I know it’s been pretty quiet around here, and I still haven’t gotten around to posting a birthday letter to my wild man (tsk, tsk). I’ve just been so busy. I’ve had a few speaking engagements (one is this Friday, and I am so looking forward to the mom retreat), which are always such a joy but also require a hefty chunk of time. I am team manager for my oldest daughter’s soccer team. Three out of four kids are playing the sport this year, so there’s all that soccer schlepping. I’m not sure when I became such a soccer mom, but I am trying to embrace it. I’m also volunteering at the older girls’ school occasionally and am trying to teach the child I am homeschooling more than Look-at-Mommy-try-to-control-little-brother-unsuccessfully–yet-again. Yes, Todzilla remains a loud, physical challenge, but, oh, he can be sweet. Oh, and I landed a fun writing assignment that has nothing to do with poop, parenting, or eating disorders. I am writing about fashion – and loving it! The novel is at a standstill.
I am also traveling to Atlanta almost every other week for ongoing medical treatment. Several more imaging studies have shown that I have femoracetabular impingement (the pincer type, if you’re really interested), which could very well be the culprit behind my high hamstring tendinopathy, more recent hip and back pain, and may require surgery down the road. I am trying to do what’s best for my body and to trust my amazing health care providers, but a part of me is tired of wasting a whole year of my life not running much at all after the partial tear of my high hamstring, which was diagnosed last October. Yup. It’s been a year since all that happened. I bailed out of a race the first weekend of October, but pushed through a half on October 20th. That was my last long run. Sadly, I’ve only been able to manage 10ish miles a week, and now the hip, back, and high butt pain has gotten bad enough that I’ve stopped running yet again.
Like pregnancy bedrest, miscarriages, pining for babies that won’t come, and parenting in general this lengthy and difficult journey has really humbled me.
The other day I was feeling particularly low when my daily Living Faith entry really, really spoke to me. Just when I think all of this faith stuff is wishful thinking, something Spirit-led like this happens to me. Here’s the passage:
Self-emptying to the point of “ouch!” is one of life’s most painful challenges.
To empty ourselves of attitudes that are foreign to the mind of Jesus, to clear out the patterns that limit our worldview, to let go, let go, let go as God invites us: This is the kind of emptying that Jesus modeled. His was a profound surrender, ultimately embodied in: “Not my will but yours be done.”
-Sr. Chris Koellhoffer, I.H.M. Sr. Chris, a sister of Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a writer, spiritual guide and retreat director
That’s just what this injury has forced me to do: to empty myself to the point of a literal and emotional “ouch.” I’ve had to empty myself of my wishes to run or my silly dreams of being a running star when I probably look more like Sponge Bob Squarepants sprinting down the street. It is demanding a “profound surrender” from me, and I am still resisting – a whole year since I was first asked to let go and to accept a path I never would have chosen on my own. I still have days where I cry, days when I ask “why me?” instead of “why not me?” There are days when I forget to focus on all that I can do and the abundant blessings before me. But I am working on it. This long road is forcing me to. It’s also teaching me not only to remain hopeful but to learn to be okay if my hopes are not a reality. I hope to run and compete in races again and to just partake in everyday activities without pain but if that doesn’t happen, it is going to be okay. I am going to be okay.
(As always, thank you for bearing with me and my random rants.)
In the aftermath of what seemed like a life-shattering breakup at the time, I would belt out Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” I still have the song on my very eclectic workout playlist, and the other day I found myself shouting the lyrics and building up the tenacity to deal with another man in my life. This one weighs roughly 40 pounds and he’s not breaking my heart, but he breaks plenty of other things: Window blinds, flower pots, wire whisks from the kitchen (he likes to bend anything that is the least bit malleable), big chunks of my hair and his sisters’ hair off the scalp when in the throes of a titanic tantrum, toys, windshields (he did this with his head and was not injured in the least – thank God! Don’t ask. The car was parked in the driveway lest you think he was cruising around without a carseat in the front), etc., etc.
I’m supposed to be working on his birthday letter. Our little bruiser recently turned 3, but I’m spending too much time avoiding unidentifiable flying objects he has hurled in my direction to work on anything productive, and I’m afraid the letter will turn into a collection of grievances against the poor guy. I keep telling myself, “This too shall pass.” This mantra has always helped me get through rough parenting patches, but right about now, I find myself editing the phrase and gritting my teeth while thinking something like this: “This sure as heck better pass soon before I have a nervous breakdown or do something I’ll regret.”
Of course, there are tender moments when my sweet, little man cuddles close, but even his kisses and hugs are fueled with boy-power. I’ve had to remonstrate with him repeatedly to not hang on my neck when he hugs me because he’s pulled so hard, I’ve felt sharp jabs of pain.
We recently went to the beach to see my husband’s grandparents, and Thomas just kept asking, “When are we going to go home? Tomorrow?” He clearly wasn’t digging the change of scenery. He refused to nap, was sweaty with heat and exhaustion, and cried when sand got in his shoes and cried if we took his shoes off. He screamed when he was happy, and he screamed when he was sad. Dealing with his mercurial moods was completely exhausting.
Upon our return, a friend of mine first asked him, “What did you do at the beach, Thomas?”
“I got crabs!” he shouted.
The crustacean kind, of course.
After we all had a good laugh, I told her he had been ready to come home after a day away, so she queried, “Thomas, do you like the beach or home better?”
“Home!” he shouted.
My little boy craves routine and is definitely a homebody. When I take him to library storytime, he’s as still as can be and clings to my lap like a barnacle. But at home, he turns into the Incredible Hulk and plows from room to room leaving destruction or teary, melodramatic sisters in his wake.
My normal discipline strategies aren’t working, probably because I am so exasperated and tired from it all that I am not very consistent. The boy who once fell asleep so easily so long as I was beside him both at bedtime and for naps now pinches my nose and throws books around the room when I try to settle him down. The other day I was desperate for him to nap, so I finally held the door shut while he threw every possible toy at the door and screamed for 30 minutes straight. One day recently I actually did get him to sleep. It only took me two hours of cajoling him and putting him back into his bed. By the time he fell asleep, it was nearly time for me to pick up his sisters, and I was too worn out to get anything done, so I sat on the couch and cried.
It’s a terrible combination: A tired mama and an even more tired toddler.
Yes, this little man in my life is making me cry and cling to Gloria Gaynor’s words: “It took all the strength I had just not to fall apart.”
The saving grace is that he is the difficult one now. Madeline (my almost 10-year-old) is at that golden age where she’s helpful (for the most part, although her room looks like a disaster zone) and loves to be in my company. Rachel (7) and Mary E. (5) are getting along much better than they have in the past. Last year Thomas was easy, but I was having difficulties and stressing out over another child. God really doesn’t give me more than I can handle. Sometimes it just feels like it, but I’ve rarely been in a place where all my children were going through challenging developmental stages.
And I know that it is now – when books like When Your Child Drives You Crazy clutter my nightstand – that the most growth is going to happen within me.
Moms, don’t be (too) weary if you’re traveling down a difficult path right now in your parenting journey. Don’t wonder if you’re the only one who finds a newborn baby, a toddler, a preschooler, a 6-year-old, a tween, a teenager, a young adult, a grown child, a special-needs child, a girl, a boy, whatever difficult to mother. Because you’re not the only one. Wherever you’re at and whatever you’ve been given right now is probably the hardest for you. Maybe that’s the point. What would be easy for you may not be the best for you.
If God is trying to prune us and sanctify us through the vocation of parenthood, then it makes sense that He gives us just the kind of children we need – the kind who will push our buttons and throw us down to our knees and force us to realize that we cannot, absolutely cannot, do this on our own. We need good girlfriends we can vent to. We need spouses or other loved ones to lean on. We need community. We need to take care of ourselves to better take care of those entrusted to us. And we need faith. Faith is what makes our weakness – whether it’s spiritual, physical, or emotional – stronger. We have to have faith that this will pass, that we will survive.
Sometimes we have to simply show up – and to stay put once we’ve arrived even if every part of us is screaming to just go, escape, get the heck out of there before you or your child really loses it.
These are the kind of things I have to tell myself day after day right now as I try to figure out this rambunctious, toddler boy thing out.
I openly admit that I don’t have it all together. I have done things I regret. I haven’t always been gentle and firm. I’ve given up on God many times.
There are moments when I feel like my toddler is winning, but then I remind myself this isn’t a war. This isn’t about who is right or the most stubborn or the most in control. It is about love – the kind that sometimes really, really hurts to give. No, it’s not a war, but there is fighting. I have to keep on fighting to give of myself, to trust that a child who has started to pull our dog’s tail is not destined for juvenile delinquency. I have to fight to forgive myself and my boy when we reveal our raw humanness. At some point or another, we are all scared and tired moms who keep fighting. We are burnt out moms who are overwhelmed by keeping up with laundry and wayward tots or teens all day long, but we keep fighting and giving.
A mother doesn’t have superhero powers or even super patience. A mother is just a person – a woman like you or me – but she does super-amazing things. She is the woman with people in her care whom she loves and sometimes wonders how she loves them because they are driving her absolutely crazy. Yet, she still does love them. She gives, she fights, prays, and works. She shows up day after day for what sometimes can feel like a thankless or even pointless job. And it’s in this showing up minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day that just may make a mother a saint.
It took all the strength I had
not to fall apart
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.