Wait! You are telling me that the kids holding hands and singing in that Facebook picture actually have melt downs and occasionally try to poke each other’s eyes out?! That smiling adorable couple in front of the Disney castle slept in separate rooms last night because they had a fight about the cost of the vacation?! Wait…they have problems?! Their lives are not always perfect like the pictures on their Instagram?!
I always find myself a little confused when reading those ah ha articles about the imperfection behind the perfection we see posted on social media…like it’s a huge surprise. I mean isn’t it natural for people to try to look their best and to put their best foot forward when they are presenting their lives for all to see (and, yes, I realize that there are those that take this to a bit of an extreme and do the equivalent of appropriating someone else’s foot…stapling it to their own limb over their somehow perceived as inferior foot…and putting it forward…or even constructing a completely artificial foot to put forward….)? Shouldn’t we simply assume that the moments of people’s lives presented to us “artificially” (pictures, films,…etc) are, at best, just snippets and not the whole story and at worst, complete and total fabricated hogwash, and simply enjoy them for what they are…strictly ornamental? Yet, I have read numerous articles about social media causing anxiety and depression in people who are taking the perfection and harmony they see online at face value, and feeling bad about their own normal, imperfect lives. They then let out an audible sigh of relief (together with a maniacal laugh and an “I knew it!”) when it is revealed that those people do not, in fact, have perfect lives.
Aren’t Facebook pages, Instagrams, Snapchats, …etc kind of the modern equivalent of the photo albums and scrap books that our ancestors (because if I wrote parents, I would totally be dating myself….) used to keep out on the coffee table? Photo albums on steroids, yes, but the idea is the same. When a guest would come over for coffee, or tea, or whatever the occasion, and flip through the album, did they ever expect to see pictures of the children beating the snot out of each other while flipping the bird at their parents? Or did they instinctively know that they would find colorful (or black and white) little rectangles filled with beautiful vacations and smiling cherubs holding hands, with an understanding that the whole purpose of the album was to showcase and preserve the family’s happiest moments?
Of course, whether looking through the albums back then or scrolling through someone’s social media page now, it is human nature to feel a twinge of envy now and again. However, it only takes a glance around us to remember that the world is still perfectly imperfect. Maybe this is one of the problems…. Is anyone glancing around themselves anymore…or are the little screens with the photo albums actually being superimposed over the realities that surround us? Go to any given supermarket (especially in the late afternoon when patience begins to wear thin), put down the phone, and look around: you are bound to see the screaming child being a total butt in the candy aisle, or a couple or two disagreeing (though with the invention of texting sometimes you can only infer by the rage-filled expression on the texter’s face and the stiff pecking motion of the texter’s angry digits (insert frowny faced emoji)). Not only will this make you feel better about your own children, and significant other (and the call you just got from the school, or the freaking sock you found on the kitchen table, or the insensitive comment…but I digress), but it should serve as proof that the world is still full of those sweet little imperfections that make us all human (yes, ALL of us…even the Cleaver family down the street with the golden locks and the brand new Lexus that they drive up to the lake house every Friday while singing refrains from Disney songs). Do you really think that the temper tantrum or smack down fight scenes are going to be showcased on their Snapchat? Ok, some of us actually like to put this side of our lives forward and use it as humor and for its cathartic effect, but even we have our limits…. You are probably not going to see anything about the arguments that ended in profoundly hard feelings…or the time one of the kids tanked completely at his or her given sport and stomped off. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
Point in case: years ago I was taking pictures to try to get one that would work on the family Christmas card (a daunting task as always). I just happened to rapid fire this sequence. Sure, I could (and some would/did say should) have put that first picture on by itself…but it was the sequence that truly represented the unpredictable roller coaster life with the kids.
A while back I was at my daughter’s (my sun in the trio) Rube Goldberg demonstration day at school. The students were thoroughly excited to show off their creations and good-natured laughs were had by all…even when things did not go quite as expected (ok, especially when things did not go as expected). After all the kids had had their turns putting their machines to the test, a guest engineer stood up to address the crowd. Something he said while attempting to inspire those young minds stuck in my head. It was something I had heard on other occasions in the past, but for whatever reason this particular time it lodged itself somewhere up there in my grey matter for future consideration. Crisis reveals character. He had said it in the context of how the kids had felt and reacted when they were building their machines and realized that the deadline for the demonstration was upon them…and again when they were actually demonstrating their creations and things did not go exactly as planned. I’ll admit I do not remember the speech in its entirety (I don’t do all that well in noisy crowded rooms), but the saying popped back into mind a couple days later, jarred by something Little Man did (well…admittedly, it was the idea of the saying that popped. As a close friend can attest, it took me a good day and a half to coax the exact words of the saying itself back out of the folds of grey matter with some help from Google searches of “sayings about pressure situations showing who we really are” and the occasional face palm and malediction of my evermore fickle memory.). It started me thinking about how different my children are from one another (thankfully…I love variety!) even though they have all been raised together…and how crisis, or stress, or unforeseen challenges in general tend to highlight some of their differences. On the occasion in question, Little Man had been flitting about the master bedroom, as I stood nearby folding laundry on the bed. I heard a soft thud and down he went with a yelp, grasping at his left foot. He had apparently stubbed his toe on the leg of the bed (aka: moment of crisis…Little Man scale crisis).
He looked up at me and declared, “why don’t beds float? We should make beds that float!”
Or you could pay more attention to where you are walking, I thought.
I briefly considered offering this advice out loud, but could tell by the look in his eye that his mind was already engaged in working out his design for floating beds. Crisis reveals character. Little Man likes to think outside the box when he is in crisis or faced with a challenge (that, or completely melt down…he is only seven after all). His solutions are not always my favorites (I do not think the shower curtain is a viable substitute when the toilet paper suddenly runs out, for example, nor is the empty tube itself); they are not always feasible (though going back in time and being born before The Sisters may very well solve some of your immediate problems, you don’t have a way of making that happen…yet), but they are always creative (yes, pulling your shirt all the way up to the neck in the back and using the front as a sack did, in fact, enable you to gather more balls at a time after tennis class, despite the giggles it evoked).
My oldest, my moon, has a completely different way of reacting to crisis and overcoming challenges. When she was younger, she was prone to panic…utter palpable heart seizing panic. Over the years she has been able to hone her reactions and now choses to withdraw while she figures things out. She draws; she writes; she drowns out the world with music; she twirls her hair (something passed down from my grandmother); she disappears like a badger into its den. This is how she works things out, internally and preferably in isolation. She prefers to run scenarios in her head a million times, worrying over all the possible “what ifs”, before she cautiously applies her solutions in the real world, all the while painfully aware of any outside observation. I know it is better not to approach the den unless absolutely necessary, and instead do my best to standby advice in hand. I try to wait for my window, since experience has shown me that, with her, premature advice offering usually becomes a battle of words…that ultimately end up falling on deaf ears. Perhaps it should not have taken me as long as it did to figure this out…she is a lot like I was. But, the views are very different from the positions of advice giver and that of potential receiver. It has taken a bit to orient myself.
My middle child, my sun, at times faces crisis like raging ball of fire, at times she melts into despair. She leads with her emotions and passion is her sword. I have been cut by this sword, while attempting to teach her to wield it a little more selectively. She follows her initial defensive strokes with an offense of creativity…and the rest looks like an older version of Little Man’s a little left of center solutions. Once, after an explosive and desperate rant about a funny smell in her room (which only she could detect), I discovered, to my dismay, that she had decided resolve the problem by borrowing her sister’s deodorant and rubbing it vigorously into her window screen so that the fragrance would flood the room at each slight breeze (nice smell…BIG mess). She, like Little Man, prefers to jump right in and try out her solutions in a less thought-out trial-by-error fashion. What do you do when you are in preschool, have finished your art project, are becoming terribly bored and find yourself with scissors still in hand? I remember how very relieved I had been upon hearing that it was her own hair that she had cut and not the cherished locks of some other child. What if your art supplies have yet to be unpacked and you absolutely need to express yourself post-haste? Well, it would seem that the fireplace offers an abundant supply of the perfect medium with which a budding artist can adorn the available canvas…aka living room floor. Thankfully, with the passing of each year she makes the strides in judgement that come with maturity and learns more and more to finesse her intense passion into an effective problem solving tool. She still has a ways to go, but each challenge offers her the opportunity to improve.
Crisis reveals character. As much as I adore seeing my children content and serene, I know it is just as, if not more, important to see them in crisis and to stay out of the way as they try to solve their problems and work their ways out of difficult situations. It is important and also enlightening to see their different creative styles and to watch them develop their individual characters. Of course, I know I need to be there to guide them on this journey and it is still necessary, at times, to step in and help. For the most part, though, as hard as it may be to watch them struggle…to see them fail, I realize I would be doing them a disfavor if I were to constantly fix things for them or to extract them from difficult situations altogether even when that would be the easier (and less painful as a mom) path. Crisis reveals character not solely to those around them…it also allows them a glimpse inside themselves…and not only does it reveal character: crisis also builds character.
They will need this in the future to face a world that is not always kind. It will be both their armor, a layer of protection, and a source of inner strength. The more experience they build up over time, the better prepared they will be to reach deep inside themselves in times of need and to trust in their own resilience. Of course, I would love for them to always be happy and for life to always be fair, but the fact of the matter is…no matter how wonderful of a support system they have constructed around themselves, there will eventually be people in their lives who will let them down in a profound way. They will fail at something which will seem devastating in the moment. Their problems will seem insurmountable and they will need to fall back on the experiences they have accumulated over time to get through those moments. Each little challenge they face today (even those that may seem silly through the eyes of an adult) is an opportunity for them to test themselves, perhaps fail, perhaps succeed, in a safe environment: an opportunity for them to build up their armor.
I am not insinuating that any of this is easy for me…or for any parent. It certainly is not enjoyable to see one’s children in difficulty or upset. However, as Little Man once told me when he was watching one of his nature shows on tv, it was getting a little intense (think cheetah about to tackle and dismember cute little baby gazelle), and I asked if maybe he wanted to watch something else: “It’s LIFE Mamma. Get used to it.”
I was recently asked to send in a bio for a project on which my collaboration had been requested and happily granted. No problem! I would send one right away…but first…I actually needed to write one. I have written resumes in the not so recent past, but I do not recall ever having written a bio for myself. So, I popped open my laptop and began to search for suggestions on structure and the like. This couldn’t be that hard, right? I mean, like many, I do have a solid background in adolescent mirror-front spoken bios to meet almost any improbable scenario out there (me winning an Oscar or Nobel/Pulitzer Prize, scoring the winning goal/basket/run/point in an Olympic competition, solving one of life’s uncrackable mysteries…etc). Surely, I could build from this and now, as an adult, write a much more realistic bio, preferably based on fact this time… After all, who knows me better than…me!
My quick search revealed that since most bios of this type are written in the third person even though they are about oneself, I should therefore start with the name of the person being described in the bio…me, aka Elizabeth, and progress on to describing who she is and what she has accomplished. Easy enough! I pulled up a blank page and quickly typed my name…then froze. And there it sat for most of the day, abandoned in favor of other activities (such as laundry, mom taxi duty, dinner, homework consultant time, bath time, tucking in, preparing an Italian lesson…). When I finally was unable to find any further reasons not to sit and finish, I began to jot down some ideas. Delving into my past education and experiences brought up a whirlwind of memories and I began to think hard about where I had assumed I would be at this point in my life. Let me just say, I had been WAY off. Maybe that is why my brain was initially resistant to the mere idea of writing the bio. Somewhere along the way, decisions had been made and paths had been followed off my meticulously paved road…and then paths off of the paths..trails off of the paths off the paths…well, you get the idea. Did I regret these changes? Had I ever really even stopped to think about it? Was I just going with the flow and taking things as they came or was I inadvertently wandering from what I truly wanted?
The fact is, I look pretty good on paper, if I may. It is all there in black and white…the languages, the travel, the higher degrees. Then I step in front of the mirror and brush the scraps left over from cutting out paper crowns at Little Man’s elementary school from my clothes, try to gather my untamed hair, wind-blown from having sat out in the elements to wait for my middle schooler to finish up softball practice, gently smooth the worry lines, which accumulate with every year that brings my oldest closer to leaving for college, from my forehead, and desperately attempt to soak out the chocolate milk spot on my shirt…uncertain of where the heck that even came from. I do not look a bit like the woman described on the paper…like I had imagined I would. So, which one of these am I really?
Of course, I am aware that there are plenty of heated discussions out there, as there have been for many years and will be for many more, about stay-at-home moms versus working moms versus working-at-home moms. Even though currently I am primarily a stay-at-home mom with a few side-jobs, I have never felt the need to argue the merits of any side. Suffice to say…there are pluses and minuses to each. I am more of the idea that it is a personal choice based on personal circumstances and situations…and situations have been known to change. Of course, it is human to second guess one’s choices and to try to justify things, which frankly, do not necessarily need to be justified. I tend to stay out of these debates all together. Who am I to judge?
Right now my name is Mamma. It has been for almost 15 years. Not that my given name, Elizabeth, is never used. It is, of course, but for now Mamma is the name I hear most often. I still did all those things on the paper. I earned the degrees, had those jobs and they are a part of me, but Mamma has become my essence. Each life goal and experience has widened my horizons and opened my mind a little more, but when I became Mamma, my whole way of thinking was permanently altered.
The knowledge I have acquired and the experiences I have gained are a part of who I am, both as Mamma and Elizabeth and they will stay with me no matter which name I happen to hear more frequently at the time. So, having already written and submitted my professional bio, I began to think about my Mamma Bio…perhaps in the way my children might write it…if at the moment they did not happen to be in a time out or grounded and felt the urge to put in a few good words for me….
Mamma has been in her current position for…well…forever now. Despite initially starting this position with limited part-time experience, involving the currently unrealistic option of clocking out at the end of the day, (ask her to tell you about the time she was babysitting and the kid locked her in the closet. It’s hilarious) she has proven herself to be a quick learner. She has applied these quick learning skills frequently and spontaneously while on the job (it only took her a couple days to figure out that we had learned the passcode to the iPad the last time around). She went to lots of schools and has some degrees which she got “back in the days when it was much more difficult because there was little or no internet and we actually needed to physically go to a library for research”. We assume that her invaluable ability to come up with creative projects also comes from back in those days, when she was growing up with an almost total lack of cool video games. As for her technological savvy, despite the absence of wireless or cellular gadgets during her formative years, she has developed an uncanny (and some would say unfortunate) ability to detect such objects…under beds, between mattresses, behind night tables…etc. Mamma also possesses a strong legal background and applies those skills, together with her co-conspirator, while acting as legislator, arbitrator, counsel, judge, and jury (giving us never ending opportunities to hone our skills in negotiation and protestation..both peaceful and…extremely vocal). Her primary languages are English (used for everyday purposes), Italian (the language of choice for privacy or punishments), and she often excuses her French. Her organizational skills are impressive, though she has still not mastered the art of being in more than one place at a time, and she shines as a short order cook. She does not shy away from overtime and even after her sleep deprivation thresholds have been skillfully tested by such experts as… the norovirus…she still exhibits stellar reflexes with a bucket at the slightest gag. As for her endurance, thus far things are looking good, but we will have to get back to you with a more complete assessment after further research, involving testing and experimentation in various stress environments, temperature extremes, volume levels…etc: we will update in around 6 years…when Little Man becomes a teenager.