure where she gets that from. Ahem.
I’ve always been a goal-oriented kind of person, so I usually end up scribbling down a few New Year’s Resolutions. Once upon a time at least one resolution had to do with my weight. Even when I claimed I was just thinking of my health, I was guilty of subterfuge. But not this year. This year I want to pray more, write more, and listen more.
I am tempted to add more even though I know that while my goals seem simple, I’ll likely fail pretty miserably at them. Way to believe in myself, eh?
I like to accomplish, but I seem to accomplish big things pretty rarely lately.
Every week I scribble down a to-do list, and I get great pleasure from checking off each item. Look at how productive I am! I like to have things to work for, too, and things to achieve. What I don’t like is failure or feeling like I haven’t accomplished much. But this year has been a year of letting go. And not just for Elsa or her gaggle of pint-sized followers, but for me, too. It all started with the dreadful running injury. I can no longer call it a running injury because I am not much of a runner any longer, although I ran with a running peep this morning and experienced pure euphoria – more from the company than the actual physical exertion. The run didn’t provoke much pain, but walking around the rest of the day and just sitting to teach my child phonics did hurt a bit. I’ll think I’m all better and that BAM! I’ll feel a twinge in my high hamstring area, or my hips will start aching. On a bad day, both hips, my hamstring, and my bum hurt.
Sometimes my body makes me grumpy. Sometimes it makes me sad. But lately it’s made me grateful because despite my dreams of qualifying for Boston or even running another half again perhaps becoming wishful thinking, I feel strong. I am doing quite of a bit of Pure Barre. It’s a low-impact but challenging workout. I don’t weigh myself, but I definitely feel stronger and leaner. The first day I tried the class I felt like an old, uncoordinated dork. It was 80s day, which I didn’t know, and all these young things – who were born in the 90s, mind you – were planking and tucking and shaking in flashy, hot pink workout garb. I was all in black on the back, planking like an elephant probably.
As I tried to follow along and figure out what it meant to tuck, I mourned for my running life. Running was something I could do pretty well. This was new and scary and all the core work wasn’t easy for a mom of four, but I stuck with it. That was way back in early October, and I’m still sticking with it, and I’ve found my groove. When I was leaving my most recent class, the instructor, whom I had not had before, asked me my name. I told her, and she said, “Katie, you had excellent form all throughout class.” This is ridiculously silly, but I thanked her and beamed, and the afterglow lasted at least an hour. I headed out to the cold mist with a bounce in my step, no matter that my high hamstring was nagging me and I felt shaky walking down the stairs after giving my thighs a killer workout.
I went out to dinner with my running peeps to catch up recently as well, and it was a delightful evening. We laughed and chatted, and I was so grateful that all those miles covered had forged true, meaningful friendships. And, of course, I was nostalgic for those morning runs, wishing I could be out there, too, and maybe I will be (I have a pain provocation test tomorrow involving an injection into my hip bone), but what’s been such a blessing is I am starting 2015 totally and completely at peace with the fact that I may not be able to return to the kind of running I once did. This is where the gratitude surprisingly comes in: I am grateful there are other ways I can move my body. I am thankful I can shoot hoops with my daughters; my 10-year-old is playing her first season of basketball and loving it, and I’m enjoying playing Horse and having free throw contests with her in the driveway. I am thankful I can still be active even if I do hurt sometimes.
I am also thankful that I am finally able to approach new ventures – even things as seemingly insignificant as a new barre class – without perfectionism as my sidekick. I lost out on a lot of fun in the past because I would park myself on the sidelines of any activity in life if I knew I wasn’t going to excel at whatever it was. I’m far less afraid now, probably because I fail all the time and motherhood more than anything else has taught me just how little control I have over my children or anything else in my life. I am so glad I’m learning these lessons because I want my children to try new things and to not be afraid to not be the best at everything. I want them have to work hard at something, to know that what starts out tough may one day become easier simply because you stuck with it. And I want them to dust themselves off when they do fall, forgive their own failings, and start again.
I’m talking a lot about exercise these days and my inability to run, but this has been a year of growth in the mothering department as well. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that my mothering life (so far) hasn’t exactly turned out the way I thought it would. I remember when Madeline, who is now 10, was just 2 years old and I found a network of Catholic homeschooling moms, and one of them would always talk about how she could see me having 10 kids and homeschooling them all. That really stroked my pride. I envisioned myself as this super mom effortlessly juggling at least a half dozen kids while still taking daily showers. I have four kids, and I won’t tell you the last time I washed my hair.
And these days, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be a mom of a super-sized family, and I am homeschooling only one child now with plans to have her join her big sisters in that place I once feared so much: REAL SCHOOL. That first year of REAL SCHOOL I felt like an epic failure. I’d run into a friend of mine who still homeschooled, who probably had more kids than I did, and I felt like I was lacking or that they were better than I was. All my comparing and feelings of worthlessness only robbed me of joy and blinded me to the fact that we were all doing okay. I doubted myself and my husband’s decision on a daily basis. At the start of this school year, I still was approaching the year with some trepidation, but something has happened. I see how happy we are, how this is working for my own little family, and I know I didn’t fail at anything. The girls returned to school this morning, and Rachel hopped out of bed this morning and said, “I can’t wait to go back to school!” This doesn’t mean she didn’t enjoy her time with me. We loved our lazy break and the slower pace, but she’s happy there, too.
I also don’t care (too much) what others think any longer. I did have a handful of well-meaning homeschooling folks (although the vast majority offered nothing but support) say some hurtful things when I first decided to send my two oldest to school. It wasn’t easy to digest what they said – things like, you only get one chance at mothering your children and if you can homeschool, why wouldn’t you? Of course, these people did not know the clinical depression I was grappling with or the fact that my husband’s hours are unpredictable or the temperaments of my lovely but feisty children. Many times we mothers dole out our opinions in an effort to validate our own choices. We’re not really looking to criticize the other mom or her choices; we’re just trying to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is the best for us and our families.
Now I joke about being a homeschool dropout. I don’t worry so much about if we appear all put together because the truth is, we’re not. We’re a messy but fun bunch. I let my kids choose their clothes – even what they want to wear to the Christmas Eve Mass, providing it’s the right level of decorum. I peruse our thousands of archived photos for the perfect family photo for our Christmas card and instead of becoming frustrated at the dearth of photos where even half of my clan is looking at the camera, I laugh at the wonderful energy this family of mine has, and then I create a Christmas card that is authentically Wicker. And lo and behold, I get more compliments this year than any other year. People crave authenticity.
That’s what I really want to be in this life more than perfect. I want to be authentic. I want to be the kind of person you can come to and reveal your dirty secrets and dirty dishes and know that I’ll love you anyway. I want my children to know in their deepest souls that despite the times I fail them as a mother, despite the chaos that is our life, I love them just the way they are.
One of my daughters, who happens to share my melancholic tendencies, was recently divulging all of her bad memories. She then went on to point out the ways I am not a very good mother. A year ago her diatribe would have made me cry. Or I would have acted strong, but I would have crumbled inside. I would have wept to my husband and sought his reassurance that I was a good mother and that I wasn’t screwing up my children. But tonight I calmly hugged this child. I reminded myself she was angry at me because I had taken a privilege away as a consequence for less than desirable behavior. I told her I was sorry she felt that I wasn’t a good mommy right now and that I knew I was far from perfect and had a lot to work on but that I also knew I was a good mom who gave her very best and who loved her children with an open heart. Then I calmly left the room. It was bedtime, and my child wanted me to stay beside her for longer (ironic that she wanted a monster of a mother to be in such close proximity to her in the dark). She started to rage against the injustices of the world. I told her I’d come check on her in a bit. And I did. I slipped in beside her in a nest of blankets. She threw her arm around me and she whispered, “I am so, so sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For acting like you’re not a good mommy when you’re the best mommy in the world,” she whispered.
“It’s okay,” I said, and I squeezed her hand.
“I am so sorry,” she said again, and I realized she was me just a year ago, someone who was always sorry. Sorry for not being better, good enough, perfect. Sorry for not doing more. Sorry for being injured and not being able to run. Sorry for things that were utterly out of my control. Sorry for giving up on homeschooling. Sorry when I truly should have been sorry but not knowing how to open myself to mercy and forgiveness, so that I was consumed by guilt and what-ifs and mired in a despair I couldn’t shake even though to the outside world I was nothing short of a golden Pollyanna. Oh, the acting was exhausting. The guilt-mongering paralyzing.
“It’s okay, my love. I am not hurt. You are completely forgiven.”
“I am sorry,” she whispered one last time burrowing her head into me so that her honeyed hair tickled my face and her tears wet my shoulder.
I am sorry, too, that it’s taken me 30-plus years to let go of trying to be something that I’m not, I thought. And I am sorry that you, my sweet daughter, will have to learn this lesson on your own, that others and their careless acts and barbed words will rob you of your joy, that you might doubt yourself and remember the bad, the criticism, more than the good and all the praise. That you may be blind to beautiful you and not see that you have so much to offer others just by being imperfect you.
I can not make her believe any of this. Life will have to teach her all of it. I hope the wisdom comes to her sooner than it came to me, but it is a lesson she must learn herself.
On the eve of the Epiphany (yes, my tree and decorations are still up but if I’m truthful, the shedding pine needles and extra festooning is driving me crazy), I think of the Magi and what must have been a dangerous, tedious trip. The journey to truth is never straightforward or easy. But when you finally encounter it – even if it’s just a glimmer of truth – you are forever changed.
This new year, I’m not looking to be a new person. I’m just looking to make peace with the imperfect person that I am.
Reflecting on the past year I recognize plenty of moments of happiness and days when I was aware of the blessings that surround me even in the midst of life’s messiness. But far too often happiness was elusive for me because things that were out of my control kept happening, because I too easily let others, situations, things people said (or didn’t say), or self-defeating thoughts take my good feelings away.
Sometimes when I see my mom smile even as I am aware that her constant trigeminal pain is like hatchet permanently being lodged in her face, I can’t help but think, “Joy can always supersede our pain.” Because real, everlasting joy comes from something beyond us. Mean-spirited people can chip away at your happiness. So can everyday stress. So can a toddler who refuses to pee on the potty or an achy hamstring and wonky hips. So can a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family, a miscarriage. Life, no matter how hard we try to inoculate ourselves against unhappiness, will sometimes take good things and good feelings away.
But nothing, nothing can take Him away. He came to us on that first Christmas, and I’ve got to believe that He’s with us still.
All of these ponderings are nothing new. I’ve known them all along, I suppose, but they, I admit, have sometimes felt like nothing more than empty platitudes, cozy Hallmark-like tag lines to give me a temporary pick-me-up. But not right now. Maybe tomorrow I’ll forget this lesson when the laundry and sibling squabbles overwhelm me. Maybe I’ll lose my joy because I’ve lost Him. This is my human condition to be blinded again and again. But it is God’s condition to keep making me see.
And now a glimpse into our Christmas season:
Guess who was Mary in the Nativity play at church? And Rachel, my 7-year-old, sang a duet to “Silent Night.”
I don’t care if it’s a tad blurry. I love the joy personified in this photo.
We had a few spring-like days. Thank goodness because now it feels tundra-like.
I went on a date with my girl. We went to what she referred to as a “very fancy restaurant.” Layla (the dog) wanted to come along, too.
Puppy love. No, she’s not ours, but the kids sure do wish she was. This was one of Madeline’s best friend’s Christmas gifts from her parents. “Geez,” Madeline remarked, “she gets a puppy, and we get hermit crabs.” Yes, my husband and I got the kids two hermit crabs for Christmas. They’re named Padfoot and Speedy and to be fair, we do already have two fish, a cat, and a dog. And is it just me, or is my oldest child looking really, really old all of a sudden?
Here’s to a healthy, happy and joyful 2015!
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