I walk past it every day and pretend to ignore it, deny that it’s there. But it waves at me from the corner of my eye and reminds me of my neglect. My poor, overgrown, unloved garden is just a small plot in my backyard, but it represents so much more. While I’d like to think that I’m good at many things, gardening is just not one of them. It requires too much time and attention on a regular basis and I’m really not that consistent.
Last weekend I mustered up enough courage to get back out there and make room for the flowers my kids picked out a few days before. Although I struggle to keep up with it, I really enjoy gardening. The small acts of planting and digging my hands in the earth bring me joy and I love looking out the windows to see it bloom with color again.
A few weeks ago, while rummaging through papers in my kid’s backpacks, I came across a homework assignment of Tilley’s that read – “This is who I am and that’s all I want to be.” At 7 years old, if she has even a glimmer of this idea in her mind, she is on the right track. That is leaps and bounds ahead of me at that age. In fact, who am I kidding, I resist this idea now!
As a child, I struggled with my self-image. My inflated sense of self frequently collapsed in the face of criticism. I had many friendships, but they varied over time, and their intensity would ebb and flow. As I got older, and my relationships matured, I felt more stability and longevity within them. But a subtlety remained – an underlying insecurity that I could not shake. Nothing I did was ever quite good enough and no matter how much praise I received from family and friends, I was never satisfied. There was a yearning inside of me that drove me to achieve more and more.
As a mother, it’s so easy to fill our children up with praise. When I watch Tilley play the piano or witness Mason’s athleticism, my mind fills up with ideas of their future success. I can see their achievements, as if I’m thinking with the end in mind. I’m at the Olympics watching Mason compete or I’m listening to Tilley’s exceptional performance. I pump them up with these ideas of greatness because I want them to see the world of possibility that exists if they want to work hard and achieve it.
Mothers tend to their children just like a garden, watering seeds for their growth, thinking of new ways to help them sprout in the future. We pull old weeds to beautify their minds, allowing their colorful flowers to grow. We fertilize them with confidence so they thrive and grow stronger. We cultivate seeds of determination, harvest the goals for the future and make them become a reality. Like every mother who came before me, we praise our children’s progress so they will begin to have strong beliefs in themselves.
For 15 years, my sister and I performed in the local theater in various capacities. My mom supported us from backstage waiting for our next costume change, while my dad prepped the mics in the sound booth. Hundreds of people, including many extended family and friends came to watch our performances, and when it was over and we took our final bows, there were spotlights, applause and standing ovations. I remember the smiles, hugs and words of affirmation.
Everyone that performed on that stage poured their blood, sweat and tears into those shows and our reflection of a job well done made it all worth it in the end. I loved performing in front of an audience as it made me come alive with energy. When the curtain came down, it didn’t matter if we had made mistakes that night; the audience’s praise was our final judgment. Their comments and reviews summarized and validated our experience. I cared deeply about what everyone had to say. It made me feel more confident in my performance.
As I got older I began to filter the feedback. There was something deep within me that felt the praise wasn’t real, so I turned to the critics instead. The constructive criticism seemed to be more balanced and insightful. I would continue to search for the truth in everyone around me, as if the version I experienced wasn’t the real one. Like a sickness, I was dependent on their feedback, addicted to their praise, but I didn’t trust what they said.
This desire for applause would become the theme of my twenties. There was a yearning inside of me that drove me towards accomplishment, as if I needed validation and proof of my worthiness. I turned to therapy, self-help books, even hypnosis to work through what I felt were obvious fundamental inadequacies. But this inadequacy was a mystery to me. Something was missing, but I couldn’t even put my finger on it. I was on a mission to cure something that I couldn’t even describe.
This yearning inside of me to become someone different, something more, was the root of my problem. What did I need to prove? Who was I trying to prove it to? In my search for the source of truth, the solution to all of my problems, the missing piece was… ME.
I empowered everyone else and disregarded myself. I let others plant thoughts, but never became the gardener of my own mind. Looking back now, I wish I could talk to my younger self and comfort her. First, I would tell her that the garden is her responsibility. A self-sufficient gardener need not look outside oneself for validation and praise. Secondly, I would show her how to grow her own flowers and teach her how to take care of them. She would satisfy her needs and know that external sources are not sustainable. Finally, I would help her find love and acceptance within herself and to trust her own source of truth. Her guiding light, and the only praise that can gratify her, is the one that she believes within.
Being content with who you are doesn’t mean that the garden stops growing or that we stop tending to it. It will change and grow and learn new things every day. But “a flower doesn’t compete with the flower next to it, it just blooms.” It’s not attached to becoming anything or anyone, as it has always been itself… a flower. It will never become more or less a flower. No matter what my children achieve, they are special to me and they don’t need to prove anything to receive my love and appreciation. I just want them to be happy and express their individuality. I hope they find their calling, their passion, and something that makes them feel alive.
My thriving and colorful “garden” within, the one that I neglected for so long, is the greatest source of my happiness. A spiritual awakening, a rewarding pursuit and I’m satisfied with the fruits of my labor. A delicate balance that requires daily care and attention, it needs enough water, so it doesn’t dry out and get depressed, but not too much, or it gets puffed up and full of itself. I work hard to keep it alive but it’s not a chore when it’s done with love. I am not yearning to make my garden something else, something more. I just allow it become the fullest expression of itself. An imperfect gardener, that’s who I am, and that’s all that I want to be.