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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Learning To Be Good Enough

cenotes

The Yucutan cenotes: one of my happy places.

Whether kin of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or media-bandwagon-hopping, I am seeing it discussed everywhere lately, from the Times parenting blog to Fast Company. . .  it’s apparently Winter 2015’s “introverts and lumbersexuals”:

Perfectionism.

I wish I could say I am a reformed perfectionist. Unfortunately I am an active perfectionist. I know that it’s “not necessarily a personality trait to aspire to” as Terri Cole points out in last week’s HuffPost Canada article. I am working on it.

A former boss of mine had a sign that read “perfect is the enemy of done.”

This, too, I know (though can any writer or editor ever truly reconcile the two?)

I grew up with a parent who never even asked what my grades were, although diligence in all things was certainly expected. I was the one who felt absolutely crushed at not attaining the A. Truth be told, anything less than A+ is disappointing (which made college’s omission of this option rather tragic for me). Interestingly, I often expect, require, and desire the accolades even if I haven’t worked particularly hard for something. My mother will tell you that this is because everything “came easily to me.” (Which is certainly not true of sports, which I dreamed day and night of being a star in).

Perfectionism creates a deep fear of trying things we might not be good at, or alternatively a deep conviction that we’re just not good enough at what we’re trying. Either condition is ripe for creating crippling anxiety. (And in the case of sports, an additional vicious cycle of inactivity and weight gain).

I can trace some of my perfectionism to having an older brother who was practically worshipped in my family, who was good at literally everything he ever tried. He won a creative writing prize at college with his first short story. His art was entered into shows in school. His poetry was good. As a teenager. In his second language. He was an athletic star in every sport but basketball (he being only five foot three), a talented musician, a brilliant orator and debater.

I am still not sure how I am supposed to live up to that.

Especially, you see, as he died young. And everyone knows that the pedestal grows even higher for those we have lost.

I felt for a long time that since he was my mother’s favorite it would have been so much better were I the one to go. Which is a heavy burden for a child, I suppose. Part of me thought that if I was smart enough and talented enough I could somehow make her as proud and heal some part of that devastating wound. But I rebelled and rejected her, too, perhaps so fearful of not being perfect that I might as well go ahead and be the worst.

When I finally graduated from BU after sixteen years of night school, although I’m not one for gowns and caps and all of that jazz, I was excited to walk across that stage and have them say “magna cum laude.” So my mother could hear it. Two B’s in my entire college career, Ma! At a renowned university! (Where, may I toot my horn, it is apparently harder to get an A than most places!)

The Dean stumbled over my difficult name and missed the honors section of the card, apparently. There was no announcement. My boyfriend, knowing how much I’d been looking forward to my mother hearing the news, turned to her and explained what had happened.

“Well, of course Desiree got honors,” she scoffed.

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

I cannot identify myself by how excellent my grades are, or how many accolades I get at work for a job well done, right now. I have to find other ways to measure my own success, and perhaps this has given me the freedom to be good enough. I promised myself I would volunteer when I got laid off, and I did, for over a year for a local parks organization I love. I was proud of myself for following through, for doing something meaningful, for working to improve my skills during the lay-off period. Then my boss retired, and I had to spend several weeks caring for my (other) brother who had been in a bad accident and then helping my mother who had her hip replaced, so I resigned. I accomplished what I set out to do, and I will find another organization to donate my efforts to, but it was enough for now.

Even if I haven’t found a new job yet, the right one is out there for me and I will keep looking. I’m not worthless because I don’t have full-time work. I have found my own “worth” again, in being a better mother and sister and daughter and partner, in making music and in writing, and I will find a way to balance those things and cobble together some kind of income. I am learning that I don’t have to be perfect. I can be good enough, which is a much happier place to be.

Are We Talking About My Mother Again?

My mother is eccentric but old-fashioned, kind-hearted but not warm, crunchy but Catholic.

I was the last of three rather difficult children, and we haven’t ever related particularly well.

Here we are about to attempt an embrace after my (very ’90s) wedding ceremony. Look how excited she is for me, right?!

mommewedding

(Let’s pause to look at that again and laugh, with just a tiny bitter edge.)

Enigmatic and dichotomous, she was a rebel in the strangest of ways. . . Her family’s secular humanism felt lacking and so she found the Catholic Church at fifteen. She adopted three older children as a single woman in her thirties (back in the ’70’s when they apparently allowed that kind of thing), and never married. She preferred classical music to the Beatles in the ’60s in college. She taught in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, and Phoenix in her twenties, each time moving alone. There is a great deal I admire about her, but you wouldn’t exactly say that we have a close relationship. She has difficulty appreciating my musical taste; parenting; spirituality; tattoos (they actually make her physically ill, I believe: she’s said she has “a hard time looking at them”); and general lifestyle. She’s a teetotaler and I named my blog Drinking Wine in Yoga Pants, for example.

I spent many years “in therapy” — I prefer “seeing a counselor,” myself– and with disturbing regularity I would find myself halting mid-sentence to vocalize my horror that “I’m talking about my mother again, aren’t I?!”

My undergraduate major was psychology. I do believe that talking about our past helps us to process it and overcome the difficult times while learning to appreciate the good. I wonder if I had pursued clinical work how often I would smile to myself that my clients, too, kept exclaiming to themselves “are we talking about my parents again?!”

We don’t seem to be able to avoid becoming our parents, either. No matter how different she and I may be, I catch myself imitating my mother’s habits. They’re so deeply ingrained that I often don’t notice, until I get an “easy, Sally” from the peanut gallery as I start freaking out about how there’s still a drop of sauce left in this jar, you know; just use a rubber spatula!

I pull recyclables out of the trash and chastize the misguided toss-er. I wash out plastic bags and re-use them. Despite my youthful conviction that as an adult I would keep my apartment balmy as a Bahamian breeze, I pinch the heating pennies and tell my son to put on a dang hoodie. I present gifts in re-purposed, often entirely inappropriate wrapping that I’ve saved from previous holidays. My years of haughty pre-teen disgust at the idea of secondhand clothing have long passed. My refusal to learn to knit and sew properly (“you’re sexist, ma!”) haunts me as I wish for little as much as her seamstress and sweater-creating talents. . . but I make earrings, now, and would scarcely be caught dead without a pair: another subconscious acquisition of habit. Although she rarely wears makeup and cares little for fashion, she used to say she felt naked without them. Me, too.

“I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Making Peace With Mom Before It’s Too Late” was a helpful read for me and may be if you, too, feel like your mother just never understood you (even as we’re more like them than they suspect) and you don’t have that “best friends” kind of relationship with her. The author charges you with remembering that your mother was affected by her own parents’ failings. And that you are the one with the flexibility and capacity to forgive her her crazy ways rather than trying to change them at this point.

If I have to turn into my mother, I suppose that having my heart in the right place, caring deeply about the state of this world, possessing an independence of spirit, and finding utmost pleasure in music and giving to others aren’t awful traits to carry on. Thanks, Mom.