Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.
You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.
I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.
As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.
At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!
The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.
How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?
Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.
For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.
I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.
I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.
Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.
I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.
Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.
I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.
Driving home from the grocery store, my eyes well up. They aren’t so much tears of sadness as a release of frustration. My upper lip trembles a bit, but no gasps or sobs emerge. “Worlds Away” by The Go-Go’s is playing, and it turns out to be the perfect song for a gentle, wistful cry.
My highly anticipated trip to Florida, which is two weeks away, is about to be deferred for the third freaking time.
I first booked this trip back in February of 2020, right before the pandemic got serious in the United States. One of my best friends had just died suddenly, and I was going to visit our mutual friends so that we could share memories and mark her passing.
But I was sick with giardia, and it was taking its sweet time going away despite the antibiotics. I did not want to get on a plane while this intestinal infection was lingering. So, I moved my flight to April, hoping that the coronavirus would blow over quickly.
You know what happened next. Businesses in our state started to close, and it was clear that a stay-home order was coming soon. In late March, I canceled my flight and accepted an open voucher from the airlines.
About a year later, I finally got vaccinated and started re-planning my visit. We settled on the end of July and booked a place on the beach for a long weekend.
Once again, nature stepped in. This time it’s something called red tide—a toxic algae bloom that is hitting the Tampa Bay area hard. Trucks are removing tons (literally, tons) of dead fish that have been washing up on shore. One of my friends, who lives in St. Petersburg, says it smells terrible. She is experiencing awful headaches and breathing deeply is a challenge.
So, this morning we decided to put the trip on hold. For the record: This gathering has been obstructed by a parasite in my intestines, a worldwide pandemic, and a “fish kill” in Florida. Ok, ok, I get the message!
As I hop in my car later, I decide to explore what caused my tears this morning. Yes, I am sad that another couple months or possibly a year will go by without seeing my dear friends. But I will eventually see them—I’m not worried about that.
And, if anything, I’m a little relieved that I don’t have to fly while the latest COVID variant is spreading and people are acting out on planes.
Before I reach my destination, I settle on two main causes for my irritation:
Control. Many grievances come down to control with me. I really don’t like it when things don’t turn out as planned. It reminds me that I do not have complete control over my life, and this scares me. I talk through this fear as I drive, and I remind myself that I have a pretty decent level of control over my life right now—perhaps more than I’ve ever had. I encourage myself to be grateful for the control and the abilities that I do have, like how easy it was to jump online and cancel my flight with the click of a button.
Stories. Of the many stories I have running in my head, one of the oldest is: I have the worst luck. I’ve repeated variations on this theme countless times. For so long, I was convinced that bad things always happened to me. Because I was stuck in this story, I couldn’t see how the good in my life clearly outweighed the bad. The result of this story was that I had a built-in excuse to give up, because why bother anyway? Ironically, I claim I want more control over my life (see previous paragraph), and yet I’ve used the power of this sad-sack story to relieve myself from taking control.
I’m still mad that this trip has been delayed three times, and I hope that I won’t have to wait too long to see my friends. But today I chose to explore my tendency to wallow in disappointment. As it often does, this kind of self-reflection got me out of the doldrums and onto my laptop to document these insights. The more consistently I do this, the less I get caught up in this kind of self-pity in the first place.
There’s a saying that goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” According to the internet, this quote is a mash-up of writings by Mahatma Ghandi and a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein.
These men were referring to the gradual success of political movements, but I think the insight captures the spirit of how we humans respond to all kinds of new things.
Earlier this year, I went to pick up food at a Five Guys burger joint, and while I waited, I became fascinated with a sign that was attached to the side of their soda machine. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with one of these touch-screen soda machines, but they’re pretty cool. You can choose from like a thousand options of soda, tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit flavorings. It makes the traditional soda fountain look quaint and insufficient.
The sign instructed customers that they could use their smart phone to scan a QR code from the screen of the soda machine. This would allow them to select from all of the same beverage options through their phone rather than having to touch a screen that other people may have touched.
At first, I rolled my eyes hard. I snapped a photo of the sign, looking forward to sharing this ridiculousness with my husband. He, too, chuckled when he saw it.
Months later, I was scrolling through my phone and happened upon that photo. With some distance, it didn’t seem quite so silly. Why not offer people an option that takes advantage of the powerful technology that so many of us carry around? Who was this sign hurting? OK, it might slow down the line a tad as people try to figure out the app, but what’s the problem with slowing down for a minute or two?
Things that are new and different scare us. Our minds haven’t yet figured out why we need them or how they work, so we reject them. Why is that? Maybe the primitive part of our brain worries that if we don’t understand something, if we have to incorporate new information in order to “get” it, that implies something is lacking in us.
But as time goes on, and we acquire that knowledge without even trying, as we think about it some more and become familiar with the new thing, we start to warm up to it.
Sometimes, like the quote, we still fight against the new thing. And those who fight don’t always win. But slowly, the new thing becomes a part of our culture, and we grow to accept it. Can you think of an example of a practice that was shunned, even outlawed, which is now embraced? I bet you can. This has been happening for centuries in societies all over the world. The process can be long or short or anywhere in between.
This same principle is at work in our personal lives. We resist making changes. The new thing—think meditation, exercise, journaling—runs counter to the self that we know. Contemplating adding this new thing to our existence suggests that we are currently incomplete or deficient. And that makes us feel unsafe, so we puff ourselves up by snickering at the alien thing.
However, once you immerse yourself in something unusual, the process of acceptance speeds up—like stepping your foot on the gas. We can all override our instinct to ridicule the new and unusual, and the reward is a more expansive life and a more inclusive society.
As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came upon a post from a former co-worker I like and admire very much. She was announcing that she had accepted an impressive new job. This was not the first colleague or friend to share similar news within the last several months.
Each time, I was truly happy to learn that someone for whom I have mad respect earned a major promotion, decided to start their own business, or otherwise achieved something extraordinary career-wise.
But I also felt a chilly wind blowing through my chest. Someone else’s success often leads me to panic that I am flailing about in life, and it’s particularly tough when I’m going through an iffy transition period.
Currently, I am making a shift in my career, and I guess you could say I’m playing a long game—though that phrasing would imply that a clear plan is in effect. In reality, there’s no telling how this move will pan out. Given my pessimistic and impatient nature, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve taken such a leap without knowing exactly how or where I’ll land.
The Self-Motivation Spectrum
On a long drive the other day, I did a little self coaching to process my fear of being an underachiever. As I have many times before, I pictured a spectrum that measures a potent mix of ambition, drive, and perseverance.
At one end of this spectrum are people like Oprah who started out their lives with very few advantages yet became wildly successful. These people shine bright in their chosen field, take on daring new projects, and lead the way for others. They are respected and reliable. Inspired and inspiring.
The kind of person who resides at the other end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily unimaginative or lazy, but for whatever reason they are not inclined to step outside their comfort zone, to take risks, to push ahead.
By my own estimation, I sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—maybe a bit above the center marker, or maybe just below (depending on the day, month, or year). Where you fall on the spectrum doesn’t matter so much, as long as you are happy and fulfilled.
For those of us who wish we were a little higher on the spectrum, an important question emerges: Why do folks land at various points along the spectrum? I’ve formed a theory that might help answer that question.
When I am faced with uncharted territory—something new, challenging, different—I typically convert much of the accompanying uncertainty and excitement into stress.
In situations like this, I would define stress as a toxic combination of three tendencies:
1. Catastrophizing: Conjuring up all the things that could go wrong, from the small to the spectacular.
2. Self-doubt: Assuming I will fail because I’m really not that talented, skilled, or industrious.
3. Martyrdom: Reminding myself that I have terrible luck, and life is so unfair.
Once stress takes form, I grab onto it like it’s a life raft in choppy water. But stress is not a lifesaver—its an identity that I cling to out of fear. I’m afraid to let go of that anxious person I’ve always been. It’s a habit as strong and automatic as any addiction.
People like Oprah, I believe, convert the same uncertainty and excitement into positive energy or fuel. They thrive on pushing themselves to reach higher, build new skills, and cross new thresholds. I’m sure they experience stress and doubt, too. But they might end up with 20 percent stress and 80 percent motivation, while I end up with 80 percent stress and 20 percent motivation.
Where Oprah sees opportunity, I see obstacles.
Jessie Graff is one of the top competitors on the show American Ninja Warrior. In the final seconds of an amazing run a couple years ago, Graff fell off the last obstacle, thus eliminating herself from the competition. She was interviewed on the sidelines afterward, and Graff said she was ok with falling—that discovering the limit of her abilities showed her where she needed to do the work. What a fabulous outlook to have!
So…I’ve hypothesized that some of us on the spectrum are stressing ourselves out far more than we should, and that is leading to discomfort and inertia. Now what?
Lately I’ve been listening more closely to the words that come out of my mouth—specifically the off-the-cuff answers I give to unexpected questions.
Just the other day, my mother’s therapist suggested something I could do to help her, and I was full of reasons why it wouldn’t work. As the words left my lips, I could hear the negativity, and I wanted to suck them back in. Too late. As the counselor urged me to focus on the potential positives, I sat there feeling ashamed of my pessimistic mindset.
A recent commenter on this very blog suggested that I “stop being so over critical.” Oh, how I would love to!
But that’s just it—no one can do this but me. Like Graff, my limits are pointing to where I need to do the work. If I want to move up a few notches on the motivation spectrum, I need to convert some of that excess stress to excitement, hope, and optimism.
Here are a few simple strategies I’m employing:
– When I read posts from or about inspiring people, rather than focus on how much I envy them or differ from them, I will try to focus on what I can learn from them.
– Instead of noting all the times I’ve faltered, I will recall the times I’ve succeeded. This will come more naturally if I practice telling myself over and over: You have what it takes!
– I will remind myself that even hugely accomplished people fail at various points in their lives. No one can win all the time, and failure is actually critical to success.
– I have committed that my next three blog posts will be more positive. Period.
Shaking off my longtime stress monkey isn’t going to happen overnight. Years of conditioning have etched unease into my nervous system.
But progress will come, if I embrace this attitude adjustment as a key part of my ongoing journey.
In the meantime, keep those announcements coming, my friends! I’m so proud of you all.
For many years I hid from becoming a writer. Even when I was in hiding, I was still a writer in my heart and soul. But I was not putting myself out there——and now I know why I was so scared.
To back up a minute: I’ve wanted a career in writing since I was about 10 years old. I majored in creative writing at college and did well in my classes. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I had some skills.
After graduating college, I moved to New York City. In a town full of publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, and ad agencies, I didn’t know what to do with my major. I hadn’t applied myself in school. I didn’t write for the literary magazine or the campus paper. There was nothing to distinguish me from every other person who wanted to write for a living.
I still could have tried to launch a writing career without any credits to my name. But I didn’t.
Flash forward three decades (yes, decades), and I finally decided to do something about my situation. Two years ago, I launched this blog. One year ago, I signed up for a writing program that encouraged me to build my online profile, pitch articles to outlets, and develop a book proposal.
For the first time in decades, I started thinking of myself as a writer with stories and opinions to share with the world, not just a writer inside my own head. I had energy and ideas, and the words started pouring out.
But. (There’s usually a but with me.) Suddenly, I was connected with other writers who seemed so talented and driven. I felt compelled to ask myself: Who am I as a writer? And most importantly: Do I like who I am? Can I live with who I am?
A few things I am not:
A sassy writer. I am actually pretty funny in person, but I’m not comfortable being humorous on the page—it feels forced.
A lyrical writer. I am not poetic or “dazzling.” I am not a master of metaphor.
A sophisticated writer. I do not have an impressive reserve of literary references. My style is not bold or experimental.
A few things I am:
A relatable writer. Yeah, I’m basic. Ordinary. In a good way, I believe.
An honest writer. I am willing to spill my guts for my readers. And I’m not afraid to get political.
An idea writer. I live to find the ideas at the core of my writing, the concepts that help illuminate our shared humanity.
A readable writer. I enjoy spending time constructing sentences and paragraphs that are clear and flow well.
Are those two lists a bearable trade-off?
Sometimes I read a beautiful or hilarious sentence by a brilliant writer, and I look up from the page or screen. I sigh and wonder if I should try harder to be a different kind of writer.
I never want to give up on becoming a better writer. Honing my existing skills is a must. But can I teach myself to be more poetic? Can I practice putting my wit into words? Can I bone up on literary stuff?
Or, should I spend my energy learning to appreciate who I am already as a writer and finding ways to make that work for me?
This is why I was scared all those years, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I was hiding from the pain of my own expectations, my self-judgment, the fear of facing my identity as a writer. And, if I have to be totally honest, the fear of facing my identity as a person. I’ve long been afraid that my authentic self is not cool or classy or intellectual enough to reach some to-be-determined level of success that will validate my worth.
These past few years I’ve been figuring out how to accept myself, to love the woman inside while gently nudging her forward. Because I’ve realized that the validation I so desperately crave needs to come from within.
Recently I ventured a wee bit out of my comfort zone on an essay. The two people I showed it to urged me to make substantial edits. My first reaction was defensive—I wanted to dig in my heels because their input felt like a wallop to my ego. Once I got over myself, and made the revisions, they really paid off. Clearly there is room to stretch within my wheelhouse without having to reinvent myself.
My aim is to elevate my craft while playing to my strengths and exploring my passions. My main goal is to reach people with my writing, help them feel not so alone, and shine light onto interesting paths. As long as I work at doing that, I won’t need to hide anymore.
Several months ago The New York Times ran a style piece about a woman in her 20s who creates designer ice cubes. As I read the article, my mind lit up with envy. The subject, Leslie Kirchhoff, was being celebrated for capitalizing on something I recall doing as a child—suspending objects in ice.
But frozen water is not her only medium. The article relayed her first big break: “While studying abroad in Paris during her sophomore year at New York University, Ms. Kirchhoff learned how to D.J. at the hip nightclub Le Montana, which led to a regular Friday night gig at the Top of the Standard when she returned to New York.”
How exactly she managed to score D.J. lessons at a trendy French club wasn’t explained.
One of Kirchhoff’s other claims to fame is co-creating the buzz-worthy “Drunk Crustaceans” calendar, which features shellfish in twee settings, such as a shrimp lounging in a miniature bathtub with a tiny bottle of wine. And if that’s not enough, Kirchhoff is also a photographer, with credits that include Vogue.com.
In the photo that accompanied the NYT piece, Kirchhoff is revealed to be tall and slim with long blonde hair. She is the kind of woman Paper magazine photographs in designer clothes and dubs “The Coolest Girl in the Room.” To sum it up, I hate her.
Jealousy is a common human emotion, but you don’t hear many people eager to unpack it. Copping to envy is like admitting that you’re insecure, and possibly vain and petty as well. Who wants to explore how crappy it feels to be covetous and resentful? Surprisingly, I do!
But why? Well, let’s face it, the world is often unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Most of us encounter numerous inequities, both big and small, throughout our lives. When this occurs, initially we might feel bad about ourselves—maybe we don’t deserve to have good things happen to us. This feeling is quite uncomfortable, so often we transfer the blame onto the person who has what we want.
Thus, envy hardens into animosity toward people we assume have an unearned leg up or are gaming the system. This line of thinking can affect how we treat others. Sensing you’ve been cheated can lead someone to think, say, and do foolish, spiteful things.
A closer examination could help prevent jealousy from degenerating into ill-advised words and actions, and I believe that’s an opportunity worth seizing. So, let’s dive deeper.
I sat down and drafted a lengthy list of things that make me jealous. Then I grouped the items on the list into three main categories, borrowing from the well-known Serenity Prayer for my framework. Every example below comes from my own messed-up (in other words, human) mind.
Things I cannot change:
This first list comprises circumstances that are usually referred to as luck or fate.
Being born into wealth
Belonging to a family with connections to powerful people who can offer life-changing favors
Looking like a fashion model
Possessing the talent of a brilliant singer, dancer, painter, or other creative genius
Having siblings who can share the responsibilities involved in caring for aging parents
There is very little wiggle room in changing these circumstances, so getting peeved about them is a poor use of one’s mental energy. However, we humans like to be in control, so our lack of control here can be particularly annoying. When faced with the arbitrary nature of the universe, our minds can go to some unpleasant places.
For example: Upon reading about a woman who is beautiful, talented, and successful—a less charmed person (let’s say me) might wallow in the unfairness of the situation. Why wasn’t I blessed with such good fortune? This jealousy can lead to villainizing the woman to soothe my feelings of inferiority. Her parents are no doubt rich and well-connected—she probably doesn’t deserve her success at all. This tactic might make me feel better temporarily, but it does nothing for my long-term satisfaction.
The best remedy or antidote to the “things I cannot change” brand of envy is simple gratitude. For every quality you envy in a person who seems to have hit the birthright jackpot, think of something for which you can be grateful. I’ve been trying this, and it really can help. But sometimes it’s also best just to take quick note of someone’s prodigious gifts and then move on with your life.
Things I can change:
The items in this second grouping feature characteristics that don’t come naturally to some of us but aren’t impossible to develop.
The ability to relax and not stress over the small stuff, like housework, bills, deadlines
An inclination to rely on the big stuff turning out okay—not worrying about getting cancer, dying early, or going broke
Exuding genuine personal confidence
Being in good physical shape
Actively developing new skills, learning new things, and chasing life goals
I try to be delighted that there is so much to accomplish here—room for progress is good, otherwise we stagnate. The trick is not to dwell on how much improvement is needed, and instead jump in and get to work.
We may whine to ourselves that some of these things seem hard. When you’ve spent most of your life worrying, like I have, about dying in a car crash or losing my house or saying something stupid, it’s hard to imagine going through your days without such creeping dread. But you can control your thoughts and actions. You can become what you envy.
Here’s a simple example: My husband is way more chill than I am about things like yardwork and the cleanliness of our house. My feelings about this are a combination of frustration that I end up doing most of the work (which is my choice, after all) and envy transformed into anger. So, I decided to try learning from him. I’m reconditioning myself so that I do fewer chores that might make me resentful; instead I read, write, or take a nap—things that make me happy. I will never be as relaxed as he is, but I’m starting to see positive results in my attitude.
Things I may not want to change:
This last category contains items we only think we want.
Ambition that results in big promotions and a rising career
Frequent travel to faraway places
Leading a wild life without concern for adverse consequences
Being super positive and cheerful all the time
Never second-guessing yourself or struggling to make decisions
The same feelings of resentment bubble up when you see someone exhibiting these desirable traits or behaviors. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, it becomes clear that you simply aren’t one of those people.
This is great news! You are off the hook from not being more driven or perky or decisive, and you can stop resenting those who are like that.
One more example: I have friends who make it a priority to travel twice a year—every freaking year—to exotic locations. I always get a twinge of jealousy when I see their photos on Facebook. But a couple years ago I began reminding myself that travel is not a priority of mine. I could save up the money and set aside some vacation time and travel more if I really wanted to, but I have other preferences that mean more to me. Now I just say to myself, that’s so great that my friends figured out how much they love to travel and are making it happen.
If envy haunts you, make your own list. Once you place each jealousy trigger into one of the three categories, you’ll realize that there’s only one group that should have an impact on you—the things you can change. Now you have a manageable list for self-development.
When jealousy starts invading your brain anyway, reject the usual script and try out a new internal dialogue. Here’s how I might react differently to that same article about the luxury ice cube creator:
Smile upon other people’s good fortune: This woman studied abroad in Paris, and not only could she get into a hip club, but someone taught her how to D.J. while she was there! Now she’s getting rich making ice cubes! How awesome is that?!
Identify their effort: According to the article, Kirchhoff “spent four years developing her own ice-making method and turned it into a business.” Good for her for having the dedication and the belief in her vision to put in the time and energy.
Remember your dreams and your skills: Ice cubes aren’t really my thing. I want to reach people through my writing. I’m not half bad at it, and I will only get better if I make it a higher priority.
Find inspiration: What an amazing world we live in—if people will buy designer ice, surely there is an audience for my writing. I just need to find my niche.
Commit to immediate and ongoing action: I’m going to spend two hours writing tonight instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media. And I will make room in my schedule for regular writing in the morning.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being jealous now and then and confessing to it as a way to expel the shame. If we don’t let it rule us, we can learn from envy and use it to propel us forward.
My mother fell about a month ago. I was there by her side, but I didn’t have a good grasp of her hand, and suddenly she was falling, and there was nothing I could do.
She hit her head hard, so we called 911, and the paramedics took her to the hospital. Everything checked out okay, but a day later her face looked like she went 12 rounds in a boxing ring.
For the past four weeks now, when we go to one of her doctor’s appointments, I make sure our fingers are intertwined as we walk to and from the car. The intimacy of this hand-holding is almost unbearable—it exposes a vulnerability I’d rather not acknowledge. And it harkens back to childhood and innocence, before our roles were reversed.
Last summer my mom’s kidney doctor began preparing us for the fact that she would need to start dialysis treatments in about six months’ time.
Anyone caring for an aging parent or seriously ill family member knows the feeling that comes with this moment. Life is about to change, and your control over it is precarious.
My entire body clenched, and I was immediately transported back 10 years, to when my mother still lived hundreds of miles away.
“My doctor says I’m going to need dialysis soon,” she told me on the phone in 2008. When she was a young girl, an appendix operation had revealed that one of my mom’s kidneys was not functioning and would need to be removed. I was aware that my mother’s single kidney would eventually wear out, but I was hoping it would be much later in life.
She added: “I’m not going on dialysis. My friend Carol told me terrible things about it, and I won’t do it.”
“So, you’re just going to let yourself die?” I asked. No answer.
I realized that I would need to make a swift and assured transformation from apprehensive daughter to protective parent figure.
I went to visit Mom in Georgia, so we could see her nephrologist together. I had previously tried to communicate with this doctor via phone and email about the status of my mother’s condition, but all I got was an envelope in the mail containing a printed page about kidney disease that I could have Googled myself.
In person, the doctor assured me that dialysis was not yet on the horizon. My mother had misinterpreted or imagined the whole thing. Relieved as I was, I did not see this misunderstanding as an encouraging sign.
I went back to Maryland and tried to put my concerns out of mind. There was no health emergency to speak of, and I hoped that I could continue to monitor the situation long distance.
A year later my mother confessed on a call that she had not left her apartment in over a week, and no one in the senior living facility had noticed. No friends or family in the area had called to check on her. When I was in my teens, my mother had suffered a severe depression, and I feared that she could be on the brink of another major episode.
My husband and I had a long talk that night. I was in my early 40s at the time, which seemed too young to be taking in a not-quite-elderly parent. My husband and I had been married less than two years. We had just bought our first house together, and we were enjoying being homeowners. Together, alone.
I was anxious at the prospect of my physically and emotionally demanding mother coming to live with us. Would it be a disaster from the start? Would I fall apart? Would my spouse slowly grow to resent me over the years?
My husband and I will never know if we made the “right” decision. To this day, eight years later, I occasionally review the pros and cons. And on most days, I conclude that the choice we made makes the most sense. But sometimes, when Mom calls upstairs at midnight to ask if we have an extra roll of toilet paper, I entertain second thoughts.
Acting as my mother’s health advocate, which is akin to a part-time job, is certainly easier with her under our roof. I manage her medications and go with her on all doctor’s appointments, taking detailed notes. Fitting her care into my work schedule is challenging and requires an understanding employer.
My mother has had three long hospital and rehabilitation stays and numerous out-patient procedures since she came to live with us. Both of her knees have been replaced (at the same time!), and a few years later she fell and broke a hip.
My heart goes out to every caregiver who has ever stalked the hospital halls looking for a nurse who has time to listen, who has worried about how many painkillers their parent is taking, or questioned if they should call the doctor’s answering service yet again.
When dealing with a family member with long-term health issues, self-care is critical. Caregivers must be proactive about their own health and well-being.
In addition to making sure I don’t put off my check-ups, I try to exercise, meditate, and spend time outdoors regularly. Writing and other forms of creative expression are real sanity savers. And sometimes, I simply need to be alone, even if it’s just to go shopping by myself.
My husband has been patient, and I am grateful that he is so supportive. But I can’t take his kindness for granted—I must prioritize partner-care alongside self-care. Is our relationship strong enough to weather any condition? We’re about to find out, because the storm is a comin’.
This time my mother’s kidney really is failing, and she has agreed to go on dialysis. Mom and I have attended a class, and she has been through multiple procedures to prepare for the upcoming treatments.
I will soon explore support groups for caregivers, and I have committed to start putting “me time” on the calendar so I remember to relax, reflect, and recharge.
At the top of my list is boundaries. I have never been very good at drawing and patrolling a proper perimeter between the two of us. Much like our hands when we walk to the car, our lives have become unavoidably entangled.
But as every good caregiver should, I will now strive to steady my mom while keeping my own feet firmly on the ground.
Recently a friend shared a clip on Facebook about the secret to living longer. In the TED Talks video, Susan Pinker claims that social integration is the top factor associated with a long life. She describes this practice as “how much you interact with people as you move through your day . . . not just the people you’re really close to who mean a lot to you, but do you talk to the guy who everyday makes you your coffee, do you talk to the postman, do you talk to the woman who walks by your house everyday with her dog…?”
My first thought was, OMG my mom is going to live forever. You see, my mother talks to strangers. All the time. Sometimes this practice is charming, and sometimes it’s not.
Whenever we go to one of our favorite pizza places, mom stops the manager as we are leaving to compliment their hard-working wait staff. Sweet, right?
Then there’s the time we were on a road trip and stopped to use a public restroom. A woman close to my mother’s age was brushing her hair, and as she stepped away from the mirror, my mom said, “You look beautiful.” The woman laughed at the unexpected compliment and said thank you.
If the scene had ended there, it would have been a nice moment between two 70-something women. But as the other woman turned to exit, my mom added, “Now you’re supposed to say the same to me.” Ugh.
Most of us start out adult life confident that we will never turn into our mother or father. Most of us—possibly all of us—are proven wrong eventually. If you are vehemently disagreeing with me right now, let that resistance go.
Maybe you won’t actually become one or both of your parents. But one day you will hear that goofy expression of your dad’s come out of your mouth. Or you will catch yourself doing that thing with the paper towels that your mom always does.
I was close with my mom when I was growing up, a closeness that sometimes felt more like a straightjacket than a hug. There was no dad or significant other to act as a buffer, and her emotional state was loosely knitted together. I loved her, but I was eager to wriggle out of the grasp she had on my life. As soon as I graduated college, I moved a thousand miles away in an effort to build an identity separate from her.
From most angles, it appears that I’ve succeeded. Our lives have been quite different, and our personalities even more so. When my mother first moved in with me and my husband seven years ago, I became assured that I was thoroughly unlike her.
Mom arrived in our state with a driver’s license and Social Security card that had different last names on them. It took us at least five trips to the department of motor vehicles, plus a trip to the Social Security office, before she finally got her new driver’s license. About a month later, mom informed me that she had lost this license. The birth certificate we had to order online was also missing the next time we needed it.
I, on the other hand, work hard to stay organized and feel itchy at the thought of not being able to find something.
Not long ago, my mother was out with a friend shopping and, on impulse, she purchased a mattress and box spring. She did not need them, nor did she have the money for them. She opened a credit card at the store, even though she knew that she wasn’t supposed to apply for any new credit cards. It took me endless calls and tweets to get the order canceled.
Meanwhile, I grow sweaty upon making major purchases and avoid going into debt at all costs.
My mom has been banned from watching football with my husband because she mostly reads magazines and then looks up and asks what just happened—repeatedly.
She talks over doctors and nurses as if she knows what they are going to say. She doesn’t really listen to them, which is why I always go along to take notes.
My mother also has a “creative memory.” In one such case, she has a completely different recollection of the days after my grandmother died—a memory of what might have been rather than what actually happened.
Despite all these differences (and there are many more, I promise you), my husband can attest that I do share a few traits with my mother—like our tendency to tell long stories full of unnecessary details, our inclination to overreact to minor frustrations, and our penchant for commenting on how poorly certain celebrities are aging.
And I hear her in the passive-aggressive way I talk to my stepson sometimes. Suddenly I am transported back to my own childhood, hearing my mom’s frustration with me hidden behind a manipulative question or a sarcastic comment.
However, as the days and years go by, I realize how important it is to focus on the positive, to be grateful for the attributes that I don’t mind sharing with my mom: her love of music and dancing, her fondness for laughter, and her genuine interest in people of all kinds.
Whether we like it or not, aspects of our parents’ personalities—good, bad, and complicated—are bound to show up in our own. Maybe it was always meant to be, that an echo of those who raised us would ultimately reverberate in our own bones.
Perhaps this recognition is an invitation to forgive and accept our mothers and fathers as fellow human beings. Rather than be embarrassed or in denial about the qualities we have in common with our parents, we can choose to see this as an opportunity to embrace them in all their tender messiness. And to love ourselves at the same time.
One day the two of us were walking out of a sandwich shop, and my mother stopped at the table of a young woman who was sitting alone. During lunch mom had noticed that this woman looked sad. So, she went over and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said something encouraging to her. I don’t know what my mother said because I was getting the heck out of there.
In the car, I was about to tell her what a terrible idea it was to physically touch a stranger these days, to presume to intrude on their personal space and pain. But I bit my tongue and said nothing. My mother meant well. And she did something not many people would do—she reached out to someone even though it would have been far easier to just walk by. It won’t be the end of the world if one day I find myself doing the same. Minus the touching, of course.