Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A morning before a birthday party

My book reading group is discussing Ian McEwan's Saturday on Thursday. I am slack-jawed at his ability to delineate the various psychological and thought processes from what is ordinarily an undifferentiated mass of human impulse and behavior. When we read Atonement a couple years ago I was dizzy with the pleasure of reading him and was surprised that other members of the group found him tiresome. Sadly for me the other fans of McEwan weren't at that meeting and I didn't do a very good job of defending him.

In thinking about just what it is I appreciate about him, a light shines on one of the frustrations I've had about full-time mothering: a mother's day tends to disappear into a homogenized mass. It's the sheer mass of details that makes it difficult to articulate and so it fades into a sort of background. What at-home mother hasn't felt mute and frustrated when her SO comes home from work (perhaps late) and said, 'So what did you do today?' Picking out one or two of the details that can be remembered out of a day just doesn't do it justice, and not being able to really answer belies how tired she feels.

The story I told below was my attempt to deconstruct a day and look at the elements that left me exhausted and demoralized at the end--because to try to explain it, as I did then, sounded so lame--"Why should anyone be upset because her kid pissed on the floor and spilled his milk?"

Dialing back a few years, to summer of 2004 in St. Louis, MO. Scott is turning 3 and we have a birthday party planned for him the next day--a parents/kids/siblings affair in our backyard, a BBQ. We're expecting a fair number of people and I'm aware of a lot of pending chores to get ready. It is Saturday, and a little later on I'm taking the boys to another birthday party a friend is having for her daughter, turning 6. here's the entry from my diary from that time (I'd copied and pasted an e-mail I'd sent to some supportive friends):

Scott's birthday, and there's a sales force here from Korea and Gary had to go in. There was also some mandatory party last night; Thursday we saw our counselor at 6:30 and then he had to go straight to the concession stand at the ball field to work off our family obligation for Connor being in baseball this year. This after having lost our power on Monday night through Wed morning, which meant Scott's 1st day of summer camp, which I've been living for since the end of May, was canceled.

I think I've mentioned already having planned poorly for this summer; how there's been way too much unstructured time. Part of it, I think, is the relocation of a couple of friends and so that resource was lost. Part, too, is a new period of adjustment for Connor and Scott at a more demanding age; therefore their relationship is more complex.

So Gary's gone before we're up this morning with the promise to be back by 1:30. We have a birthday pool party to go to at noon. I'd started our usual weekend chores yesterday in order to have a jump on them since we're having a combination Scott birthday party/summer party tomorrow evening. So, I think we're sitting ok for getting stuff done; did some extra stuff, like wrap some presents for Scott while he's downstairs watching cartoons with Connor. Left the ones Gary's Mom had sent, inexplicably unwrapped, for Gary to wrap. Went downstairs thinking I had a little open space to be a mother and actually sit down and WATCH some of these cartoons with Connor (Are THEY the source of the violent revenge fantasies the counselor told me, shocked, that Connor had cheerfully revealed to her--mostly with me as the subject???) I folded some clothes down there as I listened; and actually what I was hearing sounded fairly decent--a bunch of kids learning from a karate master about there being "no lessons in victory and a thousand in defeat..." So I walked over to sit down and noticed, again, an inexplicable stream of water or some liquid behind the sofa and running under the area rug. A few weeks ago it had been the hot water heater leaking, but this time Connor said, "Scott peed on the floor". And I was ready to buy it, except he had a diaper on. I kept puzzling, then my guileless son said, "I'm sorry". It was then I realized HE had peed there (LOTS), and more than once too because I've been puzzled before about that liquid in that spot--it's random appearances, that sometimes coincide with storms outside and sometimes not...then nothing for a while...So there was the explanation for the pee smell I'd been noticing down there and I'd just put down to Scott being down there without a diaper sometimes. Then I also made a connection with the strange pee smell that's been in the boys' room upstairs. So I got a jug of vinegar and a bunch of cotton diapers and made him help me poor vinegar along the "path" and over the wet areas in the rug and pad...made him help me soak it up...until we ran out of diapers and vinegar. Made him put the diapers in the washer while I went upstairs to get more...all the time he's raging at me and saying that he "doesn't care" if the place smells like pee, and that he hates me and he hates being in our family. I left the program on, but he didn't get to watch it as he helped me, then I had him take me upstairs to show me where he'd peed in his room. Once up there he pulled himself under the bed. I talked to him about how sometimes when we feel badly about something that we feel angry because that makes us feel powerful...after a bit his voice softened and he said that he'd had to pee downstairs and had been "too lazy" to shove the basketball hoop away from the doorway to our "emergency shitter" we have in the basement. He said, "I'll bet you don't want me to watch TV" and I said, "Not really, I just don't want you to use the basement floor as a toilet, and now you know why. It's a lot of work to clean up." And, peace was made.

A little later

While Gary goes back to the grocery store to get the cake I ordered for Scott (I'd ordered 2, one for a little party for us tonight, and another for us tomorrow for the big party--I'd spelled that out on the shopping list that he was to pick up the small one: he forgot to get it) I'll see how much of this saga I can finish.

Let's see, I'd finished with Connor under the bed, gradually improving in humor, and even helping me by moving the stuff out from under the bed.

That was all the easy part.

I had us get in the tub for a quick bath before we were going to leave for the party. Getting out, Connor complained of hunger and asked for some cereal. Got Scott something to eat too, to occupy them while I gathered up our swim stuff (hadn't dressed Scott yet, he's still naked), and rounded up the stuff to wrap the birthday girl's gift.

Connor: "I'm sorry". For some reason he'd stood up on his chair, and in getting down had put his hand on the edge of his bowl and upset the entire contents of milk onto the table, pooling under the placemat, into some papers and books that also were there; down into his chair and in a pool on the floor including under the table and chair legs. Ohhhhh, Jesus...When he saw that I was truly upset he became angry and kept saying, "I SAID I was sorry!" To which I replied, "Connor, some day you will live with someone and you'll know how it feels to have just cleaned something up and have someone mess it up." (Uncomfortably reminiscent of my mom telling me that someday I'd have "a daughter JUST LIKE YOU and you'll know how horrible it is". Speaking of whom, the phone rang and it was her. This was while I'm in full mop-up and Connor's still barking at me and my head was hurting and we were late. And I didn't want to tell her about it because of the part of me that remembers the "someday you'll blah blah blah" and even though I know she wouldn't say "I told you so" there's a 16 year old part of me that wants to deny her the satisfaction. At one point, I think where she's saying she and my dad are going to be in Colo this July and Dave (my brother) and my niece may be with them and maybe Dave and Denise can drive this way and see us and I'm thinking "In my dreams" because for the past 10 years every time Dave has been going to come visit he's cancelled at the last minute: a job interview or something, or fear of flying...in fact the last time was just this last June and he canceled 2 days before he was supposed to come for Connor's birthday and THAT time I'd REALLY thought that "this time" he was "coming for sure". I got tearful then and so worried her...and around this time Connor tilted the edge of his bowl and spilled the remnant of his milk.)

Got the gift wrapped; got Scott dressed, was about to go out the door and the phone rings again and this time its Gary and he says he's going to be later than he thought. Well, you don't want to know what I shouted into the phone.

The pool party was nice, anyway...in a private home (these people had auctioned their back yard for a party for a church benefit and a friend had bought it) with luxury like I've never seen. So that at least was relaxing.

Got home and Gary's home and it all came back; I tried to explain that--how he just didn't know how it had been here at home (all the running back and forth--a kid drops something; going to get a diaper to mop it up...all the diapers used...have to go upstairs to another part of the house to find another stash...kneel down to change a diaper...child gets up and runs, have to get back up off the floor to run too...about ready to leave...where are the shoes...oh yeah, Upstairs)--how his company having his presence at their deal on a weekend, on his son's birthday---what it cost me, his family...how they're completely oblivious to the hidden costs and sacrifices that are being taken out of the hide of his family and how that infuriates me...then I see him looking at me like I'm just being hysterical and what-can-be-so-hard-about-doing-what-you-do-EVERY-DAY (he actually said that, along with saying that millions of mothers around the world do it). Well, injustice really gets to me, especially when it's about ME ;) and I just lost it. Connor then started yelling, and I know he blamed me...and that was the truly rough part of it was knowing that Gary really doesn't SEE the moment-by-moment minutiae that can be so killing (not seeing that for every smooth moment there's a hell of an unseen back-story) and that Connor only sees that I'm causing trouble. That's a very bitter pill...to not only have my efforts not seen, but to be blamed for expressing my pain about it. (I won't leave you with that; later when they came home and I was upstairs nursing Scott awake from his nap Connor stole upstairs with some beautiful tropical flowers Gary had bought to make me feel better).

Well, it's almost 7:30; Gary just called to said that the bakery didn't have our order for the cake (!!!!) so I improvised and told him to have them decorate a baby cake that's there and order another for tomorrow...Scott fortunately had a late nap, so should do ok with being up rather late in order to have his birthday pizza and cake and presents...

I'm a little worried about the laptop...while I was downstairs cleaning up the pee Scott pried several of the letters off the keyboard and some seem loose...

If you've read this far I thank you....Ugh

And then here’s the text of a message I just sent Gary; which I’m proud that I managed to distill down all the words above:

Yesterday when I got out of your car I forgot to put the seat back. I woke up after a dream in the middle of the night and remembered. I was going to get up anyway, so I went out there and moved the seat back. I did it standing in front of the car, and realized what you meant when you said that it was harder than one might think for you to move it back when I have it all the way forward. And I realize how when you're trying to move on with your day, even a minor snag like that can feel like an impedance--an annoyance when "smooth" would feel so much better.

When I complain about something you've done or not done, it's in that same vein...maybe it seems to you like no big deal, but to me it's an interruption and just one more extra thing to have to deal with when "smooth" would feel so much better.

It's not fair to lump all my "complaints" into one and then say you have bad will toward me because I complain too much. That doesn't give dignity to the merits of each INDIVIDUAL issue and it lumps me into being a bitch. This is very painful for me. It hurts me to my very soul, and is the reason that I keep coming after you with it. Even if it seems like an inconvenient time, when you're hot or busy. It's because I'm in so much pain that I'm desperate to find relief for it. It's not because I'm trying to make your life difficult.

When you try to blow me off or dismiss me, it makes the complaints stronger and louder, because it makes my pain greater.

In accomplishing a goal together, be it getting breakfast on the table, or planning a big celebration for our son, there are as many nonverbal dynamics as there are verbal. There are ways that people can divide labor, so neither is doing a disproportionate amount, and ways to anticipate things to do to make the way smoother for each other. Good will is the grease that helps smooth the way, and it also powers the desire to be proactive and look out for each other. I was feeling very sad yesterday at how we don't really have that and therefore things we do together are more difficult than they need be. Further eroding good will...sometimes I feel very disheartened that this dynamic can be improved between us. I really hate to think of us going into old age with it. And I think it harms our children to witness it.


Lori said...

Not to sound too much like an ex-president, but I feel your pain.

I can imagine how difficult that time was. Is.

I am curious how Gary responds to your email.

And I wonder who will show up this summer.

Douglas W said...

When I went to the Adelaide Festival a few weeks ago Ian McEwan was there and speaking about his latest, as yet unpublished, novel. I haven't read any of his work yet but it sounds as though I should do so as soon as possible.

Moving down to the end... how easily small things that are normally trivial can become major issues; how easy to dismiss another person's concerns as being trivial and unimportant just because they don't seem important to us.

Sometimes it helps to write a joint journal, a diary, in the form of letters to each other.

Each day you write briefly about the things that have made your day positive and enjoyable, and also the things that have caused you concern and sadness during that day. Then the other partner responds - both to the things that made you happy, and to the things that caused you concern - before writing about their own day. And the next day you both do the same.

The rules of this exercise are that each person must take what the other has written as being important not to be dismissed - and that both the happy and sad are shared and responded to in a positive, supportive and constructive way rather than with negative, dismissive and destructive comments.

excavator said...


I can't remember specifically how Gary responded to this e-mail (sadly, my hard drive crashed about a year and a half ago and I wasn't able to retrieve my e-mail files), but I do remember general patterns--I've written lots of similar messages. In general he responds fairly positively to my messages. I think that having something written gives a little distance and breathing room so he can consider what I'm saying with a bit more of a light of reason. He does seem more reachable. So in general I will receive something back from him where he will comment on how well I said something, how much insight, that sort of thing. The brief wake-up doesn't seem to last long. I don't know why the understanding that's implied by his replies doesn't translate into more harmony when we're sharing physical space.

It seems obvious that we should have exploited this strength a little more, kind of like the way Doug describes. Generally though the pattern is disagreement/fight, me articulating my side in a message, him responding, often positively to the message, status quo in real life.

That was a difficult time then, and with the boys being less physically dependent it's a lot easier now. Fewer spills, more reliable use of the toilet (at least pee is around the BASE of the toilet, and no longer in the BASEment!), less running back and forth to get things that they couldn't then... They're demanding in other ways, but I'm less physically taxed.