How Do We Let Go of the Weight We Carry?
“It is a strange question to confront in one’s thirties,” writes Maya Shanbhag Lang. “How do I inhabit this body? I feel like a visitor in my own home.” In this essay, Shanbhag Lang reckons with her vulnerability—as a daughter of an abusive father, as a new mother to her own young daughter, and as an unexpected athlete.
For more from Shanbhag Lang, read her newly published book, What We Carry. It’s a memoir centered around a reexamination of her relationship with her mother, as Shanbhag Lang steps into motherhood herself. It’s a raw and honest story about mothers and daughters, lies and truths, what it means to grow up, the weight we shoulder as women—and how to finally set it down.
I brace myself as I face the barbell. It is loaded with 305 pounds. An impressive deadlift for a man, a somewhat freakish one for a woman of my size: five foot six, a 140 pounds. Bookish, introspective, nothing about me suggests powerlifting. Yet each time I step up to the bar, I take this as a challenge.
The bar asks a question: Who are you, really?
Each time I answer: I am here to find out.
I grew up with an abusive father. Controlling and rigid, he used constant criticism to shape me.
When I made the track team in middle school, he dragged me to the local track every night. He made me race him over and over. When I developed shin splints, he told me to run through them. My coach asked why I was not healing despite sitting out practice. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t explain about the humiliation of my evenings, how desperately I wanted those nights with my father to be special, how deeply I wished to please the man who screamed to run through the pain. The shin splints turned into stress fractures. I quit the team. “You see?” my father said. “You are a quitter. You are lazy and worthless and weak.”
The story repeated each time I made a sports team. I gave up and turned to studying. Good grades gave me a feeling of worth. Best of all, they didn’t involve my body.
My body could get me into trouble. I learned this when my father ripped up my first bra, asking if I wanted to be a slut, or when he punished me after a stranger on the street looked me up and down and whistled.
Books were safe. I retreated into them to escape.
At thirty, as a new mother, I realize I can’t keep ignoring my body. Parenting is a neck-down activity: holding, feeding, rocking, soothing. Even the decisions regarding my newborn seem to come from a different place: my gut.
As a spirited toddler, my daughter dances and skips. I play along, pretending it comes naturally, while yearning for the time when she will be sedentary on the couch.
There is an old Persian curse: May all your wishes come true. Soon enough, she is content to sit inside on a beautiful day, nose buried in a book. If I encourage her to go out and play, she looks at me curiously.
I realize I can’t ask my daughter to have a joyful relationship with her body if I don’t have one with mine.
It is a strange question to confront in one’s thirties: How do I inhabit this body? I feel like a visitor in my own home.
Realizing I want to change, I join a gym. I have a single goal: to honor my body.
Almost immediately, I am drawn to weight lifting.
The lessons of weight lifting contradict everything I’ve been taught. The goal when lifting isn’t to diminish oneself. Most workouts and classes take it as a given that we want to be smaller. Lifting teaches you to embrace your strength.
There are no separate teams for men and women. We all walk up to the same bar. We all see how much we can lift. The simplicity appeals to me deeply.
I throw myself into it. The numbers I rack go up. It’s the same satisfaction I once found in studying.
Within six months, I can dead lift over 200 pounds.
Within a year, I can squat 400 pounds.
My numbers are competitive-caliber. I hire a coach.
“Have you always been an athlete?” he asks.
The question stops me cold. I am finally being seen for who I am, but this recognition, though powerful and gratifying, also makes me mourn the girl who wanted to be mighty and strong but was taunted and told to be small.
With the amount I’m now lifting, my coach insists I learn the safety drop.
The golden rule for weight lifters is to drop the bar when necessary. If a muscle tightens or goes into spasm, the maneuver can be lifesaving. Dropping the bar properly involves a mix of control and abandon. The control part is easy for me. It’s letting go that presents a problem.
I watch as my coach performs a basic snatch, the bar flying overhead. He then drops the bar elegantly at its apex and steps back to dodge it. The safety drop is not careless. It is an informed decision to walk away.
“Easy,” I think. “No problem.” But once I have the bar at its apex, I am unable to let go. I set it down with care.
“What’s stopping you?” my coach asks.
I glance around. “It’s just…there are people here.”
“I don’t want to cause a scene.”
“What would you rather do, cause a scene or get injured?”
I stand there, dumbfounded. He means it as a rhetorical question, but for me, the answer is complicated. Maybe I would rather injure myself than cause a scene.
No gender studies class or feminist essay could drive home social conditioning like that moment. Never before have I truly understood how much I fear inconveniencing others.
The metaphors from the gym are not complicated. I excel at powerlifting because I am used to carrying more than I should. I dread safety drops because I am terrible at protecting myself.
Would I rather cause a scene or get injured? I want to say it’s an easy question.
I learn to remind myself of my daughter before I lift. “You are a mother,” I tell myself. “You are needed. Drop that bar if you have to.”
On a good day, I feel grateful that my beloved daughter causes me to take better care of myself. In my darker moments, I wonder why I need to remind myself of my role as a mother in order to see my worth as a person.
“I can’t weight lift,” a friend says ruefully. “I have disk issues.”
I mention that I, too, used to suffer from lower back pain.
“So, what, strengthening your lower back helped?”
I shake my head. It turns out that people with lower back trouble often have a strong lower back. The issue isn’t the lower back at all, but other areas in the body. In the absence of support, the lower back overcompensates.
“The lower back,” I say, “is like the mom of the body.”
We laugh, decide that husbands and societal structures are like those mysterious expanses of the body that don’t do very much while the workhorse mom toils away. If other areas do kick in, if the glutes and core and thoracic spine engage, lower back pain disappears. Its load has been lessened.
“It’s like when the dad takes the kids for the weekend!” my friend howls. I know, even as we are laughing, that we both find this unspeakably sad.
There is a precept in weight lifting: To improve a lift, don’t do the lift. You don’t improve your squat by doing squats. Instead, you work the auxiliary muscles. You improve the network. That way, no single part is under too much strain.
For women, improving the network means acknowledging our need for support. It means demanding that other parties step up. But this involves vulnerability and confrontation. Sometimes it’s easier to just keep going. We do not see, perhaps because we don’t want to see, how much we are doing—because that would involve admitting how long we’ve been in pain.
Weight lifting, like physics, involves mastering energy. The best lifts feel effortless—not like lifting, but like letting go.
In a perfectly executed lift, the bar seems to fly of its own accord. That feeling of weightlessness is one of pure harmony and grace. I live for that feeling.
Imagine the arc of a bullwhip. The abrupt snap of the wrist causes a final surge of power. You initiate a movement, and then you stop. You make a choice to stop. And that choice gives you all the power in the world.
When I turned forty, I made a series of tremendously difficult choices. I left my marriage, rebuilt my career, and reengineered much of my life so that it now feels radically different, full of support. Really, though, those choices all stemmed from a single decision. It was the snap of the wrist, the choice to stop. I made an informed decision to let go. What followed was an extension of that.
As a power lifter, I can now outlift most of the men at the gym. That’s without factoring in my smaller size.
What I’ve learned is that, for me, weight lifting isn’t about picking up heavy weights. It’s about finally setting them down.
I will no longer overcompensate or prioritize others over myself. I won’t be too strong—not in a way where I’m doing too much. Instead, I will be healthy. I will honor myself. I will stand before the barbell and claim my strength. I will recognize that I am powerful: an athlete, a mother, a warrior. Someone who has always been strong. This, I tell the barbell, is who I am.
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