Independence Day

Greetings my Lovelies!

The more time I spend in dressing rooms, the more I begin to believe that children should be given Whatever They Want. Hear me out on this! I have to say this to Prudence Thimbleton, that crabby inner voice who is piping up to say that “Children should be seen and not heard.” “Children need to get what they get and not get upset.”  “The Parent should be the Boss.” Yes, Prudence, children need to learn Gratitude and Resilience.  But Cruelty is only one way to teach that.  It’s tried and true but it also leads us to the problem I have today.

A woman has been clogging up the dressing room for the better part of an hour with three outfits, two kinds of underwear (with option C being no underwear at all, which she is also considering) and her INDECISION.  The garments are not taking nearly as much time as the Indecision.  Unfortunately, this woman has only one body she can bring to her son’s wedding and so she will have to decide Which Dress with which to slipcover it.  It’s not Sophie’s Choice; it’s a dress.  It’s an outfit to wear to an occasion where people will be more interested in seeing Her.  They will, at some level, appreciate that she has not arrived naked but the chances of having their full attention riveted on her clothing, given the magnitude of the competing distractions at that event, are slim indeed. She is not going to win a prize for her choice.  She will not be voted out of getting a slice of cake.  It’s merely a benignly beige/rose/or navy costume for a day, for a specific scene in a particular act, in which she has, at best, a supporting role.  She is not really the Main Act. (Let’s face it; the Mother of the Bride is…)Yet there she is, wringing her hands, asking me what I think, wondering if she should put on the other dress again, just to be sure.  I smile as politely as I can, without baring gritted teeth, shut the door and retreat doing the mental math around the number of possible combinations that three dresses and three underwear options can give this lady.  I come to at least three hundred and seventy. (I’m not that good at math…)As I sit back at my sewing machine to await the reopening of the dressing room door, my colleague asks what is going on in there.  I whisper, as discreetly as I can, that this poor woman has the flabbiest “Choose-it” muscles I have ever seen. 

Choosing is a muscle that gets stronger as we practice making choices.  I know this because I struggle, painfully, with making choices myself.   I have learned the hard way that I can only make a few choices a day without getting axle deep in mental mud. One of the things I do to help myself is to limit my opportunities to choose things that don’t matter all that much—such as what I eat and what I wear—and save my strength for the big stuff, like whether or not Scotland should be part of Brexit.  I remember the day I realized that all of my animals—sheep, chickens, dogs, tortoise—they all eat the same damn thing every day and it is the happiest moment of their Now when the food arrives.  What a revelation!  I began making the same thing for breakfast every day—no need to waste precious time or energy “deciding.”  I do a big, exhausting “Choose” workout on a Sunday evening, when I make 5 identical lunches for the upcoming week, and choose the 5 outfits I will wear to work.  Then, I am DONE, worn out, crawling towards bed, like a limping marathoner with diarrhea at the finish line.

So!  As a fellow sufferer of Choositis, I feel sympathy for this dear woman. We all suffer with a varying degree of flabby Choose-it muscles, which are connected to the Do-it muscles.  How often we lament our lack of “doing anything” when the real cause is our lack of choosing anything.  Choosing deep and hard, connecting to the Joy of our choice, makes the doing part easy.  I’m not talking about the things we know we ought to choose, like spinach instead of potato chips, or water instead of yummy slush from a straw.  (Those are horrible choices.)  Then, we basically know what we should choose—that is if we want to have vibrant skin, glossy hair, straight teeth, and High Moral Standing.  I’m talking about the choices we need to make that are purely for us, that have no external consequences and no guidelines but those whispered whims from within that actually hold the keys to our personal truth or comfort.  Like what to wear to your own son’s wedding, or your child’s baptism, or your niece’s Quinceanera... I’ve noticed that clothing does not fit well over flabby choose-it muscles.  Nothing feels “right.”  At the end of the day, the woman (and it’s almost always women) will sag her head in resignation and say without conviction, “I guess I look alright,” or some pathetic version of “This will do.”   They are settling, because they are rudderless.  They are like 18th Century sailors adrift on the tides before Longitude was known. They are hoping they will land on the right mark and that when they wash ashore at the intended Bar Mitzvah or Wedding or Victory Dance that the natives awaiting them won’t eat them. They don’t know…maybe they made a mistake…

So this leads me to want to write a parenting book. The fantasy takes me through my lunch break as I imagine titles such as “Parenting through Benevolent Neglect” and “Children should be ruined, go on, try it!” and other such outrageous titles that get Prudence Thimbleton’s knickers in a twist.  In chapter one, I open with insisting that children should be given exactly what they want, especially if it is “bad” (as long as it’s not potentially lethal) for them on a regular basis.  Step two is insisting that while they are kept safe, they are still made to deal with the consequences (good or ill) of their choices.  Show, don’t tell. We need to give them practice at making choices, even bad ones, so that they understand what Choice actually means.  If they can’t screw it up royally, it’s not really a choice, is it?  Make them eat that disgusting mystery-meat nugget they wanted, make them carry that extra-heavy back-pack they packed, let them lose the prized toy they should never have taken to the beach.  Help them evaluate their choices after. Help them learn to trust themselves. Above all, let them choose what they want to wear! Show me a dad grocery shopping with toddlers in ratty Halloween costumes in June and I will show you some damn good parenting! They need these little chances to build up their puny choose-it muscles and begin to respect the incredible powers of Free Will, bequeathed to them by God at birth and formally endorsed by the courts on their 18th birthdays.

Not giving children choices makes life a lot easier for their parents. As one who is both a champion Slacker and a parent, I shudder at the energy it takes to make a teenager live out the consequences of packing no socks for a ten-day trip, not putting enough gas in the car, or wearing dumb shoes on a four-hour hike.  I would prefer to dine on broken lightbulbs, for sure.  Then I remember a conversation I had with my son about my role as his parent. He was about 12 at the time and he wanted me to continue doing his laundry but I refused; I insisted that from now on it was his responsibility. “Come on Mum!” it’s your Job, he insisted. “No,” I said, “my job is to raise a strong man who knows how to do his own damn laundry, not have Mummy do everything for him!” He rolled his eyes and we lived through endless batches of stained, mildewed, or ruined clothing but he now does an AWESOME job at laundry.   All this to say to fellow parents, Buckle Up--We are not raising children; we are raising adults.  If we don’t put ourselves out of a job by the time they are 18—if we haven’t shifted from direct “Management” to “Consultant,” we’ve just created a great big baby.  To clip them of Responsibility is to cripple their Choose-it muscles forever and abandon them to a shadow life of wandering the aisles of Macy’s in a fog, wondering if they should buy a fourth dress for the same event.

Of course, having them ruin laundry, and make unfortunate clothing, hair, or music choices will most certainly make them better citizens, better voters, better choosers, better men and women in general, but these are just interesting byproducts. On the bright side, I will be trapped in the dressing room with fewer people who cannot decide whether they want to wear underwear to their offspring’s nuptials, which is really at the heart of my motivation.  I am tempted to say things like, “Seriously, Madam!  Are you telling me that you would prefer an anonymous seamstress’s opinion to the wisdom of your own heart, or the comfort of your own body in deciding what to wear to your own son’s wedding? You who tucked him in each night, taught him to pray, comforted him when he was sick, went to endless parent-teacher conferences and little league events, who pulled all-nighters doing boy-scout projects and book reports… YOU?  You could wear a paper bag of rags and you would still be The Queen, the most important woman there for him, who made him the man he is—ready to begin his own safari into Love, Family, and little missing Leggo pieces. Why are you asking me? Where is your sovereignty? Who took over your kingdom and talked you into Spanx? Look at me carefully and ask yourself if that frayed and frazzled person standing before you, with pins in her mouth, dog hair on her clothes, and sheep shite on her shoes is really the sort of person from whom you should be seeking fashion advice anyway?

It is a sad fact seldom talked about but if you are a seamstress (or teach adult learners to play the fiddle), a considerable portion of your day will be devoted to doing psychotherapy for which you have no training.  Part of my job seems to be about giving people permission to think about what they really want and force them to choose it.  I steadfastly refuse to give opinions—I can’t go squandering my own flabby choose-it muscles on frivolous things like other people’s undergarments!

I view the recent movements around “Me Too” with grave sorrow and understanding born of these dressing room experiences.  We cannot seriously pose the question about why women collude so willingly in their own abuse and neglect when we have groomed them to an externally-focused helplessness that makes them unable to choose anything, even pantyhose, for their own good.

Today is the anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence.  I think of the power and integrity of the women of 1776—the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of Liberty and all they were willing to do or forego in the name of a voiceless, vote-less “freedom” their men carved out for them. “Remember the Ladies!” pleads Abigail Adams.  Today, I say, Ladies, remember your selves.  You get to choose.  Work those flabby Choose-it muscles! Not so that we can become selfish tyrants in the pursuit of happiness or bargains, but so that we can define ourselves according to our own power—so that when the choices really count, like whether to wear pasties or sewn-in bra cups, we have the strength to make them. Remember my beautiful aunt who once showed up to a family gathering at Nana’s house with a bag of pretty clothes.  She was dressed comfortably, in jeans, while we were all in starchy party gear. “Here,” she said, opening the bag to each of us, “This is what it would have looked like if I had decided to get dressed!” She wanted to show us that she did have party clothes; she just didn’t give a damn.  She’d rather show up as herself.  I loved that.  I still do.

What does Independence mean?  To me, it means being able to live out the consequences of our own choices—to shake off the authority of others who think they know our own good better than we do, or the self-imposed tyranny of wimping out and making others choose for us.    “Mistakes” are merely opportunities for learning and choosing differently next time. Ultimately, our authority, our sovereignty, even our freedom comes from our best Choices.

Choose well, me hearties! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy “Liberty” Bell