The danger of being a shadow of yourself

When I split up with my husband and entered the dating scene, a friend told me that it was a minefield – if I didn’t watch where I stepped, I could get blown up. As predicted, I soon entered a rebound relationship: it quickly heated up with promise of the future and crashed and burned soon thereafter.

In dissecting the spiral of events, one thing became crystal clear. The man I had been dating was terrified of being alone, to the extent that the four days between our commute were too much for him to handle.

As I thought about it, a memory of my aunt came to mind. Years ago, she recounted to me about how she once asked her pre-school aged daughter who her best friend was. When her daughter answered ‘me’, my aunt said that she knew that she had done her job. As depicted by a note my cousin left her years later that currently hangs in a frame on her corridor wall, stating ‘Mom, I went outside to play with myself’, her daughter was perfectly happy having a party of one.

As a parent, this entire dating episode taught me a valuable lesson. In order for my son to have fulfilling and enriching relationships, he needs to have one with himself: if he doesn’t find himself good company, no one else will either. And, he will always make the coward’s decision of grasping on to the person closest to him to act as buffer against himself and a reflective mirror from which he can draw an image.

In noting this, I think of Dr. Seuss’ book Oh the Places You’ll Go. I remember the passage that talks about the different places you’ll go in life – some joyful, some exciting, some just waiting, some unpleasant, and some unhappy, but all part of the journey of life that leads to learning, self-discovery, and the magical unfolding of life’s surprise twists and turns.

With this thought, I realize that I need to teach my son to not only believe in himself but to enjoy the time he spends with himself and his own self-discovery as a complete relationship. This means helping him to develop the courage to face the unpleasant in himself head on and stay with himself through the painful and lonely times while being able to give of himself and remain true to his inner worth.

By imbuing him with a trust that the future will take care of itself and a firm belief that he doesn’t have to settle for less than he deserves or make choices from a place of fear, I have confidence that he will be able to stand tall, do the right, not necessarily the easiest thing, in most situations, develop himself and all his talents, push himself to be his own best version, and, ultimately, lie outside the danger zone of becoming a shadow of himself.

Humor

I come from a family of talkers. As a close friend of mine often reminds me, it’s no wonder that my son is so verbal – he has to be in order to get a word in edgewise. We talk about what we’re doing, what we’ve done, what’s happening in the world at large, our dreams and secret fantasies. For us, it’s our primary means of connection.

As a kid, we did the usual things a family does – picnics, camping, exploring the city, playing at home, and taking road trips into the unknown. Although these events blur into one another in my memories, creating a canvass of a seemingly ordinary life, what stands out in my mind are the running jokes we used to create.

From the silent Mr. Strange who was our ever-present and unpredictable companion on our long road trips across the country to the delightfully erratic and fickle characters my father would introduce into our bedtime stories, humor was the currency that united us. And so, now, although we don’t always see eye to eye on all matters, sometimes disagreeing on the way in which we want to live while having to renegotiate the boundaries and roles that we will play in each others lives, I know that no matter how serious the atmosphere gets or how hurt someone feels, a perfectly aimed humorous comment can remind us all of the deeper connections that we share, reuniting us into the loving entity that we are.

For myself, I’ve also found that this ability to notice the lighter side in life has helped me to see the humor in the direst of circumstance, even if hidden under a dark and dreary rock, ultimately enabling me to cope with situations that initially make me feel like curling up in bed and covering myself up with blankets until the year is done. And, it’s these stories, carefully woven of joy and pain, that have created the landscape of my existence, allowing me to see blessings that are initially disguised, fostering forgiveness for perceived transgressions, and helping me to create closer bonds with those I love.

As a parent, I take my cue from my father who, accompanying me on an early expedition in my parenting career in which my six week old son developed an acute case of road rage anytime the car fell below twenty kilometers an hour causing me to near a level of nuclear exasperation, decided to write a verbal letter of complaint to the mayor from the future pint size citizen sitting in the back seat about the decidedly unnecessary extensive roadway construction. As he infused the monologue with humor, my mood lifted and I was once again able to view my son’s unhappiness with compassion and tenderness for the pain he was feeling but incapable of articulating.

And so, as our days drift by in a haze of similarity, I try not to engage in battles over the little things, using humor to get my son and I to the end point that I think we need. And, in the telling of ridiculous stories that I make up to get my son to see the reason in my requests and the in-jokes that I try to make, my hope is that as he grows up, not only will he be able to see the humor in most situations while dealing, gracefully or not, with the obstacles he encounters, but that humor will become an intrinsic component of his internal topography, weaving a magical spell that he can speak at will, lightening his load while enriching his daily experiences.

Self-esteem

This week I watched a documentary about the history of a certain institution in BC that took care of developmentally disabled people. Although watching this type of video is quite routine in my line of work, this one was particularly poignant, striking my heart and staying with me ever since. The story followed a young man who was severely disabled. At the time of his birth in the 1960s, his parents were told that he would never walk, never talk, never be able to do basic human functions beyond that of a baby and that, in fact, he would die before the age of five.

By the time he was a teenager, his parents were ecstatic that he had survived beyond their expectations but they still treated him like a baby – feeding him, carrying him, toileting him as if he were an infant. And then, one day, as his mother carried him back to the institution one of the nurses stopped her saying “you can’t carry him, he’s just too heavy for you” and showed her how to help him walk by placing him behind her so that he could hold on and mimic her steps.

Although it was a slow and painful process, the moment was a defining one: her expectations of what her son was capable of exploded to encompass the unimaginable. She then set out to teach him the “impossible”.

By the time he was a young adult, not only was he able to feed and toilet himself, he was living on his own with a reduced level of care. He never did learn to walk on his own, though, since his mind, if not his body, was already imprisoned by the earlier often articulated expectations.

Reflecting on this, I think about how expectations have shaped my own life and perceptions of who I am and what I’m capable of. Since as far back as I can remember, I always believed that I could do whatever I set out to do, and accomplish any goal that I dared to dream. From the beginning, this was the message that I was given by my parents and everyone else who loved me, and it has fundamentally shaped the way in which my life has unfolded, helping me to take risks and achieve successes that many along the way told me were impossible.

Equally true, however, is the fact that as a child I was often given the message that I was difficult to love, requiring extra effort on the part of those who did love me. As an adult entering relationships, this expectation had already entrenched itself into my unconsciousness, making me desirous of finding love but partially disbelieving of the possibility of it for myself. And so, when I met my ex-husband, I fell into his arms, not so much because I loved him but because he appeared to love and want me as I was. In the end, although the relationship broke, what had healed in me was the deep-rooted belief that I should accept anyone who was willing to love me but was less than I needed and deserved. In essence, I had finally developed a sense of self-
esteem that allowed me to value myself as I am.

As I try to untangle how all of this fits together, I realize that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts that I can give my son is a strong sense of self-confidence so that he can dare to dream big, take chances, and go against the odds, with the expectation that he can achieve whatever he sets his sights on without fearing the risk of failure. And, on the flip side, to set the expectation in him that he is someone of worth, who deserves to be treated well and loved for the less than perfect person that he is, so that he surrounds himself with people who will bring out the best in him, reinforcing his best qualities while allowing him to accept his weaknesses with grace, flair, and affection. For, ultimately, it is these intertwined parts of self-perception that will create the foundation by which he sets his own expectations of who his is, what he is capable of and worth, and the measure of happiness and success that he will achieve throughout his life.

Being present

Often, when I’m hanging out at the park with my son we’re with other parents and their children. Inevitably, as the kids play, we comment on their natures and, invariably, based on the characteristics displayed in that particular moment, someone starts to make predictions about what each one will be when they grow up.

Watching my son play in the sandbox at the park, I marvel at the fact that he can spend hours moving sand from pail to pail, enthralled with the possibilities that each grain presents, as if each movement were truly a depiction of the sands of time. And it strikes me that this is not the only activity in which he is capable of completely immersing himself, wholly absorbed as if nothing else exists in the world. For him, unlike us grownups, there is no past and future, only the here and now.

Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of a poster that I had on my wall as a child that stated “Happiness is as a butterfly, which if pursued is just beyond your grasp but if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Although I must have read this particular poem countless times each night for numerous years, and could recite it off the top of my head, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to absorb its message.

Now, on quiet spring evenings when I sit on my back patio sipping wine while watching my plants enjoy each stage of their growth, I marvel at how in their stillness they’re actually morphing into the shape they’re destined to be. And I think about how, for myself, it’s now the moment that’s precious instead of the end destination. Be it moments of pure happiness, utter dejection, wild abandon and elation, or mere indifference, I’ve finally come to the realization that it’s only by experiencing the process of life in all its incarnations that I’ll be able to grow and evolve. And with this realization has come the freedom from trying to capture the future by trying to take care of every eventually through preemptively forcing things into nice little boxes that can be neatly categorized. By being in the moment, I now find myself more open to doors in the present that I would not have noticed at an earlier time, bypassing them as a result of assumptions that they are irrelevant to future that I’m supposed to have.

This change has been in large part as a result of being a parent, and I know that I’m forever indebted to my son for teaching me this valuable lesson. I also know that as a parent, one of the ways that I can repay my son is by helping him to hold on to this gift of being in the moment so that as he grows into adulthood, not only does he evolve into who he is destined to be but he enjoys all of the individual moments that make up the journey, treasuring the magic of each unreplicable experience while exploring the possibility that each brings.

Kids in clown suits

When I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time with my cousin, a mother of three. One day, we went to the park with her youngest daughter dressed in a fairy costume. When I asked my cousin if it was a special occasion, she said no, her daughter simply refused to wear anything else and had for months. So, every evening she washed the fairy outfit out by hand so that it would be clean and dry for the next day.

Laughing, I told her about my four year old niece’s pleasure in what she had accomplished when she dressed herself in her favorite yellow corduroy vest with an orange chiffon skirt and a pink blouse for church. And I secretly remembered her crestfallen expression when her mother made her change into a more appropriate outfit.

And then, unbidden, came the memory of my eight-year old joy in a pair of three-inch hot pink Mary Jane heels that my parent’s dancer friend gave me. I had secretly coveted those shoes and, once they were mine, nothing could stop me. I would strap them on and, no matter what else I was wearing, I felt invincible.

On a really good day, I would add my white feather boa and imagine that I was a 1920s starlet accustomed to walking down a red carpet and welcomed the world over. For about six months, I wore this outfit everywhere – in school, at the playground, and over to friends’ houses. When my feet grew another two sizes, I finally retired the shoes but not the confidence I associated with them.

This morning my one and a half year old son demanded that I put his boots on. Or, more specifically, he brought me his miniature Wellingtons and stated in an implacable way ‘Boot on!’. I tried to reason with him, explaining that he didn’t need his boots on to go to the beach since it was the middle of summer and perfectly sunny out. When that didn’t work, I tried bribery: “Look at these nice new sandals Mummy bought you. Don’t you want to try them on? You’ll look so snazzy in them’. As a response, he started to put the boot on himself.

As I sat back and tried to figure out how to get him shod appropriately, I thought back to the fairy in the park and realized that this was likely the first of many such battles. Looking at my son’s pride and pleasure-filled face as he pointed to his boot-clad feet, I also remembered my magic shoes and the Communion dress that I had begged my Jewish parents for and wore at any social gathering that involved more than two people until I could no longer do up the back zipper. In that moment, I realized that it didn’t matter if my son was shod appropriately or not. As long as it wasn’t going to harm him, I decided that from now one, he could wear whatever he wanted. Interested strangers would simply have to read the button on his shirt stating ‘I dress myself’.