I loved my mother dearly, we were in some ways soul mates, but in the interests of journalistic objectivity I am obliged to report that at times she could be a real pain in the ass. One of those times was when she would walk around the house with her hand on her back (it was hurting), with a vertical crease between her eyebrows (that meant a migraine), heaving heavy sighs (that meant she was being Taken Advantage Of). She was a True Martyr, and we were all to blame. No amount of compensation could lighten the load. My mother leveraged her martyrdom to the hilt. She got a lot of mileage out of it. It was, in some ways, the most potent form of power she had.
At some point this past weekend, it occurred to me that I was following in her footsteps.
I think it was as I was walking home from the pool, after having asked my husband to drive me (it's half a mile to our house) and having met resistance to this idea ("Can't you walk?"--well, yes, but I'm in flip flops, and its hideously hot...). This was after I had a) mowed the lawn; b) trimmed the hedge; c) swept the driveway; d) put together a meal for seven members of his side of the family; e) arranged three playdates; f) made four trips to the grocery store and g) endured one half-hour meltdown from my high-maintenance 10-year-old when she was prevented from going to the pool right at dinnertime.
I absorbed. I dealt. I refereed. I put everyone's needs ahead of my own....until this epiphany, about five blocks from my house, when I suddenly decided: this sucks. It sucks not just for me--though especially for me--but it also sucks for everybody. What kind of example am I setting here for my daughters--that being a wife and mother means being everybody's Step-n-Fetchit? This is the maternal version of "shufflin' and grinnin'." In fact, if I were a black person, and white people were treating me like this, I would file an employment discrimination claim so fast it'd make your head swim. But no, I am a mom, which means I'm supposed to absorb the shocks. I'm supposed to deal, and look happy doing it. It also puts me in a rotten position in my marriage; it makes me resentful, which makes me distant, which erodes the bond that is marriage. Admittedly, there are short-term pleasures to being a Living Saint. It can be perversely intoxicating---addictive, in fact, which is why so many of us get into the habit. But those pleasures are like benzodiazepines: in the long run, you pay a price. And it's a bitch of a habit to break.
Having decided to do just that, however--break the martyr habit, I mean--I was left with the question of exactly how. For the time being, I sulked. The emotional temperature of our home hovered around -14 degrees Celsius last night. My husband left for work with a cursory goodbye; one of my children left for school in tears. The whole family was out of kilter, and after awhile, when the basic chores were done, I fired off an e-mail to my husband listing my grievances. It was a looooonng list. It was, in many ways, unfair to unload on him all at once, including my feelings about events that took place weeks ago. No doubt there was a better way of going about this, but hey: I'm new to this. I couldn't see any middle ground. It was either unload with a mighty thud or....be a martyr.
I didn't see him until after softball practice tonight. Part of me was bracing myself to hear, "I'm filing divorce papers tomorrow." But no: he said, "You're right. I didn't answer because I have a hard time hearing this, but I know you're right." (Being on the receiving end of an e-mail from me when I am pissed is apparently not for the faint of heart; I write really well when I'm mad.)
This learning to take care of myself is a skill I'm coming late to. I am not good at it; nursing grudges is never good. But at least I can say I'm not nursing them anymore. They're out there, in the open, and now that they are out there in the open they don't look nearly so big. I will, no doubt, screw this up again sometime, but at least by making a note of this I will have some reference point--some way of saying, "You know, standing up for yourself is a good thing." And no, my husband is not henpecked or pussy-whipped or any of those other unflattering terms men apply to these things; he's my partner again. I'm not Harriet and he's not Ozzie and we are a lot better off being who we really are. I only wish I'd done it sooner. I wish I'd learned how to do this from my mother; I wish she'd known how to teach me. But we learn what we can, when we can, and do the best that flawed humans can do. And that's enough, because it has to be.