Saturday, April 16, 2016

I Broke Up With My Therapist Over Feminism (and Doing Dishes)

A few months ago, I decided that I could use some counseling for stress management. I was pregnant, teaching full time, dealing with some frustrating issues with extended family, and in the thick of my daughter’s new ADHD diagnosis and the navigation of what it meant for helping her get the resources she needed available to her in educational settings (an exhausting bureaucratic nightmare that left me feeling powerless). As I found myself spending most nights a jittery mess of nerves playing the worst-case scenario game in my head, I knew that my pregnancy (and, you know, life) would go smoother if I could find a way to get myself re-centered, but I also knew I could use a little help doing it. 

The therapist I found met me in a small office attached to the front of her home. It was cozy and welcoming, and she seemed nice enough if a little distant with a prim and proper presentation that far surpassed my own. I (as you can probably guess from the fact that you’re reading this blog) don’t really have a hard time opening up about myself, so I took her at her word when she said this was a safe space where I should “put it all on the table and worry about sorting it out later.”

Before I even met her, she had instructed me to make a list of all the things that stressed me out. She emphasized that I should include everything and that there were no silly answers. I shouldn’t second guess myself or spend too long on it. It should be a free form snapshot of what I felt was overwhelming about my life at this moment. I put the big things mentioned above on that list, and then I included some little things. Among them was the fact that I feel consistent, daily aggravation and defeat in the face of housekeeping. This will come as no surprise to any regular readers since I have written about my failure to slay the housekeeping dragon on many occasions. I’ve even sought out professional help of a different type for this problem in the form of a professional organizer, but this was the first time I had ever addressed it from a mental health angle.

We spent the first six (of eight insurance pre-approved) sessions tackling my larger issues. During that time, there were a few moments in the exchanges that left me feeling uncomfortable and unheard. For instance, during an early session when talking about the frustrations of parenting, I mentioned that it was hard to not have any family nearby and to feel like there was no easy way to get a break for a date night or even just an afternoon to run errands. Her response was that “plenty of people make do parenting without family around” in a rather harsh, condescending tone.

The session before our last one, she spent a good five to ten minutes berating me for using the word “weird” to describe both myself and my daughter. It’s a term that I use frequently and with no malice or ill-intent. I use it in the “Keep Austin Weird” sense of the word, as a way of pointing to outlier status and quirkiness. I explained my connotation clearly, but she continued to press about it’s “real” meaning until I actually stopped her and said, “look it up in the dictionary.” She got out an old copy of the Oxford American Dictionary, turned to a page near the back, read for a few seconds, and then closed the book and said, “We’re wasting time here.” I assume that means she found out that her definition existed nowhere but her head. It was irritating and felt combative for no reason. 

Still, I chalked these things up to a difference in our communication styles and pressed on with the sessions. About fifteen minutes into what was to be our last session, she decided we needed to turn back to my initial list that I’d made to see what else we could tackle. She looked at the list and said, “So it says here that you find housekeeping overwhelming. Can you tell me about that?”

“Sure. It’s pretty straightforward. I find housekeeping overwhelming. The task of keeping the house clean and the repetitive nature of it wears me down and makes me feel stressed out.”

“Well, it’s not really hard to keep a house clean. Tell me what you mean.”

I started to give some examples of the moments I felt overwhelmed, leading with the fact that the water pressure situation in our old house means we have to carefully time when we do dishes, baths, showers, and laundry, since no two can happen simultaneously. I also pointed to the fact that by the time I get my daughter home from school, I only have a few hours to fit in most of the required daily tasks and that it makes me feel like I run non-stop from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, especially since she sometimes has homework that she can’t accomplish unless I’m sitting next to her. It’s true, I made no groundbreaking claims that would explain why keeping my house clean is somehow more difficult than keeping any house clean, but I never intended to make those claims.

She repeated in a tone I can only describe as incredulous, “There’s nothing hard about keeping your house clean.”

I was getting angry. I could feel my face flushing and my breath deepening. “Well,” I said simply, “it is hard for me.”

“Why is it hard?” with the same incredulous, condescending tone.

“I just listed at least seven specific tasks that I find it hard to accomplish. I don’t really know what else you want me to say.”

“Soap and warm water,” she snapped. “That’s how you keep things clean! You can run the dishwasher before you go to bed if you can’t do it during bath time. Or do the dishes by hand. It’s not difficult.”

I don’t quite remember the exact order of the next part, but I do know that all of these things were said.

I told her that the management of those tasks and the mental work it took to get them all in order and the fact that the routine seems to change because of new life situations just as soon as I’ve gotten them hammered down makes it feel never ending and exhausting to me. I also said that I was insulted by the idea that this work wasn’t hard and was therefore “easy” because to me it smacked of a system that puts down work traditionally considered “women’s work” without valuing it. “If a CEO could manage that many different tasks and schedules successfully, he or she would be praised and paid for it, and the quality would be considered rare and valuable,” I added.

She cut me off: “You’re onto a different subject now. It sounds like you’re talking about feminism rather than your own issues.”

“I don’t see any separation between the two,” I responded.

At this point, she went on an extended rant (I really can’t think of a better word for it) that consisted of her telling me that she was a single mom who had to manage her whole household without the help of her husband (“not that he ever helped before we divorced”) and that I was lucky to have a husband who participates in housecleaning as if she could not believe a woman as “lucky” as me to have a partner who actually recognizes he has an equal responsibility in living in his own damned house could possible be overwhelmed by the tasks in front of her. Then she switched gears: “You know what I think hard work is?! Going into a coal mine every day and doing physical labor! That’s hard work! Keeping a house clean is not hard work!”

I was starting to turn from angry to amused, but I couldn’t quite get all the way there, so I was stuck somewhere between the two reactions. What in the world was this woman’s problem? “That’s a classic logical fallacy,” I said. “Just because there is something harder out there in the world doesn’t mean the thing we’re talking about is not hard.” I didn’t do it, but I thought about how I could have countered that coal mining was easy compared to being held captive as a child slave. It was a stupid, mean argument that left me feeling like there was no way forward in this conversation—or probably any other. 

“I’m feeling really attacked and like I’m not being heard here,” I thought she’d be proud of me for using my “I statement.” She was not.

“What I’m hearing from you,” she said, “is that you want to end this counseling relationship.”

I looked at her a second as she sat in her chair, posture straight and proper as ever, asking myself what could possibly have made her so upset in this conversation. This is a woman twice my age (in her 60s) who was ostensibly trained to handle people with major life issues, and I had clearly hit on some sort of sore point for her. There’s no way this reaction was warranted or logical. There’s no way she is trained to tell clients that their problems aren’t problems as a way of helping them be less stressed. I imagined myself responding similarly to a student who came in asking for my help. (“You think making an outline is hard?! Do you know how many outlines I’ve written in my life?! I had to write outlines before Microsoft Word did auto numbering! Don’t talk to me about hard!”)

“I guess so,” was all I said.

I reached for my purse and looked at her again, she was obviously angry and flustered. “Thank you for your help,” I said, meaning to sound sincere though I’m not sure how successful I was.

“You’re welcome,” she said, regaining some composure. “I do wish you the best.” It was a clipped sentence that she bit off quickly.

“I hope you get to get out and enjoy some of this nice weather,” I said, referring to our chitchat about the warm sunshine from the beginning of our session. I really did mean it. I was still angry, but I also felt bad for her. Obviously, something I’d said had ruffled her, and it hadn’t been my intention.

“I won’t,” she said. “I have to spend the evening doing a training.” It seemed like a weird detail to tell me.

Undaunted by her sour mood and always one to get in a joke where I can, I responded, “Well, you’ve got twenty extra minutes since I’m leaving early!”

“No. I have nothing but paperwork to do and notes to prepare.” I was out the door now. She was standing in the doorway.

“That sounds like hard work.” I probably shouldn’t have said it, but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe I need some counseling. “I hope no one tells you it’s easy and tries to devalue it.”

As I walked away, I heard her responding to my back, “Just because something is easy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. . .” But I was done.

On one hand, I feel like I wasted all that effort. I’m less stressed than I was two months ago, but I think it has everything to do with some positive changes to the actual things stressing me out and very little to do with those counseling sessions. I didn’t learn any new strategies to deal with the times when life does feel overwhelming, and I certainly didn’t gain an ongoing partnership with a professional to tackle them.

Worse still, her comments tapped into one of my deepest insecurities. There’s a large part of me that agrees with her. I have a loud internal voice that says those exact things to me all the time. Cleaning your own house shouldn’t be hard for you. These are simple tasks. Get it together. What’s wrong with you?

It’s a guilt and challenge that I already face, and it felt extra shitty to have it reinforced as valid by a professional.

Maybe she’s right and the enormity of the task as it exists in my head is a sign that I am somehow inadequate, lazy, or otherwise flawed. But that doesn’t make the thing I said at the beginning any less true: housekeeping is hard for me. It is a struggle that brings me persistent, regular doses of stress.

I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, and I also know that I’ve never made a hard task easier by pretending it wasn’t hard in the first place. It’s a good thing I wasn’t paying for those counseling sessions out of pocket because, if I had been, I would have been a whole lot better off just paying the professional organizer for some more of her time.

Maybe it was a matter of second-wave feminism coming up against third-wave feminism. Maybe it was anti-feminism coming up against feminism. Maybe I tapped into some personal hang up this woman had in her own life. I don’t know, but it feels like I stepped into a major rift without any warning, like hitting the drop off point when you’re wading in the ocean. 

I’ve spent the past few days going over the conversation again and again in my mind, but I have no clearer insight and no better strategies. 

And I still have to do the dishes tonight.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Advertising, Postmodernity, Greed, the Fourth Wall: Breaking Up with The Walking Dead

I am done with The Walking Dead. Like Scandal before it, it has come time for me to write a public break-up letter to a television series that has been able to count me among its many faithful viewers for years.

My husband has no problem breaking up with shows. He does it flippantly, like he's tossing out a crumpled paper cup.

The metaphoric aftermath of a night of my husband's Netflix surfing. 
For me, it hurts more. I feel invested. If I've been watching regularly, I've given you my time and attention, and that was a conscious choice. I believed in you, and I likely weathered through some rough patches (which I already wrote about with TWD), giving you the benefit of the doubt that the chemistry was momentarily off but that you would get it together eventually.

But I'm done with you, The Walking Dead.

The Season 6 finale with its maddening cliffhanger was the breaking point, and I will take with me the memories of a tightly-written, character-driven plot that drew me in but could not sustain itself. Or (as I will explore here in a moment) perhaps could have sustained itself but chose the route of greed and flash instead of art and respect for the viewer.

Spoilers for the Season 6 finale from here on out.

I am not the only fan who is disappointed. Here are some reactions from Twitter last night:

Many critics were likewise unimpressed. Writing for Vareity, Brian Lowry had this to say:
Still, to borrow one more baseball metaphor, with such a murderers’ row of aces in its bullpen, “The Walking Dead” shouldn’t have to resort to throwing the creative equivalent of junk pitches. And that’s why despite its highlights, the finale simply drove home the sense that while this season wasn’t a complete swing and a miss, those in charge continue to make aggravating unforced errors.
 Matt Fowler writes on IGN:
But to have the audience on the edge of their seats for so long and then NOT give them an answer? Well, that sucked. And, unfortunately, it's almost become textbook Walking Dead at this point.
Matt Brennan, in a review for The Week titled simply "The Walking Dead Season 6 Finale Was Really, Really Bad," said this:
After all that hype, Negan turns out to be a leather-clad lesson in overplaying your hand, delivering a risible monologue sprinkled with phrases like "pee-pee pants city." It's at once disappointing and unsurprising; it's rare for an episode this atrocious to pull off the necessary Hail Mary. Still, for Negan to fail so spectacularly to live up to the hype is like rubbing salt in the wound.
 Tim Surette writes for TV Guide that:
This was a mind game to The Walking Dead instead of a real story. Imagine how livid we'd be if Glenn was killed. We'd be lining up to see Season 7 to watch how Rick and the group got out of this situation, or how they'd retaliate. But nope, we're only lining up to find out who died, which is a completely different and entirely empty motivation for watching. 
But Surette ends by saying, "Sigh. It worked, though, and we'll be watching Season 7."  Other critics were harsher. David Sims at The Atlantic promises that this is:
certainly the end of my relationship with this show, a decision that was solidified by me catching the first few minutes of Talking Dead (the after-show debriefing that airs every week on AMC) and seeing the comic-book creator Roger Kirkman promise that Negan would drive The Walking Dead’s story for 'several seasons' to come.
I'm with Sims. I'm done.

I don't care who died. I don't care who lives or how they get revenge. I don't care about any of it anymore because the show runners have failed to hold up any respect for their viewers and have instead made it clear they see us as nothing more than mindless pawns that they can manipulate into clicking across their multiple platforms to feed them advertising dollars. I no longer have any faith that they care about the plot or the characters or the art at all, and it's an ugly thing.

In the same Atlantic discussion, Lenika Cruz writes that "Unfortunately, this last season of The Walking Dead points to the sad fact that the show views the question 'Who will die?' as its only narrative currency—" My focus is definitely on the word "currency." She mentions that other shows (like Game of Thrones, which is also in the midst of a gigantic fan-frenzy-filled cliffhanger) use that question to their advantage, but they respect the viewers enough to give us more than just that. The Walking Dead no longer shows that respect.

I'm also with Melissa Leon who calls the show "trolltastic." That's exactly how it feels. And it's not just the ending on a ridiculously overblown cliffhanger that has me feeling like I've been trolled. It's the entire atmosphere that has surrounded the show. If you watch The Walking Dead as it airs (the only way to avoid a social media swarm of spoilers), then you can't miss the commercials, and the commercials are desperate.

Between promotions for Fear the Walking Dead (a spinoff that isn't spinning off very well), interjections from Talking Dead, clips of Fear the Walking Dead's airplane sequence that's only available in one-minute bursts and has to be pieced together like a really boring jigsaw puzzle, promotions for the show's official online game app, and replays of the scene you just watched before the outcome of it has been resolved with a voice over telling you to tune in online to see how it was filmed, I don't know how they even manage to save space to sell to actual advertisers. It's clear that fan interaction with side products is a real (perhaps the real) motivating force for the show. (It's almost like someone running for president so he can hock his lines of steaks, but I digress.)

But when they do manage to make room for traditional commercials, the commercials are often trying to cash in on the loyalty and interests of TWD fan base. Several commercials have specifically had zombie tie-ins and references to the show and zombie culture. Everything from fitness bands to cars have been shoehorned into the theme.

I understand that a show needs to make money, but this obvious cash grab has to be balanced with the viewers' artistic needs.

Scott Gimple, the show's executive producer, is attempting to explain the cliffhanger and asking viewers to have faith in the show runners:
I think if you approach it from a place of skepticism or with the idea that there’s some sort of negative motivation or cynical motivation behind it — if you come at it that way it’s difficult to convince you otherwise. I do think we’ve done enough on the show, we’ve delivered a story that people have enjoyed.  
I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season 7 premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season 7 premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season 6 finale] sets up.
Fans don't owe that kind of dedication, especially when the fans' artistic needs have been neglected, and I suspect that they might have finally tipped the balance too far with this one. For one, the show hasn't been enjoyable for me for the entire season. Watching it with all the interruptions has made the suspension of disbelief necessary to get lost in the fantasy world absolutely impossible. How am I supposed to be concerned about the characters' fate when I'm being interrupted by a "see how this scene got made" promo merely moments after it happens? You're not even giving me the illusion of a narrative escape. And for what? The off-chance that I will go click on the website? Don't you think I can find that on my own if I really want it?

I'm reminded so often that I'm watching a show while watching The Walking Dead that it has become an exercise in postmodern meta-ness. All of the commercials for the side gigs create an ever-growing web of interconnected marketing ploys that I can see as nothing other than marketing ploys. I'm not asking interesting questions about the characters and their motivations or futures. I'm just swatting annoying distractions away until the show comes back on. It's like watching TV in a room full of giant gnats. It's not fun, and it's not heart-wrenching. It's just annoying.

When the fourth wall is broken for the sake of narrative complexity and formal experimentation, I'm all about it.

But when the fourth wall is broken so that you can sell a couple more downloads of your gaming app, I'm out.

I sincerely hope that The Walking Dead's commercial success is not a harbinger of the TV to come. I love television as a narrative tool, and I think that some of our best writing and art is coming through the medium, but if we don't find a way to balance the interests of greed and artistic development, that wave may have hit its high water mark, and I fear that the aftermath will be nothing but gross remnants of decay left on the shore.

So, I didn't mean to make this post sound so melodramatic, but I guess that's where we are: Save TV. Break up with The Walking Dead. 

Images: Rene Schwietzke, weisserstier

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rolling Apples: Far From the Tree Makes Me Break My Parenting Silences

I am writing this at 1:30 in the morning on top of an opened copy of the book Far From the Tree. I’ve only made it 26 pages in (or virtually none of this 900-page tome), but what I’ve read so far has left me with that itchy feeling in my fingers and brain that I’ve come to recognize as a clear message: go ahead and write or you’re not sleeping.

Far From the Tree is a critically-acclaimed book that examines the stories of parents and children who differ in significant ways. If “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” these are the stories that prove exceptions. Author Andrew Solomon profiles parents of children with disabilities, children who have committed atrocious crimes, children who are prodigies, children who are transgendered, and more. In this first chapter, he has also woven his own story into the fabric of the book, explaining that his identity as gay was one that his own parents never quite accepted even though they loved him and wanted him to be happy.

He talks of vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identities are the ones that are passed down through generations and genetics, racial identity is typically vertical. He also cites religious and cultural practices. Horizontal identities are the ones that we have to find outside of our biological family because they are the places in which we differ from our kin. Instead, we find ourselves seeking these “families” in peer groups. He places his own identity as gay as vertical (since he was born to heterosexual parents) and cites deaf children born to parents who can hear and child prodigies who are much more intellectually advanced than their parents among those who have to seek their identity peer group horizontally.

It’s so far a fascinating read, and I am a little worried how hard I am going to have to work to not sit here and read all 900 pages while shirking my other duties (including the biological ones like sleeping), but right now, I need to write.

The thing that has me furiously typing is a quote from the book that I have now returned to six times:

"We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Noble Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask particle-like questions, and a wave if we ask wavelike questions. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanged identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness."

There are several reasons that this passage has been drawing me back again and again (not the least of which is that this passage is so rife with the agonism that I spent the past few years writing a dissertation about), but the main thing that I want to talk about in this post is how it has me wanting to come out of the shadows about the position I’m in as a parent of a child that is both an apple close to and far from the tree, a rolling apple who I love very much and whose happiness and future path to fulfillment has become the primary driving force of many of my daily decisions.

I don’t talk about this much, and this is hard for me to write.

Writing and spilling it all for the world to see is a cathartic practice for me, and it’s what made me start this blog those six (six!) long years ago in the first place. I don’t hide many skeletons in my closet feeling very strongly that the skeletons are a lot less menacing when they’re out in the sunlight. It’s there that they often turn to dust, and what once seemed terrifying and heavy becomes light and blows away. Since this blog began when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and since its earliest themes were squarely rooted in my burgeoning identity as a mother (and what that meant for the intersection with my identities as a feminist, wife, scholar, and professional), I wrote about my daughter a lot in those early years. I wrote about uncomfortable interactions surrounding her biracial identity, choices I made as to what she was allowed to watch on television, and struggles I faced when it came to negotiating parenting in an equally shared marriage. I wrote about my daughter, but mainly because I was writing about myself.

In those earliest years, I also posted pictures of my daughter and used a lot of personal details, but the anonymity of the Internet also makes it cruel, and the cruelest comments coincided with my daughter’s burgeoning maturity. It was much harder to write about her as this somewhat-abstract quality in my own life without fully considering the way that writing nibbled at the edges of a story that wasn’t mine to tell: her story. I stopped posting pictures publicly. I pulled back on the personal details in stories. I still talked about parenting, but it was always in a more distanced, buffered way. I found it harder and harder to talk about my specific experiences as a parent without talking about her specific experiences as not only my child, not only a child, but also just an individual person with her own right to negotiate privacy, sharing, and communication.

And because of those decisions, I have left out a lot of my experiences from this public platform. I have made a few one-line references to the fact that my daughter has had some behavioral issues. I have shared some funny anecdotes of her “spirited” personality. I have given cautious glimpses of some of the intense moments of my daily life that make parenting both an amazing well of inspiration and a tremendous drain on my emotional strength. But I have not talked about specifics. I have not waded into the waters of terminology or diagnoses. And I have done so not because I am ashamed but because I cannot at this moment tell where my story ends and hers begins.

Perhaps that’s because there is no such seam. She is five. She is old enough to have the autonomy to get herself strawberries from the refrigerator, pull the step stool from the wall, wash them, and eat them, but not yet old enough to remember to pick up all the discarded stems strewn about the floor like Hantzel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs leading to her book fort. She is mature enough to make insightful commentary about the nature of forgiveness and social pecking orders but still too immature to understand that the other children on the playground might not want to play her game and that doesn’t mean they “hate” her. 

When she has a public meltdown that has everyone in the vicinity staring at me like I have just severed someone’s limb in the middle of aisle 6 and am now holding it gleefully above my head just to disrupt their shopping trip, I feel very much like it is my story, like I am the one in the spotlight. But I know that later (sometimes only moments later), I will be holding a little girl who is spilling her deepest insecurities at my feet and trusting me to hold them safely for her until she can take them back, one by one, and process them. When I am getting phone calls from the school that give me actual anxiety attacks at work about her behavior at school, it feels like my story to tell, but I can’t separate that moment of dread in my belly as I sit in my office from the fact that my daughter (so little with such big emotions) is sitting a mile away with her own dread settling over her.

There has been no clear division separating her from me or me from her in this story, and so I have told almost none of it.

If I were a different kind of person, I think I would continue this way. I don’t think this story needs to be told in the sense that it is all that unique or all that earth shattering. But I am not a different kind of person. I am the kind of person who processes through dialogue, who shares, who finds strength in telling her own story and watching it form for an audience, who drags skeletons out of the closet and into the sunlight as a source of power. The fact that I have kept choking this one back down has been painful, and it’s been a pain I have felt that I was supposed to endure.

But parts of Far From the Tree have me questioning that impulse.

At one point, Solomon writes of his own mother’s aversion to his identity as gay and says this: 
“The problem wasn’t that she wanted to control my life—although she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter. Unfortunately, there was no way for her to fix her problem without involving me.”

Elsewhere, he says of parents who have learned to accept vertical identities: 
“Broadcasting these parents’ learned happiness is vital to sustaining identities that are now vulnerable to eradication. Their stories point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family. It’s important to know how autistic people feel about autism, or dwarfs about dwarfism. Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform.”
Later, talking about the disability rights movement, he says that the movements “seeks, at the most basic level, to find accommodations of difference rather than erasure of it.”

And that, essentially, is what my silence has been doing. I have been erasing part of my own child’s identity because it has been labeled an illness. This brings me back to that first quote above and how both identity and illness can be found in the same quality but that trying to define it as one or the other can obscure and narrow the definition.

My daughter, after years of behavioral struggles punctuated with intense bursts of intellectual acceleration, has been diagnosed as having ADHD, giftedness, and some other cognitive struggles. The term most commonly used for this cluster of issues is “twice exceptionality,” which means that she scores above-average in some areas while showing delays or deficiencies in others. It is not, by a long shot, a worst-case scenario. She has amazing strengths that continue to blossom every day, but she also has challenges that are starting to show themselves as hurdles to educational environments and societal norms that present themselves as particularly challenging mazes.

And since at this point in her life I cannot untangle her story from mine, her challenges have also become my challenges. I am faced daily with questions about which aspects of my daughter’s many qualities to try to amplify and which to attempt to “cure,” through medicine, discipline, or otherwise. Which of her quirks and differences are to be carefully nurtured to their greatest potential and which are to be pruned or stunted until they fade to the background? And am I under delusions to think that I have control over these outcomes at all? And if I am not delusional about my level of control, what ethical right do I have to choose for her how to balance them out before she has the chance to weigh them for herself? More practically, how do I ensure she is in a supportive environment at home that allows her to master all of the skills she needs, not just those she naturally excels at honing? And, more difficultly, how do I make sure that environment extends to the educational setting she spends so much of her day inhabiting—environments where I am not present?

It’s this last one that has been such a conundrum. If I want her to get the accommodations that I think she truly needs to thrive in a school environment, she has to have a label. My life has become an alphabet soup of IEPs, ADHD, OT, PT, with a smattering of 504 thrown in to keep it interesting. High academic test scores become an ironic hindrance that somehow “prove” she doesn’t need help even as she sobs uncontrollably after yet another day of being a “bad” girl at school.

Parenting my daughter has challenged every assumption I ever made about parenting in ways good and bad. I have bent where I thought I never would and grown where I didn’t know I could. I have felt joy and pride deeper than I knew imaginable and felt shame and guilt that sliced like a knife. And I am only five years in. And I am starting all over with a whole new apple in two months that will undoubtedly throw me for loops in entirely different directions.

But this is my promise, today, to stop trying to hide this ever-growing bag of complications I’m carrying behind me. I believe it fully possible to respect my daughter’s right to tell her own story, to parcel out her own secrets, while still telling mine. Not only will I be, as Solomon so eloquently describes, a better advocate with her when my truth is laid bare, but I will also be a better knower of that truth because throwing it out here for the world to see makes me see it clearer, too. That is, after all, what most memoir is about, and it is, I suspect, why Andrew Solomon took on the massive project of Far From the Tree in the first place: to find his own truth about his struggles by throwing it out in the public eye.

I do not know which pieces of this I am getting right, but I do know that I am trying and that acceptance and love are at the foundational core of every parenting decision that I make. My daughter may be a rolling apple who visits pastures I cannot understand, but I think this tree has branches wide enough to cover her there.  

Friday, March 18, 2016

What I Learned By Hiring a Professional Organizer for a Day

I stared at the empty Google search bar.

"organizing . . ."

It started to autofill: "Organizing tips." "Organizing books." "Organizing utility totes." All reasonable guesses, Google, but I was in too deep. 

I had read all the "tips" I could handle. There are no amount of pretty Pinterest pins or Life Hacks posts that are going to get me out of this one. As for books, I'd Marie Kondoed the whole place and was left with decidedly (and marginally satisfactorily) less stuff but no more order. And at this point another organizing "tote" or "bag" or "basket" or "miracle device" would just be one more thing I had to find a place for, and I couldn't do it. 

"organizing services st. louis" 

I completed the query and read through the results. They were all cheery and full of before and after pictures designed to make me feel like even my mess was manageable. I browsed for a few minutes, looked over price estimates where available, and then closed the computer. 

"This is ridiculous," I muttered to myself. "I can clean my own damned house." 

But the truth is, I can't.

In the strictest of senses, that's not entirely true. I have cleaned my own damned house. I do it every day. I do it in big ways (tearing everything out of a closet, sorting it into piles of trash, donate, and keep, and putting what's left back in) and I do it in small ways (all those mundane tasks of domesticity). But it was always temporary, and not just in the sense that it would, inevitably, get dirty again (although, yes. That, too). It was temporary in the sense that the things I had put up were perched on the edges of imbalance and seemed absolutely poised to spring back into chaos at the slightest provocation. 

Exhibit A: My daughter is a voracious crafter. She creates approximately two million drawings a day, and they have taken over multiple rooms in our house. After Pinterest told me to hang up ribbons to display them, I thought I had a solution, and I gladly gave over some wall space to support her burgeoning interests. 

But that did nothing to tame the supplies. Pencils, markers, crayons, paper, scissors, glue sticks with lids we'd never see again, glitter that would invade every crevice in the hardwood floors, feathers, sequins, and beads would not be contained by bins or reduced by willpower. So I reorganized, with what I thought was intention and planning, a hutch in the dining room until it contained all of the craft supplies. I stepped back from gorgeously organized drawers (one for each type of item) and clean shelves of neatly stacked materials. 

It stayed that way for hours. Of course, they were hours that my daughter was not home. Once she got home, it stayed that way for about thirty-two seconds. 

I have similar tales of woe from other such organizational attempts. I'd read online about how to keep socks matched or Tupperware containers forever linked to their lids, and I'd implement system after system to have it last less than a day. It's demoralizing. 

And the fact that I am about to bring an entire extra human being into this two-bedroom, one-bathroom space had me in more than a bit of a panic. So I opened the computer up and went back to the list of organizing services. 

I called and made an appointment. I talked to a very nice lady, and we made plans to use one of the days of my spring break to "put some systems in place" that would help. I was . . . skeptical. I was also mildly ashamed and frustrated with myself. It felt like a waste of money we didn't really have to spare. It felt like an unnecessary luxury that someone living a life that isn't at all like mine pampers herself with. It felt, also, like defeat. 

I almost canceled three times. 

In the weeks leading up to our meeting, I continued to declutter in some bizarre anti-nesting nesting. I  threw away and donated without a second thought. Shelves cleared, drawers emptied, and spaces opened, but I refused to put anything in them. It is obvious to me at this point that I can't be trusted with empty spaces. I don't know how to treat them well. I would wait until someone who could justify charging me money for her advice came in to fill them. 

When she arrived at my house, I was nervous. I felt like I didn't have the kind of house professional organizers came to, and I worried she would sense my undeserving qualities. If she felt that way, it did not show. A professional. 

The moment she walked in, I greeted her and then said, "I'm going for function, not form. I don't care if it's pretty. I don't need a single thing in my house to look like it could go in a magazine photo shoot. I just want things to work." 

She asked for a wish list of what we would accomplish over our four and a half hours together. I could tell by her face that my list was too long, but I gave it all anyway: I wanted the craft area I had built in the dining room to function without my daughter having to get everything she owned out to find one pink crayon, I wanted the "bonus room" we'd used for nothing but storage to have some functionality as a nursery or at least a space that makes me feel like bringing a baby home from the hospital is not an insane idea, I wanted a kitchen with cabinets that look like they were not filled haphazardly by a malfunctioning robot using some sort of color coding system designed by three different people who had never spoken to each other and who each suffered from a separate color blindness condition, and I wanted to be able to put dirty laundry somewhere other than the middle of my bedroom floor. 

I've always dreamed big. 

It was clear she knew this was too much, so she asked me to just pick a room. I chose the "bonus room," and that's where we began. But we were in there about two minutes before it became obvious to me that in order to move things out of that room, we'd have to tackle the bedroom closet, and in order to tackle the bedroom closet, we'd have to tackle the closet in my daughter's room, and in order to tackle that, we would have to tackle her toy boxes on the floor. This is the point I had gotten to on my own several times. Everything was connected in some microcosmic web that I could never untangle. My mind always shorted out when I could see more than two major moves necessary to get a task accomplished. Maybe this is why I suck at chess. 

Maybe she could see the sparks of terror flying behind my eyes, or maybe I just looked like a squirrel that was about to get creamed by a truck even though it should have been fully capable of jumping out of the way, but she grabbed her giant trash and recycle canisters, moved them into the other room, and said cheerily, "Let's go." I obeyed. 

A portrait of the author, mid project. 
Over the next four and a half hours, we tackled every single thing on my wish list. Sure, we left a path of debris in our wake. In the interest of time, I told her to pile up things we needed to toss out or sort. Once I could see the bones of the system she was building, it was good enough for me, and I asked to move on. I needed a lot of bones. 

When she left, my house was not yet clean, but there were fully four entire rooms that I could walk into and feel calm. That has never happened. Not ever. 

I definitely felt that the investment was worth the money and time, and I will consider it again in the future. In the meantime, I've been reflecting on the experience and have pulled out a couple of lessons that I hope I can put into use. 

There are Different Types of Clutter

One thing that was obvious was that the organizer is used to having to coax people into getting rid of their junk. She had tons of bags that she anticipated filling with trash and items to donate, but we only filled a few of them. This is because hanging onto things that I don't need is not my problem. My house is not too cluttered because I can't throw away a broken baby toy or part with old dishes when I get new ones. If anything, I might be on the other side of that divide, getting rid of some things a little too quickly (as the need to buy all of the baby stuff all over again is illustrating to me right now). 

But my house was still cluttered. Why? Because we had let things collect in spaces that didn't make sense, and it's all because of the way we moved into this house. When we came here, there were rooms we didn't even need to use. We had moved as newlyweds from a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen too small to hold both of us (not hold both of us comfortably, just hold both of us at all). We had no children. We didn't even have a dog yet. We had spent the last six years as students who had no money, so we had very few permanent things. Our couch was a futon. Our bed was two decades old. 

We put a bunch of stuff in the "spare" rooms because it was easier than really sorting it and making it work in the rooms we did use. Then those rooms became needed. We bought real furniture and needed someplace to put the futon. We got a dog and needed a place to put the dog crate. We had a baby, and she needed a place to sleep. That baby grew into a toddler, and she needed a place to put her one little box of toys. That toddler became a preschooler and she took over our entire house with glitter, dolls, and rocks like the inverse of a plague of a locusts. I took up roller derby and had a box of gear. My husband took up boxing and had a box of gear. We both got too busy for these hobbies and had boxes of gear we weren't even using. 

With each new round of stuff, we found corners to stack them and closets to cram them, and we never stopped to think about the logic of the locations. We were still working from the base we had built years ago when we first moved in, a base that had made sense for two newlyweds with no things and barely any responsibilities, a base that made no sense for our current lives. 

This is a lot of what the organizer spent her time doing. There were a lot of raised eyebrows as she held up a wayward item. "Is this the room you use this in?" she'd ask, holding my husband's shoes she'd found in my daughter's closet, knowing full well the answer was no. "No," I'd respond sheepishly. "And what about this?" she'd ask as she held up a bag of dish towels she'd found in the bedroom. "No," I'd whisper. 

The clutter wasn't because we had too much stuff. It was because the stuff was not in a logical home. That was the reason why it stayed cluttered no matter how many times I purged and sorted. I was only purging and sorting one place at a time, and so the root problem remained rooted. 

Shelves Don't Have to Be Full 

This is probably the most valuable lesson. Because I've spent so long feeling cluttered and overwhelmed by my spaces, I've always seen storage space as prime real estate that must be built up to its greatest potential. I was like an urban developer who could only envision sky scrapers and maximizing the amount of office space I could rent out. 

I filled every shelf, cabinet, closet rack, etc. to its absolute carrying capacity. Anything less felt like a waste. This was particularly true of hidden spaces that would only be seen by the family. These seemed like treasures that had to be completely packed in order to make room for the spaces on the outside. 

This was flawed logic, as the organizer showed me. The more crammed the space was, the more likely it was that whoever needed to get something out of it (especially if that "someone" was five years old) would throw every single thing in the drawer or shelf on the floor. This is why my new craft section wasn't working. If my daughter wanted a pink sparkly sheet of paper (and of course she did), she had to dig until she found it. That meant that she left a trail of crayons, scraps of paper, and knick knacks behind her. For the shelves to work, they needed to appear to my untrained eyes completely wasted. 

But that's the way they need to be if they're going to actually be useful. I just have to let go and accept it. 

Embrace the Domino Effect

Another useful part of this experience was having someone who wasn't afraid to tackle it all at once. I would have never been willing to destroy the "order" in four entire rooms in one day without someone else taking the reins. It is too overwhelming to me, and I would have been a hyperventilating mess sitting cross-legged in a pile of old clothes with no idea what to do next. The fact that the things needed to be rearranged so significantly that each room's solution was dependent on the other was something I had to accept. In the past, I had always tried to fight it, and in the past, it had always failed. 

As we were working, I kept thinking about that scene in The Hunger Games where they're making over Katniss and scrub her clean and bare to get her to "beauty base zero." I needed "clean base zero" before I could do anything else. It is an exhausting thought, but it is crucial. 

Don't Underestimate an Hour

This one is going to sound like it contradicts the last point, but it really doesn't. In the past, I'd always thought that I needed big, full-day cleaning spurts in order to make any progress. If I only had a couple of hours to spare (which is just about the most I ever get), then it didn't seem worth the effort. Why start cleaning if you can't finish, I'd reason. 

But now that something close to clean base zero has been established, smaller projects are definitely worth an hour or even thirty minutes. I can clean out an entire junk drawer in an hour. I can sort through a pile of papers in thirty minutes. 

My mindset has shifted in that I'm not feeling so all-or-nothing about the endeavor, and that gives me some hope that the results might actually last. 

Accept the Kind of Person I Am (And Hire Help Sooner)

I am a very organized person . . . as long as what I'm organizing is ideas in a paper, lesson plans for a class, or some other text-based, project-focused result. 

I am not a person who is good at spatial reasoning and figuring out where things best belong to make a house function. It's not a skill set I have. It's perhaps something I could get better at, but only marginally. 

I can't stand in a doorway and imagine how to rearrange a room. The only way I can rearrange a room is to physically move all of the pieces of furniture and then decide if I like them. If I don't, the only way I can fix it is to physically move them all some other way. It is the most exhausting slide puzzle of all time. 

I also don't have the kind of mind that thinks of food or clothes in "stations." The organizer did. She started separating my canned goods by the likelihood of their use. She sectioned off the grains and the rice. She arranged the clothes by the order you grab them in the morning. She was like a magic fairy. 

It made me think about how great it would have been if she'd been there with me when we first moved into the house. She could have set up those systems when the house was truly at clean base zero: empty. 

If I ever get the opportunity to move again, I think I'm going to calculate this cost into the moving expenses. It seems like a much smarter way to get off to the right start. 

What about you? Have you ever used an organizing service? Do you have one of those magical brains that can just make things work? What lessons have you learned from trying to manage a house and the stuff that goes in it?