12. When “mama” turns to “papa”

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There comes a point in most mothers’ lives when their kid will say “mama?” and they’ll answer “no.” This might seem harsh to you—or to those of you who haven’t had to endure the relentless badgering of small children. But the simple truth of the matter is: at some point, being on stand-by twenty-four hours a day, every day, answering all questions and solving all problems, leads to sensory overload, and you have to stop.

And then your kid says “mama?” and they probably just want to show you a picture they made, or tell you there are green strawberries in the garden, or ask you if they can have a cookie, but you just can’t deal with any—any—new information, request, or problem right now, and you just say, “no.”

Yesterday, my daughter said, “papa,” and Urban said, “no.”

I felt vindicated because he’s finally starting to understand how it is, and at the same time I wondered at how soon he reached that point. It was the eighth day after the breakdown, and he’s taken this whole week off. The kids only go to school for two to three hours a day as the Corona restrictions are slowly lifted, and there are no extracurricular activities. Our daughter is doing much better at math—the psychologist suggested we treat her more like an adult and less like a child, and the new sense of responsibility has boosted her, so there are fewer homework-related fights. The house hasn’t been cleaned in weeks, and it doesn’t bother us too much. His job is: keep the kids alive, take wife to doctors’ appointments. But still, it only took him eight days to reach the stage of saying “no” without waiting to see what the question is.

I don’t know how other parents do it, but I have to admit that I feel less of a superhero than other working moms I know. From the outside, they seem to have everything under control: work, household, kids’ activities (our kids barely do anything, and it’s still too much for me), even excursions to the nearby lakes and mountains on Sundays. Germans are big on hiking. I don’t really understand where they find the strength. On Sundays, I’m exhausted. I need to sit down and relax, otherwise there’s no way I’ll survive the week. But they work forty- and fifty-hour weeks, and they take their kids to guitar lessons and tae-kwon-do, and deal with the school projects (lots of parent involvement in Bavaria schools—I won’t start ranting about that now, although I’d like to), and go to parent-teacher meetings, and their houses are squeaky clean, and their gardens are perfect. Perfect! No weeds in the grass, meticulous alignment of flower beds, perfectly trimmed hedges; our whole neighborhood looks like a five-star resort. We’re the only house on our block with an overgrown garden.

All right, we’re also the only house with a novelist, but I tend to downplay my own achievements. Maybe I’ll come to that in a future post.

Anyway, the parents around me seem to be the epitome of German efficiency. Meanwhile, for years I’ve been trying to keep up and barely managing. Every day, I went to work in the morning, opened my Google calendar, and checked all the activities of the day: did my daughter have a doctor’s appointment? Did I have to bake something for Kindergarten? What meetings did we have at work, and did I have to prepare anything for them? Was there any shopping to do, and when would I do it? What would we cook today—did I plan the week’s meals adequately? When did I have to pick up the kids? What snacks would I take with me to stop them from having a hypoglycemia-induced meltdown in the car? Was there a playdate? And after work you have to pick them up on time, taking care not to do anything to displease the teachers, because teachers expect so much—I told you, Frau McKinney, your daughter needs that kind of notebook and this particular kind of pencil, while she has the other kind; and the implication is clear: why aren’t you paying attention, Frau Mom? Are you an inadequate parent? And then you go home and there’s the whole homework clusterfuck and you have to cook because they get tantrums when they’re hungry, and they won’t tidy up (my kids’ rooms look like landfills, and I have no strength to tackle that too), and they fight all the time, and they won’t. Stop. Saying. Mama.

And in the midst of it all, my mother-in-law will visit—rarely, thank heavens—and she will invariably make a comment about how untidy the house is or how we absolutely need to do this or that with the garden, because if things aren’t in her absolute rigid order, they’re wrong. My husband’s family has very definite ideas of right and wrong, there’s no room for personal choice and interpretation there. And, because I shouldered all the mental and emotional load of this family, I dealt with my in-laws for years, while Urban happily earned the bulk of the money that keeps our family fed and the mortgage paid, and never bothered to tell them to sod off and leave us alone.

So, yesterday, a child said, “Papa,” and he was already so overwhelmed that he had to say “no.”

The thing is, I understand him, and I’m still trying to find ways to make his life more bearable. Added to the mental load of planning for the family and the actual work caring for us entails is the emotional load he has to shoulder: he’s worried about me—scared out of his wits, sometimes—but at the same time, he has to give the kids the sense that all is well, that life goes on as usual. And I’m worried too: if his burden becomes too much, like my burden became too much, there’ll be no adult to take care of this family.

I’m sure his mom wants to help—she never understands what a source of stress her constant nagging is—but, as helpful as she’s been through the years, I just can’t handle the strain right now. If you ask me, she’s the reason Urban is so insensitive to emotional cues. I’m sure you had to develop some extra indifference and unresponsiveness to stimuli to survive growing up in her house.

Anyway. How am I doing? The jury’s still out on that. My irrational fears about my various health issues are still here but behaving themselves. I’m mostly able to sleep, although I still wake up in the middle of the night. I’m still tired and overwhelmed by small tasks. But today, I made myself a big sandwich, and I forced myself to eat it. Baby steps, as they say.

I don’t know what will happen when Urban has to start working again—he works from home, thankfully—but I’m thinking this is a good chance for the kids to learn to be more independent. Maybe what we’re experiencing now will prove to be a blessing in disguise. You never know how these things will turn out, after all.

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