We’re painting nails today, my little girl and I. She’s chosen a different color for every nail, a hot pink for all of mine. I carefully paint each tiny nail, then hand over the brush. She immediately makes a mess, puts too much polish on at once. She runs the brush in the wrong direction, colors my whole fingertip hot pink. She misses spots, she bumps the bottle, she almost gets polish in her hair. I cringe, I flinch… I hope she doesn’t see me.
Today we’re making muffins, my little girl and I. She wants to be a chef someday, cook for more than just a few. We mash up the bananas, she leaves too many lumps. We measure out the sugar, she spills at least a cup. It’s time to crack the eggs, now shells and slime are everywhere. She mixes messily, smiles contently, jabbers away without realizing I can barely breathe from watching. I catch my breath, I look upward in frustration… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We’re working on a school project, my little girl and I. She chose the subject and did the research, delighted to learn more. We’re painting, cutting, writing, oh my, she knows to try her best. Her lines aren’t straight and her glue’s a mess, her spelling needs some work. She’s proud as punch of her painted tree, with white spots showing through. I purse my lips, I tilt my head… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We decorate our Christmas tree, my little girl and I. Each year we’re so excited, there’s magic in the air. She gasps as she unwraps each trinket, each ornament like gold. She handles them too roughly, these orbs I packed with care. She hangs them in the corner, all concentrated in one spot. She doesn’t fluff the branches, doesn’t stand back to check proportion. She wipes glitter all over, drops too much, and I have to leave the room. My eyes are squeezed shut, my hands are fists… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We’re getting ready to go out, my little girl and I. I’m putting on my makeup, she’s watching in pure awe. My concealer won’t conceal enough, my eyeliner isn’t even. My eyelashes aren’t as long as I’d like, I contour to look younger. I paint and blend and draw and mask, trying to look different. I grow frustrated with the process, grow sad at my appearance. I’m not happy with the way I look, not happy after application, either. I scrutinize, I criticize… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We’re growing up together, my little girl and I. We’re both new at all we do, she’s my only girl. We live together, play together, she’s my mini me. I struggle with anxiety, excellence my constant quest. Perfection is my prison, I want control of everything. I miss a lot of moments because I mentally amend them, focus on the chaos and the mess. I gasp instead of smile, criticize instead of praise. I’m insecure, impatient, in charge of raising her. I hope she’s strong, I hope she’s calm… and I hope she doesn’t see me.
I write to you from the heart of all that is horrific and bad, where there is much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I find myself deep in the bowels of enemy territory, a no-mom’s-land where loyalty lines mean naught and every soldier battles only for themselves. Yes, my dear, I find myself stuck in the after school pick up line.
Weep not for me, as I do not relish in your grief. I am fueled not by the tears of my loved ones but by the rage that burns within me.
Karens to the left of me! Karens to the front! Still I trudge, half a car, half a car, half a car onward.
Onward my noble steed inches, slowly growing closer to freedom. My minivan idles – our progress halted!
A mother who has apparently been parted from her dearest child for more than the standard 7 hours has suspended all pick up operations so that she may exit her Land Rover and embrace this long-lost offspring. It seems they have not only been parted by great time and distance, but have also forgotten the increasingly agitated throngs behind them, as they begin to discuss their days. Right here. In the pick up line.
The cavalry sounds the alarm by way of a coach’s whistle, and the Land Rover is hurried away. We breathe relief and inch hopefully forward to the muffled battle cadences of Biggie and Tupac from various vans surrounding us.
Alas, my love, our procession is interrupted yet again! I fear this time may be worse, as it appears a rogue grandparent has been dispatched to fetch the children and not been instructed on the treaties of the pick up line. They park. They exit the vehicle. In horror we watch as they walk towards the office. How long we shall be furloughed here, we do not know. I fear we have not the supplies necessary to last through a grandparent pick up until I discover half a package of Skittles I promised our dear heirs I would “save for later”. This occurred about 8 months ago, but in battle we are all brave. I am nourished. I move onward.
What’s this? A Tahoe sounds a battle cry in a steady stream of honks! Chaos abounds – it is every mom for herself!
Karens to the left of me! Karens to the right of me! Karens to the front!
The lines are dissolved, we are no longer a regiment but a hive. Swerving, swarming, buzzing, beeping. We are all here in the same desperate attempt to retrieve our children, all attend this event with the same desired outcome, yet none respect the other, all battle for the exit. Rage, rage against the last spot in the line! Rage, rage against the one who cuts you off!
Onto the battlefield limps a child, heavily burdened with a graded project they have been tasked with returning home. I squint – ’tis our burdened child! She moves slowly, slower than the pick up line. Her feet shuffle nervously, her arms bear the weight of the diorama unsteadily. I panic. Shall I rescue her? Shall I leave safety of this Caravan and toss all agreed-upon rules and standards to the wind in order to come to the aide of our child? Do I dare park this steed and brave the outside, assist the weaker ones in their journey?
No, because this is the freaking pick up line and you don’t get out of the car.
My gaze turns steely as my resolve hardens. Silently I will strength towards her, wordlessly I encourage her with my stare. She will make it. We all must make the journey, we all must allow ourselves to be hardened by the pick up line. I cannot grow soft now, not in the heat of battle. I cannot betray all I have stood for in order to open a door. She will make it, and we will all be stronger for it.
My beloved, as our offspring approaches I must take my leave of this correspondence. I pray all is resolved soon and we may be reunited once again. Until then, remember me. Remember us all who find ourselves thick in the strife and struggle of the pick up line. Remember our campaign to fetch our children and wish us swift victory. But do not weep for us, dear one, no. Instead join us in our rage, encourage us in this noble combat we endure, not hand-to-hand but bumper-to-bumper. Do not weep for us, my beloved. Instead, order us pizza for dinner tonight, because the pick up line is the worst.
I started warning you about middle school a long time ago. Heights are awkward, bodies are changing, skin is uncooperative, voices are unpredictable, and fashion… well… fashion is pretty much nonexistent. I showed you pictures of my own middle school years, and OH the laughs we shared. We laughed as I tried to prepare you for flirting, gossip, deodorant, and body hair. The time when you’d finally get to join band or athletics, switch classes, maybe even get a cell phone. We talked about the temptations, the changes, the dynamics. We talked a lot about what awaited you from the outside, we talked a lot about the changes you’d experience on the outside, but I didn’t prepare you for what would happen on the inside.
I wasn’t prepared for what happens on the inside.
Middle school is the time when childhood bleeds into manhood, when you’re just enough and not enough of both to know just where you stand.
I’ve watched you grow taller, marveling and bragging at how big and handsome you are, yet I’m at a loss as to how to help you pilot this new body, how to make sense of the man inside you trying to push through the boy who remains.
I’ve rolled my eyes and raised my voice. I’ve punished and debated. We’ve snuggled and we’ve argued. I’ve pushed and I’ve stood back. I’ve allowed myself to take this storm of hormones personally, viewed this journey you’re on as a deliberate one. I’ve been so lost in this sea of changing tides and moods that I’ve forgotten you’re in it with me, that you’re in as much control of it as I am.
I’ve sat dumbfounded, offended, hurt, angry. I’ve sat proud, tired, accomplished, content. In it all, no matter which mood your body has decided to put you in, whether I was angered by your attitude or astonished at your absurdity, the one consistent thing I have felt has been that of helplessness.
I don’t know how to help you curb these hormones.
I don’t know how to make your changing body cooperate.
I don’t know why what worked yesterday won’t work today.
I have prepared you with the science of what is happening, can explain what is going on. We share the common understanding of what is changing, but between us also lies the hurt and confusion of two people who are fighting with futility to stay the same.
I’m not ready for you to be a man.
You’re not ready for you to be a man.
Your body whispers that you are a man, but your heart cries out that you’re still a boy.
The deodorant on the counter is for a man, but the toys on the table are for a boy.
The independence that bubbles up inside of you is that of a man, but the way you rest your head on my shoulder is with the innocence of a boy.
You’re a sapling, growing, hinting at what you will be, but not quite steady enough to cast a shade.
I don’t always know when to hold on and when to hold back. You don’t always know when to speak up and when to quiet down. We’re both in new roles, you and I, neither of us always certain of what those roles are.
It’s tough. I feel as though I’m being replaced, resented. You feel as though you’re being stifled, stunted. Together we both want what’s best for you, both know you’ll reach that point someday. It’s your job to get there, and part of mine is repeatedly telling you “not yet!”. We have battling roles with a common outcome – to see you reach manhood. They are seemingly incompatible yet also highly dependent upon one another.
So in this time of tumult, during this disorienting dance between man and boy, when I don’t know what to expect or how to always handle it all, I can only make you this promise: I will still love you on the other side.
I love you now, in the middle, don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved you through cries and colic, through potty training and Minecraft obsessions. I loved you when your little feet were still chubby on top and I’ll love you when your little mouth gets fuzzy on top.
I’ve loved you through every time you took your diaper off during a nap and I’ll love you through every time your mouth shoots off during an argument.
I’ll love you through this change, this time, this journey, this discovery. I’ll love you through the mood swings and the voice cracks, the wrestling for independence and the very real need for support. I’ll love you through this hard time, this weird time, this getting-to-know-you-again time, and I will love you on the other side.
I’ll love you through your embarrassment of me, your ridicule of me, your annoyance at me, and the inevitable running back to me. I’ll love you through your wee voice, your changing voice, and someday soon, your deep voice. I’ll say goodbye to the voice that called me “Mama” and get to know the one that will call me “Mom”. I’ll someday put my head on your chest when we hug and smell your cologne, not your shampoo.
I’ll mourn the future as though it changes our past, then I’ll remember our past and look forward to your future.
I’ve seen glimpses of who you’ll be, of the man peeking out. I’m getting to know his humor, his passions, his compass. He’s not quite steady, but he doesn’t have to be. Not yet. He’ll make it out, eventually, and I already know I’ll love him. Because he’s you, you’re him, and I know I’ll love you on the other side.
My kids were hard today. All three of them. Their different personalities and senses of humor and ways of communicating mean every day is different, but today everyone was hard. And so I blamed myself.
They yelled a lot at each other, and since everyone is always sharing articles about how damaging and unnatural yelling is, they must have learned it from me.
The tween got pretty disrespectful and mouthy, and since people love to say that kids are a reflection of their parents, it must have been something bad that I modeled.
Their patience was short, their words were harsh, their tempers were fiery, and their obedience was lacking, and since I’ve devoted almost every waking moment of the last 13 years to raising and caring for my kids, today I blamed myself.
We live in a time unlike any before it, when parents can share articles and philosophies and studies in less time than it takes to change a diaper. Back when we were being raised, our parents chose between Dr. Sears or Dr. Spock and had the occasional interjection from Dear Abby. Parenting experts were few and far between and the methods one could choose to employ in childrearing could be counted on one hand.
At some point between us growing up and us growing our families, parenting research took a turn. Forget NASA, experts threw themselves into the field of parenting and began churning out research and articles faster than people could even procreate. Now we have more opinions than children, and a mom can’t scroll through social media or a home page without seeing the latest in childrearing opinion and research… without being told that everything she’s doing is wrong… without being told that everything she’s struggling with is her fault.
My youngest child has a very long list of very severe allergies. Some are weird, like breaking out into hives when she’s cold, some are life-threatening, like losing the ability to breathe if she gets too close to peanuts. No one else in our entire family has so many allergies, let alone life-threatening ones. Our entire lifestyle was changed and I live in a state of constant hypervigilance now, constantly scanning the crowd for peanuts, tuna, cinnamon, anything that will cause a reaction in her. So much about our lives is different now and requires so much more work and research, just with something as simple as going grocery shopping. Yet when I’m explaining her allergies to someone new, 9 times out of 10 do you know what the first thing they say is? “Was it something you did when you were pregnant with her?” They blame me.
Allergies are largely a fluke. There are some genetic links, but many of the allergies she deals with are genetic anomalies, random cases of autoimmune responses gone awry. She was nursed for two years, never had a drop of formula or a flake of rice cereal. She was cloth diapered, swaddled, seen regularly by a pediatrician, and had a stay-at-home mom with her at all times. I can’t imagine any area where an anaphylactic food allergy could have snuck into her genetics, yet people almost always assume that I’ve done something to cause this life for her. Either I ate something I shouldn’t have or I didn’t eat something I was supposed to. Maybe it was because she was delivered via C-section (which, let’s face it, is something else to blame me for) or the fact that she lost a twin early on? Surely, there has to be some reason that she has these struggles, and surely, the only possible finger we can point must be at me. My daughter will die if she eats peanut butter, and society blames me.
I have a child with some special needs, a very difficult child. He is who he is, he is what he is, because that’s just how he was made. When his high IQ comes up people question my ability to keep up with him, never assume that was my fault, but when the tough stuff gets really tough, society blames me. Heck, I blame me. No matter how much I tell myself I’m a good mom, no matter how much I know that his wiring is a result of nature, not nurture, when he has a bad day I cry in the dark and I blame myself.
People talk about losing the baby weight after a child is born, but no one mentions the weight of motherhood that we put on every day after. No one applauds the celebrity for their public debut carrying the crushing self-doubt and responsibility of raising a person. There aren’t a lot of articles being shared that remind you that kids sometimes just act like jerks. That they yell without being yelled at, that they mouth off without being taught disrespect. We are constantly fed the sobering responsibility of motherhood without once giving thought to the reality of childhood – and that reality is that kids, sometimes, just have bad days, and it’s not always mom’s fault.
My kids also painted today, a lot. They gave makeovers to toys they weren’t playing with and created something new. They used their imaginations and their creativity, and I’d like to blame myself for that.
My oldest is learning to play multiple instruments, and as a band nerd myself I’m totally going to blame myself.
My youngest recently performed in her first musical and had the time of her life. She’s very dramatic, energetic, and outgoing, and I absolutely blame myself.
My middle one loves fiercely. He faces a lot of struggles, but he lives in a home where his parents love each other and love him deeply. He is modeled grace and sacrifice on a daily basis, and for that I will blame myself.
Our kids get so much more from us than just what we’re determined to feel guilty about. Our kids just do things that we have no right to feel guilty about. We mom shame the woman in the mirror and convince ourselves that their flaws, their struggles, their bad days are all something for which we are to blame. We have set such a standard of perfection for ourselves that we’ve begun to take it personally when our kids aren’t perfect, either.
My kids had a bad day today. They were rough, rude, loud, mean. They fought with their siblings, didn’t work through conflicts like pros. My kids whined, yelled, tattled and teased. My kids acted like kids today. And I had the audacity to blame myself.
I’ve watched a few medical dramas in my time. Okay, a lot. Without fail there is always a scene where a patient who was previously thought to be healthy and fine suddenly crashes. The room fills with medical staff, nurses are flinging IVs and needles and someone is sweating through chest compressions. The patient gasps, eyes wide, and everyone is relieved – he made it. Roll credits, time to go home, happy ending for all. Unless you watch Grey’s Anatomy, then your favorite character is probably going to be carried away by a protected bird of prey or die in some other incomprehensible way while in the parking lot.
The problem with these scenes of survival is that the story ends there. We see the patient pull through, grateful, strong. We see everyone relax and sigh that the crisis is over. We see loved ones laughing in the corner, basking in the glow of recovery as the camera pans past the room.
We don’t see the bruises.
We don’t see the broken ribs.
We don’t see the side effects of pushing a lot of powerful medications in a small amount of time.
Survival, sometimes, requires brokenness. CPR and other life-saving measures can be violent, painful. They may save you, but they will hurt you. Re-starting someone’s heart, electrocuting them ever so slightly, guiding a tube or a sharp instrument into someone’s body – those are invasive, painful moves, means justified by the end, but traumatic either way.
Survival can hurt you. Survival will hurt you. Having scars or aches or some broken pieces doesn’t mean you lost, it means you survived. You just have to know that survival is worth the brokenness.
Sometimes there are toxic relationships that require you to break, to tear away part of your heart by ending the relationship or cutting off contact. When it hurts to love someone, when someone you love hurts you, survival is worth the brokenness.
Sometimes there are crises we face. Medical emergencies, job losses, financial disasters, car wrecks. Survival takes pain. You scramble, you hustle, you pray, you beg, you do whatever you have to do to make it through, and you survive. Your pride may crumble, you probably won’t smile much. Actual survival doesn’t look much like the determined heroine in the movies with ferocity in her eyes and gloss on her lips – more often it looks like the woman with her head down, crushed and tear-stained, desperate, depressed, and barely hanging on. She may not look like much, but she is surviving.
Having a child with special needs, that’s a lot of survival. Painful survival. Sometimes the moment of gasping after being resuscitated doesn’t come for 18 years. Sometimes there’s no known end and you just survive for a really, really long time. You try this therapy and that therapy, you gain hope from understanding and get crushed by the setbacks.
Living with depression is nothing but survival. You ache from the pain, both physical and emotional. Sometimes your body is a road map of what has worked and what hasn’t. Sometimes your night stand is littered with bottles of what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you feel the broken bones and the bruised tissues of trying so hard for so long to just keep living, and you wonder if it’s worth this pain, if the life-saving measures are worth it.
Survival, friend, is worth the brokenness. You aren’t hurting because you’re losing, you’re hurting because you’re surviving. You are aching, stinging, maybe even immobile. But you are surviving.
If you need to isolate yourself for a little while in order to focus on your mental health or just to rest, do it. If you need to end a relationship in order to live your life, do it. If you need to take medication or attend daily therapy or do something really, really hard that will not be convenient in any way and will likely hurt, do it to survive. Take the broken bones that come from chest compressions to keep your heart beating. Take the scars that come from surgical procedures and keep yourself functioning. Take the pain from what you’re going through and know that it doesn’t mean it’s beating you.This pain doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it means you made it. This pain isn’t a defeat, it isn’t a sign you shouldn’t keep going, and it isn’t the only thing you’ll ever feel again. Survival requires brokenness, but brokenness, like you, will eventually heal.
You will make it. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck. It’s going to break you. But you will survive. And survival is always worth the brokenness.
When a chain breaks, we rarely look to the weight that pulled it apart – we focus on the link that failed. We blame the weakness of the chain, the one spot that couldn’t hold it all, and never question if maybe that chain was just pulling more than it should have been. This is motherhood.
It was already a rough evening, not unlike most evenings. The tween was upset that I was – gasp! – making him do his school work. The 6-year-old was mad that I was busy with dinner and homework patrol and work and had my attention anywhere but solely on her. The middle kiddo was just mad at everything. And my husband was frustrated at my frustration. Again, nothing unique in this evening. No full moons, no impending holidays, no one had a sore throat.
I broke away for a second to sit in silence use the restroom, and of course my youngest wasn’t far behind. I sat there, shoulders slumped, head down, just really feeling defeated.
“Mommy?” she said with a shaky voice, “I just feel like everyone is always mad at you.”
That’s when I broke.
I’d been holding it in for hours, days, YEARS if we’re being honest. I started the ugly, shaking, snotty cry that doesn’t stop just because you will it to. My daughter started to cry, so I hugged her to comfort her. Note that she was standing close enough for me to hug while I was on the toilet.
“I feel the same way, baby girl. I’m trying really hard, but it sure seems like everyone is mad at me anyway.”
And that is the true weight of motherhood. Not sagging skin, not extra pounds around the middle, not the bags under the eyes or the mounds of laundry or the piles of papers schools keep sending home – it’s the weight of everyone else’s expectations.
We moms have a bad habit of comparing ourselves to others, to our own idealized selves. We hold ourselves to impossible standards and punish ourselves for not being perfect at all the things. We encourage each other to give ourselves some grace, we share pictures of messy houses to keep it real, we bare our flaws to remain authentic.
But those acts of self-acceptance don’t touch on the expectations of others.
When you’re hosting a holiday and are expected to make every food exactly how it’s made at someone else’s house, keep up with everyone’s specific diet and what they can or can’t eat this week. When you have to plan it all to come out at a specific time so it fits everyone else’s schedule. When it’s all on you to plan, shop, prep, cook, time, and serve the meals exactly as everyone else insists they need it… and they’re annoyed because you need an extra 10 minutes after they get here to finish baking a side.
When you’re the one coordinating everyone to begin with – texting, calling, emailing, begging, praying, hoping it will all work out and everyone can come. Running the calendar to find a day and time that will work for 5 different schedules, and they get annoyed when you keep asking them to respond so you’ll have a better idea of just when this circus can even go down.
When a kid forgets a lunchbox, a change of clothes for PE, a water bottle, an assignment – they get annoyed at mom. Either mom didn’t remind them to take it that morning or mom didn’t bring it fast enough or – dare say – mom was too busy doing something else to rush it up there at all.
When a kid falls behind on an assignment, the mom is the bad guy who either let him fail or who nags him to catch back up.
When dinner isn’t planned, mom is the flake who dropped the ball.
When your family arrives late to a function, it’s mom who gets blamed, it’s mom who they’re mad at (even though it was THEM who wouldn’t wake up when MOM gently started rubbing their back that morning, telling them it was time to get up).
When there are practices, therapies, appointments, lessons, classes, dates, parties, games, recitals, due dates, lunch dates, release dates, deadlines, budgets, emails, meetings, IEPs, 504s, evaluations, explanations, park days, snow days, half days, bad days… we’re the ones who are supposed to have it all under control, running smoothly, always on time with nary a forgotten sheet of paper.
Our families – they’re really freaking hard on us. Really hard.
Sure, we’re the glue that holds it all together, but then who gets the blame when something falls off? Us. Mom. The glue. The lady who has spent the day feeling like she’s falling behind. The lady who stayed up late and woke up early to make sure nothing was missed. The lady who told herself it was okay when something was missed. The lady who hears all the other moms saying it’s okay to be imperfect, then comes home to a house full, an office full, or a whole network full of people who demand otherwise.
When a chain breaks, we rarely look to the weight that pulled it apart – we focus on the link that failed. We blame the weakness of the chain, the one spot that couldn’t hold it all, and never question if maybe that chain was just pulling more than it should have been. This is motherhood.
When I serve a favorite meal for dinner it’s not half as passionately received as when I serve a meal with tomatoes.
When there are clean clothes hanging it’s eerily silent, especially compared to when there are no jeans to be found anywhere (spoiler: they’re shoved in a corner under the bed). Don’t even get me started on when I try to pick an outfit out beforehand to streamline the process – no one EVER wants to wear what I select, yet they all strangely need my help when I tell them to do it on their own.
“Everyone is always mad at you.” And they are.
We work on gratitude and manners here, it’s not like my kids are barking hellions who sit on thrones and demand compliance from me. Their grades are their grades and their responsibilities are their responsibilities and this is not a restaurant so they’ll eat what’s placed in front of them. But my consistency and firmness and expectation that I be treated with respect doesn’t stop them from somehow expecting more. Much more. Too much more.
It doesn’t stop strangers from judging the mother whose child is experiencing a meltdown.
It doesn’t stop teachers from rolling their eyes at the mother who is trying to advocate for her child.
It doesn’t stop everyone, everywhere, from demanding and expecting just too dang much from us.
I’ve seen a quote floating around a lot lately and cannot shake the truth to it: “We expect women to work as if they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” It’s so true, but it’s also just the surface of the very deeply-rooted problem.
As we get older, as we become mothers, the baton begins to come our way and we start taking over the responsibilities of traditions, holidays, gifts, reunions. We’re supposed to keep everyone in touch – even though no one wants to stay in touch. We’re supposed to plan it all, remember it all, execute it all. Birthdays and anniversaries and cards and parties and laundry and allergies and dinner and lunch-packing and field trips and doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping and friends who really want to hang out and phone calls at the most inconvenient times. Note that I still haven’t even factored in mom’s possible work or any thought of hobbies. The weight of a family falls upon the matriarch, and little thought or appreciation is extended towards her as she sweats to hold it all up. Attention is paid to what is dropped, not what is maintained.
This is motherhood.
Everyone is mad at you.
And you are just really trying your freaking best.
Everyone expects a lot, and honestly, you do a lot.
Like the episode of Friends when Monica didn’t even want to host Thanksgiving but was guilted into it, then guilted into making multiple different kinds of potatoes because everyone wanted theirs to be the way they liked… that’s motherhood.
Their expectations will always be greater than our efforts… and we put a LOT of effort in.
So what do we do? Will we never please them? Are we doomed to live in a constant state of disappointing those around us? Is everyone always going to be mad at us?
I don’t really know for sure.
But I do know that I can say “NO”, and I need to start practicing. I can advocate for myself while everyone else petitions. They can demand, but I can deny. We can take stock of what we really have to do and what they can just buck up and do themselves.
Or we can go on strike and they can just fail their classes and make their own mashed potatoes.
Either way, I’m tired of everyone being mad at me. I’m tired of carrying this weight, these expectations. I’m tired of feeling like I’m dropping all the balls. Because honey, if it weren’t for what we moms do, they’d be drowning in a flippin’ ball pit.
We are rock stars. We keep this ship afloat. We run the world and pack its lunch. We are the glue, and we’re doing a really, really great job of keeping it all together.
It happens all. the. time.
I’m having a casual conversation with someone, almost anyone. We’ll be chatting about clothes, sales, swimsuit season… you know, life-changing stuff. It will inevitably come up that certain stores or designers don’t carry my size, and I’ll refer to myself as fat.
“Gasp! Don’t say that! You’re not fat!”
Look, I know I’m not fooling anyone. Clever ruching and standing with my shoulders back will only get me so far. I’m here, there’s a lot of me, and I’m fat.
I know, I know, you’re trying to encourage me. You don’t want to hear your beloved friend talk badly about themselves, want to encourage them and lift them up and only say good things about them. The thing about that is, though, by not allowing me to label myself as fat, you’re telling me that being fat is awful. Is it fun? No. Would I wish it on myself? No. But is it the worst thing in the world? No.
J. K. Rowling has a famous quote that is very dear to me: “Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’, or ‘cruel’? Not to me.”
Fat isn’t the worst thing someone can be. It’s not fantastic or something to strive for, sure. (It’s also not an indicator of health, before you pull that one out.) I’m not cruel. I’m not vindictive. I can be shallow and vain sometimes, sure. I’m not evil or manipulative or selfish. I don’t inflict pain on others, I break for squirrels, and I don’t put pineapple on pizza. Being fat is not the worst thing I could be. But when you shush me, when you tell me not to describe myself with such an awful word, you’re not protecting me, you’re projecting your own feelings about weight onto me.
I am fat. It’s okay. It’s an adjective, a way to describe part of me. I’m also tall. Loud. Blonde (unless I haven’t been to the salon in a while). I’m a mother, a friend, a wife. I’m a photographer, a writer, a homeschooler, and a Twihard (yes, still). If I’m allowed to describe these other aspects of myself, why can I not also mention my size? Calling myself fat is just a description. Check the comments of any plus-size-related social media account and you’ll quickly see that the rest of society gets to call us fat, so why can’t we, the actual fat people, own our own word? You wouldn’t correct a thin person who called themselves skinny, and you wouldn’t stop me from referring to myself as loud, tall, or easily-excitable. So why am I denied the word “fat”? What is just so awful about one adjective that I cannot use it for myself? Again, the issue is not my appearance, it’s your feelings towards – your fear of – the word itself.
“But Jen! What about those girls who aren’t really fat, they’re just fishing for compliments when they say it about themselves?” Give them compliments. Is that so hard? Do people need to earn compliments? If someone is feeling the need for accolades, then they’d probably really appreciate your flattery. There’s no daily quota on compliments you’re allowed to give out or a size profile one must fit to deserve them. Toss those things around like confetti. Compliment away without needing to negate part of someone’s identity.
Speaking of identity, you don’t get to decide how someone else defines their body. If a skinny person wants to call themselves fat, you are not the size police who gets to determine whether or not their self-description is valid. If a fat person wants to call themselves fat, you are not the feelings police who get to try and save them from their self-description. Their body, their words. Curvy, fluffy, big, plus-sized, or fat, it’s just a descriptor and it’s not shameful to say.
More than anything, what I think that’s happening is that you, the shusher, are uncomfortable with the word. You noticed I’m fat and you want to make sure I know you’re not disgusted by me. You may even have genuine compliments for other aspects of my appearance. But me calling myself fat makes you uncomfortable because you feel like you’re not allowed to say it. I’m calling attention to the elephant in the room (no pun intended), and your politeness has taught you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. I’m not saying you have to walk up and greet me with, “Hey, Fatty, how’s it goin’?” But if I want to call myself fat, it’s actually rude not to let me. Me calling myself fat is not the opposite of nice – hinting that being fat is bad definitely is, though.
Listen, I have enough discomfort to carry on my own. Society doesn’t want to see me and doctors don’t want to hear me. Some chairs hurt me and most stores don’t cater to me. I have my own self-esteem to nurse every morning, and it takes COURAGE to leave the house some days. I cannot also bear the burden of your discomfort with a word. I cannot lightly tease and argue and convince you that yes, I am fat and yes, it’s okay for me to say it. I don’t want to draw even more attention to the most obvious thing about me by having an entire conversation surrounding the way it’s described. So please, let me call myself fat.
The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going, but please keep giving. Because people keep needing.
I’ve seen a few posts going around since Christmas last week – some neighbor or friend has just witnessed a person making a massive amount of returns at Walmart or Target – toys, bikes, games… all Angel Tree gifts. All being exchanged for a store gift card, with nary a child in sight. Outrage ensues, mistrust abounds, and people second-guess their charitable contributions. Despite the fact that it’s pretty hard to tell from standing near a customer service line if a returned toy was an Angel Tree donation, or even verify if your neighbor’s hair dresser’s cousin’s leggings upline actually saw this going down, people are quick to draw their breath and pocketbooks in.
“I can’t believe this! I feel so taken advantage of!”
“So many of those charities are scams, anyways.”
“That’s why we just give to people we know personally – you never know what’s actually going to a kid otherwise.”
People are already making plans not to donate next year based solely on a 14th-hand account someone may have pieced together off of assumptions and loose observations. But y’all, please keep giving.
Many years ago, when I was a Lisa Frank-era girl living with my single mom, I was an Angel Tree kid. My name, my likes, my sizes, all on display on a giant tree somewhere. I have no idea where the tree was or how many people walked past it. I do know that at some point a family saw my name and chose it. I didn’t ask for a Sega Genesis or one of those awesome clear phones DJ Tanner had, I’m pretty sure I just asked for a typewriter. Or a horse, since I was a young girl during the 80’s and 90’s, but I really probably only asked for a typewriter.
Instead, the family who chose me from the Angel Tree got me a dress. Not just a dress, a handmade dress. It was dark green with white lace at the neck, and pretty long. Maybe this family couldn’t give much financially, but they could give me their talents, give me the gift of knowing I was thought of, give me something to open on Christmas that said, “Hey, Jen, we wanted you to have this.” I hear a lot of people say that they don’t remember what gifts they got at Christmas when they were younger. Maybe I’m materialistic, maybe I’m sentimental, but I clearly remember that Christmas, in our little first-floor apartment with the donated shower curtain and towels, opening that green dress and knowing that a family somewhere knew I existed and wanted to give something to me.
I also remember, more than once, my mom returning something of hers in order to buy us food. A curling iron, a cordless phone… anything she still had the original packaging for she was willing to give up in order to feed us. So while someone might think they see a mom returning toys for gift cards, what they might actually be witnessing is a sacrifice for meals, for medicine, for gas, for diapers, for school clothes. Maybe a favorite aunt bought duplicates. Maybe the parent lost custody. Maybe the family just really needed to eat. And yeah, maybe someone was selfishly taking their child’s toys back without the kid’s knowledge. But whatever is actually happening in the hearts of those at the counter, please keep giving. Because people keep needing.
If you’re still having trouble with trusting a charity, if you still are wary of dropping items off and hoping they reach their intended destination, then please find other ways to keep giving. Volunteer with local organizations, contact churches near you and ask about families who may be in need, call the schools in your neighborhood and see if they have any kind of toy or food drives going on or students with felt needs. Food pantries and churches, in particular, are frequently approached by those in need – see how you can donate or help. Seek out an elderly, isolated, or struggling neighbor. Make regular visits to nursing homes with new socks and a smile. If you can’t give, help. If you can’t help, smile. There is always a way to do something kind for another person.
The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going. Is the guy at the gas station really going to use that money to get home to his sick wife? Is that woman on the corner really as destitute as she makes out? Will those toys you donated actually end up in the happy hands of a less fortunate child? Who knows. But if you can give, then do. If you need a guarantee that your gift will be used as you see fit then you’re not giving, you’re congratulating yourself. Giving with conditions isn’t charity, it’s not for the benefit of anyone else. Requiring someone to earn donations based on a set of approved criteria isn’t giving, it’s employment. Do a self-inventory and ask if you’re looking to bless someone or hire someone, to help the less fortunate or to boost your own morale for a while. Stop demanding a follow-up and please, just keep giving. It doesn’t have to be a Nintendo Switch or a salary’s worth of LOL dolls. Sometimes all it takes to make the difference to someone in need is a simple handmade dress.
Have you ever found yourself face to face with someone who was going through a hard time, someone who was struggling, maybe someone who had just poured their heart out to you and was now staring at you with wet, hopeful eyes? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What am I supposed to say here?” You don’t want to say the wrong thing, or maybe you don’t have any experience with what they’re dealing with. You’re out of ideas, out of words, and find yourself grasping for how to respond.
Fear not! The cliché dice are here! Now you can reply cleverly and earnestly to friends and loved ones with tried-and-true clichés, little nuggets of wisdom that will leave your pained pal feeling better, feeling like you really listened. But more importantly, just one nonchalant roll of the dice will leave you feeling like you helped, without all the hard work of actually having to empathize.
Ridiculous, right? I used to think so, too.
Struggle in our lives can bring out the awkward in those around us – heck, it can bring out the ignorance. Miscarriage, job loss, struggling with a child with special needs or even my own health, there is no shortage of dumb stuff and stale, incompatible clichés that people toss my way. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m sure you can think back to a time when you were struggling – or maybe you find yourself having a hard time now – and some (probably) well-meaning person said something just so utterly dumb, thinking they were helping.
Recently I had such a moment, crying to a counselor about a very big decision with regards to one of my children. I had just spend the last several minutes pouring my broken heart out, desperation spilling from my eyes, sharing my innermost thoughts and turmoil and insecurities. I needed this woman’s wisdom, needed her guidance, needed someone who could speak some truth to me that would help me, in any way. Instead, she rolled the dice.
“I mean, what have you got to lose?”
This was her response. Seriously.
“MY CHILD.” Was mine.
She tried to backpedal, but the damage was done. She may not have ever been in the situation I was, and genuinely may not have known what to say. That wasn’t the way to fill the silence.
When we experienced our first miscarriage, people were rolling the dice left and right. “Let’s hope that one wasn’t a girl!” “At least you know you can get pregnant!” “You must not have prayed hard enough.” “Eh, something was probably wrong with it.” “At least you have other kids already.” “Lots of people have miscarriages.” “At least you weren’t that far along.” “I wonder if you did/ate/breathed/looked at anything to cause it.” And the worse possible side of the cliché dice, the one you should never roll (but so many people seem to) – “I know exactly how you feel. Let me tell you about my experience instead of listening to you cope with yours.”
Guys, listen. There’s a time and a place for sharing our scars. We can grow together, empathize, relate, become vulnerable and find healing in each other’s pain. But right in the big fat middle of someone else’s suffering is not the time to share yours. It’s literally pouring salt into their wound. No matter how much you may understand from your own personal experience, listen to theirs. Unless you are asked for advice, keep your own experience to yourself. You can weep tears of understanding, cry prayers of compassion, but give the hugs you would have wanted and the listening ears you would have needed. Never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, EVER, roll the dice and say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Because you don’t. At all. You’re different people. You have different thoughts. You have different ways of processing emotions. You may have an idea. You may have experienced the exact same scenario. But your experience is your experience, and their trauma is theirs, and whatever they’re in the middle of is really hard. Don’t minimize their feelings by trying to mix them with your own. Let them have their own upset.
“When God closes a door He opens a window.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Nope. These aren’t even Biblical. There are no Bible verses to back these things up, and all they do is dismiss the current pain by telling the sufferer it will get better later. The truth is, you don’t know if it will get better. You don’t know if something else awaits. The truth is that closing a door sucks, and that’s what your friend needs to process right now. The truth is that God will absolutely give us more than we can handle. The truth is that sometimes we willingly risk more than we can handle. The truth is that God is near to the brokenhearted. That’s Biblical. That’s something you can share. You have no idea what God has planned for this person before you, but you do know that God won’t leave them, God loves them, and their tears do not go unnoticed by God. Besides, doors are way easier to get through than windows, so why would the idea of God opening a window make anyone feel better?
I lied. I said the worst response you could get from the cliché dice is “I know exactly how you feel.” That’s inaccurate. It’s still an awful, awful way to respond to someone struggling, but it’s not the most awful way. The worst, most terrible, most horrible, most painful way to respond to someone in the midst of a battle is… ” .” Saying nothing. Rolling the dice and coming up in the blank side. Sure, you’re not expected to have a sermon and a 9-point plan each time someone pours their heart out to you, and there is absolutely a time for quiet, for listening, for hugs and silent sobs. I’m talking about when you walk past the woman who is going through a divorce. When you see the man who just lost his job. When you walk past the parents whose child just received a devastating diagnosis. The person who has buried a loved one, the woman overwhelmed with the sickness her family has been sharing the last few weeks, the guy who you know is battling depression, and yes, the couple who just experienced a miscarriage.
Don’t. Be. Silent.
If all other words and sentiments escape you and you really just don’t know what to do, look them deep in the eyes, open up a text or email, and say, “I’m so sorry.” Really. Do not let them walk past you, do not scroll past their name on social media, do not let them come into your view and your mind without offering your sympathy, without asking them how they are. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them about what they’re going through. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t smile and hope it’s a bright spot in their stormy times. Don’t protect yourself from the discomfort of their pain by pretending it isn’t real. Ask them.
I almost planned out a second, separate post on asking people how they are, and I still may, but this has to go here. Ask people. If you know they’re going through a life change, a struggle, a battle, or just had a bad day, ask them about it. Don’t let them feel isolated. Don’t allow them to fall victim to the lie that they’re all alone. Even if you have no idea what it’s like or if you went through the very same thing last year, ask them. Take time out of your day, make them feel loved, and ask them.
Let’s be honest, a lot of the discomfort we feel that prompts us to roll the cliché dice comes more from us wanting to feel like we accomplished something rather than the pain we’re witnessing. Most people aren’t expecting an expert opinion when they’re sharing their struggles with you. They’re not looking to you for all the answers. They don’t think their success lies in whatever you say next. The pressure is off, y’all, you don’t have to have any solutions. You just have to make them feel heard, loved, and important. You don’t have to feel comfortable or accomplished when discussing someone’s battles. You will feel awkward and helpless sometimes. But don’t roll those dice and toss tired old terms at a person in pain. When it comes to broken hearts, uncertain futures, loss, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, and shame, clichés suck.
Don’t roll the dice. Just care about people. If you’re worried about not knowing what to say, then say so. Tell this wounded soul that you don’t have words you think will help, but you have arms that can hug, a heart that can care, ears that can hear, and dice in the trash.