I have been struggling in my attempt to define the most courageous act of my life. Seriously struggling. Ideas flit around my head like lightening bugs in a jar, burning bright then fading. What have I done in my life that has taken the most courage?
Is it forgiving and accepting my recovering-alcoholic, biological father back into my life, against my domineering, outspoken mother’s wishes?
Is it forgoing a state school to attend a small private university - where I worked two jobs, became president of my elite sorority and landed an extremely competitive dream job in New York City before graduation - all this, when no one in my immediate family had even obtained more than an Associate’s Degree from the local community college?
Is it when I fell in love with then co-worker-turned-boyfriend-now husband, and chose him over my safety net college boyfriend?
Is it when I finally shared with said husband every last shameful detail of my childhood, family of origin, and wild young adult life?
Is it when I moved with my husband and our babies back to the Northeast, against the wishes of my seemingly well-intentioned yet, undeniably controlling in-laws?
Is it when I finally stopped caring what those "monetize everything" in-laws thought of us, and stood up against them - for me, our kids, and my emotionally scarred husband?
Is it when I delivered the eulogy at my beloved Pop Pop’s memorial service in front of tear-filled, expectant and critical eyes - swallowing the insecurity that always threatens to flatten me whenever there is a chance of my pre-college and post-college worlds colliding?
Is it finally answering the eternal question in my head: Why am I not writing and sharing my story?
Sure, these things took courage. But, I wonder, is it all I have?
I am in the lucky and dreaded sandwich generation. My patchwork parents need me to support them, while my 3 children need me to raise them. Simultaneously, my husband has been holding tight to the lowest priority position, with hopes of one day rising to the top again. I am staring my 40th birthday in the eye, I lost my only constant and first father-figure, my beloved Pop Pop, a few weeks ago, and I am nursing a 5-year-long estrangement from my in-laws, which obviously has had a ripple effect on the entire family. Even as this list pours out of me, I am screaming inside,“WHERE AM I?”
I am determined to mine for a glint of gold - a hint of me - through all of the shit; to set aside the carefully constructed shields of armor I have worn and polished over all of these years, and to finally take pride in all the facets of me. To uncover who me truly is. I am tired of being a mask, a role, a fulfilled or unfulfilled expectation. At forty, finally, I am ready to journey to my authentic self.
But I am equally sure of another thing: It makes me nervous even thinking about what answers I may find.
I must stop here and say, I am no wilting flower. I am from a scrappy, blue collar town outside of Philly, the second child of a teenage mom that has been married 3 times and who still remains unhappy with her life. This made me street smart, feisty, and clever early in life - well beyond my years. I learned quickly that it didn’t matter if you graduated from Harvard, joined the union, went to rehab, or did time in jail - if you show up for Sunday dinner, you had a seat at the table. But I also learned that this potent recipe of unconditional love, paired with low expectations, was too easy for me. It sent me straight into people pleasing mode, and very early I became adept at matching my personality with my audience. A chameleon was born!
For my Mom, I was her trusted girlfriend and confidante from the minute she told me she loved me more than my brother, because I was a planned pregnancy (even if my father was a loser drug addict). After their divorce, just before my 5th birthday, I had the unique experience of living with her and her divorcee best friend. I watched her navigate the dating world in the early 80s, party like a rock star, take on two jobs to support my brother and me, and deal with both the ever-present disappointment and the unwavering support from my Mom Mom and Pop Pop (her parents) when she dropped us off for days at a time. It was intoxicating and it made me savvy and mature at an extremely early age.
For my Mom Mom and Pop Pop, I became everything their wayward all girls Catholic school daughter was not. Straight A student, Advanced Placement classes, Class President, Varsity field hockey team captain, soloist in choir, student representative to the school board, Governor’s School graduate, and the list goes on. My Pop Pop was the first man I knew who was truly good - he held me as a baby, attended every game and event, bought me anything I lacked, took me to dancing school every week for years, trimmed my toenails willingly, drove me and my friends everywhere, overlooked my mistakes, and walked me down the aisle, just 4 months after my Mom Mom’s death. My Mom Mom called me every morning of my life from second grade until my senior year of high school to ensure I was awake. Her calls became my alarm clock. Her voice, the opening act of each of my school days.
For my in-laws, I became the polite lady from the “right side of the tracks,” showering them with tales of my college and early work-life experiences, travel anecdotes from my backpacking trip across Europe, and carefully edited snippets of my childhood. This editing was likely the first poison dart in our relationship. For later on, when I attempted to reveal my true self to them in a vulnerable moment after the birth of our second daughter, I saw it wasn't me they had ever actually known or accepted. Their reply is one I have never forgotten: “Why are you still so upset about growing up poor? That is not your life anymore.” While in a sense, I see they intended to assuage me and they might have been directionally correct, I resent that they didn’t want to see that part of me when I was finally brave enough to discuss it with them. I had created and thoroughly became the very image that was intended to impress them, to keep them close, but instead, only served to alienate and confuse them - and me.
For my husband and my best girlfriend, I am me. In their presence, I finally found a place where my true self is welcomed. They know my insides and have witnessed my ever-changing outside throughout the many chapters we have journeyed together. I have spilled my guts to both of them at different times in my life. Always, they have loved me unconditionally, and have dried more of my tears than I care to remember. They are in agreement as they have chorused so many times over the years, “If people think less of you because of your background, then f ‘em! They do not deserve to know you. We love you more because of your experiences!” They have reminded me that I am not my past, I am not my family, I am me.
As I have matured, I have discovered that I will never again be the struggling blue collar hometown girl that I once was, nor will I ever totally be the comfortable stay-at-home mom in the affluent suburb I now call home. These are titles and roles that I once embodied or currently play, but they will continue to change over time, leaving their mark, but never fully defining me. I am me.
After my Pop Pop’s memorial service and luncheon, after I kissed all of my extended family and saw off all of my friends that came from near and far, my Mom and I had an exchange that has perseverated in my head ever since.
“Your eulogy was great! Everyone said so. It made me laugh and cry AND damn, it was true, too! Thank you. Why aren’t you a writer?”
I replied with my simple truth, “Mom, I am a writer. Just because I haven’t published a book or started a blog or become famous doesn’t mean I am not a writer. I have always been a writer.”
Part of me hopes that the most courageous thing I will ever do is yet to be done and therefore, I simply don’t know. But as the word courage tumbles through my head and heart, I know that I am in the midst of this act. The act of finally letting go of the shame and insecurity, anger and resentment that have revealed themselves, yet again, in my inner life. I hope I possess the courage to permanently uncover and love my most authentic self.
Some days I am not even sure who she is. Other days I beam with pride that I have figured out a piece of the puzzle. In my best moments, I openly embrace my complex inner self, juxtaposed against a seemingly simple outer self. That conflict of who I am and what I appear to be is in a constant war that I let define me in my darkest moments. But deep down, I know I am both and everything else. All of it.
For me, I am slowly discovering what I no longer wish to be. I do not want nor need to be that armor-clad chameleon, who adapts to my surroundings because I am too afraid to reveal my true self. I no longer want to rely on my trusty talent of becoming a projection of what I think those around me might like best. It is clear to me that I have only just begun. I know in my heart that the next step in this journey is to write about and share my story. To heal my heart and fill my soul, for no one else but me. A risk for sure, but one step closer to discovering my most authentic self and by far, the most courageous thing I could ever hope to do.
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