Control is an Illusion. Here's How I Know.
Motherhood, when it descends upon you – for it doesn’t ease its way in, it just lands – created in me a sense of omnipotence. In the beginning I controlled everything with my kids, and that bled into the rest of my life. I controlled the household calendar – who needs to be where, when, and how they’re getting there. I planned the family vacations, because who else is going to remember to pack enough diapers, have an emergency bottle of children’s Tylenol, not forget the “I can’t sleep without it” stuffed animal? I planned every meal, making sure there was something on the table everyone would eat. I started to feel like a short-order cook, but that’s better than the infuriating “I don’t like that,” which damaged my soul more than I ever should have let it, and negotiating “please just five more bites? Four?” I ironed school uniforms and braided hair. I managed playdates and therefore friendships, steering my kids to play with the kids of the moms that I liked. I registered for the Gifted and Talented tests to get them into the best schools. I asked about homework and did you study enough, or at all? All of this gave me a sense of control. If I could project manage this family, I could help us all achieve our targets and goals. But, as expected, life is a force that resists predictably, and I kept finding myself faced with things that I could not control. There were the mean girls who iced out my daughter in third grade. My son not making the baseball team. My husband losing his job – twice. These disappointments controlled by outside forces led to my trying to manage my family’s emotional life, which is basically a master class in self-delusion. When my daughter was 11, she got into one of the most elite high schools in New York City. It was like winning the public school lottery. We expected my son to take the same path. Three years later, he wasn't invited to test for this school because he missed the qualification cutoff by two points. Two points! One night at dinner, out of nowhere, his shoulders hunched and started to heave, and big, round tears rolled down his face. “I feel like my sister keeps raising the bar, but I don’t reach it.” He looked so small and was so defeated. His pain took the air out of my lungs. We assured him that he was smart, he was going to achieve great things, and that his sister’s path was not his path. He had his own life to live, his own story to create. But at 11 he couldn’t see the future, only the disappointment of the now. And I couldn’t fix it. And trust me, I tried, emailing everyone I could think of to figure out how to get those two points or get him to test despite them. I was so sad for my son, but also so angry and frustrated. How could I not fix this? The older I get, the more I come to grips with the fact that control is a mind game I play with myself. If I can just keep all the plates spinning, maintain order, know everything that is going on, I can keep everyone safe from danger, disappointment, and failure. But you know the result of this fool’s errand? Exhaustion. Utter, complete, soul-draining exhaustion. Look at the face of any mother who's juggling these same demands, and you'll see it there. We don't laugh like we used to. We don't smile as often as we should. And no one notices. I didn't even notice until recently, when introspection led me to look in the mirror and say, "WTF, Cynthia?" Where are you?" I feel my omnipotence slipping away, even as I wrestle to hold on. Often, when my kids are out late, I stay awake as if my thinking about them, praying for them, will be a tractor beam that guides them home safely. But the truth is that my worry energy isn’t going to generate a protective bubble. I cannot control their safety, no matter how many times I update their Find My Friends screen. Odds are overwhelmingly in their favor that they will get home, and all I’m doing is robbing myself of sleep while working on that ulcer. When my husband was out of work, I had zero control over getting him to his next job. I could counsel him, console him, and build him up, but I could not make someone hire him. This was a frustration that often left me angry crying in the shower. Why couldn’t I fix this for him? And the answer was: It wasn’t my job. He had to find his way through, because life’s lessons aren’t reserved for the young. He kept putting himself out there, until one day the universe bent his way and the perfect opportunity appeared. And all that angry crying in the shower had nothing to do with that happening. When I stop to think about it, there were times when I just gave myself up to fate, not knowing what the road ahead looked like. Eight years ago, I was offered a part-time gig writing content for a hospital website. I resisted the job offer. I was a working journalist and proud of it, and healthcare marketing was not journalism. But the recruiter persisted, and the lure of steady income was too appealing to pass up. So I said yes. Two years later, I was still working that gig. I never could have predicted that job would allow me oversight over my daughter’s commute to school in Manhattan, as well as extra time with her. Things worked out for good, even without my having any role in the master planning. Which leads me to this: If control is an illusion, and the effort exhausting, what if I just give up my efforts at it? What if, indeed. I practice this occasionally, such as when I just say yes to new opportunities even when they scare me. I do it when I write (like this, right now), because I can’t control how people will respond to my ruminations. Agree? Disagree? Annoyed by my navel-gazing? I have to ignore it, or I'll freeze. A friend recently told me she went hang gliding, which sounded horrific to me. I hate heights, and the feeling of falling makes my heart race in a bad way. No no no, she said to me. There’s no sense of falling, just this amazing feeling of flight, of release, of being above everything and seeing the world from a new vantage point. I have no plans to strap a glider on my back, but I do aspire to take more of a sky view of my life. I imagine when you’re gliding, you’re not actually doing much. The wind is supporting your journey – wind, that invisible yet mighty force. What if I just give in to whatever invisible yet mighty forces are propelling my journey, and see where it takes me? What if I take a moment to stop trying to soar or dive or veer, and just enjoy the view? I have this fantasy image of myself in old age, sitting on a rocking chair in a yet-to-be-realized house that has white railings and a wraparound porch. Maybe it overlooks a vineyard? Anyway, in this image my husband and I are rocking peacefully and reflecting on our lives, enjoying the ability to connect the dots and see how the hard times led us to something better, and understand why we needed to go through all those labyrinths and gauntlets. What I am really imaging, I think, is a time when I have truly made peace with the things I cannot control. In my fantasy, wisdom and hindsight make this possible. But what if I grasp the mindset now, before I know how the stories all end? Imagine what a person could do with all that time and energy spent on planning and wondering and worrying about everyone else, if she instead used it power her own hopes and dreams?