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Cigarettes, Padlocks, Motherhood & Me

by Shannon Lell
Photo by: Shutterstock

You know how “small talk” is supposed to be easy? Asking and answering surface questions like, “how ’bout this weather?” and “so what do you do?” and “where’d you go to school?” is supposed to be a safe and simple exchange.

Well, I hate it.

I get twitchy when I have to small talk. My eyes glaze over and suddenly I’m unable to focus because I’m too busy looking for an exit strategy. The more someone insists on small talk, the harder I look for some visible signal to something more interesting- an ominous tattoo, a symbolic necklace, double-fisting jack in cokes. Something to start a more engaging exchange than… “how old are your kids?”

Do you know my favorite place at a social gathering? Outside the door, around the corner and into the shadows with the smokers. I love it there.

I smoked in college. I quit smoking regularly 12 years ago, but after a couple of glasses of wine amidst a crowd and good spirits, I find myself responding to some Pavlovian need and I become a woman on a solitary mission to find a smoke. It’s not just because that first drag is sorta, kinda, blissful… but because I know there is no small talk amongst the smokers.

When you find the smokers you are already in the inner sanctum. Guards are deactivated, pretenses on the low, low, low setting. Even if they’re only “social smokers”, everyone feels like outcasts hiding in the shadows to avoid judgment. In this instant bond of sharing a taboo moment you find all the Big Talk; the secrets and knock-your-socks-off Truths.

I have had some of the best conversations while shivering in the shadows of a building smoking a cigarette with a stranger. Four years ago, in Portland, outside a swanky hotel after a long work meeting, I met a young 20-something guy who claimed to be Mel Gibson’s nephew. I didn’t know if that was true, and I didn’t care, but I could sense he had a story to tell. Within 20 minutes he was holding back tears in a wild confession about his paralyzing fear because he is hopelessly addicted to drugs and gay and his wealthy family didn’t approve of anything about his life. Another twenty minutes and two cigarettes later we were laughing so hard my sides hurt while he poured me a glass of Crystal in his hotel room that was inhabited by a large group of 20-something other “friends.”

Ten years ago, in New York, I met a man outside a bar who bawled his eyes out as he told me his deepest regret is letting his daughter live with his ex-wife up state. Several minutes later, he hugged me, thanked me for listening, said he never talks about that but felt like he could with me, then walked away.

And it just happened with a nice man standing at a bar in Vegas last March. His wife left him a few months prior, he was devastated. He cried, we exchanged a few words of hope, took a shot, laughed and then we moved on. It took 15 minutes but he told me he felt better – somehow lighter for having talked about it.

My friends make fun of me for instantly diving into the deep end with strangers. They accuse me of prying. They say I’m intrusive into people’s personal lives and I should just back off.

But I don’t dive into the deep end and toward BIG TALK because I’m a sadistic voyeur hell-bent on depressing reflection. I do it because I believe everyone carries a burden; a kind of pain that acts like a padlock on their joy. I believe that the antidote to releasing internal pain is outward expression and human connection. Doesn’t a good cry on a friendly shoulder make it ALL better somedays? It does for me and I don’t shy away from being the shoulder.

I believe that when pain is spoken out loud, unlocked from the heart, released from the depths in which it hides trapped under shame, or fear, or judgement… joy comes rushing to the surface like an air bubble.The joy of releasing the pain is euphoric. I feel it and hear it in their hugs, laughter and the thank you for listenings.

I do love picking locks and releasing these air bubbles but first you have to get WAY past the small talk.

Some of these same friends think I don’t like motherhood because I talk about how hard it is all the time. Of course that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When I write and talk about the pain, I’m just picking my own locks because I know what comes rushing to the surface when I do. The joy of release. This is how I view mothers who lament about the difficult task of mothering more than they exclaim its virtue.

If we didn’t love motherhood so much, if we didn’t believe it was the most difficult, painful, important, joyous job we have… we wouldn’t talk about it all. It is in the lamenting that love is hiding just below the surface. Often times, the louder the lament, the deeper the love.

Truth is, motherhood is hard for me. But I don’t think it’s hard because I’m doing it wrong. I think it’s hard because I’m doing it right. It’s just much of my joy is locked behind my own fear of screwing it up and so I talk about the fear of screwing it up so that I can release the unsurpressable joy that is waiting under the surface.

But I refuse to deny that I have a padlock, and I refuse to allow it remain locked, and the only key I know is speaking the Truth. My Truth. With my whole heart.

Because it’s true what they say, the Truth can and does set you free.

So if you have some pain you’re keeping under wraps – if you need to talk about something BIGGER than the weather or need an ear to bend about how damn hard being a mother/father/spouse/person can be – come sit by me. I’m an excellent locksmith and we don’t even have to smoke.

Shannon was thrown from the corporate ladder in 2010. Shortler after, she started writing. Now, in between folding laundry and corralling two small children, she writes at and is the editor of She writes introspective pieces on personal and social issues and she tries to use just enough sarcasm so you don’t think she’s emotionally unavailable. She’s a contributor to the anthology on women friendships, The HerStories Project. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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