Freaked Out By “Shoulds” – A client’s letter to her mother

I realize that I was always trying to be who you wanted me to be …

This letter was written by a client as a ‘therapy’ homework assignment and I thought it was incredibly powerful. She gave me permission to reproduce it as long as I waited at least a year and omitted her name. I have done both. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen through the years that could have written the same letter addressed to either a mother or father.  Read through and see my thoughts at the end…

Dear Mama,

I’ve been asked to write a letter to you that expresses my feelings about growing up as your daughter. I’ve thought long and hard about what I want to say to you because I don’t want to hurt your feelings. In fact, I’ve always wanted to just love you. I’ve wanted you to love me and I think you did. In your own way. I have had a hard time understanding that you love me because I don’t believe that you ever accepted me. There were so. many. shoulds. I can’t get rid of them.

I know, you say that you do accept me except that you kept telling me all the things I “should” do. You told me I ‘should’ go to church, that I ‘should’ date Kevin, that I ‘should study harder, and that I ‘should’ go back to school. I tried to tell you that those things didn’t matter to me but you didn’t listen. You told me I ‘should watch what I eat” that I ‘should’ wear my hair short, and that I ‘shouldn’t’ wear short shorts. If I had done those things, I would have been a mini version of YOU – not me. Those things weren’t ‘me’. More than that, you told me I ‘should’ have kids before I got much older and when I did you went so far as to tell us how we ‘should’ parent them. Jesus mom… why ‘should’ I??

Today, I am freaked out by all the ‘shoulds’ that I’ve never achieved. I feel like a failure. I didn’t do what you thought I ‘should’ and somehow I decided that since I wasn’t doing those things that you wouldn’t (couldn’t?) love me. I am not all the things I ‘should’ be mama and I know you are disappointed. Here’s the thing I am confused about.

Why couldn’t you just love ME. The person I am. Why do I have to be like you in order to be considered good or OK? Why do I have to like what you like? Why can’t you just be OK with the person that I am? I’m not a crack addict or a mass murderer. I’m a pretty good person but I feel like it will never be ‘good enough’.

Frankly mama, I didn’t ask to be here. You did that. And because you chose to bring me into this world, I would assume that you might just be happy with who I am but that’s not what I thought for most of the time that I was growing up.

Yes, you came to my basketball games. Yes, you bought me a prom dress. Yes, you sent me to college. I probably didn’t appreciate any of those things at the time as much as I could have. However, I never felt like I could really talk to you. I was always waiting for the next criticism to come. “Don’t eat that”, “you need to lose five pounds”, “Don’t drink, or have sex, or curse”, “go to class”, “clean your car”, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I’m in therapy now mama and I am trying to discover who I am. I realize that I was always trying to be who you wanted me to be and I never figured out what felt right to me. I am almost forty and I am just now doing that. I am not blaming you per se as the therapist tells me you probably did the best you knew how to do. I hope to accept that someday.

In the meantime, I want you to know that I am throwing all those shoulds out the window and I am asking you right here, right now to ACCEPT ME AS I AM. I think that is your role as my mother. Just love me and all the things that might be different from you. We don’t have to agree, we just need to respect that we are two different people and accept those discrepancies, not judge them.

I want you in my life IF you are willing to just take me as I am. I, in turn, will take you as you are. No blame. Just compassion and acceptance. That’s it.

As children, we make the general assumption that our parents love us – or at least we have the unconscious and simply human expectation that they do/will. We tend to develop an understanding of love’s expression via the environment, television, social cues, etc… if a father beats his child stating it is ‘because’ he loves him/her – the child develops an understanding that physical abuse is a form of ‘love’ until he/she is taught otherwise.

If a parent is ‘absent’ – for whatever reason – there is generally an assumption on the child’s part that love is also absent. Children have difficulty sometimes separating ‘fact’ from ‘perception’ – actually even adults are challenged with that from time to time and yet we may expect that our children ‘know better’ (well, of course I love you).

Parents can listen more and preach less.

Parents can accept more and judge less.

Parents can teach more and dominate less.

Parents can trust more and fix less.

Parents can guide more and dictate less.

Most parents do the best they can – based on what they know – in that moment. We really can’t expect much more than that but… when we learn more we need to make it a point to do better instead of assuming that it’s too late or that we are too old to make big changes.

The mother of the client who wrote this letter eventually came to a few sessions with my client where they discussed this letter and learned to accept and honor one another’s differences. Today, the client and the mother have a loving relationship based on compassion, tolerance, and clear expectations. It is working.

Too bad it took almost 40 years.

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A Letter To Myself Series – Age 10

How many times must we fall before we learn to or decide to change direction? What are the right words to persuade us to change course?

“For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.” ~ John Connolly

What would happen if you found a letter from your older self? Or your younger self? Like in the movie Back to the Future when Marty wrote to Doc that he was going to get shot so Doc wore a flack jacket (bullet proof vest) to the parking lot where the van of guys with machine guns came screeching through…

Would you listen? We don’t seem to take the advice of our older relatives or friends. Seemingly, each of us needs to learn firsthand – even when something is painful. I know it to be a source of frustration as a mom… watching my children head right into something I know has a high probability of turning out poorly. I only know that from years of experience – personally as well as my large collection of observations … they want to try it their own way. Presumably, due to the tweeks they may have made, it will turn out differently for them. (um..hm) Right.

My kids aren’t any different than any other person. I continue to see this fascinating phenomena in my clients too. It’s sometimes even more interesting when we are learning something that we already learned but think may be different THIS time. I do it too…. How often have I cut myself with a freshly sharpened knife? How many times do I have to shrink a favorite sweater before I learn to pay more attention when I am switching laundry?  How many times must we fall before we learn to or decide to change direction? What are the right words to persuade us to change course? Why are we so stubborn? Is there anyone void of this trait?

I’m beginning a series of letters to my younger self… for personal reflection but also for anyone there – in those years who might want to benefit from a little perspective or as inspiration for you to write your own!

A Letter to My 10-year-old Self

Hey there kiddo,

Wow. You have a great life right now – pretty much perfect don’t you think? Your baby brother is great and don’t sweat it… you’ll be friends forever. Your sister needs you. Be nice. Include her more. These two people will know you longer than anyone else and you will have amazing history together.

Those friends you have are the best! You are making memories that you will have for the rest of your life and that playing you are doing…. It’s so important! It’s great that you are outside so much and using your imagination – kids in the future don’t do that as much. So many of the things that you are doing are things that help you later on. You may want to back off on those marathon Monopoly games though… it eventually spoils your tolerance for the game.

Hey… don’t worry about being poor – it won’t matter when you grow up and the things you don’t have now aren’t all that important. You may want to hold on to that transistor radio; technology changes so fast that it becomes an antique relic more quickly than you can imagine. The fact that you are running around and inventing fun is training you for your future. You are going to use those attributes!

You know that song you learned at girl scout camp? The one about the three bears? You will teach it to your own children and it will become an important part of their childhood… Pay attention to as many of those things as you can. You don’t even know how much you are learning right now; how many of these things you will look back on.

Everyone tells you to be a kid… listen to them! You have so. much. life. in front of you – you have time – go ahead… go play and don’t worry about adults or problems. Try not to compare your body to other girls, your weight doesn’t matter…  people will love you and like you just because you are you, I promise.

Your mom and dad are having a hard time and life may get pretty tough for you in a little while but know this: they are doing the best they can. They are still growing up too and need to learn a lot of lessons. Remember that they both love you and want the best for you but may not know how to show it all the time.

Use your diary more. It’s great that you write down a few things but you will want to remember so much more. Those milestones you’ve already recorded… you’ll read them over and over – committing them to memory. That first kiss story – you’ll tell it over and over again – and laugh. Even though you think NJ is the best boy in the world… there are a lot more. 

The one thing that I want you to know more than anything else is that everything is going to be OK.  Learn to trust…

Love you girl!

What would you say to YOUR 10-year-old self?

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LA Bound – Tale #3

We did enjoy some gorgeous colors as the sky darkened but I vowed to make that the last sunset on the trip that we miss.

Continued from LA Bound – Tale #2

When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator.  ~Mahatma Gandhi

That noise in the car turned out to be a soda can that had been in the parking space we pulled into when we stopped at McDonald’s… I’m not sure what it was vibrating against but as soon as we reversed out of the space and headed across the street – it stopped and it never came back. It did make me think though that we were driving out in the williwags on a weekend and if something happened to the car … well, we’d be delayed for sure. I had built in an extra day to our ‘timeline’ just to be on the safe side but it was our sightseeing time and neither one of us wanted to ‘see’ a dealership waiting room for longer than a hot minute.

We were on Day 4 and had a lot of motivation to get as far Northwest as we could and so we drove, and drove. Our conversations had dwindled down to “see those massive cotton bales” and Erin’s annoyance with me became apparent so I suggested we listen to a book. Since Shonda Rhimes was an inspiring figure to her, I had downloaded the audio book “A Year of Yes”, Shonda’s recent memoir. It has charm, humor, and some sound thoughts about living life proactively. It’s insightful but not terribly deep yet I think there is a solid message in the book. She addresses moving out of your comfort zone, taking chances, managing risk, and paying attention or learning how to be present – all things that most of us need to learn and/or refresh our memory about. It was good to listen to and of course it is ‘my kind of book’ in that I listen and then think about my own life – where can I apply the reflections?

I’d like to pass along two thoughts. First, she speaks about saying “yes” to things that she has long been saying “no” to and yet she also touched on something that she hadn’t realized she had been saying “yes” to all along… it made me think about the things in my life that I am saying “yes” to but with shallow awareness. I was pensive about whether or not I wanted to continue to say “yes” to all of the things that I am currently allowing… definitely worth thinking about. The second is the difference between a ‘dreamer’ and a ‘do’er’. Most of us dream but then there are people who actually DO.  Be a DO’er. No matter what happens from this point forward – Erin knows she is a DO’er – she had a dream and then she did something about it. Dreaming without doing is nothing.

We made good time driving. Erin pushes the accelerator down a bit further than I do and I think she drove more that day and so we hit I-40 a bit earlier than I had anticipated. As I looked at the map, I realized that we were only about 50 miles south of Santa Fe – a town I’ve always wanted to visit as I’ve heard that it is a great city. “Erin, how do you feel about a little detour?”, I looked at her with raised eyebrows and hope in my face. “Ok, what’s in Santa Fe?” she concurred with curiosity as I reprogrammed the GPS. “Mountains and cute Adobe stuff”, I replied not really knowing. Of course, Santa Fe sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains and Erin’s never seen a snow-capped peak except on television and in photographs so as we began to climb, I got excited to see her expression.

We’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US all of her life and so her experience with mountains is limited to the Pocono range and a couple of car trips across the Appalachians during summer months… neither one of them shake a stick to the peaks of the Rockies. I vividly remember seeing them for the first time after growing up in northeastern, Pennsylvania and I was awe struck with their magnificence. I hoped she would be wooed as well.

While the mountains were certainly beautiful they were more distant than I had thought but she did get a glimpse of their majesty. What stood out even more to us was the architecture. That Adobe look was everywhere and it was gorgeous! I have always had an affinity to that style and I couldn’t take it all in fast enough. Suddenly, I wanted to move there… to retire in a little clay house with wooden beams surrounded by sagebrush hedges. The houses – entire neighborhoods – were tucked into hillsides but camouflaged as their Adobe exteriors blended into the high red desert landscape. It was awesome and in our enthusiastic observations both of us neglected to reach for our camera.

We decided on TexMex for dinner and headed into the ‘town center’ – a setting that Google maps offers.  It was still early for dinner and traffic, both on the road and pedestrian, was light. The streets were delightfully decorated with lights and there were galleries and shops along both sides with small restaurants scattered throughout. There were very few people around and so when we found a restaurant we were seated immediately. It was a pretty typical TexMex menu and I opted for enchiladas, Erin for fajitas – both of them a go to for us. There was a huge bundle of red chili peppers hanging almost right over my head and as soon as I took a bit of the salsa on the table, I realized that it wasn’t left over from late 90’s decorating schematic, it was a theme of their gastronomy. Holy Cow! My palette still hasn’t forgiven me. There seemed to be a ‘smoky’ essence to all of our food as well – perhaps that’s the TEX part of the cuisine.

We walked around just a bit – it was cold and there was a fair amount of snow/ice on the sidewalks. Erin and I both packed with the idea that we were headed SOUTH with a final destination of southern California and so we simply did not have the attire to allow us to be warm and comfortable in all of the cold weather we were experiencing. In addition, we wanted to drive out of the city in time to see the sun set over the mountains and we would have but… Erin prioritized filling up the gas tank…..

We don’t know what we don’t know and she didn’t know how magnificent that sunset was going to be. I was the driver and it ultimately was in my hands but my promise to keep the peace by saying “OK Erin”, was engraved on my heart and so I pulled into a gas station as the sun settled into the skyline and disappeared over the New Mexico mountains before we were able to hit a vantage point. We did enjoy some gorgeous colors as the sky darkened but I vowed to make that the last sunset on the trip that we miss.

It was a push to get as far as Gallop that night – almost to the Arizona border – but we had big plans for Day #5 and we were motivated to push as far west as possible. It was dark and we were in mountains, or plateaus I think – I couldn’t see anything and I was a bit sorry that we were missing the scenery yet I knew there were some amazing things in front of us. I was really excited to share a couple of my favorite places on Earth with my daughter!

To be continued…

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LA Bound – Tale #1

And as I observed, I recalled something my mother once said to me.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ve been home from that amazing road trip now for about forty-eight hours and it feels almost surreal.  If you follow me on Facebook where we shared a variety of our experiences, then you know how large of an adventure it truly was – if not… check it out – all of our check-ins are public posts. So, in my last post – seven days ago – I danced around the idea that Erin and I wouldn’t get along for a whole week. I said that I may write and in fact, I had a list of topics that I intended to write about as well as a shorter list of task items that I thought I would make time for as I sat in the passenger seat with my laptop but… none of it happened!

I hope you’ll bear with me as I take the time to honor the highlights of our trip. I am certainly not a travel blogger but I will attempt to entice you to schedule your own adventure!

If you ever get a chance to do a road trip with an adult child or even a parent – I say “Do it!”. With the small exception of stress about weather or traffic – it was one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve had in a couple of years. There were no expectations, responsibilities, judgments, or arguments. Well – that’s not entirely correct… twice, we clashed on perspectives to the point that we were slightly annoyed with one another but hey… for mom and daughter, that’s bound to happen! Except for those two very short lived snappy moments, Erin and I enjoyed each other’s company immensely.

I suppose we did have expectations of how far to get on a certain day and for half the trip we had scheduled stops to see family who conveniently lived near places we were planning to spend the night but that was fun too. It was great planning on our part to make time for people we don’t get to see but every few years – if that. Not only was it great to catch up with loved ones, but it gave Erin and me an opportunity to diverge our conversations after having only one another to talk to for an extended period. It broke it up a bit. And of course, we made some of it about the food…

We had ribs in Memphis, barbecued brisket in Dallas, TexMex in Santa Fe, Energy shakes in Sedona, and avocado jalapeno burgers in Los Angeles. I’m going to give myself a week of light eating before I get on the scale to see what kind of pound damage I did but even then – I won’t chide myself… it was worth it! Each time, we opted for recommendations from friends (thanks, Margaret! The Memphis Ribs were phenomenal) or ratings and reviews from Yelp (an app that personal ratings on restaurants and activities). We tried to stay away from national chains and searched instead for local treats. It worked great except for our first try in Nashville… Erin picked out a place to get breakfast downtown and it looked adorable. I think it may even have been recommended to her. It was a fun and hip coffee shop with a full breakfast menu but it was counter order and table delivery. The problem was only that it was so crowded, that when our order was delivered – we were still standing, holding our place card and looking at the guy with the mindset of ‘ok… now what?’ We were a bit put off by the people working on a laptop – taking up a whole table and never offering to share the extra space so we could sit down and eat. We ended up taking our plates out to the patio which, on any ordinary day in Nashville would be fine but that day… it was only 31 degrees. We ate quickly before the yolk in our eggs could freeze – and left.

It was a gray day in Tennessee. I’m sure it is beautiful in the other three seasons but without the sun to highlight anything, the gray of the landscape was muted even more by the cloud cover and frankly… it was difficult to find enjoyment in the scenery. I did find the topography in Nashville amazing tough… the hill cutouts (where they made room for overpasses and highway) looked like stone walls versus the typical layers of sediment that we expect to see when the earth is exposed. I’m a bit of a geology nerd in the sense that I am captivated by different geology formations – not that I really know anything about the science and so it was amazing to look at. We saw the Grand Ole Opry and did a backstage tour. Nashville isn’t really ‘my thing’ and I know next to nothing about Country music but Erin loved it. We got to stand in ‘the circle’ on stage which I recognized from American Idol or some other talent reality show and it was fun to know that people like Elvis had stood on that same strip of wood. I could definitely feel the vibe of extreme creativity and talent. In Memphis, we walked Beale street for a few minutes but the wind was whipping off of the Mississippi and biting our exposed skin – we had NOT planned for such intense winter weather on our Southern drive.

We spent that second night with family just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. They are the parents of my sister-in-law and we hadn’t seen them in a long while but after spending a week with them during a beach vacation a few years ago, we knew we would have fun and be comfortable.  I had a moment that evening as I watched my daughter engage in conversation with other adults and noticed how absorbed she was in the discussion, contributing in a meaningful way. It’s not that it was a surprise. She is quite intelligent and one of the things that made her a good server and bartender is that she pulls people in… she’s interested and converses well. And as I observed, I recalled something my mother once said to me. She looked at me one day and spoke of how amazed she was at the woman I had become, at how much information I had acquired and how I shared it – or something to that effect but I got it now.  Here, I was the mother observing a daughter who had transformed from a girl to a teen and now to this young woman who demonstrated influence far beyond the perimeter of what I had created. I instantly connected to those words my own mother spoke so many years prior and understood. It was a moment and there is a sense of amazement in it… again – it’s not a surprise but an awe… a revelation or an acknowledgment of life’s flow. It was quasi-emotional and I felt proud.

We woke up to a dusting of snow, which meant that the school system and many employers had called off the day. Blessings for us since there was practically nobody on the road as we headed for Texas. It didn’t warm up much. We found an authentic BBQ restaurant in the Bishop Arts District in Dallas where the Brisket melted in your mouth. I pretty much ate with my hands… pulling apart little pieces and dipping them in yummy barbecue sauce. In fact – I was simply piggy about it but I enjoyed ever delicious bit and… I had blue cheese cole slaw – a new favorite combination that I will definitely make at home! The Arts District look amazingly cute and enticing to walk through but alas… it was COLD. In fact – it was snowing as we exited the restaurant. People were standing in doorways taking pictures of the snowflakes as they settled on the ground and Erin and I giggled at them for being so easily taken in by a frozen rain drop. I made a mental note to go back to Dallas in the spring and wander around those streets.

To be continued….

 

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Roadtripping

I didn’t have any phone conversations and I can already feel a bit of relaxation starting to settle into my psyche.

“…you are my rainbow to keep. My eyes will always be watching you; never will I lose sight of you.” ― Vesna M. Bailey

I’m on a road trip. My middle daughter is moving to Los Angeles with a dream of becoming the next Shonda Rhymes. Consequently, we are driving from the east coast to the west so that she can wedge herself into the television industry as quickly as possible. It has been a dream of hers since she was fifteen and she’s worked extremely hard to make this happen. When she pushed the GO button we were all really excited for her but knew immediately that she would be really missed.

I kind of made the assumption that I would be driving with her as I knew her sister and boyfriend were less flexible with their work schedules, plus… I offered to pay for the hotels. And then – for a brief minute I thought that it may make more sense to ship her car out to LA and have her fly… less wear and tear, etc. I looked at all the options but quickly realized that it would be in exchange for an opportunity to spend a weeklong adventure with my daughter who may very well become a California gal. I hung up on the next auto transport person who called me.

Before long we had a roadmap outlined and I realized that almost exactly forty-three years ago (less a week) I made the same trip with my father, aunt, and siblings. I remember parts of that trip extremely well as it was the first time Dad let me drink coffee – and of course, I had to drink it black. It was the first time that I could remember that I had stayed in a motel and when everyone else was asleep, Dad let me sit up front and stay up late talking to him. We had lots of adventures on that trip and as I recall, they were predominately things going wrong so I’m hoping for less ‘adventure’ and more ‘memory making’ on this journey.

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Both Erin and I have made a couple of Facebook posts today about starting the trip – ok., maybe I made more than a couple – but there are people living vicariously through us!! One of the comments was so apropos to us from a woman who knows us well… “Be safe and remember that you still love each other at the end of this!” I had to laugh because out of all my children, she is the one most like me. People have been telling us this for years. It’s our demeanor that makes us the same… We are bossy, confident about what we want, assertive when we are going after it, and stubborn about what we know. We both like to be in control and we each get a certain kind of ‘hangry’ when we need food. Erin may be a little rough around the edges yet but I see my young self in her and know that she will mellow even if it is because the world beat her down a peg or two. Until then, she will fire up any pile of kindling that stands between her and her goals.  Would it be narcissistic at this point to say I admire those attributes? Even so… I am intensely proud of her and feel confident that dropping her into the center of Los Angeles and taking (literally) the next flight home – is an OK thing to do.

In the meantime, we are traveling across the United States in a little car that is the same color as the pavement and even though we have the headlights on, I’m a bit nervous that the thousands of semi-trucks on the highway may think we are nothing more than a reflection of a speed limit sign. It’s good to know that there are logistics systems continuously at work as I imagine that the trucks are mostly full of goods that need to get from one point to another (what else would they be?) but it’s a bit nerve-wracking.

We got through the first day without arguing about anything at all. Yesterday I practiced all day by repeating over and over… “ok Erin” and I used the technique successfully a couple of times today with great success. We have downloaded the audio version of the new Shonda Rhymes book to listen to when we run out of things to say to one another but we didn’t need it today. Actually, it was great to have her to myself for such a long stretch today. For the last year and a half, as she was living at home and working, I didn’t see her much. She worked in the restaurant business and as a bartender so we had vastly different schedules. Mostly, we saw each other in passing and communicated via text message. I got the chance to ‘catch up’ with her a bit today about the things we were ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’… much deeper topics than ‘please replace the milk you drank’ and ‘can you put away the dishes’.

It’s a funny thing about my children being so independent and adventurous… Frank is living in France… Sara spent a year overseas… Emily is talking about going to Australia to work for a summer after college. It’s easy to think that they are running away, fleeing home and getting as far away as possible although I know- logically – that’s not true. I have to remind myself, though… it’s that I did a good job. They grew up with the confidence to fly and isn’t that what we are supposed to do as parents? Let our children fly? What a mixed bag of blessings it is really. Earlier this week I was reminded of what I always considered a ‘Hippie’ mantra… “If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be. (Richard Bach)” I guess there is nothing more fitting about that sentiment than motherhood.

I took the time to specifically be ‘in the moment’ today – I didn’t pull out my laptop or my phone other than to look at maps and ‘check in’ at the various places we stopped. I didn’t have any phone conversations and I can already feel a bit of relaxation starting to settle into my psyche. I may or may not post over the next couple of days as we explore a few places off the main highways (she has a bit of a bucket list) and we are stopping overnight twice to visit with extended family members.

Thanks for reading… thanks for following my journey and please keep letting me know when it is helpful… I love reading those comments!

Falling

I had to end the phone call and collect my thoughts. I couldn’t find any logic or rationale that correlated to my willingness to take the risk that yet another man I loved, would die on me.

Continued from And the Kissing Begins

“All love stories are tales of beginnings. When we talk about falling in love, we go to the beginning, to pinpoint the moment of freefall.” —Meghan O’Rourke
After only a few dates I knew I could easily love this man. We were able to talk about almost anything and we shared a number of important priorities. I could also tell that we were different in a lot of ways. I knew now that a good relationship is one where we celebrated the similarities between us while at the same time, embracing and respecting the differences.  When we weren’t hanging out with one another, we were talking on the phone; and still – the conversation flowed.

On the next kids weekend with their dad, Harlan came and stayed at my house. We built a fire in the fireplace, rented movies, opened a few bottles of wine and created a blanket / pillow heaven reminiscent of our childhoods. We slept there – in front of the fireplace – participating in an adult style sleepover as if we were in our twenties all over again. It was romantic and loving and relaxed. For approximately 48 hours, we ate, slept, and chatted at will… no schedule, no interruptions, no expectations. It was magical.

Eventually, we got into more nitty-gritty things, what had happened in our marriages, the imperfections of our extended families, the challenges that we grew from. One of the many things that really attracted me to Harlan though is his heart. He appeared to be intensely compassionate and considerate of others – an empath almost. I could tell that he would literally ‘feel’ the experience of others and sometimes, there was simply no benefit at all in that.

We talked about him meeting the girls. I had introduced them to Jay too soon but then, I had never felt this way about Jay. I felt something stronger and growing for this man. I wanted to see how he would be around the girls.

That desire made me think about myself as a mother… how many mistakes had I made? How many had I learned from? What had I learned exactly?

The girl’s father hadn’t been discriminate in his choice of partners and had no regard for the girls’ thoughts on the matter, telling them to ‘get over it’ and ‘it was his choice, not theirs’. Consequently, the girls certainly didn’t have the relationship with him that I had always envisioned. There was a strain on the father-daughter rapport almost constantly because of his relationship. I didn’t want the same outcome. I wanted to find a way to balance a personal romantic relationship with that of my role as a mother and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the latter.

I knew from my own childhood that when moms and dads begin dating again, they can get too absorbed in the new partner – way before the kids have a chance to ‘catch up’ with their feelings and that, wasn’t the best scenario either. I wanted the girls to like Harlan and so, I invited him for dinner.

It wasn’t as smooth and as easy as when Jay came… even though Harlan had daughters, he wasn’t up on Gilmore Girls or Hanna Montana because he mostly watched sports or public broadcasting. He wasn’t a reader of Harry Potter or Nancy Drew. He attempted to connect with Swimming but eventually found that they like many of the same movies. Harlan likes practically any movie; chick flick, adventure, or animated. It didn’t’ matter too much, he had seen all of the trailers if he hadn’t seen the actual movie and so he was able to foster a conversation on that front, easily.

My oldest daughter Sara, being a bit more mature and perhaps more present and considerate of her surroundings – attended to Harlan like proper company by engaging him in conversation as she could. Erin seemed indifferent and Emily stuck to me like glue. I watched each of them carefully and at one point, noticed that they were watching me. This was a new thing for us and we were all in unchartered territory. No one knew the rules or how to play the game so we were just ‘winging’ it but it was going ok – at least for now. He didn’t stay long after dinner; I guess we were thinking we would ‘ease’ into having him around.

And that’s what we did. Harlan made it very clear to the girls that they needed to come first – he wanted them to know that if they didn’t like him or want him around – it would impact our relationship negatively. He knew- he realized that for US to be happy, they had to accept him in my life. It was his philosophy in that regard that opened the door for me to fall head over heels in love with him.

I told him one evening when we were at his house. We were standing outside, under his carport and I was attempting to leave but each time I took a step toward my car he would lean down and kiss me, stealing my breath and preventing me from moving further. I knew I had to go but it was so difficult sometimes – tearing myself away from him. I loved all that kissing. I reached my hand up to his chest to hold him back, keep him at bay for a minute… I had to breathe. “You know”, I said… “I am falling hard for you. No doubt. I am falling in love.” As if it was some kind of competition and he knew he had won – he replied “Oh yeah? I already fell. I love you.” He was one up and I was too weak to prevent an all out swoon. He caught me by placing his hand firmly and strongly on the small of my back as he pressed me to him again, for another kiss – this one full of love.

Later, I’m not sure if it was a week or a day in an austere conversation we were having for the sole purpose of filling in more details about our previous years of life, he mentioned that he thought he was going to die. He had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma and had a significant mole removed from his shin. It had been nine or ten years at that point and he said it in an unremarkable manner as if had been just another day. And yet, he spoke about it as if he had thought his life was over, the melanoma had been considerable enough that he somehow believed his life was in danger.

My heart lurched as memories of my step-dad and his slow, agonizing death from malignant melanoma inundated my mind. He too had found a mole and his life ended because of it. My thoughts also went right back to Rocky’s death and the excruciating emotional pain that I felt when he died. I felt as if I was on a merry-go-round, noticing all of the love and loss in my life as it went faster and faster while the seat I was on went up and down, creating a chaotic sensation so intense that I found it difficult to catch my breath. No way… I was not doing this again. Nope. Thank Goodness I found out early… while it was still easy to get out.

I had to end the phone call and collect my thoughts. I couldn’t find any logic or rationale that correlated to my willingness to take the risk that yet another man I loved, would die on me. At least it hadn’t gotten very far and it would be easy to end. Shit. I really fell for this one.

No Such Thing As Perfect

…the intellectual side of me knew there was no such thing as ‘perfect’ but… that never stopped me from attempting to achieve perfection.

Continued from Penetrated Composure

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.  ~ Anna Quindlen

We got through the holidays and it was time to take the Disney Cruise that the girls and I had been planning for the last year. It would be the first true vacation for us as a divided family. Hubby was up early that morning to say goodbye to the girls and helped us load the suitcases into the car. He was being gallant and I suppose, a bit melancholy about the fact that we were embarking on such a fanciful adventure without him. I started the car as he buckled Emily’s seatbelt and I heard him pronounce, “I love you all” while he shut the door firmly.

I shook my head because it was a frequent comment and yet, I didn’t relate to being ‘loved’ in the ways that he demonstrated. There were still a number of discussions about whether I really ‘wanted’ a divorce, if I ‘wanted’ to split up our family, or if I really ‘wanted’ to throw away all that we had built. Each conversation left me a little drained and sometimes questioning my decisions but when it came down to the end – every.single.time. – I knew that I had spent too many years living in a relationship that was not respectful. I knew that I was different, stronger, more aware and convicted about the direction I wanted to grow now.

The girls and I flew to Orlando, took a bus to Cape Canaveral, and boarded one of the Disney Cruise ships. None of us had ‘cruised’ before so we were all equally enamored with the glitz and grandeur of the ship, the view from the upper decks, and our stateroom with towels folded into swans. There’s something truly spectacular about the way Disney does things and we didn’t know what to do first. It was a week of ‘marveling’. We marveled at our meals, at the shows, at the activities, at the Caribbean port calls, and at the fireworks display over an open ocean as the light lit an infinite expanse of waves. The girls had each joined the Disney clubhouse for their appropriate age group and so I had a fair amount of quiet time, reflecting time. I used much of it to fortify myself as I meditated and wrote some of my thoughts. I was certain that my life was moving in the right direction and knew that I needed to organize a plan. I work better when I have a blueprint – an idea of what’s next. I like to think that I am flexible enough to allow for change but after everything I’d been through, controlling for emotional discourse was my new ‘normal’ and so I set out to consider what it was ‘exactly’ that I wanted my life to look like.

The cruise came to an end far too soon but we were refreshed and ready to go back to school. I had missed the first week of classes which I didn’t think would make much of a difference but when I walked into my French II class and tried to introduce myself to the professor, I knew I was in trouble. He spoke about as much English as I did French and told me I had an assignment due in the morning. Oh boy. It was the first and last time that I cheated. I had to write a paragraph – in French – about what foods I needed to buy at a grocery store for a recipe that I had chosen. I hadn’t yet learned the ‘food’ vocabulary that was needed for this assignment and so I typed it out in English and used a translator to convert it to French. I turned it in on time but when it came back, there was a distinct, English F at the top of the paper. I immediately knew it was going to be a long semester.

Learning French became my new passion; I had never received a failing grade before and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. It was during this time that I became acutely aware of my propensity for perfection. It was something that others had commented on in the past and of course, the intellectual side of me knew there was no such thing as ‘perfect’ but… that never stopped me from attempting to achieve perfection. It was a personal challenge.

And then I discovered the term ‘unrelenting standards’ – a schema of maladaptive coping styles proposed by psychologist Jeffery Young… essentially validating the existence of perfectionism within me. I never cared whether someone else was ‘perfect’ but I can admit to believing that there was ‘a’ way that things ‘should’ be done which established an expectation. Most often, that expectation was applied only to myself and yet – when someone like me is part of your environment, there is often a perception that my ‘standard’ is required by everyone in the circle…

I had a friend who gently and kindly reminded me constantly that perfect didn’t exist and that I may have to be “ok” with an A- or B+, or to give myself a break if I was frustrated with the lack of time to be all things to all people. In addition, through one of my psychology classes, I understood finally that ‘should’s’ were not all that healthy… we often don’t stop to think where our should’s come from and frequently, they are handed down from old family customs that don’t apply because of newer technologies; from society and social constructs that no longer exist; or from dysfunctional learning patterns we adapted to survive as children. Louise Hay, the author of You Can Heal Your Life, aptly suggests replacing the word ‘could’ with any should that is in your vocabulary. In doing so, you are empowering yourself with action instead of moving in a direction that may be dictated by some external – uninformed – place. I share this advice with clients on a regular basis and there is always an ‘ah ha’ moment as they consider where should’s exist in their life that may not need to be there.

I wasn’t sure why I thought I ‘should’ get all A’s… Undoubtedly, I wanted to set an example for my daughters who were students and had several years yet in front of them. In addition, I knew that for people to take me seriously as a middle-aged woman, it would be helpful if there was some ‘evidence’ substantiating my efforts, but mostly… I wanted to know that I could do it. I was proving something to myself as much as anyone else. I wasn’t always convinced that I was smart or capable. I did things that had required intelligence but, I never had a good measure of how strong it was. As a college student, I was under the impression that my grades were a good indicator.

To further impress upon me that total excellence was essentially unachievable, I questioned one of my professors who continued to give me a 99% on the weekly reflections we were required to do. “What do I need to do to get 100%”, I would ask “there are no markups to tell me what was missing”.  “That’s as good as it gets” he replied. “Perfect doesn’t exist.” He went on to tell me that if I wanted to be a good therapist, I needed to adjust to the idea that I would never get there – and “get comfortable with imperfection” he encouraged. It wasn’t a concept that I easily adapted.

Most days, if I was busy with schoolwork or taxiing the girls from one place to another, life was good. As long as Hubby and/or Abee weren’t front and center, my life and emotions were manageable. I was getting through the days and weeks with less and less discord as time went by. One evening in early March, the phone rang and my Aunt was on the other end regretting to inform me that Grandmom had passed away. She was eighty-seven and had congestive heart failure so it had only been a matter of time but… she had been unable to reach mom – who… was in Cabo San Lucas visiting a cousin. It was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime as that cousin had mega bucks and was treating mom to yachts and mansions.

Life was about to get serious again.

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