The photo I use for my LinkedIn account is eight years old and one of the most recent pictures I have of only me. In it, I’m holding a small glass of apple-flavored tea, given to me by one of the vendors at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I was shopping for tile that day, and right after the picture was taken, I accidentally dropped a tile on the floor. The tile was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. Wrapped up, it looked whole, but when I picked it up off the floor, it sagged in my hands; the tile was shattered.
Back then, I was 28 years old and a yoga instructor. I hadn’t yet had children or any of the afflictions that for me accompanied motherhood, like postpartum depression. I had just completed my master’s degree in nonfiction writing. A cool, new British magazine was publishing my work. My desire to write was the core of my identity, and I believed I was on my way to becoming a “real” writer.
Three months later, I was pregnant.
With my daughter’s birth, I became “mom” first and foremost. Everything else I wanted to be—a good friend, a regular yogi, a writer—I had to fight for. Writing time and space were most precious to me. For years I woke early or stayed up late to write.
When I chose that photo for my LinkedIn account, I felt that I was just beginning to return to the writer I previously was. In the years that had passed, I had become a mother of two. I was busy but, finally, both my children were at school, and I was able to write regularly again. I wasn’t yet publishing work, but I was networking at conferences. When one of my manuscripts won first prize at one of those conferences, I believed that publishing again was within reach. But as soon as I began to hope for this, I was ripped from my writing, consumed by parenting duties. My daughter was six, and she needed me.
Spirited and willful since birth, my daughter turned the corner at the start of kindergarten. The dark side got her. Uncooperative and unpleasant became her modus operandi. When things didn’t go as she planned, she fell into a tantrum, crying, yelling, stomping, and kicking. Always, it happened suddenly or with little build up. She’d lose it. Then I would. If she began to “dance berserk” (as I call her stomping), I’d start to panic. My heart would race and so would my head, trying to think of how to stop her as soon as possible. Usually I’d take the dictatorship role, saying “No way. We don’t do that.” Then, “You’re going home” or “in time out” or “in your bedroom.” She’d stand her ground. “You’re not going to terrorize us,” I’d say, grabbing her by the wrist and dragging her upstairs while she screamed all the way.
My husband and I consider ourselves firm and consistent parents, but no matter the consequence we gave our daughter, she’d tantrum; we needed help. Since I was staying home with the children, I took the lead. At therapy, I quickly learned it wasn’t only my daughter who had to do work. My husband and I did too. Frankly, I didn’t feel up for it. I was already trying so hard to be a good mother. I cooked nutritious meals. I was strict with TV time. I filled our days with outside play and reading. And between all that and trying to build a writing career, I hadn’t the energy for anything else, least of all therapy. My morale was low. I hadn’t been able to help my daughter gain control of herself. I thought that if I were a better mother, my daughter wouldn’t still be having outbursts. I’d have found a way to teach her other strategies for dealing with her disappointment and frustration. Although seeing a therapist was my choice, it fed into my negative image of myself. It wasn’t the only image I held of myself as a mother, but it was the utmost one. I felt like I couldn’t be the writer I wanted to be. And I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be. So what was I? Nothing of any value. A package of shattered tile.
Though I didn’t think I had the energy to give to therapy, I went. I tried.
Each week, when the therapist finished her session with my daughter, she’d spend a few minutes discussing strategies to try at home.
The therapist told me to give my daughter a hug when she was beginning to work herself up because once my daughter started dancing berserk, it was too late.
She wanted me to validate my daughter’s strong feelings by saying things like, “I’m sorry you’re so unhappy right now.”
And when my daughter did go berserk, I was to find a time later, when she was calm again, to help develop her ability to reflect back. “Honey, what was it you didn’t like? Is there another way you could have handled it?”
Although not everything the therapist said made sense to me, these three tips did. At home, however, when I tried them, I faltered. When I validated my daughter’s feelings, I felt like I was coddling her. I couldn’t seem to stop taking my daughter’s bad attitude personally. I struggled to show her love and understanding when she was screaming and crying and needed it most.
Trying to be a better mother for my daughter, I diligently took notes at every therapy session, and, at night, I brought them into bed with me. Whereas once I had used this time for my writing, I now reviewed my notes from therapy. But no matter how much I studied, I had a hard time recalling the therapist’s words in heated moments with my daughter. I realized I didn’t need to repeat the therapist’s words exactly, only the sentiment, but even that challenged me. One day, I confessed how much I was struggling to the therapist. When I was finished, she looked at me, her big blue eyes peering into mine, and said, “You have to be a wise woman.”
Yeah, right, I thought. If I know anything, it’s that I know nothing.
Next, I thought, I can’t be a wise woman. I’ve never had the words when I need them, only after, which is why I like to write. Writing, I can figure things out. Being wise in the moment? Impossible.
I left my therapist’s office that day as clueless as ever.
Lying in bed that night, I kept thinking about what the therapist had said: “You have to be a wise woman.” But how could I be something I wasn’t? Not wanting to stay up all night ruminating, I grabbed the book on my nightstand. It was one of my favorite books, the memoir of Agnes de Mille, the American choreographer. Agnes was an unlikely ballerina who helped popularize ballet in America with a cowboy ballet. The niece of a famous film director, she grew up in old Hollywood, eating dinner with the best in the business. She learned the talk, and it served her well when she began her dancing career. Fake it until you make it is the principle that she followed. As I read about Agnes, I thought, why not fake being a wise woman? I could do that. As I considered the idea, I flipped through my book to a photograph of Agnes in old age. Wearing a fancy, old-fashioned (even for the time) dress, Agnes sat, showing off her profile, her chin lifted high. She looked haughty and determined and sharp. She looked as if it were impossible to ruffle her. She was in control. It struck me suddenly; when my daughter lost control, all I had to do was pretend I found it.
The next time my daughter lost herself to her emotions and my heart started pounding, I needed to breathe, not jump to it. Although my brain would be telling me to do something, anything, I had to hold still. I had to let the impulse to act quickly rise up through my consciousness and burst. And once the bubbles of panic were gone, I’d ask my daughter why she was feeling so upset. I’d say things like, “I can see you are angry, and I’m sorry,” and I could calmly ask, “Why are you feeling so bad?” And ever so slowly, I’d help my daughter peel back the rapid succession of things she experienced before she lost it, and I’d help her put words to feelings that made her go berserk. If someone with a camera was around at that moment and took a photograph, I’d look like a wise woman. No one would ever guess I was just faking it.
I can’t say that in practice my playing the wise woman with my daughter ever unfolded as prettily as it did in my head, but sometimes just picturing myself as the wise woman slowed me down so that I could find kindness or playfulness or the right word needed to redirect my daughter.
As the situation with my daughter gradually improved, I returned to writing. Last fall, I went to a writers’ conference. The conference started at noon and was a six-hour drive from my home. I left before dawn, wearing my pajamas. Ten minutes before I arrived at the conference, I stopped at a gas station to change and slipped into a pencil skirt and heels. I put on earrings. I even sucked my belly in for a moment and, standing on my tiptoes, checked myself out in the mirror. Not bad. For the next two days, this is how I’d look. It wasn’t exactly me, at least not every day, but I could fake that it was, no problem. Stuffing my pajamas into my bag, I couldn’t help smiling. Faking it as a professional writer was going to be so much easier than faking it as a wise woman. I left the bathroom and, hearing my heels click against the floor, I felt such pleasure. Was this the same thing as making it?
I haven’t changed my LinkedIn picture. I’m going to be one of those women you meet and think, Man, she looks nothing like her picture. Why doesn’t she update her photo? Well, I still haven’t a photograph of myself alone. But I have something better than that; I have a new picture of myself.