I Don't Know How You Do It!

I Don’t Know How You Do It!

It’s one of the most alienating comments I know. People think they sound compassionate when the say it, but they do not. They think they are conveying admiration, but they are not. If someone removes the virus from your computer or serves you a delicious bowl of soup and you say, “I don’t know how you do it,” you are inviting the person to tell you. Explain the sequence of keyboard strokes. Write down the recipe. No well-meaning person who says to me, “I don’t know how you do it” in reference to raising Sam means, “Please teach me so I can possess those skills.” Instead they mean, “Nothing in my human experience resonates with anything in your human experience, and I am glad I will never have to learn what you have learned. You are saintly; I am, happily, a mere mortal. Let’s be sure we both understand how different we are.”

“How do you do it?” is, on the other hand, a genuine effort at connection. “How do you do it?” is an invitation to a conversation. It is an entrée to occupying the same space. And here is the answer:

1. I just do it. How do we people manage without gills or wings? We just do, because that is our lives. Our experience is terrestrial. No one who has lived with a heavy workload wonders how people can do it. They just do. No one who has lived through cancer wonders how it is possible to survive the nausea and fatigue of treatment. One just does. My parenting experience includes drama, jumping when the phone rings, and a particular kind of vigilance that enervates me. It also includes grocery shopping, advocacy work, and loving my family. Doing what I must to get through my day does not feel extraordinary. It feels like life. We all adapt to our circumstances, sometimes adeptly and sometimes feebly. All of us.

2. After fifty years I can reassure myself that most crises do not rise to the level of legitimate crises. Maintain perspective. Bad days end, challenges either resolve or their urgency fades, and new challenges always arise. On good days the challenge will be as inconsequential as choosing new kitchen towels. Kitchen towel color is a wonderful problem to embrace with all-consuming energy. Feel grateful for such a problem. Solids or stripes?

3. I am able to repress, suppress or forget most bad days. My father, a psychologist, once told me that physical pain is forgotten as soon as it ends; we can remember that we had the experience, but we cannot recreate it in memory. Psychic pain is supposed to be different, but I’ve cultivated a similar coping mechanism to manage strings of bad days. I have trouble remembering how many meltdowns I’ve lived through in the past week. This amnesia makes me wonder if I’m underestimating Sam’s impairments sometimes, but it is part of “how I do it.” Mostly I remember the calm hours, and my kids’ brilliant smiles erase all but the real crises.

4. Even in the moment of a bad scene, or maybe a few minutes after, I become an observer and begin constructing the story I will tell. This week I was screaming at Sam, only seconds after calmly telling her that I would no longer engage with her in conversations about the 1860s, that if she wants to live in the 1860s she’d better plan to spend the weekend sewing a dress, washing her clothing in the bathtub, and baking her own bread—without the benefit of our gas oven. She responded that she would do all of those things, but wood-burning stoves are illegal in the city so she’d need the stove. I could hear how ridiculous and counterproductive I sounded, even as I was screaming. And of course I knew she would never sew the dress or wash her clothes in the tub this weekend. But I could hear myself retelling the anecdote, laughing at my own lunacy, and having my friends laugh with me. As John Steinbeck said, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.” Sometimes the narratives are gentle but true, like Steinbeck’s or Anne Tyler’s; sometimes they are bemused but true, like David Lodge’s; and sometimes they are absurd but credible, like John Irving’s. Certainly my narratives are not as artfully told, but they do sustain me. I can envision my audience, friends and family, nodding and groaning and chuckling with empathy. The incidents become a small part of our family’s narrative, but sharing the stories about them plays an outsized role in helping me feel connected and strengthened.

5. These connections, at the end of the day, are the key element of my survival strategy. There’s the biological imperative begetting my fierce love for Sam and Kelly. When I ask, “How was school?” and they report something, anything good, I exhale my stress and inhale their joy. There’s also the feeling that my husband and I are engaged in a team project when we discuss how we will approach a problem—even if we disagree, as we currently do about the lifeguarding/swimming situation (still very messy). His assent is not as important to me as believing we have a shared investment. And finally, there’s the laughing and crying with friends who “get it.” These friends do not need to have children with special needs, though many of mine do. They need to know themselves and me well enough to appreciate that struggle and joy are the fabric of all of our lives. We need a little imagination sometimes to see the commonalities, but they are within us. The people who give me strength find those commonalities.

That is how I do it.