“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” my husband says as he walks out the door. “Just lighten up.” He’s taking Jack to the bouncy place so I can have a little time to myself. I’m near tears because I have to clean up the Christmas chaos, make more cookies, and still grade more than 60 essays, and G. says he wants to go see The Hobbit. This is a major time commitment. It’s a half-hour drive to the theater and back and a 2 ½-hour movie, so we’re talking about 4 hours that he gets to escape to fantasy world while I’m up to my ass in cookie dough and glitter (WHY the fuck is there always so much holiday glitter?) and attacking tasks in 3-minute increments because I’m constantly being asked to perform live theater. Make Michelangelo talk, Mama. Make Robin talk to Cyborg. Make the Teen Titans talk to Hulk. ALL the Teen Titans. Jesus, how am I supposed to do five voices at once, kid? You’re young and creative; you can take at least two of them. I am not a monkey to dance for your pleasure!
The real reason—the deep-down reason—I’m near tears is that I feel guilty for my feelings. The wife and mother I want to be would put on a smile and say, “Sure, honey. Go have a good time in Middle Earth.” While I am saying this, I am wearing pearls and an apron and lipstick, and my armpits are recently shaven. In other words, pretty much the opposite of what I am now, lumbering around angry and vindictive in years-old pajamas, shoving cookies in my face.
I want to be a mother who is available all the time, and happy about it. Who loves to play with her child and resents the many tasks that take time away from her precious angel.
The truth is, I like my tasks. I’m a task-oriented, work-oriented person. I like reading essays. I pretend I don’t, but I do. I even like cleaning. I find it immensely soothing. I understand why my grandmother, who lived with anxiety all her life, loved to clean. Everyone jokingly called her “Mrs. Clean.” By god, that woman loved tasks: vacuuming, scrubbing, cleaning out drawers, ironing. I used to bring her my messy jewelry box, and she’d sit and patiently untangle all my necklaces. Even when she was little, while her siblings played outside, she sat inside at her mother’s sewing box, sorting all the buttons.
I understand that those tasks saved her.
A few years ago, during a particularly severe period of anxiety, I was visiting my parents and went to help my mom check in on their vacationing neighbor’s cat. The cat had thrown up all over one of the kitchen rugs. I located some cleanser and a sponge, sopped up the excess with a paper towel, and then started to scrub. As I leaned over the spot and worked my arms, hot tears started falling and I gulped back a sob of relief. I whispered, “This is the happiest I’ve been all week.”
So when people advise me to lighten up, this is my response: You’re talking to a woman who loves scrubbing cat vomit. A woman who loves scrubbing cat vomit simply does not “lighten up.”
Yesterday I went to see my grandmother. She’s not afraid anymore. I don’t think she has enough awareness of reality to be afraid. She opens her eyes when I touch her arm, and her face lights up with recognition, even though I’m wearing the required mask to protect me from a flu outbreak in the nursing home. “Juanita,” she says—her name. “Oh, how about this. This is a wonderful surprise.” She tells me she’s in the hospital, having just had a tooth pulled. I know she’s confused because she hasn’t had her real teeth ever since I can remember. We talk about Jack. “That’s my fella,” she says, gesturing toward the pictures of Jack on her bulletin board. “Is he bad?” she asks. “He’s ornery,” I reply, using one of her words. Then she wants to know if I’ve found a boyfriend. “Yes, Nanny. Remember? I have a husband now, and that’s my little boy.”
I kiss her three times on her forehead. “I’m not going to kiss you,” she says, and then, utterly seriously: “You might get the ptomaine poisoning.” I laugh a little, through tears.
I tell her I’ll come back, but I don’t know if that’s true.
I’m near tears because I’m anxious and depressed. I’m getting treatment, but there is not a clear division in my mind between what is pathological and what is a normal response to life. Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day, Ernest Becker wrote. Everybody panics when considering their own mortality, right?
Withdrawing—playing with action figures, taking a 2 ½-hour trip to Middle Earth—feels too scary, too much like nonbeing. I must be busy. I’m afraid of what rises up when I let myself be still.