Today, my husband, Michael, and I will meet our twin sons, who will be delivered by C-section at St. Joseph's Hospital in Baltimore at 1:00 p.m. My overnight bag is packed and my fingernails painted a lucky baby blue; I've been a tad nervous (more eager), but also kept thinking all week there's some loose end to tie. I've written extensively about my complicated road to pregnancy as a way of making a clear map of my frequently chaotic journey; yesterday, I decided to put in writing some parenting goals for myself, a set of guidelines for the little guys that I hope to help them follow. As a first-time mom at 41, I'm apprehensive about some of the baby-care technicalities (effective burping; burrito-tight swaddling), but I do know spiritually what I'd like to impart. And on every good day, I'll do my best to keep these truths I've learned in mind.
Dear Tex and Miner,
I'm excited to meet you face to face! I know we'll have a lot of fun. (Hope you guys like cats because we have six.)
Some things I'll teach you well: vocabulary words and how to draw with charcoal. Other important things -- math, science, for instance -- we can ask your dad about, and teachers at school. At this point in my life, I've cultivated decent emotional intelligence to make up for the lack of calculus, but I tend to be forgetful. So here are 10 simple but super helpful things I've learned (frequently, the hard way) that I'd like to remember to tell you over the years to come.
1. Choose character over people-pleasing. Character is the most essential element of existence. Joan Didion, in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem, defines character roughly as taking responsibility for your life -- not basing self-worth on how others see you (since they may easily get you wrong, especially if you've just agreed to trade lunches when you absolutely did not want to), but how you feel within, your level of self-respect. I know it's not always easy to hear that inner voice -- my own inner voice had laryngitis till I was about 30 -- but it's there, believe me, and it'll tell you how to operate in a way that gives you deep personal peace, if you listen.
2. Don't lie -- much. If you tell the truth, you don't have to keep close track of what you say! And that's a good thing. With my DNA, you may be occasionally forgetful. Of course, there's always the exception, as with all rules and concepts in life. Anne Lamott's central protagonist, Elizabeth, in the novel Rosie, tells her young daughter, "Sometimes I think it's okay to lie if the truth would hurt someone's feelings." And I agree. If a friend gets a funny home haircut of varying lengths and everyone's really mean about it, don't hesitate to say, "It doesn't look that bad! It'll grow." Your inner voice won't mind. Lies that serve the self, on the other hand, make the inner guy turn shrill and grumpy.
3. Learn the skill of empathy. That's like putting yourself in another person's shoes. When in doubt, ask yourself, "How would I feel if someone laughed at my hair?" If the answer is bad, sad, or crazy-embarrassed, find a way to avoid committing the act that conjures these icky emotions in others. You'll likely discover that the positive energy you're spreading comes back to find you and give you a hug later on. At the very least, you'll feel like you gave yourself one.
4. Do one thing every day that scares you. Eleanor Roosevelt, the amazing political activist wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said that. I agree. If you want to sing a song while you're walking down the street, but you're afraid of what people might think, and that fear makes you feel tightness in your tummy, I say just give it a try. Sing. The tightness will disappear -- or you'll discover that you don't like to sing in public. Either way, it's a win, right? Disclaimer: Doing one thing a day that scares you should not involve any physical gesture that might scare Mommy or Daddy, like jumping from a tree or holding on to the back of a moving bicycle while wearing roller skates.
5. Exercise and erase! When I've had a rotten day, nothing makes me feel better than moving my body through the world for about an hour. My body becomes an eraser of BAD. Sometimes I will listen to music (you can't go wrong with John Prine, but your music-savvy dad can suggest a bunch of brilliant ideas), sometimes I listen to the air and the traffic (and in Baltimore, the sirens!). Find an activity you enjoy -- swimming, cycling, running, hiking -- and find the time to make it part of your day nearly every day. Never skip when you have a horrid day. Erase as long as you need to!
6. Eat real food but don't skip the chocolate cake. You'll feel better if you eat natural food -- hey, it's proven! People experience less depression when they consume more unprocessed items: fruits, veggies, hormone-free eggs and meat, and natural grains. But remember: Everything in moderation, even dietary restrictions. I think Socrates said that, but maybe it was Dr. Oz. You can eat a big slice of chocolate cake loaded with white icing from a cheap grocery store under my watch. You'll feel more human -- and you won't waste time craving the junk. To feel even better, stop eating as soon as you're full; later, follow it up with an apple slice. (Apples provide fiber and they are Mother Nature's toothbrush -- your grandmother Mugger said that.)
7. Everyone possesses his or her own unique value and promise -- even the jerks. There's a lovely lyric by John Prine (as I said, I'm a fan): "You got gold, gold inside of you/well, I got some gold inside me too." It's true of all of us. Look for the gold, especially when you meet a new somebody who seems dull through and through; if you earn their trust and invite them to shine, they might show you their hidden magic power.
8. Expect change. It will come to find you, guys, sometimes when you're feeling at your most indestructible and ecstatic, sometimes when things aren't going your way. If you're keenly aware that life's always shifting like sandbox sand when you shovel it, you won't become buried or daunted by the reversal. You'll also feel more gratitude for those winning hours. Gratitude is similar to happiness. It's like saying thank you, and meaning it.
9. Choose joy in small moments. It's not a lasting feeling, happiness, but it's something you can achieve more often if you pay close attention to the experiences that make you feel the lightest, freest, or the most gloriously on-fire inside. Maybe it all goes back to the "voice." When I was in grade school, I joined Brownies out of peer pressure. I hated going to Brownies; I hated wearing the polyester tea-colored uniform every Wednesday. But because my mom had bought all the expensive gear before I confessed my disinterest and disdain for the after-school commitment -- and the wet-ground camping rituals -- I had to stick with it one full year. Brownie meetings made many girls I knew endlessly happy. Not I! Worse: Selling cookies door to door filled me with deep dread. You know what I liked? Eating a handful of Thin Mints while watching The Love Boat beside my mom on the couch. You probably won't choose to become Brownies -- though anything's possible -- but do try to pick and choose those activities you're bound to love long and easily. And the same goes for a college major. And the same goes for a person to marry.
10. Make mistakes. If you spend a year in Brownies and that's how you come to learn that you don't want to sell stuff door to door for a living, so be it. Well done. By the same token, be ready to make lots of mistakes. It's healthy to make them -- on paper and in real life -- as long as you learn from them, as long as you don't forget how wrong it felt to laugh at the kid's bad haircut or trade for the lunch with the cold tofu patty and black banana just to make that other kid like you. Remember: Your inner voice is always there, working up the nerve to sing out, just waiting to remind you how you were meant to shine!