The other day a friend posted on Facebook a rejection she had received for poetry submitted for publication.
She is a wonderful poet and writer, and I ached because a rejection feels like, well, a rejection — a failure — and she is not a failure.
How do we measure success? I asked myself — and, in a flash, I saw the scene that I wrote out below. It’s a totally made up story, kind of like a nightmare — but here it is for what it’s worth.
“Thank you for filling out the questionnaire,” the doctor said, studying the paper in front of him. He was checking off my answers with a pencil. I felt like it was more a quiz, than a get-to-know-you form for the first visit.
“You prefer to be called Sally?” he asked, looking up at me.
“Yes, I do,” I replied. I smiled at him, but he was already looking back down at the paper.
“Height, okay… Weight,” he looked up at me again. “You might want to lose a few pounds.”
“I know,” I said, “but things have been stressful lately, and I stress-eat…” My voice trailed off. I was hoping for a bye, but he just kept going down the list.
“You noted that you’re a writer,” he said, looking up again.
“I did?!” I said, questioningly because I didn’t remember putting that down.
He picked the paper up and turned it toward me, his finger pointing at a fill-in-the-blank mid-page. In my handwriting, next to the word “employment,” was the word “writer.”
“Oh,” I stammered, “I’m not really a writer. I don’t know why I wrote that.”
“Do you write?” he asked.
“I guess,” I said.
“Have you submitted pieces for publication?” he asked.
“A few, I guess, a long time ago.”
“How many times have you been rejected?” he asked. It was more of a demand.
I squirmed uncomfortably. What was this all about? I wondered.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t understand. Why do you need to know this?”
He glared at me.
“Can I change my answer?” I asked.
“Real writers have a pile of rejections,” he said. “I think changing your answer would be wise.”
He picked up a pen and neatly crossed out my response, then sat with pen poised waiting for my new answer. “Employment?” he asked.
“Umm.. I’m mostly a mom,” I said.
“How many children do you have?” he asked.
“Eight,” I told him. I found myself sitting a little straighter in the chair now. Surely this would impress the man.
“How many times have they broken your heart?” he asked.
“What?!” I asked.
“You know, how many times have they fallen, made bad choices, or failed?” he said.
“I thought you would want to hear about their successes. They’re doing pretty well,” I said.
“Real mothers have their hearts broken on a regular basis. They start off putting bandaids on skinned knees and move on to bruised egos and hurt feelings. They ache with their children. I’m trying to determine if you are a real mother,” he said, and then he repeated his question. “How many times have they broken your heart?”
I thought of the many emergency room visits, the hospitalizations, the times I stood outside a bedroom door and prayed for the child inside. I thought the listening and the insufficient advice I tried to give. I thought of skinned knees, skinned hands, stitches in the head, broken bones, tears, tears, tears, and more tears. I thought of driving when called for help and crying all the way, dropping kids off for college and crying all the way home, and watching them get married and crying for joy.
“How many times have they broken your heart?” he asked for the third time.
“None,” I said.