Last fall, I submitted a piece to an essay contest sponsored by the magazine Real Simple. The prompt was to write about a decision you wish you could undo. My essay was not selected.
I will not be published in Real Simple. Not this year. But the thing about having a blog is, I can publish myself here anytime I want.
So here’s the essay I wrote for them, which I’ll share instead with you.
If it is worth quipping, it has already been quipped in Pretty Woman. Probably by Vivian. Maybe by Kit.
To wit: after being denied a cheerful greeting and any sort of assistance, Vivian returned to the snotty saleslady in the snotty boutique on the snotty Rodeo Drive, arms laden with shopping bags and body draped in the finest of ready-to-wear. After making a snide comment about working on commission, good ‘ol Viv gestured at the saleslady with her weight-bearing arms and stated, simply:
“Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
When I saw that movie as a girl, I was intrigued. What would be my big, huge mistake? Would it, too, be movie-worthy? Would it, too, result in nothing more than shaking paper bags and a lost commission? How long until I started to look like Julia Roberts?
That movie – any movie – was of course an unnecessary launch pad. I was destined to make mistakes in my life, because I was put onto this earth as a human. As I would soon learn, mistakes are something humans are really into making.
I would also soon learn that making mistakes would not require me to travel to far-flung, exotic places like Rodeo Drive. Why, I could make mistakes right in the comfort of my own home! Racing with my sister down our narrow, crooked hallway? Mistake. Selecting a vest and MC Hammer pants in a matching paisley pattern to wear to my first middle school dance? Mistake. Watching America’s Most Wanted when my parents were out for dinner? Mistake.
And that big, huge mistake? Well, I made that in and around my childhood home as well. It just took me a lot longer to figure out that I had made it (and kept on making it).
I did not listen to my mother. For years. On a variety of topics.
She told me that being popular was not the important measure of a person. Children are fickle and sometimes petty and almost always lacking in perspective. Far better to be a person who treats other people well, regardless of social calculus. But I wanted to be invited to the birthday party and to share a best friend’s necklace and to have a seat at the cool table. So I was unkind sometimes, or I was quiet when I should have spoken up or spoken out. I look back and don’t regret not being more popular. I look back and regret that I didn’t sit with her or dance with him or smile at that or reach out then.
She told me that when someone teased me, it was because they were feeling insecure about themselves, not because there was something actually “wrong” with me. It was easier to believe the negatives being hurled at me by a near-stranger, though, than to take strength from her wisdom. I let myself cower at the snickers and cry at the insults. If only I had projected an aura of confidence in my character and cultivated a feeling of sympathy for my attackers. I could have skipped the extra helpings of self-destruction and the failed courses in people-pleasing. I could have helped someone realize that life rewards good people more satisfyingly than it rewards mean people.
She told me that I am as good as it gets. That whatever I can do, whatever I can’t do, and however I do the doing of it all is what makes me special. That I should embrace those realities, and not waste time trying to change them. But I wanted the straight hair and the sophisticated presence and the boy to like me and the body to go with it all. I paid the money, copied the role models, played the game, and cried the tears. None of it made any difference. I was still me, and I didn’t start appreciating me until it was almost too late.
She told me that I should not wear white. I insisted that I loved a crisp white shirt. She was right, though. White does wash me out.
She told me that my sisters were my best friends. I spent years wanting a “real” best friend. One that I found, one that found me. A match made in bosom-buddy heaven. I tried really hard to be the best friend everyone would have wanted. Then I realized that even without trying, I had three best friends who were there for every Christmas, supportive of every idea, and ready to help whenever I needed to go shopping. As a bonus, they would also probably make great kidney donors. They were my sisters.
She told me that I needed to enjoy my single life. I was determined to have a boyfriend. I felt like it would be the ultimate proof that I was lovable and desirable and good enough. All those nights when I could have been watching the movies I wanted to watch, or reading my books, or spending time with the people I chose, I instead spent wondering where He was and when He would arrive. And what I was doing wrong. Now there are days I would trade for just five of those selfish minutes.
She told me that I needed to enjoy my married life. I was consumed with my job and with thoughts of when we would start having children. Then I was consumed with the struggles of infertility. All those nights when we could have seen a movie on a whim, or quietly read an adult book, or spent time with people who speak in complete sentences, I instead spent wondering why we were being deprived of a baby in our midst. And what I was doing wrong. Now there are days I would trade for just five of those selfish minutes.
She told me that I would know when the contractions had started. I worried that I would not. Hah.
She told me that the baby years would fly by. I was tired and sleep-scheduling and breast-feeding and tethered to an invisible leash. I loved my baby, I had worked hard for my baby, I wanted my baby. I also wanted a life. I looked forward to the day she would sleep through the night, to the morning he would be able to sit up by himself, to the time they could play together. Now I miss the dark, still quiet of a 4AM feeding and the warmth of a newborn napping on my chest.
She told me that everything would be okay. I worried that everything would be terrible. So far, she’s been right.
In my defense, when I was busy doing all this ignoring, I was just a kid. A big kid, for some of it. A big kid with a mortgage, even. But always a kid. Her kid.
I thought I knew what I was doing. When I didn’t, I thought that I could figure it out for myself. I discredited my mother’s positive words because, I reasoned, she had to tell me good things. She was my mother. It was part of the job.
In a way, I suppose I was right. I did have a sense of right and wrong, and I did have a sense of self. I did confront problems and challenges, and I did eventually come out on the other side – even if the route was sometimes years long. I suppose I couldn’t listen to her, or I couldn’t fully listen to her, because I had to do my growing up my way. My stubborn, sometimes misguided, almost always self-critical way.
I can finally look back on my life and its various stages and fully appreciate how much easier it all would have been if I had just listened to her, though. Her advice has proven to have been almost always better, her reassurance to have been almost always reliable, and her counsel to have been almost always correct. If only I had trusted her more, or paid closer attention, or quit it with the angry teenager act, my insides would have been so much calmer and my outsides would have been so much happier.
Now her messages ring true. Now I am relaying them to my own children. Now, I suppose, I am a grown-up.
But I am also still a kid. Her kid. Learning my lessons from her as I continue to go.