Monday, October 25, 2010

Pain Is Not a Competition (Babble)

All pain is relative.  We each of us live in our own skin and view the world through a lens crafted from our own experience.  Sometimes we are able to empathize, and sometimes we aren’t.  Some days I successfully put myself in another person’s shoes before voicing an opinion, and other days I fail.

My first experience with violin making was a brief amount of time at a school in Pennsylvania.  My bench shared a wall with the bench of my friend Matt.  I loved hanging out with Matt.  He was easy to talk to and he made me laugh.  One day I came in to school with four stitches in my thumb after a carving accident at home.  I had never had stitches before and was feeling quite traumatized.  I sat down at my bench and regaled Matt with the whole gruesome story of Ian having to drive me to a doctor and the icky feeling of the stitches tugging at my skin and how we went to the movies afterward to distract me from the pain. 

I blathered on and on telling my tale of grievous injury with Matt just looking at me, when finally, to my horror, I remembered that Matt had been in a terrible car accident just a couple of weeks before and had more than 80 stitches up one of his legs.  I was deeply embarrassed and apologized, but Matt just shook his head and said, “It’s all relative.  For you those stitches are a big deal.”  And then he went on to tell me that right after his accident he’d been bemoaning his fate to the new guy at the school, and it turned out the new guy had been in an accident the year before where he was declared dead on the scene and he got to meet the patient waiting for his heart.  The new guy by comparison was feeling pretty humbled by the fact that the man he shared his hospital room with had lost his wife and child when they were all hit by a drunk driver and he would never walk again.  My four stitches were starting to look like a gift.

So I know better than to try to one up someone in the pain and frustration department.  Everyone has stitches that are a big deal in their own context, and also I’m smart enough to know how ridiculously good I have it.  My struggles are all of an elite variety that don’t involve starvation or crippling poverty or chronic pain, but they are still my struggles, even if they are only four stitches long.  I try to keep things in perspective, but we are each entitled to our feelings even though there is always someone with a worse story.
That said, I feel like I’ve done a poor job lately of sympathizing with my husband’s struggles at home.  I want to be supportive but sometimes just find myself simply irritated.  I get frustrated and then I feel guilty for feeling that way.  It’s hard.

The bulk of Ian’s challenges, I think, comes down to the fact that he is now in a role where he doesn’t feel appreciated.  Parenting is like that.  The three year old will behave obnoxiously to him one day (because he’s tired or hungry or both and three year olds are cute but frequently unreasonable and occasionally awful), and Ian knows not to take it personally, but he can’t help it.  It must be very hard to go from a position of power and authority in a place like Iraq to being dad at home mopping up the messes of three kids all day.  Not that the war was easier, I’m not saying that, but to go from ordering people to do things and having those people respect those orders and follow them, to requesting very simple and reasonable things of children and have them essentially ignore you is maddening.

Our kids are good kids, but kids push limits, and they can be lazy and careless and obstinate.  They don’t know how to appreciate what they have most of the time because they don’t have much to compare it to.  I’m glad they don’t live in fear and that they don’t know hunger and that their lives are comfortable enough that they can indulge their creativity.  The downside of that is they don’t realize how special their situation is.  I tell them when I think they’ve crossed a line into being unappreciative or greedy and they are quick to apologize.  They are still learning where the lines are but that takes time and experience, and that’s okay.  Childhood should be a time to enjoy the good in the world.

However, poor Ian has days where he’s drowning in laundry and one of the girls can only complain that a specific shirt isn’t clean yet, or he finds their bikes lying in the middle of the sidewalk again regardless of any reminders or threats about that, or Quinn wants his mommy and there is nothing else that will appease him and I’m just not available.  I’ve tried to get the kids into a habit of always thanking anyone who prepares them a meal because I think that’s important to acknowledge, but there are too many things that go into parenting and keeping house that seldom if ever get notice or praise that it does feel thankless much of the time.  The clean bathroom has to be its own reward, as does the organized closet, the stocked pantry or the raked lawn.  If you stick around in the Army long enough someone will eventually hand you a medal.  There are no medals for ordinary life.  I remember the first time my dad read us the story of the Prodigal Son, and I asked him why the bad kid essentially got a party and the good son got nothing.  Dad told me that supposedly goodness is its own reward.  I think sometimes the good kid still deserves a party, but I can see why he gets overlooked.

In any case, where I fall short is that Ian will be having a hard time–an understandably hard time at that–and I can’t help but think about how much better he has it than I did while he was deployed.  If he complains to me when I come home from work about how he didn’t have an adult to talk to all day, I want to say, “But you only had to make it to the end of the day and here I am!  I didn’t have anybody here for years!”  Or if it seems like a lot to do his half of caring for the kids and the house I shake my head and think about how I had to do everything, plus I sold a house and bought another and moved us and ran the violin store with the kids in tow, etc. etc. etc.  I feel like he has four stitches and I have a thousand.  And I take a deep breath and remind myself those stitches are still real and they count and that it’s not a competition.

But I finally lost it a bit the other day when Ian was complaining about having a hard time with Quinn.  It had put him in a foul mood and I felt as if I was being put into the position of having to cater to two fussy egos and I just didn’t have the patience for it.  Against my own better judgement I said, “Well, then just be glad you didn’t have to deal with Mona at age three.”  I felt instant regret because there are so many things wrong with that.  The first is the one-upsmanship sound of it that is just not cool.  The second is that he missed most of Mona being three, both the good and the difficult, and I’m sure that pains him.  He doesn’t need reminders of the sacrifices he’s made.  The third is it reeks of the resentment I sometimes feel that my struggles were a result of his choice to be in the Army.  It’s hard to feel that being a supportive spouse makes me complicit in my own abandonment.

Ian’s reaction was to say, “So I feel like crap and I should be glad to feel like crap.”  And I wanted to say, “Yes,” but I said nothing.  It’s hard for me to make Ian understand that at his worst, Quinn is a million times easier than his sister was.  Mona’s tantrums were epic, and I was trapped.  That first deployment I had no close friends, no family around, I had to drag the kids with me on every errand, and poor Mona was stuck with a mother all day every day who was pregnant (or eventually tethered to a newborn) and exhausted all the time. 

When I hear people click their tongues at parents with a child who is having a meltdown in public as if the offending parents just aren’t conscientious enough to remove the problem child from the scene, I think about Mona screaming her head off one particular night in Target.  It was past her bedtime and she was beyond tired but we’d run out of diapers and I didn’t have any choice but to complete that errand.  She wanted me to carry her, I was 8 months pregnant and could not lift her, and she screamed for nearly half an hour in the store.  She would lie down, I physically could not move her, and somehow I coaxed her across the store where we waited in line for ten minutes with her wailing like a desperate animal.  A neighbor at that point at least offered to walk Aden home, but Aden was not a problem so I declined that help.  It was embarrassing and horrible and heartbreaking.  Quinn snubbing Ian on the playground and then telling his dad not to talk to him in the car just does not compare in my mind.  (But those four stitches still hurt….)

We had this terse discussion on the short drive from our home to the violin store, and by the time we got there and I was sitting at my bench I just burst into tears.  I told him he really didn’t understand how traumatic it had been to be scared for him all the time and to be responsible for everyone and to get no breaks and no sleep and no help.  When I think back to that first deployment I’m amazed I got through it.  I remember when Quinn was about a month old and I had mastitis, and I was up all night shivering under my blankets with the baby next to me and the girls asleep in the next room wondering how I was supposed to make them breakfast and get Aden dressed for school again, and I cried because the only person I wanted to talk to was the one person I wasn’t supposed to bother. 

It would have been dangerous for Ian to be distracted by problems he couldn’t fix, so I told him things were fine and he had no idea how hard it really was.  Ian put his arms around me (in the way I used to imagine he would do when he was gone) and said I always seem to handle everything so well he forgets sometimes how deeply some of these experiences have affected me.  (And then a customer arrived with a bow for me to rehair and I had to excuse myself to wash my face and somehow pretend I hadn’t just been balling my eyes out when he walked in.  Because I have great timing like that.)

So it’s a complicated balance between accepting pain for what it is and keeping things in perspective.  I want my husband to feel comfortable enough to complain about the frustrations that come with parenting without worrying that I’ll always have the worse story up my sleeve.  I know plenty of people with worse stories than my own, but my frustrations and pain are real, too.  All pain is relative.  Compassion shouldn’t be.


  1. You might have written this post five years ago, but it is hitting home for me now. My husband and I are wading through all the feelings that we both felt during a 13 month separation while he was overseas. Thanks for reminding me that we were both in pain and it doesn't need to be a competition. Especially between the two of us -- if anything, he's the one person in the world who understands best the loneliness that I felt, even if our day-to-day lives looked very different. It is a careful calculation in deciding how much hurt to share with a loved one so that they know what you experienced and how much to just try to move forward. It is lonely to feel like your partner doesn't understand your pain but making those feelings explicit to them can also feel cruel. I don't have a simple answer, but your writing makes me feel less alone, and I thank you for that.

    1. I'm glad the post was useful to you. I wrote it at a time when I couldn't find anything I could relate to about how I was feeling and it helped to try and get it down in words. It's a hard adjustment, especially when people around you who haven't been through something similar want to assume you should just be happy now and leave it at that. The narrative isn't that simple.

      If it helps to know where we are all these years later, I can tell you my husband and I are doing better than ever. We both have enough distance from that experience that the old issues have faded, and the old struggles have been replaced by new ones that we can face jointly. We got through it. I'm sure you will, too. Sorry sometimes it's hard.