It is just after 5 p.m. on Friday, and I am at my usual post — the spectator’s balcony at my children’s gymnastics classes. Up top, the moms and dads sit with their crumpled newspapers or magazines, munching on sugar and carb-fueled snacks from the vending machines. Meanwhile, down below, the children, ranging in ages from three to 17, dazzle us with their youthful energy, natural athleticism, and remarkable balance.
It seems an odd thing to me, the difference between the downstairs and upstairs at this large, open gym. Upstairs, we sit and bide our time. We are mostly middle-aged parents, out of shape and a bit overweight. We complain to each other that we haven’t the time to exercise. Yet, here we are, committing two hours or more a week to sitting on our asses while our children get a fantastic physical workout. I tell anyone who will listen that I wish the gym would install treadmills and stationary bikes up top for the parents. But many of the others look at me like I’m crazy. Apparently, they look forward to sitting on their asses a couple of times a week. Are they depressed, burned out, or just plain lazy? I wonder. Then again, what’s so wrong with sitting and relaxing for a change?
I’m not used to sitting for two hours and watching the clock. I feel anxious and guilty about wasting time when there’s so much to do. The only saving grace is that I use these two hours to catch up on my reading. If I cannot exercise my body, at least I can give my mind a much-needed workout.
Like most Friday afternoons, I feel a headache coming on. I reach into my bag and grab my bottle of Aleve, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that works much better on my headaches than Tylenol or aspirin. Plus, it lasts eight to 12 hours. I chase down the Aleve with a 16 ounce Diet Coke — my sixth or seventh of the day. Diet soda has been my drink of choice since college, when the glow of the Pepsi machine in the dormitory lounge beckoned at any hour. I made a conscious choice to switch to diet when I started adding on the obligatory freshman pounds. I felt grown-up drinking diet cola. In the 80’s, Jane Fonda was pushing us all to work out and thin down, and diet soda was a sexier, sophisticated woman’s drink that went with that vibe. By the time Whitney Houston starting singing “Just for the taste of it,” I was already hooked on Diet Coke. Besides, the reality lived up to the hype in this case — I really did like the taste of it.
I’d like to cut back my soda consumption, maybe even quit, go cold turkey. Just not right now. As usual, it has been a very long week, and I’ve pushed myself from Monday morning until Friday afternoon to get it all done. And even though I’ve achieved quite a lot this week, I feel like I have so much more to do. I’m just so damn tired, and I literally ache for the caffeine jolt that the diet soda will supply my body. I’m not even sure I taste the soda going down anymore. It doesn’t seem as refreshing as the commercials promised. I continue to drink it because I crave it, as I imagine a junkie must crave a fix.
I smile at my six-year-old son as he calls out from below and attempts a handstand. He is naturally athletic, and also a bit fearless. In just a couple of lessons, he’s already come close to mastering a handstand. But he’s not quite there. Sometimes he kicks up with a jerk but comes flying back down before getting his legs all the way up. Other times, he kicks too hard and goes toppling over, out of control. It’s a matter of balance, I know. With practice and time, he will learn to control his tiny body, find his center of gravity, and strengthen the muscles needed for this move.
I close my book, no longer able to concentrate, as the headache tightens its grip around the base of my skull and works itself around to the front of my face like a creeping vine. The Aleve isn’t working, which means that a full-blown migraine is now inevitable. And I feel it coming on faster and stronger than expected. It has thrown off my whole equilibrium. I get a familiar sour taste in my mouth as the accompanying indigestion begins to rumble down below. I grab my bag and rummage inside until I find a packet of my favorite antacids. How do I spell relief? R-o-l-a-i-d-s, of course.
I lean forward, as if this will help restore my balance. I can feel the familiar tingling in my fingers and toes now. My heart feels like it is racing, and I take a couple of deep breaths, in the hopes of slowing it all down. The whole right side of my face is throbbing. I massage the back of my neck as my jaw pops. This is it. This is what it feels like to have your body assailed from the inside out. I don’t know why they call a migraine a “headache” since it is so much more than that. It is an all-over bodily assault.
A little after 7 p.m., my children finish up their classes, and I hurry them out the door. There’s no time to linger, “Mommy has a headache.”
They both groan, “You ALWAYS have a headache.” The fact that they are right only makes me want to cry.
“Just get in the damn car,” I explode.
It’s not my finest moment. It’s a jarring reminder that I don’t quite live up to Madison Avenue’s image of the typical “mom on the go” who happily and robotically shuttles her adorable kiddies in the safety and comfort of her expensive, roomy SUV or minivan. TV commercial moms never curse at their children like angry truck drivers or complain about the hectic pace of life. And if she does have a headache, she simply “Pushes Through the Pain” with Tylenol or “Muscles Out Pain” with Motrin. We’re constantly fed the idea that there isn’t time to slow down, rest, or sleep off a headache. We’re told that our lives are stressful, demanding, and over-extended, but with the newest wonder drug, we CAN keep up this pace. But I wonder why we aren’t being told to cut back the pace of our lives rather than rely on pharmaceutical solutions.
As I drive home from gymnastics, I truly feel as if I might vomit, as I have before in the throes of a migraine. I open the window while I drive, letting the cool air blow across my face. My body is suddenly alternating between being too damn hot and fucking freezing.
At this point, I know the only relief I’ll get is from the triangular white pill, Imitrex, which is sitting at home in my medicine cabinet. Imitrex is a highly effective, acute treatment for migraines, and it has absolutely changed my life. Before I started taking Imitrex, I would have had no choice but to shut down completely and sleep until my migraine passed. And even after taking several doses of extra-strength something-or-other, I would still endure hours and hours of unbearable pain. Nothing else ever worked, except for Tylenol with codeine, which I was too afraid to take because it felt too good. Unlike codeine, Imitrex isn’t habit-forming, though of course it does have side-effects, like all drugs.
I continue to drive and quietly berate myself for not thinking to bring the Imitrex with me, in my bag, just in case. But I had been hopeful that I wouldn’t need it, that I could, with will, avoid a migraine today. Fat fucking chance. Now I’m like the junkie again, who needs her fix NOW. Why didn’t I bring it? Why is that stupid car in front of me driving so damn slow? Why did I ever sign the kids up for gymnastics in the first place? I’m not gonna make it . . .
The kids start fighting in the back seat, and I lose it.
“Shut up!” I yell. “No more talking until we get home.”
“But he started it . . .” my daughter begins.
“I don’t give a crap who started what. Just please shut up until we get home,” I roar.
Everyone’s quiet, and I feel like a shit. I hate feeling sick and on edge. I hate the suffering my kids must endure because of it. Mostly, I hate that I feel like I am letting everyone down.
“What is the greatest price you think you’ve paid for ‘having it all’ or trying to have it all?”
I looked at the question and hesitated for a minute. Had I paid a price for “having it all”? Did I even have it all?
I was completing a questionnaire at Women Doing it All. Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It, and journalist Sharon Dizenhuz created the questionnaire in order “to garner thoughtful, open responses from women who are dealing with the complex issues of modern motherhood from wide-ranging perspectives.”
Until recently, I thought I was doing a decent balancing act between my writing/filmmaking career and my mothering career. Sure, I had given up the fast-track with motherhood, but I was still involved in exciting, creative work that was highly gratifying. I even felt proud of myself, especially when other mothers left comments on my blog about how impressed they were by all that I did, on top of mothering. They wondered how I did it. What was my secret?
It is with some embarrassment that I admit to my admirers that I don’t have any secret formulas for doing it all. In fact, I don’t even believe you can have it all. But I’ll be honest, unlike the celebrity moms in celebrity interviews, and tell you the absolute truth about what I’ve done to get it all done. I am able to accomplish a lot by pushing myself through the pain and refusing to slow down. I am fully integrated into the fast-food mentality and instant-gratification ideology that permeates our culture. If I am tired, I ingest artificial stimulants. If I am achy, I grab a synthetic pill. If I am hungry, I microwave something quick and easy and overly processed. Life is hectic, so I suck it up and eat whatever it is the advertisers feed me. But I wouldn’t recommend this lifestyle for everyone. It has some serious side-effects.
And this is the price that I pay for trying to have it all. I sacrifice sleep, exercise, nutrition, and ultimately my own physical, mental, and emotional health. I replace common-sense care with chemicals and quick fixes. I push myself too hard and refuse to rest even when my body screams out in anguish. My judgment has been clouded by fast-talking salesmen promising the fountain of youth in their expensive snake oils. I have lost touch with my own body, unable to trust what it is telling me. I’ve forfeited my well-being, and have become completely unbalanced.
Since beginning gymnastics, my children have being using our family room to practice their front rolls, headstands, handstands, donkey kicks, and cartwheels.
I place a pillow on the floor next to the arm chair to demonstrate balance and muscle control to them. “This is how you do a headstand,” I say.
Suddenly, the world is upside down, and I’m standing on my head in our family room. My children are clearly impressed. Unlike them, I didn’t take gymnastics as a child. We couldn’t afford something like that. So I taught myself gymnastics, even using a two-by-four as a balance beam and practicing every night with a pillow next to my bed until I could do an unassisted headstand. And now, almost 30 years later, and too many pounds heavier, I can still find that perfect balance. Like riding a bike, it’s something your body doesn’t forget once it has learned.
I assist my kids as they each attempt their headstands and try to find their balance. They figure, “if Mommy can do it, WE can too,” but they don’t quite have it yet. I continue to spot them, making sure they feel fully supported.
On my head, the world looks different, and the change of view is invigorating. In this position, I become acutely aware of my own body. As I gently teeter back and forth, I can feel the muscles in my stomach tighten. And as the blood rushes to my head, I realize that my arms and back feel strong and capable. It’s funny how much I have to concentrate on balancing in this position. It’s not something I can simply take for granted. Yet, even on my head, I can attain perfect balance — with just the right focus, attitude, and perspective.
TO BE CONTINUED.