Growing up as an immigrant kid, I watched my parents struggle a lot. They worked painfully long, labor-intensive hours, often more than 14 hours a day with no real breaks, six days a week. They could never catch up on their sleep and had no time to spare. I remember their exhaustion stretching out like a rope of molten glass, drooping from its own weight, threatening to crack with the passage of time.
As a teenager, I tried as much as I could to help. I cooked dinner, washed the laundry, cleaned the house, helped out at their store. And I was hyper-aware that I should never impose on their time. I remember one time I returned to law school after a visit home. I accidentally left something behind at my parents', perhaps a watch. When I mentioned it to my roommate, she casually suggested that I just call my parents and ask them to send it. I thought her suggestion absurd. No, that's not possible, I said to her.
But more than with regard to time, I knew I should never impose on them emotionally. We weren't an emotionally open family to begin with. But the idea of bringing my personal issues into the household, where my parents' stress already stretched out the seams of our family fabric precariously, was unthinkable. When their frustration and unhappiness started to swell and they started unfurling their anger at each other, we just quietened our breaths and sagged against the cold, desolate walls.
I learned to be accommodating. To figure out a way to help quietly. To identify the areas of need so that I could find a way to fill them. I took it upon myself to play that role. I had to help us. I was the only one who could do something. There was no one else.
All I knew was that the situation felt desperate. I had to do something. I had to find a way to help us, to get us out of the morass. So I stepped onto that hamster wheel and ran as quickly as I could.
After years of living like this, it didn't even occur to me to think about what I needed or wanted. In that context, all of my problems seemed so trivial in comparison. I couldn't even call them problems. They were nothing, insignificant bothers that didn't even merit mention. What are the worries of teenage girls? Weight, boys, popularity? None of them mattered, I told myself. Nothing mattered more than our survival, our survival as a family.
I don't think I even realized that I was effacing myself. I remember how detached I felt from my emotions at times, as if I were watching myself from the outside. I remember never crying. I remember constantly feeling guilty for whatever free time I had, for the smallest luxury, like treating myself to a piece of cake, and comparing myself to my parents who worked nonstop. I remember always fulfilling all of my duties first before I allowed myself to do what I wanted. I remember never asking for anything. Never making demands for myself. Simply biting down on that bullet and doing whatever it was that needed doing.
Ever since I became a mom, I realize that I've reverted to that role. Of putting my head down and doing my part. Meeting everyone else's needs. Trying to make everyone else happy. Doing things for myself only when it didn't upset anyone else's needs or plans.
Of course I've heard all that talk about how motherhood requires balancing one's own needs against others. I heard all that, but it seems impossible to do at times. And selfish.
Despite myself, I've been bulging at the seams, steam leaking out of my ears and my nose. I could feel the frustration building over the day, over the week. The week would pass with me driving the kids to school, then picking them up, then driving them to taekwondo or swim or dance, killing time while they attend class, walking up and down the aisles in Target, Costco, Von's, picking up their toys yet again, preparing their meals, vacuuming their crumbs, bathing them, getting them ready for bed. And a thought would quietly appear, My life has to be more than this. And another thought, I'm getting so old. And I would try to push those thoughts away.
Then a week would hit where the kids get sick, and I would be homebound for days. The three precious hours I had to myself while my little one went to preschool would be taken from me, and those thoughts would keep resurfacing. I have nothing to show for my time. Just scrunched up balls of kleenex, red noses, and mounding anxiety about the minutes, hours, days slipping by. Those days would inevitably end in a blow up. A blow up about how I'm doing nothing with my life.
"Nothing" is a cold word. It slaps you across your cheek and says, Do something! Just do something! Figure it out! It doesn't leave room for excuses, and it does nothing to console the deep sadness I felt about how I spent my 44 years.
Jeff would try to talk to me about hiring a regular babysitter or switching roles and him taking a turn staying with the kids or figuring out what it was that I would rather be doing. And I found it difficult to say out loud that I just wanted time. Time to myself. Time to figure it out. Time to explore.
It just seemed too selfish. We are where we are. We have children, children I desperately wanted. We aren't retired. We need to make a living. It didn't occur to me that I could ask for something like that. It seemed impossible.
But the other day, Jeff asked me why I didn't relax with the kids. Why did I always go running off to this store or that? Why didn't I just sit with them and play?
I responded honestly and said that I just needed to get through the day, to pass it as quickly as I could. I just needed to pass the time.
He looked at me for a long time. Very quietly.
Then he said, "We need to make a change. You can't live your life like that."
He offered me a deal. Take a year. Do whatever you want to do. Just write if you want to. Or take classes. He told me I earned it after taking care of the kids for so long.
I didn't believe him. I know his anxieties about money, our future security. I know his goal-driven personality. How could it possibly work?
But the next day, he quit his job, and he's been handling the kids' drop off, the pick ups, taking them swimming after school, planning some of the meals, and doing the grocery runs.
It's been a week. I've been writing, and I signed up for a bunch of classes at the community college.
When I was growing up, my family has always needed things from me. Everyone else's needs always seemed more desperate, more urgent than mine. No one ever stopped to ask what I needed.
No one has ever done anything like that for me. Put my need above theirs. Put time back in my hands.
It makes me want to cry.