Tuesday, December 29, 2009


My mom would say, I think, that I have the post-holiday letdown. I saw the earliest symptoms of it in my older son on Christmas morning: all the gifts were opened and he was happy, even grateful, but feeling a little down at the same time. In his case, he started getting jealous of some attention the younger brother was getting from their dad.

Likewise, I have had a good Christmas in so many ways. Both of the boys had parts in the church tableau. My ex-husband and I have been getting along, and he was here on Christmas day to open gifts with the kids and have breakfast. That made a big difference to the boys, especially the younger one. Later I dropped him off at his place and took the kids to my mom's for a relatively small family gathering of twelve for dinner (the full family gathering, more like 26 people, didn't happen until Sunday). Great visiting with my brothers and sisters, especially my brother and sister-in-law in from Michigan, and my nephew Luke down from New York City.

Gifts also were great. I have a secondhand laptop on which to really take the writing somewhere. Assorted journals and music, a beautiful set of a necklace and earring from my boys, a CD... I was not raised with the idea that the holiday is about big gifts, or gifts that somehow make life worthwhile, and I am easily pleased with fun things that I like.

So, why do I feel so crushingly alone and without direction? I know it's a feeling and that things are not likely to be so bleak in reality but wow, I'm feeling low. I always think that if I understand it, it will be easier to get past it. The jury's still out on the accuracy of that belief. Apart from winding down from the drive to provide a magical Christmas for the children, there was a tremendous amount of energy expended in the past 14 months to separate and divorce and even to establish a working relationship with my exhusband. Here I am divorced, which I really wanted, but now what? I haven't even been writing. Am I any better off than I was a year ago? The answer is yes, of course, but the momentum has petered out and there's little to struggle against. I'm accustomed to struggling, so it feels strange.

It also feels strange to choose what's going to get my commitment and energy. For years there has been pretty constant chaos. Now there's the very necessary drives of work and the children's needs, and when those take all the energy I have, I feel like a loser, not committed enough to my goals. But, that's just reality, that sometimes the kids and survival are going to be all I can manage, and if I can do that and pull Christmas together, hey that's just fine.

So, maybe Mom would be right. It's a letdown, which is really a chance to catch my breath and regroup.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Private Hurt

In the past few days, I’ve watched a little more TV than usual. Either the swine flu is in my house, or every one of the lesser viruses that are circulating vigorously in the unseasonably mild weather have attacked us. There was the seemingly neverending cough, which is a particular treat for my older son and me who have asthma. Naturally those symptoms developed into sinus infections. That’s finally clearing up but yesterday morning, the poor Bunny was up at 3:30 with the first of several bouts of vomiting. Meanwhile, all I want to do is stay in bed, head under the covers, and sleep.

After sleeping as much as possible on Sunday, I was looking for something worth watching. There wasn’t much to qualify, but I found myself watching a documentary on BBC America: “Perfect Private Parts” (www.bbcamerica.com/content/367/index.jsp, available for purchase from iTunes). Now, if there was one part of my body that I had not worried was somehow inadequate, well, it would be the private part.

According to the program, more and more women, even young women in their teens, are opting for cosmetic surgery for the vagina and surrounding area. I’m still trying to process that. We are so open about the media’s effect on our self-images: the eating disorders, preoccupation with imperfect features and skin, holding ourselves up to a distorted and impossible standard of beauty, botox and plastic surgery for the face (that was another show in the next hour). But, really, the vagina? Good Lord, to what are women comparing themselves? I am no fan of porn but I’ve seen a little and nothing there ever led me to believe that there’s a particular aesthetic to achieve or that some women have something over the rest. There's the choice of whether or how much to shave, but that's about it.

The example that was easiest for me to understand was that some young Muslim women seek hymen reattachment before marriage, literally fearing that they would be killed or at least disowned by their families if it is discovered that they are not virgins. While I find it barbaric, it is the reality of their lives and doing what they can to protect themselves makes sense. The results are less permanent and rather less tragic than female genital mutilation, but the reasons for subjecting oneself to the procedure are generally the same: to maintain connection to the community in which one lives and on which one is to some degree dependent.

Other women were unhappy with the natural state of affairs, such as having longer, “flappy” labia. In some cases, the partner or the medical practitioner for the woman laughed at her. Some were concerned about the perceived effects of childbirth. Personally, I had not noticed any big change of that kind after having my two kids, but now I admit to wondering if there’s something I missed. At present I’m single again and there’s no one to ask, ‘hey, is everything normal down there?’ and I’m not sure I would want to ask. (It was a mantra of my mother’s that if you can’t accept no for an answer, then you shouldn’t ask.)

One woman was considering some sort of surgery to improve things, but attended a women’s center which actually coaches women through taking a look at themselves and accepting who they are and what they look like. It seemed strange to me, but really, in what other context can a woman learn that there’s nothing wrong with how she looks? She decided against the surgery.

I'm reminded of one time, when I was 18 and at my personal thinnest, a guy who worked in the same store at the mall that I did told me I was looking great but "now you just need to lose your ass." That was in my head for years, until a man said to me "he didn't know what he was talking about." Too big for some is perfect for others. The point is that none of us looks like a model, and if there is such a thing as a perfect private part, probably nobody has it or if she does, she has other personal imperfections she can obsess over.

The end result is that I’m a little sadder after seeing the piece, but glad to be informed. It is appalling, the lengths to which we’ll go in torturing ourselves with comparisons to some artificial ideal. Without naming the problem, though, there is no way to combat it, no way to know that we need to teach our children and each other that all the different varieties of normal are good.