For Halloween this year, Saoirse dressed as a flapper. Ula dressed up as a vampiress from Venice. I went as Frantic Mother. I’ve worn that costume for over a decade now. But this was the first year I actually realized I was clothed in it.
It was early October when I finally started to figure it out. Bob was housesitting for my parents while they were on vacation. The girls and I were babysitting my niece and nephew. And in my week of single parenting, it seemed I’d done nothing but fully immerse myself in my role as Frantic Mother and scream at my children, holding my iPhone in my hand with the timer set. “We have 30 minutes to get our math done! We have 18 minutes to eat before we have to leave for Ula’s OT session! We have 21 minutes before we have to be in the car to pick up your cousins….Pick up your underwear! Clear the table! Don’t make me ask you again to clean up your desk! Why can’t I get any help in the kitchen? Am I the cook and the waitress and the bus boy?“
Of course, in a family business, Frantic Mother plays on a much larger stage than just the home kitchen. She struts and frets before her parents, showing her wild-eyed fury as she’s asked to return a phone call, schedule a meat pick-up, arrange the processing schedule, assist a customer. She hisses at her husband as she works to balance the books and pay the bills. She dons an aura of frenzy that she wears about in the community, her ready defense lest a friend or a neighbor ask her to do one friggen thing more.
Frantic Mother is more than just a simple costume. It is an all-out act that must be performed from the inside-out. Heck. It’s a form of armor. In order to be truly convincing, Frantic Mother must believe in her role, experiencing it deep within her body. She has to feel it in the clench of her stomach muscles, the tightness of her shoulders, the stiffness of her lower back. If there is a moment when she might feel relaxed, when she might feel in control, then it must be behind locked doors, maybe in the bathtub, where no one can witness it. If anyone were to see her without the wild eyes and tight jaw, she is in grave danger of exposing herself to attack in the form of requests to come to meetings, to volunteer, to sign her kids up for something else, to help out a friend, to socialize, to go out at night, to run an errand, to do just one more thing for her own mother.
After that night of treating both my kids and my niece and nephew unkindly, I climb upstairs and settle down on the bed with Saoirse and Ula for bedtime reading. But instead of opening the book, I just cry. Saoirse grabs a hairbrush and slides around behind me and begins stroking my hair, her best effort to calm me down.
“I’m sorry Mom,” she whispers. “We’ll help you out more. I promise.”
That makes me cry harder. “It’s me who’s sorry,” I stare at the unopened book in my lap. “You’re good kids and I don’t want to treat you this way.” I pause for a second, then add, “I just feel….trapped.”
I can tell she and Ula are making eye contact over my bowed head. Saoirse’s voice is tentative. “I….I don’t think we should be babysitting on week nights. It’s too hard.”
“And I don’t think Daddy should be sleeping at the farm when Grammie and Pop Pop go away,” Ula adds. “I’m too scared something will happen, and we won’t be able to help him.” She’s referring to his blood sugar crash from a few weeks prior. She still wakes up with bouts of fear about it. I do, too. And I carry that fear around in my day. It’s one more stress.
“And it’s too hard on you,” Saoirse’s voice is soft, but firm.
We start a list. Just like we madly sort through and discard their toys and clothes, we begin examining everything that can be eliminated from our schedules, everything that we can refuse to do. Then we begin thinking of where we can get help for what remains. Bob can drive the girls to their activities on Monday. Mom can take Ula to her therapy on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving Saoirse and me with two afternoons home. I can quit doing the radio segment for next year. We can stop the babysitting.
“But the trouble is, as soon as I clear off our schedule, something else fills it up,” I whimper.
By now, Ula has moved to the floor. She is working madly with paper and markers. She pops her head over the side of the bed. “No!” she barks. Her thick bifocals catch the light of the lamp and flash back at me. A moment later, she is up on the bed, holding a sign scrawled in her neatest writing and best attempts at spelling. “Read this,” she commands.
“We…haf….have….to…too….mch….” I decipher a bit more…”much….going…on.”
“Read it again,” she orders.
“We have too much going on.”
“We have too much going on.”
“Now pretend I’m your friend, and I’m going to ask you for something. Are you ready?”
Saoirse giggles behind me. I nod. “Ready.”
“Shannon! Hi!” Ula makes her voice loop and swirl with sophistication. “Listen, we just want to go away for a week, you wouldn’t mind babysitting for our kids and our dogs, would you?”
“I’m sorry,” I imagine myself in the rolle, but I have to read the sign to remember my lines. Ordinarily I’d say let me check my schedule, but I’ve got a script. “But we have too much going on.”
Ula looks at me. She shakes her head in disappointment. “No. You didn’t do it right.”
“What?!” I’m defensive now. “I read your sign!”
“No. The sign doesn’t say SORRY. Read it EXACTLY.”
She slips into her syrupy voice again. “Shannon! Hi! Listen, I just need to drop by for a little while, and if you don’t mind, would you be able to sit down and help me write this new book while your kids play with my kids?”
“I’m sorry, we have too much going on.” I say it faster, more definitively.
“WRONG!” Ula barks at me now. “YOU’RE NOT SORRY! YOU SHOULDN’T SAY SORRY IF YOU’RE NOT SORRY!”
“But it’s polite,” I adopt my instructive mothering tone.
“It’s not true! If you say you’re sorry, then that means you would do it differently.”
Her words haunt me as I go to sleep. As we settle into the dark of night, I think about all the times I say those words. “I’m sorry, but….” Frantic Mom doesn’t say “No.” She says “I’m sorry,” and then she gives a reason. Because Frantic Mom doesn’t believe she is allowed to be at peace with her life without an excuse. If she needs rest, she must be sick. If she needs time off, she must have a scheduling conflict. So if she says “no,” it must be predicated with “I’m sorry,” because, as Ula observed, “I’m sorry” implies that Frantic Mom is completely willing to go along with whatever is being proposed…were it not for whatever excuse she is presenting. Frantic Mom is so worried about what people think of of her, “Sorry” is as much a part of her armor as the aura of frenzied chaos.
Halloween came and went. In the weeks leading up and in the weeks following, Ula and Saoirse have given me “Sorry Drills,” testing me with role playing scenarios, pretending to be different friends and family members, asking me to make time for something, to answer an email, to pick up the phone, to schedule something else. They ambush me with pop quizzes while I’m standing in the kitchen, when I’m in the meat freezers pulling orders at the farm, when I’m sitting at my desk. And each time, I must remember to leave out those two words. At first, I pause and leave a space where they might be, think carefully, then say it. “No. We have too much going on.”
I’m a good student. And my Frantic Mom costume is falling away. But what the girls don’t know is that I’ve been practicing on my own, advancing my studies. And I’ve left off the sentence “We have too much going on.” Because I don’t want that to be true any longer. I just want to be able to say “No.” With no apologies. No justifications. No worries that I will be judged.
No, I may not respond to emails right away. I might choose instead to lie in bed with my husband and bury my face in his neck as the November sunrise burns the sky pink. No, I may not pick up the phone. I may be sitting in the dark with my girls, watching the glow of the fire. No, I may not get out to that concert. I may choose to sprawl across the couch and watch a movie with my family. I may go to bed early so I can rise in the middle of the night and watch falling stars. No, I don’t have too much going on. I am me. And I don’t want to wear my costume any longer.
I still want to work. I want my family’s farm to be successful. I still want to write. I still want to homeschool my kids. But I also want to throw a ball for the dog, drink a cup of tea after lunch, have a family Quirkle tournament, take a nap. I was given a life in which I should work hard. But I was also given a life to bury my nose in the dirty hair of an eight year old, spend more time than is necessary with my arms threaded through the bandy limbs of a twelve-year-old, to feel my husband’s calloused hands marvel at the softness of my bare skin, to walk through the woods, to gaze out the window. And I don’t want to wear a silly costume for the rest of the world while I do those things in secret. I am Shannon. And I am not sorry.