By Caitlin Kelly
If there’s a phrase I hate, it’s “comfort zone”.
How big is it?
Why is it so small?
Or so large?
Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.
And, really, what’s “safe”?
Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.
To never show a moment’s vulnerability.
To do it all, all alone.
I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.
That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.
That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.
That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.
Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.
He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.
Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”
It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.
Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.
You become a reluctant witness.
They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.
It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.
Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.
It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.
It is real.
You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.
No whining. No complaining.
We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.
But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.
And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.
I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.
As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.
We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.
We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)
Surely you jest.
Not so much.
And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.
We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.
(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)
Have you been stretched recently?
How did it turn out?