I could be kind to friends and colleagues because after a few hours they went back to their own houses. There was a time limit to being nice. But living with people is different. They never leave. You are always failing and that’s not so bad, but they can see you do it. I didn’t know I was in a bad mood before I got married. When I lived alone I could just take it out on myself. But this lot, they wanted honesty and kindness from me every single minute of every single day. Out of nowhere a burning rage that would come upon me. Mostly it was directed at my new family.
Stephen Levine, the Buddhist teacher, said, “There is no one practicing meditation harder than a stay at home mother!” A truer sentence never spoken. When you have a family, you are consistently withdrawing from the emotional bank account, and it doesn’t take much to go into overdraft. After a few nights with no sleep or a bout of the flu, my relationship with my inner wisdom went out the window.
Plus, children are mean. It’s one of the side effects. No one warns you that when you take them home from the hospital they will hit, bite, walk, and pee all over you while you’re sleeping. If they did you’d never take them home from the hospital. They pick at you all day like birds. They back you into corners while trying to get their boots on, kicking and hollering hateful things at you. And letting them into your bed at night requires a bicycle helmet. I ended up in the hospital twice from my daughter hitting me in the eye with her bottle. She was nine months old and had the swing of a prize fighter. It’s hard to buoy yourself up with positive self-talk when you’re wearing an eye patch.
I tried to keep up my daily practices. At night, I lay in bed and tried to meditate, but I’d doze off before the second exhale. In the middle of the night I’d go off my head, spitting and spewing venom in some narcoleptic induced blackout. “Why are you still awake?” And in the morning, I’d feel so guilty and then was journaling and writing out my gratitude to beat the band. I never had a moment to connect back to myself. If I woke up at 7 a.m., my son would wake up too, demanding cereal. I tried to get up at 6, to get ahead of him, but he turned back his internal clock too. The only semblance of peace I got was the five minutes in the shower, somewhere between shampoo and conditioner.
I prayed to some higher power that was not my mother’s God, on the go. I’d get a take out coffee and say the Serenity prayer on the fly. I did positive affirmations next to a very noisy dryer and in a desperate act for any agency over my own life, I joined the VIP section of the Y, which cost double the price as the regular membership because they had muffins and a nap room. I loved that nap room. I’d put my workout clothes on, head to the gym, get a muffin the size of my head and have a good power nap. It was the only time in my life I can actually say I loved going to the gym.
My head couldn’t keep up with all the changes that had happened to me. In less than two years, I’d gone from being a party girl to becoming a Super Mom.
Up to this point I had been doing everything wrong and now I was trying to get it all right. People called me a perfectionist. Ya? Well for a perfectionist I am not very good at it.
House cleaning was the thing that would do me in. The people I lived with, or “those filthy pigs.” as I like to call them, never picked up a thing, and I could hear Owen’s voice in my head every time a dust bunny rolled by me. “Why is this place such a pig sty??”
I had learned how to clean from my mother. If she had bowed down to one of Ruth’s goddesses, it would have been Hestia, the queen of the hearth, the deity in charge of dust bunnies. The relentless goddess, who is only happy when you are pushing an Electrolux. Despite the fact I had promised myself to do it differently than Mom, the same Goddess ruled me.
Saturday morning was the day she demanded worship. During the week, I was a mom who didn’t mind a mess. I loved the art on the table and making crafts and kids pulling the pillows off the couch to make it a theater or a pirate ship.
But Saturday morning, Hestia would descend upon me with her Herculean color-coded to-do lists. At 7:30 in the morning, I’d enter the living room, with the vacuum cord wound around my neck.. I looked like the head of Medusa. The kids would be splayed across the couch like their spines had been removed. David would be watching cartoons, laughing, eating Frosted Flakes dripping in milk like some man-baby. I’d start screaming. Is there anything more infuriating when you want to clean than seeing your family enjoying themselves?
“Today is the day we are going to get this under control. We are going to take the bull by the horns.” Do you know what happens when you take the bull by the horns? The bull wins. The floor was covered in puzzle pieces and tiny furniture from Polly Pocket (pieces so small that when stepped on, they would make a kidney stone feel like a picnic). I began to vacuum around them and sigh (oh, that sighing!). By 8 a.m. I’d be making threats I had no plan in keeping. “I am going to leave you and get my own place – a place where people like you aren’t allowed to traipse dirt all over the floors – a place where I don’t have to always be the bad guy.”
“Why am I always the bad guy?”has yelled every mother since the beginning of time. Earlier that morning I affirmed that I would be patient, but within 30 minutes of opening the bottle of Mr. Clean, I’d be screaming at them. “Just forget it! Take them to a movie!”
They’d all look at me like, “Is this a trick?”
“No, it’s not a trick.” If I could get rid of them, maybe I could work in peace. “And get them some popcorn.” I’d yell as I watched them leave the house to go to see a movie that I’d wanted to take them to, and I was left alone to scrub and bleach things. Full of tears and self-pity. I didn’t even care about cleaning that much. Most days, they’d be barely out of the driveway, and I’d be back in bed asleep from exhaustion.
This rage terrified me. The screaming and the slapping and the complete lack of control over my emotions.
Sometimes I could short-circuit by giving myself a grown-up time-out. I stood in the closet. A lot of friends were coming out of the closet, but I was going into it. I now saw why my gay friends liked it in there. No one could see who you were.
I found the bedroom closet most calming. It reminded me of Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine. Temple is the animal rights activist with autism whose mom made her a contraption when she was young that would contain her energy when the world felt like too much? Temple’s mother called it the hug Temple couldn’t let herself receive. My closet was the hug I couldn’t ask for. What did I do there? Nothing. Did I think of anything profound? Negatorie. I stared at clothes on a hanger and wondered why I had ten white shirts.
Standing with my back against the wall, I’d hear children go through the house yelling for me. “Mom! Mommy! Where are you?” while I held my breath and prayed they wouldn’t find me. The dog Shorty sniffed me out first and would whine while pawing on the glass. Soon the kids joined him outside whispering about my mental state. Yes, they always knew I was standing in there. But we all pretended it was a surprise. This was especially embarrassing when they had friends over. Especially Devon. All kids have a friend like Devon, a kid whose mother hung on every word he said like he was a Messiah. He was so pampered we were convinced he’d turn out to be a criminal. Which he almost did, as he ended up being a Senator. An Ottawa Senator for the NHL. One of the goons that took the good players out.
“Why is your Mommy in the closet?” Asked Devon the future third draft pick.
“I don’t know,” Laurel shrugged in her wise old woman way. “It makes her feel better.”
“When will she ever come out?”
“Maybe later.” Laurel was smart.
But Devon wouldn’t leave it alone. He’d put his jam-hands on the mirrored closet door and repeat “That’s weird. That’s just weird.” repeatedly.
Well, Devon, you want to talk weird? You go insane if your peas touch your fish sticks.
Motherhood is, at best, a brutal game. But it’s like improvisation if you are trying to be perfect, it’s futile. I had gone from being one of the most responsible kids you could meet. A kid that wanted to get it perfect to the most irresponsible teenager who didn’t care about mine or anyone else’s safety. To a perfectionist mother who was driven by some internal exactitude of how I was to behave as a mother. I wanted to make up for what I considered an emotional lack in my upbringing to make sure my kids never lacked for anything. I wanted to be exactly the opposite of my mom. It was as if I’d written a script in my mind of what a perfect family was supposed to say and do, and the only problem was nobody knew their lines. Birthday parties were planned; they were to make up for any lack I had in my childhood. There were over-the-top loot bags and fishponds where David hid behind the couch and pretended to be a shark. Like my directing days, I’d give him notes on his performance during the Nativity scenes at home. “You can’t say glug, glug, glug. What shark says glug, glug, glug?”
No store-bought cake or for my kids, just homemade. I wasn’t bad as a baker, but decorating was not my strong suit, as my birthday Barbie Cake will attest. The recipe: Take a Barbie doll and place her in the middle of an angel food cake. Ice the cake with pink frosting and place sparkly silver things around the circle of cake! The result was that Barbie would look like she was wearing a pink ball gown. But my husband bought a skinny Angel food cake – half the size of a normal one – which meant 80 percent of Barbie’s torso was showing, and her ‘cake dress ‘was down around her knees. (If Barbie even had knees.)
In a fit of spectacular fury, I sent my husband back to the store again to get another skinny angel food cake. I’d save the day if I’d put the two cakes on top of each other. But the two thin cakes were still not tall enough because when I stuck Barbie in the middle, she fell over.
“Maybe you could just rip off her legs,” David said.
“What is wrong with you, David? She isn’t a Landmine Victim Barbie.” The kids were arriving any minute, so I took his suggestion, ripped the limbs off the doll, iced her boobs, and set the cake in the middle of the table.
After the scary scavenger hunt, where we misplaced two children in a ravine for a harrowing seven minutes (one child, now 30, says she gets triggered when she smells moss), we got to the cake portion of the proceedings. Laurel was born in July, so her birthday seemed to fall on the hottest day of the year, when it was about 80 degrees in the shade. The kids had flop sweat – we had no air conditioning, and Barbie had begun to tilt to the side. The icing was dripping off her boobs. It looked like she and Midge had been out on a three-day bender. The boys began laughing at Barbie’s “boobies.”
Then David came to the rescue. “Hey kids, would you like to see the movie that destroyed my career? I lost over a half million on that one.”
In unison, they all yelled, “No. Not again!”
David pretended to cry.
“Let’s watch ‘The Simpsons,” Brendan said.
“You’re not allowed to watch ‘The Simpsons,’” I yelled.
Brendan swung around at me and slapped his head with a “D’Oh!” in classic Homer Simpson form. Then Devon shook his head. “He watches ‘The Simpsons’ all the time, Deb. Why do you think he hits his head all the time?”
“For fuck’s sake, Devon.” Brendan yelled. I didn’t know he watched the Simpsons. I thought he was being funny when he did all of his Homer quotes.”
“You’re not allowed to swear.”
“You’re not allowed to put your jam-hands on my bedroom closet mirror or kill our hamster.” Then Brendan belted Devon across the head for yelling at his mother. I wanted to yell at him to stop, but I had had just about enough of Devon and his attitude. David pulled the kids off each other and as he paraded them all up the stairs, I heard him say, “Let’s watch my movie. The first hour isn’t great, but there are five minutes in the middle that really aren’t half-bad.” I had started the day off chanting and affirming that the party would be a success, and now I was ending it standing in a closet with a fork and a cake.
Barbie and I needed some alone time together.
This excerpt is from my new book, Windowshopping for God coming out Fall 2022!