Thursday morning, my husband woke up before I did. He showered and got ready for work, and part of my sleeping brain heard his annoyingly-cheerful process in snippets in between snoozes. (I mean, really: the man literally whistles while he towels off and puts on deodorant.) I must have fallen back to sleep for real, because the next thing I remember is him standing in the doorframe of the bathroom and saying, “Aim, isn’t there anything we can do about this?” and gesturing at his shorts.
Which were slightly wrinkled because I don’t iron.
I really don’t. Instead, I damp dry most clothes, and then I hang them up, and smooth them out with my hands, and usually that’s good enough. But that particular pair of shorts had been washed, damp-dried, hand-smoothed, folded when dry—and then put on the bottom of the clean-laundry basket, underneath roughly 5,000 towels, a hundred pair of underwear, and not a few pieces of running clothes. And then left for a few days before being hauled upstairs and put away.
(It’s a big basket.)
I didn’t really respond, just left him gesturing in the doorway while I went into the kitchen to make his lunch. Every work day, I make him a tuna fish sandwich, just the way he likes it, with a slice of cheese and some diced pickle stirred in.
And as I cut up pickles and drained out tuna juice (which is utterly revolting) I found myself thinking you know, no one makes sure my clothes are clean. No one makes me lunch. What would it feel like to have someone take care of me instead of being the one who always takes care of someone else?
I thought about my husband’s annoyance (and sadness although he’d never admit it) over a particular child who, upon finding out his/her father had wrangled quite the deal for some car maintenance for his/her car, uttered one of our very favorite comments: “can’t we ever buy anything without coupons?”
It’s exactly the same thing, I thought. They are each complaining about how someone else takes care of them.
I thought about a day back when I was teaching. That day, I had to go to a long new-teacher training after teaching all day. I wasn’t going to get home until after 9:00, and Kendell also had to be somewhere. In utter desperation, I asked my mom to help me. (I tried really hard, when my kids were young, not to ask other people for help. I didn’t like feeling like I was imposing my decision to have kids onto someone else.) That night when I came home, totally exhausted, I discovered that she had made dinner and fed my kids, got everyone to finish their homework, wiped off the kitchen cupboards, swept the floor, and folded the towels that had been sitting in the dryer for three days.
After I thanked her and she left, I lay in bed and cried. Not out of sadness, but out of the undeniably luxurious feel of being taken care of. I realized right then, in a way I hadn’t before, that love is best expressed by taking care of someone. Of course, my mom took care of me when I was growing up. She washed my clothes—she even made some of my clothes—and made me dinner and shuttled me around to gymnastics and dance. But it wasn’t really until that very moment, when I was buried in the tasks of taking care of so many people (not just my own kids, but my students as well) and she took care if me that I really, really felt my mother loved me.
So, in the happiness of that memory, I went back to my original question. How would it feel if someone else washed my clothes for me? Weird, honestly. What I wore would be influenced by what they chose to wash. I would be dependent upon their decision to do laundry or not to do laundry. I would feel less in control of my life. And someone making lunch for me? Or just cooking for me in general? I can hardly imagine. I’d like to think I’d be grateful and appreciative, but really: what if this person made something I didn’t like? I’m not the world’s pickiest eater, but I don’t like fish. What if the meal were fish?
I kissed Kendell goodbye and part of me wanted to spar with him over the wrinkled shorts, because part of me was still thinking how can you complain when I’m always taking care of you and you don’t take care of me? I’m glad I didn’t express those thoughts, though, because after he left I lay in bed for a few minutes, thinking about how he does take care of me. He always makes sure I have a safe car to drive by organizing all of the maintenance. He goes to work so we have what we need. (If we had to live on my librarian’s “salary” we would literally be destitute.) He rubs my back when it is hurting. He goes along with my crazy vacation plans, like, “Hey! Let’s go hiking!” He pays the worst bills (I don’t mind doing the credit cards but I hate dealing with the cell phone and internet companies) and regularly calls to talk them into lower rates. He makes sure our computer is always functional and fast and up-to-date. He talks me down off the wall of despair when I’m feeling like the world’s worst mother.
See, he does take care of me.
Later that day, Haley called me from the freeway. Right in the middle of rush-hour traffic, her tire had completely blown out. She was hysterical for a few minutes. I talked her through it and then I said, “let me call Dad and we’ll figure it out.” As I waited for him to pick up, I thought about how, just this morning, part of me had been thinking my husband doesn’t take care of me and then, when I needed help, my first thought was to call him. I didn’t even have to question it—I knew he’d take care of it. And, despite grumbling about all the traffic, despite a flat spare and tight lug nuts, he did. It wasn’t really him taking care of me, but of our daughter, but I still felt that same feeling, of knowing, by seeing him take care, that he loves me.
Later in the weekend, frustrated by a different teenager, I stood in his bedroom. I took a deep breath, stopped crying, and resolved to never again remind him that I take care of him. To not make the things I do for him become a source of resentment for me. I reminded myself that I take care of him—of all of my kids—not because I have to. But because I love them. Then I cleaned his room, all the way clean, wiped off the walls and vacuumed the floor and straightened out the book case. As I worked, I remembered: we love those we serve. And I hoped that one day, he will understand the language of caring, the words I tried to say by making his bed or making a pot of chicken curry.
Having someone take care of you makes you vulnerable. That vulnerability is why I tried to never ask for help, unless I was truly desperate, when I had little kids. It puts you in a place of needing and thus makes you emotionally exposed. So we criticize, or we just don’t say thank you, or we seem like we don’t notice.
But it’s also true that when someone is caring for you, you, as the recipient, are influenced by how they take care of you. So when I take care of my family by cooking for them, for example, they are influenced by my choices. I’ll probably never do a big fish fry for dinner. They won’t always love what I cook, and maybe instead of being bothered by that, I should remember the vulnerable place they are in.
Driving home, once we got Haley’s tires replaced, I thought about what the day had taught me about taking care, being compassionate, and receiving service from others. I didn’t want to forget or not be changed. So I nudged Kendell with my foot and then I thanked him. He thought it was kind of odd—why wouldn’t he help out his daughter?—but I think it is important. To acknowledge how we care for one another, without criticism. Just saying that, just saying “thanks for helping Haley with her tire” made me feel open and vulnerable in uncomfortable ways. But it also felt necessary, and I want to do that more often, as well as not reacting so sharply when someone criticizes the care I give them.
(But I probably won't start ironing.)