She was my 4th grade teacher and one of my all-time favorites--a bubbly, brunette, thirty-something woman with dimples that made learning fun and always wore the cutest high heels that perfectly matched her dress. She handed out Star Student certificates every Friday, signed in perfect cursive, to students who showed good behavior and boy, did I aim to please. That was my main goal at 9 years old really--to gain friends and the teacher's favor by laying low and being good at all costs. I was conscientious, polite, and on-task ALWAYS—a model student.
Until one day, when I made an uncharacteristically bad choice: when I thought no one was looking, I took a Sharpie to the head cheerleader’s jacket.
A little while later Mrs. S. called me out into the hallway. My stomach was fluttery and I felt a lump forming in my throat--she knew. When we were outside, just the two of us, she said “Krissy, I couldn't believe it when another student told me, but is it true that you were the one who damaged Ashley's jacket?” I silently shook my head yes as tears of shame filled my eyes. My teacher knelt down and her voice lowered. “I guess you’ve probably been frustrated with her for some time now, huh? Calling you names and joking to the other girls as you pass by?”
She knew?! I couldn’t believe it; I had no idea anyone knew. I thought I'd been successful in going unnoticed. I nodded as the tears started rolling down my face.
“Krissy, what you did today was very wrong and you will need to apologize—you should’ve used your words with Ashley. But next time, don’t wait until you’re this frustrated to speak up for yourself. Because what you did today, that’s not who you want to be.”
She was right. That was the thing about Mrs. S.—while I tried my best to be hidden, to blend in at all costs, she tried her best to allow me to be seen for who I really was.
One morning a few weeks later Mrs. S. came in smiling, saying she had some exciting news to share: she was expecting a baby in the summer and we would be having a substitute when the time came closer. I was so happy for her. But no more than a few weeks later, I walked into class to find the principal at the front of the room, saying she had something important to tell us.
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Shaw has learned she is no longer expecting a baby. A substitute will be filling in for her for a while until she can return.”
Not quite understanding how it all worked, one of the students raised her hand and asked what we were all thinking: “why will we have a substitute just because she’s not having a baby anymore?” The principal paused and then answered,
“well...because she’s just too sad to be here”.
Her words were like a brick in my stomach. Too sad to be here? I had heard of people too sick to go to school….but too sad? I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anyone that sad before in my whole life. My heart ached picturing our bubbly, smiling teacher so distraught.
Later that day a group of us plotted in a small huddle on the playground to problem-solve Mrs. S's sadness. One girl said she knew where she lived and suggested that maybe we could all visit her at home and bring her things to make her happy, like chocolate or coffee. Another insisted that we go to her and remind her that school is where she is happy and refuse to leave until she comes back with us—a kidnapping essentially. We brainstormed all the ways we could think of to fix her sadness and bring her back to us.
Eventually the day came when I walked in to class and found Mrs. S. behind the teacher’s desk once again. Finally, she’s back! I thought. But I quickly noticed something was different. Rather than jumping up to greet each of us as we came in, she nodded half-smile hellos from behind her desk and then looked back down at her work. Her bright high-heels were replaced with black flats and her eyes seemed to always look tired. When I would ask her a question she would sometimes snap at me for reasons I couldn’t figure out. Our teacher was back, but she was different somehow. I wondered if maybe we should’ve gone to her house to cheer her up after all.
Almost 30 years later I found myself standing in the same shoes Mrs. S. had stood in all those years before, unlocking my own classroom door after being out for a week, wondering how I’d face the students who’d learned I was no longer expecting.
I thought about Mrs. S. and how badly I'd wanted to fix her sadness,
how desperately I’d wanted her to just be her old self again,
how I was too young to understand that the change in her had nothing to do with us.
I remembered how I’d analyzed her demeanor, her clothes, her tone of voice in an effort to see just how worried we should be about her. I’d better put on a smile, I thought.
But then I remembered something else Mrs. S. had taught me all those years ago during our talk out in the hallway: how I don’t have to be “good” or “perfect” all the time, just honest about how I feel…before it all builds up and comes out in ways that aren’t me; ways I don’t want to be. And I wanted my girls to hear that from me, too.
My usually talkative class was somber and silent as they arrived that morning and slowly walked to their seats and settled in. I could feel them studying my face just as I had studied Mrs. Shaw’s, trying to measure my sadness.
I asked them to come gather with me down on the rug and said “I know you all have heard that my family’s received some sad news.” I felt the lump rise in my throat and took a breath. “The truth is, I AM sad. I might be sad about this for a little while or a long while, I don’t know. But I also want you to know my sadness has nothing to do with you. In fact, being here with you all, and teaching….this is where I want to be because teaching you all makes me happy. So, even though I may feel sad, I’m choosing to be here.”
Their bodies relaxed and their faces softened. A few of them mumbled that they were glad to have me back, too.
Twenty or thirty years from now it would be fun to be remembered as the lively teacher with the cute shoes and snazzy certificates in perfect cursive--the way I remembered Mrs. S. for all those years.
But the reality is that every one of the girls sitting in my classroom will one day face their own great sadness, whatever it is, and I hope in those moments they remember me less for my shoes and more for those “hallway conversations”. Because, in my own moment of sorrow, that's when I remembered the things Mrs. S. taught me that really mattered.
How she pushed for me to be seen when all I wanted to do was hide in the background.
The way she encouraged me to be real about how I was feeling rather than stuff it down.
And her guidance to take the high road rather than lowering myself when I feel beaten down.
I think of Mrs. Shaw often and wonder if she ever started wearing her cute shoes again...if she ever went back to that old bubbly self I once loved. I hope at least a part of that spark came back, not just for her students but for herself. Because, while it's good in the sad times to let ourselves fully feel what we feel, it's also important to eventually let yourself allow the joy in again—to put your smile and your cute shoes back on, to get your zest for life back.
I can remember in my own shock of grief thinking “I’ll never smile or laugh again” simply out of respect for the love I’d lost. But I eventually learned that allowing in happiness doesn't take away from the gravity of the loss or dishonor the one you're grieving for in any way. You don’t leave them behind when you move forward, you carry them with you.
That’s what’s so amazing about the strength of a woman—she can carry her smile, her obligations, her losses, all of it along with her everyday, everywhere she goes.
Even in cute high heels.
Addiction, in one form or another, has played a role throughout my life. Not because I've struggled with it so much myself, but because many of the people around me over the years have and, in turn, it's affected my life in a multitude of ways. Alcohol, drugs, food, spending...these addictions have all impacted my life in some way, whether it be through relationships with friends, family members, or romantic partners.
I've done enough self-reflection and Al-Anon meetings to understand that, in most cases, it was my codependent nature--my tendency to feel empathy for others, to want to help them--that attracted these people into my life. Just as an addict is never "cured" but forever in recovery, a person like me, whose tendency is codependency, has to take it one day at a time and be very conscious of how we interact with the people who continually impact our lives with their demons.
I might've bowed out of actively participating in the addiction game awhile ago but, as those of you who've been in my shoes know, you can leave the game (no longer enable, keep your distance, love from afar) but sometimes still never fully get out. For instance, a mother may no longer enable her addicted child, but she's never able to fully step away from that relationship. Instead, you carry on with life as best you can and witness the heartbreaking game go on from the sidelines.
Here's the interesting thing about being the one watching from the sidelines though--
there's a lot of talk about the pain the addict feels
there's a lot of talk about the enmeshment the co-dependent feels
but there's not a lot of talk about how the loved ones living life from a distance on the sidelines feel.
So I write this today for you, because I know it's not an easy place to live. Life lived on the sidelines of addiction puts you in a precarious situation: you keep your distance enough to protect yourself, yet you never feel totally free as long as someone you care about is struggling. Life as a recovering codependent means always staying aware of not getting sucked back into the game. It’s a daily commitment to somehow learn how to love from afar without detaching completely. We live life somewhere in an undefined middle.
For the addict willing to admit they’re powerless, willing to get help—let me say I have immense respect and compassion for you. But as I live longer and grow wiser, watching the game from the sidelines for years—in some cases even decades—my patience and sympathy for the addict living in denial lessens. I can understand on an intellectual level the real reason why they won’t take the first step: fear. But my heart feels less compassionate—it feels like it’s coated with a build-up of frustration and weariness, hardened for reasons I can’t even name.
Maybe it’s for the massive amount of time and energy over the years spent in vain...
maybe it’s from watching wake-up call after wake-up call go ignored...
maybe it’s for the terribly insulting game they play where they look person after person in the eye time and again and exclaim “problem?! What problem?” as if we can’t see what’s going on in our own lives with 20/20 vision. As if we can’t trust our own wisdom.
Maybe it’s for all those years that it was us, not them, doing the work--attending the meetings, going to counseling, reading the books--while they continued to sit smugly on their throne of denial, looking down, watching the destruction around them. Watching those they love in pain, pleading with them to get help, scrambling to clean up the messes they’ve made...all the while attempting to convince those around them that things are not what they seem--all so they can remain in the comfort of their denial, their hiding place from pain.
I know it's got to be hard as hell to make the decision to give up that seat, but it's also hard as hell on everyone around them living in the wake of their destruction.
The nice thing about moving from the field to the sidelines is that you begin to find your inner strength, your truth, your voice. And I’m sure the truth I’m sharing here isn’t going to sit well with everyone reading, especially those who, deep down, recognize themselves in the addict-in-denial I’m describing. If that’s the case for you, I’d tell you that my intention in writing this is not to insult you, it’s to give a voice to those on the sidelines. But if I did indeed insult you, the question is—at the risk of sounding harsh—should I care? Where has the regard ever been for how we feel, for how your addiction has affected our lives? This isn’t about shaming you, it’s about shining light on the unfiltered truth of how we feel—those of us who have been impacted by your choices. Because, if we’re not honest about those feelings, that doesn’t mean they’re not there, they’re just hidden in the dark. And, as we know, addiction thrives in the dark.
It needs light—truth—in order to be exposed and healed.
It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to admit you have a problem, but it also takes bravery to make the decision to move from the field to the sidelines and do the work involved to stay there—to witness our loved ones slowly self-destruct, yet not have the luxury of a hiding place to run to from the pain of it all. The addict in denial gets something we on the sidelines don't: they get to numb the pain of life while the loved ones around them are left to feel the effects of their destruction unanesthetized. When life gets stressful for us--when the bills pile up, when a loved one dies, when s**t gets REAL--we do the most grueling work of all: dealing with it, feeling it. Not tapping out. That takes courage.
And yet, with all this being said—all these complicated emotions felt—we remain on the sidelines. We remain there because we're not done with YOU, we're just done with your disease. Yes, we may be resentful or bitter, but we’re also strong and faithful. We may no longer be willing to participate in your game, and we may carry on with our lives, but we are forever on the sidelines, checking over now and then to see if you’ll meet us halfway. Praying we’ll get the call that the game is over because you’ve called time on it, not because you’ve been defeated.
I was just reading yet another article painting Millenials in a negative light (seems to be the thing right now) and I wondered to myself "what generation am I considered a member of anyway?" At 38, I seem a little too old to be a Millenial, but a little too young to be a member of Generation X. I looked it up and, sure enough, my birth year of 1980 lands right on the cusp. As one site puts it, 38 years of age is the "oldest possible Millenial", like I'm some kind of rare relic still roaming the Earth, yet also young enough to be considered at least snowflake-light. In other words, the best of both worlds.
Regardless of the title (and I'm sure like those that came before), I love my generation. We got to grow up in a more innocent, simpler time when parents held the reigns but not too tight. We had access to the emerging technology of the early 80's but not enough to become obsessed with it. When I look back, it feels like a time when there was a nice balance between too much and not enough.
When I think about a time of not enough, I think of a generation of years past when there wasn't enough in a very literal sense, but, also in terms of affection in parenting--this belief that withholding love and affection from children somehow "toughened them up" to face a tough world. But when I think of my son's and my students' generation, it sometimes feels like too much. Too much stimulation. Too many options. Too much hovering over. Too much anxiety. Kids today (ugh listen to me..."kids today") have a cornucopia of choices at every turn and I'm not sure that's always a positive thing.
Want to watch TV? Here are 5,000 channels to choose from.
Want something fun to do after school? Here’s a different extracurricular to do each day of the week. Why choose one? Take them all on!
Options are great, but with too many options comes a degree of anxiety. You've probably experienced option anxiety if you've ever tried choosing one thing from the Cheesecake Factory novel (ahem...menu). Or if you've ever tried to find a movie to watch but you spend the two hours you have available flipping through choices, trying to make a decision...then second-guessing your choice until you fall asleep from the exhaustion of it all (I suppose that's the "chill" part of the "Netflix & Chill" experience).
So why aren't a multitude of options always a good thing? Because there's comfort in a little bit of restriction, some boundaries. Some degree of limitation feels safe and wards off the dreaded FOMO. And guys...we're ADULTS. It's no wonder so many children today feel anxious.
Growing up in a small town in West Virginia, we didn’t have tons of options for things to do around town, but I didn't know any different and I'm not sure any different would've been any better. My best memories were the simple, little things like playing school, walking with my sister to the convenience store a block away to buy Slush Puppies and Fireballs, or playing Spotlight and catching fireflies on summer evenings. These might seem boring or mundane to kids today, but there was a little magic in the mundane then.
I think because none of those things involved instant gratification or a ton of other options, so I wasn't distracted thinking about my next, possibly better, alternative.
Besides the instant gratification factor is the multitude of commitments & activities kids take on and the result that comes from dipping a toe into many pools rather than diving deep into one. The one extracurricular activity I had regularly, my dance lessons, were a commitment and everything that came with it—the costumes, the ballet slippers—they were like GOLD...they meant something. Most likely because I saw my mom take the cash from babysitting and selling Avon and put it in a little envelope that was then handed to my dance teacher. I wonder what message I'm sending about the connection between hard work and money and "things" when all my son sees is me swiping a card.
I know many kids today, including my own, still do the simpler things and appreciate them, but I can see how even small doses of option overwhelm and cyber stimulation show themselves in subtle ways. I notice it in the expectation to have a response or request fulfilled instantly, the shortening attention span, the general pace of talking, moving, and just b e i n g. And it's not just showing up in the kids, it's in the adults they are watching, too.
I see it in my son and I see it in myself.
When I was growing up, long before the days of Google, if I wanted answers my mom would have me seek out the solution myself. When I came to her asking if the "Legend of the Shooting Star" was true because I wanted a free bag of candy, she had me write a letter to Tootsie Roll Industries. When I told her how Paula Abdul's album was changing my ten year-old life, she said "ooh...you should tell her!" When I couldn't wait for the next Baby-Sitters Club book to drop and kept asking her when it was coming out, she said "I don't know, ask the author!" Tootsie Roll wrote me back, Paula Abdul did not, and Ann M. Martin sent me both the release date AND a BSC t-shirt (omg!)
When my mother had me write the letters myself to get the answers or write to these people I admired, the unspoken messages were powerful, whether she realized it or not:
You are capable.
You are important and your voice matters.
When someone's art touches you, tell them, even if they seem untouchable or larger than life.
Don't get me wrong, I think there are things that are really great about growing up in today's world and, believe me, when I was a kid I would've wished for everything my son and my students have today: the phones, the laptops, access to any activity or shiny, sparkly thing under the sun. Every year for Christmas and my birthday, I'd beg for a Nintendo and, every year, my parents would say "no". I'm sure it would've been easier to give in to my relentless nagging but I'm so glad they stood their ground. Because, if they'd given in, I wonder...
~if I'd had video games to turn to when I was bored (or, in today's terms, a phone), would I have explored my curiosity? It was out of boredom that I’d grab a piece of chalk, line up my stuffed animal students, and use the back of my bedroom door as a chalkboard. That was my clue that I wanted to be a teacher. It was out of boredom that I created stories...that's how I knew I loved to make sense of the world by writing about it.
~if I'd had Google to get my answers from, would I have learned the virtues that came from finding them out for myself? If I could've simply looked up the release date of the Baby Sitters Club book instead of writing to the author, would I have learned patience and delayed gratification by waiting for a response each day? Would that T-shirt have meant so much coming from a store as it did coming from her?
~if I’d had a multitude of extracurriculars to choose from, would I have poured my heart & soul into that one thing, dance? Would I have learned about commitment and the concept of working for the "extras" in life?
Maybe it wasn’t so much a generational thing but a parenting thing. Thank God I had parents whose goal wasn’t just to keep me busy, but to keep me curious. Who valued using imagination over "things" and helped me find the magic in the mundane. Who weren’t afraid of letting me be bored every once in a while.
Because it's in
that we are able to hear the clues our soul whispers about who we want to be.
I wonder, will our children be able to hear their whispers in all the noise? In all the distraction?
I believe they will. Because we did.
The generation before us worried that we wouldn't hear the whispers over the computers and Nintendos, but we still did. The generation before them worried they wouldn't hear the whispers over the new loud rock music and new television sets, but they did. The shiny, loud, distracting things have changed, but what doesn't change are those three things that always remain: faith, hope, and love.
Every generation's love for the way they grew up.
Every generation's faith that there IS a whisper, a call, meant only for them.
And every generation's hope that the one that comes next will find a way to drown out the noise enough to hear that call.
My twenty-year reunion is coming up next weekend.
Once the shock of that number has passed, what starts to set in is the realization that the dress rehearsal phase of life is over--it's showtime. It's been showtime.
At the ten year reunion, you may have been finishing up grad school, still switching jobs trying to find the right fit, thinking of (or actively) starting a family...still somewhat in the planning stages of adult life. Most of everything still seemed up ahead. It seemed there was so much time still to correct mistakes, make U-turns, to begin "someday" to start being more financially responsible or accomplish your dreams.
But at the twenty-year mark, you're approaching 40 and realizing that someday is now. While it's of course never too late to correct mistakes, make U-turns, or start pursuing your dreams, the difference between 38 and 28 is that life has sobered you up in a sense--you've gone from fantastical and fickle in your thinking to more realistic and responsible. You've come to realize from your life experiences, from your losses, that "someday" is today.
Yet, despite life sobering us up--despite being another decade older--somehow life is better and I find myself looking forward to this twenty-year reunion more than I did the ten-year.
I may have more lines on my face and ten (or a few more) pounds on me than the last time we met, but I have a more open heart and a better head on my shoulders. I've matured into a woman since then.
Rather than trying to compete with you, comparing stories of all we've accomplished, I'm just happy to see you--that you're still here. We've had some losses in our class since then.
I probably had more options then in a sense, but there's an unsettledness that comes with that sometimes...like a restaurant with too big a menu, there's a fear of making the "wrong” choices. I've settled into my life since then.
I'll probably try on less outfits this time and be able to carry on a conversation with you a little better, looking you in the eye whether there’s a drink in my hand or not. I've learned to love & accept myself since then.
I don’t sweat the small stuff as much and have come to know what true, unconditional love feels like--and understand that it's all that truly matters. I've become a mother since then.
The youth of my twenties was nice, but I wouldn't go back if you paid me. A skinnier waist, no dark spots, more freedom--that's 28. But not knowing if I'd have the courage to see the fruition of my dreams, caring far too much about the opinions of others, a more shallow appreciation for the gift of life itself--that's also 28. At least that was my 28...
But knowing who I am and what I'll tolerate...
Appreciating the simplicity of quiet moments...
Loving my husband fully for the human he is—the good & the bad—rather than believing he should be some sort of Prince Charming...
Raising my son and loving him on his good days and bad...
The fact that I’m actually writing this rather than just dreaming about it...
Being thankful I still get to call up my mom and dad...
Loving this beautiful yet bittersweet life and still having enough time left to keep dreaming...
This is 38.
With social media, It seems that we're living in a time when great deeds--and not so great deeds--get noticed. EVERYTHING gets noticed. When a person or group is treated unfairly it's called to the world's attention and it seems the whole online world is "on it" (at least until the next thing...). And when someone goes out of his or her way to do something above and beyond, or even heroic, they get ten minutes of Twitter fame. I'm not arguing whether this is good or bad--I think it can go both ways. I'm simply making the observation that little goes unnoticed these days.
Except for you, my love.
You--my husband, my son's father--do so much good that goes unnoticed by the world every single day. But it doesn't go unnoticed by me. You are our family's unsung hero.
I see the way you work six eleven-hour days a week and then come home to take on your second job as husband & daddy. When you walk in the door, we greet you with smiles and hugs and "how was your day? " and then promptly put you to work again in some way.
"Daddy, can you fix my monster truck? "
"Babe, can you keep an eye on him so I can go for a run? "
"Daddy, let's race in the backyard! "
"Babe, can you get dressed, we have that thing tonight? "
And, even though you're tired to the point of being weary, you go get the screwdriver or put on your running shoes every time because you put your family before yourself. I know deep down all you want to do is put your feet up and zone out on the couch after being on the go all day--and you eventually do some days--but never until we have what we need first.
Never have I wondered when you'll make it home because you stopped by the bar to grab a drink on the way home (you're way too excited to see our son's face light up when you pull in the driveway).
Never have I seen you turn your head at another woman (I know you've noticed, but I haven't noticed you notice, and that's what counts).
Never have I seen you choose anything or anybody over me or our son.
You are the fixer of all things--both literally and figuratively. You seem to always have the tool or the answer. You make life feel secure and safe for the two of us. In my single days, I used to think the same taste in music and what a person does for a living were important to consider when looking for a life partner, but I've learned after nearly ten years and a child together that what matters most about a man is who he is when the going gets tough--in crisis, in grief. It's in these times that you step up rather than fold.
And, here's the really crazy part--of all those good things you do, you've not done a single one for the glory. When you teach our son to pick me a flower, you don't post about it on Facebook--shoot, you don't even have any social media accounts. I'm not saying it's a bad thing if you do, I'm just saying that what I love most about you is how you do good behind the scenes...how you live quietly for God, for your wife, and for your son. In a world of sung heroes, you are our unsung hero.
I've never cared for small talk.
Small talk in the dentist's chair is even worse.
"So where do you work?"
"Where do you live?"
"Do you have kids?"
Meanwhile, I'm thinking the answers and then spitting them out in between suctions. Lovely conversational flow.
Through the broken small talk I manage to answer that I have a four year-old son and then the inevitable next question comes...the one I never quite know how to answer correctly:
"So, any plans for a second kid?"
I think to myself "Yes, there were plans and there was another child but he didn't arrive. And, yes, I still want another, but I'm scared."
I know this is NOT the answer she (or anyone else who asks in small talk conversation) is looking for. I know it would be too much and so I usually push the real answer away and, for the sake of keeping conversation going, just say what's easier: "oh yea, sure, probably one day here soon."
But I hesitate this time giving the canned response because even just thinking it brings up that familiar pang of guilt: I've glossed over my experience with my unborn (but not non-existent) second son as if he didn't matter--exactly what I feared would happen when we first learned we had lost him.
Maybe I had too much time to think in between suctions on this one or maybe I was just tired of trite conversation, but I decided to respond differently this time--to risk her possibly feeling uncomfortable in order to honor him and my own feelings. "We did want another and were expecting him this past February but we learned that we lost him early in the second trimester."
She didn't stiffen or stumble on her words; instead she stopped what she was doing, pulled her mask down, and leaned in close. She whispered, "I'm so sorry, I know that feeling, I had the same experience in between my two children. I'm so glad you said something because no one ever wants to talk about it." And that's when the REAL conversation began. The energy between us became completely different, we talked like two girlfriends at a slumber party: wide-eyed and leaned in close and finishing each other's sentences. Not because we're excited about what happened but because we found someone who could not only relate but was willing to talk about it.
When I headed out to leave we smiled and nodded to each other. We were no longer strangers but connected in some unspoken way.
The point is this: had I passed on TRUTH in favor of small talk and surface-level conversation, we could've talked for twenty minutes yet still left strangers. It makes me wonder if this is part of why so many of us feel disconnected from each other. It makes me wonder what would happen if we all traded small talk for being a little more real and vulnerable with each other. We'd probably find we have a lot more in common than we think.
I was born in 1980 and had about the best upbringing ever. Of course my mom would've been awesome in any generation, but in honor of Mother's Day and the popular "Top 10" countdowns of the 80's, here's the top 10 reasons why being raised by an 80's mom was bitchin'. (I apologize in advance for the forced overuse of 80's slang.)
#10-She didn't have to leave the house to workout. No gym daycares for us. She got her aerobics on and her mom on at the same time. As you can tell, good habits rub off.
#9-They fed us awesome food before we knew it was bad for us. All this working out came in handy for the 80's kid. Unlike today, you were winning as a mom if you threw your kids a McDonald's birthday party. Chef Boyardee, Jell-O Pudding Pops, Smurf Berry Crunch, Kool-Aid in ALL the colors (red dye, schmed dye)...sure, they were just a little processed, but no doubt our snacks tasted way better than organic puffs and hummus.
#8-And speaking of not knowing what was bad for you yet, there was TV--and a lot of it. We 80's babies were really the first generation that had access to TV on a regular basis (some of my friends even had one in their room!) and moms back then weren't condemned for parking us in front of it from time to time. Some of my best memories of childhood involve TV: doing Jane Fonda workouts with my mom, having fancy snacks while watching the Miss USA pageant with my sister, and watching MTV countdowns with my friends. And I turned out okay nonetheless--go figure!
#7-They let us adult at a much earlier age (or at least pretend to). They say kids these days are in such a hurry to grow up but they've got nothing on our generation. The way we spent our youth trying to look and act like adults would not be very PC today. At six, I thought I was Krystle Carrington from Dynasty. I owned a faux fur coat and could be found in it on any given outing holding my bubble gum cigarette with one hand (that boasted those fabulous plastic toy fingernails of course) while applying Avon lipstick samples with the other. You could say I had the best of both worlds: the look of an adult without all the stress. My biggest worry in life was whether to apply the "office" or "evening" filter on my Clairol make-up mirror to get just the right look.
#6-They weren't distracted by smart phones & social media. I remember my 80's mom cleaning house, cooking, exercising, working, and playing with me but through all of it I remember her present, not distracted. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a time when I never had to think "I wish she'd put that down and focus on me."
#5-She let me indulge my 80's fantasies. Through the Thriller jacket phase at 4, the lacy Madonna glove phase at 5, and the never-ending playing of the Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam record at 6, my mom always let me be ME. I'm sure deep down she worried about me singing Madonna songs in my room instead of nursery rhymes, but she was also smart enough to draw a lot of attention to it by forbidding it. The truth was, I had no idea what I was singing about, I just loved the music and that love for music turned into a love of dance, which became one of my biggest passions in life.
#4-We had the perfect balance of parenting styles back then. Every time 80's moms set the milk carton down on the table for breakfast they had to be reminded of missing children, which made them keep a close eye...but they didn't helicopter either. It was a time when it was still acceptable to let us play spotlight until 8:30 at night with our neighborhood friends (without a cell phone!). Where one could argue that kids in previous generations didn't have a voice, we also didn't have TOO MUCH voice--or at least we knew when to use it. My 80's mom had us on a leash, but it extended far and was only pulled back in when necessary.
#3-Our 80's mom looked more like our big sister. During a more materialistic time before yoga pants were all the rage, the 80's mom cared about her appearance yet wasn't as "buttoned-up" as earlier generations. Her style was much more hip--a lot like ours, actually. When I was ten my mom and I shared Benders (not the alcohol kind, the curler kind) and banana clips, slouch socks, and even perfume (remember Love's Baby Soft?) We dressed more like sisters than mom & daughter and I loved it. I'm just glad she never let me get the perm she had.
#2-She was a cooler mom probably because she wasn't so stressed out. There's been many a blog post written about this one. Parenting decisions didn't seem so scrutinized back then--we ate non-organic food, could ride bikes without helmets, and as the saying goes, we've lived to tell about it. And though you could argue that changes like improved bicycle safety and a greater knowledge of what we're feeding our children have been for good, it also meant less pressure for moms of that time. And she didn't have thousands of other moms to compare herself to on social media either.
#1-It was a material world, but I wasn't raised by a material girl. I think back to our modest upbringing and think "how did Mom make sure I had the cool Keds, one good pair of Guess jeans, and the dance lessons I wanted on that budget?" But really I do know how--by doing without for herself. I don't remember her getting her nails done, I remember her doing them herself--and well. She babysat on the side and made us modest (yet delicious) meals so we could have the things we wanted at special times...not all the time. I could expect not to get a toy on any average day at the store but could expect to have the recital outfit and dance shoes I needed. In other words, she mastered getting us what mattered, while putting her own wants second. And that's something that never goes out of style.
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.
Many, many years ago in my early twenties, I did something that NO woman in her early twenties EVER does: I fell for the wrong guy.
Shocking, I know.
The problem with falling for the wrong guy in your twenties is that you don't realize he's the wrong guy until after the fact and you need LOTS and LOTS of proof before you realize it. You're like the world's worst juror--overwhelming evidence, no conviction. Or you convict, acquit...convict, acquit...
Oh, the drama. Here’s just a few of the ways I figured out that he was the wrong guy.
He once asked me to bring dinner over for us and then, unbeknownst to me, left before I even got there. Turns out his friend called to let him know there was a party down the street, so instead of just cancelling, he blazed and ignored my calls. Meanwhile, I waited at his empty house like an idiot for an hour or so holding take out boxes, waiting for him to pull in the driveway. I finally gave up after my calls went to his voicemail a handful of times and then went home and ate A LOT of tacos alone in my room. (I can laugh about it now, but I’m pretty sure there were some tears in my guac that night.)
Then there was what I like to refer to as the “Alone Abroad" incident. I had lobbied for awhile for us to go on a trip, just the two of us (we rarely did anything without his group of buddies). He finally caved and we booked a little getaway, out of the country actually, and then--surprise!--his friends showed up and crashed the party halfway through. It was really ironic to be in a whole other country and run into his friends. What added to the fun was waking up the next morning to an empty room and being left half the day by myself wondering where he was. Turns out he decided it would be fun to hang with his friends that day (sans ME) and didn't let me know because he was afraid I might be mad. Nah...I prefer being stranded in a strange place and left to try and figure out if my boyfriend has vanished by his own free will or was kidnapped.
But the straw that finally broke the camel’s back (nope, the stranded in a foreign country incident wasn't enough) came when we were on one of many Ross & Rachel style "breaks" and after not speaking for a couple weeks, he asked if I could come over so we could talk. So, of course, I put on my running shoes.
Shortly after I got there, for reasons I can't remember, he had to step out for a bit, leaving me alone in his new place for a few minutes. As I wandered around I noticed a picture of us on the nightstand. "Ooh!" I thought, “this is a good sign!” I walked over and sat on his bed, picking up the framed picture to take a closer look. When I brought it closer, I noticed that there was another picture behind it sticking up slightly. Thinking it was a different picture of us, I began to pull it up to see which one it was.
It was not us.
It was a picture of him and another girl—like the kind couples take...arms around each other’s waists & big, genuinely happy smiles. I felt sick to my stomach, not just for me but for her--whoever she was. He’d been playing this swap game depending on whoever was over at the time. Ugh. No more. I was done. I left before he came back with whatever little scraps of dignity I could gather up. We never got together again.
Needless to say, the relationship and the way it ended for good was difficult and, even though I make light of it now, there was a lot of pain and anger built up over those couple of years, mostly toward myself for staying as long as I did. But, instead of dealing with it, I handled it like I'd always handled pain--I avoided it. Swept it all into a neat little pile, placed it under the rug, and spent the period of time after the break-up actively trying to avoid him, her, and whatever feelings of low self-worth kept me in that situation for so long.
The universe, of course, had other plans. He and Girl From The Picture would not be so easy to avoid.
Part of my "moving on" strategy was buying a home of my own, it gave me something new & exciting to put my energy into. To my surprise one day, I looked out the living room window and saw my ex and GFTP walking into the house across the street. I mentioned how weird it was to a friend. It got weirder--the house I'd chosen was directly across the street from one of GFTP's relatives. Huh, small world.
Months later a coworker of mine went on leave at work and who, of all people, would you guess filled in for her for three months? Imagine the awkwardness that I had to see her every day, not just where I work, not just in my hallway, but right next door. "I got this", I thought--after all, I'm a master at avoidance. If she made a left, I just made a right.
All this seemed a bit coincidental, but the next run-in left me with no doubt this was happening for a reason.
Some time had passed, maybe a year or so, and I was now living on a different side of town. While jogging through the new neighborhood one day, something on the ground caught my attention. I happened to look down to the left and noticed her name—a rather unique one—carved into the cement sidewalk in big letters just a few blocks down from the new house. And when I glanced to the right, I noticed the last name on the mailbox was also hers. I stopped in my tracks and took out my headphones as I put two and two together. NO. WAY.
Of all the towns, of all the neighborhoods, and of all the streets within that large neighborhood, I had apparently moved just a few blocks down from her childhood home. I had to laugh at the odds. It was also not lost on me that anytime I wanted to do the one thing that helps me forget my problems--running--I'd have to pass her name literally carved into the ground. Of course, I could always go a different way...
As someone who has spent A LOT of time and energy her whole life avoiding pain, conflict, and any other negative feelings, I was at a very literal crossroads and I knew it. I decided, for once, NOT to go the other way...for once in my life not to take the path of least resistance.
As one of my favorite authors Glennon Doyle says, "the brave ones don't run from their pain, they run directly toward it. Pain is a traveling professor and the smartest people I know are the people who say come in, sit down, and don't leave until you've taught me what I need to know."
Image by Rocio Chavez via Your Sassy Self
I had no idea what it was I "needed to know", I just knew it was time to figure it out (clearly she wasn't going anywhere). And, I don't know about you, but I never figure things out by trying to figure things out. The only way I’ve ever figured things out is by writing. It gets the jumbled mess going on in my head out in front of me for me to see and make sense of.
So, I'd run, let whatever feelings came up hang out instead of shutting them down, and then get home and get it down on the page. I never had any huge epiphanies through doing this, there was just a gentle knowing that I needed to continue because the stuff on the page had little to do with them and a lot to do with ME. What happened over time (not overnight, over T...I...M...E) was that running past her name began to bother me less and less. Until it didn't bother me at all.
Then, over even more time, something magical started to happen: I began to feel gratitude when I saw her name. Because, without that whole situation, I never would've learned what I don't want. Mr. Wrong showed me everything I wanted in a Mr. Right.
It's funny when I pass her name now that I have a family of my own. What else can I say but "THANK YOU"? Sometimes when I see it I just smile to myself a little and send both of them a silent blessing. It's because of the two of you that I'm where I am now, with a man who respects and values me and doesn't let a day pass without telling me or showing me that. And without him, there wouldn't be my son--this beautiful, smart, creative, spirited little man who I've fallen head over heels for wouldn't even exist. It's such a miracle, really. Not just that I left that day all those years ago, but that I decided I deserved better. And without having gone through the bad, how could I so deeply appreciate the good?
Leaving me alone in a strange place taught me that I want to be cared for. So yea, it's kind of annoying how my husband reminds me fifty times to wear my seat belt and drive safe every day when I head out the door, but it's also kind of nice to feel SAFE.
Being stood up showed me that I want to be valued. So it feels good when my husband kisses me on the forehead and calls me beautiful or tells me I'm a good mom or his best friend. It makes me feel TREASURED, not dismissed.
And, as far as my "coincidental" run-ins with GFTP? They just kind of fell away.
My point in sharing this story is that we sometimes go to such extreme lengths and waste so much mental energy trying to avoid our pain, not realizing that it's THROUGH that pain or discomfort that we find the very thing we need to learn and, once we do, we're better for it. Had I not worked through mine, I'd probably be stuck in the same pattern, attracting the same kind of guy--the kind I'd feel invisible to. I'd probably see things through a whole different lens--instead of appreciating my husband's care for me, I might see it as "annoying" or see him as "too nice", rather than genuinely appreciating it.
The path of avoidance is always easier in the short term, it requires nothing of you other than continuing to pretend there's nothing wrong. But you pay the price in the long term. Sometimes the path you feel the MOST resistant to, the harder option, is the one to take because THIS is the path to truth, healing, wisdom, and freedom. I think sometimes we get caught up in the idea that wisdom only comes in these big, profound, pivotal moments. I've found that sometimes it comes little by little and feels more like a crossroads than a rock bottom. When you come to yours—big or small—choose bravely. I promise it will be worth it.
Image credit: Megan Dougherty via Flickr (no changes made) https://www.flickr.com/photos/magnusdigity/141542344