Heavy Thoughts

 

 

I learned that “fat” was a terrible thing for a woman to be when I was six.

My adoptive mother, five-foot-four and somewhat endomorphic, succumbed to that peculiarly eighties obsession with thinness and signed herself up for an intervention at The Diet Center, tiny me in tow. A graphic poster on the wall cautioned against the horror of coating the “normal” female form with fat. The blue, hour-glassy inner part was “OK”; the extraneous yellow layer surrounding it, “not OK.” Brochures and pamphlets packed with colored charts, the only reading material to browse while I waited for her consultations to be over, told me that it was “good” to eat plain dry toast and half grapefruits sans sugar, and “sinful” to eat chocolate.

Snacking between meals was verboten even before the dieting, and meals themselves were often fraught with difficulty due to the intersection of my mother’s rigidity and my stubborn pickiness. A glass of milk, for instance, meant to round out a bowl of oatmeal, had to be poured over the oatmeal to create a sickening gruel, rather than sipped alongside the otherwise-slimy-but-bearable mush. A serving of octopus or beef tongue, despite my horror and regardless of my pleading, was to be finished no matter how many hours it sat getting ever-colder on the plate. First world problems, to be sure, but traumatizing nonetheless.

I began to sneak food: anything I could get my hands on; often hot cocoa powder mixed with maple syrup and chocolate chips: baking items were always on hand, if not real snacks. I ate sugar straight; licked seasoned salt off my palms.

By age ten I had reached my adult height of five-foot-two and had “blossomed” early…. and I was decidedly chubby. Certainly not enormous, but by no means slender. Uncoordinated and the opposite of athletic or graceful, I fell into a shame /no exercise/ever fatter spiral. My best friend’s preschool-aged brother pronounced me “Chumpy Checker” and taunted me daily in a sing-song voice; an older boyfriend mentioned his friend had commented on my “thick thighs.” I was devastated.

My older brother, the epitome of athleticism himself, constantly mocked my plump frame and burgeoning womanliness. I recall the nickname “Hippo” being tossed around among my lithe, blonde cousins, with whom I spent summers on Cape Cod, me swimming in an enormous men’s T-shirt and sweatpants, more often than not.

At my all-girls’ school, where being thin and especially being good at sports was essentially synonymous with being popular, I dreamed of someday, somehow, scoring a goal or hitting a home run or doing anything to earn my peers’ admiration. I believed that if I was just thin, I would be OK. By the time I was thirteen I was dieting constantly, often attending meetings, counting calories, and tracking our half-dry-english-muffin breakfasts as a mother-daughter team (one of our only activities of mutual interest).

I ate myself into obesity during my time as a stay-at-home mom in an unhappy marriage (which I dove into right after high school, convinced that I was lucky that anyone wanted my size-eighteen ass). I drowned the sorrow of my reality in whole batches of Bisquick muffins slathered with butter; in family-sized bags of potato chips eaten alternating with value packs of peanut butter cups.

When I finally left my husband I lost twenty or thirty pounds (along with the additional two hundred thirty or so) almost effortlessly, but still I struggled with hating my body. I straddled the line between “plus” and “regular”-sized and left fitting rooms in tears more often than not. When I found yoga and discovered that there was other exercise I did enjoy (!), I managed to drop down to a societally-respectable size eight, but still I hated my body. Because when you’re short, a size eight is still decidedly chubby by today’s standards (just ask Amy Schumer!).

Never mind that this body brought a beautiful, compassionate young man into the world. Never mind that it’s held friends’ hands in times of darkness and brought love through music to the ears of the dying and joy to the living. Never mind all of its capacity for love and its warmth; this is what I concern myself with, its fatness? Is that really the measure of my worth?

At almost forty, with a grown child; dear friends; fulfilling pursuits; love… can I not learn to stop self-criticizing, to stop believing that somehow life would be better if I were thinner? Can I not learn to love myself no matter my size? Can I learn to forgive those who contributed to this obsession, however unwittingly… most notably, can I forgive myself? Can I teach myself to believe that I am OK even with this subcutaneous layer obstructing the perfection of my hourglass? Would that I could go back to be in that room with that six-year-old to show her on that poster the two parts of a woman’s body that actually matter:

Her mind and her heart.

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“Take My Wife. . . Please!”

I gave my boyfriend a fridge magnet that reads “Marriage is having someone who will die for you. . . If you don’t kill them first.”

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The famous Henny Youngman one-liner in the title, like all great jokes, is funny because it is true. So many couples drown in mutual resentment. To paraphrase either Henry Rollins or Chuck Palahniuk (the quote is lodged in my mind but its source proves elusive), they are “killing each other with the mundanities of daily life.”

We are not married, it is true, even after nearly ten years together; I am probably the more reticent one, having already given it an abysmal attempt once before. . . But my reluctance is largely financial, since it cost me almost twenty grand to get out of the last one.

I do believe in marriage, though, even if I have no parental model and my own first was a failure. Not necessarily the religious or paperwork sort, but at least the idea of finding someone you don’t mind spending forever with. Strike “don’t mind”: WANT to.

I grew up with several incredible examples in my extended family of cousins-once-removed and family friends. Emily Esfafani Smith’s Atlantic article Masters of Love ( http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/ ) discusses a longitudinal study of what observable traits make a difference in the “three in ten” of those who have wed who “remain in happy, healthy marriages.”

Unsurprisingly, an undercurrent of mutual support seems to be key, but I had not thought about the body language aspect: That couples who do not last often do not physically turn toward one another when communicating. (A simplification of an excellent study and a fascinating examination, to be sure. . . It is worthwhile reading!)

Anecdotally rather than scientifically speaking, the loving, lasting marriages I know of seem to be what I think we all hope for: Best friends forever. A clever division of labor never hurts, either. My aunt has made all of the (delicious and precisely, impeccably planned) meals and my uncle has done all of the dishes for some thirty-nine amicable years.

My boyfriend’s grandmother’s near last words to us were “take care of each other. Love each other.” Which, naturally, sent both of us into sobbing fit. Then we remembered that she had previously told us that the secret to a happy marriage is just finding “someone whose bullshit you can put up with.” Which helped us to smile through our tears.

My favorite boat captain and his lovely wife will tell you, more specifically, the secret is DATE NIGHT. Raising their son while living and working in the most isolated of places for many years, they made it a point to schedule some special time away from their usual routine every single week, without fail. It seems to be like exercise. . . Keep up the habit and it is easy to get moving. Slack for a while and suddenly re-starting seems insurmountable. Thirty-plus years in, she still smiles at him like she knows a secret, and he still looks at her like she is the prom queen he can’t believe he has scored.

Something else I have noticed: Each of the individuals in the good marriages I am thinking of is creatively or professionally fulfilled. More so than most of us who have settled for careers quite far from our passions! I wonder whether it is partly that they are happier overall because they are pursuing meaningful work and have encouraged each other’s artistic or otherwise satisfying activities (despite the potential economic consequences)?

My uncle insists that his wife (she of the perfect dinners) “solved most of my problems by marrying me,” and their incredible unity through the most adverse of experiences makes me suspect he may be the one person for whom Rebecca Webber’s Psychology Today article “Are You With the Right Mate ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201112/are-you-the-right-mate ) might ring hollow. For the rest of us, she points out, there is almost certainly no one person who will magically not annoy us or make us question if we have made the right decision. We can fantasize about a mate with different habits or characteristics or someone who just wouldn’t be so. . .

. . .But that person does not exist. If not that idiosyncracy, then some other. A bugaboo you haven’t even conceived of.

My man and I have our share of issues and miscommunications (someday I will write all about the Headless Chinese Porn Affair; quite a hoot, in retrospect) but goddammit, he’s smart enough and nice enough and I like him! (And for many other reasons which don’t fit neatly into an SNL reference).

I hope we will be one of those forever couples: that we continue to teach each other and (rather eerily) share tangential thoughts, that we find a way to divide chores mutually satisfactorily, face adversity sharing our strength as well as our grief, cherish each other, communicate openly, and support one another in becoming who we each hope to be.

Teen Mom

My Facebook news feed is filled with the gummy smiles of infants and the bizarre over-sharing that is a relative stranger’s sonogram (oh, thank the stars there was no social media in my day!)

My friends are all having babies at the appropriate time. In the NorthEast, that means our 30s. . . .Whereas I had mine at eighteen.

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The girls I grew up with, and women in my adoptive family, were decidedly not teen moms. College and career came first. My birth mother, though, had my brother when she was seventeen. I was with her in New Mexico for four of my five “formative years” (if the psych textbooks are to be believed), so maybe a part of me was stuck back in a place where it’s fairly or even perfectly normal to get married and have babies (or have babies and not get married) right out of high school.

I had some major complications during my pregnancy, so after I was a week in the hospital in Florida, where I was living, my estranged family had me med-flown back up to Boston (just me, the pilot, and my two cats, who had followed behind the ambulance in a taxi) so I could be treated at Brigham & Women’s. If you’re going to be dying having a baby, it’s a good place to be.

I was followed closely there, and every week when I entered the OB/GYN unit, I felt the stares. Stares from suburban women in sensible haircuts and their corpulent, balding husbands, and stares from pairs of sixteen-year-olds with slicked-back ponytails and braces and bright blue eyeliner who were on their way to their special teen wing, which I no longer qualified for. I was stuck in between two demographics: certainly not the typical “teen mom” with my prep school education and Brahmin upbringing; but lacking the requisite years behind me to be anything but a pariah to the pregnant ladies of “proper” age.

As I planned my wedding in summer school (after missing part of my senior year), my algebra teacher got wind of it and laughed, “well, everyone needs a first!

We got married (in retrospect) mostly so that I could prove to my family that I was right and going to have a fairytale life despite my flouting of their (clearly old-fashioned!) traditions.

I shopped for “mom clothes” that I hated– a pale yellow crew-neck blouse and a navy skirt with a dainty floral print to match, rather than my velvet and fringe-y Stevie Nicks ensembles– hoping to be taken more seriously; and signed up for a new mom’s group in my town, wanting to meet women with kids my son could grow up playing with since none of my own friends had babies.

With their Baby Christian Dior layettes and their frosted $200 haircuts, these post-career, stay-at-home moms looked straight down their noses at me. When talking about their husbands they would gesture toward me and say “and your. . . whatever.” They sneered at me for not having a car (there was a bus down the block which went directly to my house. . . it would be different in New York, surely?), and they whispered plans for meeting up to one another to ensure I wouldn’t participate in their clique beyond the prescribed hour a week.

At playgrounds, too, I was typically shunned. Although I found it insulting, it was fine because I was the only mom who seemed to care to actually play with my kid. (He’s pretty cool).

Many years later a friend told me a story of being at the same parks in Cambridge where I found the mothers particularly unfriendly. She looked quite young when her daughter was pre-school age, although she was in her late 20’s. She tried to join a circle of woman chatting while watching the children play, and was stunned when one of the other mothers turned, narrowed her eyes, and spat “excuse me, we don’t speak to nannies.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My son missed out on having kids he was always with because the parents are best friends. He also has no close cohort of cousins, as I did, because my cousins are having children now, in their 30s, and he’s a teenager. This is one of the sadnesses I harbor for my choice, because for me they were the closest thing I knew to sisters. I hope he will have that closeness with my niece, at least, although they are seven years apart.

It is difficult, too, that we are in an affluent area, especially his father (we’re long-since divorced, unsurprisingly): my son’s friends have media rooms and playrooms and basketball courts and koi ponds and sixty-inch televisions. . . Of course I wish we’d been more financially stable when we had him, and could have bought a big house with a beautiful yard instead of a small condo. But I don’t think that having everything handed to you builds any character, anyway, even if it were an option. I do believe in spending on the things that matter, like music lessons and instruments and great summer camps and art supplies!

Even if my son hasn’t had the Caribbean vacations and palatial playrooms we both envied as children growing up with wealthy peers, he, like me, has been raised to believe in the importance of education, art, family, and home-cooked meals, and in embracing peoples’ differences rather than denigrating them. It’s what’s inside that counts (although if the outside is Stevie Nicks, that’s cool). After all of these years I’d still rather hang out with my kid than those catty women, anyway.

Grace Me Guide

Several years ago, after a weak moment in Barnes & Noble, I read Eat, Pray, Love. It was obviously a time of great soul-searching, as I then checked out The Artist’s Way and Wild Mind and that one about “morning pages” (?), and started a new journal dedicated to my new principles of self-actualization.

Like most writers, I am sure (and most Virgos, I suspect), there is little I adore more than a fresh, clean, beautiful, unsullied blank book. (Lined, please, because as artistic as I may hope to be, I shall never master the art of writing a straight line across a plain page.) I wonder how many others too, like me, leave the first leaf virgin, always.

This book, I decided (purple leather, made in India, with hot pink edging), would house a journal of the principles I hope to live by, summed up by the phrase on my family crest:

Forbes_aGrace Me Guide.

To me Grace is not a religious concept so much as a way of conducting oneself in the world. To be guided by Grace is to live mindfully and with kindness, and being impelled to fulfill one’s potential. In order to work toward living a life guided by Grace, I set some slightly-less-vague action principles:

Live mindfully: Be present in the moment; eat whole foods and remember to savor; spend time in nature and move the body

Show love: Be a more appreciative partner; keep up with correspondence; make time for friends

Organize: Keep physical clutter to a minimum, which keeps psychic clutter down, too

Create!

. . .And there were three more. Three more, because I would have chosen seven, of course. But I can’t remember them, and when I  later came upon the scarcely-started book, I was so embarrassed to be so far behind on progressing toward the goals that I ripped the section out of the book without looking.

For many years I was headed down a path where fulfilment seemed out of reach, though I longed for a change. A crisis both financial and psychological– losing my job and with it my identity as a hard worker — sent me through two years of self-searching and brainstorming and desperate reading and crippling anxiety and the hopes-dashed rollercoaster, to a point where I believe I am ready to have Grace guide me where I need to be. I need to make music, and write, and make the world a better place even in some small way by giving love, and keep a smaller number of possessions: those that bring me joy. I want to live more simply, with more purpose, and with appreciation for every moment on this beautiful planet with its wonderful creatures.