Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: beauty

Strange and Broken Things (Week 2 of Pandemic Coping)

It’s a strange thing, to be at home in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, walking through the backyard with my kids, flowers blossoming in the bright spring grass. To walk down the street and realize that, Oh, there are kids at that house, too. A dad is pushing his child on a swing, hanging from a tree branch. This dad and I are home in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, playing with our kids.

It’s strange to remind your kids that, Remember, we can’t get too close, okay? Saying, ‘hi’ is okay.

It’s strange to not be thinking about upcoming birthday parties. Or mentally preparing to present at a conference next week. Or coordinating the PTO hospitality lunches for my daughter’s school. Or taking my daughter to first communion classes. I deleted all these events from my Google calendar en masse. Also gone, the reminders: on Wednesdays, pack bathing suit for Felicity, in mid-April, order birthday cake by this day, in the first week of May, deliver Teacher Appreciation lunch.

It’s jarring to see the end of normalcy displayed so clearly in my Google calendar. It’s as if someone I loved had died and I just couldn’t even cope. It has echoes of Grief. But then, when my dad died, I went back to work the next week and the world spun on like nothing had happened. I wanted there to be nothing to do, but there was still everything to do. No one else behaved like there was any reason to change, and so I felt like the odd one.

I also had Choice. I could choose to allow myself to get swept into the rituals and rhythms of Life that no one else had given up and find some reprieve from the pain of my New Reality, however short-lived. It was a quiet suffering that I moved through in my own time. And I made incremental progress toward my acceptance. It was a personal journey and I was in control.

Not this time.

This time, there really is no escape, physical or mental, from this New Reality. I cannot binge-watch Netflix until May. I cannot even do much creative work, like video editing or writing. The kids are home. AND I still need to work. To sit here and write in quiet moments to myself, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and sacrifice a daily workout for the mental clarity that writing gives me.

At a time when I most need a reprieve, there is none to be had.

Being a parent is fun. This is all so fun.

You’d think that with the deletion of all those events and reminders would come a measure of peace and clarity.

Not so.

Instead, my mind is overflowing with news and charts and numbers and questions and predictions and announcements.

I’m constantly thinking about disinfection and washing hands (all. the. time.) and cleaning up the house over and over and over, and getting the kids outside, and Is Felicity reading enough? She should be writing more. Are we doing enough for Henry?, and Relax. You’re doing the best that you can.

My mind doesn’t have much space left to think about anything else other than this Giant Wave that is approaching all of us.

When will it hit Ohio hard? How many people will die? Will someone I love die? Will their body be stored in one of those refrigerated semi-trucks until we can bury them? Was that cold that I had really COVID-19? I had a low fever and a sore throat. Then I felt okay, like nothing happened. Then my lungs were irritated for a couple of days, and that was weird. But no doctor would order a test for me with the few symptoms that I had.

We are all trudging through physical isolation while also being solely responsible for regulating our consumption of the the deluge of news and social media posts that we consume each day about the surging pandemic.

Limit your social media consumption for your mental health, they say.

I don’t want to read about this all of the time, and yet I do. I don’t want to read about another instance of Trump’s feckless leadership and reckless disregard for the consequences of spreading misinformation during a pandemic.

And yet I do. It’s like my mind is begging for another example of,

See! There he goes again, being the biggest jackass the world has even seen! See everyone! He not only sucks at his job, but he’s actively making it worse! See! He doesn’t deserve to lead us one more day! Get rid of him! SOMEHOW!!!

And yet there are still millions of Americans who stand up for this buffoon. It’s not his fault. We can’t put the economy on hold forever. We have to go back to normal. Let’s get back to normal by Easter.

Fools.

And so my mind spins on and on.

A few days ago, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and just couldn’t go back to sleep. I tried. For an hour, I tried. But once the thoughts started, they rode the steep curve of that red line, riding the most terrifying roller coaster ever, clink-clink-clink, rising exponentially in the coming weeks. Up, up, and up. Who in my life would become part of that line? Who will I lose?

For certainly, we are on a path to becoming a country in which everyone loses someone. We are starting to hear the rhetoric that it’s patriotic to sacrifice ourselves and those we love to a disease that we could have been better prepared to fight had our own destructive president not dismantled the systems that were in place to keep us ahead of the curve.

And to provide our human sacrifices all in the name of preserving the Great American Economy.

It’s too late for the outcome to be much different than that.

It haunts me. That undoubtedly, months from now, after thousands, if not millions of Americans have died, Trump will talk about how much worse it would have been had they not done whatever they had decided to do. Oh, right, sorry. The federal government isn’t responsible. It’s every State for themselves. Hope the States have enough funds to outbid foreign governments for their bulk purchase of medical masks and ventilators. Unless they use flattery to win Trump over. (Which I find even more maddening. Because if governors resort to falsely flattering Trump on the record in order to secure a federal response, now all the Crazy in America will have “evidence” that Trump is doing a good job.)

But in the event that Trump tries to take credit for whatever federal response the government may take, he can always say, More lives could have been lost, and be right. That’s the same argument that we’ve heard after years and years of increasingly horrific mass shootings. Hard to think that the argument will change much.

It haunts me. That Trump will undoubtedly, through tweets and press conferences, rewrite history over and over again so that it looks like he was never wrong. But, hey, at least he can’t use his rallies to rewrite history right now. I revel in the fact that he cannot hold these mass ego-feeding sessions that simply confirm his far-fetched delusions.

Trump will do everything in his power to be seen as the Winner.

But in 2020, it looks like there’s only going to be Losers. Trump included.

And in any case, we don’t need a Winner.

We need a Hero.

(Fauci for President?)

So after an hour of lying in bed, thinking and thinking, I decided to get up and do something for myself.

I did some yoga.

And then I cleaned the kitchen.

***

And then this happened.

After years of erosion along the bank of a creek behind our house, a tree fell over into our backyard. Now it lies against the edge of our backyard, at the end of its life, broken and unable to be properly disposed of as it is not considered an “essential service” at this time.

The morning after it happened, I occupied the kids by having them pick up sticks and put them in a bucket. It was cold that morning and my coffee cup warmed my fingers as I watched my kids poke through the safest parts of the fallen tree.

Looking at its dark branches against the pink of the dawning sky, I remembered a dream that I had about a tree falling over in the backyard, at a time in my life when everything seemed to be turning upside down.

Maybe it’s a coincidence.

I don’t think everything like this has to be a sign.

But I’m not closed to the idea either.

But it’s strange.

And then this happened.

While I was in a conference call, I was twisting my rings on my hands and I noticed that they didn’t feel right.

The setting was just gone.

I didn’t hit it on anything.

It was strange.

(Jewelry repair is also not an “essential service” at this time.)

These things don’t need to mean anything. I can be okay with believing that sometimes stuff like this happens all at the same time.

But it’s strange.

***

The rhythms of our lives are radically different, but we are making it work. I am working from home from the morning to the afternoon and my husband works from afternoon to midnight. There is no one else to help with care-taking. All the social support of friends and church, daycare and after-school care. It’s all gone. The best babysitter now is the TV and a Chrome book, which we use prudently through the week and throw caution to the wind on the weekend.

We are finding the good in being with our kids more. Time that we previously spent simply commuting to work and picking up kids and going to the occasional weeknight event is all now spent at home. We eat dinner together like usual, but our kids now eat with one of us at lunch time. Sometimes, I finish my shift online and find culinary gems like this waiting for me:

(I know. I’m lucky. I married well. I don’t share stuff like this all the time because he’s too good, and no, you can’t have him. I got him first.)

Although it is hard in the immediate moments of taking care of our kids to remember this, it is ultimately good for us to hold our kids close during this time. (Even though 25% of the care-taking still requires the constant vigilance and reminders of No, Hold on, Wait, Put that down!, Where’s your jacket? Away from the road!, No water guns right now, Zip up your jacket, My God! Stay out of the mud!, Too close to the creek!, Stop! No, that’s my coffee, Careful!)

It is good to take them outside to pick up sticks and discover newly blossomed flowers and put on their rainboots to splash in the puddles and watch an earthworm stretch its way across the paving stones for ten minutes and wish him well. Bye-bye worm!

It’s good to give in and read a Five-Minute Paw Patrol story (few girl characters, and they never solve the problems) when I’d totally prefer to read something like the Little Engine that Could (good moral) or even One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (good rhyming schemes).

In all this time with the kids, moments emerge.

There’s the moment when I hear my daughter reading to my son, as the daylight fades from their rooms. They are having a moment together, apart from me. And it doesn’t tear me apart. It makes my heart soar.

There’s the moment as I’m sleeping that I feel my husband’s hand slip into mine and I wake long enough to squeeze it but not long enough for my mind to start spinning again.

There’s the moment when I hear, for the first time, my son say to my daughter, “I love you, Cici.”

Although my places are restricted, time marches on, leaving behind moments in its wake.

Gather ye moments while ye may.

Week 12: Destiny or Chaos?, a.k.a. The Deep Questions

Regardless of how you define “life,” at 3 months old, a baby has officially been a growing organism for a whole year.

From this:

fertilization

To this:

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In 365 days.

A. Ma. Zing.

This child was conceived four months after a miscarriage. We could have tried sooner, but, you know. Closure. Time. Space. All of these things are good and healing.

Because I was charting my basal temperatures every day for months before all of my pregnancies, I had a pretty good idea of when I would ovulate.

I thought.

Day 14 is ovulation day for a “typical” 28-day cycle. Mine was usually Day 16, but sometimes, it was as late as Day 22. This meant that I had short luteal phases, which can make it difficult to get pregnant or to keep a pregnancy. (I often had a nine-day luteal phase, and sometimes as low as six days. Not good.)

When we conceived our first child, it was Day 18. So, based on past experience, we decided to aim for Days 14-18. You know. Cover all our bases.

Right?

But Days 14-18 of that particular cycle landed right smack in the middle of our “vacation” to the D.C. area. 

I put vacation in quotation marks because we were traveling with a 2 1/2 year old.

So, yeah, it wasn’t really a vacation that was very conducive for baby-making. But that was the timeline.

So be it.

Three days before we left for that trip, our daughter went to bed early and this beautiful window of an hour with nothing to do opened up.

It was Day 11. In the 22 months of data that I had collected, I had never ovulated before Day 14. But whatever. Let’s just have a good time, we thought.

As it turned out, that was my ovulation day.

We officially started “trying” on Day 14, but of course, nothing we did at that point would have gotten us pregnant.

The best laid plans sometimes, right?

***

It would be easy to write this story as destiny. That because our baby is so beautiful and perfect, we were just meant to have sex days before we had planned. God just knew that we needed to get together then in order to make this beautiful baby. Or something like that.

Believing in destiny is all well and good when it’s going your way.

But for all the healing that believing in destiny can do, it can just as easily bleed you dry.

When we miscarried, were we just meant to have sex at the wrong time?

Was that destiny?

Or is destiny just a comforting idea that we hold on to when it helps us?

If there is no destiny, is it all just chaos and luck?

Or do we call it chaos so we don’t need to acknowledge the real consequences of our actions?

Although I’ve been thankful for this child that made his way from cell to zygote to blastocyst to embryo to fetus to baby…

I sometimes wonder about the two pregnancies that didn’t get this far. What would they have been like? Were they boys? Girls? One of each? Did they have chromosomal problems? Would they have been perfect if my body could have held onto them? Would they look like my two living children, who both look more like their cousins than they do their parents?

What alternate course of events may have played out if those pregnancies lasted?

Destiny?

Or Chaos?

When it comes to conceiving a child, it feels like a bit of both.
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The World is Good Because it is Bad: A Letter to my Unborn Child

My Child,

When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.

I didn’t understand. Not really.

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Me: Easter, 1987

We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.

The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.

While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.

I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.

I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.

I remember thinking,

“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”

I remember thinking,

“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”

That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.

My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.

***

That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.

I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.

In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.

I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.

oval-rug

Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.

Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.

But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.

Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.

I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.

Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.

And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.

***

We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.

She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.

good-samaritan

My child, here is what I want to tell you.

Believe in the goodness of people.

Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.

Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.

You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.

But always, always, always remember this:

As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.

Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.

Every. Single. Time.

Do not wish away misfortune and pain.

Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.

And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.

***

Have faith, my child.

Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.

This world is good because sometimes it is bad.

Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.

God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.

It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.

But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.

But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.

***

Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.

Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.

And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.

How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?

How could God be real when I am suffering so much?

What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.

Instead, they see life as a spiral.

A constant moving away and returning.

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Photo credit, Jeff Krause, http://www.flickr.com

Moving away from what matters.

Returning to what matters.

Moving away from truth.

Returning to truth.

Around and around and around.

Until we arrive at the center.

Until we return to God.

What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.

That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.

It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.

It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.

It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.

It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.

It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.

My child, be that hand of God.

Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.

As Mother Teresa has said…

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.

With all my love,

Mom

Beautiful, The Bitch

When I was a teenage girl, I had very little in common with Beautiful.

I was sure of it.

Here is what Beautiful and I shared:

  • I was white.
  • I had long hair.
  • I had pretty good skin.

That was it.

I met Beautiful for the first time in the public library, where I spent Saturdays paging through crinkled copies of Teen. And if I was being really adventurous, it was Seventeen.

Beautiful was white, tall, and thin. She had straight, white teeth. Thin legs, small hips, flat stomach. A flat, flat stomach. I cannot overemphasize flat. She had boobs, although I had no idea what size they were. I just knew they were bigger than mine. She usually had long, straight hair, and it was usually light brown or blond. She could spin in place, her hair perfectly fanning against the wind. She wore short dresses and high heels. Her skin was flawless and her eyes were dark and drew you into her stare.

Seventeen_magazine_1994

It only took me 2 minutes to find a picture of Beautiful.

Real women were like Beautiful. Other women existed, yes, but you didn’t want to look like them because their lives were sad. They never really got what they wanted.

But not Beautiful.

Beautiful always got what she wanted. Simply because she was Beautiful. Beautiful could make a man forget everything that he valued. She could change his mind. She could consume him.

This unspoken narrative was parroted everywhere I looked.

Teen_magazine_1993

This is how I first learned that women achieve their goals through manipulating men. By using their bodies.

And let’s be clear about what the chief goal was: to be loved by a man. Being the recipient of a man’s love was the pinnacle of female existence.

My male readers (I know I have a few) might be thinking at this point, Who cares! Why are women so hell-bent on being like Beautiful? Can’t they recognize that these are advertisements? Don’t they realize that guys don’t really care about all of that?

Well, no, girls don’t really know that. Especially young girls.

Young girls gaze out at the world and see that the women who are happy in every known form of media look at least a little like Beautiful. And the ones that don’t look like Beautiful are constantly cut down to size, derided, and Internet-shamed (see Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, etc.) to remind them that they are breaking the rules.

***

I was 10 years old when I first started gazing out at the world and noticing what made women happy and how. It was all so clear to me–the women who were happy and had great lives were Beautiful. They were married and had great jobs.

This was also when I first realized how different I was from Beautiful.

I tried a lot of horrifyingly awkward ways of shaping and changing my hair and my body so that I resembled Beautiful. I put my faith in Cover Girl and Pantene and Gillette.

Being like Beautiful required that I stop being free and start learning the rules.

It’s when I started caring about leg hair and body odor and matching my clothes. It’s when I learned where I should buy my clothes. And because I was too poor to buy my clothes from those stores, I quickly learned where I could buy cheap imitations, hoping that no one would notice.

I learned how to pee in a public bathroom without farting and if–God forbid–I had to actually poop, I learned how to do it as quietly and discreetly as possible, for fear that another girl would know that I was currently pooping.

I learned how to hide.

How to suck it in.

How to button it up.

Which clothes would cover my rolls.

Which ones would give me the appearance of boobs.

I learned which masks to put on. The aw-so-sweet-I’m-gonna-cry one. The I’m-so-surprised one. The I’m-so-angry-with-you-until-you-apologize one.

I learned all of these rules through shame–either directed at me or at another girl. I quickly learned the reasons that you could be worthy of teasing. And I made it my ultimate goal to never, ever be singled out.

It was the reason that I preferred to be silent much of the time at school. Most people never make fun of the girl who never talks. She’s not an obvious target. I tried to blend in as much as possible. I opened up only to my close friends, many of whom also shared the same fears.

Although I wanted desperately to look like Beautiful, I didn’t.

I was Overweight. Shy. Weak. Spineless. Powerless. Voiceless.

But I was also Pure. Good. Obedient. Trustworthy. Godly.

Over the course of my teenage years the pounds kept coming and coming until I was 50 pounds overweight in my junior year of high school.

I clung to the promise of the Ugly-Duckling narrative that was played out in countless teen movies like She’s All That. I told myself that someone, somewhere out there would someday see how beautiful I was on the inside. Because, ultimately, the world is a place of justice and fairness.

***

But when I was 17 years old, I starved my way from 195 pounds to 155 pounds in four months.

Yeah.

Why?

A boy, of course.

Even though we clicked on all other levels, he told me that he couldn’t be with someone that he didn’t find attractive.

Well, that’s it. I thought. I’m done believing that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Fuck. That.

I’m not terribly proud of this. It shows how much I hated myself. It shows that I derived my own self-worth through the eyes of someone else. That I thought that I was so ugly and fat that I didn’t deserve food. That I thought that the only way I would ever be happy would be if a man loved me. And I couldn’t be loved unless I stopped looking like myself and started looking like Beautiful.

So I starved myself.

And what happened?

He started to like me.

And it wasn’t just him. One of the security guards during my night shift at Target started to blush whenever I talked to him. One of the stock guys said, “You losing weight? It looks nice.” (It. Not you.) I got hit on by male customers while cashiering. One guy even had the balls to ask for my phone number, his wingman digging his elbow into his ribs to urge him on.

Holy shit, I thought, completely flushed as I clumsily declined his offer and turned away. I have to learn how to turn guys down now.

It was the power that I dreamed of.

But it made me feel like everything that I had reassured myself–that true beauty was on the inside–was nothing but bullshit.

It made me feel like Beautiful had been right.

What a smug Bitch.

***

But being like Beautiful left me feeling empty.

Now that I was like Beautiful, now that I could turn heads, is that really wanted I wanted for myself? Did I really enjoy being objectified and positively judged simply because of how I looked? Is that really the way that I wanted to spend my life? Achieving what I wanted by using men?

And if my answer to these question was yes, what kind of a person was I? I would lead a self-centered, egotistical existence, caring nothing for the hearts that I would trample on along the way. And weren’t women supposed to be nurturing? Caring? Loving?

Can you see the conundrum that I faced?

Now that I had this power, I didn’t want it. I wanted the universe to take it back.

***

But perhaps the biggest problem of all was this: Beautiful was a Bitch.

I didn’t like the idea of becoming Beautiful the Bitch.

I wanted to be better than her. I wanted to be Beautiful + 1. I wanted to have the waist, the hips, and the boobs of Beautiful because it would give me power.

But I wouldn’t use that power.

I wanted to be Beautiful because it was an implicit, persuasive argument–even if it was irrational and unfair. I knew that Beautiful was powerful. And I had seen enough to know that everyone listened to Beautiful when she talked.

But I would be different. I would be like the right-handed knight that fights with his left hand for a challenge. Even though I could use my looks, I would use my wit instead. I would surprise people. They might not say it, but they would think, Damn, she’s smart. Not what I expected. Or maybe they would think, She could be so full of herself, but she’s really down-to-earth. Wow.

I would turn Beautiful on her head. I would make people rethink Beautiful to the point that it would kill her.

***

Of course, none of that happened.

Beautiful is still alive and well.

And while I am starting to see the last ten years creep into the corners of my face, Beautiful is still that ageless, flawless wonder.

My desire to be like Beautiful has become more lukewarm these days. I have thankfully moved past those days of extreme self-denial when I believed I was undeserving. It took a relationship built on discovering and celebrating what made each of us Amazing. We redefined Beautiful to include intelligence, drive, compassion, openness, and even forgiveness.

It has changed how I feel about Beautiful.

I realized that I wanted more than what Beautiful could get by herself. Beautiful got lust, but not love. Envy, but not friendship. Pride, but not acceptance.

When I see Beautiful now, I see that she is that smug, bitchy friend who was terrified of someone realizing that she was nothing special. She never bothered to explore who she could really be because being what everyone else wanted was enough. It made her one-dimensional. If you turned her to the side, she would completely disappear, leaving not even a trace.

And that is not how I want to live my life. I want to be remembered. I want to leave not just trace, but a trail.

***

When I look in the mirror today, I see a version of Beautiful.

Sharon_2015

But I also see that 17-year-old girl, who was desperate for someone to love her because she thought it was the only way she could ever be happy. I still feel her broken heart. I still hear her vicious thoughts, full of self-loathing and shame.

Ugly. Fat. Uncool. Poor. 

Sharon_1998

1998: Tenth grade

Ugly thoughts. Truly, ugly thoughts.

I wish I could go back in time and give her a hug. I wish I could tell her to open her eyes and her heart so that she can see that Beautiful is just another way to control women and mold them into being lifelong consumers of products that will never solve all of their “problems.” I wish I could tell her that Beautiful is a Bitch and that if a guy only wants Beautiful, let him go. Because Beautiful is a myth.

And you can never become a myth when you’re Real.

I wish I could undo all the damaging messages that Beautiful has whispered into her ears. I wish I could help her be as carefree and wholehearted as this little girl.

Sharon_1991

1991: Fourth grade

This girl cared more about learning about the planets and stars and her multiplication tables than matching her clothes. She loved a good book, especially Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club. She looked forward to reading all Saturday afternoon at the library. When she had a question, she asked and didn’t feel stupid.

She played on the playground like it was no one’s business. She ran and sweated and got dirty. She sang out loud with abandon. She never thought twice about saying exactly what she thought because she believed wholeheartedly that people would always be kind and accepting. Because God made people. And God is love.

This girl didn’t realize that she lived in a working class family–or even that this was something that people found shameful.

This girl made decisions based on what she thought was interesting and fun, not based on what she thought other people might not tease her about.

Like all mothers, I want a better world for my own daughter. A world of diversity and openness rather than selectivity and judgment. Where the goal is to seek to understand ourselves and each other better, rather than trying to reshape ourselves so that they fit into acceptable boxes that make it easier for us to determine whose voice should be valued and respected.

I wish that there were some magical way of doing this.

I wish the hands of a Just God would reach down into our nations and instill in our cultures an equal respect for both genders. Perhaps then, women would be more equally represented in the upper echelons of our government and corporations and institutions.

There’s a saying that I hear a lot in my church. I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or not, but I like it.

They say, God’s work. Our hands.

I know that this is how real social change happens. By each of us putting our hands into the messy work of change. And every day, I am doing that. Every day, I’m showing my daughter what it means to be a woman who loves herself.

Valentine_picure

When I Became Real to my Husband

A lot of people quote the Bible for the readings at their wedding. Or maybe a famous poet. I chose “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

Velveteen_Rabbit

Original cover, 1922

Not kidding.

If you’re not familiar with the story, like in many children’s book, the toys in the nursery talk to each other. Here, the Horse talks to the Velveteen Rabbit about what it means when the Boy calls one of his toys “Real.”

“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or need to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (emphasis added)

I would like to say that I chose this reading for our wedding vows because it was how we felt about each other on that day.

But it wasn’t.

It couldn’t be.

Yet.

It was my hope for the future of our marriage–that as we grew closer together, we would start to see each other as Real. That even if I fell apart in every conceivable way, even if I were shattered by life, and had nothing left to offer him–not a rockin’ body or clever wit or a pleasant attitude–that he would still be able to see the Beauty of my spirit. That he could look through the prism of my fractured self and see my colors escaping the other side.

Young us, 2005

Young us, 2005

I couldn’t think of the words to express this nagging fear that I held close to my heart as I entered into marriage. I didn’t know how to explain it. I mean, I was convinced  that he knew everything. I thought that he knew all my secrets. All of my failures and flaws. I was pretty sure there was nothing left to tell him.

But, oh. There was. I just hadn’t discovered it yet.

So let me take to you that night when I became Real to my husband.

It was four days after my daughter was born, a Monday night. I had just finished using the double-breast pump for the first time ever in life. For how long? 50 minutes. (And if you don’t know if that’s a long time, let me tell you–Yeah, it’s a long time.)

And all that agonizing pulling and pumping and pain yielded how much milk?

Half of an ounce. (And yeah, that’s pretty horrible.)

My husband came over to me and hugged me. He helped me stand and I peed all over myself. Because birth. And, oh yeah, my mother and my sister were also there watching this whole messy moment unfold.

So, yeah, talk about destroyed.

My husband helped push me up the stairs so I could have a moment to cry in the bathroom. Once I finally was in the bathroom, I realized that somehow, I was still peeing, so urine puddled around my feet. I turned to see my face in the mirror and I saw this misshapen creature, too-small boobs, too-big belly, dark-ringed eyes, unshaved legs. I was horrific.

I just collapsed on the toilet, buried my hot, puffy face in my hands, and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. When I opened my eyes, what did I see? Someone else’s body. Huge, bloated legs, filled with eleven pounds of fluid. Hives on the backs of my hands. Bruises on my left arm from the IV during labor.

I was so ugly. I was so broken. So utterly and completely humiliated.

And absolutely convinced that this was the day that he would stop loving me. Because how could you love someone so hideous and broken?

And this truly broke my heart–that I thought this was the end of us. That because of my failure to stay attractive and  “beautiful” or because of my inability to stay strong, he would see that there was really no reason to love me.

Because why love someone who has nothing to offer you? 

I blubbered and blubbered to him. I confessed and confessed shit that I didn’t even realize I was keeping in.

And what did he do?

He gave me the biggest hug of my life.

He put my sloppy, snotty, mess of a face into his hands and said, “I love you soooooooo much.”

And in that moment, I felt an unparalleled grace for the first time in my life. A moment of heaven on earth. Even though I had been reduced to this version of self that was so not who he had fallen in love with–that he could still look at me and say, “I love you.”

I had underestimated him throughout all those years. I never fully believed that if he saw who I really could be that he would still want to spend his life with me. And in that moment, I realized that I finally truly Loved him. Loved-loved. Not, “I love you because you love me so much” love–which is how I had been framing it for years. But rather “I see who you are. All of you. And I love that”–that kind of love.

And I cried even more because I was so sorry that, for so many years, I hadn’t been looking at what really mattered.

What I felt next was like a deep spiritual sigh, settling on the room. No words to describe it, so I won’t try. Just know that I felt that I was having an epiphany, that everything had just awakened and come into view. And then a wave of emotion that felt like these words:

Finally.

You understand.

Someone doesn’t love you because you have something to offer.

That’s not love.

Love is when someone loves you even though you have nothing to offer.

So just accept it. Don’t start explaining why you don’t deserve this.

Just say yes.

Before that moment, I had still been building the structure of our relationship on the assumption that he loved me for my looks or my intelligence or my congeniality, or whatever else. I probably said “he loves who I am,” but did I really know that?

How could I know that unless he saw a version of me that was completely opposite of how I had presented myself to him for all of these years?

I couldn’t know. Not for sure.

I could only know for sure if he witnessed me in that rawest state of my being. Only if all the flattering mirrors were pulled away and he could see me from all angles and still say, “I love you.”

But, God, this is difficult to achieve. You can’t manufacture experiences that will lead to this level of openness, vulnerability, and ultimately, trust. It happens organically, just as the Horse said, It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.

I think that if you want to reach this stage in a relationship with someone, you need to be able to recognize the moments when you feel like you are trying to keep them from seeing who you really are–and then have the courage to let them see it. All of it. The whole shitty mess.

I know what you’re thinking–But what if they don’t like what they see? What if they leave?

It’s a risk for sure. There are no guarantees of what will happen. But how would you rather live? With fear that someday your partner will see a version of you that drives them away? Or with the knowledge that your partner has already seen those other sides–and accepts them anyway?

So what about you?

Have you ever been Real to someone? 

Because let me tell you, once you are Real to someone, so much unspoken–even unacknowledged–fear and anxiety melts away. And you are finally able to see the other person as just as Real–even when you thought you had been seeing them all this time.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that not all relationships reach this level of Realness. It’s not even a given for marriage. Some couples are not Real to each other–and yet they still see their children as Real.

Why is this?

Parenthood–or care-taking in general–opens our eyes to a deeper truth about love that helps us understand why our romantic relationships can be so much less authentic than the relationships that we have with our kids.

While it was (and still is) important to me that my husband love me unconditionally, it is not nearly as important to me that my child loves me unconditionally. I talk about this a bit in my book, but I’ll briefly state here–that I don’t think I immediately “loved” my daughter as soon as she was born. Instead, I felt that I grew to love her. And that because my relationship with her started as caregiver, the love that I have for her isn’t dependent on whether or not she could show love to me.

Don’t get me wrong–it stings if she says she doesn’t want to hug me. Ouch.

But do I break into a cycle of thoughts about, “Oh no! My daughter thinks I’m awful! I’m such a terrible mother!”

Nope. Not at all.

Because my love for her isn’t reliant on how she sees me. I love her even if she doesn’t hug me or tell me I’m amazing. I love her even if she has nothing to offer me.

And it all started in those first weeks of life.

When I nursed until I broke, when I pulled through hours and hours of sleep deprivation to keep going, as I limped about in persistent pain while recovering from childbirth–I did all of this without a thank you from her, or even an intentional smile.

My relationship with her didn’t start with the assumption that I would wait to see what she had to offer me before I chose to care about her. And that changed the whole dynamic of how I experienced love for her. Instead, I loved as many parents love–all-in and with no guarantee that it will be returned.

But, oh, the tears that come when it is returned. I don’t see it as a given. I see it as a gift. And that is how I stay out of that toxic cycle of thoughts of worrying that my child doesn’t love me.

Because I Love her. Love-Love.

To me, she is already Real. Every part of her. She can never become Unreal.

And maybe someday, she’ll see me as Real, too.

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“My Gift to You, First-Time Mothers”

Here we are, dear readers.

I’m allowing myself to be seen in all moments, not just ones in which I had overwhelming gratitude and joy for motherhood. Not just ones in which people would see me as “a good mother.” I showed myself being ungrateful and whiny and vain.

Because that is real motherhood, especially new motherhood.

You are constantly caught between who you once were and who you are not quite yet. And in that tension, we feel shame over and over again that we are not good mothers. That we fail. That we feel ungrateful and selfish.

And that is not okay. It is not okay to feel shame so often in those first months of motherhood. You have enough to deal with. You should never feel ashamed that you are not further down the road than where you are at that moment.

You are where you are. You are not where everyone else is. And you know what? Everyone else isn’t all gathered together in the same place either.

We are all scattered around different points on this rugged terrain. But when you’re on the top of the mountain, looking down, it’s easy to push a few stones off onto the climbers below you when you’re just flexing a bit of muscle and clout. It’s easy to forget how easily new mothers bruise from being hit by these stones. It’s easy to lose all perspective and empathy for new mothers after you’ve emerged from its grueling initiation.

But don’t.

Don’t lose your empathy for what they are going through.

Don’t lose your ability to cry with them when they desperately tell you that they haven’t slept well in eight months. (That desperation is so real!)

Don’t lose your ability to listen without offering advice. They don’t want your advice, damn it. Unless they pointedly ask you for advice, you know what they want?

A hug. A freaking hug. That’s what they want.

To be heard and to be loved.

The last thing they need is to be shamed (“Well, I never had that problem”) or to be belittled (“Oh, wait until they’re 2! They’re hellions!”) or to be ignored. What they need is for you to tell them 1) that they’re doing a good job, 2) that they are strong, and 3) that you’ll come over and give them a break so they can do something that they want for once.

I wrote this book because I want so much for new mothers to feel understood, loved, heard, and championed. I want them to know that what makes them good mothers is simply getting through that first year—no matter how they get through it. I want them to know that someone out there respects and appreciates how unbelievably hard that first year of motherhood is.

Our government and our jobs may not care. And our partners may not completely understand. But other women who have been down this road can completely empathize. They’ve felt the frustration of having no weekends or holidays “off” for months and months. They know what it’s like to have your existence reduced to nothing but caretaker.

They know. Oh, they know.

So, here is my gift to you first-time moms.

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

Let me take you into moments that new mothers don’t like to talk about—but that we should. Not to scare you—but to help you feel less alone if you find yourself in similar situations.

We all crave connection, especially in times of uncertainty. So let’s go on a journey together. Let’s tell each other our stories.

I’ll go first.

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