Family of origin
Monday, April 29, 2013
An Unsettled Spirit
Celia has enticed Rob into listening as she reads Bible stories to William despite his resistance to engaging in anything having to do with religion.
The lump in Celia’s throat from watching William snuggle into Rob’s shoulder complicated reading aloud. She tried to remember if there had ever been a similar scene enacted in her childhood home, but no, there were no memories of being read to by her chronically-depressed mother or held by her alcoholic father. In fact she was living at this moment a childhood fantasy of family togetherness, though to be the mother and not the child mattered little. Her soul soared; perhaps Rob felt the same way. These could not be just feelings of human love, could they? This must be spiritual.
Celia finished the Noah story, closed the book, and set it in her lap.
“I think he’s asleep,” Rob said. They sat for a long moment in the quiet nursery. Celia wanted to speak into the silence something of what she was thinking and feeling, but she was afraid to misspeak.
She wished Rob would say something, sparing her the risk of saying something wrong and further putting him off interest in her faith. Instead, he stood up slowly and carried William to his crib, laying him down gently. Celia stood up and together they shared that most generous instant in which their shared love for their son transcended any difference they might have over anything. Celia put her head on Rob’s shoulder.
They lingered there but briefly before Rob moved away. “I just want to get out of my work clothes,” he whispered. “Is there anything to eat?”
Celia took once last glance at William before following him out of the room, disappointed that the magic moment ended in the face of the mundane. “That was really nice,” she said, trying to keep it alive as they walked together into their bedroom. “Maybe we could try to do that every night,” she added hopefully.
“Sure,” Rob said, as non-committal and uninterested as he had been about attending church with her.
What does Celia say next?
Monday, February 18, 2013
Celia is figuring out that her overreaction to Rob’s behavior is a father thing, complicated by having become a mother. She has been explaining this to Rob.
Rob sat at the kitchen table across from Celia, whose face was bright with insight. He lifted spoonfuls of yogurt and baby food into William’s mouth as he listened intently, grateful that after she had walked out in anger, Celia told out a story about why in which he was not an asshole.
“I get it,” Rob said, nodding. “So your father was an asshole, Celia.”
Celia’s face dimmed slightly. “That’s harsh,” she said. “I do love my father, I guess.”
Rob started to backpedal on his name-calling, but Celia cut him off.
“But you’re right. It never occurred to my father that what he did mattered to the rest of the family.”
“I do understand that what I do matters,” Rob said, and he meant every word. “I want what I do to matter to you and William.”
Celia stood up and opened the refrigerator. “I am sensitive,” she said, referring to the conversation she had overheard between Rob and her mother as she put a carton of eggs on the counter. “But I refuse to cop to neurotic. And if I am, it’s my mother’s fault.” Celia laughed lightly when she said that, opening the vegetable drawer and taking out an onion and a pepper.
“I understand why you’re sensitive,” Rob said, spooning yogurt into William’s mouth; the baby wriggled in pleasure because he loved the tart taste of plain yogurt, unlike Rob. “You want William to have a better life than you did.”
Celia looked at Rob and nodded. “Thank you for understanding. I’m sorry I ran out earlier.”
What is the next issue Rob and Celia face?
Monday, January 28, 2013
Celia feels ignored by Rob, who stopped in the living room to check on a basketball game before going upstairs to Celia and William.
“I just wanted to check the score,” Rob said. “I wasn’t blowing you off.”
Celia stood there for a long moment with William resting on one hip, staring at Rob. The basketball game continued, loudly, on the screen behind Rob, its cheers of collegiate rivalry at stark odds with Celia’s hopelessness. She felt like the world was ending.
Vaguely aware that her internal reaction was disproportionate to the situation, Celia handed William to Rob. She turned around, grabbed her jacket and car keys from the front table, and left the house. Rob called after her but she ignored him.
She drove out of the neighborhood, crying in anger, but once she hit the main drag she realized she had no idea where to go, nor did she have any money with her to get something to eat or to do some retail therapy. It was too cold to park and sit in the car, but she had to be home in less than an hour to nurse William before bed anyway. So she drove over to the Ohio State campus, where she and Rob had met as students, and trawled the neighborhood.
Celia wondered what had happened to her, as if something that had been fragile and straining to hold up had collapsed unexpectedly. She hated basketball season and she always had, but something was different this year.
She wondered why Rob did not try to call her, but realized she did not have her phone with her. She kept driving. The only difference between this year and every other year she and Rob had survived basketball season was William’s presence. Sure, Celia was tired, all the time, but this wasn’t just a fatigue reaction.
Driving past the Schottenstein Center, she started to think of her father. Ah, she thought. This is a dad thing. Somehow, even though she did not know what it had to do with her father, this realization calmed her, and she turned around to drive home.
What does she find when she comes home?
Monday, July 02, 2012
Celia is finally regaining some resilience following weeks of post-partum fatigue and anxiety. William is five weeks old and they are mostly settled into their new house.
A new routine began to emerge around caring for William, keeping house, and living with her mother. At times Celia felt tired and overwhelmed, but this was balanced by how much she really did enjoy being a mother… she knew she was good at this, recognizing that the parts of her that thrived as a teacher were expressed here, too, though on a different order of magnitude in terms of dedication and commitment, attachment and love.
And when she had a down moment, all she really needed to do was to remember Rob’s words after her total meltdown last week. “I am so in love with both you and William,” he had said, holding them both close. The moment was a rich, potent memory and she knew she would digest it in small bits for a long time to come.
Every time she started to feel tired from the lack of sleep, the humid weather, keeping a new home or even being irritated with her mother’s unique brand of genuinely wanting to be helpful while somehow just making more work – she would remind herself that her husband really did love her, her son, and the family they made together. And in this she would find enough energy to proceed through the next activity. Getting through each moment, one at a time, eventually meant she would reach the end of the day and Rob would come home from work.
Today he hoped to get home a little earlier than usual to clear the lawn of some branches and debris from the storm over the weekend.
Finishing the dishes in the kitchen, Celia walked upstairs to the nursery to check on William – she did not always trust the baby monitor. William, looking like he had gained weight since she had put him down, was sound asleep and looking content. Celia sat down in the rocker, thinking she would close her eyes and rest here until William awoke. She had placed the rocker facing the window to the backyard, because the green of the tree-scape soothed her and reminded her to be grateful instead of anxious about all things.
Just as she was about to close her eyes, Celia noticed her mother in the backyard. She leaned forward to see that her mother, wearing Rob’s heavy work gloves, was picking up branches and trash blown into the yard from the storm. She put the trash in the can, stacked the branches neatly in a pile, and used the rake to gather anything too small to pick up by hand.
Celia was so stunned at seeing her mother doing something useful, and doing it well, that she did not know what to make of it. She walked downstairs and into the backyard to inquire.
What does Celia find out?
Monday, January 16, 2012
The Right Words at the Right Time
Celia’s mother, with whom she and Rob plan to buy a house, just announced that she was laid off from her job.
“I’m such a burden to you,” Mom said, putting her face in her hands as she began to cry. “Why in the world do you want to live with me?”
The chronic hopelessness that had reigned over Celia’s childhood home (a function of Dad’s drinking and Mom’s inclination to depression) suddenly overwhelmed the kitchen of the home that she and Rob shared. This home was theirs, and Celia refused to allow hopelessness to rule here. She glanced up at Rob, who did not look hopeless – he looked impatient. As their eyes met, Celia could tell that they were in agreement that Rob would handle this.
“I’m sorry you were laid off, Mom,” Rob said. “I know you were hoping this would be a permanent job.” Celia was impressed that he sounded sympathetic without getting caught up in the emotionality. That was Celia’s typical pattern – she would have immediately tried to convince her mother that she wasn’t a burden.
Celia knew that part of the reason why living with her mother was going to work out financially is that neither she nor Rob expected her mother to contribute to the overhead expenses. She would need money for her own expenses, but other than that they would support her in exchange for childcare, they presumed; they had not yet discussed that. But Celia’s mother was a relatively young woman, only in her early fifties. She needed a job so she would have something that was hers. Celia knew that to make Rob and Celia’s family the center of her life, when she would already be living with them, would be a huge mistake.
Mom’s weeping began to slow.
“We want to live with you because we love you,” Rob continued, “and we’re going to need your help with the baby. It’s great that you now have a couple of weeks to get the house packed up. That way when escrow closes you’ll be ready!”
“You mean you still want to live with me?” Mom said, looking up.
“Of course we do,” Celia chimed in, and it hit her in that moment, that her mother had spent her whole life earning the care of the people in her life: her own parents and Celia’s father. Love had always been conditional. It was astonishing to her that someone might want her just for her.
Mom stood up. “I’m going to do that. I’m going to go home, make short work of the packing, and get back here and find another job. I won’t be a burden to you.”
She kissed and hugged Celia, then kissed and hugged Rob, and went into the other room. They could hear her dragging her suitcase out of the closet as they looked at one another.
“That’s it,” Celia said, quietly, so Mom wouldn’t hear. “Mom believes she’s worth something because we love her. That’s motivating her to do something with her life.” She leaned over the table and kissed Rob. “Thank you.”
What happens next?
Monday, December 12, 2011
Rob, Celia, and her mother shared a brief honeymoon period around the idea of partnering together to buy a house in Columbus.
Rob still believed they had stumbled together into a good idea over the long term. Meanwhile he was not sure if he would survive the short term. Rob admitted that he had never understood just why Celia’s relationship with her mother was so fraught with drama, all the time, because Rob had always gotten along with her just fine. The longer Mom lived with them in their small apartment, though, the more he empathized with Celia and the life she had lived with Mary Gillespie as her mother.
He had come home from his second shift as a Starbucks part-timer, hoping to be greeted with a quiet ham sandwich, but instead he arrived to an argument he could hear clearly even in the hallway thirty feet from the front door.
Rob flooded with multiple streams of panic and he resisted running back to his car; he worried about Celia being pregnant and stressed, and he feared that the living together ideas was a huge mistake – perhaps he should have let Celia’s initial fears drive their decision making after all. “You can’t stay here, Mom,” might have felt cold and unkind but at least it would have been clean. Rob had never liked messy; he even had vivid childhood memories of sitting in a booster seat at the table shrieking to have his sticky hands wiped off.
He sighed to face what he had signed up for and opened the front door. Celia sat on the sofa with her head in her hands while her mother stood a few feet away with her arm in the air as if she had been gesturing something. Both looked up as Rob entered the living room.
“Robbie, thank God you’re home,” Mom said. “Celia won’t listen to me about taking care of herself. She needs to be eating for two but she insists she’s not hungry. I brought home cookie cutters and sugar cookie mix – would it kill her to eat a couple of them? They’re just going to go to waste now.”
He looked at Celia and saw not his pregnant adult wife but a young child in whose eyes were despair and helplessness. He had never understood so clearly as in that moment why physical distance had been Celia’s preferred method of dealing with her mother.
Rob dropped his things and, ignoring his mother-in-law, went straight to Celia and sat next to her.
“Mom, those cookies smell great and I’m going eat half of them myself in a minute,” he said as he put his arm around his wife. “It’s OK if Celia doesn’t want any. Her doctor said she should eat what she wants, when she wants.”
Rob had no idea what the doctor had said on this point but he groped for the most local authority he could invoke. “And they won’t go to waste. I’ll take them to work tomorrow.”
“I’ll put another layer of colored sugar on them right now and pack them up,” Mom said. At least she could be redirected easily. “Glass of milk, Robbie?” she added as she disappeared into the kitchen.
“Sounds great,” he called after her.
Celia stood up. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said in an angry whisper. “How am I ever going to take care of our baby with her telling me what to do every minute?”
How does Rob respond?
Monday, December 05, 2011
Embracing a new normal
Rob and Celia pitched an idea to her mother: sell your house and move to Columbus with us. We’ll partner in buying a house.
Celia’s mother barely seemed to be the same person, so happy was she about their idea. The personality shift was nearly a one-eighty. Instead of denial, she stood firmly on the ground and engaged the reality of her situation. Instead of negativity, hope and optimism allowed for genuine participation. Celia dared to hope that the lifelong depressive who had raised her might, for once, enjoy her own life. She was surprised, though, that this did not feel like pressure; instead the energy they had put into the old boundaries had been freed to flourish in this new direction.
Celia knew this was a honeymoon phase and that the process would not be easy. Thankfully, Celia’s sick-and-tired first trimester of pregnancy had passed. Between Rob’s real job and his part-time Starbucks job, and Mom’s William-Sonoma holiday help job, many of the real tasks of the transition fell to Celia. She embraced them. First, she broke news of the plan to her older sister Catherine, who still lived with Mom, via phone. Obviously, this would impact her.
To Celia’s surprise, Catherine broke down in tears – of relief.
“I can get on with my own life now,” Catherine said. “I’m going to apply to grad school!” Catherine further offered to be the boots-on-the-ground in terms of selling the house in Canton and would start by contacting real estate agents. Cleaning out and packing up the house would be a job, but the sisters agreed to start this task between Christmas and New Year’s, when Celia would be on vacation from teaching.
Next, Celia addressed the real issue of how she, Rob, and her mother would co-exist in a small one-bedroom apartment for the next few months. She cleaned out the coat closet in the living room entirely, moving its contents into the bedroom, to create a contained space for her mother’s belongings. She put a laundry basket on the floor for the bedding and pillow her mother used on the sofa, and put clothes hangers on a shopping list.
By accepting the new normal rather than continuing to fight the old one, Celia found that she actually had more control over the situation than less. A vague memory from a martial arts class she had taken as a child floated back to her, about moving with energy rather than against it… she had been fighting to separate from her mother for years, and now, with Rob’s help, she had accomplished this by embracing the relationship.
Her gratitude toward her husband welled up. She narrated every point in her life that had led her to Ohio State and the fencing class, of all things, in which she and Rob had met one another.
What happens next?
Monday, November 14, 2011
Time to leave?
Rob had suggested to Celia’s mother that there might be a receptionist job opening, in the company where he works, in the coming months. Celia was horrified, fearing her mother would consider this a sure thing, an excuse to neglect looking for anything else.
Rob considered lying to his mother-in-law.
Celia had asked him to rescind his offer to help her mother get a receptionist job at his company. He regretted that he let his desire to be helpful undermine thinking strategically about the situation. Then again, Celia had asked him to handle it and he had been firm that she would need to leave by this weekend—
First thing upon arriving at work this morning, Rob double-checked with the woman who was retiring at the end of the year about her retirement date, hoping that for some bizarre reason she had extended her retirement by, say, a year or so. No such luck.
But he could tell his mother-in-law that anyway…
He dialed her number, wanting to make the call before his cubicle-mate Lucy arrived at work. He would make it up as he went along, although he had to admit that Celia was much better at that than he.
“Good morning, Robbie,” she answered. “Broiled salmon for dinner tonight?”
“Sure,” he said. “I love salmon.”
“You and I love salmon,” she said, being strangely intimate over their shared food tastes. “But the odor might upset Celia – so sensitive, being pregnant and all”—
“Mom,” Rob jumped in, his stomach churning. “You know, I was thinking. I would rather that you don’t apply for the job here. I don’t think it would be a good idea for you and I to work together. Might get kind of awkward”—
“You know, I was thinking the same thing,” she said, and Rob almost died of relief. “Besides, I need a job before the end of the year. But you gave me a great idea. There are a lot more jobs here in Columbus than at home, so I thought I’d focus my job hunt here. That way I can still be nearby when the baby’s born.”
And live where, he thought. Celia’s mother was good at ideas but not so good at the details, such as where would she live in Columbus and what would she do with the house she has? She was not thinking of living with them, of course, but since she was probably not thinking about where she would live at all she would likely end up on their doorstep, at least temporarily.
“Hmm. Interesting,” Rob said, buying time in the moment and imagining sharing this one with Celia. At least her mother was showing initiative.
What happens next?
Monday, December 06, 2010
Who is your priority?
Celia and her mother are planning Christmas together in Columbus, with Mom sleeping on Rob and Celia’s sofa. Rob was overwhelmed by this plan but neglected to speak his mind before it solidified.
For the first time in many years Celia was actually anticipating Christmas in a good way. Since her mother had never seemed to get over her divorce from Celia’s father ten years ago, Christmases tended to be somewhat depressive for all involved. However, this year Celia was excited about her own work; Mom was coming here which meant Rob and Celia could begin their own holiday traditions, and even Celia’s sister Catherine had a boyfriend in the mix for the first time. Finally, perhaps, change was on the horizon for the Gillespie girls.
So it was confusing for Celia that Rob was not nearly as excited about this as she was. Didn’t he understand how important this was to her family?
“What if your mother leaves on the 28th or so, so we can spend a few days alone?” Rob was saying on the phone, after Celia had spelled out the plans and schedule she had with her mother from before Christmas through New Year’s.
“The 28th?” Celia said. “That’s on Tuesday! We’re making new curtains for the bedroom and kitchen, and we’re going to shop the sales to get Christmas fabric to start making things for next year…”
“I – I’m just not sure where I fit into your plans.”
“But you have to work all week.”
“Not twenty-four hours a day!”
“It’s not like we’re going to exclude you”—Celia stopped, realizing that Rob was trying to tell her something and not just about the holiday plans. “I think I’m missing something here. Don’t you want my mom to come?”
“I do, and I’m excited that you’re excited. But Celia, I’m exhausted after this fall. I wish I had vacation time to take so we could hang out, but I don’t. During the week that you are actually available, I’m working.” Celia realized that she had not given Rob’s schedule much thought, as involved in her own as she was.
Celia’s initial reaction was to argue about how important this was for her mother, when suddenly it hit her that Rob just wanted to spend time with her, alone, and somehow she was painting a competitive zero-sum picture in her mind that this was a bad thing. As important as her mother was to her, she needed to make her husband her priority.
What does Celia say to Rob?
Monday, October 04, 2010
Who’s in charge?
With Celia in Columbus and Rob at his parents’ home in Cleveland, Rob is unloading over the phone about his family’s over-reliance on him in the wake of his father’s heart attack. It is early morning; Celia is lying in their bed and Rob is pacing in his childhood bedroom.
Something that had been built up for two weeks could now flow freely as he talked, and somehow Rob felt energized and relaxed at the same time.
“This look my mother gives me,” he heard himself saying. “About the dumbest things, like she can’t even begin to imagine what in the world should happen next when it’s five o’clock and dinner’s in an hour even though her entire life seems to have revolved around making dinner since I was a kid.” He was surprised at how strong his irritation sounded. “She should be handling this.”
“How’s your dad?” Celia asked. This may have been the first time she had spoken since answering his call. She sounded drowsy but he knew she was listening.
“He’s in a routine,” Rob said. “More than anything he just seems to be tired. He rests, watches TV, takes his meds – the doctor says he’s recovered from the surgery. He just needs to regain his strength.”
“What do they need help with?” Celia said. “I mean, what are you actually doing for them?”
“Mostly the house stuff,” Rob said. “The lawn, the leaves. The bills. Mom is just this running list of things that need to get done, every one of which has to be discussed first with me.” He continued talking as he fiddled with the car models he had built as a kid, still displayed on shelves. They were from back in the day when Mom handled things and brought him model kits, not vacant, helpless looks. He kept talking until Celia interrupted him.
“Rob – so take charge.”
“I’m in charge right now.”
“No, you’re the butler right now. Your father’s recovery is progressing normally. They may need help but it doesn’t have to be from you. What are the other options? Does your mom need a cleaning person so she can concentrate on taking care of your dad?”
What does Rob decide to do next?
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