In March 2011, I was on semester break. I wore sweats most days, cleaned out closets, watched some movies, and greeted my sons’ preschool bus every afternoon. February and March were the only months of the year I could devote my energies to projects at home, as I taught during the Japanese academic year. I was anxious about Minori’s impending kindergarten graduation and elementary school entrance ceremony; the Japanese have a knack for marking all of these rites of passage elaborately. More than that, I tensed thinking about April: earlier classes for me, a new school and schedule for Minori. I had become used to living days that were as taut as my perpetually sore shoulders. I worked a fair amount, I had two small boys, and Jo worked six- or seven-day weeks and some nights. Teaching meant going to classes during the day and taking work home to do after dinner, baths, bed, laundry, and dishes. I’d be sitting down to do prep at 10 pm.
But I loved my teaching jobs. I had complete freedom to choose texts for most of my courses. Each class would develop its own persona, some presenting more challenging group dynamics than others. Wading through all of that was endlessly fascinating, or aggravating, depending. Key to my enjoyment of the work was the raw material: language. It has a life of its own, in flux; words on the page are not static but are vulnerable to all manner of interpretation and co-opting. So whether I was teaching The Lake Isle of Innisfree or irregular past tense verbs, it kept me on my toes. I let my work define me, and I knew it. I wanted the work to define me. I was proud to have the skills and thankful I could use them in gainful employment.
The Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami and nuclear disaster interrupted all the things I was planning for, counting on, and worrying over. There was no kindergarten graduation on March 18; we did not participate in the elementary entrance ceremony. My boys and I already had taken up temporary residence at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania. Our new April schedule consisted of the three of us, shell-shocked, wearing second-hand clothes, reading our prefecture’s name in the headlines every morning. No week, no twenty-four hour period had a consistent story line. Questions of when, how, and how long defied answering. In this context I was given an ultimatum: return to the start of school in May, or forfeit your position.
Giving up my jobs was akin to laying weapons down and crying surrender. It was like shedding a suit of armor that I’d used, willfully, to privately refute my shortcomings as a mother or a housekeeper. “No time ” and “too busy” were now laid bare as invalid excuses for unkempt rooms or misplaced school papers. I was asked to give a constant accounting of my days: How are you spending your time? What do you do while the boys are in school? Even now I pay lip service to the idea that people would inquire out of concern, not judgement. But my deepest motivations tend to flow from the belief that there is something I should be doing that I am not. That I am letting others down. But guess who is the harshest judge in the room? Guess who detects criticism from a mile away? I am, and I do.
Last week I was telling Mom about Struggles with Minori and his Homework, Part 435: “He does not want to be taught new words…whether in English or Japanese, he expects to be able to read them on his own on the first try.” When that doesn’t happen, he becomes angered at himself and calls himself stupid. “I wonder where he gets that,” Mom interjected. “I remember your fears at the beginning of every school year, thinking you wouldn’t be able to do the work.” I remember that, too, because the seeds of those fears have stayed with me, sprouting when I face change. The unknown looms large in my conscience, but somehow I must mentally wrestle it until I feel equal to it.
Recently I had journaled a bit on the idea of expectations–ones I perceive others have of me, ones I have for myself. A day later I turned to that written page and was taken aback. The list I’d made for myself was punctuated with an ominous “Don’t mess up!” It was simultaneously ridiculous and completely plausible. Yep, that pretty much sums it up, I thought to myself. What some might read as an innocuous slogan had become the credo of my subconscious. It seems unhealthy, but I hesitate to put good/bad labels on these things. It is the way I was made, and the world needs perfectionists, right? At the same time I yearn to be free of this self-imposed strain. I like what singer-songwriter Karen Peris has penned:
I recognize myself in you You’re suffering under your own eyes You’re building expectations up, and they are much too high
Don’t face the world alone, now Don’t face the world alone Even the bravest heart needs help sometimes.
I’ll try taking it to heart.