Catastrophic Happiness


I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I started obsessing — maybe it was around the time both of my girls were fully enrolled in middle school, which was right about the time the feeling of clutching their hands on the way to the elementary school bus stop began to fade, no matter how hard I tried to conjure it. I began obsessing about those little hands, and, more to the point, about my daughters leaving me. Even though they are only 12 and 14. Even though they still (for the most part) enjoy hanging out with us. Even though I know deep down that our kids never truly leave us, and, on the flip-side, that leaving us is kinda the whole point. Maybe it’s because their middle school is attached to the high school, so at least a few times a week, I sit in my car at pick-up, waiting for the girls to emerge, while also watching the strange species of high schoolers amble by. How can I be closer to that I think, looking at a menacing man-child — who better be the school’s linebacker, and whose only crime is that he grew up like he was supposed to — than I am to those sweet hand-holding bus stop years?

In her new essay collection, Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman — beloved Ben & Birdy blogger and Motherlode contributor — summarizes my state in one sentence.

I live in anticipation of my own broken heart.

It is written in the context of parenthood in general, referring to how uncomfortably close joy and loss ride together, from the moment we swaddle those babies in their starchy pink-and-blue striped hospital blankets. But until recently, I’ve always been pretty excellent at denial, preferring to focus on stuffing the permission slip in the backpack, or registering for the right camp, or getting dinner on the table, or checking things off The List, rather than deal with questions like, say, “How much of my identity is tethered to my children?” or “What happens when they don’t need me anymore?”

Newman, our generation’s Poet Laureate of Parenthood, was just being her typical lyrical self and is most definitely not in the business of dispensing “parenting advice” in the traditional sense. But this observation (and zillions more in her essays) had the effect of a diagnosis: Now that my ailment has a name, I can figure out a way to treat it.

The way to treat this, Newman infers, without hitting you over the head with it, is not to stop obsessing. Obsessing, worrying, suffering — these are the messy realities of being a parent. It’s what we signed up for. In one essay, she discovers a strange lump on her daughter’s chest which turns out to be nothing, but before she knows this, Catherine chronicles her quick, deep spiral to devastation. Every parent knows that feeling, but I’m not sure every parent would have this to say about it: “Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose. I understand all at once the title of a Zen book I haven’t even read: Full Catastrophe Living. That’s what I’m doing. It’s the full catastrophe, and I’m in it, and if I wait for it to be over, well, it will be over.”

In other words, it occurs to me that as I sit in my car at pick-up in my existential panic — likely the most privileged strain of panic there is — I have somehow lost sight of the fact that I’m at pick-up. I’m here now. Why am I letting today be so dominated by tomorrow?

This moment of Zen was very definitely brought to you by Catherine Newman…But! The book is not all existentialism and enlightenment. Anyone who has regularly read her blog or her essays, knows how deft she is at being sentimental without being sappy, at being wise without being condescending, and, most important, being freaking hilarious. But since there may be one or two of you out there who haven’t, I thought I’d offer a mini sampler:

Catherine Newman on her kids:

I feel about the children sometimes the way I used to feel about our tabby cat, Tiny. I used to look at him blinking slowly in the sun, or lifting his hind foot to chew at his toes with his miniscule front teeth, and I’d think Why is he even living here with us? We have so little in common.

On things getting better: (For those of you with new babies, both the introduction and conclusion is devoted to this conceit, one example more hopeful than the next, but this one made me laugh the hardest)

Even though you’re older, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will all simply get out of the car and walk inside!…They will buckle their own seat belts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them from their high chairs to the floor like drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels.

On dinner:

There are measurable benefits to dinner-table conversation. It’s a natural check on overeating, for example. Even if you’re talking and eating at the same time, you simply can’t generate the same spaghetti-shoveling velocity that you could if you were eating silently.  Plus, I’m sure it’s good for mental health, for social health, for learning how to become a good date—although, my god, I’ll miss them when there’s someone they’re dating besides us. It’s a reminder too that I have to pay attention. Those conversations when the kids are trying to tell me something but I don’t close my laptop long enough to look them in the eye and listen? Let me tell you how much I remember about those: nothing. But some of it is immeasurable too. What deep conversation gives us is time to stop and appreciate how much we have right now even as we imagine, deliriously, that it could go on forever.

On manners:

Then again, we endorse some unorthodox practices about politeness. I feel for example, that when you plunk a steaming buttered ear of it on your child’s plate and he cries, “Oooooh — yum! Corn on the cob!” this is just as good as, if not better than a plain old “Thank you.” I also think that the pleasure of eating cold green salad with your fingers cannot be overestimated, and at home this is a perfectly acceptable dinnertime behavior. As is resting a comfortable bare knee against the edge of the table, the better to brace yourself while you tug enthusiastically at a sparerib with teeth and hands. (These are what we call the home-alone rules.)

On the daily hypocrisy of motherhood:

It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all — when across town from us there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies…But for now, it is autumn nuts and seeds and berries, the grapes pulled down in big buggy clusters, the skins so taut and tart they burst open and make your lips itch. Stirring them at the stove makes me too pleased with myself. I know that. I’m this kind of mother, I think happily, and then immediately flush with shame over my own vanity and falseness, given that I am also the kind of mother who lathers up her hair with one hand so that she doesn’t have to put her beer down in the shower.

And finally, on loss:

I had not pictured being an adult as the crazy derangement of joy and sadness that it’s turning out to be. The children, for example, are lost to us over and over again, their baby selves smiling at us from photo albums like melancholy little ghosts of parenthood past. Where are those babies? They are here and not here. I want to remember the feel of a warm little hand in mine, or the damp, silky weight of a naked kid in my arms straight from the bath. When I prop Birdy on my hip, she still slings a little arm around my shoulder, jaunty as a boyfriend — but she’s so heavy. The kids grow and grow, they grow right out the door! Like characters in a Dr. Seuss book about people you love and love and then they move out and leave you and go to college like jerks, marry other people, and refuse to live at home with you who love them so much, who loved them first. (Assuming you can even keep them alive that long.) Loss is ahead of us, behind us, woven into the very fabric of our happiness. I don’t wish nothing would change as much as I wish for the absence of more loss.


Catastrophic Happiness is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

 

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29 Comments

Suzanne Fletcher

I remember first reading Catherine Newman when her children were babies and mine were, too. Now mine are last-year-of-elementary school, middle school, and I even have one “menacing man-child.”. Like you and Catherine Newman, I live in anticipation of my own broken heart. I love what you wrote about recognizing that you’re at pick up now and trying not to let tomorrow dominate today. I need to work on that :) . Meanwhile, I can’t wait to read Catastrophic Happiness.

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Sally

Thank you for posting! I am always nostalgic for her writing from Wondertime – that was such a wonderful magazine that was ahead of its time in content, behind it time in terms of the magazine industry…

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Carrie

Sounds like a great read! And, man, that last quote got me right in the gut! Oh motherhood…

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Gretchen

Maybe this rings true if you have typically developing children. None of this applies to my experience parenting a special needs child. I don’t have to live in anticipation of my own broken heart, it is broken every day.

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jenny

Gretchen, I’m sorry. I can’t pretend to know what your day-to-day feels like, but I do hope you know that the last thing I want to do is add heartache to heartache. If you have thoughts on who might guest-post about this (maybe it’s you?) or what I can do to help, please send me ideas. (Jenny@dinneralovestory.com.) You have my word I will search, too. Hang in there.

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Gretchen

Thanks Jenny. Didn’t mean to hijack your post, but sometimes “normal” parenting posts like this catch me off-guard & make me sad. The only advice I can offer is that if you are a parent of a typical child, try to keep in perspective that some things that are annoying or saddening to you (running around to carious after school activities, watching your child grow up & not need you) are things that special needs parents can only dream of.

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Susan M.

Thinking of my friends with 2 special needs kids, aged 4 and 5, they face things on a day to day basis, and take pride in little triumphs. They were heartened, as were others, to hear about my friends’ adopting an autistic child around age 4-5. He is now completing college, with help from his mother, and while he is considered high-functioning, he needs a computer to communicate. At the point of adoption, some thought he would not go beyond an age 6 level of functioning. This is not to compare; just to point out how resilience and facing whatever needs to be faced on day-to-day basis are often the main things. These latter parents were often asked, why did you adopt a special needs child? Couldn’t you have one of your own? They did not start out aiming for college. There were days when this boy was little that he needed to wrestle with adopted father endlessly. That was one of my friend’s challenges and daily struggles with a child who could barely communicate with him otherwise. Over the years, they found many ways to communicate and grow. It has been amazing, and an on-going work in progress. All this to say, I so appreciate it when parents of special needs kids share, no matter whether it’s the good, the bad, or the everyday, and even if I cannot wholly comprehend. I can at least empathize and learn.

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Renee

Just ordered this book yesterday from Amazon Prime and for the first time ever, two-day shipping is just NOT fast enough. My kiddos are 7,5,3 and no one is throwing food on the floor anymore, but I feel like I really need this book right now. Jenny, question for you: Where are those adorable stuffies from? I want the pizza slice for myself and will maybe share with my kids!

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Raising The Capable Student

I miss my two oldest boys who are away in college every single day and really every minute. I’m glad they are there and well adjusted and all that, but there is an ache in my heart. Our family isn’t the same.

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Laurine

That last quote packs an emotional punch. I am at this same stage, too. My heart leapt into my throat when I had to write “7″ on the camp form (“what grade will your child enter next fall?”). I can’t even think about the next five years of changes and loosening apron strings. Perhaps I’m not really supposed to after all.

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Dana

This is a lovely review, and a great into to Catherine Neumann to anyone unfamiliar with her writing. This book is on my to-read list and you made me want to read it sooner :)

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Awads

Good stuff! I look at my 8 year old son everyday and wonder where my baby went (sometimes he’ll go along with my nostalgic trip and let me cradle him in my arms like a newborn). I love the little boy he is now, but i’m finding it very hard to be “present” when he starts a conversation with, “in minecraft….” or “on teen titans go….” In my head, i’m thinking about something i’ll be cooking later :-)

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Beth

We were a homeschooling family which meant that we spent much more time with our boys than the average family. We spent more time TOGETHER than most families. When my oldest left for college it was heartbreaking in ways that no other situation in life had ever been. I missed him almost tragically – even remembering that time brings tears streaming down my face.

But I kept remembering that we are not raising children – we are raising adults. And I knew that I wanted strong, independent adults someday. That first year, every time we said good bye was hard but it was easier than the previous time. Now that same son is graduating from college and talking about moving far from home because he wants to take advantage of these years to travel. It’s still hard but it’s no long heartbreaking.

Every move toward true independence – especially the big ones like driving, going on real dates, going to a concert in a big city without an adult – shows us that we are doing our job of creating adults.

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Emily

I just went from waiting for this to appear at my library to buying it on amazon. I seriously stopped reading mid-way, opened amazon, paid, and came back to finish. If our paths ever cross in real life, I’m making you poundcake. (not just for this post, but for many, many, other ones…and two books.) Thank you!

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sarah

As I sit here struggling with motherhood. Of having a gifted/emotional daughter who I struggle with daily with daily conversations. Where I struggle with the reality that we will never have the magical relationship i envisioned in my mind….you give me a book. Hopefully a book that can help me get out of my head and enjoy her for who she is.

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Jennifer

I had never heard of Catherine Newman before this post. Your snippets of her writing had me laughing and crying at the same time. Just spent my one remaining audible credit on the audio book. Thanks!

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Renee

Someone mentioned Wondertime magazine in an earlier comment — it folded shortly after I became a parent but I would love to get my hands on some back issues. Jenny, with your magazine background do you know where I might be able to find some?

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Colleen Moran

Jeesh. I came to the site looking for some fun Friday links and am now sobbing under a towel with my head on my desk. I may never come out. That book looks incredible, thanks for sharing.

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Elizabeth

Oh how this resonates. My sweet boy just turned 18 and we received two pieces of mail shortly after: his very own health care card (Canadian get out of hospital free card…) and I received the revised family version without his name. Gulp. He doesn’t even have his license yet but here is this document that also has him officially donating his organs…without ever discussing it with me. I am grateful.

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Carlin

As I read this while lying in bed on a Sunday morning (my turn to sleep in), I can hear my barely-two year old calling “Mama, Mama”, from downstairs. Softly at first, then more loudly. I can feel my unborn child rolling and kicking against my insides. And I weep- tears of happiness and expected future sadness and of feeling so full and blessed, some days I can’t process how lucky I am.

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Ginger

What beautiful, light, funny, true writing.

Reminds me of one of my favorite bits from C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves):
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

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Lisa

Your review made me weepy. I’m not sure how I could get through the actual book without being an emotional puddle…

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