Monday, April 28, 2014

Biting My Tongue at Easter

I love my family. I really do. Not just because I have to, or because I've known them longer than anyone else. Well, partly because of that, but I also love them individually for the people they are. They are kind and loving people, and have good intentions toward each other and the people in their worlds.

That said, I've always been a bit of an odd duck in my immediate family. I was the teenager who bleached my hair and dyed it with Manic Panic, and collected tattoos and body piercings. Then, I was the young adult who started getting all these crazy ideas about social and economic inequalities, and all the little elements from quotidian life that supported such inequalities. Everything from the racist subtext of Disney movies to the sexist assumptions behind cliche relationship dynamics was increasingly interesting to me, and I couldn't help but point out these things at family gatherings. My intent was always to inspire discussion, but it always ended up devolving into a family chuckle about how I was just being contrarian and nitpicky, like always.

That's fine, I guess. I know that I tend to read into everything more than others may feel comfortable or interested enough to do. I know that my doing so can be exhausting to others (hell, it exhausts me sometimes), and that there's value in just enjoying each other's company and shooting the breeze on some superficial level, without having to excavate the conversation for the ideologies beneath. I also know that this tendency of mine earns me the distinction of being the "weird" aunt/sister/daughter, which I would wear as a badge of honor, except that it can be quite alienating in practice.

Still, I can't help but be uncomfortable remaining silent when my brother in law's mother pokes fun of him in front of me and my own mom, as he is working in the kitchen with great effort and skill to prepare Easter dinner for his family. I can't laugh along as she jokes with me about men's lack of domestic skills, and I politely point out that gender alone has far less to do with domestic prowess than practice does.

I squirm in my seat when my 19 year old nephew, fresh out of Marine Corps training, tells a story about how he was stopped at a suburban shopping mall this week by a security officer who thought he  was under 16, and thus in violation of the mall curfew policy. The security officer wouldn't accept his military identification as sufficient proof. "I just hate it when people have no respect for the military," my nephew complains loudly to us, and I shoot my husbutch a look that betrays my irritation. I say, "What -- did you want him to salute you?" and my mom elbows me from beside me on the couch. "Don't start," she says under her breath, but it doesn't matter. My nephew is still barking his indignation, and he doesn't hear me.

After dinner, several people are eating pie, when my sister, who has been holding her newborn baby for most of the last few hours, says to the room: "My husband didn't offer to bring me any pie." When my other sister gets up and offers to bring her some, she says: "No. I want him to feel guilty." At that point, I just can't anymore. I get up and quickly move to another room before I start calling out the meanness behind her banter, and how her attempt to exercise power in this way undermines genuine and mutually respectful relationships between men and women.

None of the comments in these scenarios were intended to be explicitly political, but they are nonetheless. The things we say, the way we treat each other, all matter. It is a reflection of our general approach to social issues and other people. Even casual comments or jokes that support stereotypes and social divisions have impact. In a sense, this banter has even more impact than an overt discussion of politics, because it is so easily trivialized and brushed off as meaningless.

Now, I'm not saying that we should censor ourselves in conversation with our friends and family in an attempt to achieve some kind of artificial political correctness. This is disingenuous and misses the point. I simply think that as a whole, we should be more open to examining the beliefs behind our words, the ideas behind our beliefs. This kind of conversation, especially when held among people with whom we are comfortable, helps us to become more thoughtful and introspective. It doesn't have to be contentious, and there doesn't have to be a winner. If we can figure out how to challenge each other and even disagree in the end without fighting and hurting feelings, how much would we all learn in the process?

I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't very successful on this front at last week's Easter gathering. I mostly bit my tongue and rolled my eyes. If anything, I probably came off as self-righteous and judgy. Maybe somebody should have called me out on it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Here Come the Waterworks

I can always tell it's a therapy day because my eyes are still sore. I go every couple of weeks with my husbutch, to create a space where we can work on the things that we've decided we need help with: navigating parenting issues, staying emotionally connected as partners, communicating more effectively. Invariably I cry during therapy. I don't always know why, and I'm always trying to hold it back. Why? Because as soon as I let it happen, whatever we were talking about gets sidetracked, and the attention shifts to my tears. Why am I crying? Clearly there is something bothering me. What is it?

When I was around 12 years old, I remember being in family therapy. I don't remember why, exactly, and I don't recall what we discussed, but one memory is particularly salient to me. Once I asked my mom if I could see the therapist by myself, as I felt like I needed help sorting out my own feelings. The therapist and I sat in a room alone, and I remember her asking me questions about school and what I wanted to see her about. At some point I started crying, unable to hold it back or put into words what was making me cry. The therapist asked me questions to try to get to the source of it, but I had no words. All of my energy was going into trying to hold back the tears, afraid that if I started talking, I would cry even harder. Eventually, having gotten nowhere, the therapist ended the session by saying something to the effect of: "Come back when you are ready to talk." I never saw her individually again.

I cry easily, and not just when I'm sad. I cry when I'm angry, or frustrated, or sick. I cry when someone tells me about something powerful, or when I see people yell at their kids. I cry when I think about something terrible happening somewhere, even if it doesn't involve me. I cry when I witness childbirth, or a moving expression of love. I cry before my period starts, overcome with the feeling that nothing is right or will ever be right in the world.

What is the big deal about crying? Why does it make me feel so uncomfortable to cry in front of others? It doesn't feel good to hold it back. As I've told my nine year old daughter (who struggles with articulating emotions), crying is like pooping. It's normal and it's healthy. When you have to do it, the best thing is to do it. You can hold it inside, but that will make you feel bottled up and probably a little sick. Recently, a friend put it more elegantly when she said that crying "is a way to bleed out the things that pollute the heart."

Yet, I do hold it back. When I cry, I suddenly lose credibility and strength in the eyes of others. I appear to be irrational, overcome with emotion, and anything I say gets a little lost in translation. My crying itself becomes a problem that needs to be solved. It creates discomfort in others, who either feel the need to "make it better" somehow, or distance themselves from it (usually this happens figuratively, by them "checking out" of the conversation somehow, as it's rather impolite to run from a crying person). Either way my words aren't heard, which is especially frustrating when I'm crying because I've become discouraged or angry while trying to communicate my point.

And, it's frustrating during therapy, for the same reasons. Yes, I know that part of the point of therapy is to explore one's feelings more deeply. When I cry, it probably seems like a perfect opportunity to turn the crying into the focal point, in an effort to excavate and find the source of the pain. But it usually happens when I'm in the middle of talking about something, and I simply feel strongly about it. I would prefer everybody to just ignore my crying and listen to what I'm saying.

My husbutch has gotten a lot better at this. It used to freak her out when I cried, either because she didn't know why I was crying, or didn't know how to fix it. She has come to realize that my crying is not a problem to be solved, and has become better at just being present when it happens. Just listening, or just holding me. Sometimes I just need to cry.

I am grateful for this safe space within my relationship. I am also well aware that my femaleness affords to me the luxury of crying in the first place, within the bounds of socially acceptable behavior.  It pains me to see this right to cry assaulted in our boys and men, though it is getting better. It does make me wonder, though, how different the world would be if we all felt free to cry when we needed, as acceptable as laughter. I think we would feel a little less constipated.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Visible Core

So, this is what my belly looks like:

I don't show it public, and I never have. Well, maybe I did when I was a small child, but at some point I learned that I did not have the kind of belly that was okay for showing. Even today, fifty pounds lighter than I was a decade ago, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the way it looks. I remain thick around the middle (though other parts of me have thinned out so much that it doesn't even look like part of the same body), and I bear both the stretch marks from pregnancy and the loose skin from weight loss. It is what it is, but knowing that doesn't keep me from moving quickly when changing my shirt, or being sure to wear shirts that reach my hips to avoid an accidental belly exposure. More than anything else, I hate that I still feel this way after so many years and personal epiphanies.

Several years ago, I wished I would have gotten a huge sunflower tattooed on my belly before I got pregnant, so that I would have been able to see the changes that have happened with my body, reflected in a beautiful sunflower. I didn't, but now I'm thinking it's time. 

I have several tattoos, and they are all visible. They are all meant to be visible, part of my lifelong pursuit to decorate myself and own my own flesh. If I want to get to the point where I feel comfortable baring my midsection in public (or even in the privacy of my bedroom with my partner), perhaps a good first step is to emblazon it with something unapologetically big and beautiful. My sunflower won't be like a two dimensional drawing, because I am not two dimensional. It will droop and fold and curve, and it will continue to change as I exercise (or not), and age. 

I sent this picture to my tattoo artist today. Even taking the picture, alone in a room, felt scary and humbling. Sending it made my heart race. At the same time, though, I felt like it was a move toward freedom. Who knows... maybe you'll see me in a bikini this summer.