When I was about 30 years old, I started to become aware of the bars of my cage. Up until that point, and much to my shock, I had lived inside that cage without really knowing it.
Around that time, songs, books and movies with themes of rebellion or breaking societal norms started speaking to me on a deep level. I felt drawn to the characters who were unapologetically themselves.
Those bars of my cage — societal expectations and pressure to fit in — became more clear each year that passed. If you listen for them, you’ll hear them whispering to you all day long. I call them the “shouldas.” I should be prettier. I should be smarter. I should be more successful. I should be thinner. I should be curvier. I should be funnier. I should be more adventurous. I should be a better housekeeper. I should be, I should be, I should be. All day long, these whispers of “you’re not enough” surround us and suffocate us, and we are often completely unaware. We just silently nod our head and shame ourselves for not being enough of any of those things.
Although the bars of my cage were becoming apparent, I was pretty unaware of these nearly constant whispers. I just felt this general discomfort with the feeling that I had to be anything other than who I already was.
Until 2018. I was coming up on my 36th birthday when my Dad got sick and so very sadly, died. I was sitting next to him as he took his final breath, and I watched him make the transition from living to dead.
The months following were full of such deep grief. I felt like I was drowning in sorrow. And then something beautiful happened. One day, I was walking through the woods with tears streaming down my face and a bit of perspective landed in my head as if it was dropped from above. I was thinking about my Dad and how painful it must have been for him to know he would be leaving this world and how little he would care about all the “shouldas” if he was given the chance to live. If, by some miracle, he was brought back to life, he wouldn’t care about his graying hair or his farmer’s tan or the size of his belly. He’d just be grateful he was alive.
None of the (excuse my language) bullshit that we think matters actually matters. It doesn’t matter what shape your body is. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like or if you’re wearing a holey pair of yoga pants on a trip to Target. It doesn’t matter if you’re blue collar or white collar. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short or have an extra toe.
This is not revolutionary thinking — just revolutionary to me. Here’s what I whittled out of the many hours spent thinking about all of this: the only thing that matters in life is kindness. Kindness to ourselves, to others, to animals and to our world. I’ve worked this theory over and over trying to disprove it. I still haven’t found something that truly matters that doesn’t fit into one of those buckets.
When I first started thinking like this, I stumbled again and again. One day, I remember I was driving Grace to dance class across town, and we were running late. I was already shaky hungry, but didn’t have time to eat dinner at home. So, I grabbed a slice of pizza on the way out the door. At the stoplight, I went to take a huge bite and then froze. The whispers started, “Katie, don’t eat that in the car. You should be more graceful and ladylike. Ladies don’t chomp on pizza. They nibble like they’re not really hungry.”
I was hungry. I wasn’t endangering anyone while I was stopped. But here I was, shaming myself for daring to break a societal norm (or at least a perceived one). I kept eating that pizza and told those whispers they were not needed today.
To help guide myself on what things are actually important for me to care about, I started using two different strategies. They’re pretty interchangeable, but sometimes one is more effective depending on the circumstance. These strategies were — and continue to be — so helpful in staying true to myself and remembering what truly matters to me.
1. When I’m laying on my deathbed, will I care about this? If the answer is yes, then I give it my full attention. If the answer is no (and most of the time it is), I push through the shame whispers and do the opposite of what they’re telling me.
2. If I lived alone on a deserted island, would I care? I use this one a lot when I try to shame myself about how I look. It might be what I’m wearing or how I’ve done my hair (or more likely, not done it). The first few times I went to a social gathering without makeup, I’d use this strategy. I’d ask myself, Katie, if you were having dinner by yourself on an island, would you care that you weren’t wearing makeup? My answer was a big ol’ no. So, it stands to reason that the only reason I was considering the makeup was for other people. And I’m so, so tired of doing things just for other people. I just refuse to do that anymore.
Every time I rebelled against my whispers (my shouldas) another bar of my cage would dissolve. Now, about two years later, I can say with a good degree of certainty that I’m no longer caged. I still have the whispers, and likely always will, but the rejection of the whispers is coming stronger and faster each time I do it.
I would give almost anything to have my Dad back. I would trade all the enlightenment I have found for him to be happy and healthy and laughing his beautiful laugh. But since that’s not an option, I’m choosing to be grateful for the gifts his death gave me.
He didn’t know it was happening, but I like to imagine how proud he would be that he helped set me free from my cage.
You might wonder how the enlightenment I found during my grief at all relates to my anniversary. Well, you see, it turns out when you crack yourself wide open and examine what’s been happening inside you all those years and then determine how you want to put yourself back together going forward, it has an impact on who you are.
We lovingly call her Katie2.0.
During all of this, I realized I hadn’t been living a very authentic life. I was living each day in various states of shouldas, and once I discovered this, I decided I was never, ever going back to that life. It changed me as a daughter, a sister, a mother, a friend and a wife.
I restarted therapy, which I had stopped while my Dad was sick and in addition to dealing with my grief, I unearthed some pretty big truths about myself. A lot of those truths had to do with my relationship with Scott.
Scott started going to therapy, too, and discovering his own truths. We both worked (and are still working) toward becoming the best versions of ourselves.
This process led us down a very winding path. Sometimes we felt hopeless, that we would never find our way to a better place. Other times, we found hope in a renewed connection with each other. It was a bit of a roller coaster for a while, honestly.
It’s never been about the love for each other. We have a deep, unwavering love for one another. It is really about trying to figure out how we fit together now that Katie2.0 has arrived. We’re still working on how our puzzle fits, but we are both committed to finding our way to a new, beautiful and authentic place.
Today, as we celebrate our lucky 13th anniversary, I can honestly say we have never (ever) been closer than we are right now. Unlike anytime before this, we are being intentional about the energy between us. We have started carving out time each day for just us and using that time for more than just watching TV together (our previous approach). We do something fun like a puzzle or playing a board game. And we take a nightly walk around the neighborhood after the kids are in bed. On those walks, we open up about everything going on inside us — not just a laundry list of what happened to us that day — and the other person is gentle and attentive to that vulnerability.
I won’t even try to predict where the next 13 years will take us, but I know when we get there, it will be honest and beautiful and full of deep love.
Happy anniversary, Scott. I’ll leave you with a quote from my vows. It feels very appropriate today.
“I know that we will face challenges that threaten to swallow us, but I have faith that our love will be our strength.”