Have you ever noticed how kids are fine with saying, “I don’t want to.” If they don’t want to eat tilapia, play Clue, go to bed, sit on grandma’s lap… whatever it is, they will be honest. They may love tilapia and Clue might be their favorite game. They adore grandma and love their bedtime rituals, but they accept themselves as they are at this moment. They are also okay with telling the truth if they are not so crazy about grandma.
There need to be rules, for sure. The honesty of children does not have to be squelched in order to teach them how to be polite, and maybe keep the brutal truth to themselves, especially if it involves crushing someone’s soul. (Like grandma’s if she finds out little Sally thinks she is mean or smells bad.)
But the beauty of kids, when allowed to be themselves, is that they can change their minds, have moods, succumb to whims. What I especially admire is that they know what they want, recognize their moods, and are okay with operating on a whim.
Even as a kid, I wasn’t like that. I knew early on that I had to toe the line to be fully accepted by the people I should not have had to audition for… over and over again. I don’t remember a time when I “did what I wanted” without having to ask for permission. What was more likely—I would suppress what I wanted so completely that I convinced myself that whatever it was I ended up doing was what I wanted, even though it was actually what my mother wanted. If that makes sense. Anyway, it was a clever psychological trick my brain played on me but it protected me from feeling eternally unfulfilled, squelched, diminished, unseen, imprisoned.
I grew to adulthood having no fucking clue what I wanted. I couldn’t pick out clothes because I did not know what I liked. I only knew what my mom liked. I longed for love but had no idea how it was supposed to feel to be seen and loved for who I was rather than trying to be whatever everyone wanted. The only thing I knew for sure was that I loved to write, and that I wanted to get away from home.
This trick my brain learned at such a young age has gotten me into trouble. With myself, that is. I now second guess so many of my choices through life wondering… did I do that for me, or…? Example: I lived for 25 years in a town, in a part of the world where I had no particular desire to live. Could I see the practical benefit of it? That it would be easy, and affordable, to raise children there? Sure. And my husband REALLY WANTED to live there. In fact, New York City where I had grown up and where I always thought I’d return, was an absolute incontrovertible NO for him. He knew what he wanted and didn’t want. That alone was impressive to me. He felt so strongly about it, so … why not? I had a feeling it was not going to make me happy, but “it’s so practical, and he wants to so badly….” I convinced myself I wanted it too.
Maybe that was okay in that instance. We make sacrifices and choices to remain in relationships and to live within our means. And truth be told, it’s a gorgeous place and I have had countless positive outcomes from that choice. But the point is, I did not know what I wanted, and I did not know what I did not want. Not really. Or maybe I did, but I had no idea how to get what I wanted. I did not know what every 3 year old knows: how to say, “I don’t want to.” Or: “No, I won’t do that.”
How many men did I succumb to along the way because I did not realize I was allowed to say that? When I said “yes” to the first marriage proposal I ever got I did not know there were options. I mean, I would have said yes anyway, but if there was a thought in my head it was more, “I don’t want to let him down,” than it was, “I should think about this and be sure it’s what I want.”
Now my kids are basically grown. My son is a grown man who comes home rarely, due to a busy work schedule and the fact that he is in a band that has frequent gigs in and around Vermont where he lives. My daughter is in college, but not for much longer, and then the short summer visits to her childhood home will become shorter and less frequent, no matter how much I don’t want to think about it. My fledglings have fledged and now it’s my turn to become a full-fledged empty nester.
It dawns on me, gradually, that I can do whatever I want. I mean, on any given day, assuming I show up at work and pay my bills, I can do… whatever I want. I have, over the years, worked hard to become myself fully and to know what I believe in, what I love, what I don’t love. My gut knows what I want and I am getting better at making my head shut up so I can follow my gut.
I like making other people happy but I am finding out what it means to make myself happy. Some of the choices I’ve made have backfired and hurt me. But they were mine, and I did what I chose. I may come off like a toddler sometimes as I try to figure out the balance between “I don’t want to” and kindness, but I’m giving it my best shot.