Sunday, July 29, 2012

You Can't Do Everything and Do Everything Well

"You can't do everything and do everything well."

I was sitting at a piano, confiding in my piano teacher as I often did, when she doled out this piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since.  At 16-years-old, I didn't yet have a clue what she was talking about - she was probably making me feel better for mediocre grades on my finals or a lost audition - but those words of wisdom have been with me for years.

They were with me when I got married, when I worked and took 21 credit hours my last semester of college, and especially when I had my children and couldn't decide whether or not I wanted to have a career or stay home with them.

You can't do everything and do everything well.

The difference between now and then was that I had a choice.  Fortunate that my husband had a good job and could support us, I made the decision to stay home and focus on my kids.  I knew that I was lucky, that there were many women out there who didn't have that choice.  I'd seen them at the grocery store on Sunday, madly trying to get the shopping done for the week or showing up to a Gymboree class still in their clothes from work.  Some of my friends did have a choice and chose to stay at work.  Many of them couldn't understand how I could put in long days with a newborn while they went into an office and had actual adult conversation.

But knowing that I couldn't do everything and do it well, not having a career was the sacrifice I was willing to make.

Ironically enough, what many of my friends asked me all those years ago was this:  "Aren't you worried that something might happen to your husband?"  And thinking that the worst thing that could possibly happen was that he might get laid off, but knowing that we had back-up funds, I was able to say, "What could possibly happen that we're not prepared for?"

And then I found out.

As a widow, my piano teacher's advice, although helpful years ago, repeated itself over and over in my mind and began to haunt me.  Because for the first time I was forced to do everything and I feared that I wouldn't do any of it well.  Being spread so thin - raising kids, keeping up the house, and worrying about the future - I thought that we were all on a path to destruction.

Guilt became my constant companion because I always felt like I was failing somewhere.  If I worked too much, I was neglecting my kids and if I spent quality time with them, I was failing in other areas.  If I bought fast-food because I didn't have time to cook a well-rounded meal, I felt terrible.  When I tried to hold onto the meager social life that remained, I felt like the worst mom for hiring a babysitter.  And then, on the rare occasion I would go out with friends, I felt awful because I hadn't kept up with what was going on with everyone else.

I just couldn't win.

As we all learn sooner or later (widowed or not), not one person on the planet is harder on us than we are on ourselves.  It's taken me 5 years to figure out that I actually can do things "well" - just not perfect.  It's not worth running myself into the ground, chasing the impossible notion that I can have the perfectly manicured lawn, a billion dollar business, and get all of my kids into Harvard by the time they each turn 13.  As I type this, my grass is long, I have paperwork I need to do, my kids are inside playing a video game on a beautiful summer day, and I think I forgot to pay my water bill.

I'm not perfect.  And I can't do everything.

I think that that advice needs to be amended a little.  Maybe something along the lines of, "You can't do everything and do everything well, but life is too short to beat yourself up about it.  So just do what you can, hope for the best, and remember that life, with all its imperfections, is meant to be lived and not wasted worrying about the things we can't control."

I know the shorter version would fit better on a bumper sticker.  But I like mine better.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Swollen Feet, Summer Colds, & Learning That Transitions Are Not a Choice

I’ve been feeling off for about a month.  Actually, I think I’ve been feeling off since about Christmas, but really not myself for the last month.  I didn’t realize what a mess I’d become until I went to a therapy appointment last week (my first in about a year) and my therapist looked at me, as I listed all of my physical and mental ailments, with a look on her face that said “what in the hell have you been doing to yourself?”

And as I said everything out loud, I realized how bad I’ve let myself get.

Two months ago, I went into the doctor with extreme pain in my right heel, a swollen left knee, and a twisted left ankle and she shook her head a little as she ordered x-rays of my lower body to try and figure out what was going on.  I’ve been sick for the last month, first with a cough that I think can be attributed to all of the fires we’ve had in Colorado and then with a cold that was a present from my daughter.  The night before my birthday, I twisted the same ankle I twisted 2 months ago by doing something really dangerous:  Walking down the stairs. 
At a time of the year when I would normally be outside, walking away my stress, I’ve had to just sit with both feet up, hacking away.  My delusion that I was sailing through what has always been my worst month of the year was incorrect.  I know ‘cause my body is telling me so.

But why?  Why now?  Why since Christmas?

As I sat tearfully listing everything that has been going on in the last 6 months to my therapist, just saying it out loud helped me recognize what a fool I’ve been thinking that I was fine.  This last year has been full of transitions, many of which I haven’t really wanted to acknowledge.  My kids are getting older, with one going into middle school and the youngest going into the 1st grade.  For the first time in 10 years, I will have full days to myself, something that I always thought I’d look forward to, but now…

“I think you’re hitting a ‘now what?’ phase in your life,” said my therapist.  “Things are changing for you and you’re questioning your life.”

This wasn’t new information.  But for the first time, I felt like I really recognized it.  Widowed or not, these are milestones.  For the first time, I won’t be working around a ½ day preschool class or ballet in the middle of the day.  I’ll actually be able to participate in the networking groups I signed up for years ago and work for more than 2 hours at a time. 

But then again - for the first time I won’t be cuddling with a little person at 10 AM on a random snowy morning and watching Cars.  ‘Cause they’ll all be gone.

The other issue, however, was new information for me.  Last year, I worked on a book, something that was meant to be light and funny – you know, a laughter through tears kind of thing.  But the book started somewhat in the middle of my story because I didn’t want to bring the reader down with the depressing details of what had happened.  Then last fall, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by a bestselling author who read the book, made notes, and ultimately came up with this suggestion:

“You can’t not tell the story of what happened to your husband,” she said.  “The reader has to get invested in you and your story.  They have to know what happened.”

After she gave me that advice, I could see that she was right.  Before people could see the light at the end of the tunnel with me, they had to be in the dark part too…otherwise it really wouldn’t make much sense.  So I sat down at my computer and began to write…and write…and write.  For 2 months, I wrote in detail about the worst 3 days of my life. What I saw.  What I smelled.  What I felt and what I thought I should be feeling.  And when I was finished, on December 23rd, I sent the manuscript back to that author who replied, “That’s it.  You’ve done it.”

In the weeks following that declaration, I signed with an agent, made more revisions, and it seemed like everything was falling into place.

The weird thing was…I didn’t feel happy.  Actually, I didn’t feel much of anything.  And that scared me.

When I told my therapist my timeline, what I’ve been doing and how long I haven’t been feeling well, her response was, “I think you’ve almost re-traumatized yourself a little.  Writing is deeply personal and writing about that every day took a toll.”

And she was right.

I didn’t realize that in the last few months, I’ve almost been mourning all over again.  That writing about every little detail had put me back in the moment – that horrible moment – and that it’s taking me a while to climb out of it.  I haven’t felt this bad since the months following my husband’s death.  But my sadness is different this time because right after he died, even though I was sad and traumatized, I had this fighting determination that I was going to create a new life, one where I would be happy.

And this time, I had all of the sadness and trauma, but none of the determination.  

It will come back.  I know it will.  I think all that has happened to me physically in the last few months has been my body’s way of telling me to slow down and deal with what’s going on in my head.  My refusal to do that in the beginning just caused me to go from bad to worse and denial only works for a certain amount of time before reality starts taking over in one form or another – whether it’s through tears, illness, or swollen feet.  

The determination will come back.  Because there will come a point when I decide that it will.  But for now, I’m going slower and being more forgiving.  I’m telling my body to take its time and that I’ll be patient with it instead of carrying around all of this irritation about what I can’t do.  I’m going to let myself cry when I need to and find laughter when I feel up to it.  After the sadness and transition, I will keep working on that life I knew was possible in the beginning.

But right now…I’m going to go put my feet up.

My therapist recommended the following book so I thought I would pass it on:

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Widow Chick (aka, Catherine Tidd) is the owner of and the author of the upcoming memoir Confessions of a Mediocre Widow (Jan. 2014).  She is also a writer for The Denver Post's Mile High Mamas and a contributor to several books on grief and renewal.