It's late afternoon, the kids are fresh off the bus. I have finished sorting through backpacks and homework folders and am now in the kitchen cleaning out lunches. My daughter comes in, hands clasped behind her back, smiling. She looks almost embarrassed.
She tells me that something really great happened that day at school. That her teacher had taken her aside during class and thanked her for being a ready-to-learn student. And she says these last words, ready-to-learn student, like they are pinned to her chest, a first-place ribbon.
I have no idea what a ready-to-learn student is, although right now I'm too preoccupied to care. I'm distracted by the expression on my daughter's face. She's so pleased with herself. It's not every day I get to see her this way. "That's wonderful, honey," I say, rubbing her shoulders.
Then she looks up at me and confesses, "It just made me so happy because I -- I try so hard to be good."
An alarm sounds in my chest -- no, something quakes. I try so hard to be good. I manage to smile, even though inside, I feel the reverb of something like panic. As is the case with the majority of my panic-stricken moments as a parent, she might as well be holding up a mirror.
I've written before about my tendency to be other-focused. I'm not entirely sure where this stems from. Certainly one reason is that I was overweight as a child. I ate because I was lonely and it gave me pleasure. I ate for the same reason I had imaginary friends I talked to throughout the day. Eating was something that took me out of the present moment, a place that often felt unbearable.
Of course I couldn't see this then. I saw only what was in front of me: my body. The thick folds that gathered around my waist while I sat at night alone in the bathtub. How I looked in a photo taken when I was 6-years-old standing beside my best friend Robyn Brown -- disproportionately large, like a giant. I remember that this photo of us hung on the wall in Robyn's bedroom, just beside the closet door. Each time I saw it, I winced.
My problem wasn't with food but with loneliness, though I could never have known this because, like I said, I only knew what I saw. Also what I heard. At lunchtime, the kids at my school, plum-colored jam stuck to the corners of their mouths, calling me names like Fatso and Big Bertha.
I possessed a child's faith, which is to say wholehearted, that if I could make myself pleasing to the world, the pain, that dull ache of isolation that gnawed at me constantly, would go away. And so I set out to change. It started with my body but then, inevitably, it metastasized. How can I serve you? is a question I have asked in one form or another again and again.
I sit here now, 30 years later, with my laptop open and the cat curled up on the cushion behind me, and still, it's a battle. I tell myself that it makes no difference what the outside world sees -- fat, stupid, talentless, or what somewhere along the line became the worst of all: bitch.
The year I was 16 I worked a few days a week after school and on weekends as a hostess at Red Robin. The restaurant kept "report cards" on the tables that customers could fill out, grading, if you will, their dining experience. One night at the end of my shift, my manager, Dana was his name, approached me. He pulled one of these cards from his breast pocket -- clearly he had been waiting to speak with me -- on which was written Hostess was a bitch.
The words cut me. I replayed the preceding hours in my head trying to pinpoint who it had been, what I had done to make someone say this about me. Had I given a wrong look? Forgotten to set out crayons for their children? Not smiled convincingly enough when I greeted them with the tall, laminated menus in my hand?
There was a lump in my throat that night, something hard that threatened to choke me as I left for home. I remember not being able to get out of there fast enough. The urgency with which I pushed through the heavy double doors that led out to parking lot, where only a handful of cars remained. How I untied my apron and cried under the warm night sky.
It never occurred to me to question the motives of a person who would write those words on a restaurant report card in the first place. That those words, in all likelihood, had nothing to do with me. I was only aware that I had fallen short. I had failed to win someone over. Failed to be good.
I know this to be true, that the perceptions of the world are no more than that -- the perceptions of the world -- and I have about as much control over them as I do the day's barometric pressure. I continue to tell myself this even though most of the time I might as well be speaking gibberish. I nod my head in agreement as if it all makes sense but the words don't stick.
I try so hard to be good.
I don't want this for my daughter. I don't want her to go through life trying so hard, to trudge the same exhausting path I have for so many years. Most of all I don't want her to live untethered from what is real. To neither witness nor touch that solitary flame that burns inside of her. That one precious thing that is unwavering, undeniably hers.
I'm not sure that I've ever been able to sufficiently articulate why I write. Perhaps this is it: I make it a point to remove myself, to seal myself away in a bubble, where only my thoughts, my words, and my cat are allowed in, because it is here that I have a shot at accessing, not always but sometimes, what is uniquely mine. It is here that I search for the glittering life that resides in me somewhere, to catch pieces of it as it flashes past.
This post originally appeared on Jessica's blog, Nourished Mom.