The week leading up to my son’s birthday is always a great time for me to reflect upon all of the things that I did . . . poorly. Mistakes I made, power struggles I bought into, hills I deemed worthy of climbing up and dying upon – each of them show up at my door ready for the big birthday party! Always there is a new and distinguished, yet deeply unsettling, guest: The Thing That He Will Talk About in Therapy One Day. This guest always makes my hosting duties practically unbearable.
There’s a more subtle guest at this party, too. A mistake I made several times, yet no one seemed to notice except me. And certainly no one is worse for it – definitely not my son who has no recollection of it. Still, the fact that everything turned out okay despite my error seems not to matter to this guest, because she is always in attendance. Her name is: Emma’s Inability to Honor Herself 2016.
My son was born in August and, by some unfortunate coincidence, the remaining months of that year held many important social events. We have never been invited to more weddings than that fall. Once wedding season was over, it was holiday season with still more invitations. As a new mom, invitations to late-night parties at which a baby was not welcome were just not what I needed or wanted. But I was afraid to say no. Moreover, I didn’t know how.
I had subscribed to the fear that “babies can ruin a marriage” so I said yes to attending these events thinking that I was serving my husband, though this was at the expense of my baby and myself. Attending these events wasn’t fun for me because I knew my child and I knew he was screaming for the comfort of mom’s breast at bed time, and I wasn’t there. Instead, I was elsewhere out of a sense of unfounded fear. I continued to ignore myself and the nagging thought “just stay home with the baby” because I worried that if I said no to going out now because of the baby, then that might turn into a habit and I would become a recluse, and a divorced one at that. So, I stuffed my feelings, put on a fake smile, and went.
The worst of all these experiences was the last one: New Year’s Eve. The entire day the baby did not sleep. Every time he nodded off, he woke right back up. Plus, we had been to Costco – his little eyes taking in everything – flooding his already overstimulated mind. By the time he finally settled down, it was time to leave. Many babies might have been okay with being transferred to their sleeping place, but for my baby that sleeping place was my arms. If I moved, he awoke, so I had better not move. And because I didn’t know how to say, “Sorry, honey, but I don’t think I should move, you’re going to have to go without me,” we all went on to have the worst night ever. My poor husband didn’t have a very present or fun date at this party. My poor baby had to deal with me not being there. My poor mother had to deal with a screaming and inconsolable baby. My poor standard of Good Mothering had to deal with the knowledge that I chose my husband over my child.
For this reason alone, Emma’s Inability to Honor Herself 2016 plagues me still. I’ve tried to reckon with the past, brushing it off as “I didn’t know it’d be that bad,” but it never works because I did know. I was capable of adding it all up: baby did not nap + baby is now ready to nap + mom abandoning a sleep-needy baby = all hell breaks loose.
It only took five years of contemplation for me to finally realize that the “I didn’t know” excuse is, in fact, valid. It turns out that what I didn’t know was how to honor myself. In those moments, I didn’t know how to explore my feelings of dread for a party, when I used to love parties. I didn’t know how to ask if I could bring the baby along, or even to just do it and not ask. I didn’t know how to say “no” when I felt I should. I didn’t know that what I wanted mattered too.
As I mentioned, everyone did survive my evening away. My son was fine and he didn’t hold this mistake against me. But boy I sure did, hence this annual party guest. This year, I decided to bite the bullet and just go over and talk to Emma’s Inability to Honor Herself 2016, ask why she keeps showing up to these parties. It turns out that yes, I have improved my capacity to honor myself, but I need to remember that it is a lifetime endeavor. Because no matter how strong I stand in myself, there will always be an opportunity to hide my true self in the name of being “better” or different for someone else. My annual party guest shows me where I started, measures how much I have grown, and then reminds me that continuing to honor myself is of utmost importance. Then, she gives me a hug and leaves.