BY JENNY B
I don’t like to be seen struggling; and, every day is a struggle.
The tension within this paradox of sorts has been driving me forward and holding me back, waking me up in the morning and telling me to go lie down, for years.
Predictably, this theme has played itself out on many stages in my life. In a dozen years of working in a secured building, I was the type of employee who never forgot her badge or keys. And, you could count on one hand the number of times I didn’t have it ready in my hand, walking from the car, to give the appearance of sailing effortlessly through the morning rush. (Having a Director stride by while seeing me struggle to find my ID badge, revealing that perhaps I was not totally organized, as I performed an archeological dig through a large and brimming bag - once was enough.)
I had become adept at anticipating the need and managing perceptions. I’ve found that has a floor and a ceiling to it, as you navigate life’s complexities.
At a cold and rainy bus stop at age 19, one of my college roommates was trying to pool and count coins so that each of the three of us could have exact fare. Impatiently, I tried to shut.it.down by snapping, “Just give $1. The fare is 90 cents.” The shortness in my tone was uncharacteristic of how we spoke to one another, and it was also one of the few times I was quickly rebuked by another of my roommates, “She’s just trying to help. We have to stand here and wait for the bus, anyway.” We were Sophomores, wise fools, at Harvard, years before the invention of smartphones and payment apps. In retrospect, I can still feel how the cold and early morning had worn on me, and how the quickness of the reactions in the situation cut to the bone: I wanted to give a dollar and not care about not getting any change in return. I didn’t want to, even so briefly, feel the weight of scholarships, part-time jobs, and student loans, while I took my winter glove off my cold and grasping fingers to search for coins to save us 10 cents a piece. That was my ‘floor’.
It’s not just about money. You won’t see me playing darts on a night out. No need to show that to the whole bar. And, it took some time for me to get comfortable playing cornhole/sidewalk-toss-bags at barbeques with family and friends, because, despite having years of experience playing sports, I worried that I wasn’t good enough at it and that my shortcomings would let my partner down. I used to anxiously only display what I felt like was good and polished enough.
This took a weird turn when I fell in love with my husband. On one of our fairly early on dates, in a crowded restaurant, I told him what amounted in my estimation to all the unlovable things he might find out about me some day. I am what some call a ‘reserved’ person. I hadn’t planned to do this. And, I can’t remember if he asked some question that prompted the first disclosure. But, once I started talking, the truth just set itself free and I looked up from the table with an expression of, “Well, now you know. And, if you are not going to love me because of it, then time to go.”
We’ve been married 10 years and our daughter is 2 years old.
I was given a wonderful gift, during a visit with my brother. At the height of the holidays, we had driven hours to be together and had almost as many children in the house as adults. I remarked on my intentions to organize and paste in photos in my daughter’s baby book, soon, and how I was going to have to paste a picture over any prompts that I couldn’t quite answer at this point, such as, “Date of first tooth.” (I don’t know. We were busy. She has a whole mouth of teeth, now, and that seems to be going fine.) This is a task I have both looked forward to, not had time for, and dreaded, in equal parts, how it was probably not going to turn out as good as I wanted it to, for her to have it for all time. Children rely on us, in their first years, more than anything. Parents and guardians have the double challenge of trying to construct and document the reality and narrative of how the journey into becoming who you are began, while trying to survive your child’s infancy.
My sister-in-law’s eyes lit up in response, “Let me show you the baby book I made for ours.” With genuine glee and openness she handed me a large, 16x16” album from a shelf where she knew exactly where it was, despite their recent move, and then almost as quickly got called away by a crying baby or a call from work. (There are many instances, and the urgency weaves together for the modern mom.)
The large volume rested on the back of the couch, I stood and took in all the ways she had outlined the memories from first sonogram through first birthday. It was a mix of glitter puffy paint, photos cropped with wiggly-edged scissors, and page titles and captions that could only have been homemade by mom – by this mom. She told me that she had done it during late and odd hours, after spending full days and sometimes nights caring for patients at the hospital. My talented sister-in-law could have made a sleek and elegant album with surgical precision. The one she made looks like it was made by a tired and loving mom. When she had pasted a few photos down and all of the next photo didn’t fit on that page, she just cut the photo and generally pasted the other part on the next page. She did while her household was sleeping, because she enjoyed doing it.
When was the last time I did something as a passion project? When was the last time you did something without judging in advance what the result would be? My nephew’s baby book was complete. And, my daughter’s was still a loosely pinned board in my mind.
Seeing how another working mom had done it, and that done was better than perfect cracked the ceiling for me. What raised the roof for me was when I saw that “Aunt Jenny’s visit” when my nephew was a new baby had its own 2-page spread. I had no idea that my harried, long-weekend visit where I dragged my brother, a-new-and-sleep-deprived-stay-at-home-dad, out to the touristy walking spots in Charleston mattered. It was the only visit we managed in the time they lived in Charleston, where my nephew was born and before I became a new mom in Chicago.
Looking at them now, the snapshots were great of my brother holding his 3-month old son in front of the 500-year old Angel Oak Tree, smiling at the Waterfront Park after we figured out how to unfold the stroller, and at all the eateries where Southern little old ladies and one gentleman cooed over him and awkwardly commented to me as if I had recently given birth to this child. (“He’s so good. Don’t have a second one! It’ll be a terror.”)
But, my nephew will know, because it’s pasted in his baby book across 2 pages.
In this season of resolutions and a new decade of hopes, that is my wish for you: to struggle, be seen, and know you are not alone. Everyone is struggling in some way. Being seen is one of the best ways to get the help or guidance that moves you forward.
I’m a writer, who prior to his hadn’t written anything in a long time. It all felt too deeply personal to share. But, what are we sharing and how are we meeting each other if not ourselves?
I’m going to keep going – when my kid is really snoring, not pretending to snore.
And, I hope you do, too. Happy New Year!
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