Last year was, in many ways, a transformational year for me. It was the first year after more than two decades of active parenting where there were no more kids in the house to tend to and care for. It was the year TheCop and I really had to examine where we were, and decide where to go next. It was the year I lost my father, which forced me to deal with a lot of unresolved conflict and finally put it to rest once and for all. It’s been half a year of watching my sister shoulder the weight of managing our mother in her widowhood, fighting to ensure I was included as family, all while putting her own deep grief on hold. It was the year I discovered the name of my birth mother — who is still alive — and saw, for the first time ever, a photo of her as a young woman. It was the year I officially returned to Penn State to step into my full time role of UX designer, a personal triumph after years of exploring what my skills and assets as a generalist and human were guiding me toward. It was, in fact, the first time in thirty years I finally slowed down and, devoid of the incessant noise and overdrive in my brain, had the space to hear myself think. I was reintroduced to the novel concepts of contemplation and introspection. Throughout this past year, I’ve slipped, drifted, fallen, leapt, wept, doubted, over committed, under delivered, laughed sorrowfully, loved passionately, grieved openly, and lived rawly through it all.
So, yeah, it was a full year.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity; who am I now and what I want to do next. I’ve worked hard to embrace the loud, passionate person within me — the one who will never be one of those quiet, dignified, refined types — but I’ll be the first to admit I also miss the opportunity of new; the chance to reinvent myself. I did it every time we relocated as I was growing up and now that I’ve been in the same place for the last 27 years of my life, I keenly feel the lack of change. It’s as though I’ve missed out on the continuing evolution of myself as a person and I’m now in desperate need of revitalization and refocusing. At one point in my life it was all about me; my years in Austin and New York City were a testament to my exploration and discovery of who I was. I discovered freedom and responsibility; I discovered independence and inner strength. I discovered resourcefulness and fortitude, and that there was power in being smart. During those years I stumbled over a guy who would ultimately change the course of my life, and that was probably the most surprising discovery of all. Gradually my choice for the adventure of being single and on my own was traded in for the adventure of commitment and family.
I still to this day have no goddamn idea how that happened.
When I opted for the guy and Adventure B, I never realized how completely it was the end of life as I knew it. Choosing love was the end of focusing solely on me and, instead, the beginning of widening my focus to include another person and, eventually, three more. Nobody ever tells you how much that single decision of bonding with another will impact you every. single. day. for the rest of your life. It’s the little things first that gradually build into a much greater thing. It started with signing away my name and taking on the first of the new and unfamiliar. I know women talk about losing themselves in motherhood; I think in retrospect perhaps I started to lose myself when I said, “I do.” You can never really stay in one place. You mean to, of course; you promise yourself, “This won’t change who I am. I’ll still be my own person. I’ve got this.” But that’s also the first of many little changes you make that moves you forward into a new life, inevitably leaving your old one behind.
While I may have lost sight of the singular me, I never lost sight of the bigger needs of a family. Not being naturally equipped with the nurturing mother gene didn’t stop me from trying. So many days I wished for a manual that explained how to parent. (My sister-in-law jokes that my daughter would have been a prodigy if only I’d put her hair in ribbons and bows and dressed her in coordinating outfits. Hell, I think she’s a damn rockstar and thankfully she can also dress herself without undue embarrassment. Clearly her unique fashion sense as a child didn’t harm her intellect and probably only further fueled that independent spirit.) Through 25 years, the learning never stopped. I learned when to fix bumps and scrapes with a kiss and when it was necessary to go to the ER and fill out paperwork for one bleeding kid while wrangling two others. Learned to help with homework versus doing the homework. Learned that no matter how hard you try to plan ahead, you will find yourself getting art supplies at 10PM for a project due the next day. I learned it takes hard work to make something right, and how to remind someone how special they are in their own language. Most importantly, I learned that communication is key. Be as honest as I can be with them. Answer their questions even when it makes me uncomfortable, and apologize for my missteps, my bad moods, my misdirected anger, and when I’m wrong (that happened a lot). I also learned to tell them I love them. That’s foreign to me; we didn’t say that as I was growing up. It was like those words were saved for super special occasions. You know, like weddings. Or funerals.
My kids taught me a lot about being human. I learned it was possible to love in ways I didn’t even know existed. I learned I could change the future by learning from my past, even if the past was dark in places I didn’t want to revisit. I learned how to see the world from their point of view, and I also learned if I expected them to respect my messaging, then it was important to lead by example. (I’m still not sure I’m fit to be an example for anyone, but fortunately I’ve also taught my kids the value of therapy in correcting crappy parenting. Call it due diligence.) Which is how I found myself going back to school to finish my degree while they were spread across elementary, middle, and high school. I learned how hard it is to go back to school when you are juggling a family and a career. I learned a family shares in all things, from celebrations to sorrows. That means we all go to all the things — concerts and plays and basketball games and graduations. We defend our own, and we circle the wagons when one of us is hurt.
I hate to admit it, but being a parent has made me better person. It forced me to step outside of myself and be present in the lives of others. To be more aware of the battles they’re fighting. That awareness, that empathy is what makes me so passionate about user experience. We need to remember when we talk about users, we are talking about humans; and human beings have imperfections. Humans are messy. They have strengths and weaknesses, and just because they can’t see their own blind spots doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Many times our blind spots are, in fact, glaringly obvious to others. As I grieved the loss of my father, I watched as my kids gradually realized they too would experience parental loss in their lifetimes. As they processed that, I realized they would look at me with concern. Because while everyone in my house is active, I am not. Busy? Yes. On the go? Of course. But not physically active. I’ve worked office jobs for years and any attempts to spend time in a gym were abandoned for others’ needs. After years of putting myself on the back burner, it finally started to sink in that I’d drifted for too long, and it was time to stop. To paraphrase Roland, the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, I had forgotten the face of myself.
I think all of last year’s upheaval was, in a sense, the perfect storm for me. Without the chance to reflect on myself, I might never have actually seen it for what it was. Although New Year resolutions make me itch, I can easily appreciate reflecting as a birthday approaches. This year when I looked back, I realized there was nothing standing in my way — except me. I had continued to develop my professional and emotional health over the years, but I’d never really been able to carve out the time necessary to develop an active lifestyle. Now it was time to make it part of my everyday life — not a temporary cardio focus, or dieting to get to an end goal; I simply wanted to incorporate going to the gym into my daily routine. That was it in a nutshell. For me, the elusive key has always been carving out the time. Not the effort, not the intent; it’s always been about time. So in January I dusted off the gym bag and got back to working on me. I think it’s important to note this is not about not loving myself, or having body issues. I mean, I’m a woman; of course I have body issues. Society already stacked that deck against me long ago. It’s in all the messaging I see, the awards ceremonies I watch, the magazines I peruse in the waiting rooms. It is definitely a thing, but it’s not today’s thing. Today, this is just about me refocusing, completing the circle of professional-emotional-physical health, so that I have balance in my world. Balance is apparently a thing. Who knew?
I think when my focus went from ‘losing weight’ to ‘getting healthy’ it made a critical difference to my approach. Since January, I’ve been at the gym usually 6 days out of the week — three days of cardio, and three days of strength training. Once I began to see the habit of going to the gym take root, I met with the trainer again and asked him to reexamine my workout. Now he works with me and we refine my routine every two weeks. It helps that I don’t have to figure out what exercises I should be doing, or whether it’s low weights and high reps, or high weights and low reps, or even what I should work on. I just have to show up. I’ve promised myself I only have to do ten minutes of elliptical on cardio days, but typically I’m logging :45 – :60 instead. I’m three months in, and I’m cautiously optimistic. It really hit home once I got two months of measurements under my belt (ha! see what I did there). The inches are coming off. I stand differently. I have more endurance. I’m more willing to break for walks at lunch, or take the dog for a stroll. I know this is a work in progress, but this time I’m narrowing my focus to the journey and not the destination. This time it’s about how I’m living my life day by day. Being active. Taking the steps. Making the time. Some may say I just needed a project, now that I officially fall into the “empty nester” category. Personally, I think it’s just time to reinvent myself again.
My kids may be out on their own, but those lines of communication are still firmly established. TheCoed is always in touch; occasionally one of the boys will remember a phone can be used for more than texts and gifs, and I’ll get an actual phone call. (This oddly delights me, especially when they opt to call me instead of TheCop.) Recently my older son called to check in and I mentioned I was just coming home from the gym. HavenDude majored in physical fitness and health and we talked at length about my workout — what I was doing, how it was working, and what sort of results I was getting. It’s a novel experience to have your kid share his training and knowledge with you, and inwardly I marveled at how far he’d come in a few short years of teaching; his confidence and excitement in the subject of physical health just shined through. When he talks about teaching, he’s always looking for ways to help his students build a foundation for a healthy life. He was excited to hear about my progress and, towards the end of our conversation, hesitated a moment before telling me he knew how hard it had been for me to find time for myself while they were growing up, and that he could only imagine how frustrating it must have been each time I gave up starting a workout program because I didn’t have the time. He confessed that while he’s never had to take weight off, he understands how hard it is to maintain a commitment to working out and that it must be difficult to adjust to an environment like a gym where I may feel uncomfortable. I could hear the emotion in his voice as he told how proud he was of my sustained efforts, and encouraged me to keep up the great work. I will confess, I’m usually loathe to discuss my workout efforts with anyone much less my family — but I was glad this time I’d decided to open the topic for discussion. Otherwise, I would have never heard the subtext of, “I love you, mom, and want you to be around for a long time.” Message received, son. Me too.
Motivation, love, and focus. The perfect storm.