You can exercise
and watch your calories
and say no to dessert
and count your steps
and be diligent and vigilant
and self-castigate over cellulite
if you are like me
you continue to put on weight
year after year.
Because if you are like me
you are spending your life
dragging things behind you.
Holding onto old hurts.
The inner disappointment of untapped potential.
That time you drank too much and did that thing.
All the other times.
Insecurities, real and perceived.
Ideals you cannot reach but cannot relinquish.
The pain of not having been loved well by that one person.
The shame of knowing you let them treat you like that.
The self-imposed prison of needing to be liked.
Religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Contempt for the religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Fear of death.
Fear of what will happen if you live the way you want to live.
If you are like me
you have so many small burdens
known only to you,
like invisible weighted plates tied together with nylon rope
that you drag dutifully behind you,
year after year,
the rope cutting into your skin
as you trample the ground you cover,
your heavy existence
leaving ruts and grooves in the land
where your footprints should be.
if you are like me
you will try letting go of something.
Untie one knot
and keep walking,
glancing behind you to see
Fear of death
The false perception of not having been good enough
getting smaller as you go,
leaving it alone to rot into the earth,
still and useless and discarded.
That sight will embolden you and,
if you are like me,
you will try loosening your grip
on the whole damn rope.
and be brave enough to acknowledge
that the weights only exist if you want them to.
The burdens are perpetuated only by your fragile heart
And the mind that fights for you and against you.
If you are like me
you will keep inhaling
until you have the courage to live
without the weights
without the rope
without the destructive ruts created by your mind.
Maybe for just a minute at a time, at first.
And then you will realize the irony,
that dropping the rope
is harder than lugging it.
It is not a single freeing act but a repetitive exercise.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Over and over and through time and persistence
that exercise will help you lose more weight than you ever dreamed possible,
until finally you see only your footprints behind you,
unique and unspoiled.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope
and step lightly, joyfully
The thing I do most often as a mother is compromise. And I’m not talking about all the compromises I make with my boys about sharing toys and breaking up fights and whose turn and which snack and we have to run this errand but we’ll get that for dinner, and I’m sorry this Friday you’re at Daddy’s but we’ll do movie night Sunday instead, and bedtime battles and who showers first and how many pieces of Halloween candy is the right amount.
All those compromises combined are nothing compared to the other ones, the harder ones I find myself making over and over, compromises between the demands and desires of two formidable opposing forces: My heart and Time.
And Time is a relentless opponent, a real bitch. She doesn’t match a parent’s heart stride for stride, she outruns it in a flash with no warning and no apology, just off to the races and you’re left there in a cloud of talcum powder holding an empty infant car seat with the soft bell thingy still dangling from the handle while you watch the baby who is now a toddler unbuckle the belt from his “big boy” seat and scamper out of the car practically on his own.
You’re amazed and thankful, and you love the growing independence and the “I do it!” You really do. And you mostly hated the cumbersome infant seat anyway, dammit. So you adjust. You choose to not think so much about the wide-eyed gummy smiles you used to be treated to when you opened the car door and unclipped that backwards-facing seat and he saw you again for the first time. Mama’s face! Here I am! The sun and the moon and the stars right there in one smile. Two.
You concede the intoxicating hit of Johnson & Johnson’s lavender baby lotion scent you used to get off the top of his downy-soft infant head because you have to, because there is no infant head anymore and there is no night-night lavender lotion routine. There is a dodgy, grabby 2-year-old now, full of discovery and testing limits. That’s what you get instead, that’s your compromise. And it’s great. It’s beyond great, it’s amazing, the way he spells out every sign you pass in the car. “S-T-O-P this spells stop!” his sweet voice sing-songs from the back seat, and you smile your sun-moon-stars mama smile at him in the rearview mirror, even though he is looking out the window at the world.
As a parent, you constantly give up something you loved more than you thought you would, something just weeks before you couldn’t imagine not having anymore, and you find the good in the new/bigger/older/different. You compromise, and you’re happy.
Then Time glances back at you with her sneering grin before sprinting ahead, and you both know another compromise is right around the corner, because it always is. Because that’s what you’ve come to understand about parenting. More than how to get them to brush their teeth or use the potty or mind their manners, you’ve learned most of all how to give up one beautiful thing after another that you will never get back, in favor of some other beautiful thing you will likely only have for awhile, too.
So you give up rocking him to sleep, feeling his milk-buzzed body sigh and go limp in your arms, but you get wondrous bedtime book conversations about how many animals could really fit inside a mitten.
You give up the efficiency of carrying him quickly into the store at your pace, but you get the milestone of him walking beside you instead, his whole tiny hand wrapped around just one of your fingers, his legs pumping fast to keep up.
You give up all the scrambling into your lap and snuggling he used to want to do, but you get all the impromptu puppet shows and block tower unveilings and “Mommy look at this!” feats of strength and creativity his busy little mind and body can manage.
You give up minding him and his brother in the bath, but you get a little time to yourself in the evenings while they help each other with showers.
You give up kissing him goodbye at school, but you get the swell of pride in watching him carefully hold his green froggy umbrella over the head of a classmate so she won’t get wet on their way inside.
The hand that used to be only big enough to hold one of your fingers grows to hold two, then three, then your whole hand, and then one day you realize you’ve somehow given up “Take my hand!” for “Look both ways!” And now you’re letting him look and wait and cross and be safe ahead of you, even though you’re right there, right there, your legs pumping fast to keep up.
It is wonderfully heartbreaking the way life keeps pushing forward.
Earlier this year my 10-year-old, Kostyn, stopped wanting goodnight kisses, then kisses in general. Hugs yes, kisses no. So I obliged, respecting his personal space and boundaries of affection. But he and his little brother knew I still kissed the tops of their heads late at night when I re-tuck them in one last time before I go to bed. I whisper “I love you” into their ears and pretend my words enter their dreams. It’s my thing, my compromise. And last week Kostyn asked me to give it up.
“Mommy please don’t kiss my head anymore, even when I’m asleep. That’s so germy. Gross!” he said, turning his face toward the wall and pulling the covers higher. As I contemplated the idea of just patting his head or simply leaning close to him from now on, something cracked inside me. It was one compromise too many, and my heart had had enough.
“No,” I said defiantly, like a child, not really to him but to Time, that bitch who was stealing my little boys from me every single day, replacing them with older, stronger, fascinating people I adore getting to know, but taking their little boy counterparts I already knew by heart.
Kostyn looked at me, his eyes angry.
“What does it matter to you?” I asked defensively. “You’re asleep! It’s just a tiny peck on the top of your hair, you don’t even feel it or stir in the least.”
“But it’s my head and I don’t want you to kiss it,” he said.
I was quiet for a moment, silently hoping he’d see the pain on my face and give in. He didn’t. “Fine,” I said, not sounding fine. “I won’t.”
I got up and left the room, then stopped in the hallway. I needed him to know that something could be fine with him and fine in general even if it didn’t feel fine to me. I took a deep breath and walked back in, sat down on his bed. He looked up from his book.
“It really is fine, OK? It’s just that this is hard for me sometimes,” I said, looking into his 10-year-old eyes and seeing his 4-year-old cheeks. I explained to him how I used to hold him and hug him and kiss him all the time when he was little and he loved it, how I used to know everything about him, almost like I was on the inside of him, because he was linked to me. He came from me. And now it’s different, and different can be even better, and what he wants now is perfectly OK, but it takes me a minute to adjust, to understand.
I told him I loved him and respected him and would always be right here if he wants a hug or a kiss or a question answered. Anything. I’m right here.
We hugged, and I left feeling better but a little broken, like I’d given up something without getting anything this time. This wasn’t a compromise. This was just one more thing I had to leave behind in the unrelenting parental march toward the future.
Then the next evening we were talking about our days, and I told them both I’d had some constructive criticism at work and was having a hard time with it, that my confidence was often easily shaken and I needed to regroup.
Kostyn, sitting on the couch with a book in his hand, looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Aww, Mommy, you can walk in the shadows, but don’t live there.”
His eyes got wide, possibly because he saw mine getting wide, and we smiled at each other. He blushed a little. “I don’t know why I just said that,” he stammered.
But I did. I knew it was Time, cutting me some slack with an easy point, a shot at the foul line for the elbow to the gut she’d given me the day before. She was helping to even things out a little bit. Just for now.
Thank you, I thought. There’s my compromise.*
So, I am giving up the easy affection of my oldest child from years gone by, and I miss it terribly, this precious thing I once thought would never end. But I am getting the wisdom of the ages in my own son’s voice, the unfolding of a beautiful mind right before my eyes. It is magical, and I will take it with awe and gratitude.
[*Plus, I still get to whisper “I love you” straight into his dreams. Please don’t tell Time. We parents need to stick together in this illogical race we desperately want to win but never want to finish.]
(I wrote this essay months ago at the request of an editor who then realized a different department’s editor at the same magazine had assigned something similar to someone else. Sooo it was dropped, and has been sitting on my laptop ever since. I’m finally posting it here because words should not be wasted, and because I have a feeling many out there can relate.
One thing first though: Lest anyone think I’m taking a holier-than-thou approach when it comes to social media, rest assured that re-reading this today forced me to re-confront the hold my phone and social media still have over me. I may one day return to Facebook, for professional or personal reasons, but not until I can use it rather than it using me. Leaving it was a giant step in my chosen direction toward living more and scanning less, but it was not a cure. Twitter, you’re next on the chopping block.)
I left Facebook on Feb. 6, 2017. It was a tiny act of defiance against the trappings of modern society that felt at once empowering and self-sabotaging, a way of relieving anxiety while generating a different kind.
My only regret is not doing it sooner.
It was my father’s 75th birthday, and that morning I posted an old photo of the cake we’d given him when he turned 40. I wrote a sweet caption and watched as the “likes” and good wishes began rolling in.
That’s when the anxiety hit. I wasn’t nervous about people’s reactions to what I’d written; I was anxious about my use of the social network, angry at myself for spending time wondering who was reacting to my post, and annoyed at how pressed I felt to check for and respond to people’s comments.
I had turned off notifications and deleted the Facebook app from my phone long ago, yet I still compulsively pulled it up on my phone’s web browser many times a day, and seemed incapable of closing the Facebook tab on my laptop for more than short bursts. When it came to social media in general, but Facebook in particular, I increasingly felt like a lab rat. I was a classic example of what behavioral scientists call being enticed by a “variable reward schedule,” pulling the social media slot machine lever again and again waiting for the next “hit” in the form of a “like,” a share or an amusing or enlightening tidbit posted by someone else.
Whether or not my life was actually being enriched by such things is up for debate. But one thing was becoming clear: My Facebook usage was more than a habit. This phone glancing and finger flicking had become an almost involuntary tic, filling just about every crevice of my daily existence that wasn’t already spoken for (and, increasingly, time slots that were spoken for).
And I hated it.
Anxiety and Dependence
It wasn’t my fault, exactly. In a 2012 University of Chicago study, social media and email communication were shown to be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Assistant professor Wilhelm Hofmann, one of the lead researchers on the study, had a plausible explanation for their findings. “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist. … So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.”
Ohhh, yeah. Not only was my phone always readily available, but little nips of social media felt as harmless as popping a few M&Ms, momentary escapes into a virtual adult world of news, entertainment and wit to balance out hours of being immersed in the little kid shenanigans and grown-up stress of my real life.
But if I was honest with myself, many of those “momentary escapes” ended up lasting longer than I’d intended, leaving my real life swirling around me in the background as I passively scanned “breaking news” headlines and virtual updates on other people’s days. Not only that, but my general attention span had gone down the tubes; my book and magazine reading had taken a way-backseat; the voices in my head were increasingly unkind regarding my looks, accomplishments and life; and the country’s collective reaction on social media to our president’s first few weeks in office had spiked my anxiety level off the charts.
While some might think becoming anxious or depressed because of what’s shared on Facebook is an issue only for the most sensitive among us, Facebook’s own controversial study from 2012 gives my reaction some merit. For a week in January of that year, the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 users were secretly manipulated to show either all positive content or no positive content. Researchers found that those who were seeing only negativity created and shared more negative posts, and users who were treated only to positivity posted more positive content.
In short, what we see on social media affects our moods. And I was passively letting the increasingly unhinged body politic dictate mine.
Ironically, the only thing that gave me more anxiety than being on Facebook was the thought of not being on Facebook anymore. How could I walk away from the easiest means I had of knowing what my friends and family were up to? As a freelance writer, wouldn’t I be hampering my career by cutting myself off from the ability to share my work with the largest social network in the world? I would miss valuable tips and insider info posted in the private Facebook groups for writers on which I’d come to rely. And what about my kids’ classroom Facebook pages? I looked forward to seeing pictures and reading updates about what they were doing each day.
For a long time that Fear Of Missing Out kept me hanging in there, always pledging to check it less, to put down my phone for longer periods, and to refrain from posting more than a few times a week. But those promises were as empty as the ones I’m guessing smokers and alcoholics make to themselves, before they decide to do something drastic.
In the end, the fact that I grew anxious at the thought of leaving Facebook meant that I should – at least for a while. I didn’t like feeling dependent on something that in some sense wasn’t even real, and certainly wasn’t necessary. And for me, using a temporary blocking app like Moment or Offtime wasn’t enough. I needed a 24/7 detox.
I needed to go cold turkey.
So two hours after I posted my birthday tribute to Dad, I deleted it – along with every other trace that I’d ever been on the social network. Turns out everything becomes invisible when you deactivate your account. Until or unless I reactivate my Facebook profile, it is as if I never existed there.
Once the deed was done I felt an almost palpable relief, and as the day wore on I noticed the calm increasing. My mind was no longer buzzing, burdened under the weight of the massive amount of information, images, headlines, ads, opinions and invites it was used to taking in. And I was dumbstruck by how many times I caught myself glancing at or reaching for my phone, ready to queue up my web browser and refresh my news feed.
On the flip side, I felt lonely. At least I thought I felt lonely. I had made no public announcement about my departure, and I wondered how long it would take for people to notice I was gone. Would they notice? In those first couple days, it felt like I was living on a deserted island.
But after a few days I came to realize I wasn’t feeling lonely, I was just experiencing being alone. Without the crutch of grabbing my phone to pull my thoughts away at every turn, I was left with time to sit and think about whatever I wanted or needed to think about. Like a tentative, relaxing exhale, I began filling those little crevices in my day with daydreaming, and reading, and exchanging text messages with friends, and sometimes nothing at all.
In short: I traded Facebook for staring at the wall.
And time! I gained so much time. That first day, in addition to my normal workload and parental duties, I finished reading a magazine I’d been trying to get through for weeks, caught up on a TV show, wrote an essay, organized the rest of my work week, lingered on a birthday call with Dad, texted with some friends and family and got eight and a half hours of sleep.
Eight and a half glorious hours.
No Mo’ FOMO
Nearly seven months later, when I think about reactivating my Facebook profile, I get tense. I kept my Instagram and Twitter accounts, both because I have no intention of becoming a hermit and because those sites never siphoned away my time or spiked my anxiety the way Facebook did. Yet the most startling thing about leaving the giant social network is the fact that after several years of being one of its more active participants, having been routinely complimented there on everything from my parenting to my professional endeavors, I feel much healthier without it.
I do miss the easy access to people I like – watching their kids grow, enjoying their humor and talents, and supporting them in times of need or stress. But I realize they, too, were only sharing carefully crafted bits of themselves, just like I was. To really know someone, you have to connect with them personally, and I’m trying to do that in more intentional ways.
No matter how many “hits” I scored pulling that virtual slot machine lever as part of the Facebook community, those feelings of social acceptance and camaraderie are no match for having more time to live my own life in the here and now, to fully appreciate what and who is in front of me. Because we can have as many lives online as we feel like crafting, but we only get one shot at the real thing.
At least once a day I give myself a silent pep talk: “I am not stupid.” Sometimes it’s after one of my sons has asked me a question about the world I should be able to answer but can’t. Sometimes it’s when a friend mentions a bit of world news or drops the name of a musician in a way that suggests everyone but me already knows it. When that happens my mind spins, then blanks, then settles with resignation on the obvious: I’m so dumb. I can’t remember shit.
The nature versus nurture pondering no longer really interests me. I am who I am. For a dozen reasons or none at all, I grew to limit myself because I didn’t believe I was smart enough to say the right thing or make the right choice. I flat-out didn’t trust myself. I’ve done that team-building free fall exercise more than once over the years, and I never had a problem falling back into a web of others’ arms. For most of my life, though, I would have never relied on myself to catch me. Not without prior approval from at least three people, anyway. Couldn’t risk it.
During the years of our marriage, whenever I would complain about how busy my ex always was with his hobbies, the endless number of things he spent time and money and energy on, he would ask me, “Why don’t you have any interests?” Because I’m stupid, I would think, my mind searching desperately for an activity, a sport, even a single subject in history I might have an inclination to study or pursue. Nothing came to mind. I felt blank, dull, uninteresting.
Then many years ago, quite out of nowhere, I decided I wanted to try mosaic art. The idea of arranging different materials together to form something new appealed to me. It seemed to be the kind of art that didn’t involve having to be a skilled artist at all. It was something even I could do.
I started collecting old plates in varying colors and patterns, imagining the day I’d get to break them apart and reshape them however I wanted. I envisioned myself being surprisingly adept at it, a natural. I daydreamed of giving my art as gifts.
But I couldn’t bring myself to break any of the plates – half of which were already cracked or chipped. What if I did it wrong? What if I wasn’t as creative as I imagined I could be? What if nobody wanted my art? What if nobody even liked it?
To this day I’m not sure how I got the courage to trust myself that first time. I suppose it had something to do with the therapy I’d started yet again, and the gnawing, growing realization that trusting myself was the only thing left to do. My true voice, the one that had been a whisper for so long, muted by my inner “stupid” monologue, began to yell the unrelenting call of the desperate-to-be-heard. She cried for freedom, for the chance to stop playing the role she’d been playing, to yank the theater curtain down and allow herself to be the person she yearned to be, not the character she’d become, the role she’d been playing for years to the applause of the crowd and the dismay of her inner critic.
So I did what I felt I had to do: I smashed the beautiful, flawed plate that was my life, agonizing over its demise as it fell. I watched it crash to the ground by my own hands. Seeing it in pieces broke my heart. Many of the shards cut me; they made others bleed too. I sobbed with guilt and pain. I felt selfish and wrong, and in some ways I was. I patched the wounds and prayed for the scars to fade.
And then I started picking up the pieces, broken into new shapes, revealing previously unnoticed beauty and depth. Through my tears and despite my fears, I began fashioning my first work of mosaic art. Bit by bit I added other elements to my life that make sense to me, that make sense of me.
I fell backwards and I trusted that I would catch myself. Because I had to.
In order for this new way to work, I have to be deliberate and intentional, much more so than I’d ever been before. I have to draw inward each time I’m faced with a decision, whether it’s what to do on a weekend or whether to send a pitch to a new editor. It’s embarrassing, but the answers don’t come easy. I have to focus hard, to fight back the critic and actively choose what will move my life forward, what will make me feel good now and later. I have to force myself to be a grownup, not an insecure young girl. I have to strive to be authentic, not an actor reciting her lines, desperate for applause.
I was not used to doing this. I never used to pause and trust that the answer would come to me; I used to pause and wait for someone else to answer for me. It’s exhilarating but exhausting, and sometimes I still find myself waiting (hoping?) for someone else to decide my salary, my sanity, my Saturday night. I still fight the old way, the paralysis and self-doubt. “Stupid” is not a word I allow in my house, yet it has made a nest in my psyche and it does not want to leave. So when it pops up, I take a moment and define myself using other words. “I am not. I am this and this, and this.” Piece by piece, word by word, action by action, I shape and arrange, glue and grout, and hope it holds.
It must be, because every day I care a little less whether anybody approves of the work of art I am becoming.
(Both childhood and parenthood can be so difficult and complicated; we live in the same rooms but see them from completely different eye levels. It took me decades to begin to see my mother’s suitcase not just as a means to escape, but perhaps, for her, as a visual reminder when she needed it most that she was making a choice … to stay. For at least a minute every day, try like hell to see the world from the perspectives of the people around you. Better yet, ask them. ~ RSP)
A little girl in a gingham dress and apron holds a smiling raccoon on the cover of the diary. The furry bandit is clutching a pink flower in its paw; a happy little bird is perched on its tail.
“Memories Are Forever” the journal declares.
There’s a lock on the front but the tiny key has been missing for decades. Scotch tape reinforces the battered binding, worn from years of opening and closing, scribbling and revisiting the shy girl’s secrets on its lined pages.
The first entry is dated Sunday, Feb. 13, 1983, the day she turned 10.
Today was my birthday and I ruined it! I had bloody noses so I ruined swimming with daddy. I love being with daddy, we both have birthdays on the same month. I didn’t get to have lazonia today either, but mommy promised she’d make it this week.
She scribbled notes to herself in that puffy pink book that made no sense, words of self-deprecation and loathing on what should have been the happiest of days. She grew into double digits while shrinking inside, always shrinking, apologizing for who she was and what her shortcomings were doing to those around her.
While the girl penned her innermost thoughts, the truth as she saw it, her mother packed her bag and placed it by the front door again. The faux leather case, its sides slightly caved in, was a near-perfect metaphor for her middle-aged, desperate inclination to be something she was not. “Maybe I’ll go away and find three good little girls and be their mother instead.”
The suitcase typically stayed for days, sometimes longer. The girl never dared touch it, to see how heavy it was or unzip the side and peek in. She hung her head in shame for the disappointment she was. She felt terrible for her mother, who had to suffer so unfairly for her ungrateful children.
Monday, Feb. 14, 1983
Today I wrote a letter to mom. It’s Valentine’s Day and I know she’s had a rough time. I wanted her to know how much I really love her. Because sometimes we forget to tell her that and she feels down. When I got home Nonny had sent me a card with $10. She always gives me money, I wonder why? Today I got to have lazonia. Happy Valentine’s Day!
When she packed her own suitcase for a trip, the little girl’s father showed her how to roll her clothes instead of fold them, how to fit more in and keep wrinkles down. She and her sisters were taught to be good packers, never bringing more than they needed. They always had to leave things behind they wished they could take with them.
“I could get so violent, and I hated myself afterward. I couldn’t control it,” her mother would tell her daughter years later about why she’d wanted to leave so many times. She spoke of being overwhelmed with mothering and angry at her husband, hating herself for the painful punishments dispensed again and again, the rage she had learned from her father, passed down like poison. They’d be better off without me, she’d thought.
She’d be better off without us, the girl thought, lying on her twin bed with the rainbow sheets. She never pondered what her mother needed to bring with her in that suitcase by the front door, only what she wanted to leave behind.
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 1983
Today I felt like screaming. I didn’t finish my Brownie things or cleaning my room. I didn’t work on my class diary and I didn’t get to bed on time. I never should have asked to stay up til 9:00 because I can’t get to bed by 8:30!!!!
Sometimes the suitcase was quietly put away, and a relief would settle over the household. Twice it left with her mother, just briefly, but for those hours the girl’s world spun out of control, the inevitable nightmare having come true. If only she’d been more helpful, more thankful, more loving, more in tune with what her mother needed. But it was too late. She’d failed again as a daughter, a person, a girl.
Without knowing it she’d packed her mother’s suitcase full of her guilt and her shortcomings, stuffed it with carefully rolled scraps of self-loathing and regret. Don’t wrinkle the regret, it’s all you have. The one chore her mother never asked for help with she’d completed unwittingly anyway. She’d packed her mother’s suitcase with all the reasons, spoken and implied, the matriarch must want to leave. Mommy’s little helper.
Three decades would go by before she’d finally get the nerve to ask the question she’d never even thought of as a child. What was in the suitcase, Mom? The answer, like a soothing balm and a sudden slap, made heat crawl up her neck and tightened her chest with something indistinguishable. Anger? Relief? Love? Pain?