As our troop of three descends the stairs, a light mist settles on my face. Like the concrete sidewalk on which we take pace, I feel cold, hardened, one-dimensional and flat. Each slab of gray reflects the pewter sky above. The smell of the Pacific Northwest fills my olfactory senses: wet trees, evergreens to be exact. The smell begins to carry me away until my mind starts to reel with obsessive thinking. I feel like crap. I should be able to handle this better. I need to feel better. I should go to a therapist. How will I find a good one? Why do I always feel so angry? Will I always feel this bad? Why I can’t I do this?
“Mama, hold this,” demands my son as he hands me a bouquet of sticks and runs ahead to keep up with his sister on our walk to the playground.
Another mother zips by, jogging behind her stroller and looking motivated. She flashes a genuine smile, and I try to smile back with an expression that isn’t forced, but I fail. I feel like a woman-in-a-bubble acting in the underwater movie of my life. When I speak, it’s like communicating through a string and tin can telephone system. I am the woman dressed in my clothes but not me, maybe a clone of me. This woman is constantly holding her breath as if she were at the edge of a perpetual high dive of fear and discomfort. She waits silently before she falls into another day hoping it’s better than the last.
A couple walking from their house to their car captures my attention. I notice their gestures, the way their eyes meet when they speak, and the way her arm lightly grazes his as she walks beside him. As if speaking to one another in a language of intimacy I can’t understand, I am dumbfounded by my own loneliness. I am struck by how far I have pushed my husband away because I feel so horrible. I long for that type of soft understanding with him again.
This difficult day has finally ended. I stand barefoot on the laminated floor in my softest white night gown trimmed with lace. My daughter watches me from her seat on the toilet lid as I take care of some self-care details at the mirror. I remember when she was a toddler, she would play around me babbling and chatting. I didn’t think she paid much attention to what I was doing under the bright lights in the bathroom.
“Mama if I don’t pick at my face like you do, will the blemishes go away?” she asks with genuine concern and a touch of fear in her expression. I look at her stunned. I’ve been caught and I don’t know what to say. Not only has she noticed, but she’s been watching very closely. Her expression shows that she’s been considering if it’s necessary to emulate this strange behavior when she grows up. Will her primping routine involve so much poking, picking and prodding like her mom’s?
I wondered how long I could hide my quirks; my anxiety-induced zit popping, my daily struggle with avoiding self-destructive thoughts about body image, the two C-section scars on my pelvis fading like lines carved in the sand, or my fear of another bought of depression. There are mornings when I wake up feeling irritated and gruff. On those days, looking out from my own skin feels so lonely. Friends and family might surround me, but I stand in the kitchen with my gaze down. My answers are brief in avoidance of eye contact, confrontation or connection. My feelings are all jumbled up and not right. I hate myself for feeling that way. I’m not being nice, and don’t feel like being so. I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere. I am not being the right daughter, mother, sister, wife that they expect me to be. All my relationships feel like a mess.
My husband notices I am having a hard morning and asks how I am. This is the first time I tell him everything. He doesn’t try to fix it but asks to hear more about what it feels like to be me in that moment. After listening, he hugs me in a deeply comforting way. He says something that doesn’t make me feel like I have a problem that needs to go away. My obsessive thinking, anxiety, and sense of hiding calm down when he says, “You’re with me. That’s where you fit in, right here with me.”
As well as eventually finding a therapist that works well for both of us, I am learning to live in the skin I am in by writing about how it all feels and photographing me in my life. My middle-aged, sensitive skin may sag in places and get easily pinched when my kids are climbing on me, but some things haven’t changed. I still love tan lines and adore being barefoot.
Photographing your own skin can feel uncomfortable so here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Check out Broolyn-based photographer Jen Davis’s incredibly vulnerable series "Eleven Years.” In her long-term self-portraiture project from her early twenties to her thirties, she deals with issues regarding beauty, identity, and body image.
2. Capture your skin bathed in light.
3. Focus on the skin of your kids, friends or partner while including yourself in there too.
4. Hashtag your Instagram photos #parentmapselfies, @parentmap so we see your creative images of parenting!