A few years back I was going through a box of old photos and came across some pictures of my college sweetheart. They weren't photos of us--they were photos of him as a young boy with his mom. We were together for a good while in my early 20's, so I guess at some point a few of his things had gotten mixed up with mine. Looking at them fifteen years later, having a young son of my own now, I saw them differently than I would’ve back then—I saw them through the eyes of a mother. I recognized the look his mom was giving him in the picture of them on an amusement park ride together, his toddler hair blowing in the wind and his mouth gaped open with joy. That look on his mom's face is one I'm all too familiar with now--it's the look of a kind of happiness that doesn't come from your own joy but of witnessing your child's: the deepest kind of happiness.
I knew as I looked at these pictures of precious moments that they were not mine to keep--that these somehow needed to get back to her. I tried looking her up every which way I knew how with no luck. So, though I felt a little uncomfortable doing so, I thought I would try private messaging him to see what he'd like me to do with the photos. I sent a short but cordial message inquiring about the pictures but did not hear back. That is until yesterday, four years after I sent the message.
He seemed most concerned not with the pictures, but with letting me know that he had somehow missed the message and wouldn't have intentionally not responded, thanking me for reaching out. He congratulated me on my beautiful family and shared that he had a few kids of his own now. Like my message, it was short but sweet, as it should be. There was an unspoken understanding that we're both exactly where we should be and that connecting to say a quick hello and "hope all is well" doesn't have to have any ulterior motives behind it. And it got me to thinking about how strange it is that it should ever be otherwise.
In our female friendships, we spend time and make precious memories together and it's expected that these times will not only be cherished, but that we'll be loyal to them forever. Yet, in romantic partnerships, it's very different. In fact, it’s often considered disrespectful to the new partner to keep any contact with a former one or, in some cases, to acknowledge this person ever existed— even if you spent many years of your life together. Don't get me wrong, I get it on a respect level and, believe me, I'm not yearning for my husband to be in contact with his former flames. But it is interesting how we can go from loving someone we spent years of our lives with to pretending they never existed. It’s as if we prove the strength of our current relationship by diminishing any that came before.
Despite the strong connection I have with my husband and a happy marriage, I don't believe for a second that those who came before me never cross his mind. My husband and I didn't meet until we were 29 and 34, so accepting that he not only had loves before me but actually made some really great memories with them doesn't diminish our own love in any way, it's just our reality. He'd never admit it for fear of hurting my feelings, but I wouldn't doubt for a minute that a song's come on that made him think of her...or a certain smell...or an old movie we put on that used to be their favorite. And that one or all of those memories might feel special to him still.
And you know what? Even though it’s tough to think about, I'm okay with it. Shutting those memories out or downplaying them doesn't elevate the strength of our bond. Loving my husband means loving who he is today, and that was undoubtedly shaped by the love, heartache, and lessons learned from women who came before me. There’s a line in one of my favorite songs that says “I don't care if I'm your first love, but I'd love to be your last." I think that’s pretty fitting for us.
Yes, the relationship I have with my husband far outshines any I had before him by a long shot. But to downplay the three loves I had before my husband as “the frogs before my prince” is to greatly diminish them and the influence they had on who I am now. They were a part of my training ground for the marriage I have today—they helped me to refine the qualities I was looking for in a partner and to refine myself. At times, they were a mirror showing me things about myself I wasn't able or willing to see. That’s helped me bring a better self to my marriage, and for that, I'm very thankful.
It’s tempting to want to wrap up all our past failed relationships in a neat little box with a pretty bow and label them as the “Mr. Wrongs” that brought us to our “Mr. Right”, but in reality human relationships just aren’t that simple to reduce down to all good or all bad—whether it’s a relationship that didn’t work out or one we’re still committed to working out daily, love is a complex, beautiful mixture of both the sour and and the sweet.
My high school sweetheart taught me to value sensitivity and creativity. He is the sweet memory of the first flowers I ever received from a boy and handwritten letters in the mailbox over summers because he was grounded but "still wanted to make it work." He was first car rides with friends at 16 and late-night concerts and other kinds of innocence. But his sensitivity also made him feel life a little too much and that took some of my innocence, and eventually his life.
My college sweetheart was long distance and off-and-on as we muddled through our early twenties, trying to figure out what future life would look like and the unspoken wondering if the other would be in it. He was good laughs and loyalty and integrity but we were a little too much like sister and brother. There was no dramatic ending--he simply looked me in the eye and gently said the hard thing that had needed to be said for some time: “Don't move here. I love you and you love me but I don't think we're in love." He was right. It felt like sadness and respect and relief all rolled together.
My last love before my husband taught me that I'd taken the loyalty in the previous two for granted--and that it should be highly valued. He was talks and laughs on the front porch over drinks until the sun came up. He grabbed my hand and took me out of my comfort zone again and again. He was passion and adventure and mind games and heartbreak. He opened my eyes and toughened me up.
And my current love? Our love is too rich and layered and complex to simply call my "happy ending". We are works in progress that have an appreciation for each other that comes from past loves that didn't work. He is secure enough in himself and in us that he's okay with me writing a piece like this, allowing me to be me. We are the deep, rich kind of love born from the bittersweet and complicated...
the kisses nearly a decade later that are just as passionate as the first one
the fights I wasn't sure we'd come back from
the glances exchanged when our son does something that makes our hearts burst and I know we're both thinking "how'd we get so lucky?"
the strength with which we locked eyes and held hands when I wasn't sure I'd make it through his birth, and the way he showed up with the same level of strength when the doctor couldn’t find our second son’s heartbeat anymore
still wanting to do this thing after seeing the worst parts of each other in all their glory...
we may not be each other’s first bittersweet and complicated, but I’d love for this to be our last.
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.
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
So one of two things is happening: either I'm going crazy, or I just need to accept the fact that I have a love/hate relationship with my life at the moment. As a wife, mom of a toddler, and middle school teacher it's entirely possible that I have indeed gone crazy--yet, none of these roles are ones I want to give up, at least not in this moment on a peaceful Saturday morning when I'm writing, sipping coffee, and listening to...silence. Ask me again this afternoon, say around 5:00.
And herein lies the problem. Regardless of which role it is, the pattern is the same--there are times I love my job
as a wife
as a mother
as a teacher
and other times I quite honestly want to throw in the towel. It seems that just when I feel on fire, happy, and like I have it all figured out--something happens that sends me into the downward spiral. The one where I'm telling myself "I can't do this anymore". Whether it's a full-blown meltdown from my toddler after a long day at work, yet another fight with my husband over the s-a-m-e d-a-m-n t-h-I-n-g again, or that moment when I'm actually semi-caught-up at work only to be pulled under again, the internal monologue is the same. (And it's pretty epic if all of this happens at the same time.) The frustration is so palpable it feels like it might eat me alive and I ask myself the same thing every time: what the bleep did I get myself into? And how do I get out?
But what really makes me question my sanity is that only a few moments later, I can fall in love with that same hot mess all over again (although most times it's not so right away). My son can go from screaming maniac yelling "leave me alone!" to giving me the most sincere hug and kiss that sends love throughout my body right down to the core of my soul, and all is well again for the moment.
I'm no expert, but I think it's a toddler's ability to feel the emotions of the present moment--overwhelming frustration or overwhelming joy--without the ability to carry over old resentments that allows them to so easily flip a switch. They're totally in the "here and now": when they're angry they totally embrace being mad, and when they're happy they're all in there, too. And I think it's from watching him that I'm learning it's okay for me to do the same.
Whether the conflict is with my job, my marriage, or my child, my ego wants so desperately to fight to hang onto all my reasons why I'm entitled to want out at that moment--all the built-up resentments, the never ending cycle of frustration. I fight tooth and nail to hang onto my agenda when my husband & I are fighting, but then I see him doing something a bit later that makes me totally swoon and I feel that love rise up and I have a choice: to hang onto the reasons I'm angry, or to shake my head at the craziness of this life and surrender to the love and embrace the fact that this is marriage--I love it sometimes, and other times I don't. And the same holds true in my life as a teacher and mom.
In this crazy stage of life as a teacher, wife, and toddler mom simultaneously--all very difficult roles that make me feel like throwing in the towel one minute, and feel lit up & inspired the next--I suppose the best solution is to just surrender and accept that I have a love/hate relationship with my life at the moment. To let go of the idea that one day I will magically "arrive" at this destination of happiness--this image I've created in my head of what it will look like one day when I'm no longer having those frustrated thoughts, and I've found the key to having my life in perfect order...
I made it to the gym everyday...
Classroom and house are caught up...
Husband and kids are smiling, well-fed, and finding clean towels readily available...
And--best of all--I'm my ideal version of me because I figured it all out.
Whether it's in regard to our families, homes, bodies, or careers, we all have that illusion in some form or another--that Ideal Self we're always striving for--and we beat ourselves up for not having figured out how to get there yet. The problem is that day will never arrive and, all those days in the meantime waiting to figure it out? Those were the days that made up our lives.
So I'm not waiting anymore. I've got to learn to simply embrace the messiness of life right now, otherwise it will just pass me by. I don't have any magic solutions for how to get there, but I think it could start by just waking up each day thankful that I get another one...thankful that I do have a job, husband, and child to frustrate me, because many people's burden to carry is NOT having those things to be frustrated with.
But, at the same time, this tape in our heads that says "shame on you, you should be thankful, not complaining" when we ARE frustrated, doesn't really serve to make our hearts feel thankful in that moment, it just serves to shame us. In those frustrated moments we WILL return to feeling thankful again, but only after we've let ourselves feel what we feel. I know in my heart that if I deny that moment, pretend the thoughts aren't there, put on a happy face, and don't shed the tears or scream in the pillow, that I will walk around like some kind of robotic Stepford wife that looks great on the outside but feels desperate on the inside, and that's not what I want. If I want to live a real and authentic life, which I do, I have to embrace both the dark and the light--to be like my toddler and fully accept whatever it is I'm feeling in that moment, because it CAN be really messy sometimes.