When I was a few months pregnant with my son, I went to Orlando, Florida, for a few days for a work conference. My husband joined me for a couple of days and we went to a couple of theme parks. It was...okay -- I'm really not a Disney or theme-park person, but I also was still experiencing fatigue and nausea from my pregnancy. Walking around and watching people, I observed a total disconnect between our established ideas of being at Disney World and reality. Our ideas of being at Disney (most of which come from the media) usually involve good-looking, well-dressed, smiling families with happy, well-behaved children (one boy and one girl, of course) walking hand in hand, posing with the princesses and other Disney characters, and having a great time. Reality, which was what I saw, was a completely different story: the grown-ups, many of whom were unkempt and overweight, looked tired, sweaty, and frazzled; kids were crying and screaming everywhere; and everyone looked like they just wanted to go home.
For most of my adulthood, I, too, had these pictures, images, dialogues, and even movies, in my head about my own life and how it's supposed to be, whether conscious or not. And I'm certain I'm not alone, not even close. Since childhood, we're inundated with messages from our families, the world around us, and the media, about how things are "supposed" to be -- from the smaller, daily occurrences, such as family dinners and the idyllic weekend, to bigger, more momentous events such as the Christmas holiday to childhood to birth and motherhood (the latter two with some of the most unrealistic idealizations I've ever encountered). Then there's life -- in life, we're supposed to (and we're supposed to want to) "accomplish" certain milestones, from getting a prestigious and well-paying job to home ownership to marriage to becoming parents. The list goes on and on.
You know what I'm talking about -- when a catalog arrives in the mail, we leaf through it, imagining ourselves owning the advertised products and how happy we might feel; we think our children's childhoods *should* include certain rites of passage, or they're "deprived"; and when the Christmas holiday approaches, we picture cozy times in front of a fire and by a perfectly decorated tree, under which are stacked beautifully wrapped presents. It is ingrained in us. No, we don't walk around thinking, from the minute we're awake to the minute we go to sleep, "Okay, I'm going to have breakfast now, and this is how it should go...," but I believe our actions and decisions are at the very least unconsciously influenced by these expectations and judgments.
Even my own son already has been susceptible. When he entered kindergarten, he became acutely aware of his small stature because of constant comments from other adults and his classmates. Boys are supposed to be big, and tough, and rough-and-tumble, and he didn't fit that stereotype, so that warranted comments. Some of the boys would tease him for his small size, while some of the girls would pick him up and carry him around, which he detested. He came to believe that "bigger is better," and to see his worth and capabilities through that lens. It was hard to watch him struggle with self-confidence, and even harder to convince him otherwise. Even more heartbreaking: he came to me a few days ago, nearly in tears, worried that, when he begins third grade in the U.S., he won't be able to make friends because he is small for his age. What happened to him two years ago obviously affected him so much that it stayed with him, and continues to worry him.
Obviously, he didn't always feel this way. And neither did I. I didn't always have these images in my head, or at least didn't allow them to "get" to me. But sometime after graduating college, I got the message that it was time to grow up, and growing up meant having plans, setting goals, and accordingly putting my life on a certain path. Over time, I forgot about my adventurous side, my risk-taking self. I grew up.
Just recently, I came across this article discussing the disconnect between our plans and reality, and how setting goals can actually kill our creative selves and push us farther from our goals. The article resonated with me: it articulated for me the reason I had become so goal-oriented in my adulthood -- something I had been unable to put my finger on previously. It also reminded me of my younger self, who allowed herself the freedom of dreaming and imagining, taking risks, and taking each day as it came and seeing what was in store for her instead of trying to control every aspect of the future, which is unforeseeable. This article allowed me to recognize how limiting and damaging our internal life stories can be, and how much unhappiness they can create in us when they don't correspond with our realities, which they usually never do -- because, let's face it, life is messy and chaotic, and the pictures in our heads allow for neither.
These past two years in Thailand have been extremely freeing for my son and me in this sense. For him, he has been free to be himself, short stature and all. The Thai culture is very open and fluid when it comes to gender and gender roles -- we regularly see male students touching each other, interacting with each other, and dressing in ways that would have them getting beaten to a pulp in the U.S. A few older elementary-aged boys we know love toys that are traditionally considered to be "girl toys" in the U.S. -- My Little Pony comes to mind -- but their peers accept it as part of who they are. My son is still one of the smallest and shortest kids in his class, even though he also is one of the oldest ones, but, in a similar vein, it is accepted that that's just how he is, and no one comments on his size. He has been so happy here being accepted unconditionally, and his self-confidence has increased.
As for me, I have felt empowerment and contentment being freed from the confines of my internal expectations and the pictures in my head. Living in a foreign country, and being immersed in a culture -- with everything from language to customs to how people interact with each other to foods -- so foreign to oneself goes a long way to dispel any beliefs one might have of how life should be lived. It's difficult to have preconceived ideas about how something should go when one has no idea of the norm or what's possible.
Being here, I have regained more of my younger self: I take each day as it comes, assess and re-assess what's happening, and go with the flow. Being able to let go of those expectations and assumptions in my head, being able to enjoy the adventure for what it is, and being able to accept the unpredictability of life, has led to more inner peace with where I am and who I am than I have ever known in my life. I have felt more optimistic and hopeful about life than I have in a long time. I am no longer operating out of a fear of uncertainty like I used to.
That's not to say, of course, that getting to where I am mentally hasn't been excruciatingly painful, and that there aren't days when I feel a little tremor of anxiety as I feel the vastness of the future ahead. But there also is a certain comfort and relief in embracing the predictability of the unpredictable, in acknowledging this, and in letting go.
I do admit to feeling a little worried. I'm worried that I will forget all this, all that I have learned about life and about myself, and return to a state of complacency and fear, once I'm again part of the daily grind. I am also and especially worried about how my son will adjust, and whether his newly earned self-confidence will be able to weather any negative comments, judgments, and expectations foisted upon him. The realities of the expectations for a boy in America will be harsh compared to what he's grown used to.
I'm usually not one to set goals just because it's a new year, but if I have to set one for this year, I'd resolve to keep all this in mind -- to remember it and talk about it, and to live it -- when we head home and re-settle into our lives again. I need to, for myself and for my family, but especially for my son -- to know that he still free to be who he is, to learn to ignore and overcome the pictures people will inevitably try to put in his head about who he should be, and to embrace the unknown and welcome life's possibilities, as I had forgotten how to do.