Monday, November 19, 2012

The Power of Authority

It is a near universal truth that all women who have had a baby embark, almost immediately, on an odyssey to retrieve (or re-achieve) their pre-baby bodies.  And because this is a near universal truth, I proceeded on that same quest.  This summer, in furtherance of that goal, I engaged a personal trainer.  For about eight weeks, things were going great!  I had gone down a size in jeans and I had lost 11 pounds.  I felt strong and proud of myself.  I was running two to three miles 4 to 5 times a week, with a decent time.  It was fantastic!

Then one day, inspired by the summer Olympics, my trainer made up an Olympics themed workout for us.  One of the things she asked me to do was a cartwheel.

Okay, yes, I am forty-two years old.  But I remember how it feels to do a cartwheel.  And I've done them in my adulthood:  my young adulthood, sure . . . in college . . . at the intramural fields . . . and once at the Sigma Chi house, I think . . . and possibly slightly inebriated (either on life or libations or both) . . . but still, I've done a couple of cartwheels as a grown-up.  But I'm middle aged, now.  And the sad truth is that I have not cartwheeled in decades.

So, I demurred at first.  I even told my trainer that I was a little scared to do a cartwheel.  But she encouraged me, and she was enthusiastic, and I wanted to show her that I was game and a "good," motivated exerciser.  So, I attempted the cartwheel.

Bad idea.

I sprained my booty.  And I don't just mean that I was a little sore the next day.  I mean that the cartwheel happened on August 8th and I'm still suffering from its effects today, November 19th.  I strained -- or, it seems more likely at this point, slightly tore -- a small muscle underneath my gluteus.  It even hurts to drive the car because the movement of the leg from the gas to the brake and back aggravates the injury.  (And P.S., I drive a lot with my job.)  I have tried to run a few times since then, but I still have trouble.  Even walking too vigorously or for a long distance can be painful.  It takes a long time for the middle aged butt to heal.  Maybe in a few more weeks I'll be able to run again.

Did I mention that I have a 26 pound toddler boy who still likes to be picked up by his mommy?  Did you know that you need that tiny muscle beneath the gluteus maximus to do that lifting?  Oh yes.

It has not been a good experience.

In the weeks and months (!) since the Cartwheeling Incident, I've thought a lot about why this happened.  Why did I agree to do something that my first instinct was to reject?  It's easy to just blame my personal trainer, but it's not her fault.  Yes, perhaps she should have thought twice about asking a forty-two year old, out of shape lawyer to do a cartwheel.  But I am, after all, a forty-two year old, out of shape lawyer.  I am not without agency.  I could have flatly refused to do it.  But I didn't.  Why?

You know, I tried to breastfeed my son after he was born.  (Hang with me, here; you'll see the connection, anon.)  The pediatric and neonatal communities -- the doctors, the nurses, the lactation consultants -- speak so strongly about the clear benefits to the mother and child that result from breastfeeding that it is almost implied that if you do not breastfeed your baby, you are guilty of a form of child neglect.  Like a "good" expectant mom, I had every intention of breastfeeding The Boy exclusively for at least the first six months.

What actually happened was this:  I starved my son for the first five days of his life and he ended up losing almost 10% of his birth weight.  So we started him on formula.  Nevertheless, I continued to attempt to breastfeed him.  During my entire maternity leave I would play with him when he was awake, then attempt to feed him with the breast, then I would bottle feed him, change him, put him down for a nap . . . and then, rather than sleep myself (which is what everyone says you should do, "sleep when baby sleeps"), I would hook up to the breast pump to try to stimulate more milk production.  It made maternity leave exhausting and miserable.  I became resentful of the pump and the lactation consultant/breastfeeding community.  Nevertheless, I kept doing it.  And, even after I went back to work -- even when I would bring home a scant 6 to 12 ounces of expressed milk from my 3 to 4 pumping sessions at the office -- I continued to do this to myself until, finally, my son, at the age of six months rejected both the breast and the anemic expressed breast milk that I offered to him.  Had he not been a wise infant and seen the futility of this endeavor, I probably would have continued with the pump until there was a mere trickle.  Why did I do this?

When I was in private law practice, it was not unusual for me to work 10 to 12 hour days.  I was rarely home before 8:00 p.m.  But I had learned quickly in law school and after that if I wanted to make partner, if I wanted to be a successful lawyer, working like that was what was required.  Here's what working like that also did:  it isolated me socially, it took me away from physical activity, it made it less likely that I would cook for myself and more likely that I would eat take out.  It made me fat, lonely and miserable.  And I knew that not exercising was bad for me, that eating fatty food was bad for me, and that having little social life was bad for me.  But I went ahead and worked the hours and gained the weight because conventional wisdom said that these were the personal sacrifices that are required to be a law firm partner, to be a "good" lawyer.

At the root of all of these adventures in self-destruction is the power of authority to cause you -- to cause me -- to ignore your better instincts.  If I had it to do over again, I would certainly take back that cartwheel.  I'd still be running.  Maybe I'd be down to a nine minute mile by now.  I would also hang up the breast feeding immediately. The emotional toll -- including the massive guilt trip that I could not give my son all of the magical whoosie-whatsits that come only from my boobies -- was just not worth it.  Instead, I would happily feed him formula and enjoy my maternity leave rather than wearily slog through it, a slave to the boob vacuum.  And I certainly would not have worked myself into serious unhealth at the law firm.  I would have left early more often to go exercise, to cook for myself, and to have a little fun.  Knowing, as I do now, that few people actually make law firm partner -- and, in fact, I took myself out of the running for partner precisely because that misery was not worth the prize -- I would have given myself a break.

In every instance, I knew that the better choice was to reject the thing that would make me seem, in the eyes of some real or perceived authority figure, to be a "good" exerciser, a "good" mother, a "good" lawyer.  But the authority of the chick with 6% body fat, or the doctors and the nurses, or the legal community bent my will away from my better instincts.

And I'm not the only one . . . we humans have a knack for closing our ears to our own guiding voices when authority tells us to take another path.  Think how wrongly white people behaved in the early-to-mid-20th century to people of color.  These white people were not all monsters.  They were not mostly monsters.  But they were so strongly influenced by the power of authority in their lives -- the authority that said that black people should drink from different water fountains, use different toilets, and go to different schools -- that they switched off that little voice of reason in their heads that asked them whether it was the right thing to do.

Of course, I'm not saying that all authority is wrong.  But I am saying that authority is incredibly powerful, and we should check it and question it.  You are not a slovenly mess because you question the wisdom of throwing your forty-two year old body upside down as if you were a ten-year-old.  And you are not unpatriotic to question government when it sends young men to war for a cause you do not understand. Nor do you commit blasphemy when you question your pastor's words when those words sound a dull tone in your ear.  There is a reason that your brain draws a question mark in your mind.  Rather than erase it and blindly accept the word of authority, examine it.  Rather than accept authority, take a moment to think -- and sometimes that thinking requires serious research, examination, and exploration -- about whether this authority really deserves your acquiescence.

So what about parents, right?  I'm a mom of a 20 month old, now.  And he is bright, cheerful, and strong-willed.  Conventional wisdom says that I and The Working Dad are in charge and that he, as our son, should obey us.  For now, this is true.  Twenty-month-old boys are not renowned for their sound decision-making acumen.

But one day in the not too distant future, he will rightly question my authority.  And I should be ready to have a conversation with him about that.  It is not acceptable to tell him, "because I said so."  No, my boy deserves a reasoned and honest answer from me as to why I exercise my parental authority as I do.  (P.S., to the extent that he can understand such reasoning now, he gets it now.)  And, I, as his parent must be acutely aware of the awesome power my authority has in shaping him as a person.  In large measure, he will do and believe as I and The Working Dad teach him.  So in everything that I do and in everything that I say, I am quietly exercising my authority over him and teaching him how to behave in the world.  So I must always remember that his little eyes are watching and his little ears are listening.  They are picking up every opinion, every behavior, every prejudice I carry and they are lodging it in his little brain-sponge.  I do not want to lead him astray.  And I do not want him to feel that he can never question me if the little voice in his head might say to him "this seems wrong."  He should ask why, and I, as the authority figure, should be able to tell him.  Indeed, I, as the authority figure, should also be ready to say, "yes, you're right, this does seem wrong."

So the Cartwheeling Incident turns out to have been a very painful and very good life lesson:  When your internal voice asks "but why?," before you take another step, take the time to answer the question.