A month ago, my 10-year-old son, Brady, hovered in a cannonball over the crystalline blue of our sparkling pool. I shielded my eyes from the sun, pressed play on my phone, and he splashed into the water and back out half a dozen times. Pressed together around the screen, my three boys laughed at the Instagram boomerang, and I shooed them back into the pool with promises to record some more later.
"Mom!" my 8-year-old, Kaden, called as eased himself from the ledge into the deep end. "Why don't you get in?"
I looked up from my phone. "Not today, bud."
"Aww." His mouth turned down as he bobbed in the water, but within a few seconds, he forgot me and started a game with Brennan, my 4-year-old.
"She never gets in." Brady met my eyes, then dove under when I started to protest.
My chest squeezed at his words, but I made excuses to the woman in my head who typically disapproves of the decisions I make.
Look. You spent an hour getting ready this morning, and there's no time to fix it if they splash you, which they will. Repeatedly. Your swimsuit doesn't fit right. You have a million things left to do today, and you don't want to smell like the pool, do you? Plus, you hate getting water in your ears. It never comes out.
Before long, I'd shrugged off Brady's rebuke, and was calling them out of the pool, drying Brennan off, and getting on with the craziness of every parent's day.
* * * * *
In August, I attended the Writer's Digest Conference in Manhattan to learn more about the business of authorship and have coffee with my literary agent, Kari Sutherland of Bradford Literary. Almost 1,000 writers in various stages of their writing careers showed up to hear lectures and complete workshops on everything from craft to marketing to battling that inner critic.
One workshop, however, was in a different vein. The title was "Vulnerability is Sexy," led by Corey Blake, CEO of Round Table Companies. Like any strong woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, I immediately rolled my eyes when I saw the title in the guidebook. I made plans to avoid that workshop just as I'd sidestep vomit at an indoor play center.
To me, vulnerability wasn't sexy in any way. It felt weak, and I hated feeling weak. How could I manage to do everything that was required of me--writing, working, mothering three rambunctious boys, and handling the household--if I allowed myself to be vulnerable? I was barely managing as it was, although I'd never share that little tidbit.
But, as I'd driven myself to the airport the day prior, my heart beating wildly with excitement in preparation for the conference, I'd promised myself I would be open to any positive opportunity.
So, despite my reservations, I went to this "hocusy-pocusy" workshop. I was skeptical as Blake began to speak, but slowly warmed up the more vulnerable he allowed himself to be. He talked about how he'd stolen money from his employer when he was a teenager and admitted to feeling clever instead of sorry. He'd taken off his glasses and shown us, unflinchingly, his crooked eyes. He'd bared his throat, giving us the opportunity to bite, demonstrating what it was like to be defenseless in front of a crowd who could possibly judge him. And then, before I'd had a chance to fully prepare myself, it was our turn to do the same.
Through an exercise that tapped into both the limbic system, where our feelings come from, and the neocortex, where we rationalize information, Blake led each of us writers into discerning our most core values which can either be an Achilles heel or a source of motivation in a writer's life.
My core value, not surprisingly, was strength. But as I sat with my eyes closed in this exercise and contemplated the ways in which I was very strong (and there were many) I saw laid in front of me like an old, tattered rug, the ways in which I was weak.
And often, they revolved around what mattered most to me in my life: my kids.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a good mom. I'm a fierce protector and incredible champion for those boys. I discipline them when they make ding-dong choices and praise them when they conquer a fear or hurdle a challenge. I snuggle them in my arms, and lie on their floors when they're up with fevers in the night.
I do all of that perfectly.
But, as I came to realize, this need to project the perfection I believe is expected of me by a crowd of faceless spectators, often keeps me behind a glass partition when it comes to the activity in my sons' lives. Much of the time, I'm observing, instead of plunging into the water.
I stay inside to sparkle up the house for guests, while my husband fishes with the boys out back. I hover over my computer, busily checking emails and making sure my work product is flawless, instead of watching a movie with the rest of the family. I wear my makeup and fix my hair and put on my nicest outfits, preventing me from engaging with my kids on their rough and tumble adventures, so anyone who sees me believes I have it all together.
As I came to see in that horrible workshop that left me choked with tears I refused to shed, I was far from perfect and weaker than I ever wanted to be. I wore this projection of strength like armor, but it was chaining me in ways I hadn't realized.
I got home around midnight from a delayed flight where I'd spent hours waiting in the rotting carcass that is Newark airport. I was exhausted emotionally and physically from my weekend, but exhilarated to put into practice what I'd learned.
I had the opportunity that Monday afternoon, the day of the solar eclipse.
My husband, Matt, and I both left work early because we wanted to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event with our kids. After viewing the eclipse through a welder's mask and glasses, the kids were amped, so Matt offered to swim with them. I, of course, volunteered to do the lunch dishes while they played. I was scrubbing a pan as my husband, who never fails to amaze me with his ability to let go and be present, tossed my littlest boy into the pool. He laughed as Brennan shrieked with glee, and right then and there, my hands still sudsy from the bubbles, I decided to quit doing what I thought I should do, and do something I wanted to do.
I went to the bedroom and laced up the swimsuit that makes me feel like a failure. I pushed down the self-loathing, scrubbed off my make-up, and tied up my hair. I grabbed a towel and headed out to the patio.
All four of my guys greeted me with big smiles. My husband offered to turn on the hot tub if I got too cold. My kids promised not to splash me. Even Brennan said he'd be "careful" while he played.
And I realized what a mistake I'd been making with them. They were so full of life--of joy!--but I was missing it because I was afraid it would mess me up. It would botch my schedule, my plans, my need for the routine that helped me feel in control. It would mar the perfect picture I'd painted, the one that masked the vulnerability I kept carefully concealed. It would smash the ideal I'd created for myself, the one I was always just shy of reaching.
So, with tears threatening to spill, I took a deep breath and told them all it was okay. I wouldn't melt if they splashed me. I wasn't perfect (not even close) and I was there to get a little rowdy.
I spent the next hour playing and laughing and pulling the kids around by their feet. We played zombies and dragons and Marco Polo. After we toweled off, the kids bubbling over with happiness, I felt goosebumps rise on my skin and not just because I was chilled.
I felt, for the first time in a long time, refreshed after an afternoon with the kids instead of stressed.
Why did it take me so long to let go?
Although it was scary to let loose and not worry about deadlines or the lunches that still needed to be packed for school the next day, it made me stronger to do so. Because what can withstand a hurricane? A tree rooted firmly in the ground, or a blade of grass that bends in the wind?
Vulnerability is probably never going to feel very sexy to me, but taking off the armor I put on every day and veering from my routine, was freeing in a way I hadn't realized I'd needed. But now, I understand that I can be strong in all the ways that are important to me and still offer my throat once in a while, trusting that not everyone will go for the jugular.
And as I slid into the water the day the moon blotted out the sun, the grin on my husband's face can attest to the fact that there's nothing sexier than that.