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How my children helped me learn to love myself
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Emi Willing, holding her youngest Kanoelani, poses for a family photo with her husband RJ Willing and children (back to front), Emoani, Castle and Lily. - photo by Emi Willing
All my life, I defined myself as an athlete. I lived it, breathed it and looked the part. I loved who I was.

After having kids, I was no longer an athlete. I no longer lived the part, breathed it or looked any part of an athlete. I looked worn out, tired and exhausted from raising little ones, learning to be organized and trying to keep a tidy house. I was always tired. Someone always needed something, and the house was always messy. It was frustrating, discouraging and downright terrible. It was hard. I could do hard things as an athlete, but raising kids, keeping myself together and having a family is really, really difficult.

There were many moments of pure joy. However, there was always something or someone to clean and something that went wrong. The screams, the cries and the messes overshadowed any amount of good or light that tried to break through the darkness. It was like a little plant that began to grow, just to have someone cover the light or stomp all over the plant. My faith diminished, my darkness grew and any love I had for myself faded away.

I couldn't keep up with it all. There was too much chaos. There were too many needs. The messes, the screaming and the crying made me feel completely inadequate. I lost faith in myself as a parent, as a companion and as a person. It was heartbreaking, so I started to hide.

I hid behind the camera. I was ashamed to take pictures of myself let alone share them on social media. What would people say who haven't seen me in years? What would they think? They remember me as the athlete I was and now they'd see a heavy mom who can't get herself, her kids or her house under control. What should I do?

"Hide!" I thought to myself. "No one wants to see that. You don't have a perfect, happy life like everyone else does. See their smiles in their photos? They're real. You're not who you used to be and it will never happen again. Never.

I constantly hid under larger clothes and behind desserts. Donuts, cakes and ice cream were my drugs of choice. I felt a high and false sense of happiness after I devoured them all. The sugar high would fade away and I'd be left with an empty Bluebell pint, a dirty spoon to wash and sad feelings that were never satisfied with sweets. The lies fueled my insecurities. The calories piled up and before I knew it, I gained 85 pounds in four years from inactivity and eating everything. I was ashamed of myself. I stayed indoors and hid from the world. "No one wants to see this," I thought to myself. "No one, not even me."

But while it seemed like my kids were babies forever, they eventually started to talk. The screaming subsided, the cries lessened and their little voices were heard. "I love you, Mommy," they'd say. "I love you, you're beautiful." Their eyes drew near to mine. They held my face tight and made sure I made eye contact with them. At the time, I was ashamed to look them in the eye because for years I didn't believe it. I didn't believe I was beautiful. I didn't believe I deserved love because I believed in lies from society. Those lies took over my life. Every day, my husband and my kids combatted these lies and expressed their love for me. It began to sink in.

They sat on my lap, held me tight and whispered their sweet affections for me while being the cutest little things. They didn't care that the kitchen hadn't been cleaned in a few days. They tried to help me. They didn't care that their clothes weren't folded and put away. They didn't care that they ate the same lunch every day. They cared about how we spent our time together, our efforts to help each other, our hugs, our kisses and our affections.

They cared about me. They cared about me because I cared about them. They knew we loved each other and we needed each other.

And I began to care about myself.

I needed them. I needed their love. I needed someone to tell me the truth every day. I was blessed to have four little ones and my best friend to show me they loved me. They took my hand, they made me take pictures with them, and they made me put a smile on my face and look in the mirror with them. Slowly, the layers of self-loathing peeled away.

I'm 40 pounds away from my goal weight, but more importantly, I have never loved myself more than I love me now. I'm so grateful for my kids and my husband who taught me the truth. They taught me to care only about what your loved ones think. They taught me that no amount of ability is worth a darn if you cannot give a good hug. They taught me that kisses can cure even the most painful "owies."

I am amazing. I don't need to do amazing things or edit out my insecurities. I just need to be me.

Love who you are and cherish who you are. There is only one of you in the entire universe. Start loving yourself now, you can do it. I've been there before and I believe in you. Love yourself right now.

Ready, set, go.