How Did They (Do We) Do It?

I often wonder how mothers of our mothers did it. In the age of keeping up appearances and, in the generation before that, of simply surviving.

There were no therapists, no LICSWs, no yoga retreats and meditation circles. There was no opportunity for a facial and hot stone massage. There was no medication to make the pain go away – except for those self-prescribed.

There was alcohol sipped in secret. There was valium – and laudanum in the early days. There might be lashing out at the children when the husband or society did the same to them.  Catholics might find solace in confession – if the guilt of their perceived shortcomings and ungrateful attitude didn’t keep them away.

I wonder how many women thought they were flawed because they didn’t love the life handed to them.  That they were failures because they didn’t find rearing children and keeping house easy.

But that’s not even the point.

Mothers today still flounder with the many resources available to them.

How the hell did women of previous generations keep it together?

Was it the lack of a pervasive media that kept us from hearing about children murdered by their own mother’s hand? Did bubbling anger dissipate through more readily accepted floggings? Were extended family and neighbors more readily available and willing to step in and pick up slack?

Did women suffer in silence?

I wonder how many women devolved into mental illness from the stress of responsibility, relentless duty, stifled desires. I wonder how many Academy Award worthy actresses were forged in the face of an uninterested audience.

And what do we do for them now? How do we celebrate the uncelebrated?

By feeling guilty as hell that we don’t like this comparatively golden portion we’ve been dealt?

Or by saturating the dry earth of hopelessness with resources for women struggling with themselves, with motherhood, with life?

Part of me yearns for the ironclad persona of the women and mothers of my thrice-removed family. But another more unwilling part realizes that armor came at a merciless price. Not only are these women I cannot question because of space and time, but because they would never answer. Perhaps one small admittance would open the chink that would crumble the entire suit. They would never take that chance. Nor would society let them. They did what they had to because there was no other choice. Their own mothers had it hard and so, then, would they.

I wonder if in this age of modern convenience we have too much time on our hands to ponder our existence. However, I’d like to think, even amidst the stirring of lye and slaying of chickens, our female forebears wondered the same things. They probably wouldn’t have lived so fiercely if they hadn’t.

How do we live fiercely in their honor while fighting for what we all need?

All the Rage

In the months that followed the birth of my third child, and things got increasingly harder rather than easier, I joked that it was a good thing I was nursing since, otherwise, I’d be a raging alcoholic.

It wasn’t until months later that I realized how true that statement was.

Per what seems to be an emerging theme (re: pertinent, but heretofore hidden, family mental health history), I’ve been learning more and more of the role – genetic and otherwise – that alcoholism has played in my family.

Several relatives on both my maternal and paternal sides, going one, two, three generations back, have suffered from alcoholism.  Or mental illness resulting in alcoholism.

There are a few instances, at least, in which I know that relatives ingested alcohol as a means of self-medication (which apparently research has shown men are more likely to do than seek out professional help).  I can’t speak to the exact motivation as it wasn’t mine, but I wonder if it had something to do with an admittance of a problem, a need for help, being seen as a sign of weakness.  Or the oblivion of an alcoholic high allowing one to deny the pain or problem in the first place.

Receiving the various members of a raucous family after a long, exhausting day, sitting down to a dinner made in fits and starts, complained about for not having the right ingredients or all the wrong ones, enduring the wall of noise, the interrupted conversations, the fights, the ignored directions and requests, knowing an hour of wrestling wily alligators into pajamas and bed lies between you and relaxation – that goes down much easier with a side of adult beverage.

But when I found that it wasn’t just easier, but more enjoyable; that I was in a better mood, an altered mood, with alcohol, I began to wonder if there was a problem if I needed a drink to enjoy it, not just endure it.

Then one day, after a heinous day at home – not that the behavior of the children was exceptionally horrible, but my state of mind certainly was – I opened the fridge to get probably the two-hundred-and-fifty-seventh cup of chocolate milk of the day and saw a lone bottle of beer left from the weekend.  It was mid-afternoon, not five o’clock somewhere.  It wasn’t a hot summer day.  I hadn’t just picked up some salty smattering of take-out.  I knew if I drank it then, I’d be drinking it for all the wrong reasons.

Sure, it would be a treat like the bowl of ice cream I’d savor on the couch after the kids went to bed.  But just like I shouldn’t reward myself with food, so I shouldn’t soothe myself with beverage.

When I made that ill-fated joke way back when, my father shot right back at me with a quick retort.

“You know that saying, ‘You kids are driving me to drink’?  There’s a reason for it.”

It’s easy to fall prey to the societal more that a tough day deserves a drink.  It’s also important to know your family history and your own limitations and take those into account.  I’m so paranoid and so self-aware and nursed for so damn long 😉 that I don’t think I’d let alcohol become a problem.  But does anyone with a drinking problem set out with that goal in mind?

Some of the happiest drunks I’ve known were the ones with the deepest hurts inside.  Hopefully someday there’ll be a way to heal all the psychological and physical ailments of alcoholism.

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