The Short and The Small of It
I come from generations of women who have all been the same size: short. When I was young I knew that I would grow up to be short and now that I’ve grown up I am, obviously, short. It would be impossible to be me, to be in my body for all these years, and not know that I stand inches below the national average height for women in the US, which I just looked up again to confirm it hasn’t changed, and it hasn’t. It’s 5’4. I’m shorter than that by 2 ¼ inches.
Many years ago when I was self conscious about everything (and not just some things), I used to try to boost my height, even just a little bit, by only ever wearing shoes that gave me at least an extra inch. I even wore flip flops that were sort of platformy. It was a ridiculous, sometimes uncomfortable endeavor, bound for failure, and I gave it up at some point in my mid 20s and truly managed to embrace being shorter than nearly every adult I know. There are actually many benefits to being short, you should know.
Besides, there aren’t too many situations I find myself in these days that make me actively feel short. One situation is fairly obvious, and it’s when I need something that’s higher up than I can reach, at the grocery store or even in my own home, and I find myself asking for help or standing on chairs or climbing on counters to get what I need. I cannot reach many things. But, on the flip side, I can fit more easily into airplane seats.
Another situation that reminds me of my height but is accidentally self-inflicted is clothing shopping, because, it seems, I am preternaturally drawn to long multi-patterned dresses with flowy, drapey fabric and can’t quite get it into my head that taking them from the rack to the fitting room with hope only ever results in me staring, shocked and disappointed, at a preposterous version of myself under sometimes flattering, sometimes not overhead lights. Some dresses are only for tall people. Or tall-er people, at least.
The third situation is when I am with my eight-year-old daughter’s best friend’s family because, as my daughter and her friend joke, the friend’s family is the tall family. Everyone in the family, including their dogs, is tall. And at first, when I met them, I thought: oh no. How will this work? How will we ever overcome the awkwardness of this height differential? But that was silly; I got to know them and would want to know them and hang out with them even if I got a stiff neck every single time I talk to them, which I don’t, because we do not live in a cartoon.
Sometimes my daughter talks in a way that makes it clear she is hopeful that one day she might grow to be tall. She won’t, ever. 5’4, maybe. But tall? No.
But lately I’ve been feeling short in a whole new and different way, one that’s making me somewhat uncomfortable, actually. And it’s because my ten-year-old son is getting… not short. It is not a surprise to see his eyes creeping near level with mine; I always knew he would outgrow me in his adolescence. I have long savored this knowledge, in theory, but the reality of it is making me feel small, which is not the same as feeling short. It’s not making me feel small in a bad way, exactly, the way a terrible boss once made me feel small or the way someone I love deeply who said bad things about me once made me feel small, but small in a different, new way I’m still trying to understand.
I’m pretty sure this feeling of smallness has something to do with the recognition that my identity as The Mother of Three Young Children is waning, or has waned, and apparently I wasn’t quite ready for that. It was, after all, hard enough to say goodbye to my identity as the Young Mother of Children, which I had to do when I realized that after my third came along I didn’t feel particularly like a Young Mother anymore, nor did anyone pay me the courtesy of remarking on my status as a Young Mother because no one in their right mind would have looked at me with my three children under four and my seventeen bags under my two eyes and mistaken me for one.
I first realized the ground was shifting a few years ago when my family spent an entire day at the beach. Seven hours, straight. My youngest was still napping then but she didn’t need a quiet room or a crib and after she napped on me for a bit in one of those not-quite-as-comfortable-as-it-looks beach chairs she woke up and kept right on building her castles. We were out of diapers by then and though I’m not quite sure we’ll ever be out of meltdowns, the fact that all three of our children could just… hang…all day, at the beach, was something novel. And so my husband and I mark this memory, that day, as the beginning of a thrillingly new, baby-free season in the life of our family.
My husband and I embraced it. We dove right in and took trips with our children that involved tents and long flights and car drives and hikes and foreign languages and weird foods. We watched genuinely good movies together and played card games and board games I actually wanted to play (move over, War and good riddance, Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land!) and we talked with our children about the world in new, fascinating ways as they explored it in real time.
It’s true, what they say, that we get so caught up in the moments of intensity and insanity of having really young children and then poof! It’s over. But there aren’t really enough sayings about how the next, post-baby, young-school-aged-children phase goes just as quickly, if not all the more so, and then all of a sudden your son’s eyes are level with yours and you can barely smell the top of his head anymore without making it awkward for everyone, and you need to smell the top of his head because it inexplicably, comfortingly smells like your younger brother’s baby blankets… Not to be weird or anything.
The only saying I can think of is “small kids, small problems; big kids, big problems,” which is really a terribly gloomy way of looking at things, but I suppose what’s all the more gloomy is that it actually seems like it might be right, which makes me feel uncomfortable. Though it was physically exhausting to have young children, it was, for the most part (excepting the first five months of my youngest’s life during which time she screamed from 5 PM-9 PM without ceasing), easy to know what they needed and when. I knew when they needed to sleep or to eat a snack or run around in fresh air and I even knew when what they needed most was a bandaid lovingly placed on the most minuscule, non-bleeding cut imaginable. I knew how to comfort, as my mother did, and hers.
But now they come to me with their big, hot tears and their bigger kid heart pains and what they need is for me to just sit in their discomfort with them. Sit in my own discomfort with feeling so small and unsure. Unlike when they were learning to walk and I knew that I had to clear the ground to make way for them, now I have to watch them struggle through the debris and learn to clear the ground for themselves. When they were young I knew how to love them up, and it was easy for me to feel like my love and care was all they needed. I was so big, then. And now that I’m supposed to release them forward and turn them outward I feel so small sitting here watching them go, waiting for their return, for their reports on what it’s like for them out there in the world.
There’s a story my family loves to tell. Many years ago my father–a man of average height in his youth, and shorter than average height in his not-youth–delivered a speech in southern Florida that happened to attract a particular audience, by which I mean the place was just full of old Jews. After the program my dad stayed around to chat with attendees and two women approached him to talk. They spoke for a bit and when my father said goodbye and turned to go he overheard what one of the little old Jewish ladies said to the other, with absolute sincerity: “Who knew he’d be so tall?”
At 5 1¾ I have felt myself to be, in my family of five, a giant. Who knew I could be so tall? But now, it seems like, with my oldest child’s eyeline quickly approaching mine, the precipice of his adolescence is occurring simultaneously with the precipice of adolescence of my own middle age, and I’m in need of a boost.
It is true that I come from a long line of short women. But they also happened to be mighty. They also happened to be the biggest people I have ever known; sharers of immense love, vast wisdom, and expansive comfort. Soon enough, my children will all outgrow me in more ways than I can currently imagine, and we’ll move through to the next phase of our family’s life. It will be uncomfortable and probably also sometimes painful. May I be like the women who came before me through all of it, in platform flip flops, or not.
Discomfort is… uncomfortable. And since I mentioned being uncomfortable multiple times in this post, I’m going to share the food that is bringing me the most comfort right now, which is cheesy oatmeal. Not everyone will agree with me that savory oatmeal is a good thing or even a right thing, but I really think the haters are simply people who have not yet tried it. The recipe has so few ingredients but the result is surprisingly rich and sumptuous and, yes, comforting.
½ cup oats (Any kind will do, but use old fashioned rolled oats if you like a toothier oatmeal and quick oats if you like it with less texture.)
½ tsp salt. (Or more, to taste.)
1 cup water
⅛-¼ cup shredded cheese of your choice
Combine the oats with the salt and water and cook in either in the microwave or on the stove, depending on the instructions you choose to follow and how many dishes you choose to dirty. It’s done when the water is all absorbed and the oatmeal looks like it has grown. Add the cheese and stir. Dive in.