Over the course of that last month, I’ve written to you about finding joy amidst hardship, living through pain, leaving domestic violence, and navigating fear. This is not a light load for anyone to take, let alone write about. Outside of my own personal experiences, I know that the people I love (and the world) are carrying hardship too.
LIfe has always had joy, pain, happiness, sorrow, and other dualities. Add a 2+ year pandemic to any of those feelings and we have an additional ongoing hardship to navigate in addition to life being, well, life. How are we surviving and how can we thrive during this time? I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that taking care of our own hearts, bodies, and spirits is truly the only option to get through it.
Taking Care of Yourself
I’ve been a healthcare professional for longer than I’d like to admit (15 years and counting). Over the course of my time with an active caseload, I cannot tell you how many times I repeated the age-old line “you have to put your oxygen mask on first!” when talking to exhausted caregivers of children with behavioral disorders. Fast forward a decade to when I became a mommy and joined the bandwagon of “self-care isn’t selfish, really!” as I carved out time for myself to have enough capacity to raise my little men. Talking the talk is easy to do and going through the motions of self-care has also been extremely publicized over the years.
Need more you time? Pour a glass of wine. Exhausted? Slip into a hot bath. Don’t miss the gym! Press that green juice. Where is your yoga mat? Society and marketing firms have a list of activities that we all can do in order to recharge our batteries and put ourselves first. While we might actually enjoy some of these activities, these slogans and lists completely miss the mark.
You see, all the slogans are telling us that we could actually be more perfect at taking care of ourselves in addition to a mounting list of things to do in order to live the ‘ideal’ life. Perfectionism is not in short supply these days. Neither are product lines nor marketing companies that profit from our deep dives into perfectionism and trying to be ‘good enough.’
In short, the way society (and I) used to talk about self-care is a one size fits all methodology, but one that can actually leave us more exhausted than relaxed. But self-care is really important, and recharging is essential during well, life, and times of high stress. So how do we fill these needs for ourselves? How do we take care of our beautiful but exhausted hearts, spirits, and bodies? My first piece of advice has literally gotten me through my entire life (the good, the bad, and the ugly). Ready for it? My mother would be shocked. Don’t listen to anyone. Like anyone.
Listening to Your Real Needs
I mean I can apply “don’t listen to anyone” to most facets of my life (it’s not always right!) but in regards to self-care I know I’m on to something. How could anyone from the outside world tell you how to take care of yourself when our needs as humans come from inside of our bodies and spirits? The only voice that can actually tell us what we need to recharge is our own. When we need it, how we need it, what feels good, what doesn’t, and so on. Self-care looks like being a guardian of your own energy and putting what your heart, spirit, and body need before the needs of others. Yes, even your children and especially every other person you love.
In a world where we are buzzing and being “so busy,” simply saying, “firm no,” to anything and anyone is the first step to listening to what you really need. It’s impossible to be honest with yourself if you do not make time for yourself. Self-care isn’t a status, it’s a way of being, one that I needed to be more honest with myself about recently. Burning at both ends has been my status quo for well over a year (OK, more than 5 years). Then I remember the wise voice inside of me that wished for my health and happiness above all else. Then I remembered to sit down and listen to what I really needed.
For me, I needed more time with my friends and family and more quiet time to reset on my own. It was a balance. I also needed better food, less sleep (I was over napping… a lot), and finding time to be quiet in my own body (so I did sign up for some yoga classes). I’m not fully re-energized yet but each morning I remind myself I am my own guardian and that I’m worth it. Trauma comes, hardship comes, and our hearts, spirits, and bodies need us to care deeply and kindly for them as we navigate our own personal pain (or just a bad day). We all need a little more kindness starting with ourselves.
It is only in taking care of ourselves that we can care for others. I won’t go all oxygen mask on you but I will challenge you by asking you this, “what hurts, what is tired, and what do you need?” Turn off the noise of the outside world, tune into yourself, and find out. It’s a journey worth taking, I promise.
Last week I wrote to you about integrity and my own personal experience in being unwilling to bend as a woman. I spoke about my experience not only as a businesswoman but also as a woman who has left domestic abuse and is walking through divorce. That, in my unwillingness to bend, I have had to grow a tougher skin in order to stand my sacred ground. That skin, or cloak if you will, represents my boundaries. My boundaries are how I protect myself, my work, my children, and my soul. My boundaries are also what shame has told me to ignore and each time I did I lost myself.
In writing to you about my unwillingness to bend, I also wrote to you about society’s general expectations that women should be docile and accommodating. That from a young age we are taught to put down what we actually need in order to please another person (males, teachers, adults, authorities, etc). With this social conditioning, there are no lessons on protecting your own worth, needs, and desires, leaving boundaries as never a topic that is never discussed.
Setting Boundaries Isn’t Selfish
For an incredible amount of time, I thought that boundaries were selfish, that when I placed a boundary on someone else who had a need or request I wasn’t serving humanity. Each time I placed a boundary and received backlash I measured my own worth against it. I thought that somehow my boundary was denying another person what they needed. It wasn’t until my experience leaving domestic abuse that I learned how life-saving boundaries are.
Just as many women are coming to find out that self-care isn’t selfish (I’m sure it’s a hashtag somewhere), I discovered that boundaries are also not selfish. In her work surrounding shame Brene Brown teaches us through her research that boundaries are actually compassionate. Compassionate to ourselves and the person with who we are setting boundaries. Boundaries tell us what we are willing to do in alignment with our own values (and person) and what we are not willing to do.
When a person does not respect boundaries it is not a reflection of the worth of the person setting the boundaries, it is a reflection of the person pushing your boundaries. Over the last year, I have learned that people pushing boundaries are expecting their happiness and “power,” to come from another person. Neither of these things can be true.
Boundaries & Happiness
You see, happiness is a choice we make. It is a sacred emotion that lives in our own hearts that only blooms when we remain true to ourselves. Without knowing what makes our hearts glow warmly it is impossible to know what makes us happy. Without knowing what can harm us it is also impossible to be happy. Boundaries are a lifeline to our happiness and hearts. They protect our souls.
Control is a perceived human condition, when we seek to control another person or outcome we have lost trust. We have decided that the world is hostile and that people cannot be trusted. That we must control the enemy, who is taking away our happiness so that our life can be fulfilled. Control over another human being is always about taking and never about true happiness.
As a woman, a business owner, and a survivor I have lived in both of these worlds for too long. Thinking it was somehow my job to make others happy before myself. Thinking that when someone wanted something from me (personally or professionally) it was my job to give it to them. In the biggest lesson in my life, I learned domestic abuse breaks your boundaries in a way where you lose yourself. Gaslighting was a constant theme in all of these scenarios, scenarios that were telling me I was crazy when I did not give in.
Here is what I have learned to be true in a year of healing. Boundaries are a lifeline. Whenever you do not know what to do, how to respond, or who to be in a relationship with, consult your personal values. Then, after you truthfully consult your values, you can insert a boundary. When you insert a boundary that is aligned with your values you will be at peace even if others are not. When others tell you they are uncomfortable because you have drawn a line in the sand you will be strong enough to withstand it. You will be strong enough to know that being at home in your own heart is all the strength you need.
Start Setting Your Boundaries
I have a list of boundaries I lean on now. If you don’t know where to start with boundary-setting, feel free to use a few as you put these lifelines in place for yourself:
- I will not make an excuse for harmful behavior
- I will not excuse my own harmful behavior
- My children and I come first
- I will not go against my personal values or needs to please someone else
- I will not be involved with someone whose words and actions do not align with my own
- I will not be in a relationship where I am not cared for, loved, and respected
After writing to you about my career and company, last week I detoured into my wishes for my nieces’ futures. I wrote of some of my own personal hardships as a woman in business as well as as a woman leaving domestic abuse. This week I’d like to speak to you about my perspective as a woman who is unwilling to bend, and the cost and benefits.
Women in Society
Over the past year, as I have stood my sacred ground, I have witnessed both the external and internal costs of taking a stand. Externally I have navigated (and continue to navigate) cultural stereotypes. Internally I have fought and am fighting to keep the voices at bay that tell me I am being too loud; that I must become small. I’m walking through fire and slowly learning that I am in fact fireproof.
As women, we are taught from a young age to make ourselves small and to make other people comfortable. That it is somehow our gender’s job to make men comfy. And not only should we make men comfortable but we should excuse ourselves at any point in which a person around us is hurt or offended by anything we say or do.
By societal standards the perfect woman is polite, accommodating, nurturing, and apologetic. She is beautiful, slight in her waist, and ready to smile through the adversities of life. I realize in writing this you may have a gut reaction of, “I don’t expect this of other women, or myself,” but if you ask yourself, “has society taught me this or shown me this,” I assure you the answer is yes. While we do not wear the corset of the 1800’s I guarantee you each woman reading this article has tried a diet at some point in her life. We are still wearing the expectations of our gender on a large scale even if your experience isn’t as dramatic as mine.
Internal & External Perfectionism
In the book, “Brave, Not Perfect,” the author writes about the concept of perfectionism as it affects women. On a much deeper level, she recants how from infancy through college (and even well into marriage) women are taught to be perfect and polite. Soft and docile. Desirable. In her work, she writes about overcoming the need to meet society’s standards and to be brave enough to be herself. It sounds like a small thing but as a woman, I assure you it is not. As soon as you slip off “soft and docile” the crowd in the stand wakes up. I have yet to meet a woman who is boldly herself that has not pushed away these crowds and at times even gone to battle with them. What does this battle entail?
In my experience, the battle is first and always presented internally. You know you have something to say, you know injustice is happening, and you know your soul is trying to break free. Your internal self scans the external world. Unskilled in any first attempt, when a woman boldly speaks her mind, she is almost always met with judgment. Sometimes she is met with hate. The judgment could be from an external person scolding or bullying the woman for being bold or from her own internal interpretation of how the world perceives her.
In both instances, the woman will question her own mind, her own soul, and her own desires. Was standing up, speaking out, and being herself worth the cost? The cost of losing a perceived community, relationship, place to fit in, or being ‘liked?’ In extreme cases, like domestic violence or any type of restriction of safety/liberty, the woman is hurt for speaking up.
Speaking up, unwilling to bend on who she is, the woman will learn quickly who in the world is not ready for her and who accepts her as the being she always was. The thing here is that the woman, unwilling to bend, has to accept herself as she always was. She must learn to ignore the explosions from the outside, call internal questioning a liar, and stand her sacred ground. As the wounds from the outside accumulate the woman must tend to the wounds with care and not accept the wounds as a reflection of her worth. They are battle scars from the fights.
Looking to the Future
As I wrote about my nieces I wrote with hope for a future in which no corsets (physical or mental) exist in the world. Where they are free to boldly be themselves. This goes for my three sons too. To set a future for our children when little boys and little girls are able to be who they are and one where we as parents don’t bend. We cannot accept the status quo or any type of gender stereotyping that restricts the freedom of another person. This freedom can be tiny, such as domestic division of labor, or large, such as equal representation in the legal system. We have a long way to go. But if more of us are willing to stand our ground and realize that by speaking our desires and advocating for our equality there will eventually be more people in the ring fighting for justice than the stands.
I’ve been down here a solid year, fighting for equal representation in domestic law, I’m not tired yet. I am my children’s mama, my niece’s aunt, and I am a woman unwilling to bend.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve written a little to you about my business Instructional ABA Consultants and my early career as a BCBA. This week I celebrated my twin nieces Grace and Emma’s third birthday. That’s them in the photo for this blog. They are related, I promise. As I held my now not-so-baby nieces on my lap I also held my desire for the world I want them to live in. This one’s for the girls.
Being There & Not Being There
In the fall of 2018, my sister was 32 weeks pregnant with the girls and I was around four months pregnant with Declan. My sister shared her birth plan with me as she got closer to the delivery. A piece of that plan was not wanting family there until after the girls were born.
On a Friday morning, Kristen’s plan changed when she found out she had preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome meaning the girls had to be delivered immediately. At the time I was overcome with fear for my sister and what to do with Henry. My ex-husband was less than kind when I spent time with family or when I was not the one caring for our son. I called my dear friend and babysitter in tears. She immediately jumped in to help with Henry. I called my sister, let her know that I was on my way to Ohio, and left.
This is a day of joy and despair that I will always remember. My sister and baby nieces were in crisis, I was pregnant, and felt fear for my family. Isolation is a common tactic of domestic violence and my ex-husband used this birth just the same. Nothing was below him. As I drove to Ohio I was ordered to turn the car around and when my nieces were born I was told I didn’t love my own son if I didn’t come home. I cried in relief of their birth, for my sister’s wellbeing, and for the cruelty of my ex-husband. I stood my ground, of course, and stayed with my sister and the girls.
My Sister’s Beautiful Little Girls
I remember their tiny little fingers and toes as my brother-in-law took me to the NICU. Emma’s soft, fuzzy blonde hair and Grace’s dark brown are still clear in my memory. I kept thinking for 32 weeks these babies have so much hair! Linked up to tubes and swaddled into boxes, my baby nieces were safe and still developing as though they were in the womb.
I will never forget braiding my sister’s hair and wheeling her to see her daughters. To see her reach into each incubator and brush their hands, “I’m mommy, I’m mommy.” Healing from her emergency c-section my sister poured love into those baby girls (their papa too) as they welcomed their daughters into the world. Me? I was an aunt. The very thing I wanted, even before I wanted to be a mommy of my own.
Leaving Domestic Violence Behind
Over the last three years so much has happened and changed. My baby nieces came home from the NICU after four weeks and just in time for Thanksgiving. Wonderful, beautiful Declan was born. Dametrius became my son. And I left domestic violence.
I have spent an incredible amount of time in shock over how I have been treated simply because I am a woman over the past year. Raised in a household where gender did not define our worth, I have been overcome with disbelief time and time again as I have been met with discrimination. Discrimination that I, until I faced, did not know still occurred in this day and age let alone in my own family.
When I came out to my father’s family about my experience with domestic violence last fall, his family’s radical views on women came out of the woodwork. A cousin I held dearly turned on me within a day of me standing up to my ex-husband reciting the 10 Commandments to my dad. An uncle told my dad, his own brother, that if I submitted to my alpha husband God would restore my marriage. Another uncle sent me a weekend retreat I could attend to learn my place in my marriage. Another cousin even went as far as to state, “he didn’t hit her, it’s not abuse, what’s next she’s going to say he raped her? Husbands cannot rape their wives.”
I did not and do not have words for the belief system that was exposed. As I let go of a family I thought I had, but never really did, I wailed to the skies, “What?! I am losing my family because I am a woman with a voice? Because I refuse to be abused?” I cannot tell you the pain and relief that came due to the separation from this side of my family. As I chose to set the boundary of, “I will not be in relationship with those who support my abuser or use religion to oppress women,” I set a precedent for my nieces. I cannot imagine a world, Goddess forbid, that Grace or Emma find themselves being mistreated and told how to act, or else, because they are women.
Over the course of the last year not only have I been discriminated against by my family but questioned time and time again in the court system. To this day my legal team is fighting against that stereotype that because I am a successful business owner I must be a bitch. For a year now, when I have brought forth true concerns of safety for myself and my sons we have to fight this narrative. Time and time again I have been told I cannot fly my feminist flag in court.
What if it’s not a feminist flag? What if I am a human being who is just asking to be considered equally within the court system? What if I am not trying to control but instead a frightened, concerned mother? What if I am not a bitch but instead an excellent, caring leader? And what if I am just a person being brave and trying to call for justice, as well as create hope, through my talents in business?
I do not want this for myself yet more than that I do not want to ever see my nieces treated as less because they are women. I want a world in which when my nieces speak, they are heard and believed. A world where when they wish, dream, desire, lust, and wonder they are free to pursue what lights the fires in their souls. A world where when injustice comes it’s met with justice, not discrimination. I never want my nieces to even consider being a woman a limitation. It is not. We have a long way to go in building a world where the world does not default to limiting them. Unfortunately, it took a divorce for me to see exactly what is still happening in our world.
Grace & Emma, be thirsty my loves. Be brave. Be fearless. Your Aunt Jessie? I’m trying, my darlings, to create a small but carefully laid path of hope and justice in our family and world so you may walk a little easier than me.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve written to you from a more personal place than usual. My intention in writing these pieces of my story is to share my humanity with you. As human beings, we all go through trials and tribulations. We all have hardships. And we all fall down but rise to stand tall another day. The last twenty or so months have been challenging as a society and the world has certainly not been hardship-free, even before COVID entered our worlds.
Mitigating Damage from Outside Noise
This week I’d like to write about the noise of the world, including the noise that has surrounded me, and how to differentiate noise from the truth. When I say the noise of the world I’m referring to Brene Brown and her reference to the warrior’s ring featuring Theodore Roosevelt’s speech.
Remember that Brene teaches us that the noise from the stands (the outside world) says nothing about our worth and that worth is inside each warrior dusting the blood from their knees to fight another day. In my observations over these past 20 months, and speaking honestly since our last administration took office, the noise from the stands seems to have increased in volume. At times the roar of the crowd can be deafening.
As someone living with PTSD, noise in and of itself can be challenging for me. When that noise is coming from others, it may not hurt my ears but can hurt my heart. Do you all remember this little ditty as a child; “Stick and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt me”? Yeah, me too. It’s a bullshit ditty if that’s a thing.
What the ditty should go like is “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can break your heart.” We as humans are not immune from the painful words of others and those words can make us question our own worth. It’s painful to realize that when others say unkind words (and worse) that there is a subset of people who choose to behave this way intentionally. These are the people making noise in the stands.
The Worst Part of the Crowd
The intentionally hurtful people in the stands seem to believe that by pointing out the imperfections of others that they are somehow pointing out their own perfection. That is to say that if they can be loud enough about how their belief system, sexual identity, race, gender, and the like is perfect that maybe, just maybe, it means their own, differing lifestyle is better than yours.
This may have made sense tens of thousands of years ago; classifying each other by how they looked and behaved. This allowed our ancient ancestors to know who was in their tribe and who was an actual threat. Yet as language and thought developed, currency also developed, and all of a sudden these cheap shot demographics became a sorting of worth. You need not look further than slavery and the treatment of women or look into the holocaust as societal examples for the danger of this type of behavior.
At a societal level, in a power-over dynamic, fear is necessary to keep the power in place. Teaching people to fear other people is very simple to do: just sprinkle in judgment, divide a few resources you say are scarce, add a God of your choosing, and tada! you have power. This is also bullshit, yet remains very real for a lot of people today.
Power & Control
Personally, I’ve always hated power-over dynamics used for power and control. Using resources to restrict others fires up my soul up like nothing else. Using both covert and overt differences as the fuel to feed this power is the match before the gasoline that starts the fire. For those of us who refuse to use a power-over approach and believe in our bones that humanity is equal, deserving a life with choice, a life with resources to live day-to-day encounters can be maddening.
Also, personally, even as a woman I have never felt this attempted power-over as closely as I have this past year. I have been told hideous things from my father’s family regarding women and their “God.” I have heard messaging from almost every person in the legal system to not fly my “feminist flag,” in our country courthouse. I have even faced the local football team head-on about racism in regards to my son.
The words I have heard from others in the stands this past year have been ugly, to put it mildly. It took me almost a full year to realize the noise from the stands was not real but my worth is. I have stood in the ring, dusting blood from my knees, and forcing myself to face the hate but not using it to fight. Hate begets hate.
Stop Listening to the Noise
Here in the US, we’ve been struggling for over a year, but it’s been a lifetime for so many others. My son surely did not have his first encounter with racism on his freshman football team. I’ve been questioned as a woman countless times even before this past year began. And people in “power,” have been using others for personal gain at any cost (including human lives) for centuries. Yet outside of this power-over dynamic is a power within with a different dynamic. A power that demands that all humanity is treated equally and deserving of respect. A power that tells us that no matter how loud hate is, love can overcome it.
So which will you choose? Will you choose to continue to section off pieces of humanity based on what they believe, how they look, or if you feel you can gain control over them? I certainly hope not. I also certainly hope that if you are choosing not to use power-over, you are using power with and standing up for your worth, as well as the worth of others.
We are brothers and sisters. We are more alike than we are different. If you ever find yourself in the stands, adding your anger to that of the crowd, know that you can stop, walk to the ring, and help your sister stand.