Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: relationships

A Long December: Reflections on a Decision that Changed Everything

Rocking my almost two-year-old son in the rocking chair.

Christmas night.

The humidifier steams. The white noise machine zzhhhhhhs.

Faint lights from passing cars travel across the walls.

With his soft breath against my shoulder, I rock back and back and back. One year. Two years. Five years. Ten years. As many Christmases as I can remember.

Plenty of happy ones.

Plenty of ones filled with tension. (Growing up in a house with four teenagers will do that).

Plenty of forgettable ones in my 20s. (That limbo between getting married and having kids.)

Now, we’ve entered a series of Christmases that no longer mean comfort and joy or the most wonderful time of the year.

There was the Christmas of Nausea (2012), when I grasped for ginger candy and Sea Bands or whatever anyone suggested that might help me ride the waves of first trimester nausea. From December until mid-January. (Truly a delight, let me tell you.)

And the 37-Weeks-Pregnant Christmas (2016), when I told myself that I only had three weeks left to go. (It turned out to be another five weeks. Yeah.)

And all those fun Christmases of Illness (2014, 2017, 2018). 2017 was by far the worst, as the baby’s diarrhea stretched on for a few weeks, taking us all down into its shitty vortex.

And the downright sad Christmas (2015) when the baby’s heart stopped beating. After I had a D & C on New Year’s Eve, I sat in the parking lot of Whole Foods while my husband bought me a slice of apple pie. I listened to “Long December” by the Counting Crows and cried.

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe

Maybe this year will be better than the last

I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself

to hold on to these moments as they pass

But if I’m really thinking about the Christmas when everything in my life changed direction, when I started plotting a course that brought me to this rocking chair, with this child in my arms, while my oldest sleeps in her bed across the hall, I always end up traveling back to Christmas of 2002.

It was Christmas Eve. 11:00 p.m. At Wal-Mart. And I was standing in the card aisle. Looking for cards for a few friends and my boyfriend. I had no trouble picking out the cards for my friends.

But I was having the hardest time picking out one for my boyfriend of three years.

Forever and always. My one and only. Meant for each other.

I couldn’t even pick them up to consider them.

Because I understood, suddenly and completely, that I couldn’t see a future for us anymore, the way that I used to.

What was our future? It was his vision for what we would become. A married couple. A house. No kids. I could be a teacher, but did I really need any more education than a Bachelor’s degree? Why did I want to travel when he was the most important thing in my life? Wasn’t a life with him good enough? And kids? Why have kids? They just ruin a good thing.

And for a long time, I thought, Yes, of course. You’re right. You are the only thing that I want in life. I couldn’t possibly want anything else. Right. I don’t want kids. Nah, too much work. We’d be much happier by ourselves. Living our life together without kids getting in the way.

But I did want more. Much more. And in time, conversations about the future brought me back again and again to a realization that I could not ignore.

We had come as far as we could together, but now there was more pulling us apart than was keeping us together.

And although my heart had been feeling that way for some time, I didn’t want to give up. I had poured so much of myself into making it work. I wasn’t a quitter. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I liked his family. I didn’t want to make life more difficult or more inconvenient for anyone.

And above all, I didn’t want to believe that although love can bring people together, sometimes it wasn’t enough to keep them together. No one makes movies or songs about the power of finding someone with compatible values and goals for life, or someone who trusts you and works with you to resolve conflict. It’s not sexy enough. And if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t have the vocabulary back then to even articulate the problems.

I just remember thinking, This isn’t working.

I thought that a lot.

And yet, I was like the women in my family who came before me: devoted and long-suffering, servile and contented.

To end this relationship was not within my repertoire. At all.

But I also couldn’t lie to myself.

And therefore, I wouldn’t lie to anyone else anymore either.

I paid for the cards for my friends, got in my old car, turned the heat up, and flipped on the radio. The voice of Stevie Nicks reached through the speakers and the tears rolled.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?

Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I don’t know.

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

Because I built my life around you

But time makes you bolder, children get older

And I’m getting older too

I didn’t realize it yet, but when I left that store that night, I had changed the entire trajectory of my life.

Because the very next guy that I dated became my husband.

Three years later, we were married.

And we had two kids.

Doug_Sharon_2002_01

***

I know. I know.

It’s what we’re tempted to believe: That all the decisions–good and bad–that we’ve made in our lives have brought us to a point for which we’re ultimately grateful.

But, had I made different decisions, would I have ended up somewhere else, where I would be equally as grateful?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

But what I do know is that I did something extraordinary on Christmas Eve of 2002.

For years, I imagined my future, married, but no children. Never kids.

But on Christmas Eve of 2002, I allowed myself to imagine a different future.

A life in which, someday…

maybe…

I might have kids.

It turns out, as it is with a lot of things, the biggest steps that we take all start with a thought.

The simple willingness to imagine a different future.

That ability to imagine a different future has taken me far beyond the original course that I had plotted for my life. It has helped me imagine that I could get a Master’s degree. And travel overseas. And change my political and religious beliefs. And write a book. And lose forty pounds. (Three times, yeah.) And relearn algebra. (It’s true.)

And, yeah, it has helped me to imagine a life that includes kids.

And, with endless gratitude, it has helped me imagine a future moment in my life when my children won’t always need me every moment that they are awake. And a time when we won’t have to pay for babysitters. And a time when we can travel with them without losing our minds.

What about you?

What different future do you imagine for yourself?

And what will you do tomorrow to help you get there?

May you surprise yourself in this next year.

Without a Name: When a Parent has Bipolar Depression

I knew something was seriously wrong when my mother told me that she had woken up late one night to find my father sitting in the living room, talking to some pennies that he had been collecting.

To be fair, there were a lot of other signs before this that made us think, What the hell is going on?

Like when he ominously thanked my mother for all she had done before slowly sinking to the bottom of my brother’s pool. (He eventually came back up.)

Like when he spent that one family reunion handing out tiny envelopes, each carefully labeled with a person’s name and their birth year. Each holding a penny stamped with that year.

Like when he suddenly became completely comatose for a week, refusing to eat or talk, but the doctor said that it wasn’t a stroke, and he should be fully aware of his surroundings.

Like when he insisted that my mother not talk in the house–because it was bugged and the FBI was listening to their every word.

We called it paranoia. We called it depression.

It all started with a sudden change in his career that catapulted him into a future where he could not see his identity.

Although he was still a husband. Although he was still a father. Although he was still, still, still. Once he lost his professional identity, the great unraveling began.

***

I remember walking into the room in our house where Dad had set up his laptop on a cheap table and called it his “office.” Our border collie, Gator, dutifully lay beside his feet. He said, “Sharon, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can’t do the bakery business… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It was 2006. For twenty-five years, he had been a bakery specialist for SuperValu grocery stores. But faced with increased competition, SuperValu pivoted its marketing strategy towards a higher-end retail model and launched a new produce company, W. Newell & Co.

His boss told him that he could also pivot in his career. He could abandon his twenty-five years of experience in bakery marketing for SuperValu and embrace a new career in produce marketing for W. Newell & Co…. Or…

“Well, you don’t want to know the other option… That’s what my boss told me. Those exact words, Sharon,” he pointed an accusative finger at me, the only person there who was listening.

I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It will be okay. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.”

But he just kept saying,

“I’m not a produce man. I’m a bakery man. Always been one. I don’t know what to do.”

Dad_2005

***

Looking back now, I can track my dad’s slow descent into madness. I can see how he withdrew and surrendered, year after year after year. I can see a constellation of strange interactions and responses.

I remember him walking up to an empty cash register at Wal-Mart and suddenly screaming, “I NEED HELP!!! HELP ME DOWN HERE!!!”

I remember my brother telling me that they barely got back into the country after a trip to Jamaica because Dad was “making a fuss” at the airport.

We didn’t know what to call it, so we called it moodinessWe called it angry old man syndrome.

When he started to walk with a strange gait, when he started to lose his facial expressions, when he started to go days without speaking, we began to understand that something else was going on.

The doctors called it Parkinson’s disease.

But we all knew that wasn’t enough.

More doctors added that it was bipolar depression.

It seemed fitting, but we still wondered: What is causing what? Will we find out there’s a third monster, just waiting in the wings? Why now? Why haven’t we seen this until now? Has he always had this and we just didn’t realize it?

Could losing his career really push this precariously balanced snowball down the cliff of his mind?

Or would he always have disintegrated this way, regardless of the stressors in his life?

***

In his last years of life, stranger things started to happen.

He called the sheriff on himself, insisting that he be arrested. He was convinced that the government was going to come and arrest him for not paying taxes on some Parent Plus loans that he had taken out for my sister (He had just received a notice that the loans had been forgiven because of his disability).

The government was coming for him. He just knew it. They would hunt him down–and he deserved it.

But when the sheriff arrived, he said that he couldn’t arrest my dad.

To which my dad screamed, “What does a guy have to DO to get ARRESTED around here?”

“You have to be a danger to yourself or others,” he explained.

“Well, I AM! I’m a dangerous person!”

“Are you going to hurt yourself?” the sheriff asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“If you were going to hurt yourself, what would you use?” he asked.

“A gun.”

My mother interrupted, “You don’t have a gun.”

“Then, a knife! I’d use a knife!”

God bless this sheriff, who mercifully took my mother aside and asked her if she wanted him to take him to a nearby psychiatric hospital. She said yes.

***

My mother. Oh, my mother.

The things this woman has plowed through. The pain that she’s endured over and over again.

Sometimes, there are no words.

***

Last summer, she passed out in a grocery store while shopping because her doctor had her on medication that caused extremely low blood pressure. I sat with her in the emergency room while they checked her out, making sure she was okay.

We told stories to pass the time. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and she asked me how I was doing. The conversation stalled for a moment and she started laughing.

“What are you laughing about?” I asked.

She told me of a time she needed to drive my dad back to this psychiatric hospital, on one of his particularly manic days. It was mid-February in Minnesota, the high for the day averaging a balmy five degrees below zero.

My father was growing frustrated that they hadn’t already arrived at the hospital, so he started banging the dashboard of the car.

“Quit that!” my mother yelled at him. “You’ll set off the airbags.”

He hit the dashboard harder.

Then, God knows why, he rolled the window down and started making bird calls.

My mother cranked up the radio to drown out the sound of his bird calls. With the windows rolled down, freezing air pouring in, she could see strangers peering curiously into the chaotic scene of their small Ford Focus wagon.

Sitting in that emergency room, two years later, we laughed about this.

“How did you get through all of that?” I joked with her.

She smiled. “What else was there to do? I could cry about it or laugh. So I laughed about it. It was the only way to get through it.”

***

How do you love your father when he makes your mother miserable?

Where do you place the blame when you know it’s not his fault?

There were times when my mother would open up and tell me how bad it had gotten and I would hang up the phone and think, What if she leaves him? What will happen? Who will take care of him? 

Truth be told, part of me wanted her to leave him. Because he was that heavy stone, pulling her down in the dark, suffocating depths of psychosis. And my mother didn’t deserve that. Couldn’t she be released of her marriage vows if the partnership threatened her very well-being? Wasn’t marriage about bringing out the best in each other?

But then… who would take care of him?

Who?

I try to fathom what it was like for my mother to have been caught in this conflict every day.

To be married to someone who had become so completely different than the man she fell in love with.

To be caught in the tension between her love for his past self and her anger toward his present self.

To run through the narrow list of options every day and still come to the same conclusion:

I promised in sickness or in health.

For me, I couldn’t choose to end my connection to my father. He is half of my DNA. He is my nose, my chin, my dark features. He is my stubbornness, my sarcasm, my sentimentality, my impeccable memory, and my gift for storytelling. We are ISFJs, the practical workers who work with their “noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel” (as Dad would put it) and then quietly revel in a job well done.  

But it was different for my mother.

For my mother in those last years, showing love for my father was a painstaking, daily decision. One in which my father rarely even acknowledged and, on a bad day, even resented. She could have chosen to walk away after thirty-four years of marriage, chalking up their connection to nothing more than years and years of shared memories.

But she didn’t.

And that is how my mother has schooled me.

She showed me that love is more than fortifying the ship as it sails along on smooth winds. She showed me that love is also grabbing his hand when the ship crashes and refusing to let go when you see him sinking. Even as something dark and terrifying grabs hold of him and takes him down.

Sometimes, your love for your partner cannot be returned.

And when it can’t, your love needs to be strong enough to hold the both of you.

SCN_0046

***

It took me time to understand how sick my father really was. That’s the way it is with illnesses that alter behaviors, emotions, and moods. I think it would have been easier for our family to understand and adjust if some visible growth had invaded his body rather than this invisible force that laid waste to his mind.

We could have understood earlier that he wasn’t just “being difficult” or “acting funny.” We could have understood that a bad exchange with him wasn’t because we said something wrong or because he was suddenly a terrible person.

But it took years to diagnose him with bipolar depression. And without a name to call it, we just called it “Dad.” And for me, this is what hurt the most.

Because this wasn’t my dad.

***

I didn’t see my father many times in the last years of his life. They lived in Texas for a few years, and then, they moved to Minnesota. I lived in Ohio.

I wish I had known that 2006-2011 would be the last years that I could still have semi-normal conversations with him. Ones in which he would at least say something after I said something, even if it didn’t quite respond to what I said.

I wish there had been some kind of map at the beginning of his descent into mental illness. Some kind of markers along the way that read,

This is your last chance to tell your father you love him–and have him believe it.

Or This is the last time that you’ll see him smile without being prompted.

Or This is the last time that he’ll make a joke with you about politics.

But there were no markers. No maps.

There were just moments upon moments when we decided to draw close to each other or to move away.

To move away.

To move away.

Until he was gone.

***

I don’t tend to be a mystical person. But sometimes, I wonder.

This past March, I was making some cookies for St. Patrick’s Day with my daughter. We were using mint chips instead of chocolate chips and adding green food coloring. As I transferred each piping hot cookie from the sheet to the cooling rack, I could almost hear my dad crooning one of his favorite sayings as he would rub his hands together excitedly.

You’ve got to have the patience of Job, he would say, as if he were advising himself from giving in to his childlike temptations.

Baking was his life and I smiled as I thought, He would love to have seen this.

And then this song came up on Pandora:

Remember when our songs were just like prayers

Like gospel hymns that you called in the air

Come down, come down sweet reverence

Unto my simple house and ring… and ring…

It was Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” the same song that I used for the video that I created for my dad’s funeral.

I looked out into the kitchen, partially expecting to see him standing there. It was just a millisecond, I’m sure, but for that millisecond, I really had the expectation that he would be there when I turned around.

I would see him inching his way toward one of my cookies with his sneaky smile. I would tell him, Hands off!

But he would grab one anyway, shove it in his mouth, and then say, Heh? What was that? Did you say something?

Then I would laugh and poke him in his belly.

Then his hands, already in motion to grab a second cookie, would instinctively curl up to protect his middle, only to arrive too late, leaving me free to poke him mercilessly until he would twirl out of the kitchen, hands clutched around his belly.

For that moment, he was not only alive, but fully restored. There was no anger or paranoia. No delusions or mania. Instead, he was funny, charming, and tender. He was the man I always knew him to be.

And that was how I was caught in one of the paradoxes of grief: the simultaneous desire to laugh and cry.

Then the hurt all over again. Wishing that I had the superhuman ability to push into another dimension, where we are not caught between these two fundamental dichotomies of human biology and physics. Alive or dead. The past or the present.

I pray to God that this is true—that there is another possible reality, one in which life and time are suspended so that there can be no more loss or illness or deviation.

Only wholeness.

 

 

The Bad Boy

The first time I met a man, I was twelve years old.

It was a Friday night in 1993 and I had just finished bowling with my friend, “Angela,” who lived just two houses down from me on Pepper Drive, a street firmly planted in the working class side of town. On our street, you could tell which houses were owned and which were rented simply by looking at the lawns. Gleaming green? Owned. Patchy and brown? Rented. (Our lawns were… meh.)

Angela slid a quarter into the pay phone and called her house. She exchanged a few mumbled words over the phone before she dropped the phone into its cradle. Then, she rolled her eyes.

“Tim’s coming,” she huffed as she sunk her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker.

“Oh,” I said.

Angela always complained about her stepdad. He was always telling her no and “being mean.” He even called her names like stupid and cow. But I knew it was more than that.

I saw behind her mother’s makeup, so thick it cracked at the corners of her eyes and lips when she managed to smile. I listened through Angela’s flimsy explanation for why the glass coffee table was cracked from end to end. But it was also terribly easy to tell when Angela was lying. Her eyes would dart upward and fixate on the center of your forehead.

And Angela lied a lot.

But they weren’t the kind of lies that would erode a friendship. Her lies never made me question whether or not she liked me. No, Angela gave pathetic, pitiful lies with the intention of covering her own shame. According to Angela, her shirts always came from The Limited and her Nikes were always from The Finish Line. She only earned bad grades in her classes because her teachers were terrible and unfair. She wasn’t really overweight…she was just so bloated because of her period.

But I knew better–because I had lies of my own.

When Tim pulled up in his brand new 1992 black Camaro, I could hear the music booming through the windows.

“Come on,” Angela said as she grabbed my arm and pulled me to the passenger side of the car.

I had never been in a two-door car before (courtesy of growing up in a family of seven), so I pretty much awkwardly fell into the back seat of the car since I had no idea of where to put my feet in order to slide in. I had just pulled myself upright and was searching for a seat belt when Tim took off.

He didn’t ask us about how bowling was. He didn’t even say hi. We were in his space now. And his space was dark, save the soft lights of the dashboard, and it reeked of a sickly sweet mixture of new car scent and Marlboros. He slouched into his reclined seat, his head lifted just enough to see over the steering wheel. From his fingers dangled his glowing cigarette.

But what defined Tim’s space the most was the booming bass notes of Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

It seems no one can help me now

I’m in too deep, there’s no way out

This time I have really led myself astray

I had known the protective, authoritative side of masculinity. The side with advice, answers, and optimism. Ambition and plans. Smiles, hugs, and encouragement.

But I knew that I was now seeing an entirely different side of masculinity, something that had been hidden beneath all the other roles that men had occupied for me: father, uncle, pastor, teacher. This new masculinity was divorced of anything paternal. It was… dark.

Runaway train, never going back

Wrong way on a one-way track

Seems like I should be getting somewhere

Somehow neither here nor there

The notes of this song screamed hopelessness and despair. I could almost see Tim in his endless line of dead-end jobs that barely paid enough to cover the rent. I could see that this car–however he managed to afford it–was an escape from the reality of his life. I could see his life playing out before him, a thousand different ways, but all of them ending in the same, lonely, frustrated death.

It felt like the first time that a man was ever being real with me. Like he was leveling with me and say, “Fuck it. I don’t have any advice for you. I’m just living for now.”

Suddenly, I could see all the walls that men had built around themselves. They were held up by these walls, brick by brick, assurance by assurance, plan by plan. But they were also trapped behind them. And if they lost their footing, it was a long way to fall.

But sitting in that car, I started to see through the bricks in these walls. I started to see that the only thing holding the walls together was pride.

No man had ever let me see his unguarded side.

And though I didn’t have the words for it when I was twelve years old, I realize now that I found this whole situation… incredibly sexy.

Soul_Asylum

Soul Asylum, 1993

***

Now, none of this changed the fact that Tim was an alcoholic with a violent temper.

But somehow, all of that was forgotten in this moment when I was able to see through these walls. I was so dazzled by the existence of this softer, more vulnerable side that I forgot all those horrible insults he had said to my good friend. Maybe, deep down, he really is sweet, I might have thought.

And because of that, I can understand the initial attraction that women often feel to the bad boys. And why many of them stay.

Admittedly, some of the boys that I had the biggest crushes on during middle school and high school were those quiet, introverted loners that listened to Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Live, and Soundgarden. I didn’t have the vocabulary and the self-awareness at the time to understand why I could picture myself with one of them rather than a popular, well-liked, or even a really smart guy.

But I realize now that the attraction came from my ability to see why a quiet, introverted loner would want to date me.

And the biggest reason that I thought one of those guys would want to date me?

Because he would need me.

What could I offer a popular or smart guy? I wondered.

I thought I was ugly, so why would a popular guy be seen with an ugly girl? And I wasn’t so sure that I was that smart (Algebra I was a real nightmare), so why would a smart guy want to talk to an average girl?

I just couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a guy wanted to be with me just because I was me.

I was not enough. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. Not cool enough. Not smart enough. Not interesting enough.

So if I wasn’t enough by myself, I needed to be able to offer something. By being able to see why someone would want me, I could finally re-imagine myself as desirable.

So in all of my daydreams, I had clearly defined what I had to offer a guy:

1) I could see him for who he really was when everyone else couldn’t

2) I could be the only one who wouldn’t leave.

Maybe I couldn’t be thin and pretty. Maybe I couldn’t be smart.

But, by God, I could be loyal.

***

For the life of me, I cannot remember what Tim looked like. I have no memory of this. But for me, the attraction to the bad boy isn’t about appearances. It’s about emotions and singularity. It’s about the allure of being the only person that the bad boy trusts, the only one to whom he reveals his vulnerability.

Being the only one makes you feel special, chosen, anointed.

It makes you feel desirable–and that is one hell of an aphrodisiac. It’s a strong cocktail of sex and power.

After all, isn’t that what attraction really is? A dance of power?

Wanting someone who is just out of reach. Or being just out of reach to someone else. Overpowering someone with your desirability. Or being overpowered by someone else’s desirability.

That’s attraction.

***

Personally, I’ve always found physical attraction much more fleeting than emotional attraction.

Allow me to digress for a moment.

I used to work with a rather attractive guy at the main library at Miami University while I was going to school there. He was super tall, a real broad guy, which I loved because I’m also pretty tall. He had a shy air about him, but he had such a great smile. I would tell him jokes just so I could see him smile.

We had a Friday night shift from 7:00 p.m. to midnight together one semester, so we ended up spending Friday after Friday sitting next to each other at the circulation desk. Most of our conversations were just friendly banter for the first six weeks. Then around the middle of the semester, we turned away from our books and started talking to each other late one night, probably around 10:30. We talked about where we grew up and what our childhoods were like.

It was great. It had all the components of a date while in the safe context of “Well, we’re just talking at work.” If things got too uncomfortable, I could magically find something that I needed to do.

Then, we started talking about the future—what our plans were after college. By this point, our books were pushed to the side of the counter and we were leaning forward in our chairs, laughing. Then, he said this: “Yeah, I think your twenties are all about making the money. Then, your thirties are about doubling it.”

Womp-womp.

Never had I been so quickly and completely turned off.

***

We need attraction. In the beginning, it’s what holds our attention.

But attraction isn’t love.

Too often, we slap the word love onto the feeling of attraction. We confuse the dance of attraction and desirability with the holiness of love.

Love is a different animal. Love remains when attraction drops its arms. It lingers when the other person has become broken and messy. Love draws us wholeheartedly into the mess. Love compels us to give and give beyond what we thought possible. In the presence of love, fear and mistrust die. You cannot fully love someone whom you don’t trust.

And I think that this is where a lot of relationships with the bad boys fall apart. Inability to trust is almost always one of the main reasons that he became a bad boy in the first place.

Someone abandoned him or disappointed him. He loved someone–a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover–and that person betrayed him. And instead of moving through the pain, he built the walls higher. He climbed inside and toughened up. It made him feel safer, sure, but more importantly, it made him feel powerful.

And if he is powerful, he can’t be hurt.

***

When our middle school years were over, Angela and I drifted apart. We were on two entirely different academic tracks in our high school of 1,600 students. In my junior year of high school, I saw her in the cafeteria when we were all gathered together for some kind of assembly. I sat across from her at a lunch table while she propped her chin on her hand, looking so incredibly bored. She rolled her eyes lazily, only keeping them half-open as she asked me what kinds of classes I was taking.

It was incredibly awkward for me, but I’m certain that Angela was too stoned to remember anything that I had said. As I was talking, I could see her eyes looking through me, as if I had completely disappeared.

“You probably have, like… Lots of good, smart friends, huh?” she asked.

“Yeah, I know a lot of people in my classes,” I admitted.

“Good for you…” her eyes landed on my forehead. “I do too, really. You know Misty? Misty… what’s-her-name… You know who’m talkin’ bout?”

I shook my head.

“Anyway, we real tight. Yeah, we hang out a lot. Her and her dude. Oh and I got a man, too.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” she rolled her eyes. “He’s like real crazy for me and shit. Like, we have sex, like all the time,” she bragged. “He’s got a job already and we’re gonna get a place together as soon as I get out of this shithole,” she waved her free hand at the room.

“That’s great,” I lied. For a moment, I thought I should feel jealous. But I knew that what I was feeling for her was pity. It was awful. I swallowed hard and tried to climb out of this confusing mess of a conversation. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Tommy,” she said, playing with the zipper on her backpack. She tossed her hair as she looked around the room. She had gained about forty pounds since I last saw her. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and she had patches of acne on her forehead and chin.

“He’s like fuckin’ all over me, I can’t even stop him,” she added.

I nodded, too stunned to find any words.

“Totally loves me and shit.” She yawned deeply.

I imagined Angela in this new relationship. I knew that she kept everyone at arm’s length, even her close friends. I knew how she acted when she was confronted with her lies. I knew her shame and how she coped with it. I knew the example of love that had been lived out before her through the tumultuous relationship of her mother and stepfather.

At that moment, I couldn’t articulate why I knew her new relationship was already doomed. All I knew was that she was used to staring at the walls that men built around themselves, her eyes looking up, always up, landing on the center of their foreheads. I knew that what she classified as love was unstable and dramatic. It played out in an exhausting script of pleading, ultimatums, and second chances.

I knew that all the pieces of herself that she had to offer were jagged and uneven and they would cut anyone who touched her. Deeply.

But I know Angela couldn’t have seen this. Not yet.

As she sat at that table across from me, her eyes lit up. “Hey, maybe we should hang out some time,” she said.

“Yeah, maybe…” I smiled, my heart growing tight in my chest.

“Pshh…” she rolled her eyes. “Nah, you’re too good for me now, aren’t you?” she joked. “You’re all hanging with the smart kids and stuff.”

“No, really, we’ll hang out,” I lied.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “Okay.”

That was the last time I ever saw Angela.

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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