Mom: “Which one of you broke this?”
Kids: “Not me!”
Mom: “Who’s been eating candies without asking first?”
Kids: “Not me!”
Mom: “Who left the car door open?”
Kids: “Not me!”
When my kids smell trouble, they spit out these two words as if putting on their bulletproof vest, anticipating the wrath of the indignant mother. These words aggravate me further, because I know that one, two, or all three of them did it, yet without thought and the courage to take responsibility, their first reaction is to lie and deny wrongdoing. How did I end up with such dastardly behaviors in my children when all I ever tell them is to be honest and brave? Never once have I ever said to them, “children, when in trouble, lie! When you did something wrong, deny, deny!”
Woe is me! How did I get rotten apples when I planted heavenly pear?
When I was their age, my classmates and I would hang out after school and play together, all our parents still at work and dinner was a far prospect 2 hours away. In primary school I had the same classmates for 6 years, and in those 6 years I played with the same girls who all lived within 5 minutes of walking distance from the school. There were 6 of us, and we were always together. Our parents did not have money to buy us toys, so we played with what we had. Most days it was playing an elaborate rubber band jumping game that consisted of three routines. We would divide ourselves into two teams and compete against each other to see which team won.
Here comes the interesting and relevant part: although I was part of the gang of 6, I never really felt that I was fully accepted as the rest of the gang. Deep down I knew I was an outsider. The other girls kind of tolerated me, not because they liked me, but because I had to be included. You see, in my primary school, I was the best student. Never the favorite of the teacher, but annoyingly, I always got the grades. How do you say no to the best student in your class when she stays with you after school, insisting with her pathetic presence to be included in your play group?
You don’t. They didn’t. But in small and persistent ways little girls can, they made it obvious to me that I was not that welcome. Because our play, e.g. the rubber band game, was never individual, but always in teams. Teams have team leaders. We chose leaders based on the meritorious performance on the rubber band, so my friend Qun and I were always leading the opposition.
Objectively, I cannot tell you whether there is a definitive winner between Qun and I. We were both very good. However, her mediocre grades made her one of the people, so when she and I took turns to select our teammates, those who had the luck to end up in her camp walked to her side in full exuberance, and the ones who got stuck with me simply did not bother to mask their disappointment. I mean, they might as well shout out, like my kids do to me today, “Not me, not me!”
I carried the burden of greatness and loneliness, and competed 1 against 5. I knew I didn’t belong, but I had nowhere else to go.
Once when we were playing our rubber band game on the concrete in front of one of the girls’ house, the father walked over to us. He opened his palm and showed us 5 pieces of candy. “I only have 5,” he said matter-of-factly, left the candies with us and walked away.
We formed a circle, candies in the middle. On the count of 3, we reached down. My hand was scratched in a few different places, but landed on nothing. All the other girls exclaimed in happiness, opened the wrapper and popped their candy in their mouth. Not me.
Gosh, how many times did we play that rubber band game? For 6 years we trained in that single sport day after day, and if there were an Olympic game of rubber band jumping, surely either Qun or I would have won. It’s been over 30 years since I played that game, but I remember all 3 long routines clearly, and can show it to you now if I had a long rubber band with two people holding it up around their calves, standing facing each other about 6 feet apart. We played it so much that till today, my left hip is so much tighter than my right side, and I always stand on my left foot rather than my right, because that was the leg that bounced on the ground and served as the base, while the right leg moved all about and did most of the fancy tricks.
And during those 6 long years, how many times did I feel the rejection, the not me, until one day, like the leg that got used to standing alone all the time, it became me?
Yesterday as I got ready to leave for a night out with some girlfriends, my husband was busy preparing dinner with our girls, and all of them were in the thick of it, contributing to making what they were about to enjoy for the evening. My son, on the other hand, was playing with his nerf gun and trying to shoot me as I got dressed.
“Why aren’t you helping?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m helping by staying away!” He answered.
“But you are part of the team! You should go and find something to do to help!” I encouraged him.
“There’s nothing for me to do!” He whined in frustration, “I don’t know what to do!”
I know exactly what he means and how he feels. Until recently I’d always counted myself as an outsider. I was the founder of my own fitness studio, but I felt that I had the least right to be there. I’m never really surprised when I’m not included in something, because not only do I kind of expect it, but I actively make myself unavailable so that people can be at ease just in case they didn’t feel like I belonged with them. Even in my own family, when my husband was all entangled in a heap with the kids and dogs, I’d remove myself, thinking that I was not necessary.
Not me. Two little words, but how poisonous. To count ourselves out, without thought, not just from the troubles in life, but from happiness as well. Not me is the epitome of giving up, of not feeling and doing all that there is to feel and do, in the company of other people just like me. Not me is saying I’m not good enough, so just leave me behind in the dust to rot.
I think I really want to encourage my kids to think twice before they say “not me” again next time, and I want the same thing for me too. Instead, we will answer the question with an honest inquiry into our memory: was it me? We will rephrase the expression with, well, Why not me? And go from there.
It is not ok that my son removes himself automatically from the kitchen because everyone else is doing their part and he doesn’t know what to do, like all the candies have been taken and he’s left with none. When my girls play school or house and he feels excluded and rejected, it is important that he doesn’t resort to numbing his feelings by any means necessary, like eating and playing video games. It is crucial that he learns how to hold onto his self-worth in these moments of loneliness, and instead of choosing to escape, find something to focus his energy on so that he knows in no uncertain terms that he’s worth it, whatever it is; he is always a part of something and never alone; and he can choose to be the maker of his own necessary.
I want to learn these skills with my kids. My dear husband, God bless him, knows how to waltz into any group or situation and make himself a seamless part of it, and make everyone else comfortable while he’s at it as well. I used to be pretty annoyed with that, like he was pimping himself out and having no standards. Well, guess who’s jealous now? I think I understand now that it was never his desire to please everyone that made him a social butterfly (because let me tell you, you don’t want to piss the man off. Seriously, stay away from that.), but his insistent belief that he belongs. No matter the situation or people, he belongs.
Like we all do. Not “not me,” but “yes me”!
Recently I've been practicing "taking a bite out of life." My husband brought home a cake that I would normally not eat, and I think my family were all expecting and counting on that, because the cake turned out to be super yummy and they would have had more if I didn't eat any. Well, I did, and found out how great it was.