Sunday, May 26, 2013

Compartmentalization: An Effective Coping Mechanism

I am perpetually behind. It's just a fact of my existence as a full-time single mother with no built-in support network. A given. A fait accompli . . . or, as it were, a fait inaccompli.

Playing catchup in so many areas of my life both large and small could make me crazy. Indeed, it has felt like it would countless times in the near-decade that I've been a full-time single mother. The pressure from too many responsibilities and the frustration from things not going right build, and I sense that I'm going to explode.

But something has happened to me recently to alter that. I hesitate to call it a permanent change or one I can successfully bring about in every circumstance when it would be useful. But it is a change I am very happy with, and it seems to have rewired my brain. Gasp. Did I just say that? First, a disclaimer. I did not grow up a medically- or psychologically-oriented person. Quite the opposite: I was raised in Christian Science. However, I have always been highly observant and self-aware, even more so since seeking psychotherapy following my mother's passing. Not to mention that figuring out how to deal with my complex present life without going out of my mind has been Job No. 1 for a very long time. So while my brain "rewiring" may not be exactly medical, it sure feels that way to me because it represents such a welcome departure from the way I have handled responsibility overload in the past.

What change am I talking about? Compartmentalization. I've learned how to compartmentalize.

I can now separate issues in my mind without the sum total of them steamrolling me. I've learned how to address one issue at a time, put it down (or back in its "compartment"), then pick up another. I am making progress on many of them, though it is slow and perhaps not even noticeable. But I reassure myself that the progress is there, and I am taking the right course of action.

Growing up, I took the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was a worrier. A serious worrier. I worried about my parents arguing. I worried about taking tests, writing papers, winning tennis matches, getting through swim-team practice, and remembering my lines in plays. I worried about talking to boys and friends liking me. As if that wasn't enough, I also worried about many things a child shouldn't have to worry about such as the financial condition of my family after my father would hit the roof over mundane expenses or a piddling motel bill. (They were piddling in the '70s.) I worried about a plethora of issues. And, of course, I worried about my father's hair-trigger temper as well.

Not surprisingly, I was a horrible sleeper, an insomniac. I felt rested one day in about every nine. I kid you not. Hard to believe, but my father was an even worse sleeper than me. He had undiagnosed sleep apnea, I'm convinced. I came to this conclusion after researching and writing a story on the condition for a daily newspaper I worked for many years ago. Unfortunately, my father died not long before my assignment, so my findings came too late to help him.

Thankfully, I am no longer the same kind of worrier or sleeper. My transition began after my mother died in early '95. It was an issue of learning to relax -- transforming my whole being by silencing her "do's" and "don'ts" and "why aren't you this's?" and "when are you that's?" When someone with a dominant personality has been in your daily life for a very long time, his or her absence through death doesn't automatically remove that person's words or tone of voice from your head. But they do fade over time and so does the power they long held over you. When that eventually happened for me, I was finally able to sleep better than ever before and help myself in countless other ways that opened a door to a much-improved me.

My psychotherapist in Seattle -- I moved there after my mother's death -- referred to my then-new adult-orphan state as "a second chance at life." In all honesty, I couldn't disagree.

Taken to the extreme, compartmentalization can be highly detrimental. It could be employed as a tactic to deny, avoid, or erase one's feelings to the point at which they one day explode out of their "compartments." But, if used judiciously as a coping mechanism, compartmentalization can be very effective in helping one manage simultaneous tasks, emotions, and even crises without going off the rails.

Personally, I think it has to be one of the greatest skills a mother can have. It's right up there in my book with multitasking. Mothers learn to become adept at doing many things at once, and compartmentalization helps them prioritize their duties along with set aside the emotions associated with each that would otherwise detract from their ability to carry out said duties. In other words, it's how you can get the kids off to school, do the laundry, shop for groceries, clean the house, perform your job, and host a party with your marriage in crisis and your elderly parent in the hospital with a stroke. You must multitask to maintain your daily routine for your family. Yet you must also keep your inner self together. The two go hand in hand.

Recently, someone on a single-mothers Facebook page I'm on asked the group: "What characteristic do you have that has surprised you most since being a mom?" As one of the women with the oldest children, I wanted to give a very specific answer. I wrote, "The ability to bounce back from extreme sleep deprivation and years of chronic fatigue syndrome." Not fully satisfied with my reply, I then added: "Also the ability to compartmentalize."

If you are a full-time single mother like me, learning to compartmentalize is essential because your job of 24/7 caregiving is/can be (depending on your level of free help and/or finances) overwhelming. So many balls are in the air at once all the time. It is difficult to keep everything on track and when you can't -- hate to break it to you, but it's inevitable -- you need to be able to (for the most part) keep your cool and carry on. You can't fall apart, and you can't quit. There is a time and mental place for everything in your mind. The challenge is to keep the various aspects of your life, duties that you juggle, and emotions that surface separate in your thinking. Approach them one at a time, and try not to stress out over the big picture. It can be very daunting, so look at it in parts.

Easier said than done, I know. Oh, boy, don't I know! 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Being Game

When you are a single mother by choice, you do the work of both a mother and father. You wear two hats, and you are keenly aware of it every single day. If you weren't already familiar with your strengths and weaknesses, full-time single motherhood will rapidly make them very apparent to you. I guarantee it!

I have many failings when it comes to performing this gargantuan two-headed job: I am woefully not domestic, and I am also not mechanical. And that's just for starters. So please don't ask me to bake an apple pie or put together Ikea furniture. (For the record, I have done the latter, but that was during a period in my life when I had a great deal of time, patience, and no distractions from children.)

However, one characteristic I do have as a parent and that I am quite proud of is "being game." I think of it as being adventurous, fun, or a little crazy or quirky in a good way. It's a quality that doesn't get discussed much in SMC circles, but I think it should be. Much more attention is paid to such practical subjects as financial stability, nurturing issues, the daddy question, support-network relationships, etc. and rightfully so.

But I feel that if a woman is going to choose to have a child or children on her own, she also ought to make an attempt to provide a happy experience for them beyond the "routine." Routine, in this case, I mean as the status quo of childhood leisure time -- sports clinics, teams, lessons; Disney vacations; beach visits; and the like. All of these non-school activities are fantastic for the child. Don't get me wrong. My boys have partaken in them for years -- with the exception of Disneyworld, which we still haven't visited.

In a traditional family, often one parent is more game than the other, and that is okay. The pressure is off the less game parent because the more game parent can pick up the slack. As a result, the child or children of this couple benefit because they do have a game parent. However, when there is just one parent in the family, the onus is on that one parent to be game because she or he doesn't have a partner who can provide that quality to the offspring.

I try to be game, but I find it fairly easy to be game because I already am game. Granted, not all the time and not in every circumstance. For example, I am not game to voluntarily drive a long distance through a snowstorm -- even to go skiing, which I love. I am not game to allow one son to take sailing lessons before I feel comfortable with his swimming ability. And I am not game (at least for now) to give my other son live chickens for Christmas. In these instances, issues of safety, responsibility overload, and/or cost take precedence.

Exactly what do I mean by being game? Being game can take many forms. As an example, this week I entered my first-ever eating contest. Yes, you read that right. Eating contest! What on earth possessed me to do such an odd thing? You must wonder. Did I think I was Takeru Kobayashi downing hot dogs on Coney Island? Hardly! This just seemed like a wild thing to do. It's called "Walk the Plank," aka The Captain Hook's Pizza Challenge. A pizza place we love in a neighboring community would award a tee shirt and free large pizza with three toppings to anyone who could eat said pizza in thirty minutes flat.

Game on!

Did I believe I could accomplish it? No, but I was game to try. I don't binge eat, and I don't pick at my food either. I have a healthy appetite. Still, I could only stomach one quarter of the pie. Lettuce and extra tomato sauce were good choices for toppings, but extra cheese most certainly was not, I quickly discovered. Too heavy and too filling!

My boys were amused to watch and content to be eating their own small pepperoni pizza at another table (because there wasn't room at mine). At one point, I had an audience of about eight people including two ladies who delayed their return trip home to Ossipee, NH, to see if I could succeed. 

My timekeeper -- a cheerful, bespectacled restaurant employee named Al -- called my attempt "valiant." I'll take it! Only two other people (teenage boys) had entered the contest, and they both quit after consuming half a pizza. I was glad I gave it a shot, even after learning the next day that I'd put on almost two and a half pounds for the week. (For the record, I don't believe all of it was pizza weight, but some of it definitely was!)

But the point is: I was willing to go outside my comfort zone and possibly (or probably) look foolish just to have a good time. My sons got a kick out of it -- my large, football-playing third grader wants to make his own attempt -- and we made a goofy memory together that we will recall years in the future. I can just hear my sons now: "Mom, do you remember the time you tried to eat a giant lettuce-covered pizza all by yourself? That was so funny!"

Being game can also mean agreeing to camp with the kids in the backyard, allowing a group of teenage boys to partially bury a willing younger son in the sand under a mom's watchful eye, taking an older son down an expert ski slope when he is ready and the snow is just right, etc.

It's about being up for the unexpected, being spontaneous, being in the moment, and being open to new and offbeat experiences. As a parent, I personally think it's the only way to be because it models for the child an approach to life that is fun, positive, and adaptable to the circumstances. The alternative is, well, being an old fuddy-duddy.

And who wants to be that?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Hitting the Deer

You've heard of "hitting the wall," the point of complete exhaustion. Unfortunately, I've used that cliche far too often the past nearly ten years of full-time single motherhood. As of today, however, I have a new stock phrase to call upon to describe the same condition though, if possible, a more severe version because it suggests a fatigue so incapacitating that one cannot even avoid striking a living creature while driving down the road! When you hear someone say "I hit the wall," you think to yourself I hear you, I know what you mean, I've been there. But when you hear someone say "I hit the deer," you really pay attention. "You WHAT? You hit a deer? You actually hit a real deer? Oh, my God! Are you okay? Is the deer okay? Is your car okay? That's really scary!"

No kidding. It IS really scary. I know because it happened to me today. (FYI, I am okay. The deer appeared to be okay as it continued bounding toward the woods with its companion. And my car also seems to be okay.) First off, the accident was completely unavoidable, and it ended in the best result possible given the circumstances. Here's what happened: I was driving the speed limit from my town to the neighboring town when two deer leapt into my path at a bend in the road. I had a split second to brake, if that. Swerving would have been extremely dangerous and surely would have resulted in striking the first and larger animal broadside or going off the narrow road. I did not consider turning the wheel in that brief moment. Thank God no one was coming in the opposite direction or we would have wound up in a two-car/two-deer pileup! I could have been killed. As it was, I just clipped the backside of the second deer. If I'd had more distance between my vehicle and the animals, both deer would have cleared my front end. Unfortunately, they were just too close to me.

Though not at fault, I feel that hitting the deer was truly the culmination of a spate of unpleasant events that have plagued me for a while now. In other words, it is an apt metaphor for where things have been heading. They have been escalating, and not in a good way. I'm referring to a child's behavior, the condition of our home, and my financial situation among other aspects of my unpaid job singlehandedly managing this household of three. But many other unusual and undesirable events have also been happening since the beginning of the year. In no particular order, they include incurring nearly $3,000 worth of automotive repairs and car-rental fees, running out of gas on the highway, losing heat in my home during Nemo, forgetting my wallet at Staples (resulting in an hour-long anxiety attack and missed Easter egg hunt), losing two different earrings two days in a row, being put on Facebook probation for sending too many friend requests, and dropping my iPad on the pavement before stepping back onto it. Plenty more oddball occurrences have befallen me recently. These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head!

Why does this keep happening? For one, I am a person who seems to be a magnet for drama. It has pretty much always been this way. However, it has intensified considerably since becoming a full-time single mother and has grown even more pronounced of late to the point at which if someone had asked me if I thought I might hit a deer today, I would have laughed wryly and answered "YES!" -- as unlikely as that scenario would have been and considering the fact that I had never hit a deer before in my entire life.

Yeah. It has gotten that bad.

Motherhood can be grueling, and if you don't have a spouse or partner assisting you (and providing a second income!) or a support network of family or friends -- even just a few or one reliable person -- willing and able to give you free help when you need it, then 24/7 single motherhood IS grueling. Period. (Of course, if you have loads of money to hire substantial at-home help, then all bets are off. You are the apple to everyone else's orange. Lucky you!)

The single-mother experience ebbs and flows, though for me personally I am still waiting for the flow. For most of the past nearly ten years of it, I have fallen into the former category. Since I have lived in my present community twice as long as my previous two, I have had an easier time finding people to pitch in the past few years. I have made better friends here. Still, I really don't like to ask for help (who does?), and I try not to do it if at all possible.

Single motherhood is very intense for me just about every single day. My boys are in elementary school -- third and first grades -- so my reality is homework, school projects, field trips, evening programs, sports teams, martial arts, playdates, sleepovers (for the uninformed, seven year olds do have sleepovers), birthday parties, and more. As if that's not enough, throw in acting opportunities separate from school and many miles away (even out of state) and multi-day camping trips all over New England, and you have a pretty good idea what we are up to year-round. The schedule is full. Scratch that, overloaded. And it is nearly always about my sons. (Note to self: see if you can tweak that a bit.)

But while I am the facilitator of all of the activities -- the person who finds them, registers for them, pays for them, buys the uniforms for them, keeps track of the schedules for them, drives my sons to them, watches them, sometimes helps at them, and prepares my boys for them (playing catch, choreographing a piece, reviewing spelling, correcting homework, etc.) -- I also have to fit in my own life: teaching, getting ready for class, critiquing student work, blogging every ten days, accepting an occasional extra job or focus-group opportunity for spare cash, and submitting query letters and manuscripts and more to agents and editors in an ongoing effort to get my book-length memoir published. Yowza! Of course, there's also washing laundry, putting it away, buying groceries, making meals, packing lunches or lunch money, picking up the house, teaching right from wrong, comforting and disciplining, taking my children to dentist and other appointments, and on and on.

It is an endless list and the reason why being a mother is the hardest job in the world. Given this backdrop, it is crucial for mothers of all stripes and especially single mothers to apply the brakes once in a while so as not to "hit the deer."

Go out to a matinee. Have lunch with a friend. Walk on a beach. Have a massage. Take yoga. Wolf down a decadent dessert. Leave on a girls' weekend away and do karaoke in the local bar. If it feels good, makes you happy, relaxes you, or provides a brief escape from your daily pressures, then by all means indulge yourself. Do it as much as you can.

If you don't practice self-care at least once in a while, you will go "crazy." Maybe not in the clinical sense (though maybe you will) but surely in the teetering-on-the-edge sense. The mother, particularly the one without a partner or other free help, will feel like she is living inside a pressure cooker or vise with pressure bearing down on her from all sides. It makes her depleted, irritable, and unable to tolerate anything else thrown her way such as a flat tire, missing car keys, or petulant child. Her sense of calm and equilibrium will be replaced by excessive anxiety, imbalance, and a disordered mind. Regretfully, I know this state intimately. Take my word for it: it is horrible to experience.

Don't let yourself get to the point of hitting the deer. Carve out break times to give you pleasure and find moments of peace so you can manage to keep the crazy away . . . or at least at bay.