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.
The battle lines are drawn. It’s the Wickers versus the insidious stomach bug and finally after much germ warfare, the Wickers are gaining ground and close to a win.
For over a week, I haven been fighting the stomach bug. I’ve been the victim but mostly the medic,
running stumbling to the front lines to provide aid to the fallen. Sleep has been in short-supply. Vomit and diarrhea have not been. My husband was the last to fall victim – right before a weekend where he was scheduled to work 38-hours in three days after working a regular 40-hour work week. Forget the Dr. McDreamy stuff. This is real life. Thankfully, he found coverage for Friday, but he was back at work bright and early Saturday, and I was schlepping the kids to and fro the hospital to bring him plain, hot soup – about the only thing he could stomach for lunch and dinner. I actually kind of liked this duty. I got to see my husband, and I found him looking handsome despite having puked his brains out not too long ago. He glanced back one last time at the minivan before entering the glass doors to his prison for the next two days and smiled, and my heart fluttered the way it always did when we first started dating. I was looking quite fine myself, in an over-sized Notre Dame fleece, black workout pants accented with toddler drool, dog slobber, and unidentifiable smears, no makeup, and hasn’t-been-washed-or-brushed-much-lately hair. No doubt he was filled with feelings of romance as well.
Rachel was our first victim of the virus; it’s been going around the the parish school. She nearly missed hurling on her younger sister who was below her on the bottom bunk. Next up was Madeline. Then a few hours later Mary Elizabeth succumbed. I was exceedingly proud of this little trouper. She came to me just after I’d drifted back to sleep after – brace yourself – extracting big chunks of tilapia studded with rice and veggies from a bathroom sink (poor Madeline couldn’t make it to the toilet in time), and she whispered, “Mommy, I think I have to throw up.” I leapt out of bed with the kind of alacrity only a mom who knows what it’s like to be puked on can do (yes, I once almost got some in my mouth when I scooped up a nauseated, little one) and took her to the toilet. She’s only 4, but Mary was able to make it to the bathroom in time. Later she hurled into the big bowl I’d placed next to her in my bed and didn’t get even a drop of bile stew on the nest of towels I’d surrounded us with. Early the next morning, she woke me up. “I’m hungry,” she said. And she proceeded to eat a normal breakfast. For two days we were all healthy, and I thought to myself, “This is getting easier. The stomach bug isn’t quite as bad when the kids are older and puke doesn’t end up covering every surface area.”
I also figured the rest of us were fine. We’d successfully dodged the germ bullet. Hooray for us. Foolish, foolish woman. At this point, our home was one big Petri dish for germs. Not surprisingly, I woke up Tuesday morning with cramps and was preparing to stoically empty my bowels when my 2-year-old started convulsing beside me in bed. We just so happened to be sick at the exact same time. That’s how bonded I am with my little boy. So my toddler and I tag-teamed it, working hard to expel the demons who had taken control of our innards. I mostly used the toilet. Little Man did better in the bathtub; his aim isn’t as good as mine yet, but he’s getting there after our glorious night together. I got about .5 hours of sleep, and then I woke up the next day and had to take my two oldest to school since my husband had an early meeting, and I was trying to keep him healthy (epic fail, obviously).
As I loaded the kiddos into the van, I first prayed that I wouldn’t get sick in the car and then started to curse myself for deciding not to homeschool again this year since I could have popped in a movie for the kids and stayed in my puke-encrusted PJs all day. Instead, here I was taking my puke-encrusted PJ-wearing-self and driving my kids to school while my 2-year-old screeched at me telling me he was hungry. What the? How do these little people bounce back so quickly? How could he possibly be hungry after a night like that?
When the stomach bug first hit our house, I thought of posting some pity-provoking Facebook update or tweeting something about the puke fest going down in our house, but I decided against it. (I really don’t share every sickness, every flooded basement, or wild animal encounter on social media). The last time the kids ended up blowing chunks (let’s see how many puking euphemisms I can come up with in one post!), we were on a beach vacation. Three out of four kids ended up sick. So did my dad and sister-in-law. She grew so ill she had to go to the ER. Fun stuff. But here’s the thing: It wasn’t fun when it was unfolding, but it was quite funny in the aftermath. Mary Elizabeth still talks about the time she was a mummy at the beach.
Here’s how she spent a day at the beach:
As for why I’m posting about it now is simple. I’m here to say to all the weary, battle worn parents out there: You will survive and you may even find some silver lining in it all – just not in the lining of your intestines. Don’t expect those to be right for a long time. Drink your Kefir. (I am not paid to endorse Kefir, but I should be.)
Yesterday I started being able to eat normally again after my non-intentional Master Cleanse (forget running – the stomach bug will help you fit into your skinny jeans in no time), and I’m already finding humor and glints of gratitude in it all. I think of poor Thomas’s shaking body as I put him in the bathtub and rubbed his back and said to no one in particular, “This is awful,” and he emphatically agreed.
“Yes,” he replied just before he lost his cookies (no cookies had actually been eaten for dinner the night before).
I think of Madeline saying something about how tilapia doesn’t taste very good the second time around and how Mary Elizabeth wanted to be the one to bring her daddy drinks when he was recovering in bed and how she told me I smelled awful the morning after Thomas and I had been in the puke trenches together. I thought of how when Madeline and Rachel came home from school the day I was still recovering and feeling green, they worked together to tidy up the kitchen, make dinner (Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese), and fold towels that had been forgotten in the dryer.
I also found joy in how each child cuddled just a bit closer in the aftermath of their hurling. I found fulfillment in serving my husband. I could not work for him. I could not make his stomach feel better, but I could bring him soup and Kefir as well as a smile. I could joke about the fact that I hadn’t showered in two days and that I was just doing my part to save us money on our utilities. I liked how the kids and I were all holed in together, shut out from the rest of the world and all the distractions and to-dos like bears in hibernation and had nothing but time for games and reading stories.
Life has been kind of crazy lately. We’ve been fighting flooding basements, long work hours for my husband, and the dreaded stomach bug among other stressors; yet, on Friday night I found myself shooting off an email to someone – a stranger no less who is bound to think I’m a wee bit delirious (and perhaps I am after dealing with vomit and diarrhea and skimping on shut-eye for over a week now) – where I made light of the puke-poop fest. And reliving the last week actually me smile. I signed off of my email, kissed a pallid husband whom I love so very much good-night, and felt grateful for the life I’m living even in the midst of all the hazardous waste.
Each Advent season we head out to a local Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect tree. I am honestly okay with a Charlie Brown tree, but my detail-oriented husband is a perfectionist about things of which I am not and always has a hard time selecting the tree. The kids show him their favorites, and he inevitably finds a bald spot or notices the tree’s overall shape is too sparse or too asymmetrical. Eventually he reluctantly acquiesces with one of the kids’ selections after I remind him no real tree is going to be a flawless shape and height. But we’d rather have real than artificial.
Then we return home, and that’s when I start wanting things to be perfect. The tree is just a tree, but the memories we make decorating that said tree better be glittery-gold. So I make homemade cocoa. The girls dip candy canes into warm pools of chocolate. Then they watch The Grinch as my husband laces the tree with multi-colored lights. None of that elegant-only-white-light business; that’s not the kind of perfection I’m after. We do bold and bright in the Wicker house. The same holds true for the ornaments. There are no themes. The decorative danglers cover the gamut – from homemade angels with pictures of the kids’ heads for faces to a bristly hedgehog that was my husband’s as a boy.
I love sifting through the bottomless container of ornaments. So many of them conjure up memories or old loves like the golden horse head molded out of clay that reminds me of my beloved Palomino, Sunny or the Baby’s First Christmas ornament that I received during my first month of motherhood. This is a tradition I savor. My children do, too, and I hope these are the moments they will remember instead of the less sepia-toned ones like the daily fighting that occurred each morning over whose turn it was to open the drawer of our Advent calendar where four M&Ms (all the same color so as to dissuade another fight) were hidden.
I once wrote about how moms are not memory-keepers, but memory-makers. We can’t control what our children will remember or what they won’t. Nor should we obsessively try to document every moment on Instagram. Sometimes we just need to live it even when it’s not so pretty and we’re afraid of what type of emotional sediment might be settling in our children. But again, isn’t real better than artificial? We want real, human memories not contrived ones.
But living it can be so tough sometimes. For whatever reason, my Advent season this year was more stressful, or maybe it just felt that way. (Not being able to run is still taking its toll on my emotional health, but a recent MRI looked very promising, and it seems that my hamstring tear is healing quite well!) These 12 days of Christmas have been much more manageable and enjoyable, too. My husband did not get his perfect tree although it was darn close and a real beauty this year. I didn’t get my perfect memories. That’s life. We gathered around, and kids started pulling out several ornaments from the big plastic storage box all at once. I barked orders about not getting new ornaments out until each child hung up the one in her hand. Then Thomas broke an ornament. It looked like a ball, so he hurled it across the living room. And, of course, all the girls were sad as if that was there favorite ornament of all time. We comforted Thomas because we thought he was scared from the glass ball shattering at his feet. Maybe he really thought it was a ball. Poor guy. No matter that there’s no throwing in the house. Little goober gets away with everything. But then he snagged another ornament off the tree and chucked it across the room where it promptly shattered into colorful shards.
I remember how I felt standing there in the shadow of a beautiful, sparkling tree. I examined the pieces and knew there was no way to salvage that ornament. At that moment, I felt the same way like I’d been broken into so many pieces there was no way I’d ever be made whole again.
Nothing seemed to be turn out the way I had hoped or the way I wanted it to. The Advent memories were not very Norman Rockwell-ish at all. We were a mess. And a very noisy one a that.
So I wonder: Will the children’s memory banks see past all that? Will they take ornaments out each Christmas and smile fondly, or will they remember the shards reflecting the tear-stained faces in their broken shininess?
A few summers back an evening storm flashed in the sky. The girls and I gathered together and read The Storm Book and Storm in the Night by candlelight. They cuddled close and listened to the beautiful imagery of both the books. We weren’t doing anything grand, but no one was fighting and everyone, including me, just seemed content. It felt like we were exactly where we were supposed to be together safe from the storm churning outside. I remember thinking, “This is what I want them to remember. The stories shared. The way their mom’s face looked serene and joyful in the soft glow of candlelight, the way the rhythm of her voice sang out the lyrical words from good books, the way later that same night she did not push us off to our own beds but fell asleep beside us and loved us as well as she could in her raw humanness.”
I cannot go in to great detail because I know it is my job to protect my children and to be their champion and that sometimes means keeping things private, but one of my children is going through a rough patch. It has been going on for some time now, and I’ve been desperately trying to fix things. However, like so much of parenting, I am learning a great lesson in humility. I wince because I fear we have made some bad memories together, and perhaps this is partly why I am found myself almost maniacally trying to make our annual Advent traditions even more golden and lovely in an effort to snuff out the not-so-nice moments that are coming all too regularly.
We are getting help. We are working on it. I am trying to remain hopeful and to remind myself that this too shall pass. I am trying to not let my fears that I have failed her as a mother or that she may always struggling this much eclipse the hope I have not so much in myself or even in my precious child but in an all-loving God who can make up for each of our humanness, who can take our very brokenness and transform it in to a beautiful life.
A friend of mine sent me a poignant post about how maybe Advent is supposed to be a little sad because we so desperately need a Savior. We are broken, hurting. We are not satisfied. We need hope – Christ – to be born in our hearts. We are not like that shattered ornament. We can always be redeemed and pieced back together.
I am not sure what my children will remember. Maybe they will recall the creamy cocoa, the silliness, the Tomie dePaola Advent and Christmas tales more than the fights over who got to hang up what ornament and then Mommy’s shouting over the din that she won’t take anymore of this. But maybe they will have some memories that are less than sparkling. Maybe they will have a little Advent darkness, and maybe that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed the Christmas season so much, partly because our Advent wasn’t so easy. I similarly feel that when I am back running again, I will be wiser and appreciate each step I am able to take that much more.
My kids might have some darker recollections, but perhaps they will have the Christmas memories, too. The memories where we all got it right – not perfect but right for the moment. There were broken ornaments and sometimes broken promises, too. There were silly stories and happily ever afters, but there were some tear-jerkers thrown in there as well with endings that weren’t all neat and tidy. There was a mother who did her best. Sometimes that wasn’t nearly good enough for what her children and family deserved. But many times it was. It was somehow amazingly enough. There was hurt, but there was love that was inexorably linked to mercy and forgiveness.
And there was always grace, and it almost always was born out of the darkness. It came in the child who hugged the sad Mama and told her something she’d heard that sad Mama tell her, “There’s nothing you can do to take my love for you away or to earn it.” The grace came in a “just because” note a child scribbled down and shyly handed to her mother. It came in an apology. Grace filled our hearts as we filled cups during an Advent tea for the grandmothers. It was marbled in an email a father wrote to his daughter. It came in a love note of thanks from a husband on Christmas evening, the best gift a wife could ask for and one that made her cry tears of joy and thanksgiving. It came in a hot cup of cocoa, a homemade ornament with the face of a child propped upon a lopsided gingerbread body, and a sweet, family sing-along. Grace slipped into our lives just when we needed it. It was a gift that grabbed a hold of hearts even if we were lousy at preparing ourselves for it. Somehow, like Christmas for the Grinch’s Whos, it came all the same without boxes, packages, or bags. Without perfect mamas. Perfect children. Perfect memories. Grace was there. Joy was there. This is what I hope, God-willing, these children of mine might remember.