Every divorce brings its own challenges, and one of mine is that I no longer get the cushy Passover gig I once did: an all-expense paid trip to some exotic locale where I got to bask in the sun while my husband worked. Now my children will be getting that trip—and I’m happy for them, I swear!—while I try not to sulk too obviously in a corner of my mother’s living room.
This is the first Pesach since I’ve become a mother that I will be without my kids for yom tov. This bit of news has inspired a lot of people to make comments that, though unintentional in their casual cruelty, would have cut to the core when I first got divorced two years ago: “You’re lucky you get such a long break.” “What a bummer! You must be so depressed.” “Didn’t you just take a vacation without them?” and so on. I would have spent weeks over-analyzing these comments, obsessing about whether people think I’m a bad mother. But having just turned 30 and having had plenty of time prior to that to contemplate my life thus far, I’m now able to shrug off these thoughtless observations with equanimity. And this newfound relationship with myself is truly the most liberating thing about Pesach.
For most of my life, I thought a woman had two choices: She could either be able to be her authentic, flawed self without fear, or she could be well-liked. The two could not, I assumed, coexist. And so, though I had long admired the kind of assertive, confident women who seemingly cared little what anyone else thought of them, I knew instinctively at a very young age that I much preferred to be universally liked. This manifested itself in several ways: I said yes to things when I meant no. I apologized even when I believed I did nothing wrong. I smiled politely when teased and quickly backtracked when my opinion was challenged. I volunteered to do homework for friends and wrote essays for people who then received higher grades than my own.
I’m not entirely sure of the specific origin of this obsession with catering to everyone else’s happiness more than my own. It would be easy to point to one particular cause, like my gender or oldest child syndrome. Whatever the case, I became an inveterate people-pleaser very early on. If I met you, I wanted you to love me, easily and wholly.
Unsurprisingly, trying to get everyone to love you is an all-consuming and rather exhausting occupation. I’d come home from social gatherings kicking myself for witty things I left unsaid and stupid things I said too loudly, analyzing each offhand remark late into the night. I became an increasingly early arriver for everything, from interviews to birthday parties—the kind of “wake up at 5 a.m. for a noon meeting” early, less because I thought being early is a worthy virtue, which I do, and more because I was terrified to make anyone wait for me for even 60 seconds, as if they might decide in that moment that I’m not worth the trouble after all.
The payoff of this full-time preoccupation with other people’s estimation of me seemed worth it: Unless my circles have been populated by an unusually high rate of exceptional actors, most people with whom I interacted seemed to like me. But even though other people seemed to like me, I didn’t much like myself. I would internalize the obvious schism between my feminist leanings and admiration of strong confident women with my actions, and beat myself up over being unable to overcome that divide. I lived with so much self-loathing that it was surprising to find out other people liked me so much, and with Groucho Marx-induced irritation, I’d sneer at their idiocy.
From the years of accumulated attempts to make everyone like me, coupled with my divorce and its associated pressures, it was only a matter of time before my health suffered, and I began experiencing crippling stomach pain daily, as well as myriad digestive upsets. I endured, with as much dignity as possible, a string of appointments with medical specialists and a colonoscopy, endoscopy, and CAT scan—the gastrointestinal distress trifecta, if you will—which yielded few answers and caused my doctor to shrug her shoulders and say, “Maybe it really is stress?” It would have been priceless advice, except for the wad of bills of medical co-pays I have yet to pay.
Recently, immediately following a fight with my ex-husband in which particularly nasty words were exchanged, I called my father, sobbing, and, between hiccupping gasps, somehow impressed upon him the hurtful things my ex had said about my character. “Why do you care so much what he thinks of you? You’re divorced!” my father yelled in a tone of exasperated concern that he usually reserves only for me. “I care what everyone thinks about me!” I shrieked back immediately.
And then I paused—finally, in that moment in my car hunched over both from the shooting pains in my abdomen and in an attempt to avoid a guy at my gym who was becoming too friendly for my liking, did I realize how utterly ridiculous and ultimately fruitless it was for me to live this way. For what purpose was I tailoring my behavior at the expense of my happiness and health? To have the greatest number of fawning eulogies said about me at my funeral, or boast to the kind of petty people who care about such things the staggering number of friends and social acquaintances I could call my own?
In my own personal rock bottom, I concluded what should have been obvious before: There seemed to be little point in working endlessly to get everyone to like you, when, after all was said and done, you didn’t much like yourself. I was a sick, miserable wreck who yelled at her children far too often for her liking and didn’t have any time to enjoy the fact that she was so well-liked. I was spent. My upcoming 30th birthday inspired me to try and make a change.
I started saying no when I meant no. I told a former employer who contacted me for occasional freelance work that I’d need a higher fee for a project that went on longer and more interactively than originally stated. I asked for an additional $200, which they could easily afford; they countered by offering me a paltry $100, as if to teach me a lesson for overestimating the worth of my time and effort. Fed up by this slap in the face, I raised a stink to people for whom this issue was way below their pay grade. They might never hire me again, but I got the money I thought I was owed.
It’s pretty amazing, after years of being a doormat, to see other people’s reactions to your sudden gumption and to realize how utterly empowering it is to put yourself first. Turning 30 might have been daunting—I’m finding gray hairs interwoven in my once uniformly raven strands too often for my liking—but it’s also been completely liberating. I can also finally say with conviction, “I’m too old for this,” because I am. Youthful follies, like obsessing over whether everyone likes you and what they might think of you, are cute in your 20s but pathetic in your 30s.
Pesach is a tough holiday for many people: tough on the stomach, tough on the wallet, and tough to contemplate vast stretches of uninterrupted time with your family (and this is the people who like their family). This year, it’s difficult for me to realize that when my kids form memories from spending this holiday in a beautiful resort, I won’t be in any of them. As happy as I am for the experience they’ll get to share with their wonderful father, I’m insanely jealous. It’s an ugly emotion, but it goes well with my truly juvenile pique about trading Aruba and San Diego for my parents’ house in Flatbush. (“Can you set up a tea room for me, please?” I half-joked to my mother on the phone when I agreed to come to her for the Seders. “It’s called the refrigerator,” she answered without missing a beat.)
Still, I’m grateful that I’ve finally reached a point in my life where I can much more easily brush off what the neighbors might say, and trust me, Flatbush has plenty of neighbors who love to say lots of things. At the very least, it will make Pesach without my kids easier to bear.
Writer Menachem Levisohn has a great thought about Pesach. He points out that the word Mitzrayim (Egypt) has the same letters as the word matzarim, narrow and constrictive situations. It’s logical, he says, that we can therefore understand Mitzrayim as representative of a state of hardship and distress.
“Leaving Egypt, Mitzrayim, means not just becoming a free man who is able to determine his own future,” he writes, “it means leaving those negative aspects which sucked the life from man, stress and sorrow, pain and constriction. Leaving Egypt means leaving the state of constrictiveness. It means being free to be the person that G-d divinely created. It means being the real you.”
To be honest, I still want everyone to think highly of me—but I don’t need them to. “A want is something you would like to have, but don’t need, and a need is something you require,” my 6-year-old recited to me after school one afternoon not long ago, and I was endlessly charmed but only recently did I realize how keenly this applies to me.
And it only took me 30 years to learn, and just in time for Pesach, too.
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Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.