when Insecurity comes around

I think I have spent most of my adult life trying to fight Insecurity.  But Insecurity is really just a terrified little girl who fears that people don’t hear her, understand her, like her, accept her, approve of her.  How can I fight that?  Insecurity is not bad, she’s just afraid.  She is afraid that she is wrong, that she’ll look or sound stupid, that she will be misunderstood.  She shows up, uninvited, at the most inconvenient times, to the most inappropriate places.  Places where you’d think she’d steer clear of, simply because there should be no place for her there.  But she finds a little crack in the door, makes herself really small and squeezes right on in, somehow, making herself known.  And she doesn’t always look the same, either.  Some days she’s wearing the “my kids like their dad better than their mom” hat.  On other days, she dons the “I can’t seem please my parents” sash, or worse, the “my husband is getting tired of my baggage” shoes.  On really bad days, she’s got the “my students don’t like me” shirt on.  Those days are really bad, because the office is the one place where you usually feel pretty secure.   She’s that little girl at the party that no one invited, but she comes on in to look around anyway.  People see her but since she’s not really doing anything wrong, they leave her alone.  They even feel sorry for her because she’s all alone and looks adorably pitiful.  But the longer the party goes on, the more she dislikes being ignored, and so she starts to draw attention to herself, in small, mostly discrete, ways.  She knocks a glass over, or bumps into the tv, making the picture go fuzzy – and that drives you crazy, since you spent an hour working on the antenna to make it just perfect.  Since a little bit of naughty isn’t really enough to get a response, she’ll take to extremes.  In the end, she wreaks havoc.  But it’s not her fault, and you can’t really scream at her, or fight her or throw her out on her behind, which is what you really want to do. Instead, you sit down with her and talk with her about why what she is doing is not really that great an idea, and that it ends up being more destructive than anything else.  She opens her big eyes, nods her head, lets you know that she is really listening to you.  Then she thanks you for taking the time to talk to her.  She’s very polite.  You don’t even have to show her to the door.  She gets up and walks to it on her own.  And she was kind of charming in a way, so you’d almost like to hug her as she leaves.  And as she does leave, she turns back toward you and smiles a little smile that breaks your heart because you know that even though she understood what you have told her, the attention you gave her was really nice.  And sooner or later she’ll be back for another round.

Sometimes she seems to come around a little more than usual.  Like now.  We’re at the close of what has been a really long school year, and I am tired.  But I’m always tired this time of year.  My kids are missing their dad a lot – he travels for a living; it’s literally his job.  And you can’t go from having a break from mommy every other weekend to suddenly being with mommy for two straight weeks and still liking her as much – it’s simply not possible for a mother and three children to spend so much time together and not want to pick the occasional fight.  Truth is, I’d like to send them away some nights, but I don’t for fear that child services might not agree with me sending  6, 8, and 10 year olds off on their own.  They are smart kids – they’d be fine.  But I don’t really want to get in trouble, so on those nights when I really get fed up, I keep them home and scream at them instead.  As for my folks, well, I’m not sure you can be an only child to two aging parents and not have them need you all of the time.  That said, I can’t be there all of the time (I’m too busy screaming at my kids), so the push and pull starts to wear me down a little.  And then, when I start to moan, I can hear my husband think to himself “oh quitcherbitchin”.  So I go upstairs to bed and as I turn out the light, I see her, Insecurity, sitting quietly in the rocking chair by the window.  She watches me as I sleep, and when I get up in the morning, she’s emptied out all of the clothes from the dresser drawers onto the floor and she’s starting to work on the closet.    Unfortunately, she followed me to work today, too, and the security guards thought she was a student so they let her in.  So, here we go again.  I guess it’s time she and I had another chat.

lessons from emma

Emma hates it when I say this, but I used to want only boys. I never even thought about what it would be like to have a girl. I was the youngest in my family, and the only girl, and I thought I would know better what to do with boys. There was also the appealing thought of being the mama of several adoring boys. Who wouldn’t want that? So when I got pregnant with Emma, it came as a bit of a shock. Actually, to be honest, it completely threw me for a loop. Getting pregnant again, in the first place, was a surprise – if there is such a thing as an “accident”, this was one. I had only just had my first 8 months earlier; and since he’d been born by c-section, I hadn’t planned on getting pregnant again anytime soon. But when the doctor told us it was to be a she, I was blind-sided. I tried to reconcile it all with thoughts of little dresses and dolls and other girly things, and eventually, I figured that could be kind of fun. Emma had a different idea in mind. I often tease her and tell her she came out screaming. You see, Emma saw things very clearly from the beginning. She knew what she wanted, and the way she wanted things to be. She was very determined, and we butted heads all of the time. It was a hard time for me – I felt not only like a terrible mother because I couldn’t seem to get it right with her, but I also felt like a terrible person because there were times when I resented the whole motherhood thing.

We managed to get through the next couple of years basically through trial and error. We were sort of getting the hang of it, but it was never easy. When Emma was just two, things changed. I was pregnant with my third child and I had been feeling a little out of sorts, so I took a couple of days off of work. I decided to make a girls’ day out of it, and took Emma to this terrific new mall that had opened up about 40 minutes from home. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t quite as fun as I had hoped it would be. Emma wasn’t very cooperative, and after a couple of temper tantrums, I called it a day. We got back into the car and as we were driving out, I saw one of my friends getting into her car with her children. I slowed down and greeted her. She asked how we had done, and nodded my head toward Emma, who was sitting in the backseat, and said “terrible”. Less than 15 minutes later, I was slamming on the breaks as we collided straight into the car in front of us, causing a four car pile-up. The crash itself escapes me but I know that I was either looking into the rearview mirror, or possibly at the radio dials, and as I looked up, I was headed straight into a traffic jam – cars were stopped and we kept going. I had been in fourth gear, so I must have been going at least 80 km/h. I don’t really remember the sound of the metal crunching, but I do remember the smoke from the airbag. My glasses had been knocked off in the impact, and between that and the smoke, I couldn’t see very well. I didn’t know where I was, but as the smoke cleared, I heard crying in the back seat. I got out, climbed into the back seat and took Emma out of her car seat. Miraculously, she was fine. She had bumped her head on the passenger seat in front of her, but luckily it was padded so the bump wasn’t serious. Visits to the hospital later on confirmed that both Emma and the baby I was carrying were fine.

The impact shook a lot more than my nerves. It made me realize that I needed to reevaluate a lot of things. For two years, I had been trying to force Emma into a mold that I had created in my own head of what little girl should be, and by doing so, I wasn’t being the kind of mother she needed. Emma’s strength of character, her will, even her obstinacy made me realize that she was different. She simply wasn’t going to allow the world to put her into a category. She would be strong, and independent, and she would be responsible for who she was. Opening my eyes to that taught me not only about the kind of mother I needed to be for her, but also about the kind of woman I wanted to be. I had always believed that women didn’t have to be weak, but until I met Emma, I didn’t actually realize that I was one of those women who could be strong, and that power was a good thing. With Emma as my guiding light, I have since grown up a lot. In the past 6 years, Emma has taught me more about womanhood than I could ever have hoped to teach her.

And so it is that today, Mother’s Day, I wish my darling Emma a happy day. Emma opened the door for me to a world of resilience, strength and confidence. I know that I still have a lot to learn, but we are doing this together, and with Emma at my side, I feel we can accomplish just about anything. Happy Mother’s Day, sweetheart. And thank you.

getting my head together

This morning I got an email from a colleague that said “Happy International Very Good Looking and Damn Smart Woman’s Day” to which I thought “right on!”  The message went on to list a number of sayings and quotes about women and life in general – “inside every old woman is a young woman asking what the heck happened”, “the hardest years in life are between the ages of 10 and 70” and other similarly humorous phrases. It’s Friday, so I took the time to read through them.  They all made me smile, but then I read one that actually made me think:  “35 is when you finally get your head together and body starts falling apart.”   I massaged my neck as I stared at my computer screen and thought to myself, “too true”.

When I was 18, I fell in love hard.  It was on my very first day at college.  He was older and sexy and funny and charismatic, and cooler than anyone I had ever met before, next to my brothers.  For some reason he took a liking to me and put on the charm from the first moment I met him.  I distinctly remember my parents walking me into the admission office, and this very suave manlike boy turned around, and as his mouth slowly unzipped into a stunning smile, he said “you’re Kim Cullen?”   When we found out he was a resident advisor in my dorm, my dad spluttered something like “oh boy” (only, I think a bit stronger).  I instinctively sensed he was Dangerous, but I was already in – hook, line, and sinker.  We dated for a few weeks, until one morning, I walked over to his room, and as I raised my hand to knock on his door, I heard the sound of laughter… a woman’s laughter.  I was devastated.  I spent the next months avoiding him, crying in the bathroom, drinking too much at frat parties, eating a lot.  The rest of that first year was torture.  It wasn’t only about him – this was a precarious time in my life:  I was away from home for the first time.  I felt like an outsider among American kids since even though I was American by passport, I had grown up overseas.  I was struggling to redefine my relationship with my parents as I slowly began to exert my independence.  And to top it all off, I had had my heart ripped to shreds by a gorgeous older boy.  I returned home at the end of the year hoping to be able to piece myself back together.  I discovered aerobics, and found stability in physical strength.  It became addicting and I worked out daily, sometimes twice a day.  As the baby fat started to melt off, I realized that eating less would speed up the process.  By the end of the summer, I was eating less than 300 calories a day.  When I returned to school in the fall, people noticed.  I had never experienced such appreciation simply because of the way I looked.  Once, I was even approached in the dining hall by a senior who asked if I was modeling…  You can imagine the boost. 

Therapy helped me get back on track.  So did cigarettes and peanut butter.  I realized that eating was actually fun.  But with it came a swing back to being overweight, and a brand new cycle of feeling bad about myself.  For me, eating (or not) became my way of handling pain.  The deeper the pain, the more I damaged myself.  This continued for years, and riding the pendulum from healthy to unhealthy (both physically and emotionally) again and again left scars on my psyche – not to mention stretch marks on my body.   There have been many peaks and valleys in my emotional development, but when I was 32, I finally got mad.  The anger came out in all kinds of ways, and in the end, I found myself signing my divorce papers.  I remember talking to my brother on the phone the night before and asking him “what does one wear to a divorce?”  He told me to find something in my closet that made me feel confident but “hot”.  Oh, and definitely cowboy boots, he said.  And so it was that I walked into my lawyer’s office the next day wearing jeans, a tank top and a blazer, a sexy tiger-striped scarf, and cowboy boots.  I felt good.

It was during this time – at the height of my troubled adult life – that I met and started dating Dave.  Dave made me feel like a different kind of woman altogether.  For the first time in my life, I didn’t need to be thinner or fatter.  I didn’t need to worry about how I looked because he thought my MIND was sexy.  It didn’t matter if I had bed head, or bad breath or a pimple, or if I was bloated…  he loved ME and that was enough.   When I turned 35, he joked about how it was all downhill from there, and he’d soon be looking for a newer model.  The glimmer in his eye as he said it gave him away, though, and last fall, we got married in Las Vegas.

The irony is this:  I’m 37 now and yes, my body sometimes hurts.  My back aches when I stand for too long.  My neck tenses if I don’t take breaks from the computer.  My hips and knees get gimpy on rainy days.   My recovery time after a workout is longer than ever before.  And I can’t drink more than a glass and a half of wine anymore.  But when my husband smiles at me, I feel younger and sexier than I ever have.  When he tells me I am beautiful, I know it’s true.  And when I feel his eyes follow me as I walk by him, I know that this Kim, the 37 year old one with the body that sometimes aches, well… she finally got her head together.

on being a little sister

One of my greatest sources of pride growing up was being the little sister.  I was the baby, with two brothers – 3 ½ and 6 years older.  With that kind of age difference, I quickly learned to defend myself.  Family vacations were always spotted with the occasional battle in the backseat of the car.  They usually started because I would sit in the middle, and the boys would proceed to make Kim Sandwiches as we’d round each corner.  Sometimes our dad would play into it by taking the occasional corner particularly hard, just for giggles.  This would escalate into full-blown brawls where J would stick his finger in my ribs repeatedly and I would retaliate by biting, scratching and spitting.  Mike always managed to stay out of those fights, clever boy. 

Not only did I learn how to fight; I also learned how to play up the cute factor.  My brothers’ friends always had time for me.  When J’s friend, Greg, broke his arm, he came straight to our house from the hospital.  At 6, the biggest thrill of my life was to be the very first person to sign his cast.  I had a crush on Greg for years after that.  When I was in 4th grade, Mike’s friend, Alan, used to come up to me in the hallways at school just to “steal my nose”.   Being a little sister had its advantages, see, because I wasn’t just a little sister to J and Mike; I was everyone’s little sister.  I felt like the safest girl in school. 

I was also the luckiest girl in school.  My brothers were quick, cool, and so handsome.  And as we got older, everyone was always amazed to see how well we got along.  In middle school, I was the only girl whose older brother would actually stop her in the hallway for a hug.  My friends would snicker and whisper as Mike gave me a bear hug and lifted me off the ground, and I would grin from ear to ear, knowing that deep down inside, they were just jealous.  When I got my period at age 12, it wasn’t my mother who sat down and held my hand and talked me through it.  Instead, it was J who, after pacing the room, saying “I… I don’t really know what to do… I have never been here before”, escorted me to mom’s bathroom to find “the stuff” I needed.  We laughed about that one for years. When I was a little older, I chose to go to college in New York because Mike was a couple of hours away in Rochester.  And I later chose to do my graduate work at a small university in Watford, England over Columbia University’s Teachers College so that I’d be only an hour away from J. 

At some point, things began to change, as they do.  Mike and J got married, and so did I.  We had our jobs, spouses, and eventually babies, and life began to pull us in different directions.  With Mike having settled in the States, and J and I living in London and Madrid, respectively, getting together was increasingly difficult.   Our family reunions were limited to twice a year – once over the summer when we’d all pile into our parents’ home for a week in August, and then during Thanksgiving when J and family would come to Madrid.  Mike eventually pulled out of the family scene – as he got older, the relationship between him and our dad deteriorated to the point of no return.  We had no choice but to accept that.  In September 2007, tragedy struck.  J was diagnosed with a highly aggressive bladder cancer.  He had surgery in February of the next year – they removed his bladder and gave him what they called a neobladder – a reconstructed bladder made from a portion of his intestine.  While they were working on him, though, they found that the cancer had spread and was unstoppable.  In May, he was given 6 to 12 months to live.  He died only 4 months later, at the age of 42. 

At 37, I have spent the last year and a half trying to teach myself how to be an only child.  With J gone, and Mike out of the picture now for almost 5 years, I have had to figure out my place in the world.  I am learning, slowly, though, that I will never be an only child.  My life, my experiences, my interests, my beliefs, my memories…  so many of these are the result of my place in my family.  My love and admiration for my big brothers – whether they are here are not – will always be steadfast.  And no matter how old I get, I will always be what they made me:  a little sister.