Monday, October 21, 2013

What is the bravest thing you've ever done?

Every year I challenge myself to enter Real Simple Magazine's Life Lessons Essay contest. I think the past winners have produced great writing and it's a contest worth entering. Plus, I love the topics. This years was, "What is the bravest thing you've ever done?"
It was 1994 and I was twelve years old. I was standing in a long line of adults whose shoulders were shining with chlorine water, heads tilted up toward the top of a water slide whose height I did not yet understand. It cast a giant shadow onto the warm concrete where I had been standing for at least thirty minutes.  I squinted into the sun, watching one person after another step to the edge, sit down shakily on the slick blue seat, cross their arms over their chest and lean back slowly, as if lowering themselves into a grave. They disappeared so fast it was only seconds later that they emerged out of the shallow pool at the bottom, adjusting their bathing suits and offering a tenuous thumbs-up to their tiny compadres, seventy feet above.

Soon I was on the stairs, with only a few people ahead of me. I kept my eyes focused on the water pouring over the edge of the slide, knowing that within minutes this would all be over. At last it was my turn. I sat down, ignoring the enervated lifeguard who recited the instructions insipidly. I knew exactly what to do. Cross your arms across your chest, cross your feet, and slowly lean back allowing the water to rush over you until it steadily carries you over that shocking edge…

Halfway down, as my body shook with speed and my striped suit barely touched the back of the slide, I thought to myself, “What have I done?” It was worse than I thought; deafening, forceful, and relentlessly fast. Then it ended with a liberating splash and a wedgie worth writing home about.

Up to that point in my life, lowering myself over the edge of that slide was by far the gutsiest thing I’d ever done. I was quiet, studious, and still slept with a Care Bear in my bed. But I was certain of one thing: I was destined for great things.

Late one school night when I was thirteen, I sat on the lid of my toilet seat with a flashlight, hunched over my beloved journal. I wrote down three things I promised to never forget:
1.     I will make good choices.
2.     If I make a mistake, I’ll fix it.
3.     If an extraordinary opportunity presents itself, I’ll take it. No regrets.

I closed my journal and tiptoed quietly back to bed.

I didn’t forget my three promises, even a decade later when I was a full-time mother of four small children. I sought out those “extraordinary opportunities” in between pregnancies, nursing newborns, nap schedules, and the day-to-day tasks that kept us all afloat. After my second daughter was born, I ran my first marathon, training through the winter in Utah, hiring babysitters and running late at night on the high school track, clutching a bottle of mace in my half-numb fingers. When I was expecting my third daughter, I studied HypnoBirthing and decided to have her naturally.  I’m certain I earned a badge of some kind on that long, life-changing night.

If there was one thing that I wanted to excel in at this point in my life, it was motherhood. But despite my priorities, I started to feel that I was less than I had planned to be. Loneliness had crept into my daily routine, even though I never really was in fact, alone. I had a degree from a reputable college, skills in editing and writing, and I looked fantastic in a pencil skirt and heels. Yet most days I was alone with four little ones in stretch pants with sucker stains and bangs that I learned to trim myself. Most of my conversations revolved around my children’s sleep habits, potty mishaps, and our Letter of the Week. By five o’clock, I couldn’t stand another person touching me, poking me, or needing my attention in any way. I craved a purpose outside of motherhood, certain that there was something else waiting for me.

Several times, I grabbed the keys and told my husband that I had to leave. I’d eat dinner by myself at a restaurant, spend money on inessential things that made me feel happy for a second, or simply park the car and cry. I was becoming lost inside the walls of my own home.  I took baths after bedtime, staring at my unpainted toenails, feeling invisible.

I remembered a conversation between my husband and I six years prior, before we had children. We were eating dinner in our basement apartment, whose seven foot ceilings made you stoop unconsciously, when he looked up at me and said, “You know you never have to work again, if you don’t want to.” I was wrapping up my last semester of my undergrad, preparing a few articles for publication and my husband was starting a small business. Life had momentum. I stood up with my plate and kissed his cheek on the way to the kitchen, smiling.

A few months later, I was enrolling for an internship with a publishing company. During our meeting, I told my interviewer, a woman just a few years older than me, about my education, my qualifications, and the fact that I’d be having a baby just a few months after the internship started.  I didn’t get the job.

Now, as the rock bottom days roll in like an inescapable tide, I feel much the same as I did falling down that slide years ago. It wasn’t until halfway down that I realized I might have just made the hardest decision of my life.

The other night I found a note on my pillow from my six-year old daughter. It was written on light blue paper that had been folded several times. The front said, “Love Mom” underlined in hearts and stars. On the inside was a picture of one hand offering a heart to another hand. Her note reminded me of my place in this world. I recall holding onto my daughter’s hand when she was a newborn, her fragile fingers wrapped around just one of mine as she slept. Then a few years later those same fingers clutched a pencil, tracing over my letters, my hand guiding hers slowly until she could do it on her own. Those hands now slip into mine when we cross the street, offering three squeezes for an “I love you.” They spread proudly with my wedding ring on just the right finger, assuring me that it looks better on her hand than mine. They reach gracefully over the strings of her tiny violin and rest so peacefully next to her face as she sleeps.

When I feel that I’m standing in that endless line again, dripping with uncertainty and the expectation that in just a few minutes, this will all be over, I try to remember my daughter’s advice to “love Mom.” I see more meaning in my meals, my hugs, the activities I plan and the stories I read. I soak in the amusement in my son’s eyes as he drives his car over my head and face and makes boyish car noises. I count each diaper in the pile next to the door as an act of service rendered by me. Every suppressed swear word is an offering, a calm voice in place of yelling something to be celebrated. I aim to be loveable, not perfect.

When I chose to become a mother, and to stay at home with my children, I had no idea what that would actually require of me. I knew that there would be long nights, but I didn’t comprehend the agony of having an early riser who demands Cheerios at 6 am. I knew there would be potty training, but I didn’t think that so many pairs of underwear would simply be thrown away because they were just so bad. I knew it would get messy, but I never imagined that a diaper could become an artist’s palette or that oatmeal would be considered a hair conditioner. I knew I would make mistakes, but I had no idea that guilt would be a near constant companion and that children are the quickest to forgive, and forget. I knew that I would share my body for a time with my babies, but I didn’t expect that I would also hand over a part of myself, that motherhood would be an exchange of hearts where you get more than you give, in the end. These are things I didn’t understand until I was here, halfway down the slide, feeling both terrified and grateful that I was brave enough to step up to the edge and let myself fall.

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  1. ok. i am in tears. that was beautiful janelle. thank you for sharing your words, and your heart.

  2. Janelle, I feel like you write my life, and it sounds beautiful when you write it : ) I understand your experiences, and let me tell you 2 things. 1. The promise "joy in your posterity" is so unbelievably wonderful. You will emerge from this exhaustion and truly it will ALL be so worth it. and 2. The heart part. I literally felt like I left a piece of my heart in New York when we departed from Josh the summer after he graduated (where he had a summer job). It was unbelievably painful, but as I have watched him "fly" on his own...I now have a new challenge, PRIDE : ) What joy it brings to see your children succeed!!! Thank you for being such an example of what I want my children to emulate...I and THEY adore you and your family.

  3. Janelle, you put into words so many of my own emotions (I just let mine out in tears rather than words!) Sometimes I wonder why people don't warn new parents how hard it's going to be but then how do you explain that the joys far outway it all. You and David are great parents- your kiddos are sure lucky!

  4. Beautifully written! I love it. But as soon as I saw the water slide photo, I was worried your story was going to end with you sans your swimsuit. I'm waiting for you to document THAT story :)

  5. I love this piece! You did a wonderful job. Written so beautifully: such great imagery and detail. A great way to journal too! Oh, and remind me to tell you the story of when I went down such a slide as a 20-something. Let's just say I had more than a wedgie...I had a gaping hole the size of a dinner plate on the derrière area of my swimsuit, which I found out about after at least 5 minutes of facing the whole water park and wondering why all these pre-teen boys across the way kept laughing and pointing my direction.