Jun 26 2017

Today I Forgot How to Be Tough

It’s been a long time since I let myself cry. Months, maybe. I’m not talking about the welling up that happens when your baby does something magical, or the occasional wobbly chin because that sneaky-sad P&G commercial caught you by surprise. I mean a heaving, hearty cry that lasts way longer than a single sob, the kind that makes your eyes puff up by morning.

I cried a lot more often in the beginning, when we first moved — but I was pregnant then, and I got to blame it on hormones, and after the baby was born I told myself to toughen up, sister. Most of the time, I am moderately successful at this: I try to end every day (and every post) with a glimmer of hope; I’m a fanatic about practicing daily gratitude; I never go to sleep without counting my blessings, and there are so many — so, so many. An immeasurable amount. I am deeply, guiltily aware of how much worse things could be, and for that reason I sometimes pretend to have no problems at all.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth: Sometimes, living so far away still feels kind of awful. A general sense of being lost and alone still permeates everything, punctuated by hopeful highs whenever I connect with a new friend or manage to achieve a writing goal.

It’s not the place that’s awful, not really. It’s the physical distance between me and every single person of my past. Not to get all Holden Caulfield on you, but I miss everybody. I’ve met some of my favorite people in the world out here, but at times I just cannot shake the loneliness. Whether that’s something that comes along with stay-at-home mothering or with moving so far away from home, I’m not sure — probably both, and this double whammy sometimes makes me feel as though I’m trapped inside an inexplicable cave of isolation.

When things are fine, they’re not bad. When things are bad, I am desperate to move home immediately, back to the place where my parents are twenty minutes away, back to a life where I was important to people other than my babies. I’m definitely not supposed to say that, though. My babies are supposed to be the only things I need — and a lot of the time, that feels true.

Today I cried.

It’s been an emotional last month-ish. We found out that one of the most important people in our lives will likely need surgery soon — which is, believe it or not, the good news — and we are 3,000 miles away. We’ve also been trying to patch together a trip home, but traveling anywhere with a family of four is mind-blowingly expensive.

And last week, I was alone with the kids while my husband flew away on a business trip. This is a situation I know I need to get used to, but it always causes me immense stress: all the pressure and responsibility you regularly feel as a mom is magnified when you’re the only parent within a thousand-mile radius, and I wind up averaging 1-2 hours of very broken sleep a night, because thanks, anxiety.

What if one of the kids has an emergency? Will I need to rip the other one out of a sound sleep and drag them both to the ER? What if I have an emergency? What if I have a heart attack and die in the middle of the night and no one knows because I’m all alone and the baby is trapped in his crib for three days and my daughter starves to death?

I need to just pause here to kneel at the aching feet of single parents everywhere. That this is your every day (and every night) — not to mention the thousands of things you do and feel that no one ever sees — is beyond my comprehension. I don’t have enough hands to salute you the way you deserve it.

After a little while, I couldn’t wait for him to get home, because I really, really missed sleep companionship. But when he returned, he brought a 104-degree fever and influenza A with him — and shortly afterward, despite my most obsessive hand-washing/quarantining/disinfecting efforts, my daughter had it, too. I have never seen a thermometer read numbers that high.

So today I woke up and found myself responsible for both children, a husband who could barely move or speak, and a dog who snuck into our room while Al was sleeping and gobbled up the chicken soup by his bedside and gave herself diarrhea. Today I was responsible for business-trip laundry and also sick laundry. Today, someone else’s needs were always first, and it was 7 PM before I realized I’d barely eaten.

If you could watch a fast-motion video of today, you would see a frazzled woman running up and down stairs and back and forth between babies — add “Flight of the Bumblebee” for background music, and it would almost be a comedy.

Some days I look around at my life and I think, like a terrified 3-year-old, I just want my mom.

If I were at home, I could have scooped up the kids and taken them to my parents’ for a while, removing them from all the virus particles that have surely settled into every crevice of our home by now. I could have refilled Al’s Gatorade one more time and let him sleep in silence while I had help bathing the children.

Instead I made breakfast for everyone but me in an infected kitchen and leaned over the sink and cried for the first time in months. My son — who has literally never seen me do this, ever — said sadly, “Sowwy, Mommy,” which completely broke my heart, and I hugged him and hugged him even while he smeared peanut butter in my hair.

The weight of all this responsibility is crushing sometimes, the impossible heaviness of it, and I forgot how to be tough today.

What will happen if I go down? Who will be responsible for me?

My mother says I need a mantra — something to repeat over and over when it feels like things are not all right — and I’m trying. I borrowed some of her own words to me from a text she sent: You don’t give yourself enough credit. You are stronger than you think. All of this, too, shall pass.

It will (I hope), although for now it feels like a never-ending cycle of wait-and-see contagion. But even when it passes, l’ll still be all the way out here, far away from so many people I love, and I’m not sure if I’m okay with that anymore. I’m tired of pretending that I am.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just…tired. I haven’t slept in six nights. This is probably my exhaustion hangover talking, and I might legit regret posting this in a haze of sleep deprivation, but for tonight, here I am. If a mom breaks in California, and no one is around to see her, did it ever really happen?

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

9 comments on “Today I Forgot How to Be Tough

  1. ????????????I hear you and I am praying for you that your guardian angels will give you more strength now. Hugs
    Shanta is a mantra. Stop and just breathe when you feel over whelmed and eat a Popsicle! You can do this??????????

  2. Gob smacked with this one because I know how it feels. My kiddos are grown now but it still breaks my heart that they can count on one hand the times a grandparent made it to a soccer game or other important kid milestone event in their lives. Not exactly YOUR life or the one you wanted for them but their own….. You’ll get through it and peanut butter as a hair product will be one of those treasured memories. Hang onto them.

  3. I can so relate to this. There was a time when my husband worked day, night, rotating, overtime 12 hr shifts. It was required. My kids were preschool aged and toddler. My son was being diagnosed with fun things like developmental delay, sensory integration dysfunction, speech delay, and possibly autism. Family was all around us, but due to various relationship limitations and two addicted grandparents, very little help.

    My life was a constant stream of child meltdowns, dr and therapy appts (dragging younger sibling along because there was nobody to watch her), grumpy /exhausted/sleeping days/working husband, night time stomach viruses handled solo…. Oh and there was the episode of catching the dog eating a dead bird.. which he later barfed on my sons bedroom rug .Every day felt endless.

    I get every bit of what you are saying. I wish I could say it will get better soon. I can say this awfulness will pass. The flu will pass. Feel free to take a break as soon as possible. No guilt. You need it.

    Also things change a lot once the youngest is about 4. By then everybody is toilet trained, can verbalize needs. School and perhaps preschool are near to keep their days busier and burn off energy.

    Most people dread teen years. We must not be normal, because it’s been good for us. The best change is no longer needing a babysitter for every single thing. We have the occasional dinner out, shop, handle stuff for household much more easily. Teen moodiness is a real thing, but I’ll take that over toddlers and diapers any day. My son still has challenges but the years have proven them to be mild. He is an honor student, violinist, and likely a future computer engineer. So the years of fear have morphed into understanding and acceptance.

    I hope today finds everything better for your family.

    • I’ve heard that about the teen years, too! How wonderful to hear that it can actually go well. If that’s “abnormal,” so be it. 🙂

      And the dog/bird story! Yikes. Thank you so much for your thoughtful, insightful comment.

  4. I think loniless is a bigger epidemic than people realize. The old saying….it takes a village to raise a child, where is the village? Instead everyone is stuck in their micro families. Women are lacking women I think, the networks aren’t there anymore because of some weird idea that we are suppose to do this all alone. I am in Michigan, if you move back near SE Michigan let’s connect. I also like them real with a side of humor. And permit yourself this grief, it’s completely ok.

  5. I started following you a while back. I feel you. My husband and I are also from Mi and now raising our little here in the Bay Area. I don’t think a lot of people understand what it’s like to not have ANY help for thousands of miles. You learn to be very self sufficient but it’s also so lonely. I hope things get better soon for you.

  6. I miss Illinois most on July 4, as my relatives all post pictures of the annual huge family gathering at my sister’s house and I’m not there. We’ve made it back for the 4th I think two or three times since moving here in 1993. I still feel lonely on this day though in every other way I have become a true SoCal gal.

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