I Thought It Was Just Me
The quiet crisis of women who have no right to complain.
I turned fifty in the middle of my husband’s two-year unemployment. Three of our four kids were in college. Our youngest was in middle school, still in need of braces, algebra tutoring, and sports equipment. Already skint from the economic downturn and a couple of international moves, the unemployment left us financially, mentally, and emotionally drained. But we were able to keep the house. We were lucky.
Around this time, I could no longer rely on my body. I suffered from bouts of searing back pain. My bladder went on strike, demanding a mesh hammock. My female bits decided that they, too, had been overworked and under-appreciated. They wanted attention. From dodgy mammograms, ovarian cysts, random tumors, and a syndrome that, among other unpleasantries, gives me a five o’clock shadow, the stalwart organs that had served me well for decades were now giving me a run for my money (literally). But I didn’t have cancer. I was lucky.
This past year, my husband suffered a heart attack while on business in Mexico. He survived the heart attack but suffered a stroke post-surgery. I stood by his side as he relearned how to swallow and walk and lift a glass. He still can’t smile with both sides of his mouth, talk much above a loud whisper, or button his shirts. He will never know the joy of tossing his grandchildren into the air. But he didn’t die. We are lucky.
With all the stops and starts of tending to others, I struggle to keep my business afloat. In the middle of the night, I stare at the ceiling agonizing over my choices. When do I give up on the dream? Should I call it quits? Isn’t finding a ‘real job’ the most responsible thing to do? But if I quit, what am I modeling for my children? Could I live with the grief of giving up a business I birthed and loved heart and soul for over a decade?
What if mine is to become the success story women-of-a-certain-age can’t get enough of? The story that clutches our throat, wets our eyes, and has us slow clapping as the background music swells, crying out, ‘Way to go, Paula, way to go!’; the success story where the heroine refuses to surrender despite circumstances, obstacles, age spots, and those weird grey hairs that grow overnight on her forehead. Can I give up on my dream?
The truth is, wrestling the decision to utilize my innate gifts or get a 9–5 job shames me. It is the problem of a privileged woman who lives in a safe, leafy suburb, who has an education and health insurance. I am lucky.
My parents, both in their mid-80’s, have faced challenges. But we are lucky. They are still sharp as tacks. Across the pond, cancer took the life of our best friend. He was much too young to die. But we are lucky. We were able to say goodbye. Our marriage is strained as we navigate new normals after my husband’s stroke. But we are lucky. We still like each other. We walk an emotional tightrope parenting wildly different and independent kids. But we are lucky. They are good kids. My face is ashen, my eyes bloodshot, and I’m thick in the middle. But I’m lucky. I don’t look ‘too’ old.
There is a crisis of women who silently endure grief, exhaustion, fear, anxiety, disappointment, panic, caregiving, menopause, and sleepless nights. Our lives look too idyllic from the outside. We have no right to complain.
When you are depleted from code red, high-alert parenting, or changing your parent’s diapers or you are one ‘check engine’ light away from losing your house, running into an acquaintance is horrifying. Answering the innocuous question, ‘How are you?’ is like playing Emotional Breakdown Roulette: Will you lose your shit or will your emotions play nice and stay below the surface?
No one wants to ugly cry in CVS holding a plastic basket full of Cheetos, lube, scotch tape, lipstick, and wrinkle cream. Better to deep dig, pray for strength, smile, talk about how lucky you are, and change the subject.
Women share their deepest heartbreak and fears, making sure to buffer their pain with gratitude because, well, no one likes a whiner. We don’t want to be judged for complaining. We have a beautiful home and a nice car; that should be enough to keep us happy. We should be grateful. We shouldn’t need more.
Answering the innocuous question, ‘How are you?’ is like playing Emotional Breakdown Roulette: Will you lose your shit or will your emotions play nice and stay below the surface?
‘I lost my job after fifteen years with the company. But I’m lucky. I got a severance package.’ ‘My brother is suing me for guardianship of my mother so he can put her in a home and sell the house. But I’m lucky. I have good friends to lean on.’ ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the death of my daughter. But I’m lucky. I’ve poured myself into her foundation.’ ‘Between caregiving for both my parents with Alzheimer’s and getting my daughter into rehab, I hardly have a moment to myself. But I’m lucky. My boss hasn’t fired me.’
From the outside, no one, including our loved ones, may notice anything is off. Women often massage heartbreak, fear, panic, regret, and anxiety into the soft edges of parenting, entertaining, meetings, caregiving, workouts, laundry, dentist appointments, and grocery shopping. We cry in the shower. We wander mindlessly through the aisles of Target. We lie awake at night.
T-Ann is a cognitive-behavioral practitioner and life coach. She and her daughter recently co-founded The Confidence Triangle, a premier confidence training program for girls. Their mission is to equip girls with the tools and strategies to create a lifetime of strength, resilience, and happiness. T-Ann and her husband have four kids and are so close to being empty nesters they can smell it. She loves the sun on her cheeks and sand between her toes. Her desert island necessity is Skippy Peanut butter. Creamy.
Contact T-Ann Pierce.