Why It Sucks To Be Sick As a Parent

Image credit: Jessica Beck

I miss being able to be sick. Not being sick; that’s different. I get sick all the time.

But as a child, I could lie in bed all day while someone brought me soup, ginger ale, and Vick’s VapoRub. If home alone, I’d make a nest of afghans and crunch through long tubes of Saltines while watching the channel of my choice. As the youngest, that was a rare and relished opportunity. I could read books, write in a journal, or just lie there, thinking and dreaming. I do occasionally lie around and think as an adult, but only in the middle of the night–accompanied by the cold sweats.

These days, there is no binge-watching of Law & Order. Being sick means doing the usual crap while feeling terrible. It involves large quantities of DayQuil or ibuprofen–whatever might mask the problem at hand. It involves staring helplessly at the computer monitor, willing it to make sense to my throbbing medicine head, praying that my fingers are typing a grant proposal and not a cry for help. It includes packing lunches, grocery shopping, and–worst of all–driving carpools while pretending to be goddamned cheerful. Plus, maybe the teeniest, tiniest nugget of growing resentment.

Two days before the end of my vacation last year, I tore a calf muscle frolicking on the beach. I felt it snap as I jumped off a rock–realizing before I landed that my future held frozen peas and painkillers instead of the planned hikes and swimming. Here’s where we were:

From: http://www.australianstudysolutions.com.au/

But instead of enjoying the trip of a lifetime, I hobbled painfully through a blur of family obligations and endless airports, ecstatically relieved when we arrived home. I had forgotten that a relaxed convalescence was out of the question.

To add to the adventure, the kids started vomiting as soon as we got home, for which I blame the flight from Auckland. Unable to walk, I crawled up and down two flights of stairs, fetching rags and cleaners, cursing the fact that we had moved the laundry from the entry closet into the basement. You read that right: crawling.

I escaped briefly to a meeting, but returned soon with urgency. Grabbing a bucket and crawling up the stairs, I held my hair back and waited for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Miss 13 needed some attention. Her first day back at school had been tumultuous; she needed to debrief and hear some empathetic mom-isms.

Unable to hear over my own dry heaves, I had to keep asking her to repeat herself, and due to the aforementioned injury, I couldn’t kneel. I struggled to find a position which allowed me to hang properly over the side of the bucket while pretending to listen. I didn’t want to throw my back out while throwing up–again. This was absurd. Can’t I even focus on my own needs under these circumstances? But the girl did not stop talking until steaming jets flared repeatedly, at which point she just looked annoyed before retreating to her room in a huff.

Fail.

Though my heart will break when my girls head to college–and though I will mourn their departure like the end of the world–I will embrace ordinary illness as a long-lost friend. I will take to the couch with a remote and a relish unseen since falling in love.

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How To Live With a Thirteen-Year-Old Girl

©2016 Beret Olsen
©2016 Beret Olsen–Our well-worn copy of Twilight must be at school, so book 2 will have to do.
  1. Be ready for anything. Best case scenario: you are well-rested and patient, have a sense of humor and a full tank of gas, plenty of cash and Kleenex on hand, complete flexibility with your time, musical preferences, and volume tolerance, endless appetite for YouTube videos and Instagram feeds, a copy of Twilight, a portable charger, tasty, plentiful snacks, a working knowledge of 8th grade common core math concepts, endless sympathy and advice for tricky social and academic situations, and you don’t mind being completely ignored if none of the above is needed. Worst case scenario: you have a flask.

Time

Vicki DeLoach
Photo: Vicki DeLoach

I remember when each hour crawled languorously before me—a caterpillar on sixteen tiny legs, inching from Pensacola to New York City and back before the mantel clock would chime again.

Two days before my birthday, I thought I might be 50 before I turned eleven.

Now the years skip about with surprising unpredictability, and I’m never certain how old I am on any given day. It’s not unusual for me to believe I’m in my late twenties–until I try to stay up past eleven, until I glance at my little ones, and realize we see eye to eye.

Today’s Pop Quiz

IMG_8745

It’s a quick quiz. Just one question:

1. Let’s say your mom has been fighting a stupid virus for five weeks now. But instead of lying in bed quaffing Dayquil, she rallied and took you to the beach. She and her pounding sinus headache ran around playing games with you. After that, she took you out for the most amazing ice cream OF YOUR LIFE. Then, while you showered and sat on your butt watching TV, she made a tasty dinner comprised of: mashed potato patties, salmon burgers with lightly curried ketchup (your favorite), cucumber slices with a drizzle of cilantro oil, and even a %*($!! sprig of parsley. When you see your plate, the correct response is:

A) What? Where’s the bruschetta? Weren’t you going to make bruschetta tonight?

or

B) Thank you.

Hold them very close, then drop them curbside

©2009/2013 Beret Olsen
©2009 Beret Olsen

The moment you announce that the free ride is over, that this parasite had better get out of your uterus, a tiny tyrant emerges, and you wonder if you might possibly cram it back inside, just to secure a few more moments of sanity and solitude.

This wee, adorable creature demands all of your time, attention, energy, and soul. There is nothing and no one else that matters as much. This is why cherished friendships shrivel, marriages are raked over the coals, and newish parents become unbearable. You are suddenly up at all hours of the day and night. You cannot finish a sentence or focus on anything uttered by an adult. Worst of all, the things you smirked and said you would never do, you see and hear yourself doing without apology.

A little shame, perhaps, but no apology.

The boundaries blend. It is not possible to distinguish where you end and where the child begins. You anticipate their needs, and punish yourself when you can’t identify or remedy a discomfort. They are the center of your universe.

And they grow.

Imagine that you are beside yourself  because you are stuck playing Barbies yet again. Each minute stretches into an eternity. You can feel yourself devolving, while politically astute essays you composed in a past life unwrite themselves in your head. You parade a stupid piece of malformed plastic around, babbling the required perky gibberish–all while secretly wondering, “what is the meaning of my life?”

And then, the very next time the Barbies come out from under the bed, just as you are mentally muttering obscenities, your daughter turns to you, and from her lips come the most surprising news.

“Mom.” Accompanying eyeroll. “We are playing in here. Please shut the door.”

A lump forms in your throat. You were already gearing up to feel resentful for the next 45 minutes. What are you supposed to do now?

To the girl with the “shrinking” mother–

Read this yesterday, and it snagged in my consciousness. Both sides speak well and truthfully. I think we have conflated strength and power with their cultural definitions, and it is helpful to step back and rethink. I had trouble posting this, though, and couldn’t get the youtube video to embed properly. The link to the poem’s performance is in there, and definitely worth a watch. It also provides the context for Rarasaur’s essay.

TO THE GIRL WITH THE “SHRINKING” MOTHER–

10/22/2013 · by  · in journals. ·

I listened to your poem last month, for the first time. I know, I’m a little late to the party. Your performance was in April.

It was sent my way via an article that said it explained the plight of women, who sacrifice for men. I’ll be honest. Activism that suggests someone is behind because someone else is ahead bothers me. Feminism along those lines is what makes me reject the label with a ferocity that would surprise most people– given that I am the “breadwinner” of my home, and in most ways live the feminist ideal. This type of activism suffocates me, and angers me, and limits my brothers and sisters alike– and though I didn’t intend to– I listened to that poem without a beginner’s mind. I sought offense, and I found it– even though your poem was great, and your performance was brilliant.

 

I wrote my own slam poetry response. The first parodied yours. Yours played on the idea that men of age are often significantly larger than their wives. Mine played off the idea that women live longer.

“Men of my family have been shaving away seconds of life, for women, for decades.”

The second poem I wrote was structured like yours as well, but along the way led into the idea that my mother is the strongest person I know.

This made me reassess my reaction to your poem, and create an alternate possibility that I’d like to share with you.

You see, I’m nearly 30, and it was just a smidge over a decade ago that I would have scoffed at the idea of my mother possessing any strength at all.

I could barely look her in the eye for a whole year of my teens.  She seemed like such a waste– this stunning, genius of a woman– reduced to a mother with a near broken back, working all the time for other people’s desires.  I don’t know if she’s ever slept more than 8 hours in a row.  As soon as she gains something, she gives it away– whether it was space, or knowledge, or money. Every time I saw her, I feared the same would happen to me.

I worried that I had been taught to drop my achievements at a moment’s notice– in the name of handcuffs created to hold women back– just because of my mom’s dedication to those same restrictions. I was worried that I was born into a kind of slavery.

squigg1And then there was the car accident.

You see, I have 5 brothers and sisters– so not everyone fits in one car.  My big brother had the baby seat, so he was following behind us with my baby sister.  The rest of us were with my mom.  It was a dark night and we were driving back from dropping my father at the airport– down a fast-moving, icy highway. There were black ice warnings out, and I was in the front seat because I could almost always spot the slippery stuff.

It started to snow, in torrents hard enough to push at the car, and then from the side mirror, I saw it. My brother’s car spun out of control and rolled off the road and down a hill. I screamed his name, and my mom– who witnessed the same thing– put her hand out on mine. She sang a song, to keep the kids in the back of the car asleep, and drove steadily on until there was a place to safely stop. There were tears running down her face, but her voice was clear. She parked the car on the side, put me in charge, took off her 2 inch heels, and walked into the dark snowstorm barefoot– bravely towards what could have been the mere bodies of her children.

squigg3I’m not sure on the details, but my brother’s car was started again, and pushed up the hill– and both he and my baby sister were fine.

When I saw my mom finally walking back to me, hours later, the sun was coming up– she was soaked through, and covered in dirt and blood.  She was holding her children– and a stranger– and she was smiling.

It occurred to me then that a passerbyer might see her as a woman down on her luck, in a position of weakness– but it was the most invulnerable thing I had ever seen. The sort of strength many people never get the chance to witness in a lifetime.

It sounds like you might have blessed by the benefit of an equally dedicated mother.

A dedication to sacrificing is such a brittle concept, and can look a lot like weakness– like late night trips to the fridge for yogurt and wine from a measuring cup– but it is more powerful than words or swords.
squigg5

I of course do not know your specific situation, but the next time you see her tucked away in a small space, consider the possibility that it is because she doesn’t need much space to live the life of her dreams, and that she has faith in your ability to do something brilliant with the extra room.

And next time you see worn hands, or a tired back, consider the idea that it is because she has made a priority out of carrying those who cannot move forward themselves.

When the people around her seem to grow at the cost of her loss, lookagain.  Their expansion is her battle cry.  She is victorious through nurture and sacrifice.

It is a power connected to the heart of the universe.  A strength that fueled a nun to care for lepers, and prompted a man to share a dream of equality.  It echoes through every positive change humans have ever seen, and grows every day under the protection of guardians like our moms.

Does that really sound like shrinking to you?  Because to me it sounds like something big enough to expand its way right past the hemmed edges of the galaxy.

squigg4I realize now that I wasn’t worried that I would becomemy mother. I was worried that I would never become the sort of person worth the sacrifices she made.

Snaps to you for showing off your power.  I hope you know that your mom is right to give to you: you are worthy of all the good this world has to offer.  If you can accept that truth, I think you’ll find you’ll stop apologizing for empowerment.  Just do good with it.

With love from a big sister born of the same big power,
Rara

_______________________________

I probably won’t respond to any comments about feminism, because it’s an issue that goes much deeper than my type of blog– but as always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts as long as you play nice.  This post has seen the light of day due to a Daily Post prompt, asking about the post I was most nervous to publish, and what it was like to set it free.  I’ll get back to you on that last part of the question depending on how scary my comment section ends up being.

Have you ever driven on black ice? It’s one of my top fears, even before this night.

To the girl with the “shrinking” mother–.

Just Breathe

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

Though going to art school was inherently non-rational, I approached it in a methodical, uptight manner which might seem out of character. As a non-traditional, second-degree student and mother of two, I was not at a point in my life where it was acceptable to dabble and meander and find myself. I took the requisite courses, in the prescribed order, and checked them off my list.

But one summer, realizing I had a single elective to squander, I inexplicably found myself signing up for a sewing class in the Fashion Design department. I did not admit this to my classmates in photography, however. It seemed shallow and irresponsible. Maybe a tad shameful.

It was also ridiculously inconvenient. It met two evenings a week, from 6-10 pm, which meant that my husband had to rearrange his work schedule, and home life was turned upside-down for half of the summer. In order to get to the first class, I had to leave my family stranded and carless in Tahoe, drive three and a half hours, eat Taco Bell in the car, and change out of my sweats in the parking lot of Sports Basement. Then I drove back.

Meanwhile, I wondered…why would I invest so much time and money on this class when I already knew how to sew? I could sew on a button; I could hem pants. It wasn’t like I wanted to sit around and make homely, ill-fitting clothes in all of my ‘extra time.’ How would this help me in my art practice? How would this contribute to the world? What was I doing?

But I went anyway, and after covering everything I knew in the first twenty minutes, what unfolded thereafter was a complete surprise.

We were a small and motley crew: a paralegal, a woman from student affairs, a RISD student in the Bay Area for the summer, a chipper, chatty nineteen-year-old obsessed with lingerie, and a tough guy who worked in the wood shop. Plus me.

Outside, it was freezing in the San Francisco summer way. The fog would roll in right at the start of class, casting a gloomy pall over our fair city as I hunted for parking. Inside the sewing room, however, it was eternally close and sweaty. We hunched over our commercial machines wearing as little as socially acceptable. We lingered long after the official class ended–often staying until midnight–sewing an imaginary world made of fabric and thread.

We talked, ate picnic dinners on the cutting tables, and commiserated over the evil overlock machine, but mostly we just sewed in a zen-like stupor. Fans oscillating, music cranked, we listened to an endless loop of loud, meditative dance music selected by the club-hopping RISD kid.

I made a skirt I sort of like, an ugly, uncomfortable shirt, and two princess dresses–the last of which was my masterpiece. Including the muslin mock-up, I must have spent thirty or forty hours on that thing. But when I brought it home for my five-year-old, she wore it once and let it languish in the back of the closet. A little peeved, I asked her about it. “I’m not really into princesses anymore,” she said. “I’ve started my rock star phase.”

First of all, #$%*()@!

Second of all, what five-year-old talks like that?

Still, it doesn’t really matter. That class gave me endless joy.

To this day, when I hear the first couple of bars of Breathe by Telepopmusik, I am immediately transported to those long, hot, unstructured stretches of happy time. If something important is due, if I am frustrated or inconsolable, if I have 30 seconds to sit in the car before picking up my kids, I pop in my headphones, and there I am in the sewing studio again: feeding fabric, clipping threads, watching the needle go up and down. I let thoughts float and disperse like clouds, fixing on nothing in particular. Just breathing.