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.