I came home from work the other day to find Rose sick and tucked up on the couch under a blanket. I washed some dishes and made dinner, which is always a bit tough when I’ve been away all day because Poppy is so sad that I’m home but still trying to do other things. I nursed and cuddled first, and played and sang to her while cooking but after awhile it wasn’t enough and she was crying holding onto my leg. Rose got up and tickle-chased her around the house. My home rings with baby giggles and whoops of delight and I feel like my heart is going to burst.
It’s been one hell of an adjustment, this year. Brilliant, but huge changes and new skills needed. I had a great conversation with my shrink my other day who helped me get out of a hyper-critical mindset I’ve been stuck in and my heart is so much lighter.
Rose and I have been hurting, feeling like however much we love each other, our relationship was withering. A desert was opening up between us. We moved between talking about love and marriage and having more children, and wondering if we might break up and fall apart, bewildered by how our relationship has changed so much in such a short time. And under everything else has been a kind of fury in me, killing every living thing around me. Every day a few more trees dead and the desert a little bigger.
Fear will do that to do you. I want to be good enough. I want to keep my job. I want to get my family out of poverty and cramped public housing. I want to raise my girls well. When I’m terrified I’m not good enough, when I feel like I’m straining under a load too heavy to carry, when I’m giving everything and it’s still not right then terror has teeth in my soul and a kind of violent frenzy grips me. I try to succeed through criticism, motivate myself through brutality. Every imperfection is magnified and my campaign of self improvement is bloody. Every error I make – or Rose makes – must be corrected immediately or we will live like this for the rest of our lives. There’s no time to learn, no space for growing and talking over and trying again. Gone is the beautiful ‘muddling’ of our pre-parenting days. The stakes are high and perfection is the baseline of acceptable.
We tear apart. Even when I bite down all the harsh words and speak none of them, my rage boils just beneath my skin and we can both feel it. I burn like a nuclear bomb and the fallout is soft, silent, deadly, and widespread.
We talk bewildered. Why? What’s happened? I used to be kind, now I’m scary. The word abusive is brought into view and something in me drowns in tears and despair. It’s true. How did this happen? Why am I like this? How do I stop? What’s happened to me, to us? I used to be her safe place. I hate myself. I cut deep into my own heart, looking for the cancer. Trying to be better. Imsorryimsorryimsorryilltrytobebetter. Self hate and rage and terror add intensity. She has nightmares of me. The desert just keeps growing.
Stop and look at what you’ve achieved, says the shrink. Tell me about your skills and success and accomplishments. Vividly. Feel them, in your heart, in your body. Embody them. Bring them from head knowledge into the rest of you. Every time the criticism, anxiety, or despair comes. Remember your successes. Be kind to yourself and to her. Go back to your healing roots. Get away from delusional self improvement, terror of failure, and brutal perfectionism.
I come home and we sigh with relief, hold each other tight. The war moves away, out of my skin and bones. No more nuclear winter. The rage leaves like a bad memory of a dream I once had. We touch again, unthinkingly, lightly, like leaves falling. We kiss. When she’s hurting I feel only compassion. I can see how hard she’s trying and how battered her heart is. Her brilliance begins to shine again. She can think more clearly around me, show her strengths better, be more competent. I can see how skilled she is, how amazing she is. I fall for her all over again, her eyes like hazelnuts and green pine bark, her hair a halo of curls. She crawls off the couch and chases Poppy around the house, who squeals with delight. The forest fire stops raging and I become a small fire in a hearth once again, bright and warm and safe to be close to. Banked against the cold night and able to roar if needed, but not burning down the house.
Life becomes a joy again. There’s pain around me, confusion, darkness, death. But a relief bubbles up through it all. She’s my Rose again and I’m worthy of her trust again. She lights down in my heart like a bird nesting. My demons murmur but they don’t run the parliament. The darkness is there between the stars in our eyes, the taste of death and blood. Our hopes like ships upon the waters. The smell of our baby in my arms, milky kisses on my cheek and the quiet steady ache of my arms to have her in them. Finding my way back to connection for each of my precious family. Remembering laughter is what makes the night shorter and less savage.
And I’m blemished but no longer the snake in our nest. The knife in my smile is sheathed. She doesn’t flinch when I walk near, my beautiful love, my beloved. In her bad dreams she stirs and I wake. She reaches for me in her sleep, fingers tangled into fingers. My heart croons peace to hers like a dove. The joy in my world is like the moon rising. She rests her head against my heart. She rests her heart within my arms. I’m hers again. I’m hers.