Friday, October 24, 2008

According to the World Health Organization, suicide rates worldwide have increased by 60 percent in the last 45 years, with depression as the leading cause. In the United States, the numbers have jumped sharply — almost a full percentage point in six years — and is driven largely by, according to the report – holy cow! -- middle-aged white women.
No one involved in the study has ventured a theory about the cause or causes of the trend. Is it women who are on the younger side of middle-age and are crunched and overwhelmed between kids and work and maybe aging parents? Is it women whose kids are gone and who don’t have enough to do anymore? Is it women who never had kids? Or never married? Are any of those things relevant to the numbers?
The findings of this WHO study were both disturbing and reassuring to me. Disturbing, because it’s shocking to hear that so many women are taking their lives. But in a perverse way, it was also reassuring because maybe it meant I wasn’t alone. Maybe I wasn’t the only woman of my age, 56, who was having a great deal of difficulty figuring out what to do with a life that was stretching out in front of her for probably another 30 years and which looked terribly empty.
Once you’re past menopause, there’s an upside and a downside. On the upside, you’re happy about not having the monthly annoyance, or worrying about birth control, or coping with surging/waning hormones. But the downside is that -- if you married and had kids -- now you’re right up against the fact that a whole phase of your life that had consumed so much of your time and effort and heart – bearing and raising children – is done. Finished. That’s it. And it’s a long time between now and the possibility of grandchildren.
Last week my husband was away with a bunch of his buddies. Every year they go to a beach house in Rehobeth where they, for reasons that are unclear to me, enjoy just setting up their laptops and writing during the day (they’re all writers) and going out to dinner at night. That’s it. (Well, there might be some drinking involved too.) Sometimes they fish. I’ve never heard that they actually catch fish and judging from the pictures I’ve seen of them when they’re up to it, it’s not surprising. But that’s all they do. Write and eat and drink a bit and fish in a lame-ass way.
Usually when he’s gone, I have the week planned out with all kinds of projects – one year I painted the walk-in closet in our bedroom (which isn’t much work at all because it’s no bigger than a regular closet, really), another year it was painting one of the bedrooms. I wear sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt every night, leave the dishes in the sink and the bed unmade, and enjoy watching all the shows on MSNBC from six o’clock on without the husband periodically walking in and asking how I can stand to watch the same people screaming at each other over and over again about the same damn things.
But this year it was different. I wasn’t happy my husband was gone. I wasn’t relishing the time to myself. But on the other hand, I wasn’t missing him either. It was like – meh.
I rented a couple of movies. I watched Rachel Maddow at 9 o’clock and then again at 11 o’clock just in case I missed anything. I moved the living room carpet a couple of inches because where it had been annoyed me. I cleaned the bird’s cage.
But I just couldn’t get motivated to do anything more than that, even though there were lots of things that needed to be done around the house that I could have turned into projects.
So, as I was lying in bed last night, thinking about the week, I realized that there was this big chunk of my life gone that I really missed a lot. And it was my kids. Not who they are now, although I really love who they are now and actually enjoy talking to them and doing stuff with them still. But I missed who they were way back when they were so small they had to climb on top of my feet to reach me. Or when they’d get all worked up over something that only a two-year old would care about. Or when they’d run towards me when I picked them up at pre-K. I just missed those toddler years.
I started crying. And you know how when you cry when you're lying down, the tears trickle down the side of your face and pool in your ears? It was like that.
I missed being the center of their lives. And I missed knowing exactly what it was I was supposed to be doing with my life, which was raising two boys so that they knew right from wrong and were capable of kindness and generosity and knew that it was enough to have a roof over your head and food on the dinner plate because if you had that, you were lucky.
If you’ve ever been a mother you will understand it when I say that you will never ever again be so completely and unconditionally loved and needed. And no matter how much you love your husband, or your friends, or your family members, or the people you work with, there is no-one you will ever love that completely and naturally and unconditionally either. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. What else is ever going to be that compelling? Or absorbing or engaging?
So, it’s not surprising to me that other women my age might have a great deal of trouble figuring out what to do with themselves once their kids have left home. What else is going to compare with raising them? Isn’t your life work done? What’s left but marking time?
Maybe I’ve trivializing the numbers from this report and they have nothing to do with whiny, middle-class moms like me missing their kids. Maybe it’s women to whom truly horrible and devastating things have happened, like losing a job, or being left for someone else, or not being able to live with a painful, chronic disease, or just being overwhelmed by having to work so hard just to stay in place.
But I know, for me, it’s just wondering, at 56, what I’m supposed to do with myself now.

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