Unrestrained by the current standard of beauty, my diet would consist almost entirely of cheese, cheese-flavored processed food, and chocolate. That may be a bit of an exaggeration; I do genuinely enjoy ripe tropical fruit, and from time to time I’d also eat a heaping pile of rice (doused in butter and cheese), pasta (saturated with pesto and cheese), or potatoes (submerged, temporarily or permanently, in butter, oil, and cheese). Since the minute-on-the-lips-lifetime-on-the-belly rule governs both my Abbey and Plumb lineage, it’s only by exercising willpower that I generally manage to maintain an average-sized physique. I subsist largely on egg whites, tofu, lean ground beef, fish, turkey breast, mozzarella (low-moisture of course), yogurt, protein smoothies, power bars, and brown rice (including brown rice pasta, brown rice tortillas, brown rice bread, etc.). Plus, my commitment to daily exercise is so intense that Viv and I once found ourselves unjustly ejected from the mall when I tried to run laps through its corridors after a torrential downpour washed away all hope of an outdoor jog.
And yet, when it comes to my emotional overreactions and their impact on my loved ones, self-discipline has been nowhere to be found. All my life I’ve told myself that the silvery clouds of my fiery personality and over-achiever’s ambition have a dark lining, and I just have to surround myself with those who love me the way I am. Nothing I can do about an immutable trait, right? And, it’s not like I yell or scream at people. The scenario usually plays out as follows: (1) I get frustrated by my inability to do something perfectly (regardless of the enormity of the task or, say, physical impossibility), (2) I blame someone else for said failure, and (3) I punish that person with a snide remark, a curt tone, or my departure. The most memorable examples include reliably castigating my brothers for “messing me up” when playing video games as a kid, even if they abode by my rules of total silence and no movement (even to breathe), and repeatedly haranguing my ex-boyfriend for his poor ski-run choice and other imagined offenses when I couldn’t maintain my intended line through a mogul field, trying to keep up with him and his pro-level skier friends, during my second season on a snowboard.
The stress of Viv’s infantile illness and perpetual sleep deprivation intensified the tendency to lash out. I maintained unfailing kindness toward my baby girl – that is, until a strategic error called my mommying skills into question. Usually I handled a day’s initial incident – like her failure to eat a proffered meal or a “bonk” to the head following a moment of parental inattention – with dispatch and kindness. But self-flagellation and worry undermined my ability to deal with subsequent challenges. My emotional cup runneth over with frustration, and I lost my cool at the drop of a hat (once literally, when I let Vivi hold her beanie and she dropped it into a goose poop-laden puddle). Don’t get me wrong; nothing remotely approaching physical or emotional abuse transpired. But when she fought yet another (apparently ill-timed) nap, I lost it, with “it” being my maternal filter. Seeing red, I’d ask my then ten month-old “what is the matter with you?” or say “I don’t understand what your problem is,” dump her in her crib, and storm out of her room to calm down. Whenever I lost my temper I tended to find it quickly and apologize to my little one shortly thereafter, but the damage was done – so done that little black flakes crisped off the brown rice tortilla of our day.
I realized that I desperately want to keep fatigue and annoyance from getting the better of me when interacting with my daughter, at least until she’s a teenager. How is it possible, I asked myself, that I can resist the siren call of processed cheese and preserve the privilege of wearing spandex through sheer determination but I won’t expend the same effort to shield the people I love from hurtful incarnations of my dissatisfaction? I’m reminded of a quote adorning RFK’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. When I first lived in D.C. during my junior year of college, it inspired me so much that I ate my lunch and studied next to it every weekend (okay, maybe having only a few friends and being a complete nerd also had something to do with it). “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Clearly he had matters of greater import in mind, but I figure if the quote fits, share it.
Finding myself unwilling to accept my natural response to frustration, I began my snapping diet around Viv’s first birthday. I started with a cleanse, trying as hard as I possibly could to infuse my words with the adoration I feel for my daughter. Then I gave myself a pat on the back for each day I made it through without blowing my cool and climbed back on the wagon whenever I stomped off it. A full year and a half later, Lord knows I’m not always a tenderness size 2, but I’m proud to say that I’ve become at least a little less emotionally fat and lazy, and I’m still exercising restraint on a daily basis.