Strength is a wonderful and terrible thing.
On the one hand, it enables me to do the things that I want to do, overcoming fear and all of the other seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my way, both real and perceived. Building that kind of strength through old-fashioned focused discipline is incredibly rewarding, just like my parents and grandparents told me it would be.
On the other hand, the real-life application of that strength has taught me something very terrifying about myself: even if I haven’t acquired the strength I need to accomplish a certain task yet, it’s still there.
I first really learned this during those long sleepless months of early parenthood. You tell yourself, I can’t hold her for another minute. I can’t stay in this position for another second. I can’t go another day without a good night’s sleep. And then you always do—not because you want to, but because you have to. You have no choice. The alternative is unacceptable.
This experience has fundamentally changed the way I exercise. I used to tell myself that I pushed myself to the limit. Now I can comfortably say that I was out-and-out lying. No way was I even coming close to my limit. I was afraid of the pain. And I’m not talking about the sharp red kind of pain—I’m talking about that hot white center of the universe kind of pain, the kind that you know is working miracles one little fraction of a millimeter at a time.
If you’ve ever done planks, you know that you hold it for as long as you can. AS LONG AS YOU CAN. Except in this situation, you have a choice. You can say to yourself, “Phew, self, that was really hard. Great job!” and you will totally believe it, even when you have another minute or two in you. When I do planks now, I really do hold them as long as I can. The only problem is, the jig is up. I know that I can hold them longer if I really really want to, every single time. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier, but the pain and the struggle become more familiar.
On a parallel swerve and just as scary, I absolutely need that kind of strength in my life today, in a way that I never did when I was younger or before I had a kid. Every day at some point (and most days at several points), that strength saves my ass from some kind of stupid and/or easy way out that just presents itself. There’s only one big “Oh, I give up” for each of us that’s truly inescapable, and that’s the white, hot, miserable truth.
The strengthening parental scenarios just keep morphing as my daughter gets older, but what I’ve found is that now I embrace these inescapable situations with vigor. Yes, I can read more stories. Yes, I can sing more bedtime songs. Yes, I can play restaurant grocery store again. And yes, I can pick you up and put you back in your toddler bed 30 times tonight without cracking.