I happen to be the product of a wildly unsuccessful marriage. Sometimes I look at each of my parents and wonder who the hell thought that union was a good idea. Of course, I didn’t know them through their youth and courtship. (They had known each other in highschool, and married in their early twenties.) But in my lifetime they have been as different as can be. My father is a Harvard Ph.D. and atheist who wears bow ties and thinks intellectual discourse and art are fun. My mom is a Catholic with a dirty sense of humor who thinks Disney World and midnight showings of blockbuster movies are fun. They were divorced, oh…about 15 minutes after I was born.
When I was 27, I had a conversation with each of them (separately) about why their marriage didn’t work out. My mother’s explanation was that my father didn’t want a family. (This is not an insight into my father, by the way. He has always been in my life. Always as a father.) This is an illustration of the context of my childhood. My father didn’t want a family meant my father didn’t want me. Of course, my mother never said this to me growing up. I certainly don’t think she ever considered his leaving my fault. Both of my parents are good people who love me. But my mother believed that he left because he didn’t want a family, and technically, I was that family. A context like that is insidious. It does not have to be distinguished to be lived. It does not have to be named and expressed to be understood. That my father didn’t want me is the water I have been swimming in my whole life. To the child in me, I chased the man away with my very existence.
34-year-old, intelligent, rational Kate knows that her parents’ marriage is between them. That their choices to communicate or stay silent, fight or make peace, stay or leave, had nothing to do with her. But baby Kate got the burden of being a burden. And she’s been carrying it dutifully her whole life.
I have never been available for love. I shut my heart down early. But the thing about a heart is that it will love if you let it. So I didn’t let it. I anesthetized it with food. I ate every feeling constantly for the majority of my life. I built myself a fortress of fat and I lived inside it.
So fast forward. I got control of the food. I got hot. I got some integrity. But I kept the fortress around my heart. And then I started dating. I mean a *lot*. I internet dated. I went out with my cab driver. With my waiter. Bankers, lawyers, architects, construction workers. Even a chef. I met men on the subway. In airports. On the street. In the park. Starbucks. (Starbucks, single ladies! You just have to go there and smile.) But it didn’t matter how many men I met or how many dates I went on. I was all surface. I was all face and body. I never let anyone into my fortress to get a glimpse of my heart.
What I am starting to see now is that cowardice begets cowardice. That grace is a muscle. I let mine atrophy for 28 years. Perhaps if I had faced my fear and shame, I would have found that it was a paper tiger. But there is no perhaps. My story is that I fed my shame with cake and I hid away from life.
About two years ago, I was seeing this guy. (Starbucks. I’m telling you!) And wow, did I like him. I had had my food under control for a few years by then. I looked great and I was at a place in my life where I genuinely respected myself. So I got up all the courage I could muster, I found a little chink in the wall of my fortress and I told him that I liked him. (Like. Not love. I have never been in love.) He didn’t feel the same.
Now most girls can figure out how to deal with this kind of rejection by the time they are 14. But I was in my fortress at 14, cowering in the corner and stuffing my face. I did not know how to deal with it. I didn’t have that muscle. So I went back into my fortress and lamented my lot as the unwanted one. This guy is not a jerk. He was not cruel to me. He and I are still in touch occasionally. We exist somewhere between friends and acquaintances. He thinks I’m “really special”. (Ugh! I hate “really special”!) He says I’m his biggest cheerleader. He loves my honesty and seeks my opinion. And of course, he would still sleep with me if I were available for that. (Which I am not.) But what I have just come to realize, is that for the past two years, I have been feeling sorry for him. Sorry for having burdened him. Sorry for wanting what I don’t deserve. Sorry for making him look at my heart.
But now it’s been a couple of years. The food is still under control. And the longer it is, the more alert my heart gets. It wants out of the fortress. It woke up, looked around, and wanted to know who left the fat girl in charge!?!? It wants me to stop locking it up every time the fat girl and the baby and the burden in me get scared. It wants to get to work on building my grace muscle.
I hope that the next time I tell a man I like him, I will remember that whenever a person shows their heart to another person, it’s a gift. Even if that person is me.