“If you are searching for that one person to change your life, look in the mirror.”
The mirror is a liar and a thief. It criticizes. It steals. It makes you doubt. One fleeting glance at it and you stumble, your confidence nose-diving into the abyss of self-hate and disapproval.
“You look ugly!” It yells when you try on a new dress, and you believe it, your dark circles and expanding midriff zooming into focus to fortify the truth of its proclamation. Motherhood does have a way of taking a toll.
“You are a nobody!” It whispers into your ears when you dive heart first into your new passion, and you believe it. No one’s supposed to change directions halfway through the highway of life and not expect a head-on collision. Especially a nobody with zero experience in the field.
“You are the antithesis of feminism.” It declares out of the blue when you settle comfortably into the patriarchal stereotype of a housewife, and you believe it. Your educational qualifications and corporate work record remind you non-stop of your wasted talent and many opportunities at shattering the proverbial glass ceiling.
“Your time of ushering change is long over.” It reminds you when you take a stand in a progressively hopeless world, and you believe it. Revolution does suit the youth better. Where would a non-confrontational mom even begin?
So, the mirror goes on and on and on. And you listen until you can hear it no more. Until it is just some background noise, stuck in an indefinite loop.
Until something inside you snaps.
Then, the next time, it says, “You are ugly,” you say, “Stop lying to me, mirror! I am beautiful. Not despite, but because of, my dark circles and my muffin-top. You see, all the flaws that you keep pointing to remind me of my humanity, of the full life I am living, of creation, and of a passion for doing more and being more than mere body-stats. The body you are berating still holds the memory of the miracle of life.”
And the next time it says, “You are a nobody,” you say, “Thank you. Stop being so contemptuous about it, mirror. Because, honestly, it’s not an insult! It is rather a free pass to start over and to succeed without pressure or performance anxiety. Being an underdog is always so much more fun than being the title defender.”
And the next time it says, “You are the antithesis of feminism,” you say, “You are wrong, my friend. Feminism is about choice, about equality, never more, never less. No one held me at gunpoint to force me into my stereotypical role. I chose knowingly and willingly. Bottomline – I chose. And I am no less or no more for my choices than any other person in the world who exercises free will, irrespective of their gender definitions.”
And the next time it says, “Your time of ushering change is long over,” you simply laugh as you bring your son to the mirror and say, “You are wrong again, my friend. Here, check this out. I am training the future revolution right inside my home. It may seem like the white flag of surrender because the surface is calm, but submarine volcanoes do have a tendency to shock and surprise. You’ll see!”
“Ah, now, you are getting somewhere,” the mirror smiles. “My dear friend, let me tell you this – I am neither a liar, nor a thief. I am a mere reflection. I project what you want to see and the voices you want to hear. I reflect you. I neither add to nor subtract from you. It’s not in my nature to change you.”
And just like that, the mirror on the wall looks different.
The next time you pass the mirror, it seems kinder. It is neither harsh nor critical. It doesn’t say mean things. It doesn’t point out all your shortcomings, physical or otherwise. So you learn to pause and stare at your reflection, though you used to run before.
Over time, your reflection seems different too. Happier, confident, calmer, and less judgmental. Then one day, in the middle of living, you remember the metamorphosis. You smile because you get it at last. You look intently into the eyes staring back at you from the mirror and smile “There you are! Finally, I see you.”
Daisy Suman spent more than a decade as a techie in various capacities for a Global Top 10 IT firm before quitting in 2014 to become a SAHM. Though she still enjoys dabbling in code, these days she spends most of her free time reading and writing, and persistently ignoring housework. Her work has appeared on Parent Co., BabyCenter Blog, BonBonBreak, Mamapedia Voices, BlogHer etc. FertileBrains (http://fertilebrains.com) is her online home and you can connect with her on Twitter (https://twitter.com/fertilebrains) and Facebook (https://facebook.com/fertilebrainsdotcom).
The first time I wore a tampon, I didn’t know you were supposed to remove the cardboard applicator. So I left it in.
I was fourteen.
My friend stood outside the bathroom stall in the girls’ locker-room and coached me through the process, but she never mentioned pulling those cardboard tubes back out. Or, maybe she did, but we were trying so hard to be secretive, to go unnoticed, that I missed it.
Regardless, I pulled up my shorts and walked out to my school’s end-of-the-year party, where I limped around in agony for a few hours, unable to stand up straight.
When I finally made it home and went to the bathroom, my underwear was bloody. Stupid things, I thought. They don’t even work.
Growing up, there was no communication, no exchange of useful information, between adult women and us girls. We were on our own, to figure things out as best we could. Unfortunately, most of the time we were profoundly misinformed. For instance, we were convinced that if you were swimming, blood couldn’t come out, so there was no need to wear a tampon. We also believed you wouldn’t keep bleeding while lying down.
We weren’t just ignorant about how to manage our changing bodies—we didn’t even recognize “The Change” when it first occurred. One friend of mine, when she got her period for the first time, thought she had chocolate in her underwear.
This is so weird! she thought. How on earth did that get there?
She’s not alone. When my period started, in sixth grade, I thought I had pooped my pants. Too humiliated to tell anyone, I went home after school, did laundry, and kept quiet—until the next day, when it happened again. Still clueless but more than a little worried, I went to my mom and shamefully confessed, “I must be sick. I had an accident at school two days in a row!”
Later, when my mom brought home a stack of thick pads, each one taller than it was wide, I almost wished I hadn’t told her. I lay in bed and cried; these things felt like diapers, and you could see them even through jeans. Jeans! No woman could possibly have invented such instruments of torture; they were clearly designed to keep girls out of the picture, unable to sit comfortably in class, incapacitated by discomfort and despair.
Of course, these huge mattresses were an enormous improvement—my mother’s generation had to safety-pin long boats of cotton batting to the waistbands of their underwear. Decades before that, women had to use—and therefore wash, and hang to dry on the line—actual cloth rags.
“On the rag,” my mom even called it.
When it came to a working knowledge of the feminine mystique, my husband was a real catch, because he had three sisters growing up. While we were engaged, he passed every test I gave him, including one where he had to go into a grocery store alone to buy panty liners and tampons.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I can do it again, whenever you want.” If I needed any convincing, I now knew: this was my man.
I even had a secret agreement with myself, one Erik didn’t know about—I was determined never to let him see bloody sheets. You are rolling your eyes at me, and you’re correct; it was hopeless, like when my friend decided that she would never fart in front of her husband. Yeah, right, I thought. Good luck with that one. Are you going to let him be in the room when you’re in labor? Because guess what you’ll do then?
My little plan was similar: doomed to fail.
However, I made it five years before we woke up one morning to red sheets.
“Oh, I am so sorry! I can’t believe this happened!” I admitted everything to Erik, my years of hard work gone to waste, and he laughingly reassured me.
We laughed even harder when, on closer inspection, we discovered it wasn’t blood at all, but a cheese wrapper that had fallen into bed, where I rolled on it during the night, melting the soft red wax all over the sheets.
I was familiar with this kind of embarrassment; early adolescence was rough. On one family road trip, I was forced to wait in a gas station, frozen in horror, as my mom, dad, and both grandparents loudly discussed which kind of pad to buy for me. That’s right: I was held captive while my dad and my grandfather discussed maxis versus super maxis in front of half the population of Eastern Montana.
After what felt like an hour, the adults went up to the counter, bought a package of Maxi Pads—sized XXXXXXXXL, and then, incredibly, proceeded to make the whole situation worse.
I know. It didn’t seem possible to me, either.
With a lack of sensitivity and tact that takes my breath away even to this day, they walked over to me, handed me the package (which was noticeably not in a discreet bag, or a bag of any kind, actually), and then told me they’d wait in the car.
Who knows what compelled them to do this to me.
The ten steps from the middle of the store to the bathroom were the longest in my life—second only to the trip back through the store when I was done, pads clutched to my chest, past all the onlookers.
Thank goodness this was before cell phones. And YouTube.
All this was supposed to be a rite-of-passage of some kind. I vaguely remember women—my mom, teachers, even characters in books—parroting the quote, “You’re a woman now,” to every poor girl with blood-soaked undies. What a rip-off, we all thought. This is it? This is what separates girls from women? You can keep it!
As a college counselor at summer camp, when one of my sixth grade girls got her period for the first time, these painful experiences were useful: they had taught me gentleness, kindness, empathy. The camp nurse and I had her get into the shower, then washed her clothes for her—by hand, in the bathroom sink, under cold running water, as our mothers had taught us. Over the next few days, I checked in with her often, reminded her to change so she wouldn’t leak, provided her with the new, merciful pads with wings—oh, those brilliant inventions—and told her stories from my youth.
My daughter knows these stories; like many of her generation, she is getting her information ahead of time. Mothers tend to be much more open now. One woman I know of purposely chose a house with no master bathroom; she wanted to be forced by sheer proximity to be available to her girls as they entered puberty. It is common for girls my daughter’s age to receive gifts from older women—pretty little makeup bags—full of dainty liners, tampons, cotton undies, and friendly instructions about what to do when. Her friends carry pristine pads in their backpacks, with clear instructions on how to use them when the day finally arrives.
The stories our daughters tells their children will be different than ours: supportive, positive, hopeful. I am so glad that things have changed.
Someday, when our daughters and granddaughters and nieces hear, “Congratulations,” they may just be able to believe it.
Dawn Claflin lives in the Seattle area, and is proud to be a regular contributor to MAW. You can read her work on faith, family, and writing in Literary Mama, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and Funny Times, as well as online at https://dawnclaflin.wordpress.com.
The night before we leave him, nothing goes as planned. My one-year-old foster baby isn’t quite a baby anymore, and he’s started to assert his opinions. He wiggles out of my arms when I try to pull him from the sunshine and into the house. He throws sweet potato on the floor at dinner and lunges for the metal railing when I take him upstairs for a bath. He’s skipped a nap, and his frustrated tears come easily when isn’t able to decide what will happen next. I hold my own tears in until right after we drop him off at his parents’ apartment the next day. But, I’m no less scared of all of the ways our life together is changing. Suddenly, we’re both being led down a path we’re sure we didn’t pick.
What is happening to all of us is necessary. In many ways, it is right and it is fair. But to my heart, today, it is a threat, an opening into a dark wood at night. After more than a year together as a foster family, we must now pull up the threads that have wound themselves in and around our lives, like the tender roots of sapling, the foundation of our unique family tree. Our little boy’s parents have done everything asked of them by his county social worker, so that they might be the ones to raise him, to see him through his tears and his growing pains, to take part in his everyday joys. In our place, they will be the ones to see him pick buttercups out of the grass on a summer day, to feel his chubby fingers in their own hands, to hear him babble through his favorite stories at bedtime.
What is asked of us now is to become people who are no longer his parents. We amble into the darkness with no knowledge of who we will be on the other side of the woods. And as we go, we are alert to every step that hastens the slow undoing of a relationship that began sprouting the day he was placed into my arms.
At the drop off, we watch him be carried away in his father’s arms. I wave limply, knowing he doesn’t understand that he will spend his very first night away from us since he left the hospital at four days old. I don’t cry until my husband and I are locked back into the car, just the two of us. I feel our path becoming narrower, the night shutting out the day’s light. And then, gratitude in the darkness, that my husband walks beside me even to places we would rather not go.
At home, I begin to pick up toys off the living room floor. The sun has set now, and I let tears fall all over colorful plastic shapes and miniature dump trucks. I imagine looking in on myself through our living room window, knelt over on the rug, surrounded by toys that will soon be gone. I see grief that others’ turn away from, a burden few would choose to take up for a friend. And what I wouldn’t give to somehow be oblivious to this process, like someone going into a deep, anesthetic sleep as an arm or a leg is removed. Watching a good and precious part of oneself be torn away bit-by-bit feels beyond the human threshold of pain. But, I know I must be wide awake to see my little boy through the emotional wilderness, though I may startle at every rustle in the leaves.
Within an hour, friends arrive with dinner, wine, and a homemade chocolate cake. In the tradition of so many cultures and religions, these loved ones act on what they know – that grief hungers for companionship, for fullness of belly and heart, for distraction, and for commiseration. One friend stations herself in the kitchen and starts up a hollandaise sauce. We snack on crackers and uncork the wine. We talk about our jobs, families, vacations –real and imagined. We talk about our son. They honor our loss and the heavy emotional work that we are mired in. They listen and they make us feel good and brave. I feel we are a pack now. We can be as strong as the woods are threatening.
We eat eggs benedict and ham, sausage and hashed potatoes. Breakfast feels a fitting meal to mark the beginning of this new phase. We will need food for the difficult trek and our friends and family to walk beside us as we draw farther and farther away from the boy that holds our hopes and joys in his little palms. And yet, I know we will falter along the way, regardless of who is willing to help carry our sorrow down this unworn trail.
This part of our story seems like the wrong ending to a good beginning, like a dead end among the trees, the way back untraceable. Along the way, we lose memories, time, nights sleeping under the same roof, mornings that are the realm only of families, too-early wake-ups softened by hugs from wobbly toddler in fleece pajamas. As we lose this lifetime together, hour by hour, I know that I must think of what we can give each other to make the days full of knowing, full of a deep and lasting inner love – a lantern for the rest of the journey.
In his coming years, I hope to give him an understanding of this separation, which I take unwillingly and yet, with acceptance and surrender. I may not be the mother who reads to him at night, who buys his sneakers, or who takes him to the barber. I may not be the mother that calls him home for dinner or listens to his jokes at night, who tells him, it’s time for bed now. But as we step forward unassured, I will be remade into who I can be in his future life – a stronger, kinder woman than I am now. Refined by the trial, I will try to love his family as my own. And I will love him through it all, as the mother who stayed awake and watched him sleep on his first night at home, as the mother who will clear these unruly woods, so that his path can be made smooth.
Cristi Donoso Best is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and foster mother, who believes that every child in foster care deserves the constant, unconditional love of parent. You can find her more of her writing at cristidonoso.com.
The sixty-somethings sip their glasses of wine in their booth while my mother shares a mischievous story about her grandchild. The server interrupts my mother to deliver the dinners. The women clank their glasses together and begin to eat. As my mother brings her fork to her mouth, her hair falls into her plate of chicken and mashed potatoes. Silence swells. The women stop chewing. Their eyes burn my mother’s vanity. Her retired piano fingers pick up her lock of pride.
My mother begins shedding her hair after her first chemotherapy, just as her oncologist promised. We were naive at first because her Greek ancestors gifted her abundant locks. She reschedules her wig appointment – this includes getting her head shaved. Cancer will strip her vanity. It is dire that I serve as the witness.
When the day arrives, Arianna has a fever and is irritable due to her four month shots. I cannot escape the guilt of leaving her, but I have no choice. Standing, I stroke her black hair. She nuzzles quiet and warm in my chest. My only daughter and I wait for my mother to pick me up. Growing up tough with three brothers, I never knew I ached for a daughter, until the moment her supple cheeks landed on my naked chest. The mother-daughter bond is an iron shield in battle. There are dents and scratches, of course, but it is unbreakable. I cradle her and gaze through our blinds.
The perfect Michigan October day. A few white clouds contrast against the crisp blue sky. Our vast maple tree has been set ablaze and steals the foliage show. Its golden crown offers generous shade over the yard. Its stoic beauty calms the torment inside my stomach as I watch. Flames dance downward and skirt around one another before settling on the grass. Soon, the fire will be extinguished and the maple tree will prevail, naked and empty. The skies will turn gray as the tree loses its exquisite nature. No one will stop to look. My mother pulls into the driveway, I hand my baby over to my husband, and we head south to the fancy wig salon.
In the confined room, I spot the black electric clippers on a high table near my mother. I do not want the red switch turned from “off” to “on.” The buzzing will eviscerate my mother’s spirit. Tony, the shaver, brings in the black cape that will be placed over my mother’s shoulders. It grants no super powers. She stares at herself in the center of the mirror – motionless. Her striking dark brown hair will be eliminated.
Up to this moment, I try to picture my mom bald. I laid awake in bed dreading this day. I think she will look like my Papou – her father. He was slim too, with the same oval dark eyes and olive skin. My mother is rare. True, she’s a head-turner, but her selfless soul is what makes you stay after being tugged in. Today, she changes. She is a woman, but cancer threatens to steal her womanhood.
The remaining seconds of the mother I know are fleeting. I clench my hands and pray for her courage – no one notices. I steady my eyes on the black clippers again. The clippers are cancer. Cancer doesn’t just destroy the body, it wreaks havoc on the soul. Time is almost up. My ears dread the buzzing from the clippers. “Are you ready?,” Tony asks.
“Yup,” my mom says.
Tony responds, “Some women choose to have their backs to the mirror and some…”
“I’ll face the mirror,” my mother interrupts.
This fortitude is not new. Cancer killed my mom’s mother when she had a two-week old baby, herself. She persevered. My mother saved me, her fourth child and only girl, not once – but twice. She slept in a chair while I was a frail six-year-old in the hospital for two months. I recall the fluorescent lights piercing my eyes and my mom throwing blankets and herself on top of me. She overcomes things. She is my angel.
Tony turns the clippers to “on” and a buzzing fills the room. A pesky bumble bee tries to locate a new flower to pollenate. My mom stares – emotionless. Tony separates and lifts the first chunk of my mom’s hair straight into the air. He places the clippers at the top of her forehead. The clippers stumble backward lifting the hair off of the head. Her scalp is gray-white with black and white sprouts shooting through. I wait. There is nothing. No wailing. No tears. No groaning.
My mother surveys the mirror. Tony places the thick hair segments onto a nearby table because her elegant leaves will be saved and made into a wig for another cancer patient. As my mom continues to examine the mirror, she is unwavering. She doesn’t need a dramatic moment. The blades are cancer’s ammo and they are constantly being reloaded. The thickness of my mom’s hair puts up a solid fight. The clippers continue to journey over her scalp – row by row. My mother’s head is first a crescent moon, then finally, a full moon. She is bald. Winter comes. But, the sun is still roaring.
Today, beauty has a sound – the buzzing of the clippers. We are frightened of it at first, but we discover that strength trumps beauty. The buzz fills her. My mom is new. After my mother earns her new faux leaves, we head to the local Jewish deli and enjoy my mom’s victorious meal – pastrami sandwiches.
I make it home before the kids’ bedtime. Swaddled in a cream blanket, I feed Arianna. We rock. As she sucks, her eyes flutter slowly before they shut for the night. My fingers scroll over her thick mane. My mother gifted my daughter her hair. Each strand is rooted. Arianna’s hair is today’s grace. I study her. Her petite nose breathes life in. Her rouged lips rest sealed and delicate. I never want to let her go. Nothing is more romantic than this moment at the end of this day. My mother and my daughter fill me. Arianna falls asleep. I bring her to my chest, patting her back. Embracing her, I inhale the baby detergent. I gaze at the cross over her crib and whisper, “Thank you.” I mean it. Silent energy is beaming out of me and filling every corner of the room. I hope it lands inside of my daughter.
I allow a tear to dampen Arianna’s cotton swaddle. She will grow and branch out too. And there will be phases where she will be exquisite, setting her whole world on fire. There will be other phases where she will be left feeling naked and empty. Cancer cut my mom’s hair, but she is still whole.
Spring comes. The leaf buds have swelled on the maple. The sap has already pushed itself upward. Arianna crawls through the grass. The purple ruffles on her bottom bounce. She stops and rips up a handful of grass pretending to eat it, but then tosses it upward. She places her hands on the shaggy bark of the old maple tree. Its rough exterior allows her to grip it. She pulls herself up. The tree permits her to stand. Over the months, the blackness of her hair fades into a light brown, it becomes her own. Clutching the bark, she smirks. Soon, she’ll be ready to let go and walk on her own, but for now, the tree steadies her. The cool May air blows through her budding hair. My mom’s hair grows too – gray and curly now. The wind wakes up our faces. We laugh as helicopters from the maple tree above skip and twirl downward to the ground. The leaves are now green. The tree is full again.
Angela Anagnost Repke lives with her family of four in Michigan. She is a former high school English teacher and has a degree in counseling, but is now back in the classroom as a student, earning a graduate degree in English concentrating on Writing and Rhetoric. She serves as the Managing Editor and Contributor to the Genesee County Moms Blog. Angela is passionate about the comradery of motherhood and hopes to unify women through her authentic writing. Her work has appeared in Her View From Home, Scary Mommy, and BLUNTMoms. Angela is currently working on a memoir.