Friday, September 30, 2016

The End of Kitchen Widow

Matt's culinary school graduation, 2005.
All you spouses of night and weekend workers, you partners of those who keep the world running when bankers' hours end, you loved ones of nurses, bus drivers, store owners, and chefs: I see you.

I see you falling asleep next to an empty pillow and waking up early next to an exhausted dreamer. I see you squeezing in get-togethers and everything leisurely on Monday or Tuesday nights. I see you going to family functions alone. I see you carting kids to sports and classes and birthday parties, juggling backpacks and equipment while tossing cheeseburgers behind you to the cranky children strapped into car seats, because you had no time to make an actual meal.

I see you, and I understand you, because I'm one of you. For ten years, I have rolled over in my sleep five nights a week, reaching for my husband. This is all we have ever known; I became a kitchen widow before I even became a wife. And since the moment I realized that he was my match, I have fantasized -- sometimes silently, sometimes not -- about the day when our lives would swing the same way on the pendulum.

Today, I can see him coming toward me, the dissonance of our unmatched schedules fading. The time of Kitchen Widow, at least for now, is over.

It's relief as I've never known it. Maybe that makes me sound ungrateful. Chef Matt has faithfully supported our family, working sometimes inhuman hours, sacrificing time with his loved ones, and doing it with good humor and brilliant food. His love for cooking is the part of his soul that he wears on his sleeve. I love that he has spent the last 12 years so fully invested in work that he believes in.

But recently, he saw a past with so many nights and holidays spent apart, and a future with weekends drowning under the last-minute call-ins of employees. And he let it go. He was as courageous as I've ever seen him, releasing the life that was his dream for the life that fully embraced his family. He knew that no matter how many hours he worked, how many gorgeous dishes he produced, how many compliments he received, how far he rose in the culinary world, it would never compensate for the time lost with me and the kids.

Being a restaurant chef always sounds so glamorous, like he spends his days carefully assembling artistic plates of food assembled from perfect ingredients and then charmingly delivers these plates to adoring customers. "Oh, your husband is a chef? How lucky for you! Does he cook for you at home?" It's a reasonable question, but one that has always made me a little sad, because he has spent our marriage cooking for other people. And truly, I have loved telling everyone about his work.

We weren't under any delusion that opposite schedules and long hours would be easy, but I don't think we realized the toll it would ultimately take. Matt was a responsible and reliable chef, which meant that I was often on my own, running kids to all kinds of practices and appointments, and quietly cursing his job.

Our ships-in-the-night life tested my strength. I wanted these beautiful children, I wanted my full-time job, and I wanted Matt to share his gift with the world. And because these are what I wanted, I needed to straighten my shoulders and deal with it. Every time I sat on the floor next to the dishwasher and cried, or screamed at the kids for some tiny little annoyance, or stumbled unshowered into the grocery store with four wild animals running uncontrollably up and down the aisles because I just needed enough milk to get through the night, I felt weak. I was a person I didn't recognize. I didn't tell Matt about so many of these moments. The times I did, my heart broke when his shoulders fell.

So it was that he woke up one day and knew with certainty that restaurants are all the same life, wrapped in different packages. He told me that he wanted to be as good a husband and father as he is a chef. He was ready to move away from this addictive world of treading water in a thunderstorm while people sing hallelujahs in your name. The loss of the food and the camaraderie would leave a hole; as anyone who loves working in food service knows, it can have an epic we're-all-in-this-together aura. But he felt at peace with his decision, and suddenly, we are peering into a future where we will see each other more than 20 hours a week.

I feel positively giddy. Now I won't have to wrangle the children alone, battling our five-year-old over vegetables or our three-year-old over a reasonable bedtime. We can be lazy on Saturday afternoons, which sounds to me like the ultimate luxury. And most of all, she says selfishly, he will be with me.

I remember when we were first married, and he would leave for work in the late morning. I sat in the window of our apartment's living room and watched him walk down the street to his car, until I couldn't see him anymore. In our first house, I would finally relax when I heard him come in long after midnight. After we'd had four children, I would go to bed exhausted at 8:30 and barely open my eyes when he laid a hand on my hair late at night. All the while, I felt restless and short of breath without him. I would watch social media with jealousy, as my friends dated their husbands and went on adventures as a family. We sacrificed time spent in the same room to keep our kids' lives pleasant and to keep Matt in a restaurant, and it was hard.

Despite so many years with so few hours, I still get all weak in the knees when he walks into the room, and I think that has made all the difference. We're not starting out in this new reality trying to find each other in the dark; instead, we just get to share more of the same sunlight.

Kitchen widow life has shaped me and our marriage and our kids, and I am grateful for the lessons. I will always consider myself one of the legion of spouses whose love is, by choice or by necessity, operating in an opposite world. That life defined the first 10 years of our marriage, and I will gleefully hang it up next to his chef coat. Onward, with my man who can cook and now can do it for me.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole Again

I suddenly feel surrounded with talk of mental health, mostly in impersonal forms, like Buzzfeed charts and other brief lists of how to recognize signs of depression. Then today, all the tributes to Robin Williams, a year after his suicide. All of this is conversation, which is good.

But the charts and the top-five lists feel like only part of a conversation, one told loudly to cover up the quiet, serious talk happening in the corner between people that you know. And while Robin Williams' tragic death opened a door to some frankness about depression, as often happens when celebrities have public struggles, I feel that the piece still missing in all of this is a willingness to be open, unembarrassed, and thoughtful about the mental health issues that affect a significant part of the population, including our neighbors and loved ones. If any silver lining is to be found after the powerful sadness of Robin Williams' death, it is that we can begin to see that depression exists where we didn't think possible.

It exists everywhere. We are startled at the suicides of people who are outwardly cohesive, and shocked at the mental illness of friends who are always smiling. There are so many people who feel crushed under depression and feel completely alone in their sadness; no one around them or in their social media feed seems to struggle with their mental health. Humanity seems absent, and the stigma is present, so there is silence. We don't want to be complainers. We don't want pity. We don't want to cause angst. We don't want to admit to what feels like weakness. We are strong and thus feel we can overcome anything. And so we are silent.

But silence feeds the darkness, so in the interest of the light, here's a story. Last year at this time, I wrote a blog post about my depression and overcoming it in my early twenties, something of which I've always been very proud. In the last few months, I have relapsed and am battling not only depression but a hyperactive anxiety that is often nothing short of crippling.

If you looked at me, what might you see? A mother to four beautiful kids, a wife to a wonderful man, a child of a loving home, an educator in a dream job. Happy, healthy, stable. But this is precisely the point. Depression doesn't always live where you expect it. For me, it crawled in, stealthy and disguised as exhaustion, and spilled out into the words that I say to my kids and the self-disgust that I could no longer control. It saw me, overwhelmed by life and doubting my abilities, and made its move, yelling words like "worthless" and "burden" and "nothing."

The anxiety rose at the same time my self-worth fell. If I'm in a social situation with you, I most likely had to talk myself into it, feel overwhelmed and nervous while it's happening, and in the days afterward, obsessively agonize over every ridiculous thing I said. Sometimes at work I can't breathe. Small talk makes me panic. That ugly combination of "I hate myself" and "You probably hate me too" has become a battleground in my head.

Here's the disconnect. To some people, what I'm describing sounds like over-sensitivity. Get happy, they say. Talk about the weather, they say. I say: You try to tell someone with the flu to stop throwing up.

Why is there shame attached to mental illness? Why am I reluctant to take medication to help me feel balanced and try to erase those scary whispers that promise a way out? Why am I sitting here writing this, worrying about the people who read it who might think, "boy, she just needs some attention"?

Because to admit to mental illness is to admit to failure. I know I'm not the only one out there who feels this. We read about people who call suicide "selfish" and hear people talk about anxiety like it's a bad mood. If you've never experienced depression, and your reaction is to say that people need to "get over it" or "try to think about your family," please go sit down and talk with someone you know who is struggling. Ask me. I'll tell you that sometimes the hole is so deep and dark, climbing out of it feels impossible, even when you can see your beloved family at the top.

Please can we talk about this? With each other, the people that we see every day, so we can normalize the conversation. So we can begin to see that depression doesn't always look like the methamphetamines "after" picture. I don't need sympathy or platitudes, just an assurance that what I'm battling is nothing to be ashamed of and that people won't think less of me for how little I think of myself.

I am getting help, but there are many more who need it and are scared to ask. Let's create a culture that offers help without judgment, help that always comes with the words, "I am here for you," and means it.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

If I Were King of the Forest

There's been a lot of talk in the media lately about courage and what that word actually means. When in doubt, I say, the bloggers and Tweeters and news outlets of the world should just consult the dictionary. One definition is simply "bravery," which just about covers all manner of courageous action the media worlds have been hurling at each other.

A discussion of courage is particularly meaningful today, as the 71st anniversary of D-Day. I always imagine those young men, sitting in airplanes and boats, waiting to jump into the air or slosh onto a beach and knowing full well that they or their buddies might not see the dawn of June 7. I wonder if they were terrified, or numb, or excited. I wonder if they thought about their mothers. I wonder if they realized the implications of their actions or were just trying to make it to the next minute.

That, I think we can agree, was courage. But what is significant about courage -- just like love and fear and sadness and joy -- is that it is largely in the eye of the beholder. We can debate endlessly about the courageousness of someone's actions, and whether one person is braver than the next. Yet I think it is far more important to consider what that courageous act meant to the person performing it.

From the outside, you could say that the scale is off, that some things aren't inspirational or note-worthy or impressive or world-changing, but each of us has our own understanding of what we fear and exactly what it takes to look that fear in the eye. Recently, I've been trying to pay attention to the courage around me, and once I began to actively notice, I saw it everywhere.

My first-grader pulled her own teeth. The thought makes me squirm a little, deliberately yanking on something attached (albeit just barely) to my body. But she closed the bathroom door, firmly rejected my offers of help, and pulled until it came out. She was glowing with pride when she emerged, tooth in hand, fear dissolving visibly in the air behind her. It may not seem like much, but she's only seven, and I sure don't think I could have done it.

My brother did stand-up comedy for the first time a few weeks ago. I watched the live feed on my phone and absolutely couldn't believe his courage. I've heard from other funny people that doing stand-up can be frightening, that you're putting your whole self out there to an audience that is inclined to be critical. He did his set, got some little laughs and some big laughs, and left the stage with what can only be described as a strut.

Courage can mean so many things, and I think we need to be careful not to dismiss someone's bravery, especially when we would consider the act at hand to be terribly easy or no big deal. We don't know what's in someone's heart and head. We don't know how long they had to self-talk, or how many times they got to the edge and had to back up again, or what kind of outside support they were getting. I'm certainly guilty of looking sideways at someone's bravery and need to be better at embracing their courage; if they say it took guts, then it did.

I did something recently that took a lot of courage, for me. Although I won't go into the details here, I can say that it was certainly nothing that will inspire world peace or clever memes. But for me, it was a big deal, and I walked a little taller. If we pause and pay attention, we see small and large acts of courage every day. Whether someone is coming out to their family and friends, or starting school again after many years, or speaking in front of a crowd, or applying for a new job, or taking a school bus for the first time, or serving in a war zone, we need to appreciate the hill, or mountain, or Everest, they had to climb to get there.

I just asked my brave little tooth-puller when she thought she was courageous, and she said that she will be when she starts baseball next week. I asked her why, and she said; "Well, I don't know if they're going to throw the ball at me and hit me with it, but I'm just going to get up there and try to hit it anyway." As usual, the seven-year-old is succinct and wise. Here's a boost of confidence to all of us who are going to go up there and try to hit it anyway. May we all be King of the Forest.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I Am From

Yesterday at work, as part of an institutional initiative to strengthen our inclusion and community engagement, I watched a performance about race and identity and the small and large ways we hurt each other. I felt uncomfortable, which was the point. It's so hard for us to see outside of our little circle, to truly walk in someone else's perspective. It's much easier to judge.

I bring this up because the conversation is everywhere, and it often feels destructive and one-sided, as if we were all having an angry justification argument with ourselves. We have difficulty engaging and listening to those who think differently.

But yesterday, something became very clear, and I can't believe I didn't see it before. As a historian, I'm always considering other perspectives and trying to understand people's stories, because I will never meet the people I study. I have to step back and try to see the world through the lens of an immigrant farmer or a radical suffragette or a black man facing Northern segregation.

At one point in the performance, the actors delivered "I Am From" poems, sharing personal details about their own stories as if their background and experiences were geographic locations. I was struck by their perspectives, laid bare with such honesty. We all have a story to tell, and we all want to be heard and acknowledged and respected for that story. And if I can invest time in understanding people long dead, I should also invest time in listening to those sharing the world with me today.

I wrote my own "I Am From" poem, not because my life has been particularly interesting, but because I wanted to see what it would look like. My story doesn't feel very important, nor my impact on the world very meaningful, but that's not the point. If we are to start constructive conversations and replace anger with respect, let's start with what makes us unique, and then listen to how everyone else defines themselves. It's a place to begin, anyway.

I am from love and truthfulness.

I am from motivation, rolled in hard work, dipped in privilege.

I am from Catholic faith, conservative politics, a liberal education, and all the dissonance that creates.

I am from the past, where people I know and people I don’t live as if in Middle-Earth, a place familiar and strange, many languages and traditions existing in fragile alliances that matter more with every person who says it just doesn’t matter anymore.

I am from water, where I can be still and alone beneath and part of something bigger than myself on the surface.

I am from self-loathing and despair that can’t overpower me anymore but sometimes gets close.

I am from motherhood, blue eyes and brown eyes and little hands on my face, babies gone in a whisper while I always wonder if we should have had more.

I am from pride in my country, the granddaughter of those who served on ships and in jungles and at home.

I am from books, worlds that often seem so much better than my own, so I reach for Avonlea on summer mornings and Hogwarts on wintry afternoons and Austenland all other times.

I am from a family that is everything, they who made me and they who I made and he who I cannot live without.

Write one of your own; it's a little therapeutic to lay out the dots that connect you. Keep it to yourself, or better still, share it and then listen with an open heart to someone else's, especially someone not like you. We may still disagree, but at least we can do so in a spirit of wanting to understand. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Into 2015 with Resolve and a Shorter List

Is anybody really good at New Year's resolutions? Every year when January 7 rolls around and I've mangled every single one, I remember that Lent is coming in two months and I have another chance, so I can give up again for a bit. I don't like to fail, but I fail spectacularly at these.

Mostly, I think it's the type of resolutions that I make. Exercise more. Spend less. Volunteer more. Yell less. They're generic and abstract and utterly unattainable when phrased like that.

So I've been rethinking resolutions, with a little help from my mid-30s and from my friend Heidi. My mid-30s have found me college-educated, employed in a job I love, married, mortgaged, and mommy-ed. Last week I found myself in a panic because there was no concrete milestone (that wasn't actually my kids' milestones) in sight except menopause. I've always looked ahead for the next "thing," and suddenly, I have no more "things." Vague "traveling" and "writing my novel" feel slippery and distant. I love my life, but for me, having a defined, achievable goal gives me balance and a tether in this tumultuous world.

And then my friend Heidi, ever the realist, told me that she had a New Year's resolution that was simply to finish "Moby-Dick" within the year. Nothing glamorous or abstract about such a resolution, but also not pressure, no competition, and no guilt. After all, it's just a book.

With these two disparate thoughts clanging around in my head as I sit here, drinking bad champagne and waiting for Chef Matt to come home so we can watch even worse TV, I think I've found a middle ground for 2015. And there are only three. Double-digit resolutions are the expressway to early-January failure.

1. Re-read a couple books from high school that I hated.

There weren't that many that I truly hated, but I can think of a few: "The Scarlet Letter," "The Invisible Man," and "The Old Man and the Sea" are ones that I haven't touched in 17 years. I can't even remember why I hated them, why I feel repulsed every time I see them on a "Greatest Novels Ever That Everyone Who Thinks They're Smart Should Read" list. So it's time for a revisit. I think sometimes we hang on to an opinion for so long that the original motivation for that opinion is completely lost. If it's in our power to do so, rethinking beliefs and ideas that are comfortable and part of us, even if we ultimately come to the same conclusion, is healthy and might make us more willing to hear what others have to say. I'll start with books (probably "The Old Man in the Sea," because Hemingway and I don't see eye-to-eye on anything) and see where that takes me.

2. Write something.

Vague and specific, best of both worlds. I love to write, to twirl the words around my fingers and release them on the page and feel exhilarated when they land in an exact expression of the thoughts in my head. A long time ago, someone told me that a writer is always writing, no matter what they're doing. and it's the truth. I write in my head almost all the time, but rarely does that writing ever end up in black and white. Time and energy: those are my excuses. and they're good ones. But what I've failed to embrace is that the words I write don't have to be brilliant or complete or for anyone but me, and that hesitation has cost me. So this year, I will write. It might be a Word document with a series of one-liners: "Today, I ....." Or it might be this sadly neglected blog. Or it might be one of my actual writing projects that I've crafted in my head over years of sitting in traffic. As the transcendent Maya Angelou said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

3. Model positive self-image.

This one sounds like I pulled it straight from a suggested resolutions list. But it might be the most personal for me, so hear me out. My self-esteem and I are perpetually warring nations. Every time I think we've declared an armistice, it comes back with some mixture of new and old weapons that I just can't defeat. And it leaks out into my work and my health and my relationships, in particular the relationships with my kids. I don't want my kids to see what I see when I look in the mirror.  I want them to look in the mirror and see bright, thoughtful, inquisitive, silly people, but that confidence doesn't all come from within. They see the way I talk about myself and treat myself, and no matter how highly my husband might speak of me in front of them, the poor self-image will always break though, at least a little.

So it's baby steps here. It's saying, "thank you" to a compliment. It's fighting the urge to internally criticize every word I've said in a conversation. It encompasses those usual resolutions of eating better and exercising more, but with a mental component: do it to feel healthy and strong, not just to reach some arbitrary number. It's accepting that I've had four babies and all that comes with that physically. You can tell someone that it doesn't matter, because look at those gorgeous children that you created, but it's sometimes quite another thing to come honestly to terms with the fact that there might be mom jeans in my future. I know this all sounds very recycled; we've heard this a million times before, the person who struggles with nothing original. Maybe, but it's still a struggle. The end goal of all this for me is true, actual belief, which, when projected out at the world and my kids, feels sincere.

The moral of this story, I guess, is that I'm making a resolution to actually make resolutions, to be truthful about what I can accomplish and what needs a little TLC so I can better contribute to the world. A new year always feels a little lighter, as if you've left the cumulative weight of 365 days behind and are forging ahead with determination to be a better version of yourself. And maybe a determination to find better milestones to look forward to than menopause. We are all dreamers on New Year's Eve, right?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Can See the Sunlight Ahead

My children wouldn't have been born.

That's the thought that haunts me when I think about a few terrifying days in the darkest hole of my depression. If I had acted on the notion that the world would be better off without me, the world might have been without me, and without my four beautiful babies. As I listen to their quiet breathing tonight, and as I read the flood of confessions and calls to action following the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, I pray that the other lives teetering on the edge of despair find their way back to solid ground.

Days such as this shock us into movement, and throughout the last 24 hours, people around the world have begged us to seek help and to help others. Inevitably, focus on this issue will fade when the next human tragedy occurs, but I implore you to be vigilant. The dismantling of a human because of depression is not something that can be casually or intermittently patched. It is silent and dark and omnipresent, and to me, it felt like someone dangerous was following me down quiet, black alleys.

I have come out safely on the other side. I still fight some demons, as many of us do, but every single day is no longer a struggle. I have learned to wrestle self-loathing to the ground, to ask for help, and to understand that I am not actually a burden to the world.

But (and here's the really important part that all of us, those who fight depression and those who don't, need to know) I did not do it alone. In college, there were two friends in particular who did not take "I'm fine" for an answer. My family rose up like a great and mighty wall, to offer support and protection at any cost. And my parents, whose fear rattled me, stood armed and ready to combat my depression with love, time, prayer, and listening.

I see my own children, and I worry that hiding in their genetic code is a little of what drove me to desperation. What will be, will be, and no amount of self-love and pride and confidence that I can soak them in will be enough to overwhelm depression, if it appears. I will try to inoculate my kids against it, but must remember that it can hit even those who seem the most collected, the most even. If it comes, I have to unleash the weapons my loved ones used for my sake.

There is much good advice circulating today about preventing suicide and treating depression, and we should sit up and pay attention, and not just for the week or month. We can never know what is inside a person's head, what private struggles cloud their thoughts, but we can be compassionate observers and listeners. I can say with certainty that the road to recovery is difficult, and with equal certainty that each life is worth the effort to listen and love.

Please know that this mountain can be climbed. If you are lost inside your own head, put out your hand to someone on the outside, and they will take it. If you see someone stumbling, even someone who you think is fine or who has overcome in the past, watch for their outstretched hand or just go and take it.

Four little people are on this Earth because I climbed that mountain.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Other Heroes

Let me tell you about my sister. She's younger by two and a half years, loves her job as a veterinary technician, and is a devoted mother to two sweet boys.

At this moment in her life, the thing that is largely defining her existence is one that she inherited through her marriage to her husband, Joe, and one that makes her both proud and scared. She is a military wife, about to bid her deployed soldier farewell.

My sister and I have a lot in common. We are busy working moms, we have similar values, we laugh at many of the same things, we are in secure, loving marriages. And we both have a sense of what it means to struggle with the schedules our husbands' jobs create for us, and the loneliness that battles with pride.

The singularly unique experience of being a military spouse is one that I can't pretend to understand, no matter how much I miss Chef Matt on our long stretches of long days. We all have our private struggles, but I believe that it takes a remarkable sort of woman to be a good military wife.

As the granddaughter of two war veterans and the daughter of an Army brat, I was raised with an understanding and respect for the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. My grandmother, at the end of her honeymoon, watched her new husband leave for Korea. When he returned, he had a son. And so continued their lives through six more children and another war. My grandfather was a patriot and a brave soldier, but so was my grandmother. The sacrifices of soldiers are tremendously important, yet without the equally important sacrifices of their families, it is difficult to keep the world of military active duty in any kind of balance.

As a historian, and a patriot myself, I feel awe and profound appreciation for the men and women that have served since Lexington and Concord. When I learn about the conditions of battlefields and Army camps and trenches and parachuting missions, I can barely believe that so many have answered their country's call. They carry with them their service and the things they have seen, far beyond their active duty. I see my brother-in-law ready to deploy, and I feel that, just as it has been since 1775, our country is in good hands.

But when we think about our soldiers, we cannot forget about those back home. The women and men on the home front kept farms and businesses going, raised children, buried family members, fought to keep from starving, and battled with the fear for their loved ones' fate. I think about the debilitating sadness of a lost husband or father, and the inestimable joy of a safe return. The families are heroes, too.

The next time you see a soldier in uniform, please thank them for their service. No matter what you might think of the military or the war, that is still a soldier who felt driven to serve and protect. But then also send up a prayer or kind thought for that soldier's family. Parents, spouses and children sacrifice and hold life together in a soldier's absence, and though I've never done it, I know that it is difficult and frustrating and unsettling. That family is waking up every morning with one thought in their mind, yet facing a million little things that need to be done. Life goes on, but for the families, it goes on with a temporarily empty chair at the table.

On this Independence Day, I am grateful for my country and its founding principles. I am grateful for our own G.I. Joe, and all the loyal soldiers in our history. And most of all, I am grateful for my sister, and all the other families who have sent their beloveds off to war. We are behind you. You are brave and your soldiers are lucky to have you in their corner.