I thought about this picture yesterday as I was driving less than one block home from dropping the kids off at school. I thought about it because I was driving, and I passed several of our neighbors who were walking back home because, well, we live less than a block from school. It takes more time to get through the drop-off line than it does to walk.
I was driving because my husband was out of town for work and I’m sick – because I’ve have a 101 degree fever that I haven’t been able to shake for a week, because I used up most of my energy getting myself sort-of dressed, caring for my kids and keeping up with work, and because when I’m sick like this, my heart sometimes does funky stuff that makes it hard to, you know, walk less than a block.
I was pondering what the neighbors might think of me as I passed them. They don’t know I’m sick. They don’t know I have lupus and juvenile diabetes and some other diseases. I look regular enough, about 50 pounds of steroid-induced weight aside. And on most days, I feel well and I’m doing my thing, just like any other mom.
What others think of me doesn’t impact me in a way that it may have 10 years ago, but still, I wondered. I wondered because it occurred to how quickly so many of us – even those of us who try really hard to not to make assumptions or judgments (ME) – fill in the holes in others’ stories.
My mom took this picture of the kids and me on April 21, 2009. I was probably standing in the only clean part of my house. We’d gotten home from Ethiopia four days earlier and my husband had left Arizona just two after that for New York. Him leaving two days after we got home from the other side of the world with a new-to-our family, very sick baby, and with me being very sick, might have felt devastating if it didn’t feel so incredible.
He was our sole source of income and he’d been laid off from his job just a few months before we traveled for Molley – just a few months before we had to come up with many thousands of dollars for travel and adoption fees. So I didn’t have any energy left to feel alone or overwhelmed because I used all of it feeling pure elation that we wouldn’t have to worry about health insurance and, you know, income.
I’d only been a mom at that point for 16 months. We’d recently gotten to a good place where Mattix, who had just turned two, actually slept – more than half an hour at a time, as he had for so long – and we were making great progress with attachment. Mattix was doing well with occupational therapy and the pretty serious sensory issues he had.
Ed had traveled a lot over those 16 months, and so had Mattix and I, following him to DC for a month at a time here and there, going to Chicago and St. Louis and other places for a week here and there. It had been a very difficult, but very significant and positive year.
And here I was, 16 months after first becoming a mom, extremely sick from viruses and infections that I’d picked up in Ethiopia, jetlagged in a way I still can’t wrap my mind around, with a very sick new-to-our-family 8-month-old baby who of course couldn’t sleep because she was sick and in pain and her entire world had just been rocked in a way no human should ever have their world rocked.
My mom wasn’t as available because her dad was extremely ill and it was both emotionally- and time-consuming for her. I felt alone, but of course I didn’t tell people because strong women don’t do that! We keep it together, we put on our strong face. We don’t need help. We just do this. (I’ve since learned a lot.)
I think of this picture often because I feel as though I looked like I had it together pretty well. I mean, knowing me, my hair was certainly dirty, and I know I was bothered by the 15 pounds I’d gained during that absolutely sleepless year. But overall, on the outside, things looked good enough.
The truth is, some days I felt like it was going well and many days, I felt like I was falling apart.
There were the nights when I’d lay Molley in her crib after changing the sheets and bathing her for the fifth time in so many hours because of another diaper catastrophe, thanks to the highly contagious intestinal parasites she had, and I’d close the door to her room, collapse on the floor in the hallway, and cry so hard the sound of her cries was drowned out. Then I’d get it together and go back in, pick up my sweet little girl, and rock her while feeding her a bottle, knowing it was all going to happen again in a few hours. Because the truth is, that is what all parents have to do in the end – get it together and care for their kids.
There was the time I burst into tears in the lab at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, begging the woman at the front desk in a loud voice “to please find someone to take this bag of shit!” Because we’d been seeing doctors for hours and I hadn’t slept for days and I was at the end of my emotional rope. Because I’d been collecting Molley’s stool samples, carefully storing them in little marked containers in a brown bag in a plastic bag in another plastic bag in our refrigerator. And the idea of having to take those home again and then drive them an hour back with the kids in tow the next day, when someone who could accept them was on duty, was just too much.
There was the grace the woman who happened to walk in during that showed me, finding a solution and doing her best to make me feel like less of the lunatic than I actually was. There was the shame I felt on the way home for not keeping it together.
The inside should match the outside. I look fine! Act fine!
These days, I look “normal” enough most of the time. The sad truth is that things have probably flipped for me – the outside likely looks worse than the inside. But that’s okay. This feels a lot better.
I know there are times I miss soccer games and some of the other moms may wonder why, being that my husband is the coach. I know there are the many times I skip hanging out outside with the entire neighborhood at the end of the day because I’m saving the energy I have left to read with my kids before bed. And I know that some of the neighbors might think I’m antisocial.
I know there’s the judgmental woman who scoffed and commented on me hammering a big umbrella into the grass at my son’s soccer game, asking, “What is she doing and why is she doing that?” I don’t care enough to tell her it’s because the bright Arizona sun isn’t good for lupus.
I don’t feel the need to explain anything to anyone because I don’t care what others who aren’t close enough to me to know these things think in these situations.
And also, because far fewer people probably spend any time actually thinking about it than I spend wondering if they do, which isn’t even that much at all.
But what I do know, and the reason I wrote this, is that even those of us who know better and try hard, we sometimes fill in the holes in stories, too. We make assumptions and maybe even judgments.
Most of us don’t act like jerks – we don’t make nasty comments like the woman at the soccer game did. But many of us sometimes make assumptions and sometimes waste energy on thoughts or feelings, whether it’s annoyance or a slight amount of superiority, or even judgment – and whether it’s at work or in social settings or in personal relationships. And even when we don’t think it’s apparent, sometimes those thoughts actually are.
Getting older and becoming a mom has been so productive for me. I’ve come to a place where I’m honestly unaffected by what others outside of my close circle think. And equally important, I’ve come to a kinder place about the way I regard others, but I’m always working on it because I can do better.
Getting older and becoming a mom has also introduced me to a world of nitpicking and judgment that just doesn’t have to exist at the level it does. Some people are bothered by the judgment of others, and while it’s easy for us to say they need to get over it, I think it’s even easier and healthier to stop making so many judgments. To learn to empathize. To just. be. nicer.