14. Unemployment and anxiety

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Everyone tells me not to think about other things right now—unemployment, for example—and to focus on getting better. But anxiety is not an easy issue to tackle, and I’m already worried what will happen when I stop taking the meds. This is another thing they tell me not to worry about: don’t think about what problems you’ll be facing in a month of two, they say, just concentrate on the here and now.

But, how can I?

The job situation is difficult. As a mom of two in traditional—code for sexist—Bavaria, without real-world experience in a real-world job, and having drifted in academia for years without really publishing and without becoming an expert in one subject, the chances of finding employment at my age are, let’s say, not stellar. I’m now finally unemployable in academia—not that I want to reenter that soul-crushing space, Urban is adamant that I should leave that behind for good. And industry sees someone with no job experience or expertise in one specific subject as a liability.

Sidenote #1: If you thought industry values versatility and breadth of talents, you’re wrong. They mostly like dedicated workers who don’t get too many ideas, even when their job is to get ideas, like for example in consulting. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those bizarre facts of life. You’d almost think HR departments don’t understand the skills of astrophysicists.

Anyway, in the past couple of months, and as I was heading at breakneck speed towards burnout, I felt more and more like I couldn’t handle the normal loads of work, family, career, home. I knew a full-time job would be near-impossible for me to balance with the responsibilities of kids and with my passion for writing, and this was another cause of intense anxiety. We have a mortgage, after all, and there’s the added insecurity: what will I do if my husband gets hit by a bus? I made him buy life insurance, but that kind of money doesn’t last long. I need to be in the position of finding a job, of earning a living on my own—anything else causes me too much insecurity. But I also need some time off, to recuperate from all the stress, to figure out where it all goes from here. And I thought it would be difficult to stay afloat only on Urban’s salary—which is exactly what is going to happen in three weeks, when my contract with my current employer ends.

Urban tried to apply for some well-paying positions, some of which he could probably get, but this freaked me out even more: more money, yes, but he’d be out of the house (he works from home now, even pre-corona) and there’s just no way for me to reliably take care of the kids day in, day out, every day. I get debilitating tension headaches. Then, you have the hemiplegic migraines. And now, there’s this new adventure, which forces me to stay away from sources of stress, and I’d say job-hunting would be one huge source of stress. All doctors are unanimous: I absolutely have to take it easy!

But I also can’t take on the role of housewife. I need someone to take care of me, too. It’s not even unfair: I worked and took care of everybody for years. Now, I just can’t. And I can’t even heal on my own. Urban is in a bad situation: he has to earn all the money, take care of the kids and of the mentally ill wife, too.

My anxiety rose to red shortly after the breakdown. How would I manage if he really got offered another position that would require me to be the caretaker on weekdays? I could barely walk from the couch to the bathroom in those first few days—who knew that anxiety and a mental breakdown could cause very real bodily fatigue—but he said he wouldn’t accept another job offer, which reassured me, big time. Still, how will we survive?

It turns out, now that we’re keeping careful tabs on what we spend, expenses are not as huge as I thought they were. For the past couple of years, and even though I had a small salary of my own (did you expect part-time researchers get paid a lot? Nope), I rarely ever had a couple euros left at the end of each month. But now, with Urban working only part-time thanks to covid and me saving my whole salary in order to survive the months of unemployment that I know are coming, our situation is not that strained. What happened?

Urban is what happened. For years he spent money, without my knowledge, without keeping track of what he spent and when. You see, he’s a little like me: when he gets obsessed with something, he goes all in. His latest hobby is fountain pens, and in a few short years he’s accumulated a fuckton of them, and I don’t know how many hundreds of different inks, and notebooks, and pen pillows (google it, it’s a thing), and I don’t know what else. I don’t even mind that—his hobbies are important to me, as my hobbies are important to him—but what I do resent is all the stress it caused me. Racking my brain how to make a couple hundred euros last me weeks, with grocery shopping and the kids’ needs—never mind the stress I feel now, when I’m thinking that my mental health problems might ruin us because of my inability to contribute financially. The times I felt guilty for buying expensive fruit! Why? Why?

This bothers me more than I can express. I can forgive a lot of things, but someone causing me this level of anxiety is hard to swallow.

Urban makes spreadsheets now to track our income and expenses. When I get stressed all over again, he shares the spreadsheets with me, so that I know exactly what’s going on, in real time. He’s promised full transparency and to continue keeping track of everything.

And it’s not that I’m completely without talents either. Today, I organized my writing and editing space in the attic. It’s a room where I feel completely in my element. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be able to bring in some small income from my new activities too.

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.