Until recently, I've lived tied up in the learned coping behaviors of childhood. Even in my late 20s, knowing my life was ruled by the past, I could not figure out why. During November of last year, the month of my 30th birthday, I finally understood what it means to let go.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom of four, and we meant everything to her. She picked out our outfits for school in the morning before tying bows in our braided hair. She cooked meatballs at night. She was her son's devoted cheerleader, my rescuer when I peed my pants in kindergarten, and when her oldest daughter stuffed her training bra with toilet paper, she pulled it out, held my sister with her eyes and said, "Amanda, you are perfect." And she did it with style, a Long Island accent, and uncompromising charm.
At 32, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And after all the treatments, all the surgeries, and one reoccurrence, she sat down alone in an office. "Kathy, your cancer has metastasized; you have six months to live." She drove home and watched her children rollerskate, and sing songs, fight for more ice cream, and run with our dogs on the front lawn.
Six months later, her three daughters put on the dresses she bought for us to wear that day. Her son clipped on his tie. We kneeled beside her casket and said goodbye in the way we didn't know how. I was 6, Krista was 9, and Anthony and Amanda were 11.
I can't imagine what she thought about in those months. But I can tell you a story like the one I just told. A precious collection of overheard stories sewn together with the buttered view of a child. And it has all the stuff, all the facts. It has everything except her humanity. Her horror and fear, and her faith. Her tenderness, and peace. It has everything except who she was. I don't know that part.
We didn't really mention her again until 10 or 12 years later, and my dad committed to raising us by himself. My father is a truly remarkable person, but he didn't realize he was raising us in the projection of unresolved pain.
In my desperation for love, I grew up living and dying by my dad's word. I learned that dating boys means you're bad. Tidiness means you're good. I would sit with him in the TV room for hours as he spouted every point of view he had on the world, mostly concerning politics.
I nodded my head, listened, and silently asked to be loved. Afraid that having a different opinion would disqualify me from acceptance. I was externally complying and internally, beneath the conscious level, rebelling, building resentment. The comprehension of my authentic self was at war.
He was so rigid, terrified that his children would do something that would mark his endeavor of single parenthood as unsuccessful. He couldn't trust that we could make our own decisions and survive if we failed. A reflection of the intense doubt he had in himself. From fear grew the excruciating need to control, and the refusal to show vulnerability. And because he didn't allow vulnerability for himself, neither did we allow it for us.
Consequently, I never developed a genuine, expressive self. A self that felt safe to want, to fail, to form opinions, or speak my mind. Subconsciously, I avoided life. I was not "in touch with myself."
I've realized that this is the most instrumental concept of life that exists. It is knowing what you want and that you can ask for it. It's knowing how to respect your body. It's what holds you accountable for yourself. It is what informs how you allow yourself to be treated by others. And it is the single necessary thing for connection and fulfillment.
In place of a sense of self, I unknowingly identified with the assumption that life is where you get in trouble, it's what you go through alone without expressing yourself. It is where you comply with beliefs that are, essentially, led by fear.
Now is the time to untie these perceptions from our truth. Through knowing we have the courage and capability it takes to challenge ourselves. Through awareness and presence.
With our innate want for love, naturally, we think we need our parents' approval to get it. And in a displaced need for control, many parents agree. Letting a child believe love is approval-based instills just as much of a sense of dependency as over-coddling does.
The truth is, we're not meant to be dependent on others. We share ourselves with others, we become fulfilled by offering our love, we practice and provide boundaries, we build a sense of trust and connection by allowing others to love us in return. We are meant to believe that who we are is enough.
People have a mysterious and dangerous way of recreating the past. I needed to claim my true self by forgiving both of us for being simply human, for doing things the only way we knew how. And to remember that control is nothing more than an outcome of despair. My dad lost his own father at 19, and he lost his wife. His irreplaceable partner in this world.
Just as we lost our mother. A loss I honored for many years in the reflection of an underlying victimhood. The quiet, fruitless pursuit of what I felt like I was owed. The pursuit of comfort, and approval -- the opposition of connection and self, and the perpetuation of familiar pain. It was an intuitive skill woven into my being. Because I didn't trust myself. I didn't believe I was enough. Now I see I can love her because I love who I am. I remember her care by caring for others, accepting their care in return. By being present in life the way she is unable to be, this is how she lives. We honor her with peace in our heart in the place of our wound.
Living for others' approval is a disservice to everyone. It robs others of knowing who you are. It robs you of yourself. To live our individual truth, it is what will change the world.
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