Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-confidence vs. the kickball field: Does that little voice ever really leave us?

Self-esteem is a funny thing. You think yours is in good shape, and then something floors you and you realize you still need to do some work.

I was at the gym tonight, trusting my trainer as he added weight to the bar on the rack in front of me. He'd slide plates on, clip them, unclip them, slide them off, and replace them with heavier ones. We'd talk a bit as I rested, and then I'd duck under the bar, settle it on my shoulders, and lift whatever he'd served up for me.

And I'd sit down and stand up, over and over, with the bar on my back. And then I'd put it down and swing a really heavy (to me) kettle bell 20 times, and then we'd repeat the cycle.

And in the midst of conversation, he said, "You know, if you trained for another year or so, you could totally compete."

And my first thought, despite the degree to which I like to think I've evolved, was, "What? I'm not athletic. And I'm too old."

And then: "I've gained some weight back. I'm too heavy to do this. If this fat weren't slowing me down, well, then, maybe. Really, though -- no way."

But like a shy little girl, I responded, "Really? You think I could do that?"

"Sure," he replied. "You're strong and you're competitive. And you have a great work ethic. You have a ways to go, and I'd need to look up what's going on and when, but, yeah. You could totally do it."

We have a history, my body and I. It's been sick and it's been healthy. It spent a lot of years carrying too much weight for its heart to handle, and then it spent a little while -- thanks to the physiological and emotional support of Weight Watchers -- pleasantly and healthily lean.

And then it became addicted to the leanness, which then became thinness, and then undernourishment as I obsessed over every calorie I put in my mouth. (Example: I wouldn't swallow a vitamin unless I could look it up and determine its calorie content.)

This body has forever sought to find its equilibrium. And a few months ago, as I found myself agonizing over every morsel, I thought, enough. I was just tired of it all. And I joined a class at the gym and decided I'd try to shift my focus from the size of my body to the strength of my body.

And I found I liked lifting heavy things. Running has always appealed to me, but I run a certain distance and then I stop; I can't seem to motivate myself past a certain point. Strength training, though, seemed to be different. I watched as my form improved. I recognized in the mirror the dancer's body I hadn't seen since I was 18; the lean shoulders. The strong legs. A body too stocky to have developed into a ballerina's body, to be sure, but sturdy and capable in its movements.

I developed definition in my biceps. My balance began to improve. My pesky, weaker left quadriceps muscle began to respond. And, lo and behold, I began to want to fuel this new body with the food it needed -- not withhold from it, but feed it good food. Not punish myself for being hungry, but listen and respond appropriately when my stomach growled.

I felt a connection with the trainer teaching the class; smart and kind, he reminded me somewhat of my son. He was knowledgeable and committed and knew how to push me to do just enough, but not too much. So when the gym offered a great personal-training deal, I signed up.

And that takes me to tonight. And Grant, whom I believe and trust, was telling me I could possibly do this amazing thing, and after the doubt passed, I thought: "Yes. Just say 'yes.' Pretend you're encouraging your children, who you know are capable of tackling any challenge. Don't worry about the potential for failure. Set a goal, and commit to working toward it."

I'm a capable mother, a capable employee, a capable friend. I'm confident in my talents and in my ability to contribute to all facets of life in which I'm involved. I love building others up, mentoring them, helping to develop their skills and their confidence. And yet sometimes when I look inward -- all too often when I look inward -- I see the girl who was awkward and shy and chosen last for kickball. I feel her sense of being "less than." And I hear the voice that says, "You can't."

But tonight reinforced that indeed I can. I can lift heavy weights -- not above my head, but on my shoulders. And much more importantly, I can share the weight of my own challenges, my own frailties. I can let go of the need for perfection and be proud of myself for trying so hard to be healthy.

"You alone are enough," Maya Angelou wrote. "You have nothing to prove to anybody." I can remind my children of that. Someday, God willing, I'll sit on the front porch with my grandson and remind him of that.

And tomorrow, I'll hoist that bar again. And I'll remind myself.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

There is no failure here.

My niece got married yesterday. I adore her, and I adore her sister. They're my nieces by marriage, and they've remained my nieces through divorce.

I'm a fairly quiet person. And when you're quiet, you tend to hear things. I was at the gym today, basking in the glow of last night's wedding festivities, when I overheard a couple of women in the locker room talking about upcoming nuptials, presumably those of the daughter of one of them. "It's a good thing (husband's name) and I have been married so long; on his side, there are just marriage failures," she said.

I walked away because my buzz was killed, and I didn't want to hear more. The comment made me so sad. But as I walked home, started to feel angry. It was the word "failure" that set me off.

My first marriage, to my nieces' uncle, didn't succeed. We were young and made mistakes, a great many of them mine. No offense intended to my husband or my ex-husband's wife, but the divorce is my greatest regret because of the toll it took on our children.

But no one can convince me divorce equals failure -- primarily because of those children, and the hope that's evident within them as they embark on their own marriages, and the strength we continue to demonstrate as a family unit -- a nontraditional one, but a unit nonetheless.

We weren't always this functional; it took a long time for us to get to this point, and in the process, the kids sustained a lot of hurt. My ex and I lashed out at one another, pushed buttons in any way we could, and behaved in some really immature and ridiculous ways. But I choose to focus on the fact that eventually, we figured out how to relate to one another as parents -- "for the kids" as they say, but also for the sake of our own emotional health. It's not good to hate someone, especially the other person with whom you created two wonderful and deeply loved humans.

Here's what I wish I had told the woman in the locker room today about children of "failed" marriages:

  • They don't know only failure, and they don't see their parents as failures. Of course, given the choice, I daresay every child of parents who split up wish their dads and moms had worked out their differences and found a way to stay together. But children of divorce often witness the strength of single parents and benefit later on from the tenacity that was being built while they weren't aware any "life lessons" were going on. They learn to be financially responsible because money is often tight. They learn to appreciate what they're given because chances are someone had to work like hell to give it to them.
  • They seek out and value honesty, and their emotional maturity is well developed because of it. By far, the most difficult conversations in my life were the ones my children and I had when they became young adults and questioned exactly why their dad and I divorced. You want your children to adore you, and it's a risk to allow them to see that you're capable of having been a pretty flawed human being. But in most cases, if they know they're not being lied to, they can evaluate, and they can -- thankfully -- forgive.
  • They can, and often do, go on to have solid marriages of their own -- precisely because they're determined to prevent the problems that took down their parents' unions. My son and daughter, married three and two years, respectively, insist on communication in their marriages, and on heading off small issues before the problems are allowed to become big ones. 

I wish the locker-room women could know my family. At niece Alli's wedding reception last night, I sat at a table with my ex, his wife, my son, and his ex's sons. (My nieces and their parents still welcome me as family and not an "outlaw" -- a something about which I'll always be grateful). We talked and laughed -- not to impress anyone with our "example," but because we like one another and enjoy spending time together. A funny thing happens when your divorce is several years in the past; the brain pushes the bad stuff to the back and highlights the attributes in that person that allowed you to want to marry him or her in the first place. My ex is kind and funny. He's a wonderful son and brother, and a loving father. That's all I see now.

I wish they could also have seen something else. Alli's parents are divorced as well, and as her dad, Bob, began his father-of-the-bride toast, the first person he credited was Alli's mom, Phyllis, for instilling the values in Alli that made her the lovely woman she is. He praised Phyliis in a way you'd expect to hear a man praise a woman whom he continues to value, admire, and respect. It was beautiful and spoke volumes not only about Bob as a person, but about the union that created my nieces -- a union that could in no way be regarded as a failure.

We all know of marriages that are simply toxic; the partners can't abide one another but remain together. One could call this admirable; there's much to be said for placing a value on commitment. But I also ask myself what's to be gained from the resentment and martyrdom that might exist in those marriages. In those cases, does "staying together for the kids" benefit those children, or does it adversely impact their views of what marriage can be? I can't pretend to know. Would staying with my ex have harmed the kids in the long run? Could we have worked things out? We'll never know; we can simply continue to move forward, doing the best we can.

But, please, gym ladies and everyone else: Don't automatically judge divorced parents, and don't automatically consider their children as somehow "less than." My children and my niece are extraordinary, if I do say so myself. In the case of my kids, I used to tell people they were fabulous "in spite of" their dad and me, but I've seen things differently for a while now. Their dad and I chose one another, and we chose to create them, and we're pretty decent individuals, so our son and daughter are pretty great people because of us, as well ... "failure" be damned.