How My Mother Inspired The "Best Love Poem" I Never Intended to Write
The email from my mom — with the subject line "Please email me!!!" — popped up in my inbox and stared at me, as I’d known it eventually would. It could only be a matter of time before she saw my poem "Shrinking Women" before she heard me declare publicly that I’d inherited disordered eating habits from her, that I’d watched her shrink and internalized the same urge. I’d never wanted her to hear this poem. But once it was published on HuffPost, and Upworthy, and surpassed a million views on YouTube, it was out of my hands. The cat was out of the bag, and this email was staring me in the face.
"Wow," it began. "That was hard to watch."
It was a short, direct email, saying that she was in pain, that she felt exposed. My heart sank. A few minutes later another email popped up, subjected "Follow up":
"I did want to say it is a really good poem!!!"
I smiled, even as guilt swelled through me. Even after I so publicly talked about her without her permission, here she was, praising my creative work. It’s emblematic, really, of the ambivalence of our relationship: our closeness yet our distance, our similarities and our striking differences.
She always told me that she didn’t have a lot of self-confidence growing up. She was brought up not to believe in herself, or take risks, or feel her own self-worth. She’d spent much of her life battling depression, and she’d sought safety in an ill-fitting marriage. "Find yourself, honey," she’d always tell me. "Find yourself before you settle down." Even before I had any idea what "find yourself" meant, I internalized the advice: Get out there. Believe in myself. Prove that I could be successful in the ways she hadn’t been. I knew from a young age that I must become her opposite: confident, bold, and happy, always happy.
So I set out to be happy, and to ignore the hard stuff. When my parents suddenly split up when I was sixteen, I ignored the pain. When I fell into a brief depression senior year of high school and experimented with a razor and my wrist, I ignored the behavior. When I restricted my eating during college and became extremely anemic, I ignored the exhaustion. I ignored our similarities, the ways I myself was shrinking, because I wanted to be strong for her. I wanted to prove that I’d listened to her advice, that I’d "found myself."
All these pieces suddenly seemed linked, part of a larger pattern—a pattern I could only recognize once I moved it from my chaotic mind to the page.
I ignored it all until I sat down at my kitchen table during winter break of my sophomore year of college and began to write what would become “Shrinking Women.” I’m not sure why it all came together then. Maybe it was being back in that empty house after so many months away. Maybe it was the relationship I was entering, in which I saw the guy as being so much bigger than me. Maybe it was the process of healing from a spell of disordered eating the previous summer. All these pieces suddenly seemed linked, part of a larger pattern—a pattern I could only recognize once I moved it from my chaotic mind to the page.
I wrote about all the things we’d never spoken aloud as a family.
So I wrote. I wrote about all the things we’d never spoken aloud as a family. The dynamic between my small mother and boisterous father. The years I’d silently watched my mother avoid food. The differing expectations of my brothers and myself. I wrote, and I didn’t know if it was any good or made any sense, but I knew that it was true.
After I performed the poem at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational and the video went viral, I knew it was true for other people as well. It was the most amazing feeling to hear from strangers all over the world who reached out to say: me too. Suddenly I was not alone with these thoughts anymore but was speaking about them more openly than I’d ever intended. Which brings me back to that email, to the moment I’d never planned for: the moment my sweet, loving mother heard my loud and difficult truth.
I had to face this moment again after my mom read an advanced copy of my novel, This Impossible Light. It’s the story of Ivy, a 15-year-old girl who has no idea where to turn after her parents announce their sudden divorce and her mother sinks into a depression. With no idea how to deal with her pain, or where to get support, she turns inward, taking out her need for control on her body. As her mom withdraws, Ivy feels left behind. She longs to be little again, when her mother felt safe and close.
While the book is fiction, so much of Ivy’s story is my own. So I was dreading what my mom would think when she read it. Would she think I was criticizing her mothering skills? Would she think I was publicly exposing her again? I wasn’t trying to do either. I was trying to give a voice to my younger self who’d been so lonely, so confused, who’d had no words for what she felt. I was trying to say something true.
One night this past January, my mom sent me a text saying she’d read the book. I held my breath as I scanned her emoji-riddled text, then exhaled slowly and took a screenshot, grinning. "I love it!" it read. "You really captured so well Ivy’s loneliness and your portrayal of her relationship with her mom is very believable." This was the best thing I could’ve heard from her. The fact that she could see herself in both characters — not only the withdrawn mother but the lost, lonely little girl — meant so much to me. It meant I’d done my job, that I’d portrayed both characters as humans, as deserving of empathy. Most importantly, I was so glad she saw that it was not daughter vs. mother in the book nor in real life. Rather, in both, it’s mother and daughter together, trying to support and heal each other through our differences.
Even when it’s uncomfortable, I’ve promised to myself to keep writing and talking about disordered eating and the devastating pressure to shrink.
In the novel, Ivy makes a choice to embrace these differences, to break away from her mother’s pattern. "Maybe I can be the one to break this line of heavy inheritance, this chain of hunger," she says. Those are some of my favorite lines in the novel, because I feel them so strongly. I made this same promise to myself years ago. Even when it’s uncomfortable, I’ve promised to myself to keep writing and talking about disordered eating and the devastating pressure to shrink.
At first I thought that by coming clean about the difficulties I’d inherited from my mother, I was somehow being a "bad daughter." I thought I’d failed her advice, and that by confessing my flaws I’d proven that I hadn’t "found myself" like she’d told me to. But now I’ve come to see it differently. I see "finding myself" not as a quest for perfection or a refusal to be vulnerable. Bravery isn’t maintaining a perfect image or denying my challenges. "Finding myself" must come from honest self-exploration, outspoken truth, and boldly facing my impact on others. These are the values I’ve striven to maintain in the wake of "Shrinking Women" and all that’s come since.
I still remember the evening I first delivered “Shrinking Women” at CUPSI. After everyone performed, the poets shuffled into another room for the judges’ awards. When I heard them announce my name as the winner of “Best Love Poem,” I thought they’d made a mistake; I hadn’t written a love poem! But as they handed me my certificate, I realized that the judges weren’t wrong in their categorization. They were telling me something crucial about my own piece: that while it tells difficult truths, it is immersed in love. I exposed my mother, and I still feel the pangs of guilt. But I realized too that the poem came from a daughter’s deep love, love and confusion and pain and grace all laced inextricably together. I desperately wanted her to know this. For all our differences and distance, the times we’ve missed and misunderstood each other, she gave me the confidence to put words to my experience, to speak them boldly, to bring this pain to light; to continue searching for and finding myself.