Betty Duffy

Friday, November 12, 2010

Paging Humility

I should have known when the low-mood hit on Friday that I was coming down with the flu. All the signs were there: the barfing child, the bathrobe, the nap.

Occasionally, I entertain the thought that I’ve contracted a serious life threatening disease like cancer or congenital heart failure. I’m going to die, and it will be my fault (all those cigarettes I smoked in college), but getting a flu-bug or a cold always comes as a surprise somehow. What’s this? Nausea? Surely not the flu. I put off a diagnosis until the symptoms are beyond question.

And now, my house is in chaos. The baby keeps walking past my doorway with a package of lunch meat saying, “Hot Gog!” All he wants out of life is a sandwich, and I’d indulge him if he didn’t just eat breakfast twenty minutes ago, also if the thought of lunch meat and mayonnaise didn’t spawn a devilish gurgle in my gut.

It’s times like this, when the only duty I can handle is the one that takes place in the bathroom (and even that, I’d prefer not to handle), I realize the illusions of control I hold when I am well.

Last week, my daughter did a safety unit at school, and when she asked me what our designated meeting place would be in case of a fire, I said, “It’s…outside….away…out there.” The kids wanted something more specific, however, and we settled on Daddy’s workshop.

Then I thought maybe there were a few other safety concerns we needed to address like how and when to dial 911. So I gave them a crash course in all that, and then not two days later, the police showed up at my house investigating a 911 call.

My husband and I were both at home; I was putting dinner on the table. Four of the five kids were waiting, fork in hand, for their pesto tortellini. But a fifth child was hiding under a blanket in her room with a cordless telephone. She had told the dispatcher that her parents were not at home.

The police came in, looked around a bit and said, “Well, it looks like everything is ok here.” But the sight of police officers standing in my kitchen at dinner time on a Tuesday night planted a seed of doubt in my mind. Is everything ok here? Are we really alright? It was like looking at a mole that’s been on my wrist my entire life, and then someone else calls attention to it and it suddenly looks different. I must have CAAANCER!

Then, this weekend, another one of the kids comes in from the yard with a bloody lip needing stitches.

I keep joking with my parents that they need to get certified to become foster parents because one of these days, my kids are going to show up on their doorstep with a caseworker and a suitcase. But the suggestion becomes less and less funny with each delivery. Perhaps I’ve been kidding myself that we can maintain some level of functionality, when we’re really on the verge of complete collapse.

In my mind, I chronicle all the ways in which I have been a selfish mother, and all the ways that I might prevent chaos from occurring. Why didn’t I tell her not to play with the phone? Maybe if I’d used an angrier tone of voice when I told the boys not to play with sticks, they would have listened to me. I should hover more.

I called my mother, hoping for some kind of affirmation that we really are ok, and she said something to effect of my needing to be humble, which wasn’t what I was looking for, because it sounded a lot like: “What you really need to do is beat yourself up a little more.” I hung up feeling a bit twitchy, because the whip was already out.

But I thought about humility, and thought a little more. And finally, I decided that YES, Humility is what is needed! All fear is rooted in a lack of humility. I need to obtain some humility NOW. But the recognition that I need humility didn’t immediately supply the virtue. In my case, humility, like the cops in that old Tracy Chapman song, always comes later, if it comes at all. (Whereas the cops in my town are quite prompt.)

Was I more upset about the police following up on a 911 call, or about what their car parked in our driveway might say about us? Was I really upset about my son’s injury, or about the probing questions from the staff at urgent care? The task of keeping five young kids alive day and night, 365 days of the year is large enough without stressing out about how clunky it looks to onlookers.

The real injustice of these episodes is that I secretly think I’m doing a perfectly adequate job of being a mother—if it weren’t for these crazy kids who keep undermining my smooth façade. They complicate things by being individuals who want to do irrational things, like flirt with danger, and eat lunchmeat when it makes no sense to eat lunchmeat.

And really, if a false 911 call and two stitches in the lip from a stick battle between siblings is the biggest trial we’ve had to face this week, I should thank my stars. The world is not out to get me. It’s not out to get my family. People are not spying on me. And if they are, that’s their problem. I do not have cancer. I do not have congenital heart failure.

These runs to the doctor, the police showing up on my doorstep—doesn’t it look like a family on the verge of a breakdown? Maybe, but more harm is done in America by overmedicating people who aren’t really sick. It helps to get a second opinion: these are the coughs and sputters of ordinary family glitches, the common cold, flu season. And there really is nothing, NOTHING I could have done to prevent it.


Amber said...

Tee Hee, Sounds just like our home. Last week an old girlfriend came over, not seen in 8 years. Her 3 and my 5 children all went off playing and were randomly checked on, whilst we were left to wine, giggle, chortle eat, and more wine.

A sudden Bang Bang! more assertive than most door knocks, 2 policemen ask questioningly "Is everything alright" I "YES WHY" trying not to look too horror struck or guilty of any appending crime only to discover my friends 2 year old darling playing innocently with the 999 keys. Joy of Joys today no one has actually committed anything, except me to a life of motherhood.

Increasingly middle ageing aching breast's are being checked for the life ending obvious, appointment pending. Then time of the month comes to reassure me how drama queen I am. And if I were to pop my clogs tomorrow, how humbling everything would suddenly be, for I am safe and hummus rooted in Him. xxx

kate said...

Older mother of 5 here - youngest is now 16. Years ago I laughed as I purchased a bumper sticker that said "if the kids are alive at 5 I've done my job", cuz sometimes that's really how it feels. We all have angst about the job we're doing as parents - and well we should cuz it's a big and important job we have. However, much of what you describe sounds like normal life. I was always comforted by the similar travails of my friends who were raising large families along with me. When we have more than 1 or 2 children, our control issues must be dealt with - cuz there's no chance that we're going to control all of our children, all of the time (and thank GOd for that!) Children in large families are often allowed more independence and creativity than the closely scheduled children of smaller families. Benign neglect fosters creativity and independence - and within an emotionally healthy and loving family I believe children are the better for it. (now the emotional healthy part is always my question - how can I be sure....?) This is why it is important to find a place/community/parish/network where you can be supported and encouraged in your vocation as mother/large family - and give you feedback when you feel unsure of your direction/approach.

karyn said...

I'm sad and angry to admit that I feel somewhat guilty/embarrassed about having a large family (and we only have four) because I feel like we're in the spotlight since we're not the norm. Like people are thinking - why do they have so many kids if they can't take care of them correctly? Like I have to show that I can do just as well as any mother of one or two. And letting go of that does require humility - why should I worry what people think as long as I know that I'm doing the best I can and that God "thinks" so too?

karyn said...

And why are you blogging when you should be resting???

Kimberlie said...

I just think we are more concerned about what people think of us as mothers because society as a whole has become more bold about criticizing those who don't fit their "ideal." Having a larger family is part of not fitting in. Do you know, after we adopted our 3rd child, one older parishoner came up to me and said, "I am so glad to see you have a large family." What?!? Large? I don't think so. Isn't it sad that "having a large family" in our culture means having more than 2 children? I remember growing up Protestant and we had 2 families, Catholic, that had 12 children and another down a ways up the road that had 8. At 3 children, we were a "small and perfectly sized family." :)

Kate - I wish I had that bumper sticker. It seems true somedays.

TS said...

Love this oh-so-true line: "In my case, humility, like the cops in that old Tracy Chapman song, always comes later, if it comes at all."

Karly said...

I recently heard Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," speak at a fancy private school here in Cleveland, and someone in the audience asked a question about how to put her advice to work in the context of a large family. (Basically, her advice is to allow children the freedom to fail or be hurt--within reasonable limits!--and thus be given an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.) Her answer was that larger families tend to be better on this issue, and as a therapist working primarily with privileged parents in L.A. she often asks clients to pretend they had more children so that minor issues don't get blown out of proportion. As the parent of an only child who worries about the effect that might have on my daughter, I thought this was relevant to the discussion.

And I hope you feel better soon, Betty!

BettyDuffy said...

I was really tempted to to politicize this post--because I do sometimes feel like people are watching and waiting for me to fail--and maybe it's all in my head. But then you see billboards that say things like, "Report abuse or neglect--Its THE LAW!" And is that really what we want society to do? Watch and tell on each other? Not to mention that no one shares the same defining principles of "abuse" or "neglect." Some people think male circumcision or spanking is abuse. Some people think letting your kid ride a bicycle around the neighborhood without an adult is neglect.

I can remember in college when some girlfriends and I were driving around a residential area, heard a mother yelling at her child out in the front yard (probably cussing), and one of my girlfriends decided we needed to report that incident to CPS. It makes me cringe to think about it now, because it was such a bourgeois response to something different than our experience.

My sister-in-law is a Foster Parent. She's single, which is not ideal for fostering kids, but she currently has four kids living with her because the system is strapped for care-providers. The incidence of children being taken away from their parents and placed in foster homes has increased one hundred percent in the past ten years in INdiana. Of the many kids that my sister-in-law has housed for short periods of time, she says that only one sibling group (the kids she currently has) actually needed to be separated from their parents. Which means, ultimately, that people are reporting kids who are not actually at risk.

Anyway, the bottom line is that I think the contraceptive mentality makes people less tolerant of one another.

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

"The task of keeping five young kids alive day and night, 365 days of the year is large enough without stressing out about how clunky it looks to onlookers."
I sooo wish I'd been able to lighten up like this when I had four kids aged six and under. Of course, it's a good reminder now that I have four teenagers in the house and we're as "clunky" as ever!

Anne said...

Love Karyn's comment!

My youngest of five is now 9 years old. Every night we have a fist fight between the three teenage boys. Emergency room visits-you name it, we've been there for that. Kids calling 911-yep! Fire trucks and police here every now and then, been there. We've lost children and were sometimes sorry we had to find them again! (kidding!)

I love my crazy life and wouldn't have it any other way, and I bet you feel absolutely the same, because right beside all of the mess is a whole lotta love. Without all the angst and conflict and emergencies, what would there be to write about?

Misha Leigh. said...

Home with an unexpected flu here. Only two kids and the virus kicked in five minutes after my husband walked out the door on a trip. I'm still hung up on the humility/lack of control part of this.

As always, you make me think hard. I hope you feel better soon, too!

BettyDuffy said...

Hey Karly, just want to say thanks for another side of the story. Glad that message is out there too.

Sr. Dorcee Clarey said...

Thanks for making me laugh! I am the Superior of a religious order, and one of our houses does foster care for medically fragile children. We had the police show up for a similar reason: one of the children was supposedly upstairs asleep in a portacrib which we didn't realize was in easy reach of a phone. One of the keys on the phone had been programmed to automatically dial 911. She was old enough to dial, but not old enough to talk, so the police had to come. Makes for a good story!