I Practice Happiness
“I am a dancer. I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” ― Martha Graham
This week, I published an article about my return to dancing after over a decade of retirement. While I’ve written about a myriad of vulnerable moments in the past few years, sharing this raw account of my transition from professional dancer to mom left me uneasy.
The story of quitting my “dream career” because I wasn’t resilient enough to handle the pressures of performing resurfaced feelings of shame and failure. Then, I was hesitant to tell you about this, because I was worried about what you would think of me.
Considering the experiences I have shared so openly since the night I ended up in an ICU burn unit with my son, why would a story like this leave me so worried about your judgment?
Maybe you are an empathetic observer and haven’t judged me because of my son’s accident, but I HAVE been judged rather harshly because of the scars my son carries. The moment that pot of boiling water came crashing down, I became THAT MOM with the injured son. Doesn’t matter what the story is or how it happened: I messed up. I took my eye off the ball, and he was injured, so I own it.
When I became the mom you DON'T want to be, it might have inspired you to run home and review kitchen safety to prevent such a terrifying accident from happening to your child. Still, you said all those things you hoped would make me feel better:
It was an accident.
You are still a good mom.
Compassion has always helped me feel a little better about what happened, but your kind words weren't enough to sustain me in moments like a harsh grilling from a social worker about my parenting values. To endure this sort of scrutiny, I had no choice but to start telling myself I was good enough in motherhood despite my failures, flaws, and shortcomings.
Adopting a more self-compassionate mindset was hard work, but it made me strong enough to finally think,
I could honestly care less about what anyone thinks of my parenting: I KNOW I AM A GOOD ENOUGH MOM, because I show up with love every single day.
There was a point in time I didn’t think I would ever get over my guilt, but I chose to let it go. I’d be lying if I didn’t say my son’s scars NEVER bother me, but these days, it’s really not a big deal. That kid is pretty darn amazing, scars and all.
Mind you, nothing has changed about his physical appearance, or the adversity he will face. In fact, he might need a surgery at some point soon, because he is growing fast and burn scars are a complicated matter. Given this reality, and the fact that I'm not overly stressed about it, I recognize that what is different about this situation I am helpless to fix is me: I am more resilient and bounce back better from my natural maternal guilt about the pain my son has and will continue to endure.
Yes, I finally accept that the negative feelings I process are natural and therefore, I expect them. I acknowledge what is hard or painful, and actively seek something more positive:
Adversity allows us an opportunity for growth. My boy will be resilient.
Indeed, this is heavy stuff, which is why I’ve been thinking hard about why the Rockette article scared me. The conclusion I have come to is that being a professional dancer is one of the last illusions of “perfection” I’ve been able to hide behind. With the simple sentence, “I was a Radio City Rockette,” you can make a thousand assumptions about how glamorous and talented I once was.
Now I’ve told you otherwise, so you might think I am a hot mess and that mom who messed up so bad, her kid has scars. Regardless, I am relieved.
I have never wanted to mislead you, and I am continually learning that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and authentic, we have the power to lift someone else up. This is exactly what I hope my words might do for you, so I've got to keep telling my truth, flaws and all.
Take for example, yesterday afternoon. I was shuffling the kids around in what feels like the end-of-the-year madness. I am in good company these days, because every mom I see has the same crazed look on her face. We are all trying to sort out graduations, teacher gifts, and the summer schedules. June, I have decided, is a harder month of transition than September because we are all a little tired, cranky, and unenthusiastic after a long year of juggling.
This "June madness" is the only reason I can explain why I forgot to buy apple juice not once, but twice this week. June madness is also the excuse I’m going to use to justify why after strapping the girls into the car, I backed up in the elementary playground where we park for pickup, and crashed straight into a basketball hoop.
I ran out to see what the heck it was I hit, and was immediately relieved it was not another person or car…..
But then I looked around and saw every single mom looking at me:
I WAS MORTIFIED.
But do you know what happened? One mom yelled from the playground,
“Ah…I’ve been there! At least you backed into something with padding!”
I looked at the giant pole my bumper was pressed against, and noticed it was indeed covered with a layer of thick padding. I was relieved to think the damage might not be so bad. Then, another mom drove up, rolled down her window and said,
“I just got my car back from the shop today because I crashed into that fence over there last week.”
After this comment, I turned around to notice I was surrounded by about 5 other women who came over to share their stories about "mom crashes." I made my way to the end-of-the-year Girl Scouts party feeling just fine: it was just a hiccup, just a bump in the road, I was not alone.
I didn’t even realize until much later that I totally cracked my bumper and I’ll need to explain my basketball hoop incident (that will likely be a rather costly mistake) to my husband at some point. For now, I want to point out that the moms who met me in my moment of vulnerability eradicated any shame I felt, and made my “failure” just an ordinary bump in the life of a busy mom.
In motherhood, it’s so easy to assume that the mother's around us who are parenting more gracefully than we are at any moment are always perfect. When I backed into that pole, I immediately thought I was the only mom careless enough to do such a thing. I might have followed that thought into a negative place, but those other moms reminded me we all are flawed. We all mess up sometimes. We are all just doing the best we can.
Listen, motherhood is hard. There is no dress rehearsal for this gig. Regardless of how we are feeling, we’ve got to perform and be bold enough to just make the steps up as we go along. I find that improvising is much more fun when I'm in empathetic company.
Anyway, I suppose I felt it was important to admit that even with all this resilience I have gained in the motherhood experience, the idea of dancing again still scared the shit out of me. I easily could have written a story about how much fun it’s been to dance again. While it has been fun, returning to the stage has required me to work my butt off not only to retrain my body, but to overcome the negative thoughts running through my mind:
You aren’t good enough.
You’ll never pick that step up.
You are going to make a fool of yourself.
You are a fraud. Just wait, they will realize you are faking it and send you packing.
These are the thoughts that haunted me back in my dancing days and they didn't go away when I quit. This negativity and self-doubt is part of who I am, so it followed me into motherhood. Having survived nearly a decade of motherhood (a gig I can't quit), I've learned to better manage my natural negativity. Therefore, I am happier and as a "Former Rockette," I've found the joy in dancing again.
Besides, the whole point in taking on this "Legacy Performance" is to have fun, so tomorrow, that's exactly what I intend to do. I'm leaving my four kids behind and heading to the city at 10am to rehearse, tech a show, and hang out with a group of women who all danced at Radio City at some point in time. In a dressing room of dancers who are technically strangers but somehow still "sisters" because of an experience we shared, I'll put on my eyelashes, red lips, and a costume. Then I'll make my way on stage and back into the spotlight for the first time in 11 years. This is NOT a typical day in the life of a stay at home mom of four kids under 8, so I intend to milk it for all it's worth.
So what I want YOU to know before I sign off and go practice (just one more time) before I hit the stage, and light up social media with some cool photos tomorrow is that I work just about as hard at happiness as I once did to make it as a professional dancer. When you see those photos of me looking all glamorous for the day, know I worked my butt off to project that image of sophistication.
Maybe then, the most important lesson I learned in dancing on a world famous stage is that you cannot expect any experience to bring you happiness. Dance is an illusion of grace: it takes blood, sweat, and tears to make it look so effortless and I now believe that happiness requires the same amount of effort.
Writing has become a part of my "happiness practice," because I carefully choose the words I use to define a more positive narrative. Truth be told, when I sat down to write this piece I heard:
If I write that, what will they think?
Who wants to read my writing anyway?
I am wasting my time with this dream of a writing career, I should quit while I am ahead.
For the longest time, I have tried to silence or escape these voices. But my useless worry and self-doubt: thats a part of who I am. If you have negative thoughts too, embrace them. I want you to know you are not alone, and then maybe you can allow them to happen without shame. Don’t waste your energy trying to cover it all up, but consciously shift your thoughts to something positive. Here is the more positive narrative I found in composing this post:
Someone will appreciate my voice of authenticity, because I am always grateful when someone is honest with me.
I am not the only person in the world with flaws.
I am writing and sharing because this is my calling. A calling doesn't have to make sense, but when I follow it, I find joy and meaning in a hard and confusing world.
Maybe my words can help someone else.
After nearly a decade of practicing happiness, choosing a more positive narrative DOES come easier, but it's ALWAYS work for me. I can finally say that I am happy (most of the time)….or at least I’m happy enough to not let a minor collision with a basketball net get me down, or even those scars on my boy who is thriving regardless.
I’m also finally confident enough to step back on stage in a vintage pair of tap shoes from my youth. Tomorrow, my goal is to rewrite the ending to the story of my Rockette experience with the resilience I have found in motherhood.