I don’t compartmentalize. Anything. Ever. I’ve heard it said that women don’t, or at least that men do it better and more often. I don’t know if that’s true or not. In my personal experience, I have observed that Bubba seems to be very adept at putting aside certain things that may be difficult emotionally so that he can go on with his work day and revisit them later. I don’t know if that means he simply doesn’t think about those things at work, or if it’s easier to think about them later when his emotions have died down or if he’s even self-aware enough to ask those questions and answer them. He has told me that when he’s at work, he isn’t worried about the house or the dog’s cancer or the kids or me. He trusts that we are all just fine – he has to, or he wouldn’t be able to function.
A friend told me once that she believes that the reason fathers have an easier time shutting off their “father” persona at work than mothers is because they were never physically attached to their children via an umbilical cord. I remember thinking at the time that I hoped one day someone would do a study of adoptive mothers to see if there was any truth in that supposition. It is certainly true for me that I am never not a mother, that at any given time no matter what I am doing I am aware of my children somewhere making their way in the world, that I am always ready to answer a phone call from the school or a friend’s mother in case one of my girls needs me.
But that could be because I don’t compartmentalize. My life is like a watercolor painting on some coarse, linen-like canvas, where any stroke of color you put down is likely to bleed in several directions to blend with what is already there. Every conversation I have with a close friend is held up to the light and examined within the context of what I already know. Every time I have a fight with one of the kids or discover someone’s massive screw-up, I question my entire parenting philosophy and make Bubba crazy with my self-investigation.
It wasn’t always like this. As a kid, I was an expert at keeping things separate. What happened at home stayed at home. I didn’t talk to anyone at school about the things that went on behind the front door of our house and, frankly, I didn’t think about it at school, either. Upon walking out the door into the world, I simply became someone else, someone confident and competent, someone who didn’t have a personal life beyond school and sports and my job waiting tables. I didn’t allow myself to think about anything but what I was doing in that skin and even when I got home, I tried desperately to inhabit that other person’s body. Needless to say, my worlds eventually collided. I cracked the compartment wide open and began letting light in and the things stuffed inside all tumbled out and left footprints all over everything else in their haste. Somehow, after years of talking and writing and thinking and figuring out who I am, I have managed to integrate all of my selves: daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend, writer. I don’t know how to go back and, frankly, I don’t want to, but it does mean that when something painful happens, I am likely to ruminate on it for a while as it slowly spreads out into places I can’t predict, changing the landscape of me. That also means that when I’m feeling particularly happy and optimistic, I have a different perspective on everything. Occasionally, I am able to step back and take a look at this multilayered, crazy textured work of art and see how rich and amazing it is with the overlapping bits of dark and light and feel a deep gratitude for this life. Occasionally, I am prompted to reach out and stroke a particularly awful piece of memory to see if it has maintained its power to sting after many many years even as I marvel at the way it mingles with its beautiful surroundings. Honestly, I think it is this knowledge that keeps me moving forward when I am skewered through with pain, the belief that it will thin out and become part of something wonderful in the end.