Moms are constantly being called upon to fix things. We sew stuffed animals, superglue broken toys, and settle sibling squabbles. When trouble is brewing, we’re on the front lines. I know I take this role of Caretaker of Everything quite seriously. I’ve probably taken it too far. I’ve heaped responsibility upon responsibility upon myself because, let’s face it, no one can get the job done as well as I can or as quickly. If something is broken or in need of repair, I am The Fixer.
I internalize struggles my children are having and, reminiscent of some grand, imaginary machine full of life’s answers (something like Spencer Tracy was promoting to Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set), I try to spit out a response towards improving them. It’s exhausting. My oldest son has ADHD, and I’ve spent the past year and a half trying to coach him around it. I feel this is my responsibility. In my work with him, however, I think I’ve made him pay more attention to his deficits than I’ve asked him to pay to his strengths, which are many. How sad is that?
My mom challenged me with this thought yesterday: what if, instead of trying to fix everyone we thought was broken in some way, we focused instead on what is unique, right, and wonderful about that individual? I mean, there are amazing things about my husband that I overlook because I’m too busy nagging him about things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. If I focused on his positives, like his limitless patience with me and his constant willingness to give of himself, then the fact that he has seven pairs of shoes under our bed perhaps is a small price to pay for his genuine kindness.
Dealing with my oldest son’s ADHD has been quite a challenge for me. I don’t understand how his brain works. I’ve spent so much time being frustrated by how his true intelligence can’t be measured in his average grades that I’ve forgotten to pay attention to how truly awesome he is. The same goes for my youngest son. While his grades are not an issue, I get wrapped up sometimes in trying to rein in his boundless energy and creativity to improve him in areas where he needs focus. Why am I doing this? Because I am The Fixer. And, it’s my duty to turn out well-rounded, responsible, successful individuals with something legitimate to contribute to the world, right?
But, what if the best thing I can do for my children and my husband is not to fix them but instead to cherish them for who they are and for what they bring to our family? We each have a role to play. Why can I not let go of my queen bee hat and just accept that we’re all doing the best we can with what we were given? Wouldn’t our house be much more peaceful if I stopped harping on things I see that I believe need to be fixed? Wouldn’t I be much happier if I paid more attention to people’s positive qualities instead of their negative ones? I’ve been incredibly blessed, and yet I make work for myself trying to fix things that aren’t broken. They might be different than I would like, but that doesn’t mean they need to be repaired.
And what if, while cutting everyone else some slack, I applied the same principle to myself? What if I stopped trying to fix things about me that I dislike and I allowed myself to be authentically me, self-perceived flaws and all. I’m not broken. I am who I am because I have something to contribute from this one-of-a-kind perspective. It would be a shame to eliminate differences. They’re what make the world interesting.
Now, none of this is to say that I’m gonna put my superglue away and stop mending things permanently. I’m not sure I’m capable of that, nor do I believe my family would appreciate it. But, perhaps, I will try to tread a little more softly with myself and the people with whom I come into contact. Maybe instead of wanting to strangle the guy who cuts me off in traffic, I can approach the incident from a very zen place and appreciate his skillful maneuvering instead? Yeah. You’re right. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that either. I guess that’s just a good reminder that you can’t fix everything.
A couple years ago after years of virtually non-stop time with my small bosses, I needed a break. Being the infinitely good sport that he is, my husband agreed it was a good idea. So, I booked a ticket to the city where I was born, Buffalo, New York. Hubby was surprised that I would pick Buffalo as my private vacation destination, but I told him that it wasn’t getting away if it didn’t involve two flights’ distance between us.
So, on Friday, June 12th, 2009 (yes…the date is engraved in my memory), I started my first solo adventure in 8 years. Sure. I’d traveled during those 8 years, but not entirely on my own just for the purpose of fun and relaxation. This was a HUGE deal. I was actually going to be free to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted for three full days. My mind was dizzy with possibilities. Aside from my luggage, I had no baggage. I felt lighter than I’ve felt in years.
Although I’d made plans to see friends and family during my visit, I made sure to allow myself one 24-hour day of complete solitude. So, on my first full-day in New York I made a promise to myself: I would do only what I felt like doing, even if that meant staying in bed in my hotel all day and reading. I had no obligations, and I was going to suck up every minute of that freedom.
That day was my personal heaven. I had no specific plans. I would go where the spirit led me. I planned to check things off my to-do list that I didn’t even know were on my to-do list. I ran the track at a local high school because I had to see what living at altitude would do for my running game at sea level. (It didn’t help as much as I imagined it would.) After that, I purchased an enormous vanilla latte, which I leisurely enjoyed while getting ready for the rest of my day. Uninterrupted, ridiculously long, hot shower? Check.
Around 11, I grabbed a bottle of Classic Coke (no Diet Coke…this was serious), my iPod with its portable speaker, and some snacks and hopped into the rental car. I love to drive, but I perpetually have a destination. I was so excited to just drive and see what I would find. About an hour south of Buffalo, I saw a sign for Lake Erie State Park. How could I pass that up? It was cool and overcast, but I could not resist the opportunity to walk on some sand, sit by the lake, listen to the waves, and just be. I sighed just now thinking about it.
After lunch at the lake, I got back in the car and found myself in idyllic Chautauqua watching the sailboats glide effortlessly while I snarfed down my favorite salty snack, Bugles, with another Coke. (Yes. I was living life on the edge.) Then, just for giggles, I fired up Facebook on my iPhone and updated my status to “Having my best day EVER.” Hubby loved that.
Later, I wound my way carelessly back toward Buffalo on quiet highways through quaint towns that looked like they would have inspired Norman Rockwell. I stopped once to walk briefly around Ellicottville, but mostly I just drove and enjoyed the treed countryside and my unending iPod playlist. Finally, around 6 p.m. I landed back in Buffalo. I set my GPS to locate my all-time childhood favorite sub shop, John and Mary’s. I ordered my usual (ham and provolone with mayo, lettuce, and tomato) and drove back to my hotel room to enjoy it. It was warm. I temporarily freaked out. Had they given me the wrong sandwich? Nope. The bread was fresh from the oven. I nearly died.
Every woman should take one day a year just to be truly on her own, to remember who she is and what she likes to do, to relax and exist in her own skin…not as wife or mother but as human being. If you haven’t tried it in a while, you really should. Your family will survive a day without you. Who knows? In your absence, they might realize how much you are worth. Maybe we should make it a national holiday? We could call it Mother’s Day.
The other day a friend and I were discussing literature. I was recalling works I had read in college that truly impacted me, and I mentioned a short story I read at CU that I have never been able to shake. So, last night before bed I dug out The Heath Introduction to Literature I purchased in 1987, and I reread that story to see if it still would affect me the way it had when I was 19.
The Yellow Wallpaper was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1890. It’s a first person narrative about a woman who is, under the advice of her physician husband, taking a long “rest” at a country home to cure her “temporary nervous depression” and “slight hysterical tendency.” At this estate, her husband keeps her in a room on the second floor that was once a nursery, which makes perfect sense considering the way he infantilizes her, referring to her as if she’s not even in the room and calling her “little girl.” The room has bars on the windows (also quite telling) and an obnoxious, intricately patterned, decaying yellow wallpaper. Writing is her only solace, but her husband discourages it completely. And so, kept from her writing and from conversation with other adults, to occupy her mind the woman starts obsessing over the only detailed thing in her room, the wallpaper. She follows its patterns and tries to make sense of them. With each written entry we see that her mental state is declining rather than improving. I won’t tell you any further details because I don’t want to ruin the story for you. I think every woman should read it at least once in her life.
As I recall, in college I was appalled by the way this clearly intelligent, thinking woman was forced into a treatment she didn’t want because her husband felt it was the best thing for her. I was sickened that she had no say in her own life. For heaven’s sake, we never even learn her name. She’s nearly a non-entity. The protagonist plainly needs mental stimulation, and yet she is denied the very thing that would most likely improve her state. This story stuck with me for decades because the young feminist in me railed against the injustice of this woman’s situation. It was something I swore would never happen to me. I would never allow another person to relieve me of my right to choose for myself. I would never become someone’s property.
Fast forward twenty years and now, reading this after being an indentured servant to two short bosses for nine years, I have a different reaction to this story. I can actually relate to her. I am able envision her mental breakdown. I can understand where it is coming from. She is postpartum and feeling lost. She is bored to frustration by limited interaction with other adults. She fixates on the minute details of something completely insignificant just to occupy her mind. She is trapped and powerless to change her circumstances. It sounds a lot like my life a few years ago. Honestly, it frightens me how much I can empathize with this woman’s downward spiral into madness. I too gave up writing, probably when I most needed it. I hate to admit it, but there was a time in my life when I could easily have become the woman in the room with the yellow wallpaper.
As it turns out, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, also imagined she would become the woman in the yellow wallpaper. Her short story was a response to “rest cure” time she was advised by a well-known physician to take when severe postpartum depression hit her after the birth of her daughter. After an unsuccessful rest stint in a sanitarium, Gilman realized that not writing was causing more harm than good. She left her husband, moved to across country, started writing again, and her mental health improved. When The Yellow Wallpaper was published, she sent a copy of it to her doctor. He didn’t comment, but she later found out that he stopped prescribing rest cures for other people with similar symptoms. Fine vindication, indeed.
And so like Gilman, spurred on by my unwillingness to lose my voice (or my mind), I adventure forth and I write again. Each adventure brings me strength and peace. And, with each day that I spin words onto the world wide web, I find another part of myself that was not long ago tucked away and forgotten. If I spiral out of control and you don’t hear from me for a while, please make sure I am not confined to a room with yellow wallpaper. I am absolutely certain I would get lost in it as well.
Clearly, I am perseverating about this whole “not where I wanted to be” topic; I am not ready to move forward just yet from yesterday’s blog. I find myself still moving thoughts around in my muddled head, puzzling them out, and piecing them back together for different insights. For example, in my lamenting yesterday I forgot one important thing: my life isn’t over yet. I may not have yet achieved the things I dreamed of for myself, but my opportunity to do so is not gone. It might be more difficult now than it would have been when I was in my 20s, unmarried, and sans children, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible.
In working at coming to peace with what I thought were my goals versus where I am now, I need to remember that the path I wandered down led me to become the person I am today. While sometimes I may not love the rather prosaic state of my life, I am genuinely happy with who I am on the inside. That is something I most certainly could not say when I was 21 and dreaming of who I would like become. How could I have known then who I truly needed to be when I didn’t even truly appreciate who I was?
A shift in the wind may have gently persuaded my parachute away from my intended target, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I completely missed my mark. I may have just overshot it a bit. Now that I’m firmly on the ground, I can decide if I need to back up a bit to reach my expected target or if I should boldly go forward down the new path that has presented itself to me and chart a different course…you know, two roads diverged in a yellow wood and all that. The change from what I thought I wanted to be to what I have become doesn’t need to be a negative. I can bounce forward on optimistic, Tigger-like paws and see where I end up. Or, I can go back, regroup, and figure out a new way to reach my goals if they are still what I want for myself. It’s not really over until it’s over, and as long as I’m still living and breathing it’s not officially over. There’s this great quote by George Eliot: “It’s never to late to be who you might have been.” I think George (aka Mary Anne Evans) and I might have had some wonderful conversations.
Maybe it’s the level of endorphins I’m riding right now as I consume another Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll (after an hour of strenuous hot yoga, nonetheless), but I’m feeling happier today with where I am and less concerned with where I am not. The only trouble is that when I get like this, I often find myself searching for my next adventure. For a long time now I’ve been seriously contemplating jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Anyone want to parachute down with me this summer and see where we end up?
Do you ever get caught up in useless thoughts about how you envisioned your life would turn out versus where you’ve actually landed? When we’re young and the world seems full of possibility, we dream big because there’s nothing standing in the way of our potential greatness. I had dreams of having an impressive career, making oodles of money, and carrying business cards with an incredibly important-sounding title. I never once imagined that my business card title would be “Stay At Home Mom.” I planned to be too busy being fabulous and brilliant, traveling the world, and decorating my impressive home to have time to be so humdrum. Well, lately those old school dreams for myself have reared their ugly head far more than I would like them to. I suppose it’s happening more frequently because I’ve reached the dreaded middle age. (Oh how I hate saying those words. Seems like just yesterday that I was doing too many shots on my 21st birthday and spending the next morning with my face in the commode. But, I digress.)
I had a conversation today with a good friend. I have a love/hate relationship with my friend because he appears to have everything I thought I ever wanted for myself. Although I am genuinely happy for him and for all he’s been able to achieve, I’m afraid I am a bit of a baby when I hear details about things in his life that I wish were part of mine. I wish I could be above it all and not be envious, but that seems a Sisyphean task. I would like to the successful friend with the gorgeous home, world travel stories, and academic letters after my name. But, that’s not my life, like it or not.
I’ve been trying to be adult about the whole thing, but I’m afraid I’ve failed miserably. It’s impossible to be positively zen when you can’t stop considering that you might have realized more with your talents if you had applied yourself. I do know that it’s useless to comparison shop in other people’s lives, but it’s human nature. We always want the things that we don’t have. The grass is always greener elsewhere, right? It’s especially greener where we envisioned ourselves but were unsuccessful in securing property rights.
Today, though, there was a point in our conversation when my friend held up a mirror and asked me to look into it. I’m often entirely wrapped up in how others appear (or at least how their lives appear from the outside) and I fail to contemplate how I might present to others. I figure that everyone sees me as a common, stay-at-home mom because that’s how I see myself. I drive the kids to school, get to the gym, do laundry, clean house, run errands, schedule appointments, and at the end of the day settle down to help with homework, make lunches, and tackle other minutiae. Frankly, I bore myself to tears just thinking about it.
But, maybe my thinking is skewed? My friend contends that to others my life might appear to be anything but lackluster. He pointed out that I am always going and doing something. Riding my bike on long treks. Participating in athletic events. Heading up to the mountains to ski or snowshoe with my boys. Learning new things and taking on new challenges. Raising money for charities. And, while I may not be a globetrotter, I have traveled some. I live in a comfortable home, drive a nice car, and have a plethora of amazing and fun friends. I guess that if I were to step back from my disappointment in things I have not achieved, I might be able to recognize that I’m still something more than ordinary. I might not be rich, famous, or important on a grand scale, but I’m quite lucky just the same.
So, today I resolve to stop berating myself for not becoming what 21 year old me envisioned I would be. I will remind myself that 21 year old me was immature, unwise in the ways of the world or even in the ways of herself. I will remember not what I am missing but rather how I am blessed. I will stop comparing myself to others, no matter how wonderful their lives appear, because I have no idea what their journeys are about. And I will focus on my true reflection in the mirror and give myself the Stuart Smalley speech: “I am good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it…people like me.”
I am a “hat person.” Or at least this is what I’ve been told repeatedly throughout my life. I’d be somewhere, try on a hat for giggles, and someone around me would say, “You look great in that hat. I wish I could wear hats,” as if wearing hats is some kind of fashion dream that only a few can attain. Maybe it is. I’m not sure. But the truth is that despite my being a hat person, I have never worn hats. I assume this is because I’m kind of shy and feel that hats require a certain outgoing attitude I have never possessed. I prefer to blend into the wallpaper and become invisible. And unless British or you’re wearing a baseball cap at a game or you’re wearing a knit hat on a ski slope, a hat draws attention to you.
Yet for years, buoyed by compliments from others, I’ve bought hats, squirreled them away, and imagined I would one day wear them. I would conjure elaborate scenarios whereby I’d be wearing a hat and having a fabulous adventure, something positively Audrey Hepburn-ish; but I never got up the nerve to put one of my many hats on my head and actually go out in public. So, they’ve sat in boxes in our storage room and on shelves in my closet, completely ignored and collecting dust. Last fall as I was doing my semi-yearly closet clean out, I came across a bevy of neglected hats and vowed to stop being such a wimp. I promised myself I would start wearing hats more often, which is to say I would start wearing them more often than never.
The only way to get myself out of my self-consciousness was to force myself to wear them for a solid period of time until it felt not quite so conspicuous. I chose a week as the appropriate time period, figuring that it was long enough to get me used to hats but not so long that suddenly people would start asking me, “What’s up with the hats?” I also decided that I couldn’t count it as a day of wearing a hat if I didn’t go out in public while wearing it…at least for a little while. I mean, there’s no point in wearing a hat to get over your hat phobia if you don’t pointedly announce to the world, “Hey…there’s a hat intentionally placed on my head.”
I’m a gifted avoider. I put off my Week of Hats for months. Then, finally tired of the disappointment I would feel in myself each time I opened my closet and saw those hats judging me, I decided last Monday would begin my official Week of Hats. I spent Sunday night figuring out appropriate outfits to go with the hats. Because hats are an accessory, I had to make it look as if I cleverly tossed the hat on with this darling outfit because I am quite fashion savvy. There is nothing further from the truth. I am a fashion kindergartner.
Still, Monday came around and I got dressed, put on a hat, and went out into the world. At first I was sure people were staring. I felt out of place and uncomfortable. But then I would get a grip and stop over-thinking it. The more I acted as if it was completely unremarkable for a hat person like me to be wearing a hat, the less self-conscious I felt. It was the old “fake it until you make it” scheme and it was working. By day three, I didn’t notice if people were looking at me. By day six, I didn’t care if people were looking at me.
You know what I had forgotten? Everyone is wrapped up in their own personal drama, oblivious to what is going on around them. How silly had I been to imagine that people were actually regarding me at all? And, even if they had been, why did I care? It’s my life, and I’m a hat person. I should wear hats once in a while, otherwise it’s a perfect waste of my hat-wearing ability. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to start wearing hats every day in the future, but because of the hat trick I will now probably throw one on more often than never. If there’s something you’ve not been doing because it makes you a bit nervous, let go. Live your life. Who knows? You might inspire someone with your daring…even if you’re only being a little daring.
Late last year hubby and I were invited to a blind dinner at the Boulder Blind Cafe. What’s a blind dinner? It’s a meal served by blind waiters and consumed entirely in the dark. This particular event also included a concert, so we would eat dinner and then be entertained, all while temporarily blind. Although I was a bit leery about the whole thing, I am newly born adventure-seeker so I had to say yes.
We arrived at the location in Boulder with our friends and found it was packed. The dinner was sold out. Who knew that eating in the dark was so popular? We had no idea what to expect. As we waited, we joked nervously about why we had bothered to get dressed up when we were just going to be in the dark and laughed that at least it wouldn’t matter if we spilled our entire meals on our clothes because no one would know.
They put us into small groups by table seating. When it was our turn, our blind guide and waiter, Rick, had us line up single file and place our right hands on the right shoulder of the person in front of us. He told us to hold on because he didn’t want to lose any of us along the way to the table. He was serious.
As we started to file in like baby ducks, I kept comforting myself with the notion that there was no way the room could be completely pitch black and certainly by the time my eyes adjusted to the darkness I would be able to see something. That was not the case. I held my hand up in front of my face and could not see it. I could not see my husband or my friend Heather seated on either side of me. I have never experienced that level of darkness before. It was slightly unnerving. And even though I didn’t need them, I couldn’t seem to close my eyes and give in to the utter blackness.
One thing I noticed nearly immediately was how loud the room was. I didn’t anticipate how losing my vision would suddenly magnify the attention I paid to sound. As we sat there trying to get our bearings in our new environment, it became clear that this meal was going to become a major team effort. They had served the meal family style, and all the food was on the table in front of us. We had to feel around to find our drinks (which contained straws I knew I would poke an eye out on eventually), our silverware, and our napkins. Then we had to figure out and agree upon how to pass the food so everyone could try some of the vegan, gluten-free meal. I did mention that this dinner was in Boulder, right?
The meal was challenging on multiple levels. You think birthing children is difficult? Try eating a quinoa salad with a fork when you can’t see your plate or the food on it. I had empty fork after empty fork reach my mouth. (I suspected we would be hitting a burger joint after this dinner was over.) When we did get food into our mouths, we found ourselves constantly guessing ingredients to convince ourselves that we weren’t eating something we would not normally consume. As if I needed further confusion, one of our good friends is a prankster, and he kept relocating my fork and drink just for giggles. Despite the struggles, the meal was good and we were having a great time.
When the concert started, I finally gave into the temptation to close my eyes. I snuggled up to my husband and enjoyed the music and contemplated the song lyrics. It was beautifully peaceful. Normally when I listen to music I am vigorously engaged in another activity (exercise, cleaning, driving my car). Hearing music without using any other senses was mesmerizing.
I relate my story about the blind dinner only to entice you to try something completely new and unique. Sometimes I find I get caught up on the idea of an adventure being something grand. But, life really is replete with small, relatively inexpensive experiences that are wonderful adventures. We all need to do a better job keeping an eye out for these little adventures so we don’t miss out on anything that is truly eye opening.