Katryna reminded me that we all had great posture when we were kids. Her eight-year old daughter holds herself beautifully, as did I when I was a young one. Our aunt Sarah, a musician who studied the Alexander Technique, used to comment all the time on how straight I used to sit, how well I rode a merry-go-round horse. So this ability to carry ourselves naturally and well is our birthright. How do we find it again?
Yesterday my back hurt so much that I paid a lot of attention to it and corrected my posture every three minutes, did yoga twists, engaged my abs, was basically a model back citizen. The night before last, even with two Advil, it kept me awake, and I lay supine, asking myself, “What IS that crinkly crunchy stuff in my muscles? What is it made of, anyway?” When I did shoulder rolls it sounded like popcorn popping, or those plastic bubbles they used to use for wrapping and packing delicate items that kids everywhere love to pop. Today, it feels better and I am tempted to ignore it as usual. Fortunately, I have made it (my back) the centerpiece for my blog for the next month and so I have to stay focused on it. I just don’t know how much I’m going to have to say about it, though. You might say I’ve backed myself into a corner, har har.
But seriously, it’s gotten me to thinking about congenital weaknesses of the spiritual/emotional kind as well as of the physical kind. Seeing that I have had a lifelong weakness in my upper body, and fingering that as the culprit behind my chronic upper-back pain has been extremely helpful. It just means, from a practical perspective, that if I want to be pain-free, I need to do certain things everyday: these easy exercises and an overall attitude of mindfulness (which it would behoove me to maintain in any case). I know from experience that when I did my seven-minute Pilates routine in the morning, I was able to help load in and load out my rock band’s multiple amps, guitars, bass drums, etc. every night before and after a performance without injuring my lower back (and when I didn’t do my seven-minute routine, I always felt it there the next day.)
The emotional weakness is slimier, of course. But I am getting incrementally better at observing my weak spots. Here is one.
Tom and I had date night last night. Date night has become non-negotiable, budgeted into our lives in terms of time, money, calories as well as babysitting capital. (Babysitting capital is a complicated equation that involves not only the money spent on the sitter but also the limited amount of time the parent can get away with leaving her children with a non-parent.) It was a beautiful evening, just cool enough so that when Tom offered me his windbreaker, I felt grateful for his chivalry. But that didn’t stop me from tripping into one of our habitual areas of discord. We spent the first half of the dinner dueling about who was more tired, who had it worse, who had done more parenting lately, who had neglected to wipe off the counter that might or might not contain vestiges of rat poop. I am about to leave for the weekend for gigs in Framingham and I am bringing both kids with me. Doing this requires a lot of planning, foresight, remembering to bring Pillowface, making a run to the co-op for jars of babyfood unless I can get it together to boil some peas and carrots and mash them in time to leave. And it requires me to ask others for help (which I hate to do), namely my sisters and a babysitter I’ve only met once, and Elle who might have to be convinced to go along with the program at some point. From my point of view, bringing my kids to our gigs makes the experiences of performing and parenting exponentially more difficult than either would be by itself, and so activities that deplete me anyway completely knock me out by the time I get home, and all three of us need a couple of days minimum to recover. But instead of explaining all this to Tom, I just said, “I think this is the last weekend I’m bringing the kids with me. From now on, I am going to pump a lot of milk and leave them with you.”
“Whoa,” said Tom opening his eyes up extra wide and taking a swig of his water, which I am sure he wished were a Pale Oak. “Can we just enjoy our date please and not get into that now?”
My eyes narrowed and I sat back and stewed silently and passive-aggressively, an activity at which I excel. Tom went on to point out that this would represent a huge change in the way we handled child care, that he had agreed to my taking gigs based on the understanding that I would often take the kids, that from now on we would have to negotiate every single gig before I could say yes, and also that he knew he was being extreme, but that’s what I get for bringing up a touchy subject when he was at the end of a long day and we were supposed to be relaxing and enjoying each other.
Our dinner arrived without silverware, and I stood up to fetch us some. For some reason the men at the table next to us asked me to get them silverware also. This was good, because it broke the spell, and it’s actually a couples therapy technique I was taught as part of my life-coach training: when you are in the middle of a habitual argument, do something––anything––differently from what you normally do. In my case, I prayed like hell and gave myself a little talking to. “Okay, Nerissa, here you are in that place that you hate. You want Tom to give you credit for working your ass off and being a great mom and also earning money for the family, and you think he’s not doing that right now. You think you will die if you don’t make him see your point of view and treat you better. You are not seeing how burned out he is, which he must be. Why don’t you try not arguing and not stewing but acting as if you love him?”
I handed our neighbors their silverware and some napkins and one of them joked, “I can’t believe I just asked a mother to get me something. How awful. And it’s almost Mother’s Day.”
Tom must have breathed and taken a broader view too, because when I returned he was not so polarized. In fact, we were able to talk about the other incredibly helpful tip about couples work that I learned: whenever you find yourself in an argument, recognize that there is a little part of each of you that actually wants what the other person wants. In this case, there is a part of me (not so little) that wants to bring the kids with me to all my gigs. And there is a part of Tom (also not so little) that wants the kids to stay home with him. When we can acknowledge this, the fight gets diffused and, like my tight shoulders, that crinkly stuff gets massaged a bit; air and space can infuse the area and the pain lessens.
“The truth is,” I said. “That we both don’t like it when one of us goes away.”
“Because it is so much fun to parent with you,” Tom said, leaning forward and looking at me squarely. “The other night when we were just hanging around and strolling around the neighborhood on a sweet spring night? That was just the best.”
“I hate that I am going away tomorrow,” I admitted. “I know I am going to love the gigs, and I am going to love being with my sisters, but I am really going to miss you.”
“Really?” Tom said.
I laughed. “We go through this every time! Yes! I am going to miss you!”
He does need to be reminded of this, as if, again like my congenital weak upper-body and the push-ups I need to do daily to strengthen it, if we don’t exercise this part of ourselves––our mutual reassurance of our love and devotion in the face of outside interests, like vocations and other family members––it stops doing its job. Use it or lose it.
The rest of the dinner was the kind of restorative situation that gives date night a good name. Arms around each other, we strolled through our little town, saying hi to acquaintances and remembering that we have a bond that precedes our parenthood. We arrived home to the babysitter holding Jay and watching Elle as she rode her new little bike up and down the walkway. Tom led Elle around the block while I took the baby and nursed him on the couch on the porch. I spied a robin red-breast on the branch of our maple tree. She looked straight at me, unmoving, and I wondered at what point of her nest-building process she was in. Had she finished, and was just taking a moment to survey the neighborhood? Had she not even started yet? Or was she taking a break in the middle of her labor of carrying twigs or hunting for worms for her babies? I won’t ever know, but in that moment, my own little one snug in the crook of my arm, I winked at her.