Every time I’ve thought about sitting down to write – which hasn’t been all that frequently, truth be told – I’ve been deterred by the most germane of happenings. An overly full diaper. A vacuum needing to be tediously disassembled, scrubbed clean, and aired out in the sun like a high maintenance house plant.
But more than any of that, a nagging, dragging ennui that pervades almost all things outside of the “household services” category for me, lately. At first I blamed postpartum. Then lockdown. Then the slow-moving-train-wreck of wokeism, which I beheld with a mixture of fascination and disgust as writers and other figures whom I’ve admired and even collaborated with in the past seemed at once, en masse, to lose their ever loving minds, stumbling over each other to denounce whatever “-ism” of the day presented itself on social media, holding hostage platforms until Everyone’s Explicit Expert Opinion was duly recorded in the great digital notebook of obedient citizenship in the cloud.
I shook the digital dust from my feet, glad I’d given up social media just as Covid hysteria reached its apparent (L to the O L. Not even close.) inflection point back in April of last year.
Well, reckoned I, it was as ideal a time as anyto bow out of the marketplaceof opinion. And so I bowed. And, heavy with the burdens of motherhood and the myriad family and social responsibilities which multiplied exponentially in 2020 and 2021, I’ve yet to fully look up from that bow. My psyche feels permanently cramped, my vision narrowed not quite to the point of tunnel, but something very near it.
Ordinary tasks became, and remain, extraordinarily demanding. Laundry is legion. I haul another supersized load up from the basement and begin the meditative process of sorting and folding, staring into the abyss and thinking about listening to a podcast but never actually getting around to it. In truth I relish the silence and the mindlessness that feels like mindfulness. Smooth, fold, toss, repeat.
I am good at many things, but I am very good at laundry. And lately I find myself needing deeply to play to my strengths. I take joy in a scoured and shining countertop, aware that one hour and one school pickup from now will render it almost unrecognizably filthy. I’ve embraced my domestic duties on a deeper level, acknowledging after more than a decade that because things do not stay clean and tidy does not mean one surrenders. The circle of life takes on microscopic detail in the expansion and contraction of the refrigerator’s contents. I cook, they eat, we clean, and tomorrow we begin again.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so I vacuum.
I wonder from time to time what an old friend or acquaintance is up to. Generally a few taps will bring me to their latest book/project/position, and I smile with detached pleasure or disinterest over their exploits. I don’t know if the competitive or achievement-seeking part of me is broken or gone forever, but it feels like freedom, to not care. To have put the comparison chart aside and broken the measuring stick over my knee, and to lay down for a nap when the opportunity arises. I do miss parts of my old identity, but I miss them the way a snake might, if snakes could, miss its shed skin. I thank her for her service to me, this older and outgrown version of myself, but harbor no desire to squeeze back in.
I’m infinitely happier than I was one or two or five years ago, but it’s a unassuming and sedate sort of happiness. It’s probably something closer to joy; it isn’t an absence of suffering, if anything the longer I mother and the older my children grow, the more suffering we seem to welcome into our lives.
But there is peace.
I see a battery of doctors and health experts in a year’s time, trying to get a handle on a fatigue so profound that it feels like my soul itself is weary. A new antidepressant is trialed and discarded, the cure being worse than the illness in this case. Maybe I need to walk more? Increased mileage breaks down body parts not fully recovered from pregnancy and childbirth. I pop entire fistfuls of supplements, make physical therapy appointments, and take more naps. One doctor is sure it’s reactivated Epstein Barr, “likely you have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and your adrenals are shot.” She is confidant that she can help me for a $5,000 annual fee. I appreciate her confidence, but demure her services not only over the pricetag, but over the specter of months of driving to appointments, hundreds of dollars of new supplements, cutting out every food group that isn’t vegetables. I’ve never seen her before, but I’ve seen her at least dozen times over the years.
I crawl into bed at night exhausted, but not in despair. I relish the slower pace that my health demands, while simultaneously wondering if I’m perhaps missing the very thing I’ve been put here to do. Most days, home with the kids and trying – and failing – to meet their needs with generosity and charity, I think that I’m probably exactly where I’m supposed to be. But being sure of the rightness of one’s position can’t banish all regret. There is a sorrow in letting go of responsibilities and privileges that once came easily to a younger me, but there is also such a freedom in admitting my littleness and my limitations. It feels so damn good not to hustle. Hustling is bullshit. I’m telling you right now, you can only slay all day for so long until something breaks down. And not all broken parts of people can be repaired to factory condition.
We all know this, but us moms, especially, we pretend it’s not real. We grind from sunup to sundown and turn it into a cute hashtag and then cry hysterically in the shower.
The profound privilege of aging, of growing older in a body that is starting to fail – on an infinitesimally small level – is a daily struggle of acceptance and gratitude. Acceptance for the dysfunctions and illnesses I’d rather be delivered from, and gratitude for the weakness that makes me humiliatingly dependent on my husband, on my God.
I buy gift cards rather than cooking meals for new moms. We eat from paper plates 7 nights a week right now, and it’s not great, but it’s good enough. On paper, my stepping back form the workforce is a terrible decision. In practice though, our family life has never been better. And there is still a lot of yelling.
Life is hard, it’s sweet, and it’s backbreaking. Strangers ask at least once a week “are you done?” and I look at them like someone on mile 16 of a marathon, so far from the finish line that it’s actually sadistic to bring it up, but also so deep into the thing that it’s too late, far too late, to turn back.
“I…don’t know.” I answer, causing eyes to widen and smiles to drop.
But I can’t answer any differently. Who could know a thing like that? I think both less and also more about my fertility than ever before. We reevaluate how we’re using NFP, and why. I lose my passion for writing about it and teaching it, not for any other reason than I’m fairly sure I’ve said all that can be said. We’re truly in uncharted territory here, joining the quiet, mysterious ranks of couples who run out the clock on their natural fertility, no fixed expiration date to offer to strangers. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable! I’ll be 39 years old in 6 months time, and I’m still looking around wondering when I’m going to feel like an adult.
My baseboards are filthy. The crumbling entropy of keeping a physical house draws sloth and selfishness from my soul like anti-venom pulling poison from a wound. It is so satisfying to do small, invisible work. It’s maddening, too. I read books on the art and science of homemaking, shaking my head in wonder that there are people out there who have schedules for cleaning. Realizing that I need to become one of them. My natural disdain for tasks I don’t excel at gives way to the practical necessity of needing to know how to disassemble and deep clean the parts of a dishwasher.
I doubt many people could look at my life right now and possibly want to trade places. From the outside, it probably looks like there’s nothing much doing, apart from loads of laundry and yard work and hemorrhaging grocery money.
And yet…I feel a little bit like I’ve discovered the secret to happiness. But it’s such a deep secret that it’s possible no one will believe me. It’s this, though, in case you were wondering: give your life away.
That’s it. that’s the whole answer. You probably knew it already. I’m a slow learner. And really I should reiterate, it’s not happiness so much as it is joy.