Yesterday evening I went to get my hair done. This is something I have traditionally enjoyed quite a lot. It is wonderful and relaxing to feel someone’s hands on my scalp, to consider what I want to do with my hair, to feel the release of weight when some of it comes off (I have a lot of thick hair, and even when it’s short, I get to that point where it feels like too much). As I came in I was checking a message, and responded a bit vaguely to my hairdresser’s greeting. Sitting in the chair to discuss what she’d do, I was aware of having a hard time focusing on the options, due to a persistent feeling of guilt that I wasn’t home, participating in bedtime with Ted and my kids. While the color was setting, I switched from one article to another, wanting simultaneously to play Scrabble, to read various posts, and to browse Facebook to see what my friends were up to.
I could not settle.
This is emblematic of how I have felt for quite a while, both in terms of my internal state and in terms of the complexity of the events & interactions of my life. For a good long time I’ve been aware that I need to make changes both inside and out. And I have been resisting doing so, because of the level of commitment and sustained effort required to do so. But for months I have increasingly been in retreat, pulling away from people and activities, and running toward the digital world instead. This feels terrible, of course: shame and guilt are near-constant companions. But there has also been a compulsive quality to it, and I can feel the power of habit reinforcing the various emotional traps into which I have fallen.
I need to make a change. A big change. And I need to do it now, for me and for my family.
What has happened? Well, I think that my attention span & my ability to be present in the moment have taken a couple of big hits. This is partly circumstantial, the lot of almost every parent. The likelihood that I’ll be able to finish a task, a project, or even a thought without interruption is low. My attention gets fragmented daily as three small people demand it be focused on them. Sitting here writing this, I know that when the twins wake up I’ll have to stop, and that may happen now, toward the start of their naptime, or later. Abruptly, without warning, I’ll have to switch off and run upstairs. Sometimes there’s a bit of transition; often there is not. And those fragmentary trailing thoughts or activities often get lost, sometimes never to be retrieved.
When I had one kid I was better at handling this. When I prepared to cook something during one of Hazel’s naps, I would map out ahead of time various stopping points, segment the task so that it was easier to break off in the middle if need be and resume later without playing catch-up. This helped in terms of my emotional state too; I was making choices that helped me to feel empowered in a situation in which I had little control. Also, there was more I could do with one kid. When Hazel was a baby I cooked with her snuggled up to me in the Ergo. I could never do that with the twins: even when they were tiny, they were too heavy for me to carry on my body, and avoiding two heads instead of one when transferring food from pot to bowl was too difficult.
You know that game where someone is trying to think of a number, and the other person shouts out random numbers to distract him/her? Well, parenthood is a lot like that, x 1000. As the twins have gotten more verbal, more complex in their individuality as well as their relationships with each other and their big sister, and as Hazel has gotten older, the stream of exclamation, query, and need has wildly increased in volume and intensity. If the children neatly spaced their requests and interjections, it would be so much easier. Of course, they do not. They are human.
So am I. And I have always had a hard time being in groups, processing multiple inputs at once. Having three children saying, “Mommy, Mommy,” and crying/screaming/asking all at once is a situation in which my head is apt to either explode or melt, depending on its state.
Having a family is living in a group. All. The. Time.
So I run away. And then I feel guilty. And then I can’t decompress when I’m alone, because I’m blocked by guilt and shame. And then my fuse is even shorter. And then I run away some more. Etc, ad nauseam.
When the twins were nursing I spent a lot of time online. A Lot. Something about having two babies attached to my nipples made it harder to do anything but reach for my phone. There was nowhere to balance a book, nowhere to put a project, because there were two heads and two bodies right there, spread out in front of me. So I browsed, and I played Scrabble. I crossed some line in doing so, and started to find myself reaching for my phone more and more, so that now I do so at any possible moment.
The shame I have felt about that is immense. But now, finally, I am getting to the magic place in which I can more easily choose to do something about it: boredom. I am so bored with this pattern.
The bottom line is, I need to choose to engage with whatever I am doing. If I’m with the kids, that means asking myself how I can talk with them, play with them, be with them more. If I am practicing, it means letting go of worrying about the 5,000,000 tasks that I could be doing. If I find myself reaching for the phone, I need to do a breath exercise instead. All of this needs to be, instead of judgment and reaction, a matter of observation and choice, a way of turning life into meditation in which I observe and release. And then, I must observe my inability to release, when that inevitably occurs, without projecting failure into the present and future.
The most basic relevant question is, “Is this working?” And if the answer is, “No,” then the follow-up question needs to be, “Ok, then what do I need?”
And I have to be willing to let my kids in on my own process, so that it is not opaque to them and therefore more likely to be taken personally by them.
Hazel has taken stickers from the school three times now, and the last time I lost my shit and was mean in my reaction to her. She started saying that she wanted to kill herself with fire, and that she was the worst daughter ever, and that I hated her.
I was so mired in anger, in that understandable but unhelpful parental feeling of betrayal (“How could you act this way, how could you do this to me?”) that I was unable to respond.
The next day I found empathy, found compassion, found gentleness. We had a good talk. I told her that there have been plenty of times both in my childhood and adulthood that I have given in to temptation and done something that wasn’t the right choice. I told her a recent example and how it impacted her and her sisters: I started eating more than my share of the JuicePlus gummies we got for our family. When I’d acknowledged the mistake to myself, I was able to make a different choice, and so to make up for my mistake I then didn’t have any gummies for a few days. I told her I was sorry. I told her that she’d get more self-control as she got older, but that it was an issue for everyone in various ways. The entire mood between us shifted.
I am leaving for a trip to visit friends next week. As always when I leave my kids, I have started having terrible fantasies that something will happen to me, and that they will grow up without me. I get terrified. This time it’s worse, because of all the built-up guilt from my running away.
So, for the next week my project will be to do my best to be present with them when we’re together, and to forgive myself for my many impulses to run. I will do my best to love my kids and myself.
When I get back, Ted and I have agreed on some schedule changes that will help us find a better balance both in terms of tasks and people time. I look forward to that project. Life involves stress, but certainly we can make it easier or harder on ourselves. I hope to show my children by example that we have choices, if only we are willing to consider and make them.