I put my 5th grader on a school bus this week for the first time. It’s not much to parents who have been doing this since day one, but I worked from home for many years. I felt like taking her to school was an opportunity. I got to know other parents and the school environment. Some of our best mother-daughter talks happened in the car and I was loathe to give it up. But for the sake of her growing independence, give it up I did.
Six months ago, I quit working for the company I’d worked for off and on for 13 years and I stopped training in Taekwondo. A stress fracture ended running workouts four months ago. Two weeks ago, I stepped down as the president of the parent-teacher organization. This week I stopped driving my daughter to school. Today I’m stepping off the National Novel Writing Month ride.
A friend likened my experience to diagnosing food allergies. You delete all possible offending foods from your diet and slowly add them back in, one at a time, to see what causes a reaction. I’ve removed many defining features of my daily life. The parameters have expanded and the responsibility lies with me to shape my days.
All this effort to change my life is an effort to sit with emptiness. And there’s an echo now. Busy is no longer an adjective I can use. I believe living slowly is important. Sitting still has value. But I’m fighting years of indoctrination. You must be busy. You must be useful. You must not be seen to be a layabout. If you do something, go all the way. Work is purpose.
I’ve worked hard at everything my whole life. I never sat still for long. I am nothing without my effort, my discipline, my drive to do my best at anything. This is a blessing and a curse. It has made me a responsible, conscientious and reliable parent, employee, wife, daughter-in-law, volunteer and friend. It has also made me impatient, irritable, moody and fatigued.
My friends and family keep making sly asides. “You’ll fill up the time with something else.” I started NaNoWriMo thinking that, since I’d quit everything else, time was my oyster. It took me about a week to start resenting the pressure. I’ve hated every sentence and I am not enjoying this process. It became that something else to fill my time.
I’ve gone through my life to this point, like most people, rather haphazardly. I survived a rough and tumble childhood, joined the Army, went to college, got a degree and worked, worked, worked. Most big decisions got made with a youthful shoulder shrug. What have I got to lose? I moved, quit jobs, took up a variety of ill-thought out relationships, ran up bills, dug myself out of debt, married, had a child, tried new hobbies and interests.
It seems different now. I’m irrelevant to the young, a caregiver to the old. I’m wiser, but not inherently smarter. Life is swirling and changing around me, but I feel frozen to this moment, disconnected from the lives around me. As an older parent than most of my peers, my fears for my child are darker. I don’t care about what school she gets into, I just want her to live long enough to experience it. I want to live long enough to experience it.
I’ve been immersed in senior care issues all week and my shoulders and neck tighten at the thought that, if I am lucky, I will be there in the next few decades, hoping that my caregivers are kind and patient and that I won’t have to be afraid.
I am still working. My sandwich generation schtick puts me hollering at my daughter to get ready for school in the morning and helping my mother-in-law dress for her day after the bus leaves. Walking the line between burgeoning independence and regretful dependence, I feel like I’m in a canyon where my needs seem murky at best. Food and water and maybe a walk in the park is the best I can manage until I can get my head sorted.
As an adolescent, I lived in a gutted school bus for six months. You can imagine how very wealthy I feel now, living in my little suburban ranch house with a yard and a lovely family. This is how I feel about time, as I watch my daughter and mother-in-law grow older in tandem. I have the good fortune of being done with the awkward, sometimes painful lessons of youth and am healthy enough to still move on my own steam.
The fears I have now are the ones with which I sit in an increasingly empty room. I smile wryly at the thought that I’ve come round to full navel-gazing when that seems to be the cultural trend. Perhaps I’m more hip than I think. The recurring thought is washing over me: Don’t mess this up. Freedom of choice means the freedom to write a better story. Word count is irrelevant.