I reached for one of my favorite mugs this morning, not so much because Mother’s Day is approaching, but I love its bright colors. The enameled pink, gold, and yellow caught my eye the second I spotted it on a shelf at Marshall’s one day last year. Coffee mugs are my handbags, and this one emitted cheer. As I reached to claim it as mine, I suddenly froze. Emblazoned across its surface were the words “World’s Best Mom.” Not really appropriate, I thought, given that I’d never birthed a child. Then I noticed Bill standing in front if me, fresh from a victory lap around the men’s shirt department. He’d landed the ultimate prize: a Mark Graham shirt at 70% off, and saw I was seriously eying the mug.
“I really love the colors,” I said, holding it up to the light. “Do you think it’s weird that I buy this?
‘You’re a step-mom to Zach and a doggie-mom to Sophia, of course you should get it,” was his immediate response.
So it came home with us that day, and I use it regularly, often on gloomy, overcast days when I’m wanting a burst of color. And one morning as I sipped coffee, set it down, and admired it for the 127th time, it dawned on me that there’s another role I’ve played in this lifetime: that of mother to myself.
As the self-help pioneer Louise Hay pointed out in her 1984 book, “You Can Heal Your Life,” we’re all victims of victims of victims. In other words, even our parents, virtuous as they may be, can be inborn with flaws, and when any two people join forces to parent, they lock in place a unique template that combines cultural mores, personality quirks, societal values, inherited wounding, and character strengths. It’s a wildcard of a ride if there ever was one, and the results for offspring range from lingering unmet needs to deep emotional scars.
Suffice it to say, I left the nest with unmet needs aplenty. Just as I’m sure my parents did, and their parents, and on and on.
Learning how to nurture myself in order to fill in some of the missing pieces was an ongoing process. First on the agenda was feeling the feelings. The little girl who was routinely chastised for having feelings and being ‘too sensitive,’ was now free to cry, rage, whimper…whatever I needed to do. I journaled my feelings onto paper, punched them onto pillows, and when I felt strong enough, had honest talks (also known as confrontations) with others about my feelings. Also critical to the process: seeking support from like-minded people. No one does it alone, nor should you try. For many years, I nourished my needs and unburdened my hurting inner-self at 12-step meetings, therapy sessions, metaphysical workshops, and over countless cups of coffee with empathetic friends.
This wellspring of permission to nurture cemented a solid sense of self that shame, all those years ago, had once thwarted. And guess what? It was SO much more effective than dieting. It’s pretty fascinating to contemplate that only a single consonant separates the words ‘pounds’ and ‘wounds.’ It’s a reality I encourage my clients to focus on because that’s where the true and lasting healing lies.
But food, of course, cannot and should not be ignored. And for my path to wholeness, I had to start from ground zero since I never had a shot at a normal relationship with it. As a child of the 70’s, dieting was not only a pastime but a moral imperative. I couldn’t escape the mandate, even at summer camp, where I was sent to “the diet table,” a place for the chubby campers and counselors. Sullen outcasts, we sat eating vegetables and cottage cheese in a room segregated off the dining hall, and we always left each meal light on nourishment and pumped up with shame. Growing up, food was not a simple noun, but a vortex of swirling emotions that stirred both fascination and disgust within me. Food was judged, regulated, literally hidden and locked away, and largely forbidden. And I also needed it desperately to feel better.
This aggravated not only low self-esteem but my weight and I wrestled with both for decades. Until the day I decided a do-over was in order. In tandem with the inner work I was doing, I inverted the equation and transformed shame into joy, rebuke into permission, and eating in secret to eating openly and with abandon. Yup, I went overboard with quantity but I needed to. It was a necessary passage and part of me taking control and offering myself recompense for all the years the locusts of deprivation and recrimination devoured my shot at a stable existence.
To get more insights on this I refer you to my cookbook-memoir “Clean Comfort.” But with no calendar mandates for progress reports, unlimited patience, and a resolve to treat myself with the same kindness I treat a friend, the rift between food and me was healed, as was the relationship I had with my body, soul, and inner child who, at the core, didn’t really want all that revenge-eating, but instead only simple, unmitigated acceptance.
Food has a much different place in my life now. I seek pleasure from it for sure, but also nourishment. Like the hot cereal made from quinoa piled into the mug in this photo. There’s an interesting metaphor for sure with my love of hot cereal the way it mimics baby food in appearance and texture.
I find foods that are soft and creamy to be inherently comforting. And in the case of hot cereal, I make it nourishing as well as comforting. My taste buds no longer exclusively run the show. My body has an equal vote now and loves things like flax seeds, hemp hearts, and coconut oil. (See all kinds of hot cereal recipes on this site for more details).
So as I sit on my balcony, on one of the first warm and beautiful days of the year, I contemplate with gratitude my ability to be my own mother, even as I acknowledge the irony of spending my reproductive years recovering from an unhappy childhood. I also remember all the women in my life who imbued me with maternal kindness and gave me comfort and reassurance when I needed it. The rock in this photo came from a beach on Lake George where I spent childhood summers. The beach belonged to my Aunt Mary, who was a best friend, grandmother, aunt and occasional mother-figure who melted into empathy if I was sad. She’s been gone for 20 years now and I still thank God for her.
Sometimes, when holidays such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day roll around, there are mixed and unresolved feelings bubbling beneath the surface. It’s OK. I repeat it’s OK to have mixed emotions. They were human and so are you. There’s no perfect script to follow. And whatever you do, please don’t use sappy TV commercials as a template.
Whatever Mother’s Day evokes for you, the good news is, we can reach inward to listen…with stillness, compassion, and profound love.