Whoever gave us the idea that balance was possible was an evil, evil person. Because, as far as I can tell, balance doesn’t actually exist. At least not in a marriage with small kids. Managing zones might be the more apt metaphor. Around here, I find that I’m constantly zooming between different zones–Nico last week, Gabriel this week, me, when I’m lucky, Ken’s tiny little mashed-up zone, plus the behemoth monster-zone of work that makes up the house, with its constant, siren-like call–but I can’t recall ever sitting back and saying, Ahh, Thar She Blows, Me Promised Land! Balance.
Where I think the promised land actually resides (shh, don’t tell the Secret Police) is in acceptance. Acceptance of this mucky mess that is life with small children. Acceptance of all the conflicting pieces of who we are, and maybe even acceptance of all the additional mess we’ve made (and continue to make) of our lives. Because I don’t know about you, but when my back’s up against the wall, I almost always come out fighting.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially in my battle to Become a Less Evil Person. Like last night, when Nico hocked his fourth loogie of the day and I flipped (after having already warned him twice to cut it out). At the time, I was trying to cook up a huge batch of chicken and veggie chili so I could get the cooking thing off my plate for a few days, and then Nico hocked his loogie, I started yelling, and just like that, our entire house exploded into Drama and Dismay. I immediately began to feel like shit while Nico, who’s been pushing the envelope since Gabriel’s been sick because he misses the extra attention he got last week, erupted into tears. (This despite the fact that I’d been doing my best to keep his jealousy at bay since I realized why he was really acting up by the time our third crisis hit that morning at 7:53 a.m.)
Alas, by this point, it was 4:45 p.m. and the kids were so needy that I hadn’t been able to start dinner yet, which meant I was in danger of running afoul the 5:30 hunger-induced freak-out. So there I was, feeling like crap while Nico sobbed hysterically, which of course meant Gabriel would quickly begin crying as well. Two minutes later, Ken came up from his office to see what the hell was going on, and zap, was immediately sucked down into the quicksand. Things continued to head south for another 10-15 minutes before we could settle everyone down, and during that time, all I could think was, I know I’m responsible for this one, but God Almighty. How in the world do other women out there do it?
For the rest of the night, I continued to feel shitty about myself and couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever be able to stop yelling and/or snapping at the kids. Why couldn’t I be like one of those calm mothers out there who always seem to say the right thing, or who are able to sidestep (or diffuse) the fireworks instead of saying something they’ll regret. (Nico might have provided the charcoals in our argument, but I definitely added lighter fluid.)
I suppose I should have just Zipped the Lip, as we’ve started to joke around here lately. But it’s no joking matter, at least for me, because it’s just so friggin hard to do. I could take the easy out here and say, Well, you know, it’s been a couple of shitty weeks around here and of course I’m wigging out–I’ve barely had any time to take care of myself. And when Mama’s crazy, everybody’s crazy.
But I don’t know if that’s giving enough of the big picture. On my good days, absolutely, I can (well, kinda mostly) keep it together. But let’s be honest–I have some pretty yucky character traits as well that are also playing into the picture. We all kind of do, don’t we? Things we’re not too proud of, parts of ourselves that we try to hide or at least ignore as much as we can. But as we soon learn, kids tend to shine a giant spotlight on our failings, all the things we never actually liked about ourselves but used to be able to hide behind long workaholic days or the endless boozy-woozy night out.
I’ve been listening to Michael Franti and Spearhead lately (Mama’s happy music, as Gabriel calls it) and the line “You’re perfect just the way you are” keeps popping into my head. I love the idea that we’re all already perfect, even if it’s kind of a hard one for me to swallow. And yet, it’s an essential truth about all of us, isn’t it? To actually change, we need to accept ourselves. Including all those messy, ugly parts of ourselves that we’d rather bury in the sand (or a time capsule) so nobody ever finds us out.
So what’s the answer? If there’s a special koan for all us mothers-wives-women out there, surely, it must be that idealized search for balance. We find ourselves endlessly searching for balance, knowing that it’s essential to our well-being even if we can’t actually achieve it. Maybe the best we can hope for instead is to rotate which zone is important at the time, alternate the different peoples, parts and parcels where we put our energies, love and talent so that somehow in the long run, we’ll all turn out OK.
And yet this isn’t exactly the easiest thing to put into practice. I tried to do it these past few weeks–tried giving over one entire week to Nico while he had the flu, tried accepting that everything else was going to have to take a back seat for a while. And then what? Gabriel got nailed Monday morning, and because I hadn’t taken better care of myself over the weekend (because I hadn’t gotten in my writing or exercise time), I became a foaming madwoman the moment my beloved younger son started puking.
If only I’d gotten out over the weekend. If only I’d tried harder. If only I’d done X, then I could have saved myself from Y. Recognize this kind of magical thinking, anyone? It’s pretty easy to say what I should have done in hindsight, but when we’re stuck in the middle of some mess or other, all we can oftentimes do is hold on and do the best we can. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we can even slide forward an inch or two along the way.
So why do I still get so stuck in this type of perfectionist thinking? Why do I still torture myself with endless refrains of If Only I’d Tried Harder (The musical! Sing it along with me!) Why do I think everybody out there is doing a better job than me?
I think part of it has to do with the Secrecy Factor. The Don’t Call Attention to Your Faults idea, because if you do, Somebody is Going to Make Fun of You and Make Your Life Even Worse. Whatever you do, don’t give anybody any ammunition. Don’t admit anything!
Ken handed me a book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace the other day and said, “You’ve got to read this.” Written by artist Gordon MacKenzie, the book is an inspirational mess of drawings and stories meant to help people regain their individuality and creativity and overcome the pressure to conform, both in the office and in real life. A lot of what he had to say rang true for me, especially the following words he wrote about being rescued off a dangerous cliff after he’d foolishly ignored a bunch of signs warning him to stay away:
Ah! Courage, courage, courage. Courage to cross boundaries. Courage to admit idiocy. Courage to acknowledge impasse. Courage to open up to being rescued. We need much courage if we are to respond successfully to the consequences of exploring beyond authorities’ sometimes-beneficial, sometimes-detrimental boundaries. And if we are to grow, explore we must. (MacKenzie, 80)
Idiocy, check. Impasse, check. Needing help, check. Yup, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve spent many a day on a pretty similar-feeling cliff. And yet, we keep going. We all pass the signs that scream Turn Back! because there is no turning back–we can only go forward. And keep trying. Until one day we look back and realize, hey, we’re actually maybe kind of slowly starting to make some progress. Even if it didn’t look like it at all.
Case in point: back in our pre-kid days, Ken and I were barely cognizant of what we put in our mouths, much less the idea that hey, we might actually be a little healthier if we sucked it up and learned how to cook. Mostly, we ate out a lot. Then, in an attempt to save money (and because a friend recommended it), we went through a period in which we ordered a lot of frozen food from Schwan’s. I find this hard to believe nowadays. In fact, the idea is so ludicrous that I must have inadvertently blocked it from my memory. We must have bought some kind of fresh food from the grocery store, but I don’t recall it. Certainly nothing like the in-depth, organizational hell we deal with nowadays, trying to feed and keep four humans alive.
Anyway, my point here is how far we’ve actually progressed. It’s been a struggle, yes, but we eat a hell of a lot healthier nowadays. And despite the many months (and years) that it seemed like we weren’t progressing at all, we were. Slowly but surely, we were learning what foods we could cook and what foods the kids would actually eat.
Please tell me we’re progressing in a similar slug-like fashion with our children and spouses. Some days, I feel like I’ve done nothing but snap at my kids and then apologize. (This morning, I actually said to Nico, “How about if instead of apologizing for using the word ‘stupid,’ you just stop using it?” Talk about hypocrisy!) But maybe, just maybe, I’m snapping at my kids a little less than I used to, say, a year ago. Maybe, just maybe, I’m being less evil to Ken this month than I was last month.
Is this enough?
Probably not. But for today, it might just be the best that I can do.