I walked into the spa last week to get a long overdue facial (long overdue in the sense that I'm 37 & never had one before). The aesthetician asked me to lie on the table under a bright light to take a closer look.
“We'll definitely need to work on the dark circles under your eyes--are they naturally this dark or have you had trouble sleeping?"
"Well I haven't had REM sleep since 2014, so..."
"And wow, your skin appears dehydrated...are you drinking enough water?"
I felt a wave of shame wash over me for not taking better care of myself. I wasn't trying to be snarky with her, I'm just tired of everyone telling me I look tired. I want to say "I probably look tired because I AM—I’m a teacher and a mom”.
I had answered a million questions about my lifestyle on the form I filled out beforehand: questions about how much sun exposure I get and how much sugar I eat. Maybe there should be a question about how many kids you have or how old they are. Toddler at home...check. No need for questions, you can assume I don’t have time for regular facials or a stellar nighttime skin regimen.
It's not that I'm neglecting myself because I've stopped caring or don't understand the importance of doing so—I do value myself.
I know I'm a better mom and have more to give when I put myself first.
I know I feel better when I drink green smoothies for breakfast instead of running through the drive-thru.
I know I feel better when I exercise.
I know meditating is a better option than the mid-afternoon second round of coffee.
I know eight hours of sleep is ideal.
I know, I know, I know, I know.
It just seems life is spinning so fast, it’s hard to catch a minute, let alone 20. Or that every time I try to (fill in the blank) ...there’s an interruption.
I dip a toe in the hot bathwater..."MOM!"
I get up extra extra ungodly early to catch up on writing. I take the first glorious sip of coffee..."MOM!"
I finally lay my head down to crash after a long bedtime battle...”MOM!”
But each and every time he calls, I will continue to come running. Because nothing I do in this life holds a candle to him. I'd give my own life up for him, and that's what I'm doing now, in little bits and pieces, here and there every day. And I will continue to stop what I'm doing and come running because it won't be this way forever--there are seasons in life and this, my friends, is the season of tired. The season of the extra ten pounds I always need to lose. The season of only being able to give 80% at work when I want to give 100%. But this season will also pass, as seasons do.
I know there will also come a season when I have the time to take better care of me. And, as frustrating as it is now to give some of those things up, I know that it will also be the season of missing that little voice calling for me...needing me. I’ll feel more rested & might look a little better, but I know my heart will long for that voice calling “Mommy”.
I’m not condoning just throwing in the towel on ourselves…I’m just done being hard on myself and having unrealistic expectations about it--EVERYTHING can’t be your number one priority at the same time. I want to be a great teacher, but I probably won't get teacher of the year in this season. I want to be healthy, but I probably won’t stick to a 100% clean diet in this season. I want to be a good wife, but I'm not exactly fulfilling his every fantasy in this season. Seasons for being the best at these things have been around before and they'll come around again. Right now I'm at peace with forsaking excellence at everything else so I can nail it at momming in this small window of time when I need to most.
I'm still going to fight the good fight--I pack myself healthy lunches, I wear make-up and take my hair out of a clip most days (ok, some). I write in little pockets of stolen time and, even though it probably does little good in the long run, I still exercise a couple times a week just for my own sanity. I'm under no illusions that "here and there" is how you get results at any of it. But here and there is better than not at all, I figure.
What I am giving up, though, is the shame that I can’t sustain it daily and kick ass at all of it, whether in front of the aesthetician or in front of myself in the mirror, because my reason is NOT laziness or lack of drive. It's a conscious choice to be the there fully--whenever needed--for my boy, in this short season of tired.
Earlier this week, as one of my students shared her biographical research report on Walt Disney, I remembered writing my own paper about him in sixth grade. My family had just moved to Florida from West Virginia and, having always been fascinated with all things Disney, I was super excited to now be living a little closer to the magic. I worked my tail off on that paper--I did my research, wrote in my neatest cursive, and just to throw in some flair, I cut out some pictures from Disney books I had at home and glued them to the cover for decoration (this was long before the days of internet cut + paste). I included my own dreams of working at Disney World one day in the conclusion. I anxiously awaited my teacher's response, but she was not pleased. "I'm shocked to get this level of effort from you...you normally hand in such great work. Cutting and pasting pictures from a book? You're going to have to do better than this if you plan on working for Disney one day," she laughed. She was wrong. It turns out you really don't have to work that hard, you just have to look the part.
I showed up at Disney's Human Resources office just looking for a job--any job. I graduated from college a few months earlier and taken a very grown-up job where I got to wear a suit and have benefits and bring home the same amount of money every week. The problem was, I was working for a jerk of almost Weinstein proportions. He crossed the line one day and being a naive and insecure 24 year-old, I didn't report him, I just walked out. I was living on my own and needed a job fast. Luckily there was one place in Orlando that was always hiring.
Originally I applied for a job related to the type of administrative work I had been doing. But as I looked over the available positions, the auditions for character performers kept calling to me. I felt silly even considering it--it didn't exactly feel like the most responsible choice to leave a job with decent pay and benefits to work at a theme park. But as I started reflecting back on my dreams of working for Disney as a child and my love of performing, I figured that if this is something I wanted to explore, now would be the time to do it.
I decided to audition as an equity performer, a non-character role that involved dancing in parades and shows, but it became clear quickly that I was way out of my league. I grew up taking dance lessons but it had been quite a few years and it showed. After the first round of cuts where I was quickly eliminated, one of the judges asked me to move to another room and audition for a character role as Alice. I went into a room that was full of wigs and costumes, sat in what looked like a salon chair, and watched as the cosmetologist transformed me with a wig, make-up, and dress into Alice. It was funny that out of all the Disney characters out there, I was watching myself become the one that had been my favorite growing up. I returned to the audition room as Alice, did a much easier combination of dance steps (thank goodness), tried my best attempt at a British accent, and then waited with the rest of the performers to see who made the cut.
As it turned out, I did. They informed me that I'd be performing at various parks and hotels within the resort doing parades and meet-and-greets. I'd have to work at least full-time six days a week to make ends meet, but I was excited to take on a new adventure. Just like Alice, my curiosity had led me there and I was even more curious to see where it would go.
As a performer, you only actually work 20 minutes of every hour and I often worked 8-12 hour days, so there was a lot of time to fill. There was a green room with magazines and TV but I tired of that quickly. Out of boredom, I began exploring the employee library and it was there that I discovered a whole genre of books I had no idea existed. They were dedicated to nothing except bettering yourself: the self-help section. I had always been so confused by life and these books seemed like they had all the answers--why had nobody told me about this?! I spent 40 minutes of nearly every hour reading everything I could find. I was learning way more about myself than I'd ever learned getting my psychology degree.
It was also at Disney that I discovered my easy connection with kids. Working with adults had been hard, but kids were so much fun and it was a very rewarding feeling making a child happy, especially one whose last wish was to meet Alice. The Make-a-Wish program is very special and those kids will always hold a place in my heart. One day I was telling a fellow performer, a former teacher, how much I was enjoying working with kids and she suggested I look into teaching as a career. It was right around Christmas and I was beginning to tire of the long hours performing and few days off, so a change was sounding good. I also felt like it was time to move onto something that had career potential. I applied for a Kindergarten position at a school in Orlando just to see if I would get an interview and I did. The interview was on a Friday and went a little like this: I see you're breathing...can you start Monday? I hadn't really been prepared to take a job that quickly, but after meeting the class I couldn't say no--everything in me was saying "yes", as it had a couple years earlier when I auditioned for Disney. I was at another fork in the road and curiosity was calling to me once again. I started teaching and never looked back.
If I learned anything from my Disney experience it's to always follow your curiosity. Yes, one could say I've bounced around a bit in my life--my love life, work life, and creative life haven't followed a straight line, but it's all informed where I am now and I've gathered wonderful experiences and memories along the way.
I heard something in a TED talk once that has stuck with me--Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on finding your passion entitled "Jackhammers and Hummingbirds". She spoke of how some people are born knowing exactly what it is they want to do with their lives--knowing precisely what their passion is--and they go after it with a laser focus until they achieve their goal (those are the jackhammers). Others, she proposed, are made more like hummingbirds. They are guided by their curiosity. Rather than chase one particular burning desire, they explore what they feel called to do until the next thing calls to them and they travel around this way, bringing the experiences and knowledge they've gained from one thing into another--cross-pollinating--and in this way, usually stumble into what it is they're meant to do...for as long as they're meant to do it. She argues that there's not one "right" way to be, but just two different ways of being. This resonated with me and I've since embraced the idea of following my curiosity rather than try to fight it.
I remember a conversation with my therapist in my early twenties that went something like this:
"I see my friends knowing exactly what they want to do, settling down, getting married...I want to explore so many things...I could never see myself doing the same thing or being with the same person for the rest of my life."
"Then don't," she said.
"But isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing? Choosing a job...choosing a place...choosing a person?"
"Says who? Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, you're not them and you don't know their reasons for their choices--it could be those are the choices that make them happy or it could be they are choosing these things because they feel they should...either way, it's none of your business. Follow your own path, your intuition will guide you in the right direction. What feels right for you?"
"Not doing what they're doing...at least not right now."
"Then don't. Unless or until it does. You'll know."
I'm so happy I listened.
Approaching life this way has meant that I got to experience so many things I wouldn't have otherwise. I wonder where I'd be today had I stayed at that miserable job because it was the logical thing to do. Or accepted an invitation to marry my then-boyfriend because my friends were all getting married, when my heart was clearly saying no. Diverting off the main drag to explore the side road of my curiosity at different points over the years has led me to adventures I can't imagine having missed out on. It led me to Disney, to teaching, to Montessori, to my son, to my husband (our story went like this: he walked in a room, I wondered "now WHO is that?", and then set out to go find the answer). I'm still interested in finding more out about him, and that's the beauty of following your curiosity. It doesn't have to mean bouncing around from thing to thing, it can mean rediscovering something, digging deeper...that is, as long as you're still curious.
This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom because I’ve found it to be so true in my own life. Any problem I've stuffed down, pushed aside, or ignored, only came back stronger until I dealt with it.
The "escalating whispers" in my life have come in many forms over the years, but one I continued to ignore most was the call of vulnerability — to allow the world to see me as I was, the real me, flaws & all. I spent most of my life having only surface-level friendships but very few close friends...and never really a best friend because the criteria for being someone’s BEST friend is intimacy.
My biggest fear for most of my life was someone not liking me, so I made sure I acted in whatever way necessary in order to be well-liked. And, for the most part, I succeeded. I was well-liked, just not well-known.
My wake-up calls to make a change came in many forms: the fizzling out of friendships, the break-up of relationships, and the recurring loneliness that came with not having a best friend to call when things got tough (that would require admitting things got tough). But the whisper I felt most repeatedly—like a nagging that grew stronger & stronger—was the urge to pursue my passion of writing.
The desire to write in itself wasn’t the problem, the problem was I had no interest in writing fiction novels, poetry, or newspaper editorials. My desire was to write about my own life--thoughts, observations, and feelings about the lessons I've learned and also stuff I'm going through in real time--a very ill-fitted dream for an introvert that has difficulty being vulnerable. Maybe that’s why the desire was there in the first place...maybe my soul was screaming to run free and be authentic while my mind kept tight hold of the reigns. Eventually I surrendered to the nagging & started a blog.
But this would be a safe blog, I decided. I would be careful not to share too much and the way I figured I could accomplish this was to only write about my experiences as a teacher. This way, I figured, I could satisfy my desire to write without divulging anything too personal. I wrote with the intention of helping--I offered tips & suggestions and, looking back, the tone read a little like this: “here...I know a lot and I am going to teach you all I know.”
While I did have some knowledge and experience to share that had value, my writing was devoid of connection, realness, and personality (you know...ALL THOSE THINGS THAT MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO READ STUFF). I began posting and realized pretty quickly that the only thing worse than having people hate what you wrote is to have them ignore what you wrote. I hardly ever had interaction with the posts I published and my readership dwindled instead of growing.
This all changed through what I now see as an act of grace. One day I was feeling super frustrated with ALL the madness that comes with being a mom & teacher and thought “oh my God I’m going to explode if I don’t get all this off my chest.” I sat down and wrote for the first time with NO rules— whatever came to mind went on the page. It was the fastest I’ve ever written anything, the words just flowed. When I was done and read it back, something felt different...good. Despite my usual inclination to keep my shortcomings to myself, my gut told me to share the post. And what did I have to lose? Virtually no one was reading my blog and if I was likely quitting anyway, I may as well make this my last post.
A little under an hour later I picked up my phone and saw that I had over 20 notifications on Facebook (that was a lot for me). My heart sank. “Oh s**t!” I thought, “what the hell did I just do?” I logged on to my blog page and couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the post had gotten over several hundred views and been shared over 20 times in less than an hour. (Commence panic attack)
I immediately had what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover”. I was embarrassed and filled with guilt for sharing with the world my frustrations about my personal life as a teacher, wife, & mother. I also regretted putting out there to the world that I didn’t have it all figured out—far from it actually. I wanted to unpost it, to take it all back, but I knew it was too late. I dreaded reading the comments, where I’d surely gotten slammed for sharing so much.
But as I read them, I was shocked that not one was negative. Most were along the lines of “thank you, you put into words exactly how I'm feeling.” I realized that the vulnerability and realness that came through when I wrote from my heart is what people had connected with. That’s what had been lacking in my writing, and in my interactions with others, all this time.
Connecting with people in this way was more satisfying and fulfilling than I could ever put into words--that connection was what I had been searching for my whole life, I'd just been going about it the wrong way. Showing my imperfections, letting my guard down—the very things I thought would drive people away—drew them to me. And my writing became the one place in the world where I felt I could go and be totally free.
This realization changed the way I approached not just my writing, but the relationships in my personal life as well. From that point on I made it my number one objective to stop trying to be perfect and just be REAL. I retitled my blog as my full name and decided that the only rule I'd have for my writing this time around is that there are no rules. I knew I could trust myself to be vulnerable and share in a real way, while still knowing what what was to keep private, just for me.
The whispers and nagging stopped as my outer life began aligning with who I was behind closed doors. I thought I mastered that whole vulnerability lesson until a new opportunity presented itself to take it to a whole new level. Isn't that always how it works?
I am now testing the boundaries of just how vulnerable I can be by trying for another baby after experiencing a loss. Knowing what that pain is like and still saying "yes, I'll take the chance of going through that again to experience the joy that’s ALSO possible" has required a BIG leap of faith for me. The ultimate act of vulnerability for me will be to hold a positive test in my hand and decide to choose faith and hope every day for forty weeks over fear.
When I was in the process of reaching this decision, I happened to watch the biopic Jackie about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What I hadn't realized before watching the film was that she had actually been the mother of five children, not two. She miscarried with her first child, had a still born daughter her next pregnancy, went on to have Caroline and John, Jr., and then gave birth to a boy that only lived two days. What's even more remarkable was that she lost her husband only three months after her son's death.
And I'm worried about getting hurt again? I'm wondering if I'll survive it? It seems anytime I'm caught up in the drama of my own life, I'm humbled by someone else's story. That’s the power of sharing our stories, sometimes it puts our own into perspective.
Some may wonder why she put herself through this again and again after experiencing such loss. I believe this is the power and strength of the love that comes with being a mother. We lay our hearts out there (sometimes again and again) for our babies, despite knowing the pain that could come.
Loss aside, just the daily experience of motherhood in itself is a constant opportunity to practice vulnerability. I heard someone say years ago that once you have a child it’s like walking around with your heart outside your body. I don't know what the ending to my story will be, I just know there's a nagging that's whispering to my heart, once again, calling for me to be vulnerable as a mother this time...to let my guard down & take a chance on love.