Saturday, April 3, 2010

perfect on paper

I have never watched even one minute of Sex and the City. But I am told that the title of this post is a phrase that one of the characters used to describe a potential date in whom, on the objective facts (job, appearance, etc.) she should be interested - but she wasn't. (My roommate's sister probably captured it better when she said, "You always have to want to kiss him.")

This post has nothing to do with that. (By the way, it's sort of Part I of two posts. The other is related, and a bit more upbeat, but not fully worked out in my head, yet.)

It has occurred to me, one of those clever thoughts that flit in and out of your mind occasionally too quickly for you to ponder and then own them, that my life might just be close to perfect on paper. It's not, of course, that I am close to anyone who doesn't think it would be way better if I had kids. (Some of them would have said that two or three years of marriage without kids are a good thing, while I disagree; but all of them would surely think my life would be more full with children now.) But when I call my mother or my aunts, I have to self-edit my report on what I've been up to a little, because I realize it feels ridiculous.

"Well, recently we threw a St. Patrick's Day party with 60 guests that everyone said was a blast, and we got to bed just after 4AM - so, an early night! And, let's see, the girls went to the most amazing Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant - seriously, the fish was so good, we think maybe it was the sauce - for a girlfriend's birthday, and then a couple of girls spent the night with me, and we all met up for pastry and coffee at a French bistro I didn't even know was nearby the next morning, and then I'm organizing a hike over the rock trail in Great Falls, which is this beautiful park right outside the city border; soon the weather will be warm and I'll set up a canoeing trip on the Shenandoah river, that was a blast when we did it in the fall. And then in May I have a week-long conference in New Orleans and then I fly straight to Vienna to spend a week with friends, and my sister, at a castle right in Vienna. No, I'm serious. Dh is well - he's flying to Copenhagen for work soon, then Berlin, and then Munich. And we're thinking of buying this fabulous nineteenth-century house outside DC, but I'm really sad that they closed off all the original fireplaces - should that be a dealbreaker? And for Easter we're going to a beautiful Vigil Mass, with a schola cantorum, really amazing music, and then we'll have a "resurrection party" with a small group of friends at home, I haven't decided yet whether to roast a leg of lamb. And my diet is going well and I've been running tons, going out to run in the beautiful parts of the city with a girlfriend after work. Seeing the sunset behind the Washington Monument and past the tidal basin full of cherry trees in full bloom - amazing. I'm thinking of running a half marathon. So what's new with you?"

See what I mean? I'm not trying to brag here. Each of us could write something like this, right? I know I get a few extra points in my tale because right now I live in a pretty cool city, so some of the events are connected with famous landmarks (and the Austria trip is just plain cool. I know I'm really lucky. But, I mean, other people go to the Caribbean, and I don't, so it works out). If I played that as the story of my life - "and I'm married to the love of my life, seriously, I never thought I could get so lucky, he's so good to me and I'm so in love with him. And I guess all we have to do in life is go to work and bring home our paychecks, try to be good to the people we love, work on having a life of faith, and plan for weekends full of activities with awesome people we really love. And have se.x. We're working on doing that more, it's been awesome" - people would hate me, right? If I'm interviewed for a magazine, that's totally going to be my explanation of my life. (Note: I cannot think of any reason I would, or should, be interviewed by anybody.) I know I would hate any person I read that about.

Here's the fun part: what do I really think of my life? If I look back at any stretch of days in the recent past, I don't forget the parties and the trips and the exciting bits, and the wonderful moments I share just with my dh. But the good things fade into smallness and dimness in the background, and I see...

I don't think my house has been really clean ever. The scrubbing bubbles worked like magic on the soap scum but I don't think I've cleaned the windows in all the time we've lived here, and I was all set to vacuum all the June bugs that died there out of the windowsill and couldn't find the attachments to the dustbuster. What kind of person has dead June bugs between her windows for - almost a year?! I've been really happy about my diet, but it will be days before I forgive myself for all the French fries I ate last night. I feel disgusting. And why can't I keep two days' fast for Triduum like I did when I was in college? I don't do ANYTHING as well as I did when I was in college. I never pay enough attention at work and I'm slow with everything and I've lost my ambition. I used to become a better and better attorney every year, learning new things, and now all the things I'm learning are elementary and I'm getting lazier and what skills I had are stagnating and in a few years I won't be employable by anybody. Plus I just don't love my job, and why do I find forty hours a week exhausting? It doesn't matter how much exercise I get, I'll never be attractive like I was when I was twenty.

And I never cook any more. I don't even cook my husband food once a week. How much is that to ask? It's like I don't remember I have a crock pot. Or a stove. I bring frozen food for my own lunch! What kind of wife am I? Or a lady! I never wear makeup to work. I rarely even do my hair! And I'm five minutes late - or more - every day. What would it really cost me to be five minutes early? I used to learn new recipes all the time, now I don't even use the ones I know. Only shallow people eat takeout more than once a week. I don't volunteer - well, except for Lent, and I didn't even do that right. I'm so uninvested in the causes that used to be my life. And my prayer life is so bad that I haven't gone to Mass daily - even for Lent, I didn't even set it as a GOAL because I knew it was unrealistic!

I have to admit it. I've failed at everything that's important. My employer is still paying me because they haven't YET realized what a waste of space I am, but I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm not worried about GETTING old - I don't think I've ever been young. And I'm so tired of being tired and sad and a failure and I don't know that I have the energy to fix it all but the truth is that I haven't even tried to start because I can't think of one thing to do that I think would really make it better.

You see what I mean? Don't argue with me about what I'm screwing up. Tell me honestly whether you have a similar analysis of your life. I think a lot of you do.

I don't doubt that non-infertile people often have this problem as well, but I think infertility makes it worse. I don't remember being quite this way before. Sure, I was never quite satisfied. For example, when I was first seriously trying to live a moral life - and making fairly heroic, or at least very dramatic, efforts to get there - I got to a point where I realized that it was not just a matter of fixing all the things that I'd realized at the outset would need fixing.

One day I realized that I had long since taken care of the whole list of improvements, that had at first seemed impossible - and that each day, as I proceeded, I discovered new things that would need revision. Moreover, nothing I had revised seemed like a concrete achievement. It was never completely good enough. I remember articulating then the desperation I felt: I wantedone perfect day. One day when I could go to bed and think, "I was good today" - not that I had done a good thing (or several), but that I had done not one thing worthy of regret, not one thing that was even insufficient. By the time I came up with that aspiration I already understood it to be unreachable, but I wanted it desperately, and I felt it was right to insist that it should happen. I was working really hard. I deserved one perfect day. That nonexistent day became an intrinsic part of my identity. It bespoke my failure - but also my hope. Because I hadn't quit trying.

I learned to live with that, gradually came to peace (fatalism? cynicism? denial? who really knows) with the idea that the moral life is always a work in progress. I believe Muslims say that "even the just man falls seven times a day." Catholic moral theology is a little different - "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," and all that - but I think that the Muslim saying is a more or less true statement of human nature. Christ's mercy is particularly precious because we are going to need it.

So it's not, I'm saying, that I've always been totally satisfied with my life. At different times I've been stressed (sometimes to the point of illness), totally exhausted, depressed, angry, or lonely. My life has not been perfect and I know that. But my current malaise about my whole life seems worse than usual. I now recognize the act of looking up into a beautiful sunset or a magnificent mountainside and knowing that my heart should soar. I remember what it felt like to feel that way. It no longer happens. I remember looking back on a finished task with a feeling of total self-satisfaction. I remember the feeling, and I recognize when I've accomplished something that should prompt it. But it's gone. I don't necessarily think I'm really depressed. My house may be always on the verge of unsanitary and my job performance may be below potential and I may be a lot sadder than would be good, but I clean every week, I have great ratings at work and make all my deadlines, I organize social activities almost weekly, and I get exercise almost daily. I am not in the middle of wasting clinical depression, so far as I can tell.

But I don't have an explanation for where I am. With little effort (and no falsehoods), I imagine I could make a stranger madly jealous of my life, which, on paper, is just about perfect. But I can't make myself happy. I think I should be happy. And I don't know what I'm doing wrong. I don't think it's a matter of ingratitude. I appreciate that I've been given a lot of blessings. I don't think I'm an ingrate, or I try not to be. It just...doesn't make me happy.


  1. I probably could have written this myself. I've often thought about how my life appears "perfect on paper" and may be a point of jealousy to friends and people we know. After all, we have a nice big house, my husband has his own job and provides enough so I don't have to work and instead can fill my time with...well whatever I want. We don't have kids, which to me is misery, but to onlookers may be viewed as a gift, whether the onlooker never wants to have kids or has 3 and prays for a moment of silence throughout the day. And it's become a habit in our house whenever I get sad about not having kids to make a joke about how much sex we get to have while all our Catholic fertile friends are abstaining most of the time. (I have to admit it does induce a smile and my mood does lighten.)

    But the reality as I see it is just as you described yours, even down to the junebugs in your windows, except for me it's fruit flies. What is wrong with me? Why haven't I just cleaned them up? Sigh. While I'm not depressed, I feel like I could be happier, even though I have a lot of wonderful things in my life that should be enough for me. I blame my bouts of unhappiness on infertility. The truth is, I'm a little worried that when I do have a baby by some means, likely adoption, I still might not be happy. Then what? So in the meantime I'm just trying to see how blessed I am and not hinge my happiness on becoming a mother.

  2. Your blog always reminds me of a Flannery O'Conner story...and I love me some O'Conner...

    I love your life on paper, and part of me really wants it. But I relate to your life in your head, too. I have had times where I felt like that. In fact, there was year in particular in college, where that was me to a T. And I lost my faith during that time. The only prayer I prayed was at night before bed, "God, if you are real, don't let me go."
    I still don't know what prompted that aweful time, and I still don't really know what brought me out of it, I mean, aside from Grace...
    I've got no answers for you (not that you were looking for any), but your post is brilliant and insightful. Have you ever done any creative writing? Because if you could these themes into a story, I would totally buy your book. The world needs more good literature! :)

  3. I agree, your writing is always beautiful. You give us all a glimpse into your soul, unfettered. You always make me think. Thank you.

  4. I completely relate on the failure level. I left my career and felt like a failure for making that decision only to start a family that never happened. Failure again. I think my life looks pretty good on paper, too, and most days I agree with that assessment, but there are some days that I don’t.

    You may be more depressed than you realize. I suffered with a serious bout of depression in my younger years that I never “saw” because I was highly functioning, excelling in school, working full-time, etc. I think the house stuff is so disappointing to you as well. Maybe you are just overwhelmed and need to focus on ONE thing, just one, no matter how small it seems, that may make you feel better about yourself. Like the cooking (b/c you mentioned it) a meal once or twice a week and having a sit-down dinner with your husband. Lord knows you have plenty of Pioneer Woman inspiration (don’t get me started on that). You seem to be a lot like me in many ways and I do not know how to explain it, but I overwhelm my head with all my failures, shortcomings, (I’d list them but there’s no use in both of us being depressed), and disappointments. The only thing that helps me personally is to focus on something small that is doable right then and there. Yes, there will always be other things that need improvement. That will never change no matter who you are or what your life looks like, but none of them will ever happen until you take one at a time. But believe me, I understand this feeling all to well and hate that you are in the midst of it.

  5. Yes, I have this dialogue, too. As a non-infertile woman, I'll tell you that the dialogue is different, but the same. I deride myself for not being a good mother, for neglecting my husband, not having perfect nutritious meals on the table, or a beautiful clean house, just goes on and on.

    My life is perfect on paper, too. Many people look with longing at the life they see, imagining a perfection which does not exist. But it is surely a much better life than I give myself credit for having. Thank you for the reminder to go easier on myself and to remember that as flawed as I and my life are that I am still loved by God in all my imperfection.

    Happy Easter, the Misfit, I'm offering my Easter Mass and the crazy of tomorrow up for you and your dear husband.

  6. I just seriously started reading your blog. Love this post! Looking forward to reading more.

  7. Yes, I can relate. To the failure part. Good on paper too-I am a mom now, but my life lacks the appreciation and motivation and desire it used to. I wonder where the energy of the 20s went. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate my son everyday. But some how the to do lists get the better of me and at the end of the day I have only done the things that don't matter and need to be repeated the next day. I often think I would be fired if work knew how lazy I am. It isn't a good feeling. So yes, I can totally totally relate. Yuck.