Monday, October 14, 2019

The girl who wouldn't quit apologizing

(If you are just joining, this is a continuation of a story I'm working on about a 13-year-old girl in a very tumultuous phase of her life. It will make more sense if you read the first post here and then return to this post for part two.)

My next big obsession was with light switches. I had heard that a light switch stuck midway between “on” and “off” could cause a fire and this knowledge sent me spiraling. I didn’t want my house burning down and so I began checking and rechecking light switches to make sure they were in the correct position. Occasionally I would worry that perhaps I didn’t flick them down hard enough when attempting to turn them off. But my primary concern was just the opposite, that I had somehow pushed them too hard, and, in my vigor, the switch had bounced back up to the middle position, leaving my house just minutes away from being engulfed in flames. Though I had never actually witnessed a light switch “bounce” out of position, it mattered little. There was a chance that it could, and therefore I checked. 

Three was often my favorite checking number. If not three then five. Even though I preferred even numbers for their symmetry in many situations, odd numbers felt safer when I was checking for danger. Upon leaving a room, I would hit the light switch three times to make sure it was in the desired position. On occasion, almost instantaneously after exiting, I would be overcome with concern that perhaps I hadn’t checked well enough and I would have to return for a recheck. I hated it. I wanted desperately to leave a room without the burden of checking. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t risk it. 

It was at this age when my parents began permitting us to stay home alone; my sister and I took on the role of babysitters to the younger two. In addition to keeping humans alive, I felt an intense responsibility to check the light switches in each room while my parents were away. In the evenings before we would go to bed, I would make my rounds to every room in the house to make sure it wouldn’t go up in flames while we slept. I doubt my parents had any idea this was going on. These were compulsions I tried desperately to keep hidden. 

There were other behaviors that were more difficult to hide. As a homeschool family, most of our mornings were spent doing our studies independently, each at our own levels. After lunch, we would join together in the living room while my mom read to us aloud. The stories she read ranged from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and The Boxcar Children in the earlier years, to Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings as we grew older. We called this 30-45 minute segment of the day “Storytime.” My sister and I loved to work on something crafty with our hands, like cross stitch or crochet, while my mom read in the background. My brothers enjoyed playing with their Hot Wheel cars, motoring them across the coffee table and around the living room. 

I had always been accustomed to listening quietly as my mom read but then something shifted internally in me. Suddenly, I felt the “need” to echo the words my mom was saying under my breath. I couldn’t explain it, the urge just materialized and I didn’t feel right unless I succumbed to it. I knew it was weird, and I hated doing it because it made it hard to enjoy the book, but it felt so important that I replicate what she was reading. How it was that my mom didn’t end up screaming at me to please shut up, is beyond me. Imagine trying to read a chapter book with someone trying to parrot over you. She would ask me to stop on occasion, and I would respond by reducing my volume and trying to be sneakier about it. Then she would give up and try to ignore the fact that I was muttering the latter half of every sentence, a split second behind her, as if this was perfectly acceptable and expected behavior. 

Then there were the apologies. My life became a series of a million little mistakes for which I felt I owed the world an “I’m sorry.” A fingernail would catch the skin of someone walking by, just barely scraping the surface. Panic would seize me and I would begin apologizing profusely, much to the surprise of the “victim,” who hadn’t even noticed I’d touched them. As I continued walking to my destination, I would replay the situation and then the apology over in my mind. I would question myself and the authenticity of my words. What if I didn’t actually mean it when I had said “I’m sorry?” I would repeat the apology again in my head, hoping perhaps that now that I was really focused on the words, it would “count.” Sometimes, if the person I brushed or bumped was a family member or person I would see again, I would go back to them and re-apologize, and this time, ask for forgiveness too. Even if they looked at me and laughed and told me it really wasn’t a big deal, my world would feel off kilter until I said I was sorry. 

Occasionally, a situation arose where an apology was actually deserved, but more commonly, was there no real offense that had taken place. I apologized for bad thoughts I had about others, thoughts that I’m sure they would have preferred I just kept to myself. I apologized for apologizing and not meaning it. I apologized for apologizing and annoying others. I apologized for possibly putting a tiny knick in the paint on a wall. Those close to me began asking me to PLEASE QUIT APOLOGIZING yet I was so plagued by guilt that I couldn’t bear to stop. My “misdemeanors” were running circles in my head, tormenting me, and it helped me to get them off my chest. Sometimes mid-apology, my confidence would waver and I would say something like, “I think I might have thought something bad about you.” Nothing could feel more genuine than a confessor who is questioning whether she even committed the crime!

Next came the fist phase. My homeschooled upbringing had kept me sheltered from most things vulgar and crass, but eventually someone educated me on the way one’s middle finger could be used negatively. I grew petrified that I might accidentally point my central digit at someone, which would of course illicit the need for an apology. I worried that because my middle finger went with me everywhere, my life would soon become an endless loop of me accidentally flipping people off and then having to apologize for it. Truly this was the cardinal sin, one hardly worthy of forgiveness. My fear of accidentally flipping someone off grew so great that I remedied it by walking around with my hands in fists. Aha! If my fingers were always balled up inside my fists, I could avoid pointing them at anyone! Problem solved. But only momentarily.

It didn’t take me long to realize that yes, my fist solution prevented me from offending those around me, but alas, my middle finger was always pointing somewhere. When my hands were in fists, my middle finger was now directed toward none other than my very own self. There simply was no winning! No matter how I, or others tried to convince me that this hand gesture was about the intent behind it, not the mere direction one’s finger was pointing as you went about life, I could not be abated. Though I never intentionally flipped anyone (or myself) the bird, I walked through those days in a perpetual state of horror and discomfort over what these hands of mine were capable of. be continued!

Sorry folks! This is where I will leave you hanging for now. I'm working on the rest of this story and hope to publish it here in the next few weeks. If you want to be the first to know when it goes live, you can subscribe to my blog by over on my home page here. Enter your email address in the "Subscribe to my posts" box in the far right column and I will send a link directly to your inbox every time new content has been published! (If you are using your mobile device, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "View web version" first to find the subscribe box). Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 7, 2019

The girl who used her wrists

I was thirteen years old when my life started falling apart. I don’t say that to be melodramatic. Life, as I knew it, took a sharp left turn down a path I hope never to go down again. As if being a thirteen-year-old, awkward, homeschooled kid wasn’t already fraught with challenge enough.

My mom tells me she wonders if perhaps there were earlier clues. We know so much more now, but back then, symptoms could easily go unnoticed under the cover of “personality” or “temperament.” My parents, ever the promoters of all things fair and even, would never be caught dead breathing whispers of “favorites,” or “easier” versus “harder” offspring. We were always told they loved us each “differently but equally.” Though they would never utter it aloud, if they were to line the four of us according to degree of difficulty, I was almost certainly number one. My older sister was compliant and conforming, easing them gently into parenthood. The path laid before her was the one she followed. Then I burst into their lives and gave them a run for their money. My mom shares openly about my rather “emotive” state of being, easily set off, passionate, stubborn, and teary.

The next in the lineup was my brother with whom I shared the middle sibling role. He was the only one of the Wilson kids who even held a candle to my crowned title of Most Challenging Child, both of us desperate to ensure we would never be seen as overlooked middles. We were, however, generous toward our parents and staggered our most troublesome years so as not to totally undo them all at once. My brother gave them most of their gray hairs in his older years but, had we thought to put our two stubborn heads together instead of working against each other (I was the classic bossy, tattletale older big sister), I’m sure we could have really done some collateral damage.

Our baby brother arrived on the scene when we my sister, myself, and my younger brother were eleven, nine, and seven years old, respectively. He was a blond, obedient little cherub, who was always along for the ride, no matter the destination. He was quiet and didn’t make waves, just as acquiescent as our sister had been, if not doubly so. Together, they sandwiched my other brother and I in the middle, creating an easy kid, hard, hard, easy kid ranking pattern (sorry Mom and Dad - I went ahead and did the ranking for you!)  

My hands presented the first clue that something was going on with me. My knuckles glowed a fiery red color and patches of cracked skin and dried blood spanned the backs of my hands, crawling up my arms, all the way past my wrist bone. My parents tried to treat the dry skin with basic moisturizers, but to no avail. They began experimenting with a whole range of lotions and potions, all increasing in medicinal qualities, but nothing could combat the chapped nature of the backs of my hands. The dryness was painful and day-to-day activities caused the scabs on my knuckles to frequently crack and reopen.

One evening, after all the other treatment attempts had failed, my dad told me we were going to try something he used to do during the cold and dry winter months in Eastern Washington, where he grew up. He pulled out a pair of tall white socks from his top dresser drawer and removed the blue lid from a tub of Vaseline. Using three of his fingers, he generous scooped a healthy portion of the petroleum jelly and slathered it all over my hands, paying special focus to my knuckles. Taking one sock in his hands at a time, he wriggled his index and middle fingers all the way down to the toe, scrunching the sock up as he went. Then he spread the neck wide as and cautiously slipped it over my greasy hand, taking great care not to brush the cotton against the thick layer of Vaseline. He instructed me to keep the socks on overnight, that they would help hold in the moisture so my hands could heal.

This new system became a part of our evening routine, just following teeth-brushing, the last step before I climbed into bed. Maybe it was because it was always his socks I was wearing, but for some reason, my hand care fell on my dad’s list of responsibilities. I would find him, wherever he was in the house, and bring him the pot of Vaseline and a pair of his socks. Eventually I learned to apply my own Vaseline, but he was always there to help me put on the socks. At first, it took me a long time to adjust to sleeping with sock-mittens, but eventually, I got used to the feeling of having my hands contained. On a good night, I would awaken the next morning, socks still in place, but more often, I would open my eyes to bare hands and a sock or two lost deep inside my sheets.

When I was able to sustain a full night of the sock treatment, my hands were appreciative, at least temporarily until a new day began and I set about washing them again. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night to pee. I would forget I was wearing socks on my hands until it came time to pull down my underwear. I learned to carefully shimmy in and out of my underpants and do my business without taking them off, but then muscle memory would bring me to the sink, and I would have to stop myself short before plunging my hands, socks and all, under the stream of water in attempts to cleanse them. Even though my hands were covered, it always disgusted me to think about how the socks had touched the toilet lid to raise it, had then balled up toilet paper so I could wipe, and then had been used to pull my underwear back up. I would return to my room, mentally visualizing all the germs that were now on the socks, now spreading to my covers as I pulled them up over my shoulders, now in my bed. Some nights, I could tolerate sleeping with these germs. But on others, my revulsion would get the best of me and I would tear off the socks in the bathroom, thrust my hands under the faucet, washing the germs (and the Vaseline moisturizing treatment) right off my hands and down the drain. 

I’m not sure when someone put two and two together and realized that my bloody knuckles were not a typical dry-skin-in-winter sort of issue. I was washing my hands more often than I would ever let on to anyone. Almost overnight, I had grown suddenly, instantaneously, terrified of germs. My hands could never be clean enough. 

Eventually, my parents picked up on the fact that I was over-washing. When they began commenting on the frequency, I resorted to hiding my hand washing. I would wash when they weren't around, or just barely turn on the faucet so that the sound of the water flow from the bathroom where I had locked myself was inaudible. Germs were everywhere and I wanted nothing to do with them.

I spent a lot of time thinking about germs. I thought about how we always come to the sink with contaminated hands, and when we turn the water on, we transfer said contamination to the faucet. Then we wash our hands to rid them of all germs, only to recontaminate them by touching the faucet we dirtied when we turned the water on! Why was this issue bothering no one else? How had our entire culture suffered such a massive oversight in procedural operations? 

I solved this dilemma personally by using my wrists to turn faucets on and off. I also began opening doorknobs and pumping paper towel dispensers with the insides of my wrists. I knew it was unreasonable to expect to be able to fully avoid germs, but I could at least avoid getting them on my hands! My wrists felt safer, less prominently used. 

I began keeping track of things I touched when “contaminated,” and then I avoided contact with those things if possible. I kept a perfect mental record. I only cared about my own germs. I didn’t worry about others’ germs contaminating my environment. Certain doorknobs became off limits. One-by-one, seatbelts in our 7-passenger family minivan moved from the “safe” to the “unclean” list. Alas, my wrists grew skilled at a lot of unusual tasks, but buckling my seatbelt was not one of them. I remember the day I ran out of unadulterated back seat options. It took all of my will power to endure the discomfort of securing myself with a “dirty” seatbelt. I only lasted a few seconds before I launched myself back out of that seat, muttering under my breath about “forgetting something inside” as I booked it out of the car and back into the house, my family waiting patiently for me in the van. In the safety of the empty house, I exhaled in relief as I plunged my dirty hands under the water to rid them of the germs I’d acquired from the seatbelt. Even if I was going to have to re-buckle into that same dirty seat upon my return, I needed the relief that the compulsion to wash provided for me........ be continued!

Sorry folks! This is where I will leave you hanging for now. I'm working on the rest of this story and hope to publish it here in the next few weeks. If you want to be the first to know when it goes live, you can subscribe to my blog by over on my home page here. Enter your email address in the "Subscribe to my posts" box in the far right column and I will send a link directly to your inbox every time new content has been published! (If you are using your mobile device, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "View web version" first to find the subscribe box). Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 26, 2019

I'm still here!

As I dust off the ol' blog, my computer indicates to me that I managed a whopping ONE blog post all summer long (since MAY actually, if we are being particular...) which either means a) I was overwhelmed by the presence of three children and then some all day every day over the past 3+ months b) I was busy working on other projects c) we were gone all the freaking time or d) I was struggling with my own well-being and went totally internal or e) all of the above. 

If you answered "e," you score 100% on this here pop quiz. I'll suffice it to say that I am extremely glad the Summer of 2019 is officially behind me! We started off well but then it was pretty much all downhill from there. Our summer lacked both margin and healthy structure, and add onto that, the fact that I was suboptimally medicated and it was a recipe for disaster. I was anxious, unable to make decisions and my thought life was in the toilet. OCD had once again taken residence in our household and, most annoyingly, this time I couldn't even assign the blame to my kids.

So that was super fun. But I'm happy to say we have righted the ship! I am now on a new medication and it's working (halleljuah!) and I find myself cheerful and peppy again EVEN ON CLOUDY DAYS...which is really saying something for anyone who knows me well. It's miraculous and honestly so very lovely.

Do you want to know what else is so lovely? Having three kids in school!!! I thought I would be so mopey and sad sending my baby off to school but the truth is, second only to getting married and having kids, sending three kids off to school is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me. And I mean that in the best and most loving possible way. Obviously I love them dearly. I love them when they are in my care. And I also love them when they are in the care of someone else. The combination is the one of those two options that I would highly recommend. Only time will tell if loneliness eventually sets in but right now I'm thrilled to be basking in margin (cleaning my window gutters!), holding myself to some regular writing exercises, expanding my garden, working out regularly, leisurely planning a dinner menu for the week (not scribbling down a quick list in the parking lot of the grocery store before I go in), and catching up on a decade's worth of projects that I have fallen behind on (like vacuuming the ceiling cobwebs and scrubbing the doors). 

I'm not sure what my presence here on the blog will look like in the coming season with other writing projects I have in the works but I'm hopeful I will still be able to use this space for some creative writing ventures as well as a venting place to find solidarity when motherhood kicks my booty. I would also love to log some new recipe favorites...but we can't have it all. ;)

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

“Mom, why does my stomach have to stay covered?”

“Mom, why does my stomach have to stay covered?”

I hate the question and I hate the fact that she’s having to ask it. I avoid it, busying myself by reading aloud the rest of the packing list. I don’t have a good answer for her and I’m buying time, hoping one will materialize.

We are sitting on the floor in my daughter’s bedroom, selecting a swimsuit from her drawer for her first ever week away at camp. It’s a small Christian camp, almost cookie cutter in feel to the one I attended as a kid, and I’ve only just realized there is a dress code. Why this comes as a surprise to me, I’m really not sure. I guess I’d hoped we were past this, that somehow all the personal work I’ve been doing surrounding body image and body shame had somehow bled out and infused itself into changing the minds and trends of Christian culture as a whole. Sadly, it’s just not this easy. There is still so much work yet to do. 

My nine-year-old is puzzled by the swimwear rules, and to be honest, I am a bit too. They are by no means new to me. In fact, they are exactly the same as those in existence during my camp and church youth group days as a kid - one piece swimsuits or tankinis where the top meets the bottom. Basically, no bellies, and also no spaghetti strap tank tops. Nothing about these rules are at all foreign, yet they leave me with a giant tangled knot in the pit of my stomach. I feel unsettled and scared, acutely and personally aware of the silent message that is being sent to these young girls in attendance as they abide by the dress code: there is something wrong with your stomach. It needs to remain covered. And your shoulders? I don’t even know where to go with that one. 

Our summer has been full and, though it has been on my list to shop for another swimsuit for each of my girls, between hosting family and being out of town, it just hasn’t happened. A few days earlier, I was running errands with a friend and we made a random stop at Nordstrom Rack. I happen upon a tankini swimsuit in the kids section and I buy it, hoping it will fit my daughter so she can have two options to rotate while at camp, because no one ever likes donning a wet swimsuit. It isn’t until after this spontaneous purchase that I encounter the dress code rules. 

I stare down her drawer, knowing there is a high likelihood none of its contents are  camp-dress-code-compliant options. She has a long torso like I do, and finding one piece swimsuits that don’t result in a permanent wedgie has proven tricky. We’ve resorted to buying mostly tankinis. They are friendlier on the budget since they grow with her and allow us to squeeze at least a couple of summer seasons out of the same swimsuit, the gap between top and bottom increasing slightly with each passing year. Additionally, I find tankinis are just earlier. Anyone who has ever attempted to pull up a wet one piece after using the bathroom can attest that there are few things less enjoyable than the tangle of twisted straps that inevitably results. 

My daughter does have one hand-me-down one piece, and I pull it out of her drawer first. A quick glance reminds me that just last week, I banned her from wearing it because it had grown so stretched out that she was having the opposite of a wedgie problem. The suit was so misshapen from overwear that she was sporting two inches of excess fabric between her legs, blowing in the breeze and offering generous views of her crotch area to onlookers. 

The second swimsuit I come across is a Speedo tankini from last year, navy blue with criss-crossing pink racer back straps that form an “X” over her shoulder blades. It fits her well and covers where it should, but since she’s grown this year, it shows a couple inches of her tummy so I toss it aside. 

I dig around in her drawer, looking for the other suit I know should be in there. It’s a thrifting purchase I made a few months back, when I was trying to be on top of things and avoid this we-need-a-swimsuit-now problem I currently find myself in the middle of. It’s also a tankini, with a black and pink paisley pattern and three layers of soft ruffling down the front. Up until five minutes ago when I printed off the camp-supplied packing list and saw the dress code policy, this was the swimsuit I thought she would take with her to camp. She obviously did too because when I realize it’s nowhere to be found in her dresser, I ask her for its whereabouts, and she pulls it out of her half-packed camp bag. 

“Let’s see how it fits,” I prompt her, and I inwardly wince when she dons it and I spy a small gap between the top and bottom. It still had the tags attached, never worn by the previous owner or by my daughter, who had a tendency to choose one favorite item of attire and wear it to its death (case in point: stretched out one piece with all the excess crotch). 

I still feel ill prepared as to how to explain to her that she won’t be permitted to wear it at camp, so I distract her by pulling out the last option, the new neon pink tankini I grabbed on a whim at The Rack. I urge her to try it on, all the while, doing my best to camouflage the mounting stress I am starting to experience. We don’t have time to shop for another swimsuit. If this one doesn’t meet the dress code criteria, I’m not sure what we were going to do. As she shimmies herself into the suit pieces and flattens them into place, I silently hold my breath, willing top to meet bottom. Hallelujah! It does, but just barely. I exhale with relief and inwardly celebrate the good fit. 

“Perfect!” I say. “That’s the one you should pack for camp.” 

Though I really don’t want to, I will answer her question about why her tummy “can’t” show. I need to, but I’m still wrestling with how I want to say it. What’s particularly bewildering is the fact that the week at camp is for girls-only.

The rest of the weekend passes in a whirlwind. With neon tankini in bag, we depart for camp, which requires a ferry ride across the Puget Sound. At the ferry dock, we meet up with two of my daughter’s friends from school who will be joining her. Each of them have attended before and are eager to fill us in on the details. They tell us what to expect upon our arrival; there will be cabin assignments and a swim test and then an all-camp gathering where they will go over some nuts and bolts for the week ahead. There are a handful of rules to be reviewed, most of them some unique rendition of “have fun,” but I freeze when they bring up the one about the dress code. I ask them to expand and they tell me that swimwear has to pass a specific test. 

“You have to raise your hand high in the air and if your stomach stays covered, your swimsuit is fine. Then you turn around and bend over to make sure your bottom doesn’t show.”

I have to blink hard to keep my eyes from shooting out of their sockets in disbelief. “This can’t be real,” I think to myself. “Isn’t this 2019? Are we really still here? Are these still the hoops we are making our girls jump through? Are these still the kinds of things we are saying? Do we have ANY idea the message we are sending?” 

I swallow my thoughts before I say anything aloud. 

“What happens if your swimsuit doesn’t pass?” I ask, terrified of what they will answer, knowing full well that my daughter’s tummy will bare when she raises her arms.

“Well, then they call your parents and have them drive you a new swimsuit,” she tells me. 

“I see,” I gulp, feeling increasingly queasy with each new tidbit of information.

“Or,” she continued, “they have a box of old clothes there that you can choose from. But they are all pretty ugly.” 

“Got it,” I say, not feeling in the least bit reassured, but trying my best to hide my mounting stress from my daughter, who was listening intently. 

Prior to this moment, the pre-camp mom worries that had been running through my head felt important. They consisted of thoughts like:

Who are the counselors and how old are they? Will they be responsible and trustworthy? What about the lifeguards? Are they well-trained and diligent and will they keep my kid from drowning? What if my daughter gets homesick? How will they handle it? 

Now these worries felt like child’s play. My rising concern was much weightier. Will my daughter be asked to stand before an authority and raise her arm in the air or turn around and bend over as they observe her attire? Will someone say something, anything at all that makes her feel ashamed of her body and her clothing? Will she be made to feel “wrong” or worse, like something is wrong with her, the beautiful, image-of-God creation that she is? Will she feel insecure about her tummy and her bared shoulders, be told that they need to be kept covered? What reason will she be given? Will these confusing messages send her on a trajectory of body-loathing and self-hatred and shame that will affect her ability to see herself as intricately and perfectly designed by God? 

What began as just a small ripple of discomfort was gaining speed and momentum, taking the shape of a tidal wave with each passing second. I was being triggered. Flashbacks of body shame experiences from my own childhood were starting to eat away at me. I was experiencing a deep and intense desire to shield and protect my daughter from all subtle yet potentially crucially damaging messages that I knew conservative Christian culture has historically been so capable of dishing out. As one so traumatically wounded by the words and rules intended for good, I desperately wanted to spare my child from my own painful path.

Back in our separate cars, we drive aboard the ferry and I whisper quietly to my husband in the front seat. “What do we tell her?” I plead through my teeth. “How do we prepare her for what might be said? If they even say one thing that shames her…” I start to threaten.

I didn’t even want to tell our daughter about the dress code. Though she’d raised the question about why her tummy couldn’t show while we were packing, it had been dropped and I’d hoped sending her with a compliant swimsuit would allow me to skirt around the issue without her even knowing it was there. I wanted to plug my ears and bury my head in the sand and hope that if I ignored the whole thing, it would just go away. But if the last decade has taught me one thing, it’s that usually the topics we most desperately want to avoid, the ones we fear because they are awkward or scary or involve conflict, these are the ones we most need to bring out into the light. We need to speak them aloud, address and face them head on. The most important parenting move I could make right now was to talk to her about this hard and uncomfortable and confusing situation. I needed her to hear the words from us, to allow opportunity for us to inject the situation with our beliefs and convictions, to bathe her in the truth we believed her Creator would most want her to know.

“God made you and your body is beautiful and amazing and there is nothing wrong with any part of it. That is the bottom line. Some people have stricter rules about things like clothing. And at this camp, they made some rules about tummies being covered because it’s what they think is best. We disagree - we don’t think there is anything wrong with showing your tummy - but we don’t always agree with what other people think and that’s ok. We wanted you to know about these rules ahead of time so they don’t come as a surprise to you if you hear them being talked about. That’s why we had you pack the swimsuit that you did. Do you have any questions?”

The moment of silence that enveloped the car as she pondered what we said felt like an eternity. 

“That seems kind of weird,” she told us. Then she shrugged, entirely unfazed, and asked if we could restart the audiobook we had been listening to. 

I felt ill at ease the entire week that she was away. The release of control felt debilitating. I spent a lot of time wondering what might be said by camp staff from the front, worrying about whether anyone would comment about her swimsuit that I knew would not meet dress code if she were asked to raise her arms. I hoped I was blowing the situation out of proportion, that perhaps this arm-lifting business was an old protocol, no longer in place, and that all of this would be a nonissue in the end. And mostly it was.

The staff never mentioned the dress code (thankfully). There was no arms-in-the-air swimsuit test to pass (hallelujah). The only cringe-worthy incident occurred when a younger camper yelled out “swimsuit check” when my daughter’s tankini top got pushed up a little and her tummy was bared. Whether the camp had updated its approach this year or had simply done things differently during the week that my daughter was there, it was apparent that at some point in weeks or years prior, campers had been indoctrinated with practices that caused the hairs on my arms to raise.

I don’t know how this story will sit with you; I’ve ridden a huge roller coaster of emotion over the past few weeks. Please hear me when I say my intent in sharing all this is NOT AT ALL to throw this camp under the bus. It was an amazing place, the highlight of our daughter’s summer, and we plan to send her back next year. I do have a number of concerns with their dress code (and the ways I’ve been told secondhand that they have gone about presenting and implementing it), and I will be bringing these to the camp director. However, the primary reason I write all this is out of a sense of obligation.

I am more aware than ever that we need to ask hard questions, to ponder deeply the messages we are sending to our kids when we talk about their dress. While I fully support the idea of having guidelines for the way we cloth ourselves, I think it is important that we examine and reexamine what we hope to accomplish by establishing dress codes. And then we need to take it one step further to assess how our message is being delivered and whether these dress codes are accomplishing their desired purposes. Are they in place to allow kids to enjoy water sports without concern that they will lose their bathing suit bottoms while they are inner tubing? Or are they in place because “that’s what we’ve always done” or because “girls need to cover themselves, so they don't cause boys to stumble”? Are we promoting a healthy view of our bodies with our swimwear rules? Or are we raising up the next generation of modesty police, equipped with a keen judging eye, ready to quietly shame the girls whose bellies are showing, as if donning a one-piece automatically makes one “holier than thou.”

As much as I would have preferred to skip over all the discomfort in the events of the past few weeks, processing and examining all that the camp dress code triggered in me has been healthy. I have had to pinpoint what exactly unsettled me about the dress code. I have been forced to stare down my past and current beliefs on modesty, knowing that I need to answer to my kids and advise them on my values when it comes to the subject of attire. I have found myself for longing to live in the “gray zone” while simultaneously hating the fact that the topic of dress isn’t more black and white. I’ve had to dig deep and ponder all sorts of different scenarios such as whether I am being hypocritical by wanting my daughter to feel confident baring her tummy in a bathing suit while at the same time not loving the fact that the current trend in younger crowds is to show off one’s belly in crop tops. I have wrestled to figure out what guidelines I would like our family to live by and how I will present them to my kids.

It is still a work in progress, but here is the verbiage I have created for our family so far:

We are created by God, the master artist.
Our bodies are amazing.
There is no part, NO PART, of our body to be ashamed of.
Our body in its entirety is GOOD.
When it comes to clothing our bodies, we dress with respect.
We reserve our private parts for private settings.
We consider the situation and dress accordingly (i.e. professional versus casual, what’s most comfortable/practical for the activity at hand).
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I don’t claim to have all the answers; I don’t believe any of us ever will. But I can tell you with guaranteed certainty, our kids are listening. They are reading between the lines. They need to hear from us that their bodies are beautiful and amazing, they need not be ashamed. There is subtle messaging saturated in dress codes that tell them to stay covered. Unless you are one of the walking wounded, you won't ever be able to fully comprehend the potential devastation for body shame. 

So, ask the hard questions. Reexamine the rules. Push back and fight to change them if there is need. Have uncomfortable conversations. Wrestle. And in everything we do and say, may we be bathed in the knowledge that our bodies are good, designed by God, and that we are made in His image.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Hamster rescuing was not on my job description

“I NEED LOVE!” I bellowed, from the master bathroom, adjacent to our bed. This is the not-so-subtle, passive-aggressive method I use to gain his attention this morning.

My husband, who had been waking up slowly, scrolling his phone as he lay there cocooned in blankets, drops his device as if it has suddenly caught fire and burned him, and is at my side in a flash.  

I am under slept, feeling sour, and dreading the day in its entirety so I proceed to woefully list off to my husband, all the reasons my life is terrible.

“I’ve been stuck at home for three of the last four days with sick kids. I let them watch 8 full hours of shows yesterday which turned them into little devils. They are fighting constantly (well, except when the tv is on, but even then, they argue over what to watch) and anytime the tv is off, Emma follows me around the house and tells me she’s bored. The house is a wreck. And I don’t feel appreciated for the volunteer position I just finished. I can’t go on a run to burn off some of this angst because I have all these kids and they are like anchors, holding me back. Plus, they are sick so they might make it a whole block before collapsing. Jack only has four more days of preschool left in his life and then summer hits full tilt and alone time with be a scarce commodity. I signed him up for Lunch Bunch these past two days to buy me some extra time to write because I am FREAKING DESPERATE but since the girls were home sick, I just paid extra and wasn’t even alone! And now there is only one more day of Lunch Bunch left, and I think I just might die. The weather has been so crappy and it is making me feel really down and I’m weaning off one of my antidepressants because I think it is giving me night sweats, but, based on the way I’m feeling, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea anymore. And this morning I’m supposed to have a dermatology appointment but now I have to haul the sick kids along with me – minus Isla who I think is well enough to go back to school today but that means I have to leave her home alone which I feel super guilty about because she’s only nine but if I took her to my appointment, it would make her late for school - and I’m super annoyed that just because I don’t have a paid job, all the care and arrangements for the kids falls on me. And speaking of jobs, I think I want one because this full-time-stay-at-home-motherhood gig does not seem to suit me and money is too tight but who will watch the kids if I do work and really I just want to be able to pursue my dreams which unfortunately don’t seem to compensate monetarily. But I feel called to do them and yet I can’t seem to find the time and – oh yeah did I mention that these dreams won’t likely pay so how am I going to buy the help I need in order to pursue them? I feel like I’m in a vicious cycle and I don’t have time to do anything I want to do. I can’t seem to accomplish anything. And ALSO. I vacuumed these bathmats yesterday and look! There are already grassy footprints on them. I give up! WHY DO I EVEN TRY?”

Graham, who had been taking in my every word, looks at me, solemnly. “Wow,” is all he can formulate. “That seems like a lot.”


As I type these words now, I’m seated on the cold tile of my kitchen floor with the laptop across my legs. My butt cheeks are 100% asleep and I’m leaning against the hard cabinets at my back. Come to think of it, I could really use a pillow behind me. To my right, the piano bench is toppled on its side, blocking off one side of the island. The overturned coffee table on my left, along with rags stuffed into any gaps, obstructs the exit on the other side of the island. A spoonful of peanut butter and a handful of sunflower seeds sit on a plate next to me along with a screwdriver - the tool, not the drink! But for sure the drink would make this situation 1000% better right now - which I used to remove the kick plate at the base of our dishwasher. This is my very first moment alone in over a week and do you know how I’m spending it? Trying the lure out my middle daughter’s pet hamster who escaped her cage overnight and has set up camp in the bowels beneath our kitchen cabinetry. How is this even my life!?!

Most of the intricacies of my days feel laughable, ridiculous, and I can’t believe this is how I pass my hours, breaking up fights, throwing away pairs of tiny underwear that are too far gone with this last accident to redeem. I really don’t recall hamster rescuing being on my job description. Among the million other oddball roles that seem to make up this thing called “Motherhood.”

“I’m educated!” I preach at myself. “I am capable! I have things to offer!” But if anyone were measuring my visible day-to-day productive output, they might argue differently. I am struggling immensely with a lack of fulfillment in the way I spend my hours right now. I feel like I am in an early mid-life crisis of sorts, trying to find myself, my worth, my value and my purpose. I’ve been trudging through a personally grueling season of being “in between” and it’s growing rather apparent that it doesn’t look very good on me.

I sincerely thought that life would look different for me after I quit my (paid) job. To be frank, and I think I’ve said this before, I didn’t quit to spend more time with the kids (who, despite the tone of this post, I do actually adore!) I was working part-time when I officially bid my job adieu, so I still saw them plenty, and was not feeling a shortage of quality time in their company. The reason I quit that job was because I was unhappy in it and I didn’t want to look back in 10 years and realize I’d wasted away my life, undervalued and feeling invisible, in a position I didn’t love. Instead, I wanted to write. Maybe speak some, about what exactly, I wasn’t entirely sure, but I figured the pieces and opportunities would just fall into my lap. And they sort of did. For a little while.

I’m not sure what I envisioned for my life as a writer. For sure, I figured I would be doing, well, a whole lot more writing. But it hasn’t really panned out that way and I’m wrestling hard with my feelings about it. I read a lot of about writing, how to write, how others have been successful at it, but thus far, these sorts of books have only served to make me feel smaller, less equipped, more inadequate. Anyone who does it will concur - the writing life sucks! Like why would anyone choose to subject themselves to this sort of lifestyle on purpose? Here, just pen down your most personal thoughts and feelings, and then post them on your chest for the world to attack, criticize, and sometimes, on a good day, agree and whisper, “Me too.” Writing isn’t for the faint of heart, and it certainly isn’t for the thin-skinned either.     

All this to say, “quitting my job to write” isn’t looking exactly the way I’d hoped. I’ve been doing a lot more flailing than I have been moving forward favorably. I’m struggling with a general feeling of invisibility as a mom. It seems to be an underlying theme throughout my life, this struggle with feeling invisible and undervalued. Graham noted the irony – I quit one job where I felt invisible and now am doing another where I feel increasingly so. The sum of this equals a lot of disappointment to wade my way through.

I know full well the tremendous value of mothers, of the significance of the work we do. I would be the first to tell any mom struggling similarly that her job is the most important in the world. But it doesn’t change the fact that I still have these emotions, that our culture doesn’t value us well, that I feel unfulfilled, and that I personally have a pile of negative thoughts and unmet expectations to work through. It may also mean that full time stay-at-home motherhood is not the only thing I am called to, even though this fact causes tidal waves of guilt to come over me.

Since I can’t seem to make the writing thing happen with kids underfoot, I’ve started to dapple elsewhere. I feel a very real pressure (from no one other than myself, and in my defense, I do happen to be the one who does the budgeting around here) to find some sort of part-time work to help make ends meet. I don’t know how and even whether this will ever pan out but the idea both excites me (slightly) and grieves me (tremendously). I have realized an undeniable internal desire to be compensated for my work (and is there a more poorly compensated or thankless job than motherhood in our culture?) At the same time, I am already mourning my loss of freedom. How can I reconcile the two? I’m not ready to surrender my hope that I can somehow figure out a way to do life-giving work that also compensates. Does this seem too far-fetched?

My bathroom monologue that engulfed Graham at the beginning of this post illustrates the place I go when I’m not doing enough of the things that give me life. I see everything through a negative lens. On the one hand, I want to take this outburst with an extremely large granule of salt, but on the other, don’t our baseline feelings and frustrations come out most when we no longer possess the energy to filter or sensor them? They pour forth in their rawest form.

I wish I had more answers to accompany the many questions that I’m asking. I recognize that I need to make some changes (and recognizing you have a problem is the first step!) These changes could look like me making peace with and learning to embrace the job I currently find myself in. Or it could look like me making a change and getting a (paid) job once all three kids are in school in the fall (full disclosure: I’m regularly perusing job openings at local plant nurseries). Or, also come fall, it could look like me surrendering the desire to be compensated, no longer allowing the dollar amount I bring in determine my value, and instead pour my heart and soul into this writing thing that I love even if it never amounts to anything or if I don’t have a final product to show for it at the end of the day. It could mean I just do it because it makes me feel alive and healthy and because it is my art form in a world that desperately needs beauty in the midst of brokenness. I kind of hope this last option is the one I land on, but we’ll see.

I share all this today in hopes that it speaks to someone out there somehow, someone who is feeling lonely and unfulfilled, either in a paid job in the workforce, or at home where the compensation comes only in the form of hugs and goodnight kisses. Both are difficult places to be and you aren’t alone. It’s okay to wrestle. And we will get through it, even when it's messy and unglamorous, and we find ourselves using our college-educated brains to rescue pet hamsters. Even then.