I know by the title of this you’re thinking this is going to be some epic story about never ending, amazing love, but it’s not. Or maybe it really is, just not anything like the ones we are used to hearing or witnessing. This is the story of learning to love myself. It is a love that has taken me forty-two years to find, but I’m hopeful it will be the kind of love that will truly change my life.
I guess to start my love story I have to go back pretty early to almost the beginning. My entire life I have been a pastor’s daughter. I’ve never really known a life without church, and without my dad being the pastor of that church. Now, there can be a lot of goods and a lot of bads with that, but I’m not going to get into all that right now just the part that has had an impact on my love story to this point. Very early on I learned about pleasing people and at least attempting to meet other people’s expectations. This is not something my parents specifically taught me and I don’t know if they ever wanted me to learn that or if there was ever any intention behind it, but it was something I was definitely aware of and learned at an early age. The people in my dad’s different churches where we served always had expectations of him and of us as a family. This wasn’t something anyone ever expressed to me or sat me down and talked to me about, it was just something I learned along the way. People expected me to behave a certain way, they expected me to have a lot of biblical knowledge, and they had expectations for the life I would lead. (I think this is why a lot of pastor’s kids rebel and go a bit wild at times.) I definitely had some times in high school and college that I went a bit wild and rebelled against my parents and church stuff, but this isn’t what this story is about either. What growing up like that did do was set me up for some of my behavior in relationships as I became an adult.
As I dated I found myself often catering to the person I was with and catering to their wants and needs. I wanted to please them and meet their expectations as an awesome girlfriend. I did do that to an extent in many of my relationships. Now, don’t get me wrong it wasn’t all about them and I did not compromise my values, but I wasn’t an angel either. But I did always want to make the other person happy, even if that meant at times I wasn’t being completely true to myself and who I was.
So in 2001, when I met my husband, I continued my same pattern. We met three months before 9/11 and had an instant connection falling in love pretty fast and pretty easy. Jim was a green beret in the army when we met. After the events of 9/11/2001 we knew things would get crazy for him. Six months after we met Jim proposed and in that same week he told me he was deploying soon for six months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). I said yes to the proposal and found myself devastated about the deployment. But I never let him know that I was devastated or how the news of a deployment really made me feel. Because in the moment he told me about his deployment I knew Jim needed and wanted my full support. I knew he needed me to be strong in that moment. I wanted to meet his expectations and that’s what I did. Now, I absolutely did support his deployment, I fully supported him, and I fully supported the mission he was going to be a part of carrying out. Even though I fully supported him I was sad and disappointed about being away from him, but I didn’t really let him see that because I wanted him to only feel love and support. I didn’t want him to feel guilty or bad about having to leave me. So for the next nearly eighteen years, seventeen of it married, our relationship continued like that. Through every deployment, every move, every time his career came first, every time he came home less and less engaged, less and less a part of our family I did my best to try to please him and meet his every expectation. As Jim’s difficulties dealing with all that came with his deployments and eventually retirement became more and more of an issue in our relationship I took it upon myself to make him better, to be what he needed to be happy, and to be everything for our children when he couldn’t.
As the years passed I was becoming less able to recognize myself and anything about me. Everything in my life was about Jim and about my three kids. Of course, as a mom your kids should be your world and I believe you should be willing to do anything for them, and as a wife your spouse and their needs are very important and should be a priority, but none of this at all costs. For far too many years trying to be everything for everyone took a heavy toll on me. And not only taking on everything for Jim and my kids, but hiding the struggles we faced from everyone was turning me into someone I didn’t know. About a year and a half ago I raised a white flag to Jim and said out loud I couldn’t do it anymore. (Something I had actually felt for a long time, but couldn’t find the courage to say out loud.) This wasn’t without some effort to save things, we saw four counselors about our marriage, but I finally said enough. Jim didn’t take it well and I felt it best to try to make it work. I spent the next few months giving even more of myself than I even had to try to make things okay for him. So again I made an attempt to be what he needed and give more of myself. All the while doing everything in my power to protect my kids from the issues Jim and I faced in an attempt to keep them as happy, healthy, and stable as possible.
But one day I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t look myself in the eye. I was standing in the bathroom after I got out of the shower with my head down literally unable to look myself in the eye. With tears in my eyes I wondered if my kids would be proud of me twenty years from now if they knew my struggle and the sacrifice I was making for them and their dad, or if they would think I let them down. I wondered if I would actually disappoint them and was setting them up for failure by the way I was leading my life. I wondered if sacrificing everything of myself was what they really needed, or if they needed me to have the courage to love myself. I thought about their futures and what I wanted for them. And what I saw in the mirror was not even close to what I want for them. It isn’t at all what I dream about or hope for them. It was then I knew I needed to make some changes. I needed to make changes for myself and I needed to make changes for them.
So fast forward to present day. I’m still in the midst of a divorce that’s messy, as I assume they all are. My kids are doing okay adjusting to their new normal that will still be adjusting for a while as we sort things out. My heart breaks that they have to go through all of this. Hopefully, though, one day they will understand and they will admire me more for the courage to love myself and them enough to make these changes. My love story has really just begun. A week ago I took a trip by myself to a cabin/hotel and spent a few days hiking and fly fishing. A few days to start discovering myself and what makes me happy. Over the past year I’ve taken up fly fishing and I try to get outside hiking, backpacking, wake boarding, whatever when I can, and I include the kids in these adventures as much as possible. I’ve been doing taekwondo with my daughter and I love it. I’ve started getting back into teaching and what I loved most about it before I met Jim, connecting with kids and impacting their lives. I find myself connecting more with my kids and having more energy with them. I find myself having more meaningful conversations with them and trying to be more honest with them about my experiences rather than always just trying to protect them. I find myself making new friends, and connecting more with old friends. There is a new freedom I feel not always trying to meet someone else’s expectations that I never could anyway no matter how hard I tried. When I’m in church and we sing about God’s love I feel like I’m experiencing it on a level that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not trying as hard to meet everyone’s expectations, I’m doing my best to be my true authentic self and share the struggles as well as the good times.
It’s a new year and I’m excited for my love story to unfold. I’m excited to love myself more and discover more about who I am and what makes me happy. I don’t know what all this year will hold as I know I still have some really hard stuff to get through. But the future is bright and I have found love. A love I didn’t know existed or that I needed, but loving myself might just be my greatest love story yet.