Archive for December, 2010


December 21, 2010

“You’re not used to asking for help,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.  “No.  I know how to get things done.  I know how to figure stuff out.”

For most of my life, and in most areas of my life, this has been true.  I figured out how to get into the schools I wanted to attend.  I figured out how to get the grades I wanted to achieve.   I figured out how to get the jobs I wanted.  I figured out how to take care of babies, plan a wedding, plan a divorce, buy and sell a home…

Sure, with each of those steps, there were people who helped, but only after I’d advanced the ball pretty far on my own.  These were people who provided second opinions, confirming what I’d already figured out. 

Not only am I not used to asking for help, I’m not used to needing it.  And I was angry at him for discovering my secret.

This isn’t about Superwoman complexes.  It may be, but that’s not my focus.   I’m not talking about mythical heroines and long-standing pathologies affecting Black women collectively.

I’m talking about me.  And my Mom.  Because everything always comes back around to her.

I learned the gift and the curse of being self-sufficient from my mother.  She had to learn early how to take care of a family, after her mother died in childbirth when she was only 13.  The baby died not too long after.  My mother styled her dead baby sister’s hair for her funeral.

My mother was the second oldest of her siblings.   Her oldest sister was crippled with arthritis from a very early age, so my mother functioned as the oldest.  She cooked, sewed, cleaned, cared for younger siblings, worked the fields, dealt with chickens and cows and hogs on the family farm, and still went to school. 

And she became very efficient.  Efficient at doing and not feeling.  Or, at least, pretending not to feel.  My mother held grudges past two and three lifetimes, yet was the stoic at funerals who never shed a tear.  She was a master of the cutting remark, uttered without remorse.  Anger was an acceptable emotion to express; love, less so.

I was her sensitive, emotional sixth child.  I felt like I made no sense to her.  She made sense to me, though.  I admired how she was always working.  Mama got shit done.  She did not play.

I learned how to get shit done, too.  I was the model student, the proud overachiever.

But I also was a daydreamer.  I made up stories in my head.  I wanted to play, joke, laugh.  I grew up in the wrong house for that.  Jokes, when told, were at someone else’s expense.  Or were snarky, biting, sarcastic.

I adapted.

We weren’t a close family.  We weren’t an “I love you” family.  We were people who worked our asses off, even if we were just working to support the habits we adopted to suppress the emotions we were uncomfortable expressing.

We were all so smart.  So tough.  So invulnerable.  And therefore, so vulnerable.

So there I was, standing before a man I barely knew, who had ferreted out that soft, weak, vulnerable side of me, and was throwing it back in my face.  He wasn’t,  of course, but that’s how it felt.  I was fully clothed, but felt stripped naked and bare before this man, a stranger, someone I barely know.  But someone who wasn’t buying the official, prepackaged Carolyn.  Someone who insisted I drop the façade and get real.

I was furious.

And he backed off.  Reluctantly, I could tell, but necessarily.  I was shutting down.  

He backed off, but he left me feeling a complete mess.

There is nothing I hate worse than feeling out of control.

My therapist told me I have to unlearn the lessons of my mother in order to move forward.  But how do I do that?  How do you unlearn the influence of the most powerful and dominant figure in your life?  Your exemplar of strength, the person you ran to when you were crumbling and alone and afraid, who knew how–when it mattered most–to love without judgment or pity or irony,  even if, for most of our lives together, the words “I love you,” were too difficult to express? 

How do you unlearn how to be like the one person you spent your life wanting to be more like than anyone else who ever lived?

How do I unlearn how to be like my mother?  And why would I ever want to?

My mother, of course, knew her time was drawing near well before any of her children did.  She used to say to us, “Now, I don’t want all that crying and carrying on at my funeral.”  It became a running joke.  We were like, Mom, if there’s one thing you don’t get to control, it’s that.

Except maybe she did.  Unintentionally, my grieving process for my mother has felt very packaged.  There was a grieving period.  There have been those odd moments when I thought of something she did or said, and a tear or two leaked out the corner of my eye: like now, as I type this post. 

There hasn’t been the full-on breakdown, letting go, letting it go.

Letting her go.


I told my therapist my life feels like a 2000-piece puzzle that someone dumped out and took away the box lid, so I have no idea what the pieces are supposed to look like anymore.  I’ve said my life feels like I was driving along a highway, but when Mom died, someone came along and took away all the road signs, so I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going.

I’ve said lots of things to try to capture this, but none of them have gotten me back to a place where I feel like I can navigate.  And yet I must, because that’s how life works.  I still have a kid with ADHD who needs managing and monitoring.  I still have a brilliant, oppositional, defiant daughter who needs managing and monitoring.  I still have an ex, now a co-parent, who frequently needs managing and monitoring.  The skills I learned from my mother have held me in good stead in all the managing and monitoring of everyone except me.

And what about me?  I think I’ve accepted that I’m going to be a bit of a mess for a bit longer.  I think I’ve accepted that I do need help.  I need help.  Not mental health help, which I’m getting.  Help in figuring out that puzzle, those road signs.  Help in getting myself on the path and driving the car straight. 

I’m not Superwoman.  Never wanted to be.  I am soft and vulnerable, AND I’m tough and capable.  I’m all of it.  I’m strong, and I need help.

I’m lost.  I’m lost.  I’m lost.  But it’s ok to be lost sometimes.