Dear Cary Tennis,
I read your column and I admire your writing and the thoughtful answers you give. I'm a 39-year-old woman, full-time teacher and a wife with two children, one of whom has multiple food allergies. I've been at my demanding teaching job for six years now, building my band program, and my husband teaches at the same small school. Nine years ago I moved from a coastal city to this rural area where my husband grew up. I love my two children dearly and I like my job because it's fulfilling to help students become musicians. I have worked very hard for the last six years at my job, having and raising my kids, becoming the best food-allergy mom I can, and being a good wife.
But, all of a sudden I feel like I'm going nuts! I feel like I'm going to go crazy if something crazy doesn't happen, soon, or if I don't do something. I'm on the edge of having an affair. I wish I could figure out how to get my novel published, or maybe have someone tell me how to write a better one that someone will snap up. I want to have time to be creative artistically instead of feeling like I have to constantly clean the house -- I can't stand living in a pig sty and it seems that I'm the only one that is willing to do the work to have a clean house with healthy, homemade food. Recently my husband told me angrily, You're going f-ing nuts! At first I thought, "Thanks a lot!" But he's right -- I really am going nuts!
For a long time the two of us got along very well, largely because I was willing to take the back seat and let him have his way in most things. Now I need to assert myself, and have my opinions heard and validated and he is confused. I'm fully aware that this situation is one of my own making, and I have tried every which way to Sunday to get him to see that now I need to be acknowledged for the intelligent, alive, curious and crazy person I am, and discussion after discussion comes without even an acknowledgment that I need to be acknowledged! In other words, he's not very supportive; he thinks I need to calm down. Needless to say our marriage is suffering due to this difference of outlook.
Is it a midlife crisis? Is my need for change overwhelming me? I'm long overdue, having changed my life every five to seven years until I moved here to get married. What kind of changes could I make that would satisfy the urge to go nuts and that won't hurt anyone? I've already changed my hair to a shorter style I love (my husband hates it and doesn't understand why I did it) and I'm not going to pierce anything or get a tattoo. I've suggested adventures to my husband, like teaching in another country for a year, or working on a dig in Italy for the summer, and he is not in the place I am (he's two years younger than me) so his focus is on building his career here and staying here. He rejects the idea of me going somewhere on my own for fun even for a few days!
I've lived such a risk-averse and careful life up to now, never taking unsafe risks but also rejecting many potentially good risks. The only crazy thing I have ever done is move across the country a couple of times, but that was when I was single and I had a place, a person, to go to. Those moves felt like I was really taking a chance on life, and they were exciting and had great outcomes. Now, I have a family and a job that helps support our modest lifestyle. I can't change jobs because there are no better ones, practically speaking, than the one I already have in our area. It feels as though my opportunity for taking chances has dried up. If I can't figure this out soon I believe I might do something that is risky and out of character from sheer frustration. What can I do that's safe? Will it be enough? Is this about turning 40, or something bigger? For the sake of my family and my students I need to stay sane, but for my own sake I feel like I need to do something crazy! Can you help?
Dear Going Crazy,
I think you need to go somewhere on your own for fun for a few days.
You mentioned that you might want to do that. You said your husband rejects the idea.
Now would be a good time to examine your belief that you need your husband's permission to go off by yourself for a few days.
One way to examine that assumption is to just do it. Find out what happens. Find out what happens when you do something totally reasonable to meet your own needs.
Go off by yourself for a few days and have fun. Then come back and take a good look at your life and your relationship. Are you not allowed to do the things you need to do to stay sane? That could be a problem.
I mean, you and he share the running of a household that has children in it, so you have to tell him you're going. Don't just sneak off. But don't ask his permission. Just arrange the time. One date might be better than another. But do it. Don't make the doing of it optional.
You mention something else. You say your husband tells you you're nuts, and tells you to calm down.
This business of telling people to calm down makes my head explode.
So, while my head is slowly exploding, let's explore!
Now, life is complicated. This is a daily column. It examines multifaceted questions but cannot propose multiple answers. There's not time. Usually several answers deserve attention. But this column has to pick one and work it out.
I give one possibly acceptable answer. Then people write in and give others. The genius of the system is that the letter writer can then choose among the opinions of several thoughtful people. It's quite amazing, actually.
Part of my charm, I believe, and while I may lack genius I do have charm, is that I don't claim to have the one right answer. I know I am only one voice.
I try, believe it or not, to never forget that. I try to be humble about the good fortune I have, being the one who controls the medium. Merely because I chose a career in journalism doesn't mean I am the smartest one in the room or the one with all the right answers. What I do have is control of the megaphone. What I lack in genius I make up in stamina and discipline. That's where being a journalist comes in. Not everybody has the stomach to turn their backs on most of life in order to produce the same column every day, five days a week for 10 years. That's a particular skill that journalists have. It takes a particular life situation as well as temperament: not too bright, not too many other obligations, a radically simplified home life, a bit obsessive.
I'm not saying that makes me smart. Dogged is more like it. Like, it's just so friggin' important to me to be writing. If I can't write every day I go a little crazy. Maybe like you. I might have some ideas about getting the novel done, too. Write me separately about that.
So here's another thing. No column exists in a vacuum. There's a continuum. There's a community of people who read most days and so each column relates to the one before it and the one after it.
This particular column, for instance, is a chance to talk about control and gender politics, and is in a way a chance to continue another conversation.
Last week some people thought that I failed to note elements of control and manipulation, and possibly dangerous abuse in the letter from the man who broke the plate.
The discussion caused me to think about the rules I follow in writing the column. One of the rules is that I answer the person writing the letter, and I assume that what is said in the letter is true. While recognizing there is always more, I don't assume I know anything other than what is in the letter. Sometimes I will say, as I did in that letter, that I sense there is more I'm not being told. But that's it. I don't accuse letter writers of lying. Since the person has no chance to respond, it doesn't seem fair.
I have more power in the transaction: I choose the letter, I get to say whatever I want, my voice is ceded more weight since I'm the writer, etc. So it is paramount that I show the utmost respect, and not misuse this somewhat randomly conferred power by making accusations the letter writer cannot counter.
In certain cases this makes it appear that I'm being duped or missing clues, taking positions I do not hold, approving of things I don't necessarily approve of, etc. It often appears I'm on the side of the letter writer. If your husband wrote to me, it might sound like I was on his side. If the girlfriend of the man who broke the plate wrote to me, it might sound like I was on her side. Because of the rules I have adopted, I appear to be on the side of the person who writes the letter. It's the nature of the medium as I conceive it.
OK, so, what is it with men telling women to calm down?
"When people hear the order to 'calm down' – no adult ever responds with relief, 'Phew, thank god you told me to calm down, otherwise I’d be flipping out.' We will also never hear anybody say, 'Wait! That’s an option?! I can be calm?'" says the "Current Conscience" person.
For that matter, a related thing that I find interesting and which I'm glad women have drawn attention to is the thing where men tell women to smile:
"When you tell someone who is not smiling that they should be smiling, you are essentially saying one (or more) of the following:
You should be having different emotions than you are having
You should feign an emotion you are not having
You should do something with your body because I think you should
My desire to see you smiling is more important than whatever you might be feeling or thinking."
"I bet that no one has ever stopped Henry Rollins on the street and told him to 'smile!'" says the Cartoon Heart person. She totally cracks me up: "Have you ever seen a man minding his own business get stopped and told to arrange his mouth in a fashion more aesthetically pleasing to those around him?"
All this is to say that your husband seems to be making decisions for you that are not really his to make.
Google search results:
Men telling women to calm down:
About 54,400,000 results (0.27 seconds)
Men telling women to smile:
About 52,100,000 results (0.20 seconds)
Wait! I thought I had the answer -- that men telling women to calm down and smile is part of a sinister control system -- but it looks like from Yahoo answers that I'm totally wrong! Actually, it turns out from Yahoo Answers that women are just crazy and way too emotional and need to be calmed down when they get out of hand. I had no idea!
Luckily, Men's Health magazine has an article, "11 Ways to Calm Down an Angry Woman." I had no idea!
So take a trip. Examine the power relations in your marriage. Talk to other women. You've started to change as a person. Your marriage is going to have to adjust. That means your husband is going to have to adjust. He might not do that willingly. That's going to mean some hard choices.