Like Me

I am a woman of very few talents, but I have always been good at getting along with other people.  Not because I’m particularly charismatic–I’m not–but because I am good at figuring out what others want from me and then working hard to deliver just that.  When your goal is to have other people like you, you learn rather quickly that conforming to their beliefs and expectations is important, even if that means hiding the parts of yourself that you know won’t meet with approval.

It took me a long time before I figured out that being my real, whole, self was so much more important than pleasing others.  And it has taken me even longer to break the habit of caring so much about whether or not other people like me.  Honestly, I’m in my late middle age and it’s still something I struggle with.

It still hurts when I meet someone new, and after a few minutes of polite conversation they excuse themselves and hurry away in search of someone more interesting to talk to.  It still stings when I hear friends talking about a social gathering I didn’t know about because I wasn’t invited.  And I still feel a bit ashamed, like a child who has been scolded, when I voice an opinion and someone tells me in no uncertain terms that I’m dead wrong.

The downside of social media and blogging is how it can feed into those insecurities, what with those little “like” buttons that let me know immediately how many people approve of a particular post.  WordPress takes it a step further with its stats on how many views and visitors are generated each time I publish something.  It’s easy to believe that the value of a post is determined solely by the number of likes and views.

Last week, I published a post that had 1,225 views, followed closely by a post that had exactly 102 views.  I spent approximately the same amount of time and effort on each one, and felt that I had written both posts the best way I knew how.  It’s tempting for me to study the more popular post to see what made so many people like it, and there was a time in my life when I believe I would have done just that.  Thankfully, in many ways I’ve moved past that mindset and plan to move forward as I’ve always done, which is just writing about what interests me and working on each post until I’m satisfied with the result.

Blogging can be hard for someone who still struggles sometimes to find the courage to let her true voice be heard.  I have to remind myself now and then that all I really have to offer in this blog is my own perspective and my own thoughts.  Sometimes my words will strike a chord with lots of people and sometimes with just a few people, and it’s good either way.  The important thing is that my words are an expression of my true self, rather than something I filtered heavily in order to attract the maximum amount of approval.

In many ways, my blog has helped me finally find my own voice.  And if I am lucky enough that my words help someone else, that’s just icing on the cake.

Square Peg, Round Hole

I don’t know about other bloggers, but I tend to think about my blog posts for a while before I actually write them.  I select a topic that happens to interest me, and then I think of what, exactly, I’d like to say about that topic, and even compose a few sentences in my head before I ever sit down in front of the computer.  If I’m lucky, the writing process is smooth and quick, and I hammer out my usual 500 to 700 word post without too much effort or angst.

But there are the times when I just can’t get it right, and when I rewrite the opening paragraphs several times, only to find that I have written myself right into a corner each time.  Sometimes I actually have to get up and walk away from my computer for a little while, and then come back and look at my draft with fresh eyes.  And when I do that, I almost always realize that the problem is that one of the sentences or ideas I came up with I came up with when I was thinking about the post just didn’t fit when I was actually writing the post, even though I kept putting it into each and every draft.  Unfortunately, I had liked that particular string of words so much (it was clever, darn it!) that I was blind to the fact that it needed to be cut.  I can be stubborn that way.

Sadly, that stubbornness isn’t limited to my writing.  I like to meet new people, try new things, and despite being a fiercely independent person, join new groups.  And that’s usually a good thing, as it has exposed me to lots of new ideas, some dear friends and some worthy causes. But there are times when as I get to know a person better, I realize that we  have very little in common and have some totally incompatible values.  Or that I didn’t like a particular activity nearly as much as I thought I would, or that despite my best efforts, I simply don’t fit into a particular group or organization.  And that’s when most people would immediately back off, but all too often, I hang in there, just sure that if I try a little bit harder, everything will work out.  I guess I’m afraid of being a quitter, or admitting that I can’t really be all things to all people.

When I was in college, most of my friends pledged a sorority, so despite my considerable misgivings, I decided to join one too.  I lasted only three months.  Not because I had joined the wrong sorority…it was a perfectly good one, with lots of nice women….but because I’m far too much of an individualist to be the right person for any sorority.  Luckily, that was one time when I recognized my mistake early on and addressed it quickly. Everyone was quite nice about it, and even though I quit the sorority, I remained friends with several of its members.   If I had tried to stick with it, skipping meetings, complaining,  and ignoring rules I didn’t like, I probably would have managed to alienate all the members.

And that’s something I need to remember all these years later when I find myself being stubborn about trying to stick with something that just isn’t right for me.  No matter how hard I try, not everyone is going to like me.  And despite my best efforts, I’m not going to be an effective and helpful member of every new group I try.  And that’s okay.  Because no one fits in everywhere, but everyone fits in somewhere.

Go Your Own Way

IMG_0237A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to join my neighborhood book club.  The women, who are mostly middle aged like me, are friendly and the discussion is lively and interesting.  But I have to admit that, while I enjoy being with this group, I don’t really feel as if I fit in.  We’re never going to read any of my favorite books because they aren’t popular, which means there aren’t enough available copies at the library.  (Most of my favorite books are also out of print.)  I almost always have a different opinion about the books we read than the rest of the group; I’m one of the few women who can’t easily and quickly look up potential book selections on her phone; I am often the only one in the room not wearing comfort shoes (my feet are too big), and I don’t have any grandchildren yet.  But I don’t care.  I don’t need to “fit in” to enjoy my book club; I enjoy it because it gives me the chance to read books I’ve never heard of, to get to know my neighbors a bit better and to hear new and interesting points of view.

Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my life paying very careful attention to what the other women in my age group were doing, what they were wearing, what they thought, etc.  It started in grade school, when fitting in was extremely important, and I remember the distinct and rigid groups of my high school years, and how it seemed that everyone tried to belong to at least one of them.  When I was a younger adult, I know I tried to fit in with my co-workers, with the other mothers, with my neighbors, etc.   Of course I had my own tastes and ideas, but they were always tempered with what I thought was expected of me, and what was the “right thing” to be doing and thinking.

Then I hit middle age, and gradually the old rules of conformity just slipped away, and not just for me. The issues of middle age may be universal:  the physical decline, the changing family dynamics, knowing that retirement and the “golden years” are just around the corner. But from what I’ve seen, the way we cope with those issues are as unique as they are varied. I know middle aged women who are happy to let their hair go grey, and I know others who dye their hair every three weeks just to make sure they don’t have grey roots.  (I’m in the second category.)  I know women who feel their sags and wrinkles are a sign of a life fully lived, and others who have had plastic surgery to smooth the wrinkles away.  I know people who are reveling in the freedom of the “empty nest,” and others who are spending their days helping to raise their grandchildren.  Some people are using their middle years as a time to slow down from the hectic pace of their lives, while others are busier than ever as they juggle the demands of a career, their children and caring for aging parents.

And I think that is exactly as it should be, because  there is no right or wrong way to live out our middle years.  Each of us gets to make the choices that work best for our unique situation and our unique personalities, and the pressure to conform seems to be over and done with.  Personally, I love the freedom to follow my own path, and the diversity that I see in my middle age contemporaries.  I’m just sorry that it took us so long to realize that it really is okay to be different, and wish that we had all figured this out a long time ago.  Just think how much easier high school would have been…..

Sometimes It’s Okay To Be Different

I was wasting time on Facebook the other day, aimlessly scrolling down my newsfeed, when I saw a post about working mothers.  The point was basically that working mothers need help and understanding, rather than judgement, from the stay-at-home moms, and was followed by the usual long stream of comments.  I should have known better than to read them, but when I’m trying to avoid my “to do” list, I never ignore a perfectly good distraction.  So I found myself reading the predictable comments where working moms accused the stay-at-home moms of being cliquish, over-priviledged and unambitious, while the stay-at-home moms accused the working moms of putting their career before the well-being of their children, not being involved in their children’s schools  and being condescending to those who stayed at home.

Sadly, none of this was new.  The same arguments and accusations were being tossed around when my own children were small, which was a long time ago.  I found it depressing that so many young women still hadn’t learned to simply respect that mothers tend to chose what is best (or necessary) for them and their families when they make their career and child-rearing decisions, and that it’s not helpful to trash talk those who make different choices.  Depressing, but not surprising.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect mothers of young children to be respectful and considerate of those who make different choices and have different beliefs when so few other people show respect and consideration for those who are different.  We live in a society where attacking beliefs that are different from ours has become the norm.  If someone’s political or religious views are different from ours, they are fair game for any ridicule or criticism we can heap upon them….or so it would seem from watching cable news shows, reading the letters to the editor in the newspaper, or reading the comment sections on Facebook or internet news posts.  The message seems clear:  only those who think, look and act just like us are acceptable.

Personally, I find that message unacceptable.  Of course I like my own opinions best; who doesn’t?  But I’ve lived long enough to realize that I don’t want to limit my relationships to people who always agree with me.  I have friends and family from almost every religious point of view, and definitely from every political point of view, and I value all of them.  My only requirement is that they don’t attack my views, and that I don’t attack theirs.  We may discuss our different beliefs respectfully, or we may just tactically “agree to disagree,” depending on the issue and our personalities, but we can, and do, stay in relationship with each other.  At our best, we even learn from each other and grow a little bit wiser and a little more tolerant.  Sometimes, I’ve even managed to admit that I might be (gasp) wrong…just once in a while, of course.

Not all the comments following the post about working mothers were negative.  Several suggested that the best thing to do was simply realize that all the mothers were doing their best to be good moms, and to stop judging each other and start trying to be be nice to each other.  They pointed out that a little understanding and kindness can go a long way.  Call me naive, but I couldn’t agree more.

A Fair Trade

DSC00174I really believe that looking into a mirror and thinking, “who is that old person?” is something that every middle aged person has done at one time or another.  Some of us do it on a regular basis, if not daily.  But the reality is that the older we get, the harder it is to identify with the image we see reflected back at us, especially in a well-lit bathroom mirror that emphasizes all the wrinkles and sags.  Middle age means no longer looking nearly as young as we feel, and knowing that it’s only going to get worse, not better, from here on out.  Talk about depressing!

Luckily, middle age brings other, more positive, changes than just the physical ones.  My body may be aging in all kinds of negative ways, but my sense of self is actually improving.  I have a very good memory of my childhood (which is kind of amazing, since I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday), and one thing I know very clearly about my early years is how hard I always worked at “fitting in.”  I paid attention to what the other kids wore, what games they played, and what they thought, and did my best to imitate that so that I wouldn’t be excluded.  Later, as a teenager and young adult, I did pretty much the same thing, doing my best to make sure that I looked and acted as much as possible like everyone else.  It wasn’t always easy, and I certainly didn’t always succeed, but I can honestly say that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be.

I can’t say exactly when “fitting in” stopped mattering so much to me, because it has been a gradual process, and one that I am still working on.  I’m sure reaching middle age had a lot to do with it, because the issues women deal with in middle age (menopause, empty-nest syndrome, aging parents, etc.) are a constant challenge to our self image.  Somewhere along the line, I have stopped caring so much about what others thought of me, and started caring a lot more who I really am, and who I really want to be.

It’s possible that this change is just a natural part of the aging process, now that I am at a point where I have to make intentional decisions about what I want to do with the years I have left.  Or maybe I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me this long to learn what is really important in life has nothing to do with conformity, and that the people I actually care about have no problems accepting me just the way I am.  But whatever happened, I’m grateful.  I may not always recognize the old-looking woman who looks back at me from the mirror these days, but I am getting to know the “real me” a little better every day.  And that’s a trade-off I can live with.