Recently I’ve been receiving a lot of encouraging and supportive messages from the people I meet and people I know. I appreciate it because it keeps me going strong and makes me feel as though I can conquer the world! However, the unintended effect of this praise also has me feeling a little unsure, a little brittle and worried: what if I can’t keep it up? What will happen if people see me fail?
Here’s some context. I thought I was very clever when I signed up to do my master’s full time and renew a work contract for my research job in the same year that I had a baby. At one point I even decided to take on a second job and – thank god it was short-lived – I was laughed at by my growing workload and mocked until I cried.
As I’ve mentioned, people have been fantastically supportive in their commentary on my lifestyle. Not a single person has attempted to tell me what a ‘mother’ should be, and I have been basking in the warmth of their praise for some time now. “Woohoo! I did it! I passed my course! I earned some money! I’m king-mother!”
It’s a good feeling. And it’s the only one I allow myself to feel – partly because it keeps me going, and partly because, well, I always feel it’s a little inappropriate to feel something else. When somebody asks how you’re doing, you’re supposed to say ‘Fine!’, right? Right. And in truth, I am fine. I’m mostly fine. Sometimes I’m wonderfully fine. One has to be as courteous in conversation and in general real-life manner as one has to be on Facebook. Cute family photos and holiday pics to show just what a kick-ass coper you are. Hmm, I don’t think coper is a word – oh looky, the red line tells me no – but I’m going to go with it.
The other day, I saw a Facebook status update that was pretty raw. It was an acquaintance I had met some time ago sharing some truths about the demons he struggles with and thanking the people who had helped him survive a very scary emotional time. It hurt in an uncomfortable way to read it because there was a lot of truth in it. And truth isn’t something I’m accustomed to sharing about myself. I wrote to him to thank him for the post, because it eloquently and accurately described dark times in my life. And I don’t mean my distant past. I mean dark times from a few weeks ago.
I want to share some truth now. Mostly because I know a lot of people who struggle with demons daily too – they may not be the same as mine, they may not be regular, but they are there. And every time I get a pat on the back for not being one of those people that sinks under the pressures of life, I feel as though I’ve added a little more weight to their burdens. Because they (and I – and we) also have to bear the burden of not showing our true struggles. Our struggles are unpleasant and inconvenient and a little boring to others. So we don’t share the real and we just Facebook-filter the lot. And then I get a ‘Whoa, you’re coping so well! You’re always so chilled. Always so cheerful. I know a lot of parents who complain all the time. I know a lot of people who are miserable. Go you!”
Yeah, go me. I am mostly chilled and I’m annoyingly cheerful when I want to be. It’s intense. But beneath the cheer and the chilled is first and foremost: my long-suffering partner. The poor guy is the essence of chill and I’m convinced that if I could bottle it I could be rich. Here’s how I managed to be studying, working parent: a partner who breaks his back to make this happen. He was a stay-at-home parent for 6 months before baby went to creche, and when I have a bunch of crazy deadlines, he takes care of the baby while I burn the midnight oil. And then he even proofreads my papers for me or bounces ideas off me. Winning at life often means leaning heavily on other people. My parents, my partner, my sisters, my friends. And I don’t want to bring them up every time somebody says ‘Well done’, but I don’t know how not to. Also, I have a hard time accepting that this is often how parenting works. Because, well, women don’t expect this sort of thing.
Then there’s the other thing underneath the cheerful coping: misery. Half of the time – the half where you probably don’t see me, I’m fucking miserable. Because it’s hard to keep reminding yourself of the end goal every day. And on top of it, I still carry with me icky stuff from outside of my work and family environment like bouts of depression, surges of anger, disordered eating, terrible insecurity, addictive behaviours, apathy, anxiety, a body that sometimes isn’t in the best of health (and I don’t mean fitness). People have actually laughed at me when I mention that I suffer from overwhelming shyness. Me! The clutzy, loudmouth person who was once told by a rando on the street that I walked like a stomping soldier (which pleased me). It’s hard to be many things at once to people, so I don’t mention that my characteristic optimism is part of the show. It’s a survival technique, sure, and it proves that ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ works – for a bit. I don’t mention that sometimes I don’t want to leave the house and that this can last for days (and my partner tolerates it but I can’t do this any more with the baby). I don’t talk about the support groups I go to for handling my addictions. Or just the bleak, dark, dark depression which envelops and doesn’t let me out for a while, and which I’m terrified of passing on to my child. Mental illness is so taboo, right? We shall not succumb!
No weakness! No weakness ever. As a woman, currently having to play the ‘dad’ role in a parenting relationship, trying to tell myself that I’m not a failure for not having my career sorted out at 32 years old, competing in a world that values men more than women and male traits more than female, I can’t show weakness. King-mom. When somebody told me the other day, ‘You drive like a woman’, I was initially angry. Furious. But then, I thought: perhaps this was a compliment? I drive safely? I use the handbrake when I’m fucking supposed to? I don’t show off? What the fuck did he mean? I no longer drive like a taxi driver? Whatever. Why did I assume it was an insult? I’m primed to hate myself for the very thing which I think has made me successful and which I should take credit for. The social skills I learned from being socialised as a woman. It’s part of my survival technique. But it’s also part of my misery.
Well, enough about societal sexism (although it is probably the largest influencing factor in my daily struggles because it affects every part of my life: perceptions of success, failure, caring; feelings about my body, my relationships, my family, etc.). What I’m really wanting to say is: I don’t think I’m doing better than anybody else. I am proud of the achievements I’ve made this year, but no more proud than I am of the people who have helped me do it. Also, there is no shame in showing your ‘weakness’ or just how much you struggle. I get that there is an appropriate level of sharing and that we have reciprocal relationships with other people so we can’t simply burden them with all of our woes. But maybe we should cut ourselves (and others) a little more slack & just let struggles be shown for what they are.
I still don’t know how to talk about bad stuff. I find myself making up fake (positive) excuses for why I can’t do things or why I need something just to avoid having somebody think that I need their pity or that I am burdening them with my problems. Rubbish. Next time I’ll just pick up the phone and ask for help. As soon as I learn how to frame the words.