It was a cold spring morning — a Thursday — when the AT&T technician pulled up in front of my building. I’d arranged a work-at-home day so that I could let him in. By switching Internet provider at the apartment I share with my two teen daughters, I could cut our bill in half.
Since my husband moved out, finances have been tight. He and I are now supporting two households instead of one. I wouldn’t say money troubles are the hardest thing to get used to about becoming a single parent through separation and divorce.
Nor is the loneliness. I have made friends with the radio, my dog, and a few close friends and family. I have filled up the quiet with plans and writing and books.
The thing I find exhausting is the relentlessness of parenting on my own.
Even when things weren’t great between my husband and me, we continued to run a household together. If one of us made dinner, the other did the dishes. We shared homework duty, and there were two of us to dole out cheer-up sessions when the girls had a rough day. I wasn’t the only one picking up kids late at night or taking a car to the mechanic.
Now, I am the back-up to my back-up.
If I forget the laundry detergent or the milk or the dog food at the store, I will be going back to get it. Gas tank empty? Make time to fill it. Kids’ prescriptions out? Same. If someone grows out of a swimsuit or needs a work uniform or a prom dress, squeeze it in. Do we need a new extension cord? Do the air conditioners need to be put in? Does the dog need a walk?
Even the most well-meaning friends can’t take the kids to the dentist or help your child with her English paper. Only you can do those things. Only I can do those things.
When my whole mind is engaged — with a backbend, with the challenge of hitting a tennis ball, with guitar chords that are just hard enough, with my efforts to learn the ukulele from YouTube, even when I’m reading a great book — I get a real, honest-to-goodness break.
For a while, I thought I had hit my stride. I was born to multitask, I would tell myself. Up early, breakfast, lunches packed, dog out, then kids out. Dressed if the laundry and dry cleaning are ready. Dressed even if they aren't. Resolve to iron this weekend. Bam. I was thinking it was a waste of my excellent talents that I only had two kids’ lives to orchestrate.
Then: true teenagehood set in and brought me late nights and new worries. Were the kids safe? Were they on track? Would they graduate high school and step into their futures? I can be philosophical about those questions for anyone else’s kids; for my children, I am not. It’s high stakes, and I can’t make myself not care. I usually pour on the self-care and keep moving.
That May morning, as I waited for Sean, the AT&T, technician to ring my front doorbell, I had to admit to myself that I was drained. My internal tank was dry, and I couldn’t remember how to fill it up.
Since my cancer diagnosis nine years ago, I have paid particular attention to self-care. I love to stretch myself out in sun salutations — in my living room and the yoga studio. I avoid overscheduling. Most, if not all, Saturday nights have found me tucked into my bed lost in a book, or watching Netflix with one of my daughters. I shell out money for massages and never scrimp on therapy.
But this time, I was depleted.
It felt like a bone-heavy permanent sigh. It seemed like nothing a nurturing weekend could remedy.
Sean unloaded his equipment and connected things in my living room. I watched from the couch as he pointed on the modem to the new password.
In my head I ran through my list: provide the divorce lawyer with an updated budget, submit a freelance invoice. I sank further into the couch pillows, feeling a fatigue no pedicure could solve.
What would I do if my tank were permanently empty?
If no vacation would revive me? What would I do if nothing ever seemed funny or light again?
Sean had checked the box out on the street. He came in, and we waited for the signal to take hold. He asked about my acoustic guitar, parked on a stand in my living room. He asked if I play and I said, “Badly.” And then things were all set, and Sean drove off to his next customer.
I looked at my guitar, its honeyed wood and steel strings, its sensitive neck. “Badly.” Yes, I do play relatively badly, but I love the feeling of being lost inside figuring out a song. I love wailing along to my own accompaniment and trying to add an original inflection or a beautiful harmony. It’s absorbing, partly because I don’t aim to be especially good at it.
I put aside my budget and picked up my guitar. I tuned it, and I played a breakup song written by Kris Delmhorst called “Wasted Word.” That five-minute hiatus is what I remember best from that day. I sang and played that song and let myself be absorbed.
Maybe absorption is the pathway back from burnout.
Ms. Delmhorst writes, Every little wasted word and every little wasted smile / and every little wasted year, every little wasted mile / We’re gonna leave them all right here, We’re gonna leave them all behind / Every little wasted word, I think I’m gonna make them mine.
I sang those words to my walls, to my dog, to my couch, and to myself.
I had forgotten: absorption is the best kind of self-care. While getting a polish change on my toes, I am still free to worry, and I do. But when my whole mind is engaged — with a backbend, with the challenge of hitting a tennis ball, with guitar chords that are just hard enough, with my efforts to learn the ukulele from YouTube, even when I’m reading a great book — I get a real, honest-to-goodness break. Just being inside that song had reknit my cells. While I concentrated on those notes, on getting my fingers to make the chords, I lost track of my to-do list, and my brain and heart inhaled more deeply than they had for months.
Playing my guitar scrubbed me clean, until the next time. We’re gonna leave them all behind, I sang, and I did. Then I came back to my beautiful and complicated life, the one I need absorbing breaks from. I set the guitar back on its stand, but I could feel the energy of that act hit the bottom of my empty gas tank and start to fill me up.