I have a serious problem on my hands, and it’s one that a lot of women my age and in my time of life would love to have: my family is going away for a week and I, with the exception of two lovable but slightly irritating cats, will be all alone.
The thought petrifies me on some level.
I’ve never done alone very well. As a lifelong “good girl,” I often measure my success and peace by making sure others are attended to. Happy. I read moods very well, and I try to anticipate what other people want even before they express it. I am a firm believer that, when it comes to me, anyway, “I love you too” is not enough. I must express love first, and in the most satisfying way to others possible. If you really care about someone, you put them ahead of yourself. This hasn’t always been the healthiest way for me to live, and I’m not advocating for it at all, but here we are.
There’s a rhythm to family living that makes this sort of thinking make sense. It’s a way of being. There is an almost tidal aspect to it—things ebb and flow. You learn when to swim and when to float (all the while carefully making sure you don’t get overcome by a wave and start to drown.)
There are practical accommodations — sharing bathrooms and microwaves, lowering your voice if someone is asleep, the raising it to include someone in a joke, and eating genial meals around cramped tables filled at one end with yesterday’s mail. There is the emotional stuff, too. You can be almost too aware of other people’s energies, and you try, at the very least, not to let theirs collide with your own. You read the room and know when to make that horrible pun or to take things seriously (my wonderful husband is particularly bad at this.) You navigate teenage mood swings and post-work grumpiness, figuring out whether to leave bad enough alone or to intervene and present advice or comfort. I’m pretty good at these things. I’ve prided myself upon them. I’m good at being a partner, and, especially, a mom, as hard as it is for me to say that without feeling boastful. It’s where I belong.
So, what will I do with no one in my home to please? Who even am I without my family? What will I do with seemingly endless free time to focus on myself? I suppose I should consider what I want to do, but what if you don’t even really know what that is? Am I codependent? I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but I am approaching fifty years old and I still don’t know what I ultimately want. If a magical genie came to grant my three wishes, none of them would be for me alone. I have been so devoted to the needs of others, for so long, I’m not even sure how I would spend a week of free time if I had it. And now I will. Gulp.
I’ve only recently begun to search for my identity outside of wife and mother by taking a part-time job and indulging more in activities that please me, like art and writing classes. It’s new and tentative, and I’m far from knowing what my independent identity is. I wish I could harken back to times when I approached life with a devil-may-care-attitude, navigating my own ship without regard to other passengers, but I can’t. I’ve always been hyperaware of those around me, and their needs. I feel unable to live without careful consideration. I’m trying to learn how, but I’m not there yet. Maybe on some level I never will be. Maybe that stuff is hard-wired.
Talking to my therapist helped me frame it a little better. We both feel that there is no grand secret I am trying to hide, unable to admit even to myself, about why I don’t like being alone. That there is no deep mystery. Simply put, she believes it’s mostly personality and identity. Though I have some undeniably strong introvert characteristics, I am also a person who feeds off of the energy of others. I just like it better when people are around to interact with. I love conversation and connection.
There’s also the intensity of my anxious brain. Being alone gives most people time to reflect. It gives me time to obsess to the point of paralysis. I remember past faux-pas and wonder about things I cannot control and will never understand. It’s hard to ruminate for hours about that time in third grade when you tried to please the popular crowd (and failed miserably) when you want to talk to your kid about finals, or you need to do volunteer work or deal with the afternoon commute. Alone for days? Welcome back, past traumas.
My therapist tells me not to worry too much about why I don’t like the idea of being alone. My doctor insists I will hate the aloneness the first day, but on day two I will cheer for it. I’m not sure either advice is helpful to me as the dreaded week approaches. My friend suggested trying to schedule the time. I could fill it with activities to perform, and time to create, and opportunities to be with friends. I can start to view this perceived detriment as a chance to thrive. That sounds most appealing.
I can also view this time as an opportunity to redefine my success. So often, we’re told that “successful” translates to an overabundance of money or recognition by strangers on the street. My success has been quieter, but it’s no less important. Mine has been to craft a beautiful life, with wonderful people who are worth missing when they’re away. It’s not so bad to long for the life you’ve been living when it’s temporarily disrupted. I have an abundance of familial riches. Wanting to surround myself with that is no mark of failure. It’s a sign that I’ve created a life I love