Motherhood: Inception, Alchemy, and Option. Part Two of a Short Series

I believe, perhaps too strongly, in living a life with a plan. Not for me, the aimless floating in the Flow! Rigorous self examination is a constant. So, in an effort to keep my life, including relationships and work, on a productive trajectory, I ask myself: What is my goal? Who am I trying to reach? Why?

I’ve landed on this: I am hoping use the stories of my own life to connect women to each other, for I believe it’s in authentic connection with a medley of others that we create the sort of beautiful song that our lives are meant to be. Old and young. Faith-led and ambivalent. Married and single. Mother and not.

When a woman becomes a mother, there’s an alchemy at the soul level: love fuses with fear; self-awareness morphs to other-awareness. We are changed by becoming mothers. But as the mother of an adult daughter who is not sure she will ever choose motherhood as well as a daughter who embraced it at the by-modern-standards-young age of 24, I bear witness to the power of the life lived on either side of the coin. It is beautiful to watch a woman exercise choice over this profound condition called “Motherhood.”

Becoming a mother is, for many of us, a beloved experience. Not for all, I know. There are women for whom motherhood is a burden. Maybe for practical reasons like health dangers. Maybe because the partner is cruel. Perhaps because there is not enough money or danger lurks in surroundings. Becoming a mother is, for some of us, impossible. We all know a woman whose empty arms ache. Some are forced to make the bitter choice of whether to carry a terminally ill baby to term. My heart hurts for all of these women.

There are women who become moms through adoption or fostering. That’s its own damn miracle. And sometimes, men do all the parenting themselves and it’s pretty amazing.

Lots of babies are born by C-Section. Equally miraculous, and not one whit less blessed or authentic. My pregnancy and childbirth story just happens to be a bit more conventional. I love it, because it’s my story. I bet there are elements that all moms share, no matter the route to motherhood: the sweetness of holding a child, the agony of watching a child be ill or injured, the long nights of worry and wakefulness.

For me, becoming a mother was magical. Of course, many moms both cherish the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, but shudder a bit, too. Let’s get real and honest: it hurts. Growing a baby is wonderful, but it also stretches your ligaments painfully. Feet swell. Rings get tight. Backs ache. Braxton-Hicks contractions twinge. Stuff leaks out your lady-plumbing. Hairs grow in previously smooth places. Comfortable sleep becomes quixotically impossible.

My first full term pregnancy was pretty easy- my body responded to growing a child with a lot of enthusiasm. I was a college student, so I did all my projects ahead of time, to be ready. I nested by waking up one night, just a few days before labor, and scrubbing the baseboards of our student housing apartment with a toothbrush.

The second pregnancy was less peaceful. We discovered I was pregnant while my husband was in the hospital, recovering from a near-fatal bout with viral spinal encephalitis. I had confided in his doctor that I suspected I might be pregnant, and worried that his disease might have gotten to the baby. He assured me that that would not be the case, but tested me anyway. I wore a pacifier tied around my neck when I went to visit Travis in his hospital room. and his face first showed confusion, then joy as he realized that he was alive, and he would be a father again. We were facing medical bills and unemployment, but those mountains seemed insignificant against the knowledge of just how close he’d come to dying. 

The third, though, her birth was my favorite. We had looked into a home birth for purely monetary reasons. My husband worked for a church that did not provide health insurance, we were living in a state where my teaching certificate was not valid,  and any part time job I could find didn’t pay enough to cover child care costs.

In 1994, home birth was definitely a fringe undertaking, more so than even now. We researched and met with a midwife named Ruth, she was very nurturing, but also pragmatic. She would not brook any argument on one issue, in fact, I had to sign a document on my first visit: if, at any time, she felt I or baby were at risk, I had to follow her directive to go to the hospital. This was the very assurance that was at the top of my wish list, I knew I did not want a midwife who was so committed to the global cause of home birth and natural medicine that she would put my baby’s life at risk to prove a point. I had one visit with an MD, then spent the rest of my pregnancy with Ruth overseeing my care.

Libby didn’t seem to want to be born. At church, our preacher took the pulpit after a rousing rendition of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” looked over at me, and kindly (and laughingly) proclaimed that “When the roll is called up yonder, Kim will still be here.” Waiting for the baby, her meant. The congregation had a good chuckle- they were anxious for that baby to arrive, and a little worried about our unusual birthing plan.

On a September Sunday, I awoke to the sound of a popping cork; labor had begun. We called Ruth, then did what we had practiced: I walked the little house for hours, Travis following behind with a towel (thank God we had wood floors) and squatted deep at each contraction. Our other two kids awoke just at the moment I needed to start pushing, so , we bundled them off to church with neighbors, and then got to work.

On a bed covered with protective sheets, Travis leaned up against the headboard, I planted myself between his knees, and had the most primal and beautiful experience I can imagine. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and when Libby crowned, Ruth laid her hands on Libby’s head and prayed her into the world. Libby was born wrapped in blessings.

That blessed baby is a now a mother. I held her right knee and coached her during the births of both of her children, and watching my grandchildren enter the world has been a gift of immeasurable value. Libby is a woman who has fulfilled one aspect what womanhood means for her.

I have another daughter. She is walking a different path. She has, for now, chosen to build a life of independent creativity.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

She is a writer, a filmmaker, and an explorer who jokes that her projects are my grandbabies, for she labors intensely to bring them into the world. I love that. She digs deep into the heart of feminism, she stands strong at the intersection of activism and art. She, too, is fulfilling what womanhood means for her.

These women, these creators-of-art, pioneers-of-independence, activism-as-caregivers have always been among us.

We haven’t always appreciated them like we should, instead assuming them to lonely and unfulfilled, we’ve pressured them to conform.

I believe the act of creation is what changes us. Whether it’s a child or a book, a family or a film, magical alchemy occurs when it’s done with the intention of love. It may even be both: motherhood and art. May we embrace and bless the women who choose motherhood, and also those who walk a different path. Fulfillment is not, after all, found only in tradition; it can be found equally in divergence.

To Love Being a Mother: Part One of a Short Series

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice, almost a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth. Not now.

Photo by Evelyn Chong on Pexels.com

I have had to make a major shift lately because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. The Empty Nest is a monumental transition. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me. I enjoyed a Facetime call with three of my best college friends earlier this week; we suffered the travails of sorority rush when we were just eighteen years old, and now we bemoaned the travails of wherever we are in our motherhood journeys: two empty-nesters (though my house is not actually empty), a mom who has just one senior-in-high-school daughter left at home and can see her freedom beckoning like a fluttering will-o’-the-wisp, and a mom who has seen her eldest through a grueling triple organ transplantation and is now fiercely protecting her younger children from a negligent, violent husband whom she is divorcing. We are all happy about our motherhood and struggling with it in equal measure.

I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and (relatively) healthy. And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

Ready Like a Mother

When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. My mom was debilitated by mental illness and addiction, was damaged by faith and desperately lonely in a house with four other equally lonely humans. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. My friend Chellie’s mother, Bea, stood across her kitchen counter and offered sage advice while feeding me scratch-made chocolate cake. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. When I became a mother, I didn’t have peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in our college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

A theme of my motherhood was to protect them by being around just enough: not a helicopter, instead maybe a stealth missile. I wanted to keep them safe while instilling courage, so I instructed them, at ages 4 and 6 to “hold onto my pockets” so that I could carry their baby sister into stores. They never did let go, not once. As they grew older, I didn’t spy, I never did read a journal, though I did go through some drawers. On the night of my eldest’s eighth grade dance, I dropped her off and pretended to drive away, then sneaked back into the cafetorium and hid behind a pillar to watch her have fun with her friends in the dress I’d put the finishing touches on just a few minutes before. In my mind, the dress was my back pocket and I was at that dance with her, still protecting from afar.

Now, I am a grandmother, with a nine-month-old grandson and a twenty-one-month-old granddaughter; they, along with their parents, live with us. I was not ready for this new role, this new identity. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

On the day my daughter and her partner told us about grandbaby number one, we were sitting at brunch at a local restaurant. I knew something was up and asked my daughter to accompany me to the restroom, where she told me she was pregnant and I slid down the wall and plopped gracelessly on the cold tiled floor (it was a nice restaurant, the floor was clean. Thank goodness we weren’t at a truck stop). After the meal, we continued the conversation at our home, and when they left after a long talk about the impending baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am.

The Awesome Power of the Grandmother

I remember the awesome influence of my own grandmothers, especially my grandmother June, whose life was a testament to the beauty of resilience and generosity. She never had a mother of her own, and her father was murdered when she was a young woman, and like me, she had to look around her for women to be role models into motherhood. She taught me about the importance of skin care, and that sitting on the porch watching birds was, in fact, a valuable way to spend time.

Her house was imbued with the magic of hospitality, space to be myself, and a place to imagine: an attic room. The stairs were behind a beautiful oak door, and once climbed, revealed a sublime room with an old iron bed, shelves upon shelves of books, boxes of toys and dress up clothes, and a window seat. This room was where I felt more at peace, more myself, than any place I had encountered. In this room, perched on the window seat, I drew pictures and wrote stories, dressed as a lady, danced, and read books. When I read Little Women for the first time, I recognized Jo’s love for her attic. I had my own attic to love. Almost always, when I was there, my mother was in a completely different town, so the pall of her depression was lifted. My introverted little soul could fly free, all under the gentle and generous eye of my beloved Grandma June.

To become a comparable source of joy and a well of confidence for my grand-kids and, more importantly, their mother, to continue to nurture my relationships with my adult kids who remain single, requires that I look backward into my own child-rearing years. I want to remember, from their births to their graduations and beyond, how I explored the idea of being a good parent as well as how I messed up royally but stayed in the game. I want to acknowledge that I was a good mom, which means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

Lessons from transitioning to being a mother, then to grandmother:

  1. If you’re young, look around for role models and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  2. If you’re older, look around for younger adults who need mentors. We can be a pretty isolated society. You might have a church single or a teen neighbor who could use a friend who’s got a lot of life experience.
  3. Protect, but don’t rescue. Don’t hover. It’s not good for anyone.
  4. Apologize to your kids when you make a mistake. They’ll remember that as they grow. It teaches them that it’s safe to be imperfect.
  5. Write down or otherwise record the moments when you stumbled to goodness. Too often, we focus on the extremes: the picture-perfect happy, glossy moments, or the times when tragedy happens or fierce disagreements cause heartache. I think that lasting joy is found in the middle, those moments when life is just rolling along and you stumble sometimes but you keep going and growing.
  6. Save some toys for your grandkids.

What wisdom do you have about mothering, or empty-nest transitioning? Share, I’d love to learn from you!

Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

Daddy and me, 1970I believe kites are dreams. I mean, really, when you’re flying one, don’t you feel as though you’re floating alongside it, aloft like a dandelion seed, rising and falling on unseen wafts of air? I have not flown a kite in years, but I used to love to send a kite up into the air, running with the string, giving it slack or yanking it taut to keep it soaring.

My daddy loved to fly kites. When I was a kid, he would sometimes bring an armful of newspaper to the kitchen table and call me and my brothers into the room. We gathered scissors and tape; I would usually decorate the kite, and Daddy always stressed the importance of the tail. On other occasions, Daddy would see a kite at the store and on impulse, he would snap it up and take it excitedly to the cash register. This was a real splurge for us, money was always scarce. I think maybe Daddy bought kites when he was feeling discouraged and needed a lift.

Perhaps kites are prayers, too. Though always a man of faith, church was not something my daddy attended regularly. I am not sure what his personal faith journey was, I know there were some devastating hurts inflicted by well-meaning but misinformed church leaders. I know that in my own arrogant twenty-something faith years, I probably landed a few good blows, too.

Perhaps my daddy sent kites up when he wanted to connect with the Almighty;  by shifting his focus away from the heavy gravity-soaked earth under his feet and onto the vast expanse of blue sky, he could send a little whisper to God on the breeze. I like to believe that God whispered back.

The year my daddy turned fifty, I learned something new about him. While visiting us for Christmas, he and I stayed up late to chat in the living room speckled with tree-light glow, whispering so we didn’t wake my sleeping toddler. He told me, for the first time, that he had always wanted to be an Air Force pilot, it had been his aspiration throughout childhood. When he applied for the Air Force, his eyesight prevented him from being accepted into flight school, so he went to the Navy instead.

Maybe for him, kites were also Air Force jets.

Anyway, once our kite was ready, Daddy would load us three kids in the car and we’d head to a field, usually at the nearby elementary school, and we would fly our kite until it broke or darkness fell. Those are some of my favorite memories with my dad and my two brothers.

11427195_10152818410851097_4664171811351207828_nRecently, my eldest daughter, Hilary, posted a photo on Facebook of she and a friend flying kites on the beach in California. She’s another dreamer, off in L.A. pursuing a career in film, putting away doubts and only listening to voices that encourage. I love that image- sun, sand, kites aloft, and my daughter’s smile.

My daddy was not the only one who loved kites. The Chinese are credited with inventing them thousands of years ago. The Afghan people fly kites competitively. Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is an exquisite chronicle of a father and son who run after fallen kites.

When I taught junior high theatre, there was always a day after standardized testing when the kids took the kites they had been building in math class out to fly. The halls were filled with such laughter and excitement– flying a kite is way better than sitting at a desk doing endless formulae, and I know that flying their very own colorful creations is probably one of their favorite school memories.

Charlie Brown

Poor Charlie Brown never could get his kite up past the kite-eating tree. Dreams denied, indeed. The classic loser can’t fly a kite.

And then there’s the classic Disney film Mary Poppins.

I always cry at the end of the movie. Somehow, the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the song for Walt Disney’s film, perfectly captured the joy that comes when you fly a kite. With its lilting melody and hopeful lyrics, a kite lover can close her eyes and remember exactly how it feels to send a kite soaring, all at once “lighter than air.” In that film, the kite is a symbol of a healing family: “Up, through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear, come, let’s go…fly a kite!” A family needs a moment when the air is clear. So does a dreamer, or a God seeker, or a middle-aged former teacher who wonders at every turn what in the world she’s supposed to be doing.

Mary Poppins kite

Life is kind of like kite-flying, I guess. Wind dictates direction, sometimes we go in ways we never envisioned. The glass-covered strings of our enemies can cut our own fragile strings and send us plummeting to earth, shattered and broken. Hopefully, a kite runner, maybe a loving family member or an attentive friend, occasionally even a random stranger, picks up our damaged kite and, with glue and tape and love, puts us back together so we can give it another go.

All this talk of wind and adventure and dreams has made me want to go kite-flying. I’d better go find tuppence for paper and string. Time to build my own set of wings.

dandelion 2

Short and Sweet: A Good Mom

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice. Almost like a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth.

Not now.

I have had to make a major shift here lately. I had to because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. Empty Nest is a big change. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me.

So I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and healthy. I even have a nose stud.

And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. I didn’t have many peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in my college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

I am now the grandmother of a six month-old. I was not ready for this. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

img_2915

When my daughter and her boyfriend left our house after they told us they were expecting a baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am. To do that, though, means that I must acknowledge that I was a good mom. It means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

 

What’s a time when you really rocked your parenting? Maybe you created a memory, taught a life lesson, or protected your child. I’d love to hear it.

If you’re a mom looking for a tribe, try Hello Minder. It’s moms with a lot of love and a desire to help each other more-than-muddle through the mom journey:

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A Thirtieth Birthday

Today is my oldest child’s thirtieth birthday.

Huge, heavy sigh. How can so much time possibly passed since the day I first held her?

I remember my thirtieth- I had three kids, aged 8,6, and 3. I was teaching third grade at a local Christian school with an extremely low salary, so money was…tight. But friends from church gave us tickets to see the Broadway touring company of “Kiss Me Kate,” and I think we saved up money for a dinner at Outback Steakhouse. I was utterly domesticated.

Not my girl, though.

This woman is out in Los Angeles, being brave and daring and falling and getting back up and risking and laughing and crying and learning and writing and acting and ailing and earning and…

living.

It’s not that I didn’t live at 30, but I chose the known path. The safe path of traditional marriage, child-bearing, and school teaching. For me, the great unknown was simply making a healthy, vibrant family. I didn’t have one growing up. I wanted to forge a new path that looked so simple, so traditional, so wholesome, that it was for me, a frontier.

Hilary was the first child, the one who had to bear with all my learning and figuring it out. I may have taught her how to put on her shoes, brush her teeth, and know the front from the back of her clothing, but she’s the one who taught me how to be patient, how to cuddle, and how to listen to one’s own deepest heart.

When she was about twelve, and in a rather awkward phase, she loved to sing. But she wouldn’t necessarily do it with anyone watching. I was upstairs, putting away laundry or some such thing, and heard a sweet soprano voice cutting through any sounds of cartoons downstairs or traffic on the street. Upon realizing the sound came from my own back yard, I opened a window and hid behind the curtain, peeking out to see Hilary, feet planted in the grass, mouth wide open, singing a Charlotte Church tune with all her sweet heart and soul. She thought she had no audience, but she had a host of listeners: leaves, birds, blades of grass, the Divine One, and me. Her mom.

She still sings; her spirit and soul sing a melody of independence, grace, and creativity. Now, though, she doesn’t hide in the back yard to do it. She puts herself out there. Comedy clubs, spontaneous musical theatre tunes on the interwebs, producing a web series, acting studio; these are the professional modes. And in her personal life? She left an unhealthy marriage and started a new chapter, surrounding herself with friends and venturing into the murky world of Los Angeles dating.

My daughter is fierce yet tender, intelligent yet humble, gorgeous yet unaffected. She is the first of my three greatest gifts. I am so grateful she’s mine.

Happy birthday, Dink.

Modesty, Shame, and a Korean Spa

For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.

I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.

I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.

Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.

Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.

Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.

This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.

And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:

I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.

But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.

Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.

My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.

I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.

Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.

Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.

On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…

and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.

Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.

 

As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.

 

When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.

I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.

So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.

And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.

Skeletor or Staypuft?

female nude

I find myself in a corner. A prison of my own construction. This morning, I stood at the mirror, examining myself from several angles, bending to and fro to see how my body squidged as I contorted. I ate a very, very tiny breakfast when I got downstairs, let me tell you.

I want to take a moment to talk about weight. I know this is not an original topic, nor will my message be a great revelation. But I am okay with that, because I think we just have to keep talking about this. We have to own what we have done to women in this country, and that takes constant, repetitive chipping away at the wall.

Not too long ago, I went to the preview of a show my husband has been working on, a 1920’s murder mystery at the Prohibition Club in downtown Houston. Prohibition is the home of the Moonlight Dolls, a premiere burlesque troupe. Their photo is below. Look at them. They are all beautiful. And after weeks of rehearsing with them, my husband says they have body image issues, too. What the hell is wrong with us?

Dolls

I knew it was going to be a rough afternoon for me. About ten minutes into dinner, after watching a tiny twenty-something girl in a cute, wee outfit spin on a trapeze, then having four tiny twenty-somethings do the Charleston in g-strings and bandeau tops, I fled to the bathroom, where I sobbed on a toilet for pretty much the remainder of the show.

When I emerged from the stall, I found a large woman bent over the sink, eyes squeezed shut, breathing deeply. She, too, looked traumatized. She finally stood up, squared her shoulders, and went back to her table. I didn’t. I stood in the lobby and read a novel on my Kindle.

There’s a tape that plays in my head, almost constantly. It goes something like this:

“You shouldn’t eat that…suck in your stomach…look how thin that lady is…I bet she has more self control…I bet she is more lovable…how many minutes have I exercised this week so far?” You get the picture. I count calories on an app and worry if I forget to enter something.

When I was a kid, I remember two media moments that embedded themselves profoundly in my psyche. The first was the Special K ad campaign “Can You Pinch an Inch?” The commercials showed people playfully pinching their tummies,and if they had more than an inch of pudge, they needed to go on a diet. For a twelve year old girl approaching puberty, that dangerous message sank its claws deeply. I understood that my body must stay thin to be acceptable. The second media moment came when Cosmopolitan magazine declared that thighs must not touch, and featured an article in which perfectly lovely women who were at healthy weights were shown at a ten pound weight loss, and trumpeted for how much more beautiful they were after that weight loss.

Cosmo

I was not getting affirmation from my family when it came to weight or looks. When I tried to get my mother to tell me if I was pretty, I was told I was shallow and vain for wondering about my looks, when maybe a simple compliment for an insecure girl would have done a world of good. When I was about thirteen, I remember I hugged my maternal grandma and when I told her how much I loved hugging her, her reply was something like, “I’m fat.” I protested, but she told me that my grandfather would love her more if she could just lose twenty pounds. How’s that for a message about weight’s affect on your worth? I believed her, because I had seen that same grandfather stand at the picture window in their lakeside cabin and make fun of his neighbor’s body in her bikini.

One time, though she didn’t think I could hear, my other grandmother, while looking at pictures I had just had made and was so proud of, commented that I looked like I had put on about ten pounds (I was fifteen and wore a size eight, which would now be a 4. See photo below).

In drill team, we weighed in once weekly, and the officers were allowed to know our weights. I was always on the cusp of being sidelined, at 5’6″ and 128 pounds. In my freshman year of college, the coed p.e. instructor, a man, did a caliper test on all of us, in front of everyone, and declared me “obese” on my form. I weighed 135 pounds and wore a size 8.

A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!
A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!

You see, I was coming of age in the 1980’s, when Jane Fonda was everywhere and Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die of anorexia. Now there are scholarly articles on the prevalence of weight loss articles and images in the media in the ’80’s and what effect it was having on women’s body image. Health was out, thin was in.

(Fittingly, while proofing this post, I heard a commercial for Medifast “Be the best version of you!” on Pandora. It’s everywhere and all the time, I tell you.)

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I have never, ever been able to shake the worry about my weight. I worked as a fitness instructor through my twenties, and spent most of my thirties teaching beginning dance to eighth graders. Now, after one knee surgery, a severely sprained ankle, a bicep tendon injury, and a spinal surgery that removed two cervical discs and replaced them with a steel plate, I still work out as hard as my body will let me. I hurt, but I keep trying, because I want to be thin. I have ten pounds that I keep gaining and losing; it used to be the same ten pounds. I would lose it, it would come back. Something’s changed since menopause, though: I lose ten then gain back twelve. I had been wearing the same size for years, an 8 or ten, depending on fit. Now I am in tens to twelves. Some days I have equanimity about this, but sometimes I lay in bed, squeezing my pudge and mumbling my new dress size over and over, a litany of shame.

I tried my hardest to instill healthy messages to my two daughters about their own bodies. I knew how much I craved doses of reassurance when I was young. I fear my own insecurities rendered me a hypocrite, but I did try. Kate Winslet, an exquisitely beautiful and gifted actress, was recently cited on Huffington Post: “I was chubby, always had big feet, the wrong shoes, bad hair,” Winslet told Bear Grylls during an episode of his NBC show ‘Running Wild With Bear Grylls’ that aired Tuesday. “When I grew up, I never heard positive reinforcement about body image from any female in my life. I only heard negatives. That’s very damaging because then you’re programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinize yourself and how you look…I stand in front of the mirror and say to Mia [her 14 year old daughter], ‘We are so lucky we have a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky that we’ve got good bums.’ And she’ll say, ‘Mummy, I know, thank God.’ It’s paying off.”

skeletor stay puft

There has to be a place between Skeletor and Stay-Puft for this woman in her 50’s (child of the 80’s pop culture reference!) If I get too thin, my face looks drawn and skeletal, if I am too heavy, I look puffy and unhealthy. I must find the balance. More importantly, I need to change the tapes that play in my brain. I need to stop looking at myself in the mirror and castigating myself. And though I haven’t carved the word “FAT” into my own thigh with a pair of scissors since 2009, I still recite it to myself in a million ways every day.  It’s time to move forward, to come out of hiding in the bathroom stall, to see myself for what is deeper than cellulite, and to be grateful for my healthy, strong body. Hell yeah, I can pinch an inch. What of it?

Kjerstin Gruys spent a year without mirrors. She researches how body image affects women, and wrote about it. What a gift to the world.

Kjerstin Gruys: A Year Without Mirrors